Garbage, Human Beings

Social Media as the “False Representative Class”

Please be sure to read the news and announcements at the bottom of today’s ‘stack.

Substack is not social media, at least not in the narrow sense. But that narrow sense is growing less important, with each passing day, for understanding our new reality. For in a non-narrow sense everything is social media. Some things are social-media satellites floating just outside the atmosphere, barely hanging on up there in gravity-free orbit; other things are more like comets, with wide elliptical trajectories bringing them back around to the new true center of our cosmos only irregularly. But everything gets drawn into social media’s pull sooner or later, and the “leaders” in our society, AOC and Trump and the others, are the ones who understand that social media are not an auxiliary to whatever other calling one has in life; they are themselves the calling.

Social media have gutted institutions: journalism, education, and increasingly the halls of government too. When Marjorie Taylor Greene displays some dumb-as-hell anti-communist Scooby-Doo meme before congress, blown up on poster-board and held by some hapless staffer, and declares “This meme is very real”, she is channeling words far, far wiser than the mind that produced them. We’re all just sharing memes now, and those of us who hope to succeed out there in “reality”, in congress and classrooms and so on, momentarily removed from our screens and feeds, must learn how to keep the memes going even then. “Real-world” events, in other words, are staged by the victors in our society principally with an eye to the potential virality of their online uptake. And when virality is the desired outcome, clicks effected in support or in disgust are all the same. Thus the naive idea that AOC wore her “Tax the Rich” gown to a particular event attended by a select crowd within a well-defined physical space completely distorts the motivation behind the gesture, which was, obviously, to make waves not during, but immediately after, the event, not for the people at the event, but for all the people who were not invited.

Because hate-clicks will do just as well as love-clicks in the game of virality, there is by now a steady stream of content produced by people who know that what they are doing is stupid, and who go ahead with it not in spite of that fact, but because of it. Laura Helmuth, the editor-in-chief of Scientific American, might well be dumb enough actually to believe that her magazine’s recent editorial, “Why the Term ‘JEDI’ Is Problematic for Describing Programs That Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion”, is, as she wrote on Twitter, “SO GOOD”. I hope she is in fact that dumb, because the alternative is much more dispiriting still: that she knows full well this is cynical click-seeking, she knows people will share it and link to it only because it is such a gross desecration of everything Scientific American once represented, and because sharing and linking is good for business, whatever the affective and cognitive state of the sharer.

I try to keep my Substack somewhere out in the Kuiper Belt, if we wish to maintain the orbit analogy, yet I am continually reminded that it would be preferable, if exposure were the only goal, to set myself up as a heap of space-junk tightly hugging the Earth, circling visibly in the night sky. I write something about botanical expeditions in eighteenth-century Siberia, and I get 5,000 readers (thank you from the bottom of my heart, my loyal 5,000); I throw out some chum on whatever culture-war issue is keeping Twitter aflame at the moment, and I get 50,000. The numbers are consistent, and incontrovertible. So I promise you some fish guts today, my sharks, but you’re going to have to sit through a bit of long-winded and unmemeifiable point-making in order to get your reward.

The internet, obviously, runs on hate. Ordinarily we take this to mean that it incites people to argue pointlessly, to abandon the ordinary ethical norms governing disagreement, and so on. This sense of the claim is true, but another respect in which the internet is an engine of hate is the one I have just identified: that in click-seeking there is no incentive to weed out hate-clicking. I’ve argued before that all of this might be for the better, that by absorbing so much of humanity’s hatred, the engine may be sublimating it into something extremely unpleasant, but not literally violent. When it comes right down to it, I’d rather see the IDF trolling the ayatollahs than bombing Iranian civilians. I would myself much rather get impotent death threats than get killed.

What makes the sublimated form of violence produced by this engine seem more potent, sometimes, than the real thing, is the fact that the engine invites universal participation. This is the same thing, curiously, that has also at times made the internet appear as an engine of democracy and as a great hope for advancing towards the goal of rational, collective deliberation. What has prevented this ideal from taking hold, one might argue, is that the expansion of power to individuals through this new technology has not so much followed the path of greater democratic participation, as rather effecting a traduction downward, and as it were a privatization, of tyranny.

This in fact seems to be a common historical process, for which other instances may help us better to understand the generic problem. Every couple married in the Eastern Orthodox church, down to the lowliest goatherd, wears a crown as part of the ceremony, symbolically transferring the power and glory of the Byzantine emperor and empress down, momentarily, to these very common men and women. Traditions such as this date back to antiquity, but with the rise of capitalism we see many other important new ways in which previously noble or royal powers devolve down to the common people. What is that “wedding palace” in a Long Island strip mall but a devolution of royalty, however distorted its forms become in the passage downward?

In fact such devolution is a reflection of the highest political aspirations of the modern era, which at least in principle have sought to marry —in the strip-mall wedding-palace of modernity— capitalism with egalitarian democracy. Thus there also emerged the expectation that ordinary people should own their own property, their own little ‘estates’, without for that being the lords or sovereigns of ‘states’ — although these are in fact the same word if we go back far enough into our Norman linguistic heritage. And the perceived need for each of us to have at least a sliver of sovereignty to ourselves, to be the kinglet of our own little tract house in Irvine, has led to what Joan Didion coldly described as the “false ownership class”: the people who desire this symbolic status so desperately that they will take a mortgage under any shoddy terms offered in order to obtain it, at least for a while, before a new global economic crisis imposes a periodic “correction” that corrects them right back into the peasantry.

And similarly reading and writing came to be seen as part of the basic package of citizenship. Properly functioning republics have universal literacy, rather than the specialization of a royal scribe or a privileged caste. In short, the growth of democratic participation has led to ever more ways in which regular people symbolically embody sovereignty, and are even, sometimes, expected to act in a manner befitting a sovereign. This process of expansion quickens at times of technological transformation, and can lead to extreme new forms of behavior that seem to have more to do with role-playing than with democratic participation. Thus in the present moment it is curious to see so many little sovereigns ‘issuing statements’ after every political event of note. Twenty years ago a prophetic Onion article reported that the Dinty Moore soup company took a firm stand against terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11. Today this is no longer satire; it is just business as usual, and not only for soupmakers and HVAC technicians, but for absolutely everybody.

The problem is only compounded by the fact that much of our ‘speech’ today can be traced back to no intentional agent. If you are attempting to set up bots to hawk your hair-loss supplements on social media at randomly spaced intervals, the online how-to guides will warn you of a great peril of full automation: you run the risk of accidentally pitching your product when the rest of social media is having a moment of somber catastrophe-mongering: bots, however advanced they have become, still can’t “read the room” like humans can.

It is of course fitting for politicians to say something when, e.g., the president of the US has a military opponent assassinated by drone strike. By contrast it is troubling when ordinary private citizens are expected to withhold whatever they might have planned to tweet about their recent Netflix experiences because something big just happened in Afghanistan, and some nebulous pressure obliges them to speak only of this, or, if they are aware of their own ignorance, to simply remain silent. But what is the nature of this pressure? It cannot be noblesse-oblige, because they are not nobles; it cannot be the dignity of the office, because they hold no office.

Is this what true democracy looks like: not only where everyone owns property and selects their representatives, but where everyone is expected to have something to say about everything that ever happens? Where everyone is compelled to stay “on message” as if they were up for reelection? It seems to me this is false democracy, an untenable situation, and that we are witnessing the emergence of something like a “false representative class” analogous to the “false ownership class” that rushed to sign up for subprime mortgages.

Often when I find myself particularly alienated as I scroll through my Twitter feed, I note that this is not because I disagree with the particular content of what my contemporaries are saying. Quite often, politically, we are very much on the same page. Where we differ is only in our understanding of what we take social media to be good for. I take the expression of substantive political opinions there to be something like the expression of substantive political opinions on, say, Fortnite: an absurd proposition, as whatever the opinions are, they are interrupting the flow of an otherwise engaging video game. When in turn the expression of perfectly sound and laudable political views is multiplied by thousands, or hundreds of thousands, the nature of these views mutates into something else altogether. What was “true” when one person said it becomes something you are “vile” for not saying along with the hundreds of thousands of other people who are saying it: you are “trash”, a “garbage human being”. This is why, in my view, it is morally imperative to not say true things on social media. Social media are not a suitable medium for truth. Go ahead and shitpost. Fuck around. Maybe advertise stuff you’re doing elsewhere. But the pursuit of truth, in that place, can only ever amount to an expression of devolved tyranny.

Michelle Goldberg, a Times columnist I like very much, recently wrote a piece on cancel culture that was revelatory for me even as I disagreed with much of it. In her view, the problem of being shunned for holding incorrect views has been greatly exaggerated by a certain sector of the elite class, namely, Gen Xers, mostly male, who have been left disoriented by the seismic shifts in our culture over the past decade. “Many people I know over 40 — maybe 35 —,” she writes, “resent new social mores that demand outsized sensitivity to causing harm. It has been jarring to go from an intellectual culture that prizes transgression to one that polices it.”

I’m 49, I’m depressed, and I have to agree with Michelle that my depression is not a political emergency. (I’m not sure but I think Michelle and I met once long ago, hence the first-name casualness that might otherwise come across as a parasocial presumption. Somehow I know she likes Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and even before I read this article I could have told you she knew where the name ‘Joy Division’ comes from. In short whether we know each other or not, Michelle is one of my people.) My depression is my own problem to work out — and in fact I often appreciate this condition, as a lens for observation of the world as it is.

Yet the new social mores are not going to last forever either, and sooner or later the young people who memory-holed so many of the things I once thought would last forever are going to have to begin again the work of mining the past for tried-and-true moral sensibilities with the suppleness and vigor to help them navigate through this objectively problematic world, and to thrive. We might be depressed, but we are not without purpose: our purpose is preservation. The bubble of “false representation” is going to burst sooner or later, and when it does the value of our investment in old-style commodities will become clear again.

The news and updates will be unusually lengthy this time.

1. Even if you never listen to podcasts, or even if you have heard me speak before and determined I have a voice best channeled into writing, please listen to my most recent “What Is X?” episode with my friend, the poet Jeff Dolven, talking about Poetry, and what it is. Jeff’s contention is that poetry is “language that wants to happen all at once”. I don’t know whether I agree with him, but he’s such a compelling speaker and such a master of his craft that I’m still thinking about our conversation weeks after it occurred. This podcast might also “pair” nicely with a poem Jeff has just released in the Yale Review, “Selection”. In addition to its ingenious riff on themes from Darwin and on the peculiar Darwinian locution, “selection for”, the poem calls to mind, for me, Stefan George’s “Man and Faun” (1928) (which I attempted to translate some years ago, and which Jeff tells me he had not read beforehand), as well as the legend of St. Hubertus, who saw a cross glowing between a hart’s antlers when he went out hunting, eventually transferring that pious Christian image to all those tiny green bottles of Jägermeister. Jeff also reminds me, finally, of Ezra Pound’s evocation of the figure of the faun in his 1909 Personae:

Ha! sir, I have seen you sniffing and snoozling
about among my flowers.
And what, pray, do you know about
horticulture, you capriped?
‘Come, Auster, come Apeliota,
And see the faun in our garden.
But if you move or speak
This thing will run at you
And scare itself to spasms.’

2. I was happy to find my last Substack of two weeks ago discussed by Ross Douthat in his New York Times column of September 21, “The Extremely Weird Politics of Covid”. When Ross is not hanging out with Freddie deBoer playing with Kylo Ren action figures, I find that he is one of the sharpest and most serious cultural commentators working today. More than that, I would say that his reflections on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation are the most profound piece of writing ever to slip, almost as if by mistake, into the newspaper whose business model, especially in the op-ed section, amounts to what I have sometimes described as “normie palliation”. I confess that unconsciously much of what I write here is conceived in imagined (parasocial) dialogue with Ross, so it’s nice to see that sometimes the force of imagination is strong enough to break through into the real world. And in any case he’s right about the politics of covid: it’s weird as hell, and cannot be made any sense of if we stick with our pre-pandemic categories for the analysis of political identity formation and affiliation.

3. I had a piece in the Wall Street Journal of September 25 on the Voynich Manuscript, in which, once again, I made the foolhardy mistake of coming out publicly as an amateur Voynichologist. I was of course immediately bombarded with messages from cranks and crackpots of various species, all of whom seemed intent on confirming my piece’s central claim, that there are certain domains of inquiry that attract to themselves a type of person suffering from that tragic epistemic flaw of haughty self-certainty. Virtually no one involved in Voynich sleuthing is capable of fairly assessing competing accounts of the manuscript’s origins, and even if you bring the manuscript up without committing to any particular theory of it, as I did, many will rush to tell you how stupid you are. It seems likely to me that this problem results directly from the fact that research on this topic is somewhat stigmatized, to be attracted to it is generally to court the risk of being seen as a weirdo, and so, not surprisingly, those who are not channeled away from this pursuit by the social obstacles it presents tend also to lack some of the epistemic virtues that, for better or worse, tend to attach to people who remain on the straight and narrow path of community-legitimated interests. There are important lessons here for social epistemology, which I could only hint at in my short piece, but I’m going to keep exploring this in other venues. I personally don’t care if I’m seen as a weirdo, in fact in my case I find it’s “good for business”, but I would like to find that sweet spot of indulging “weird” interests without lapsing into the epistemic vices associated with “weird” people. (Incidentally, I’ve been meaning to write something on the history of the category of “the weird”, inspired partially by Erik Davis’s excellent book, High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies. The term occurs in Shakespeare, but its Elizabethan resonances are somewhat different from those that would take off with Lovecraft et al. in the early twentieth century. So the crucial question for me is: what preexisting category does the weird evolve from? It clearly shares something with the sublime, as “that which is aesthetically compelling but can also annihilate you”, but the overlap here is clearly only partial. Anyhow, more on this anon.)

4. I wrote an essay entitled “Over domheid” (“On Stupidity”), for Nexus, the journal of the Dutch Nexus Instituut. The entire issue is focused on “domheid en leugens” (“stupidity and lies”), and other authors include William Deresiewicz and Mary Trump. My piece takes off from Henry More’s vivid anti-Cartesian phrase, “the stupid, drunken life of matter”, focusing on the connection between stupiditas and impenetrabilitas in early modern English authors such as More and Thomas Browne, and therefore on the peculiar link between the physical notions of hardness, resistance, indiscerpibility, etc., on the one hand, and the condition of being “dumb as a box of rocks”, as we revealingly say, on the other. With this publication we may now be sure that there are no more than two degrees of separation, by blood or co-published treatment, between the Trump presidency and Browne’s ingenious Pseudodoxia Epidemica (An Epidemic of False Beliefs) of 1646, which is reason enough to read this issue. Of course it’s print-only, and it’s in Dutch, but neither of these facts should discourage you, if the will is there.

5. It’s a tricky matter — the ontogenesis of books in the era of digital communication: when precisely, that is, a book may be said to have come into existence. Some say it’s the “pub date”, but experts will tell you no physical book is in fact born on that day. Others say it’s assignment of an ISBN, which generally occurs at a moment several months before the completion of the gestation period. I tend to think it’s the moment the publisher creates a dedicated web page for the book, and by this criterion, my next book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, now most definitively exists. You still can’t touch it, but in any case nowadays, as I happen to argue in my “book”, to buy and to manipulate the physical object is really only to commit to a somewhat more intense degree of engagement with what is by now essentially an internet-based event that we continue to describe as a “book” only by force of long tradition.

6. Here, though, is something that definitely exists:

Behold that beautiful object, years in the making, and contemplate all the ways in which holding it in your hands will delight you in ways that no amount of screentime ever could. Then go to the MIT Press website, and order a copy. (Jeff Dolven was also involved in creating this beauteous thing, in case you need any more arguments in its favor.) If you are an editor or a reviewer and would like to receive a review copy, please let me know. Graham and Catherine and I will be doing some events in the coming months in which we explain, partially, what our theoretical and creative intentions were in this project. More on that, too, anon.