Greetings, Dear Readers
|Aug 26, 2020|
I am delighted and honoured that you have chosen to subscribe to my new Substack Newsletter. As I have written elsewhere, I believe this new medium will provide an effective new way for established writers to communicate clearly and directly with their dedicated readers.
In this first missive I would like to tell you, first, a little bit about myself, and, second, something about what I intend to do with this newsletter. This time only, my focus will be uncharacteristically autobiographical. In future letters, rest assured, I will write about the world, and for the most part you will be able to discern the person behind the writing only indirectly.
Among the several hundred people who signed up for this newsletter within two days of its launch, I recognised the e-mail addresses of perhaps twenty percent. This means that, for the rest, I have no idea at all what you know of me. So, briefly, I am, among other things, a professor of philosophy, American by birth, based in Paris since 2012.
That said (and this is important), I consider myself fundamentally a failed academic. A university career provides a steady income (if not a wholly adequate one; more on that below), and there are some true moments of joy and fulfilment that come with teaching, but for the most part the university is in the present historical moment an institution adrift, with only vestigial connections to the mission of humanistic cultivation that I naïvely believed it still conserved when I began my career twenty years ago.
We needn’t dwell on this, and in truth if I emphasise my own failure first, rather than the failure of the institution, this is because I acknowledge it would have been an odd fit no matter what the era. For one thing, there are some perennial features of my own discipline, philosophy, which ensure that I will myself perpetually be balancing on the boundary-line between it and forms of thought and expression that most of its spokespeople will see as falling outside of it. Most importantly, I am very attached to style. I do not personally see the cultivation of style as incompatible with the pursuit of truth and certain knowledge, but for complex historical reasons style is generally seen by philosophers as a sort of consolation prize, something touted by second-rank thinkers who lack the supreme virtue of rigor. I tend to think, myself, that today the touters of rigor are the ones who are compensating, that philosophy in the present era is for the most part the desiccated husk of what was once a living tradition, the demotic trace of a language its representatives today have forgotten how to speak, but whose symbols they continue to manipulate in ignorance.
Feeling for these reasons not fully at home in my discipline, I have over the past decades built for myself a strange sort of dual career as both a teacher of academic philosophy (“by day” as it were) and as a nocturnal essayist. Often the two lines of work have blurred together, sometimes because I have allowed them to do so, sometimes very much against my wishes. I have bristled at and denied the suggestion that what I am doing is “public philosophy”, while recognizing the valuable service that some people who accept that label are providing for the field in which they plainly feel much more at home.
When mistaken for a public philosopher, I have sometimes found myself ensnared in quasi-journalistic endeavours, writing for the New York Times, for example, in that august publication’s dedicated philosophy series, “The Stone”. This has, generally, been a terrible fit too. I recall reading somewhere that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had so wanted to be a sports journalist early in his career that he was known to slip into the press box in disguise at NBA matches, not really fooling anyone, in order to play at being a member of a vocational guild all of whose members idolised him for what he actually was: not a mere journalist, but one of the greatest basketball players of all time (this concludes the only allusion to professional sports you will ever read in my newsletter).
Now I am not one of the all-time greatest anythings, yet something about Abdul-Jabbar’s story touches me to my very core. For reasons I have trouble explaining, other than to wave in the direction of my late father, a large part of me always wanted to be a journalist (the one career path perhaps even more critically threatened than academia by the ravages of the new internet economy). And so writing for the Times was always a sort of reciprocal malentendu, where I was indulging an inner fantasy of a career path not pursued, while in fact I was only allowed to be there at all as a spokesperson for a career from which I was trying to distance myself. And then to cap it all off with the vicious readers’ comments, a good number of whom were always convinced that what I had to say was completely worthless because I was saying it from within the blissful ignorance of the “ivory tower”: that was really too much to bear. On one occasion I was permitted to write a piece for the short-lived “Menagerie” series in the Times, dedicated not to philosophy but to animals. I wrote about how much I love the Galerie d’Anatomie Comparée in the Paris Jardin des Plantes. The accompanying bio said nothing about my university position. Readers flooded me with effusive thanks for my beautiful words, and for a brief moment I experienced the joy of being an essayist.
But for the most part, the joys of writing in venues that belong to other parties, subservient to their editorial lines and their financial interests, have been few and far between. The conventions of media publishing seem to me a pure historical contingency with no real justification at all. If you are a true journalist, of course, you must actively affirm and reproduce the culture of deference of writer to editor. But I am not a true journalist, as I’ve said, and so I am free to wonder: Why should there be such a person as an editor at all, who takes the lovingly crafted words of a writer, and replaces them with other words? Is there such a person for, say, a painter? Does the painting-editor stand over the shoulder of the artist at work and say, “I think you could use a thicker brush-stroke here,” or “Maybe a bit more ochre there”? No! To be recognised as a painter at all is to be permitted to decide what goes into a painting. I am emphatically not saying that everyone should be able to write whatever they want; on the contrary there should be a very high bar to being socially legitimated as a writer. But once you have passed that high bar, like the painter who has left the academy and gone on to a distinguished career, there simply is no objectively valid function for the guy whose job it is to stand over your shoulder.
I could go on and on about the words that I’ve been forced to eliminate from published texts, after having spent hours in the writing of these texts thinking about how wonderful these words are, how they come packed with centuries of connotations, all of which I wish to convey. But this would require me to identify specific incidents, and I am not here to antagonise anyone.
I will say however that my worst experiences have been with some of the new media platforms that are seeking to make the encounter between writer and reader a more dynamic and interactive one. A particularly low moment for me came when I wrote some heavily edited “public philosophy” piece for Aeon. After it had been “published” (i.e., posted), my editor asked me if I could find a few hours over the coming days to engage with reader comments. “I am an author,” I wrote back indignantly, “not an online forum moderator.”
Things get tense working with me, sometimes, and I’m sincerely sorry to everyone who has had to endure that. Part of what I am doing here is looking for a way to avoid such potential conflict situations. I will say, to round out these paragraphs on the state of the media, that I am particularly pessimistic about the fate of truly thoughtful writing in a media ecosystem driven by algorithms trained upon clicks. In such a system, it is basically guaranteed that all writing will come out dumb enough to be “understood” by artificial intelligence. AI works in a dichotomous fashion: it needs to channel any given piece of writing down one path or the other. And so to write for the media is among other things to consent to feed this ravenous algorithmic beast, and in turn to exacerbate our society’s desperately worrisome trend toward political polarisation and extremism. To hell with that.
Part of the idea for starting this newsletter came to me a year or so ago when I was reading Balzac’s Lost Illusions. Much of it takes place in the milieu of Left Bank newspapermen of the 1830s. They have fearsome debates and rivalries, to be sure, but if there is anything that makes their world seem distant from ours (for in many respects it is a tale easily adaptable to the social-media era), it is the absence of an option of immediate reply to a publication. There is “engagement”, but it comes with sufficient delay that any given published text stands on its own, as a definitive statement of something or other. If writing is to be writing at all, there must be such a delay.
One thing I like about the newsletter format is that it helps us to stave off the degeneration of textuality into another form of orality. It does so by eliminating “engagement” from both the writer’s and the reader’s experience. Unless there are some ugly functionalities I have not yet discovered, here there is no possibility to like or to share, there are no publicly displayed metrics, there are no reader comments. This all suits me very well. You subscribe, I write, you read. If you don’t like what you read, you unsubscribe. Thus was it always so, more or less, in the history of writing, before social media came along and dragged the written word down into the swamps of endless Geplapper where we indulge our need to chatter with our mouths: a real need, indeed, one that is part of our evolutionary legacy and of our human nature, but not necessarily the most exalted use of language we have at our disposal.
As you may imagine, I am still working out some of the bugs in this new format. There will be some trial and error in the first few months, but what I am envisioning is roughly this: I will write one long essay every fortnight, which I will post at roughly the same day and time (say, Tuesday at 10 am Paris time). The essays will alternate in focus between recondite topics from the history of art, philosophy, and culture (the kind of essays that attempt to “extract a universe from a grain of sand”), and essays on issues more easily recognisable in our present political and cultural reality. For the latter, however, I must clarify that another thing I particularly loathe about writing for the media is the incessant expectation that one find a “news hook”; they’ll insist that you’re perfectly free to write about Aristotelian virtue theory for millions of readers, say, but only if you find a way to tie it in with concerns about Kanye West’s mental health. Again, to hell with that.
Because everyone here is a subscriber, and thus a willing recipient, I would like to think of this format as one in which I can “take the mask off”, and occasionally “take the gloves off” too (though as I have already said I am not interested in antagonising anyone; I’m not that kind of writer). Inevitably, many of the people before whom I feel professional, familial, and friendly pressures to watch what I say are already subscribers here, so moving over to this “private” venue does not entirely free us up to speak in a pure and flowing parrhesia. But I’ll do what I can here, to speak the truth.
Until my paid subscriber list grows somewhat I will be posting an identical version of the fortnightly essay at my website, jehsmith.com. If and when this new form of writing becomes a greater source of revenue than the media writing that I am willy-nilly leaving behind, I will begin restricting what I write here to my community of subscribers alone. I will never shift to a paid-subscriber-only model, and anyone who wishes to subscribe for free will be able to continue doing so in perpetuity.
You can help me, however, by letting your friends know about this newsletter. Perhaps you will only wish to do so after giving it a few weeks and reading the sort of “content” it brings. The present essay is not as I have said representative of what is to come, but rather is, as the kids say, “meta”. If you wish to get a taste of what is to come, some rough idea may be drawn from a perusal of my website.
A final remark on a delicate matter. I have recently been watching my friend Thomas Chatterton Williams get regularly and unjustly dunked upon on Twitter for the simple transgression of having an opinion on race issues in the United States while living in France. A frequent theme of these dunkings has been that because he lives in France, he must therefore be bathing in such luxury as to be completely out of touch with any of the grim political realities of the United States. Many readers assume he lives in a château, and must have some kind of noble title by now.
Now I don’t know much about Thomas’s material circumstances, but I can attest that the accusations are ill-founded, or at least that it does not automatically follow from the fact that a person lives in France that they live a life of luxury. My own existence, for example, is certainly more hardscrabble than it would have been had I chosen to stay in my first job, in an idyllic campus town in Ohio. I would have been quite well off by now — except that I also would have shot myself out of boredom years ago.
Living in France, with a modest French civil-servant’s salary from my university position, I have for many years now been obligated to maintain what are called “side hustles”. These have mostly been royalties from published books, honoraria from speaking engagements, and pittances from newspapers and magazines. I still get my royalties, but speaking engagements are hard to come by in plague times, and as I have said I am, like it or not, in the course of relinquishing my media pittances with the founding of this newsletter.
All of this is to explain why, though I am grateful for your readership no matter what, I will also be particularly grateful to anyone who wishes to become a paid subscriber. I will be experimenting with such parameters as frequency and length, in order to give my subscribers what the economists would call “a good value”. But as I have said, for now, I am just getting started, and I ask you to bear with me as I get this new word machine all tuned up.
For now, dear readers, thanks again. I’ll look forward to writing my first proper missive for you soon.