on NFTs, twitter discourse, and the perils of fantasy (Symposium on Vice: Part V)
A few years ago, one of Twitter’s favorite memes was making up a kind of guy and getting mad at him. You’ve probably seen the phenomenon in action. Someone on Twitter calls out a certain kind of guy – men who take up too much space on the subway while blasting Wagner on a boombox, say, or dental-health-bros, or guys who are really problematically into spicy food – and uses this specimen as the basis of a sociological theory about how human beings and relationships should work. Only – you’ve probably worked this one out by now – the kind of guy being called out doesn’t exist. He is an abstraction, a fantasy, a convenient compilation of qualities, onto which it is rhetorically convenient to unload a casual relationship to the most alienating elements of modernity.
As a novelist, it’s my job to make people up – if, hopefully, not in the service of getting mad at them. And yet I’m often troubled – sometimes to the point of questioning my vocation – by the degree to which so much of our shared cultural life involves the trading of signifiers and symbols that are, well, made-up. I’m not referring, here, to a cultural obsession with any particular fictional character. Rather, so much of our lives – economic as well as aesthetic – are increasingly bound-up in the realm of the unreal.
We trade in cryptocurriencies and NFTs; we ascribe monetary value by virtue of shared pragmatic illusions that something must be worth something else. We create avatars of ourselves in the service of building a personal brand; we engage digitally with the equally-manicured avatars of other people. We build whole political discourses – and corresponding pundit careers — out of disdain for groups of people we’ve invented (secret cabals of drag-queen-groomers, say). We obsess over the mythic lives of celebrities, trying – as Dhananjay wrote in his last Line of Beauty essay – to satisfy our curiosity, in order to confirm our own power and place: our seeming knowledge of people we do not know doubling as a source of private power.
I’m not here to decry modern life as a late-capitalist hellscape. But I do think that several of the most alienating elements of modern life – an economic system largely driven by abstractions, which are driven in turn by desire; a communicative cultural system that demands disembodied discourse – share the fact that they are driven by speculation: the drive to invent stories about other people and products, their successes and failures and rising and falling value.
Our stories about things are, increasingly, more visible, and better-valued than the things themselves. Whether we’re speculating on Twitter about the details of a lurid celebrity breakup, or we’re betting that a digital rendering of a cartoon monkey will go up in value, or we’re luxuriating in violent fantasies that “those people” — political enemies we’ve never met — will receive the comeuppance they deserve, we’re collectively participating in a kind of parallel reality: one in which our discursive network is increasingly unrelated to what is actually real or true.
Speculation, as a driving force, animates this collective unreality, where we can profit — in literal or social capital — from controlling a narrative, regardless of the relationship that narrative has to the real world. Over the past few years, as more and more of our lives have by necessity or choice been displaced to the disembodied realm of the Internet, this tendency has become more pronounced, and with it has come a collective cultural sense of alienation, of ennui.
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Think, for example, of the 2021 short squeeze of GameStop stocks orchestrated on Reddit or of the Twitter-induced SVB bank run that has set off ongoing financial instability, or of the viral hype over “hot” new books that circulate on social media platforms like TikTok — which can be declared a hit or a failure long before any ordinary member of the reading public has a chance to buy them — or of the ubiquitous (and toxic) discussions of the largely media-manufactured “vibe shift” (newly and conveniently “in”: waifish-looking models, diet drugs, cosmetic facial enhancements) in publications that attempt to appeal to the young, trendy, and urbane. The lattice of publicist-assisted “trend pieces” (often written by journalists with their own personal brand to bolster), viral responses to trend pieces, spending patterns pegged to the new ostensible trends, doubles as a cloistered economy of consumerism: an exchange of goods, services, ideas, and vibes that exists almost entirely in the realm of the imaginary.
In his (extremely good) book The Enchantments of Mammon, the theologian and critic Eugene McCarraher argues that we should understand the modern relationship to capital as a kind of divinization: a vision of capital as a mysterious, self-sustaining, shape-shifting force that animates our shared social life. While I largely agree with his reading, I think we can go still further. What animates both the capitalist economic system and the cultural mores with which it is intertwined is not capital per se, but the human desire underpinning it: our hungering, our wanting, our ache to imitate and have that which we see other people having, and to be able to tell narratives about ourselves, our success, our worthiness, predicated upon such having.
At its most noxious, speculation is a kind of untrammeled veering into that fantastical territory: the process of building illusion upon illusion, and introducing such illusion into our shared social lives, in the service of building up for ourselves – and for those who witness us – an illusion of control. When we shape the narrative, when we determine value, when we buy and sell accounts of ourselves and other people, we designate ourselves masters of this unreal reality.
A reader might fairly wonder here, what I – a novelist – am doing, critiquing the act of participating in the fantastical. But I believe that, at its best, fiction is an attempt to use storytelling in the service of truth, to create so as to see through a glass darkly. The best novels are those that are fully aware of the limitations inherent in the medium: novels that wrestle with the fact that human beings tell one another and ourselves untrue stories, that storytelling is an act of self-divinizing, and that the book the reader holds is itself is already compromised. I think the best novels are about sin in part because the act of writing, of storytelling, of engaging with the unreal, is so deeply intertwined with the sin of self-narrating in the first place. (It’s telling, after all, that Don Quixote, often considered one of the modern world’s first novels, is in fact a meditation on the dangers and the powers of our relationship to fiction and to storytelling.)
To try to tell the truth in what is essentially a lie is a fool’s errand, perhaps, but it is, I think, preferable to the narrative that a culture of speculation ultimately brings us to: the idea, implicit or explicit, that the distinction between truth and lie is immaterial, that reality is only what we make it. And I think any realm of human life where that is true — a collection of digitally generated monkeys, say — is more deeply compromised still.
Note to our readers: this essay is the last in our ‘Symposium on Vice’, which also featured essays on usury, divination, vainglory, and curiosity, and which aimed to bring together the classical (or perennial!) framework of virtue and vice to consider problems of the modern world. We hoped you enjoyed these essays severally and jointly. Expect to see more writing from us on a range of topics in the near future, as well as an announcement of our next symposium, a series of essays on a particular theme, together with an invitation to pitch us a guest essay as part of it.