#120: Living “aesthetically,” friend-group envy, and a new climate doom approach
It's Dear Baby time
Today’s Dear Baby tackles three topics: the increasing significance of the “aesthetic” life, the feeling that everyone else is in a huge friend group except you, and how to plan for the future with impending climate catastrophe (possibly my most earnest answer yet). I’m laughing because these have so little to do with each other…spreading my wings today.
1) Thank you for joining me for that genuinely riveting Taylor Swift discussion this past week!! I have zero regrets about spending all day on there but now I’m also really sick of thinking about Taylor Swift.
2) Coming up this Tuesday is a new episode of Dear Danny. We’ll be answering six questions, covering asymmetrical friendships, whether to rat out a lying boss, an ethical non-monagomy-related pickle, how to trust yourself, how to deal with friends who won’t stop talking about the same problems, and how to stop moving your own goalposts. See you there!
1. On living an aesthetic life
“Do you think that people use aesthetics as a way to cope with stress and capitalism? For example, there are tons of YouTube videos about how to write ‘aesthetic notes’ when you are in college taking hard classes, and viral TikToks of people just restocking their fridges in a very aesthetically pleasing way. It feels like aesthetics are being applied to almost every facet of life these days and it goes way beyond fashion, makeup, etc. Do you have any thoughts on this?”
Per your first question, I think organization makes perfect sense as a coping mechanism: When things feel chaotic and out of our control, we look for ways to invite order and control back into the situation. But I think what you’re getting at with the rest of your question is something different. The desire to aestheticize our everyday lives is a more complicated impulse. It feels inextricably tied to modern society’s obsession with images, and the increasing extent to which we use them to understand ourselves, or appease the anxiety produced by not understanding ourselves.
It may seem inevitable to us that how someone’s apartment looks says something about who they are, what they like, or how they’d like to be seen, but I think that’s a more modern view than most of us realize. More specifically, it’s a postmodern view. (This is a bit of a digression, but it will eventually connect.) Our image-driven culture isn’t just that way because of social media, but media generally. One definition of postmodernism is the disappearing distinction between a subject (like a person) and its representation (like a photo). Today, we actually tend to consider representations more real, or more meaningful, than the subjects they represent, like how a person is more legitimate if they have a web presence, or an event is more legitimate if it’s photographed or recorded. This view of reality funnels us deeper and deeper into the theoretical—everything a representation of something else. Think of a woman posing for DaVinci, then the Mona Lisa, then a photo of the Mona Lisa, then a photoshopped image of Marge Simpson as the Mona Lisa, then a person using that image as their profile picture on Twitter. This is a crude example of what Baudrillard called hyperrealism: a world subsumed so totally by symbols that we can no longer tell the difference between reality and its simulation (unsurprisingly his ideas inspired The Matrix).
This collapse feels natural to us now. When we compliment someone’s photo by saying it looks like an advertisement—itself an imitation of reality—that doesn’t seem backwards to us at all. We’re used to understanding things through reference and imitation. In fact, usually, a certain style of dress or decor or artwork is understood as valuable because of what it symbolizes or represents. Baudrillard would call this “sign value.” If, historically speaking, something had value because it took labor to produce it, or because it could be traded for other commodities, or because it was useful—these were Marx’s three types of value, explained simply in this video by Jonas Čeika—sign value is the fourth, postmodern addition. Baudrillard believed that, as Čeika puts it, “in post-industrial societies, sign value subsumes all other types of value, and becomes the determining factor of what is valued.”
Through the postmodern lens it becomes easier to understand the increasing emphasis of the “aesthetic” in the zeitgeist. To live an aesthetic life is to understand meaning through signs and symbols—through what the appearance of your life might communicate about you to others and yourself. A morning routine is perfect if it looks perfect. An outfit “works” if it follows a socially established rule book (or if it cannily rejects that rule book). If your kitchen is organized in such a way that it photographs well, that is considered more successful than an organized kitchen that doesn’t. Today, to control how your life looks—your notes, your hair, your apartment—is to communicate who you are. To know your aesthetic is to know yourself.
There is a worthy distinction to be made here between, on the one hand, finding peace in beautifying or maintaining order as a counterpoint to chaos or neglect and, on the other, prioritizing “aesthetics” as the building blocks of identity, or even life itself. The former is more experiential and tactile, while the latter eschews meaning in favor of visual impact. I don’t think it’s immoral to enjoy aesthetics, but I do think aesthetics are inadequate, even dangerous, as a wholesale value system. This is the existential quagmire we currently find ourselves in. The postmodern condition is one that carries us away from solid, real sources of meaning towards an ever expanding hierarchy of symbolism. Tutorials on how to take aesthetic (rather than organized) notes and YouTube tours of color-coded pantries that may not be realistic to maintain are great examples of that.
As Guy Debord put it in The Society of the Spectacle: “Just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing.” If modern life feels alienating sometimes, that’s because it is.
2. On “cohesive friends”
Two similar questions: “Can you talk about the mirage of girlfriend groups. Why does it feel like everyone has one but me?” & “Been feeling envious lately for people with super cohesive, active friend groups in your late 20s/30s. HOW???”