Discover more from Divine Innovation
[37.0] moments when life didn’t feel real
cinema and mythmaking on TikTok
Maybe it’s a manifestation; maybe it’s Maybelline. Or maybe it’s surveillance capitalism rearing its head.
In the past few weeks, my TikTok feed has experienced a statistically significant uptick in uncanny content. Think baritone synths, Twilight-esque fog, bona fide dissociation, and the like.
Behold a smattering of these vignettes (apologies for the listicle of URLs but click on at least one!):
These videos could be smooshed into one. They hold certain truths to be self-evident: that all fog is spooky, all water features creatures lurking beneath, all assemblies are simulations or NPC-esque, and that you, the main character, maintain only a tenuous grasp on reality. You can keep scrolling to assuage your malaise by denying these truths, sure, but you know deep down that the things you see on the screen are unreal despite the high-res footage. In what world does a hand floating on water look like that? Why would you attend a Budweiser-sponsored music festival? The doubts accrue ad infinitum.
To briefly recap this newsletter’s interview with artist Coco Klockner, who penned a definitive essay on “main character energy” and its underpinnings, the phenomenon of main character energy absorbs the logics of cinema to distill a certain mode of out-of-body-ness via solipsism:
It only seems like cinema shouldn’t be the cultural barometer anymore on first glance because so many cultural forms are more dominant, despite the fact each of those forms adopts these logics. It feels more like cinema simply “won” when it comes to culture. Video games are more cinematic than ever, partisan news shows regularly use cinematic convention to manufacture consent, even the most sugar-rushed corners of TikTok looking like experimental Ryan Trecartin films from the late 2000s simply complete the century-long cinematic trend of shortening cut times.
With that in the background, it then makes sense that the audio for these “moments-the-world-didn’t-feel-real” videos comes from a Blade Runner montage video. Like hello, the movie spills off the screen and comes to life through our corneal projections onto atoms.
I also think about the impacts of the “digital sublime” on our mediated worldviews. In The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace, Vincent Mosco writes about the passions fueling untenable projects far beyond their expiration date. Because of the world-building beliefs of its boosters, the dot-com bubble, for instance, saw investors pumping money into an atrophying ecosystem months after stocks had begun crashing. Thoughts that cyberspace was opening up a new world—one in which (like that die-hard metaverse guy implied at South By Southwest) we could “kumbaya” together through the screen.
We can spend time applying this framework to the stubbornness of crypto bros; but it might be better to think about how the digital sublime has won. I can’t help but wonder how the digital sublime has opened new worlds, and icky ones at that. The dot-com bubble subsided and those investors bounced back. They got more venture capital cash and went about bankrolling things like Myspace (whoop!) and Facebook (yikes!) and, eventually, Palantir (nope!). In the here-and-now-ness of TikTok, these “the world is kinda fake!” videos slowly suggest that the world outside the screen is as un/real as the one residing within. Documenting these haunting but beautiful, intimate moments of life in Eden or communion become not a nuisance (Put your phone away you’re at a Björk concert!) but a form of accountability (I have to let others know what’s going on!).
It’s also telling that most of the “unreal” spaces making up this TikTok trend are pastoral and uninhabited. World building driven by the digital sublime seems to approach other people as nuisances that get in the way of a compelling landscape. As the main character, you and you alone get to enjoy the verdant scenes before you. Which most certainly is sustained by, and further validates, colonial practices like Zuck trying to buy basically all of Hawaii.
So focused on whether things are real or not, we forget to ascertain whether things are good or not. Throwback to the previous issue of this newsletter, which discussed liberalism’s especial inability to reckon with evil in the midst of crisis. Influential politicians admit to borrowing from cinematic conventions to inform how they govern. With such a dogged focus on the looks of their governance, they forget that people exist in reality and complexity.
Like, your governance can look great and you can be stinky! Sounds like Call Me By Your Name, then: super pretty, but has a cannibal and an NYU-campus-chlamydia-spreading twink as co-stars. (Allegedly.)
Divine Innovation is a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology. Published once every three weeks, it’s written by Adam Willems and edited by Vanessa Rae Haughton. Find the full archive here.