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What’s The Vibe? A Reading List

Photo by Isabel Pavia / Getty Images

By Bekah Waalkes

It’s a question for getting dressed, getting ready, getting prepared: What’s the vibe? We mean lots of things by this question, like what do I wear? Will it be worth leaving the house? What will it be like, what will it feel like to be there? What kind of energy are we bringing? “I love your vibe,” a girl told me last summer, in the restroom of a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I never asked, but I immediately wondered: What is my vibe? Try-hard woman on a date? Exhausted graduate student? Pandemic shut-in wondering when she can go home? What are you getting from me?

This reading list picks up the question I never asked. What is the vibe, after all? Short for “vibration,” the vibe is largely intangible: It’s more than a feeling, less than a fact. A vibe can be manufactured but also alterable — to an extent. The vibe can change. The vibe can, suddenly, be off. There are good vibes, bad vibes, and just plain old vibes. It can be collective thought (“we vibing”) or the absence of thinking (“no thoughts, just vibes”), can be intensely personal (“I love her vibe”) or atmospheric feeling (“caught a vibe”).

And, now infamously, the vibe can shift, too. In The Cut, Allison P. Davis wrote that a vibe shift is coming, borrowing entrepreneur Sean Monahan’s language to describe eras where something suddenly seems hopelessly outdated. It’s mostly about fashion, a little bit about lifestyle. Davis imagines that next vibe shift might be the return of early aughts clothing — but she wonders if she will “survive” it. Inflected by two years of her prime spent in the throes of a pandemic, Davis wonders, “Do I try to opt in to whatever trend comes next, or do I choose to accept that my last two good years were spent on my couch gobbling antidepressants and wearing ‘cute house pants’ and UGGs?”

In The Lore Zone, Libby Marrs and Tiger Dingsun posit the form of the phrase “vibe shift” as “a linguistic artifact of a community’s internal world, and its subsequent misreading in the hands of the digital public.” The vibe shift is a misreading of a term that earlier internet communities used first and — differently.

The vibe here is amorphous and intangible. It is manifested through clothes and accessories and life lived through material talismans. People who don’t adapt get left behind: “The ones still clinging to authenticity and fairy lights are the ones who crystallized in their hipsterdom while the culture moved on. They ‘bunkered down in Greenpoint and got married’ or took their waxed beards and nautical tattoo sleeves and relocated to Hudson.” But the concept of the vibe — what it names, how it means something, why we use it —  is so much larger than the concept that a vibe shift imagines. The vibe is so much more than just what clothes are cool or what cocktails are cute to order or what this year’s hot girl summer will look like.

The pieces on this list imagine what vibes are, but just as much, they chart a sort of central absence in our terminology. The diffuse nature of the vibe makes writing about its contours extremely challenging, yet the writers on this list do so in vivid ways, imagining which aspects of our lives make the language of vibes so appealing: forms of being online, social presence changed in the wake of the pandemic, capitalism and its strictures, structures of knowing what we know and living how we live. In the hands of the writers on this list, the vibe comes into clearer focus: The vibe has style and form, it has a history and a theory, it has lovers and haters.

TikTok and the Vibes Revival (Kyle Chayka, The New Yorker, April 2021)

The vibe is a deeply digital and contemporary phenomenon, and Kyle Chayka turns to the vibe videos of TikTok to consider how social media, and TikTok in particular, is responsible for the “vibes revival” of the 2020s. TikTok’s visual platform — the montage of images strung together — is perfectly equipped to deal with the affects and feelings of a vibe, favoring aesthetics over narrative. Vibes can be curated, but they can also be made. What I find most exciting about Chayka’s comment is that he notes the two-way street between vibes and the world: The TikTok vibe determines real life just as much as real life determines the vibe.

Vibes are a medium for feeling, the kind of abstract understanding that comes before words put a name to experience. That pre-linguistic quality makes them well suited to a social-media landscape that is increasingly prioritizing audio, video, and images over text. Through our screens, vibes are being constantly emitted and received.

Vibe, Mood, Energy​ | Or, Bust-Time Reenchantment (Mitch Therieau, The Drift, January 2022)

If this list imagines what vibes are and are not, Mitch Therieau’s essay in The Drift is a masterful attempt to catalog how words like “vibe,” “mood,” and “energy” first emerged as countercultural terms and are reemerging in an era not of plenty, but of little. In this time of austerity, of climate change and loan repayments and a sweeping pandemic, what do the concepts of “vibe,” “mood,” and “energy” offer us? These terms give shape to our feelings and desires, yet Therieau carefully argues that these terms don’t point us to a better world, so much as giving us vocabulary to keep living where we are now. The vibe? A survival technique.

The objects of derision for the counterculture have reversed polarity and become objects of desire, of hope against hope. If only we could — maybe we can once again — don the gray flannel suit, even if just for a few years, to pay back our student loans. This longing for normalcy plays a faint counterpoint to a steady background hum of no future, no future, no future. All the more surprising, then, to see vibe/mood/energy, that utopian, countercultural triad, reemerge in recent years. It is the puzzle of the resurrection of a boom-time form in a bust time. A bust time, no less, when words of magic are no longer unambiguously on the side of rebellion, resistance, vitality; when they are wielded by the platform and the individual alike.

On Vibing (Mary Retta, close but not quite, January 2021)

I love this Substack newsletter by Mary Retta, where she thinks through vibing as an antidote to capitalist time. Vibing for Retta is a way of resisting the grindset, the constant self-improvement plan of the contemporary moment, one that was particularly exacerbated by the beginning of the pandemic. Vibes for her are a presence of an absence, not an absence of presence — to be just vibing is to be doing something, something amorphous, something shimmering off the edge of the capitalist framework that orders our experience of time.

This notion of time as an “economic resource” is exactly what vibing aims to break away from. It is not a coincidence that the last year has brought both the collapse of capitalism and an upending of time. This year of stillness and retreat has made it plain that time is not an empty thing we have to fill but a living thing that we must shape. Time changes. Because the world changes, and we change with it. To vibe is to shape time into pleasure, to mold it into something that feels soft and tastes sweet. It is to take a pause that bleeds into another. “Until finally,” writes Githere, “the space between the dream and the memory collapses into being your reality—now.”

A Theory of Vibe (Peli Grietzer, Glass Bead, 2017)

In an interview, Grietzer notes: “Learning vibes is crucial for all kinds of knowledge-how, but it’s a slow, long process, and communicating learned vibes to each other is a problem — a vibe has the structure of a trained autoencoder, which is mathematically and conceptually intractable.”

The vibe eludes us — but only to an extent. So how do we know a vibe? Peli Grietzer turns to math-informed literary theory — autoencoders, a type of neural network — to name a “theory of vibe” in Modernist writing and in general. The vibe, like style, has a structure that can be studied — not so amorphous or immaterial as it may seem. The aesthetics of the vibe, considered in writing through these mathematical terms, has a kind of logic, one that helps us conceptualize the kind of knowing we do when we know the vibe. While the specifics of Grietzer’s mathematical model might elude me, I appreciate the fundamental logic of his claim: The vibe is mappable in its meaning-making. We can see it, track it, make some kind of sense out of it, and where better to start than literature?

The meaning of a literary work like Dante’s “Inferno,” Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” or Stein’s “Tender Buttons”, we would like to say, lies at least partly in an aesthetic ‘vibe’ or a ‘style’ that we can sense when we consider all the myriad objects and phenomena that make up the imaginative landscape of the work as a kind of curated set. The meaning of Dante’s “Inferno,” let us say, lies in part in that certain je ne sais quoi that makes every soul, demon, and machine in Dante’s vision of hell a good fit for Dante’s vision of hell. Similarly, the meaning of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” lies partly in what limits our space of thinkable things for Vladimir and Estragon to say and do to a small set of possibilities the play nearly exhausts. Part of the meaning of Stein’s “Tender Buttons” lies in the set of (possibly inherently linguistic) ‘tender buttons’—conforming objects and phenomena.

What is A Vibe? (Robin James, its her factory, January 2021)

The vibe is a mood, but it’s never only a mood — it’s also a model. In her Substack newsletter, philosopher Robin James writes on the vibe as the horizon of contemporary finance capitalism. If speculative finance uses the intangibility of vibes as a way of disciplining and orienting us to the world, the vibe might not be as liberatory as other writers imagine. The vibe might, after all, amplify frequencies that we might rather go quiet. This is exactly what I find compelling about James’ work with the vibe — as a scholar of sound studies, her attention to the musical valences of the vibe, its “resonance” and “frequency,” remind us of where the concept of vibe started, as vibration.

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.

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Bekah Waalkes is a writer and PhD candidate at Tufts University. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Cleveland Review of Books, Bon Appétit, and more.