Sun Yuan & Peng Yu
TO MY FRIEND PASCALE SCHÜPPEL
I am horrified at the thought of having success in this world
Vanity has been associated with the mundane, with the fleeting and inconsequential, with excess of pride and admiration for oneself, with accumulation, ostentation and fetishism. To be vain also means to satisfy our pleasure, to feed our ego. To be beautiful, to impress, to take care of our appearance is also something that every culture has practiced throughout history, and vanity, there, as one of the inherent facets of the human condition.
Our contemporary time is no less concerned with beauty and how to impress. In a self-designed and self-curated society like ours, the constitution of the self takes place by making up our appearance in order to catch the gaze and the attention of other people so to impress them and become their object of admiration and desire. Our façade—including the profile and carefully curated feed on our social media platforms—reveals not only what we would like to become, but also our political preferences and affections. We are becoming a virtual projection of what we would like to be, although, alienated by glitter and augmented reality filters. The “individuality expressed in every nail” leaves no Spielraum—as Adolf Loos and Karl Kraus claimed in the text Ornament und Verbrechen—for the development of the subjectivity and culture. As a consequence, in our vanity, we seek to fill a void, a quest that is distracting us from seeing “the truth of things”—as Walter Benjamin suggested.
The essence of our time is dominated by the technocratic profitability of the selfie, i.e. by self-indulgence and the whim: we deserve it all; the world owns it to us—especially if there is material or symbolic profit. The meaning of contemporary life is to make up a fragile, an unjustified and unreasonably vain ego. Apparently, today we cannot control what occurs to us, and we live a life not only projecting, but also sharing (with and without filter) our best image and affections to the world. The screen is not the limit, no. It is the portal, our contemporary Torii, to the unknown. Sadly as it can get, we cross that portal in solitude. We reach hundreds of people from our mobile devices, from our social media platforms to interact, comment and judge. However, we are frightened and stressed, wishing to be accepted from anyone, anywhere. We are more circumstantial, more common, and more conjectural than ever.
Vanity, in the teleological sense means emptiness. However, it has been interpreted and especially practiced throughout history by means of its reverse, and that is ostentation. This apparent contradiction can be solved if we visualize the mental image triggered by the title and content of the theatre piece written by Pablo Picasso and Albert Camus in 1941 when the Germans occupied Paris: Desire Caught by the Tail. Vanity is both sides of a coin engraved with emptiness and accumulation and spin by a dialect relation. It is the projection of an inverted mirror. It is the dog that bites its own tail. It seems that the actions that give meaning to our drive for vanity go beyond the mere human condition. Aristotle, in Physics, argues that the physical world does not allow for emptiness, that it will always try to colonize it with gases or fluids. Furthermore, from a sociological and political perspective, the philosophical problem of emptiness in liberal and democratic societies becomes a question of human freedom, of liberty. From Thomas Hobbes to Hannah Arendt, the question at stake in Modern Social Contract Theories was—and still is—how to preserve individual freedom when living in a society. And more important: where to establish the limits of this freedom in accordance with the role given to the state and the norms created to live in community and consensus.
The idea of modernity—and the world we inherit—was responsible for both the fragmentation of the singularity and the private and public spheres of life. Science, driven by methods such as analysis and specialization, was eager in leaving nothing without being themed, investigated and dissected—even the soul. Everything has a raison d’être that has to be proved and revealed with facts. As a consequence, the social order, lead by the instrumental reason, went on to dictate and regulate how individuals should behave, both in private and public. In brief, the reign of the administrated society. Ideology was responsible for articulating a discursive apparatus where power operates physically and symbolically. Galvanized by the idea of progress, capitalism and liberal democracy fostered the ideal of individual autonomy and freedom as its quintessence. In addition, under capitalism, supported by the constant technological progress and its frenetic pace of production, the everyday-life was affected by the need to fill not only spaces but also time.
Likewise, the culture of effort and the search for success that rules today is exemplified in coaching sessions. According to its proponents, coaching is the art of helping other people meet their objectives—nothing more than filling the void between what it is and what you want to be. What we call challenges and goals, are nothing but blinders that do not allow us to see more than a single aspect of reality. Thus, one ends up being diluted in the marasmus of self-improvement, frustrated, insecure and with impostor syndrome. These “goals” work inside us and seem designed to exclude contemplation and attentive and disinterested observation.
Faced with the tyranny of the achievement, the Stoics sought to get rid of overly pressing and hoarding passions. In fact, one of its distinctive signs was to consider poetry as a legitimate mean for knowledge. Lyric, just like art, keeps us in an open attitude and knows nothing about goals and objectives. Poetry was for the Stoics, especially Homer, genuine Paideia. Understanding this requires gaining inner freedom, not being eternally abducted by the circus that is the world today. Moral autonomy is necessary, not the general opinion or the spokesman on social platforms, to transcend the dependence of the individual with respect to his animal side—on the assumption that one is that singular being who, as Novalis said, “lives at the same time inside and outside of nature”. By living a life base on the principle of gnothi seauton (self-care), which Marco Aurelio called meditations, it was possible to achieve an ethical autarchy. This conception of life would have a decisive importance in Greek, and later Roman, political thought.
Some examples of modern stoicism are not far away in time and spirit. Ludwig Wittgenstein mentioned that as a young man he experienced the feeling that “nothing could happen to him”. It was a way of saying that, whatever happened to him (a lost bullet for example), he would have been able to take advantage of the experience—the principle of being aware of oneself. This attitude towards life led him to occupy the lookout position in the middle of the crossfire during the Great War. Something similar is found in Simone Weil: always taking risks, whether in the Renault factory or in London’s hospitals, with humility as the supreme value, which makes the ego not extinguish the flame of the divine, of the important, relevant and transcendental side of the human condition.
Curiously enough, the attitude of these two great philosophers, in which they revive the old Greco-Roman ideals, contrasts with some current obsessions. From fear of one’s own body, which requires continued examination and makeup, to obsession with security: to feel safe, to feel at home and to feel healthy. In sum: we live in a nervous, fearful and hypochondriac world. As if a scanner or a big house could grant that peace of mind as if you had to lock yourself up at home to feel safe. Yes, it is impossible to deny that the actual state of precarity—not precariousness (that is something different)—plays a significant role in the way we approach to life and to the feeling of security. However, this attitude, the need of security, goes beyond personal feelings, and populistic leaders are using it again through the fictional idea of Heimat in order to protect a nation’s identity from the perverse influence of other cultures; the other as a threat. This is a characteristic par excellence of oppressive regimes: that of denunciation among its own citizens, mutual distrust and permanent suspicion, in brief, a perverse attribute of life in society. The perfect dictatorship begins when the regime turns people spying on themselves, vigilant, infamous. Anytime, anywhere, the other is not a we—as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wished for a society.
While a recent president wondered how much money he needed to feel secure, and not finding the safe amount, he devoted himself to accumulate more capital, Wittgenstein was exposed in the trench and Weil in Durruti’s column. Moralists, yes, but also contemplatives, both of them defended the virtuosity and imperturbability of life, feelings all very unprofitable in a society and culture of entertainment like ours. There is no need here to describe their refined logic, but it is worth remembering that they, by referring to Greco-Roman thought, were subordinate to ethics; unlike today where algorithms and social media feeds dominate morals, minds and souls—that mundane labyrinth, the web, that self-cage.
Stresses in it the doctrine of the improvable, perhaps of Indian origin, the Stoics conceived the soul as a tarp where impressions are engraved. From the impressions arise both the certainties (if the soul accepts the impression) and the questions (if the soul is unable to locate it). For them, the world was, as for us, substantially bodily, material, but its physics does not deny the immaterial. They conceive nature as a dynamic continuum, cohesive by the pneuma (in Stoic thought, the vital spirit, soul or creative force of a person): a cold and warm breath, composed of air and fire. They inherited fire from Heraclitus as an active and primordial principle, from which the rest of the elements have emerged and to which they will return. Like humour or crying, the pneuma does not move, but instead it “spreads”, propagating joy or disease. Today it would not hurt to put into practice some of Stoic principles: the ethical imperative of living according to nature—which our planet and species would appreciate. The constant exercise of virtue, or eudaimonia, that allows detachment. And, finally, what Friedrich Nietzsche called “amor fati” or the acceptance and love for one’s destiny—an effective remedy for everything that produces restlessness.
It cannot be said that these principles proliferate in our time. If an old Stoic could look out at the world today, he would see in the great inequalities caused by the financial economy a deep neglect of the self, a forgetfulness of that moral autonomy that prevents emotions such as fear and vanity from being unleashed and which create greed. In this order of ideas, the possibility of non-action that implies free time, leisure or to take care of oneself, became horror vacui: something that must be fulfilled with consumption and production in the form of “creating content”. This is nothing but the reproduction of the system covered with the veil of creativity and originality—the fallacy of being unique, the dictate of individuality. Under the actual regime of the Kulturindus- trie and spectacle, individuals are appeased and alienated by production and consumption. Additionally, fatigue leaves no room for free thinking, forcing us to be more dependent on the system. Nevertheless, as long as the market keeps on fetishising objects, we will keep on worshipping them.
The plot of Peter Weiss’ novel Die Ästhetik des Widerstand has been fulfilled by the tail: we assist everywhere, we discuss everything, we act as a community, and we plan the resistance and the forthcoming social changes, yes, we do it. However, we do it from our mobile devices and the comfort and security of our homes, without making any sacrifices, without losing our deserved, almost as a divine mandate, privileges; the reproduction of the system in its most petit-bourgeois definition; exterminating angel.
The current state of Turbocapitalism has made of leisure and free time something inefficient. Today it is necessary, and almost mandatory, to produce and re-produce us as content—everywhere, anytime, all the time. Not having time has become a quality: it is the new status symbol. To be busy producing, “creating content”, fills not only social media feeds, but also the void, the horror of having to contemplate and think for oneself. At the same time of alienating the individual with the phantasmagoria of their individuality, with the false awareness of originality and freedom, the current quality of being productive subjugates a person’s own will, turning it into a reified personality: the self as commodity, but simulated. Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio inform us about the “the evanescence of reality”, a phenomenon where individuals seek to be a specific person and have differential features, i.e. to be unique—in apparent individuality. Western history, then, can be defined as a cult of personality, a reproduction of the unique state of souls. In our vanity, we are reaching a point of no return in many aspects of the human condition. Our attitude towards ethics, politics, culture and the environment is leading us to think that the Dialektik der Aufklärung has been reinforced, and the Angelus Novus still walks backwards towards the future, seeing only Debris left behind. In the meantime, we are still locked in that room vanity, contemplating ourselves all day long in front of a mirror, with the world in our hands, believing that life remains the same.
Art, meanwhile, and paraphrasing Jorge Luis Borges, “is nothing more than one of the many vanities of the simulacrum of reality”; an exterminating angel.