A Request to Readers
And an Open Discussion Thread
In the doldrums of the Bush fils presidency, The Onion came out with a headline that has stuck with me for the past seventeen years: “Bush Regales Dinner Guests with Impromptu Oratory on Virgil’s Minor Works”. The joke, if it needs explaining, is that this is the sort of thing a cretinous failson like W. would of course never in a million years be able to do, belonging as it does to a vanished world in which statesmen were also poets and classicists (a world that even now has surviving vestiges in France — witness, recently, Dominique de Villepin, and even Emmanuel Macron, who can still give a remarkable recitation on cue of the Alexandrine verse of Molière). Then came Obama, who probably retained some idea of who Virgil was, but had studied hard to appear stupider than he was in order to gain qualification for the US presidency (witness the universe of difference between his erotographomanic digressions on T. S. Eliot in loveletters written in his student days, and his post-presidential normie-ass cringe-fest dad-rock playlists).
We all know what happened after the Obama years —not even worth discussing—, and then came Biden. Does Biden know who Virgil is? Does it even make any sense to wonder, at this point? What’s striking, now, is how completely the question has ceased to matter, not just for presidents, but for culture in general — the same Onion headline could not be used today not only because —let us say, for the sake of argument— Biden is “smarter” than Bush had been, but because the ideal of the sort of learnedness whose absence the Onion was parodying has so totally fallen off our cultural map that its absence is no more comical, or tragic, or tragicomical, than its presence is expected.
And of course what goes for presidents goes too, by a sort of hypostasis, for the culture in general. Take any public figure currently active in American “Discourse” and plug their name into the same Onion headline: “Matt Yglesias Regales Dinner Guests with Impromptu Oratory on Virgil’s Minor Works”; “Nikole Hannah Jones Regales Dinner Guests with…” It sounds just as implausible as with W., but it’s not nearly as funny, again, because no one even thinks to expect such an ability among what passes for the American intelligentsia today. Instead we see Yglesias and Noah Smith and Nathan J. Robinson and other people whose names I can never remember waging the great YIMBY-vs.-NIMBY debates of 2022, we see endless play-by-plays of the supreme court’s every move or of the Pennsylvania senate race or the Georgia board of elections, all of which seem entirely derivative of a style of engagement that evolved out of professional spectator sports. I mean, I suppose someone has to be thinking about housing policy and gerrymandering and so on, but when such topics exhaust our sense of the life of participatory discursive culture, it means that culture is in deep, deep crisis — and, most tragic of all, the discourse, such as it is, is too droningly loud to permit any of us a moment of calm in which we might hear, and regret, the disappearance of Latin bucolic poetry from our shared universe of things to know about and to value.
Of course, Latin bucolic poetry might still come up, on Twitter, say, where some social-media-savvy academic deigns to “educate” you in a “thread” that begins “🧵1/78” about this or that misunderstanding that reigns in our cultural reception of Virgil (today we “skip straight from ignorance to deconstruction”, as Walter Kirn once put it, and one might also add that we skip straight to contempt, to rejection, to ostentatious “problematisation”). But the didactic school-marm’s tone of these threads places them in an entirely different universe than the imagined “impromptu oratory” with which we began, and indeed today we are in a situation where it is almost as dissonant to place the term “An Academic” in place of “George W. Bush” in the headline as it is to place Matt Yglesias there.
It has been a long time since appreciation for Latin bucolic poetry was anywhere near the center of the mission of higher education. I somehow managed to get all the way through my Ph.D. studies, and even some years into my career, before understanding what the real lay of the land was in academic life. In my cluelessness, my research has pretty much always just amounted to me discovering something from the past that excites me, and then trying to share it with other people. This naïveté, this scholarly fauvism, has sometimes served me well, in a sort of Forrest Gumpian way, but has also often led to awkward misunderstandings in interaction with more correctly disciplinarised peers; and it has been a notable disadvantage in the new economy of grant-seeking that is driving university research in the twenty-first century and is absolutely suffocating the humanities as we used to know them. Compared to the economic forces driving the STEMification and financialisation of humanistic inquiry, complaints about wokeness and related symptoms of our immiseration sound like those of a trench soldier, downwind of a blast of mustard gas, myopically griping about his head lice.
My naïveté has meant, generally, that I do not skip from ignorance to deconstruction, but instead only move from ignorance to love, and then I stop there. I confessed in an early ‘stack that I pretty much love everything: Cathy, Lake Wobegon Days, Madame Blavatsky, Latin bucolic poetry — you name it, I want more. This is in part my Leibnizian heritage —“Je ne méprise presque rien,” he wrote, “excepté l’Astrologie judiciaire et tromperies semblables”— which has its latter-day demotic expression in Will Rogers’ hokey motto, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Hell, I even like judiciary astrology and similar trumperies — not that I think they are true in any first-degree way, but only that they are a window into humanity’s hunger for truth. This was indeed, as I noted in that same early ‘stack, the motivating idea behind the memory-holed Garrison Keillor’s moving paean, which so affected me when I heard it driving through Indiana years ago, to the fire-and-brimstone radio evangelists who fed his imagination as a child.
There is virtually no space for such a sensibility as this in our present age — neither in academe, nor in internet-mediated public discourse. My Substack has several purposes, but I would say that its primary and deepest purpose has been, since I started it more than two years ago, to create such a space, and to do so very much against the current of nearly everything I encounter in the ambient world of ideas.
In spite of it all, I remain an academic in good standing (as far as I know) — as productive as I am supposed to be, still very much “in love” with teaching after all these years, respected for what I manage to put out research-wise, even if it’s generally seen as tangential to the main currents of my discipline, philosophy. This means that the writing I do here is strictly “evenings and weekends”. The lovely people at Substack have periodically encouraged me to “step it up to the next level”, to treat this project more like a business, to attend more studiously to what drives engagement and what does not, and so on. I have somewhat resisted, mostly because it behooves me in my station in life, I have felt, to limit this project to the status of a side-gig. That said, as you will have noticed, it does take a good deal of time from me. I take it seriously, it means something to me, I enjoy it immensely, and at the same time I do experience it as a variety of work.
Paid subscriptions have plateaued over the past several months. I’m not sure why, but surely this has something to do with the fact that I have largely stopped doing anything to “drive” them; I just keep writing and hope more people will subscribe. Unpaid subscriptions have indeed been absolutely skyrocketing. I am constantly stunned and delighted to see so many people reading me, so many of whom are people whose own writing I admire (and probably imitate). My request today, to those who are able, is to consider upgrading to a paid subscription. From my point of view, the practical reason for doing so is simple: even though the work I do here doesn’t cut into my day job, it does come as a trade-off with other potentially lucrative writing endeavours that I am unable to pursue as long as I spend so much time writing for Substack. There are book proposals and magazine pieces that I am currently declining to write, simply because I feel, at least potentially, the conditions for writing and getting paid for it are better here. But in order for that potential to be fulfilled, this work needs to be somewhat more explicitly conceptualised, by author and readers alike, as work. Everything I write will still remain open to all readers — I sincerely do not want anyone to be prevented from reading me, if they enjoy doing so. But for the first time in quite a while I would like to ask those of you who are regular readers, who do enjoy what you find here, but have not yet subscribed, to do so. I will be so truly grateful to you, and I promise to do my best to keep churning out surprising and untimely words.
When I first started this ‘stack I was categorically resistant to the idea that what we have here is something like a “community”. Accordingly, I kept comments shut off, and I discouraged engagement. I insisted over and over again that I do not care what my readers want. That was cool, and it may even have helped to establish the terms of the rapport that continue to define this space even now, but it was not necessarily the best business model. My friends at Substack tell me that the more opportunities for engagement I provide, the more this will drive new subscriptions. With that in mind, not only am I keeping my comments open here, but I am also asking you, directly, to give me some feedback today, on the following points.
First of all, as I see it there are three primary species of posts that I regularly publish here. The first are explorations of some topic that is somewhat related to current debates or ideas in culture, particularly those connected with our current technological situation and its cultural and political ramifications (recall that one of the earliest purposes I conceived for this ‘stack was as a running paratext for my most recent book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is). The second are autobiographical and memoiristic ruminations about things I’ve experienced, things I remember, things I’ve lost, and these tend to be especially focussed upon my formative years in California. The third are my fictions, semi-fictions, historiographical metafictions, and other such trumperies. These, I notice, get by far the least engagement, and almost always cause me to lose more subscribers on balance than those gained. They are also my favorite. Just a week ago I was isolating with a rather nasty case of covid in an ugly concrete communist hotel in northeastern Romania, as the Zaporizhzhie nuclear reactor just some hundreds of kilometers to the east of us was under constant attack and, I read to my great horror at one point, was for a time without a constant electricity supply and avoiding meltdown only thanks to some ramshackle diesel back-up generators. Jesus Christ, what a mess. I spent that time writing some screwball story about a certain totally fictional “friend” of mine named Quentin de Montempoivre, who accidentally became the host for the transmigrated soul of Kirsten Dunst. Completely unhinged stuff, yet writing this kept me sane, kept me alive, made me feel as though I was doing the thing I have always been most meant to do in this world (honestly though, I also couldn’t help thinking, what right does anyone have to be sane anyway in a world that features such predicaments as the one currently unfolding in Zaporizhzhie?) Anyhow, I love doing that kind of stuff, but in truth I love doing all three, and perhaps there are some other species, or some hybrid species of pieces that I haven’t even noticed I’ve been writing. So, to get to the point, my first question is a very general one, the same one I recall the Stew Leonard’s grocery chain asking on some customer satisfaction questionnaire years ago: “What do you like? What don’t you like?” And what would you like to see more of?
One thing I certainly notice more and more, as ever greater quantities of my writing circulate out there in the world, is that once your stuff is out there it’s really no longer up to you how people think of it, or what parts of it they value, what parts they discard. Eventually, if your stuff makes a mark at all it really just becomes a catch-phrase or two — even Proust is reduced to the mere form of a madeleine. I’ve been astounded similarly to see Borat —whom I always considered a rather ingenious satirical invention— degenerate among those who are too young to recall his initial cultural impact, with all its subtleties (as when the fellow at the Texas rodeo asked him if he was a Muslim, and he said, speaking for all of Kazakhstan, “I follow the hawk”), into the guy who said only: “My wife!” It makes one wonder: did, say, Jimmy Durante have some intricate and subtle project of social satire, which in my ignorance I have reduced to something even less than a catch-phrase, the mere animal ejaculation of “Ha-cha-cha-cha!”? What was Victor Borge saying to his piano that made my grandma laugh so much? I honestly don’t know, these men are mere fragments, slivers, like broken clay-tablets that speak of Enkidu and the harlot, but their cases are at least instructive for those of us who sometimes worry overmuch about shaping and managing “our whole shtick”. It’s more important simply to squeeze out enough word-putty to enable others to form it into a shtick on our behalf.
Anyhow, my friends at Substack also recommend frequent missives, at least two a week, and they recommend that one of them be a shortish invitation to engage. The bread-and-butter of this ‘stack will always be the long Sunday essay, but it dawned on me that I might also be able to take my advisors’ input to heart, in a way that does not compromise my vision too much, by starting, say, a Thursday discussion thread in which I pose what was in the Middle Ages known as a Quaestio Domitiana, a foolish question with no plausibly satisfactory answer, such as, “How would our conception of death be different if we simply vanished from the earth in a flash of light, rather than leaving a rotting corpse?”, or, “What is more important, liberty or equality?”, and I invite subscribers to contribute their thoughts on the matter. This would eventually become a forum for paid subscribers only, and would serve to make real the sense of community binding us together here. Good idea? No?
I’d also be interested to know what you think about the idea of having regular guest contributors. I already have a guest-piece lined up from the one and only Sam Kriss, but in the long run I’m uncertain about pursuing this option. On the one hand, it turns this ‘stack more into something like a minor media operation rather than a singular outlet for my singular voice; on the other hand, well, it turns this ‘stack more into something like a minor media operation rather than… &c.
And what about multimedia options? I have been, for example, thinking about offering a subscriber-only video course, akin to the sort of thing I teach in my regular work-life, but shaped and defined more according to the precise interests that are driving my reading and thinking in the moment. In particular, I’ve been considering offering a “History and Philosophy of Astrobiology” sequence, where we work our way through, e.g., Plutarch, Kepler, Huygens, Kant, Swedenborg, and then, in the second half, we consider recent scientific research from SETI and the Drake equation through the James Webb telescope, aimed at assessing the habitability of non-Earth environments, perhaps inviting colleagues from the observatory as guest speakers. Does that sound worthwhile? Would it, or something like it, motivate more people to subscribe?
Is there anything else I’m missing? Any ideas I haven’t considered yet? I’m hoping to strike a reasonable balance between my early stubborn refusal to receive any input at all, and, at the other extreme, pandering, which, if I were to engage in it, would surely have me writing about YIMBY or Lord of the Rings or whatever is trending out there in no time. The delicate balance is holding for now, I think, and as long as it does this Substack project will remain for me one of the most rewarding endeavours I have ever undertaken. I am sincerely grateful for your readership, and I hope you will continue to find the work I do here valuable, and worthy of your support.
Just a few bits of news for now.
I gave an interview to the German newspaper Die Zeit, discussing some of my more recent thoughts about the internet, things I may have been feeling for already at the time of publication, but had not yet quite brought to consciousness. Check it out if you read German. If not, then learn it, you monoglot layabout. I want to hear an impromptu recitation of the Duino Elegies from you.