Vaporwave’s Hall of Mirrors

by Derek Hopper

It’s kind of hard to remember what life was like before the world wide web. We work on it, communicate on it, socialise on it, and shop on it. Just like the computer on the USS Enterprise, it’s indispensable to us and practically omniscient. The existence of Wikipedia alone means that anyone in the world with a 3G phone carries around in their pocket the closest thing we have to the collected sum of human knowledge. If we suddenly “lost” the web, our world would be changed unimaginably, for it involves itself in almost every aspect of our lives. Yet just 25 years ago most people had never heard of the internet. As recently as 1994 there were fewer than 3,000 websites. By 2014 that number had exploded to one billion—a 33 million percent increase in just twenty years.

According to research carried out by MIT’s Matthew Gray, just 623 websites existed at the end of 1993. Rewind another six months to the middle of 1993—back to the internet palaeozoic, when Jurassic Park was in theaters—and you find a mere 130 websites online. So the web is relatively new, yet just old enough to have witnessed a generation grow up with it.

Our gilded age

The 1990s were good years for the United States. The economy grew at an average of 4% per year between 1992 and 1999. The New York Times reported in 2015 that an average of 1.7 million jobs a year were added to the workforce, versus around 850,000 a year during the 21st century so far, and that “the unemployment rate dropped from nearly 8 percent in 1992 to 4 percent—that is, effectively zero—at the end of the decade”. The country had a federal budget surplus and saw a 41% decline in the murder rate and an end to the HIV/AIDS nightmare we had endured throughout the 1980s. Furthermore, the Soviet Union had just collapsed. This meant the US was the sole superpower in a world rapidly thawing out after the decades-long Cold War.

Arriving amid all of this economic and political prosperity was Microsoft’s Windows 95 operating system, launched in the August of its eponymous year. James Titcomb of the Telegraph writes that the OS was “a technological breakthrough” and “an unprecedented cultural phenomenon”. Its release seemed to come at just the right time. Home PCs were becoming more affordable and Windows 95 was followed a week after its release by Internet Explorer 1.0. PC sales boomed.

A person who was 15 years old in 1995 and listened nightly to their modem connect to the web would have been in their thirties by the early 2010s, when vaporwave first appeared.

Dreams of the ’90s

Vice has described vaporwave as “chillwave for Marxists”, “post-elevator music”, and “corporate smooth jazz Windows 95 pop”. They ask readers to “imagine taking bits of 80s Muzak, late-night infomercials, smooth jazz, and that tinny tune receptionists play when they put you on hold, then chopping that up, pitching it down, and scrambling it to the point where you’ve got saxophone goo dripping out of a cheap plastic valve”. In an article entitled “Soundtrack to Austerity”, Stylus said vaporwave was “a micro-genre of electronic music that draws on the corporate sonic ephemera of the 80s and 90s—such as lift muzak, ad soundtracks, ‘hold’ music and cocktail jazz—to satirise the emptiness of a hyper-capitalist society”. Vaporwave, then, is a genre of music. But it is also an aesthetic. On the rare occasions when vaporwave records are given a physical release it’s on cassette tape, with artwork that normally contains some combination of the following themes: classical sculpture, 1990s web imagery, tropical landscapes, surrealism, low-poly computer renderings, “glitch art”, VHS recordings, and Japanese text.

Image of spoof album cover "Now That's What I Call Vaporwave"
The vaporwave “aesthetic” features ironic appropriation of ’90s pop culture tropes.

The highest ranked—and oldest—vaporwave album on the music site rateyourmusic.com is Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1 (2010). (This makes vaporwave highly unusual in having peaked for many people as a genre upon its very first release). On the opening track the familiar strains of 1982’s “Toto” by Africa are slowed down and chopped and screwed, and listening to the record one can imagine window shopping in a Florida mall during the mid-90s while on Vicodin. Many of its other warped samples will be instantly recognisable to anyone who lived through the decade. The album’s cover is a collage of 16-bit imagery referencing the 1992 Sega Mega Drive video game Ecco the Dolphin, which was described by one Vice writer in an essay about the game as “the scariest I’ve ever played”.

Cover art of Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1

Ecco the Dolphin was a bestseller and had a significant effect on a subculture of American kids. Daniel Lopatin (the artist behind Eccojams) was ten years old when it was released. Entering one’s teen years is always a formative period but for Lopatin it happened to coincide with the period relevant to our discussion; the last American “golden age”. Other tracks sampled on the album, such as “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty and “The Lady in Red” by Chris de Burgh, were part of the easy-listening soundtrack to this gilded era, the pre-9/11 world. And so, aside from the economic prosperity and optimism for the coming internet age that characterised the 1990s, nostalgia for a more geopolitically innocent time should also be considered as a factor in the emergence of vaporwave.

If Eccojams was the first vaporwave record, then 2011’s フローラルの専門店 (Floral Shoppe) by Macintosh Plus is its defining one. Macintosh Plus is the single-serving nom de guerre of a Portland, Oregon-based graphic artist and producer, Ramona Andra Xavier, also known as Vektroid. It is Xavier who is most responsible for vaporwave as people understand it today. Esquire wrote that previous albums may “have pointed the way, but Floral Shoppe is the lodestone that embodies all the most salient elements of vaporwave”.

The cover of Floral Shoppe features most of the tropes that would become essential elements of the vaporwave aesthetic: lurid colours, a Roman bust to the fore, rendered landscapes, a garish pink and orange photo of a city skyline, and song titles in Japanese. The music itself met with some serious acclaim. Sputnikmusic gave it a perfect 5.0 score, saying that “it could well be the future’s first masterpiece”. The standout number on the album and perhaps vaporwave’s defining track is “リサフランク420 //現代のコンピュー”. It features a Diana Ross song, “It’s Your Move”, slowed down to something that sounds like a prozac daydream. Adam Downer’s review of Floral Shoppe for Sputnik discussed the obscurity of the samples used, “as though it was the internet spitting back what we’ve been feeding into it”. Here was mainstream acknowledgement that internet culture was being recycled and presented to us in new forms.

Cover art for Floral Shoppe by Macintosh Plus

Certain elements of the vaporwave aesthetic are present for obvious reasons. If vaporwave is nostalgia for the technology and cultural aesthetics of 1980s and 1990s then the frequent Windows imagery makes perfect sense. We can assume, given the immense growth in home computer sales during the mid- to late-90s, that for many vaporwave artists Windows was not just the first operating system they used but also perpetually and nostalgically emblematic of a rapidly “computerising” world. It was aptly named too, since it was their window out onto this fascinating new thing called the internet.

During the development phase of Windows 95, Microsoft executives commissioned Brian Eno to develop a piece of music to play when the operating system started up. Eno said that they wanted “’a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional’, this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said ‘and it must be 3.25 seconds long’”. The end result is one of the most iconic sounds in nineties cyberculture. A number of vaporwave artists have used Windows samples in their music, but perhaps the most notable example is Blank Banshee’s “B:/ Start Up” from 2012. If you want to arouse nostalgia in your listener then sampling a sound people heard every day for years during a boom-time is a stroke of genius.

The vaporwave fascination with classical statuary is less easily understood, but one Reddit user gave a reasonable explanation as to its presence: “Statues are a big part of the vaporwave aesthetic because they are materially perfect (or supposed to be) but spiritually inert, empty. If you see [Michelangelo’s] David as an aesthetic ideal of what a man should look like, fearsome, chiseled (pun intended), very handsome, etc., it kind of makes you feel inadequate in the same way a lot of popular media does (buy this to be better-looking, etc.). It can be seen perhaps as a critique on capitalism that we are presented with beautiful bodies that force us to consume, and classical statues seem to evoke this same kind of ‘perfect human’ idea”.

Is vaporwave political?

This analysis makes certain assumptions about the philosophy underlying vaporwave, specifically that it is anti-capitalist. Certainly this is a common view among commentators. Esquire said the genre was born of a “cynicism about capitalism”. Another outlet described it as “a dystopian critique of capitalism”, and a leading figure in vaporwave believes “it’s anticapitalist and antiglobalist”. A 2012 article by the musicologist Danny Harper went even further, suggesting a link with Marxism; “The name ‘vaporwave’ is reminiscent of a famous passage from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, ‘all that is solid melts into air’, referring to the constant change society is subjected to under bourgeois capitalism”. It is hard to tell if these are fair and accurate summations or simply the projections of a liberal milieu whose job is to find sociological meaning in the latest fad.

In a Reddit AMA, Daniel Lopatin was asked who his favourite philosophers are. He mentioned modern names such as Manuel DeLanda, Bruno Latour and Alexander Galloway. Among the canonical thinkers he listed—Kant, Heidegger, Leibniz, and Deleuze—Marx was notable by his absence, and one of them, Martin Heidegger, is a controversial figure whose affiliation with Nazism has long affected if not tarnished his reputation. A New York Times article from 2009 posed the question “Does a Nazi Deserve a Place Among Philosophers?” Emmanuel Faye, author of Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy (2005), argues that “fascist and racist ideas are so woven into the fabric of Heidegger’s theories that they no longer deserve to be called philosophy”. Combine Lopatin’s interest in Heidegger with his public rejection of any political readings into his music—a common trait of politically right-leaning artists—and suddenly the assumption that vaporwave’s appropriation of capitalist imagery is merely ironic is not so tenable. It should go without saying that none of this means Lopatin is a Nazi or even necessarily right-wing. But it does mean there is a degree of ideological diversity present in the movement, and this perhaps sheds some light on certain recent developments in vaporwave.

The plague of frogs

In January 2017 Vice published an article on “far-right appropriation” of electronic music. This claim is interesting in itself as it presupposes that leftism is the a priori, factory-setting political position inherent in all electronic music, and that rightist political expression in the genre is a deviation from an assumed universal norm. The essay documents the rise of “Trumpwave” and “Fashwave”, two vaporwave offshoots that incorporate elements from across the right-wing spectrum, ranging from Donald Trump to actual fascist and even Nazi aesthetics and slogans. The piece reported that “leading vaporwave producers were gathering in Montreal for an emergency summit to discuss ‘creeping fascism’ in the scene”, a meeting that happened in early 2016. (Surely this is one of the most unusual sentences ever to appear in journalism.) One vaporwave artist said he loved making music, “but if Neo Nazis keep using my tracks in their propaganda videos, I might have to stop releasing more albums. I don’t want to help enable their hatred. Music should be about bringing people together, not about establishing a 4th Reich under God Emperor Trump, Lord of the Americas, or whatever the fuck it is that fascists are trying to do”. One fashwave video—“Galactic Lebensraum” by C Y B E R N ∆ Z I—features a Hitler bust, classical columns, ferns, and the usual garish colours that make up the vaporwave palette.

But there is a deep irony at work in the rejection by the vaporwave “establishment” of far-right entryism. Ramona Xavier (of Floral Shoppe fame) is on record as saying “I always assumed it was transparent through my work that I leaned left”. But the thing that made vaporwave possible in the first place was easy access to the cultural detritus of the ‘80s and ‘90s. When Xavier was producing the abstruse social commentary of Floral Shoppe in 2012, filled as it was with samples taken without permission, there had to be an understanding that cyberanarchy works both ways.

In American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’s pitch black, searing commentary on the empty materialism of Wall Street brokers in the 1980s, Donald Trump is namechecked multiple times. Patrick Bateman idolises Donald Trump, who in 1991 (when the novel was written) was just a celebrity real estate mogul—albeit the kind of celebrity real estate mogul who appears as a guest on the Oprah Winfrey show. Trump was something of a pop culture phenomenon in the 1980s and early 1990s, with cameos in several movies and TV shows including Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. CNN found in a review of thousands of hip-hop lyrics that Trump was mentioned 318 times between 1989 and 2016. For decades the world viewed Trump as the reification of American Dream economics. His positive association with this rose-tinted era in American history almost certainly contributed to his election and also assured him a place in the early days of the vaporwave aesthetic, though whether that is still the case is debatable. So when something like “Trumpwave” comes along (Xurious’s “Hail Victory” featuring samples of Trump telling a rapturous crowd that they’ll “get bored of winning” best exemplifies the subgenre), nobody can be surprised that some people don’t “get the joke” about vaporwave, that they don’t realise its embrace of capitalist imagery, ‘80s/’90s culture, and soulless corporate ephemera is just ironic, hipster posturing.

Donald Trump’s cameo in Home Alone 2 (1992)

Nostalgic seduction

Bryan Bierman at the Philly Voice has written about the idea of nostalgia as drug. Regarding its role in vaporwave he says, “unlike regular nostalgia for things you remember experiencing, the young age of many vaporwave artists means that many of them weren’t even alive or cognizant enough to see any of their vaunted late ’80s/early ’90s relics in action. It’s a peculiar sense of nostalgia, a sort of imagined memory, pieced together with fragments of the aftermath”. This, he believes, is significant. “This sort of pick-and-choose revisionism can snowball into a false past utopia that for a lot of younger people, then becomes the truth”.

We see something similar in the resurgence of vinyl as a medium. Rudy Van Gelder, the American recording engineer who is considered one of the most important in jazz history, said that he was “glad to see the LP go. As far as I’m concerned, good riddance. It was a constant battle to try to make that music sound the way it should. It was never any good. And if people don’t like what they hear in digital, blame the engineer”. The Conversation’s Lee Barron believes “the revival of vinyl could be similarly motivated by mere nostalgia for the antithesis of digital streaming: large and fragile discs in cardboard sleeves that manifest a distinctly un-digital crackle when played on the similarly redundant technology of the record player”. None of this is meant to deny vinyl’s merits, but it illustrates the power of nostalgia, and substantiates Bierman’s assertion that it clouds reality. Bierman says that “young artists are imbued with an ingrained nostalgia for the same capitalist images they’re disgusted by”. The implication is that mass confusion is at work; that the vaporwave generation is both fascinated and repelled by the nihilism of techno-capitalism.

The art of vaporwave has now gone viral. In an event reminiscent of the 1962 symposium in New York which announced pop art to the world, the A-side B-side gallery in Hackney, London launched “Vaporwave.exe” in December 2016. Hanging on the walls of the gallery were prints of exactly what you would expect at a vaporwave exhibition: classical statues, lots of pink and teal, skulls, bottles of Fiji mineral water, tropical scenes and Nintendo screenshots. There were also obsolete home electronics, ferns, VHS tapes, and most interesting of all, actual canvases of Pepe the Frog that were painstakingly painted by hand—Pepe being an anthropomorphic cartoon frog that debuted in 2005’s “Boy’s Club” cartoons. Since 2005 the cartoon has spread through online communities such as 4chan, 8chan and Reddit, and been embraced by the “alt-right” to the point where the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) added it to their database of hate symbols. However, the curator of Vaporwave.exe, Marvin Watkins, refuses to analyse the movement too deeply. “I don’t really subscribe to the political connotations of vaporwave. I understand for some it reflects an anti-capitalist movement, but personally I just enjoy the aesthetics”.

Watkins is not the only one who appreciates vaporwave on a superficial level. When Barbadian pop singer Rihanna performed on Saturday Night Live in November 2012 with seapunk visuals as a backdrop, it caused outrage among the niche online community that made up the scene. Seapunk is (or was) a precursor to vaporwave and characterised by “computer screens with ’90s 16-bit aquatic video game GIFs, mops of turquoise Manic Panic dye jobs, and retro-futuristic 3D collage art featuring floating dolphins and chrome-metallic geometric shapes”; a “rave-in-Atlantis”. New York rapper Azealia Banks was next to incorporate seapunk/vaporwave, this time in her video for the November 2012 track “Atlantis”. That month saw a spike in Google searches for both vaporwave and seapunk, though it is the latter that has faded away and the former that has gone from strength to strength, despite repeated declarations of its demise.

Eternal return

The claim that ‘vaporwave is dead’ has long been a running joke among insiders. As early as 2013 and perhaps even 2012 (just a year after Floral Shoppe was released) people have been attributing death to something that continues to flourish in multiple cybercultural contexts. In 2015 Motherboard announced that “Tumblr and MTV Killed the Neon Anti-Corporate Aesthetic of Vaporwave”. Supposedly this happened in June 2015 when, quite independently of one another, these outlets rebranded themselves by “turning vaporwave”. Perhaps for the purists vaporwave really has died. It is admittedly hard to see how the “critique of capitalism” exegesis stands up when corporate behemoths and fascists see something they like in your aesthetic and successfully appropriate it. But art often begins as cage-rattling political statement and ends up neutered by its own popularity. Consider that Igor Stravinsky, Elvis Presley, and the Sex Pistols, who once outraged people, now reside in the tastefully-lit glass cases of the Museum of Western Culture.

I have attempted to address the idea that vaporwave is both a product and a producer of culture simultaneously. I have looked at how several of vaporwave’s aesthetic components were appropriated from the cyberculture of the late ‘80s and ‘90s: primitive web design, Windows 95, Apple Macintosh computers, AOL-era visuals, low-poly computer renderings, strange neon grids, “glitch art” and VHS fuzz. The ubiquitous Japanese text acts as a kind of Saidist techno-orientalism, enigmatically representative of an era when the Japanese were thought to be on the verge of “taking over”, until their economic bubble burst in the early-90s. e have also examined how vaporwave became aproducer of cyberculture, not only in its midwifing of “fashwave”, but also in its ability to reach the very pinnacles of popular culture, shaping artists and corporations alike in its image. We’ve even now seen the opening of the world’s first ever “vaporwave mall” in Miami.

Jordan Pearson in his Motherboard piece noted that “MTV may have just dragged [vaporwave] over the precipice. And this is where the genre’s holy boundary is crossed. This is where the cynical impulse that animated vaporwave and its associated Tumblr-based aesthetics is co-opted and erased on both sides—where its source material originates, and where it lives”.

Erased on both sides. Think about that.

The ancient experience of time was very different from our own modern, linear understanding. For the Greeks, Etruscans, Aztecs, Iranians, Hindus, and even for backward-looking modern prophets like the poet W.B. Yeats, time was not perceived as something flowing uniformly and indefinitely, but rather as a cycle, in which every period had its own meaning and specific value in relation to all others, as well as its own uniqueness and purpose. When confronted with a cultural phenomenon like vaporwave, we must ask the question: is it even possible to destroy something that breathes life elsewhere? Or is culture like time as the ancients understood it: cyclical, a series of eternities, both product and producer simultaneously?

Featured image by Flickr user thelastvoice (CC-BY-2.0)

Top 7 Books to Read through the Trumpenreich

I’ll spare you my election hot takery. Frankly I don’t really think anyone has a good grasp on the particulars of how this happened, where it happened and why. We probably need to wait a few weeks to see how it shook out once we have the full story. From there we can distill and discuss.

Nonetheless it doesn’t take an oracle to realize this is a massive upset. For many across the political spectrum; mainstream Democrats, hardline progressives and conservatives of many stripes, it was a confusing result. Alarming even. In particular for young conservatives who will bear the brunt of the legacy of this moment, we are stuck wondering, “Where do we go from here?”

I don’t rightly know, but I do know there’s some reading that can help elucidate how we got here and how we can help rebuild the cause of prudence, virtue and tradition. So in true millennial style, here’s my listicle:

The Top 7 Conservative Books to Read through the Trumpenreich

7. Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam.

Cover of Bowling Alone by Robert PutnamYou must read this book if you want to understand some of the root causes of our modern political dysfunction. Putnam records the increased decline in institutional trust, civic decline and social capital in America. Trump v. Clinton does not happen in a country with a healthy civic culture. A Trump victory does not happen in a country with strong, trusting communities. Social scientists quibble over Putnam’s proposed causes and solutions, but it is a critical diagnosis if we are to move forward.

6. Coming Apart by Charles Murray.

Cover of Coming Apart by Charles MurrayMurray writes on a similar theme: There is something rotten in the state of Denmark. While Putnam speaks to Denmark as a whole, Murray hones in on specific provinces. It’s not necessarily that America writ large that is dysfunctional, it’s downscale whites. In particular he convincingly lays how out how the biggest cultural chasm in America is between white Americans. Since 1960 outcomes for white working class Americans has stagnated or declined. The reverse holds true for middle and upper class white Americans. More poignantly, white Americans of different classes live in totally different worlds. One tribe is educated, the other is not. One goes to church, one shows up for holidays, if that. One stays married, the other doesn’t bother or divorces. One succeeds, the other fails. Meanwhile the successful ones disdain or totally ignore their hapless kin. These are harsh generalizations and other conservatives have contested his casual prognosis, but facts remain facts even if they are uncomfortable. America’s core cultural/ethnic grouping is coming apart at the seams.

5. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

Cover of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. VanceStop what you are doing and read this author’s interview by Rod Dreher. The social science of Murray and Putnam, backed up by footnotes and copious numbers, can only penetrate the mind so far. Vance brings it home with a haunting, complicated and uplifting personal narrative about rural white poverty in the Greater Appalachia. If you want an up close look at the hardcore Trump voter, look no further. What’s novel is Vance accomplishes this without the saccharine, tokenizing nonsense that much of the right’s commentariat indulges themselves in. The same people that crow as loud as the day is long about the broken culture behind Hispanic and black poverty work themselves into a triggered fit of self pitying rage when the same is pointed out about poor, rural white communities. Are you a liberal trying to find some way to connect with Trump voters but can’t find the heart? Read this book. Are you a conservative with some nostalgic, rose-tinted view of “real America?” Read this book.

4. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre.

Cover of After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyreMacIntyre’s book is totally different from the first three I just suggested. But this Scottish Thomist speaks to the cultural and moral moment we find ourselves in.  To sum it up: liberal modernity ain’t all it’s cracked up to be and the current way we talk about moral and political ethics leaves the “modern man” woefully unfulfilled. To wit, “In the dominant liberal view, government is to be neutral as between rival conceptions of human good yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life. The moment we find ourselves in is largely due to the absence of virtue in our civic life.

3. The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk.

Cover of The Conservative Mind by Russell KirkWhither goest thou, Conservatism? Part of the reason why Conservatism, Inc. is in such a crisis is because of how intellectually shallow it really is. It’s a comically tragic attempt to keep Reaganism (itself an occasional, unique adaption to the late Cold War) alive, like an ideological Weekend At Bernie’s. Trump tore through conservative pieties mainly because modern establishment conservatism had all the roots of a day old leaf shoot. If you’re a conservative and you’re looking for something more (that also isn’t the hodgepodge of national greatness populist horse manure that Trumpism aspires to), this is a great introduction to the depth and breadth of the wider Anglo-American intellectual tradition. Also, on a side note, it’s bizarre to me how many liberal friends of mine pontificate on conservatism and yet have never even heard of this book.

2. The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbet.

Want to truly make America great again? Want to make sure another Trump doesn’t come across the political horizon? Read this book and follow its advice. Radically reject the atomization of society that breeds demagoguery, statCover of The Quest for Community by Robert Nisbetism and civic corruption. Join one of Burke’s little platoons of society. Talk to your neighbors. Do the hard, necessary work of building your local community. Alarmed communities produce elections like this one. Peter Hitchens put it like this, “This is a frightened society. Many people live in a constant level of fear. There is a general decay of social obligation. There is a sense you don’t intervene. I think the answer is the reestablishment of the free and ordered society we so recently had.” Voting isn’t the answer, nor is your signaling on social media. The best activism you can actually engage in is helping build a robust local community.

1. The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher.

Cover of The Benedict Option by Rod DreherThis is more geared toward orthodox Christians (small or large “O” depending on your preference). We need to face facts. The Religious Right is dead. If it wasn’t dead before, it has finally given up the ghost by hitching its wagon to a venalvice peddlinghedonisticgroping serial adulterer who brags about how he doesn’t need God’s forgiveness. But even if Trump had never happened, the writing was on the wall. Christians are going to have to fess up to the reality that we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture. Named about St. Benedict, who helped build strong Christian communities which weathered the fall of Rome, Rod Dreher lays out a strategy for how Christianity can survive in the modern West and enrich our communities in the process.


Regrettably we live in interesting times. America escaped a very bad candidate and in return got one that is arguably worse. In the meantime Americans are divided, scared and angry at each other. These books aren’t magic recipes but they are good starts (also we will all need something to do while sitting around in between our morning and evening Public Displays of Praise for our Dear Leader). No one is going to rebuild public trust for us. We will have to do it ourselves.

I’ll leave you with my favorite quotation from President Abraham Lincoln (who is criminally under-appreciated among conservatives today):

We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Get reading, kids.

Featured image: “Daily News, India” by Bo Nielsen (BY-NC-ND 2.0)

John Wayne vs. Pest Control

When teaching high school history, I always enjoyed the class conversation when I asked the following question:

“While the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, the right to vote was already given to women as early as 1869 at the state level in certain parts of the country. Who knows the first state to grant this?”

The students would immediately guess California or somewhere on the East Coast. Of course the first state to grant this was “The Equality State,” as it was later known. But if you close your eyes and imagine Wyoming in the year 1869, empowered women are probably not what come first to your mind. In fact, the whole “Wild West” evokes images of Colt-wielding rugged white guys, and the roles of women or minorities are eclipsed by this typical imagery — except for the maltreated Indians, of course.

We don’t spend much time learning about the women in Wyoming, nor the first congresswomen to be representatives of frontier states. Similarly, not a lot of time is spent learning of people like the Exodusters, the surprisingly high proportion of black and Hispanic cowboys, nor the discriminated-against Irish seeking land ownership on the frontier.

So, why the West? Big Sky country wasn’t exactly a breeding ground for Progressive ideology, and yet it seemed to be a haven for many disenfranchised folks.

There are many explanations of Wyoming’s politics (and many other western states and territories that quickly followed), but one theory always stuck with me. I appreciate its simplicity, and potential for a theory of all human society:

When society is primitive, and people are barely scraping by, institutionalized inequality has no time or place to establish itself. When you are not sure if your town will make it through the winter, you don’t have time to establish racial, sexual, ethnic, or economic hierarchies.

Of course, there has never been such a thing as a completely equal society. In the same way stronger people could catch more food in early hunter-gatherer societies, the West had rich prospectors, poor farmers, wealthy speculators and struggling prostitutes. Some towns were diverse, some very white. Laws shared this diversity. Some towns had terrible gun violence, others had none. Some towns outlawed guns, some towns lived confidently because everyone carried one. The West was as diverse as a “society” could be, but shared one commonality: there was little evidence of institutionalized inequality relative to the rest of the nation.

Inequality is a lack of justice. And in the West, justice was an entirely local phenomenon.

The Cowboy form of justice relied on a few simple principles — a clear and widely understood definition of justice, and an intimate grappling with truth because the responsibility of ensuring justice usually fell on you or your immediate community. Despite what Westerns portray, this did not usually encourage gun-toting, reckless vigilantism. It simply allowed individuals and communities to do what they thought was best.

Meanwhile, the rest of us have opted for justice as what can only be described as a form of federal pest control. Rather than help ourselves or our fellow man, we beg Pest Control to label an entire species as the enemy of our neighborhood (based of course on anecdotal evidence). Finally, we legislate blanket definitions of “types” of people to consider enemies. We can even put those creeps on watch lists. When we see something wrong, being helpless without Pest Control, we call and wait on hold until we can complain to a bureaucrat who will send an underpaid stoner-turned-raccoon-catcher to take care of it for us.

So, what about today? As a white male satisfied with his own gender, who adheres to a Judeo-Christian morality, there is little I can say about justice for those who feel its absence. Yet despite how cushioned from reality I may be, I share a similar fear.

This lack of justice does not make me fear for my life. But, when we see something terrible and cry for outrage and support from an institution who within hours of the events had literally changed the law to avoid prosecuting a precious matriarch in its Royal Family, I fear dreadfully for this nation.

When the frontier closed in the early 1890s, many saw it as the end of democracy. With no well of opportunity for malcontent pioneers, the role of the rugged, independent and responsible individual who had no choice but to be a good part of his or her community has perhaps died. We lost the idea that nature was our common enemy, and when pitted against it, humans and our issues are very, very small.

While there is no frontier anymore, perhaps we can remember the surprisingly diverse cowboys that roamed it. We can look at righteously angry blacks, agitated police officers, overeducated socialists, worried family-value supporters, disgruntled workers hoping someone can make the country “Great Again,” and see shared, common desires to live our lives the way we and our communities think best. Despite what birds-eye view the media feeds us, there are not many excused from these desires because they feel too “privileged.” The desire to take back our lives and identities is real and growing.

Some might reduce the idea of John Wayne to a white man who shot red men. They are probably the same people who think it is ok to fester in factions that name-call, interrupt parades, and hinder free speech in hopes of gaining the favor of Pest Control.

What’s our goal, then? Provoke nationwide anger? Widespread action? Legislation? Insist more humans die for narratives that negate statistics? If you fear institutionalized injustice, the problem may be the belief that we need to compete for favor from an institution in the first place.

I know, I am jumping into a moment of righteous anger from a community I don’t exactly belong to. But this is precisely why I bring it up right now. It is too ironic that factions squabble over who deserves justice on the day that our federal government changed the very definition of it.

If there was ever a chance for a society to unite, it is over this: Each one of us is an individual, capable of recognizing and opposing evil, and capable of doing good and giving thanks for it.

Featured image by Priscilla Westra

Marxism’s exhausted legacy:
A conservative reads Norman Birnbaum

If there is really a such thing as “Cultural Marxism,” it is no doubt represented in the person of American socialist sociologist Norman Birnbaum, who has taught for a long time at Georgetown University. I happened to pick up his book The Radical Renewal: The Politics of Ideas in Modern America because it was either free or quite cheap. Also, it had a back-cover blurb by Robert Bellah, author of Habits of the Heart, which I enjoyed in my undergraduate political theory studies.

Recently I’ve been exchanging pleasantries on Twitter with a professed Marxist who is distressed by the lack of political solutions advanced by Marxists. I thought I would read this book on his behalf, since, if any discipline is likely to to advance political recommendations worth heeding, it is certainly sociology and not economics.

So I’ll be reading and blogging about this book with no particular program other than to explore and engage with Birnbaum’s ideas. Continue reading Marxism’s exhausted legacy:
A conservative reads Norman Birnbaum

Souls made to order

Pattaramon Chanbua, a Thai surrogate mother, was in the news when the couple who hired her to carry what turned out to be twin children refused to take one of the children, who has Down syndrome, or remit the payment they had agreed upon. Continue reading Souls made to order

The End of Hipstery and the Last Culture

By Jacob Stubbs

All-Inclusive Disclaimer: In this essay I do not necessarily use philosophers’ thoughts as they intended. Any reference to a philosopher will probably be a heterodox or downright incorrect interpretation. I do not use Hegel as a “hipster” would, nor do I claim that Hegel is himself a hipster. His great critic Søren Kierkegaard might have something to do with hipsters, especially since he was into the whole irony thing, but I do not have the purity of heart to elucidate this connection…

***

G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx are known as philosophers of History. That is, they focus on the process of man making himself and focusing on himself in such a way that he betters the world through technology. Alexandre Kojéve, the French philosopher who created the European Union, synthesized Hegel and Marx to argue that society lives at the “end of history.” For Kojéve, we live in a time where man has evolved to the point where all political, philosophical, and cultural developments have reached their highest apex and man lives as truth.

This “end of history” appeared with the advent of liberal democracy, given that democracy has found a way in which everyone’s rights can be respected so that each  person has the freedom or liberation to pursue satisfaction as he sees fit. The dialectical processes that fueled the movement of history have ultimately negated themselves and history has entered a “void of nothingness.” We see this happening tangibly in the ways that man has gained an understanding of nature, made technology, and used technology to counteract or negate nature. This led to a synthesis of the natural and contra-natural that causes man to live in “nothingness,” a realm that is beyond the demands of nature. Continue reading The End of Hipstery and the Last Culture

“Mixed Marriages” and Ethnic Identity in Lithuania

Mid-20th century encyclopedia illustration of Lithuanian traditional costume
Lithuanian folk costume – illustration by Vitautas Palaimas

I thought the tautological slogan “Lithuania for Lithuanians,” beaming with solid platitude and platitudinous solidity, had been put under the sod for good. However, while I was browsing the Internet, a fairly well-done minimalistic poster caught my attention. It carried two slogans in black and white: “Lithuanian women for Lithuanian men,” and “Lithuanian men for Lithuanian women.”

Beneath these slogans in smaller text the legend read: “NATIONIA – the movement for the survival of nations.” On the official website of the “movement,” this legend is accompanied by an English caption explaining that Nationia is a movement of peaceful nationalism. Going to the main page, I found a construction that interested me because of its first three elements: “Nation diversity → Human diversity → Abilities diversity → Mankind progress, essence” [sic]. The suggestive interplay of these ideas enticed me to spend more time investigating this nationalist movement.

Nationia‘s “philosophy” features some random rallying cries for nations and patriots to act to forestall national disappearance. In parallel, they propose that “diversity” is a prerequisite to discussion and progress. A group of people with diverse abilities can solve problems more quickly. So far everything looks nice, right? But then comes a new proposition stating that human diversity is determined by internal and external factors.

The “external” ones include social, cultural, and political elements, while “internal” ones are of an anthropological, mental-psychological, and physical nature. The internal factors are illustrated by three samples of dominant features, including hair, eyes, physical, and character features. A parallel is drawn between these samples and nations. [Ed. note: For any reader unfamiliar with European politics, this is none-too-subtle code for 20th-century race ideologies, which still fuel various European far-right wing political parties.] I set aside the reading at this point, as footnotes from the tracts of Nazi eugenics started running through my mind.

To preserve “diversity” as described above, Nationia suggests the collaboration of nations without mixture, i.e. avoiding the formation of “mixed marriages.” They base this prescription on the premise that a child born in a “mixed” marriage, i.e., one of spouses from different national backgrounds, would be unable to choose either of four potential identities.

The proponents of this idea claim that such a person might be the citizen of one country, but his “national” identity is not based on language, choice, or opinion. According to Nationia, nationality is “a fusion of human behaviour, physical features, temperament, and outlook, inner and uncontrolled, natural reactions to the surrounding world and which are characteristic to a particular group of people who evolved alongside.”

Why am I so concerned with such a marginalized, outdated race ideology? The reason is that it offers a perfect illustration of what I call failed nationalism. The real, ugly face of this nationalism, concealed under archetypal symbols and historical tracts, may be familiar to American readers as it is portrayed in the emblematic movie “American History X.”

For adherents of failed nationalism, the fetish of a blond blue-eyed girl dressed in the national costume, something that has turned into a barely attainable ideal, is the only thing that protects our Lithuanian identity. Yet Lithuania is in the heart of Europe. Thousands of years of European turmoil saw many peoples, cultures, and nations meet and mingle in what is now the Lithuanian territory. It is no wonder that my mother is brown-eyed with dark-hair, I am green-eyed with brown-hair, and one of my cousins is the ideal blue-eyed blonde — although for more than four generations the names in our family have been entirely Lithuanian.

Now, we can hardly be surprised to see a representative of another race on the streets of Vilnius. From early childhood, we were accustomed to seeing a variety of facial shapes, the absence of which was utterly shocking to me when I traveled in Hungary. Yet, despite Lithuanians’ easily observable diversity, people interested in phenotypology usually assign most Lithuanians to the “Baltic” (blue-eyed, blond) phenotype.

The question of what makes us a nation, given the variety in our physical appearance and character features, can be answered with the simple description by the theoretician of nationalism, Anthony D. Smith, whose basic theory remains unchanged despite being rewritten a thousand times: The nation defines and perceives itself as a community, with common myths, common collective memory, values, and traditions, which resides in a territory to which it feels specific historic attachment, creates its own public culture, and shares common laws and duties.

This definition is valid in most cases, and Lithuania is definitely not the most extreme case. Hence, it is easier to describe a Lithuanian by answering several relatively basic questions, rather than by a person’s appearance or behavior.

There is another issue that the self-appointed guardians of Lithuanian identity confront. Who is a more legitimate Lithuanian: a Vietnamese child adopted and raised by a family of Lithuanians, or a blonde, blue-eyed offspring of a Lithuanian couple who learned his/her first words from a South African couple? Because of their physical appearance, both children are aware of their external differences, but the essential attributes of a community (and, as stated, a nation is a community), such as the language, morale, and aesthetic perceptions, will be assimilated from the environment in which the child grows up.

Despite painstaking efforts, these children will hardly be able to identify themselves as part of their nation of origin. It is likely that a biological Lithuanian may be fond of her country of birth, or that a Vietnamese person shall nurture affection for the people and culture of Vietnam. Yet these affections are themselves culturally mediated and developed, like the respect of a second-generation Greek-American for his grandparents’ culture. The phrase from the movie Gattaca sums it up: “Blood has no nationality.”

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the concept of a “pure nation” is permeating our streets and courtyards through the subcultures of skinheads and mobs of the 1970s, reaping their share of Hitler’s gleanings. One way or another, we are all the products of a mixture of different genes; but genes, as depicted in the movie Gattaca, are not a factor that determines the rest of our lives. Much more depends on external factors, proper education and, in particular, our own wills. We should protect our traditions and national culture instead of forbidding an ash-haired girl to start a family with a Brazilian who is resolved to stay in Lithuania in pursuit of love.

Nations cannot be conserved as they resemble continuously evolving unicellular organisms: they mutate, change, vanish, and separate into two similar but different particles. Looking through the time prism, this interplay of influences is fascinating. Let us not embrace an artificial history, for fate tends to play tricks on us. Furthermore, the “diversity” Nationia claims to value will never bloom if it is root-bound by the constraints of failed nationalism. The result would be too many people thinking only within the restrictive limits of the same national pattern.

National identity is important; let us not forget the great Lithuanian interwar philosophers, including Maceina, Girnius, and Šalkauskis, who never sought to sacrifice an individual’s freedoms for the prosperity of a nation or the unity of the state.

Finally, and quite patriotically, I am certain that the Lithuanian nation is prudent enough to sift through the multitude of nationalistic concepts and choose the most rational and morally-correct way.

 

Mr. Skarolskis is a young Lithuanian columnist. A previous version of this article appeared in the iconic though now defunct Atgimimas, as well as the Lithuania Tribune.

Gnostic Love in Tristan und Ysolde

Last weekend my wife and I went with another couple to see Wagner’s Tristan und Ysolde. This opera is in many ways the quintessential modern re-telling of the medieval tale of two doomed lovers, vexed by duty, misunderstanding, and jealousy, and toiling under a magical enchantment.

The medieval legend, as told by Malory, is straightforwardly melodramatic. As the earnest of a peace treaty, the Lady Iseult of Ireland is to marry King Mark of Cornwall. Mark’s nephew and knight, Sir Tristram, is given the task of escorting Iseult across the Irish Sea in safe passage to Mark. Iseult bitterly hates Tristram, since she alone knows that he is responsible for the death of her brother in a contest of arms. While on the ship, the two enemies mistakenly drink a love-philtre intended to cement the union of Mark and Iseult, with tragic consequences. Eventually Tristram is discovered in Iseult’s bedchamber and slain by a jealous Mark, and Iseult, overcome by grief, falls down dead over Tristram’s body.

Wagner raises the story to a higher degree of tragedy. Fate plays a much larger role in Tristan and Ysolde’s downfall, especially since Mark eventually relents and releases the lovers to be together. As in any good tragedy, this news comes to the lovers too late, since Tristan is already dead, but it would not have made a difference. The love of Wagner’s Tristan and Ysolde is not the natural affection of spouses, nor even the star-crossed passion of ill-fated lovers, but a particular kind of fatal enchantment.

Ysolde’s Revenge

In the early part of the opera, Ysolde tells her maid Branganë of her hatred for Tristan, how as an enemy of her people Tristan came to her under an assumed name for healing after a battle, and how she discovered through the notch in his sword that he was the killer of her betrothed. Nevertheless, she did not exact revenge on him or reveal his identity to her relatives. This strays not too far from the medieval legend, in which Iseult begins to love Tristan against her will.

In Wagner’s telling, Ysolde’s mother, a renowned sorceress, has prepared various potions for her use: some for healing, one for undying love, and one for death and oblivion. Ysolde tells Branganë that she will drink the death-draught with Tristan, and so avenge both her love and her honor, which was compromised when she refrained from killing him. Branganë pleads with her not to do this, and instead of the death-draught, gives them the love-philtre to drink. Tristan, suspecting foul play, drinks it for the sake of honor, and is confirmed in his suspicions when Ysolde snatches the half-drunk cup and finishes it, exulting that she has atoned for both her lover’s death and her own dishonor.

The Love-Philtre

As the potion takes effect, both expecting to meet death, they realize that they have come under a spell more subtle but no less awful. They become possessed of a heedless, consuming passion for one another. The irony of the “love-draught” is that the “love” it instills is identified with death. Tristan comes to see himself as fated for death; the love between him and Ysolde is the love of a “death-devoted heart.” In the love scene in Act II, Tristan curses “daylight’s lies,” singing that he is a child of the night. Not the moonlit night of romance, though, but the black night that is the opposite of day; the absence of being and personality; nothingness. The love-philtre makes him reject the real world in favor of a spiritual void in which, somehow, everything about him and Ysolde is obliterated except for their transcendent “love.” Ysolde at first protests, but by the end of the duet she too is devoted to this eternal love that is an absence of personality.

In this way, Ysolde’s hatred of Tristan and of herself, the doom of death she planned to carry out, is fulfilled in a more terrible way than she imagined, as the lovers renounce life and earthly happiness in favor of death. Wagner himself called this duet “Liebestod” or “love-death,” although most apply this term to Ysolde’s final aria, which Wagner himself, fittingly, called “Transfiguration.”

Gnostic Love

This idea of a disembodied spiritual “love” clearly fits the Gnostic mold. Gnosticism teaches that people are fragments of the Divine Spirit that have been imprisoned in the “evil” material world. Gnostics try to escape the influence of the body and all other aspects of the material world, to become once again pure “spirit.” This directly contradicts the Biblical tradition in which human beings are a unity of body and spirit, created to live in the physical world as their natural home. Christianity adds to this the belief that the son of God took on the nature of humankind. Many early Christian heretics were Gnostics who attempted to deny, in some way or another, that Jesus was indeed fully human and fully divine, because they thought that for God to be truly incarnate would diminish the glory of the Divine.

The Christian and Western understanding of love and marriage stems from the knowledge of human beings as rightly incarnate souls. Human marriage is a “one flesh” union encompassing souls and bodies, and integrating a couple within the world through children and family ties. By contrast, the ‘love’ that Tristan and Ysolde experience as a result of the enchantment is strongly gnostic in its character, demanding total separation from the world and abandonment of the lovers’ own physical existence and individual personalities. But I think it would be wrong to say that Wagner is unreservedly advocating this kind of love.

It is shown throughout the opera that Tristan and Ysolde are both psychologically troubled. Tristan’s death-fixation seems to be the result of being born an orphan. He feels that he has been marked by death from the beginning. This seems very Freudian, although it predates Freud. Ysolde also explicitly embraces death in her morbid hatred of Tristan, even before they drink the love-philtre. To what extent did the potion cause this gnostic equivocation between love and death, and to what extent was it the result of the lovers’ unresolved neuroses?

Surrealist painting "Tristram and Isolde" by Salvador Dali
Salvador Dali, “Tristram and Isolde” (1944)

Fatal Passion in Context

The other characters in the opera are normals, apparently designed to offset the morbidity of the lovers. Branganë, Ysolde’s maid, and Kurwenal, Tristan’s bodyguard, typify common sense and conventional notions about life and love. When Ysolde orders her to pour the death-draught, Branganë substitutes the love-philtre instead, presumably out of a belief that even a dangerous, inconvenient, forbidden love is better than death. For Tristan and Ysolde, though, love and death are precisely the same thing. Branganë operates in the mode of melodrama suggested by the medieval legend, while Ysolde is seeing things in an opposite light. In Act II, Branganë reasonably fears a trap and urges Ysolde not to signal Tristan to come to her chamber, while Ysolde recklessly extinguishes the warning torch. As the lovers sing of love and death, Branganë’s voice breaks in, warning of the dawn and the return of the king: “Take care! Take care!” Wagner’s musical contrast between the lovers and the maidservant is breathtakingly sublime, as the music perfectly reflects the contrast between the opposite worldviews.

Similarly, Kurwenal acts out the conventions of the faithful friend. While in Act I Tristan retreats in a mist of doubt and doom, Kurwenal jauntily boasts of his master’s prowess to Branganë, inflaming Ysolde’s wrath. In Act III, Kurwenal carries the wounded Tristan back to his ancestral home and nurses him, summoning Ysolde to come and work her healing arts. Tristan, though, still “death-devoted,” ruins his servant’s hopes. When he sees Ysolde’s ship landing he rips off his bandages and dies just as she arrives, achieving (as he believes) the unity of love and death.

Finally, King Marke, the jealous, churlish villain of the medieval legend, is transformed in Wagner’s rendering into a truly noble and sympathetic character. He is deeply grieved by Tristan’s betrayal in Act II, yet refrains from violence. Instead, Tristan is betrayed and stabbed by Melot, an envious friend who Wagner seems to have invented just for the purpose. Marke, by contrast, goes so far as to pardon Tristan and Ysolde in the final act, releasing them to be together (although Tristan already lies dead). Marke’s brief aria would place the opera in the sublime realm of classical tragedy, and in a conventional opera he or the chorus would have the final word. Here, though, Ysolde steals the final scene. Still under the influence of the love-philtre, she now recapitulates the themes of the love-duet and ends in a triumphant musical climax, joining Tristan in death as the curtain falls.

How to Listen to Tristan und Ysolde

When experiencing this opera, it is a good idea to be aware of the use of leitmotifs, tunes and musical phrases which reference specific ideas. Wagner uses leitmotifs to great effect in Tristan, achieving a unity of music, words, and ideas. Leitmotifs allow Wagner to shade the sung text with meanings beyond those expressed in words, and create subtle or even bold effects of foreshadowing and fate. For instance, the motif for death appears when Ysolde is singing of the love-philtre, reminding the listener that the distinction between the two potions is less clear than it might seem.