I like to write a little something to remember each milestone in the evolution of my thinking. Today I want to commemorate my reading of Alex Mazey’s Sad Boy Aesthetics. I’m an avid fan of Baudrillard, so when I saw Alex’s essay on Genshin Impact and Baudrillard, it immediately spoke to my heart.
Previously, on Baudrillard
Let me try to give a short simplified summary of the whole deal, but considering how Baudrillard theories are important and relevant nowadays, I invite you to expand with your own research! Please forgive me for the lack of rigor and loose terminology ^^
The TLDR is that neoliberal capitalism co-opts everything (and in particular, rebellious movements), and turns it into profitable commodities (i.e. Che Guevara T-shirts). In this way, it loses its depth and subversive meaning. In the end, everything is a copy of a copy of a copy (a simulacrum) and nothing is real and meaningful (think of the whole post-truth era thing).
Nothing is sacred anymore, everything is for sale. Meaningful/holy things are tokenized into marketable commodities. This culminates in an era of replica and images, where appearances are all that matters. Baudrillard seems to conclude that this loss of depth (i.e. aestheticization) may be the worst part of this process, in a famous line that Alex quoted somewhere:
“It is often said that the West’s great undertaking is the commercialization of the whole world, the hitching of the fate of everything to the fate of the commodity. That great undertaking will turn out rather to have been the aestheticization of the whole world — its cosmopolitan spectacularization, its transformation into images, its semiological organization”.
That’s the core of Alex’s essay on Genshin, by the way, as Genshin’s world offers a pale defanged copy (simulacrum) of all the cultures of the real world that inspires it (european for Mondstadt, chinese for Liyue, japanese for Inazuma…).
This should come as no surprise tbh, since Genshin is the product of a company founded out of love for the Japanese contemporary culture, which is a true post-modern powerhouse of turning sacred into simulated commodities. Forget giant robots fighting biblical concepts, the common rage nowadays is to gamble your money to get a chance of getting a digital representation of some God turned singer idol… It doesn’t get more Baudrillard than this.
But playing Genshin, I couldn’t help but notice that no matter how simulated your objects are, you cannot help but carry around an ideology. Like a good old american settler, the protagonist of the game goes over the world, literally destabilizing political institutions everywhere through the usual western-way-of-life-individualistic-feel-good-you-can-succeed-if-you-believe-disney story. So while it is true that nothing is sacred anymore and everything is up for negotiation, it seems that there is one thing that remains a holy absolute: the aestheticization process itself.
There’s no fighting this relentless march, it cannot be defanged. That being said, it’s another beast altogether: it’s not a sacred that comes from belief, but rather an ad hoc empirical conclusion. Is a God that continues its work regardless of belief still a god?
The invincibility of the phagocyting process of neoliberal capitalism is enough to make anyone despair. It does seem that there is no practical way out. What can you even do to escape an all-encompassing cancerous system?
That’s where Sad Boy Aesthetics comes in. I confess I bought it because seeing the meme aesthetics, combined with “sad boy”, Baudrillard and Wittgenstein intrigued me. I found out by reading it that it was actually a commentary on emo rap, of which I know next to nothing about. But Alex’s pretty thorough analysis taught me a lot, and in particular I noticed for the first time the political dimension of the emo movement.
Emo is about, let’s face it, whining. But maybe the “antidote” to the commodification of everything can be found precisely in the sincerity of the expression of self suffering. Especially if you know that nobody really wants to hear emo poems. Maybe in a world where nothing actually matters, a serious honest expression of feelings, devoid of irony and mercantilization, could be the one authentic act to transcend the omnipresent commodification, cringy as it may be. Dare I call it art? Could its lack of political engagement constitute precisely the strongest engagement there is?
Of course an easy counterargument would be that emo can and has been co-opted by the system and turned into yet another profit machine. But I do find that perspective intriguing. And most emo poetry probably just ended up in the oblivion of the depths of the web anyway.
Lust tint my world
This blog is all about making original weird parallels, and Alex got to the one between Baudrillard and Genshin first, so I want to submit to you the case of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The songs are on my playlist fairly frequently, so when I last listened to Rose tint my world (which I usually don’t like that much), I started connecting this trail of thoughts to the ending (and the message) of the famous cross-media experience.
In this big explosion of joy where everyone gets fulfillment after their tribulations, Rocky admits that “Now the only thing I’ve come to trust Is an orgasmic rush of lust“. It echoes Janet’s point about Frank that “His lust is so sincere“. In a chaotic world, Frank’s sincere lust is the beacon that guides everyone to enlightenment.
The RHPS is basically the story of how this authenticity comes to transcend Frank and Janet’s static system of beliefs. Maybe one of the reasons for its lasting success is this celebration of authenticity.
I don’t have much more to say about this but it feels like I should talk more about the movie so let’s indulge a good old fashion BS-commentary:
It’s obvious that Brad and Janett represent “stuck up normies”. But going further, it’s nice to see that they too are basically imperialistic invaders trying to commodify and use Frank into a marketable utility (“Can we use your phone?“). Note that one of the first thing that happen to them is they get stripped: all appearances, tokens and commodities removed.
Meanwhile Frank, like a sexy Baudrillard trying to get our attention, literally creates simulacra, copies over copies of men. He shows us the dangers and pitfalls of the simulacrum cycle: Eddie and then Rocky are less and less human. This process removes the heart of our humanity! We become nothing more than… dare I say flesh, meat, food!
The whole structure of the film itself draws attention to Baudrillard theories: self-references, opening song, the narrator… It simulates the codes of a B movie very consciously. It is after all the B movie adaptation of a musical parody of B movies. This could be seen as a critique of the lack of depth of formulaic movies the industry is moving towards. At the late night picture show, nowadays, everything is a copy of a copy of a copy of a marvel.
The theme of nostalgia and time passing (Time Warp) through the movie shows us how much worse off and impoverished society is by this trend. Sacred symbols and rituals have lost their meaning and disappeared: Whatever happened to saturday night? Whatever happened to Fay Way? This is highlighted by the very conclusion of the show, whose very grammatical structure is destroyed by this relentless force, leaving us lost in time, lost in space, and meaning….
Maybe the most important lesson is that Frank’s solution to escape the market’s grip comes at a high price: he has to live as an outcast, shunned both by American and Transylvanian society. Really, “it’s not easy having a good time“.
The market for self expression and authenticity
Now this isn’t the be-all-end-all of this reflection. I do appreciate the political (system-defying) dimension of authenticity, and how it could take different forms, be it suffering in emo poetry or lust in the Rocky Horror. But it must also be noticed that authenticity (not coincidentally) is also more and more at the core of the commodification process itself. Gigantic booming industries like Twitch, YouTube or Instagram are running on the promise (or rather appearance) of authentic parasocial relationships.
It’s a fine line to thread between embracing your true self authentically like RHPS recommends, and self-expression through overconsumption like capitalism encourages and requires. I guess what this means is that we need to be wary and careful. Though I guess, ultimately, a truly sincere self-expression is probably completely blind and unconscious of this tradeoff xD. So be yourself like nobody is watching. Maybe it will still serve neoliberal capitalism’s tentacular interests. They’re impossible to destroy. But maybe there’s no better way to fuck capitalism than through authentic uncalculated acts of love.