This is a guest post by Pamela J. Hobart.
Being basic involves wearing regular stuff for being regular’s sake. And “normcore” is the practice of choosing certain clothes to blend in, instead of to stand out. What makes basicness and normcore very different from other fashion trends is that they must be understood referentially, in comparison to what other people are wearing, and psychologically, in terms of why a wearer chose the look (instead of being a characteristic inherent in the clothes themselves).
Over the past couple of years, the concept of normcore (as initially conceived by trend forecasting group K-Hole) has been mocked and bastardized, all while quietly taking hold anyway. Its motivation — a frustrated need for belonging — is still felt keenly, and fashion cycle exhaustion is only worsening in a wired, 24/7 world. Models who might have hit the runway a few times per year have given way to fashion bloggers who change outfits multiple times per day. A quick scroll through Instagram is all you need to figure out the hard truth: there’s nothing new to wear under the sun.
Of course, fashion is only one small part of the social landscape. Looking the part might be necessary for joining a group, but it’s certainly not sufficient. Meaningful group membership, the kind that really can alleviate human loneliness and alienation, is costly. In many cases, the costlier the group membership, the better it is for establishing belongingness.
In addition to distinguishing themselves visually from the outgroup, participants in meaningful groups must also prove themselves morally, to each other. At the end of the day, talk and clothes are cheap. If normcore fashion opens the door for group membership, demonstrating commitment to shared values is what gets you inside. As value sets proliferate, opportunities for differentiated group membership proliferate too.
But there is no more room for endless moral edginess than there was for endless fashion novelty, not even on the internet. And as the values get weirder, it is harder and harder to put your money where your mouth is (with diminishing returns to the payoff). Just as normcore seemed like some final frontier in fashion, so too is it a final frontier in morality. Unfortunately, moral flexibility and moral traditionalism can be easily mistaken for a simple lack of principles or an atavistic fetish.
Together, basicness and normcore comprise a category of failed reactions to rapid change and ultra-differentiated options. Their type is fundamental resignation towards the challenges of individuality. Mastering sameness and mastering the ability to blend in are refusals to even attempt individuality.
But the need for individuality runs deep. Sameness is leaky. Some people will always stand out, whether on accident or on purpose. It’s bad enough to look just like someone else. Where individuality is ultra-important and defined by psychological and consumption patterns, to have the same apparent personality and values and lifestyle is potentially much worse.
Some groups and cultures do value and practice sameness; collectivism is a stereotypically “Eastern” characteristic. The origins of the collectivist vs. individualistic cultural dichotomy could rest in something as mundane as the different methods of farming required in different regions around the time when humans became agricultural. In any case, these orientations form their own virtuous (or vicious) circles, via parenting, education, entertainment/media, and other institutions, and the accompanying norms
So, for those of us who are WEIRD already, it may not even be possible to get into a thoroughly collectivistic mindset. Our motivations have been contaminated, if not poisoned, by individualism. Some have tried to build enclaves of collectivism within individualist geographic areas, but for a variety of reasons (economic, political, even architectural) most attempts at radical grouping fail. Once you’ve seen the social alternatives to group-as-a-given and felt the pull of truly voluntary association, it is difficult to un-see or un-feel them.
And while the fundamental tension between belongingness and individuality is certainly nothing new, contemporary pressures make it hard to achieve even one of these things. Without the steady positive influence of community, one is forced to double down on individuality. But what does that look like, and how does it work?
Narcissism seems to be on the rise for a variety of reasons, including (but not limited to) the rise of social media, changes in family structure, and trends in moral education like the “self-esteem” movement. But our narcissists, committed as they are to refining and celebrating their own individualities, aren’t necessarily happy – especially not the narcissists who are all grown up.
With the right social structures in place as a bulwark against mass culture, real individuality can be had once again. But where our social homes used to be prefab, now they are bespoke.
Going Basic, Being Normcore
In their 2014 report Youth Mode, New York-based trend forecasting group K-Hole describes how fashion is motivated by the needs for individuality and belonging. Once upon a time, we were born into communities and an individual’s task was, well, to individuate. Operating in this mode, fashion-wise, entails rebellion and novelty. And many individuals accepted the rebellion challenge. They came up with all manner of stuff to wear and apply, to set themselves apart.
But the widespread individuating worked almost too well. So, for a while, things have been largely reversed. Now, individuals enter the world more or less unmoored, as the socio-cultural landscape grows weirder and faster-changing and less pre-determined. An automatically-individuated individual’s task has become to find or create the community that was once a given.
Going “basic” is a kind of knee-jerk reaction to the overcrowding of difference space. The epitome of “basic” consumables is the pumpkin spice latte, and the epitome of basic fashion is Uggs. If rebellion meant mastering difference then, as K-Hole explains, being “basic” is an attempt at mastering sameness. “Basic” doesn’t consist in merely accidental sameness. Basic involves sameness for its own sake. When you go basic, you hope to find community with “normal” people.
However, basicness is doomed to failure in this task (also according to K-Hole), because it’s getting harder and harder even to tell what’s basic in the first place. Moreover, going basic necessarily involves a certain stagnation. Stagnation is the opposite of what we were looking for, in order to cope with the rapidity of life.
Although the word “normcore” is what took off from Youth Mode, its meaning in the mainstream media’s treatment of the topic is closer to “basic.” For instance, here is a description of “normcore” from Slate:
Normcore is gray sweatpants pretending to be trousers. Normcore is a seen-better-days faun-colored golf knit. Normcore is an unlogo’d sneaker. Normcore is safe. Normcore is same-y… The normcore look is a knowing piss-take of the heterosexual male’s desperate desire to be sartorially unremarkable. Normcore is not brave or butch or swagger-y. Normcore is about dressing like a mild-mannered mental patient or a bewildered Icelandic exchange student circa 1984.
True normcore, per K-Hole, is dressing to blend in, not to stand out. Of course what this entails is going to vary widely depending on the situation, so in practice normcore may or may not actually have anything to do with wearing sweatpants or sneakers.
Pulling off normcore, across situations, reveals that you truly understand different scenes. That takes social proficiency (unlike caricature normcore/basicness, which just involves hitting Old Navy and calling it a day). The “norm” of normcore is more like “normative” and less like “normies,” a pejorative term for regular people. Normcore is post-difference, not anti-difference. It recognizes that authenticity is a false idol and that there is nothing objectionable about belonging, per se.
K-Hole didn’t invent being “basic,” and they didn’t invent normcore so much as they predicted it. People interested in fashion were ripe for normcore, and (in retrospect, of course) it makes sense.
For a while, the internet may have seemed like it could only open new frontiers in self-expression. Anyone could see and be seen. It was a double-edged sword, though, because the more fashion ideas that are circulating online and freely available to all for viewing, the fewer remain new in any meaningful sense.
Before fashion manufacturing went “fast” and before fashion publishing went click-driven, a fashion-conscious person might at least stand a chance of keeping up with seasonal cycles. But the cycles are ever-shortening, with journalistic and commercial interests aligned to keep you browsing and buying as constantly as possible.
Though investigative journalism is still available, it’s not necessarily what people are reading or sharing. Instead, mass media consumers are reading and sharing headlines. A year used to have perhaps 4 fashion “seasons.” Now, according to “fast fashion” retailers and their consumers, the year has over 10 fashion-seasons, and maybe as many as 15. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem to figure out whether the pace of producers changed first, or the pace at which consumers demanded the products. But, in any case, the great speedup has occurred.
To make matters even worse, instead of competing for the de facto title of most fashionable in your high school class or your neighborhood, you’re sort of competing with the whole world now. That neat shirt you found at a chain store? A decade ago, you could have conveniently forgotten that there were dozens of them being sold every day just in your city. Now, you can visit the retailer’s website and read a hundred reviews about the exact same item and view customer-submitted selfies of them too. No ignorance, no bliss.
With the fashion attention economy split a million ways and nothing new under the sun, how can you cope? Throwing more time and money at your already-full closet doesn’t solve the problem, because it can only add more failed individuality where failed individuality was already in ample supply.
On the other hand, to the extent that basicness and normcore succeed as fashion, they do it more via mental effort instead of through effort in the world. Fewer obscure vintage items or expensive boutique ones, more carefully chosen looks. Normcore isn’t cooperating with individuality-through-fashion (Mass Indie mode) or defecting from it (Basic mode). It’s dressing appropriately, flexibly, adaptively (youth mode).
Varieties of Moral Positions
Our moral climate is being shaped by the same factors as we saw in the fashion climate. The internet and its tendency to amplify the production and sharing of clickbait-style ideas mean that it’s hard to keep up with new frontiers in morality.
Internet writers can always wring a piece out of the view that takes the view all modern, good people are taken to hold and then bumps it up to 11, perhaps even repudiating the next most radical view in the process. This move can be outrageous but seems to work, in the sense of drawing eyeballs and providing new opportunities for virtue signaling.
Internet writers who are still in rebellion mode (like Mass Indie fashion) produce “hot takes:” a typically brief, timely piece of internet commentary that reacts to some other current event (or non-event) that has made the rounds recently. Its author often deploys a dismissive and contemptuous tone towards the general public’s reaction to an event, or particularly towards another author and that author’s reaction to the subject of the take.
As such, hot takes potentially provide a large amount of moral satisfaction in comparison to how much intellectual effort they require. Hot takes could mostly be captured in a tweet or two instead. When you hear about a new story, it is pretty easy to imagine what hot takes it will inspire. Writers have to race to publish their takes the way that fashion bloggers race to publish their Instagrams. Since much of the value is in the novelty, the early bird gets the worm.
Genuine moral entrepreneurism consists in the formulation, articulation, and dissemination of new moral beliefs that are unexpected and creative. It is possible for the same beliefs to be staked out for the first time more than once, in different moral communities by different moral entrepreneurs within them. Especially before the rise of mass communication, it would not have been unusual for pockets or even swaths of people never to have seriously considered vegetarianism, LGBTQ, and contemporary moral issues of that kind.
Genuine moral entrepreneurism is hard. Sometimes we can’t tell in advance whether the hot take of today will become the moral startup of tomorrow. Those operating in experimental moral spaces are typically quick to point out that the abolition of slavery and women’s liberation sounded crazy once. We are invited to believe, then, that all their crazy-sounding moral positions today will become normal in time.
In the background, there is still some semblance of moral traditionalism or received wisdom. Though it changes much more quickly than it used to, it does not change as quickly as the churn of the 24/7 hot take machine. Relative change speed is what matters for making sense of the moral landscape, not that traditionalists literally hold the same beliefs for ever and ever.
Spotting Moral Basicness, Spotting Moral Normcore
Remember that normcore proper (as per K-Hole) is about blending in, not about merely adopting what is perceived to be “normal.” So, almost by definition, it will be difficult to notice when people are declining to ride the Mass Indie rollercoaster of hot takes and general moral edgelordism. They’re not spewing tweetstorms. They’re not going viral.
One possible example of moral normcore is the practice of “flexitarianism.” This diet (a portmanteau of “flexible” and “vegetarian”) emphasizes the good qualities of plant-based meals (nutritious, delicious, kinder to animals & environment) while still allowing meat. On the one hand, since meat consumption per capita has been on the rise for a while in developed countries, anyone bucking the trend on purpose is interesting. On the other hand, isn’t “flexitarianism” actually just… not a thing?
Flexitarians themselves like the ability to identify as people with certain established moral concerns, but who don’t pursue them single-mindedly. Sounds reasonable enough. But no one else likes the term, and it’s easy to see why.
Vegetarians don’t like people borrowing from their righteousness without paying the price. Why should flexitarians get a piece of the glory if they’re still eating meat? And regular omnivores resent the suggestion that flexitarians who are, after all, basically eating the same things as them would get some sort of special moral status.
Worse still, there’s just no community to be had around flexitarianism. There aren’t many (any?) well-established internet fora or meetups, no intentional communities. VeggieBoards.com only lets flexitarians participate if they are actively working towards a fully vegetarian lifestyle.
To be fair, “Meatless Monday” has become a reasonably popular custom, but even that has well-defined boundaries. You have to not eat meat on Monday. If you ate meat on Monday, you didn’t participate. If you didn’t, then you did. But Meatless Monday isn’t a place you can go to find a friend. There are a few regional Facebook pages and that’s it.
Normcoring your meat consumption might feel right to you: a vegan salad here, a burger from a chain there, every situation has its blend of considerations. But what community does it get you? None at all. You could have gone vegan (or paleo) and found some friends. But it’s lonely in the middle. If there are no well-defined values at stake, then you don’t know who to rule in or who to rule out of your social group, and on what basis (and they don’t know how to handle you either).
Diet is only one example of what’s up for grabs in the modern world. You don’t have to keep eating the foods you were raised with, and you don’t have to stick with the religion you were raised in, either. What do people do with their faith freedom?
Some people switch religions, and increasingly many people drop religion altogether. Yet Americans retain a largely positive view of the religions they can’t bring themselves to follow (a few quibbles aside). An increasing number of Americans report having had spiritual experiences of various kinds recently, and many of them attend more than one kind of house of worship.
To tie that all together, basically a bunch of people are normcoring the religious subset of their moral beliefs. They are spiritually adaptable and empathetic, ostensibly in the service of belonging. Instead of charging at religion in rebellious mode or basic mode, they appreciate religion as outsiders.
What community does this religious flexibility buy religion normcorers? I would venture a guess that it’s basically none. Though churches and other places of worship are typically welcoming of visitors, their ultimate goal is to get you to join, where members stand in some relationship of reciprocal rights and responsibilities towards one another.
Moral basicness is less subtle and easier to identify. It happens when someone goes “traditionalist” on purpose. Like a guy in Old Navy khakis or a girl in Uggs, the practitioner of moral basicness has identified some beliefs as “normal” and adopts them for that reason.
Prime candidates for this kind of motivated adoption are positions like the superiority of “traditional” patriarchal marriage and a Protestant work ethic. They are superficially conservative, but not happened upon in the usual conservative ways (transmission via persistent, interlocking institutions over time – church, neighborhood, family).
Unfortunately, basicness doesn’t work well for the purpose of morally establishing oneself within a community. The family has been changing fast enough, for long enough, that cultural memory of a golden age of patriarchal nuclear families cannot be conjured readily. The time when an average adult could actually earn well above a living wage just for “working hard” was but a flash in the pan.
More problematically, basic moral beliefs make for odd bedfellows. A convert to monogamous marriage who got there via the cesspool of Tinder doesn’t actually have much in common with someone who got it from living in a small town, raised by fundamentalist parents. How are these two supposed to inhabit a single moral community, now that they happen to share a belief? Shared beliefs are necessary but insufficient for functional community over time.
At the end of the day, the risk of moral basicness is that it lands all manner of neoconservatives, moral counter-signalers, and old fashioned folk all in one dysfunctional basket. And the risk of moral normcore is that you may end up looking unprincipled. Communities congeal around values that can be demonstrated, but at a cost. No values, no congealing. You can’t unilaterally decide to join a community, and there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
The Chaos Magic of LARPing
To focus on specific moral positions (what they mean, whether they’re correct) is to fail to see the forest for the trees. People aren’t searching for planks to assemble into their moral platforms. Rather, they seek ways of life that are fulfilling and sustainable.
To begin to see how to hold space for individuality while fostering community, we can look once more to K-Hole. In a report “On Doubt”, K-Hole describes a phenomenon called “Chaos Magic” (which came to them secondhand, via an unnamed friend):
On a bargain basement level, Chaos Magic lives in the same realm as the cult of positive thinking. But it goes beyond making mood boards of high-end apartments you’d like to will into your possession. Belief becomes a technology that creates change… Chaos Magic creates realities which are temporary and subjective. It’s not a tool for changing others — it’s a tool for changing yourself… Chaos Magic isn’t just believing in The Secret, it’s deciding to believe in The Secret to begin with. Mixing your own Kool-Aid, deciding how strong to make it, knowing when to drink it and when to stop, is Chaos Magic in practice. It’s radical DIY that uses reality as the only necessary operating system. This is not to say that Kool-Aid will always take you on the path you intended. Drink too much and you might end up lost, alone, or dead… Like branding, Chaos Magic is mostly concerned with inception. But where branding is about implanting ideas in the brains of an audience, Chaos Magic is about implanting ideas into your own.
And just because Chaos Magic involves creating subjective realities doesn’t mean it’s a solitary enterprise. In fact, it may well require the participation of others to create social spaces in which identities and values can be revived. Doxastic voluntarism is false — we cannot generally just believe things on demand. But if you mix your own community just right, you might just get there.
There’s one very clear example of people already engaging in this sort of chaos magic: LARPers. Together in the woods or wherever, some people who have agreed on rules get together for the purpose of developing their characters and acting out their values. The game is structured, but non-deterministic. It feels as though it matters (in other words, it does matter). Plenty of its participants admit (celebrate?) that LARPing has helped them to identify character flaws and work on them. Differentiated identities within meaningful groups: LARPers have it all.
“What if we could all be LARPing all the time?” sounds like the kind of question someone on drugs would ask, but honestly it’s a fair one. By assembling purposeful groups and deploying them towards shared ends, LARPing achieves for its members what Uggs never could.
We can’t be individuals in the world at large, but we can be individuals in the world at small. Maybe it’s time to live life like we’re always LARPing. Real-life live-action roleplaying (RLLARP). You could make a character from scratch in the context of a group, or maybe that group will shape you up. Maybe your group meets frequently, maybe it meets rarely. In any case, groups are needed for forming identity and individual identities are required to build a group.
Understanding life as LARPing has the potential to solve all of the problems that K-Hole argued motivated basicness and normcore.
- Problem 1: SEEMING LIKE A CLONE. The details that distinguish you are so small that nobody can tell you’re actually different.
In a carefully-curated group, you won’t need to resort to absurd details as differentiators. Your people know you. And if there is a detail about you that matters, then it matters to them, too.
- Problem 2: ISOLATION. You’re so special nobody knows what you’re talking about.
Again, this won’t happen if you’ve mixed your social Kool-Aid right. The pressures to become this “special” are alleviated in the first place, and whatever specialness is left will matter to your co-players.
- Problem 3: MAXING OUT. The markers of individuality are so plentiful and regenerate so quickly that it’s impossible to keep up.
Groups of inquiry and practice are one technology for slowing change. You’ll almost never be the first person on the internet, or even on Twitter, to have said or thought something. But you can often be the bearer of useful or interesting news to your smaller communities. You can’t be the smartest or funniest or nicest person in the world, but you can be superlative in your RLLARPing communities.
Playing the game of life
Suggesting that all of life can be LARPing is, in effect, suggesting that our projects, relationships, values, and other pursuits are games. Before ethics was about trolley problems, it was about how to live. And calling ethics, how to live, a game will understandably provoke negative gut reactions. It’s tempting to conclude that the comparison in inappropriate because games are frivolous, trivial, or childish.
But at the same time, games are sometimes quite serious indeed. Major sporting events soak up tons of money and emotional energy from millions of people every single year. Games can make (or break) careers and, by extension, lives.
Games essentially involve rules and competition. They are also undertaken for the purpose of entertainment, though what constitutes entertainment is a little less clear. Professional athletes may have started out competing for entertainment, but quite clearly their performances are no longer non-serious. Does that make the events at the Olympics not “games?” On the contrary, they are paradigmatic games.
There exists an enormous grey area between literal human needs (oxygen) and those things that are only sort of wants (intellectual stimulation). There’s a reason we don’t play tic-tac-toe all day every day just to keep busy. Entertaining a creature with a huge brain is hard (even when it’s yourself). Almost by definition, it’s easier to care about something the more it is perceived to matter. The upshot of this is that an activity, like a moral game, can be undertaken both seriously and for the purpose of entertainment.
LARPing is pretend, and RLLARPing is less obviously so. But consider the high prevalence of episodes of impostor syndrome — a failure to fully internalize success, resulting in the sensation that you’re a fake, or that the life you’re living isn’t really yours.
The linguistic phenomenon of “adulting” provides more evidence of real-life pretend. With the (perhaps self-fulfilling) expectation that they’d be stuck in adolescence longer than any generation before, Millennials now find it remarkable to the point of incredulity to find themselves engaging in adult-like behaviors. They feel like they’re not quite themselves, while “adulting.” Almost as if they were playing the part of an adult character who shares some, but not all, of their own personal qualities.
I am certainly not the first to suggest that morality involves a significant imaginative component. Kant’s Categorical Imperative requires a good deal of imagination to apply properly (if indeed it can be applied properly at all). Rawl’s “Veil of Ignorance” is an essentially imaginative device, too. Modeling other people’s minds and using our minds to entertain theirs gives us a leg up on reproduction and other tasks in life. We are imagining, pretending, weaving stories, and playing games all of the time.
It seems almost ridiculous to ask this, but if the comparison is apt then an answer is in order: if games can be serious and pretend can be real, what is even the real difference between what we now call “LARPing” and life in general?
In LARPing, the rules and system for the game are made explicit. This explains why LARPing appeals to people who are on the autism spectrum and who otherwise have difficulty discerning guidelines for social action. In real life, rules for social interaction do exist, but they are informal and fluid.
LARPers can pretend to have skills and resources that they don’t actually physically possess, outside of the world of the game. In real life, pretending to have skills and resources only works sometimes, and it works by deceit or aspiration, not mutual agreement.
LARPing groups meet only intermittently, and their meetings are therefore not spontaneous but scheduled in advance with a participant group that is opt-in and thus well-defined.
In real life, communities come together and fall apart more naturally. You can play more than one game simultaneously, or several games in parallel. However, you may not be able to play more than one elaborate and engrossing game at the same time, for obvious reasons.
RLLARPing is more of a sociology or psychology of moral communities than a first-order normative theory or a second-order metaethical one. There is no reason in theory why a RLLARPing community, like a congregation, can’t be discovering moral facts instead of jointly creating them. As such, the RLLARPing worldview is compatible with moral realism, anti-realism, and relativisms.
If moral coherence and strength of force did used to be greater, it is not hard to see why. In a non-globalized, non-wired world, the games converge, or collapse in on each other. But now, people are playing many games. Some of them are tiny and inconsequential, like maybe in the world of your apartment building or your part-time job. A moral game that is too small and too low-stakes is about as entertaining as tic-tac-toe. It offers little meaning and little possibility for character development.
Others of today’s games are too big to be meaningful. We are all supposed to be playing the game of “democracy” with the character of “good citizen,” but the system governing moves is unclear and the role is underspecified. Beyond the provinciality of the nation-state, we are also called up to be cosmopolitan, citizens of the world. But no one, apart from the Davos set, really knows how to play the vague character of a cosmopolitan on a day-to-day basis.
Role-playing scenarios also fail via world misalignment. In a LARP, participants who can’t agree on a game system will split into separate games. They have some voice within the game community, but also rights of exit. Relationships are just two-player RLLARPs. Their de facto ground rules used to be provided culturally. The wider variety of relationships available today makes it more likely that mismatches will occur. You can’t play “hopeful fiance” in one world for long, while your partner plays “sowing my wild oats” in another.
“Virtue signalling” has recently come to the fore as a framing for the factionalization of contemporary moral life. The useful term was quickly overused and diluted by individuals stuck in moral rebellion mode, who were trying to define characters by opposition. Whatever you call it, moral competition undeniably exists.
But in addition to the competitive aspects of moral life, there are huge cooperative elements. RLLARPing is a more constructive framing for understanding how shared world-building is positive sum. Very few character types are available to a solo player (outcast, lone wolf). But by running multiple local instantiations of the same game, a society can make space for individuality and rechannel competitive instincts into world-building instead of a free-for-all.
Costumes are a part of many LARPs, though they matter in some LARPing groups more than others, and they matter to some individual players more than others. Going basic in wardrobe will help to align you with certain RLLARP groups. Going normcore in one’s wardrobe will help to align you with any RLLARP group. Some roles require costumes more than others. And if what you’re starting with is a costume, you might just find the corresponding role.