In early 2015, I spent an evening editing a short video comprised of clips that appealed to a certain nostalgic, optimistic spot in my brain. It was just a low-stakes exercise, a personalized riff on the ‘80s-that-never-quite-was aesthetic of music artists like Kavinsky:
In truth, when I made this, I was just late to the party. In the years since, the outrun/retrowave scene has only cemented itself as one of the hardiest subcultural fixtures of the last decade, along with its more melancholy, consciously alienating cousin, vaporwave.
As Alican Koc put it in the December 2016 Capacious Affect article, “Do You Want Vaporwave, or Do You Want Truth?”:
In attempting to create a sensationalized depiction of late capitalist alienation, vaporwave art uses neon colours, Windows 95 glitch art, corporate logos, images of Greek and Roman busts, melancholy 8-bit images of cityscapes, beaches, and other quasi-utopian aesthetic “elsewheres”, and Japanese anime and text. As a musical genre, vaporwave has been variously referred to as “chillwave for Marxists,” “post-elevator music,” and “corporate smooth jazz Windows 95 pop”, using heavily manipulated samples of forgotten corporate music from the 1980s such as pop ballads, elevator music, smooth jazz, and computer and video game scores to create alienating reinterpretations of familiar sounds (Lhooq, 2013; Beks, n.d.). Conceptually, vaporwave music attempts to evoke the generic atmosphere of the mundane temples of global late capital, such as the office lobby, the hotel reception area, the mall, the beach resort, and the corporatized plaza (Harper, 2012).
Vaporwave emerged in the 2010s from the pastel-colored ashes of late ‘00s seapunk. It was like something inspired by Millennials’ foggy childhood memories of Mind’s Eye videos, allowed to marinade in an ennui comfortably familiar to the 9-11/Great Recession/2016-and-beyond generation. But philosophically, its spirit all goes back a ways longer.
In the early 1990s, the term “hauntology” began to pick up steam in some intellectual circles. I don’t need to get too in the weeds on this — read the Wiki article if you want to go down the rabbit hole. The initial gist of it is that Jaques Derrida felt the specter of communism still haunted Europe after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Guys like Francis Fukuyama had proclaimed capitalism the winner of the great ideological contest of the 20th century, and believed the world was moving into the so-called “end of history.” That is to say, a period marked by increased cooperation and unification around a global marketplace. I guess Derrida wasn’t so sure, but at any rate, the rather fungible term “hauntology” soon mutated and was repurposed to suit the illustrative needs of different authors throughout the 90s and 00s. Stepping beyond the rusticated frameworks of Marxism, cultural critics began to find use for the term in identifying our apparent inability to move past recycling old cultural memes over and over again.
You’ve surely glimpsed the edges of this haunting at one point or another. It’s a common lament to hear that Hollywood has “run out of ideas,” rebooting old, familiar intellectual property time and time again. Covers of Toto songs seem to form an entire subgenre unto themselves. There’s a yearning for all the lost futures, the kum-bi-ya world of dot-com optimism we might’ve had that suffered a death by a thousand cuts within our lifetimes: perhaps first the Challenger explosion, then Columbine, hanging chads, 9/11 and Bush’s wars, the Great Recession, Obama’s spy programs, Trumpism, and everything else since 2016. It’s as if we’ve picked the wrong path in a choose-your-own-adventure story so many times we can no longer thumb-cheat our way back up to a good page.
As vaporwave artist 猫 シ Corp put it, this kind of fever-dream nostalgia provides “an image of a (past) world that we love to escape to because our old world died in 2001.”
Someone born a century before myself, say in 1889, might well have seen the rise of widespread electrification, automobiles, telephony and mass communication, penicillin, women’s liberation and Civil Rights, the splitting of the atom, and the Apollo program in their lifetime. No wonder folks in the 1950s genuinely believed flying cars were just around the corner. Their lived experience suggested an almost inevitable march of progress. They witnessed the greatest years capitalism had to offer, in which hunger decreased, lifespans extended, and private investment in new technologies made life easier and more enjoyable.
But my generation has seen something else — we’ve seen the limitations of that system. We’ve gotten smartphones, but given up privacy. At least until the pandemic, we could enjoy cheap plane tickets and on-demand sleeping accommodations, making it easier than ever for us to travel the globe and beam back photos to our friends and loved ones from which we can quantify the impression we’re leaving on everyone back home — but we were always aware of the carbon output of all that air travel, and had to wonder if we ought to have been stashing that vacation money away for the next major economic downturn instead. American exceptionalism rings hollow for us because we’ve seen too much to not know better. We see the disarray, the ways in which our old ideologies have curdled with self-mythologizing delusion to the point that they’re no longer able to react honestly to the conditions on the ground.
Is the future dead?
It’s one thing for a scholar to suggest it, but the signs of the future’s dismantling are present in works of popular imagination across the past twenty years. Positive futurism largely waned not long after the turn of the millennium. New depictions of tomorrow were grounded and pessimistic, as they had been in the mid-to-late ’70s. Think Minority Report, Children of Men. But the bad mood hasn’t abated for nearly two decades.
The ’90s utopian “workplace fantasy” of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager gave way to the rough-around-the-edges near-future crew of Enterprise — and eventually that of J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Trek films, which gave us the indignity of a self-interested young Captain Kirk trading blows with Spock on the bridge.
With the glow of postwar America’s technological supremacy faded, and without the Cold War pushing America to compete toward a better tomorrow, Nu-Trek seemed to say that we probably weren’t going to become better people, and that to suggest we might would be too corny for a contemporary audience to relate to.
Movies reflect what’s on the mind of a people, but the least-subtle evidence for the death of the future might just be found in a theme park.
While Walt Disney was a classical American futurist, his ambitious original vision for Tomorrowland was hobbled by budgetary limitations. When Disneyland opened in 1955, Tomorrowland’s attractions had to be sponsored by (and plastered with the names of ) un-fantastical corporations like Monsanto and American Motors. Yet as Tomorrowland was overhauled in the late 1960s, the general “corporate showcase” vibe remained a part of its character, and would be present when Epcot’s FutureWorld pavilion opened a decade later. It made sense — it was a useful platform for the titans of American free enterprise to showcase their latest agendas to a captive audience, while Disney got to entertain kids and families with the tantilizing prospects of what modern science was working to unlock.
Famously, however, Tomorrowland had a problem: tomorrow eventually became today, and then yesterday not too long after that. And by the 1990s, corporate sponsors were harder and harder to come by. While inevitable overhauls of attractions and landscape certainly weren’t cheap, the biggest reason why a new generation of Imagineers would move away from the original thesis of Tomorrowland was that the message itself had become outdated. When Disneyland Paris opened in 1992, it featured a striking, retrofuturistic steampunk twist on the Tomorrowland concept. Known as Discoveryland, this version of the concept paid heavy homage to the style of early European science fiction creators like Jules Vernes and Georges Méliès. It was a clever solution to an age-old problem for the parks, and importantly, an attempt by the designers to show they were paying attention to local history and tastes. (Many Parisians were not, and still aren’t, happy about the presence of an American media corporation’s massive development in their backyard.)
Unfortunately, something was lost in the translation when Imagineers were tasked with overhauling the original Anaheim Tomorrowland in time for the 1998 peak season. Armed with a budget for little more than a fresh coat of paint, the Space Age white facades of Tomorrowland were turned a pea-soupish oxidized bronze. Many news reports at the time made note of the company’s desire to turn to a romanticized future’s past rather than constantly try to stay ahead of the curve.
It only took a few years for management to acknowledge a coat of brown paint wasn’t really doing the OG Tomorrowland any favors, and soon the district was back to its familiar, utopian white. But this was, of course, just a different kind of retrofuturism, a return to what had long since become an outdated vision of the future. And in the two decades since, the land has not received any additional major reinvestment. Lately, Anaheim’s Tomorrowland has resembled nothing so much as the theme-park equivalent of a dying mall (clogged foot traffic aside), full of underutilized exhibition space like an area that once housed a vast arcade, closed off for years as storage overflow for facilities management. The most popular attractions are reliable thrill-ride icons Space Mountain and Star Tours, one of which takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” It’s been years since any of its attractions have presented an even semi-serious attempt at showcasing the world of tomorrow, as the World’s Fairs that inspired the original Tomorrowland did.
Even the 2015 live-action movie Tomorrowland didn’t depict a truly futuristic vision. It follows a young girl who discovers a way into a pocket dimension in which a bunch of Ayn Randian assholes created a gleaming futuristic city decades ago, one which now flirts with dystopia.
It’s almost to the point that they should paint the ailing district in pastel tones, toss in some neoclassical statues, and blast eerie slowed-down Muzak versions of Disney’s famous tunes. Welcome to Vaporland.
If theme park critiques aren’t doing it for you, consider the famous images of the Shuttle Endeavour’s 2012 funeral procession through Los Angeles. I remember being mystified as to why so many fellow SoCal residents seemed to have overwhelmingly positive associations with the event. The orchestration of the shuttle’s complex journey across the streets of Los Angeles was impressive, no doubt. But I could not shake the sense that this was one sorry scene — the end of an era, with no replacement plan in sight. Eight years later, and our best hope for continued space exploration lies in the hands of Silicon Valley weirdo billionaire jerks, or Trump’s empty branding exercise of redirecting enthusiasm away from those suspicious NASA eggheads towards the red-blooded American men of “Space Force.”
It’s especially troublesome to me that we’ve lost our collective ability to imagine a proactive society capable of great things at a time when we could really us that guiding light. In the 1950s and ‘60s, a Great Society view of governance was still within the Overton window of acceptable American discourse. There was general bipartisan support for investment in the space race, so getting to the moon became a feasible reality. In the 1970s and ‘80s, however, political appetite — especially on the Right — for large taxpayer-funded projects beyond the strictly military dried up (and America’s space capabilities dried up with it: now we rent expensive room on Russian launches).
What’s far more pressing than additional trips to the moon, however, are scientific frontiers like addressing climate change and managing its inevitable, disastrous effects. Progressive politicians who support the “environmental protection, plus jobs creation” premise of the Green New Deal can’t even get Democratic party leadership on board with that, much less any stripe of Republican.
The late cultural commentator Mark Fisher once said it was “easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” And well, here we are, standing on the threshold of annihilation and worrying about marginal tax rates on the super-rich.
Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? posits that the lack of visible alternatives to modern capitalism has almost universally promulgated the neoliberal tendency to view every aspect of society through a market prism.
Perversely, the same capitalist engine that powered the most potent global changes of the 20th century now seems to only want to stand in the way. It’s as if the final victory over communism marked the arrival of the future, and as such, we are now living in the future. Asking for further iteration of the system or its priorities is at best naïve, at worst heresy, because the perfectly balanced, self-regulating system is supposedly in place. We have no time, no need for wanton pie-in-the-sky dreaming, thank you very much.
Today’s fat cats preach hoary old axioms about capitalism’s ability to lead to innovation, deflecting from the reality that our most powerful vested interests demand no further innovation, and in fact will do whatever they can to stop it. This is how we arrive at the current moment, in which a “pro-business” and “pro-free markets” president claims over and over again that he’s going to perform economic necromancy on the dying, disastrous coal industry, while attempting to suppress even the voluntary environmental efforts of the automotive industry to make cars more efficient.
When I was a freshman in high school, I began dreaming up a story I called Apocalypse Cowboy. The premise was that in the aftermath of a global nuclear war, the survivor societies across Earth had to begin to reconstitute some semblance of order. Deekan Smith, a journeyman adventurer in the new frontier of the American Southwest, finds himself roped into a conflict that’s about more than just money, but political autonomy. After the nuclear war, wealthy industrialists had escaped to the moon. In Luna City, they built a sophisticated lunar society from which to secure themselves and plot to consolidate power over the weakened terrestrial governments.
My head was full of characters, places, and events describing the happenings of Apocalypse Cowboy and its follow-ups, An Apocalypse Cowboy Rides Again and Last Stand of an Apocalypse Cowboy. But I didn’t yet have the writing chops to pull the project off. As it turned out, my first novels would be the Bridgetown trilogy, which served as both a stand-alone story and a backdoor pilot of sorts to the Apocalypse Cowboy universe.
In Bridgetown, three people fall through a portal to the past, and end up reshaping American history starting from the 1890s in their own favor. Wayne Cole beats Henry Ford to the punch, becoming a captain of automated industry while his counter-cultural brother Jesse tries to subvert him at every turn. Susanna, the object of the brothers’ competing romantic interests, gains the knowledge that their vainglorious efforts, left unchecked, will lead to an acceleration of the Atomic Age and, in turn, global nuclear annihilation. Midway through the series, readers are introduced to Deekan Smith in the ruined post-war future of the Year 2000, and the two storylines gradually intertwine as Deekan discovers the secrets of his own past.
I knew I would eventually return to Apocalypse Cowboy to finish what I had started so long ago. But I didn’t know where to start — I was no longer interested in the straightforward pastiche of genre influences the work had began as. I needed to understand what this story was really about, why I had been drawn to it in the beginning.
Then, last December, I found myself sitting in a Las Vegas hotel bar, working on my laptop. In the middle of that bleakly fascinating, often hostile absurdist neon simulacra of a city, I first encountered that line of Mark Fisher’s: it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism. I realized immediately that this was it — this was the first hint of an idea that leads to the rest. Like Jeffrey Beaumont finding a human ear in a field in Blue Velvet, or like Stephen King’s metaphor on how writing a story is like digging up a fossil. You find one little bit, and you just keep digging, slowly, until you uncover the rest of the mystery.
In Fisher’s proclamation, I heard a provocation: what did it mean, in the world Wayne Cole created through his actions, for the world to end? The bombs go off, the old order is shattered, yet life remains and develops in new places. The wealthiest, most powerful individual — a man styled in Wayne’s image — escapes off-world and decides to reclaim ours for himself. Even when I was thirteen, Apocalypse Cowboy had posited a scenario in which democratic government has been brought to its knees, and a titan on the moon wished to lay claim to the earth. It was simply a pop fantasia of Fisher’s supposition. And in that, then, a question presented itself: could these characters ever escape the cycle of inequity and selfish gain by the most powerful few? Or were even the pockmarked scars of World War III not gonna be enough to sway the trajectory we in this timeline have lived to see?
Capitalist realism may have robbed us of our ability (or at least our appetite) to imagine the future. Yet we still yearn for one, and so we embrace the fantasy of yesterday’s tomorrow.