Langston Hughes interrogated by the Committee on Un-American Activities, 1953: “That is a poem. One can not state one believes every word of a poem.”
Langston Hughes interrogated by the Committee on Un-American Activities, 1953: “That is a poem. One can not state one believes every word of a poem.”
Today I saw a very odd listing from the University of California, Irvine, my former graduate school. It was a list of graduate programs that had fared well in national rankings.
Has UCI completely disentangled its English program from its Literary Criticism and Theory program? Terrific news! I can go back to English and work on belles lettres or else collate for the fourteenth time the existing editions of Shakespeare’s history plays. The late Hillis Miller once notoriously said that it would not be a tragedy if the libraries burned down, for then scholars would be free to write historical and biographical criticism all over again. I can testify that the books of that sort are not being read, so why not rewrite them? Brave move, UCI!
I’m reluctant to treat people as exemplars of a category, but here goes: did anyone else notice that the two mass murderers in this week’s headlines were both guys aged 21?
I was pretty ignorant at 21. I mean, I had learned several languages and read a lot of hard books, including the Phenomenology of Mind and The Interpretation of Dreams, but my understanding of the world was minimal. And egocentric.
The sort of weapons those young men used should be forbidden to anyone under the age of, say, 45. That might slow things down a bit. In a good way.
(Actually I would prefer to reserve them for people over the age of 102, but if it involves legislation, you have to water down your ideals.)
A continuation of this thought. It makes me wretched to think that these murderers were only 21. To have given up on life and other people to that degree, at only 21: how does that happen?
Aside from what we call mental-health issues. This is a seriously screwed-up place and time.
And then I thought some more. The “normal America” I refer to tacitly is the one where we have learned from some of our mistakes, repudiated Thurmond, Goldwater and Wallace, and started to figure out how to live together with and despite our differences. Everything since Reagan is for me a distortion and a lie: plutocracy, leukocracy, kleptocracy. But kids born in 2000 have known only this distorted country. And, for the record, the Summer of Love, 1968, is farther in the past to them than the Wall Street Crash of 1929 was for me, born in 1960.
I didn’t like having my country’s character be identified with an illiterate, criminal loudmouth for the last four years. Nor do I like seeing it today identified with a drug-addled, 21-year-old racist mass murderer.
“He doesn’t speak for me” worked then as now.
Since I still choose to live and work here, I don’t have the luxury of seeing those lunkheads as anything other than aberrations. It’s the responsibility of every person with a shred of decency to abhor, abjure and execrate such schmucks. Get them off the air and into jail. Then let the rest of us repair the damage they’ve done.
When attention spans are short and analytical abilities are frayed, the loudest, most emotionally wracking spectacles take the place of historical perspective, judgment, comparison, and constructive courses of action. I can see the community of interest between Covid and schlocky journalism. If we are just eyeballs for sale, captive animals scrolling all day long, we bounce from scandal to scandal because nothing else is attention-worthy.
I don’t think it’s good. Which is not to say that I think the people who are having emotional reactions are wrong. I just am wary of the actions of keyed-up and suggestible people. All of them.
Then again, somebody I know (Asianist, not Asian) thought this was the designated moment to harangue his Facebook audience about the lack of MLA sessions devoted to Asian literature.* Academic self-promotion disguised as concern: classic opportunism. I guess every murder has a bright side for somebody.
* For those unfamiliar with the organization, the Modern Language Association began to take an interest in Asian literatures– and then only a small number of them– about ten years ago. The Association for Asian Studies is still the main forum for Asianists. Both are perfectly ok professional organizations. The latter includes anthropologists, economists, historians, and even a few soldiers, diplomats, and spies, making it quite a bit more interdisciplinary than the MLA. I have belonged to both organizations for about thirty years.
After the horrifying string of murders around Atlanta, we’ve seen demonstrations and statements against “Asian hate.” With reported hate crimes, large and small, against people of Asian appearance, on the rise in the last year and a half, no decent person can fail to join the “Stop Asian hate” campaign. I hope I may be excused for taking a closer interest in it.
“Stop Asian Hate.” Of course. (However, I don’t like the phrase “Asian Hate” because it is syntactically ambiguous and inert.) If taken as meaning “oppose the violence done to people just because they are Asian,” the slogan is compelling but it undercounts a lot of factors. It’s a tempting explanation in some ways, because it says to the pharmacist, the hedge-fund manager, the architect, the cowgirl, the life coach, the florist, who are of Asian descent, that whoever they are, recent immigrant or sixth-generation American, white-collar professional or minimum-wage laborer, they are liable to be attacked in public on grounds of appearance alone, that they are all equal in the face of this violence and that they must band together. That’s a powerful adhesive. But in its admirable universality it disregards a lot of things that I think are more significant actuators of the violence and so blocks us from figuring out what is going on (and thus, what to do about it).
Statisticians, start counting: when and where are incidents of aggression against Asian people committed? Who perpetrates them? If state databases don’t recognize the category of anti-Asian hate crime, then reconstruct it on whatever basis you can. And then, analysts of narratives and concepts, it’s your turn to examine each case and figure out what are the stakes and the apparent motives.Continue reading
Tessa Morris-Suzuki writing in the Asia-Pacific Journal has drawn most of the possible educational value from J. Mark Ramseyer’s article on contracts signed by wartime “comfort women.” As Ramseyer’s article contends that the women entered into these contracts of their own free will, the implication is that there is nothing to get excited about, no harm done and nothing for successive Japanese governments to apologize for. Most of the response to Ramseyer’s article, now withdrawn, has dwelt on the obvious causes of outrage: the insult to the women’s memory, the minimizing of the harm done to vulnerable people, the reiteration, by the analysis, of an imperial bureaucracy’s devaluing of the lives of women deemed inferior (by class or nationality) to those to be “comforted.” It’s the kind of thing that attracts immediate emotional investment. And Ramseyer has gone this way before, so he obviously could have anticipated, maybe welcomed, the reaction. (A working paper on the same subject dwells on the cabal of “activist historians” and “leftists” whom he sees as having precipitated a “pile-on” and “censorship” of contrary views.) Some have suspected him of doing the bidding of nefarious and shadowy nationalists who resent Koreans, feminists, historians, and the like. Rather than raging at the scholar on moral grounds, Morris-Suzuki examines the scholarship and finds it flawed. This sets up Ramseyer to be critiqued, not for having the wrong opinion about comfort women (he’s entitled to his opinion however dismal it may be), but for ignoring, cherry-picking, and cooking the evidence in order to arrive at a predetermined conclusion. Why, I wonder, is that conclusion so valuable to him that he would undermine his own good name for it?
I suspect it’s an error to assume that Ramseyer’s aim is to curry favor with irredentist or revanchist elements of the Japanese political spectrum. Maybe it was; but that’s small potatoes and impugns only himself. More consequentially, I think, we can seek a motive in the desire to demonstrate, through this unpromising example, “basic game theoretic principles of credible commitments” (“Contracting for Sex in the Pacific War,” p. 7). For rational-choice theorists, every person is a free agent making bargains based on the best available information. Thus, if you’re a country girl from a family deep in debt, and someone comes along offering you a vaguely-worded contract for three years’ service as a “hostess” with payment up front, it’s your own problem if you find yourself a few weeks later in Rangoon or Shanghai receiving “visits” from twenty-five or thirty soldiers every day with no option of calling it quits. For rational-choice theorists, “whatever is, is right.” I wonder if Ramseyer has similar views on deceptive contracts in our own time and place — is the mere fact of a signature on a piece of paper adequate proof of legality? There are a lot of historical injustices out there that could be papered over in this way, sir; when you’re done squeezing all human history through the sieve of rational choice, there won’t be anything to get mad at.
Mindful of the gallery, Ramseyer even throws in a nod to “the intelligence and resourcefulness of the women involved” (p. 2). Oh yes, agency! We love that stuff. Especially when it puts the victims on the hook for their own troubles.
The pandemic continues gnawing at the flesh of our society. In recent weeks it’s claimed a number of people who had little in common apart from being (for me, First-Person Narrator of this piece) adults and guides, people I was close to in the generation above mine. Just as when you lose your parents (Oscar Wilde reference please, to lighten the tone!*), the disappearance of these people makes it seem that part of the fence holding you back from the cliff’s edge has collapsed. I mentioned Hillis Miller the other day; now for two more I knew much better.
Peter Esty was my English teacher in my first year at Deerfield. I must have been a cranky subject. Mouth full of provincial accent, obsessive with a few literary references bigger than my britches (Dante, Milton, Yeats, Faulkner), ready to argue with, or rather monologue at, all and sundry, I needed taking down a peg. And Peter did that with such humor and grace that I didn’t notice it happening. My papers (typed; teachers had complained about my handwriting and I liked taking on the air of a pro) on Macbeth, Portrait of a Lady, and Ambrose Bierce stories came back with marginal notes that were masterpieces of the art of deflection–of deflecting a kid who was taking himself too seriously. A joke here, a ?! there, a “did you notice…” in another place, were Peter’s way of reminding me to take the time to listen to what the author and the characters had to say, as we should all listen to what other people have to say and, if we can, give them back something they weren’t expecting and possibly didn’t deserve. Unlike many in the teaching profession, Peter had spent ten years outside in the fresh air, working for Proctor & Gamble, and came back to the classroom with the certainty that that is where he wanted to be. He liked kids and he liked books. When I showed him my poems and stories, he pretended to appreciate them as a book-liker but I think he mainly saw them as a piece of the development of a kid he was determined to like. This was charitable of him in a way I couldn’t have seen rightly then.
I was determined not to get along with people (already something of a habit with me) and Peter’s diplomacy was essential to my having a successful second year, when I and a dozen other boys occupied the dorm part of a house with the Esty family on the ground floor. And when I had the lucky break of getting accepted to School Year Abroad (thus avoiding the third year of Deerfield), a further piece of luck was that the Estys were going too, Peter having been chosen as that year’s English teacher for the thirty or so American kids on the voyage. I remember hanging out in Normandy, poking around the Paris flea markets, and walking over the Cathar strongholds in the south, with Peter and various of his brood. Being in France was good for me. I had a chance to start over again. The things that made me hard to get along with didn’t matter so much there, or could be put down to general cultural difference. And French kids didn’t mind arguing about poetry and ethics and culture, however bizarre my starting assumptions must have seemed to them. I decided to petition to skip senior year, and I suspect Peter had a role in my petition being granted. It probably wouldn’t have been a good idea to try to fit me back in the old bottle for a year anyway, after being in France. Forty years of subsequent experience have given me some insight into the subtle, behind-the-scenes ways capable adults can influence a kid’s path.
Xavier was one of the people I got to know that year in France (it was 1976-77, for the paleontologists in the audience). The Desgrées du Loû family had an admirable tradition of hospitality, shown for example by hiding an American parachutist who’d landed on somebody’s potato field a few months before D-Day. Or there was the Polish teenager, Stachek, whose arm had been shot off in a battle, and who somehow found himself in rural Brittany and stayed with them for the duration of the war. As their numerous children grew up and moved away (most often to Paris, as Bretons must do) François and Anne Desgrées du Loû invited students into the empty bedrooms, which is how I, a fumbling, easily embarrassed stranger who understood three words out of ten of what was being said, came to be part of their family dinners. My first night there, a long and passionate discussion took place about who was greater, Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. I couldn’t really join in but I knew these were the people for me.
Tynane (Anne-Françoise), the eldest daughter, lived around the corner with her husband, Xavier, and their three small children. Xavier had been working for Citroën and was just about to strike out on his own as a designer of electricity-generating windmills. His Aéroturbine was about the size and shape of a well-fed dolphin with a propeller on its nose and swiveled at the top of a steel stanchion about as long as a telephone pole. It could be swung down for repairs and was meant to be self-contained. It was ahead of its time and, I believe, rubbed the French electricity-generating monopoly the wrong way. The drawings for it were elegant, a mode of persuasion in their own right. Xavier traveled in France and abroad trying to get his invention installed. I thought I had found an ideal location, a hilltop medical center in Haiti without, at the time, a connection to the national grid. For various insurmountable reasons that installation never came to pass, but I think Xavier would have loved the Haitians, with their matter-of-fact piety, their creative exuberance, their love of rhetorical precision.
For Xavier was an engineer with an artist’s eye. He loved Italy for the way industrial objects there were never allowed to be ugly, as if ugliness would proclaim their adherence to mere function: it cost nothing more to make a Ducati Mach 1 or an Olivetti typewriter elegant, so why not do it? Design should never punish people for buying at the bottom of the scale, if they had to. His shed was full of machines in various stages of assembly and disassembly, including a couple of Citroën “spacecraft” cars, the DS and ID models that Roland Barthes commented on disparagingly for their exquisitely organic-seeming smoothness. For Xavier they represented a bygone era of French design, when designers weren’t afraid to defy the consensus and test out new solutions (like the DS’s central hydraulic system that replaced springs and shocks). He felt himself, I think, increasingly locked out of the mainstream of engineering and industrial production as economies of scale came to dominate all design choices. The Aéroturbine was his struggle to prove schlocky averageness wrong.
With Bob Lange, Bryan Simmons and other friends, I experienced a hospitality like no other among these people. Tynane, her parents, and many members of the family have been the readers I think about when I write, in whatever language (even Chinese), and the friends I seek out on the slightest pretext. They are good to be with, to talk with, to think with. Xavier’s hospitality extended to loaning me his beautiful red Olivetti manual typewriter in the summer of 1981 when I was banging out the first drafts of what became The Ethnography of Rhythm. I stupidly tried to clean it with “white spirit” (i.e., turpentine; if it had been labelled in English I would have known better than to use it) and marred the paint. This did not deter Xavier, a few months later, from contributing his welding talents to the fashioning of a long-distance touring bike out of a second-hand maybe-Peugeot. I needed a baggage rack and couldn’t find a solid enough one in the stores. Xavier, the champion bricoleur, liberated some steel tubing from a harvester, I think, and spot-welded it onto the seat stays. It lasted me all the way to Athens.
Courtly, inflexible on certain things, he saw himself in the role of Cyrano, that nostalgic swashbuckler. Tynane (on whom more pages must and shall be written) saved him from Engineer’s Disease as well as from the Antimodernism so well described by Antoine Compagnon. Tynane’s sense of faith and morals was more accommodating, less black-and-white, and her trust in the people she loved preserved their circle of international friends from sectarianism. For example, it was impossible for many years for Xavier to accept the existence of Bryan and Ralph as a couple, and I praise Bryan for never giving up. Tynane and Xavier enlarged the world of us foreigners with their unquestioning welcome, and I’d like to think that we made their world a little bigger too, kept them from sliding into Vieille-France nostalgia and pre-Vatican-II rigor.
At any rate, these are some of the people who educated me, or made me the sort of person who can be educated. Praise to them. And deep curses on Covid, the taker-away of good things.
I just learned that Hillis Miller has died from Covid-19, at upwards of 90 years of age. He taught practically everybody in one way or another. And among his many life-changing deeds (life-changing for me anyway), he kept me in graduate school.
I was one of a too-big litter of young deconstructors in the Comparative Literature department at Yale in 1982. I had done all right, I think, in my first year, though I never heard much from faculty one way or the other. In winter of that first year I learned I had a fellowship to study in Taiwan. I told the dean, who promptly urged the department to terminate me on the grounds that “Chinese is not a Comp Lit language.” Hillis was Director of Graduate Studies and walked with me over to the dean’s office. I remember the red and blue oriental rug and Hillis’s folksy, joshing way with the dean: “It’s true, we don’t know what will come of this, but let’s give him a chance; he may never come back, but at least he’ll have tried something other people aren’t doing.” He succeeded, at least conditionally. That dean stepped down while I was away and no one ever contested my right to come back and finish my degree.
Hillis plucked me out of the discard pile. I will always be grateful. He was also one of the most graceful, attentive, constructive people who ever attended an academic conference. He wielded power, in the sense that scholars have power to make decisions about others’ careers, but wisely and gently.
Here at the Nitpicker Grammarians and Style Sheet Hardliners (Amalgamated) Union, we had been thinking of “Mistakes were made” as the classic expression of the type, but that traditional favorite now has to move over for the cognitive-epistemic variety enunciated recently by Marjorie Taylor Greene: “I was allowed to believe lies.” Allowed by whom? — not by yourself, surely, for that would be admitting agency and responsibility… But hold on: aren’t you the gatekeeper of your own brain? (In whatever sense a “you” exists.) Or did the Rothschild lasers get in there and start fooling with your neurons? The progress of human discourse toward its final state of grayish slush has taken a great step. Or should I say, a great step has been taken?
Dreamt last night that I received a package from my erstwhile neighbor Jeannie Bloom. In it were hundreds of sheets of foolscap covered with intricate sketches in fine-point black ink: characters from Shakespeare, the Bible, Dostoevsky, and so forth, linked in an unending procession of conversation. They were beautifully free and loose in their execution, characters individuated by gesture though not by face. I somehow understood that these were to have been a fresco painted on miles of wall, Harold’s unfinished life work. Rest well, Harold.
We just spent 312 minutes, or five hours over three days, watching Heinrich Breloer’s TV series “Die Manns — ein Jahrhundertroman.” I don’t know what parenting manual Thomas and Katia Mann were using, but it should definitely not be reprinted.
The other day I was asked to review a manuscript that cited (as an authority) Hajime Nakamura’s Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples–a book I hadn’t thought about for forty years or so. From it you learn that Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Tibetans, etc., can’t think logically or metaphysically the way Europeans can. Already as a curious twenty-year-old, I recoiled from it as from a bad smell.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been called Ways of Speaking of Eastern Peoples.
“You’re not a fish, so how do you know how the fish feel?”
“You’re not me, so how do you know I’m not a fish?”
… vertreiben die Nacht. Everyone who’s read Freud knows how precarious “Vertreibung” is. But here we are, at last.
You’ll have to supply the green helicopter and Javanka from your imagination. The potbellied liar and the Ice Queen are provided, though.
My favorite hangout in Paris and an observation about politics that Jean-Pierre Faye made long ago have the same name: “horseshoe.”
I haven’t taken surveys but I’m not convinced the seating of clients in this hemicycle reflects any particular ideological landscape.
But I would add in supplement to Faye’s observation that an appetite for violent overthrow may be the main thing that unites the supposedly opposite ends of the horseshoe.
The failed lynching (that’s what we should call it, by the way, not a “protest,” a “riot” or even a “coup”) at the Capitol the other day brought out a lot of soul-searching among my media-posting friends. One friend’s hot take began:
This country was founded on violence. It rules through violence. It projects its influence abroad through violence. How can we be shocked when a faction of the country turns violent if it doesn’t get its way?
The main difference between this violence and the violence of the past months is who’s carrying it out and who it’s pointed at.
I can’t in good conscience say this is wholly wrong, but it is certainly unseasonable. I happen to know this person well enough to be able to frame his remarks as a general expression of despair about the state of things in this country, an intended reckoning for our many collective crimes, starting with chattel slavery and its endless echoes. But let’s hold back from slapping an intentional frame around the words, and imagine them spoken by someone else– say the cosplayer in the buffalo suit, or a PR flack on Fox News. “This country was founded on violence” — so what are you complaining about? Wasn’t the Boston Tea Party a case of breaking and entering and property destruction carried out by costumed thugs? If this country is founded on violence, and its fundamentally vicious system can’t be repaired, then why make these “fine people” carry the blame for a momentary expression of these structural conditions? — And so on. The overarching claim nullifies the particular scandal that is this event.
Rhetorically, this is a big misstep. If you want the failed lynching to serve as an occasion for sermonizing the public, you need to frame it as a specific instance of horror, unprecedented since the institution of universal suffrage and civil-rights guarantees, that must not be repeated. You can’t say it’s business as usual. Otherwise we are stuck with the writer’s halfway conclusion, that the only noteworthy thing about this chaos is “who’s carrying it out and who it’s pointed at.”
No. Once you begin to personalize the event, we’re stuck with a bad set of alternatives. So breaking into a public building with the intent to kill people and take hostages is okay if it’s done by people of whom I generally approve, against people of whom I generally disapprove? If there is to be a law, it has to be articulated impersonally. Whoever does X, commits a crime. Did they do X? Okay then, they committed a crime, and from that point of view it doesn’t matter in the name of what they did it. There may be extenuating circumstances, but let’s have them, too, articulated in an objective and impersonal fashion, rather than as a personal exemption for supporters of favored causes.
“Violence” is such a broad term that it is useless for thinking with. Broken windows on Michigan Avenue, a fistfight in a hallway, a cop beaten to death with a fire extinguisher, an improvised gallows set up on the National Mall, these are all arguably instances of violence, but they ought each to be investigated, deplored, punished and thought about in specific ways. And don’t get me started on the structural violence of deprivation, fear, ignorance, disease, inequality and shortened lives, which is violence too but is too often accepted as the way of the world.
So we need to separate out the particular factors that make this the scandal that it is, and not endorse any narrative that makes it business as usual (or, worse, a pattern for future events). And push hard, with the law, on the people who did it and the ones who egged them on.
About law, by the way, I see the “main difference” between the January 6 lynch mob and the BLM protesters across the country as bearing on the law. The BLM folks were demanding that law be obeyed. It should be uncontroversial to any observer that the laws of the land carry more authority than the momentary impulse of any scared policeman with a gun. Whereas the January 6 thugs were rebelling against the law, against a huge body of settled law that preserves us from, precisely, the state of lawlessness. If you want a contrast, that’s where to find it.
My friend’s reflection continued.
My sympathies were with the BLM protesters and are against today’s yahoos, but both have to be considered illegitimate (non-state-sanctioned) violence.
Oh, wait, today’s violence was incited by our current president! The duly elected leader of our cult of violence.
How are we supposed to process this?
Friend, let’s pause and repair this helicopter in mid-air. You really shouldn’t follow the previous point and make the difference between the two gangs a matter of your “sympathies,” as if it rested on taste or preference, Coke or Pepsi, Pat Boone or Sid Vicious. That just makes any attempt to bring the perpetrators to justice a hollow farce, because, as you’re admitting, it’s all the same and it’s just a Humpty-Dumpty matter of who’s sitting in the judgment seat. Don’t give up so fast, I say.
Then the closing remarks, which may be meant ironically (poor choice of rhetorical figure in a time of crisis; irony is meant to create doubt, whereas what’s required here is a shot of good old unanimous certainty), shore up the legitimacy of Trump’s summons to violence, first by calling him “duly elected” and then by dissolving his particularity in the everlasting national wave of violence. A reminder: he may have been elected by a majority of Electoral College votes in 2016 (we’ll take complaints about the College another time), and his predecessor quite honorably accepted the outcome (though he, and I, and millions of other Americans weren’t happy about it), but in early 2021 he was the outgoing, defeated president, legally required to honor the will of the people and nonetheless attempting to overwhelm Congress with chaos, suspend the law, and reinstall himself as president-for-life. Nothing about that is qualifiable with the adverb “duly.”
“How are we supposed to process this?” I’ve given some hints above. The world is full of wicked people, friend. Most people will do whatever you let them get away with. Thomas Hobbes thought tyranny was better than chaos. But there are better alternatives. Imperfect though it is, a clearly stated system of laws, provision for trials based on evidence and judged by people held to a standard of impartiality, a democratic right to peaceable expression through balloting and other means, and a reasonable expectation that criminals will be brought to justice, all this is what we have, for the moment, in this country, and it’s really not something you want to throw away, even for the space of an emotional utterance to your social-media circle. We came close to having all that taken away on January 6. Who knows what would have happened if the most determined and expert members of the mob had succeeded in, say, hanging Mike Pence, shooting Nancy Pelosi, taking other Congresspeople hostage, and doing further things they declared their intent to do? Let me tell you how we are supposed to process this: as an invasion of our democracy by enemy powers who must be captured (technically: arrested) and put away (observing their right to a fair and speedy trial, etc.). Not so hard after all when you put aside the crude alternatives of “America good / America bad.”
The above-mentioned liberties are, I know, more theoretical than practical at present. But the only way forward is to defend them rigorously and make them practical for everybody. Don’t give up on a good principle just because it was poorly executed. If you had only my piano playing to go on, you would think J. S. Bach was the worst composer who ever lived. But he wasn’t.
All animals having the rational faculty are encouraged to get russelling and shine their fregean shoes, no contradictories to the contrary, and peano attention to the ~sayers. Loosen your gödel, break out the Leibniz-Keks for World Logic Day! Special appearances by Barbara Felapton and the Holy Modal Predicators! It’s two weeks into the future, like certain sea battles I could name, and iff you are not petrified by the thought (n.b. nullus homo est lapis, id est, omnis homo est non-lapis), come celebrate on January 14.
I haven’t been writing much on this blog for quite some time. I’m sorry about that. Here are some of the reasons.
Printculture began as a kind of conversation among five or six people. Some knew each other, some didn’t. Eric, I think, was the one friend common to us all. Our postings, in the form of little essays and reflections, were offered the way people contribute to a conversation: sharing a piece of knowledge, riffing on something someone had said, making a joke. At the back of it all was a feeling that conversation was intrinsically rewarding and that this conversation in particular was rewarding enough to hang it up for the public to see.
I still live for conversation but I’m increasingly disappointed in it. The people I know often seem deaf to one another. Their curiosity about the world has yielded to confirmation bias. They deliver identity monologues, infotainment, talking points, questions with an already known answer. Even the people I like and agree with are melting into their mission statements. All this is perfectly adapted to social media, where we are perpetually curating our personal brands. If those are the terms, I lack the desire to participate.
Reading the news, as I’ve been doing forty times a day for the last few years (the nervous pulling of phone from pocket having replaced the newspaper at the breakfast table), doesn’t make it seem that rational persuasion has much of a future, or that such persuasion as I have to offer has much of an audience.
I like solving intellectual puzzles. How to better understand history and nature? How to confront the unexpected? How to make it possible for more people to live long, free, and perhaps happy lives? I don’t like comic books, beauty pageants, name-calling, blame, or trolling. The interests that make those things vital to the cultural life of this moment in my country leave me cold. Thus there is less and less to say to people in general. (I am always up for a chat about Tangut script or the authenticity of poems ascribed to Su Dongpo.)
But I continue to renew hosting agreements and SSL certificates in the hope that something will bring me back.
(The above was written after an eight-month break from social media. Try it yourself: when you log on again the quality of communication, in contrast with the most banal words exchanged on the street or at the cash register, will jar you.)
Elections: the dog who wouldn’t go! Coda: what do we do with millions on millions of brainwashed people who are likely going to be told to subvert the government? Biden says they’re “good people who want answers.” That’s like saying that the Israelites who worshipped the Golden Calf were good people who only wanted theological certainty. God had plans for them.
Or if you live a neighborhood where discretion is advised,