I belong to a group of people whose vision of the world is informed by the internet, through Tumblr, Youtube and Tiktok, and second by the suburbs. We will go to college away from home, and then move to the big city for our career. The ideas we have of our future are hazy images of our future existence or aesthetics. For example, before I had any sort of real interest in biology I was entranced by the buildings in which important things seemed to happen, the grids of yellow square windows of a university building late at night. Very serious people were doing serious things and I wanted to be one of them.
On Tiktok, Tumblr, where internet culture flows freely, references abound to these same things. It’s the basic principle of online culture: things are shared because people relate. They form a public record of experiences and dreams. Aesthetics of dark and light academia: stained glass, tea, bookshelves. Of course some aesthetics don’t influence reality in a serious way; it would be difficult to say something like kidcore or fantasy is an aspirational aesthetic. But enough are to influence lives. For example, the activities we do outside of class are all chosen by aesthetic. This is so obvious that any high school student would agree.
Speech and debate, Model United Nations, and Future Business Leaders of America are aspirational to city life, western business culture, and nightlife. It is a “work hard, play hard” lifestyle that assumes that what you do is valuable.
FIRST, robotics and coding camps are aspirational to vaporwave, electronic, and cyberpunk. You can also see this in the tiktoks labeled "this is what I mean when I say I want to go into STEM”, showing off desert rocket launches, bare white rooms, the LHC reactor. Coffee pots. Good Will Hunting.
Geology, chemistry, marine biology: these come from aquariums, and science museums, dinosaur skeletons and sand pits, mushroom cottagecore. The fairy emoji. Tree emoji. Dinosaur emoji. Teachers showing videos on climate change. A slight vestige of a forgotten cause (“save the whales”) remains.
The problem with these aesthetics, which influence almost everyone I know, is that they are fashion movements masquerading as intellectual ones. They are only superficial signifiers of the profound. It draws you very close because it is exactly your dream. Then it tells you can get closer to your visions by moving positionally, within society, without ever really doing the work.
This is how you begin to chase dreams by changing clothes.
You want to make in the big city. One day you get an internship on Wall Street. You can ride the metro to work everyday so you can stare out the window and feel real. You're there. Right?
Or you always think about a glass building, sharp and rising out of the ground. Someday you get a degree, a job there as a researcher carrying out other people's work. You're there. But why? and for who?
Or you love the idea of flying cars. You go to college and work in a lab and get close to where things happen. And your investigator has given you a project doomed from the beginning, but the lab has a drone which they take out on flights and you get to see it. That’s enough. Isn’t it?
Or you love the Harry Potter books and go into student debt so you can live in a place with beautiful Gothic architecture. You want to be a visionary, an innovator, a creator, Steve Jobs. Simone de Beauvoir. Jean Luc Godard.
You want to be an artist but never think of your artwork. Great American stories: the Great Gatsby, the Wolf of Wall Street, Catch me if You Can: they all are ironic until they aren’t. They are tragedies which cheat out visual spectacle under the guise of critique.
Think back to your trip to the aquarium in second grade when everyone huddles together in a circle while the guide points out the fish and jellyfish and the wonders of the underwater world.
She is talking with a special urgency, a gleam in her voice, about what we can do to save it, to explore it further... But you aren’t listening. You can’t listen. You are entranced by the glow of the water, drawn closer until your head rests against the glass. As your friends listen you move through them towards the glass wall to get closer to what you see. Instead of listening you move among your friends. You love the water and are drawn irresistibly.
But behind the glass it’s the same and will always be.
This is chasing dreams by changing clothes, new clothes and positions with no impact. Fashion will never get you where you want, only a terribly empty shell. You can’t chase dreams by changing clothes.
Many have written books about these contradictions, how they are a consequence of capitalism or postmodern thought. This essay is not like that; it’s personal, a letter to people who were born the same time I was. We act out the lives of people from books and movies. The stories we tell borrow the image of creativity without showing what it looks like, leading to empty shells of lives.
I believe that romantic notions are the most important things we get. It is because of this that I want to make the distinction, which comes down to taking aesthetics seriously. Chasing dreams by changing clothes leads to false hopes, shells of dreams and disappointment. Be what you want to be; don’t act like it.