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.
© Aron Hsiao / 2005
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.”
© Public domain
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.