All successful aesthetics in the modern United States stem from the tenants of monotheistic religions. Corporations, popular art, and political movements of note all share a common thread — aesthetic, a word once having meant a set of guiding principles, which now means “brand,” a single, unified it-factor set as a flag under which a movement may march. Examples of this are easy to remember: Donald Trump’s red hat, Apple’s logo, the Playboy Bunny, etc.
Alone, logos, symbols, catch phrases are not harmful. The issue, it seems, is that brand, the idea that something can be boiled down to one easily recognizable presence has retarded the American thinker, binding people to brands by blind allegiance rather than allowing them to analyze their significance. Brands — though we understand them only as symbols, become far more than that in an intensely competitive capitalistic environment. From the moment a brand is declared in an environment, it inherently begins its competition against its fellow brands within the marketplace.
With the advent of social media, particularly the launch of Instagram in October 2010, brand spread to the human self, causing the launch of the individual as a brand, and therefore, in competition with her fellow human within a newly-created digital-attention marketplace. This new market came with its own currency, its own resources, its own insider secrets, and eventually, its own real-world payouts. Instagram, like any technology, cannot be inherently bad, however, and it’s because of this that it has gone largely unregulated for the majority of its young life.
Being an American product, Instagram was bound for success from the start, taking advantage of and pulling from one of the foremost Judeo-Christian American ideals - the idea that the world not only ought to, but does, stem from One Thing, and that the One Thing ought to be the foremost thought on the minds of all who know it. That One Thing, when harnessed, when packaged, becomes a lethal entity in a competitive open market, and those who are best at exploiting it, become the real winners.
To steal from writer, philosopher, and war correspondent Chris Hedges, “when you spend your life as a celebrity, you have no idea who you are. And yet we measure our lives by these celebrities. We seek to be like them. We emulate their look(s) and behavior. We escape the messiness of real life through the fantasy of their stardom. We, too, long to attract admiring audiences for our grand, ongoing life-movie. We try to see ourselves moving through our life as a camera would see us, mindful of how we hold ourselves, how we dress, what we say. We have learned ways of speaking and thinking that grossly disfigure the way we relate to the world and those around us.” When I was young, it was easy to understand who these celebrities were. Brittany Spears and LeBron James were to my childhood what Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra were to those of a previous generation. Now, however, there is no clear determination for celebrity, no required set of skills for advancement on a hierarchy, only a declaration that one is a celebrity, and enough sweat equity to gain a following. A person of no substance, with a correct brand, may now live his or her life as a celebrity, a position that in action, serves to guide how a society ought to act.
All of these new acts of celebrity, without exception, are built on a very calculated, bespoke aesthetic, a brand from which one’s light may shine and take as much attention as one can obtain in the same way that for generations major corporations have calculated their own aesthetics, their own brands, to acquire as much of a market-share as possible. Capitalism, undoubtedly, has made its way to the physical person, and has handed over the tool of the price tag for which a person may commodify themselves.
The danger here is obvious. Like most sicknesses, this sickness of mass self-hollowing has its side effects: rates of suicide continue to climb yearly, theocratic nationalism has breached the political mainstream, and debate has deteriorated to the point of disengagement, with even the most patient intellects finding the end of their ropes. The big issue with branded conversation, as is true with religious conversation, is that it eliminates each side’s motivation and muscle to hear counterargument knowing that the answer is already there, and that their job is not to work with their counterpart towards compromise, but to convince them why - why they must buy, why they must vote, why they must accept. It is the ethos of Protestant Christianity, the ethos of the free market, and the virus of our decaying culture.
No better example of aesthetics has been employed in current events than the United States media’s portrayal of Russia’s illegal attempted annexation of Ukraine. Instantly, out of Moscow, Khiev, and Washington, came the Hitler claim, each likening their opponent to the Nazi fuhrer on different bases of fact. Notice, fact. Russia’s claims of U.S. and NATO aggression are largely true, former G.H.W Bush Secretary of State James Baker having made oral promises to then Soviet leader Gorbachev to not expand NATO beyond German borders. U.S. claims stand as well, Russia having signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997. The battle for public opinion, however, has raged as mightily as conflict on the battlefield. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a former celebrity (as were two notable U.S. Presidents) has been front and center in all media appearances, usually alone, humbly dressed in some sort of field-based environment. This, of course, is an image, an aesthetic curated by a team to show that Ukraine’s best hope is that man and his allies. We see this as well in Russian media, where Vladamir Putin is often seen alone hard at work from his desk coordinating the “peacekeeping effort.”
This One Thing aesthetic is so present in modern life that it’s often difficult to discern it from reality. Reality, of course, if far more complicated than that. Reality, rather than aesthetics, religion, celebrity, etc. requires navigating facts and stories to come to short-lived conclusions, that must be then altered ad-hoc, a process of constant discovery and revision. Idioms and slogans will no longer do. They will not see us through the coming danger, and we must work toward a future where we are able to live beyond them.