30 October 2022 – Today I learned:
some really useful ways of framing the modern/post-modern focus on aesthetic and appearance as a means of crafting a sense of identity, which I see on social media daily in filtered photos and videos and curated lives/lifestyles and spaces, but which is also part-and-parcel of the advertising industry.
Haley Nahman’s recent piece “On Living An Aesthetic Life” (first of the three essays) at Maybe, Baby answers a reader question:
“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.”
I’m not familiar with these particular examples, but in recent years I have occasionally enjoyed videos of people slowly doing ordinary tasks in beautiful, often extremely neutral, almost spartanly simple spaces (but not truly spartan because they include a rich variety of shapes and textures and a few lovely handmade unpretentious items), including the sounds of water in a sink, the cutting motion of the knife, the texture of the linens, leaves crunching underfoot. It’s quite soothing, the tempo, the natural surfaces and elements — sunlight, air, water, earth, fire, rain — and the focused attention on one thing only. These videos aren’t tutorials but rather have a “slice of life” style. Is this really how these people live? Who knows?
(This genre of videos, though by plenty of non-Koreans too, is well-described in a May 2021 Elle article, “Slow Living with Korea’s Silent Vloggers”: “Her 10-minute ‘summer night routine’ video has over two million views. Like the other Korean vloggers in this growing internet niche, sueddu films herself completing tasks that we tend to rush through, like drawing the curtains or wiping down a countertop.” I’m also partial to the seasonally focused vlogs of girlincalico, though I’m not sure she’s posting any longer.)
So when Nahman replies that “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,” I get that; even though the videos I like aren’t about organising per se and the spaces are often only tidy looking because there’s so little in them, they do feel anti-chaotic, calming. They harken back to a (pre-industrial ?) era or to an isolated place (like the remote seaside village of Jutland, where Babette’s Feast is set, complete with all the props to create that feeling) when and where it feels to us moderns (whether it’s true or not) that there was spacious time to do things slowly, mindfully, in a way that maximised the pleasure of the senses.
I have some friends who don’t own or use a microwave, and I think for them it’s a way to take time to reheat something, with intention, in an aesthetically richer way, with flame, stirring, sizzling, blending, slowly melting. At a recent memorial service I attended, the fact that the family’s microwave was always kept in the basement, unplugged and inaccessible, was mentioned in the eulogy, and it reminded me of all our dinners at her house, where meals and drinks were methodically prepared, with care. I should have filmed it! 😉
So there’s a current obsession with aesthetic presentation, and perhaps those who create these presentations and those who enjoying looking at them are participating in a harmless, even helpful, self-soothing exercise. But, Nahman goes on to say,
“desire to aestheticize our everyday lives is a more complicated impulse. It feels inextricably tied to modern society’s obsession with images…. 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. …Our image-driven culture isn’t just that way because of social media, but media generally.”
My take on this is a little different. Through many centuries, wealthy people in particular who had the space and money to do it kept special and separate rooms for the public, for guests, spaces such as parlors, formal living rooms, drawing rooms, morning rooms, et al., that they (or more likely their servants) decorated and curated — perhaps with expensive treasures brought home from exclusive travels abroad — which were designed specifically to project a polished and perfected image of themselves.
Now, in modern times, it’s much easier, cheaper, and quicker to create that image digitally and to get it before the eyes of many, not just single visitors knocking on a delightfully and seasonally decorated door to your home or office. After all, anyone with a cell phone, an Instagram account, and a little time can do it, which is a pretty low bar worldwide. Living an aesthetic life, or appearing to, is now within reach of millions of people, and many more millions can view — and envy, imitate, critique — the life and the lifestyle presented to them digitally. It’s all so much more accessible, and perhaps has become, in some circles, almost necessary? “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.”
I particularly resonated with Nahman’s assertion, earlier in the piece, that there is a “disappearing distinction” between subject and representation of the subject, and that we often act as though we consider “representations more real, or more meaningful, than the subjects they represent.”
That’s why we say, tongue in cheek, “Photos or it didn’t happen!” As I’ve mentioned before here, with my deficient memory, it really is a matter of photos or it didn’t happen; I use photos all the time to remind me of what did occur, and when, and what it felt like. For me, photos are literally souvenirs — ” from the French souvenir “to remember,” from the Latin subvenire “occur to the mind.” I try to take some every day to remind future-me what the heck happened.
I’m interested in the cultural phenomenon of, as Nahman puts it,
“everything” becoming “a representation of something else. Think of a woman posing for DaVinci, then the Mona Lisa [painting], 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 [French cultural theorist and philosopher Jean] Baudrillard called hyperrealism: a world subsumed so totally by symbols that we can no longer tell the difference between reality and its simulation.”
Or, hyperreality: when what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins (per Wikipedia). A little more from Wikipedia’s entry, in case you’re encountering this idea for the first time:
“American author Micah Dunham explores the notion of hyperreality further by suggesting that the action of hyperreality is to desire reality and in the attempt to achieve that desire, to fabricate a false reality that is to be consumed as real.” Whoa.
For some Instagram users, and especially for those who aspire to become influencers*, that’s the point, that their managed identity be mistaken for their actual identity, that they create a false reality experienced by others as completely real. This is what “building a brand identity” is, when manipulated appearance is taken for completely authentic reality.
(*Influencers are those with a large audience and the demonstrated ability to influence their followers, including by persuading them with their own endorsements to buy products, for which the influencer gets a percentage or another benefit. Influencers become conduits for commercial interests and in turn they can benefit by receiving freebies like paid vacations, free vehicles, free clothes, book offers, acting and modeling offers, podcasts, even creating a business around their lifestyle.)
Whether influencers can tell the difference between their authentic self and their aesthetically enhanced or curated identities is a question only they can answer.
But creating an identity from an illusion and primarily for the eyes of others is risky stuff. As Nahman reflects,
“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. …
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.'”
Sidenote, but this bit from the Wikipedia article on hyperreality makes me want to see what others have said about the intersection of hyperreality and heterotopia:
“Both Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard refer to Disneyland as an example of hyperreality. [It’s also an excellent example of a heterotopia, a space out of ordinary time and space] Eco believes that Disneyland with its settings such as Main Street and full sized houses has been created to look ‘absolutely realistic’, taking visitors’ imagination to a ‘fantastic past’. This false reality creates an illusion and makes it more desirable for people to buy this reality. Disneyland works in a system that enables visitors to feel that technology and the created atmosphere ‘can give us more reality than nature can’.“
Featured image: welcome to my pantry (2017) – feeling calmer yet?