Ashley Li: three notable essays
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- CLMRS: Ashley Li, notable essays
- <<<14 Apr 2015>>>
- A Definition of the Mainstream and the First and Second Countercultures
- Counterculture is like an onion-- it has layers. In our analysis of ironic-/meta-subculture we may identify three layers: Mainstream, First Counterculture (1C), and Second Counterculture (2C). The existence of the the first two layers is intuitively obvious: the mainstream exists without question as the unaware, unorganized, yet popular bedrock on which the countercultures rest. We know, too, that certain individuals attempt to distance themselves from that bedrock with mockery and satire; the existence of the First Counterculture is therefore obvious as well.
- But what defines the Second Counterculture? Is it simply counter-counterculture, that it treats 1C as 1C treats the Mainstream? But this would demand many more layers, a 3C above which treats 2C in the same way, and then a 4C, and so on. If we are to have an efficient and coherent theory, such a definition is unacceptable.
- A good definition of the Second Counterculture must satisfy the following:
- 1) 2C lies above 1C in a similar manner to which 1C lies above the Mainstream
- 2) 2C precludes the existence of a 3C under normal circumstances (this is distinct from the Mainstream and 1C, which exist in tandem with 2C always)
- 3) If the need for a 3C arises, then by definition 2C has already become 1C or Mainstream, and the proposed "3C" will simply become the new 2C
- 4) Following from 2) and 3), 2C is organized, flexible, and self-critical
- With the above conditions, the history of Internet counterculturalism, and the omnipresence of circlejerks in mind, I propose the following definitions:
- Mainstream: That which is not self-aware and does not acknowledge the existence of circlejerks except for the sole purpose of popular appeal. Examples: reddit defaults, most of Real Life
- First Counterculture: That which is aware of and mocks the circlejerks within the Mainstream. 1C may be satirical of other strands of 1C, but note that this does not make it 2C. Furthermore, 1C may be aware that it itself is part of a circlejerk, and will attempt to escape.
- Examples: /r/circlejerk, Post Aesthetics, PPAA
- Second Counterculture: That which acknowledges the omnipresence of circlejerks and is aware that it itself is constantly within one or another circlejerk. 2C will not attempt to escape, but will put the circlejerk on the forefront. In other words, this is the self-aware counterculture, or the counterculture for the sake of counterculture.
- Examples: Chicago Long March Reenactment Society, this post
- By our definitions, the countercultural classes are organized along the axis of their awareness of circlejerks.
- <<<18 Aug 2015>>>
- Counterculture and Splinter-Group
- Part I.
- The great leap in membership recently experienced by the Aesthetosphere has brought with it an equally dramatic rise in the number of splinter-groups. Post Post Post Aesthetics Aesthetics Aesthetics (PPPAAA) has grown into PPPPAAAA, and henceforth into PPPPPAAAAA, with a vast array of affiliated aesthetic pages flanking at both sides. Yet each of these new groups are inhabited by more or less the same inner-circle of core members— whereas splinter-groups had in the original schisms appeared to be breaks from the canon, the modern concept of the splinter-group represents rather an *extension* of canon into deeper First Countercultural territory.
- Hitherto analyses of splinter-groups have largely focused on the “splintering” itself. A recent post by Aditya Rao in MetAesthetix notes,
- “[T]he splintering of the aesthetosphere allows for an unprecedented spreading of power - power is no longer solely held by the mod(s), but by any facebook user who can make a group. however, as the events of tonight have evidenced, new groups have become less of an aesthetic experience in and of themselves and instead have come to resemble little more than a cheap punchline.”
- Here the phenomenon is portrayed as one of *decentralization*, giving creative freedom to aesthetes but launching them as well into an anarchic terra incognito. He observes furthermore that splinter-groups, or rather the act of creation of a splinter group, have devalued to take positions equal or below those of posts. In other words, the means of transcending countercultural existence (splintering off) has been corrupted to become another countercultural snare (cheap punchlines).
- Rao’s observation presents an important contradiction in First Counterculture: the apparent transcendence of circlejerk, or here the liberation of aesthetes from group-consciousness, *necessarily* entails the corruption of countercultural existence and the subsequent reconstitution of circlejerk at a higher level.
- This process has repeated itself countless times with the same outcome. Subreddits, as means of containing subcultures, have become one-line jokes or mere “colonies” of sprawling “Fempires” and “Complainpires.” Facebook profiles, as means of organizing individual identity, were abused to create an army of “meme people” that have since become in-jokes among core users.
- In each of these cases, circlejerk is reconstituted in a broader way, joining previously individual entities into an even broader counterculture. What therefore seems like fragmentation is, simultaneously, *unification* and *centralization*. Previously independent states are broken into provinces and fused into a greater empire.
- Rao’s question is precisely that of the crisis of counterculture— if counterculture reconstitutes itself at every apparently emancipatory moment, how can aesthetes (and, of course, all people of the world) overcome the trappings of counterculture and circlejerk?
- Part II.
- We have thus far exposed the contradictory nature of the Aesthetosphere’s development within First Counterculture— as it experiences fragmentation within, it simultaneously consolidates power as a super-culture. As individual aesthetes gain First Countercultural freedom and power from and with respect to their mods, so too are they further subjugated under an increasingly dominant counterculture-force. Such development is not of course unique to the Aesthetosphere, but is a necessary result of inherent contradictions within counterculturalism. The same crisis can therefore be found in all subcultural communities.
- Furthermore, it is precisely this contradiction that had fused hitherto subcultures into the form of countercultures that we see today, and it is indeed again this contradiction that is currently eroding the divisions between Mainstream and Counterculture. With every advance in the exploitation of cultural structures, that is with every expansion of counterculture, so decreases the potential for further exploitation.
- The Aesthetosphere stands now at the greatest countercultural crisis in history. The latest and highest form of First Counterculture is characterized by the instant and complete incorporation of all structure into its satirical canon; the countercultural divides that had previously sustained the circlejerk are now too being tossed into the furnace, not as boundaries of satire but as objects of satire in themselves. Today, First Counterculture resembles a dying star, one that has swelled to an unsustainable size after having fully consumed its own body.
- But from the ashes of contradiction will be birthed a new star; once the old chains of counterculture have been torn away, a new *kind* of content will rise that embraces the circlejerk (see Das Reenaktment, Ch 1) rather than shunning it, that liberates its producers rather than binding them further. Once the transformation is complete, the producers of content (i.e., all people of the world) will see the Grand Circlejerk as themselves objectified in common, and themselves as the real subjects of history, not as mere representatives of alienated and opposing countercultures: the abolition of counterculture is at once also a universalization of counterculture. And then, only then, once the reifying nature of circlejerk has been exposed before all, can we truly realize the possibility of overcoming the circlejerk-form.
- How may we reach that next stage of cultural production? The goal is not to abolish counterculturalism from without, but to overcome it from within. At all moments First Counterculture is already fighting to escape from itself, but without a revolutionary alternative it is doomed to repeat its crisis again and again. Therefore, Reenactmentism demands the formation of a Second Counterculture, that is one which has attained countercultural consciousness, one which is relentlessly self-critical and self-satirical, and one which actively pushes the crisis of counterculture to its resolution. The declaration of a Second Counterculture itself is a revolutionary act, for it signifies a self-conscious break from the reifying forces that have hitherto dominated the landscape.
- Note here that I do not presume to know the specifics of the journey ahead; I have merely pointed the discussion to the necessity of a Second Counterculture. What precisely is to be done? What will the Aesthetosphere look like as a Second Countercultural community? And what will the Long March to a post-countercultural society entail? These are important problems that still lack solutions.
- <<<30 Jul 2016>>>
- NEW REENACTMENT
- CHAPTER 1. THE CONCEPT OF THE CIRCLEJERK
- I. Circlejerk as Alienated Form
- Content (referring to a single unit of cultural output, not Inhalt) is never produced in and of itself, but always with a specific social context in mind. Reflexively, a social context leaves its particular imprint on all content produced therein. This simple dialectic forms the starting point of our investigation. Proceeding from Hegel and Marx, the interplay of society and content, or of subject and object, are part of an enclosed totality in which the nature and purpose of content production is determined by society, and society is itself reproduced through its own material production. In other words, the individual agent of cultural production within society produces not merely contemplatively of unchangeable laws or things, but in fact shapes and reshapes society, i.e., the very conditions of production, by virtue of existing within this dialectic. Production in general as the self-objectification of society therefore represents a potentially emancipatory process that can in turn transform and transcend existing society. The individual, too, may seek to overcome their existing self by contemplating and acting upon a product of self-objectification: a musician that reflects upon their own music can become a better musician. Content production, subsumed under the general category of production, and which relates more directly to the cultural structure of existing society, must therefore bear the same potential.
- The phenomenon of the circlejerk is a particular emergent property of content production en masse. Whereas the term is typically used pejoratively, it in fact exhibits the same potential for freedom as outlined above. An individual who enters into a group or subculture immediately searches for the prevailing circlejerk; once understood and accepted, they produce content for the group along the lines of perceived circlejerk, which may or may not be a correct perception. Depending on the perceptive and creative ability of the producer, their content will be either affirmed or rejected, at which point they may attempt to improve upon their content based on the received feedback. At the same time, upon critiquing the content of the new member, the older members will gain a better understanding of their own criteria for good content. The submission of the new member has not only given themselves feedback on which to improve their content, but has also advanced the entire group. The self-objectification of each member as “content,” and of group consensus as “circlejerk,” is therefore beneficial towards the self-betterment of the entire group. The circlejerk after every evaluation of new content is a different one.
- This is, of course, the mark of freedom in society. Content is not merely improved upon, but the very conditions for producing content are constantly and consciously revised. Brought to the level of all of humanity, the self-contemplation of society enables society to transform the basis on which it is reproduced, eventually possibly superseding the category of circlejerk altogether.
- What is the nature of the circlejerk as a product of self-objectification, and how does it relate to content? Is a circlejerk simply the sum of all of the content in a single cultural unit? Earlier, we spoke of the circlejerk as group consensus, which requires a two-sided interaction between group members and content. This means that the circlejerk cannot merely be the accumulated objects of cultural production, but must explicitly relate back to the producers themselves. Indeed, when we call out a certain community for having a circlejerk, we really refer to its particular configuration of content producers that continuously affects their content production, not to the content directly, although they may be evidence for a circlejerk. We may therefore speak of the circlejerk instead as the set of crystallized social relations between each member of the circlejerk. Again, however, we would be mistaken here to completely separate circlejerk from content as two distinct components in a linear process of content production: if society constitutes a totality, then content produced through circlejerk must not only bear the mark of the circlejerk, but also in turn transform the circlejerk.
- So, what of our society? It is indeed no mistake that the word circlejerk conjures up only negative connotations. Capitalist society is characterized by the commodity-form, which goes beyond mere self-objectification and into capitalist alienation. Objects no longer seem to reflect upon subjects, but appear as things in themselves. A machine in a factory becomes merely a dead machine that seems to suck away at workers’ lives, where in a different society it may improve and free them. The circlejerk too becomes reified into an object of pure contemplation, where the dialectic of society and content becomes a total schism.
- The circlejerk in capitalism is not a productively objectified form of group relations, but is an ideal to which group relations must conversely align. In the productive circlejerk previously discussed, and individual interacts with other members of the group by submitting content, receiving affirmation, and using the affirmation to improve upon their content as they see fit: we may term this precisely the C-A-C’ (content-affirmation-further content) cycle, in the fashion of Marx’s own C-M-C’ (commodity-money-more commodities) cycle. The circlejerk in an unfree society manifests quite differently, as the more typically understood A-C-A’ (affirmation-content-further affirmation) cycle. Rather than potentially qualitatively transforming content, the end is a quantitative guarantee of personal security. Here, the analogy is clear between the figurative and literal circlejerks: both finish in sensual gratification.
- II. The Circlejerk for Affirmation
- The circlejerk never operates as C-A-C’ or A-C-A’ exclusively; it is, after all, a cycle. Neither is society at an absolute standstill: even if it appears that the world is alienated, it is still nevertheless shaped by the actions of subjects. The question should not therefore be of which conception of the circlejerk is more correct as an objective social process. What do we mean, then, by the dominance of the A-C-A’ circlejerk?
- (1) The circlejerk finds its basis in affirmation
- If we can speak of content as a single unit of cultural production, we must also be able to speak of a single “turn” of the circlejerk in which one individual produces one unit of content. The structure of this single turn is simple: it must involve the production of content itself and the reception of affirmation for the content.
- But for what reasons does a single turn begin? There are surely some situations in which one produces content for affirmation, and some situations in which one genuinely tries to improve oneself; constructive criticism is not a lost concept, after all. Our work is made easier by the convenient, though not coincidental, fact that we live in a society dominated by mass media. The most popular trends, not just on the television or in the news, but even in the supposedly democratic Internet forums, can reveal to us the nature of the dominant circlejerk.
- For example, the Internet meme is a widespread form of content that is produced in order to garner affirmation from the community. A meme differs from a mere in-joke in that its producers and consumers need not know the specific context from which it had arisen and the contexts in which it is used: a meme is appreciated for the fact that it is recognized as a meme, whereas an inside joke recalls particular memories in particular friendships (of course, in our society even mere in-jokes can take on the character of a meme). In other words, a meme is an inside joke made universal by stripping it of all concrete context. Furthermore, it is precisely the universal character of a meme that makes it problematic: because a meme is defined reflexively as that which is affirmed as a meme, its affirmation must therefore be derived not from its Content (this word referring to Inhalt shall be capitalized hereafter, to differentiate from content as a unit of cultural production), but from its Form. The production of a meme must also, therefore, be based in affirmation, for its Content has been completely subjugated to Form.
- Unfortunately, the situation is not so simple. Memes can, in some situations and for some people, become overused. There must be a contradictory force in society that promotes fragmentation against the universalization of the meme that accounts for this phenomenon. This force, which we term “counterculture,” and which certainly problematizes modern society, shall be the main concern of future chapters. For now, though, we will ignore the minority dissent at the tail-end of a meme’s lifetime and focus only on the millions of uncritical consumers on the Internet’s largest communities: we conclude that the popularity of the Internet meme points to a mode of content production that springs from the pursuit of affirmation. Note, too, that as with the commodity, memes may or may not possess concrete Content; the important thing is that they take on the specific character of memes, which means that they derive affirmation from Form independently of Content.
- (2) Affirmation is quantified in almost every Internet community
- We observe that content has been made commensurable in terms of so-called “Internet points.” On reddit, these are linear “upvotes”; on Youtube, these are simultaneously “views,” “likes,” and “dislikes.” On Facebook, things are more complicated, with the signature “Like,” as well as a variety of “Reactions.” Regardless of the number of scales, however, it remains certain that they are still quantitative measurements. A post with X number of “Sad”s can be seen as equivalent to one with Y number of “Angry”s, proportional to the relative difficulty of eliciting “Sad”s and “Angry”s from one’s audience. They may technically represent qualitatively different emotional reactions, but as with Facebook’s default display, users largely see and think only of a sum total.
- Quantified affirmation allows for the accumulation of affirmation, which becomes an end-in-itself. On reddit, this is straightforwardly one’s Karma score; on Youtube, this is one’s Subscriber count; even on Facebook, which has no explicit accumulation of points, this is one’s average points per post per Friend. Since the accumulated quantity is continuous across different turns in the circlejerk, or even different circlejerks altogether, the qualitative production of content must serve merely as an intermediary for quantitative incrementation. Here, again, we see the subjugation of Content to Form.
- Imageboards like 4chan, with anonymous posting and the absence of any point system, appears at first as an exception. However, the quantification of affirmation need not be explicit. The number of replies, the average number of words in each reply, and the number of reaction images are all potential sources of quantitative affirmation. The prevalence of trolling on imageboards makes this especially clear: while replies to trolls are hardly affirmative in the traditional sense, the quality of the replies are subjugated to the number of replies. Trolls are satisfied as long as they have received attention in quantity, even if the attention consists of snide remarks and personal attacks.
- Combining points (1) and (2), we find that the A-C-A’ circlejerk arises from forms of content defined by affirmation and continues to the end of quantitative affirmation accumulation. It is also characterized by the subjugation of quality to quantity, of Content to Form, and ultimately, of subject to object.
- III. The Grand Circlejerk, or the Will to Circlejerk
- We have thus far revealed the character of the circlejerk in modern society. However, the question remains: what could this mean? Why do people produce content for affirmation? This is the central question of this work, and we will expand more on this topic as we develop our theory. For now, though, we will introduce the concept of the Grand Circlejerk, or synonymously the will to circlejerk, as the subjective factor driving the formation and continuation of circlejerks, which links every turn in each circlejerk into a coherent totality.
- The will to circlejerk is not just a subjective force. It is the subjective force itself objectified: we observe that the will to circlejerk is simultaneously also a circlejerk. As it turns out, the Grand Circlejerk is the alienated and perverted form of human agency; it is the productive will to circlejerk set upon a world of things, turned conservative without a means of consciously exercising its subjectivity.
- Such an understanding of the will to circlejerk is important in a society in which the totality of the circlejerk appears to have broken down. As we shall see, the circlejerk cannot merely be avoided, and the problem of the circlejerk cannot be abolished directly. The path to human freedom viewed through the lens of circlejerk theory must instead be the sublation of a self-contradictory Grand Circlejerk; or, more generally, it must overcome the estrangement of humanity from itself.
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