Culture Wars: Kitsch vs. Crypto

We’ve talked previously on these pages about the stickiness of crypto-native culture, particularly as it applies to the realm of digital art,i but what are the values of this culture in the first place? What are the foundational pillars upon which this emergent House of Metaverse is being built?

To help further frame the question, let’s quote from Clement Greenberg’s canonical 1939 essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch:ii

A society, as it becomes less and less able, in the course of its development, to justify the inevitability of its particular forms, breaks up the accepted notions upon which artists and writers must depend in large part for communication with their audiences. It becomes difficult to assume anything. All the verities involved by religion, authority, tradition, style, are thrown into question, and the writer or artist is no longer able to estimate the response of his audience to the symbols and references with which he works.

So what are the particular forms that we’re trying to justify the inevitability of in our Little Land of Crypto? What are the symbols and references that the keenest artists are leveraging, magnifying, and making manifest?

My humble observations after a decade(!) in the space:

  • Optimism: the belief that tomorrow will be better than today
  • Voluntaryism: the belief that we can and should be able to “rage quit” at any time
  • Techno-utopianism: the belief that we are building the tools for the best of all possible societies, one defined my freedom, liberty, and capitalism
  • Techno-dystopianism: the belief that we are also building (and are currently already living with) tools for an all-encompassing surveillance state that will limit our freedoms and movements more than at any time since Feudal Europe
  • Techno-determinism: the belief that our technology determines our societal future moreso than do government policies, social technologies, or “great men”
  • Pseudonymity: the belief that we can and should have the freedom to represent ourselves in ways other than that acknowledged as “legal” by our various and respective physical jurisdictions
  • Privacy: the belief that we can and should have the ability to control what information about ourselves is made public
  • Statelessness: the belief that the borders defined by modern nation states are not the only possible definitions of a group of people
  • Decentralised infrastructure: the belief that the hardware underpinning our digital economic infrastructure cannot and should not be geographically concentrated as a matter of practical security
  • Code as law: the belief that the code in an algorithm or smart contract represents the overwhelming majority if not the entirety of the social contract between individual market/societal participants
  • Speculation: the belief that hyper-financialised games can and will unlock societal value, and thereby positively shape the culture

Of course, many of these concepts and precepts are in tension with one another! They can’t all be simultaneously true in their entirety, though the diversity of the space exists very much in their concurrent existences, however partial, waxing or waning. Indeed, it’s actually quite important that there’s a significant degree of moral flexibility in the arrangement of these foundational pillars, just as there is for the world’s other great power centres, namely that of the US and China.iii In the Greatest of All Possible Americas, no matter how aristocratic yet simultaneously degraded is the culture there, it always calls itself “DEMOCRACY.” Similarly, in the People’s Righteous Republic of Industrial Production that is China, no matter how autocratic, technocratic, and dystopian is the culture there, it always calls itself “COMMUNISM.”iv Both are a similarly effective trompe d’oeils, having respectively as little in common with their revolutionary forebears as do I with Moses, or Cook with Jobs, but their perceived continuity is what makes them such successful organisations and institutions.

So it’s equally valuable for Satoshi’s spiritual successor – first Surgetalikv and then…? – to have similar flexibility to adjust and adapt to the changing demands of the world, all while maintaining the maximal semblance of mythological consistency from generation to generation… l’dor v’dor… because our only protection from Kitsch is culture.

And culture must continually evolve.vi
___ ___ ___

  1. We might reasonably ask, which is a sub-set of which? Are fungible tokens a sub-set of non-fungible, or vice versa? I could see debates going both ways, though I lean slightly towards non-fungible being upstream.
  2. This essay is also the selection for Mitchell F. Chan’s latest Book Club. Check out his Discord to join!
  3. Recall Balaji‘s tripartite taxonomy of 21st century power centres: 1) Woke Capital, 2) Communist Capital, 3) Crypto Capital (archived).
  4. The cream always rises to the top! Whether in China or elsewhere:

    inequality-china

    We find evidence that human capital (such as knowledge, skills, and values) has been transmitted within the families, and the social capital embodied in kinship networks has survived the revolutions. These channels allow the pre-revolution elite to rebound after the revolutions, and their socioeconomic status persists despite one of the most aggressive attempts to eliminate differences in the population.

    via NBER via Alex Tabarrok.

    Y’see it doesn’t matter what you call your movement/culture/society/whatever as much as it matters that quality ultimately triumphs therein. The transitional periods in between are just rolls of the dice, and is that really any way to structure the world?

  5. Can you feel the Surge, anon?

    Vitalik Hammer Time

  6. To quote one more essential part of Greenberg’s essay at length:

    The peasants who settled in the cities as proletariat and petty bourgeois learned to read and write for the sake of efficiency, but they did not win the leisure and comfort necessary for the enjoyment of the city’s traditional culture. Losing, nevertheless, their taste for the folk culture whose background was the countryside, and discovering a new capacity for boredom at the same time, the new urban masses set up a pressure on society to provide them with a kind of culture fit for their own consumption. To fill the demand of the new market, a new commodity was devised: ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those who, insensible to the values of genuine culture, are hungry nevertheless for the diversion that only culture of some sort can provide.

    Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money — not even their time.

    The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends. It borrows from it devices, tricks, stratagems, rules of thumb, themes, converts them into a system, and discards the rest. It draws its life blood, so to speak, from this reservoir of accumulated experience. This is what is really meant when it is said that the popular art and literature of today were once the daring, esoteric art and literature of yesterday. Of course, no such thing is true. What is meant is that when enough time has elapsed the new is looted for new “twists,” which are then watered down and served up as kitsch. Self-evidently, all kitsch is academic; and conversely, all that’s academic is kitsch. For what is called the academic as such no longer has an independent existence, but has become the stuffed-shirt “front” for kitsch. The methods of industrialism displace the handicrafts.

    Because it can be turned out mechanically, kitsch has become an integral part of our productive system in a way in which true culture could never be, except accidentally. It has been capitalized at a tremendous investment which must show commensurate returns; it is compelled to extend as well as to keep its markets. While it is essentially its own salesman, a great sales apparatus has nevertheless been created for it, which brings pressure to bear on every member of society. Traps are laid even in those areas, so to speak, that are the preserves of genuine culture. It is not enough today, in a country like ours, to have an inclination towards the latter; one must have a true passion for it that will give him the power to resist the faked article that surrounds and presses in on him from the moment he is old enough to look at the funny papers. Kitsch is deceptive. It has many different levels, and some of them are high enough to be dangerous to the naive seeker of true light. A magazine like the New Yorker, which is fundamentally high-class kitsch for the luxury trade, converts and waters down a great deal of avant-garde material for its own uses. Nor is every single item of kitsch altogether worthless. Now and then it produces something of merit, something that has an authentic folk flavor; and these accidental and isolated instances have fooled people who should know better.

    If this description of “Kitsch” doesn’t make you immediately think of the $50k NFTiff Cryptopunks pendants from New York jeweller Tiffany & Co., I’m not sure you’re paying enough attention. 

5 thoughts on “Culture Wars: Kitsch vs. Crypto

  1. […] you read “bow on a blue box” and thought “NFTiff“, you’re my kinda degen! […]

  2. […] spectacle, narrative and other things tied in as well. Like there’s a story to it, reflects Crypto Culture vs. just a piece of art. Keep in mind during [2021] bull many of his pieces went for 1000+ ETH. But […]

  3. […] types in the back – just how ABSOLUTELY FUCKING ESSENTIAL to anything calling itself “culture” is a network of spies and assassins, particularly in the modern age where war is abundant at […]

  4. […] to mere mortals, but I also no longer see the coherence nor the inevitable successfulness of the values that this space once held so dear.xiv And I don’t think I’m alone in this view […]

  5. […] talk a lot these days about “culture.” About how “culture” is soooo important in communities, workplaces, and […]

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