“This was a cruel year...”

My 2020 in Review

“This was a cruel year: an osminka of rye cost a grivna, bread cost two nogatas, and honey ten kunas a pood; the people ate lime leaves, birchbark; they ground wood pulp and mixed it with husks and straw; and some ate buttercups, moss, and horseflesh.” —The Novgorod First Chronicle (1016-1471)

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I hate end-of-year lists. I hate contemporary writing that follows the cycles of the calendar. It is one thing if you are keeping an agrarian almanac, marking the first snow-melt or the return of some migratory species of bird. It is another thing altogether to fall into line with the stigmergy of social media’s trending topics, which, alongside indecipherable K-pop gossip and recaps of your favorite television series, often include our most beloved holidays.

The result is that even online operations such as the wonderful Public Domain Review, whose very reason for being is to defy such small things as the year and the date and to maintain a sub-specie-aeternitatis view of history’s long and glorious pageant of out-of-copyright publications, are forced to serve up a yearly tour of vintage greeting-cards featuring the odious Krampus or some similar compromise. If, say, RE/Search Publications —which in the 1980s gave us such classics as Modern Primitives and the Industrial Culture Handbook were still a significant cultural force, this would only have been by maintaining a vigorous social-media presence, and every December we surely would have had to endure another “William S. Burroughs Christmas” or a “Fakir Musafar Yule” or “Carolling with Lydia Lunch”.

No, I hate this compulsory participation in the cycle of a year that we scarcely experience any longer through the tilting and spinning of the planet and its consequent rhythmic transformations of all earthly life, but only through algorithmic nudging. Yet I confess today I can see no more graceful way to discharge my remaining duties towards my subscribers in 2020, and to prepare them for the coming two-week hiatus of my efforts here, than to offer up a year-in-review of my own.

I will divide it into three sections: first, a summary of the principle milestones and memorable lessons I have learned since opening a Substack account at the end of August; second, a descriptive list of some of the other creative and public writing I have done this year; third, a selective and partial summary of things I have read, heard, and seen that have impressed me, enriched me, or otherwise changed me in 2020.

1. On the ‘stack

I have written over 60,000 words in this space — thus, as many as are found in a slim but respectable book. My Substack exists in part as a para-text for my forthcoming work, variously titled The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is and The Living Mirror: A Philosophy of the Internet (we’re going to nail that down with my editors at Princeton very soon). In this capacity I have written a great deal here about our current technological-cultural moment, our crisis of attention, the villainy of private corporations offering us free video games (i.e., social media) in exchange for our data, and convincing us that playing these games amounts to participation in a proper Habermasian public sphere. These pieces have been relatively popular, and I will continue at least through 2021 to use this “Hinternet” as a space for criticism and analysis of the internet.

Nothing I have written has enjoyed as much popularity as my recent public piece, “What Are the Humanities?” Least beloved of all, meanwhile, have been my stabs at fiction, metafiction, hoaxing, or however they might be categorised. This situation depresses me somewhat. The last thing I want to be is a higher-education commentator. I want to talk about ideas, whether they are anchored to an academic curriculum or not. Nonetheless, I have been heartened by the intensity of the interest in my opinions about the current state of humanistic inquiry, and also surprised to see precisely with whom and for what reasons my opinions have resonated.

In particular, I am surprised by the large number of Catholics who have recently joined my readership, both clergy and lay. I still do not fully understand the new generation of “Weird Catholics”, as they have sometimes been called in the Twittersphere. Whether an echo of England’s profusion of sui-generis converts such as G. K. Chesterton a century ago, or something altogether new and distinctly American, it is undeniable that many weird and compelling personalities indeed are converting to Catholicism, or are emphasising that element of their inherited identity more than they may have done so in the past. Certainly, I have some things in common with them. I think the template of original sin is more powerful in making sense of my place in the world than any feel-good mantras I learned at Montessori School, and early-modern Jesuit writing is one of the primary sources of my own ethnographic imagination, and of my cultivation of the virtue of curiosity.

And yet on many points the shared interest is superficial. I like Latin, but I often forget entirely that it is, among so many other things, a liturgical language. I like Aristotle, but for the life of me I cannot figure out why Catholics presume that he is somehow one of them, at least par courtoisie.

I think one of the reasons for this broad sympathy for my views and temperament is that there is an emerging alliance of cosmopolitan religious groups on the one hand —Catholics and reform Jews in particular who are strongly averse to the nationalist jingoism and intellectual-cum-moral closure of the Trump era—, and on the other hand secular critics of the woke left — or, as I prefer to say, with Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, secular critics of woke capitalism. Like these secular critics, the non-fundamentalist faithful are generally capable of recognising and respecting fundamental differences of world-view while building on common ground wherever it is found. The illiberal woke plainly are not interested in doing this, but rather follow the same bivalent logic that filters down to them from the social-media algorithms on which they depend: absolute ideological conformity or total exclusion. And so an unlikely alliance is formed, or rather re-formed, out of a rediscovery of the value of the neutral public sphere that first made it possible in some parts of early modern Europe for members of different religious communities to inhabit the same secular polis.

But in the shaping of this alliance those on both sides of it bring some fairly facile presuppositions about the other members. Thus Ross Douthat, quote-tweeting “What Are the Humanities?” wrote:

This is good but despite the author’s professed indifference to ‘what the right does’ you can still see the way that left humanism is perpetually fighting with one hand behind its back because of its allergy to certain conservative-coded ideas. Those ideas are (1) some works of art are richer and better and more timeless than others, and (2) something we should call God exists.

It is interesting, I note in passing, that the New York Times’ two best and most lucid opinion writers by far are both Catholic intellectuals, and are both extremely online (the other being Liz Bruenig). Jamelle Bouie and Michelle Goldberg occupy some sort of middle ground, while with all the others it really doesn’t matter what they think, as they are plainly only serving up what we might justly call “normie palliation”.

But anyhow Ross still misfires here, which is really not helping the cause of this alliance between us that I’ve already invoked. Sure, some works are better than others, but objective superiority is not at all the only reason why a humanist might take an interest in a given work of art, literature, or material culture. For example, we value Gilgamesh mostly because certain clay tablets just happened to survive the millennia. The worth of a work, obviously, has to do not just with the initial inspiration of the singularly exceptional artist who brought it into being, but also with its reception-history, with, as it were, the taphonomic forces that shape it after the artist is dead, in ways that no one can ever anticipate. Meaning, and therefore value, are always culture-bound and history-bound, and to recognise this is not to slip into the “postmodern” relativism that purportedly dogs the left (in fact the left has by now moved on to antimodern dogmatism, but never mind). Frankly I’m astounded at how few self-styled humanists grasp this basic point, and as far as I’m concerned anyone who doesn’t grasp it, who thinks about the history of the great works as a succession of singular geniuses, as a roster of “the MVPs of thought”, of the “GOATs of art”: anyone who thinks like this, I say, is still thinking like a child.

As for God — sure, God exists, absolutely. But the whole task of humanism, in contrast with theology, is to see how much you can say about human beings without recourse to that fact. Now, you might think the answer is “very little”, but that’s an interesting result too. And this is not an idle exercise either, for the legacy of humanism since the era of Erasmus and John Toland, the profound reason why it is so important to defend it today, is that it is what provides us with the neutral framework to coexist within the same society, even in recognition of our deep differences —for example the difference between the faithful and the skeptical— rather than seeking ever to either convert or exterminate one another. I know Ross understands this, and I hope he will allow this understanding to prevail in the interest of an ever-stronger alliance between the various species of our shared genus of cosmopolitanism.

But I see now that my effort to simply review what I’ve been doing on Substack is quickly turning into, well, another Substack piece. I’ll close this section by saying that, much to my surprise, and volens-nolens, my Substack experience has been of a sort of rolling conversation from week to week. I had imagined that each time I would write on something completely different. What I find is that I am unable to do that, but instead can often only start a new ‘stack by taking the previous one as a sort of bacterial starter culture. My mind is like unto yogurt, but I still manage to get a few things done.

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2. What else I’ve been doing

I do have a day job, and as far as I know I continue to discharge my duties satisfactorily. In 2020 the principal scholarly work I published was the joint edition and translation from the Latin, with Stephen Menn, of Anton Wilhelm Amo’s Philosophical Dissertations on Mind and Body. You should buy it and read it. I also started (in February) and finished (in November) the writing of The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is (or whatever it will end up being called). Other long-term projects proceed apace. These include the translation of Pierre Gassendi’s 1658 Syntagma Philosophicum, also for Oxford University Press, which I am completing with Rodolfo Garau. I am also completing, for the “World Literatures in Translation” series of University of California Press, a translation from the Sakha language of the Siberian oral epic known as Olonkho (I’ve written about this extensively on my old pre-Substack website, which remains live, if undernourished). I am also still working on my magnum opus, A Global History of Philosophy, to 1750, under contract with Princeton. Finally, I am working on a book —which was the official project for my Cullman Fellowship in 2019-20— on G. W. Leibniz’s role in the inception and growth of natural philosophy (i.e., science) in the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century.

Someday, after these are written, there are two more books I would like to write — one is a political philosophy of animal domestication, the other is a philosophical and anthropological reflection on the significance and the social role of ancestors. After all this, I assume, I will become an ancestor myself.

Moving further out into the perischolarly creative realm, this year I finally completed work, with my fellow “editors” D. Graham Burnett and Catherine L. Hansen, on In Search of the Third Bird, now available for pre-order from Strange Attractor/The MIT Press. I won’t say any more about this volume, other than that it is the most difficult and ornate and resplendent project I have ever had a hand in, and you should buy it and read it.

As for media writing, I wrote less this year than in most previous years since, say, 2010. In the first half of 2020 I was a Cullman fellow, and part of taking that role seriously meant stepping away from short-term tasks in order to focus on reading. In the second half of 2020, when I was no longer a Cullman fellow, I started my Substack, and as I’ve explained this was in part in order to break free of the demands and expectations of media editors. Nonetheless, this year I did find myself saying “yes” to at least a few invitations from publications new and old.

Early in the year I published “The Non-Boundary”, a meditation on skin for Cabinet Magazine (the official date of the issue is Spring 2018-Winter 2019, but its release was delayed until 2020).

Shortly after this, in February, I had a piece in the Cabinet Magazine “Kiosk” series, entitled “On the Market”, recounting some moments in my peculiar financial history, and my recent and no less peculiar efforts to become financially “savvy”.

In March my essay “It’s All Just Beginning” appeared in The Point Magazine. It was an attempt to capture my experience of the early days of our first pandemic lockdown, and of my own illness with the virus. This piece was republished in The Point’s ten-year-anniversary anthology, The Opening of the American Mind, which you should also buy and read.

Some months passed, and then in August I published a “take” on cultural appropriation with Persuasion, “The Joy of Appropriation”. I was not satisfied with the little I was able to say on the subject in this venue, and so these 1500 words or so yielded up another 4000 of them on my own website, under the title “Ecstasy; Or, Further Remarks on Cultural Appropriation”. If you want to know what I really think about the topic, start with this latter piece.

In October I wrote a piece for Tablet Magazine in partial defense of the now-anathema Jeffrey Toobin, or, more precisely, in full horror at the encroachment of workplace-surveillance into our homes. The piece was entitled “The Work-Pleasure-Surveillance Machine Threatens All of Us”. I am basically happy with it, though the editors changed some words and phrasings and published it without running it by me first, which means that at least some of the words are not my own or even approved by me.

In November I wrote “France’s President Stands on Principle, But Falters in Practice” for Foreign Affairs. This piece is an echo of the spate of writing I did in 2015, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Laura Secor is a wonderful editor.

That same month I published a “fun” piece for my friends at TANK Magazine in the UK on the British artist David Shrigley’s residency at the Maison Ruinart in Reims, entitled “The Art of the Bubble”. I was, to say the least, not impressed.

Finally, I don’t quite know how to classify this, but one of my ‘stacks was reworked and published earlier this month in The Chronicle of Higher Education under the title “The Moral Contortions of the New University”. And it was the responses to this piece, in turn, that led me to write “What Are the Humanities?” As I’ve said, it’s a rolling conversation.

3. What I like

One of my great regrets is that I do not have nearly enough time, in this stage of life, for leisurely reading. Sometimes I say that my twenties and early thirties were the “input phase”, and ever since then I have been in the “output phase”. But that is not entirely true. During my Cullman year I read more contemporary fiction than usual, including notably the most recent novel by the Cullman Center’s director, Salvatore Scibona, an astoundingly intricate and vivid epic entitled The Volunteer. I also read both of my fellow fellow Sally Rooney’s novels, Normal People and Conversations with Friends, and I liked them very much even if I felt they were not really written for someone like me. I’ve followed none of the online Sally Rooney-focused chatter, but have seen enough to know that it is inane and an embarrassment to all who participate in it. Sally is a very talented storyteller and observer, and she is absolutely committed to the craft and I can’t wait to read what she publishes next. I also read Tommy Orange’s There There, depicting the lives of urban Native Americans in Oakland, and absolutely loved it. Talk about giving a voice to the marginalised! There are a few other contemporary novels that I read this year, but none really left much of an impression.

In English-language poetry, I continue to read and to marvel at the work of Geoffrey Hill, Charles Olson, Les Murray, and Emily Dickinson, among others.

Most of the literature I read pre-dates the twentieth century. This year I returned to Turgenev, reading his wonderful Notes of a Hunter (one of Putin’s favorite books, incidentally). I also returned to Isaak Babel’s Odessa Stories, and loved them again. My great new discovery this year was of an author whom I had previously only approached in the most casual and inattentive way: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Confessions I read in the fall, and whose La Nouvelle Héloïse I am just now finishing. I wrote a bit about the former of these in an early-ish ‘stack. When I finish Rousseau’s novel, I am going to return to the nineteenth century and fill in some of the many remaining gaps in my reading of Balzac’s La Comédie humaine.

Most of my reading is of books that are not fiction but not really non-fiction either, not really part of my scholarly competence narrowly conceived, not part of my “work”, yet certainly not considered pleasurable by the great majority of people. This year I read quite a bit of Pliny the Elder (a perennial favorite), Emmanuel Swedenborg (a new discovery), Jordanes’s Getica, Tacitus’s Germania, a lot of eighteenth-century German travel reports from Siberia. Partly in connection with my work on Gassendi, but also out of pure interest (or “pleasure”, whatever that is) I’ve also read a good deal of late-antique doxography, e.g., Diogenes Laërtius, Sextus Empiricus, and so on. For a while I was reading a French translation of Lewis and Clark’s diaries, and this often struck me as being nearly indistinguishable from the best avant-garde lettrist poetry of the twentieth century.

The one movie I’ve seen this year that is worth mentioning is William Wyler’s 1938 Jezebel, starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda. That was very compelling.

I saw some terrible TV shows that are definitely not worth mentioning. Friends, brothers and sisters, these are not art, but corporate content, custom-made to keep you addicted and atomised and oblivious to what art is.

I subscribe to two other Substack accounts. One is Nick Pinkerton’s Employee Picks. Pinkerton is some kind of remarkable cinema savant, who does real research on marginal figures and brings them to life in ways you otherwise never could have imagined. He is also a great writer. I pay $5 a month to support his work.

The other account is Becca Rothfeld’s A Fête Worse than Death. Becca is a very rare bird in American academic philosophy (currently working on her Ph.D. at Harvard on questions pertaining to the nature of beauty): someone who understands her purview as an intellectual to go beyond what the great majority of academic philosophers call “public philosophy”. Becca is an accomplished critic, whose work in this vanishing and noble tradition stands on its own quite apart from whatever she accomplishes in philosophy. (I would pay to subscribe to her account, but so far she has not made this option available.) Amia Srinivasan is another philosopher of this sort: someone who engages with a clear and compelling voice in public writing without having to resort to that dull and predictable tic of so many people in my discipline who are given a space in the New York Times or wherever else and can only use it to say: “Well, as a philosopher…” Think for yourselves, friends, not for your guild. In the end you’re all you’ve got.

4. Holiday greetings

The citation from the Novgorod Chronicles with which I began has been my stock year-in-review joke for over a decade. This year, for the first time, it struck me as offensive, and I hesitated to use it, since this year has in fact been bad for so many of us, including, in many respects I have not discussed here, me.

But every year since 1016 has been bad in some respects, and good in others, and it’s going to keep on being that way forever, and we need to maintain our sense of historical perspective and our sense of humour. It’s as simple as that.

I’ll see you back here in 2021.

I am temporarily opening up to all readers my paid-subscriber-only content, so that you can see what you’re missing and perhaps, convinced now of its value, decide to subscribe