Vaporwave – Prophesying the Death of Culture

Vaporwave is fascinating. Something about it is very soothing, despite being totally eerie.

I’ve used some Vaporwave aesthetics in some of my past videos:

I began obsessing over this strange sub-genre of music. The air of nostalgia you get from this stuff is mind-boggling. For example, if you’re an American born in the 80s, then one whiff of Kmartwave will rocket you into the past with a shot of energizing and depressing aesthetics all at once. You can practically smell the throw pillows and feel the L’eggs containers.

How do we explain this strange spell that Vaporwave puts over us?

We could try and explain Vaporwave by identifying its aesthetics: distorted music sampling, a VHS video filter with audio hiss, Japanese characters, short all-caps fonts, shopping malls, surrealism, and general nostalgia. Vaporwave artists will use North Korea, the Soviet Union, shopping malls, Windows 95, and Donald Trump for aesthetic inspiration.

The standard “theory” of Vaporwave might begin with an origin story of John Oswald sampling and warping a Dolly Parton song, coining the process “plunderphonics,” followed by the legal hurdles he encountered.

It’s tempting to plant a flag here, say Vaporwave is a “music of the people,” and call it a day, but that would be dating us. Plus, any political angle will have to account for those people who also claim Vaporwave.

The theory could then cite the psychological aspects of Vaporwave like hypnagogia, the transitional stage between being awake and asleep, and its nostalgic qualities.

These theorists – the entire Theory Machine really – writes endless volumes of boring stuff like this. The Wiki article is not much help. This Aesthetics wiki is slightly more descriptive:

Vaporwave is a music genre branching from electronic Chillwave. But the unique and iconic visual aesthetic cultivated alongside it is now, debatably, more popular and recognizable than the music itself. Vaporwave, as an aesthetic and movement, has been described as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on modern consumerism and the soulless glamour of late capitalism. Its purposeful vagueness has led to more overt and blatant offshoots of Vaporwave, like Fashwave (which attempts to co-opt a lot of Vaporwave  symbolism to promote a fascist ideology) or Laborwave (which removes the ambiguity of Vaporwave’s capitalist critiques in favor of promoting a Marxist ideology), though both of them also tend to blend in a lot of Synthwave aesthetics as well, leading to many people assuming the two aesthetics are the same.

Still, this reads like the symptoms on a pharmaceutical sleep aid. Describing Vaporwave like this would be like describing alcoholism as “drinking a lot of booze, sometimes hard liquor, sometimes beer, or wine, and not letting one’s self become sober. Some alcoholics also smoke cigarettes and gamble. Alcoholics get headaches, X% of them are men, and sometimes they drive their cars into oncoming traffic.”

This level of writing is acceptable for a 4th grader writing a book report. But a 4th grader has no idea of what a book is to an author, nor what alcoholism is to an alcoholic, nor what Vaporwave is to the Vaporwave-listener. The Theory Machine fails on this level.

Even as Vaporwave listeners, we don’t seem to know what Vaporwave is to us.

And yet we find ourselves escaping to Vaporwave to give us a strange feeling which will transport us somewhere else. Why do we feel that need? Does Vaporwave scratch that particular itch? Why are we curious of the eerie? What is the eerie?

Eerie vaporwave shopping mall feels

To really explain Vaporwave, we need to explain our strange desire to experience it.

Since we can’t explain this desire with the Theory Machine, we can try tackling the subject the way we’d tackle an addiction. Addictions aren’t tackled by listing their symptoms, but by getting behind the spirit of the thing.

As I’ve said before, I offer no red pills or checker pills or translucent pills for this.

Instead, there’s 【the deer】.

【the deer】

【the deer】 can help us understand the eerie, the inexplicable aspect of Vaporwave that we can’t put into words.

【the deer】is better understood in reverse. Once you get to the end of this post, you’ll have understood it! But if you’re more linear than that and want a nuts-and-bolts explanation before going forward, read what Eric Gans has to say here: A Brief Introduction to Generative Anthropology.

In short, 【the deer】 exists only in the eerie, in the in-between states of things. It’s neither this nor that. That’s what makes 【the deer】 a handy decoder ring for Vaporwave, and perhaps more.

Take Korean shamanism, for example. The Theory Machine would list the sacrificial animals, the colors of the sacred clothes, etc. You’ll find this in every Britannica. 【the deer】, however, would say that Korean Shamans are kind of… annoyed that they have to be shamans.

You can hear the scientists in the room snickering at Ms. Geul-Moon. She’s either lying, crazy, or misled. Neil would advise her to just take a pill. (Neil DeGrasse Tyson should agree to an actual debate. To date, he hasn’t had one.)

【the deer】, on the other hand, would say that Ms. Geul-Moon is just explaining the spirit of the thing at hand. She’s brutally honest about her situation. She’s at some place between here and there, and 【the deer】 has no problem saying, “Yep, that’s a shitty place to be.”

So, 【the deer】 is a sort of first-principle regarding the eerie. Vaporwave is eerie, so maybe 【the deer】 has something to say about it.

What the **** is Vaporwave?

We start by trying to isolate what Vaporwave is.

What aspect of Vaporwave is its most prominent? It’s not an anti-capitalist political statement, because we also have Trumpwave and fashwave. It’s not Japanophilic, because there’s also Juchewave and Sovietwave. Something else binds all Vaporwave.

One characteristic of Vaporwave is nostalgia.

Nostalgia is that emotion when you resurrect the past for a moment. Since the past is dead and buried, nostalgia disappears like sea foam in your hands. This ephemerality adds to nostalgia’s power as a coping mechanism.

But lots of things are nostalgic. This isn’t unique to Vaporwave.

There’s one other characteristic of Vaporwave that is particular to the genre: decay.

Decay is one of Vaporwave’s most eerie and appealing aspects.

If we combine this with Vaporwave’s odd focus on multimedia art around the time of Windows 95 and the PS1, we pinpoint what might be at the heart of the Vaporwave aesthetic:

Vaporwave is nostalgia for decay before the late 1990s.

Hear me out.



In the past, all media was analog. Ancient media like Hammurabi’s code and the hieroglyphs were carved in stone and survived for millennia with only gradual decay. Paintings have survived for a thousand years. Books damaged by water can be restored, old records can be cleaned and replayed for probably a couple centuries, and a VHS is still good for (maybe) a hundred years.

Analog media has a broad range of decay. Its liminal state, the in-between period between its original art and total destruction, lasts for centuries. During this liminal state, analog media still serves its original artistic function. There’s still something there. It’s still art. Unless you burn it in the streets.

Binary media doesn’t decay, at least not like analog media. Music CDs are spirals of 1s and 0s, but they still wear out, usually faster than analog media. When the CD laser begins mistaking 0s for 1s, it’s not music anymore. It becomes noise. Old DVDs glitch and stop being movies. Old files won’t open. That one Kindle book is no longer available.

Binary media doesn’t decay. Either it’s entirely there, or it’s garbage. It has no liminal state. Broken binary media is no longer itself. It’s dead. It stops being art.

We have nostalgia for these liminal states in analog media, because those are the states in which we experience most analog media. We experienced most of our VHS tapes with some acceptable level of tracking issues, audio tapes with hiss, and game systems with analog video noise.

Why the Liminal is Creepy

liminal lĭm′ə-nəl

adj. Intermediate between two states, conditions, or regions; transitional or indeterminate.
adj. Existing at the limen. Used of stimuli.
Pertaining to the threshold or entrance; hence, relating to the beginning or first stage; inceptive; inchoative.

The liminal is the threshold, the place between inside and outside, neither here nor there. That’s a crazy place to be! How can you be neither inside nor outside? They’ll kill a goat just to get out of there!

H. Clay Trumbull, Threshold Covenant (New York, 1896) p. 15

The liminal state of analog media is creepy. Liminal states are generally just weird, and very aesthetic. Here’s an interesting take on creepy, aesthetic, liminal places:

There is a liminal between everything. Man and beast, heaven and earth, winter and spring, spoon and fork. Strange objects symbolize the liminal.

A man is first alive, and then he’s dead. The liminal state between these two phases of nature is terrifying. It’s the “Saigon Execution” moment. It’s also the deathbed, and the zombie.

This state of being, neither alive nor dead, can’t be categorized. Liminal states in general can’t be categorized. They’re undifferentiated. States of undifferentiation terrify us because they evade symbolic language.

The Need for Symbols

Humans use symbolic language to decode the world into meaningful ideas. Symbolic language requires categories. A boy is a boy, and a man is a man. The liminal state between boy and man defies category, and thereby defies language itself. This state is compared with death, and it’s not uncommon for the boy to emerge from the liminal state with a new name. The boy is dead. Now a man is in his place.

The priesthood will try and convince you that human, symbolic language is on a spectrum between banana and alien. 【the deer】 cannot help these people. If you’d like a much smarter, and challenging, understanding of human language, again, 【the deer】 points to Gans, this time to his Origin of Language.

The taboo, liminal space between life and death has puzzled many. You’re not dead, but you’re not really alive either. How do we categorize you? Throw you outside into the bush! Now you’re categorized as leopard food.

The [South Africans] formerly buried their dead, but now only chiefs and persons of consequence are interred. “When they think that death is approaching, they carry out the sick person into a thicket near the kraal, and leave him to expire alone; for they have a great dread of being near, or touching, a corpse, and imagine that death brings misfortune on the living when it occurs in a hut or kraal.” (p. 357)

George Thompson: Travels and Adventures in Southern Africa (London, 1827)

Modern hospice is a much nicer. Not all new things are dumb.

Liminal states defy language. How do we process them? This data is injected into the emotional centers of our brains. This is straight-up PTSD. These emotional memories need to be moved into rational, symbolic domains, quick.

Pills cannot do this work for us. EMDR helps, but there are other, better weapons.

【the deer】 is our weapon. 【the deer】 is the ultimate anti-PTSD device.

Day of the Dead provides some interesting insight into the liminal between life and death. The Theory Machine will drone on about how quaint the festival is, while totally missing the damn point. They’ll talk aesthetics: skeleton facepaint, pan de muertos, and colorful paper. These people are in the business of doing 4th grade book reports. We can totally ignore them. Instead, we’ll use 【the deer】.

【the deer】’s understanding of Day of the Dead:

Day of the Dead gives concrete, symbolic meaning to the liminal space between life and death. Performing a death ritual moves data from your emotional memory into your rational, symbolic memory.

This is how you remove PTSD from the community. You can do your own research, but it’s generally accepted, even by the Theory Machine, that mental health in ancient, ritual society was really damned good.

The people who work for the Theory Machine, however, don’t like categories. Categories, to them, are too absolutist. They will say that humans, dead or alive, are all the same carbon junk. Perhaps pickup trucks don’t necessarily have beds, and 2+2 can equal a lot of things. This kind of thinking has been called postmodernism.

If postmodern thinking is opposed to categories, then a postmodern thinker will store data in the emotional parts of their brains. PTSD and depression are immanent. Don’t bother listening to postmodern thinkers.

The Liminality of Human Culture

Music about uncertainty, films about transitions from one place to another, the story arc of the character from beginning to end. The liminal space between here and there, between life and death, and between new and decaying, is aesthetic.

All art is liminal in some way, by virtue of it being analog. Because the real world is analog.

Binary decay, by contrast, has no liminal. There’s no aesthetic. If binary media decays, there’s no liminal, and the art disappears. If art disappears, there’s no culture.

Some say we haven’t had culture since 2010. Maybe it’s because pop culture no longer decays.

Of course buildings and paintings still decay, but those represent less than 0.1% of our pop culture. Our gods aren’t granite statues or massive murals. Granite gods decay and can be toppled, which undermines their divinity.

No, our gods are delivered to us digitally via our streaming platform of choice. And these gods are just as perfect today as they were 20 years ago. You can’t protest and topple Captain America. You can only disappear him permanently.

Censorship leaves burned books and bones behind. It’s analog and aesthetic.

But disappearing something digitally is totally strange, unnatural, and non-aesthetic.

There’s no longer an aesthetic, and so there’s no more culture. If humans produce anything with their hands, it’s culture. If we aren’t producing culture, are we still human?

Aside from airport bookstores and some blurays in the checkout line, and clothing lines, the media distribution system for pop culture is almost entirely binary. Streaming and DRM is either on or off. You don’t really own your mediaSoon you won’t own your seat. Or your toothbrush. Or anything.

Multimedia platforms will allow some old media to avoid decay. Acceptable items that avoid the censer will be remastered, up-rezzed, and re-released.

The rest of the media are off the shelves, left to decay until they’re forgotten. It’s far easier than burning it in the street.

When we listen to Vaporwave, we grasp for that moment of decay. The decay of culture.

The postmodern way of thinking, with its aversion to categories, is spreading throughout the entire Theory Machine. It’s no wonder it can’t explain anything, whereas 【the deer】 has no problems explaining anything.

Maybe 【the deer】 can help us further. Maybe it can help us let go of the past, and begin working on actual solutions.

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