Downtown Demons

Matthew Gasda

Image for article: Downtown Demons
October 5, 2023
Photo: Susan Sermoneta / CC BY 2.0

Pandemic-era Manhattan was interesting. Social networks formed around a shared skepticism toward institutions and a fear that we were no longer living in an open society. Repressive Covid governance, following years of Trump-era moral panics, produced a moment of ideological uncertainty and openness.

At the heart of the Covid moment were very basic questions: What is the role of the government? What are the rights and duties of the individual? What expectations should state and citizen have of one another? It was at once a depressing and exciting time. Public spaces were shut down. Street life was gone. Because of the insane social pressure to conform and stay home, the stakes for doing things—anything—were higher.

Some on the left, opposed to governance by technocratic fiat, found themselves aligned with libertarians and conservatives on civil liberties and censorship. The important thing, for those who were skeptical of Covid-era policies and mores, was to maintain roots in a physical and social reality that was rapidly eroding in the era of stay home and work from home.

I wasn’t alone in witnessing several people close to me suffer terrifying isolation and fear-induced breakdowns. Pushing back against the deep alienation and isolation of the Covid moment was thus worth risking stigma. And it was rewarding to find out, mostly via the app formerly known as Twitter, that more and more people were willing to break the rules by late 2020 and early 2021. They believed it was time to return to the “normal” world before the government, corporations, and health experts officially ended the state of emergency.

Because—to borrow an example from my own life—simply meeting for a rehearsal meant rejecting authority, the rehearsals, and the material I was writing automatically took on an edge it didn’t have before the pandemic. Putting on an indoor play in New York City was at least a little bit more radical than it had been before. The excitement, then, came from the sense of agency that had returned to simply being alive; after a long decade in which people found themselves numbed both by the invention of the app, and the relentless dissemination of manufactured political crises, it felt good to think and act for oneself, as oneself.

It followed that there was an ideological transformation, the now-famous “vibe shift,” a term popularized by the trend forecaster Sean Monahan. The vibe shift, Monahan wrote, is a “return to scene culture, elements of ‘naughty aughties’ nostalgia. The players are personalities more interested in the literary than the artistic, more interested in the who follows, than the how many followers.” What Monahan correctly predicted was the emphasis on exclusive social experiences with character-like real people—self-mythologizing in-crowds.

Usually associated with the waning of so-called wokeness, the shift signified something deeper than what Monahan’s analysis suggested: A cultural and political vacuum had been left by the death of Obama-era progressive ameliorism; few really believed in the arc of progress anymore, and public institutions like newspapers and universities were not, then, tenable places to express this abiding sense that institutions were contributing to a declining quality of life.

In the wake of initial lockdowns, there was a nondenominational interest in questioning the way things worked, in asking why the expert class had gotten things, and was getting things, so comically wrong. The vibe shift, in hindsight, was about a collective willingness to acknowledge that the truth must be up for debate again, and that a certain kind of strategic irony was necessary to carve out space for questioning during a time of sensational public cancellations and deplatformings.

Everyone had gone online, but online had gone crazy, and so it was both superficially cool to cultivate private cultural events, because that stood in contrast to ultra-lame outlets like “Zoom cocktail hours,” online book clubs, and the like, and because the online world seemed unable to put real safeguards in place against denunciations and fast-gathering mobs. While the real world was supposed to be dangerous—teeming with the novel coronavirus—social-media scrolls were psychotic and destabilizing. Driven to less chaotic spaces, real spaces, the very-online started to hang out. “Scenes” formed in part because people were just trying to stay sane.

“There was no way to talk about the scene-world without becoming a part of it.”

One of these scenes was the “downtown scene” I helped “make”according to The New York Timeswith my play Dimes Square. Though the spirit of the play was critical and interrogative of the scene-world rather than laudatory or participatory, in a self-mythologizing, highly online culture, I was immediately assumed to be a part of the scene itself, which was a self-confirming assumption. Functionally, because I sold tickets on the basis of the title, I would discover that I was participating in the very clout economy—the market exchanges that permitted access to the in-group—that I had attempted to represent objectively. I tried to hold the “coke mirror” up to nature, but the distinctions between artist and subject, mirror and nature, were already smudged. There was no way to talk about the scene-world without becoming a part of it.

The creation of scenes was aided and accelerated by temporarily cheaper rents and inflated tech wages (and crypto fortunes). Large apartments and lofts were secured, sometimes in two-year leases. A new, politically ambiguous patron class appeared at the same time that subscriber-supported writers and podcasters were challenging mainstream news and opinion. You could listen to a podcast or read a Substack, and meet the podcaster or writer the same night at a party or a bar (though these shuttered in the early evening, for those who remember, on the totally scientific theory that the virus hunts at night); shifts in perspective were happening in real time.

Old political boundaries were temporarily porous and fluid and ideological lines could be crossed and retraced again. At a given party, you might meet—to name a few examples at random—a liberal New York Times columnist, a Big Five novelist with a forthcoming debut (typically less daring than her conversation), a dirtbag podcaster, a powerful editor, an out-of-work actor, a fashion model, a filmmaker, an influencer, a Thiel Fellowship winner, a grad student on a stipend, a union organizer, a Bitcoin multimillionaire; the melange was the message.

From the inside, “downtown” simply was a place where no one—not even newly minted micro-celebrities—had a monopoly over this message. As much as the scene attracted haters and trolls, a lot of those trolls ended up trying to get into the parties, plays, and readings after they discovered that there weren’t really gatekeepers to keep them out. Downtown was decadent, and the downtown “discourse”—the whole internet culture that both fed it and fed upon it—was never inherently interesting, but it was a functional model of what was missing from mainstream culture and politics: polyphony—different voices that were all afforded a leading melody. The sheer incongruence of the people willing to hang out together was reason for optimism.

This was the moment when lofts and townhouses became theaters and salons, and when Dimes Square—about backstabbing scene aspirants and pseudo-artists—was conceived of, written, and produced, becoming an unlikely hit and the object of intense praise and criticism, most notably from Mike Crumplar’s Substack, which launched with a gonzo review of the show and which itself became an equally commented-upon artifact of downtown culture, its author increasingly embedded in the scene rather than standing outside it (something that also could be said of me and my plays).

This was also the moment when new magazines were launched: The Drunken Canal, The Drift, The Mars Review of Books, and Forever, among others. Regardless of content or mission, these outlets overlapped socially. The Times produced several features about the scene, about the magazines, and about “Becketts,” the iconic West Village townhouse that hosted numerous theater productions, book readings, film screenings, and parties, all wreathed in cigarette smoke.

This was also a moment when the scene became known as “reactionary.” The label, while hyperbolic and slapped on from the outside and usually rejected by those on the inside, did reflect a shared sense that the historical gates had closed behind us; if you listened closely to the NPR-inflected hysteria over the temerity of unvaccinated or unmasked to not only exist, but gather, it was hard to believe that there was a vibrant liberalism left capable of tolerating debate and dissent.

The recognition that liberalism had failed to protect its own foundational values brought both defenders of a more romantic notion of liberalism, myself included, and anyone who wanted something else (whatever that something else was) into the same social space. From my own perspective, garnered from hosting plays in Brooklyn and Manhattan several nights a week, there was a willingness to sample new ideas, and adopt new stances, that wasn’t present before 2020 (for better or worse).

There was a range of often strange and sometimes unsettling political ideas from monarchism to Maosim; left-of-center critiques of the collusion between state and corporate power competed with highly futurist, crypto-influenced visions of breakaway charter cities; rejection of identity politics competed with accelerated, identity-only politics. There was very little enthusiasm for the two major parties, or discussions of anything that might appear on the nightly news, and much enthusiasm for anything esoteric and fringe (much of which was benign).

Unfortunately, despite its early promise, the ideological froth, and genuine, open-ended weirdness, of the pandemic-era downtown didn’t produce a new, more robust kind of liberal culture centered on uncensored conversation and ideological hybridization. As the pandemic state of emergency faded, these incongruent forces pulled apart. It proved impossible for the “scene” to agree on a new, central set of values, or to allow the state of suspended judgements to continue. Polyphony was lost. Monophony was back.

In effect, the pandemic downtown moment was, from the very beginning, infected with spirit of the very-online, which, while latent for a long time, never went away; there was a tension between those who really truly wanted to leave the internet behind, and those who instinctively wanted to integrate the online into the fabric of nightlife—and the latter won out.

Edgelords began to believe their own rhetoric and to surround themselves with believers, rather than skeptics. The process that began in 2020when downtown became a rallying point for doubters of political and cultural pietiesreversed, and new ideological silos were constructed. In the wake of this reversal, significant downtown figures soft-peddle eugenics; others glamorize revolutionary terrorism; others worship political strongmen.

In other words: While the “reactionary” tag felt fictitious and hyperbolic even a year ago, the application of the label provided cover for the genuinely pernicious voices to speak up. When Costin Alamariu’s self-published dissertation, Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy, exploded online (and immediately appeared sticking out of tote bags at parties), it was clear that another shift had occurred. Downtown’s answer to progressive illiberalism seems to be campy pseudo-Nietzschean illiberalism, though some have instead chosen militant leftism. Either way, “IRL” events and spaces were caught up in the extremist one-upmanship of online communities.

Why does any of this matter? Why should anyone care about what looks like a micro-scene? For one thing, Manhattan’s avante-garde has often served as a vanguard for American culture at large. Plus, there is an immense concentration of social and real capital in this scene, which has real power to grow and continue to shape perceptions beyond New York City. Above all, Manhattan’s downtown in the 2020s represents an instance of internet social organization, which tends to be rigid, and highly binary, winning out over IRL social organization, which tends to be more flexible and permissive and humane.

Downtown’s scene politics might be an image of future politics—a simulation of what America might look like if people have to choose between the social practices of traditional liberal democracy and the social practices of Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok (or whatever inherits them). Can people continue to see themselves as human, morally equal, deserving of rights and due process? Or will future politics be organized like the podcast “Red Scare” and its fandom: celebrity trolls at the top, followers—alternately worshipful and angry—arguing amongst themselves, at the bottom?

“Clownishness provides a cover for rhetorical extremism.”

In post-pandemic New York, a new liberalism of the spirit has failed to put down roots; by and large, a troll mentality is ascendent. Clownishness provides a cover for rhetorical extremism. No one is ever quite serious, so you’re not supposed to get worked up when you hear someone, including former leftists, recalibrate their politics in unfathomably dark, highly racialized terms. As a result of this deceptive use of irony, it can be hard to gauge what’s really happening, hard to substantiate the unsettling intuition that people aren’t OK anymore.

This doesn’t mean that downtown is now a fascist epicenter (those kinds of claims are a distraction). Rather, it has become the scene of a new, hyper-ironized brand of nihilism: Nothing matters except the promise of virality, clout, and micro-fame (and the subsequent dopamine hit).

Downtown’s discourse addicts promote visions of a future you’d never want to live in (or wouldn’t be allowed to live in)—ultra-futurist Nietzschean vibe camps!—not because they themselves would want to inhabit these worlds, but simply because these empty, violent fantasies are no longer meaningfully worse than anything else in their eyes. Their provocations amount to a stress test on a decaying system of values—civility, decency, patience—that have lost their aura.

The downtown scene’s tendency to practice scapegoating and humiliation rituals, while making (and monetizing) sensationalistic and taboo-breaking political claims, allow us what to see what’s written in invisible ideological ink, what’s inscribed in the logic of our own civilization: moral numbness and apathy towards the inflicting of pain. I will go further: The mimetic violence of downtown discourse—the denunciations, the trollings, the doxxings, the terroristic threats—that is manifest in the way people talk to, and more often, about one another, presages real political conflict in the future.

Sometimes I feel that I’m living through an updated version of Dostoyevsky’s Demons. Years before the October Revolution, Dostoyevsky saw how the failure of liberal reforms had inspired pockets of nihilism capable of consuming a nation. You don’t need to buy sensationalist claims about the imminent emergence of a fascist movement to reject an increasingly popular aesthetics of apathy, authored in a spirit of nihilistic cruelty. You don’t have to be an ironist to suggest that what someone with artistic or intellectual ambitions should do is write, or attempt to write, a new version of Demons, rather than re-inscribe the pathologies of scene and its microcelebrities (which simply reflect the preferences of the algorithm, operating in secret). Artistic failure, in the final calculation, should be preferred to social success.