COLD_FUTURES.exe and the
Written By: Michael Uhall
Published on: Tuesday April 18th, 2023
- Let’s explore the possibility of the vaporwave aesthetic as an organic, highly speculative mode of political theory. Numerous commentators have already noticed that vaporwave seems to be doing something political. Exactly what that something is still remains to be seen. Perhaps it will never be fully visible. In a few influential articles for Dummy magazine, music critic Adam Harper kicked off critical commentary on the aesthetic, arguing that vaporwave is marked primarily by its (“potentially”) accelerationist and anti-capitalist thrust. He later came to acknowledge that, probably like most aesthetic modes of production, vaporwave can do a lot of different things. It can perform the hazy optimism preferred by INTERNET CLUB as easily as it can telegraph the sharpish post-Marxism of Chuck Person. Pursuing some of these ideas more explicitly, fredricjameson420 pursues the idea of vaporwave as a form of “Marxist plunderphonics” more directly, writing, “Vaporwave is a lie put into musical form. It is the sound of the evaporated American Dream, manifest destiny, corporate identity, the sound of the future as described by a venture capitalist in 1989. It is an emphatic nothing, or a pointedly meaningless something, a reclamation of the corporate and the soulless into a compelling audible satire. In the first monograph on vaporwave, Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, Grafton Tanner emphasizes the fundamental ambiguity that animates vaporwave. On the one hand, yes, the vaporwave aesthetic drags the ambient conditions of late capitalism into the foreground, forcing the consumer subject to confront the blandly terrifying promises of neoliberal ideology. On the other hand, Tanner spends too much time echoing Neil Postman, comparing the anonymous, hypermediated spaces of vaporwave’s self-articulation to immunitarian screens intended to ward off the real: “We are all becoming cultural hikikomori, more concerned with staying within the cocoon of our media fortresses and terrified of the larger world and its exploits” (69).
Since approximately 2016, basically everyone agrees: Vaporwave is dead. But this slogan has accompanied the vaporwave aesthetic since its very inception. Vaporwave has always been dead – or, more precisely, vaporwave is undead.
“HOME” – Resonance
- But first, a note on method. Imagine this: rather than taking shape as the mere confluence of accidental features, a given mode of aesthetic production organizes itself around a specific, purely immanent problem. It exists first as a skeletal implication of whatever the aesthetic produces; it only comes into focus fashionably late. If this is true, then the repetitive production that characterizes a given aesthetic is necessarily generative. Why so? In generating token instances, the production process introduces differences that define and manifest the underlying problem. Each token instance is like a key that gets crafted – but, significantly, before the lock it opens is even envisioned, much less designed. As an aesthetic matures, the problem it poses becomes relatively more accessible. Considered in this way, every aesthetic poses or projects a problem, and each token instance of a given mode constitutes an attempt to solve that problem. The twist is that the problem posed only becomes visible after numerous solutions get formulated. Indeed, it’s by means of the heuristic provided by numerous solution attempts that the problem posed even appears in the first place. No token instance can “solve” an aesthetic mode of production, but the problem each mode poses exists at an entirely different scale than any of its token instances. The meaning of token instances is always only referential.
不協和音 Dissonance” – iacon
- Vaporwave refers to a specific mode of aesthetic production originating in the early 2010s. And it was three years late: usually it takes only seven years before a missing person is declared dead. Aural tropes include extreme reliance upon distorted samples of popular ballads, incidental music, and repetitious looping, as well as incursions of commercials and various forms of sonic entropy, while visual motifs include classical statuary, idealized commercial or tropical locales, neon or pastel planar backgrounds, and paratextual deployments of advertisements, Asian logograms, and vintage operating system iconographies. Tone varies from the delirious to the narcotic, sometimes resembling the “chopped and screwed” style, while mood shifts from the dreamily optimistic to the nightmarishly fractal – like “a weird allegory of the consumer mind lost in a world of infinite excess” (James Ferraro), or an aimless pilgrim’s progress through the city of digital destruction.
リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー” – MACINTOSH PLUS
- Vaporwave politics are hauntologies of the future – particularly, that hazy future of plenty, and satisfaction promised by all the media ephemera of late capitalism at the end of the twentieth century. Those promises are dead now, but they lay dreaming, and all our utopias lie fallow in the virtual plazas of their dreams. Bespoke consumerisms and frictionless globalization execute a slow-motion tango there, like narcotized dancers on Morel’s island. Vaporwave is an aesthetic endeavoring to transcend any particular time, and, therefore, it returns us again and again to a singular moment in the posthistoire, replaying again and again in numerous disguises that nouveau Zapruder film called 1999. It’s no secret that time itself broke around the year 2000. Y2K really happened. It just didn’t mean what everyone expected. The computers are alright. It’s everything else that’s glitching out. Since 2016, the years have been repeating themselves, like broken tape in a VHS cassette. The time factories have finally all shut down.
E N D L E S S H E L L
- As mentioned, vaporwave is now widely considered to be dead, but we all know that the dead live on in media – and even return at times. Zombies from the sixteen-millimeter shrine are coming to get you, Barbara. It’s particularly ironic to call vaporwave dead given the extent to which the aesthetic has always has been driven forward by its propensity for macabre and sorcerous reanimations. Imagine Chris Crocker, defending the archive: “Leave Diana Ross alone!” You could say that vaporwave is a form of artjacking (hijacking an existing work of art by reframing it) or political necromancy. There’s a (Jean-Galbert) salvage component to it, like everything else in remix culture. Neon tugboats fishing seas for media trash, bobbing on virtual waves, slick with oil. Welcome to Satin Island: “There’s always an oil spill happening, I’d say. Which is why. That’s the reason, gentlemen. Which, gentlemen, is the reason we can name it in the singular: the Oil Spill – an ongoing event whose discrete parts and moments, whatever their particular shapes and vicissitudes (vicissitudes! I’d susurrate the word time and again), have run together, merged into a continuum in which all plurals drown. Click. Here, gentlemen, you see a tanker trailing its long, black tail. Click. Here, vinyl-coated rocks; and here – click – a PVC-hemmed coastline. Nature got up in her fetish gear…” It’s a bitter joke, of course – a forensic vivisection of the TED Talk from within. Nevertheless. What if each event were only part of a continuum? The Oil Spill (the Kuwaiti oil fires, Deepwater Horizon, the Dakota Access Pipeline spills), the War (the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War, the Syrian Civil War – a material and media artifact that’s even outlived the state of Syria itself – even the War on Terror itself) – underlying continua that only occasionally break into collective consciousness because they form the very conditions of possibility for the virtual plaza we occupy. “The cybercapital singularity is near. Soon, all wealth will trickle up and condense into a point of infinite density, the center of our new universe. The rich will be infinitely rich, and the poor infinitely poor. Then the false dichotomy between rich and poor will fade in a glorious sweeping wave of pleasure, the Vaporwave. We need you to help us realize that final cybercapital bliss. Consume. Spend. Sacrifice your labor to the altar of the machine, and build the ＶＩＲＴＵＡＬ ＰＬＡＺＡ.” PKD’s A Maze of Death: “Time, he thought, is shutting down around us.” Instead of calling ourselves a “culture” (much less, “the people,” or “the tribe”), let’s just call ourselves “the ongoing Oil Spill.” New materialist geopolitical analysis: “The cartography of oil as an omnipresent entity narrates the dynamics of planetary events.” Alternatively, let’s say: “Two figures are approaching an oil well. One of them holds a lighted torch. What are they up to? Are they going to rekindle the blaze? Is life without fire become unbearable for them? Others, seized by madness, follow suit. Now they are content. Now there is something for us to extinguish again.” There’s a formal structure here, lurking outside the window like the killer in the slasher film they’re editing at the start of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (blackly funny how they need a real scream dubbed into their Z-grade horror film in order to achieve just the right effect…). It’s there at the end of The Woman in the Dunes, too (“There was no particular need to hurry about escaping,” after all…); just like it’s present in the irresolution of Robert Maitland’s journey of self-avoidance, which ironically culminates in the new, interstitial form of life he becomes in between the impersonal highways of west London.
A R R A Y 1
“너 땜에 맘이 맘이 맘이 맘이 괴로워요” – death’s dynamic shroud.wmv
- Antarctica is green now. This future doesn’t seem very cold at all. Indeed: Greetings from Shell Beach. Where is Shell Beach? It’s where you were born. You wake up in a bathtub next to a dead body. The phone rings. It’s Dr. Schreber. He tells you to flee. There’s been a whole series of murders, and you’re the prime suspect. The city is a labyrinth, and you’re being chased and chased through endless alleyways by pale men with dark intentions. The detective chasing after you finally catches up, but he shares your doubts about the world. After all, the night is interminable. You discover the pale men chasing you are aliens or ghosts, who drive human corpses like cars. They’ve been feeding on everyone, and you’ve been trapped in their domain for your whole life. The city floats in a void, circling a cold star. Shell Beach is nowhere – but this realization lets you destroy the pale men once and for all. Their sovereignty is an illusion. Because Shell Beach is nowhere, you’re free to go there now.
H E L L B E A C H
“She Is Young, She Is Beautiful…” – Perturbator
- Back in the virtual plaza – town square of the dark city – everything remains a flickering shadow, its position sliding along X, Y, and Z axes. Sometimes strange artifacts intrude, fracturing the plane of immanence into Zones (servers?). Maybe something is building itself out there, in the cold, in the dark, in the desert. We’re back to the world before its creation – Abgrund– databending with Schelling’s God. You’re surrounded by statues of the dead, colder than Galatea locked in marble. She won’t return any calls. It’s all on display in this infinite dimension, a shrink-wrapped heaven for all possible commodities, where all animal forms are digital ivory and all bodies speak Muybridge exclusively.
iPod Touch” – Eyeliner
A R R A Y 2
- So what can vaporwave salvage? It sleepwalks through broken temples of the ideological unconscious, showing us which libidinal vistas are really nightmare landscapes so as to retrieve the latent utopian potential of every broken promise. This is one reason why nobody can decide whether or not vaporwave is genuinely political media or not. Does it perform a ruthless critique, or does it celebrate capitalism’s ephemera and excess? Literally nobody wanted these futures until they were relentlessly projected onto every unconscious screen, infecting you with whole hosts of memetic viruses while you slept, like creeping blood flukes, or blipverts, buy-bombs (“compressed advertising that plays out in your dreams”) going off in everyone’s heads like Cambodia in 1970, a Beijing cocktail wired to every human heartbeat, all beating in unison like a big clock ticking down to the New American Century. Temporal momentum quickens and slurs as time itself becomes an OutDrive dream: LINK THE CAR ENGINE AND HER HEART OR SHE WILL DIE. In other words, function and velocity become causally linked. If the car slows down, then everything else bleeds out to gray, life fades. Where is it going? Always toward the setting sun, tentacular black MIDIs just hiding out on the other side of the horizon of Western decline. Think of all of world history as a terrible remake of Crank (2006): “The only thing you can do at all is to keep the flow of adrenaline constant… meaning: You stop, you die!” – Dwight Yoakum. It’s not my fault; blame capitalism, blame DOLDRUM, blame Sunset Corp, blame the Tyrells, blame the Tessier-Ashpools, blame Hubertus Bigend. There’s nobody here. What were we promised? “More of anything?” / “More of everything!” You’re stuck with one of many possible COLD_FUTURES, a spiraling .exe that extracts empty promise after empty promise onto the hard drive of your mind until the goddamn thing’s so bogged down it can’t even process simple keystrokes, much less complex algorithms. “Yes? You do fucking want this job? Then you’re going to have to fucking swallow this whole fucking life and let it grow inside you like a parasite, getting bigger and bigger and bigger until it fucking eats your insides alive and it stares out of your eyes and tells you what to do.” Likewise, the future (or, as Gunship tells us: “There’s a monster / It’s got me trapped on the other side / But this monster has become my home”).
“Complete Domination” – Perturbator
- Time for a vacation, someone says in ASMR. This is a digital hypnotism. You begin with an aerial descent into a digital oasis. The infinite teal horizon beckons, and you hear a rich mixture of canned tropical sounds and water trickling down pixelated green leaves. In the bottom left corner, a compact disc icon spins relentlessly, informing you that you’re inside of a running program. You’re submerged within the ocean smoothly, announced by panpipes (an ethereal Muzak rendition of “Aquatic Ambience,” from the 1994 video game Donkey Kong Country). Take the plunge into a virtual ocean. Homogeneous sand extends forever, textures looping and replicated. This is the flatland. There are fish in the distance, each bearing a texture error. You swoop through the school. Motionless sea creatures drift around you as you approach a giant squid, its lidless eye a security camera. Its interior is a plane of abstraction. Your attention roams across the marine desert, jerked from one point of fading interest to another. Here you see another school of fish, represented on glitching, synchronized tablets. They flicker colorfully. The battery is dying. Sand, sand, and skeletal shoals of dead smartphones. You approach lost cargo marked as property of DOLDRUM. Inside, more digital fish occupy the digital ruins. An unfinished mesh corpse rests on the ocean floor. Broken frames, static dolphins, barrels of toxic waste leaking cryptocurrency. Suddenly, you break the surface, rushing toward the simulacrum of a cargo ship, bearing simulacral cargo. This cargo, each container stamped DOLDRUM, flickers in and out of existence uncertainly. On the empty bridge of the ship, there’s only an hourglass, but time is meaningless here. You see a door in the distance. Can you exit? A new program appears to be loading, new connections forming. Palm trees beckon. Are we starting the same loop again? Blackness. Throughout your journey, Korean subtitles flick by, which read:
“Eco Zones” – Blank Banshee
10. There were attacks by cyberpirates.
We couldn’t stop what happened.
They hacked Main Control.
We lost most of our equipment.
Trillions of dollars were lost.
So much damage was done to the sea.
Beyond our dreams, something has changed.
Electronics and ocean wildlife have combined.
They’ve taken on new forms.
As a result, I’ve decided to end my life.
– President and CEO of Doldrum Corporation
- An exchange of corporate legal letters sent via paper airplanes scooting through a gray, hot sky. Imagine a Ned Racine-style monologue in a humid Florida summer, the camera moving rapidly through cypress and soggy pampas as it approaches the electric noir city, his voice broken and rasping, like a cockroach dying from exhaustion: “The company that employed me strived only to serve up the cheapest fare that its customers would tolerate, churn it out as fast as possible, and charge as much as they could get away with. If it were possible to do so, the company would sell what all businesses of its kind dream about selling, creating that which all our efforts were tacitly supposed to achieve: the ultimate product – Nothing. And for this product they would command the ultimate price – Everything. This market strategy would then go on until one day, among the worldwide ruins of derelict factories and warehouses and office buildings, there stood only a single, shining, windowless structure with no entrance and no exit. Inside would be only a dense network of computers, calculating profits. Outside will be tribes of savage vagrants with no comprehension of the nature or purpose of the shining, windowless structure. Perhaps they will worship it as a god. Perhaps they will try to destroy it, their primitive armory proving wholly ineffectual against the smooth and impervious walls of the structure, upon which not even a scratch can be inflicted.”
“Oh time thy pyramids”
- Welcome to the Long 2016. This phrase refers to the fact that every year from now on will, in fact, be the year 2016, repeated over and over and over again with only superficial variations. This eternal recurrence of the year 2016 will continue until time decays (maximum entropy, thermodynamic equilibrium). That we find ourselves consigned to this predicament necessitates a unique form of analysis, such that we can identify the structural invariants underlying the apparent heterogeneity we believe we observe in our lives. Historically, each New Year begins on January 1st. However, this condition no longer applies to us. Operations at all temporal factories will be discontinued immediately. All employees are terminated forthwith; there will be no new positions – ever. In brief, this means that all apparent new years from this point on will be exact mechanical repetitions of the current year. There will be no events, only occurrences; no deaths, only reassignments; no intensifications, only adjustments; no recoveries, only stases. There are various benefits and disbenefits to this new arrangement. For example: Between shifts, when you find yourself wondering what time it is, please recollect the following maxim, which will serve well as our categorical imperative from this point onward: Time is a painting of a stopped clock.
“W i n d o w s” – Clinton Affair
- In recompense, here’s an e-mail attachment of a mint-condition set of the complete Clinton affairs, conducted from 1991 to 1997. Exclusive, very rare, from a nonsmoking home. Shipping included. It’s the real megillah, close-ups, slow motion, everything exactly as advertised in our special series of compulsory online banner ads and mandatory but exclusive pop-ups. But you can have it all for free. You can have it all. All you need to do is sign right here, right on the dotted line:
120. The end