What is a vibe?

This was originally published on January 29, 2021 on my Substack newsletter. I’m republishing it here to get this post on my platform(Never trust platforms you don’t own.) If you would like to support the work I do (I don’t get research funds now that I’m not faculty), I’m running a sale on newsletter subscriptions: a year for $24. Offer is good until 23 February 2024.

Vibes (or sometimes “vibez”) are everywhere now. As the two tweets above show, vibes are models for everything from gender to markets. In the past year, both DaBaby and Zayn Malik each released a song called “Vibez.” Vibes are contiguous with moods, such as the moods Spotify uses to organize playlists and the Seattle bookstore Oh Hello Again uses to organize their books in place of genre. A 2019 HotelTonight advertisement used moods to categorize bookings in place of a five-star ranking system. The “lo fi” in “lofi study beats” is a vibe.

Colloquially, “vibez” is used to express an intentiona situation/one’s geographic and sociological position, an ambience, a stateofmind, one’s material surroundings, and other sorts of contexts that orient present and future possibilities. Similarly, “lofi” and “chill” are ergonomic devices individuals use to regulate psychological and affective states for optimal present and future productivity, just as Oh Hello Again’s mood-based catalog system was designed as part of a broader philosophy of “biblotherapy,” where people use reading to manage their emotional and affective comportment.

A vibe is not exactly a vibration. As these examples suggest, a vibe is the sympathetic resonance between a multiply-situated (geographically, temporally, politically, epistemically, materially, etc.) subject and their social and material milieu. Sympathetic resonance happens when the vibrations from a sounding object like a tuning fork or piano string activate similar frequencies in nearby objects that are relatively “in tune” with the original sound source. For example, when the strings on a stringed instrument are left undamped, playing one of the instrument’s higher pitches will activate harmonics at that same pitch in some of the lower strings. Vibes likewise activate perceivers’ attuned capacities and shape how people act in and on the worlds around them. (Vibes in the colloquial sense are kinda like but not exactly identical to Jane Bennett’s “vibrations” in the academic new materialist sense; Bennett’s concept doesn’t get to the issue of sympathetic resonance, which I think is key because, as I’ll show below, is key in accounting for the impact of power relations on our capacity to vibe.)

A vibe is a phenomenological horizon. The philosophical concept of “horizon” describes the meeting point between subject and material/social situation. Horizon names something similar to what 2-dimensional visual arts call “perspective”: it’s the frame that orients both the position of the perceiver vis-a-vis a perceptual field, and the perceptual qualities of that field and the things in it vis-a-vis the perceiver. For example, it makes objects that are nearer to the viewer in space appear larger and lower in the frame, and more distant objects appear smaller and higher in the frame. As Linda Alcoff explains, “interpretive horizon…constitutes the self in representing the point of view of the self, and it also constitutes the object which is seen in the sense that it is seen as what it is from the frame of reference and point of view that the horizon makes possible” (Visible Identities, 100). It’s not just that things out there appear to me on a horizon: this horizon also serves as the condition of possibility of my own perception. For example, past perceptual experiences train me to perceive in specific ways: a native English speaker, it took me a while to hear and properly pronounce the umlauted vowels I was learning in German class. As feminist phenomenologists of color such as Alcoff and Sara Ahmed have demonstrated, horizons are relational, social, and iterative (i.e., they are built out of repeated experience): “orientation…is about how the bodily, the spatial, and the social are entangled” (Ahmed QP 181n1). Emphasizing their “material and embodied situatedness” (VI 102), Alcoff argues that horizons are produced in our interactions with other people and with the world around us. They’re the background of mostly extra-propositional knowledges such as sensory habits, muscle memory, or kinesthetic choreographies that we use to navigate our daily lives. 

The direction of our orientation “affects what we can do, where we can go, how we are perceived, and so on” (Ahmed QP 101). The worlds we inhabit are arranged to make it easier to do some kinds of things and harder to do others. “Through being orientated in some directions and not others, bodies…get twisted into shapes that enable some action only insofar as they restrict the capacity for other kinds of action” (Ahmed QP 91). For example, most anglophone academic philosophers ascribe to one of two orientations: analytic or continental. My background is in continental philosophy, and this has led me to be better at reading German than doing symbolic logic and to converse with and read work by scholars in other humanities fields that also use “theory” in the “theory wars” sense. So, the direction of one’s philosophical orientation makes it easier and more rewarding to engage with specific kinds of tools and develop particular types of competencies or capacities. In this way, “to be orientated is also to extend the reach of the body” (Ahmed QP 8). 

But because the world is also oriented, such capacity-extension happens if and only if the individual’s orientation matches the orientation of their material, social, and historical situation. As Ahmed explains: 

we are orientated when we are in line. We are ‘in line’ when we face the direction that is already faced by others. Being ‘in line’ allows bodies to extend into spaces that, as it were, have already taken their shape. Such extensions could be redescribed as an extension of the body’s reach” (15).

“Being in line” is another way of expressing the fact of having adopted the horizon hegemonic social forces compel you to have. Most workplaces, for example, extend the professional reach of people with few domestic care responsibilities further than people with more intensive ones. 

Ahmed’s analysis of orientation thus helps to illustrate how vibe-capitalism cultivates the kinds of capacities it finds most profitable and rewarding, and at the same time punish people with alternative capacities. In general, neoliberalism manages social exclusion in a fairly hands-off fashion: instead of directly excluding particular types of people, it nominally includes everyone but hypervigilantly maintains background conditions that ensure differential success and failure along racial, gender, sexual, class, ability, and all the other conventional axes of oppression. Ahmed’s account of orientation describes how the arrangement of those conditions interacts with people inhabiting such conditions to encourage them to fall in line or face punishment if they don’t. As a being and falling in line, orientation isn’t disciplinary conformity to a norm, but a directionality or course or tendency to have capacities that will contribute positively to the reproduction of hegemonic society. Orientation is having the capacities to augment the capacities of the world that oriented you and that you in turn orient, building wealth/capacity that can pay forward what has been invested in you. In other words, being oriented means having a vibe that is sufficiently attuned to our white supremacist capitalist patriarchal world to induce and amplify sympathetic resonances with it. 

Orientation, especially in Ahmed’s theorization, describes both the way I have become attuned and accustomed to a particular type of situation and the way specific situations are designed for or assume particular kinds of people. For example, a building with only single-gender bathrooms is both designed for binarily gendered people and assumes that these are the only kinds of people that ought to be in that space. This mutual fitting of situation and inhabitants could also be described as “purposiveness” in Kant’s sense of “subjective material purposiveness.” According to Kant, something possesses subjective material purposiveness if we feel (i.e., subjectively) that either artistic or natural objects in the world (a.k.a. material) was designed (or at least feels like it was designed) to fit within the limits of our perceptual and cognitive capacities and the bounds of our aesthetic preferences. Or, more directly: it feels like it was designed for us to perceive and appreciate. 

Horizon–or vibe–serves the function that proportionality or normality serves in normalizing regimes–it is the standard against which phenomena are evaluated for purposiveness and in/exclusion. As Louise Amoore explains, “the emphasis of risk assessment ceases to be one of the balance of probability of future threat and occupies instead the horizon of actionable decisions, making possible action on the basis of uncertainty” (Amoore Politics of Possibility 58; emphasis added). So, exceptions are determined not by disproportionate relation to the norm but by disorientation to the horizon. Ratios and proportions are balanced–cost:benefit calculus, for example, is designed to keep risk in proportion to reward, just as statistical normalization identifies members of a population who are disproportionately distant from the range of normal frequencies as candidates for exclusion or policing. Horizon isn’t about balance or proportion so much as it is about orientation. For example, airplane pilots use the altitude indicator to judge their craft’s orientation with respect to the Earth’s horizon. 

“Vibe” is what finance capitalism uses in place of the normal curve/Gaussian distribution to cut the break between what gets supported and what gets suppressed, what’s investable and what warrants divesting, capacity and debility, persons and non-persons. Normal curves plot patterns in past factual events, like the number of deaths or number of births in a population. But nowadays finance capitalism is less interested in facts and more interested in speculation.

According to Amoore, “inviting speculation and inference in to calculation” (Politics of Possibility 75) allows math to do more than it could on its own–namely, identify and enclose counterfactual (and improbable) scenarios. Bluntly, finance capitalism uses speculative rationalities to turn non-existent realities into markets, and the tools they use to do that are common to both Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Those tools run on vibes. As scholars such as Patricia Ticineto Clough and Mark Hansen have argued, the speculative calculus common in contemporary data analytics and machine learning measure “tendencies” rather than events. Similarly, Amoore describes how relying on things like “personal convictions” (Amoore 45), “guesswork, gut feelings, and instincts” (Amoore 30), one can “approximate beyond the limit point of measurement” (Amoore 32). Vibes make math more productive (for capitalism, for white supremacy).

For example, whereas probabilist normalization identifies disproportionately abnormal instances as candidates for exclusion, this type of speculative calculus identifies “something that ‘feels right’ or ‘looks out of place’” (Amoore 25) for possible exclusion. Examples include the US Department of Homeland Security’s “If you see something, say something” campaign, which deputizes private citizens to seek out violations of their sense of the usual or proper arrangement of things (rather than just violations of the law).  As a form of governmentality, the “If you see something, say something” campaign relies on citizens’ commonsense perceptions of how things are oriented with respect to one another and with respect to them as perceivers, or what Amoore calls their “affective judgment on the look and feel of a place with which one is familiar” (Amoore 142). Vibes are cops; they are systems designed to amplify patriarchal racial capitalism’s property interests and punish whatever challenges those interests.

Vibes, moods, feels–these are the instruments the culture of speculative finance capitalism uses to connect status-laden people to status-laden cultural objects and practices. This is the gist of the book I’m working on right now that follows up on the work in Resilience & Melancholy and The Sonic Episteme. The argument is something like: vibes/moods/feels/orientations are the object of governance in post-normative (in the Foucaultian sense) neoliberalisms. Orientations are subject to discourses of legitimation (i.e., the capacity to privately assume risks and costs), and that’s how the break between persons and non-persons is made. This has numerous implications for popular culture, from music industry’s hard turn to copyright as the main way to make money from music, to “remixability” being key for chart success, to songs like “drivers license” using mood contrast in place of more traditional tension/release structures. This is in very embryonic stages at the moment while I work on finishing my WOXY book. But this project is starting to gel more firmly than it has before, so be on the lookout for more issues exploring content from this project.