Naming the Nameless

Epistemic status: political, opinionated, personal, all the typical caveats for controversial posts.

I was talking with a libertarian friend of mine the other day about my growing discomfort with the political culture in the Bay Area, and he asked why I didn’t just move.

It’s a good question.  Peter Thiel just moved to L.A., citing the left-wing San Francisco culture as his reason.

But I like living in the Bay, and I don’t plan to go anywhere in the near future. I could have said that I’m here for the tech industry, or here because my friends are, or any number of superficially “practical” reasons, but they didn’t feel like my real motivation.

What I actually gave as the reason I stay was… aesthetics.

Wait, what?

Let’s Talk About Design

I’m not a designer, so I probably don’t have the correct vocabulary to express what I see.  Please bear with me, while I use simple and ignorant language; if any of my readers have a more sophisticated understanding, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Stuff that’s marketed to Bay Area bourgeois bohemians has a coherent appearance.  You see it in websites that are all smooth scrolling and gradients and minimalism — see the sample websites on Squarespace, for instance.  You see it in the product design on the labels and menus of cafes and juice bars and coffee shops — The Plant Cafe is a good example.  You see it in the almost-identical, smoothly minimalist layouts of every tech-startup office.

Professional designers may be getting bored of this “light-contrast, minimalist elegance” or “objectively beautiful, but mostly unremarkable, templates”, and are trying out more deliberately jarring styles like Brutalism.

But for your typical consumer, the generic California/BoBo style works fine.  It signals elegance, which means, more or less, that it’s designed for educated, high-Openness, upper-middle-class, urban people.  When I enter a space or a website with this aesthetic, or buy a product with this branding, it’s shorthand for “Ahhhh, this place is run by competent professionals who know how to give me a pleasant experience. I will not feel harried or inconvenienced or confused here; I will be well taken care of.  I will easily be able to slot my existing behavior patterns into the implicit “rules” of how to use and navigate this place or device or website.”

Apple products are, of course, the archetype of this kind of “good” design.  Smooth, urbane, almost childishly easy to use.  Most computers are still PCs; office workers, older people, hardcore programmers and gamers, and the price-conscious still go for PCs.  It’s among the style-conscious (who skew affluent, educated, aesthetically/socially sensitive, and slightly more female than male) that Macs are universal.  When I asked a Marine from Texas what kind of computer he used, he scoffed, Do I look like a Mac guy?

Let’s look at one of my favorite things to buy, GT’s Kombucha.

This is pretty much the most BoBo thing in the world. It makes a nod to Buddhism (“Enlightened”, the mandala-like radially symmetric logo), psychedelia (the rainbow label), Human Potential Movement-ish self-improvement (“SYNERGY” and “renew, rebalance, rebuild, reclaim, rekindle, recharge”) and environmentalism (“organic”).  But the design is simple and clean enough to seem like a modern company run by professionals.

In this case, it’s not just a pretty label: the probiotics in fermented foods like kombucha are probably good for you, kombucha is lower in sugar than juice but pleasantly tangy and fizzy, and in my experience it’s uncannily good at settling an upset stomach.  But the branding is a big part of what makes it delightful.  And, I’m almost embarrassed to say, being able to buy kombucha at the nearest drugstore is a non-negligible part of why I like living in this neighborhood.

Style-Blindness

I have a friend who’s very good at digging up evidence of crime and scam artistry.  It’s part hobby, part crusade; give her a public figure and she can investigate with great speed and accuracy what kinds of shady dealings he’s been involved with.

Once, she showed me some companies she had proved were fraudulent, and my first reaction was “I could have told you that in seconds; their web design looks scammy.”

Of course, it’s not really the same thing. She had hard evidence; I only had an intuition, and intuition can be wrong.

But, for instance, this penis enlargement website just looks noisy. It’s jam-packed with content, it’s screaming about sales and deals, there’s a bright red “Buy Now” button with a ticking countdown clock.  It’s not classy.  Even if you didn’t know anything about the product, you could see that it’s being packaged (pun intended) much differently than this website selling relationship workshops.

But my friend, like a lot of nerds, couldn’t see that difference in branding at a glance. She couldn’t see the difference in connotations that different aesthetic choices evoke.  She was almost completely style-blind.

Some people claim that aesthetics don’t mean anything, and are very resistant to the idea that they could.  After all, aesthetic preferences are very individual. Chinese opera sounds beautiful to people raised with it, and discordant to the untrained Western ear.

So, claim the skeptics, all descriptions of what aesthetic choices “mean” are basically pseudoscience. When design experts tell us that red evokes passion and blue evokes calm, they’re using associative thinking, which is no more fact-based than the Four Elements or the five colors in Magic: The Gathering.

Clustering things based on associations and connotations is risky.  It’s going to differ from individual to individual, and even more from culture to culture.  It’s easy to take intuitive leaps for granted and quickly get to the point where people are talking past each other.  So it’s safer just not to talk about what aesthetics connote, right?

To my view, the skeptics have a good point, but they’re too epistemically conservative. There’s obviously signal being carried through aesthetics.  Colors don’t have intrinsic meanings, of course, but they do have shared connotations within a culture.

Note that the M:TG color “meanings” and the design/marketing color “meanings” are very similar — not because everyone is tapping into some magical collective unconscious, but because Magic is a game designed in contemporary America, by designers who probably share the same color associations as the designers of websites and product labels.

When Pantone says their 2018 color of the year, Ultra Violet, “communicates originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking”, they’re not just making up random nonsense.  Pretty much any present-day English-language “color meaning” summary for designers or marketers will associate purple with something like creativity or imagination or spirituality. I don’t know where this meme comes from originally, but it’s certainly not unique to Pantone or chosen at random.

Our physical environment is built primarily by corporations which employ designers.  Those designers draw inspiration from artistic or creative subcultures. Design has a life cycle in which it starts as an original aesthetic trope being used by some individual artist, to being imitated by other artists, to becoming trendy, to becoming ubiquitous.  Tastemakers may be a tiny minority of the population, aesthetics may not be a big deal for everyone, but everything manmade you see around you has its origins in someone obsessed with aesthetics.  Designers “rule” our visual world in the same way writers “rule” our verbal world, in the same way that “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”  In this sense, aesthetics very much mean things, and you have to look to their origins and contexts to understand what they mean.

This essay, worth reading in full, calls the process “subcultural sublimation” and tracks how Pantone’s 2016 colors, Rose Quartz and Serenity, drew inspiration from seapunk (a musical subgenre with an online visual aesthetic). Seapunk aesthetics propagated through fashion blogs, the NYT style section, and pop stars’ music videos, all the way to the Pantone Institute, which sets the tone for fashions in mainstream commercial design. The popularity of pastels began with feminist artists interrogating softness and femininity, propagated through Tumblr “aesthetic” blogs, and likewise eventually reached Pantone. Aesthetic tropes are “commodified” over time; they drift from artistic or countercultural milieux towards corporate branding.

Mostly implicit in the article, but worth mentioning, is that commercial design ultimately borrows from creatives who are politically opposed to business and resent this commercial appropriation.  More on that later.

If you’re style-blind, you’ll look at Rose Quartz and Serenity and say “they’re just colors! they don’t mean anything! all this cultural criticism is just pretentious noise!”  If you’re mildly style-sensitive, like myself, you’ll notice that the colors seem Tumblresque, and you’ll note that Pantone’s description makes a nod to “gender blur” and “societal movements toward gender equality and fluidity”.  If you’re actually an expert, like the author of the article, you can concretely trace where the popularity of that color scheme came from.

“Subcultural sublimation” runs on ordinary, non-magical cause and effect, the propagation of memes from their originators towards mass popularity.  It can be understood and analyzed.  You can isolate where aesthetic tropes come from, why they’re used, what their creators believe, and what channels govern their imitation and spread — and that tells you something about their “meaning” that’s not purely subjective.

Politics and Aesthetics

Artists tend to be on the political left; arts and media occupations are among the most heavily weighted towards Democrats over Republicans.

It’s not clear to me why. Maybe it’s a temperamental thing — high openness to experience drives both an interest in aesthetics and a preference for left or liberal politics.  Maybe it’s explained by education, which both inculcates interest in the arts and left politics.  Regardless of cause, it’s a real and important phenomenon.  And it’s a problem for anyone who’s not on the left, as Rod Dreher, the original CrunchyCon, pointed out years ago.

Beauty matters to people. So does health and emotional wellbeing. So does everyday kindness.  Living well, in other words. Quality of life.  You can’t cede all of that to the opposing political team without losing something valuable.

Rod Dreher points out that, while, say, organic vegetables are coded liberal, they also taste better and are healthier than processed food.  Yet conservatives often have a knee-jerk condemnation of anything “green” or “pretentious”, which means they’re boxed into being cultural philistines who miss out on flavor and beauty and health.

“It’s a PR disaster for the Right to allow discussions of fun and beauty and poetry and nature to be owned by the Left,” says a New York publishing executive and closet conservative. “The right wing just looks unappealing. Do they not understand this?” 

If you like the arts, if you’re temperamentally high-Openness and aesthetically sensitive, you’re going to be drawn to coastal cities and educated social groups, and those environments tend to skew left-wing. It’s hard to leave without giving up something intangible that’s hard to convey to people who don’t share your sensibility.

Dreher, a conservative Catholic who values tradition, can with some justice argue that beauty and art properly belong to his culture; after all, it was Catholics who built the cathedral of Chartres.

Libertarians are, if anything, in a tougher position, because we’re not traditionalists, and because strong individualism runs counter to even being able to talk about shared cultural sensibilities.  Ask a libertarian “Why don’t we have any good songs about our values?” and there’s a good chance that you’ll get the response “Ew, who’d want one?  That’s too collectivist for me.”

But the result is that you’re living in an aesthetic environment that’s largely created by your ideological opponents, and subjected to constant subliminal messaging that your values are uncool. This causes an evaporative cooling effect where the only people willing to express libertarian views are “style-blind” and sometimes even socially blind, people who do not perceive that they are being mocked or that their aesthetic signaling is clumsy.

It’s hard to argue to a skeptic why this even matters. Why care about aesthetics and culture? What do you care what other people think?  Surely an independent-minded person would simply refuse to succumb to social pressure — and the cultural connotations of aesthetics are inherently relative to social context, so maybe the best way to keep your independence is to choose style-blindness as a cognitive strategy.  What you can’t see, you can’t be manipulated by!

But I think it’s unvirtuous to choose blindness or ignorance. And it’s also ineffective. What you can’t see can sneak up behind you.  People who think they’re immune to social pressure get manipulated all the time.

Scott Alexander is honest enough to admit that it happens to him:

Sometimes I can almost feel this happening. First I believe something is true, and say so. Then I realize it’s considered low-status and cringeworthy. Then I make a principled decision to avoid saying it – or say it only in a very careful way – in order to protect my reputation and ability to participate in society. Then when other people say it, I start looking down on them for being bad at public relations. Then I start looking down on them just for being low-status or cringeworthy. Finally the idea of “low-status” and “bad and wrong” have merged so fully in my mind that the idea seems terrible and ridiculous to me, and I only remember it’s true if I force myself to explicitly consider the question. And even then, it’s in a condescending way, where I feel like the people who say it’s true deserve low status for not being smart enough to remember not to say it. This is endemic, and I try to quash it when I notice it, but I don’t know how many times it’s slipped my notice all the way to the point where I can no longer remember the truth of the original statement.

Now, I could say “just don’t do that, then” — but Scott of 2009 would have also said he believed in being independent and rational and not succumbing to social pressure.  Good intentions aren’t enough.

And I’m seeing people in roughly my demographic going silent or submitting to pressure to conform, and it’s worrisome.

I think it’s much better to try to make the implicit explicit, to bring cultural dynamics into the light and understand how they work, rather than to hide from them.

Defensive Postures

There are a number of defensive strategies people (of varying political views) adopt against the cultural dominance of the left.

Reaction is what, say, Ann Coulter does, or Breitbart.com, or the Donald Trump campaign.  It’s defiantly anti- progressive, rejecting the “mainstream media” and “coastal elite” tastemakers.  It’s happy to be perceived as tacky and rude.

The problem with reaction is that it has no positive vision.  It’s just “the opposite of what my opponents want.”  It’s uncreative and it can easily descend into spitefulness.

Respectability politics is a different tactic, and, in this context, usually takes the form of (not very credible) claims to be apolitical.  Early forms of this include “Keep Your Identity Small” or “Politics is the Mind-Killer.”  By declaring the importance of not taking sides, you’re already asserting that you’re not wholly on one side; a progressive can reasonably infer that any avowedly “apolitical” person disagrees with them at least somewhere.

Claims of aloofness from politics have always, correctly, been identified as evidence of covert dissent from “good” politics: “formalism” was a political offense in Soviet Russia.  There are many thinkpieces like this one observing (rightly) that Silicon Valley culture is nominally apolitical but implicitly capitalist.

And then you see obviously defensive moves by the tech industry to distance itself from that allegation, like YCombinator’s announcement of its New Cities  project:

Just to get ahead of the inevitable associations: We want to build cities for all humans – for tech and non-tech people. We’re not interested in building “crazy libertarian utopias for techies.”

Once you have to defend against a stereotype, you’re already losing the messaging war.  As with reaction, there’s no positive vision, only the frantic assurance that you’re not really the bad guy.

Cooptation doesn’t seem to be that popular, and might be underrated.

It’s a kind of judo where you claim to be the true exemplar of the goal your opponents want.  They hate capitalism?  Well, you note that what most people think of when they hear that word is crony capitalism, which is indeed terrible, and that you are bitterly opposed to the system in which unfair legal privileges give vast wealth to a few and deprive everyone else.  C4SS does this, quite well in my opinion, but hardly anyone outside of libertarian-world has heard of them.

It’s still not fundamentally creative, though. You’re borrowing your opponents’ tropes and aesthetics, not building your own.  And if you get too good at it, you end up being easily confused for believing things that you don’t actually believe.

The Opposite of Defensiveness

One of the things I like best about Ayn Rand is that she staked out aesthetic and cultural territory without resorting to any of these defense mechanisms.  She actually made art that was fundamentally in a different style than that of the cultural establishment.  Of course, this left her vulnerable to the allegation that it was bad art — there are 52 million Google results for “ayn rand bad art.”

But most of the common criticisms — of black-and-white thinking, didacticism, utopian optimism, overly heroic characters, and so on — are based on implicit presumptions about the nature of life and the role of art which she explained (or, at least, began to explain) why she did not share.  She brought the dissent into the light, into explicit discourse.

If you take something about yourself that’s “cringeworthy” and, instead of cringing yourself, try to look at why it’s cringeworthy, what that’s made of, and dialogue honestly with the perspective that disagrees with you — then there is, in a sense, nothing to fear.

There’s an “elucidating” move that I’m trying to point out here, where instead of defending against an allegation, you say “let’s back up a second” and bring the entire situation into view.  It’s what double crux is about — “hey, let’s find out what even is the disagreement between us.”  Double crux is hard enough with arguments, and here I’m trying to advocate something like double-cruxing aesthetic preferences, which sounds absurdly ambitious.  But: imagine if we could talk about why things seem beautiful and appealing, or ugly and unappealing.  Where do these preferences come from, in a causal sense? Do we still endorse them when we know their origins?  What happens when we bring tacit things into consciousness, when we talk carefully about what aesthetics evoke in us, and how that might be the same or different from person to person?

Unless you can think about how cultural messaging works, you’re going to be a mere consumer of culture, drifting in whatever direction the current takes you.

The Arts and Imitation

Let’s go back for a moment to subcultural sublimation.

Artistic trends have a life cycle, of creation, expansion, and destruction, or more specifically, the artist, the marketer, and the critic.  First, the artist creates a new thing. Then, a succession of tastemakers and creatives imitate that thing and scale it up, from a subcultural scene to mass-market production.  Finally, the critic notices that it’s become commoditized (in the literal economic sense: if it’s exactly the same everywhere and anyone can copy it, its price goes to zero) and deflates the hype.

This isn’t specific to the arts, of course.  Companies are created, expand, and eventually succumb to competition.  Empires are founded, expand, and succumb to invaders. It’s a human-organization pattern.

But expansion in particular is enabled by mechanical reproduction processes dating to the Industrial Revolution.  We can systematize “scaling up” much easier and faster than pre-industrial peoples could.

Commerce is ancient — in different times and places, trade has been more free or less so, and it became somewhat more free in the West with the introduction of classical liberalism and economic theory at the end of the 18th century, but trade itself is as old as the first anatomically modern humans, living 300,000 years ago.

Invention is ancient — the Greeks had it, including more advanced science than modern stereotypes would assume. Archimedes probably knew calculus.

What’s modern is scaling-up, the ability to make many copies of things, from physical objects to social systems.  That’s what allows for mass culture.  That’s what allows startups to grow exponentially.  For the past two hundred years or so, we’ve been living in an era where the expander of the reach of a creation is more powerful than ever.

Expanders sometimes like to present themselves as creators, but they’re not.  The creator makes the first prototype, the original. No scale at all. “Zero to one.”  In fact, creators often resent expanders for taking credit for their work or diluting it for the mass audience.  This is why seapunk artists were frustrated at being imitated in music videos:

also, why aren’t y’all frustrated AT ALL at the rihanna thing? that performance marked the commodification of an aesthetic movement…— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)

…which means all taste-makers have to start all over. it’s a lot of work. clearly ur not doing shit but consuming if ur not peeved by this— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)

“wow amazing rihanna performance i love seeing my tumblr on SNL” why? that Aesthetic served as an exclusive binder for URL counterculture…— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)

…tomorrow, when it enters Phase Three and Forever 21 puts a price tag on it, it will no longer be exclusive. its purpose is gone.— Bebe Zeva (@BebeZeva)

My own addition to the pile of theories on “why don’t creative professionals like capitalism?” is that creators feel defrauded by expanders, and the core of modern capitalism is superpowered expanders.  Expanders capture most of the economic value and social credit from scaling up things originated by creators.  Expanders are sociopaths, in the “geeks, mops, and sociopaths” trichotomy.

And we don’t really have good tools for fairly compensating people for intellectual originality.  Intellectual property law is a kludge, with a lot of problems.  Creators don’t really know how to extract “fair market value” for ideas, possibly because they’re intrinsically motivated to create them and the kind of “payment” they want is more like appreciation or kindred-spirit-ness than money.  Standard startup ideology says that ideas are of low value: “If you go to VC firms with a brilliant idea that you’ll tell them about if they sign a nondisclosure agreement, most will tell you to get lost.  That shows how much a mere idea is worth. The market price is less than the inconvenience of signing an NDA.” That may be true, but you could also interpret it as markets not knowing how to price ideas, in the same way that markets can’t price natural resources until you figure out a way to define property rights over them.

So, whenever you encounter a piece of media — words or images or music or anything representational — no matter how many levels of imitation or expansion it’s been through, you’re still hearing some distant signal from its originator.  And its originator probably feels ripped off and undervalued.  When you go looking for good art, you’re looking for art that’s closer to its creative source, and that means you’ll hear in it the voice of the frustrated creator.

In a sense it’s inherently paradoxical to enjoy something like GT’s Kombucha — it’s a product produced by a process (scaling-up) which the hippies who inspired its aesthetic would have vehemently opposed.  To like it knowledgeably is to partly dislike it.

I think there may be some kind of necessary project in the vicinity of “making amends between creators and expanders” that would be required for creative work not to have the dynamic where scaling up is seen as selling out.  I think scaling-up is probably net good — it allows more people to have nicer things.  But there may well be legitimate grievances with it that deserve to be addressed.  That’s another one of those cases where dialogue and making the implicit explicit would be really helpful.

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