David Foster Wallace’s “The Broom of the System” was published in 1987. But a couple of nights ago I read a passage that struck me as incredibly prescient and induced me to ruminate extensively on one of the concepts it sets forth. And, no, I’m not writing this article just to signal that I am reading David Foster Wallace, nor that I am reading one of his more obscure books. Indeed, it seems every aspirant American intellectual of the past 20 years has Wallace’s 1,000-page magnum opus, Infinite Jest, sitting on their bookshelf, most likely collecting dust. Let’s be honest, “Infinite Jest” is kind of passé at this point, and “reading” it (if anyone really reads it cover to cover) is more virtue-signaling than a reflection of engagement with the contents of the book. “Broom of the System,” on the other hand, is a quirky choice — one that reflects a certain depth and richness of intellect, without being performative. But I digress.
In a dialogue between a couple, DFW first discusses vanity — the type of vanity we all know. By his definition, a “regular” vain person wants people to perceive them as smart or attractive; they think very highly of themselves, and they want others to share that view. But DFW then introduces the concept of a second-order vain person: “a vain person who’s also concerned about appearing to have an utter lack of vanity.” In other words, vanity about not appearing to be vain.
Not only did I immediately identify with this second-order vain person, but I found it highly relevant to how people today curate themselves aesthetically, both on social media and in real life. For those who feel on the margins of modern aesthetics, and who have nothing better to do than to read this, I propose that second-order vanity is an illuminating tool to conceptualize the tendency to present ourselves in ways that are simultaneously flattering and self-deprecating, that both signify a desire to be admired and at the same time reject that desire.
Consider, for example, some of the new trends in fashion that one can observe across the UC Berkeley campus, trends that I participate in and admire, of course; this piece is partly an act of self-examination. We have baggy pants (Dickies? Or your grandpa’s whale corduroys?), knit sweaters that look like the workwear of a 19th-century cod fisherman and chunky, slightly comically proportioned shoes (perhaps white dad-style New Balances!). Every item is preferably thrifted, but ideally not at a “fancy” thrift store — finding an appealing item at Goodwill provides infinitely more social capital than Buffalo Exchange.
Indeed, there is something “second-order” to this aesthetic: These clothes are, of course, highly curated, but with the intent to appear natural, not intentional, not curated. Even though the entire look takes time and care to produce, the end result is a look that insists, “I don’t care what you think!”
Or do I?
How about some of the latest trends on social media, particularly Instagram? Film (most commonly manifested in Polaroids, or pictures of Polaroids) is all the rage. It’s more expensive and much harder to produce than any digital image. A film photo is more rugged, perhaps even crude, but made more attractive because of its imperfections. A photo with a light streak probably makes the Instagram cutoff over a more “perfect” photo, precisely because it encapsulates an iconoclasm, a rejection of perfection, a sort of aesthetic abandon. Even if film takes slightly too much effort, there’s a socially suitable second option: a more than 20-year-old Olympus FE-230 digital camera which, according to the New York Times, is the “hottest Gen Z gadget.”
Let’s be frank: imperfection is trendy. (Beyond light streaks, people even post intentionally blurry photos lately.) It is hard to conceive of this, especially for those generations that haven’t been saturated in social media their whole lives. Think of the older forms of “regular” media. Imagine a blurry photo in a newspaper!
But social media isn’t just the mere transmission of an image or an idea; it’s curation of the self, and thus its aesthetics are wrought in a complex psycho-social cauldron. In the case of the popularity of film, it’s as if we are moving from the zenith of digital perfection and convenience back to something anachronistic and objectively harder. But this transition is ironic; it’s about appearing to not care. It’s non-curation that is highly curated: curated non-curation.
It’s curation of the self, and thus its aesthetics are wrought in a complex psycho-social cauldron.
If the original idea of Instagram is to post a clear, pleasing image to convey where you are, who you are with or what you are doing, then an intentionally blurry image reflects the “advanced” stages of social aesthetics, where the paradigm is shifting to the use of social media to reject the basic tenets of social media. This also extends to the clothing aesthetics mentioned earlier. Imagine a person in the Great Depression intentionally wearing clothes with holes in it. Imagine our parents taking care to dress like their grandparents. Seems odd, right?
In some ways, it’s a positive thing that people value older clothes or older methods of technology. I think everyone would agree that obsession with perfectionism is unhealthy, and that these modish aesthetics reflect a healthy rejection of said perfectionism. But the fact that thrifted clothes or antiquated technology are faddish in certain circles reflects a substantial amount of privilege. After all, there are people out there who wear thrifted clothing or only have access to old technology — these people use these things un-ironically, and certainly without any second-order vanity.