According to its final sentence, what this book wants to do is to taxonomize “some of the ways people live now” (258). The modesty of this self-description—mere taxonomy, nothing more; mere surface, no depth—does not seem entirely convincing. The book has an argument. It argues that each of the four styles of living it taxonomizes—their names are “detox,” “binge,” “filter,” and “ghost”—is, in effect, racist. “[W]hiteness becomes a proxy for control when it seems to offer a safe space of retreat (detox) or a privileged position from which to consume the world's information (binge); or a proxy for recognition when it seems to afford new scenes of belonging (filter) or a universalism that abandons appearance (ghost)” (24). If what the book records is a multiform quest for whiteness that requires the erasure of Blackness, then the book is less a taxonomy than an indictment.
In its ambition to offer a new and comprehensive description of the cultural present, as well as in the extraordinary range of disparate objects which its acrobatic intelligence keeps in the air—social media, painting, literature, sculpture, music, architecture, television, cuisine, and fashion design, among others—Crisis Style invites comparison with Fredric Jameson's now-classic account of postmodernism, which after almost forty years could hardly complain of an effort to update it. Crisis Style also invites comparison with Jameson by virtue of its ambivalence. Is it a taxonomy, or is it an indictment? Jameson's essay, though it links postmodern cultural practices to finance capital, never manages to be a total indictment, and from a dialectical point of view, this should come as no surprise. How could an analysis of the cultural present, however accusatory in its intention, not also be a self-analysis, an account of cultural objects which continue to offer real pleasure to the author even if she or he wishes they didn't? So it was for Jameson, and so it is here. One remarkable thing about this very remarkable book is the way that, while aligning the styles of living it taxonomizes with racism, it nonetheless allows its affection for those styles to peep out shyly. Or perhaps not so shyly.
There is a logic to this strange cohabitation with racism. Capitalism, like racism, is notoriously resistant to change. Jameson is still pursued by that line about it being harder to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the world, whether the thought originated with him or not. But Jameson wrote out of a strong commitment to change—to getting rid of capitalism. Dango may believe that racism can't be gotten rid of. At any rate, he takes for granted that change is not on the table. His styles of living emerge from crises, he writes, that “cannot be fixed” (7). If not, then it is much easier to resign oneself to living with, or within, the cultural styles that those crises have spawned even if the upshot of inhabiting the styles is racism. If nothing is going to change, why not content yourself with the pleasures on offer, however minor and even sinister they may be?
Readers may wonder what unfixable crises are meant here. A fuller version of the passage quoted above goes like this: each style
is a different strategy for repairing a form of crisis in the contemporary world: for detox and binge, a crisis of having a personal control in a fragmented globe; for filter and ghost, a crisis of recognition in a fragmented and increasingly privatized public sphere. The crises themselves cannot be fixed—globalization and fragmentation cannot simply be undone—but style provides a fantasy of reparation: holding patterns or improvisations that allow people personally to displace the crisis for a moment. (7)
“Reparation”—in the sense of repair, not monetary compensation for past wrongs—has become a familiar slogan mobilized by critics seeking to off-load the burdens (and avoid the imperfections) of existing political criticism. As compared with the large projects of emancipation and enlightenment that guide Jameson's readings of cultural history, repair is ostentatiously humble. By definition, its goal is merely to restore a prior state of unbrokenness. Dango does not express confidence that such a restoration is more than a fantasy, but he does not question whether the state of prior unbrokenness is itself a fantasy. Nor does he measure attempts at repair against the standard of more-ambitious efforts at social transformation. Like the styles he lays out, he seems to share “a sense of generalized and permanent crisis” (7). Permanent? Is it the crisis that is permanent, or is it merely the sense of crisis, which might be mistaken? Is it possible that there is no crisis, or no crisis of the sort laid out? In that case, the styles of living that supposedly respond to the crisis would be much more grandly deluded than Dango makes them out to be. These points demand clarification.
The word “permanent,” which suits the “nothing ever really changes very much” vibe that comes with the vocabulary of repair, may be no more than one sign of a grave but also playful generational sensibility. Dango makes a point of his youth, offering himself up as a native speaker of a newish language (“binge,” “detox,” and so on) that to the less youthful will seem foreign, or at least novel in an analytical context. He includes three author photos in which he models three Snapchat filters: crown of hearts, puppy dog ears, and crown of flowers. There is no point arguing with a generational sensibility. What can be argued with, on the other hand, is the almost shocking banality of the political diagnosis that accompanies it. Let us reflect briefly on its key terms. Fragmentation? Loss of recognition? Loss of control? These were clichés among humanist scholars in 1950. If they explain anything, it's at a considerable cost to historical specificity. When did anyone possess the control, when did anyone enjoy the recognition that, according to Dango, has just now been lost? When did people ever control their environment? When did they ever control their labor? It's as if Dango were in such a hurry to get to his extremely, emphatically up-to-the-minute styles of living—detox, binge, filter, and ghost—that he could not pause to think seriously about the actual state of the world to which he was trying to link them. It's not that his account of the supposedly irreparable “crisis” is wrong, exactly; it's just so inexact that it could apply with equal justice or injustice to any time in the last two hundred years.
It is arguable that the book's core argument—that these styles of living are responses to a given sense of crisis in the world and respond to that crisis with a fantasy of reparation that may provide some relief, but is unfortunately racist—demands less attention, and is perhaps even less important to Dango himself, than his naming of the styles, which of course comes out of a very present-tense digital vernacular. Detoxing, Dango writes, is “purifying noise and creating a bubble that, as ephemeral as bubbles themselves, protects from a world polluted by too much unregulated information” (6). Bingeing is “relishing in pollution, trying to collect all the stuff of the world and connect it when there is no heuristics that help pick out what could truly matter” (6). To filter is to “multiply distinct possibilities of the self's appearance in the world” (7)—as in the crown of flowers and puppy dog ears. Ghosting is “evading recognition at the same time that [the subject's] ambiguous recession haunts it” (7). These ideas are interesting. One might also say, thinking especially of the bubbles and the puppy dog ears, that they are cute or zany. I am of course insinuating here the influence of Sianne Ngai's Our Aesthetic Categories, which Dango repeatedly cites as an inspiration. But if all three of Ngai's categories seem at least potentially applicable to all four of Dango's styles, if the styles are thus not as “very different” (7) as Dango proposes, then what he is really promoting is something they have in common, which may or may not have to do with the sketchily described “crisis” or “crises.” (In ordinary usage, “filtering,” “ghosting,” and “detoxing,” all of which are ways of pushing away unwanted people and things, seem almost interchangeable.) The most obvious candidate for what they have in common is triviality. In other words, triviality is not just a casual attribute of these materials; it is what the reader is being asked to pause and appreciate, by contrast with matters that are supposedly weightier but (it is implied) do not in fact deserve the seriousness they are accorded. A book that begins with Marie Kondo and decluttering cannot be too concerned that it might be seen as dealing with what we sometimes call “first world problems.”
Crisis Style is packed full of striking insights into its extremely diverse texts. Every page or two has an ingenious speculation that's worth following out—like the idea that the shift from TV series that are episodic to TV series that emphasize a through line indicates a loss of faith in “institutions.” I'm not sure this stands up, but the thought is intriguing. If it is Dango's four styles that make possible the richness of insight, that would be an argument in their favor. But perhaps Dango is simply a gifted reader, and an even more gifted builder of bridges between texts and genres. In any case, however, one cannot not ask how well these categories stand up under scrutiny. Take, for example, the exposition of bingeing. To illustrate the concept, Dango aligns the long take in the TV series The West Wing, the long sentence in writers like David Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith, and “the long thread” in the 1999 runway show of Issey Miyake. At first glance, this is a dazzling juxtaposition. Yet one can't help but wonder: does “length” really refer to the same thing as applied to a long take, a long sentence, and a long thread? Or is this just elegance—dazzling, yes, but perhaps not, on reflection, a durable insight into the cultural world? Under the heading of “detox,” Dango gives the example of a character's decision to “rent five movies of considerable length, go home, order a large pizza that will last him the whole day, watch the movies and not leave the house” (95). To me, that sounds like bingeing. There are other unpersuasive moments, like singling out the queer character in Cloud Atlas for special suffering: according to Dango, the novel requires “Frobisher, and only Frobisher, to die” (141). That's simply not true. How about Sonmi-500, who is executed? Also not true: “Zuccotti Park became wholly and solely about the curation of political subjectivities that contested a larger social order” (148–49). Dango describes this as “a filtering of public space, purifying, in this case, its political dimensions” (148). As it happens, this purifying is exactly what the occupiers of Zuccotti Park refused to do when they extended their hospitality, at some cost, to the homeless side of the encampment, the crazies and the alcoholics who mainly came looking for a free meal. As for ghosting—“not explicitly breaking up with but suddenly and without warning withdrawing from all communication with a romantic or sexual partner, as if one had dropped dead and become a ghost” (5)—this is entertaining, but it's not, as Dango claims, an accurate digital-era translation of the absence of the artist from the work, as in Flaubert and Joyce. As soon as you start to think about the argument seriously, it falls apart. “Suddenly” and “without warning” don't really work at all for the artistic withdrawals Dango has in mind, which were open and programmatic.
Under the heading of sloppy assertions, consider also the description of the hacker group Anonymous as an example of ghosting, or “withdrawing from public identification” (246). The principle is “being-together-through-being-unknown” (245); “a group of people appears as a group precisely by declining identity claims” (246). This sounds clever and plausible. But is it accurate? Does Anonymous organize itself as a group by declining identity claims, let alone “precisely” by doing so? The group may well decline identity claims—that is, in a more straightforward idiom, keep the law from knowing where to find its members. But what constitutes it as a group is its activism. If Anonymous hadn't done anything—for example, unleashing cyberattacks on government agencies, corporations, and the Church of Scientology—it wouldn't have to protect its members' identity. They wouldn't be “declining identity claims”; they would just be unidentified. One need not follow out every such assertion here, about ghosting or about the other three categories, in order to suspect that flashy sleight-of-hand is one of the book's operating principles.
One last example. Is the internet, as Dango claims, “a medium suited for the production of detox writing in particular” (92)? Here the argument rather audaciously links the tweeting habits of former president Donald Trump, whose references to immigrants are said to be detoxing “sexual and racial anxieties” (93), with the Twitterish brevity of writers like Tao Lin. On reflection, Dango's use of “short” doesn't work any better than his use of “long.” This too is a playful gambit that never quite turns into a logical linkage. In any case, isn't the real subject here the opposite commonplace that internet discourse tends to be toxic? And to ask that question is to return to fundamentals. Since Dango thinks so much can be explained by a reaction against toxicity, what does he think toxicity is? Pollution? Intimacy? Racial difference? What is it, exactly, that produces a felt need to expel? How you answer will determine what you really think is wrong with the world. Abiding happily on the surfaces of things, Dango does not dig into these questions. Blackness is his most serious example of toxicity, but it is not pursued analytically, and that is perhaps for the better. If Dango had explicitly put Blackness in the same category as, say, information overload, it would have looked as if the formal abstraction of his critical mode was guilty of overreaching—as if he were not taking race seriously enough in its own terms.
The surface of this book positively gleams and glitters. The question of what to think of the underlying argument gives pause, but it doesn't dim all the brightness.