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This article describes how a form of pedagogy modeled on vaporwave musical and visual compositions can offer a strong contrast to simplified visions of students' positions vis-à-vis socioeconomic change. Vaporwave is a microgenre of music that emerged on the Internet in the 2010s. It is characterized by an extensive use of slowed-down audio loops sampled from kitschy sources, such as easy-listening and mall music. The microgenre's aesthetics are inspired by the early days of the Internet, as exemplified in the musical piece リサフランク 420 / 現代のコンピュ (Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing) by Macin-tosh Plus. This article rethinks teaching methods that rely on anti-rhetorical tropes such as irony, detachment, or appeals to authenticity to discuss philosophical concepts related to public discourse and consumerism. It shows instead that vaporwave creations do not suppress the intimate affective relationships students have developed with brands and consumption practices. This article then develops a vaporwave-informed pedagogy which allows teachers and students to investigate these socioeconomic connections and myths through creation , and productively considers their capacity to reshape local media ecologies.
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Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies
Vol. 16, No. 3 (2020)
ISSN: 1557-2935 <>
Vaporwave Pedagogy: Multimodal Learning
with an Internet Music Microgenre
Guillaume Loignon and Philippe Messier
This article describes how a form of pedagogy modeled on vaporwave musical
and visual compositions can offer a strong contrast to simplified visions of stu-
dents’ positions vis-à-vis socioeconomic change. Vaporwave is a microgenre of
music that emerged on the Internet in the 2010s. It is characterized by an ex-
tensive use of slowed-down audio loops sampled from kitschy sources, such as
easy-listening and mall music. The microgenre’s aesthetics are inspired by the
early days of the Internet, as exemplified in the musical piece
420 /
(Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing) by Macin-
tosh Plus. This article rethinks teaching methods that rely on anti-rhetorical
tropes such as irony, detachment, or appeals to authenticity to discuss philo-
sophical concepts related to public discourse and consumerism. It shows instead
that vaporwave creations do not suppress the intimate affective relationships
students have developed with brands and consumption practices. This article
then develops a vaporwave-informed pedagogy which allows teachers and stu-
dents to investigate these socioeconomic connections and myths through crea-
tion, and productively considers their capacity to reshape local media ecologies.
Keywords: multimodal anthropology, music genres, internet com-
munities, media infrastructures, philosophy of education
When vaporwave emerged in 2012, the authors of this paper were involved in
a protest movement. Days spent holding signs and chanting anti-neoliberal
Guillaume Loignon is a doctoral student in education sciences at the University
of Montréal. His doctoral research uses eye tracking technology to investigate the
reading processes that enable the comprehension of philosophical texts. He is also
interested in the ethical aspects of education research and has been a philosophy
teacher for about ten years. Philippe Messier is a sociocultural and visual anthro-
pologist, and an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthro-
pology at the University of Prince Edward Island. He primarily researches the
relationship between economic and technological transformations in South Asia.
Messier also researched state media and national integration in Vietnam. His
work has been published in Verge: Studies in Global Asias, Visual Anthropology, An-
thropologie et Sociétés, and Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
slogans were often followed by watching protest videos on YouTube. Through
the cryptic algorithms of YouTube suggestions, one of the authors of this ar-
ticle (Guillaume Loignon), a college philosophy teacher, stumbled upon a dis-
concerting combination of music and images referred to asvaporwave’.
Vaporwave provoked nostalgia for objects of consumerism and corporate cul-
tureeven for products he had never bought or consumed. The contrast with
the protest movement’s aesthetic was jarring. What is more, vaporwave was
gaining in popularity amongst the students, suggesting opportunities to revisit
teaching materials and practices: how did vaporwave work’, and what could
teachers learn from it?
This article argues that vaporwave a microgenre made of the aggrega-
tion of musical and visual aesthetics from the 80s and 90s can serve as a
pedagogical source for teaching philosophical and anthropological concepts.
Vaporwave is a musical and visual aesthetic that emerged on the Internet in
early 2012. The term itself is a play on vaporware, i.e., products or features that
are advertised by companies with the deliberate intention of creating a hype,
but never reach the market. A key feature of vaporwave music is the collage
of slowed-down audio samples borrowed from “‘taboo’ electronic sounds” or
“elevator music”: generally music from the 1980s and 1990s that has been re-
jected as exemplifying bad taste, such as smooth jazz, Muzak®, Japanese city
pop, new age, etc.
Vaporwave music is often combined with images or video
segments in a recognizable aesthetic that typically combines nouveau riche
kitsch (Greek statuary being a common element) with imagery relating to the
early days of the Internet, consumer culture, hedonism, 1980s and 1990s Ja-
pan, and the corporate culture of this period. These audiovisuals are presented
without clear ironical or parodic purpose revealing, as we will show, that cre-
ating an affective relationship with the material is part of the experience, as
emphasized by the various techniques used by vaporwave artists to point to-
wards the technical aspects of the creation, diffusion and consumption of
vaporwave art.
Using a multimodal analysis focused on media materiality, this article
takes the glitchy videos and low-quality sounds remediated by vaporwave art-
ists seriously. We show how vaporwave’s constitutive audio and video tech-
niques shed new light on old and new inquiries by helping students reframe
concepts and abstract thoughts. The article explores how vaporwave artists
navigate the contemporary “sonic infrastructures” they inhabit, developing
“sonic skills” by mastering “[...] the entwinement of listening skill (and the
ability to engage in different modes of listening) with concrete practical skills
Georgina Born and Christopher Haworth, “From Microsound to Vaporwave: Inter-
net-Mediated Musics, Online Methods, and Genre,” Music & Letters 98, no. 4 (No-
vember 2017): 60147; Laura Glitsos, “Vaporwave, or Music Optimised for Aban-
doned Malls,” Popular Music 37, no. 1 (January 2018): 100118; Gearon Schembri and
Jac Tichbon, “Digital Consumers as Cultural Curators: The Irony of Vaporwave,”
Arts and the Market 7, no. 2 (2017): 191212.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
in the making, recording, storing and retrieving of sound.”
These artists also
dabble with different video formats and algorithmically-produced colors, cre-
ating artistic forms, as well as research experiments, which delve into “[…]
archival examination of the materiality of media object.”
Through these pro-
cesses, vaporwave artists uncover media ecologies, which slowly emerge as
they carry out their explorations. Furthermore, by putting vaporwave audio-
visuals in dialogue with the sounds and images used in our classrooms (such
as ‘anti-ads’, Plato’s Allegory of the cave and the movie The Matrix), we reflect
on how students can be led to engage critically with brands and consumer
practices. This article describes how the multilayered and non-linear compo-
sitions of vaporwave creations can inform a new pedagogy which offers a
strong contrast to ‘anti-rhetorical’ discourses that reinforce simplified visions
of students’ positions vis-à-vis socioeconomic change.
This article comprises two main, interrelated parts. First, we examine
vaporwave techniques across a set of examples recognized by the vaporwave
online community as particularly representative of the microgenre’s predomi-
nant characteristics.
This analysis offers a comprehensive review of the schol-
arly discussion on vaporwave’s (very short) history, bringing out its nascent
tendencies, principal actors, and material infrastructure. We then show how
our observations reveal substantial disconnections with another other media
movement Adbusterswhich, in the 1990s, aimed to disrupt the mainstream
discourses on consumer habits within capitalist societies. Second, we highlight
how teaching philosophical concepts by means of a typical classroom activity
comparing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave with the movie The Matrix can be
productively challenged and improved by the vaporwave artists’ novel in-
sights. In particular, we point to vaporwave creations’ seemingly generalized
capacity to induce paradoxical affects by rebuilding our relationships with
products and branding strategies, neither wholly refusing nor embracing a re-
sistance posture wholesale.
The article concludes with a set of recommended teaching orientations
which form the basis of a multimodal, vaporwave-informed pedagogy. Our
approach acknowledges how concepts and ideas are discovered in the inter-
play between modes of communication and their infrastructural foundations.
It proposes that research experimentation with sounds and images can shape
philosophical and anthropological teaching going forward.
We are especially interested here in what Adam Kielman describes as “[...] the tech-
nical infrastructures that transmit mediated sounds, from copper wires to compact
discs to social networking websites.” See Adam Kielman, “Sonic infrastructures, mu-
sical circulation and listening practices in a changing People’s Republic of China,”
Sound Studies 4, no. 1 (2018): 22; Joeri Bruyninckx and Alexandra Supper, “Sonic
skills in cultural contexts: theories, practices and materialities of listening,” Sound Stud-
ies 2, no. 1(2016): 2.
Carolyn Kane, Chromatic Algorithms Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after
Code. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 3.
This article is based on the authors’ reflections on their teaching practices as well as
extended discussions with colleagues over the years.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
Multimodal vaporwave
Multimodal anthropology considers that visual and audio information is trans-
mitted across different modes, and that these types of information are intrinsic
parts of ethnographic material and analysis (see also ‘audiovisual anthropol-
The multimodal approach proposes that sound shapes image (and vice
versa) within specific media ecologies.
In the analysis below, we build on McKerrell and Way, who understand
music “[...] as a communicative element embedded within multimodal dis-
course alongside modes such as text, still images, moving images, colour, ges-
ture and other sounds.”
On this view, music is one mode among many; its
signals and frequencies can move beyond its original recording, playback, and
formats. Similarly, a video is recorded and played back across other modes of
communication it reverberates beyond its original boundaries, finding a
niche in the media ecology. For instance, while an ethnographic film is shown
in class, students may talk on their cellphones, look out the windows at street
ads, scroll through GIFs on the Internet, sing along (silently) to a pop song
recorded as an MP3, feel vibrations from a car’s loud engine passing by, and
jot down questions about the film. These interconnected forms of technologi-
cal mediation overlap, shaping students’ learning in and out of the classroom.
The contribution of a multimodal approach lies in understanding each
form of mediation of lived experience as a piece of a larger whole to be recom-
posed. The material and sensory aspects of these mediations are to be analyzed
with respect to their specific (singular) and parallel (collective) relationships
to a given affective situation. For example, if researchers attract students’ at-
tention to digital noise in a video sequence, these students may reflect on the
paucity of light, its impact on night vision, and its effects on color perception
and reproduction. Through this reflection, students can understand that the
same infrastructural situation likely presents similar conditions of creation for,
say, the cellphone selfies they take. They can recognize how digital noise and
the fading-out of colors connect with social actors’ everyday environment.
Students learn that a poorly-lit workspace, music show, or family gathering
can morph into, and be represented by, the excessive noise found in digital
videos and photos.
Lucien Taylor, “Visual Anthropology Is Dead, Long Live Visual Anthropology!,”
American Anthropologist 100, no. 2 (1998): 534-537.
Simon McKerrell and Lyndon C.C. Way, “Understanding Music as Multimodal Dis-
course.” in Music as Multimodal Discourse. Semiotics, Power and Protest (London: Blooms-
bury, 2017): 2.
We agree with Ihde and Malafouris’ premise that “[m]ateriality and the forms of tech-
nical mediation that humans make and use are not passive or neutral but actively
shape what we are in a given historical moment.” Don Ihde and Lambros Malafouris,
“Homo faber Revisited: Postphenomenology and Material Engagement Theory.” Phi-
losophy & Technology 32, no. 2(2019): 209.
Carolyn Kane, Chromatic Algorithms Synthetic Color, Computer Art, and Aesthetics after
Code. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
Our argument follows this pedagogical perspective, proposing that aes-
thetics are not only created through dominant material infrastructures in a
given context, but also refer to them. These material infrastructures shape aes-
thetic patterns; they become standardized and expected modalities of interac-
Indeed, as Gershon & Bell rightly remind us: “[…] infrastructural deci-
sions by companies and governments also strongly affect how people can nav-
igate the media ecologies surrounding them.”
Our aim is to explain how
vaporwave artists have successfully emphasized such connections, how their
techniques have shaped the very existence of vaporwave as a new music mi-
crogenre, and how this ongoing process could inform teaching practices.
Vaporwave artists creatively tinker with audio frequencies and visual
representations to produce intimate connections with listeners’ materially im-
agined pasts. These young artists have notoriously remixed audio tracks from
90s shopping malls, which evoke elusive memories of utopian capitalist sys-
tems, emerging and yet fading away in the slowed-down tempos beloved by
fans. This process has highlighted the radical indeterminacy of vaporwave’s
historical inspirations, which has been both revealed and diluted by the mi-
crogenre’s hypnotic audio loops, glitchy VHS signature, and Windows 95
color palette.
We focus on vaporwave’s technical characteristics with a view to ad-
dressing students’ understanding of abstract ideas and arguments. As we dis-
cuss vaporwave’s transparent and deliberate aesthetic and technical pecu-
liarities, we sketch a pedagogical approach that takes students' aesthetic intu-
itions seriously. Our argument is itself woven into the multilayered and open-
ended characteristics of vaporwave a creative form to ‘think with’ in the
classroom. Because vaporwave is a microgenre defined by and made of
constant re-arrangements of other media, we propose to invite students “[...]
to reflect on [the] media ecologies in which they are already imbricated, and
[to challenge] them to engage these forms and practices in innovative ways.”
In particular, we focus on the ways in which vaporwave tracks are inscribed
in the sensory and material environments of their creator’s imagined inspira-
Vaporwa ve music and materiality
Loops of degraded, kitschy audio are a recurrent trait of vaporwave music,
paralleling and complementing the animated GIF loops and video collages of
Brian Larkin, “Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infra-
structure of Piracy,” Public Culture 16, no. 2(2004): 289-314.
Ilana Gershon and Joshua A. Bell, “Introduction: The Newness of New Media,” Cul-
ture, Theory and Critique 54, no. 3(2013): 260.
Samuel Gerald Collins, Matthew Durington, and Harlant Gill. “Multimodality: An
Invitation.” American Anthropologist 119, no. 1(2017): 144.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
vaporwave visual art.
As noted by Glitsos: “The Vaporwave song structure
is usually short and repetitive, often slow (sitting around 6090 bpm) with
vocal samples positioned low in the mix saturated with heavy reverb and often
slowed down to produce a ‘stretched out’ effect or a ‘melting’ quality.”
Vaporwave distinguishes itself from other electronic and sample-based music
genres by using different processes to point towards its own materiality, such
as degrading the quality of the audio or by mindfully selecting audio textures
that are artificial and surreal. Vaporwave is indeed embedded in a dynamic
process by which the “[…] material dimension creates and gives form to the
discursive, and vice versa.”
Adam Trainer shows how vaporwave’s deliberate audio degradation al-
lows the artist to summon the past, both in the content of the loop and in the
way the audio sample is modified and presented.
Lisa Frank 420 Modern com-
puting by Macintosh Plus is the iconic example of such a process. Built around
a sample borrowed from Diana Ross’ 1984 hit song It’s your move, this track
uses various techniques to highlight its own materiality. The main sample is
‘downpitched’, an effect which evokes an analog recording playing at a lower
speed, but which also makes the limitations of the digital format more appar-
ent. In the digital domain, downpitching causes audio degradation, as it lowers
the sampling rate,
which is associated with the audio quality. This effect,
which has been interpreted as a form of distortion, is a common technical trope
in vaporwave music.
Slowing down the audio sample also affects its general
tonal qualities. Figure 1 below compares the audio signature (spectrum) of the
track’s main sample with and without a 25% decrease in pitch and demon-
strates the resulting change in the audio spectrum.
In Lisa Frank 420 Modern computing, the choice of splicing points for the
loops makes the ‘chopped’ nature of the loops more apparent. Some of the
words in the original melody are now heard in a different order, with syllables
abruptly cut. At the end of the track, the artist ‘reloops’ shorter bits of Diana
Ross’ song in a seemingly random manner, evoking a scratched CD (an effect
likely achieved using the Beat Repeater plug-in built in Ableton Live audio
editing software).
Raphaël Nowak and Andrew Whelan, “‘Vaporwave Is (Not) a Critique of Capital-
ism’: Genre Work in an Online Music Scene,” Open Cultural Studies 2, no. 1 (2018):
Glitsos, “Vaporwave, or Music Optimised for Abandoned Malls,” 100.
Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies.
(Open Humanities Press: Ann Arbor, 2012): 91.
Adam Trainer, “From Hypnagogia to Distroid: Postironic Musical Renderings of
Personal Memory,” in The Oxford Handbook of Music and Virtuality, ed. Sheila Whiteley
and Shara Rambarran, Ebook Central (New York, NY: Oxford University Press,
2016), 41927.
The sampling rate is the frequency at which the analog-to-digital converter captures
the signal and converts it to binary data.
Schembri and Tichbon, “Digital Consumers as Cultural Curators.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
Fig. 1: Spectrum analysis of the It’s your move sample in its original form (top) and
slowed-down by 25% (bottom). The audio information above 13000Hz almost disap-
Pointing towards materiality in music production can also be achieved
with techniques that transform ‘clean’ tracks to make them sound highly arti-
ficial. Obvious examples of this technique are James Ferraro’s Far Side Vir-
This vaporwave album is not built on degraded and kitschy loops, but
instead prioritizes artificial-sounding MIDI instruments. It is mixed to accen-
tuate the high end of the audio spectrum, evoking the harshness of early digital
Although quality degradation involves a loss of information in the signal,
the deliberate degrading in vaporwave sometimes seems to add information.
Indeed, the technique reveals hidden characteristics that are sonically pleasing
and contribute to defining the genre. The audio treatment of the samples in
vaporwave gives the tracks a general feeling that has been described as
“warm” or “[pulsating] with an enigmatic intensity.”
For instance, the track
A more detailed analysis of this album can be found in Trainer, “From Hypnagogia
to Distroid: Postironic Musical Renderings of Personal Memory,” 415-416.
Nowak and Whelan, “‘Vaporwave Is (Not) a Critique of Capitalism’: Genre Work in
An Online Music Scene”; Padraic Killeen, “Burned Out Myths and Vapour Trails:
Vaporwave’s Affective Potentials,” Open Cultural Studies 2, no. 1 (March 2018): 626
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
B:/Start Up by Blank Banshee samples the startup sounds of Macintosh OS and
Windows 95 computers (the latter created by composer Brian Eno) and plays
with the pitch to emphasize the audio textures while creating an actual mel-
ody. Such audio doctoring and collaging can sometimes generate artefacts that
appear as emergent properties. For instance, in Lisa Frank 420 Modern compu-
ting, the words “It’s all in your hands” sung by Diana Ross, once playfully
mutated by Macintosh Plus, come to be heard as “It’s all in your head.” Simi-
larly, in Eccojams A3, Daniel Lopatin (as Chuck Person) brings new meaning
to a song by recycling the American teen pop hit Too Little, Too Late by JoJo.
Lopatin’s audio treatment makes the background vocals of the sampled mate-
rial blend with the synthesizers, creating a new dreamy sonic texture reminis-
cent of his earlier synthesiser-based work released as Oneohtrix Point Never.
The resulting track triggers a bittersweet, nostalgic mood which is intensified
by a looped vocal sample (mis)heard as “Be real, it doesn’t matter anyway,
you know it’s just a little too late” repeated into meaninglessness perhaps
highlighting the repetitive nature of earworms, or prolonging the “eternal pop
Images of vaporwave
Vaporwave graphic images, video collages, photographs, and animated GIFs
function as a collection of visual tropes that have emerged online as a new
artistic style. Text is sometimes present in the form of single words or short
sentences, predominantly in English or Japanese, often with surreal content
pastiching the existential musings of motivational posters and self-help litera-
ture. The presentation of these tropes through filters, like pastel tints, VCR
effects or digital glitches, exposes the materiality of production techniques in
a manner similar to vaporwave’s audio treatment.
Vaporwave art will usually employ several of these technical tropes in the
form of a collage, whether in a standalone form or accompanied by music that
enhances the visuals (and vice-versa). The presentation of visual elements of-
ten suggests expanding and shrinking space a treatment that creates a visual
scene affecting how the music is perceived. This process of world-building is
itself a vaporwave visual trope. For example, the cover of the album Floral
Shoppe has turned into an iconic vaporwave image by visually imagining its
own possible world: the image shows a bust of the Greek god Helios on a
checkered pattern floor leading to a picture of the New York skyline with the
Twin Towers still present.
The music of Floral Shoppe seems to emanate from
this alternate reality, an impression reinforced by the audio treatment (mostly
downpitching and reverb) which is consistent from track to track. The process
of associating music with a visual theme can be found in other niche genres
Trainer, “From Hypnagogia to Distroid: Postironic Musical Renderings of Personal
Memory,” 414.
An archived version can be accessed at the following URL:
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
such as progressive rock and afro-futurism.
In vaporwave, however, this
process is used systematically to argue for the categorization of a track as
Fig. 2: Screen captures from the YouTube website shows a compilation of vaporwave
music accompanied by genre-appropriate visuals.
Vaporwave art has developed through collaborative processes enabled by
the Internet platforms accessed by vaporwave’s newly formed community. To
analyze these overlapping collaborations across platforms, we follow Dicks et
al. in considering that “meaning is produced through the inter-relationships
between and among different media and modes.”
Collective and public judg-
ment about vaporwave-ness is indeed part of the vaporwave experience, as is the
specific categorization into subgenres – a frequent topic on the Reddit vapor-
wave community.
Users who believe that a proposed piece is vaporwave can
Ken McLeod, “Space Oddities: Aliens, Futurism and Meaning in Popular Music,”
Popular Music 22, no. 3 (October 2003): 33755.
Bella Dicks, Bambo Soyinka, and Amanda Coffey, “Multimodal ethnography,” Qual-
itative Research 6, no. 1(2006): 78.
Reddit users inquiring about subgenres of vaporwave will often be redirected to a
chart available at: Readers should also consider this
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
express this aesthetic judgement through the platform’s voting system, but
they also often use the single-word comment, “aesthetics” or “aesthetic,” writ-
ten at times with Unicode characters: “aesthetic.”
This collab-
orative process indicates that aesthetic judgment is ingrained in vaporwave
subculture in a bottom-up, folksonomic process that expands and sustains the
This also demonstrates that the vaporwave community is very
much aware of both the digital historicity of the Internet (shown by the ‘early
Internet’ visual trope of the Unicode script) and the contemporary possibilities
of the Internet as a medium of communication and artistic expression.
In other words, the combination of vaporwave music with vaporwave
visuals, as shown in Figure 2, may allow the content creator to nudge collec-
tive judgment towards a classification of the music as vaporwave. This folk-
sonomic process is made possible by Internet platforms such as Tumblr, reddit
and YouTube.
What is vaporwave about?
Vaporwave has been commonly interpreted as a critique of capitalism.
interpretation first appeared in a 2012 article by Adam Harper, in the online
magazine Dummy. The association of vaporwave with ‘capitalism’ might seem
obvious, considering its selection of images and sounds referencing various
forms of market capitalism. But Harper appears to have made generalizations
based only on the early vaporwave music efforts that did adhere to this narra-
Nowak and Whelan propose instead that this narrative worked as an
origin story which helped consolidate vaporwave in its beginnings and contin-
reddit discussion about the co-construction of the genre, available on the Vaporwave
Described in Killeen, “Burned Out Myths and Vapour Trails: Vaporwave’s Affective
Potentials,” 626. Unicode is a normalized system for encoding characters. The second
representation of the word “aesthetic” shown here borrows its Roman letters from a
script initially meant for East Asian countries like Japan, resulting in the apparent
spaces between the letters.
Born and Haworth, “From Microsound to Vaporwave: Internet-Mediated Musics,
Online Methods, and Genre.
Born, Georgina, and Christopher Haworth. “Mixing It: Digital Ethnography and
Online Research MethodsA Tale of Two Global Digital Music Genres.” In The
Routledge Companion to Digital Ethnography, pp. 96-112. Routledge, 2017.
Nowak and Whelan, “‘Vaporwave Is (Not) a Critique of Capitalism’: Genre Work in
An Online Music Scene.”
Born and Haworth, “From Microsound to Vaporwave: Internet-Mediated Musics,
Online Methods, and Genre”; Killeen, “Burned Out Myths and Vapour Trails: Vapor-
wave’s Affective Potentials.”
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
ues to influence the genre, even after it was later rejected by the artists them-
In other words, it is possible that Harper’s interpretation worked as
a self-fulfilling prophecy, motivating artists to use images and sounds associ-
ated with capitalism. Following Harper, vaporwave has also been described
by Glitsos as the “hollow” expression of repressed trauma, and by Koc as the
melancholic expression of the “bleak affective space of late-capitalism.”
vaporwave’s positive, muted, warm, soft, sometimes even cheerful and utopian
visions appear instead to point to specific social phenomena notably mass
consumption which have been associated with capitalism, or in some cases,
market socialism.
As a genre, vaporwave has maintained an ongoing relationship with con-
sumer practices. Music genres that recruit sounds from the past to take a po-
litical stance, such as electroclash, will often employ ostentatious irony to cre-
ate distance “as a means of disavowing any ideological link with the appropri-
ated material.”
Below, we show how this process has also been used by the
Adbusters ‘culture jamming’ movement. But vaporwave turns this around: the
feelings of nostalgia aim to create a connection with the appropriated material:
in this case, images and sounds associated with consumer and corporate cul-
tures. Insofar as listeners are affectively connected with the appropriated ma-
terial, they become mindful of their stance inside consumerist societies. In so
doing, vaporwave art demonstrates how it can itself be the very object of its
criticism. Indeed, as Nowak and Whelan suggest, “[…] what [vaporwave]
says could not be said without the commercial music it repurposes or the net-
worked platform cultures that gave rise to and sustain it (Bandcamp, 4chan,
YouTube etc.)”
The dependency on Internet platforms is here not hidden,
but revealed, just as the materiality of the music becomes apparent.
Vaporwave artists thus offer a novel solution to the paradox of criticizing
consumerism and corporate culture while being part of them, they constantly
and playfully negotiate their position within this system, and their work has
become a critique of previous efforts that prioritized irony and detachment.
Nowak and Whelan, “‘Vaporwave Is (Not) a Critique of Capitalism’: Genre Work in
An Online Music Scene.”
Glitsos, “Vaporwave, or Music Optimised for Abandoned Malls,” 107; Alican Koc,
“Do You Want Vaporwave, or Do You Want the Truth?: Cognitive Mapping of Late
Capitalist Affect in the Virtual Lifeworld of Vaporwave,” Capacious: Journal for Emerg-
ing Affect Inquiry 1, no. 1 (2017): 60.
Luvaas, Brent. 2006. “Re-Producing Pop: The Aesthetics of Ambivalence in a Con-
temporary Dance Music.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 9(2): 167187.
Quoted in Trainer, “From Hypnagogia to Distroid: Postironic Musical Renderings of
Personal Memory,” 417. For irony in electroclash, see also David Madden, “Cross-
dressing to Backbeats: the Status of the Electroclash Producer and the Politics of
Electronic Music”. Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture 4, no. 2 (2012):
Nowak and Whelan, ‘Vaporwave Is (Not) a Critique of Capitalism’: Genre Work in
An Online Music Scene,” 2.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
Learning with/from vaporwave
Vaporwave’s critical perspective gives us an opportunity to revisit teaching
and learning processes, and to inform current pedagogical practices. Specifi-
cally, we build on Reichenbach’s analysis of educational discourse, which sug-
gests that the general failure or refusal to address a central paradox how to
impart autonomy can lead to a “kitschy agreement or conformity” lacking
nuance and complexity.
This state of “aesthetic infantilism” is characterized
by the heavy use of simplistic slogans, rigid definitions, binary thinking, and
the denial of conceptual contradictions.
We see vaporwave as moving in a different direction. Vaporwave artists
seek to cultivate ambiguity, rather than to push for specific messages. Vapor-
wave’s aesthetics suggest that even the kitschiest sounds and images of the
1980s and 1990s, which could be dismissed because of their association with
‘capitalism’, can be doctored to produce new and interesting sounds, or to re-
veal hidden melodic potential. By re-appropriating those taboo symbols with-
out irony (and its associated barriers), vaporwave artists performatively rec-
ognize their position inside global capitalism. They are also confident that the
members of the vaporwave community in which the roles of consumer, eval-
uator, and creator are often intertwined will judge them fairly.
In a more
modest sense, the vaporwave community enacts, on a small scale, the utopia
of Internet-enabled participatory democracy (itself a very vaporwave idea)
and extends their aesthetic experience through the communal performance of
aesthetic judgements, allowing the spectators to “perform their political and
cultural literacy.”
The miniature, three-dimensional realms created through vaporwave can
be interpreted as open-ended “what if” scenarios that help us think about ab-
stract concepts (e.g., capitalism, consumerism) in the context of possible pasts
and futures; they create open discursive spaces, “castles in the sky” to quote
another vocal sample from Chuck Person’s Eccojam A3and we are invited to
“step inside”.
This artistic use of metaphor aligns with Reichenbach’s view
that educational discourse should use metaphors not as kitsch persuasive
Roland Reichenbach and Bruce Maxwell, “The Power and Ambivalence of Pedagog-
ical Kitsch,” September 7, 2005, 143091.htm; Roland Reichenbach, “The
Quest of Educational Slogans,” in Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory, ed.
Michael A. Peters (Singapore: Springer Singapore, 2016): 16.
Roland Reichenbach and Bruce Maxwell, “The Power and Ambivalence of Pedagog-
ical Kitsch.”
The Internet has expanded the “prosumer” status, helping one to embrace these dif-
ferent activities. See George Ritzer, Paul Dean, and Nathan Jurgenson, “The Coming
Age of the Prosumer,” American Behavioral Scientist 56(2012): 37998.
Nowak and Whelan, “‘Vaporwave Is (Not) a Critique of Capitalism’: Genre Work in
An Online Music Scene,” 458.
The idea that vaporwave invites us to step inside is borrowed from Alican Koc, “Do
You Want Vaporwave, or Do You Want the Truth?,” 60.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
tools, but as epistemological devices to help us think about complex ideas.
Our view is that the vaporwave online community demonstrates the kind of
aesthetic maturity that Reichenbach envisages for educational discourse.
Vaporwave art can open up class discussions regarding a set of epistemologi-
cal virtues that we summarize as follows: to be open-minded, to question the
questions, to consider the standpoint from which you are reflecting, to con-
sider the judgments and insights of others, to be skeptical of labels which seem
too clear or solutions which seem too perfect.
Vaporwave’s multimodal grounding leads us to wonder: “what new op-
portunities for resistance does multimodal invention offer” for both our re-
search and pedagogical strategies in the classroom?
Vaporwave might afford
students opportunities, not by sweeping aside mass-marketed products and
brands, but by temporarily bracketing their affective resonance through over-
saturation across modalities and their interplays, from down-pitched samples
to broken VHS tape effects. Moreover, we expect students to easily see how
multimodality operates at the junction of the digital infrastructures and plat-
forms that they experience daily and often master already. One such infra-
structure, which retains a glow of technological ‘newness’ (judging by current
‘edugaming’ platforms) is the 3D rendering of virtual spaces, clearly exposed
through its pixelated beginnings in the music video for the track Lisa Frank
For our students, virtual design the creation of possible worlds through
a digitally-coded infrastructure and its corollaries immersive virtual reality
(VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) are current ways to imagine social inter-
actions, rather than faraway futures. With its ‘kitsch’ 3D animations of virtual
spaces, objects, and actions which rarely obey laws of physics, vaporwave cre-
ations can serve as a timely if indirect call for dialogue among students of
fine arts, architecture, and engineering, but also philosophy and anthropology.
Below, we show how vaporwave can contribute, in humanities courses,
to a reflection on reality, public discourse, and consumerism by drawing upon
Loignon’s experience as a philosophy teacher. In the context of an introduc-
tory philosophy class, Loignon has often discussed meta-discursive strategies
that aim to convince by criticizing rhetoric, namely anti-rhetoric. The inclu-
sion in the curriculum of Plato’s Allegory of the cave, especially when com-
bined with the movie The Matrix, evokes the common theme of having to ‘wake
up’ from the illusions imposed on us by public discourse. This theme was also
central in the 1990s ‘anti-ads’ popularized by the Adbusters movement, another
form of anti-rhetoric which we discuss below in relation to vaporwave.
Roland Reichenbach, “The Quest of Educational Slogans.”
Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan and Isaac Marrero-Guillamo, “Introduction: Multimodal
Anthropology and the Politics of Invention,” American Anthropologist 121, no. 1 (2019):
41 See also Peters on how technology
is a concept biased towards newness” and compare to infrastructure. John Durham
Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: Univer-
sity of Chicago Press, 2015): 36.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
Anti-rhetoric, The Matrix, and vaporwave
In the 1990s, the Adbusters movement aimed to turn capitalism on its head by
ironically appropriating its principal imagery. To do so, the proponents of
Adbusters pioneered culture jamming: using “irony or cut-up techniques to attack
advertising and brand messages as the public manifestations of an invasive
and unequal economic system”, thus associating brands and icons of American
consumerism with negative meaning.
One way to ‘jam’ culture was to create
and disseminate ‘anti-ads’: poster-like collages mocking consumerism and cor-
porations, as shown in Figure 3 below.
Adbusters-style anti-ads often used
high contrast black-and-white images with bright red elements, creating a sig-
nature aesthetic that nodded to punk culture and went hand-in-hand with
what we could describe as the dominant aesthetic of anti-globalization protests
in the 1990s.
Adam Arvidsson, Brands: Meaning and value in media culture (New-York: Routledge):
14; Kalle Lasn, Culture Jam (New York: William Morrow, 1999).
For a critical perspective on ‘culture jamming’ as a form of rhetoric, see Nick W.
Robinson and Gina Castle Bell, “Effectiveness of Culture Jamming in Agenda Build-
ing: An Analysis of the Yes Men’s Bhopal Disaster Prank,” Southern Communication
Journal 78, no. 4 (September 1, 2013): 35268.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
Fig. 3: two examples of Adbuster anti-ads, reproduced from Kalle Lasn’s 1999 book.
Notice the eyes covered with a slogan and the software operating system message box,
visual elements now found in vaporwave art.
The founder of the Adbusters movement, Kalle Lasn, declared that the
fight against large commercial conglomerates was “the only battle still worth
fighting,” and that other battles, such as feminism and anti-racism, would
“fade into the background” once we freed ourselves from corporations.
Lasn’s 1999 book, Culture Jam, offered readers a choice between living a life
of authenticity and letting themselves be manipulated by corporate-controlled
media into superficiality and mindless consumption. This dichotomy, empha-
sized through obvious irony and detachment in Adbusters’ anti-ads, nonetheless
appears to have been rejected by vaporwave artists. As we saw earlier, vapor-
wave can be read as a reflection on consumption from inside consumer soci-
Even though vaporwave borrows much from the 1990s, it’s cultural re-
capitulation seems to deliberately avoid references to the period’s counter-cul-
tural movements, as if vaporwave had emerged from a dimension where
Adbusters, Culture Jam, ‘alternative rock’, anti-globalization protests, No Logo,
etc., had never existed.
Before Culture Jam, major brands were already marketing products by
appealing to the need for authenticity, which provided a pretext for the con-
sumer to buy mass-marketed products.
The famous 1984 Apple Macintosh
Super Bowl commercial (directed by Ridley Scott) recreated some of the ele-
ments of Plato’s Allegory: in a bleak dystopian setup, a mindless mass of pris-
oners is forced into a dark room to stare at a Big Brother figure droning on a
huge screen. An athlete then appears and throws a hammer at the screen, pro-
ducing a bright flash of light that seems both to traumatize and awaken the
prisoners. The message is clear: one should not be like the mindless masses;
one can circumvent such a fate by buying an Apple-brand computer. A few
years later, Sega broadcasted a very similar ad, promoting a new gaming con-
sole, the Genesis, with the prisoners replaced with bored teenagers playing the
rival company’s console. Marketing for the Genesis also relied on a vaguely
defined technology called blast processing. Blast processing was in fact an ex-
ample of vaporware: this technical possibility was never actually used in actual
Sega products; it only served as a marketing gimmick, although it did inspire
a few vaporwave tracks like 【Blast processing】 by
Lasn, Culture Jam, xvi.
Nowak and Whelan, “‘Vaporwave Is (Not) a Critique of Capitalism’: Genre Work in
An Online Music Scene,” 457. Adbusters have also recently addressed vaporwave by
creating a thematic feature on their website that presents a reading similar to Harper’s
Dummy magazine article. See
Carly O’Neill, Dick Houtman, and Stef Aupers, “Advertising Real Beer: Authenticity
Claims beyond Truth and Falsity,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 17, no. 5 (Octo-
ber 1, 2014): 585601.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
At the turn of the 1990s, several advertisement campaigns used the rhet-
oric of anti-rhetoric, such as the “Obey your thirst” campaign, which marketed
Sprite soft drink to teenagers using a series of ads that mocked advertising
tropes such as the use of mascots or celebrity endorsements. Just like
Adbusters, the ads for Apple, Sega, and Sprite appealed to the desire for au-
thenticity and rebellion while demonstrating cognizance of the rhetorical
strategies used in advertisement.
In Loignon’s introductory philosophy courses, similar rhetorical strate-
gies are frequently unpacked to engage with ideas about consumption, eco-
nomic conditions, and citizenship. The mandated curriculum for the introduc-
tion-to-philosophy courses typically calls for the teaching of critical thinking
skills, in the service of education’s main goals of promoting informed demo-
cratic participation.
A commonly taught text in introductory philosophy
courses is the Allegory of the Cave, which appears in the book VII of Plato’s
Republic. Succinctly put, the Allegory describes a cave in which people have
been living since childhood; shackled at the neck, they are forced to look at
shadows that they mistake for reality. Once freed from their chains, one pris-
oner then makes a slow and painful ascension towards the daylight and dis-
covers reality outside of the cave, yet he ultimately fails to convince the re-
maining prisoners to escape.
Fig. 4: two screen captures of an early Sega Genesis commercial.
In the classroom, a typical activity around Plato’s Allegory consists in
asking the students to draw the cave based on the text and then to discuss
their interpretations of the Allegory.
. Students are meant to realize that their
main sources of information sensory input and public discourse are unre-
liable and insufficient to reach the truth.
Peter Facione, “Critical thinking: A statement of expert consensus for purposes of
educational assessment and instruction (The Delphi Report)” (1990); R.T. Pithers
and Rebecca Soden, “Critical Thinking in Education: A Review,” Educational Research
42, no. 3 (January 2000): 23749.
Anne-Marie Bowery, “Drawing Shadows on the Wall: Teaching Plato’s Allegory of
the Cave,” Teaching Philosophy, May 1, 2001.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
The Allegory can be interpreted as a critique of naive realism, whereby
the reality depicted by our senses corresponds to the inside of the cave. An-
other interpretation is that Plato criticizes the use of rhetoric in general
whereby the Allegory functions as an early kind of anti-ad which turns rheto-
ric against itself and encourages the critique of public discourse through irony.
The text can also be read as an illustration of Plato’s positions on education:
in line with constructionist principles in education, the teacher cannot trans-
mit ideas, but only help the pupils travel laboriously towards the truth. A pos-
sible subtext here is that the Allegory functions as a representation of the phi-
losophy course itself by expressing a position (associated with Plato’s middle
period) according to which true virtue and happiness are only attainable by
philosophers. Non-philosophers, by contrast, base their understanding of re-
ality on sensory experience (i.e., the shadows in the cave); this mistaken strat-
egy prevents them from appreciating the real and intrinsic value residing in
non-sensory properties.
To illustrate this theme, Loignon has used movies, especially The Matrix,
a common choice of teaching material in the introductory philosophy class-
The dichotomy between true and false knowledge is an important
theme in this 1999 science-fiction blockbuster. The movie’s aesthetics build on
classic dystopian science-fiction books of the cyberpunk subgenre, such as Wil-
liam Gibson’s Neuromancer. But at its core, The Matrix can be read as a futur-
istic re-telling of Plato’s Allegory.
The following comparison is adapted from
a classroom activity used by Loignon in the context of the introductory phi-
losophy course:
The movie’s protagonist is a computer programmer who works in a bor-
ing office and doubles as a hacker nicknamed Neo. While selling illegal
software, Neo stumbles upon a series of messages and signs that lead
him to doubt the nature of reality. At this point, Neo understands very
little about the nature of The Matrix. A benevolent character called
Morpheus then offers Neo the choice to escape from the Matrix or re-
main inside it (the movie’s equivalent for Plato’s Cave). This dilemma
is symbolized by choosing between a red and a blue pill. Neo chooses
the red pill. In a scene that conjures up the nightmarish airbrush art of
H.R. Giger, Neo then breaks free from an artificial womb, a very direct
allusion to the slow and painful ascension of the freed prisoner in Plato’s
Allegory. It is also a nod to the Socratic maieutic method the process
of helping someone give birth to their rational soul. Here, Morpheus
plays the role of the philosopher guiding the escapees towards the light.
It is only after Neo’s second ‘birth’ that Morpheus can help him realize
Christopher Bobonich, “Elitism in Plato and Aristotle,” in The Cambridge Companion to
Ancient Ethics (Cambridge: Cambride University Press, 2017), 298-318.
Lenore J. Wright and Anne-Marie Bowery. “Socrates at the cinema: Using film in
the philosophy classroom.” Teaching philosophy 26, no. 1 (2003): 21-41.
For detailed comparisons of The Matrix and Plato, see this anthology: William Irwin,
ed., The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Chicago: Open Court,
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
that the Matrix is an illusion created by evil technological entities simply
called ‘the Machines’. Just like the escapee in Plato’s Allegory, Neo
feels the urge to go back in order to help the remaining enslaved humans
free themselves. After a series of action scenes, Neo embraces his des-
tiny as the messianic figure who will set humanity free from the Ma-
chines. This is made clear at the end of the movie, when a triumphant
Neo confronts the Machines from a phone booth, then flies towards the
sky, superman-style, to the sound of Wake Up by rap-metal group Rage
Against The Machine.
The Matrix gestures toward the epistemological interpretations of Plato’s cave
insofar as it invites skepticism with regard to sensory information. However,
the main connection is with a political interpretation of the Allegory, namely
that nefarious entities are actively trying to deceive us through public dis-
course in order to keep us enslaved. As Potter and Heath remark, the Mor-
pheus character clearly states that the enemies are not only the Machines, but
also any person who chose the ‘blue pill’ or has not yet woken up. In this re-
gard, the movie is a pamphlet against conformity, against the ‘mainstream’ dis-
course it only attacks capitalism as long as capitalism demands such con-
The characters of Morpheus, Trinity, and, later, Neo are Adbusters-
type culture jammers: subversive anti-conformists with knowledge of the true
nature of reality. By contrast, the opinions formed inside the Matrix are usu-
ally devoid of real truth; they are valid only within the confines of this virtual
reality. This is highlighted in the movie, for instance, when a character won-
ders if the taste of a given food inside the Matrix corresponds to its ‘real’ taste.
On this view, framing a struggle through the referents of mainstream culture
(the Matrix) is equivalent to arguing about the shape of the shadows in Plato's
cave. This message especially resonates with Adbusters’ statement that the only
struggle that really counts is bringing down the corporations that enslave us.
Like The Matrix, anti-ads also involve (or imply) a knowledgeable mav-
erick or rebel figure. Situated above the influence of the common rhetoric, this
figure can tell the listener to disregard mainstream discourses and to heed her
alternative message instead. It is generally the others who are blind to the illu-
sions of the cave, the Matrix, or corporate-ruled society. Like Plato’s Allegory,
anti-ads appeal to a type of bias called the ‘third-person effect’the tendency
to overestimate the effect of mass media on other people while underestimating
our own gullibility.
Anti-ad creators also employ meta-discursive strategies to
paint their opponents as “heavily implicated in rhetorical procedures,” while
they themselves are ostensibly innocent of such influences speaking, to par-
aphrase Socrates in the Apology, “with the first words that come to their
Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath, The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed
(Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2005). The recent cooptation of the ‘choosing the red
pill’ narrative by Men’s Right Activists has demonstrated this in a dramatic and very
problematic manner, as described in J. B. Mountford, “Topic Modeling The Red Pill,”
Social Sciences 7, no. 3 (March 2018): 42.
For a review, see Richard M. Perloff. “The third person effect: A critical review and
synthesis.” Media psychology 1, no. 4 (1999): 353-378.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
On this view, creating a distance between oneself and rhetoric serves
to discredit competing discourse. At the same time, it contributes to the legit-
imacy of orators in general by working as a discursive policing tool.
Although, as we have seen, various similarities can be traced between
Plato’s Allegory and anti-ads, we suggest that, in the context of vaporwave
and pedagogy, two important differences can be shown by revisiting Apple’s
1984 ad. First, while in the Allegory there is at least some reality, or truth,
associated with the shadows and objects inside the cave, whereas in Apple’s
ad, no truth is conceded to the brainwashing spectacle shown on the screen.
After all, shadows exist because of, and in contrast with, light: the shadows in
Plato’s cave must still have some epistemological value, at least enough to bring
some of the prisoners to realize that something is amiss and to want to ascend
towards the light (or to make Neo question his reality and seek to escape the
Matrix). Vaporwave takes this nuance further: by using techniques that draw
attention to its own materiality, the microgenre makes the audience aware of
unexpected affective ties with the material, and does so without building the
thick walls of irony often associated with anti-rhetorical strategies. Second,
the prisoners in Plato’s Allegory come to understand the truth by making a
strenuous and gradual ascension towards the light, while anti-ads seem to pre-
fer a sudden change of perspective. In a flash of light, the prisoners of the 1984
Apple ad (and the teenagers of the Sega ad) are made to understand the superi-
ority of the new product by a knowledgeable hero figure; similarly, culture
jammers expect the public to be shocked into a critical stance toward consum-
erism. On the contrary, vaporwave creators make no attempt to convince the
audience that they are exceptionally objective and above the influence of
brands. The trope of the knowledgeable hero is rarely seen in the virtual space,
or ‘virtual plaza’ in vaporwave parlance, where identities are blurred using
multiple pseudonyms, and judgements are a collective, bottom-up process.
Building a multimodal vaporwave pedagogy
This article proposed at the outset that a multimodal approach can call atten-
tion to specific possibly hidden media ecologies and infrastructures. Such
discoveries often take the shape of new technological mediations here, we
mean vaporwave, less as a clearly defined new music micro-genre than as the
cluster of techniques through which vaporwave creations emerge from alter-
ations of previous audiovisual media forms. Following van Loon, we contend
that mediation is a process of “[...] ‘coming-to-terms-with’ exactly because it
enables meaningful relationships between ourselves and the world; it im-
merses us into the work of ‘making sense.’”
Yet this article has shown how a
Jon Hesk, Deception and Democracy in Classical Athens (Cambridge University Press,
2000): 208.
Joost van Loon, “Modalities of Mediation,” in Media Events in a Global Age, ed. Nick
Couldry, Andreas Hepp, and Friedrich Krotz (London and New York: Routledge,
2009): 119.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
multimodal approach can reach beyond contained mediations. Built around
unfinished media objects such as vaporwave creations, the multimodal ap-
proach has the potential to reframe pedagogical perspectives. To do so, in-
class pedagogical inquiry must entertain dialogue between the result of creation
(i.e., a completed artistic object ready for distribution) and the process of creation
(i.e., ongoing technical actions, including thoughts and concepts in view of the
artistic object). Vaporwave epitomizes the latter mode because it rarely, if
ever, escapes its processual media integration – a creative pattern built into
the microgenre’s emergence, rendering it subject to its own dissolution
through re-combinations.
As we have explained, The Matrix has served Loignon well in his philos-
ophy courses. Over the years, freshmen have learned about philosophical
principles underlying Plato’s Allegory, the dichotomy between true and false
knowledge, mainstream discourses, and the commodification of resistance.
We recognize the pedagogical value of this learning process, and acknowledge
that other blockbuster films and popular artistic creations can be similarly
used in our classes. For instance, one of the authors of this article (Philippe
Messier), who teaches anthropology of media, has already discussed the glob-
ally popular track Gangnam Style (by Korean artist PSY) to introduce semiot-
ics in class. Gangnam Style has provided Messier a way to address the affective
relationships developed around syllables and tones carefully selected to resem-
ble other languages. In class, students have learned that these vague yet mean-
ingful utterances can be easily repeated without prior knowledge of Korean
by fans across the globe. Students have also reflected on the music video’s
visuals of Korean capitalist exuberance colors, scenes, and indexical infra-
structures which, even when depicted ironically, nonetheless resonate with
upper middle-class people both in India (where Messier conducts research)
and in Canada (where Messier teaches).
And yet, our view is that such learning processes remain insufficient. We
have highlighted above how teaching philosophy with the example of vapor-
wave could be a valuable contrast to pedagogical activities shaped around The
Matrix. Working from the intuition that The Matrix might be sending the
wrong message about Plato’s Allegory, Loignon has also used videos of an
installation by artist Ryoji Ikeda, associated with microsound, a genre that
influenced vaporwave.
After a brief seizure warning addressed to the stu-
dents (itself a part of the experience of mediation), the classroom door is
closed, the lights are turned off, the volume turned up, and a YouTube video
of Ikeda’s installation The Transfinite is shown.
The nine-minute sequence
shot features glitch music synchronized with a stroboscopic progression of
squares and lines in a wide dark space. In the video, visitors are seen interact-
ing with the installation: moving about, occupying the space alone or in small
groups, casting their own shadows, sitting, lying down, pointing, discussing.
Born and Haworth, “From Microsound to Vaporwave: Internet-Mediated Musics,
Online Methods, and Genre.”
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
Students are then invited to discuss the video in relation with Plato’s Allegory.
Here, common topics are the nature of reality and its possible mathematical
structure, virtual reality, and the future of our species.
Similarly, to teach anthropology, we deem it advisable to place Gangnam
Style alongside multimodal vaporwave creations, especially the one shown in
Figure 5, by YouTube user Okiwont.
Fig. 5: a screen capture from the YouTube video PSY 리사 프랭크 420 / 현대
컴퓨팅, by Okiwont.
In this uncanny audiovisual creation, crafted from pieces of the original
Gangnam Style music video, vaporwave’s aesthetics pastel colors, spatial per-
spective, degraded audio that reproduces the melody of the iconic Lisa Frank
420 track are reinforced by the kitsch bluescreen effect ‘bleeding’ across
PSY’s dancing and singing. The creation exaggerates an impression of the uni-
versalism of globally commodified song and dance by isolating PSY in a field
of digital lines. PSY is nowhere and everywhere, situated in no specific mate-
rial culture, and yet in all of them. Indexes, icons, and symbols of the ‘rich’
Seoul neighbourhoods alongside ostentatious consumption in the music video
are replaced by a general emptiness of signification, pointing to a sort of par-
ody fatigue. The digital constitution of the virtual environment in which PSY
is dancing ultimately speaks to both the Gangnam Style phenomenon and
vaporwave techniques, which have been embedded and unleashed by digital
PSY - 리사 프랭크 420 / 현대 컴퓨팅, YouTube Video by Okiwont,
Richard Grusin (and Jay Bolter) famously coined the term “remediation” in 1996
after analyzing the digital media impact in the film Strange Days (1995). Grusin has
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
Our aim in this article has been to build on vaporwave techniques in order to
improve college teaching practices, especially in humanities courses. The pro-
ductive comparisons we have drawn between mainstream media and vapor-
wave creations lead us to conclude with a framework for a multimodal vapor-
wave-inspired pedagogical method for our classrooms.
First, we wish to emphasize that vaporwave’s sound and image tech-
niques as well as its playful re-ordering of media must be recognized for what
they are: complex understandings of techno-social creations emerging, and
enmeshed with, contemporary digital media evolutions and infrastructures.
Although we can only speculate on their future trajectories, we believe that
vaporwave aesthetics will most likely actualize the intricate relationships they
have already forged with recent digital audiovisual devices and find new
sources of ‘taboo’ material (e.g., early 2000s cellphone imagery, corporate
drone footage, creative exploitation of popular Internet platforms such as
YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit). We thus need to critically inte-
grate students’ dynamic understanding of these evolving technologies into our
teaching and our multimodal analysis of philosophical and anthropological no-
tions. This process should also help students understand how previous media
forms and techniques are potentially still relevant in the formation of new
ideas. As we have demonstrated, vaporwave artists do not suppress the inti-
mate affective relationships that students have developed with brands and
consumption practices.
Instead, the artists integrate these socioeconomic
connections and myths in the creative process. Conversely, we propose to in-
vestigate these lingering affects with students, not shying away from their pro-
ductive capacity to reshape local media ecologies.
Second, we support a set of teaching methods which allow multimodal
analysis to be closely associated with students’ technical actions. A teaching
activity inspired by this vaporwave approach may invite students to under-
stand how copyrights function, or how audio/video samples and ideas are
shared, cited, altered, and re-organized. Messier has observed that students
who produce ethnographic films tend to reflect obliquely about anthropologi-
cal concepts, as if they were re-discovering them just as they were working
out how to communicate via new forms of media. Such exploratory learning
processes might be expanded through a multimodal vaporwave initiative
where students compose, experiment, and, importantly, rigorously research
since suggested that perhaps the film Minority Report (2002) and the short story it was
based on were also speaking to a form of “premediation” which occurs when mass
media, for instance, ‘premediates’ certain events or potential issues (such as ‘American
media hysteria about anthrax exposure in the days shortly after 9/11’). One could
argue that vaporwave has embraced such relationships by pre-mediating, and empha-
sizing how its own existence might be bound to remediation until disappearance. See
Richard Grusin, “Premediation,” Criticism 46, no. 1(2004): 17-39.
Richard Swedberg, “The Role of Senses and Signs in the Economy,” Journal of Cul-
tural Economy 4, no. 4(2011): 423-437.
Guillaume Loignon & Philippe Messier Vaporwave Pedagogy
the material needed for their respective creations. An example of class assign-
ment might be to imagine a new X-wave microgenre where X is a theme stud-
ied in class, then select sounds and images that play with affect to convey com-
plex ideas about X. For instance, if the mathematization of nature by modern
philosophers was made into a wave-type genre, how would it sound/look like,
and why?
Our view in this article draws from the work and insights of the artist
Ramona Andra Xavier, who has produced music under multiple aliases, in-
cluding Macintosh Plus. In 2012, she remarked that the vaporwave artists are
essentially “curator[s] of samples.”
The pedagogical application of this per-
spective entails having students unpack vaporwave creations and engaging
them in the process of creating, or curating works of vaporwave art them-
selves. By learning to consider other types of documents with the mindset of
a vaporwave artistessentially thinking with vaporwave students could de-
velop valuable research and critical thinking skills. The collaborative process
described in this article could then be broadened into a critical approach with
which any kind of signal can be curated, mutated, and disseminated.
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... Due to the fact that the landscape of the vaporwave genre itself is so heavily linked to the use of elements of corporate and consumerist culture, both visually and musically (repurposing snippets of old Japanese and American commercials, using elements of muzak and creating visual landscapes of abandoned malls), fans and critics alike seem to gravitate towards the idea that latter iterations of the genre are directly critiquing modern consumerism (Loignon and Messier 2020). This is suggested by the emotional charge that usually accompanies this specific musical and visual landscape -a paradoxical mixture of soothing dread, empty glamour, and the both liberating and entrapping mindless consumption tendencies of late capitalism, where "the commodification of the self" takes centre stage (Davis 2003). ...
... Due to the fact that the landscape of the vaporwave genre itself is so heavily linked to the use of elements of corporate and consumerist culture, both visually and musically (repurposing snippets of old Japanese and American commercials, using elements of muzak and creating visual landscapes of abandoned malls), fans and critics alike seem to gravitate towards the idea that latter iterations of the genre are directly critiquing modern consumerism (Loignon and Messier 2020). This is suggested by the emotional charge that usually accompanies this specific musical and visual landscape -a paradoxical mixture of soothing dread, empty glamour, and the both liberating and entrapping mindless consumption tendencies of late capitalism, where "the commodification of the self" takes centre stage (Davis 2003). ...
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"Exploring Liminal Aesthetics: The “Glitchy and Decayed” Worlds of Vaporwave, Semiotic Assemblages, and Internet Linguistics. The topic of online identity formation in the realm of computer-mediated communication is nothing new. However, what does stand out, especially in recent years, in the larger framework of Internet-based sociolinguistic practices (David 2010; Williams 2006), is a much-needed exploration of various new microcultural aggregates. Some of these niche-genres are frequently encountered on YouTube, while others are primarily short-lived Instagram or TikTok community-driven trends. In essence, this paper states the belief that it is precisely these relatively contemporary microcultural trends that manage to accurately take the pulse of a new, post-pandemic world. Moreover, since many of these forms of artistic self-expression can be understood through a Cultural Sociolinguistic lens (Cotrău, Cotoc, and Papuc 2021), a translation of their particular symbolic meanings can only help decipher the increasingly chaotic, hypersubjective, and “semiotic assemblages” (Pennycook 2017) that individuals seem to be inhabiting and creating. Thus, the current paper aims to offer an analysis that ties together an array of only seemingly disparate elements, namely: cultural economy, creation and consumption of online cultural artefacts, and an affective processing that ties real-life traumatic events to the creation of particular cultural trends - liminal aesthetics and vaporwave, paired with a fascination with all things “glitchy and decayed” (Loignon and Messier 2020). Keywords: online identity, sociolinguistics, Internet linguistics, multimodality, vaporwave, liminal aesthetics, semiotic assemblages "
Modalities of Mediation
  • Joost Van Loon
Joost van Loon, "Modalities of Mediation," in Media Events in a Global Age, ed. Nick Couldry, Andreas Hepp, and Friedrich Krotz (London and New York: Routledge, 2009): 119.