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Vaporwave Poetics / Agential Language

Written in



by Vit Van Camp, artworks by Petr Vaškovic

If we accept that music ought to be, in the words of Mark Fisher “the engine of change in culture,”[1] then the last decade seems to herald a crisis of creativity and innovation. Due to music production being intrinsically linked with the technological apparatus of the instrument – from traditional, analog, found object, or digital VST – the 20th century has seen a plethora of music styles emerging as a result of new technological possibilities. Such a linear and accelerating form of development cannot be granted to language which has not exhibited any similar tempo of development. If in the 1950s Brion Gysin found writing to be “50 years behind painting,” the lag of writing in relation to music has been shown to be even more antiquated. And so it remains to this day. In the digitalized world of today where images, tracks, and moving pictures, that is discrete digital parcels holding more data content than text documents, are mechanically reproducible in quantities never before imagined, and at a time when the ‘universe of images’ is indexed in all spheres of life, does textual writing, a quaint and antiquated receptacle for historical thinking, still hold any agency? If yes, than what type of writing may be said to function; what form of writing can be properly considered hyperstitional?
To facilitate a closer look at the potentialities of progressive writing, I would here like to look at the recent audio-visual genre of vaporwave which is formally subject to similar impasses with which writing has been faced for a very long time. It is necessary here to make recourse to Jacques Derrida’s term ‘hauntology’ which readily encapsulates the aesthetic framework within which vaporwave functions. Its iconography is oftentimes one of nostalgia, memory, and a “mourning for a lost future.”[2] The tropes and schemes are ‘haunting’ in the sense that they are spectral, unreal, and always referencing their own previous apparitions, usually citing the cultural tropes of 80s and 90s western cultural milieux. They are infused with a distinct sense of melancholia and function within an economy of the lack.
Of course, it is very difficult to pronounce judgments on that wide plethora of music production spanning the genres of lounge, synthwave, chillwave, or hypnagogic pop, but one may say that a certain segment, what I will here call ‘informed vaporwave’[3] music (like the works of Ramona Xavier, James Ferraro, Oneotherix Point Never, Fatima Al-Quadiri, etc. ) uses a specific, object-conscious iconography (both sonic and visual) observed through the lens of a perennial nostalgia, retrospectively depicting the always-already lost fixations and visions of a previous subjectivity. In this way, these artists attempt to consciously uncover the lack, the fissure in the texture of temporalized, finite living as such. They evoke a sense of nostalgia for a future which never came to pass, making it accessible to the contemporary audience by means of a fitting spectral iconography, haunted with dated ressentiment. However, they consciously work against the self-reflexive cultural milieu of commodified music production whose consumption is predicated upon nostalgia. Many vaporwave artists attempt to détourn in their own way the ‘nostalgic mode’ (that recently developed genre modality which Fredric Jameson was so critical of) traceable in most, if not all, contemporary art production. The value and level of success ascribed to such a gesture remains tenuous.
Where are the overlaps with writing, and may we, in some way, work towards a vaporwave textual poetics?

Spectral language

Language as langue has always been spectral. It has always been a type of artifact colonizing the present from the past. The idea that the insipid act of signification is always-already a form of exhumation, that language is a form of technology inherited from speech’s previous iterations and their subsequent codification in langue (in Lacanian theory associated with the father-function), can be readily illustrated by making recourse to the psychoanalytic item of the ‘name-of-the-father’ – a signifier commensurate with the Symbolic register which prohibits (nom du pére / non du pére), parcels and conditions the speaking subject’s semiotic field. Language as langue, meaning a finite symbolic universe of socially moored semiotic and grammatical relations which only lends itself to syntagmatic rearrangement, may easily be likened to a kaleidoscope – it does not allow the observer access to that which lies beyond the apex, but only prescribes and rearranges the aestheticized screen of projection. The question for a transgressive poetics then seems be (indeed always has been) how to destabilize such a seemingly ubiquitous language-construct, how to make it unpredictable, informative, and how to produce tears and fissures through which to observe the supposed world beyond the kaleidoscope’s tube.

Uncanny Derailments

That which lies beyond the coherent texture of social hauntology is either the sublime, or the uncanny. While the sublime represents a radical rift within a subject’s cognitive repertoire, the uncanny is rather an ambiguous response of de-familiarization. It is, in the words of Freud “that species of frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar,”[4] predicated upon a “compulsion to repeat”[5] It has been the explicit objective of many of the politically left-leaning vaporwave producers to, in some way or fashion, defamiliarize the clichéd audio-visual tropes which have, through years of use, become predictable and thus emptied of their capacity to inform.  Vaporwave producers (such as James Ferraro, Ramona Xavier, INTERNET CLUB, Fatima Al-Quadiri) embrace the uncanny as a source of new informational potential. They often détourn the emptied husks of cultural objects by means of redundant repetition, looping, or deft recontextualization which taps into a shared reservoir of 80s and 90s sonic and visual icons, thus making their audio-visual product seductively ‘personalized’ for the contemporary audience. In a tongue-in cheek gesture, they offer the regurgitated remains of riffs drummed into the collective unconscious of generation X and Y, updating Fredric Jameson’s “nostalgic mode” for the contemporary audiences. Blogger Gareth Leaman sees this “magpie-like plundering” as a form of reaction-formation, as “a desperate shot at creativity in an environment where none seems possible,”[6] and understands vaporwave as an ambivalent form of resistance against postmodernism’s addiction to its own historical past. Adam Harper, in his widely read essay ‘Vaporwave and the Pop-Art Plaza,’ sees the genre as “the music that lubricates Capital” and pinpoints its integral political ambiguity in asking the prescient question: “Is [vaporwave] a critique of capitalism or a capitulation to it? Both and neither.”[7]
However, the question is, to a certain degree void, as these two sensibilities integrally overlap. There is a double movement functioning within the vaporwave aesthetic – taken at face value, the genre simply reproduces and mimics old, homely tropes; the aesthetics of ironic distance, however, make those very same tropes unfamiliar and uncanny for the audience. One cannot exist without the other. The self-conscious retrospection, the exhumation of the naive childhood memories of today’s twenty-, thirty-somethings and their repackaging is part and parcel of vaporwave’s, and indeed any, hauntology.  As Mark Fisher notes, “The word ‘haunt’ and all the derivations thereof may be one of the closest English word [sic] to the German ‘unheimlich’ […]”, and he continues by quoting Freud’s essay on the uncanny, noting that “Just as German usage allows the familiar (das Heimliche, the ‘homely’) to switch to its opposite, the uncanny (das Unheimliche, the ‘unhomely’), so ‘haunt’ signifies both the dwelling place, the domestic scene and that which invades or disturbs it.”[8] There is always an element of the uncanny in any homeliness, as they function in a constant dialectic tension, a sedimented familial complex of attraction and aversion. Punning profusely, Fisher notes that “Home is where the haunt is.” Thus a hauntology is always predicated on a tension between that which is seemingly stable, that which ‘is’ in the classical understanding of ‘ontology’-as-discipline, and that very same ontology being always-already destabilized by the subject’s own, subjective libidinal investment.

Agential Poetics

Perhaps the challenge posed to postmodern art consumption and production is not so much how to retain the penchant taste for the aesthetic sublime in today’s petit bourgeois ideologies bereft of master-narratives and reduced to the superficial YOLO imperative, but rather, how and in what manner to cultivate the tools and modes of remembering, both communal and personal? It is here that the challenge to the future of artistic production is posed, insofar as the dromomaniacal drive towards the ‘new’, a ‘new’ which has always been closely coupled with the capitalist colonial and extractive project (nevermind the structural obfuscations such a reality has been subjected to), has been progressively fading. The political agency of artistic signification has been relegated to secondary importance when compared with the language of law, politics, economics, pedagogy, etc. The magnitude and speed of productivity working through and for the politico-economic systems, those receptacles for the societal surplus spanning vast generations and geographies, is incomparable. Poets have never been the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world,’ much like the TV sports anchor is not the referee. The financial, vectoralist social strata, at the moment looking out and towards the sublime vistas of space colonization, perennial investment hedging and technologically aided socio-political control, have been building the platforms and infrastructure for poets to subsist in for millennia. The naive, reductive narrative of art decoupling itself and transcending the socio-economic imperatives of the utilitarian capitalist machines has been shown to be void. Such a realization can, paradoxically, be liberating.
The choice for contemporary art production (post-noise, post-conceptual, post-internet, post- etc.) then seems either to unapologetically take part in the corporate, hierarchical platforms of the dromocratic, financialized agents of national and  multi-national business, understanding informed entrepreneurship as an art form of its own, or to employ aesthetics in facilitating a  form of both societal and subjective anamnesis (unforgetting) – to conjure up memories indexing a state of relative, albeit specular, homeostasis. With its vapid non-committal politics predicated on soothing the consumers while maximizing profit, the language of marketing bridges, but simultaneously corrupts, both these sensibilities. It is here that the mode of vaporwave poetics can be most easily traced.[9] The topology spanning between Debordian critical détournement and simple business-as-usual is an uneasy one to map out, and Harper’s question whether such a form of vaporwave poetics constitutes “a critique of capitalism or a capitulation to it?” remains unanswered.  Marketing language however constitutes a genre where the homeliness of the commodity intersects with the dynamics of alienation within which the commodity is inscribed. Uncanniness is a disavowed but latently integral part of the marketing complex, and constitutes a genre of text where the vaporwave sensibility can be most readily accessed, mined and, in a certain sense, cultivated.
The spectrality of written language, the paternal imperatives which speak through it and its customarily neurotic recursivity, coupled with its tenuous connection to the material signified/commodity make it natural bedfellows with hyperstitional marketing strategy. The ever expanding body of the documented cultural past is gaining such magnitude, exercising such a force of gravity on the cultural sphere, that an accelerationist poetics outside of the marketing complex becomes less probable by the minute. Likewise, the social reptilian brain – the right hand of capitalism – continues its spiralling advance into the maelstrom of the future. When attempting to carve out a certain amount of social agency within the wider cultural sphere, the only relevant question for the individual artist, whether wordsmith or sound engineer, then seems to be: at this specific juncture in time, what grave does one exhume; which specters does one conjure, and for how much?

This text was prepared and workshopped as part of the Prague Microfestival of 2017. I would thus like to thank all those who have directly or vicariously contributed to it during the course of discussion.


[1] Mark Fisher, ”Revenant Forms: The Meaning of Hauntology,” Internet Archive, 12:10, accessed 28.5.2017<>.
[2] Fisher, “Revenant Forms,” 7:17.
[3] Here ‘informed’ is used in the passive voice, referencing active, outside theorization. It is not necessarily used as a value judgement on the music‘s quality, but rather denotes that segment of Vaporwave music which has been framed critically and theoretically and has thus ‘been informed.‘
[4] Sigmund Freud, “The Uncanny,” (London, Penguin Books, 2003) 124.
[5] Freud, “The Uncanny,” 145.
[6] Gareth Leaman, “In Defence of Pastiche and Retromania (or, creativity in the time of YOLO),” accessed 28.5.2017<>.
[7] Adam Harper, “Comment: Vaporwave and the Pop-Art Plaza,” Dummy, accessed 28.5.2017<>.
[8] Mark Fisher, “Home is Where the Haunt Is: The Shining’s Hauntology,” k-punk, accessed28.5.2017<>.
[9] Let us not forget that vaporwave also references ‘vaporware,’ software which is only spoken about, yet never comes on the market. It is selling hot air, so to speak.

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