Trapped in The Josh
A partial answer to "Why is Everything so Ugly?" by the editors of N+1
The editor’s note in the latest N+1 is a pleasingly dyspeptic essay about something I’ve been giving a lot of thought: the unremitting ugliness of life in early 2020s America.
You might have noticed it yourself. The ugliness I’m talking about isn’t moral or political ugliness—the ugliness of routine gun and traffic violence, blithe indifference to public health, or a stubborn rash of fascist kitsch on the body politic. I’m talking about aesthetic ugliness: the elements of our built environment and cultural output that offend the senses. Or as the N+1 editors put it:
WE LIVE IN UNDENIABLY UGLY TIMES. Architecture, industrial design, cinematography, probiotic soda branding — many of the defining features of the visual field aren’t sending their best. Despite more advanced manufacturing and design technologies than have existed in human history, our built environment tends overwhelmingly toward the insubstantial, the flat, and the gray, punctuated here and there by the occasional childish squiggle. This drab sublime unites flat-pack furniture and home electronics, municipal infrastructure and commercial graphic design: an ocean of stuff so homogenous and underthought that the world it has inundated can feel like a digital rendering — of a slightly duller, worse world.
This, of course, is not a new complaint. In the above, you can detect faint echoes of Adorno’s revulsion toward mid-century American mass culture, and maybe a fainter echo of de Maupassant’s intense loathing for the Eiffel Tower. Maybe we’ve always been ugly; or maybe complaints about contemporary ugliness show a latent reactionary impulse bubbling to the surface.
Maybe. But I do think the editors of N+1 are onto something more than just snobbery or aesthetic conservatism. It’s instructive to compare blockbusters from the past few years to those released even just 30 years ago; even the goofiest big-budget action flicks of the 90s took place in a tactile world that feels significantly less sterile, less uncannily anti-human, than the frictionless pixelated landscapes of yet another Thor.
The title of the N+1 piece is “Why is Everything So Ugly?” But its authors are more preoccupied with describing the ugliness than explaining it, a few references to supply chains and global capital aside. My purpose in this post is to answer their rhetorical question. While there may be some intangible cultural or ideological reasons for our aesthetic decline, I will focus on material explanations: the economic transformations of the post-New Deal era that led us here. I see us as the victims of four interlocking phenomena, which I’ll tackle in no particular order below.
1. State Capture
“Why is Everything So Ugly?” begins, of course, with an extended consideration of the five-over-one apartment building. Five-over-one construction has become ubiquitous in new multifamily developments, leading one popular TikTok to describe a five-over-one building as the paradigmatic “gentrification building.” The specific, fictional gentrification building featured in the N+1 editors’ nightmarescape is called “The Josh.”
We spent the summer certain that the caution tape–yellow panels on The Josh’s south side were insulation, to be eventually supplanted by an actual facade. Alas, in its finished form The Josh really is yellow, and also burgundy, gray, and brown. Each of these colors corresponds to a different material — plastic, concrete, rolled-on brick, an obscure wood-like substance — and the overall effect is of an overactive spreadsheet. Trims, surfaces, and patterns compete for attention with shifty black windows, but there’s nothing bedazzling or flamboyant about all this chaos. Somehow the building’s plane feels flatter than it is, despite the profusion of arbitrary outcroppings and angular balconies. The lineage isn’t Bauhaus so much as a sketch of the Bauhaus that’s been xeroxed half a dozen times.
The Josh is aging rapidly for a 5-month-old. There are gaps between the panels, which have a taped-on look to them, and cracks in the concrete. Rust has bloomed on surfaces one would typically imagine to be rustproof. Every time it rains, The Josh gets conspicuously . . . wet. Attempts have been made to classify structures like this one and the ethos behind their appearance: SimCityist, McCentury Modern, fast-casual architecture. We prefer cardboard modernism, in part because The Josh looks like it might turn to pulp at the first sign of a hundred-year flood.
I have mixed feelings about five-over-one buildings. I live in one; it’s fine. In general, I approve of more multifamily construction, especially in high-cost, high-opportunity, transit-rich areas. The fact that some new construction is relatively ugly troubles me less than the fact that we don’t have enough housing of any type.
That said, it would be nice if we could build something else every once in a while. Why can’t we build more multifamily blocks that look like this one in Amsterdam?
Because it’s illegal, that’s why. Notice that none of the buildings in the above photograph appear to have a parking garage; that wouldn’t fly in most of the United States, where providing ample subsidized parking for residents is usually mandatory. Furthermore, none of the above buildings have ground-floor retail, which is often another requirement imposed on American multifamily buildings. And judging by their width, none of the above buildings has more than one staircase; a big no-no under the standard building codes in American cities.
I haven’t even touched on design review, which the N+1 editors mention in their essay. The point is that five-over-ones have taken over in no small part because they satisfy the legal requirements we’ve imposed on multifamily construction in the United States: multiple staircases, abundant parking, large (and often vacant) retail spaces on the ground floor.
Some of these regulations are well-intentioned, but many are not. And their cumulative impact is disastrous. They drive up the cost of construction, which in turn pushes housing prices even further. They reinforce residential segregation and car supremacy. And by imposing arbitrary limits on a city’s organic evolution—the ability of its residents to experiment with different built forms, different modes of transportation and different architectural styles—they make our urban spaces uglier, less vibrant, and more sclerotic.
2. The Shareholder Revolution
“For most of the 20th century, rentiers did not play an active role in the governance of ‘their’ corporations,” writes the economist J.W. Mason. “But since the 1980s, there has been a dramatic power shift within U.S. corporations, to the extent that the old managerial firm has been mostly replaced by the rentier-dominated firm.”
One critical difference between managers and rentiers is that managers have traditionally tied their careers to a specific industry; rentiers are more likely to own a little bit of a number of companies spread out across the entire economy. This tendency to be involved in a little bit of everything has become even more pronounced during the era of asset manager capitalism. And it means that the people who own, say, a publicly traded entertainment company often have no specific interest in the production of entertainment—let alone any specific knowledge of how and why entertainment gets produced.
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo recently had an interesting riff on this with regard to his own line of work. For a newspaper to survive the collapse of the old news industry, he wrote, “the entity controlling the paper has to be committed not just to making money but to making money in the newspaper business.”
In the 1980s and early 1990s the newspaper business was absurdly profitable. The monopoly era had maxed out and the Internet era hadn’t quite arrived. Wall Street-backed investors started building chains of papers. The logic was obvious: hoover up the insane profits and create efficiencies with national economies of scale to reduce costs. Then the internet happened and the whole logic fell apart. Ever since those national chains have been squeezing the old business model for every last drop as the business model fell apart. That meant relentless cost cutting. Then there’s one additional factor. Those chains took on huge levels of debt to finance those acquisitions. So not only are they squeezing the dying business model for every drop of profit. They’re squeezing it in large part to service the debt they took on to build the national chain in the first place. It’s a brutal, ugly story. But you can’t capture the fullness of the story accurately without recognizing that the broken business model is its core driver.
It’s not family ownership that is special precisely. It’s ownership or control by people who have a strong extra-economic investment in being in the news business. It’s just that family ownership is the most common model where that has applied.
The companies that manufacture our aesthetic universe are now almost wholly governed by people with no extra-economic investment in the businesses they oversee. If the line goes up, great; if the line goes down, they can simply liquidate their stake and move onto something else. Disney, Time Warner, Netflix, NBCUniversal and all the rest are not businesses that make discrete cultural products; they are lines that are always either going up or going down.
3. The Timeline
Plenty has already been written about how the algorithms that serve us content have created perverse incentives for both the consumers and the producers of that content—I recommend Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing on this theme, if you haven’t read it already. L.M. Sacasas has also written about this stuff perspicaciously. Instead of repeating what others have already written, I’ll just briefly summarize a handful of common observations:
Instagram, Facebook, Netflix, etc., recommend content to us based on what is most likely to keep us “engaged”—meaning continuing to direct our attention back to the platform itself. This quality of engagement has nothing to do with the substance of what we’re being served.
The people creating content for these platforms have every reason to reverse engineer their offerings so that they are as “engaging” as possible. Subtlety is anathema, as is anything confusing, demanding, or otherwise potentially alienating. The content also needs to be short and capable of transitioning seamlessly into the next thing, with no intervening time for reflection.
As a corollary to the above point (and this is a favorite theme of Odell’s), anything that requires additional context to be understandable is also anathema.
This content needs to be viewable on a small screen and audible on crappy speakers with minimal loss of fidelity. So anything but the loudest, brightest, most blunt-force sensory experience is not going to work.
Importantly, because the sole objective is engagement—and because these companies have incredibly sophisticated tools for measuring and predicting engagement—no independent aesthetic judgment is required to develop satisfactory entertainment content. That is why, as Jay Caspian Kang recently pointed out, AI has gotten increasingly proficient at serving us more of the above. Consumers who liked X also liked X + n.
4. The Asset Economy
This will be the third consecutive post where I cite Adkins, Cooper and Konings. The story they tell begins with the wage-price inflation spiral of the 1970s. The response to this crisis ended in a transition to the “asset economy” era, characterized by wage stagnation, consumer price stability, and rapid asset price inflation (which, it was hoped, would offset the wage stagnation through broadly available investment vehicles like homeownership).
In addition to the promise of asset democratization which I discussed here, part of the bargain with workers was that everyday consumer goods would become cheaper even as wages stayed in place. But an interesting thing happened over the past few decades: while the American market was indeed flooded with cheap goods from all over the world, the price of many actual necessities continued to rise drastically. The cost of housing, education and health care all went into the stratosphere; labor income, of course, did not keep up. The low cost of a Sony Walkman hardly seems compensatory.
In my last post, I wrote about how this bargain has made it near impossible for people without inherited wealth to become full-time artists. But there’s another dynamic here that I think is worth exploring: the consumption behavior of people who can barely afford housing and health care, but whose dollar goes further than ever when it comes to hoovering up low-cost cultural output. As fixed costs have come to eat up more and more of household budgets, is it any wonder that a larger share of any remaining disposable income has gone toward low-quality consumables? Here are the N+1 editors again:
A LOT OF UGLINESS accretes privately, in the form of household goods, which can make it hard to see — except on the first of the month. Today’s perma-class of renters moves more frequently than ever before (inevitably to smaller apartments), and on moving day the sidewalks are transformed into a rich bazaar of objects significant for ugliness studies. We stroll past discarded pottery from wild sip ’n’ spin nights; heaps of shrunken fast fashion from Shein; dead Strategist-approved houseplants; broken Wirecutter-approved humidifiers; an ergonomic gaming chair; endless Ikea BILLYs, MALMs, LACKs, SKUBBs, BARENs, SLOGGs, JUNQQs, and FGHSKISs. Perhaps this shelf is salvageable — ? No, just another mass of peeling veneer and squishy particleboard. On one stoop sits a package from a direct-to-consumer eyewear company, and we briefly fantasize about a pair of glasses that would illuminate, They Live–style, the precise number of children involved in manufacturing each of these trashed items, or maybe the acreage of Eastern European old-growth trees.
When I lived in Washington, D.C. circa 2017, I remember paying an exorbitant sum to live in a pretty nice apartment. I loved that apartment. I also furnished it pretty much exclusively with the most economical IKEA crap I could find. What was I supposed to do? After paying for the apartment itself, I didn’t exactly have a robust couch budget.
Make no mistake, I was in no sense deprived; I was a senior editor making a solid white collar salary and living (as I said) in an apartment I really liked. But that’s exactly my point: when some of the basic elements of a PMC lifestyle start to cost a lot more, members of the PMC are going to adjust by spending less on other elements. Thus my IKEA and Amazon Prime furniture, my Uniqlo wardrobe and Warby Parker glasses.
Of course, it’s even more perverse than that. Because if the people with even a little bit of disposable income are spending it on fast fashion and fiberboard furniture, that’s going to further erode the economic basis for doing anything higher quality or more ambitious. The cheapo stuff wins.
This is all precisely ass-backwards. Everyone should have housing and health care; these things should be cheap and abundant. If anything should cost more, it should be the optional purchases—the stuff that comes appended with a value-added tax in other countries. When you pay more for a pair of shoes, there’s at least the possibility that those extra dollars reflect the quality of the materials and the wages of the people who stitched them together. The price of my D.C. apartment mostly reflected the fact that there weren’t enough of them to go around.
There’s no question that the United States is years into a sort of profound cultural malaise. John Ganz, citing several others who have noticed the same thing, summed it up as such:
My premise is that something is wrong. There’s something very slight and unsatisfying about recent film, television, art, architecture, design, fashion, cuisine—you name it. There are refreshing exceptions, of course, but they seem to quickly get counterfeited or compromised. Even mediocre genre movies that would’ve seemed unremarkable in past ages can seem like monuments of a lost civilization today. It often feels like we’re being fed the cultural equivalent of Soylent, a kind of nutrient-rich goo that we’re supposed to believe does the same thing as food. Enthusiasm about “vibe shifts” or the possible birth of a new avant-garde comes partially from the hope that something might actually change.
Ganz’s explanation for what happened draws on Arendt and the destabilizing, ephemeralizing character of the internet. I think he’s more or less right, but that his explanation is incomplete. Our broken phenomenology is inextricably bound up with the broken material basis for cultural production. Yes, the internet as it is shares some of the blame— but the internet as it is, not as it had to be. Background economic conditions helped build that internet.
I don’t want to suggest that materialist explanations are the only explanations that matter. But I do want to argue that a nation’s material and economic circumstances have profound implications for its spiritual, moral, and artistic health. Sickness along one dimension leads to sickness in the other. And reinvigorating the cultural realm is going to require close attentiveness to the economic conditions that make certain types of culture possible.