Meet Joshua and Amanda.
Joshua is posting an update to Facebook about the mental boost he’s (allegedly) experienced just one week after self-prescribing a line of nootropic cognitive enhancers, #feelingoptimized. Amanda’s Instagramming the latest offering in the DIY origami collection she makes and sells on Etsy, #handmade. The two of them are doing these things on a Saturday morning while sitting at an impossibly trendy brunch spot, waiting for their respective helpings of #cagefree eggs and handmade organic sausages. The meals they’ve ordered don’t lack calories, which is why they’ll both use their respective FitBit smart fitness watches to track the extra miles they plan to walk this afternoon, #fitspo.
Joshua and Amanda live in an open plan loft apartment located in a gentrified urban neighborhood, a place where all the sketchy bodegas and independent laundromats that once populated the streets have long since been replaced with open kitchen restaurants, conventionally funky coffee shops, and gyms. The website for Joshua and Amanda’s upcoming #weddingofmydreams describes them a #workhardplayhard couple whose recreational activities include exercise, food, television, and travel. Joshua is a managing partner at a fledgling Venture Capital firm that invests in start-ups known for #innovation and a #fitnessaddict who routinely crushes it at the local CrossFit collective. Amanda’s a #rockstar graphic designer for a “mission-driven” creative agency and an avid long distant runner who chronicles her #runnerslife on Instagram.
Joshua and Amanda never display a hint of ambivalence when it comes to the activities that comprise their lives. They exude a marked sense of avidity for each and every pursuit they deem to undertake, even those which, upon first glimpse, might appear superficial or trivial. Whether it’s sampling the #smallbatch spirits produced at their neighborhood’s new micro-distillery, #stayingfit via their preferred form of exercise, #eatingresponsibly at their favorite artisanal restaurants, #bingewatching television shows on Netflix, or documenting their involvement in each of these activities on social media, they always go hard, #alldayeveryday. They stave off the fear of #FOMO by #hustling through one activity after another, without ever pausing for a moment of self-reflection.
Joshua and Amanda live in this manner because they are unfamiliar with the concept of irony. They fail to recognize the inherent silliness of restaurant menus that breathlessly detail the origins of ingredients, smartphone apps that do nothing more than accelerate convenience, competitive cooking shows, the idea of social media as a personal branding strategy, or the habit of smashing two or more words together and prefacing the resulting combination with a number sign.
Joshua and Amanda are, of course, fictional, but people like them are everywhere these days, setting the cultural tone and reflecting our society’s collective mindset. Welcome to the weird, unhinged, totally un-self-aware world of #winning. This is the era of hashtag ideologies, shameless self-promotion, reality television, and social mediated life.
This is the Avidity Epidemic.
It shouldn’t be surprising that it’s come to this. After all, American irony was never anything more than a hedge, a way for artless fools to sneak their love of schlock past “the tastefulness authorities”, as a particularly incisive article in Spy magazine once put it, by pretending to only like it “ironically”. All the constant smirking and jokey shrugging performed by previous generations of ironists were diversional tactics, underneath beneath which lay an avid desire to pursue, worship, and fetishize all manners of awful objects and even worse ideas. Now, the guise is unnecessary. People today are not only free to indulge their desires for everything and anything that happens to strike their fancy, but they’re encouraged to do so. Just so long as they do it avidly. Our efficiency and performance-crazed culture has transformed us into a nation of fanboys and girls. The wink-wink ambivalence of irony has given way to the ceaseless obsessiveness of avidity as nonsensical imperatives like the fear of missing out and a desire to #winthefuture fuel our current era of unironic ebullience.
There are those who mistakenly believe that irony is still the ethos of our age when in truth American culture has been living without a surfeit of irony for quite some time. For proof of this, just look at our youth. In the not too distant past, young people presented themselves as rebels without cares or causes. Their ironic detachment from mainstream society was evidenced by a practiced insouciance, the willingness to offer an eye roll or extended middle finger to any earnest entreaty that came their way. Past youth cultures elevated self-referential jokesters like David Letterman and sardonic outsiders like Kurt Cobain to god-like status.
Today, the sentiments of such former icons reek of antiquation. Young people now respond to those same earnest entreaties with bright-eyed smiles and barely contained enthusiasm. They flock to the always-striving-to-be-viral shtick of Jimmy Fallon and the bland, corporate optimism that’s an essential element of every major pop star’s aesthetic. They grew up watching Mad Men not because they enjoyed the latent social commentary but because they admired the way Don Draper, the most unironic pop culture icon of the past 20 years, mastered the art of the sell.
Indeed, the youth of contemporary America are always hyper-cheerful and ready to be sold, because they are always selling something, whether it’s an actual product or their own branded concept of self. Their heroes are Silicon Valley titans like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos or social media gurus like Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel. Their generation has turned entrepreneurialism into the dominant ideology of American society and erased the gap between a person’s life and person’s brand. It’s impossible to be ironic when a zealous faith in conspicuous achievement underlies everything you do.
The truth is irony hasn’t ruled the roost outright in quite some time. There were some ironic elements in the iteration of the urban hipster that went mainstream in the late ‘2000s and early ‘2010s. That archetype’s glorification of purposefully anachronistic products like PBR — a beer so flavorless it can only be liked “ironically” — fixed gear bicycles, and late 19th century fashion reeked of ironic appreciation. But those layers of stylized irony were always offset by an implicit endorsement of entrepreneurial careerism. The real heroes of early 21st century Brooklyn, and the cultural movement it came to symbolize, weren’t anarchy driven punk rockers or arch comedians. They were twee entrepreneurs who couched their product pitches in appeals to the inherent value of small scale authenticity, even as they sought to scale their #artisanship to the mass market.
A contemporary “hipster-yuppie” may dress like a Gilded Age robber baron and wear facial hair so pronounced it verges on self-parody, but he (or she) also unabashedly celebrates capitalist striving and naked ambition, two things that have never gone hand-in-hand with irony. What else explains the sudden cultural cachet of craft beer, app development, self-actualization through social-physical exercise, and the attendant social media promotion that documents people’s affinities for these fanatically earnest fads? Trends like these resist irony because of the effort they require to come to fruition. You can’t celebrate craft beer or organic food or DIY wares ironically because the sincere dedication it takes to produce, market, and sell such products is an intrinsic part of their appeal. You can’t run a marathon or participate in a Tough Mudder event ironically — doing so requires an exhaustive amount of training that can’t be completed with a winking knowingness. And you can’t pursue a side gig or strike out as an entrepreneur in an ironic manner because that sort of salesmanship requires vigor and vigor necessitates exertion. Ambivalence has never been less vogue than it is now.
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Even watching television, an activity once considered the height of relaxation and silliness, has become an excruciatingly intense and semi-competitive hobby; unless you’re #bingewatching as many prestige television shows as possible, you’re not an adequate participant in contemporary culture. As author and journalist Carina Chocano argued in The New York Times, there’s been a generational shift “from cynicism and avoidance to an admiration of the hustle and an enthusiasm for all the enthusiasm.” And all this hustle and enthusiasm is avidity, not irony, epitomized.
It’s no coincidence that institutions of American culture that once functioned as repositories of irony have slowly come to favor avidity. Today’s most notable late night television host is not an ironic smirker à la David Letterman. It’s Jimmy Fallon, an avid fanboy whose always-striving-to-be-viral shtick is rooted in a desire to LOVE and be LOVED by everyone. “Fake news” programs like The Daily Show once offered audiences winking satire of bipartisan media spin. Today those same shows are nothing more than thinly disguised neoliberal bitch-fests anchored by individuals who would rather convey marked political messages than poke fun at the mass media’s obvious shortcomings. Saturday Night Live, once the stomping ground of persnickety humorists from Chevy Chase to Adam Sandler, now tacitly positions itself as an indispensable form of resistance to the current political order. Why crack a non-serious joke when you can use your platform to achieve influence?
If air quotes were, as writers Paul Rudnick and Kurt Andersen once argued, the “quintessential contemporary gesture” of irony, then the hashtag is without question the sign of the current times. Air quotes create an ironic sense of separation by signifying that you recognize the undeniable silliness of whatever cultural product you’re referencing but choose to like it anyway; you can’t be considered a rube because you are in on the joke. Air quotes are self-referential in an unserious way, a means to avoid full investment.
The hashtag serves the opposite function. It’s an avid statement of unrestrained affection, a tool for cultivating virality in the hope that whatever is being referenced will be seen by as many other people as possible. For every hashtag that’s conceived as an ironic joke, there’s at least fifty 50 conceived with the utmost sense of seriousness. Even hashtags that started out as obvious gags — #winning , #likeaboss — are now regularly deployed without a hint of self-awareness or irony. Every brand, entity, and person wants to distill its essence into hashtag form because doing so is the most direct way to convey rampant adoration. Do it avidly or don’t do it at all. That’s the unspoken mantra of the times.
How did we get from the ironic to the avid? Three things happened over the past 30 years that enabled avidity to gain a foothold in the culture.
The first precursor of the Avidity Epidemic was hip-hop. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, at the same moment celebrated white rock stars like REM and Beck were exhaustively flaunting their indie cred and/or sarcastically feigning self-loathing, black rap artists were sprinting in the opposite direction, creating a musical style and accompanying iconography that eulogized individual triumph and aggressive self-affirmation. From NWA to Biggie to Jay Z, there was nothing “ironic” about the way pioneering hip-hop artists presented themselves and their music.
Seeking to document the impoverished conditions long inflicted upon black urban communities, as well as the way it felt when individuals from these communities transcended such conditions on the pathway to success, these musicians struck a pose of in-your-face defiance and aggression. Their work implied that such traits were necessary means of self-expression, the only way artists from marginalized communities could make their voices heard in a culture long accustomed to looking the other way. And unlike their white rock counterparts, hip-hop artists didn’t worry about “selling out”. They reveled in the material luxuries success afforded them because these were the very luxuries white America had long sought to deny them and the communities they called home. There’s no reason to adopt a pose of bemusement or create an ironic level of separation between yourself and your success when that success truly stands for triumph in the face of unfathomable adversity.
The Illusion of Celebrity
The avid rhythms and enthusiastic posturing of hip- hop made for some of the most powerful and compelling art of the late 20th century and placed the art form in direct opposition to the laid-back, irony-laden cultural products with which it was juxtaposed. Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time before hip- hop’s influential aesthetic was appropriated and diluted by individuals with no meaningful connection to the oppression and pain that had inspired the art form’s creation. The me (first tone of expression that’s all the rage these days) — #baller, #winning, #lookoutfornumberone — mimics hip-hop’s spirit of self-promotion without bearing the weight of its meaning.
The second precursor of the Avidity Epidemic was reality television. At the same time hip- hop artists were detailing their personal exploits with unbridled ardor, culture’s more widespread love affair with avidity found one of its truest manifestations in reality television, the most hyper-sincere form of televisual art ever invented. The idea of reality television first achieved mainstream recognition with the airing of MTV’s The Real World in 1992, but the form didn’t truly find its legs until shows like Survivor and American Idol became overnight sensations in the early ’00s.
Unlike The Real World, whose early seasons presented surprisingly tender glimpses of an evolving youth culture, shows like Survivor and American Idol had no interest in depicting anything that remotely resembled reality. They may have branded themselves with the reality tag, but they portrayed “reality” as nothing more than a game that had one winner and many losers. American Idol, which journalist Rob McKenzie once noted “does not resort to the knowing wink or the clever half smile of the ironist… There is no Lettermanesque arched eyebrow,” achieved resonance by pitting earnest strivers against one another in a manufactured music contest. Survivor went one step further; it placed a group of individuals in a laughably fake scenario and then encouraged the participants to go to great and often deceitful lengths — forge alliances, break alliances; manipulate, be manipulated — just so they could win the “contest” and walk away with all the marbles.
The implicit message of reality television programs like American Idol and Survivor, both of which established a template the most consequential entries in this genre still mimic, was that the avid pursuit of victory represented the most legitimate form of social currency. The idea that ambition and success were scarlet letters to avoid, an idea former youth cultures embraced wholeheartedly, suddenly seemed outmoded. Letting an audience see how invested you were in the pursuit of a tangible goal no longer undermined a person’s integrity. In years past, being cool involved distancing oneself from conspicuous achievement in an ironic manner. Reality television and hip- hop erased this sensibility and replaced it with a celebration of performative ambition and avid pursuit. Within a few years, the avid striver replaced the ironic smirker as the most celebrated social archetype.
Even reality television shows that did not involve contests subtly endorsed the importance of avid striving. From The Real Housewives franchise through Keeping up with the Kardashians, docu-soap reality programs gave their subjects weekly opportunities to build and promote their personal brands. Filmed in mansions and ritzy restaurants and other extravagant locations, the shows not only implied that being rich and successful were things worth striving for — notions that previous youth cultures would have mocked as disingenuous and shallow — but authenticated the idea that more was never enough. The stars of these shows were always laboring to gain more money, more influence, and more exposure. They were not afraid or ashamed to avidly pursue material wealth and shallow celebrity without ever pausing for a moment of self-reflection; they owned their ambitions and moved on. Kim Kardashian is one of the quintessential icons of the Avidity Epidemic not just because she is #famousforbeingfamous, but because she’s always used her fame to build a personal brand and then used that brand to amass prodigal amounts of wealth she never needed to begin with. Kardashian has never been interested in creating art or dispensing original social commentary; like the best entrepreneurs, she’s focused all her energies on building as big an audience as possible and turning that audience into a paying consumer base.
The third precursor of the Avidity Epidemic was the invention of social media. Sites like Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter, all of which came into being in the mid-’00s (aka the transition years from irony to avidity to irony) may have been conceived as digital mechanisms for genuine human connection and the celebration of people’s idiosyncratic tendencies, b. But they quickly degenerated into superficial instruments of ego flattery, self-promotion, and personal branding. Social media gave users the illusion of celebrity — all those likes and pokes and followers — without requiring them do anything worthy of recognition. Suddenly any person could construct a public persona of their own making and disseminate it to an audience.
As Chuck Klosterman noted in the pages of Esquire, “Every online existence is a noncommercial simulation of celebrity culture.” This incited people to identify as “public” people, even if they had no specific talent to share with the world at large. And the metrics built into these social medias came to present life as a “gameified popularity contest measured in friends, followers, likes and comments” as journalist Joel Stein wrote in Time magazine. Believing that everything you said and did was inherently interesting, and therefore worthy of (social) media promotion, was now a luxury available to everyone.
From the early days of social media, it was apparent that irony was not an effective tone of communication on these new digital platforms. It was, and still is, so much easier to give something or someone an enthusiastic thumbs up or sincere endorsement than to affect self-awareness and/or ambivalent distance. Social media stokes the avid in every user and thrives on the obsessed. As Nicholas Thompson noted in The New Yorker, “Obsessive people are essential to sites like Facebook and Twitter. They add energy and buzz… If you’re designing a social network you want people to feel as though effort boosts status.”
The rise of social media cemented the death of irony and the ascension of avidity. Learning how to use sites like Facebook and Twitter (and later Instagram and Snapchat) to effortfully cultivate a social identity or “brand” became a rite of passage for all Millennials as they transitioned from the confines of college campuses into the real world. Furthermore, the wild popularity and profitability of social media sites turned their founders into cultural icons and made start-up culture the new stomping ground of #rockstars. People can endlessly debate whether or not David Fincher’s The Social Network The Social Network (2010), which presents a heavily fictionalized version of Facebook’s origin story, is a good film, but there’s no question it brilliantly portrays how the avid founders of digital start-ups see themselves as vanguard cultural figures, even as they strive to do nothing more than use their creations to impress boring venture capitalists to the tune of billions of dollars.
All of which brings us back to Joshua and Amanda, the two quintessential avid Millennials with whom we started this journey a few thousand words ago. Like all members of their over-programmed generation, Joshua and Amanda didn’t spend their youths lolling in front of the television, passively digesting and internalizing the contradictions and absurdities American society thrives upon. They were too busy prepping for standardized tests and filling the résumé sections of their college applications with endless extracurricular activities. They spent their youths shuttling between tutoring sessions and soccer practice, always under the watchful eye of adults who constantly pushed them to do and achieve more. They were bred to embrace conformity and accepted this programming without question.
As David Brooks illustrated in his brilliant article “The Organization Kid”, one of the first comprehensive examinations of Millennials, members of this generation have always gotten real pleasure out of trying to please their superiors. As children and then as college students, they didn’t question established belief systems or foment detachment from mainstream ideas. They accepted the system as constructed and did everything they could to climb higher and higher up the social ladder.
When they weren’t spending hours completing their calculus homework, Joshua and Amanda and their ilk were gorging on Snoop Doggy Dog and Jay Z CDs — Millennials are the generation most responsible for elevating hip- hop to its status as America’s preeminent form of popular music. They were the first wave of young people for whom reality television programs held more cultural relevance than scripted television programs; they watched Survivor and American Idol in their college dorm rooms and preferred Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County to The O.C. They were the pioneers of the social media landscape, the first wave of Americans for whom online profiles and 24/7 social connectivity made self-promotion and brand cultivation second nature. And this weird mix of cultural influencers bred them and all the other Millennials to frame every desire, whim, and idea — their entire lives really — in the terms and tones of conspicuous achievement. They resisted any notion that ambition and success were inherently phony. Irony held no purpose for them because they had no desire to just sit back and poke holes in the established order.
As Rudnick and Andersen argued in Spy, the Irony Epidemic was, in one sense, little more than an excuse for Baby Boomers and Gen Xers to live in perpetual adolescence. “If everything is a pose, a sitcom riff, then you’re still a kid, just goofing around,” they wrote. The Avidity Epidemic springs from the same point of origin, it’s just that Millennial tastemakers didn’t’ spend their adolescences goofing around. They were too busy trying to achieve. Chasing success and endeavoring to show off one’s accomplishments to as large an audience as possible was the primary virtue of this demographic’s adolescence. That same virtue is now the underlying principle of our avid age.
What are the exact manifestations of the Avidity Epidemic?
Avidity is an aesthetic present in so many of the cultural vogues that have pervaded American society over the past ten to 15 years and a state of mind embraced by people everywhere. It’s a calculated reflex that refuses to acknowledge its own sense of calculation. Avidity is the proliferation of the term “aspirational” and the desperate, obsessive striving it connotes. It’s a rejection of ambivalence, cynicism, and avoidance and the near obsolescence of introspection. It’s the rise of the “winners-win” mentality, no questions asked. Avidity flattens cultural products and turns them into commodities whose worth is solely determined by metrics. It’s the fetishization of big data and the desire to optimize each and every daily activity, from the truly mundane, like walking, to the ungodly banal, like replying to emails in the most timely manner possible. It’s a performative approach to life that prizes passion over all else and uses passion to justify any pursuit a person desires to chase. It’s a state of mind that pushes people to “better their best”, as opposed to just “be their best”, and encourages all of us to travel absurd lengths just to become more productive versions of ourselves.
Avidity is the idea that happiness and fulfillment are entirely products of individual self-determination and that a person’s inability to achieve either of these desired states is simply the result of not #hustling enough. Avidity takes a virtuous trait, like the desire to start a new business, and supersizes it beyond any sensible limits, until it hardens into something menacing and unseemly like #disruption. There’s a reason start-up culture encourages its acolytes to disrupt every industry they can; avidity pushes the entrepreneur to see life as a zero-sum game where success is best achieved at the expense of someone else’s failure to innovate.
Avidity is newfound ubiquity of “thought leadership” and the continued marginalization of actual thinking. As David Sessions observed in The New Republic, the last few decades have given rise to a new class of “intellectuals” like Clayton Christensen and Thomas Friedman, who reject nuance and skepticism in favor of oversimplified, and often vapid, worldviews they then promote with evangelical fervor. Avidity is the popularity of TED talks and the vacant-eyed audience members who eat them up without questioning the quality of their content or the messages they seek to instill. It’s the idea that mind altering drugs like LSD should not be taken in relaxing settings to expand consciousness but should be microdosed in professional settings to increase productivity and maximize creative output.
Avidity is the rise of geek culture, not in the sense that thick rimmed glasses and bookish blouses are now considered fashionable but rather, as Matthew Kitchen wrote for Esquire, in the idea that “geekdom isn’t about the specific aspects of culture one obsesses over anymore… it’s simply the inclination to obsess about those things in the first place.” It’s the tacit encouragement we all receive to flaunt our most idiosyncratic hobbies in the loudest manner possible, and the way we are judged not on the intrinsic merit of the hobbies we choose but the degree of obsessiveness with which we pursue them. Avidity can be found in adult fantasy football leagues and cosplay conventions and the idea that participation in these adolescent trends is somehow principled if the participants exhibit ungodly amounts of enthusiasm rather than treating these hobbies with a more tempered form of energy and effort. In contemporary society, the more you like it the more real you are, and avidity is all about keeping it real to the nth degree.
Self-promotion Over Self-awareness
Avidity takes good traits like sincerity and earnestness, and longstanding ideals like the Protestant ethic, and perverts them beyond recognition. It’s contemporary society’s near religious belief in the importance of keeping busy. To borrow a phrase from journalist Nathan Heller, avidity is “the crest point of a culture that holds ‘productivity’ to be a value in itself… It doesn’t really matter what you are producing, as long as you’re doing it constantly.” Heller captured those brilliant observations in a review he wrote for The New Yorker of Jane McGonigal’s the book, SuperBetter (Penguin, 2016) which — and I’m not making this up — encourages people to live “gamefully” by turning their daily routines into epic journeys in which every single day is treated like a labor worthy of Hercules. Do everything hyper-earnestly and then let everyone else know about it. That’s the voice of avidity speaking.
Avidity is the mainstreaming of the gaudily bespoke, from granite countertops to craft cocktails to gentrification plans that don’t improve the lives of residents or the efficacy of essential urban services so much as give neighborhoods ornate makeovers so they look more beautiful in photographs. It is Instagram feeds composed of nothing more than pictures of trendy foods and people who post artfully angled picture photos of newly refurbished kitchens to Facebook and then use the number of likes the photos receive to determine which angles they should use in future home photographs.
Avidity takes an anodyne concept like self-care and curdles it into the lifestyle brand #selfcare, where the real goal isn’t to increase personal health but to advertise one’s shallow pursuit of #wellness and #wellbeing by boasting about outings to luxury spa settings and outdoor yoga sessions. Avidity prizes self-promotion over self-awareness. It’s the art of blowing up and the unspoken desire of every person and brand to do just that. If a person does something noteworthy but doesn’t Tweet about it, did it happen at all? Avidity answers “No”. It’s “pics or it didn’t happen” logic pushed past the edge of fathomability. Irony always contained a trace of self-deprecation and a healthy sense of skepticism. Avidity thrives on its refusal to even slightly deprecate one’s desires, habits, or self. Avidity says, “If I like it then it must be good, because my embrace of something is all the validation I need.”
Avidity is postmodernism in its late middle-age. If early postmodernism was all about playful pastiche and ironic meta-commentary, late postmodernism is what Frederic Jameson labeled the commodification of all cultural products and the imminent rise of capitalist logic. Avidity is Jameson’s worst fears realized and multiplied.
Avidity is also, it must be said, something of a necessity. The ironic posturing of the ’80s, ’90s, and early ’00s was partly a defensive response to mainstream culture. Defanged irony was a shield so many people used to deflect the putatively inauthenticating nature of established norms and the belief system from which those norms sprung. So it should come as little surprise that irony started to become unfashionable at the same time mainstream culture fractured beyond recognition.
One of the reason’s it’s now difficult to rebel against mass culture, through ironic means or others, is that it’s nearly impossible to define what mass culture is. The increased number of channels for content distribution and the concurrent splintering of culture into specialized niches has eradicated the mainstream as we once knew it and left a vacuum. Avidity is the means new cultural products and their creators use to seek their 15 minutes of fame. It’s the tone the last vestiges of mass culture — like Fallon’s Tonight Show — embrace in an effort to stay relevant. Avidity is about amplifying oneself and one’s accomplishments to the highest possible decibel level. And because doing so is the best way to make something go viral, aka grab a slice of the heavily divided mainstream pie, it’s somewhat understandable why entertainers, brands, and ordinary people now go avid all the time.
Avidity is also, it must be said, Donald Trump. Or Donald Trump is avidity personified. America’s current president has always been a painstakingly unironic and un-self-aware man who perfectly reflects this weird cultural moment. In the ’80s and ’90s, American culture treated Trump like a bad joke for many reasons, including the fact that his mindset was so out of step with the then current sensibility. He built garish buildings and openly advertised his megalomaniacal existence without ever displaying a hint of irony or a sense of ambivalence about his outsized ambitions or the repercussions they had on others. He couldn’t have been any further removed than the winking jokiness of the irony replete culture that surrounded him. Trump was an incorrigible self-promoter who avidly pursued every desire he had, no matter how ridiculous it was (every casino he ever built) or how destined to fail (The UFL). But as the years passed, Trump’s sensibilities and the tone of his public persona slowly found concordance with the three causes of the Avidity Epidemic: hip- hop, Reality Television, and Social Media.
“Trump was hip hop before he himself knew… a billionaire who reveled in his money,” wrote Nancy Jo Sales in a revelatory 1999 article for Vibe magazine. Sales piece, which starts with Trump attending a birthday party for rapper and rap mogul Sean “Puffy” Combs, cleverly illustrates how Trump’s shameless habit of self-promoting both himself and his professional “accomplishments”, while constantly giving the finger to less bumptious contemporaries, placed his persona in lock-step with those of rappers and hip-hop producers like Russell Simmons and Combs, who at the time relished Trump’s company. “What could be more hip hop than self-promotion,” Sales asked rhetorically. Trump was the ultimate example of a privileged white person coopting hip- hop’s meaningful aesthetic and turning it into a sad, meaningless pose.
When avidity found a new form of expression in reality television, so did Trump. In the mid-’00s, Trump attained new heights of brand recognition through his role in The Apprentice. Conceived by Mark Burnett, the “mastermind” behind Survivor, the faux business show took the bluntness of Trump’s loud, aggressive, “look at me” style to new heights. Trump was perfectly suited to the idiom because he himself had always treated life and business like one giant game. And it was always a game in which there could only be one winner. His zealous self-love and desire to achieve victory at all costs translated beautifully to the reality television format.
Finally, there’s no question that Trump’s unexpected and unprecedented run to the presidency was partly fueled by his prolific use of Twitter, the social media platform through which he dispensed blunt, boisterous, unironic takedowns of fellow pols. There was never anything arch about Trump’s tweets. He always made his point and dished out insults in the loudest, most obnoxious tone possible, and this strategy allowed him to stay on top right until the final tally of votes. Does it come as a surprise that Trump is infatuated with #winning? Trump is an avid president for our avid times, a person whose loud and loutish personality, aggressive fondness for self-promotion, love of the gaudily bespoke (see the gilded tower that bears his name), complete lack of self-awareness, and desire for outright disruption align perfectly with the various manifestations of the Avidity Epidemic.
Perhaps the only great irony of our age is that the vast majority of the Millennials, whose predilections and habits gave birth to the Avidity Epidemic, consider Trump abhorrent without realizing how much like him they are. Most Millennials do not favor mass deportations of non-white Americans or support the idea of building a wall between the United States and Mexico, but the tone and style with which they live their lives is the exact same tone and style Trump deploys with such aplomb. The individual subjects may differ — don’t expect Trump to profess admiration for organic food, artisanal everything, and app based innovation any time soon — but the mode of expression is the same.
And that’s really the key to understanding our avid state of being: tone and mode are more telling than subject. Millennials will read a news a story explaining Trump’s loyalty to embattled White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is a product of the fact that, in Trump’s words, “That guy [Spicer] gets great ratings. Everyone tunes in,” and roll their eyes. They’ll think to themselves, “Trump’s debasing the presidency by valuing the wrong things.” Then they’ll read a review of book whose central thesis claims a massive increase in liberal arts education could precipitate significant economic growth and agree wholeheartedly with this premise without 1.) questioning its underlying logic or 2.) realizing that justifying the study of classic texts of Western thought using mercantile logic is not so different from defending a press secretary because of the ratings he commands.
There’s nothing more depressing these days than watching Trump take a sledgehammer to the democratic principles and touchpoints of human decency that made America a great country for so long. But it’s also pretty depressing to realize there’s an entire generation of Americans who truly believe the application of Instagram features constitute a legitimate form of artistic expression. Collectively speaking, American culture is as unironic and un-self-aware as Trump. We all traffic in avidity whether we realize it or not.
Culture moves in cycles and at some point in the future avidity will cease to be the defining cultural mood. Certain signs already point to avidity losing some of its bite. Hip-hop, the first precursor of the Avidity Epidemic, is now predominated by introspective rappers like Drake, Kanye West, and Kendrick Lamar. The music of these zeitgeist artists is not as that of early rap stars; it’s more soulful and evinces a tone of diffident self-reflection these artists can’t seem to escape. Kim Kardashian, one of the true icons of the Avidity Epidemic, has recently gone on record promising a less ostentatious lifestyle. That’s not to say Ms.Kardashian will cease to flaunt her brand — or her booty — whenever she has the opportunity to do so, but her stated desire to embrace of a more toned-down personal aesthetic could affect her fans and the culture they constitute.
The appeal of Snapchat, the fastest growing social media platform in existence, is predicated on the way it allows people to communicate with select followers instead of a mass audience. It may yet capitalize on the initial promise of social media and celebrate people’s unique oddities and strange obsessions, rather than disintegrate into another digital forum for self-promotion and brand building. Minimalism, aka the rejection of material possessions, is a growing lifestyle trend. Though at this point, its proponents spend as much time advocating the minimalism doctrine in avid tones via social media than just living it. But there’s hope. These are mere murmurs, but all cultural developments start as seedlings before growing into something capable of real influence.
Irony, or at least the defanged irony that held American culture in its sway from the late ’80s through the early ’00s, was never an admirable mode of expression. It exchanged true cultural criticism for the art of avoidance and enabled an entire generation to disguise their earnest ambitions within layers upon layers of cowardly ambivalence and shallow self-awareness. But there’s no question that American culture’s current fetishism for the avid can make the unserious days of irony seem desirable by comparison. When irony became outmoded, American culture should have simply chosen a return to basic earnestness and heartfelt sincerity. Instead, it glommed onto the classic American mentality that says “you’re not doing ANYTHING unless you’re overdoing EVERYTHING” and sprinted in the opposite direction. Overdoing things has always been an integral part of the American character, and that particular trait is certainly evidenced in our culture’s embrace of avidity.
The rise of avidity and all the one-dimensional manifestations are more than depressing and here to stay for the time being. There is hope, but hope never seems to come fast enough. One must only watch a video clip of Jimmy Fallon tussling then presidential candidate Donald Trump’s hair to pine for the days of irony. The current epidemic is far less palatable.