Vaporwave is the music of non-places.
Non-places, says anthropologist Marc Augé, lack the kind of specificity, richenss, and depth that make a space a place. “If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity,” he writes, “then a space which cannot be defined as relational, historical or concerned with identity will be a non-place.” Examples aren’t difficult to come by: the shopping mall, the airport, the supermarket, the train station, the food court, the chain hotel—all those locations, in other words, that vaporwave celebrates and to which it gleefully offers its imagined soundtracks. The tonal qualities of this track from Sunset Inc. reproduce aurally the aesthetic of the non-place: thinned-out, diminished, vacuous.
Particularly in the global West, Augé argues, non-places multiply and proliferate under late capitalism, where transience and impermanence increasingly characterize people’s relationship to space. “What reigns there is actually the urgency of the present moment,” he writes. “Everything procedes as if space had been trapped by time, as if there were no history other than the last forty-eight hours of news.” Vaporwave occupies precisely that over-extended present, attempts to elongate it even further. It swells the non-place. While Augé might deplore a surfeit of non-places (he doesn’t explicitly, but his work does have a certain nostalgia about it) vaporwave celebrates it. That’s in part because vaporwave is itself a critique of the critique of the aestheticization of everyday life, not a postmodern art form but a supermodern one. While the postmodernist bemoans a dearth of meaning—its possibility only through negativity or lack, its incessant slip-sliding—Augé argues that the supermodernist must recognize a different contemporary condition: an excess of meanings.
Too much meaning. Too many events. Too many accounts or referents or possibilities. Refuge from supermodern abundance is what vaporwave provides. It opens small clearnings or pockets of impermanence, weaves pastiches of inconsequential sonic filler to suffuse a few minutes in which nothing needs to matter so damn much. The postmodernist critique of the airport underscores its artificiality and limitless surface; the supermodern critique of the airport locates a sanctuary.
Non-places are impersonal spaces, Augé reminds us:
Alone, but one of the many, the user of a non-place is in contractual relations with it (or the powers that govern it) […] The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude and similitude.
Vaporwave seems paradoxical in this way. It activates that familiar alone-together sentiment (“neither singular identity nor relations”) and summons impersonality as a binding agent. What form of sociality is this? Consider the vaporwave live show. When 猫 シ Corp. delivered his 2019 performance at 100% Electronicon2, attendees were both exuberant and hesitant, almost self-conscious. What does one do at a vaporwave live show? Projecting footage of shopping malls and airports on a screen behind him, 猫 シ Corp. evoked the non-place, attempted to build a non-place in the space of the venue. But where did that leave the audience, all gathered in coordinated, place-making activity, trying to share something unique?
In vaporwave, this neither-singular-nor-collective finds its own awkward expression. Can vaporwave produce transcendence through solitude? Can it create non-places of communal ekstasis?
Pairs well with: That gyro poster.