So, you can actually watch paint drying now, on YouTube...
This is how we live now. A life where even the figurativeness of metaphor and cliché have to be actualised, in a world where what we can imagine can never be enough. It's no longer enough to imagine watching paint dry as that mythical thing which would be more fulfilling than whatever it is we're doing when we imagine it. If it's not there in front of us, the idiom actualised, it's not worth talking about. Have our imaginations been swept clean, checked, reloaded, taxi-ed along the runway of our life of moving pictures, and flown away?
It's more and more obvious that it's not just enough to have a life. You have to have a lifestyle too - and it has to be worthy of inclusion in a Sunday colour supplement. The lifestyle tribes are everywhere we go. They have their own languages and labels and aspirations. Suddenly, for instance, staying in on a Friday night isn't middle-aged and boring any more. It becomes "the new going out" and gets an authorial translation into words like "nesting" or "cocooning". Even watching TV becomes stylishly acceptable - but only if it's certain Scandinavian or American box sets, or if it's just a little bit ironic, or if we live-tweet a running commentary as we watch.
There's fast food and slow food and taste the difference food and finest food: this is not just food, this is lifestyle food. And, depending on who it is you aspire to be, it's suddenly incredibly adorable to raid the fridge in the middle of the night to gorge on chocolate cake or rip some extra meat from a cooling carcass. The fastidiousness of a world governed by that hygienic triumvirate, Mr Muscle, Mr Sheen and Mr Cillit Bang, is sidelined in fifty visceral shades of kneading and ripping and tearing. The boredom of static, routine mealtimes suddenly assumes the idealised mantle of pseudo-Mediterranean family one-ness in a ludicrous parody of the Dolmio ads - about as authentically Italian as the bizarre pidgin English of their stuffed characters and their synthetic sauce...
The pattern is perpetuated when we leave the house. We label ourselves with how we dress - with how we do our hair - with everything. There's the sensibly co-ordinated Next couples, all averagely-cut jeans and precision-matched tops and anonymous, inoffensive accessories. There's the Top Shop brigade and the sports brigade and I suppose I'd better give the outdoorsy, red-cheeked fleece wearers a mention as they bring out their Brasher boots and their North Face coats and their Thinsulate hats for another winter or practicality and comfort and avoiding catching cold. There's the cheery patterns of the Boden crowd, with their mini-me children and their married-me partners. Even their complacent expressions match. Then of course there are the high-end elite, stalking the streets in a sartorial embodiment of confidence. They make me feel small and insignificant, not least because I know that, in shoes like that, I'd fall over.
And then there's Twitter. And more than that: there's Instagram. It's the 2012 equivalent of paint drying: in the current Cartesian co-ordinates of I Tweet, Therefore I Am, it's not enough to drink a cup of coffee. You have to photograph it on Instagram or Hipstamatic and tweet a picture of your coffee so that it looks all grainy and colour-washed like something from a hipster album cover. As everyone who knows me well, well knows, I love coffee: but a cup of coffee, despite having the potential to redeem a trying day, is something fairly simple. Photographing it doesn't enhance its meaning much - it is what it is, and a very good thing at that. Photo apps like Instagram are seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses made flesh. A kind of system upgrade to make your life look like a lifestyle and not just ordinary life. This is not just coffee. This is Instagrammed coffee, and the fragrant vapour drifting from the cup announces our coolness twice as much as it tells us that the coffee's hot.
In a world of lifestyle and labels and the visual possibilities which turn the figuratives of watching paint dry into a literal virtual reality, to turn yourself into your very own lifestyle brand makes a complete, if slightly bizarre, kind of sense. As we define ourselves in our tweeted photographs, we create a sort of mini advertising campaign, packaging ourselves for one another's eyes. We make ourselves unique, yet make ourselves the same as everybody else in doing so. We announce our presence in a visible synaesthesia of colours, textures, flavours. Our labels are our signifiers in a huge decoding game of guess who.
The cycle continues. The paint continues to dry in the ever-refreshing image of our lives.