Book review: Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts

Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of GhostsBabbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts by Grafton Tanner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Vaporwave! It’s a thing, still, even though it’s supposed to have been dead for a couple of years now.

What is vaporwave? If you don’t know, have some smooth, iconic jams. Essentially, it’s elevator music for some weirdly capitalist hellscape, and Grafton Tanner’s book exists to provide a bit of context with fewer bong-hits than you’d fine in online discussions of same.

This is understandable, coming from a publisher who is

…convinced that in the unthinking, blandly consensual culture in which we live, critical and engaged theoretical reflection is more important than ever before

This work takes a crack at describing the politics of vaporwave, and, more broadly, the way electronic media can appear to be haunted. It heavily references philosophers and pop-culture, setting the scene as one which True Detective‘s Rust Cohle would relish: where the human is unimportant, and entropy will eventually kill us all. Here’s a highlight:

We are all becoming cultural hikikomori, more concerned with staying within the cocoon of our media fortresses and terrified of the larger world and its exploits. This is not our fault. Living in a globalized, economically destitute society has turned us into neurotic Internet-dwellers with our nerves relentlessly racked by political failures and a media industry that runs on the fumes of our panic and anxiety. We do everything we can, from colorfully invoking a better world on Instagram to adopting the fashion trends of a vague past era, to distract us from the existential reality that under late capitalism we are miserable.

Of course, the grim present is softened a little by Tanner’s obvious love of vaporwave’s ghostly ennui. There is something almost indescribable about the genre, and its hauntological roots are well-drawn here, particularly with respect to The Shining and the work of The Caretaker.

When I was at university one of the courses I took was on the Literature of Decadence. It was one of the best courses I’ve ever taken, but it was also one my friends believed was able to weather a bit of piss-taking. So in the final essay, I was given a list of choice phrases to work in: home-delivered pizza and aluminium siding being the two that I remember most vividly. I felt kind of bad about it, but it also felt kind of transgressive: slipping a joke into things serious.

That’s a little bit what this book feels like.

I’m not suggesting that there’s no scholarly rigour to this brief tome – it’s certainly referenced well and approached from a very academic viewpoint. But part of me can’t help but think this is an excellent prank by a dude who wanted people to read a book about vaporwave under the guise of academic investigation.

This is not a work designed for a mass audience, but it does hinge on the masses: on how they shop, how they work, and their cultural consumption. It charts a kind of virtual psychogeography, an examination of imagined space that’s as serious as some vaporwave releases are throwaway. If you’ve an interest in the genre – or in the uncanny aspects of digital technology – this is worth a read.
All my Goodreads reviews are here.

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