There’s goblincore or crowcore (collections of weird shiny trinkets), meadowcore (pretty pictures of meadows), fairycore (meadowcore but with mushrooms and magic), and Light Academia (Dark Academia, but girlier and in the summer). These cute little slideshows aren’t just an escape from the Bad Internet, they’re a reminder that another kind of life is possible. TikTok is (rightfully) in the news for its political importance right now, but whenever a post from aesthetic TikTok pops up on my feed, I’ll always stop and watch.
I’m not a young guy anymore, but I like to use the internet as if I were a member of Gen Z. Or at least I like to think I do. This isn’t because I’m grasping on to my waning sense of youth because of my inability to confront my own mortality; I’ve always longed for “the peace of the tomb” that Simone de Beauvoir rudely reminds us we will never know while we are alive in the Ethics of Ambiguity. Rather, I try to use the internet like the youths for two specific reasons:
- It’s my job. My first boss told me that the blessing and the curse of being a brand strategist is that you never get to get old, at least if you want to be good at it.
- A combination my intellectual curiosity and anxiety demands that I have a firm grasp on the Zeitgeist at all times so that I understand cultural landscape that I’m inhabiting.
But no matter how young I feel, there are certain phenomena that will always puzzle me. The obsession with ‘aesthetic’ among young people is one of them. Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand using aesthetics as a way to express identity. I was a teenage punk, after all. I had the Crass t-shirts and steel-toed boots and the Dickies. But things have changed a lot on this front since the mid 90s. I wrote about this in a previous essay on Cottagecore and the myth of the frontier, but I wanted to explore it from a different angle in order to help us all understand why the media through which we communicate have turned us all into people who fundamentally engage the world through the lens of the aesthetic.
In order to understand what I mean, I’ve got a bit of unpacking to do.
Let’s start with ‘aesthetic.’ This term is used in modern internet parlance to describe a look and feel, or maybe even a vibe. There isn’t anything particularly controversial about this insofar as aesthetics has always described things that we encounter with our senses. In the case of ‘aesthetic TikTok,’ these different looks and feels are ways of expressing identity. And this is where the slippage begins for us old folks. We have an expectation that any time we see an aesthetic as way to express to identity that there is a set of beliefs and values that sit behind the back of the aesthetic. The fact that I grew up calling people posers is evidence of this, as a poser is someone who adopts an aesthetic without being committed to the values the aesthetic is supposed to represent. So if I saw you dressed like a punk in 2001, but heard you advocating for foreign wars, you were going to get hit with the poser stick.
In retrospect, the reason why a young Adam would get riled up about someone ‘posing’ in the way just described is because it felt like I was being duped. And the more people who were posing, the less sure I could be that the way I was telegraphing my self-understanding through my appearance was being understood as intended. We can never forget that this longing — the desire for others to see or understand us as we wish to be seen or understood — lies at the heart of all human interaction. The ability to communicate with one another is based on an unstated belief that we have a shared well of meaning that undergirds the words and gestures we use to communicate. Aesthetic presentation of identity has historically functioned exactly like language. I put on a Subhumans t-shirt, I expect that this marks me as a member of a specific subculture and I also expect that others — or at least those in the know — will then understand my values and beliefs at a glance.
This has all changed. At times I lament the change. At other times, I simply find it fascinating — and worthy of exploration. If you’re unclear what I mean, all you need to consider is the adoption of punk and metal aesthetics in pop culture in the last few years. This has waned a bit, to be sure, but there was a time when it was conceivable that you could see a Kardashian (or a Jenner) wearing a Slayer t-shirt. Not only was it conceivable, but it was quite common. The old folks got super mad, of course, insisting that people who didn’t listen to these bands or share certain sets of values and beliefs, but still wore their t-shirts, were posers and cheapening identity positions that the old folks held dear.
But the young folks didn’t give a shit and it’s both important, and pretty straightforward, to understand why. The aesthetic and the ethical (to use the latter term in Kierkegaard’s sense as a set of principled commitments that orient your life) have become completely separated from one another. Another way to put this is that signifiers are just floating now, they’re no longer attached to signified content in a stable manner. This has created a world where all signifiers are up for grabs. I can take up any piece of clothing, any physical artifact traditionally associated with a specific identity position and recontextualize it however I see fit. Crass t-shirts (this might be a bad example, but let’s pretend) no longer signify far-left politics and a love for a very specific strain of punk and hardcore; I can pair a Feeding of the 5000 t-shirt with some expensive denim, a leather jacket, and some Cartier sunglasses and get it popping in Beverly Hills right now if I choose to.
(A real life example of this: I was DJing at a club in Portland 5 or 6 years ago at an 80s night. I was playing Digital by Joy Division. A guy in a Joy Division “Unknown Pleasures” t-shirt came up to me, gave me thumbs down and told me to put on something better. When I told him, “dude, this is Joy Division — like your t-shirt,” he clearly didn’t know what I was talking about. He wandered off confused. I can only conclude that he thought it was a brand.)
How and why did this change in how we communicate via aesthetics happen?
I am not even going to pretend that I have all the answers to this question, but I think there are two major factors that I can confidently identify.
First, consumer culture. Starting in the 90s, historically underground aesthetics went on sale at the mall, unmooring those aesthetics from the cultures they were traditionally attached to. All that is solid melts into air, you know the routine: the more everything becomes commodified and decontextualized, the less anything *means* on its own terms. It’s all grist for the consumer mill — and it’s also grist for the individual to piece together as they see fit in order to express themselves. The meaning of an aesthetic is then established by its immediate context — who’s wearing it, what are they wearing it with, where are they wearing it, etc. — rather than by that previously all-powerful shared well of meaning.
Second, the internet. To quote something that I make reference to far too often, here’s a bit from Age of Earthquakes, Douglas Coupland, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Shumon Basar’s 2015 foray into digital culture, “We now know that brain neurons which fire together also wire themselves together biologically. If you’ve been online for more than a few years, congratulations: your 20th century linear mind has been rewired into a 21st century lattice. Go with it!” The internet is driven by hyperlinks. One thing connects to another, which connects to another, which connects to another, and each of those connections connect to a near infinite number of other connections. But the movement between them is not linear, it’s rhizomatic. But unlike some rhizomes, the shape of a lattice driven by hyperlinks also fundamentally lacks depth. Nothing is rooted anywhere in particular. Going down a rabbit hole doesn’t mean that you’re getting to the foundation of an issue, it means you’re pursuing the lattice-shaped network through a random maze of surfaces. Now this isn’t to say you cannot go deep on a topic, it just means that in order to do so, you have to behave contrary to the governing logic of the system that you’re exploring. This is unlikely to happen insofar as living in a world structured as a randomized maze of surfaces will structure your cognition in a similar manner — and social media has only amplified this phenomenon.
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Content produced for an algorithmically governed delivery system must primarily accommodate the algorithms; it can only express what the algorithms recognize. Every TikTok video, regardless of its surface-level content, ultimately must say the same thing: “an algorithm picked this for you.” You are left to interpret what that says about you; what the post says about itself doesn’t really matter. When you enjoy content on your TikTok feed, you are actually just enjoying your own taste as the platform has constituted it for you; the creativity or ingenuity of the content creators becomes a reflection of your own latent creativity — the algorithm basically implies that you called it forth. It exists so that you can know yourself; you create yourself by watching more. And you thereby learn how to make content for the platform that reflects that self-creation. You go cottagecore.
— Rob Horning
I spent a significant chunk of time earlier talking about how expressions of identity are like any other piece of communication — we express ourselves in the world in a way that we want to be seen and hope that others recognize us as such. When the medium through which we did that was exclusively face-to-face, I believe that people assumed that aesthetic presentation generally signified ethical depth of some variety or another. But as the medium has shifted to online spaces that are fundamentally image-based, that assumption or even expectation of depth has disappeared. Why would a medium that is by definition all surface encourage behaving in a way that implied or assumed depth below that surface? But even in a fundamentally superficial medium of communication, people still want to be recognized. We want to be seen. We want to be acknowledged. We probably want to be liked. This is still after all, the only way that we have to establish identity as fundamentally social creatures.
Establishing identity in a space like TikTok, then, requires that you play by the medium’s rules. Those rules were artfully described by Rob Horning in the quote above. TikTok is famous for the ability of its algorithm to cater to individual users. It’s shocking just how quickly the app will start showing you content that you like and eliminate things that aren’t of interest from your feed. To that end, TikTok functions as a mirror of your own interests and passions, but only insofar as those passions and interests were already present in your feed in the first place. Your feed is a mirror, but it’s one that builds a reflection for you out of a limited array of options that the algorithm chose to show you in the first place. This is what Horning means when he says “when you enjoy content on your TikTok feed, you are actually just enjoying your own taste as the platform has constituted it for you.”
Having yourself reflected back to you by an app is nice. Having others affirm you via the app is even better. TikTok trains its users about what kinds of content are most likely to elicit engagement from others, thereby ending up on other people’s feeds. It’s not surprising that ‘aesthetic TikTok’ would become such a huge component of the platform. Take a medium of surfaces, one that is defined by aesthetics by necessity, and couple that together with a generation of people who have been trained to experience all the stuff of the world as endlessly malleable floating signifiers, and you get a land of aesthetics. What do these aesthetics mean? What values or beliefs do they convey? These are the wrong questions to ask. They don’t mean anything and they don’t convey anything in particular either — at least nothing beyond whatever ambient meaning collections of weird shiny trinkets or pretty pictures of meadows (whether there’s mushrooms or magic involved, who knows) have in the broad cultural imaginary.
What aesthetics on TikTok communicate, at most is, some semblance of belonging to a group of people who enjoy similar things to you at an aesthetic level. But these aesthetics are designed to be put on and taken off at a moment’s notice, depending on your whims. They’re principally a way of saying, “Here I am!” They are principally costumes. Nothing against costumes on their own terms, but it’s important to reconcile what is actually happening here because it’s easy for an old brain to mistake it and think that they’re looking at pretty large swaths of people with sets of ideological commitments that simply don’t exist.
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Anyone who is excited for the teens… ‘look at them using epic Soviet memes and communist talk,’ that’s like Nigerian child soldiers wearing wedding dresses into battle. It’s just costume, it’s cultural costume. It turns out being online since the age of zero turns your brain into fucking slurry.”
— Matt Christman aka Cushbomb, on TikTok teens.
While I might not think that everyone under 23 has slurry for brains, I think Christman is making an important point. It’s very easy for the old brain to mistake what the new brain is doing. I think what’s happening when we play with identity through aesthetics is a quest for a momentary sense of belonging coupled with an experience of an extremely capitalist understanding of freedom. As the epigram suggested, for many, these aesthetics are a reminder that “another kind of life is possible.” Yet, instead of committing to a set of principles to try to change the world to create that other “kind of life”, we opt to put on and take off costumes as a way to LARP freedom within our existing milieu. Insofar as these aesthetics don’t signify any sets of values, they necessarily drag along and reproduce, unquestioningly, whatever the existing interpretation of the objects in question are within the existing cultural landscape.
Another kind of life is possible, but it requires committing to principles and acting upon them. If you can tie it to a sick aesthetic to that, even better.