“The Hinternet” Is Turning One!
An Anniversary ‘Stack
I created my Substack account, whose official name is “The Hinternet”, in August of last year. This was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Today I’d like to reflect a bit on why this is, then I’d like to announce some projects I have in the works or on the cusp of appearing, and then, finally, I’d like to take the month of August off.
As you may know, this is a month that is jealously guarded in France as a time of vacation. Paris empties out, and it becomes virtually impossible to get anything done. I gather most people go to their maisons de campagne, which they usually seem to have inherited from their great-grandmothers. I’ll have to let the domain of my own imagination serve for an ersatz staycation destination, but even this comes at a heavy cost for me: the cost of not sticking to the regular work-rhythms that shape my life and preserve, along with tee-totaling, exercise, and meds, the fragile balance of what I would dare to call my safe space. But rules are rules. The right to such a vacation is enshrined in law for all functionaries, and the boundary between legal right and social duty is vague. I fear that if I attempt to maintain my weekly Substack rhythm, the French Vacation Police will soon be rappeling through my balcony window and shutting down my internet connection. Perhaps they would be justified in doing so.
A place to call home
As I’ve indicated, I find with one year’s hindsight that it was a fantastic idea to start The Hinternet. I’ve mostly steered away from all the controversies surrounding this new platform, and have not been affected in the least by the various efforts to belittle, marginalize, or contain the kind of writing that happens here. Matt Bruenig has called Substack (if I remember correctly) “a blog with a payment processor”, and I suppose that’s more or less right. But what a difference the payment processor makes! When you think about it, what makes legacy media what they are is in the end the fact that they likewise have a very complicated payment-processing apparatus attached to them. This is also what distinguishes the publishing industry from samizdat, and a university-based humanities education from a lively kitchen-table conversation. Restaurants would be nothing more than food-giveaway sites if they did not have payment processors attached. I could go on. My point is that if you put a payment processor on a blog, and people actually use it to make payments, this brings about a qualitative difference and changes the social function of the blog beyond recognition. Legacy institutions distinguish themselves principally in maintaining the illusion that their payment-processing is merely incidental to their raison d’être, while scrappy solo endeavors are compelled to be more upfront about it.
Another Bruenig, Liz, has deliciously noted of Yale Law School: “Everyone you talk to says they’re there more or less for charity work, but somehow the graduates keep getting rich and famous.” This is something I’ve noticed more generally among my friends and peers whose career-paths have landed them in tenured positions in American universities with mega-endowments, those great hedge-fund-management firms offering humanities classes for cover: they all talk as if philanthropy were a human moral duty simpliciter, rather than something only afforded by what are in the end the very unusual circumstances of their lives. Today one can even model oneself as an “anticapitalist” through acts of public alms-giving, always evading the central truth that such giving is only possible because one already is a beneficiary of income inequality. Meanwhile, the great majority of people are compelled to talk the talk of capitalism, desperately to present their very persons as if they were nothing more than walking LinkedIn profiles — not because they “like capitalism”, but because they are forced to submit to capitalism. Absurdly, then, the only people who get to be anticapitalists are the ones who can buy the cultural cachet that this identity carries with it by means of their accumulated capital; others are left to conduct themselves in the unseemly manner of hustlers, the go-get-’em merchant class, dog-eat-dog salesmen only slightly more discrete than the monsters from Glengarry Glen Ross. And the more they do that, the more they distance themselves in their habitus from those whom fate (and, sure, a certain amount of talent) placed elsewhere.
I am aware that I’m actively widening the gap here as concerns my own situation, but I’m too old to spend much time thinking about this. Today, as I write, is my forty-ninth birthday. I am so happy to be alive. And that’s not just the meds talking. In 1997 a friend told me I had only five more years before I was to become absolutely certifiably insane or was otherwise to meet some tragic demise. I believed her, and was judicious in doing so, and only very recently have I begun to dare to think that perhaps the danger is now passed. I am happy, but I also feel so much less grounded than I once assumed any forty-nine-year old must necessarily be in order simply to have remained alive for so long.
Sometimes it seems to me that the late efflorescence of my plain-speaking was programmed into me from the start. I am roughly the same age my father was when he was dropped from his post as a straight-laced GOP spokesman; the Christmas ornaments from the Reagan White House stopped arriving, and he spent the rest of his life as some kind of jaded quasi-anarchist, unsettling truth-teller (at least as he saw the truth), and incorrigible rolling-stone (wherever he lay his hat was his home). Sometimes it seems to me that the cause lies in world history, and not in the genetic or spiritual heritage of my paternal line. At the present moment my home country is in the middle of its Fourth, or perhaps Fifth, Great Awakening, another convulsion of Protestant moral effervescence that preserves in every way the same paradoxical combination of puritanism and radicalism so fascinatingly synthesized by the first Pilgrims in Massachusetts. It’s a place I don’t really recognize, mostly because I was wrong about that place throughout the part of my life I lived there (notably, I believed its history unfolded in linear, and not in cyclical, time). I know there’s no going home, and I know there’s no real prospect of home anywhere else. So I might as well speak plainly, then, in my remaining time, from where I stand.
In 2019-20 I had a Cullman Center fellowship at the New York Public Library, which is certainly as deeply as I’ve ever managed to insert myself into the American cultural elite — that is, into that group of culture-industry workers who are in a position to conceal the mechanisms of payment-processing that keep them afloat. This was the first time in my life that I was ever able to make it to the end of a given month without worrying about running out of money, and it felt very good indeed. As I’ve written before, I did not grow up in what you might call a financially stable environment, and I received nothing like a proper financial education. I have vivid memories of having to ride to the far side of town, for example, to go to the only Kentucky Fried Chicken that accepted checks we knew would bounce when cashed. Until I was forty I lived as a true bohemian, considered financial matters beneath me, and never really understood why I was always in debt. As with everything in my life, the shift from that phase was abrupt and total, and a sort of law of conservation of vice that governs my existence ensured that the overcoming of spendthriftness could only be bought by quick transition to an obsessive, all-consuming preoccupation with my ledger-books. I rush to add that I hate capitalism much more than I ever did in my bohemian phase. I hate it because it forced me, finally, to submit to it, though I always believed it never could. Capitalism broke me like a mustang cornered in a pen.
After the Cullman, I determined I did not want to go back to the modus vivendi of the perpetual grad-student, and I resolved to do anything within my power to avoid it (when I told Bruno Latour that I had effected a rare reverse-brain-drain move by leaving North American academia for France, his only words to me were: “Mes condoléances”.) My strategy took two forms. First, I applied for the few remotely plausible positions in North American universities with decent salaries. None of these worked out. Second, I considered a vast number of different sorts of hustling and gigging. I signed up for information on a crash course in coding (I still get their spam). I learned all about Amazon drop-shipping, and other such degrading and parasitic tasks. The lowest moment came in April, 2020, when, still the John and Constance Birkelund Fellow at the Cullman Center, I opened a lowly LinkedIn account, believing I could get away with it unnoticed by using the quasi-pseudonym “J. Erik Smith”. The algorithms sniffed me out like bloodhounds and in no time I had former students and former friends attempting to add me as a “contact”. I closed the window immediately and have not checked back since.
I’ve never read Nassim Nicholas Taleb, nor understood the attraction he holds for others, but at the time I was operating under the influence of one of his dicta that I’d happened to see online: make yourself rich in some enterprise, he advised, that does not depend on your reputation (semi-conductors, grain futures, drop-shipping), and then say whatever you wish in public without fear of the cost. The one bit of sound advice I know Taleb to have offered, then, is advice that I have definitely not taken. I was kidding myself, thinking I could start coding or whatever. For better or worse, all I can do is write. All I’ve got is the power of parrhesia, and this is a volatile stock indeed.
I wrote a year ago about some of the proximate causes of my foray into Substack, though there are some details I left out. I acknowledged I was sick and tired of doing the more respectable gig work of writing for publications with editors. What I left out was the particular encounter with a particular editor that drove me over the edge. I had written something, I forget the exact context, in which I described “the peculiar culture of yogurt”. My intention was, precisely, to play on the dual sense of “culture”, as the unique trait of human communities, and as that special bacterial ingredient that makes certain foods kind of weird-but-good. This might not have been the most ingenious figure of similitude ever, but it was recognizably mine, and I valued it. The editor sent this line back as: “yogurt’s peculiar tang”. Tang? What the fuck is tang? That is a word I have never used. I don’t use gooey, I don’t use tummy, and I sure as hell don’t use tang. What kind of absurd and degrading game involves delivering to people words they have never used, and insisting they use them, as if they were their own, as a condition of getting paid? I resolved that I would withdraw from this activity at once.
Over the past year I have indeed continued to contribute to other people’s magazines, but the pressure to do so is off. It is Substack that relieves that pressure. Substack enables me to feel free, to keep writing in a voice and at a pace that feel like my own. Lately I have heard jangling in my head a sort of Spinozistic inversion of that classic line from the New Order song: “I get this feeling I’m at liberty / A circumstance of being in motion”. The pace is quick and constant, and this fact is inseparable from the sense of freedom. It means a lot to me.
I have, after a year, 3667 people on my e-mail list, and 392 subscribers. I gather this is above average, but still a tiny, tiny shadow of the big accounts. This troubles me somewhat, but as Alice from Queens reminds me, you pretty much have to be willing to be “hot-takey” if you really want to “do numbers”. There are other things that are more important to me, though in the ideal world I would be able to pursue these things while still doing numbers. Invariably, my most successful ‘stacks are the ones that tap into what is called “the Discourse” in some way. My most successful missive so far was the one of June 5, in which I analyzed “our new American Zhdanovshchina”. Willy-nilly, this positioned me as adjacent to the post-left, or however you wish to call them, when it was boosted by Anna Khachiyan. I’m always happy for amplification, but as I’ve said before I’m spiritually and doctrinally pretty far from that world (that said, I think Anna K. is often very funny, and I wish there were more people, not fewer, like her). What bothers me is the way amplification inevitably involves a process of algorithmic slotting, in which a person starts out simply speaking from a position of parrhesia, and ends up in a camp, as “one of those people” (for any possible “those”).
I will always just try to speak in my own voice here, and will take no responsibility for my subsequent slotting. As I see it, that’s not my problem, any more than planning my own funeral or editing a posthumous edition of my works.
As usual, my Tristrapedic thoroughness has ensured that the “preliminary” comments drag on for so long as to endanger the primary mission, which today is to tell you a bit about some things I am working on in the hope that you can check them out, or at least begin anticipating them, during my month of “vacation”.
First, and most immediately, I am very pleased to announce the launch of my podcast, What Is X?, in partnership with The Point Magazine. On each episode, I speak with someone about a fundamental concept (“beauty”, “truth”, “philosophy”, “music”, “friendship”, “consciousness”, “smell”), which they will have thought a lot about or which otherwise means a lot to them. We attempt to work together towards a definition that satisfies us both. Sometimes we end in agreement, sometimes in disagreement, and sometimes in aporia. Each possible outcome is signaled by its own sound-effect: agreement is announced by church bells, aporia by wind, and disagreement by a bleating goat.
The show will be airing once a month, and I already have several episodes recorded. I am always interested in hearing pitches for new episodes, with guests who either have some weighty credentials in a given area (e.g., a biochemist who wants to address with me the question “What is life?”), or who have some demonstrable ability to speak about a topic in a compelling way (e.g., I’m recording an episode on friendship with someone whose credentials in this area are that he is my old old friend and I know him to be an excellent raconteur).
I could say a great deal more about this project, but I think it’s enough to state that it is really fun and weird and a departure from the persona you might think you know through my writing. I’m not saying I can do anything like a good Terri Gross, but my goal in each of the dialogues is, to the extent possible, to “passer la parole”, to let the other person speak —ideally at least two-thirds of the time—, and otherwise just to enjoy the art of conversation while also leaving a record of it. The show will no doubt evolve in unexpected ways, and the first episodes will surely have a rough quality to them (that’s me playing the opening line on guitar, for example). But I gather no one listens to podcasts for their production value —if you want that you can listen to Rachel Maddow or whatever—, and I think I read somewhere that the number of “umms” and “uhhs” in a person’s speech is directly proportional to their intelligence. So I hope you will be generous in your listening. And please, do tell a friend. And please, again, listen to my first episode with the great Agnes Callard talking about philosophy!
Second, a major, years-long collaborative project of mine is about to appear, in November, and while it is an irreducibly “niche” and “quirky” sort of thing I am still hoping to see it make some sort of dent in the culture. It is a book, published by Strange Attractor together with The MIT Press, entitled In Search of the Third Bird: Exemplary Essays from the Proceedings of ESTAR(SER), 2001-2021, and edited by D. Graham Burnett, Catherine L. Hansen, and me. Contributors to individual sections of the book include Florian Hasard (“an analyst retired from the Rand Corporation, where he contributed, as a Stanford graduate student, to the 1955 classic, A Million Random Digits with 100,000 Normal Deviates, Glencoe: Free Press, 1955; he is presently at work on an epic poem of the same name”), and Paul Sondheim (“a wealthy amateur, [who] maintains houses in Zürich and Los Angeles”). I don’t want to say much more about the project. Its aims and methods will, for good or ill, become known in due time. There are already rumors circulating about it, for example that it is “an academic fraud of unprecedented proportions”. I suppose this depends how you see things, though even the book’s supporters, admittedly, have so far been a bit vague in their praise. The eminent art critic Hal Foster, for example, announces in his blurb on the back cover that it is “a very strange book”. In any case we are hoping to see it widely discussed, puzzled over, and most of all to see it widely reviewed in all the right places. Again, tell a friend.
Thirdly, I am now finishing the copy-edits on The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, which will appear from Princeton University Press in February, 2022. There is a long back-story to this project, which I will spare you today, other than to say that it has its earliest beginnings in my relatively viral essay of January, 2019, “It’s All Over”, which appeared in The Point Magazine. I see this book as synthesizing my public-oriented essayistic and critical writing, which readers of this ‘stack will likely know best, with my scholarly work in the history and philosophy of science. In 2012, Michel Serres wrote: “Internet, c’est vraiment du Leibniz sans Dieu”. I only read that after I finished the manuscript, but it well summarizes my argument, and I may still try to squeeze it in if it’s not too late.
As I’ve mentioned before, The Hinternet was originally conceived in part as a supplement for the work I was doing on the book, and when I return from “vacation” I will be using it for that purpose, most likely with some greater regularity than I have been over the past year. Again again, tell a friend.
Fourthly, I was absolutely thrilled recently to learn that the American experimental composer and trombonist George E. Lewis adapted some of the text of the translation Stephen Menn and I did of the works of the early modern African philosopher Anton Wilhelm Amo (c. 1703 - after 1753) for his new composition Amo, for five voices and electronics. It will be premiering at the Venice Biennale in September. I’ve been listening to Lewis since 1984, when I first picked up Laurie Anderson’s Big Science and heard him, though I did not know it at the time, on backing trombone. I later became aware of him when, in grad school in New York, I became something of a Tzadik completist, and bought up everything from that label that I could get my hands on. It is therefore a special honor for me to have had some small part in shaping his most recent work. I’ve seen the score, and if the music sounds like it looks it’s going to be wonderful. Please make a special effort to hear it, if you happen to be in Venice this September. Or buy it later. And one more time, tell a friend.
Don’t bother me, I’m on “vacation”. I’ll be back in September. Thank you for your loyal readership, and thank you especially for subscribing.