A brief history of manufactured nonchalance
A friend sent me this article in the New Yorker today by Rachel Monroe about "the bohemian social media movement" #vanlife, yet another glamour-based aspirational lifestyle turned carefully-curated visual product. The foundational abstract idea of this particular strain is "freedom," but the exterior narrative follows the same inevitable trajectory as every other such phenomenon, ending in manufactured nonchalance. Monroe describes the #vanlife photo shoot process towards the end of the piece:
Our cultural obsession with nonchalance and this particular breed of mythmaking long predates Instagram, as does the desire to manufacture it. You can trace the seeds of the idea back to the tale of Pygmalion in Ovid's Metamorphoses ("The best art, they say, / Is that which conceals art"), but the first explicit reference I'm aware of is in Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, where it goes by the name sprezzatura. His is still perhaps the best definition of manufactured nonchalance out there:
Virginia Postrel refers to this same passage in The Power of Glamour and returns often to the impression of "effortlessness" as a central manifestation of glamorous visual communication. Building on Castiglione, she argues:
Manufactured nonchalance appears frequently in fiction as well. A neat little example from Anna Karenina:
In Ian McEwan's Atonement, Cecilia Tallis even more explicitly seeks the same effect:
Again and again, nonchalance is something we want to build with images but tear down with words. On some level we all understand it is an illusion, so why do we keep falling for it?
Social media has created a more robust strain. Sprezzatura is no longer just for courtiers; the art which conceals art has been democratized and demographized, with a feed for whatever your subjective tastes require. It is a glamorous distraction, but it's also a personal expectation.
Check out this no-holds-barred exposé from Rachel Cusk's 2014 novel, Outline:
#vanlife is a metonymy of our culture, of our very world right now; we are all increasingly defined by our roles in this simulacra-based digital ecosystem. Disillusionment with it, the realization that "freedom," or whatever else you fetishize, is staged--this is the crisis of our time for people who aren't stuck in Syria.