Vibe Out


The mid­dle-aged man sees a trend, mulls on it, issues his ver­dict very late, in fel­low-young-peo­ple style, and feels nonethe­less com­pelled to share it because it answers a long-stand­ing ques­tion in his field. 

In this case, the recent reemer­gence of vibes as a way of under­stand­ing the world seems to promise a way to envi­sion how a land­scape com­mu­ni­cates mean­ing to the peo­ple mov­ing in it. One more time: we seem to take mean­ing from a land­scape, but how can a land­scape ever mean, being that it is immer­sive, with­out begin­ning or end; that it changes over time; that what roots in it is not strict­ly under human con­trol? Some­thing like this will not mean in a strict sense, but in a loose sense; not the ice of a word, or the liq­uid of a poem, but the gas of a vibe.


What is a vibe? It is the rela­tion­ship between a feel­ing and a con­junc­tion of things that seems to pro­voke it. We can relate it to the idea of rasa in Indi­an aes­thet­ics, the notion that aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence can strike an iden­ti­fi­able sym­pa­thet­ic chord in the behold­er. But if rasa cod­i­fies how to get from, say, x facial expres­sion to y affect in the view­er, the vibe is instead defined by its hazi­ness. The affect it com­mu­ni­cates can be agreed upon, but is not strict­ly name­able, exact­ly because it is bound up in the things that give rise to it. A chill vibe is not only the sim­ple feel­ing of peace, but some­thing to dwell in, because it also gives rise to a recur­ring tan­gle of thoughts and conjectures. 

These thoughts mir­ror a series of devi­a­tions from a norm; and not any devi­a­tions, but a set of devi­a­tions of a cer­tain mag­ni­tude, laid out in a cer­tain arrange­ment. If a vibe is valu­able, it is because it shares a com­par­a­tive­ly rare way in to a feel­ing, one that lends a rare tint to the basic types of affect. An eigh­teen-year old drink­ing a Coke on a skate­board on a cul-de-sac is so com­mon­place as to hard­ly arouse any feel­ing at all. A fifty-eight-year old drink­ing a mar­ti­ni on a skate­board on a div­ing board is only ridicu­lous. A thir­ty-eight-year old drink­ing cran­ber­ry juice on a skate­board on the side of a road is a vibe; espe­cial­ly when he breaks out lip-sync­ing toward the end of a lit­tle loop. That vibe can be intu­it­ed by the view­er, up to a point, by the rider’s own mien; but it will res­onate all the stronger if you rec­og­nize the brand of the juice, the prob­a­ble mean­ing of his tat­too and his fea­tures, the song he lip-syncs to. 


How to write about vibes, about how a gas means? Ask a per­fume crit­ic. Here’s an old cap­sule review by Chan­dler Burr from the New York Times:

Wom­an­i­ty, by Thier­ry Mugler 

Like Angel, Wom­an­i­ty sur­pris­es no one in its defi­ance. Its pow­er is clear; its char­ac­ter — opi­um smoke, heat­ed gran­ite, crushed flow­ers, the ozone before a storm — is not. $78 for 1.7 ounces at Bloomingdale’s.

What does Burr have to work with in ren­der­ing a scent? He can try to pin down the prop­er­ties of the elu­sive sub­stance through describ­ing a series of para­me­ters. He could lay out the set of ingre­di­ents – the actu­al com­pounds the per­fumer has poured in. He could put the work into the con­text of the char­ac­ter of its pro­duc­ers, or relay the creator’s inten­tion, the prob­lem they set them­selves to address. He could relate it to oth­er artis­tic work. And final­ly, most inter­est­ing, and most direct­ly per­ti­nent to vibe, he can reach for res­o­nance – what sit­u­a­tion does the scent recall? 

Notice that, the vibe itself being unsayable, Burr’s arse­nal of details is a means to recre­ate the scent’s vibe in oth­er terms – work­ing in both the metagame of the product’s mar­ket­ing, and the unfold­ing expe­ri­ence of the prod­uct itself, acces­si­ble in the­o­ry to the per­son tak­ing a blind test. There is a buck­shot approach to the writ­ing here: the read­er like me who doesn’t know much about the Mugler brand will be able to guess some­thing of it from how it has approved the con­junc­tion of opi­um smoke and crushed flow­ers. Oth­er parts code in the elu­sive nature of the vibe itself – heat­ed gran­ite” is not so much an iden­ti­fi­able phe­nom­e­non as an approx­i­ma­tion of some­thing in-between. 

Part of the task of crit­i­cism is to spread aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence, and in this sense Burr can work as an evan­ge­list of the prod­uct for any­one with $78 to get rid of. If his bid suc­ceeds, the read­er may well want to bet­ter know Angel, or berg­amot, or gour­mand per­fumes in gen­er­al. The more schooled the read­er already is in the par­tic­u­lars around the vibe in ques­tion, the more they them­selves will be able to sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly vibrate with the descrip­tion, and the thing itself; and to desire the ampli­fied vibe that would only come from a direct encounter with the scent.


Vibes, then, appear in a posi­tion of lit­er­a­cy, a posi­tion where some­one has some famil­iar­i­ty with the world of rel­e­vant texts. It cer­tain­ly helps to know the names and prove­nances of what you are deal­ing with; but the vibe will be appre­hend­ed to some degree with­out lit­er­a­cy. I need­n’t know the chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion of nasal spray to rough­ly con­nect it with the mid-cen­tu­ry, the smell of Pat the Bun­ny.

The typ­i­cal vis­i­tor to a designed land­scape, hav­ing no notion of an author and only the sim­plest words to describe the ingre­di­ents of what they are expe­ri­enc­ing (“brick,” tree”), will start at a dis­ad­van­tage to vibe; but they will at least prob­a­bly have a fund of past land­scape expe­ri­ences to draw on. At Sug­ar Beach, there might be a city tod­dler who is only expe­ri­enc­ing the set of pos­si­ble sen­sa­tions and expe­ri­ences for the first time; but that most vis­i­tors will be cross-ref­er­enc­ing the con­di­tions of past beach­es with the beach that has sud­den­ly appeared here, ele­vat­ed at the side of Lake Ontario; just as they are inevitably com­par­ing that beach to the gray con­text it has been set in. At a mid­dle ground between being nice and being ridicu­lous, such a less-like­ly land­scape has the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cre­ate a vibe.

The only hope of a land­scape archi­tect to reach beyond nice­ness, to cause res­o­nance in the hearts of the peo­ple in the land­scapes they make, is in such swerves from the mean. Swerves that are too wide and will­ful will cause the musi­cal rela­tion­ship between expec­ta­tion, ful­fill­ment, and sur­prise to fall apart. This is, inci­den­tal­ly, why phys­i­cal facts of his­to­ry are the great­est aid to the land­scape archi­tect, who does not have the free­dom to mix any flow­ers from the globe the way a per­fumer can. No mat­ter what the visitor’s knowl­edge of the source of those phys­i­cal traces is, they can nonethe­less read that a swerve has occurred in this place from one plau­si­ble thing to anoth­er. Such a swerve, hope­ful­ly with some extra read­ing, could make con­ta­gious the act of feel­ing out the landscape.

(June 2022)