The products of mass culture have learned to speak a new language: the language of the occult. Come in, an app pleads, and listen to an algorithmically curated playlist of songs that “fit the vibe.” “We caught a vibe!” yelps a voice in one of those songs; it isn’t immediately clear whether this means caught as in brass ring or caught as in disease. It’s hard, a marketing email laments, to build an organization filled with people whose “energies align.” An AI-generated horoscope ascribes to today’s events a total “Taurus full moon during Scorpio season mood.” From every corner you are buffeted by vibrations and waves, moods and intensities.
The products speak words of magic. But who are they speaking to? Once, vibe, mood, and energy were watchwords of the counterculture. Among hippies, dropouts, and other assorted voyagers in psychedelia, they were part of a private shorthand for sensations strongly felt but not so easily explained. Today, this vocabulary has diffused beyond any niche group. Yuppies profess to feeling certain energies; New York Times writers divine vibes; venture capitalists do a booming business in moods, pouring money into astrology apps. The occult is for everyone, and so for no one in particular.
Still, it is possible to identify a sort of vanguard. Perhaps the most dedicated speakers of the language of the occult today are millennial and Gen Z denizens of social media platforms. For them — for us — it has become received common sense that some days “the vibes” are simply off; that everything from a weird-looking cat to a cargo ship stuck in the Suez Canal is a potential object of identification, an occasion for remarking, “Same energy,” or more tersely, “Mood” — which is to say, “That’s me!” Tumblr, TikTok, and Instagram users assemble collections of images and clips intended to produce a distinct impression, an overall mood or vibe: forest clearing, tweed jacket, roaring fire, marble bust. It is a kind of spell: an attempt to conjure the essence of a dim elsewhere in the here and now.
Is this all just part of the endless dance between counterculture and business culture, to use historian Thomas Frank’s terms? Youth cultures develop a sensibility; brands capture it and sell it back to them and others. A vibe-forward, witch-positive, healing-crystal-hawking consumerism is perhaps today’s dominant form of what Frank, writing in 1997, called “hip consumerism.” Maybe it is true that, as philosopher Robin James has it, “sometime in the last five years, ‘vibes’ got co-opted by capitalism,” though such a hard cutoff feels unconvincing. Still, some difficult questions remain: why this sensibility; why these words that conjure up visions of both acid cool and New Age kitsch, and why now? These are bigger and unwieldier questions than the cooptation dance can contain.
They are also questions too big to approach solely from the perspective of the individual internet user. In a recent essay in The New Yorker, Kyle Chayka makes the case that the rise of vibes-talk signals a shift in online culture: where once the internet’s most exciting promise was its endless series of stories, now more and more users go online not for narrative, but for “moments of audiovisual eloquence” — for vibes. This seems right. But what does the internet want from us in return? If we are to understand the resurgence of vibe, mood, and energy, we will need to answer this question, at least provisionally. For there are two subjects, two protagonists, of vibe/mood/energy today. Call them the platform and the individual. The platform is a digital non-space engineered to capture data and extract profits from it, whether by selling it to advertisers (social media companies), connecting users with independent contractors (Airbnb, ridesharing apps), or charging users directly for access to content (streaming services). The platform also wants to control its workforce, which consists in large part of scattered temps, and perhaps to spur its workers to perform feats of personal warmth. Let’s say that the individual, for their part, simply wants to find a way to survive in a stagnant present thick with uncertainty. Unlike the eternal cycle of cooptation, these desires are historically specific products of the age of the platform — say, post-2008. The question, finally, is: what shapes do vibe, mood, and energy give to these desires?
There’s no recovering origins, but there are coordinates. Vibe, short for vibration, is largely a product of the West Coast hippie milieu. While the abbreviation dates back at least to the 1940s (it was short, then, for “vibraphone”), the now-familiar sense of vibe as a vague, free-floating feeling first emerged in the late 1960s. Usually it was plural. The Beach Boys sang of “Good Vibrations” in 1966. “Bad vibes” erupted, however, in the middle of Joan Didion’s 1967 account of San Francisco during the Summer of Love — one more omen that, as Didion sensed, the counterculture’s “center was not holding.” The following year, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test chronicled a cast of disaffected questers variously “watching for,” “break[ing] up,” “picking up,” “wait[ing] for,” “bobbing in,” singing about, or even getting poisoned by “the vibrations.” Over the next few years, vibes of all sorts would proliferate. By the early 1970s, one finds references to vibes everywhere from literary magazines to congressional proceedings, including a 1974 session on the supposed “hypnotic” effects of marijuana. Celebrated or feared, vibes testified to the counterculture’s faith that we could share profound sensations; that you and I could participate in the same consciousness-stretching experience.
Mood is a much older word, coming to us from the mists of Old English. Once it named both a temporary emotional state and an underlying human vitality, something like spirit. Over time, the second usage dropped off and the first became dominant. But in the twentieth century, philosophers and scientists alike started to resuscitate the sense of mood as spirit. In the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, mood — one rendering of the German word Stimmung — took on a mystical significance, serving as a cipher for the way the world reveals itself to us. The word arguably recovered an equal amount of ontological ponderousness with the coinage of mood-altering and mood-changing, terms medical researchers started to use as early as the 1950s to describe the effects of both psychiatric and psychedelic drugs. These adjectives would enter more general usage in the following decade, as drugs like LSD exited the shadowy realm of CIA experimentation and became more widely accepted as instruments for tuning in and dropping out. This was a new sense of mood: not a transitory emotional state, but, in the ultimate synthesis of the word’s two primordial meanings, a kind of physical substance that could be manipulated through chemical intervention. Like a spirit, but answerable to modern science. Nothing incarnated this idea of mood as a labile material quite like the mood ring, a distinctly 1970s trinket that claimed to register changes in its wearer’s feelings with color-changing liquid crystals. Here, at the border of cool and kitsch, we find a powerful desire behind this new sense of mood: to see our internal states projected in some sort of external, objective form — in a song, on a plastic ring, among the stars.
Energy, of course, is many things. In its fullest mystical sense, it denotes a field of forces binding together all living things. The most suggestive early uses of this sense are to be found in the large body of writing dedicated to translating concepts from Hinduism and Buddhism into the language of post-Enlightenment Europe. In the third volume of his 1816 treatise The Origin of Pagan Idolatry, theologian G.S. Faber writes of the relationship between Shatarupa, the daughter of Hindu creator god Brahma, and “the mysterious Yoni or female energy of nature.” By the 1970s, such energies would call to a wider group of enthusiasts beyond those who, like Faber, sought a key to all mythologies. This was the dawn of the New Age, that loose collection of pseudo-religions and holistic healing movements that would soon flourish in Europe and North America. Drawing selectively from “Eastern mysticism” — a spurious category to begin with — New Agers developed an expanded idea of energy as the fundamental fabric that unites human consciousness with the universe at large. As Ram Dass, formerly Richard Alpert, writes in his best-selling 1971 self-help book Be Here Now, “Consciousness equals energy=love=awareness=light=wisdom=beauty=truth=purity. It’s all the SAME trip / It’s all the SAME / Any trip you want to take leads to the SAME place.” Energy was about extending our sensibility, about grasping the essential connectedness of all things.
Taken together, vibe, mood, and energy formed something like a loose philosophical system. They presented the world as a swirl of forces that eluded capture in rational thought, but that could nevertheless be acutely sensed and even influenced with the right kind of effort. This system was meant at once as a challenge and as an alternative to what counterculturalists from the Beats to the New Left saw as the frigid, inhuman character of modern life. Philosophers like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse warned that the technological progress that helped buoy rising standards of living, at least in the Global North, came at a price. This was the blackmail of the welfare state: in exchange for the amenities of secular modernity, the working classes and the bourgeoisie alike were submitted to soul-numbing psychic repression. The square, the man in the gray flannel suit, plain old The Man: these were the vernacular avatars of what Adorno called the “totally administered world,” the most extreme hypothetical version of a political-economic system that provides material plenty even as it sucks all the existential significance out of life and blocks all avenues to resistance. In a totally administered world, there are no mysteries, no wonders, no vibes.
We could say, then, that vibe/mood/energy came on the scene as an effort to stave off the coming of such a world in the postwar West. To replace the phony collectivity of conformity with a genuine spirit of fellow-feeling. To take control of our own experiences again, where we once let experts decide for us — those same experts who started the Vietnam War, who devised ever newer ways to sap the life from nature. To re-enchant, in other words, a thoroughly disenchanted world.
Conformism, alienation, slack-jawed complacency: these are boom-time problems. This is not to deny the violence and repression that surged across the globe in the 1960s. A boom time is not necessarily a happy time. It is simply a time that benefits from economic growth and a general sense of future possibilities. For his part, Marcuse was most concerned about boom-time prosperity’s ability to browbeat us into political quiescence: “Under the conditions of a rising standard of living,” he wrote near the beginning of his One-Dimensional Man, “non-conformity with the system itself appears to be socially useless.” Things were getting better all the time, at least for some people in the world’s richest country, and it seemed likely that they would continue to do so — so why bother revolting? Vibes, moods, and energies were figures of a desire to expand human sensibility, to “wake up,” as the phrase went, from a complacent stupor and demand a fuller future than the one promised by the automatic trudge of progress.
Does it need to be said? We do not live in boom times today. In the U.S., real wages have been largely stagnant since at least the early 1970s. Income inequality continues to grow metastatically. The social safety net that held up the reasonable prosperity Marcuse distrusted has been shredded. Gigs replace jobs; unpaid labor replaces paid. Many of us would kill for a little conformity, provided it came with a pension, or at least a livable wage. The objects of derision for the counterculture have reversed polarity and become objects of desire, of hope against hope. If only we could — maybe we can once again — don the gray flannel suit, even if just for a few years, to pay back our student loans. This longing for normalcy plays a faint counterpoint to a steady background hum of no future, no future, no future. All the more surprising, then, to see vibe/mood/energy, that utopian, countercultural triad, reemerge in recent years. It is the puzzle of the resurrection of a boom-time form in a bust time. A bust time, no less, when words of magic are no longer unambiguously on the side of rebellion, resistance, vitality; when they are wielded by the platform and the individual alike.
Energy, the New Age trope for expressing the connectedness of all things, could have been made for the internet. Historically, though, the arrow points in the opposite direction. In a real sense, the internet was designed to be a conduit for energies. Media historian Fred Turner has made the case that the early internet was to a large extent created in the image of the California communes of the 1960s, spaces where “authority was distributed, hierarchies were leveled, and citizens were linked by invisible energies.” Anyone who has spent any amount of time browsing the web over the past few years, whether on the shrillest news sites or amid the dullest infinite scroll on social media, has likely felt these invisible energies — the intuition that, in Dass’s words, “it’s all the SAME trip.” But perhaps for you, the individual, this intuition isn’t an entirely happy one. The it’s-all-connected feeling that saturates so much of contemporary online life is less one of holism than it is one of homogeneity at best, and paranoia — it’s all connected, man — at worst.
The feeling starts at a low level. Recommendation algorithms show you more and more of the same: after you finish watching a video, another just like it is queued up. Spotify divines your “audio aura” at the end of each year and generates playlists guaranteed to align with your tastes. Advertisements for the same products follow you from site to site and device to device. Every digital environment feels ambiently familiar. There must be some secret force, you start to imagine, that courses through every image, every sound, every object you encounter.
Over the past few years, social media users — largely disaffected millennials and Gen Z-ers — have begun speaking of this vital force as an energy. Unlike the “invisible energies” that were, in Turner’s account of the creation of the internet, supposed to join us together as “citizens,” this conception of energy tries to give a form to the platform’s process of discovering the hidden equivalences among apparently disparate things. Less a metaphor for collective life and more a heuristic for sorting through a bottomless pile of independently generated but centrally stored content. Content, of course, comes in genres. So too does energy. Seasoned posters have started to catalog distinct types: “cursed energy,” “big dick energy,” “main character energy” (also and perhaps tellingly known as “main character syndrome”). More or less contemporaneously with the rise of these energy genres, the phrase “same energy” began circulating on Twitter. “Same energy” makes a claim that two images, concepts, or relationships share a secret but palpable essence. An emoji of a smiling face with a single tear and a still of a comic-book villain grimacing: same energy. Kyle MacLachlan and Jerry Seinfeld: same energy. A tube of toothpaste and “every person named Michael that you’ve ever met in your entire life”: somehow, same energy. On one side, a unified field of “same energy,” the shadow version of Dass’s “SAME trip”; on the other, an endless series of hyper-specific energy genres.
Energy gives shape to a particular experience of living under what digital economist Nick Srnicek and others have called “platform capitalism.” The term names a phase in the trajectory of advanced but faltering capitalist economies where the most consequential firms have shifted their focus from manufacturing products to harvesting data. Platforms like YouTube and TikTok depend on machine-learning processes to generate personalized, seemingly inexhaustible feeds of content for their users. The specific workings of these processes are jealously guarded trade secrets. A common metaphor for what gets referred to somewhat misleadingly as “the Algorithm” is the “black box”: users’ data goes in, mysterious operations take place in a dark zone inaccessible to outsiders, and a curated stream of content is spat out. This is a vision of the internet as the source of a distinctly sinister enchantment, more sorcery than miracle. Energy-talk captures the sheer mystery of these forces that shunt and pull at our attention. Who knows how the content comes to us? Perhaps the black box reads our energies and selects content for our feed that aligns with those energies. Or maybe the trick is as simple as tracking links we’ve clicked, triangulating our browsing histories with those of the people near us, listening in on our conversations. At this far limit, energy mystifies the banality of surveillance on the platform. It redescribes straightforward processes of data extraction as acts of shamanic channeling: not theft, but magic.
No surprise, then, that the platform itself has come to speak the language of energy. Last year, developer Jacob Jackson launched a machine-learning-aided visual search engine called “Same Energy.” The website presents you with a grid of images culled from various corners of the internet; you click one that compels you; it whisks away the rest of the grid and replaces it with more images with the same energy — an energy distilled, apparently, not through the usual sorting processes that assign categorizing metadata “tags” to media, but through deep learning. In other words, Same Energy purports not simply to read the label on the image, but to see into the pulsating vitality of the image itself. According to the website, platforms may soon be able to integrate with Same Energy for a fee.
It could be said that a site like Same Energy uses AI to simulate a certain kind of qualitative, gut-level judgment. And yet in the hands of individuals, it is the opposite way around: energy-talk is in part an experiment in thinking like an algorithm, in divining the hidden resonances among things and slicing them up into increasingly hyper-specific kinds. (A recent meme identifies a range of entities, from celebrities to cartoon characters to songs, that have “male manipulator energy.”) No doubt this experiment is a poor approximation of what machine learning actually does — and in a way this is exactly the point. The average user of any platform is unlikely to know the first thing about that platform’s workings, how it generates its ambience. There is no satisfactory and readily available account of how the simple non-act of scrolling through one’s feed comes to feel so nebulously miserable. In the age of the platform, energy, once a figure of utopian collectivity and mystical omni-connection, becomes a tool for making the most of our helplessness. It is a different mysticism, one for our bust time: projecting visions of cosmic sympathies onto the black boxes that organize and administer so much of contemporary life.
Another way of dealing with free-floating feelings of powerlessness, sometimes substantialized as “the depression” or “the anxiety”: doubling down on our own agency. “The fact that you’re watching this video,” proclaims New Age influencer William Knight in a recent viral TikTok clip, “means that you are energetically aligned with me and this message.” Knight, the creator of what he describes as a “manifesting app,” wants you to know that “your thoughts create your reality.” Energy gets us part of the way to understanding this message — as social media researcher Abbie Richards points out to Vox reporter Rebecca Jennings, it is a case of figuring algorithmic logics as mystical ones, as alignments of energies. But there is something more here: a conviction that our internal states can be actualized — “manifested” — in the material world. This is a version of the old counterculture’s understanding of mood, as a feeling made objective, tangible.
Widely mocked as it has been, Knight’s evangelism for manifesting — itself a modern echo of nineteenth-century New Thought — is an especially radical version of the new gospel of mood. This gospel says: you are in control. Of your future, of your relationships, and most of all, of your emotions. As the boss of your own moods, you would no doubt like to invest in some technology to ensure that you’re getting everything out of them that you possibly can. Under the sign of mood, the internet takes on a general quality of therapeutic ambience. Platforms present themselves as tools for helping us regulate our moods, not unlike the “mood organ” from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a device that allows users to set their own feelings at the touch of a dial. Whatever mood you’re looking for, it is available to you on demand: through the booming genre of “ambience videos,” the atmosphere of an emptyish coffee shop with the faint sounds of rain outside; through Netflix’s “play something” feature, a kind of shuffle mode, more episodes of The Office to hazily envelop your evening routine; through TikTok’s “For You” page, a tissue of disjointed sounds and images to insulate you from your surroundings; through Spotify’s mood-based playlists, any sort of emotional foment you can imagine, from a shot of “Mood Booster” (generic, corporately curated) to a hit of “3 am i hate myself i just need to cry” (niche, user-curated). Media adapt themselves to this situation, where the dominant mode of consumption isn’t distracted so much as it is atmospheric, as Kyle Chayka explained in a recent essay on what he calls the new “ambient TV.” Streaming audiovisual content is developed for the distinct purpose of being osmosed ambiently rather than engaged with directly. Of humming along in the background, to set the right mood.
This glut of new mood-altering techniques brings both relief and unease. Not coincidentally, as music critic Amanda Petrusich has noted, so much recent mood-regulating media is geared toward enhancing productivity, as in the popular and eminently memeable “lo-fi beats to study/relax to” genre. A whisper of dread enters the makeshift world of ambience: don’t you have some emails to send? From the perspective of the platform, though, as long as we are users, the number of emails we send hardly matters. Far more important is the data we provide, supposedly willingly and mostly without realizing it, on our moods. Media critic Liz Pelly has described in detail how Spotify, with all its mood-specific playlists, harvests user data and sells it to advertisers, who are then able to target us based on the mood of the music we are listening to. In this model, as Pelly writes, “the commodity is no longer music. The commodity is listening. The commodity is users and their moods. The commodity is listening habits as behavioral data.” While you, the individual, are encouraged to view your mood as an asset to manage, the platform treats your mood as a product to sell. Mood condenses another paradox of life on the platform. It expresses a wish to harmonize our inner and outer worlds — but behind that wish, there is a creeping sense that neither of these worlds fully belongs to us, that ultimately our emotions are less regulated from within than they are manipulated from without.
And yet the most distinctive use of mood online over the past few years has been as a statement of identification, of fellow-feeling. At some point in the mid-2010s, social media users started commenting “mood” or even “big mood” in response to text or, more often, images that they found especially “relatable.” This sense of mood has proved to be just as broad as “same energy,” but far more personal. To declare that an image of a woman in a trashcan or a heavily distorted still from a cartoon is a “mood” is to say that on some profound level, that woman, that wet cat, that garbage is you. When something is relatable, as literary critic Brian Glavey has pointed out, you don’t just feel an affinity for it — you also want to relate it, to share it with someone else. In a way, then, this use of mood gets at a general characteristic of aesthetic judgments, of pronouncements on things that move or fail to move us: namely, that they are fundamentally social, directed at real or imagined others.
Still, it can be hard to shake mood’s connotation of individuality. Perhaps a better figure for the way aesthetic judgements invoke identification and shareability is vibe. For the 1960s counterculture, vibes were capacious, undefined feelings that coursed between bodies. Today’s vibes are even harder to pin down. In fact, vibe may be the most encompassing category in the vibe/mood/energy triad. Sometimes, like energy, it names a genre or kind: “nouvelle-vague vibes”; “post-vax summer vibes.” Sometimes, just as mood can mean “that’s so relatable,” it is a statement of identification, often expressed specifically as a consumer preference: you vibe with Campari, but not with Cynar. (This is the platform’s favored sense of the word: Tinder now has a “Vibes” feature where users can respond to questions about their tastes and evaluate potential dates based on their answers.) But where energy tries to name the secret essence of things, and where mood imagines individuals’ emotions as substances to be manipulated, vibe is primarily about the spread and creep of diffuse feelings through shared space. Vibes are “caught” or “given off” from one body to another; the gnomic phrase “vibe check” is, among other things, an invitation to share one’s feelings, to put the vibes one is emanating into words.
Vibe emerges from a sense every platform dweller has felt: that other people and their emotions are simply too close. Afforded what feels like perfect access to a dizzying number of other persons, what they report to be thinking and feeling at any given moment, we have little choice but to take this data in aggregate, not as an accumulation of individuals’ joy and suffering but as a series of impersonal, thrumming emotional ground tones. These tones are often unpleasant, if only in a vague, formless way. If Didion felt bad vibes on the horizon in 1967, today they seem to saturate the very air we breathe. A scan of social media returns far more talk of bad vibes than good. All summer, apparently the vibes were off in New York City. On the occasion of a mass shooting, a professional player of video games pronounces: “Fucked vibes.” Popular TikTok accounts like “vibes.you.crave” post montages of vibey images — train platforms, snowy darkness — and users reply to report how existentially hollow these videos make them feel. “I feel empty and satisfied at the same time,” writes one commenter. “These pics makes me feel empty and in a way i can’t explain,” confesses another. For young users on these platforms, the transcendental fucked-up-ness of the world does not register as a crisis, but as a vibe — a low-hanging miasma of ambient bad feelings. To invoke a vibe is to try to make this atmosphere a little more understandable, to gain enough distance from it to start to describe it.
If naming a vibe is a way to register the encompassing badness of things, there is also a sense that embracing a vibe might be a strategy for repairing this badness, or at least shutting it out. As good a catchphrase as any for this conviction is “no thoughts, just vibes.” Featured in video captions, impressed onto stickers and t-shirts, and posted with alarming frequency in various forms on corporate social media accounts, this slogan imagines vibes as an alternative to thinking in general and self-reflection in particular, with all the spiraling paralysis it entails. It is a statement of only semi-ironic aspiration to return, as Freud put it long ago in his theorization of the death drive, to unthinking inorganic matter. A character in one Don DeLillo novel, a disgraced neoconservative intellectual who played a role in crafting a philosophical alibi for the Iraq War, says that “matter wants to lose its self-consciousness. We’re the mind and heart that matter has become. Time to close it all down. This is what drives us now.” This is another way of saying “no thoughts, just vibes.”
For DeLillo’s neocon living out a reclusive life in the desert, wracked on some level by guilt over the role he played in mass killing, the dream of returning to pure conscienceless matter — of “just vibing” — is surely a tempting one. Certainly he would be even likelier to endorse one of the darker versions of the slogan floating around the internet: “dead inside, just vibes.” Of course such a character is an unlikely protagonist of vibes, especially given the affinities between these last two slogans and that often falsely universalized phenomenon, “millennial burnout culture.” But he gives us the language we need to understand the drive to vibe. The seeker after vibes feels dead inside but wants to overcome this deadness by becoming more dead inside, by surrendering to or melting into the environment. A tumbleweed, a nylon sky dancer flapping blandly above a car dealership: passively being buffeted by forces that exceed them. Vibing.
Even in its less extreme versions, “no thoughts, just vibes” is something like a mantra for depersonalization. Online, if it isn’t a selfie caption, the phrase often accompanies an image of a nature scene (sunset, dog in a meadow) or else a scene of debauchery (disco ball, handle of vodka). Drugs, mystical philosophy, the sublime in nature: pick your poison; all techniques of vibing are methods for getting momentary relief from the burdens of personhood, for relaxing the boundaries of the self in the name of finding a slightly less painful way of living in the world.
There is a double distance, finally, between these vibes and those of the midcentury counterculture. On the one hand, “no thoughts, just vibes” finds vibe shedding its sociability and its aspiration for extended sensation. It abandons shared feelings for private unfeeling. On the other hand, and even more tellingly, vibes have lost their utopian horizon. The vibes of the 1960s and 1970s were, on one reading, an invitation to practice a different mode of being together with others. Vibes seemed to offer a way to make oneself understood and to understand others immediately, bypassing the administered world and all its circuitry of violence, repression, even language. To share vibes was to prepare for a better future. Today, as tech critic Daisy Alioto wrote recently, “when we say ‘the vibes are off,’ maybe we mean our sense of the future.” In our bust time, the future can seem less like a promise of fullness and more like a yawning void of uncertainty. “Just vibing” is one method for bracketing this blank future. Online or offline, it dreams of peaceful objecthood in an endless present.
From vibrations quickening the air between us, to the morass of the internet, to the dead end of just vibing: the journey from the counterculture occult to the platform occult can feel like one bad trip. Its arc is certainly not an upward one. Still, it is worth resisting the temptation of tragedy. Vibe, mood, and energy don’t just testify to the depredations of platform capitalism, even though each of these categories may have denatured under its pressures. They may no longer speak to us about utopia, but they do tell us plenty else. There is a latent, if weak, critical power in naming a vibe, a mood, or an energy. The very act of registering bad vibes in language gives shape to a feeling — say, as Alioto senses, the feeling that we are cut off from the future, that it is foreclosed to us. When we make an aesthetic judgment about a vibe, mood, or energy, addressed to others, we are making a claim that we do still, after all, share a world. Even if that shared world is undergirded by platforms that mine and sell our data, even if “the vibes” are not fucked for all of us in the same exact way, even if it feels disingenuous to claim the same energy as someone in different circumstances, these speech acts generate a fragile moment of universality amid fragmentation. The moment takes place, and we’re stuck in it, together, vibing.
What can we do while we’re stuck here? Vibe/mood/energy has one final suggestion. These categories may be mystical metaphors for a truly rancid situation, but they also name a set of techniques for dealing with that same situation. Divining vibes, moods, and energies is a way to stylize our feelings of helplessness — before the platform, before the cosmos. Constructing an imaginative, mystical version of the sorting principles that organize your life is a way to take pleasure in the sheer arbitrariness of the order of things. Or maybe closer to the mark, to reinterpret an inhuman, algorithmic logic as a more-than-human, cosmological one. Self-regulation is a way to shut out poisonous vibes. Using background music or television to construct a protective mood-cocoon is at least minimally antisocial, but it is also a survival measure. When you are downwardly mobile, called on to be “flexible” and ready to work at any time, from anywhere, a shielding cocoon of predictable moods is arguably crucial for your sanity. When you are off work or out of it, and your time is your own, you want your mood to be your own, too — to take control of it rather than let it be inflicted on you. As for self-dissolution through vibing, when so much service work demands a strained performance of solicitous personhood, who wouldn’t want to unwind by becoming a little less of a person? As Friedrich Hölderlin, a poet of vibes if there ever were one, once wrote, “Where there is danger / The rescue grows as well.”
Not that those who seek after vibes are under any illusion that one could rescue us. There is no better world glittering behind vibe/mood/energy. The future was always made of harder stuff than magic could move, anyway. What vibe/mood/energy does give us is new sensibilities, new ways of registering a shared moment of ambient disaster as it unfolds — and new techniques, practices that help us survive this moment, no matter how long it may last.
Mitch Therieau is a writer and PhD candidate at Stanford.