Eat Your Cake and Dream It
The advertisement brochure of the fashion brand Diesel called "Save Yourself", plunges one into the mental world of young people with cultural ambitions and the claim to float above the waves of dull consumerism. By inverting the sentence "live fast, die young" not into its logical opposite "live slowly, die old", but into a more absolutist, pseudo-elitist "don't live at all, so you'll never die", the brochure represents a masterpiece of dispersive irony, leaving unclear the limits between sincere/superficial, intelligent/dull, healthy/decadent, and, especially, between reality and the virtual .
The booklet contains photos of people wearing mostly Diesel Jeanswear accompanied by short paragraphs containing highly elaborated advice on how to "save yourself." This means, in principle, how to "escape death", which, at the time of cloning and virtual reality, should no longer be a real problem.
In these photos, the young people's faces are expressionless and empty and look as if made up with wax. Their eyes are staring into nothing, their postures are frozen though not uncomfortable. At first sight, one very much doubts their "realness". At the same time, there is nothing "surrealist" in these pictures, nor do we encounter the kind of cold stylization that so often, in magazines, objectifies bodies beyond any attitude. These people do have an attitude; however, this seems to be all they have. What we see are self-contented beings radiating a disquieting lack of sense, humans transformed not into things but into these lukewarm intermediary beings, kinds of unheimliche puppets, sufficiently different from us to dissuade us from any engagement, but still not leaving us entirely indifferent. Ambiguity. Though the faces look "unreal", the hands' skin and positions are natural and relaxed in order to avoid the effect of dummies. A refined ambiguity lets us suspect that these "people" are perhaps not destined for consumption because their symbolizing power is strangely broken, that their message is perhaps even to be looked for outside the pragmatic values and anti-values of our image loaded consumer world. When there are two persons on the same picture, their relationship appears mechanic and sterile. Girls and boys look rather alike. Through an evident lack of individual life force, these "persons" appear as manifestations of a strange kind of "lifeless health". Lacking humanness but still remaining in a strange way integrable into a most generally defined "human condition".
"Health" is then also the main subject of the texts. You need "health" to "save yourself", but since, apart from health itself, the "sense" of health cannot be made out as something lying outside the flat and simple "healthy condition", health becomes, like everything else in the world, an end in itself. The result is not really an aesthetization of people and everything around them but, more radically, the declaration that everything is aesthetic from the beginning, as if nothing would ever have existed before the aesthetic state of the world that has come to be engendered in these photos.
The most striking idea in these sophisticated and highly stylized elaborations is that "youth", "health", and "beauty" are best to be obtained through an efficient combination of bio- and computer technology. The parallel treatment of these two branches of modern science, and their squeezing out of a combined clony-virtual dreamsphere, appears in this advertisement for the young as almost naturally established.
Of course: Eternity can be simultaneously attained through cloning and the consistent integration of "virtual reality" into one's life. Both cloning and virtual reality serve to stop time in order to transform it into something aesthetic. This is not simply an aesthetization or a stylization but, in a way more efficient than it has been possible for preceding generations, it represents the creation of a "life style" as something absolute.
The texts and images demonstrate the proximity of the idea of cloning and the realm of dream as well as of the virtual: how dreamlike must be a world peopled with clones, and how consistently is virtual reality working towards the "realization" of this aim.
"Aesthetic" signifies henceforth the ironic version of the "spiritual" (e.g. the mockery versions of the theme of "reincarnation" in various sects, or the advice to avoid sex in order to "give your body to the goddess of beauty"), and at the same time of the biological. As with the historical figure of the 19th century dandy, for the save yourself aesthetician biological approaches to life confound themselves with "spiritual" approaches. Finally, both serve the same objective, which is (spirito-biological) reincarnation: drink your own urine, clone yourself, eat algae, sleep...
However, the safety obtained through the displacement of the aesthetic project into the sphere of the virtual makes "Save Yourself" different from the dandy's dreamworld in which one could really get lost. The adoption of "Virtual Reality" as a "life-saving" device flows out of technical spirito-biological approaches: don't think, sleep, and -- be a computer. Create your own clone by dispersing yourself in data.
The wish to stay forever young is certainly not new; less new is the idea to demonstrate this wish through photos of young people who are, though obviously possessing all "aesthetic" attributes of youth are stiff, quiet, and lacking any vital energy. The ironical message is: if you behave like an old person while being young, you will never become old in reality. The old are old because they couldn't stop time. The audacity of the young is to pretend to be old and to enter, like this, the realm of the timeless Virtual. From now on, living death replaces life. And technology will help you to swap the hard and thorny path of asceticism for that of the soft aestheticism of Virtual Culture. What has formerly been preached by popular Schopenhauerian Buddhism and what could still appear as rather painful, is now simply "done" by science. All you have to do is to say yes. By letting science enclose your self in yourself, your self will re-emerge like a clone within a dreamlike sphere of virtual self-sufficiency. If you only recognize that, as a potential clone, you are bound to be the incarnation of a "virtual person", you can immediately be reincarnated as a virtual dandy. You will immediately grow wings through the lightness of "style" but: it's absolutely safe. The virtual clone can live in reality without touching it, dwell on a playground without ever playing, be "the best" simply because he is alone, eat his cake and have it, be "somebody" by being "nobody".
We could have noticed this earlier: Aestheticism is safe, especially when it is virtual. Already in the late 1970s Pierre Bourdieu noted that the "new petite bourgeoisie" does not strive, like their parents, for conservative, bourgeois, "real" values, but tends to externally imitate the adventurous, progressive, unconventional, daring, emancipated, "intellectual" without, of course, putting at risk their own social or physical security. The Diesel advertisement brochure "Save Yourself" shows that these postmodern ideals no longer represent only an external, imitable side of a lifestyle but that "petty-intellectual" dandyism is now re-edited as a virtual dream in the form of cloned realities. Computer technology and biotechnology combined have found the possibility to make them "absolutely real", pronounce: absolutely safe.
 Pierre Bourdieu : Distinction : A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984)
Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is a research associate at the EHESS (Centre Japon) in Paris and presently working in Japan. Forthcoming book: Place and Dream: Japan and the Virtual (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004).