Vaporwave Aesthetics: Affect, Vibe, and Japan Imagined in Global Melancholia

Conference: The Kyoto Conference on Arts, Media & Culture (KAMC2022)
Title: Vaporwave Aesthetics: Affect, Vibe, and Japan Imagined in Global Melancholia
Stream: Media Studies
Presentation Type: Live-Stream Presentation
Yingchuan Qu, Cornell University, United States


First emerging as a music genre in the early 2010s, vaporwave reached the peak of its popularity in 2016 when the internet was flooded with Greco-roman bust, Japanese characters, and lofi-music sampling city pop in the 80s. Initially created by musicians as an anti-thesis of late-capitalism, vaporwave in scholarly discussions has been commonly positioned either as a critique of late-capitalism or as an irony mirroring the development of capitalism. In these discussions, however, there’s a lack of attention to vaporwave aesthetics as the mapping of an affective field, in which it gains the potential to move fluidly across time and space. Moreover, although some comments have explored accelerationism and techno-orientalism in vaporwave aesthetics, current scholarship has only glancingly alluded to the ways in which such “Japanese-ness,” or “pan-Asian-ness,” is produced and becomes productive. Through the lens of affect, instead of arguing “what vaporwave is,” this paper asks “what vaporwave does” and “how has it done it.” Drawing upon popular audiovisual vaporwave artworks produced in the 2010s, this paper investigates what exactly is the affect, or “vibe,” that vaporwave aesthetics stimulates and how the textual-audio-visual components of these works generate this affective experience. Specifically, by probing into the affective registers signaling the ideas of “non-place” and “non-humanness” in vaporwave aesthetics, this paper traces the transnational production of a highly mediated image of Japan and Asia and interrogates such “Asian-ness”’s central position in eliciting the global melancholia embedded in the undercurrent of late-capitalism.

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