Signs of ephemerality

What happens when what is archived no longer seems to qualify as part of what is authentic about you? The allure of ephemerality intensifies.

1. Ephemerality as a strategy for generating authenticity. The untenability of old notions of authenticity becomes more apparent the more one is entrenched in mediated social networks that archive data about a user. Because social media turn so much experience into representations, social media eradicate the possibility of spontaneity (another legacy notion of what is authentic), as we plan for the mediation of what we are doing even as we are doing it. (See Nathan Jurgenson on the idea of the “Facebook eye” here.) As the data accumulates, it begins to make identity appear incremental instead of given all at once, born into us like a soul, dictating our personality from some permanent, essential inner core. Instead identity is an open construction site that other people are invited to tour, a work in progress that will never be completed, as the archive can house more and more data.

Identity is understood less as a concrete thing and more as a process. But whereas things simply seem to be, processes are understood to have goals. If we are thought to just have a self, its purpose is not questioned; when the self is a process, the question arises of what the purpose of that process is. Drawing on how Wendy Brown defines neoliberalism in this interview, as reducing people to market actors and inciting them to turn every aspect of one’s life into something marketable, we can see this process of self-making as self-neoliberalization: making an account of one’s life to try to turn as much of it as possible into various forms of “human capital.”

By housing so much personal data, networks not only foreground the contingency of identity (how we act differently in different contexts; how we seem different when our data is filtered in different ways, or when it is compared with other users exhibiting similar behavior patterns) but also make it plain that all the archived information about us feed directly into our efforts to capitalize on our sociality—to turn our social connections and everyday personal behavior into marketable assets. This makes any behavior that gets archived get perceived as self-interested and thus contrived and inauthentic — we are only doing it to gain advantage, not because it is “who we really are.”

Ephemerality emerges as an alternative to neoliberal human-capital building, to the construction of identity as something that is wholly marketized. Once, ephemerality was unremarkable, as virtually everything about our everyday lives was ephemeral: unmonitored, unrecorded, not saved, not processed into usable and potentially valuable information. Our everyday life was not mediated and commoditized to anything like the same degree it is now, with the advent of cheap digital recording devices and cheap, massive data storage.

But now ubiquitous surveillance and archiving makes ephemerality seem scarce; it’s no longer assured by technological limitations. (In fact, technology seems to guarantee the opposite: That everything is recorded and nothing is ultimately deleted; nothing is beyond the accessibility of a CCTV camera or a clever hack.) We look for signs that something will actually be ephemeral — not intended to be part of our cultural-capital stock. Ephemerality now needs to signified, in the face of its threatened disappearance. Thus, what is taken as ephemeral may have nothing to do with actual ephemerality, actual disappearance. Ephemerality, like authenticity, becomes a feeling and not an empirical attribute of a thing or moment.

2. Signs of ephemerality are repurposed indicators of phoniness. The sign of ephemerality alone may be sufficient to trigger a feeling of authenticity; it can purchase a moment of relief from the burden of self-consciousness (authenticity’s nemesis). If something about your self-representation in a situation conveys the spirit of ephemerality — of obsolescence, of a future going-out-of-fashion, of disposability, of irreverence or unseriousness, etc, it . It may allow the person signifying the ephemerality to feel “in the moment” and others to attribute “disinterestedness” to what they are doing, making the person seem as though they are “being real.” In general, the sign of ephemerality permits the affect of “realness” — what it marks is admissible as genuine, not calculated or designed to manipulate, and that atmosphere of authenticity may be permitted to permeate the entire social encounter.

The markers of disposability are precisely those things that indicated something’s trendiness, its trying-too-hard-ness, its fashion-victimhood. They emboss a thing with a sell-by date. It’s the pattern on a piece of fast-fashion apparel that dooms it to imminent irrelevance. It’s the lyric “the best soy latte that you’ve ever had, and me” in that Train song, something that both catches your attention and makes you cringe. That lyric is awful and contrived in a way that makes it qualify, paradoxically enough, as sincerity. Or rather, “sincerity.” It’s mis-calculatedness is foregrounded, impossible to miss, and therefore it pushes aside the need to question its intent, or the integrity of it. You need no paranoid hermeneutic for Train.

3. Absence of paranoia is the affect of ephemerality. With something marked as ephemeral, you don’t have to interpret anything; its meaning consists of its meaninglessness, its refusal to last, to monumentalize or memorialize. That feeling is secured by the phoniness identified and processed. It ushers both interpreter and interpreted to a space beyond interpretation, beyond strategy and defense. It takes an experience off the record; it gives a sense of having that power. A tight tautological loop is conveyed: This isn’t being recorded/archived, so I’m not trying too hard, so no one is recording or archiving this, and around again. This reinforces the sense of permission that comes from ephemerality. The signs of ephemerality build in the idea that you can’t be judged for a specific appeal for attention.

This principle of getting interpretation out of the way from the get-go is behind those that highlight their nature as ads, that ask to be distrusted. This lowers the viewers’ guard, while flattering their intelligence. Self-debunking phoniness can put us at ease so that some deeper phoniness can skate by. It’s like getting yourself caught for some small infraction so that you can deflect suspicion about an even larger one. With signified ephemerality, one intentionally gets caught being overtly inauthentic or obvious or clumsy in an effort to be something, so as to posit a deeper authenticity that has been violated but nonetheless really exists.

This makes “ephemerality” a potentially effective medium for ideology, or for propaganda. Things marked as ephemeral insist on their harmlessness, which makes them deviously potent. (“Did you fall for a shooting star?”)

3. Ephemerality is not virality. On the surface, the cycle of virality — a sudden flare of massive attention followed by a loss of interest — can seem to mirror the fashion cycle, the hype cycle, the promise of eventual disappearance, of assured ephemerality. But virality sometimes is a matter of oversaturation and overfamiliarity to the point the thing is not noticed anymore — it’s not ephemeral; it just becomes taken for granted. And the viral thing insists on the importance of its spread; it consists in infection by contact. Its affect is an itchiness to tell more people.

Ephemerality signals something different; it doesn’t rely on circulation for its being. The viral and the ephemeral both are matters of form rather than specific content: the content of a viral video is always its virality rather than what it specifically depicts; the content of something ephemeral is first and foremost its immanent disappearance. But the ephemeral doesn’t depend on having its trace through time tracked and measured; it’s virality without metrics.

A sign of ephemerality can spread virally with the benefit of not seeming to want to. In this way, ephemerality augments virality, intensifying the sense that a thing must be shared while it still can be.

4. Paradoxical ephemerality. Once the ephemeral is a matter of signs, distinctive legible marks rather than actual decay or disappearance over an actual period of time, the notion of ephemerality becomes subject to an array of paradoxes.

Ephemeral signs need to signify and negate their status as signs simultaneously; a sign of ephemerality has to itself be ephemeral to be credible, yet it must be durable enough to remain legible. Deploying ephemerality as a sign is a way of signaling a lack of investment in one’s signaling choices; it attempts to convey you’re more important than any such superficial indicators, that something essential but unsignified about the self is pointed to (or even defined) by the foregrounded ephemera. But the very use of signs of ephemerality suggests an investment in the procedures of signaling the self, even as the signal is “I’m not so deeply invested in what I am signaling right now.”

When ephemerality becomes a proxy for authenticity, it also becomes reified and fakeable; it becomes something that people try to signal in its absence. (This is the central paradox of self-conscious authenticity. Once authenticity becomes signifiable, it becomes inherently inauthentic, as long as authenticity is defined as something intrinsically bound up in the thing being deemed authentic. You can get lonely looking for yourself out there.)

We signal authenticity by signaling our disavowal of any attempts to signal it. Ephemerality as authenticity adds another degree of paradox to this; suggesting that our efforts to signal this nonsignaling will soon disappear — but that suggestion is only at the level of the sign, conveyed by a sign of ephemerality. Whether or not it ever disappears no longer matters, as long as the idea the sign of ephemerality is supposed to convey is conveyed.

This interlocking set of contradictions leads to such possibilities as indulging in fashion in order to signal one’s indifference to it, or wearing obviously outdated or soon-to-be-unfashionable clothes to signify one’s own timelessness. Ephemerality then serves as way to signal that you are not really signaling anything. It is a reworking of the fantasy that you can “be in a band with no image” or “be normcore” or “be above trends” or “just be natural.” When I foregrounding the ephemerality of what I do, I am trying to convey the idea that my identity is sacrosanct, untouchable by what is ephemeral, i.e. everything. I am essence; existence is just ephemera.

The sign of ephemerality becomes the opposite of its practice. So these signs will become ineffective, fall out of fashion, prove their ephemerality after all.