Vacation Bible School on Hegelian philosophy and Crystal Pepsi

By Alex Mazey

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You recently wrote ‘My philosophy of Churchwaveas a subgenre of Vaporwave’. What struck me in that piece was your articulation of the Vaporwave aesthetic as a criticism of late-stage capitalism. From my first listen of Vektroid’s ‘Floral Shoppe’, I knew that there was something important being communicated by that uncanny amalgamation of sound. I’m convinced that ‘MACINTOSH PLUS – リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュ’, for example, is a poignant, allegorical song about corporate America. Do you think Vaporwave represents more than an ironic take on consumer culture?

Vacation Bible School: The remarkable thing about Vaporwave as a genre is that it is so expansive and embracing. You can use Vaporwave to do almost anything. So, I suppose my answer is: Yes, Vaporwave can represent more than an ironic take on consumer culture. I have used it in this sense before. For example, my song ‘I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be in love’ is simply a song about me trying to mentally and emotionally process getting my heart broken. After several years, I was still carrying this emotional burden of a failed relationship, and I was struggling to cope with that. I was also experiencing cognitive dissonance because I was stuck at university and had no friends. In that song, I used a sample from the split track version of the song ‘I Turned a Corner’ from Thoroughly Modern Millie, and I made a ‘field recording’ of my university’s library hang out spot. Putting the two together conveys the sound of my past and (what was then) present sadness. However, I see that song as having little to say about contemporary consumer culture. I think plenty of people use Vaporwave in that same sense. I could imagine someone in the opposite position, who had recently fallen in love, making Vaporwave tracks using sappy love songs from the 80s. That’s lots of fun, and I think it probably stays outside the frequent critique of consumerism. There are, in fact, many Vaporwave artists who treat the genre as just a meme with little or nothing to say about politics or culture.

In your piece, you quote Alican Koc’s article, ‘Do you want Vaporwave, or do you want the truth? Cognitive mapping of late capitalist affect in the virtual lifeworld of Vaporwave.’ I’m really interested in this idea of the metaphysical “elsewheres” that are captured by this kind of music. You cleverly associate this with Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds use of the term ‘hauntological.’ You say, ‘…many individuals feel haunted by a future that never came to pass. In the early years of late capitalism, society felt that it was promised a future utopia of comfort, entertainment, and technological advancement. But this utopia never came to pass. We are thus experiencing a temporal disjunction in which we are haunted by how technology and consumerism have enslaved us.’ I often see this loss as a form of bereavement. I wondered if you had any examples and/or anecdotes of the way people manifest this discomfort?

Vacation Bible School: Perhaps nostalgia could be one such example, though I’m sure that it’s a psychological phenomenon more complex than a merely hauntological interpretation. Nonetheless, there is an element within contemporary culture (at least, contemporary American culture) of returning back to the 1980s and 1990s. It’s all the rage in movies and popular television/streaming shows like ‘Stranger Things.’ Furthermore, there are plenty of subcultures dedicated to collecting retro-tech like cassettes and VHS tapes (both of which I collect, but mostly VHS). There could be a sense in which some of these individuals are trying to recapture that which was lost in the ‘digital turn’ toward smartphones and the Internet. Ironically, corporations are jumping onto this trend and selling merchandise like Blu-ray disks that come in VHS packaging.

I don’t mean to diminish these practices. Like I said, I collect VHS tapes, and it’s a lot of fun. But I think that nostalgia culture could perhaps be evidence of our contemporary feelings of hauntology. I think we are also experiencing or have experienced a ‘sublation’ of our own human nature. This both contributes to our hauntology and might be a way for thinking about its antidote. Allow me to explain. I’ve been studying Hegelian philosophy for the last few days (I was a philosophy major in college, so this is just something I do haha). And, though Hegel is nearly impossible to understand, he had this idea of ‘sublation’ and ‘dialectic unfolding of history.’ I think his ideas might be relevant to our discussion. Though Hegel himself never used these terms, subsequent philosophers have used the characterisation of “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” to summarise his dialectic understanding of rationality, reasoning processes, and the structure of thought. Hegel believed that this structure mirrored or had a proper type of correspondence to the structure of the world because humanity (and thus our thoughts) ultimately comes from the world.

Basically, you start with some particular thing (the thesis), which is then ‘sublated’. Sublation is a fancy word for ‘negated’ or ‘taken away,’ but without being fully erased – i.e., certain parts of the thing are subsumed into the new product. Perhaps this is a poor example, but I think of biological evolution as a form of sublation. Certain species might die out or go extinct, but their genetic information is passed down into the subsequent species that evolve. For example, we have about 1.5-2% inherited DNA from Neanderthals, which impact our skin, hair, and diseases (according to the ‘oracle of truth’ that is Wikipedia). Neanderthals are gone, but their DNA experienced a sublation with the continued development of Homo sapiens. So, the thesis is sublated into the ‘antithesis,’ which is kind of like the opposite of the original thesis. The third step of this reasoning process is the synthesis, in which the paradoxical relationship between the thesis and antithesis is overcome. It’s kind of like a sublation of the antithesis.

Hegel’s famous example was Being, Non-Being, and Becoming. You start out with the original thesis: Being. Being is then negated/sublated into Non-Being (the antithesis). And finally, you ‘stick the two together’ and have the synthesis of Becoming, which embracing both Being and Non-Being. How is this relevant to our discussion? Well, to speak in a very, very general characterisation of history, I think that humanity used to have an original thesis: existing in nature. This was an original natural environment to which we had been adapted for hundreds of thousands of years (or something like that). Recently within more technologically advanced cultures, we have experienced a sublation of that original nature. We now live in the antithesis: the technological society of late capitalism, digitisation, and hyper-consumerism. Though, in some respects, this technological turn has been good (e.g., medicine, quicker communication abilities, less starvation, etc.), we were promised a utopia that never came to pass, and thus contributes to our current experience of hauntology. I think the key question for our time is whether or not we can generate the ‘synthesis.’ I don’t think we will ever be able to go back to former thesis of humanity existing in nature – unless nuclear war or global warming upends our entire societal structure. But perhaps there is the possibility for a sublation of our current technological society. Perhaps we could synthesise the thesis and antithesis of nature and the late capitalist/consumerist technological society. This is a lofty hope, but I think that the first step (following the influence of my favourite philosopher Jacques Ellul) is to simply critique the current state of consumerism like we are doing.

Understanding the control that consumerism, late capitalism, and technological worship have over us is the first step toward freedom. In relation to my philosophy of Churchwave, I think we also need to recapture what it means to be religious and understand our own finitude/fragile existence. On the topic of “surplus enjoyment” in my article (see below), I mentioned that contemporary American Christianity is moving in a peculiar direction. Instead of forsaking surplus enjoyment for the object (like capitalism is currently doing), churches are forsaking the object (God and ‘Christlike’ ethical living) for the sake of surplus enjoyment (intense emotional experiences, quasi-religious experiences, etc.). While humanity is facing the existential threat of climate change and escalating wars, churches have retreated into their own subjective emotions. While swarms of individuals are experiencing existential dread/hopelessness and only being treated with chemical regulation (e.g., Xanax), churches are ignoring the problem altogether or (at best) giving pseudo-answers like ‘just have more faith.’ I think this is the ultimate form of selfishness (and I say this as someone who is still a Christian). If we are ever to find ‘the synthesis’ that I talked about before, I think religion will need to turn away from its current selfishness and be willing to get our hands dirty. Sorry for that long answer and hopefully I don’t sound too preachy! Haha.

I once wrote that ‘through the artifice of marketing, we are caged inside false perspectives of ourselves as imperfect beings from which products can be used to repair our ever-accumulating deficiencies.’ I suppose it was a part of a broader attack on the current milieu of Late-Stage Capitalism. When we say words like ‘Late-Stage Capitalism’, people are quick to assume we’re a wailing, blue-haired Marxist. Why do you think people are so hostile to this kind of criticism?

Vacation Bible School: First of all, I totally agree with what you said about marketing. Second, I’m not entirely sure about the hostility, but I have a few guesses. One easy possibility is that the person reacting strongly to such criticism has most likely interacted with “wailing, blue-haired Marxists” who used terms like that but in an emotionally charged, judgmental, and potentially hateful manner. This is why it’s essential for us to give clear argumentation, precise definitions, and plenty of examples where you can. I think it’s also important to, as much as possible, avoid speaking in absolutes – e.g., “all capitalists are greedy pigs” or even blanket statements like “capitalism is evil.” Absolute statements can often be troublesome, misleading, or subject to counterexamples – especially in the realm of sociology or political philosophy. Of course, I’m not perfect at this, and most people aren’t, so it’s something we need to keep working at. It should also keep us charitable when interpreting what others are saying because they aren’t going to be perfect in their argument/rhetoric presentation either. Another possibility is the role of ‘the sacred’ within human thought. Jacques Ellul (whom I already mentioned) believed that one significant contributing factor holding society together is its common notion and belief about what is ‘sacred.’ In our contemporary culture, we often think of ‘sacred’ as archaic, mystical, and superstitious. But that’s not the case for Ellul. Ellul believes that the ‘sacred’ – at a sociological/anthropological level – refers to the powers, regulations, agents, artifices, mechanism, etc. that people believe in governing reality. For many individuals, the ‘invisible hand’ of capitalism is such a regulating and controlling power of our world. And to many, this control is nearly mystical and awe-inspiring. Thus, to critique something ‘sacred’ is almost to commit blasphemy.

I think this might be the case for many who want to defend capitalism avidly. I don’t mean to imply that they have no decent arguments to support their claim. Instead, I think the sometimes-visceral reactions many have toward critiques of capitalism’s function in society are based on being told that their ‘sacred’ system contains ‘profane’ elements. Nobody likes it when something he or she thinks is sacred gets called profane or immoral. It’s kind of like being told your favourite band is terrible. We can’t control everyone’s reactions to what we say. Some people won’t like hearing any critique whatsoever. However, I still think it’s essential for us always to use respectful, well-researched, and carefully outlined argumentation. And if specific phrases like ‘late-stage capitalism’ continuously distract from the point we are trying to make, perhaps we need to use new, more precise terminology.

I loved that you mentioned Slavoj Zizek’s idea of ‘surplus enjoyment.’ You write: ‘You do not simply enjoy the new t-shirt you purchased (i.e., the object), but you also enjoy the process of going to the mall, walking from store to store, etc. by which you found the shirt (i.e., the ritual).’ As Capitalism dies, I’ve noticed that shopping malls are becoming increasingly sepulchral. The Trafford Centre in Manchester, England, is a fascinating example of this. Between faux marble columns and palm trees, they display memorabilia from 1950’s America. (I’ve also seen shoppers mesmerised by Elton John’s piano.) It’s like the clientele treats these objects with religious fervour. Do you think people still visit these malls to see a vision of some failed utopia?

Vacation Bible School: At the individual level, I’m sure reasons vary from person to person as to why they go to the mall. But I think at a general, cultural level, seeking visions of a failed utopia might be the case. At least for me, there’s a nostalgic feeling about walking through a mall. It reminds me of the good times I had as a child when my family used to go shopping (which was the late 90s and early 2000s). Traversing through a mall brings me back to that former optimism I (at least unconsciously) felt about the future. In fact, while in college, I would sometimes go off and do my studying or writing in the local mall. Being in that atmosphere was enjoyable because it was both fun and nostalgic but also sad – kind of like a real-life ‘tragicomedy.’ I also know that malls might not be around forever, and I want to be able to experience it while I can. They call it ‘surplus enjoyment’ because it IS enjoyable. Scrolling through Amazon just doesn’t have the same level of subjective pleasure. Internet browsing feels like an impersonal chore, and thus feels ‘less real’ than physically standing in the store and interacting with actual items. There’s an entire subgenre of Vaporwave called ‘Mallsoft’ that captures this sentiment perfectly. It sounds like ghost music playing in an abandoned mall. It definitely conveys that sense of nostalgia and failed utopia we are talking about. So at least that community certainly views malls the way you were describing.

What’s more interesting than a shopping mall is a dead mall – left completely abandoned. Have you ever visited a dead mall, or would you be interested in visiting one with me? I’m thinking we could do a ‘Netflix Original.’

Vacation Bible School: I have not visited an abandoned mall, though I would like to. My favourite mall as a child was called North Hills Mall, and it was shut down while I was still young. I’ve seen pictures online of North Hills now abandoned, and it was quite eerie – and rather sad. A Netflix original about abandoned malls would be super dope. I would definitely watch that. There are also lots of cool videos on YouTube where people go through abandoned malls.

Have you ever tried Crystal Pepsi?

Vacation Bible School: Yes, I have! They had it for a special limited time at my university. Unfortunately, I only got to have it once before they stopped carrying it. From what I remember, it kind of tasted like mixing together Pepsi and Sprite.

You write that advertisement campaigns promoted drinking Crystal Pepsi as a quasi-sexual experience. ‘One must be conditioned to see the object as almost sacred and possessing significantly more worth than what it truly has.’ Have you ever read the work of Jean Baudrillard, particularly his ideas surrounding sign-value? For Baudrillard, society is structured around the consumption of commodities that symbolise prestige and/or identity. Consequently, these commodities correlate with an individual’s standing within the realm of sign value. Sign-value requires participants to be conditioned to see beyond the material-value, and I think that’s what you were getting at in your Crystal Pepsi analysis. Have I got that, right?

Vacation Bible School: Yes, that sounds correct. I’m actually not familiar with Baudrillard, but that sounds really interesting. I’ll have to look into it more. The relationship between consuming commodities and constructing one’s identity is really interesting. It reminds me of one of my other favourite philosophers, Rene Girard. One of his main theories was that of ‘mimetic desires.’ Rooted with the ‘mirror neurons’ of our brains, we humans possess the ability to ‘put ourselves in someone else’s shoes’ at a higher degree than other animals (at least that we know of). Because we ‘take on’ the perspective of another person, this allows us to take on new forms of desire. For example, imagine a bunch of children at a birthday party. They are playing with one another and having a good time. Suddenly, one child grabs a balloon and says, “This balloon is mine.” What will happen next? Most likely, the other children will search for their own balloon as well. Fascinatingly, this desire for the balloon is entirely arbitrary. There is nothing about the object itself that would typically generate a strong desire for possession.

Instead, the other children take on the desire for a balloon because they are copying the first child. We, humans, are prone to want things simply because other people want them. Girard labelled this phenomenon as “mimetic desire.” At the sociological level, marketing adds often work according to mimetic desire. In fact, this is necessary to sustain a capitalist-consumerist culture. By showing me advertisement of other people loving certain commodities, it helps generate a passion within me for those same commodities, which I would typically never think of. But of course, not every advertisement will appeal to me. Instead, I choose certain brands or public figures whose aesthetic I wish to emulate. Thus, part of my identity is constructing through the act of mimicking advertisement. I like what you were saying about Baudrillard. I think it would be interesting to combine his notions of sign-value and seeing beyond material value with Girard’s theory about mimetic desire. The two seem to play into one another.

Talk to me about your music. How do you describe ‘Vacation Bible School?’

Vacation Bible School: I started the project almost a year ago. I had been listening to Vaporwave for about two years, and I finally decided to give it a shot myself. Since Vaporwave involves lots of sampling from retro music, I thought old Christian music would be an ‘untapped reservoir’ of potential. I decided to call the genre-style “Churchwave.” My artist name “Vacation Bible School” comes from an event that most American churches put on during the summer. A bunch of children go to a church, and then they are taught about the Bible through skits, games, craft-making, music, etc. This is the biggest event of the entire year for children’s ministry. I wanted part of my music to recall and draw upon that innocent, loving, optimistic, and child-like experience of religion. Though admittedly, I only went to VBS once as a kid, and I hated it. It’s just a sanctuary filled with screaming children and the worst music you will ever hear in your life.

My first album was “Romans 13.” The title comes from Romans 13:1-4, which are some of the most abused and misunderstood verses in the Bible. They’ve been twisted to support everything from slavery to Nazism to unabashed evangelical support of Donald Trump. The best recent example was when Jeff Sessions tried to use Romans 13 to justify separating immigrant children from their parents at the border. I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical community – even attending a fundamentalist private school from 3rd grade until graduation. When I got into college, I studied philosophy and theology and realised that my upbringing was quite distant from reality. Though I didn’t abandon Christianity entirely (after all, most of the Christian tradition contradicts fundamentalism evangelicalism), interacting with religion is now a haunting and sorrowful experience.

Furthermore, 2016-2017 was an extremely troubling time for me. Seeing the community in which I grew up strongly and unwaveringly support Trump and his policies were difficult to wrap my head around. That struggle and pain gave birth to my first album. Basically, my goal was to demonstrate that paradox of mixing Trumpian politics with Christianity. I made ‘Vaporwave’ remixes of classic Christian worship songs, and then added sound bites of Trump talking or his evangelical supporters defending him. Obviously, the two elements do not go together at all, which is kind of the point. But beyond political or religious critique, I wanted to convey an emotional experience. Looking back on my former religious life in fundamentalist Christianity can be painful for me. Though I still attend church (in a non-evangelical Christian tradition), doing so is difficult. To me, the music of churchwave sounds like what church feels to me – I wanted to capture that pain in music. It’s like walking through an abandoned church building, and hearing ghosts attempt to play worship music. My subsequent albums have touched on other themes. Sometimes, I make an album about a particularly interesting period in recent Church history. For example, there is my album ‘The Jesus Movement’ which is about a religious movement in the 70s that was filled with a bunch of Christian hippies, before the movement was eclipsed by the Religious Right movement. Fun fact: Bob Dylan actually converted to evangelical Christianity during that time, and released two Christian albums.

Another such example is “Holy Unblack Metal” which is about the Christian black metal movement, and also “Crisis Theology” which is about theology in the early 20th century. My other churchwave albums include “Analog Resurrection” which was made using samples from old Christian cassette tapes and vinyl records that I found in my grandparents’ house. “Fall Festivals and the Satanic Panic” is my Halloween album that samples nostalgic Halloween music and other audio/music clips from Satanic warning documentaries that were all the rage in the 1980s Christianity. I have a Christmas Vaporwave album called “Christmastime at North Hills Mall.” Also, perhaps my second most popular album is “Youth Group Experience,” which is similar to “Romans 13,” but not as political. I also make plenty of Churchwave and Vaporwave art, which can be found on my social media profiles. I can usually be found if you search for “churchwave” or “churchwave-vbs.”

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