Three Pound Brain

No bells, just whistling in the dark…

Tag: literature

Unkempt Nation, Disheveled Soul

by rsbakker

So this has been a mad summer in pretty much every respect. The first week of May, my hard-drive died, and I lost pretty much everything I had written the previous six months. My wife was in Venezuela at the time, marching, so I had a hard time wrapping my head around the psychological enormity of the event. It’s not every day you turn on the news to watch events embroiling your loved ones.

Anyway, I’m still pulling the pieces together. I had occasion to revisit some of my first blog posts, and I thought I would post a few snippets from way back in 2010, when we could still pretend technology wasn’t driving the world insane. Rather than get angry all over again at the lack of reviews, or fret for the future of democratic society in the technological age, I thought I would let my younger, less well-groomed self do the ranting.

I’ll be back with things more substantial soon.


September 14, 2010 – So why are so many writers heros? Aside from good old human psychology, I blame it on the old ‘Write What You Know’ literary maxim.

Like so many literary maxims it sounds appealing at first blush. After all, how can you be honest–authentic–unless you write ‘what you know.’ But like all maxims it has a flip side: Telling practitioners what they should do is at once telling them what they should not do. Telling writers to only write what they know is telling them to studiously avoid all the things their lives lack–adventure, romance, spectacle–which is to say, the very things that regular people crave.

So this maxim has the happy side-effect of policing who gets to communicate to whom, and so securing the institutional boundaries of the literary specialist. Not only is real culture left to its own naive devices, it becomes the unflagging foil, a kind of self-congratulatory resource, one that can be tapped over and over again to confirm the literary writer’s sense of superiority. Thus all the writerly heros, stranded in seas of absurdity.

September 16, 2010 – The pigeonhole has no bottom, believe you me. I used to be so naive as to think I could climb out, but now I’m starting to think that it swallows everyone in the end. I wonder about all the other cranks and crackpots out there, about all the other sparks that have been snuffed by relentless inattention. It’s no accident that eulogies are so filled with cliches.

After all, it’s neurophysiology that I’m up against more than any passing cultural bigotry. The brain pigeonholes everything it encounters to better lower its caloric load, to economize. We sort far more than we ponder. Novelty, when we encounter it, is either confused for something old and stupid or comes across as errant noise. Things were this way long before corporations and capital.

So I find myself wondering what I should do. Maybe I should just resign myself to my fate, numb the pain, mellow those revenge fantasies. Become a fatalist.

But then there’s nothing like bitterness to keep that fire scorching your belly. And there’s nothing I fear more than becoming old and complacent. Only the well-groomed don’t have chips on their shoulders.

September 18, 2010 – What really troubles me is the way this hypocrisy has been institutionalized. So long as you treat ‘culture’ as a what, which is to say, as a abstract construct, a formalism, then you can congratulate yourself for all the myriad ways in which your abstractions disrupt those abstractions. But as soon as you treat ‘culture’ as a who, which is to say, as a cartoon we use to generalize over millions of living, breathing people, the notion of ‘disruption’ becomes pretty ridiculous pretty quick. All it takes is one simple question: “Who is disrupted?” and the illusion of criticality is dispelled. One little question.

The conceit is so weak. And yet somehow we’ve managed to raise a veritable landfill of illusory subversion upon it. ‘Literature,’ we call it.

Says a lot about the power of vanity, if you think about it.

As well as why I’m probably doomed to fail.

September 20, 2010 – But our culture has become frightfully compartmentalized. The web, which was supposed to blow open the doors of culture–to ‘flatten everything’–seems to have had the opposite effect. Since we’re hardwired to reflexively seek out affirmation and confirmation, rendering everything equally available has meant our paths of least resistence no longer take us across unfamiliar territory. We can get what we want and need without taking detours through things we didn’t realize we wanted or needed. We can make an expedient bastion out of our parochial tastes.

February 27, 2011 – These people, it seems to me, have to be engaged, have to be challenged, if only so that the masses don’t succumb to their own weaknesses for self-serving chauvinism. These people are appealing simply because they are so adept at generating ‘reasons’ for self-serving intuitions that we all share. That we and our ways are special, exempt, and that Others are a threat to us. That our high-school is, like, really the greatest high-school on the planet. Confirmation bias, my-side bias, the list goes on. And given that humans have evolved to be easily and almost irrevocably programmed, it seems to me that the most important place to wage this battle is in classroom. To begin teaching doubt as the highest virtue, as opposed to the madness of belief.

The prevailing madness.

Funny, huh? It’s the lapse in belief that these guys typically see as symptomatic of modern societal decline. But really what they’re talking about is a lapse in agreement. Belief is as pervasive as ever, but as a principle rather than any specific consensual canon. It stands to reason that the lack of ‘moral and cognitive solidarity’ would make us uncomfortable, considering the kinds of scarcity and competition faced by our ancestors.

January 13, 2011 – The problem is that human nature is adapted to environments where the access to information was geographically indexed, where its accumulation exacted a significant caloric toll. We don’t call private investigators ‘gumshoes’ for no reason. We are adapted to environments where the info-gathering workload continually forced us to ‘settle,’ which is to say, make due with something other than what we originally desired, when it comes to information.

This is what makes the ‘global village’ such a deceptive misnomer. In the preindustrial village, where everyone depended upon one another, our cognitive selfishness made quite a bit of adaptive sense: in environments where scarcity and interdependency force cognitive compromise, you can see how cognitive selfishness–finding ways to justify oneself while impugning potential competitors–might pay real dividends in terms of in-group prestige. Where the circumstantial leash is tight, it pays to pull and pull, and perhaps reach those morsels that escape others.

In the industrial village, however, the leash is far longer. But even still, if you want pursue your views, geographical constraints force you to engage individuals who do not share them. Who knows what Bob across the road believes? (My Bob was an evangelical Christian, and I count myself lucky for having endlessly argued with him).

In the information village the leash is cut altogether. The likeminded can effortlessly congregate in innumerable echo chambers. Of course, they can effortlessly congregate with those they disagree with as well, but… The tendency, by and large, is not only to seek confirmation, but to confuse it with intelligence and truth–which is why right-wingers tend to watch more Fox than PBS.

Now, enter all these specialized programs, which are bent on moulding your information environment into something as pleasing as possible. Don’t like the N-word? Well, we can make sure you never need to encounter it again–ever.

The world is sycophantic, and it’s becoming more so all the time. This, I think, is a far better cartoon generalization than ‘flat,’ insofar as it references the user, the intermediary, as well as the information environment.

The contemporary (post-posterity) writer has to incorporate this radically different social context into their practice (if that practice is to be considered even remotely self-critical). If you want to produce literary effects, then you have to write for a sycophantic world, find ways not simply to subvert the ideological defences of readers, but to trick the inhuman, algorithmic gate-keepers as well.

This means being strategically sycophantic. To give people what they want, sure, but with something more as well.


The Death of Wilson: How the Academic Left Created Donald Trump

by rsbakker

Tim and Wilson 2


People need to understand that things aren’t going to snap back into magical shape once Trump becomes archive footage. The Economist had a recent piece on all the far-right demagoguery in the past, and though they stress the impact that politicians like Goldwater have had subsequent to their electoral losses, they imply that Trump is part of a cyclical process, essentially more of the same. Perhaps this might have been the case were this anything but the internet age. For all we know, things could skid madly out of control.

Society has been fundamentally rewired. This is a simple fact. Remember Home Improvement, how Tim would screw something up, then wander into the backyard to lay his notions and problems on his neighbour Wilson, who would only ever appear as a cap over the fence line? Tim was hands on, but interpersonally incompetent, while Wilson was bookish and wise to the ways of the human heart—as well as completely obscured save for his eyes and various caps by the fence between them.

This is a fantastic metaphor for the communication of ideas before the internet and its celebrated ability to ‘bring us together.’ Before, when you had chauvinist impulses, you had to fly them by whoever was available. Pre-internet, extreme views were far more likely to be vetted by more mainstream attitudes. Simple geography combined with the limitations of analogue technology had the effect of tamping the prevalence of such views down. But now Tim wouldn’t think of hassling Wilson over the fence, not when he could do a simple Google and find whatever he needed to confirm his asinine behaviour. Our chauvinistic impulses no longer need to run any geographically constrained social gauntlet to find articulation and rationalization. No matter how mad your beliefs, evidence of their sanity is only ever a few keystrokes away.

This has to have some kind of aggregate, long-term effect–perhaps a dramatic one. The Trump phenomenon isn’t the manifestation of an old horrific contagion following the same old linear social vectors; it’s the outbreak of an old horrific contagion following new nonlinear social vectors. Trump hasn’t changed anything, save identifying and exploiting an ecological niche that was already there. No one knows what happens next. Least of all him.

What’s worse, with the collapse of geography comes the collapse of fences. Phrases like “cretinization of the masses” is simply one Google search away as well. Before, Wilson would have been snickering behind that fence, hanging with his friends and talking about his moron neighbour, who really is a nice guy, you know, but needs help to think clearly all the same. Now the fence is gone, and Tim can finally see Wilson for the condescending, self-righteous bigot he has always been.

Did I just say ‘bigot’? Surely… But this is what Trump supporters genuinely think. They think ‘liberal cultural elites’ are bigoted against them. As implausible as his arguments are, Murray is definitely tracking a real social phenomenon in Coming Apart. A good chunk of white America feels roundly put upon, attacked economically and culturally. No bonus this Christmas. No Christmas tree at school. Why should a minimum wage retail worker think they somehow immorally benefit by dint of blue eyes and pale skin? Why should they listen to some bohemian asshole who’s both morally and intellectually self-righteous? Why shouldn’t they feel aggrieved on all sides, economically and culturally disenfranchised?

Who celebrates them? Aside from Donald Trump.



You have been identified as an outgroup competitor.

Last week, Social Psychological and Personality Science published a large study conducted by William Chopik, a psychologist out of Michigan State University, showing the degree to which political views determine social affiliations: it turns out that conservatives generally don’t know Clinton supporters and liberals generally don’t know any Trump supporters. Americans seem to be spontaneously segregating along political lines.

Now I’m Canadian, which, although it certainly undermines the credibility of my observations on the Trump phenomenon in some respects, actually does have its advantages. The whole thing is curiously academic, for Canadians, watching our cousins to the south play hysterical tug-o-war with their children’s future. What’s more, even though I’m about as academically institutionalized as a human can be, I’m not an academic, and I have steadfastly resisted the tendency of the highly educated to surround themselves with people who are every bit as institutionalized—or at least smitten—by academic culture.

I belong to no tribe, at least not clearly. Because of this, I have Canadian friends who are, indeed, Trump supporters. And I’ve been whaling on them, asking questions, posing arguments, and they have been whaling back. Precisely because we are Canadian, the whole thing is theatre for us, allowing, I like to think, for a brand of honesty that rancour and defensiveness would muzzle otherwise.

When I get together with my academic friends, however, something very curious happens whenever I begin reporting these attitudes: I get interrupted. “But-but, that’s just idiotic/wrong/racist/sexist!” And that’s when I begin whaling on them, not because I don’t agree with their estimation, but because, unlike my academic confreres, I don’t hold Trump supporters responsible. I blame them, instead. Aren’t they the ‘critical thinkers’? What else did they think the ‘cretins’ would do? Magically seize upon their enlightened logic? Embrace the wisdom of those who openly call them fools?

Fact is, you’re the ones who jumped off the folk culture ship.

The Trump phenomenon falls into the wheelhouse of what has been an old concern of mine. For more than a decade now, I’ve been arguing that the social habitat of intellectual culture is collapsing, and that the persistence of the old institutional organisms is becoming more and more socially pernicious. Literature professors, visual artists, critical theorists, literary writers, cultural critics, intellectual historians and so on all continue acting and arguing as though this were the 20th century… as if they were actually solving something, instead of making matters worse.

See before, when a good slice of media flushed through bottlenecks that they mostly controlled, the academic left could afford to indulge in the same kind of ingroup delusions that afflict all humans. The reason I’m always interrupted in the course of reporting the attitudes of my Trump supporting friends is simply that, from an ingroup perspective, they do not matter.

More and more research is converging upon the notion that the origins of human cooperation lie in human enmity. Think Band of Brothers only in an evolutionary context. In the endless ‘wars before civilization’ one might expect those groups possessing members willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of their fellows would prevail in territorial conflicts against groups possessing members inclined to break and run. Morality has been cut from the hip of murder.

This thesis is supported by the radical differences in our ability to ‘think critically’ when interacting with ingroup confederates as opposed to outgroup competitors. We are all but incapable of listening, and therefore responding rationally, to those we perceive as threats. This is largely why I think literature, minimally understood as fiction that challenges assumptions, is all but dead. Ask yourself: Why is it so easy to predict that so very few Trump supporters have read Underworld? Because literary fiction caters to the likeminded, and now, thanks to the precision of the relationship between buyer and seller, it is only read by the likeminded.

But of course, whenever you make these kinds of arguments to academic liberals you are promptly identified as an outgroup competitor, and you are assumed to have some ideological or psychological defect preventing genuine critical self-appraisal. For all their rhetoric regarding ‘critical thinking,’ academic liberals are every bit as thin-skinned as Trump supporters. They too feel put upon, besieged. I gave up making this case because I realized that academic liberals would only be able to hear it coming from the lips of one of their own, and even then, only after something significant enough happened to rattle their faith in their flattering institutional assumptions. They know that institutions are self-regarding, they admit they are inevitably tarred by the same brush, but they think knowing this somehow makes them ‘self-critical’ and so less prone to ingroup dysrationalia. Like every other human on the planet, they agree with themselves in ways that flatter themselves. And they direct their communication accordingly.

I knew it was only a matter of time before something happened. Wilson was dead. My efforts to eke out a new model, to surmount cultural balkanization, motivated me to engage in ‘blog wars’ with two very different extremists on the web (both of whom would be kind enough to oblige my predictions). This experience vividly demonstrated to me how dramatically the academic left was losing the ‘culture wars.’ Conservative politicians, meanwhile, were becoming more aggressively regressive in their rhetoric, more willing to publicly espouse chauvinisms that I had assumed safely buried.

The academic left was losing the war for the hearts and minds of white America. But so long as enrollment remained steady and book sales remained strong, they remained convinced that nothing fundamental was wrong with their model of cultural engagement, even as technology assured a greater match between them and those largely approving of them. Only now, with Trump, are they beginning to realize the degree to which the technological transformation of their habitat has rendered them culturally ineffective. As George Saunders writes in “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” in The New Yorker:

Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse, we are now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down. Not only do our two subcountries reason differently; they draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems. You and I approach a castle. One of us has watched only “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the other only “Game of Thrones.” What is the meaning, to the collective “we,” of yon castle? We have no common basis from which to discuss it. You, the other knight, strike me as bafflingly ignorant, a little unmoored. In the old days, a liberal and a conservative (a “dove” and a “hawk,” say) got their data from one of three nightly news programs, a local paper, and a handful of national magazines, and were thus starting with the same basic facts (even if those facts were questionable, limited, or erroneous). Now each of us constructs a custom informational universe, wittingly (we choose to go to the sources that uphold our existing beliefs and thus flatter us) or unwittingly (our app algorithms do the driving for us). The data we get this way, pre-imprinted with spin and mythos, are intensely one-dimensional.

The first, most significant thing to realize about this passage is that it’s written by George Saunders for The New Yorker, a premier ingroup cultural authority on a premier ingroup cultural podium. On the view given here, Saunders pretty much epitomizes the dysfunction of literary culture, an academic at Syracuse University, the winner of countless literary awards (which is to say, better at impressing the likeminded than most), and, I think, clearly a genius of some description.

To provide some rudimentary context, Saunders attends a number of Trump rallies, making observations and engaging Trump supporters and protesters alike (but mostly the former) asking gentle questions, and receiving, for the most part, gentle answers. What he describes observation-wise are instances of ingroup psychology at work, individuals, complete strangers in many cases, making forceful demonstrations of ingroup solidarity and resolve. He chronicles something countless humans have witnessed over countless years, and he fears for the same reasons all those generations have feared. If he is puzzled, he is unnerved more.

He isolates two culprits in the above passage, the ‘intellectual and emotional weakening brought about by degraded public discourse,’ and more significantly, the way the contemporary media landscape has allowed Americans to ideologically insulate themselves against the possibility of doubt and negotiation. He blames, essentially, the death of Wilson.

As a paradigmatic ‘critical thinker,’ he’s careful to throw his own ‘subject position’ into mix, to frame the problem in a manner that distributes responsibility equally. It’s almost painful to read, at times, watching him walk the tightrope of hypocrisy, buffeted by gust after gust of ingroup outrage and piety, trying to exemplify the openness he mistakes for his creed, but sounding only lyrically paternalistic in the end–at least to ears not so likeminded. One can imagine the ideal New Yorker reader, pursing their lips in empathic concern, shaking their heads with wise sorrow, thinking…

But this is the question, isn’t it? What do all these aspirational gestures to openness and admissions of vague complicity mean when the thought is, inevitably, fools? Is this not the soul of bad faith? To offer up portraits of tender humanity in extremis as proof of insight and impartiality, then to end, as Saunders ends his account, suggesting that Trump has been “exploiting our recent dullness and aversion to calling stupidity stupidity, lest we seem too precious.”

Academics… averse to calling stupidity stupid? Trump taking advantage of this aversion? Lordy.

This article, as beautiful as it is, is nothing if not a small monument to being precious, to making faux self-critical gestures in the name of securing very real ingroup imperatives. We are the sensitive ones, Saunders is claiming. We are the light that lets others see. And these people are the night of American democracy.

He blames the death of Wilson and the excessive openness of his ingroup, the error of being too open, too critically minded…

Why not just say they’re jealous because he and his friends are better looking?

If Saunders were at all self-critical, anything but precious, he would be asking questions that hurt, that cut to the bone of his aggrandizing assumptions, questions that become obvious upon asking them. Why not, for instance, ask Trump supporters what they thought of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline? Well, because the chances of any of them reading any of his work aside from “CommComm” (and only then because it won the World Fantasy Award in 2010) were virtually nil.

So then why not ask why none of these people has read anything written by him or any of his friends or their friends? Well, he’s already given us a reason for that: the death of Wilson.

Okay, so Wilson is dead, effectively rendering your attempts to reach and challenge those who most need to be challenged with your fiction toothless. And so you… what? Shrug your shoulders? Continue merely entertaining those whom you find the least abrasive?

If I’m right, then what we’re witnessing is so much bigger than Trump. We are tender. We are beautiful. We are vicious. And we are capable of believing anything to secure what we perceive as our claim. What matters here is that we’ve just plugged billions of stone-age brains chiselled by hundreds of millions of years of geography into a world without any. We have tripped across our technology and now we find ourselves in crash space, a domain where the transformation of our problems has rendered our traditional solutions obsolete.

It doesn’t matter if you actually are on their side or not, whatever that might mean. What matters is that you have been identified as an outgroup competitor, and that none of the authority you think your expertise warrants will be conceded to you. All the bottlenecks that once secured your universal claims are melting away, and you need to find some other way to discharge your progressive, prosocial aspirations. Think of all the sensitive young talent sifting through your pedagogical fingers. What do you teach them? How to be wise? How to contribute to their community? Or how to play the game? How to secure the approval of those just like you—and so, how to systematically alienate them from their greater culture?

So. Much. Waste. So much beauty, wisdom, all of it aimed at nowhere… tossed, among other places, into the heap of crumpled Kleenexes called The New Yorker.

Who would have thunk it? The best way to pluck the wise from the heart of our culture was to simply afford them the means to associate almost exclusively with one another, then trust to human nature, our penchant for evolving dialects and values in isolation. The edumacated no longer have the luxury of speaking among themselves for the edification of those servile enough to listen of their own accord. The ancient imperative to actively engage, to have the courage to reach out to the unlikeminded, to write for someone else, has been thrust back upon the artist. In the days of Wilson, we could trust to argument, simply because extreme thoughts had to run a gamut of moderate souls. Not so anymore.

If not art, then argument. If not argument, then art. Invade folk culture. Glory in delighting those who make your life possible–and take pride in making them think.

Sometimes they’re the idiot and sometimes we’re the idiot–that seems to be the way this thing works. To witness so many people so tangled in instinctive chauvinisms and cartoon narratives is to witness a catastrophic failure of culture and education. This is what Trump is exploiting, not some insipid reluctance to call stupid stupid.

I was fairly bowled over a few weeks back when my neighbour told me he was getting his cousin in Florida to send him a Trump hat. I immediately asked him if he was crazy.

“Name one Donald Trump who has done right by history!” I demanded, attempting to play Wilson, albeit minus the decorum and the fence.

Shrug. Wild eyes and a genuine smile. “Then I hope he burns it down.”

“How could you mean that?”

“I dunno, brother. Can’t be any worse than this fucking shit.”

Nothing I could say could make him feel any different. He’s got the internet.*


*[Note to readers: This post is receiving a great deal of Facebook traffic, and relatively little critical comment, which tells me individuals are saving their comments for whatever ingroup they happen to belong to, thus illustrating the very dynamic critiqued in the piece. Sound off! Dare to dissent in ideologically mixed company, or demonstrate the degree to which you need others to agree before raising your voice.]

Russell Smith Shrugged

by rsbakker

Holidays are upon me. But an old time foil o’ mine, Russell Smith, has managed to put me into an old time mood with a piece in today’s Globe and Mail.

The topic, predictably, is genre versus literature. And the argument, predictably, is the standard ‘argument’ given by those at the high end of any cultural authority gradient: Those on the bottom have no reason to bellyache because there is no bottom, the implication being, of course, that really, when all is said and done, ‘they’re just jealous.’

Smith is confused by what, for him, amounts to a mythical injustice. “Every day,” he writes, “I read angry emails and posts from sci-fi writers complaining about the terrible snobbery and irrelevance of the literary establishment which still doesn’t give major awards to the speculative or fantastical, or give it enough review space in the books pages of newspapers.” Now group specific dissatisfaction of any sort always begs for some kind of consideration of motivations. But Smith glides over this question, perhaps realizing the trickiness that awaits. Implying ‘They’re just jealous!’ is one thing, but actually writing as much would place him in some uncomfortable company. So he simply declares that he has never heard anyone in his ingroup explicitly dismiss genre–as if only those who explicitly embrace bigotry can be bigots. And as if he and his cohort don’t regularly deride the ignorant masses via their ignorant tastes. The guy doubles as a fashion columnist, after all.

Because make no mistake, Russell Smith is a cultural bigot through and through–and of the worst kind, in fact. He is a status quo apologist convinced he has nothing to apologize for, who feels hurt and bewildered and quite frankly, annoyed, by the deluge of small-minded belly-aching he has to listen to. And since he belongs to an ingroup that self-identifies itself as ‘critical’ and ‘open’–namely, as all those things each and every ingroup is not–he simply assumes that he has to be right. His is the enlightened institution. There’s no need to ask the motivation question, no need to consider the possibility that the perception of cultural inequity is all that cultural inequity amounts to (even though, it is the case that only writers that primarily self-identify themselves as ‘literary’ win the awards and the funding).

To get a sense of how bad his argument is, consider:

There is a paradox at the heart of these complaints: They proclaim the artificiality of genre divisions while simultaneously demanding respect for a specific one. Are we to abolish genres or privilege one? Either you want a level playing field or you don’t.

Sound appealing? Sensible? Well, let’s spice up the stakes a bit, see if it doesn’t sound more familiar:

There is a paradox at the heart of these complaints: They proclaim the artificiality of racial divisions while simultaneously demanding respect for a specific one. Are we to abolish races or privilege one? Either you want a level playing field or you don’t.

He doesn’t get it because he has no need to get it, because he belongs to what remains, in far too many cultural corners, the privileged ingroup. “Why does this argument even need to be made?” he writes. After all, so very many literary novels contain magical or surreal or futuristic elements, such as “Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, and Beloved by Toni Morrison.”

Apparently his people love our stuff when his people write about it.

Wake up. It’s about power, idiot, not the statistical distribution of tropes. It’s about who has it, and who don’t.

Unfortunately for us, mainstream literature is not nearly as irrelevant as it should be. It remains a fat, greasy parasite that continues to feed on far too much talent, continues to convince far too many bright and sensitive souls to turn their backs on their greater culture (in what is, without any doubt, the most momentous epoch in human history) all in the name of accumulating ingroup prestige within a socially obsolescent institution. All writers are post-posterity writers, nowadays, and if they truly want to walk their egalitarian, prosocial talk, then they need to reach out with their writing, self-consciously game the preference parsing algorithms that increasingly command our horizons of cultural exposure. In other words, they need to do the very opposite of what conservative apologists like Smith continually urge, which is to bury their heads in sand at the bottom of the hourglass.

“These category questions,” Smith writes, “are marketing ones, not literary ones.” Once upon a time, maybe, but certainly not anymore. If literature is as literature does, then what we call ‘literary’ today does precious little that can be called literary–thanks to marketing. The outgroup philistines that literary writers pretend to ‘challenge’ let alone ‘illuminate’ no longer stumble into their books, leaving only classroom captives to complete the literary circuit (with dead or moribund authors, no less). Literature describes a certain, transformative connection between writers and readers, and marketing just happens to be all about connecting buyers with sellers. Given that confirmation is the primary engine of consumer demand, literature is simply writing that jumps the tracks, that somehow, someway, finds itself in the wrong hands. The rest, as DFW would say, is fucking Entertainment. More apology.

The future of literature in the age of information technology lies with genre, plain and simple, with writers possessing the wherewithal to turn their backs on apologetic apparatchiks like Smith, and actually contribute to building the critical popular culture we will need to survive the strange, strange days ahead. The alternative–Smith’s alternative–is to preach to the choir, apologize and reinforce, cater to expectations–do all the things that ‘sellouts’ do–then to endlessly declare yourself a missionary of transformation. Quite a scam, I would say.

The Anxiety of Irrelevance (an Open Letter to Arthur Krystal)

by rsbakker

Dear Mr. Krystal,

It’s invisible to you and most all of your peers. In engineering they actually have a name for it: ‘unk-unk,’ an abbreviation of the ‘unknown-unknowns’ of Donald Rumsfeld fame. Not only can you not see, you cannot see that you cannot see. Ignorance is bliss because it is absolute. No balm is so numbing, so effortlessly destructive, as not knowing.

But you’re beginning to feel it nonetheless, aren’t you? The anxiety…

The literati are drifting into the same fog that swallows all failed cultural programmes. The siren call of all those professors has grown thin and insecure, and the bright and cunning youth are turning to different pursuits. Your first mistake, when all is said in done, is the human one. It’s the mistake we all make all the time. It’s the engine of the evening news: Groupishness. We are walking, talking yardsticks, us humans, condemned by nature to condemn according to those values we find most handy–our own. You think of yourself as a ‘critical thinker,’ not realizing there is no such thing, just varying degrees of bigotry. The proof of this lies in the thoughtless way you place your kind at the top of your authority gradient, the same as those who place you on the bottom.

With ‘unk-unk,’ comes ‘me-me-we.’

Your second mistake is to defend traditional communicative values in the middle of the most profound communications revolution in the history of the human race, to be an aesthetic conservative at a time when nothing could be more preposterous. Everything about your cultural habitat is changing, leveraged by accelerating technologies that will lead us who knows where in a matter of decades. Look at the sales! you cry. The galas! The prizes! forgetting that the best fed animals are those found in a zoo.

Your third mistake is to think literature is a thing, and not just any thing, the thing that you happen to know, command and possess. Thinking this, you assume that literature, the fiction that transcends ‘mere fiction,’ can be defined by relations of resemblance. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck…

Who gives a damn about clipped wings!

But literature has always been an event. This is how it transcends: by refusing to be a fixed thing. Literature ‘looks like’ nothing. Only it’s consequences can define it. Literature moves. Literature challenges and transforms. Literature turns souls around, and sends them in different directions. And this, Mr. Krystal, is what makes me pity you and your cloistered circle–your ilk. Because all you can do is rehearse the postures you learned in school, regurgitate a fixed form packaged for effortless consumption by a dedicated audience: the canned intellectual buzzes, the warmed-over wisdom, the indispensable rule-breaking.

Oh yes… And the interviews. All that faux-transformative ambition.

Literature, meanwhile, has done what it’s always done, moved on, leaving your ‘masterpieces’ to waddle content, overfed and flightless, appreciated by mobs of like-minded souls, people who share your voting record to a tee, who nod and cluck in approval whenever you magically ‘challenge’ those who read no more than your titles and dismiss you laughing. Somehow, without quite understanding why, you have found yourself defending a genre against literature.

Because we, those who are never quite as significant as yourselves, see clearly how much damage you have done advocating, endlessly advocating, that the bright and the cunning turn their back on the cultural commons, on the ‘low’ subject matters that allow them to reach out across a balkanizing society. Everyone can recognize an aristocrat by their silk shirts, and a pretender by their ratty shoes.

Oh yes. You feel it. You feel it in the comment threads, in the ‘unmotivated’ vitriol that ‘shocks and dismays’ you, in the emptiness of claiming authority where no authority is conceded. Snark! you cry. Snark! never pausing to truly listen. You feel it, the anxiety of irrelevance, because you see it, how despite all the sales and galas and prizes, the polling tide continues to turn inexorably against you. The corporations! you cry, though they stack your books just as high. You wring your hands, blame the very culture you have created. By writing for yourselves, you’ve been writing for people like yourselves, the clones who wave the same flag of make-believe difference. By all means, you urge, write about them, the base and the witless and the disenfranchised, but do not dare write for them. Not if you want to be taken ‘seriously,’ my ingroup brother. No, write for us.

Meanwhile, those on the outside do what those on the outside always do when backs are turned against them: they turn their backs in turn, define themselves against. And vote accordingly.

Watch this election closely, Mr. Krystal. Watch closely, anxiously, and as you marvel that it could be so close, that so many of them could be so benighted, as you pass your fat and lazy judgment on the culture, the times, or whatever patsy your unconscious conceit renders, pause, Mr. Krystal, strip away the ancient vanities and plug yourself into the living American equation. Ask, for once, What have we been doing wrong?

Because you are losing our battle–that much is incontrovertible.


R. Scott Bakker