Americans have forgotten how to eat food. What’s left is something else, a chaos of elements. You can buy chicken breast made from plant protein, or chips made from dried and powdered chicken breast. A delicious keto-friendly alternative! Open an American fridge and see: like a cartoon castaway going mad on his island, they’re trying to recreate the human world from coconut husks. Coconut butter, coconut yoghurt, coconut cheese. Thick bristly hairs sprout from the scruff of your hard, spherical head. Your teeth are whiter than ever, but fibrous in the light… Nobody else in history has eaten so much ersatz in peacetime. Which suggests that in fact, we must be in an invisible state of total war. Why else would they be making crackers out of insects? All resources to the front: snack on pine cones, wood dust, pondwater, clay. Eat hair, you bastards. Let’s see if we can get the fuckers to eat rocks. Aspirational little sachets of gravel, chatty spiel in a nice neutral sans-serif font. Hi! We’re Gizzardly! We’re on a mission to help get you all the yummy minerals you need…
In the better restaurants, menus no longer describe dishes, but combinations. Sirloin, sea buckthorn, xue cai, pea. Online, I’m repeatedly made to look at ads for various forms of edible slurry. Are you busy? Are you too busy achieving your goals to prepare a meal from plants and animals? Then why not subsist off tapioca starch, pea protein, and ethyl methylphenylglycidate? Something far worse than junk food, which at least assumes that you would like a burger made from beef, even if it gave you something else, mechanically separated rectums and hooves. There’s something almost innocent, now, about a product that only lies. Huel has nothing to disguise; it’s exactly what it claims to be, which is human fuel. Because of course tech types imagine that their body is basically a kind of car. It gets you, laboriously, where you need to go, and while it’s possible to drive the thing for pleasure, you never really manage… Especially with the older models, it can get pretty expensive to keep all the moving parts in good condition. You might even get attached to the clunker, but deep inside you know that eventually the time will come to trade it in for something brand-new and powered by electricity.
This is the collapse of genre: the dissolution of all kinds of thing. In cinema, genre is supposed to have taken over everything; nothing could be further from the truth. When was the last time Hollywood produced a romantic comedy? Not a parody of the genre, in which the hero learn in the end that other people are always insufficient and the only thing you really need is yourself, but an actual romantic comedy that assigns some value to romantic love? In fact, when was the last time Hollywood produced an actual comedy, of any kind? Or a science fiction film (at least, a science fiction film whose title doesn’t start with the word Star) that’s set somewhere further away than near Earth orbit, in the same modular space stations that already exist—or, if we’re really pushing things, Mars? Every TV show is now pitched as dramedy, which means it’s a drama without the courage to take itself seriously.
The Marvel films, which are supposed to represent the triumph of genre, have more or less digested it instead. Martial arts, political thriller, mythological epic, space opera, even the domestic sitcom—they’ve all been processed into a pea-protein slurry of entertainment. Self-mocking gestures; fight scenes where people battle each other with beams of coloured light. Even horror has been disembowelled, deschlockified, dressed up in layers of emotional realism that make the monster-metaphor basically superfluous. Critics have started to belatedly notice that sex is disappearing from films: there’s no longer the need for a male and female lead, their tension, the kiss… But sex is the just the first thing you notice when it’s not there. Everyone knows what the lack of sex feels like. What’s really disappearing from film is film.
Music is the same. Country songs have the same snap tracks as R&B; distinctions of kind have melted into the network of similarities spun out by the Spotify algorithm. If you like that, you might like this. A plane of consistency, gradually sweeping across the entirety of culture. The problem isn’t even that all pop music sounds the same; that’s always what pop music was for. The problem is that pop music is now also the avant-garde. Fashion shows and gallery openings are soundtracked with the same timbres and cadences as educational cartoons for toddlers. In publishing, prizewinning literary fiction has the same clear, smooth, naïve prose as young adult novels. The same short paragraphs, the same emotional hyperliteracy, the same grasping for social relevance, the same polished craft and total void of character or artifice. Online, any form of creative expression is indifferently grouped together as content, something basically interchangeable. A content creator writes recipes, personal essays, and accusations; they dance in front of a camera or tell you why you should care about the latest genocide overseas. What they’re really putting out isn’t content at all, but form, endlessly reproducing the vast homogeneity of form.
Late last year, I noticed slogans painted on the boarded-up stores of downtown New York. Investigate Big Tech! Stop Corporate Censorship And Tyranny! This was political graffiti, but it struck me that it was impossible to tell exactly what politics it was supposed to convey. Resistance to large capitalist enterprises and their power to remake the conditions of social life: this used to be the project of the left. Defending large capitalist enterprises and their limitless right to private property: this used to be the project of the right. Now? The same libidinal energies can be channelled into what look like wildly different projects. But there are no coherent political ideologies any more, just the names, the husks, half-filled with mad petty grievances. What passes for socialism is mostly just the interpersonal expression of social media systems, their brutal struggle for recognition, their posturing and spite. And the right is the exact same thing, except worse. Chicken made from plant protein. Chips made from chicken.