We are in an era of hyperreferentiality in cultural production. Images, artworks, and aesthetics from myriad different historical periods function interchangeably in a sea of referents facilitated by online networks. This aspect of the internet not only erases the distance between historical moments, but it also elides the gaps between media. Moving quickly between platforms and audiovisual streaming applications like Instagram, Twitter, Spotify, and Youtube, the internet user encounters moving and still images, audio, or some mix of these categories in quick succession. The contemporary moment has also seen a shift in the ways in which the dichotomy of irony and sincerity functions in culture. The sort of ironic disposition of the late ‘00s - early ‘10s hipster is now passé. The notion of enjoying something ironically has now become so diffused within our culture, ironic enjoyment is nearly indistinguishable from sincere appreciation. This ubiquity of ironic appreciation is entangled with the advent of a self-aware mode of consumption of culture which posits a distance between the consumer and the content they consume. Consider the avid reality television enjoyer who, while knowing it is bad, nevertheless spends hours rapt in front of the screen. There is no functional difference between this person and a “genuine” or “sincere” enjoyer of reality television.
The ever-increasing mediation of our lived experience by social media means increasingly that we no longer do anything without considering how we might be perceived engaging in a given action, even with respect to the consumption of media products. We reflexively self-objectify by means of our social media presence, considering the implications of being seen to watch this or that television show. This compulsive self-awareness correlates with an increase of ironic distance, leading to the blurring of the boundary between irony and sincerity. This elision is everywhere observable today, from “irony-poisoned” social media users drifting towards political reaction,1 to the 2021 remix of Rebecca Black’s 2011 inadvertently comic viral hit Friday. Near infinite layers of ironic distancing create an environment where a user may drift gradually towards holding a belief that was once nothing more than a joke. This process of irony-becoming-sincerity with respect to antisocial beliefs is what is meant by the term “irony poisoning.”
It may seem that the flattening of culture by means of the internet’s penchant for hyperreferentiality necessarily leads to a kind of total ironic detachment or relativism, in which any aesthetic, ideology, and image is interchangeable, with its only value located in the ability to shock the viewer or to direct them to other images, symbols, and signs. Indeed, there are many corners of the internet, perhaps most notably 4chan’s /pol/ board,2 in which the value of a given post (text, image, or most often some combination of the two) seems only to be its ability to shock. This leads to the creation of an incredibly toxic environment in which detestable views compete for attention. Yet the embrace in popular media of “The New Sincerity,”3 observable in sitcoms such as The Office (US), and Parks and Recreation, leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of viewers who aptly recognize the hollow nature of these portrayals of workplace community. This movement towards sincerity in literature, most notably associated with David Foster Wallace, presented a valid critique of the ever-present irony of the 1990s. However, its redeployment in more recent mainstream media supports the larger functioning of the Professional-Managerial Class (PMC), identified by Barbara and John Ehrenreich in 1977 in their seminal essay The New Left and the Professional-Managerial Class.4 The mode of capitalism in the neoliberal era, rather than force, instead makes use of the PMC to produce the cultural conditions that enable capitalism’s reproduction. Those in the media, academia, and other culture industries reinforce capitalism’s ubiquity and the lack of alternative visions of the future through their cultural output. This propagandistic effect is easily observed in The Office (US). While your boss might be an obnoxious bore, and you may be exploited and alienated from your labor in the workplace, sincere friendship and romance ultimately win out, thus redeeming the exploitation of today’s society. Ultimately, this form of sincerity fails to escape the dominant mode of capitalist realism, as evidenced by its deployment in service of network television programs, whose primary function is advertising.5 While it is nice to be nice, it should go without saying that these depictions nevertheless serve the financial interests of the major networks that broadcast them. This indifference to real social change plays perfectly into the hands of capital. Vital to the contemporary discourse surrounding modes of irony and sincerity in cultural production is the dichotomy and apparent irreconcilability of the opposed designations “based” and “cringe.” “Based” in its current usage, stems from the rapper Lil B, who used the term to indicate a kind of ineffable authenticity and ease with oneself.6 In the years following his injection of the term into the online sphere, it came to be a favorite of the politically and culturally reactionary posters on 4chan and elsewhere. Their use of the term frequently characterized persons and ideological movements that were openly fascistic. Given these users’ disdain for a cultural milieu that upholds generally socially progressive views, inveighing against these mores and counterposing white supremacist ideology is considered authentic and therefore “based”, despite being just as attributable in many cases to puerile contrarianism as anything else.
They contrast “based” with “cringe.” While technically an abbreviation of “cringeworthy,” the specialized usage of the term in these environments tended to describe an overly-sincere naïveté or lack of familiarity with the protocols and language of the terminally online. Given the irony-poisoning of many of these spaces, the “cringe” label is also widely applied to sincerity, writ large. Irony is the default register of these spaces, signifying a distance from and lack of attachment to the societal norms of decency and civil discourse. Therefore, to assert anything sincerely is to fail to recognize the in-group protocols, to lack savoir faire. How then to move forward, for those of us who recognize and rightfully disdain the cringeworthy sincerity of a sitcom like The Office (US), whose primary function is to inoculate a public to the unvarnished misery of late capitalism, but reject the notion that all forms of sincerity, belief, and faith are inherently flawed or doomed to come to nothing?
It is only through a conscious recognition of the failure of previous modes of sincerity in art and culture to remain relevant that these same cultural artifacts may be redeemed. Naïveté must be negated by self-reflection. Take, for instance, the music of the English artist Evian Christ. His moniker hints at his postmodern playfulness, combining a luxury bottled water brand with the title given to Jesus of Nazareth to designate his anointed status. It may be characterized broadly as a self-aware reinterpretation and deconstruction of the aesthetics of ‘90’s Trance music, but one that is stripped of all superfluity. What is more, this music recognizes what is overly naïve about Trance, and having recognized this, accelerates this tendency to a point of extremity. Key for Christ is the “breakdown,” a portion of the standard Trance arrangement in which percussion disappears, and all that remains is the overpowering swell of emotive synthesizers.
Writing in “Rave Culture and Religion”, Hillegonda C. Rietveld describes the breakdown/buildup section of Trance arrangements thus:
“Breaks from the bass-drum pulse are programmed, as a rest from the physical exhaustion, where dancers can ritually predict a build-up of suspense, and where a succession of chords elevates the spirit and the arms, while a euphoric catharsis is produced … when the pulse of the 4/4 bass kick drum, the mechanical heart, returns, literally producing a ‘kick’, an adrenaline rush. The effect is comparable to a roller- coaster ride, where the car is pulled to its highest point, people bursting with suspense, higher, higher … and then let loose to the forces of gravity with thundering abandon.”7
In Christ’s work, this aspect of Trance is magnified and extrapolated to its logical conclusion. What we have in this music is an intense emphasis on the emotional aspect of the genre that in a sense redeems what many consider in hindsight to be an overindulgent scene characterized by the ridiculous posturing of white European DJs with spiked hair. Unlike the works described by Rietveld above, Christ’s music, as one extended breakdown/buildup, never produces the catharsis occasioned by the return of the kick drum’s four-on-the-floor pattern. Rather, it ratchets up the intensity to a point approaching transcendence, in which the synths and bass drum hits blur together in an ecstatic wall of sound. At the point when this sonic assault becomes almost too much to bear, it disappears—the drum hits and synth stabs recede into an afterglow of reverberation and ambience, giving the listener time to catch her breath. Rather than pare down his sound to focus on the rhythm and feel of a track, as in the genre of minimal Techno which rejects emotion for a sterile embrace of detached coolness, of the groove, Christ leans into the emotionality that marks much of Trance as ingenuous and escapist. Recognizing what is cringe about Trance, he brings this facet of the genre to its logical conclusion. In this way, by acknowledging and embracing cringe, there arises the possibility of becoming based.
To frame this in a Hegelian sense, we may understand Christ’s music as an aufhebung of cringe, which refers to a “sublation,” “transcendence,” or “redemption” that preserves the sincere aspirations of the music while simultaneously shedding the viridity and lack of self-awareness that characterizes much of the genre.8 Through an introduction of self-criticality into the work of art, there arises the conditions for the redemption of sincerity. It becomes possible to move beyond the compulsive need to appear coolly detached and aloof. Also relevant to the present text is the aesthetic category of the sublime, as formulated in the 18th century by Edmund Burke.9 His notion of the sublime, which is a sensation of terror attenuated by some mediating force and therefore made pleasurable, applies readily to the aesthetic experience of Evian Christ’s art. The intensity of his buildups, which at times threaten to overwhelm the listener, is expertly modulated by sections of sparse arrangement that create a separation from the extremity that precedes them. This space of repose functions as the mediating force that is key to Burke’s conception of the sublime. This unique sensation also figures largely in the contemporary experience of the internet.
Serving as the prime exemplar of this aufhebung of irony and sincerity, as well as of the experience of the net-sublime, will be the work of the visual artist Nick Vyssotsky, whose recent installation Display of Commodity Accessories (Zack’s Room) engages with the themes outlined above. Vyssotsky’s work draws inspiration from art history as much as from internet culture and makes reference in particular to the work of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. Given this influence, a brief analysis of thematic material present in Friedrich’s work will serve to further elucidate Vyssotsky’s work, and the the thesis of this essay.
Vyssotsky’s piece presents a meticulously crafted simulacrum of the sort of abjection one often encounters digging through the bowels of the internet. The artist notes that the work draws inspiration particularly from 4chan’s /r9k board, a forum for users to share personal anecdotes and photos.10 The artist presents a full-scale bedroom, complete with empty soda cans, dirty laundry, and a jug filled with what appears to be urine. These objects contrast starkly with the immaculate PC that serves as the focal point of the composition. While everything else in the room might be filthy, the portal to the other-world of the virtual is clean, perhaps even sacrosanct. Vyssotsky’s choice to name the occupant of this room “Zack” functions as a humanizing gesture, encouraging empathy on the part of the viewer. Unlike an image online, as quickly seen as it is forgotten, this work allows the viewer to enter into this space of abjection, even to sit at Zack’s desk. Vital to this piece is Vyssotsky’s invitation to the viewer to inhabit, however momentarily, the space inhabited by the sort of irony-poisoned, internet addicted online user, whose political and social outlook is not always the most progressive, to put it lightly. This entreaty towards empathizing and recognizing the humanity in even the most abject circumstances is found in all aspects of the installation.
Within the larger work, a video piece entitled La La La La (Inside An Empty Room My Inspiration Flows), loops endlessly on a smart phone resting atop the frameless twin mattress. Perhaps one of the most relevant artistic works of this year, the piece highlights the flattening effect of the internet that blurs the boundaries between irony and sincerity, and between high and low cultural forms. The title of the piece refers both to the video’s soundtrack, a pitch shifted, accelerated “Nightcore” remix of the Y2K-era Eurodance anthem “Around the World (La La La La La)” as well as the larger installation, a waste-filled bedroom seemingly devoid of any worthwhile life. The visual component of the work consists of a series of images that occur in such quick succession, roughly seven per second, so as to function almost subliminally. The deluge of visual referents overwhelms our ability to process them, thereby recreating the experience of the internet today in a hyper-distilled and accelerated fashion. The viewer’s eyes remain fixed to the screen, unable to look away from the extremes of human experience in the digital age. Viewing Vyssotsky’s piece, you feel a sensation of vertiginous acceleration as the countless stills pummel the visual cortex. This, in conjunction with the sped-up audio, sends you tumbling headlong into the abyss, producing a feeling of near total abandonment to the void. Describing the work on his Instagram page, the artist writes:
Treating images liked on social media platforms as an archive developed unconsciously. Set in time with the rapid beat of the nightcore remix of the ATC song ‘Around The World’ it feels a bit like an indoctrination video that would be used by MKultra or in the Ludovico Treatment, portraying a vision of the world defined by conflict, technology and absurdity.11
This may be understood as equivalent to the aesthetic category of the sublime, as formulated by the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke. According to Burke, the sublime gestures towards a kind of pleasure in pain. He writes: “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be…delightful, as we every day experience.”12 The distance and separation from what would otherwise being an object of terror, a thunderstorm, for instance, transmutes it into an object of aesthetic pleasure. In the case of Vyssotsky’s piece, the horror, violence, and abjection are mediated through the distance of our screen. This mediation, which allows for the viewer to distance herself from the content of the images, disappears in the wider context of Display of Commodity Accessories. Once we are in Zack’s room, the immediacy of our surroundings limits the ability to feel the sublime, vicarious thrill that comes from viewing La La La La. The incredibly wide range of subject matter presented by the 1000+ frames also gestures towards the gargantuan scope of the work. Images range from wojak memes to hentai to gore to images of 9/11 and other forms of internet detritus, yet also to the works of the Romantic and Symbolist schools of painting of the 19th century, with the notable inclusions of Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead and Gustave Moreau’s The Apparition.13 The work of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, which appears relatively frequently in the piece, will prove particularly relevant for this discussion.
A theme of net-era decadence runs through the work. Painted landscapes dotted with Roman ruins run up against lo-res digital photos of decrepit bedrooms, no doubt inspiration for Display of Commodity Accessories.14 While in some sense the piece strips the individual images contained within it of all original context, the ability of the viewer to pause, screenshot, and reverse image search anything she sees challenges this supposed lack of context. In its hyperreferentiality, the work gestures beyond itself, encouraging the viewer to dive into immense rabbit holes of research. This overload of context brought about by the work’s hyperreferentiality also ties into the blurring of the boundary between irony and sincerity discussed above. Citation in art has a long history, in which an ironic twist or variation on a classic work creates a dialogue between the artist citing and the artist being cited. In this video piece, rather than to cite, Vyssotsky chooses instead to compose the piece wholesale of found images. This aspect of the work validates Fredric Jameson’s declaration in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that, in the postmodern era, “the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture.”15 Jameson identifies this cultural tendency as pastiche or “blank parody,” which, unlike the irony of high modernism that satirizes to reaffirm a dominant normative culture, instead makes use of “masks and voices” from the past because there is no alternative in a time largely defined by the loss of a coherent vision of the future. Yet this blank parody is by no means inherently without artistic merit, as is demonstrated by Vyssotsky’s piece.
Moving beyond ironic re-contextualization, the work instead makes use of citation and pastiche to emphasize the visceral experience of being subject to this onslaught of visual material. To borrow a metaphor from the medieval science of alchemy, La la la la presents the viewer with a hyper-compressed form of the prima materia, the raw matter that was the starting point of the alchemical process, which is subsequently distilled and transmuted to produce the rest of Display of Commodity Accessories (Zack’s Room).16 These images of internet abjection and artistic beauty serve as the foundation and inspiration of the full installation. Perhaps intended to exemplify the viewing habits of the titular Zack.
Another key aspect of Vyssotsky’s piece is its scope. As implied by the pitch-shifted vocals, constantly echoing the refrain: “It’s all around the world,” the piece would seem to have a global purview. However, it is clear from the nature of the images that this is a world filtered through the processes of the internet. In one’s daily life, in physical space, things move much more slowly. For many affluent western viewers, the sort of violent and abject images presented in the work only ever exist online. And yet, there is a truth about the world of today contained in this piece that is not accessible in our everyday lives. For the first time in history, the average person has immediate access to all the horrors, all the fears, and all the moments of beauty happening today and throughout the past, everywhere. This terrifying assemblage presents an infinitely more complex picture of life on earth than any conceived prior to the diffusion of internet access. Our relationship with this assemblage is made increasingly relevant by the day, as we spend more and more time online, subjected to ever-increasing, ever-accelerating processes of cultural exchange.
Some images bring the postmodern notion of the collapse of the distinction between high and low culture to its logical conclusion, combining memes and high art in a single frame.17 Take for example the meme protagonist Pepe the Frog inserted into Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Mist (Figure 2).18 While no individual image can be attributed to the artist, this Pepe Above the Mist seems to crystallize the themes present throughout Vyssotsky’s work.19
Friedrich’s works appear five times in La la la la, the most work by any one artist included in the piece. While this represents only a small fraction of the images included, it is nevertheless significant given the thematic content of Friedrich’s work. The Romantic movement in the arts and sciences may be broadly characterized by a preference for emotionally powerful aesthetic, subjective experience against the Enlightenment’s identification of objective rationality with beauty.20 This desire for a transcendence of the limitations imposed by enlightenment rationality is exemplified by the fascination with the sublime that took hold in this period, most famously elaborated by Edmund Burke as discussed above.
A large driver for this rejection of pure rationality was the French Revolution and its consequences. With this came the birth of the Modern Age, and a fundamental shock to the identity of Europe. Given the fact that supposedly “rational” ideals had led to the horrors of the Reign of Terror, disenchantment with these was bound to follow. In addition to the penchant for emotionality and transcendent aesthetic experience, much of Romanticism also dreamt of a return to a golden age now destroyed by the ravages of Revolution. It was in this milieu that the mindset of the political reactionary was born.21 Friedrich (1774-1840), heavily influenced by contemporary currents in the arts and sciences, was primarily a landscape painter who highlighted by means of anthropomorphism the identity of the self with the landscapes that he painted. As Art Historian Nina Amstutz writes in her monograph on the painter:
Although the Romantics understood human beings as the most evolved and complex life forms, anthropomorphism was far from an empty projection of the self onto inanimate nature. It was rather a means of communing with nature, an effort to understand the self as part of something bigger.22
The rückenfiguren that populate works like The Wanderer Above the Mist, serve as stand-ins for the viewer, allowing her to enter the space of the painting. This nameless figure, encountering the sublime in the vast expanse that lies before him, asserts “Tat tvam asi.”23 He understands the fundamental unity of himself and all of creation. Vyssotsky’s piece, then, encourages the viewer to look upon this great madness, this unheimlich amalgamation of internet debris and centuries-old works of art, and recognize its fundamental connection to humanity. This invitation to empathy may also be observed in Vyssotsky’s larger installation. While an image of a disgusting bedroom viewed online can be dismissed, and its occupant ignored, Display of Commodity Accessories (Zack’s Room) precludes this possibility. We are confronted in physical space with the ephemera of a life lived in large part through a screen. We may enter this space, feel it intimately, and consider the circumstances of Zack, the work’s absent protagonist. In confronting the humanity of the room’s occupant, we can move into a space of radical empathy. In this way, we are all the Pepe Above the Mist. Like Pepe, we are the product of the internet, its endless referentiality, and its irony. However, like one of Friedrich’s rückefiguren, we too can look upon the world in all its horror and complexity and assert its interconnection with us and all humanity.
This recognition of identity further underlines the importance of moving beyond based and cringe. To recognize the self in the other, to recognize the interdependent nature of all humanity, of all existence, is to transcend beyond the need to appear ironically detached. It is love. A love that does not worry about appearing overly sincere. It is a radical form of sincerity/cringe that does not come from half-understanding Infinite Jest, but from a visceral understanding of our shared humanity. More than love, whose precise definition is difficult to pin down, this recognition of self-in-other is a supreme form of empathy and understanding. In the text that accompanies Vyssotsky’s piece, the artist asserts the need to counteract the trends that lead to a deadening of our empathetic capacity. He writes:
If the issue is that the protracted submersion in unreal environments is detrimental to people’s empathetic capacity, then it is necessary to address this mutation in as physically real a situation as possible, rather than in pictorial representations which, while predating digital interfaces, function in an analogous context by acting as portals to areas outside of the present moment. 24
In this quote, the artist affirms that his installation work is an attempt to generate empathy for a sector of society that is seen by many as unworthy of recognition. While the video work La La La La allows for a vicarious pleasure in its mediation, the immediacy of Display of Commodity Accessories (Zack’s Room) prohibits this pleasure. The empathy that the piece calls for is radical insofar as it drastically contradicts the societal boundaries of who is seen to be deserving of empathy. To assert universally that all humanity should be the subject of empathy is itself radical.
In viewing La la la la, one comes into intimate contact with the heights and depths of human cultural output. The flattening effect of extreme juxtaposition pushes us to contemplate the through-line, that which connects all of the images flashing before our eyes. By introducing self-awareness and self-criticality into his work, Vyssotsky reasserts the validity of a sincere mode of artistic production. This aufhebung brings us into a radical mode that moves rhizomatically between these two poles, at the same time as it acknowledges their relative character. Based is in the Eye of the Beholder. Intention is less important than the play of symbolic referents, and their branching interconnectivities that affirm how flimsy the appellation of “based” or “cringe” really is. While Vyssotsky’s piece appears at first simply to represent a koyaanisqatsi, a world out of balance, through a recognition of the identity of ourselves and this world, we move to a space of radical empathy and love.
The sincere mode of aesthetic appreciation and reflection advocated by Friedrich and the Romantics is no longer tenable. In this climate of postmodernism and hyperreferentiality, of a blurred distinction between irony and sincerity, the insertion of Pepe is necessary to redeem the sincere aims of these 19th century artists. His presence in this image makes possible the aufhebung, the redemption or sublation, of the uncritical sincerity of centuries past. Paradoxically, historical context is simultaneously erased and reinstated by an internet that elides difference as readily as it provides the tools for historical contextualization. Through this synthesis of old and new, high and low, sincere and ironic, cringe and based, we move beyond the need for these dichotomies. In this space, we are free to assert our own goals, to assert a new idealistic vision of the future.
List of Figures:
Nathaniel Sloan is a freelance researcher and cultural critic living in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MA degree in Art History from John Cabot University in 2019. Central to his research and work are the themes of the formation of visual culture by socio-historical processes, the continuing impact of the past on the present, and the consequences of memetic transmission for art. Recognizing the internet as the primary driving force behind the development of a global vocabulary of images, Sloan’s work seeks to both understand and interrogate the role of the Western canon in the contemporary moment.