Hobby-Horses

Some Notes on Writing, and on the State of the ‘Stack

I have not offered a missive purely of news and updates since late December last. That one was the result of panic — I had not a thought in my mind worth sharing (or so it seemed), and so I sent the closest approximation I could come up with of bland holiday greetings and a conventional year-in-review. Unexpectedly, this last resort of mine, which felt like pure shameful gonzo as it came out the fingertips, triggered the biggest wave of largesse I have experienced since beginning the ‘stack in August, and won me more new subscribers than the several preceding weeks combined.

This time around, I am resorting to news and updates not because I do not have anything contentful to say, but because I have noticed that there is a clear point of diminishing returns in the provision of “content”, which I have recently grown concerned not to overstep. That is, while a reader would have clear grounds for complaint if a writer did not write as frequently as promised, or as frequently as reasonable to justify a subscription, readers can also feel overwhelmed when the writing just keeps coming, week after week, hot and heavy.

My readership keeps growing, with both paid and unpaid subscribers pouring in every day. I don’t quite understand where they are all coming from. A small number are names I recognize (I can only see the e-mail address of the subscriber, which sometimes contains the name), some of whom come from the world of academic philosophy. All are welcome of course, though I have tried to be clear from the beginning that this writing project of mine is not a philosophy-writing project; it is in no way a perischolarly supplement to my scholarly work, let alone a venture into “public philosophy”.

On the contrary it is my struggle —perhaps vain, but still mine— to engage in the sort of writing that I would have liked to pursue as a form of life in some nearby possible world in which I never got a Ph.D., but could instead make an honest living as an essayist and a non-fiction prose stylist. My guiding lights are people like Anne Carson and Marina Warner — people who moved up through the academy, but at some point realized there were better things to do with their effervescent learning than to channel it down the narrow paths the academy opens up. What I am writing here is not, alas, quit-lit; my life circumstances don’t permit that, though I confess that the contribution I have planned out in my mind to that promising new genre, should things ever change, is at least as good as the one I have planned for my eventual “cancellation” (if you wish ever to see either of these, the best way for you to make that wish a reality is to subscribe, reader, subscribe).

So anyhow, some philosophical ideas and authors do indeed find their way into what I write here. But do we want philosophy to be a public good —as the constant demand for “public philosophy” would seem to imply—, or don’t we? If we do, then why is it so hard to receive any public mention of Plato or Kant or nearby possible worlds as anything other than an extension of one’s professional persona? Isn’t the possible world we want one in which you can mention these names without drawing into focus your affiliation with the philosophy guild, in which these names fall as fluidly from the tongue at the proverbial kitchen table as do, say, “Jen Psaki” or “Tucker Carlson”?

A large part of the problem is of course that with the rise of new communication technologies none of us has any clear idea of where work leaves off and the rest of life begins. The internet has become a sort of work/life cloaca, a single portal through which everything must pass. This new monotremous existence of ours leads to many moments of pure surrealism, where, for example, a massive government grant agency requires as a condition of funding that you include a Twitter presence as part of the public-outreach dimension of your research, and before you know it you are fielding feedback on your work in deep-ocean stratigraphy or the geopolitics of natural-gas pipelines from @maoistassplay69. It’s absurd, and unsustainable.

Our whole historical moment is one of transition, and it’s inevitable that in such a moment most of the work we do simply makes no sense. The gravitational pull of social media warps absolutely everything, including the work that people are still trying to do in the old institutions that pre-exist social media. I have been able to find some orientation in the current cloud of confusion —as to who works for whom, and why we work at all— by just opening up my Substack, and writing, week after week, in ecstatic freedom.

Of course this website is even closer to social media than is the classroom or the grant committee, and so it is even more plainly warped by social-media logic. One thing I’ve noticed in particular is that writing here ends up, if only implicitly, doing that thing one so often sees explicitly on Twitter: “This is your regular reminder that the Arizona GOP is still disputing the vote count”, and so on. Anything you might wish to get across in writing in any lasting way must, in the era of social media, take the form of a “regular reminder”. The points I have made in this space that have been the best received are generally points I have made many times before, often more elegantly. It doesn’t matter. Writing in the internet age is becoming ever more like oral communication, and one of the ways this manifests itself is in the transformation of writers into boosters, both of themselves and of the narrow-focus thing on which they build their writing careers, the thing for which they have honed the fifteen-second “elevator pitch” that got them a contract, and which they must now keep pitching at regular intervals, holding a never-ending virtual pep-rally for the one thought that legitimates them as professional idea-workers, among the infinitely many thoughts they have had as human beings.

Here, in these past months, I’ve noticed that I have myself been engaging in some “regular reminders”, though I also note that it is hard, for me and almost certainly also for my reader, to clearly separate the regular reminders from what we now call, thanks to Laurence Sterne’s immortal Uncle Toby, “hobby-horses”. That is, I confess to being repetitive, and I know this is something that may have gone undetected by others if I had not insisted on perpetually refilling this septimanic word-dump. George Eliot says somewhere that when you first meet a person, it is as if you are afloat with them on an open sea, but soon enough you notice that that sea is in fact just a lake, and inevitably you begin to bump up against the same familiar shores, and you have to push away with some force just to get out to a distance again where you can pretend you are surrounded by infinite ocean. Again, I myself have trouble, sometimes, determining whether I am shrinking into nothingness like the Aral Sea, as I say something I vaguely recall having said a week or two ago, or whether rather I am just sharpening the points that matter to me most, again and again until simply to read them is to be pierced by them.

Anyhow what I am trying to do here on Substack, in part, is to demonstrate something about writing: that it is actually very easy, not just for me, but as a species-specific capacity that we all have latent in us. Most of what slows it down is the paperasse of editorial volleys and other unnecessary conventions that, at least up until fairly recently, have justified the existence of the institutions through which writing is produced. In fact it’s not that hard to write: you just take the thoughts in your head, and translate them into text. And there are always thoughts in your head, either currently active, or dormant but easily awakened. (I was wrong, last December, in my moment of panicked gonzo.)

Now one difficulty might be that while you indeed think a lot, you find that you know very little. But trust me when I say you should never let that stop you. If you want to write about something but you do not fully understand it yet, then incorporate a reflection on this lack of complete understanding into your writing; you and your readers will often find that even your ignorance is revelatory of some feature of the thing on which you are focusing. In the end I believe, with Leibniz (Spinoza also has such a view, though it is somewhat harder to draw out), that we are all dimly omniscient, which is to say that our minds come pre-stocked with some low-level awareness of every single truth about the universe, and as a result simply to engage in the exercise of rousing the dormant thoughts you already have, as for example in writing, is in itself an exercise not so much in knowledge production as in knowledge activation.

It is broadly speaking some such theory of dim omniscience that inspired the genre of “cosmos writing” so popular over the course of the nineteenth century, as represented for example by Alexander von Humboldt, Constantine Samuel de Rafinesque, Walt Whitman. “I find that I incorporate gneiss”, the poet writes in Leaves of Grass. What Whitman seems to mean here is not only that he himself is a product of the same vast cosmic history that also yielded up minerals; he also wishes to say —on my reading— that natural knowledge is a form of self-knowledge. Gneiss does not, to say the least, come easily to mind today as the expected product of a process of introspection, but that is because we defer far too much to mineralogists, and we suppose wrongly that science has nothing to do with the fundamental aims of humanistic inquiry.

The expectation that we defer to specialists is all the more impoverishing when it comes to the humanities stricto sensu, where protection rackets form around the narrowest domains of inquiry, and intimidate into silence everyone who does not wish to dwell exclusively in these domains. Often, in the humanities, the claim that so-and-so “does not cite the relevant literature” is really just a way of asserting ownership of a given cluster of issues, and often overlooks the fact that there are entirely separate traditions that engage with those issues differently, which “the relevant literature” in turn does not cite. Here I’ll continue writing about whatever I like, whether I’ve done the reading you consider relevant or not. This is unacceptable, of course, by scholarly standards, but as I’ve said this here ‘stack is not a scholarly undertaking. It’s a “cosmic” undertaking.

I will probably slow down in the coming months, to one essayletter every two weeks, though I do have some pieces written that were originally destined for other venues that I will probably share in an hors-série fashion, just to get them off my desktop.

I think it is only by slowing down a bit that I can get a balanced sense of when I am doing the righteous work of “honing”, and when I am lapsing into the vice of the “regular reminder”. While writing is easy, as I have said, I also find that the weekly missive brings me too close to the psychological experience of social-media posting, where I have little respite in the space between the final aftershocks of one week’s essayletter, and the dawning consciousness of what I am going to say the next week. Although, as I have said, we are all trapped in the gravitational pull of social media, whatever we are doing in life, I do want to keep this project as far away as possible from the constant Sturm und Drang of disputation, quibbling, and metrics, as if every thought a human being expressed were of necessity an invitation to immediate feedback (which is also why, as a reasoned matter of principle, I keep comments turned off).

I will also be doing more subscriber-only posts. It is very difficult for me to find the right balance. In principle I try to alternate between open-access and subscriber-only; in practice, every time I finish writing something, I find it a shame not to share it as widely as possible: this, too, is probably in part the warping effect of social media.

Please be patient as I navigate through this confusing cloud, and seek to find the right balance of frequency, exclusivity, length, repetitiveness, &c. I know that after I hit “publish” in a few minutes, there will be a wave of unsubscriptions, and a simultaneous counter-wave of new subscriptions. That’s just life on the ‘stack. I do hope that you (second-person singular familiar), for your part, will keep reading generously.