‘We live in an age of Dorians, admiring themselves in webcams, phone cams and online profiles. If there’s a picture in the attic you can be sure it’s been photoshopped.’ – Mark Simpson
‘All that fascinates us is the spectacle of the brain and its workings. What we are wanting here is to see our thoughts unfolding before us – and this itself is a superstition.’ Jean Baudrillard
I am, I am, I am
I have already grieved for the Death Of The Reader . The tumblr generation is not interested in my loss though. It is too busy uploading photos of itself to post on its tumblr page. A photo of yourself taken in the mirror with your iphone says more than any 2,000 word blogpost can, anyway. If tumblr was a quote from Sylvia Plath (and there is in fact a tumblr of people with Sylvia Plath tattoos) it might be:
‘ I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart. I am. I am. I am.’
(From The Bell Jar)
In tumblr land, the individual self is paramount. ‘Neo-liberal individualism’, the ethos which could be said to underpin contemporary economics and society, expresses itself poignantly and effectively via tumblr. It also goes back a long way, and is very complex. John Stuart Mill, for example, believed that the ‘sovereignty’ of the individual was vital to achieve social justice.
“Over himself, over his own mind and body, the individual is sovereign” — John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859), “Introductory”
Rather than going into the labrynth of the tensions between ‘collectivism’ and ‘individualism’, all I am saying here, is that if you browse tumblr for five minutes or more, you will have those words echoing in your ears, ‘I am, I am, I am….’ And that this says something about our attitude to ‘the self’ in the contemporary world.
Branding The Self
The ‘individualism’ as the key philosophy of these Dorians, is summed up by a quote posted on a tumblr called No Secrets Between Sailors :
‘The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.’
So the ‘self’ is reified as somehow bravely distinguishing itself from the ‘tribe’. The masses. Do the tumblr generation manage to distinguish themselves as individuals though? That is my next question.
Young, (usually white, often American) people are producing themselves as brands via the mixed media available in tumblr: Photos, text, video, audio. This is the entrepreneurial self, a la Charles Leadbeater , ‘armed with a laptop, a modem and some contacts’. But tumblr entrepreneurs are also armed (as is Charlie if he’d only admit it) with something even more potent: a narcissism and a (metro)sexual ego, that up till now just did not have the means to show itself off effectively.
If you visit someone’s tumblr page, then, it is a bit like going round to their house. They present themselves as they want to be seen. And, just as the explosion of home décor as hobby and self-expression a few years ago, led to millions of people demonstrating their unique individual style and taste, in exactly the same way, so did tumblr help to create a world of virtual display cabinets, full of identikit mini-mes.
I am not saying these specimens don’t look very pretty, or that they don’t use the technology and its opportunities for self-branding creatively. Far from it. Venture into the maze of tumblr and you can find yourself lost among the beautiful artefacts for hours. But the overall effect, whether you are looking at porn (of which there is possibly an infinite supply, or men’s fashion ( a close second in terms of volume), or emo girls with tattoos who write poetry (may be in at number 3), is always the same. A blank, sexless, mediated gallery of Dorian Grays stare back at you.
As Mark Simpson put it, in a discussion under his piece about The Dorian Gray Age:
‘Narcissism is outside of tradition. It’s literally self-referential. So narcissism is both a product of and a helpmeet to rapid change – producing ‘individuals’ in identical loft apartments.’
This ‘individual’ self-branding, that actually is just producing an army of postmodern image soldiers, fits in and merges with how ‘branding’ occurs in capitalism. As Naomi Klein wrote in her best work, No Logo, once the individual self is marketed back to itself, it kind of loses its individuality. If everyone has to wear Nike trainers in order to avoid being ‘overwhelmed by the tribe’, then they have failed, but Nike has done very well out of the ‘myth’ of the individual expressing him/herself, thank you very much.
‘Since many of today’s best-known manufacturers no longer produce products and advertise them, but rather buy products and “brand” them, these companies are forever on the prowl for creative new ways to build and strengthen their brand images. Manufacturing products may require drills, furnaces, hammers and the like, but creating a brand calls for a completely different set of tools and materials. It requires an endless parade of brand extensions, continuously renewed imagery for marketing and, most of all, fresh new spaces to disseminate the brand’s idea of itself.’
Even more abstract was Absolut Vodka, which for some years now had been developing a marketing strategy in which its product disappeared and its brand was nothing but a blank bottle-shaped space that could be filled with whatever content a particular audience most wanted from its brands: intellectual in Harper’s, futuristic in Wired, alternative in Spin, loud and proud in Out and “Absolut Centerfold” in Playboy. The brand reinvented itself as a cultural sponge, soaking up and morphing to its surroundings.’
As the photo above demonstrates, tumblr really should be sponsored by Apple, because the amount of free advertising the company gets through all these iphone self-photos is phenomenal. I have said before, I will not be surprised if tumblr begins to include formal product placement and sponsorship, rather than this ‘accidental’ variety in the not-too-distant future. The word ‘branding’ seems so very apt to me. People are showing themselves to the world, via tumblr, literally ‘branded’ on their bodies by consumer corporations.
London Preppy- Metro Entrepreneur
London Preppy is an archetypal tumblr metrosexual entrepreneur of the self. He graduated to tumblr from the old, clapped out Blogger interface (which he still managed to emblazen with an image of his muscly torso).
He now has a new book due out, to go with his six pack. ‘Nihilistic 21st century urban stories’ does not really tell us anything, except that the author thinks he is leading the Zeitgeist. But in a way he is, because he is re-imagining how people (and the most successful at doing it are young, buff, pretty boys) sell themselves to the world as product. I look at him looking at us, looking at him, clutching his creative output to his shiny hyper-real form, and I wonder why I, a mere mortal, bother to create anything at all. He doesn’t seem to want you to read his book so much as admire how it sets off his abs so perfectly. And proves that he is ‘a creative’. Not just a pretty body. Though what a pretty body it is.
He admits, almost proudly, that when he does readings, he ‘speaks to the floor’, suggesting an endearing shyness beyond this brazen exhibitionistic exterior. Or maybe he is just looking down at his enormous cock.
London Preppy is just one of thousands or maybe millions of bodies that look just like this, on tumblr, most of which are not accessorised with a novel, and many of which are actually butt naked. Because pornography, particularly the male variety, whether it is self-taken photos in mirrors, or actual man on man homosex, is probably the main output of tumblr. Even sites dedicated to ‘style’ or ‘books’ refer to the porno aspect of the platform: ‘bookshelf porn’, ‘cabin porn’, cupcake porn, everything on tumblr is aimed to arouse the viewer (or more likely the person showing off the porn on tumblr). And again, Baudrillard springs to mind:
‘At the heart of pornography is sexuality haunted by its own disappearance’- Baudrillard.
Because somewhere along the line, no matter how many oiled up pecs and abs are reblogged and photoshopped, tumblr takes the sex out of, well, everything.
Fuck Yeah Menswear
Tumblr land is huge. There are masses of ‘themes’ of tumblr sites: pornography, tattoos, mirror shots, emo girls, designer objects, ‘art’, cartoons, it goes on and on and on. And as I said above, in a way, it is all porn. But the one word that keeps coming back to me if I do a kind of tumblr word-association, is menswear. Menswear, menswear, menswear. That is what tumblr seems to be about to me.
The sheer volume of men’s style tumblrs is indicated by this blogpost, which celebrates Another 100 incredible tumblr blogs for men’s fashion ! Suggesting there are legions of the things.
Even sites which are not dedicated to men’s fashion, seem to be showcases for men’s fashion and style. This one sums up the ‘esprit’ I think, with its title ‘the pursuit aesthetic’. Men, and men’s fashion, are the contemporary visual ‘aesthetic’ de nos jours.
So this rather lonely looking rack of pastel shade shirts, is saying something to us about ‘identity’ and ‘image’ and ‘values’ in the post-modern tumblr generation. I think it is saying that metrosexuality is what makes the world go round, bitches.
New York Magazine puts it rather unkindly, when it says:
‘Witness the cultural burp known as metrosexuality. As the hipster ambles from the thrift store to a $100 haircut at Freemans Sporting Club, these aesthetics are assimilated—cannibalized—into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod.’
I think the article plays down the social/cultural impact of metrosexuality (cultural burp? I don’t think so) and plays up ‘hipster’ culture. But the atmosphere it portrays seems to fit tumblr land. Here, the ‘self’ is the ‘product’ that is going to be uploaded onto tumblr, and then re-arranged, repackaged, and replayed, like ‘a shuffled playlist on an ipod’ over and over again.
The ‘aesthetic’ of men’s fashion that is being pursued on this and what seems like an interminable amount of tumblrs, is also an expression of the neo-liberal individual ‘free man’ of Ayn Rand ‘s dreams.
Here he is, driving in a vintage convertible, the wind in his air, the open road at his feet:
And here is his loft apartment for when he wants to get back to city living. It is all so Patrick Bateman, isn’t it?
And indeed, this extract from American Psycho indicates the importance of menswear to the post-modern psychopath, I mean metrosexual man:
‘Oh wait guys, listen, I got a joke’. Preston rubs his hands together.
‘Preston’, Price says, ‘You are a joke. You do know you weren’t invited to dinner. By the way, nice jacket, non-matching but complementary’.
As I wrote in the last piece, on Death Of The Reader, the kids of tumblr land are post-ironic. They somehow manage to create internet memes and knowing winks about their own habits and identities, so that nobody else can critique them first. And, the ultimate knowing wink I have found on tumblr, is of course, called Fuck Yeah Menswear
On first glance, Fuck Yeah Menswear looks like the myriad of other men’s fashion and style blogs on tumblr. It probably takes its photos from those very sites. But it is in fact, a commentary on them, and on the ‘tumblr generation’ as a whole, with its obsession with metrosexual men’s imagery, and being admired and adored, via the reblog button. It is also poetic, as this stanza shows:
‘Head hung low.
Ashamed of sartorial tomfoolery.
These shades gon cost you.
This fade gon cost you.
Unfollowing ya boy gon cost you.
I get paid for reblogs fool.
Pocket square, bracelets, lapel tool.’
I remarked to Mark Simpson when I first saw the site: ‘Fuck Yeah Menswear is ‘a literate Mike The Situation Sorentino, transported from Jersey Shore to The Hamptons via Williamsburgh. This has really done my head in. He has subsumed everything into his steeze, bros’.
And Mark added, ominously: ‘Just to add to the scariness, it often sounds like FYM is channelling metrosexual murderer Patrick Bateman: ‘I am the style Lorax. I speak for the steez.’
As FYM does to men’s fashion tumblrs, Unhappy Hipsters does to the thousands of ‘architecture’ and ‘design’ and ‘lifestyle’ tumblr pages. Often these are intermingled anyway, so menswear and ‘lifestyle’ are showcased side by side. I mean, you need a sharp outfit if you are going to live in a place like this, right?
‘Letting her choose between the red and white quinoa was the first phase of her home-school lessons in self-construction, liberty, and spontaneous activity.’
Just like FYM, I suspect that Unhappy Hipsters get their photos from actual tumblrs, adding a further ‘internet will eat itself’ dimension to the (post) ironic satire. Everyone is an ‘architect’ now, if not of their actual self-build designer homes, then at least of themselves. Comparing tumblr, which I did above, to the craze for self-expression via ‘home décor’, makes sense then, because tumblr is full of actual home décor imagery.
Unhappy Hipsters, again in a similar way to FYM, manages to critique this obsession with ‘style’ as empty and pretentious and probably unfulfilling, whilst also reproducing the very imagery it is criticising. I wonder if the people behind UH are actually architects or interior designers themselves, just as I am pretty sure the person behind FYM works somehow in the men’s fashion industry. Basically, Fuck Yeah Menswear and Unhappy Hipsters are saying, ‘don’t even try to resist, because everything you do or say will get eaten up by this monster anyway’. There is nothing for it but to get yourself an iphone and a tumblr and join the party.
‘Baudrillard saw America as a glittering emptiness, a savage, empty non-culture, in short, as the purest symbol of the hyperreal culture of the postmodern age.’
Tumblr is a Baurdrillardian dream/nightmare. It is like going on that journey with the French postmodern philosopher, not in 1986, but in 2011, and not in antiquated RL, but in the comfort and splendour of the internet. Tumblr is Baudrillard’s America 2.0.
“The skylines lit up at dead of night, the air-conditioning systems cooling empty hotels in the desert, and artificial light in the middle of the day all have something both demented and admirable about them: the mindless luxury of a rich civilization”
-Jean Baudrillard, America (1986)
Whether it is via the romance of the American landscape shown in Cabin Porn, or nostalgia for the original authentic Wild West , or images of more modern American Pop Art, tumblr is selling America back to itself and reblogging it round the globe. Whilst I think Roland Barthes would be horrified at the way the tumblr generation has not only completely rejected even any notion of the ‘author’, but has also done away with the reader, and even meaning itself, I have a sneaking suspicion Baudrillard might quite enjoy tumblr. At the very least, he would be able to sit back in his comfy armchair in the sky, should someone bring him an i-pad and some reading glasses, and say, with well deserved satisfaction: ‘I. Told. You. So’.
Thanks to Mark Simpson for some tumblr links and for talking to me about this age of Dorians (and Patrick Batemans) we live in. I think like Barthes would be, Simpson is a bit horrified by tumblr (despite the pretty Dorians). But it is his work and his insights that have helped me get a grip on the tumblr generation.
Metrosexy by Mark Simpson is available on Amazon Kindle Here