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  • Max Schmermbeck

A Small Phenomenology of Vibe



Suppose you are browsing a random city center, looking for a place to eat with a friend. And suppose you are both craving Italian food. As luck would have it, you come across two Italian restaurants that offer everything you wish for. Both have comparable prices and menus, the staff smiles politely as you walk by, and their terraces still catch the last rays of sunlight before the city is slowly covered in the darkness of the night. There is only one real difference between the two places: one is crowded with people, whereas the other is dead empty. Which one would you choose?


It is fair to say that most of us would end up in the crowded one. In modern terms, we can call that a decision based on a ‘vibe’: a vague, free-floating feeling (a definition given by Mitch Therieau in this excellent essay) that accompanies our experience of a place, person, piece of music, television show, or some other phenomenon. In contemporary culture, everything has, or gives off, a vibe, and we intuitively know what we mean when we use the word. But even though the word seems obvious (and, at times, cliché) in everyday use, it is far less easy – and therefore far more interesting – to explain why and how we are able to pick up on a vibe. What happens when we ‘feel’ a vibe? What does that feeling tell us about the structures of our experience? And why do we value vibes so highly in contemporary culture?


In this second instalment of the small phenomenology series, I take up these questions to shed a light on vibe in a way that brings out its philosophical relevance. My key idea is that the ubiquity of vibe shows how strongly human experience is characterized by a fragile, embodied and pre-reflexive feeling of resonance with the world. Even though vibe is something we tend to speak of in abstract and conceptual terms, I argue that it is in our body that the feeling of vibe originates; when we feel a vibe, we feel our body thinking the world. This embodied and pre-reflexive dimension riddles vibe with a series of interesting dualisms, of which I discuss two: the simultaneity of presence and absence in our experience of the world and the insurmountable gap between ambiguity and certainty that accompanies our attempts to accurately describe reality through language. I end my inquiry with some remarks on vibe as an interesting return to mysticism in a society which likes to think of itself as logical, reasonable and devoid of the magical wizardry of the past.


The Simultaneity of Presence and Absence

In order to accurately describe vibe from a phenomenological perspective, let us return to the example of the restaurant. It seems obvious to choose a crowded restaurant over a quiet one, but when we reflect on that choice a little more, it starts to make less and less sense. For starters, the experience in either restaurant will roughly be the same. Regardless of which of the two places you choose, you will sit down, order food and drinks, spend the entirety of your visit eating your food and conversing with your friend, pay the bill, and leave. This is what people do in restaurants. But here is the strange part of the story: we see other people at the restaurant, which means we want them to be present there. But the moment we sit down at the table, we want them to remain absent. After all, who is interested in the strangers occupying the other seats of the restaurant where they are eating? This seems obvious, but it makes the initial decision puzzling: you choose the restaurant because other people are there, but the moment you sit down at the table, you want them to stay away.


So why do you decide for the crowded place anyway? How does it create a desirable vibe that attracts you to it? I think the crux lies in the simultaneity of presence and absence that characterizes a vibe; in order for us to feel a vibe, something must be absent in its very presence, and present in its very absence. In other words, vibe is a presence that is necessarily marked by a supplement of absence; it is only in the tension between the two that a vibe is able to emerge. Moreover, vibe is that which conditions, shapes and structures how we consciously experience the objects and people directly in front of us. We never perceive things as they are ‘in themselves’, but only against the background of a totality that is always-already meaningful. In this regard, one might think of the similarity to key phenomenological concepts like Husserl’s ‘Lebenswelt’ or Heidegger’s ‘Weltlichkeit’: it is a set of signs, symbols and tools that stand in a distinct, yet dynamic relation to each other. In this way, it creates a sense of worldliness and belonging for human experience.


It is important to explain the strange simultaneity of presence and absence in which vibe emerges, because this is the key idea through which I understand the concept. Let me do so by illustrating what happens when presence and absence no longer function as each other’s supplements, but solely become either presence or absence. Suppose you are enjoying your meal and having a nice conversation with your friend, when a person from the table next to you suddenly strikes up a conversation. Chances are that this gives you a feeling of intrusion and awkwardness, and you try to end the conversation as quickly as possible in order to resume what you were doing. Phenomenologically speaking, the person next to you was present in her absence before striking up the spontaneous conversation; she blended into the background totality against which your own conversation emerged. However, when she suddenly revealed herself to you as a present presence, the vibe, as a precarious balance of presence and absence, broke down.


Conversely, when the other guests of the restaurant suddenly decide to leave or collectively stop talking (as in a classic sitcom-scenario), you are equally overwhelmed by a sense of awkwardness and anxiety. In this instance, the rumour of the background constitutes an absence that is simultaneously present, so when it becomes fully absent, the vibe is lost. This shows that vibe is a presence that must be negated; it is a fragile equilibrium between intuition and conscious awareness that shapes and moulds the ways in which we understand and engage with the objects and people of our experience in a meaningful way.


Resonance, Embodiment, Belonging

Approaching vibe as the intertwinement of presence and absence leads us to a crucial phenomenological question: what is it about the structure of our experience that allows us to pick up on a vibe? When describing the experience of vibe, we often resort to the category of ‘feeling’: we can feel a good vibe, a spacy vibe, a mellow vibe, or a bad vibe. When we feel no vibe at all, it usually means we leave. But what about this feeling? What does it refer to? How does it work? That is what I will try to answer next, even though I should add that my discussion focusses exclusively on vibe as a spatial phenomenon, which means that my claims will probably not apply to the vibes felt within music or interpersonal contact. If anybody feels compelled to write a small phenomenology of those kinds of vibes, I’d love to read it.


So, how can we understand the feeling of vibe that a restaurant, bar, street or museum gives us? We are often tempted to answer this question in a hermeneutic or practical manner; we see symbols, signs, objects and tools, and they give us a certain vibe because we interpret them in a distinct way. But such an approach overlooks the dimension of embodiment that is a crucial part of our being-in-the-world. When we enter a room, we immediately and unknowingly encounter its atmosphere, style, aesthetics, cleanliness, lay-out and textures through bodily awareness. The room is not just a set of geometrical figures distributed in space, but a meaningful totality which speaks to us; we feel welcome, homely, repelled, curious or hesitant the moment we set foot in a certain space. To quote Reinout Bakker in his magnificent book on the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “the body understands, which only sounds ridiculous if by "understanding" we mean that we put the sense-perceived things under the aspect of an intelligible idea or if we understand the body as an object. 'Understanding' is experiencing an agreement between what we intend and what is given, between our intention and its realization.” In this sense, ‘understanding’ has nothing to do with wrapping your head around a specific concept or problem that requires abstract thinking and logic. Understanding connotes a sense of belonging, a wanting-to-be-here or a feeling-at-home-here. I therefore think that when we speak of feeling a vibe, we are referring to a certain resonance of our body in space, rather than any conceptual interpretation. When we feel the vibe, our desire to be at home in the world aligns with a space suited for that purpose. For a moment, the world makes sense to us; we find ourselves on the inside looking out, rather than from the outside looking in. The feeling of vibe, then, is embodied resonance.


Ambiguity, Certainty, and Modern Mysticism

Approaching vibe as a distinctly embodied – and therefore non-linguistic – phenomenon problematizes the possibility to adequately articulate it. I think many will recognize this from personal experience: it is because one feels a vibe that one cannot put into words why or how that is the case. A vibe is not a thing, it cannot be pointed at. It is rather precisely in the in-between-things that a vibe emerges; it is an absence that is present, the horizon against which we perceive things as meaningful, beautiful, ugly, exciting, boring or stale. For this reason, vibe is characterized by a distinct sense of ambiguity, of non-knowledge, and non-truth. Moreover, it is fragile and fleeting; a vibe can feel incredibly good, and suddenly vanish without ever returning. This complicates the conceptualization of vibe even more, because it is difficult to convey ambiguity and fragility through concepts. To quote Bakker again, “time and again, reality escapes the grip of defining and final thought.” Describing a vibe is like trying to catch a piece of dust with your fingers; the moment you think you have it, it immediately escapes you.


These remarks have been rather technical and (hopefully not too) dry, so I would like to end this small phenomenology with some loosely assembled thoughts and remarks on vibe as a phenomenon of contemporary culture. Of course, vibe is a popular term partly because it has been co-opted by the cultural logic of late capitalism; it is used to sell us products, places and people who fit the trendy, hip and cool vibe of the present moment that is as plastic as it is fleeting. If only we buy the right things, and say the right words, our desire to ‘fit’ the current vibe is satisfied only to become obsolete two weeks later, starting the cycle all over again.


But I hope to have shown that there is far more to the concept than this superficiality. We do not all crave the same vibe, but we do all desire to belong to a world, to fit a vibe. We all seek to find resonance, and it is absolutely okay if that manifests itself in a fleeting intuition or feeling that we can’t quite put our finger on. As the experience of vibe indicates, our way of being-in-the-world does not fit the schema of calculation and logic, because we are deeply intuitive and instinctive beings. In our desire for transcendence, we feel first, and make sense of our experience through concepts later. The truth of vibe as a form of modern mysticism is that neither term can be seen as distinct from the other; ambiguity and certainty, sense and non-sense, affect and reason; they criss-cross each other in the dynamic flux of experience. Vibe is precisely this moment of the in-between; a feeling that is ambiguous and impossible to pinpoint or conceptualize, but simultaneously real and true. One does not doubt whether the vibe is good in a place; one knows.


Vibe, as a fleeting concept of contemporary culture, will probably vanish, but the desire for a feeling of resonance with the world will not; we have invented ghosts, spirits, and angles in the past, and we continue to do so to this day. In a culture so desperate to explain, calculate and commodify every nook and cranny of experience, it might be a good idea to embrace vibe as a place where ambiguity, fragility and beauty create valuable forms of non-truth.


Recommended Reading

De Wereld als Verschijning – Corijn van Mazijk

Merleau-Ponty: Filosoof van het niet-wetend weten – Reinout Bakker

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