Notes on Weak Aesthetics

What does “aesthetic” mean today? While aesthetic theory has a long history full of commentary on beauty and taste, we now hear comments like “That [outfit, Instagram post, meme] is so aesthetic.” In that phrase, the aesthetic is not a noun referring to a realm of thought that considers sensory experience (the classic definition)—here ”aesthetic” points out something that looks good. As Anna and Ellen Ioanes write in this issue, we say “that’s aesthetic” when we mean that something that is well-designed, or fully realizes a style. A thing is aesthetic when it achieves  a certain “look.” This new meaning is similar to older conceptions of art as a thing set apart from the ordinary concerns of life, operating for its own autonomous purposes. But while these looks (or moods, or vibes) are related to the desire to transcend our everyday dull lives, they most often do so by embracing the consumption of commodities, relinquishing autonomy in favor of corporate control.

When we conceptualized this issue, we were thinking about the proliferation of aesthetic categories like Dark Academia, Cottagecore, and the hundreds of other internet-based aesthetics that have not yet been covered by the mainstream press. What does it mean that these minor, or weak, aesthetics have proliferated throughout our modern lives? Do these shallow aesthetic experiences give us the freedom of endless options, or do they constrain us to consider only the options that are available for purchase? 

Our original aim in this issue was to extend ideas of the weakening of affect in late capitalism (Frederic Jameson) and minor aesthetic categories (Sianne Ngai) into the arena of internet-based mood boards, starter pack memes, Aesthetics Wiki debates, and Tumblr feeds. We stand by that aim, although what we mean by “weak aesthetics” has sharpened throughout the process of editing the writing collected here. What we now mean by “weak aesthetics” is a style that is just coherent enough to be legible as an aesthetic category, as something that belongs to the realm of the aesthetic. But we also mean something that treads the ambivalent line between the aesthetic and the political, looking one way toward liberation from capital and the other way toward subsumption under it. What kind of purpose do these aesthetic categories appear to have? Aesthetics? In this economy?

But aesthetics has always had interesting things to tell us about economy. In weak aesthetic categories, we are constituted as digital subjects, defined by our demographics and our station in the supply chain. Algorithms determine what we might like to buy and show us more of those things, all the while monetizing our attention. But some of these aesthetics have a more complicated relationship to consumption. While none of them are purely subversive, and are at best conflicted about capitalism and its attendant neoliberal policies, they do sow, potentially, the seeds of a genuinely resistant political culture. Cottagecore idealizes a dangerous pastoral but it also wants to be localized. Punk is positioned against authority but is easily co-opted by the culture industry and sold back to us as a watered-down fashion statement. Fairycore values fragile, impossible things but can also turn into a mystified escapism out there in the woods . While no one will mount a revolution or even a protest on the backs of these aesthetics, they do put us in a different mood. 

The essays in this issue have pulled those ideas about the ties between aesthetic categories and broader social arrangements further than even we anticipated—they bring the self-referential, closed system of internet subcultures back into offline life and articulate the relations of these many styles to the material and political possibilities of this historical moment. 

The illustrations for Weak Aesthetics amplify this tendency. Jemima Wyman’s collages take images from street protests, Etsy stores, and Aesthetics Wiki, proposing new aesthetic categories through mood board-esque compilations for each essay. Want the vibe? Try these! 

In this issue:

Anna & Ellen Ioanes (sisters!) investigate a recent dual aesthetic evolution. Internal power conflicts simmer behind the rise of the Fandom website Aesthetics Wiki, a site that documents the proliferation of online and offline aesthetics. A schism between the site founder and other moderators over how users should interact with the site has unfolded into a wider debate on the meaning of the word “aesthetic” and the role of internet chatter in aesthetic judgment.

Robin James walks the empty hallways of Liminal Space, an aesthetic category defined by unoccupied public spaces, to find that public space has been emptied by neoliberal policy. Here, the autonomy and universality of classical aesthetics have been hollowed out by monetized internet traffic and deregulated markets—and corporations want to sell you a way out of it. 

Abigail Merrick captures (ahem) the zeitgeist by positing a weak aesthetic category she calls “wraithcore,” which captures, via material gestures in art, literature, self-presentation, and daily social interaction, the feeling of being a ghost of oneself: belonging to a kind of persons whose claims to subjectivity are always open to question. Drawing on tropes of the wraith from the French Revolution, the art of Colette Lumiere, the fiction of K-Ming Chang and Emily Brönte, and China Miéville’s Gothic Marxism, this essay drifts about in its iconic white nightgown, waiting for you to ask who is really doing the haunting here.    

“Promenade,” our ekphrastic poem for this issue, is Jameson Fitzpatrick’s response to one of Chris Antemann’s porcelain bacchanals. It moves us from hauntology’s ghostly collages to the wistful problems of earthly pleasures, taking up the complicated imbrications of desire, play, gender, memory, and the making of images. 

Shinjini Dey paints a picture of Darjeeling, India, as a town where workers strive to make the scene tourists expect to see. In this tourist town, the trans-historic aesthetic category “Darjeeling” is created by both its producers and its consumers, who disseminate a constantly renewed colonial imaginary through cell phone videos and YouTube clips of local makers and their crafts.

Tom Martin’s phenomenology of Crocs moves through what we see in Crocs (they’re almost gleefully ugly), to how we perform Crocs socially (Instagram filters, so many jibbitz), to how the world is disclosed to us through wearing them (lightly, barely): foam clogs that reveal the world to us and expose us to the world.