I am temporary.
So are you.
I am temporary.
So are you.
If you can predict the future, does that make you a genius or a fool?
Or is it actually neither? Is it actually more true to say that almost everyone can predict the future in certain important ways, and that’s why humans in particular struggle with life so?
Isn’t that the cause, for example, of the rising suicide rate, the genesis of “Spade” and “Bourdain” as stories? Were these not people who, able to see the future clearly, couldn’t cope with what they saw?
The “experts” suggest that the problem is that people imagine a future that isn’t real, but it dawns on me that this isn’t actually true. Rather the opposite—people may have all kinds of reactions to futures that aren’t real, but they carry on. What stops people dead in their tracks (forgive phrasing) is when they see a future that they know to be likely, or at least not very unlikely, that they don’t want or that scares them.
— § —
I remain quite sore from my first three days of taekwondo training. Historically I have not liked being sore following physical exertion, but in this case, I like it.
The people that run my dojang have become central inspirations in my life. A key reason for this is that they are neither social justice warriors nor movement conservatives. They are, in fact, not publicly political at all. Instead, they are friendly, pro-family, very pragmatic, very generous, very compassionate.
How is it possible that several someone(s) have so escaped our modern plagues? They are the only people like this that I know. It’s one of the reasons I like to go back so often. It’s like time travel into the past to go there—a past when we all had better futures.
— § —
Last night I read a Lao Tzu quote—not sure how accurate or where from—that sticks in my mind.
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
I’ve read what amounts to the same thought on many other occasions, but the way it is formulated here seems particularly forceful and clear to me.
Or maybe it’s that I am finally ready to grok it? When the student is ready, the master appears?
— § —
It is a common human experience to believe that you have radically changed, only to discover afterward that in fact, you haven’t—what has changed are perhaps a few central thoughts and desires. The domain of things that have not changed includes:
Your coping mechanisms
Your identity for other people
It’s always a bit of a come-down to realize that what felt like a sea change in actuality changed mostly nothing about your real, as-lived life, even if internally it felt as though so very much had changed.
People who aren’t very self-reflective never come to this realization. They believe that in fact, they have changed completely, and that an unfair world refuses to recognize this change. This leads them precisely to intensify the habits, personality, coping mechanisms, and public identity with which they no longer believe it fair to associate them.
In fact, it is quite hard to change. The “change yourself” meme is misleading in that way. For all the sturm und drang, for all the difficulty presented by changing “yourself” (noumenon), it is far, far harder to change yourself (phenomenon).
— § —
For too long I have been living life as if I was on the lam. This is no way to live. Despite the above, let’s see if we can change it.
Yesterday I rushed the kids into, then out of, a restaurant in downtown Salt Lake City for lunch. Before that, I rushed them into, then out of Liberty Park. After the restaurant, we hit I-15 and I rushed them back to Orem for M’s sparring class. We were late. I told them it was my fault. It was. I can’t seem to catch up, even though there isn’t much to catch up to.
I am running behind. I have been running behind for at least two weeks because someone has modified what “day” means recently, and they are all now too short.
Time has been moving ridiculously quickly. I even took the week off thinking that doing so would give me more of it. It didn’t. I have had no time all week. The powers that be have taken time from me. Nothing that I need to get done is getting done, and I don’t theoretically even have all that much to do.
— § —
For at least ten days now, every night around the time when I start to press the kids to go to bed, I have been itching in every finger to write something here.
Every night I have fallen asleep as I read bedtime stories, etc. Every night when I have awakened at 2:00 am, as I invariably do, I have opened an editor window and stared at it in silence, not knowing what it was that I wanted to write.
Everything that a few hours before had been explosively trying to escape me was now missing.
In the middle of the day, there are a million things and no time. In the middle of the night, there is time, but without a single clear thing.
As always, I have gone back to bed around 4:00 am—recently, feeling bewildered each time.
— § —
Not for the first time recently, I woke up this morning feeling deeply apocalyptic. Almost in a panic. It is not a nice feeling.
It settles down a bit over the course of the morning, but on days when the apocalypse rises with the sun, it doesn’t ever quite go away, and I have to watch myself throughout the day.
Having a meta outlook on the world is not always a good thing, but when you’re feeling apocalyptic it’s probably the only thing separating you from self-imposed catastrophe of one kind or another.
— § —
I recently started training in taekwondo. I have gone to two classes at this point. I think it’s already the highlight of my week, if for no other reason than that it’s something different.
A good something different.
It has been a very long time since there was something different in my life, and the “something differents” that I last recall were not good ones. You might even say that they were awful.
There are a few other “something differents” now coming down the line over the next few weeks and months after several years of utter stasis, and they are also hard to face.
One good something different is something to cling to. Hi-ya.
— § —
My theory is increasingly that time speeds up precisely when you don’t decisively know what to do with it. It falls through your grasp like so much sand, lost forever. When you’re unfocused and unsure, there is nothing to really mark the hours other than the always inevitably approaching ends of transcendental things:
Summer vacation with your kids
Your current employment and living arrangements
The childhoods of your children
Your working years
Your parents’ lives
Your own life
When you don’t have any purpose for “today,” every life-event “someday” is drawn into relief. Today disappears in a flash of abstraction. What’s left are the bare facts of life.
You can’t subsist in modernity on the bare facts of life, because we’ve removed all of the tolerable, everyday ones. “Feed yourself,” which used to be a daily task to focus on, has instead been concentrated into a periodic mega-event that is a kind of threat—you only think about it and have to work at it in the catastrophic and unusual event that you can’t actually do it.
Such is the case with everything. The removal of all of life’s little problems, with which we have been so concerned since the Enlightenment, also erases most of the time that is life’s substance, unless you are able to find other little problems to make your own.
If you can’t, then all of the moments—hours, days, weeks, months, years, whatever—between now and then next problem—which of course is now invariably a large one, all the little ones having been ameliorated—simply disappear.
— § —
The British once tended to do deeply philosophical light television. We’ve done it a couple of times ourselves. Right now I am reminded of three programs:
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin
Somewhere in the moral universe where these three programs touch is where I am living right now.
I hope to leave these environs behind, at length, because apocalyptic is, in the final calculation, just not all that nice.
— § —
Time is a lot of things:
And time… is always running out.
Find something to keep you grounded, they say. That’s good advice.
I just read this over at TAC. (Yes, I read TAC. Sue me. I read left rags, right rags, center rags, and just plain rags.)
“[W]hen he writes in The Scent of Time that ‘The decay of time goes hand in hand with the rise of mass society and increasing uniformity,’ he’s not arguing that things are speeding up or accelerating in the modern world, but that time itself—a medium in which to pause, tarry, contemplate, and differentiate one thing from another—is being exchanged for instantaneousness.”
Like, OMG. I just, just wrote this the other day, right here, in different words. And it’s important. This is not some stray thought. And apparently this thinker thinks it’s important, too. A kindred spirit. How do I not know of and/or how have I never heard of Byung-Chul Han?
Is this what happens when you leave academics behind? You miss out on important things that happen after you left? Or has he been around forever and I just never knew because no academics know much of anything outside of a very narrow vertical any longer? Must find out. Must get his books and find out. I’m excited.
— § —
Meanwhile, I have finally caved to friendly pressure from all sides and will begin studying taekwondo on Monday.
This goes very much against the grain. I am already quaking in my boots. But dammit it is time I start doing things that go against my grain voluntarily once again. Because the biggest thing I’ve learned in 42 years of living is this:
You can either do things that go against your grain voluntarily, and benefit, or you can refuse and wait until the world forces you to go against your grain as a kind of penalty. Either way, you will do things that are outside your comfort zone. But if you do them yourself, things get better. If you wait until the world provides you with things that are outside your comfort zone, it is almost always because things have gotten worse.
So your best bet is to continually push yourself into new areas, which opens new opportunities, rather than waiting until the world pushes you into new areas as consequences of your inaction.
I know better than the way that I’ve been living. I know better but it’s been too long anyway. Call this a step of which only I know the significance.
The idea that time is God’s way of making sure that everything doesn’t happen all at once has been attributed to many of history’s most important thinkers. This suggests that whatever the source, we find something about it to be deeply true. It also suggests that at some level, modernity has broken time. Because modernity, increasingly, is precisely that state of being in which everything does in fact happen all at once.
— § —
One of the saddest truths about life is that while the distance from incompetence to competence is very large, the distance from competence to incompetence is very small. If you want to stand a chance, you must never stop clawing as the ground shifts underneath your feet; to hold ground is hard enough. To make it up again? Nearly impossible.
— § —
Metaphysics is that which is larger on the inside than it is on the outside. Empirical science is that which is larger on the outside than it is on the inside. That isn’t to say that empirical science is wrong, or that it’s useless. Only that its immense power comes from a very small actual territory; much larger territories remain to be explored—not in the universe, which is a human abstraction, but in fact in human being, which is—paradoxically—our most fundamental reality.
— § —
The left imagines itself to be fighting for a justice that it will someday bring about, while in truth it is fighting like a child for an immortality that no one can ever grant. The right imagines itself to be fighting for a freedom that is indispensable to human thriving, while in truth it is fighting for imprisonment within human mediocrity. We are told as we are raised that we are to fight “the good fight,” but strangely enough, almost no one in this era of maximum battle is actually doing it.
— § —
Not so long ago, “this is not a pipe” was a scandalous thing to say. Now, it is absolutely mundane. Now, the scandal occurs when one has the gall to claim that “this is in fact a pipe.” Because everyone knows that only the straight, white, cis, male descendants of hundreds of years of colonialists would presume to see pipes. Not-pipes are laudable, but pipes and assertions about pipes? In pipes lies catastrophe. In fact, the road to hell is paved with them.
— § —
In an age of the deterritorialized and the digital, it is the spatial and the analog that call to us the most. Being human, we want what we can have only in our dreams. Locality, continuous variation rather than discrete stepping, and immortality are our fondest dreams. It may still be possible to resurrect some semblance of the former. The latter has been misconstrued in our digital zeitgeist; hence the hospital and the yoga mat. We think ourselves to be either alive or dead, rather than on a continuum between the two, and with this in mind, we are more terrified than were the peoples of ages past. Perhaps in the era of quantum information, we will see ourselves to be alive and dead, mortal and immortal in a visceral way, and all of this will disappear. Perhaps we will also begin to understand that everything is also always at once true and false, but precisely not in the postmodernist way in which everything means nothing. Rather the opposite—every thing, every single thing, will mean every thing, every single thing, all at the same time.
— § —
There’s that problem of time again. Modernity broke it, but perhaps it doesn’t matter if something is broken once you don’t need it any longer. I’m not sure I’m prepared to live in the quantum age, but I do suspect that in some ways it will be more human—and more divine—than the digital age. The digital age is an age of fragmentation; the quantum age promises to be an age of identity. In an age of identity, simultaneity makes perfect sense. All things are already always all things, and always were.
— § —
I don’t know what all of this nonsense is all about. But whatever. I’m overwhelmed right now, this season—legitimately overwhelmed—for the first time in my life. I’m not seeking answers, and I’m not seeking questions. I’m seeking truth and a way forward. Any way. All ways.
This pits me decidedly against all of my intellectual upbringing, which was largely about the emptiness and impossibility of truth and the importance of the “sideways.” I even have a massive tome on the importance of seeing sideways on my shelf. I am tempted to burn it.
In the grand tradition of all that has been rejected by all that is presently holy, I paint a giant cross on my chest and yell, “Forward!”
Me: “This is amazing. Maybe one of the most beautiful, most deep things ever.”
Her: “Only you could think this way, okay? I mean seriously, like—what?! Your ideas about beautiful, deep moments are really fucking weird and sterile.”
Me: “But don’t you think—”
Her: “No. Only you would think Calculus and concrete are beautiful and deep. Seriously. Frankly, it’s frightening.”
— § —
Her: “Isn’t this the greatest moment ever? Everrr!? Wooooooooooo! Don’t you love yoga on a mountainside with friends? Best ever, ever, ever!”
Me: “It’s pretty cool! Everyone’s so happy—I think that’s awes—”
Her: “‘Pretty cool’ my ass. As usual, you make Spock look emotional. Fuck you. You don’t think this is the best moment in all of existence? This isn’t the greatest single day of your life?”
Me: “I said it was pretty cool!”
Her: “Yeah, and I said fuck you.”
— § —
This is the dynamic of every serious relationship I’ve ever had. People tell me to date. I say I’m tired. This is what I’m talking about.
One of the consequences of the “you are the product, monetize yourself” culture of social media is that everyone has become incredibly, incredibly boring.
Long ago, substantive blogs were everywhere, easy to find. Now by substantive, I mean exactly the opposite of what you think I mean. I mean blogs about people, not blogs about things. “Blog” as in “web log” as in “log.” Personal. Chronological. Interior. Unassuming.
Then, the culture decided that the Internet was a commercial zone, a place to make money, not a place to dwell and be and share. And blogs exploded. In both senses of the word. There became so many, many more of them, the new ones mostly crap. Meanwhile, interesting blogs and easily-discoverable paths to them were essentially annihilated.
I’m not entirely writing from ignorance here—I know that there exists a literature (mostly as blogs, naturally) on how to blog, largely oriented toward “making money with your blog”—but I haven’t read it much, if at all. Still, let me see if I can guess—from combing through blog after blog after blog these days looking for something I actually want to read—the advice that today’s bloggers are internalizing:
Choose one topic for your blog, and it can’t be yourself. It should be a potentially profitable interest of yours, and you should write about it, not about you. Maybe it’s fashion. Maybe it’s cooking. Maybe it’s cars. Maybe it’s LGBT rights. One topic. Be focused.
Never do or say anything off-putting to your readers. Don’t express strong opinions other than the relentlessly positive opinions that you already have about your one topic. Don’t get too personal. Don’t bore your reader with details about your everyday life.
Use stock photos, not photos from your real life. If you’re going to use photos from your real life, make sure that you take them with a high-end camera and semi-professional aspirations. Remember that your photo is the key to social media traffic and shares.
Speaking of, make sure that your posts are short and pithy and get right to the point. Either title them clearly with the topic of the post or with a sort of cliffhanging ethos that makes people crazy to click. Remember that you have one chance to get someone to click as you scroll through their feed.
Avoid big words, dependent clauses, long expositions, and long entries. Nobody wants to read these; deliver value to your reader without forcing them to do hard work. Respect their time and the fact that they’re busy. Be concise and to-the-point.
Make sure that your blog is presented in a polished way, and stay current with design trends. Think of yourself as aspiring to be a glossy magazine, online. Don’t be cheesy, don’t be kitschy. Be slick and deliver a fabulous product.
Basically, actual blogs in the way that I once understood them are now vanishingly rare, and wherever they do exist, neither search nor social media are revealing them to me.
Instead, what we’re all awash in are “blogs” that are relentless, mind-numbing, generic, unimportant advertisements—directly for a series of products (books, clothes, garden products, food products, recipes, whatever) and indirectly for a person. Generally all that we know about the person from these ads is that they are, of course:
Either an expert or an enthusiast about their One Topic[TM]
Veterans at writing about this topic, having done so since Some Past Date[TM]
Eager to make the world and your life better with their One Topic[TM]
Hosting a webinar/podcast/meetup/live broadcast/whatever at Some Future Date[TM]
Eager to have you visit their Blog Store[TM] for cool/fun/edgy Merch[TM] featuring them
Personally identifed on the ubiquitous About Page[TM] as some hip term like baby mama/bearded hipster/etc. and in their spare time doing hip, active-person things like yoga/mountain climbing/skydiving/motivational speaking because they want to make a Positive Difference[TM]
I just can’t read this crap. I can’t appreciate this crap, I can’t care about this crap, I can’t abide this crap. It’s all so much cyberjunk. Trying to find good blogs is like going to a multilevel marketing conference. Everyone is trying to sell themselves, impress you with their product line, and get you to join their downline as a rabid consumer of their products, their brand, and their breakout-success persona.
All I want to read about is what people did last night that wasn’t commercial in nature and isn’t breathlessly hyped, alongside inspired reflection or conversation. I want to be able to scroll through their blog and see lots of different thoughts and ideas, in lots of different genres. I don’t want to see post after post after post on one thing, beaten to death, whatever that thing is: book reviews, film factoids, lawn mower tips, whatever.
The joy of reading blogs once was that you could discover a world full of interesting people thinking thoughts you’d never have had yourself. Now reading blogs is like browsing the glossy magazine section at Barnes and Noble. It’s antiseptic, unedifying, exploitative, an inch deep (if that), and cringe-worthy.
Listen, “bloggers” out there, there are some things you should know:
Your site about cupcakes or hairstyling or crafts for kids is utterly, utterly generic, uninspired, and one of at least ten thousand basically identical others, no matter what your topic.
All of them have exactly the same misguided dream as you—to somehow turn this intellectually and emotionally lazy stream of iterated tripe into a “day job” as an “authoritative blogger” or whatever.
You are not making the world a better place. If you want to make the world a better place, share yourself with us, not a stream of shiny bullshit designed to monetize us.
Sure, you may “build an audience.” But if your audience consists entirely of a buying public, there’s nothing about a blogging “day job” that’s any different from a day job in sales, and you can make a hell of a lot more money at the latter, and at least see people face-to-face besides.
I want to love you. I want to love everyone. But this crap mostly makes me hate you.
I suppose this has turned into a rant. But seriously, all I want is to read people writing about themselves. Their real selves. I am tired of feeling like no matter where I go online, I am part of someone’s anemic pipe-dream of a revenue stream. I just want to read about you. I want to read about your socks on Monday, about your cat on Tuesday, about your trip to the Poconos on Wednesday, about your son’s wedding on Thursday, about the great Indian food you had on Friday, about mowing the lawn on Saturday, and about how rainy days make you feel on Sunday.
The problem with all of this is that I may be the only one who wants this. And if that’s so, I think I’ve found the problem with humanity right now.
Epilogue: Things like this are precisely the problem. These are the people who are destroying all that is meaningful in the world.
I’ve been writing here for nineteen years now, and writing in general for a lot longer than that. Most of the time it doesn’t even occur to me that “writing” isn’t a hobby that everyone pursues. I think I generally tend to imagine that everyone sits around writing all the time, when they’re not doing their jobs or out having drinks.
But I guess they don’t.
I still have boxes of loose paper, torn from notebooks of all sizes, filled with words in ink of all colors—blue, black, red, green—written on throughout junior high and high school. I’d sit around as a teenager—you know how teens do—everyone on in someone’s bedroom, cross-legged and doing nothing in particular as a group—and scribble out poems and paragraphs of random reflection. I’d tear them out of the notebook and hand them to people sitting right next to me. It was like what people say happens now, with people texting to each other while sitting next to each other, only I did it with paper because texting didn’t exist yet.
I never wanted to be a writer or thought I’d be a writer, and yet somehow at the same time it was never in question. No matter what I’ve officially done in my career—where I’ve worked, what my official job responsibilities were—through tech and consulting and research and teaching and public relations and e-commerce and all of the rest—the plain fact of the matter is that in day-to-day practice, in every role, I’ve always ended up working as a writer.
You end up doing what you know how to do, because doing what you know how to do is how you solve the problems that you encounter. When all you have is a hammer, you treat everything as a nail, even if it isn’t a nail and you know damned well it isn’t a nail.
— § —
It took me a long time—well into my thirties—to realize that I was “a writer” and say it and own it.
This is because I’d always reserved the term in my imagination for people of far more rarefied stock than I am. People who create things that other people want to read—who inspire them and take away their pain and present to them their life stories and so on. Novelists. Poets. Essayists.
I’ve never been any of those things, so the idea that I was a writer didn’t occur to me for many years. Yes, I’d admit to people, I spent most of my time writing, both at work and at home and at leisure, but it wasn’t as though I wrote things that mattered. I just write because I have to—because it’s practical, not because I have something to add to the world.
Sometimes I imagine in secret that maybe, just maybe someday I’ll have something to add to the world. But a sober mind realizes by the time they’re in their forties that whatever they are already is likely what they’re destined to be. So probably what I’m destined to be is a writer of the practical variety, rather than of the somehow priestly, soul-saving variety.
— § —
Crediting all of this, it’s no accident that this blog is here like I used to say it was.
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s something I just started and I haven’t bothered to kill it off yet. Force of habit. It’s mostly just a long, slow-moving accident. My blog doesn’t exist for any particular reason, really.”
Not true. It exists because I write and I’ve always written and I can’t stop and I’ll likely never stop, and it’s how I relate to the world, and a big component of how I relate to other people and to myself. So the moment the technology emerged and began to weave itself into everyday life, it was inevitable that I’d adopt it and make use of it habitually, like I used to do (and still often do) with pen and paper.
I post because I have to. Because it is in my genetic makeup to feel that somehow sitting down and writing will make things better, is a path to whatever I want or need or whatever relief I’m seeking at the moment. Not that it is; very often I don’t feel all that much better after I write. And I’ve forgotten ninety-nine percent of anything I’ve ever written. But that doesn’t do anything to curb the impulse, the compulsion.
Some days, it’s just a vague urge that gnaws at me throughout the day until finally in the evening sometime I sit down to do it. Sometimes I don’t even have a single thought in my head, yet my fingers are itching to type. Those are usually pretty terrible posts, but I make them anyway, to scratch the itch.
Other days, I make one post and I’m in a kind of pain because I really have twenty or thirty things I’d like to reflect on and say here, but it feels somehow too much to make twenty or thirty posts in a day, so I allow myself one and maybe if I’m particularly itchy, two or three, but that’s it. And the rest of the things I’m thinking end up being like children who were conceived but never born, the starts of long, interesting futures to come that instead fade away and disappear from the record and from memory forever.
— § —
It pains me in a way that so many young people now do all of their communicating and thinking on social media. Young people who may be writers at heart, who may have the same urge, the same impulse, the same wiring.
Because social media isn’t writing and can’t be writing. It’s too brief and too ephemeral and too performative; it foreshortens things and grinds them with lapping paste until the superfluous edges are gone, yes, but much of the substance is, too. Instead of finding a voice, they merely manufacture a look, albeit one finished in abbreviated prose.
But it’s not the same thing at all, and they are not feeding their souls.
The same technoculture that has offered me yet another space to write and write more for two decades is ironically killing the same proclivity and release in others, who have no idea that a part of themselves is withering. Does it matter at all in the end, if they don’t know about it anyway? If a tree falls in the forest but no one is around to hear, does it make a sound?
— § —
What is this post about, and why am I making it? I don’t know. I woke up unexpectedly, before dawn, re-watched a few fragments from My So-Called Life for no reason that I can put my finger on, sat down, and started typing.
So I’ll just leave this here. It’s Leapdragon post number 3,301, by the way.
I miss all of the people I don’t know.
The people that I should have met but I didn’t because I didn’t “get involved,” didn’t “put myself out there,” didn’t “go when everyone else was going,” didn’t feel like they were worth knowing and so I don’t. I’m sorry to all of you. Probably there were things you needed from me. I’m fairly sure there were also things that I needed from you.
Also the people that I used to know but that I don’t know now, because of shit that happened. Some of the shit is yours. Some of the shit is mine. In the moment, shit always seems tremendously important. Okay, let’s be real—in the moment, shit is tremendously important because the day-to-day relationships of your life shape the way that your life works, and what problems you actually have to logistically deal with, and what bills you actually have to pay, and so on. So maybe it’s unavoidable that shit happens and friendships end as a result.
But it’s also real to say that later on when you can elide all of that practical shit (this is the thing, we always pretend that emotional turmoil isn’t practical, but in fact it’s the most practical thing on earth if you happen to be human), later on—years later on—you look back with the privilege of faulty hindsight and wish that you hadn’t let all that shit come between you. And so I do.
We’re all strangers to each other anyway—that’s the human condition—so it’s a sort of double tragedy when not only are we strangers, but we don’t even get to be strangers in the same room. People act as though being strangers in the same room is some sort of tragedy, but in fact it’s also a privilege, one of the best things that you can hope for. Probably all that you can get.
On the day you die, you can either die surrounded by strangers in the same room or you can die surrounded by nobody at all. Everyone from time to time plays it off as though doing the latter is some sort of principled stand, but of course as my parents would have said sometime in that hazy patch of underappreciated naivete called childhood, “you think you’re having an effect on something, but the only person you’re affecting is yourself.”
I’m sitting here and my SMS beep is gong off and I’m ignoring it, because mostly I’m a hypocrite, like everyone. I should be responding. But I won’t. If I won’t, I shouldn’t stand by what I just wrote. But I will.
That’s how it goes. None of it makes sense, unless you’re a sociopath. Everything makes sense to sociopaths. That’s what makes them sociopaths.
Does anyone have any friends any longer?
Everyone thinks they do, but I don’t think they do. I haven’t seen a real friendship between two other people in years. Not that I believe when I see it.
It’s beginning to dawn on me that the information age has killed friendship. Facebook has killed friendship. People who say they’re “friends” now are using an anachronistic term to apply to something else, in place of the thing that no longer exists.
First off, everyone knows everything about everyone else now. Or at least, everything anyone is willing to present. There’s nothing left to discover in interaction. There are no more surprises. There are no more heart-to-hearts. There is no more mystery. The feature bullets for the products on the shelf are printed clearly, readily legible.
Second, and more perniciously, everyone has changed. The darker and more interesting dimensions of selves were deleted sometime between ten and twenty years ago. Everyone has bleached the surprising and the mysterious and the dark things away; everyone has worked hard to ensure that they are their best Facebook self, not just on Facebook, but everywhere—because of course everywhere is now Facebook. Third spaces are gone. Hell, first and second spaces are gone. “Cyberspace” (remember that term?) is what’s left. It’s as sterile now as we thought it was then, only it’s been so long since we experienced anything else that we’ve forgotten. We’re fish swimming in the ocean.
Do people have souls any longer? No, not really. They don’t have souls. They don’t have sad days that aren’t ironic or stylish or overwrought in some presentably performative way. They don’t sit and wonder about what is to become of themselves in silence. They don’t save these questions for friends.
Everyone’s been cleansed. There are no friends left, only personas. This leaves us longing for something we can’t even remember well enough any longer to describe. Something that’s been lost, gone out of society. Something ineffable and human.
This is the source of a bunch of problems. I’ve said this before, but I need to double and triple down about all of it. I was wrong, they were right. My research had a significant flaw that I knew about but thought I could bracket away with careful framing—it didn’t have any values attached to it, only choices as self-evident action for immediate preferences, as though immediate preferences mean anything at all in the deeper sense.
Information technology and social media are destroying the things that make life worth living. That make other humans worth knowing.
Our values are all wrong. We’re bleaching the entire world, and smiling superficially while we do it.
Every time period offers the same backhanded praise for the previous time period: “Looking back, we were more innocent then. It was such an innocent time.”
Can it be true that every single year is progressively less innocent than the year that preceded it?
Tiny moments of utter paradise in life:
The last few moments of semi-lucidity before you drift off to sleep.
Driving home alone with the sunroof open and music playing.
Sudden rain at dusk in the springtime.
Saying goodbye to an old friend from far away after a rare visit.
Watching the credits roll at the end of a long, deeply loved television series.
Leaving the building on the last day of school.
Boarding an airplane to move to a distant place.
The very last day of summer before fall arrives.
The last few minutes before midnight on the last day of the year.
The final play of the final game of football season.
The first few steps away from something you’ll never return to.
Everything that brings me joy and makes me feel alive is an ending.
Why do I love endings so much? Another question for the inner therapist?
This is an extended exegesis on me. Fair warning. If you’re not into that sort of thing (and there’s no reason why you should be), don’t bother. Why post it? Because it’s my blog, and I read it, too—and I’ll probably want to come back to these thoughts later. So here they are.
— § —
So the basic idea in a few branches of psychology is that for a lot of people, dysfunctional aspects of life are a matter of being frozen at a certain stage of human development. Usually, this is an age at which one experienced significant and novel psychological trauma or stress of some kind.
The individual’s development can’t continue until the issue is resolved, and if a resolution isn’t forthcoming, the person remains in some ways “stuck” at that developmental moment indefinitely, trying again and again to resolve the issue so that development can proceed.
The problem, of course, is that many aspects of human development rely on contextual realities that aren’t indefinitely present. People who were abused as young children by their parents, for example, remain stuck there forever trying to figure out how to get good parenting—only by the time they’re grown, there aren’t any parents around anymore to provide it, even if they were able to somehow “find the solution” to the problem and elicit good parenting.
They’re stuck forever along the primary pathways of development; to proceed, they need professional help to find and nurture an alternate pathway to development and to actually proceed along it, which can feel counterintuitive and counter to instincts (in the literal sense).
— § —
Luckily, I was never abused as a child. I got some spankings and things, but I’ve never felt as though I were stuck in some sense still seeking out a parent’s love.
Still, like everyone, I have habits that I don’t like that I can’t seem to shake. Relationship patterns that repeat that have never made me happy. I make choices that aren’t optimal at times—when I know that I can easily do better—yet I don’t rectify them. Since I was in grade school, I’ve been the person who “isn’t living up to their incredible potential.”
I mean, it’s been three-and-a-half decades of “not living up to my incredible potential,” and I know it. Sure, wrote some books. I got a Ph.D. But I did these things in the most subversive, counterproductive of ways.
I refused to do publicity for my books. I didn’t go on tours. I didn’t speak or appear on media, even though I’m not shy. Why? Sales could have been so much better. I was writing on hot topics at a time of their emergence. I could have parlayed it into a career. I refused to.
The same thing goes for my academic work. I published little. I could have and should have published a lot. I was ahead of my time and could have led a certain amount of the work that’s finally become hot today. Why didn’t I?
And of course anyone who skims through the two decades of material here will sense, if not discover outright, that I have had the same troubled love relationships over and over again in my life, the most recent one ending in divorce. This is enough of a pattern (and problem) as to turn me off of the whole love thing for now entirely. It’s just no good; it’s just no fun any longer. I know where it leads.
So I’ve always known that there were “issues” that lurk underneath the surface somewhere, and that if I’d been born into privilege and had tons of money, I’d probably have spent years in collegial therapy already “working through things” and coming to understand what was what. Only I wasn’t born into privilege.
— § —
The one experience that I do have with therapy came during my divorce, as I attended therapy with my ex. This was shockingly expensive for someone in my position and I’ll be paying on that debt for a few years to come, but it felt (and probably was) worth it at the time.
This was focused on the dynamic of the couple, but each of us got a certain amount of time to do soul-searching with the help of a clinical practitioner and Ph.D.
At the individual level, it didn’t help me much. I suspected then and have become more sure since then that this was because the therapist had me wrong in a way, or was blinded by bias built over the years of their own experience. They were looking for trauma with my parents, or close friends or family, in my early years.
The therapist asked over and over again for negative experiences with intimate contacts from my early years, and I racked my brain and came up with some. Then, they’d try to talk me through them in that “therapy way” with my ex present. But it never felt as though I was really either terribly troubled by these things or terribly helped by “talking about” them.
It felt, in short, like a lot of theraputic drama about the wrong things.
— § —
Since then, I’ve spent time wondering what I could discover if I could afford therapy. Trying to be my own therapist, as it were, and excavate what in my past might be affecting me today, might have affected me all these years. What’s the source of what exes have called “bloody-mindedness” and a determination to “do things the hard way,” of all that “not living up to potential despite being brilliant” all this time?
Sometimes, just as the workday is ending or just as I’m doing shopping, I’ve let the dogs out into the backyard or walked across a grocery store parking lot asking myself questions about my past, trying to answer honestly, and then usually, ultimately, getting nowhere.
Until today. I believe I know what it is. What the “significant and novel psychological trauma or stress” is, and at what moment of development I got a bit “stuck.”
It’s not early childhood. It’s got nothing to do with my parents. It’s got everything to do with school. Oddly enough, not with bullies, though there were times when I was bulled, as is relatively common. Not with teachers, though I certainly had more than my fair share of poor, asshole educators who basically wanted to wish me away in the public school system.
— § —
I’ve always had unusual tastes in film and television. My favorite films are things like Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, Last Year at Marienbad, and Barton Fink. These are dark, formalistic films with stilted relationships and characters that are unknowable, and thus never know each other. They’re fundamentally about categories and symbols, about confusion regarding or subversion of these, and about characters who reify and transgress them.
My television and fiction tastes have always been similar. And in all of it, there is always bias toward characters either in youth or early adulthood, grappling with things that are not “normal everyday grown-up life things.” I can watch kid dramas and high school dramas like Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why, but I’m absolutely bored with dramas on “adult” themes or with studies in deep, nuanced, communicative interpersonal relationships.
I’ve also always been weirdly revered in a lot of ways. The others at my University of Chicago graduate program called me the “rock star.” They didn’t mean this in an academic sense, i.e. the “academic rock star,” sadly. No, it was one third irony, one third wild admiration, and one third embarrassed pity. It’s not as though I haven’t always asked for this in a way. I have tattoos. I pursued the most rare in apparel and appearance. Green and purple hair, unorthodox or highly symbolic or period clothes, often chased down from the four corners of the earth. I’ve always been overly brash or inadequately communicative in precisely the right ways to always stand out.
My parents used to ask about all of this—why? My dad in particular. “Why are you always trying to do the opposite of what people think you should do?” This is not so far from the “bloody-minded” complaints that my exes have had about me, and not so far from my own deepest critiques of myself.
Why when opportunity presents itself, do I tend to shoot it dead? And why later, when there is no opportunity anywhere to be seen, do I suddenly find my determination in precisely the least favorable moment and wring a miraculous amount of blood from adjacent stones? Why not, as people have always suggested or at least implied, apply myself when it can do maximal good, and nurture my reserves when clouds hang overhead, rather than doing the opposite—dropping anchor in fair winds and then setting sail once again only when it’s most likely that I’ll capsize?
— § —
Netflix has been helpful in all of this. Because it causes me to interrogate my viewing habits. To ask why I, as a 42-year-old Ph.D. with a management job, am interested in watching films about kids, or about high school students, but not about adults doing adult things.
The questions about my film tastes have always haunted me, but Netflix has given me enough data, and enough granularity, to really draw into relief that my interests are odd.
I’ve been asking myself this question for about a year, in that “self-therapist frame of mind” that follows me around after hours.
“Aron, why do you think it is that stories about adults don’t interest you?”
There are a dozen other questions, but they all bear on the same thing, and this is the one that has been really gnawing at me since the divorce, and since the end of couples’ therapy, because I have been sure that it’s the on-ramp. It’s the most obvious, least nuanced, least polluted by human complexity issue in the set of issues that I can identify about myself that are odd.
— § —
School. But not the bullies. Not the teachers. Not the usual suspects. No one in particular, in fact.
Today, at the self-scanning machine, it came to me. I think it proceeds from watching my kids reach the end of the school year, and from my amazement at their happy, friend-filled lives and interactions. I’ve known since they got into school that they have something that I don’t and didn’t and never, ever did. I thought it was down to personality. Maybe some of it is, but not all of it. Not even most of it.
Today a light came on and I heard myself once again think something that I’ve thought over and over again for years, whose import has been right in front of my nose:
Very few people, if any, know me all that well. Very few people, if any, have ever known me all that well.
Me-therapist today asked, “How does that feel? And why do you think that is?”
And finally, I answered in a way that rang true.
— § —
Now couples’s therapist, back in 2015 and 2016, with the ex, had also gone down this road, but she went down it with a story in mind about me. It went something like this. Aron:
I get why this was the story that she was trying to get me to assemble about myself, under the impression that it would help. This is either a very common story or at the very least it’s a deep archetype in our culture. We’ve all seen this story told over and over again in song, in film, and in print. This would be the “stuck in infancy or early childhood” arrested development story.
But I knew it wasn’t me even as the couples’ therapist was working on it with me. Problem is that in couples’ therapy, you don’t have too much space or time to push back and get into complications without really derailing the entire thing. So I half went along with it, half pushed back, and it never helped me much.
But I finally got enough of a clue to return to these questions again with myself today, while in self-therapy mode. Here’s the actual story. Aron:
This is the story. It’s also a common story, especially for youth, but in my case it’s exacerbated by the strange confluence of my characteristics and the place (geographically and socially) in which I grew up. This is the “stuck in first contact with non-family persons” arrested development story.
The “moment” that defines so many things in my life and life history isn’t an instance of childhood abuse. It’s the moment when I first left my parents’ home and went to public school as a taken-for-granted “me”—and that “me” disappeared immediately and permanently beneath other overpowering identities that at the time I didn’t know, understand, or even recognize.
The five-year-old that was once “me” still hasn’t resurfaced. That “me” never joined or gradually learned how to integrate itself with a community; it was submerged. The community interacted instinctively with something else(s) that lay over and obscured that kid, and that has remained the case ever since then. The bulk of my energy has been spent on this other, publicly-ascribed “me” over the years. The first “me,” the primal one, the natural one that was raised by two parents from birth—disappeared on the first day of kindergarten, or certainly during that first year, and has not come back. Yet.
— § —
There was nothing weird about me initially per se from today’s perspective, but in the time and place where I grew up—a working class, Mormon, overwhelmingly white, poorly educated part of Utah— everything was weird about me. From the moment I arrived on that first day of school, I was:
Looking back, I remember intensely that sense of utter shock, when I arrived in kindergarten at public school. I’d always just been me, Aron. My parents saw me. My extended family saw me. I was a person, with thoughts and preferences and a personality.
From the moment I arrived in kindergarten, by virtue of being so unlike anyone else in my poor, ninety-nine percent white, country-and-western, coal miner’s daughter west-side neighborhood, I was a collection of categories, a group of signs and symbols, and overall a metonymy of one thing above all—the exotic unknown, regarded with that strange combination of fascination, horror, dread, approbation, and desire that the exotic unknown inspires.
Then, later on, when I had a breakdown in the fourth grade and was moved to what amounts to an exclusive private school for the gifted, I became:
Not so long after that, in middle school and high school?
In short, I never got to be myself again. It all just built up over the years. Always more of them. Even as an adult, I’ve been adding things:
I have sometimes bemoaned the fact that I’m no good at marketing myself, but now in a shocking plot twist, it looks as though, in a subversive way, I haven’t been doing anything but self-marketing for thirty-five years.
I am a massive bundle of things that, in the areas where I have generally been, have always made me the lone bald, dark-skinned, winged, predatory unicorn in a field of furry white vegetarian alpacas. Starting in kindergarten, I was no longer myself; I was a predefined quantity and a spokesperson who, thanks to psychological creep, came to understand myself as a spokesperson and representative—for the Chinese, for the educated, for the gifted, for the geeks, for the weirdos, for the authors, for the academics, for the single dads. I’ve done print, radio, and television interviews precisely as representatives of some of these things. As an ambassador for the categories that I embody.
After all, if this is what people understand you to be, particularly if people are ambivalent and vaguely threatened by these things, your first job in maintaining your status is to ensure that these things come off well. That they are defended. Even if you aren’t really in a position to acquit them well. Because they are you, as far as most everyone is concerned, whether you like it or not.
But always that leaves a hole in the universe where you, you the mere person once were, way back at five years old before that first day of kindergarten when you disappeared forever and became instead a set of concepts.
— § —
So contra the couples’ therapist a couple of years ago, I don’t think I’m playing out this incredibly common script in my life whereby I look for people who treat me very poorly trying through whatever means to get them to love me and treat me well to resolve the early childhood contradiction.
I think I’m playing out a script in my life whereby I perform the categories that I believe people see me to embody, and seek out people who are completely taken by (and usually both awed and frightened by) them, but who don’t see or understand me the person at all. Then, I try through a kind of schizophrenic paradox to resolve the early crisis—to both defend and elevate these categories, turn them good rather than bad in others’ minds, and at the same time to subvert these categories radically, hoping to bring them to break through the surface and see a person there—the person that my parents saw all the way back when I was five, and that hasn’t really been seen much by anyone else ever since.
In short, I find the person who is frozen in ecstatic, magnetic confusion by the fact, say, that I am a Ph.D. Then, I try to demonstrate how great and approachable and noble and okay a Ph.D. is—while at the same time doing whatever it is that I think is least Ph.D.-like, in hopes that they’ll be able to get beyond Ph.D. and see that there is something else in there somewhere—an agent, a person, a personality.
Of course, it never goes well—because when people are drawn to a set of categories in the first place out of their own combination of superficial admiration and approbation for them, neither the attempted performance of greatness nor the subversion of expectations goes well.
The worst suspicions are confirmed on every front. Obviously, “such people” are:
And in all cases—you remain, and are moreso—merely “such people,” and even less intelligible or relatable than they’d imagined.
— § —
The one break in all of this: New York. This is why I loved New York so. Becasue for the first time in my life, there was enough going on around me—so very many categories everywhere represented in such numbers that they all become unremarkable—that I was effectively no particular identity or preconception when people first saw or knew about me—and so many of them were free to encounter me for the first time merely as a person. It was liberating. I was awkward, being completely untrained and unpracticed in this, yet it didn’t even matter.
But then again, in focused and close interactions, I still ended up seeking out those very few individuals—usually other new arrivals—who did attach first and foremost to my symbolic identities. Who talked about them. Admired them. Already had beliefs about them. Applauded them. Cursed them. In the first place I’ve been full of people who could easily have seen me for me, I spent my time finding people who wouldn’t.
Because I had so much to live up to, and so much to undermine.
In short, my own particular developmental self isn’t stuck trying find surrogate “terrible parents” to try to get them to love in my playpen, as is so often the case. My developmental self is stuck trying seeking out “dazzled and appalled” peers with strong preconceived ideas about me and who don’t and won’t see me at all, to try to get them to drop the “appalled” and keep the “dazzled” but make it personal and intimate and real.
What I lack isn’t the ability to individuate and self-soothe, as it is for so many people who had rotten childhoods thanks to their parents. It’s the ability to conceive of and convey myself as a nuanced, idiosyncratic, yet genuine person (in a notable Freudian slip, I had initially typed “persona” here), and to interactively build friendships from scratch on these bases—a skill, after all, that should have been learned and honed—you guessed it—in those years when and after I first got to school.
I can work a room and give a speech and dazzle professionally, I can be witty and urbane and a thousand other things, but one-on-one I don’t quite know the mechanics of relating to others, and I tend to select people for one-on-one interactions who aren’t really aiming to relate to me as me.
And while I can do all the things that would enable me to live up to my potential, I have too completely prioritized “subverting expectations and preconceived notions” to ever really do them regularly or well. Hence the “internal war” that has been recognized by so many over the years. Because I don’t want those preconceived notions and their confirmation to stand—because at some level I’m always hoping that if I break obvious rules, someone, somewhere will say “there’s more here than meets the eye” and will “keep searching more deeply” for the “real” me (never happens, not the right method), I can’t allow myself to do too often the things that—say—writers, or Asians, or Ph.D. holders generally do to be successful.
And so, for obvious reasons, I’m not all that successful. And the successes that I do have seem to come with an absurdly heroic expendature of effort and risk in the worst possible circumstances, when I can do them, too, as subversions of some kind.
In short, I suspect that at some level am the sadly stereotypical “rebel kid” crying out for attention, but receiving the “wrong kind” without knowing or having the proper skills to get the “right kind.”
That’s not all there is to me, of course. But we’re talking here about the things that hold a person back—the nagging problems that are there at mid-life and where they likely come from. And I think this is where they come from. They come from the fact that I have accepted and (quite literally) adopted “completely different” as my functional ur-identity and in the meantime as I was being seen that way early on, missed out on acquiring the skills for being merely an unremarkable part of the group—for being “the same.”
I have skills called “perform,” “impress them,” “awe them,” “high-level discourse,” and “subvert expectations.” I lack skills called “be everyday friends,” “get to know you,” “be genuine in socially acceptable ways,” and a few others akin to these.
Thing is, and going back to something that I mentioned earlier—where does one begin to acquire and practice these skills, once one leaves the K-6 educational system? I’d love a second chance.
— § —
Two interesting and relevant asides.
First, this is related to my legendarily odd relationships to food, my personal space, and even my body in certain configurations of health and fitness. I cling to certain forms of all of these because I am clinging to the remaining remnants of the kid that I once was the last time I simply was who I was. I am trying to hang on to the “real me” at some level, the one frozen it time all the way back then. The way that he lived, the things that were familiar to him, the things that he liked.
Second, this also explains my odd modes of self-definition over the years. In school, there are many occasions on which you are asked to tell people about yourself and your life. Whereas other kids peppered these with things that they liked (French food, horror novels, Scooby-Doo, etc.) and things that they habitually did (jog, garden, paint portraits, etc.), I always ended up making lists of what I was—lists of categories in the “I am” form, rather than lists of preferences in the “I enjoy” form. This is something that was noted with curiosity more than once.
Most people in a post-divorce mid-life slump proclaim that they need time to figure out “who they are.” I do not need time to figure out “who I am.” I have been playing that game for far too long and know very well who I “am.” What I need is to figure out “what I’m like,” and how to simply embody that with awareness and transparency in the world.
— § —
This has been long. But I’ve been looking for the “key,” for the “unifying thread” for a very long time, and in a lot of ways. And I’ve known that there was a story in my personal history, in this set of categories over time, that I needed to tell—not to others, but to myself. I’ve finally found it, by god. Today, I finally found it. I don’t know how many times I’ve written, just to myself, my little personal history, compelled, grappling for the insight that I sensed was there somewhere. It’s finally down “on paper” in a way that feels right, that feels like what I’ve been trying to narrate to myself for decades.
So what does all this mean and what do I do with it? What is the implied action that proceeds from all of this?
I don’t know. I’m still learning to be a self-therapist so that I can continue to do this self-therapy thing.
I’ve titled this as the first in a series. I don’t know when the next installment will come. Maybe in a year. Maybe in six months. Maybe in a week. Maybe never.
But this one is now here.
Sunday night slice of life: I am a parent.
There are a million things in my life that I’m not sure about, that seem up in the air. Always have been. But parenthood is one solid thing amidst all the bizarro wreckage of 42 years.
It’s also my most consistent provider of work right now in life. Everything else waxes and wanes, but the parenthood labor remains more or less constant. Looking around the house, it’s not entirely clear who lives here or what they do, but it’s very clear that there are kids involved.
I wasn’t sure it was the right time to have kids when we decided to have kids. My ex-wife (wife at the time) found this infuriating and weak. But I knew from experience—from having grown up as the oldest of multiple kids—that kids take life over. When I finally agreed, I knew that I was sacrificing a career and a particular financial future.
No regrets whatsoever. The kids are everything. This is also true in a very literal sense in terms of the material circumstances of life. Tonight:
Cleaned boogers off the wall
Returned dozens of toys from all over the kitchen to bedroom
Went through a stack of random, wildly folded up “papers” left around the house
Found re-hidden plastic easter eggs and put away into Easter decor storage
Triaged kid art and decided which pieces to save and which pieces to gently “retire”
Re-stacked skateboards again, hope it lasts for a few days this time
Put a random stack of bead bracelets and necklaces into a random jar
Threw out a week and a half’s worth of “saved” food in the fridge
Retrieved laundry from under couch cushions
Sorted game pieces from general soup back into their proper game boxes
Vacuumed up scattered pine needles and leaf fragments from unfinished “project”
Found all electronic devices but one and plugged them in to charge
Installed roll dice skill on Echo due to missing game dice in the sort-out
Put away some winter items, though not all because it’s been still cold and rainy
Gathered up recent daughter mementos and put them into a “scrapbook pile”
Made mental note to get ahold of a scrapbook
Gathered collected rocks from around house and put them in rock collection box
Neatly stacked all fidget spinners
Neatly stacked all guiness record and comic books
Put all crayons, markers, pens, and pencils into “writing things” flower pot
It all took hours. I don’t really use any of these things, but they are the considerable clutter of my life. Sometimes a reflect bemusedly on the fact that I have a Ph.D. in sociology, but I’m working from home as a copywriter, comms manager, and general geek while stacking up fidget spinners in my spare time.
But I don’t do that very often.
I do wonder, however, about the people who seem frustrated at parenthood, or bothered by the fact that they had kids or are a parent. I think these people are sad, and sadly divorced from their humanity. Yes, I’m judging. Part of my job as a parent is to make judgments, at least for a few more years.
I said something about earnestness a few days ago. Then, Childish Gambino dropped his latest.
Meanwhile, the Bari Weiss article on the “intellectual dark web” continues to rankle out there, and to generate in particular discussion about Jordan Peterson, even as “This is America” continues to spread and to be increasingly juxtaposed with recent work and comments by Kanye West.
I think that both Peterson and Gambino are exploding—at least in part—for the same reasons.
— § —
I’m fascinated by earnestness for two reasons:
I was born a tempermentally earnest kid.
I had this earnestness insistently trained out of me by years of public school, years as an undergraduate, years in grad school, years in the workforce, and years and years of participation in a culture that sees earnestness to be somewhere between risible, a tragic birth defect, and a mortal sin.
There aren’t many earnest people left. Mostly, we make fun of them, have them make the coffee, and don’t invite them to the parties or out on dates.
We work hard to train our young people to be urbane, ironic, and detached. Our contemporary literary giants are such because they are so god damned postmodern; they don’t mean a single thing, because what is meaning something anyway beyond a form of slave labor in the service of one master or another, so the really smart slaves sabotage the machinery and play at being earnest with a self-aware wink and a nod, all the while crossing their fingers behind their back.
If you’re really good at this, it gets you a lot of dates in grad school. People will hang out with you and sleep with you just to spend time with someone who’s so god damned good at wittily referring to everything while meaning nothing in a kind of symphonic production of hilariously insincere sincerity.
But actual earnestness—is hard to find. So hard to find that when we now experience it from someone, we mistake them for Jesus.
— § —
What makes Peterson different from the other academics and the rest of the self-help crowd, and what makes Gambino different from Kanye, is that we get the feeling that both Peterson and Gambino:
Actually know what they believe. This is no small thing in a world of people whose minds are largely trained to think in referentiality and “critical thinking,” which at some level is a virtue, but at another level becomes the particularly postmodern vice of refusing to ever allow yourself to believe anything completely, underneath it all.
Are actually willing to say what they believe without an asterisk, in an entirely “no, not even joking, not joking at all” kind of way that causes everyone to get them wrong, thinking it all at first to be a great send-up or an even greater racket, but then later to become confused because they don’t know how to listen in this register.
In short, what links Peterson, Gambino, not to mention Sanders, Trump, and a bunch of other figures of explosive recent importance is the sense that they are not putting us on, nor are they trying to produce what we want to hear.
The idea that you “produce for an audience,” that you “ensure that you’re delivering value for your employer,” that you “measure your impact and iterate on successful strategies” is so ingrained in us that we have forgotten that there was once a separation between this dimension of being and a more personal way of being-in-the-world in which you were not working for some marketplace in some way with every single utterance.
— § —
Recent years have put the lie to the adage that you ought to “be yourself.”
Everyone says this, and everyone says they are doing it, and nobody means it on either count. Everyone knows who they are supposed to be. Liberal, conservative, academic, blue-collar, white, black, everyone knows that there is a particular model for the “socially acceptable person” that the market demands.
Yes, to some extent this is always the case, but the degree to which it is the case and the ways in which it can affect your personal life vary from age to age. In our age, you’ll be fired for having the wrong political opinion or using particular words in even innocuous ways that would have been invisible just a few years ago—because companies, families, and organizations of every other kind are now “activist” groups with “mission statements” and they explicitly and publicly place themselves on the political spectrum.
It’s part of employee training now to find out what your Fortune 500 company’s particular political issues are and what positions they take on these issues, and to undergo (and have to sign) “training” in which you agree to adopt these positions as a condition of employment.
On both sides of the aisle, people now “cut off” their friends and even their family for voting in the “wrong” ways. Because of course you can’t “surround yourself with toxic people” or people who are trying to “destroy our society,” etc.
And so it is that everyone—the famous and the public intellectuals included—adopts a particular persona constructed from the market demands that surround their particular location in society. Everyone knows who “their audience” is, and they also know that thanks to social media, Goffman’s “backstage” has disappeared; everyone is now always on frontstage all the time.
We are all public figures.
And the final requirement for any persona to be valued by the marketplace, after a long list of requirements is enumerated, is: “and of course, you should also be yourself.”
Any attempt to reconcile this apparent contradiction can easily lead a person to dark thoughts about totalitarianism, which is why worry about encroaching totalitarianism has overtaken everyone on every side of every aisle.
Everyone attributes their sense of the tragedy of it all to “the opposition” without realizing that in fact it is “the culture” and the cultural logic that emerges from the demands that they, too, habitually make now as a consumer of other people in the market.
— § —
Enter these figures.
Peterson, Gambino, Sanders, Trump, going viral, exploding into public life, being characterized both as geniuses and terrorists.
Behind the “issues” that these people are discussing, I suspect that the deeper resonance that’s occuring arises from the fact that they exude an actual authenticity in a culture in which “authenticity” is one of the coins of the realm, but most of the currency in circulation is counterfeit, and we all know it.
In the face of the genuine article, the public experiences a mix of agony and ecstasy. Agony at the incredible power that comes with non-counterfeit wealth, and at the envy that it all produces; these people have become culturally rich by breaking all of our cardinal cultural rules, and that doesn’t seem fair. Ecstasy at the experience of El Dorado that obtains when we hear them—real diamonds shimmer and are so much more brightly; real gold is so much softer and more lustrous; real opals put their plastic counterparts to shame.
As Jeffrey Goldfarb once discussed at some length in The Politics of Small Things, in a totalitarian culture, simple, earnest personal honesty—the unaffected speaking of believed truths without consideration of their eventual consumption and consequences—is street terrorism of the most thrilling kind.
Earnest honesty threatens to destroy everything, simply everything—and that is as delightful, and as terrible, as anything that a totalitarian citizen can recall ever having experienced.