No more heroines

Shirley Manson:

“[Debbie Harry and I] are some of the few women left who do what we do in the way that we do it. We’re getting rarer and rarer. I think people understand that this breed is dying.”

This is right for the wrong reason. There are no female rock stars right now, but that’s becasue there are no rock stars right now. Rock isn’t mainstream anymore. The garage-rock boom of the early ’00s died out, and that was it. All of the top-billed, headline-making music right now is either hip-hop, R&B, electronica, or spectacle pop. Hell, even country’s made a comeback. The only exceptions are legacy acts like Radiohead and minor celebrities like Jack White. Looking for a Shirley Manson figure in this context is like looking for water on Mars.

However, the notion that women who “write their own music and aren’t chasing pop success,” constitute a “thinning bloodline” is as horrendously wrong as anything can possibly be. It’s important to make this distinction because the progress of this half of the dynamic has been overwhelmingly positive. Female rock stars may be a dying breed, but female rockers are almost literally everywhere. We’re getting shockingly close to the point where women being in rock bands is fully normal behavior – it would honestly be difficult for me to avoid them were I trying. Even when I go to see a typical boy-punk band like Wavves1 it’s a near guarantee that there will be women writing songs and playing instruments in the openers. I’m the last person who’s ever going to argue that “things are okay,” but even an inveterate hater like me has to admit that this is a hell of a lot better than it used to be. If Bikini Kill were around today, they wouldn’t be getting alternately harassed and patronized. They would seem like a normal rock band with normal politics. Again, this is not to minimize any of the very real shit that’s still happening, but the fact is this battle has largely been won. Women playing rock music is normal now. Deal with it.

It’s still valid to ask whether we’re missing something by not having heroes, though, because heroes serve different functions than regular artists. Actually, it kind of seems like the functions heroes serve are the only ones that matter. That is, if you’re already into music or you’re reading radical theory or whatever, you don’t need a lot of help. You’re in a position where you can figure things out for yourself; you know where you can look for answers. The person who does need help is the proverbial queer kid in a small religious town – someone who’s too far away from the truth to be reached by conventional means. The value of heroes is that they have this kind of reach. If you’re in a position where you actually need to be saved, a hero is the only option.

The problem with this is that it’s a coincidence. If society were generally just, the people with reach would be the people whose touch matters. This is not the case. In fact, it’s worse than just being a coincidence. The actual situation is fairly chaotic, but as a general rule, it’s more accurate to say that we live in a society that suppresses things that are worthwhile and promotes things that are useless, and indeed often actively harmful. The people with the means to do the talking are usually those with the least to say. For every one Garbage screaming out the truth, there are ten Limp Bizkits stinking up the airwaves and hundreds more Bratmobiles languishing in the shadows.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with the fact that Garbage had a positive effect on people through being on MTV. I mean, I can vouch for this personally. Garbage was the only good band I liked before I liked music. And because I was a stupid kid back then, I never would have heard of them if they hadn’t been on MTV. They didn’t save me or anything, but I’d probably be worse off otherwise. They helped me, and they’ve helped millions of others even more. To the extent that they had to get popular in order to do this, their popularity was a good thing. But they didn’t get big because they had something worthwhile to say; if anything, they got big in spite of it. Which means that any “stardom” effect in play is ultimately just a matter of luck.

It’s important to draw a distinction here between popularity, the general concept describing a situation where lots of people like something, and fame, the specific thing that happens when popularity Ouroboroses itself. While they can occur together, they don’t have to, and the difference is not just a matter of numbers. Someone can have a large number of fans while remaining unknown outside that group and therefore not properly famous; this is what we refer to as a “cult following.” And we’re all familiar with the situation in which someone is famous without there being anything they’re actually known for doing; this can happen even when relatively few people are paying attention to them.

So what we can understand here is that fame is strictly bad: the specific thing it means is that lots of people are paying attention to you without caring about what you’re doing. Fame discriminates improperly. Bad things get famous just as easily as (or more easily than) good things, and fame occupies cultural breathing room that could otherwise be filled with more things that matter. There can’t be a good version of the Grammys; any awards show necessarily resolves itself into red carpet bullshit. Popularity, by contrast, is the enthusiasm without the awards. So it’s actually a good thing, but in the sense that heart surgery is a good thing. You don’t want it for its own sake, and if you can get along without it you’re probably better off. But in some situations it can help you do the thing that you actually want to do. I’d like to emphasize that this is neither an obscurantist nor an apologetic argument; things aren’t better or worse for being more or less popular. Being popular increases your chances of reaching people, but what’s important is the reaching, not the numbers. In fact, the problem with popularity is precisely that it leads to fame; it increases the chances that your bandwidth will start to get clogged up with people who don’t actually care.

The difference between a “rocker” and a “rock star” – and, more generally, the difference between an “artist” and a “hero” – is the difference between popularity and fame. Ergo, heroes are bad. This is kind of a hard point to focus on, because talking about “heroes” makes you think of your own heroes, who are obviously good, but it remains the case that the concept of heroes is bad, and the act of having heroes is bad. It’s natural to want to hype someone who does something that’s important to you, but promotion is different from idolization. You can’t idolize someone you actually know, because what idolization is is the filling in of the gaps you don’t know about with positive-valence generica. It’s taking one important thing and improperly extrapolating from it that someone is important in general, which no one actually is.

So, functionally, what hero worship does is not to shine a spotlight on worthwhile achievements. Worthwhile achievements are worthwhile on their own; they justify themselves simply by existing. That’s what it means for something to be worthwhile. Rather, what the spotlight of heroism brings into view is everything else, the things that don’t actually matter. Again, this seems harmless when the other things turn out to be good. It’s certainly nice that the person who happens to be Beyoncé happens to be a feminist, but that isn’t something you can rely on. In fact, people have made exactly this complaint about Taylor Swift: she’s supposedly “not political enough” and therefore not fulfilling her role as a hero. But the question isn’t why Taylor Swift isn’t political, the question is why do you care? Why do you have the expectation that someone who writes songs (or doesn’t) that go on the radio is going to share your personally favored political viewpoint? Are you not capable of making your own arguments? Do you really think progress can’t happen without the say-so of some rando pop star?

Worse, heroes generally “happen” to be more like, oh, I don’t know, Bill Cosby. The function of heroism is to make people like Cosby look good, and to make people like Dave Chappelle apologize for them. To be clear, Chappelle doesn’t deny Cosby’s rapism, but because he idolizes Cosby, he’s compelled to argue that it’s “not that simple,” and so he comes up with extenuating factors that aren’t actually true. And it isn’t just that Cosby doesn’t deserve the favor, it’s that it doesn’t matter. His work still exists on its own; whatever value it has is still there. And his crimes also exist on their own. The only reason to conflate2 them is if you feel some need to decide whether Cosby is a “good person” in general, which you shouldn’t, because “being a good person” is not a sensible concept when divorced from specific actions. Heroism attempts to square this circle, to draw bright lines of “good” and “bad”3 that paint over the actual facts on the ground.

There is a specifically feminist point to be made here. First of all, there’s a good reason why feminists are particularly susceptible to heroineism. One of the primary mechanics through which patriarchy operates is the casting of men as agents and women as assistants. Typically masculine roles are those such as the warrior, the lone genius, the statesman, or the explorer – people who do things, who are the source of their own achievements. Typically feminine roles are those such as the wife, the maid, the mother, or the muse – people who support or maintain things, who are factors in other people’s achievements.4 The way that these role-sets and their interactions work to promote male dominance is pretty straightforward. So the natural counter here is to point out situations in which women are undeniable creative forces in their own right. When you get wildly original artists like Patti Smith5 or Björk, women who can’t possibly be understood other than as self-possessed agents and originators, it is severely temping to turn them into heroes. Like, if Patti Smith gets inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then that’s real official proof that women are just as good as men, right?

The problem with this is that exceptions, as a rule, don’t disprove rules. You can just as well interpret the same situation the other way around: women have to be exceptional in order to qualify as creators. There’s nothing stopping anyone from recognizing the achievements of some particular handful of women and then remaining sexist about everything else. That’s exactly how it’s been throughout literally all of history, because there are always, in any context, going to be people who are exceptional in one way or another. You’re always going to see the occasional Queen Elizabeth, Commander Artemisia, or Hypatia of Alexandria – as well as the occasional Margaret Thatcher, Aileen Wuornos, or Leni Riefenstahl. By the same token, though, the overwhelming majority of women are just going to be normal people with normally-valuable abilities. We don’t need more exceptions; we need to start valuing ordinary women, to remove the requirement of exceptionality. Treating a tiny selection of women like superhumans (/”queens”/”goddesses”) does not absolve us of not treating normal women like normal humans. Women having to be exceptional in order to be considered on par with men is the exact thing that sexism is. The measure of progress in music, then, is not whether we have female superstars. That’s always been the case. It’s whether people of average talent and ordinary appeal are being given their fair shake. The glass ceiling that matters is not the highest one, but the lowest.

In short, it’s a trap. Idolization is how patriarchy handles the unavoidable existence of exceptional women while maintaining existing sexist structures. A social system that didn’t account for exceptions would be brittle; it would crack under pressure. The systems that become pervasive are the ones that are flexible, that can adapt themselves to whatever the conditions on the ground happen to be, that resolve problematic happenstances. They’re the ones that cause you to take a genuine feminist influence like Shirley Manson, call her a “grunge goddess” (which is an oxymoron all by itself), and portray her and a bunch of other important female creators as generic representatives of something called “women in rock.”

As you’ll recall, though, the catch is that heroism serves valuable functions, so the real question is: can we make do without it? Even if the concept sucks, it might act as a Wittgensteinian Ladder: we might need it now because things are fucked, even though we’re going to want to throw it away later. While I can’t speak for the past, I submit that, even if this is the case, the time has come. Instead of inflating heroes to shadow over everything, it is within our power to make smaller, more direct connections, where they’re needed.

Obviously, the internet is a big deal here. I’m sure I don’t have to explain the effect it’s had on music distribution. But this isn’t a technological problem. After all, the internet has had just as strong of an effect in the opposite direction. The vast majority of people use the internet to pay more attention to the things that are already the most popular.6 This has nothing to do with the technology itself; the problem is what people want. If you’re trying to connect things with the people who need them, you can find some way to do that at any level of technology. Back in the day there were things like zines and mail-order catalogs and good old fashioned word of mouth. The internet is potentially a huge help – rather, it has been, and it can be an even bigger help – but it can’t help you do anything until you want to do it.

The fundamental problem is that people want heroes. They prefer stars shining from afar to real people existing unglamorously in front of them.7 They aren’t comfortable valuing things on their own; they want to be told that the things they care about are “really” important, that they’re “right” to care. They want to outsource their humanity to someone else. But this can only ever be a lie, because importance comes from the personal interactions you have with something. Other people can acknowledge that those interactions happened, but they only ever belong to you. It’s simply factual to say that Garbage has had a strong influence on a lot of people, but that doesn’t merely add up to “stardom”; each influence retains its individual content, content that can’t simply be exchanged with that of any other equivalent “star,” precisely as those influenced by Garbage describe:

Screaming Females’ guitarist Marissa Paternoster, whose band went on tour with Garbage in 2013, agreed. “Shirley was the most honest in her darkness. Gwen Stefani was a great inspiration for me but she didn’t have that sharp edge that I was looking for. That’s what attracted me to Garbage: Shirley’s transparency and vulnerability.”

What’s really important is not just that this suffices, but that it’s better. I can also vouch for this personally, because, as ideologically disinclined as I am to admit this, I actually was saved. It’s really none of your fucking business, but the important thing is that I wasn’t saved by a hero; I was saved by a person. In my case, this was also luck, but it didn’t have to be. This is the part that’s fixable. It’s not fixable by finding the “right” heroes; it’s fixable by ceasing to lean on the crutch. As soon as you start caring about popularity, as soon as you go looking for “heroes,” you’re putting your finger on the scale and fucking up the balance. But even when something worthwhile gets famous – rather, when it gets popular, because fame is the part of popularity that isn’t justified – we can’t simply accept that as a fortunate coincidence. We have to move away from fame and towards meaning; we have to topple the statue in order to free the spirit inside. This is what it means to kill yr idols.

When I see a fancy photo shoot in a magazine, that makes me feel like whatever’s being talked about has nothing to do with me, like it’s taking place on another planet. When I see someone five feet in front of me plugging in a guitar and tuning up, that makes me feel like I can do things, like it’s possible for me to exist in this world. Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think it is. Even when people engage in hero-worship, they aren’t really responding to the lights and the dresses. If they were, heroes would be completely interchangeable. But it’s the opposite: people cling only to their heroes, because they’ve found something specific there that has mattered to them. People like glitz because it makes the things they care about seem more important, more “real.” But this is mere reassurance, and it’s false reassurance. It’s cowardice, and we should be brave enough to reject it. We should accept the smallness of the truth. Shirley Manson is not a representative of some kind of general “women in music” category; she is a musician, which is better.8 There are specific things that people found in Garbage’s music and kept with them, and that’s the only thing that matters. The rest ought to be silence. Correspondingly, the answer to the question “who is there for little girls to look up to now?” is everyone. We just have to show them where to look.

This is, of course, a more challenging pursuit. It’s not as easy as getting a couple of good videos on MTV. You have to explore, you have to focus, you have to figure out how to get the right things to the right people. The task is harder now; it’s a little more involved. It requires more of us as individuals. We have to think more personally about the things that are important to us, and also think more broadly about how our actions contribute to creating the kind of world we’re going to have to live in. This is called “progress.” It gets us closer to, one day, maybe, getting things right. And what’s important to remember that progress isn’t natural. It’ll be just as easy to fuck this up, to go back to looking for heroes, create a new circumscribed, media-friendly class of “female rock stars,” and re-erect the wall that so much effort has been put into tearing down. I’m really not interested in letting this happen.

It is better to be a person than to be a hero. Even accounting for the fact that some people are going to accomplish a lot more than others, everyone can be valued for their contributions without anyone being turned to stone and stuck on a pedestal. (Recall the feminist insight that putting someone on a pedestal is a means of preventing them from moving.) This is also a more accurate depiction of reality; it prevents us from being bamboozled by people like Cosby. The real world is not narrow, and no one bestrides it like a Colossus. In truth, no one is any larger than life – or any smaller. Everyone is exactly the same size as life.


  1. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Actually, credit where it’s due: when I saw them recently Nathan Williams made a pretty serious comment about not groping the female crowdsurfers, so a lot of men have actually been doing a decent job of getting on the ball here. 
  2. Note that conflation is different from reassessing in the light of new evidence. But if you find something new as a result of this, it will be something that was there all along. 
  3. Villainy is the same thing as heroism, just in the opposite direction. 
  4. Note that the role of the “father” is primarily understood as a provider and a rule-maker, so it’s still a “doer” role. Similarly, female artists are often understood as mystics or “conduits of the spirits” or whatever, which recasts their creativity as passive midwifery of an external, agentive force. Consider further such dichotomies as doctor/nurse, playboy/slut, priest/nun, etc. It’s pretty much everywhere. Also, this goes all the way down to the level of basic biology. People used to have the idea that a sperm was an entire fully-formed person and the womb was basically just a big empty hole where it hung out and grew on its own. 
  5. Patti Smith is a fascinatingly ironic example here, like there’s seriously a book to be written about this, as she is herself an unabashed hero-worshipper with some pretty traditionally sexist ideas about men being creative geniuses and women being muses. As recounted in Just Kids, she originally tried to get Sam Shepard to save rock and roll before reluctantly accepting the fact that she was going to have to do it herself. 
  6. Note that the huge amount of social media noise during the 2016 election, which supposedly destroyed all sources of authority and turned politics into a mess of untethered subjectivity, did not make third parties any more viable, or indeed do anything at all to broaden the scope of debate beyond the usual popularity-contest bullshit – which is exactly how the person whose only ability is competing in popularity contests won. In fact, social media increased this effect: the election might otherwise not have been enough of a popularity contest to make the difference. 
  7. Believe it or not, Adam Smith has a pretty good bit about this: “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.” 
  8. Just in case it’s not clear, I’m very much not saying that gender doesn’t matter. It matters the same way everything else does. Being a feminist means neither reifying nor ignoring gender; it means accepting it as a subject of serious study. 

Notes against authenticity

I saw Black Mountain in a bar last night. This isn’t actually a show review, I mean, the review is that they’re great (also, one of the openers, Bob Log III, is an actual factual one-man-band that must be seen to be believed). But I was thinking about some stuff and so I’m just going to skip straight to the pretentious theory part.

The venue was smaller than their popularity level, which translates into it being full of obnoxious drunks. This isn’t a complaint, it was a good show and it’s nice when people are enthusiastic, but there were a few instances of beyond-the-pale-ness that stuck out to me. Like, a normal thing that often happens is that someone will play a solo and then there will be a quiet part, and so people will start cheering at that point. But a few people at the show were seriously just yelling and clapping right in the middle of the songs, on a regular basis, and this is ridiculous. At one point some guy just started doing extremely loud off-rhythm handclaps for no reason. Again, I’m not, like, mad that people were behaving wrong at a rock show or whatever, it’s just that this kind of stuff is so bad that it can’t be justified – or, more to the point, there must exist a real argument against it.

Actually, this would be the appropriate time to relate my strongest anecdote in this regard, although it pains me significantly to recollect it. I saw Best Coast a while back, after they blew up, and the crowd was basically all morons. People were constantly stage-diving throughout the entire show, and at one point some lady gets up there and stands right in front of Bethany Cosentino’s mic, so she actually couldn’t reach it and missed a line because this rando was standing in her way. It’s like, oh my god, I’m so excited to be at this show, I love this band so much I’m going to physically prevent them from playing their songs.

Normally, the way we like to criticize people is to accuse them of being liars or hypocrites or something along these lines. We consider sincerity to be a positive trait; even when we strongly disagree with people, we will say things like “I respect their convictions, but” or “at least she’s honest” or “at least someone’s having fun.” In politics (I promise that this is as far as I’m going to go into this in this post), we almost always argue against policies by saying they have the “facts wrong” or they will be “ineffective” or whatever instead of arguing against the actual values they are attempting to advance. We have phrases like “you do you” that convey the underlying philosophical assumption that authenticity is an absolute good, even when it results in disagreeable externalities. Psychology (pop or otherwise) is generally oriented around the idea of recovering a person’s “true self,” assuming that this will necessarily be a good thing. In short, we never actually disagree with people’s motives. And this is a serious problem, because, as it is said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The behaviors at issue here are precisely examples of people expressing themselves honestly and without restraint. As a smaller example, there are often people who push their way as far to the front as they can get, but then back off for whatever reason after a few songs (this happened multiple times last night, so I wound up in the second row by doing nothing other than staying there and trying to fill in empty space). This does not make sense. Why would you bother pushing up to the front if you don’t actually want to watch the show from there? It is precisely because this behavior does not make sense in functional terms that it must be understood as authentic. There’s no other reason for it. Similarly, bad handclaps and obnoxious yelling can’t have any objective motivation precisely because they suck. These people aren’t being pressured into these behaviors; they are doing what they feel like. These things can only be understood as unmediated1 expressions of pure subjectivity.

So it’s long past time to admit that pure subjectivity sucks. Being a person is about learning and reconsidering and making informed choices, which is to say it is about rejecting authenticity. Now, the typical counterargument here is to call the person making this argument a Nazi, and this is not entirely unjustified. Certainly one does not wish to respond to this situation by insisting on one standard of behavior and forcing everyone to follow it. Sometimes spontaneous handclaps are actually fun; sometimes people yell out things that are supportive or engaging or funny.

We want people to be able to express themselves creatively, and even to make mistakes; more than that, we want dynamism. We don’t want to assume we have it all figured out, we don’t want everything to always be the same, and we want unexpected things to happen. But are these the only options? Is it either totalitarianism or barbarism? Well, it had better fucking not be. If one insists on this dichotomy, then the only available options are pure chaos, meaning meaninglessness, or pure order, also meaning meaninglessness. There must be a middle road – not one constructed out of mere compromise, but one that synthesizes the valuable aspects of both viewpoints into something that is genuinely good. I haven’t yet finished my research on this topic, so I’m not sure yet whether this requires reconstructing authenticity or simply abandoning it, but the current ideological orientation certainly requires a baseline of heavy skepticism.

That is, if we want to be able to argue against the general types of things that we’re talking about here, idealizing authenticity simply isn’t going to get us anywhere. Rather, it is on the objective level of the physical actions being taken that we must stake our claim. For example, calling pro-lifers hypocrites if they support the death penalty (sorry, I swear I’m stopping) is a completely useless argument, because who cares if you think something like this is a contradiction? Pro-lifers themselves are obviously fine with it, so why would anyone else change their minds on this basis? Rather, the real objection to the pro-life position is that it harms people. It is the behavior and not the motivation that matters. When you’re doing handclaps, doing them at the right time and on the right rhythm is more fun. I don’t care why you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing. I care about having good experiences.

Indeed, music fans above all others should be well-apprised of the situation here. Being in a band is not a matter of just getting up there and “going crazy”; even if you’re like the Germs or whoever, you still have to put a non-zero amount of effort into picking up your instrument and figuring out what you’re going to do with it. And a band like Black Mountain is clearly putting quite a lot of work into doing what they’re doing (the guitarist’s pedal configuration was probably more complicated than anything I did in college), into giving you an experience that you can’t get otherwise, and responding to that by screaming over it like an asshole is extremely disrespectful to the thing that you claim to be enjoying so much that you feel the need to scream about it.

Even though music directly affects a person’s subjectivity, it does so through reality; no matter how it feels, it is not in fact magic. The appeal to authenticity is a retreat; confronted with reality, it runs away. “I’m just trying to have fun” is what you say when you have no other excuse. So let’s stop making excuses. It is within objective reality that we have to live and have our experiences, so that’s our terrain. If we aren’t making claims on reality, we aren’t doing anything.

  1. not really, but this is way too much to get into right now. 


I’m not qualified to comment on the specifics of the Elena Ferrante situation, but there’s a particular aspect of the response that I feel requires some elucidation. Rather than addressing the personal implications for Ferrante herself, or claiming that her identity is simply not relevant to a particular understanding of her work, many people seem to be going quite a bit further. They are claiming that it is wrong for this information to be available, that we ought not know it, and they are making this point in terms of criticism. They are saying that the correct critical posture is to choose to operate with less information. They would rather the information not exist at all; they would rather be lied to.

This broader issue has been in some contention recently. It’s become quotidian to hear that we’re in the middle of a “war on truth,” that the Information Age ability to “choose your own facts” is literally going to destroy the world. We’ve seen, for example, Newt Gingrich claim that it doesn’t matter what the crime statistics actually are, that as long as people feel like there’s a lot of crime, then extreme repressive measures against it are justified. Obviously, politics is a different matter than lit crit, except not really, because there isn’t all that much of a distinction here. The point of facts in policy is to come up with an approach that will affect the world in the way that it’s supposed to, and the point of facts in criticism is to come up with an interpretation that accords with reality in the way that it’s supposed to. This is why we’re not allowed to live in our own individual fantasylands; it’s what the truth is for. So if we really believe that there’s a problem here, then our only available response is to start taking the truth more seriously. This means respecting it even when it is ugly or vulgar or cruel, even when it has inconvenient consequences, and even when it is revealed by bad people with ulterior motives. The truth either matters or it doesn’t.

Now, part of what Ferrante is trying to do with herself is to react against the trend wherein, to grossly oversimplify, the conversation surrounding a work of art tends to supersede the work itself. The most important argument in favor of pseudonymity is that the work itself is what matters, and that the identity of the writer can only be a distraction, or at best the subject of a separate biographical interest. This is a half-truth. Certainly, there are writers whose status as famous writers is more important than anything they actually write, and certainly this is disgusting. The situation where, say, Dave Eggers is like “HEY GUYS I’M WRITING A BOOK ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA” but then there’s nothing actually in the book is the worst possible situation. So if Ferrante’s work represents the inverse of that, then she’s doing a great job.

But the idea that a work can “speak for itself” in an absolute sense betrays an unjustified dedication to purity. The fear is that knowing the sausage-making details behind the words will rob them of their beauty, break the spell. This is backwards. It’s true that the only possible source of meaning for a text is the text itself, but it’s a fantasy to assume that we can just lift this meaning straight out, that context is a distraction rather than a necessary tool for doing the work of extraction. Hence, the point of identity is not that it can matter, but that it must. If there is beauty to be found, it must be found in the sausage.

And, indeed, this is already being done by the very people who are so concerned about not doing it. Ferrante’s identity and the context in which she was writing were already being taken into account. The term “anonymity” is being thrown around a lot here, but that’s not what’s going on at all. Elena Ferrante has been publishing pseudonymously and not anonymously. This may sound like a pedantic distinction, but there’s a real difference. Pseudonymity allows the reader to draw connections between works of the same author, to trace the development of themes, etc., hence there is such a thing as “an Elena Ferrante novel” regardless of her physical identity. It allows for the development of a persona. It is only under the condition of anonymity that a work speaks purely for itself – and because any work must be encountered in some kind of context (not to mention, it must be understood in terms of an existing language with a specific history), this condition is impossible to meet.

So, because Ferrante was never anonymous, people already knew that she was a woman living in present-day Italy, and this is already a lot of authorial context. If she had instead had turned out to be a black man who had lived in Compton in the 1980s, that would pretty obviously have initiated a comprehensive reappraisal of her work, right? And we didn’t actually know before that that wasn’t the case. Perhaps, as things happen, Ferrante’s real identity won’t add anything to people’s estimations of her work. But if this turns out to be the case, it can can only be because her readers were already making the correct assumptions – there’s no such thing as not making assumptions. In which case the revelation of her identity is still valuable information, because it confirms that what was being understood about her work was in fact correct. To take the most obvious example, if someone read one of her books and assumed she was female because they thought that a man could never have portrayed women’s social dynamics so accurately, then what that person has now learned is that they were right. They shouldn’t feel attacked; they should feel validated.

Furthermore, Ferrante has given interviews where she has explained herself and her writing process and commented on her stories, which is to say she’s done the exact thing that her supporters insist not be done. She has tied her work to an identity and made it about her. (Similarly, she seems to have deliberately chosen covers for her books in order to produce an intended effect, which is not how that normally works, and which suggests an intended interpretation.) I mean, look at this:

“Where do I start? In my childhood, my adolescence. Some of the poor Neapolitan neighborhoods were crowded, yes, and rowdy. To gather oneself, so to speak, was physically impossible. One learned very early to have the greatest concentration amid the greatest disruption. The idea that every ‘I’ is largely made up of others and by the others wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to collide continually with the existence of others and to be collided with, the results being at times good-natured, at others aggressive, then again good-natured. The dead were brought into quarrels; people weren’t content to attack and insult the living—they naturally abused aunts, cousins, grandparents, and great-grandparents who were no longer in the world.”

Definitely a case of a writer whose identity is completely unimportant to her work, right? It’s absurd to say that people “didn’t know” who Ferrante was and that they were therefore able to approach her work “without preconceptions”; rather, they were approaching it with a set of preconceptions that they had already implicitly established. Except of course they were, because you can’t not do that, and even if you could not do it there isn’t anything wrong with it in the first place. It doesn’t “taint” the “pure” experience of the work because there’s no such thing as purity in the first place.

So the argument that context diminishes the value of Ferrante’s work is completely untenable, because it was already being placed into a pretty specific context and that wasn’t causing anyone any problems. And this is where the real problem starts, because people are going even further than this, and claiming that the revelation of Ferrante’s identity is an actual attack on the value of her work, that having this additional information somehow delegitimizes it. First of all, if this were actually the case, it could only be because her work wasn’t much good in the first place. Either her work is fragile and dishonest enough that the truth can destroy it, or it is robust and honest enough that the truth can only enhance it. If her work requires an aura of mystery in order to mean anything, then it precisely does not stand on its own by that very fact. So the extreme level of defensiveness on display is deeply unwarranted.

There’s a false dichotomy at work here: either an author’s work is a muddled reflection of their own life and circumstances and that’s all it is, or it’s an entirely abstract pearl of “greatness” that cannot bear contact with the grime of reality. Either a work is entirely defined by its context, or it is entirely defined by its content. Naturally, neither of these is possible. The thing about the term “context” is that there’s always a context, so there’s no such thing as “pure” textual criticism, or indeed “purity” at all. Like, I kind of thought that this was the whole point of the feminist argument against Great Male Author Syndrome, so I’m somewhat confused to see feminists arguing that the only proper way to appreciate Ferrante is to revere her as an abstract Great Author and not to understand her as a person. Surely the point of identity politics is exactly the opposite: to assert that identity must always be accounted for, that the Platonic ideal of the Great Author is a false concept, that universality does not arise despite particularity but rather emerges from it. Surely feminists are capable of working through the complications of identity rather than ignoring them.

And this isn’t really all that complicated; some simple examples should clarify the point. As a young man, Fyodor Dostoevsky was involved in some radical political activity, for which he and his co-conspirators were arrested and sentenced to death. Their sentence was commuted, but they were not informed of this until after they had actually been led out to the prison yard and placed in front of a mock firing squad. So there was a brief period during which Dostoevsky was absolutely certain that he had only minutes left to live. The experience affected him somewhat. There’s a scene in The Idiot where the protagonist, making conversation, describes in detail the final experiences of a condemned criminal. Now, certainly, interpreting this scene as merely Dostoevsky’s description of his own experiences and taking that to “explain” it is the stupid way to go about things. But it’s a far cry from there to view the related biographical information as useless. For starters, this information draws our attention to the scene in the first place; it suggests that it should be read as a significant part of what Dostoevsky is trying to convey with the overall novel. But it also colors our interpretation of the words themselves; it doesn’t tell us what they mean, it remains the case that only the words themselves can do that, but they do it in context, and the more information we have, the better equipped we are to establish a truth-apt context.

Because interpretation is never a simple task. The fact that art only comes into existence via the subjective experience of a reader’s engagement with a text does not mean that it is impossible for a reading to be wrong. It is very much the opposite: it is precisely because of this that the vast majority of readings really are wrong in some significant way. There is always something you’ve missed, or something you’ve misinterpreted, or something that you lack the knowledge to place into context. There are always more paths to take and more ways to walk them, and many of these combinations will turn out to be fruitless. Which is to say we always need help. Biographical information is not our only source of aid, but it’s at least better than random; it’s something that’s close to the text. So it often helps a little, and it sometimes helps a lot. The real point is, if you think you can just shut yourself up with a text and stare at it real real hard and have The Truth rise up out of it, you’re fooling yourself. Such monkish leanings are out of place in a complicated and contradictory world. More than that, if the truth is merely a resource to be marshaled into the service of our existing prejudices whenever we need it, then the truth is worthless. It cannot give us anything we do not already have. In order for the truth to matter, it must be able to attack us; as such, it is our responsibility to fail to fully maintain our guard. To care about the truth is, paradoxically, to insist on being wrong.

So a more appropriate example would be one that actually changed my mind about something. I mean, that’s the only reason any of this matters, right? I’m not an interesting person, though, so you’ll have to forgive me for using a very boring story here. Once upon a time, I encountered a writer who was attempting to make sense of the apparent senselessness of modernity. His writing was hyper-intelligent and dizzyingly fast; he took direct aim at many of the things I was concerned about and struck at them with equal parts unrelenting force and honest humility. It was exhilarating, I felt validated, and I felt certain that I had found a source of answers. His name was David Foster Wallace, and I feel somewhat differently about him now.

The first thing that happened was just that I started to wise up about a few things and therefore began to notice some of the more major holes in Wallace’s analyses. I saw what was wrong with his arguments about the “usage wars” by learning literally the absolute basics about linguistics (pro tip: Language Log is a good website), and I came to realize the deep pointlessness of his McCain profile once I started taking politics seriously. But it didn’t seem like he was just a misguided weirdo; it still felt like he had a bead on the truth. So once this happened, I had to figure out what was going on.

And, well, this is a little embarrassing, but . . . the first thing that I came up with was that he was being ironic. We were meant to understand his arguments as misguided and follow through from there to reach the truth of the situation. Yeah, I know. It kind of does seem that way sometimes, though. Like, in the McCain piece, he spends the whole essay lecturing Young People for not caring about politics, and he also spends the whole essay talking about ad campaigns and shit and avoiding any actual political issues himself (indeed, he is explicitly dismissive of people with actual political beliefs when they inconveniently intrude into his narrative), so when he ends abruptly with the laughably condescending statement “try to stay awake,” it’s hard to imagine that he’s being serious. He’s telling people to stay awake regarding precisely the matter on which he was asleep throughout the entire essay. (And even on the level of personality, everyone who’s ever known McCain says he’s a huge fuckhead, so Wallace isn’t even doing optics right.) It’s ridiculous. So it seems like that has to be the point, right? The thing we’re meant to wake up from is the essay itself – we’re meant to understand Wallace’s approach as absurd and reject it in favor of the actual substance of political engagement.

But of course Wallace also argued rather strenuously against this sort of ironic posturing, so then it must be the case that his argument against irony is itself ironic, and . . . yeah, you can see why this doesn’t work at all. Look, I didn’t really think this was a good angle, okay? It’s just that it was the only thing I could come up with. And that’s the point: I got stuck and I couldn’t come up with a real interpretation because I lacked relevant information. I was operating under the assumption that Wallace was a smart guy who knew what he was doing, that he was An Author, and that he therefore must have somehow been right in a way that I couldn’t see.

What changed wasn’t a revelation or anything, it’s just that I finally put the pieces of what I knew together and realized that Wallace himself wasn’t really a good person, and, while he was certainly talented in some ways, he didn’t have any kind of special intellectual gifts. Which makes him just like everybody else, of course, the mistakes he made were the mistakes that everybody makes, but that’s exactly it: after demystifying his work, I started to see it as coming from a particular perspective, and things started to become clear. I stopped thinking of his stuff as having been written by David Foster Wallace the Renowned Thinker and started thinking of it as having been written by Dave Wallace, a depressed, introverted, desperate human being, and once I started doing that, I was finally able to see the actual words he had put on the page and figure out what they actually said. More specifically, I realized that the reason I had initially felt like he had to be right was that he was similar in some ways to me, which is to say that I was making the same mistakes that he was, and I was taking that fact as confirmation that we both must have been right. Great minds think alike. What I was experiencing was the bad kind of validation: a reification of my own prejudices. My identification with his work obscured my understanding of it.

So the point is not that biographical details compel certain answers, it is simply that we must recognize that there is a question in the first place. This rather unfortunate New Yorker article, while attempting to make the opposite point, makes exactly this point:

“And even if Anita Raja is Elena Ferrante, what does her mother’s terrible persecution during the Holocaust have to do with the books she wrote?”

Yes, exactly! That is exactly the question! Answering that question (not specifically, but in general) is what your job is as a critic. I mean, this is really bizarre. The author calls this an “obvious question,” but that fact that it is a question at all completely negates her argument. Criticizing a revelation on the grounds that it doesn’t explain everything at once is just flat stupidity. The point is precisely that this work can now be done, that these sorts of questions have now become askable. And maybe, as things turn out, the correct answer will be “nothing,” and the whole line of inquiry will turn out to be a dead end, but we can’t know that until we’ve actually asked the questions and done the investigation. You can’t jump ahead and read the end before you start; you have to get through the whole story, as it is written.

See, it’s bizarre that Ferrante thinks she’s mitigating the Famous Author Effect by insisting on pseudonymity, because what she’s really doing is the exact opposite. Hiding the practical aspects of her identity maintains the mystique around her work rather than dispelling it. Of course she’s using a persona, but pseudonymity has nothing to do with that. Anyone who writes anything is necessarily cultivating a persona. Smoothing out your persona into that of a featureless Platonic “Writer” makes it more likely that people will see your work as some sort of emblem of what they think they need rather than taking it as it is, project themselves into it rather than looking at the actual words on the page.

Indeed, this very honest article on the subject admits to doing exactly that:

“With Ferrante’s anonymity, I do not have to feel any hesitations about the entanglement of self and art. It is okay, in essence, to make her work all about me. Without the details of her life, there is no way to know what personal experiences influenced the fiction she creates. I can project as much as I want onto her work without hesitation. In my mind, she has created work that boils down to a few major themes, and I can use those as plot points to create an image of her experiences that is convenient to me. Her work, to me, is what I see in it. And I have learned from it.”

Though her openness is commendable, it’s not really clear what the author is going for here – she seems to be aware that her position is wrong at the same time that she’s defending it – so I guess it’s my job to point out that yes, this is wrong. Fantasy is the enemy of learning, and convenience is the enemy of meaning. Projecting yourself onto art defeats its purpose; if that’s all you’re doing, it can’t give you anything you don’t already have. What relating to a work means, rather, is exactly what that word says: developing a relationship, understanding a work as something other, and then bringing yourself to that new place. The whole point of the truth is that it is outside your control.

Which is why this is wrong:

“They want to make her small, by making her a real person with a real history and real name and real background. They want to assert control over that person, and what it represents, by revealing it.”

It is the exact opposite. First of all, none of this is up to you: people are small, Ferrante does have a real background, her work is the result of a particular confluence of historical and material conditions, and the only giants are the ones in your imagination. More to the point, though, it is precisely through the void of anonymity that you can “assert control” over a work and define it however you want. A person has limitations, but limitations cut both ways: they constrain a person’s claims on the truth, and they also constrain your claims on that person. As we’ve just seen, the people resisting the fact that Ferrante has a real identity are doing so because they want total control over her work – they want it all to themselves. In the absence of limiting facts, you’re free to live in your own imaginary world. What the truth does, functionally, is to prevent you from doing this. It forces you to do what is right rather than what you want.

So yes, there is a sense here in which the truth of identity brings the author “down to Earth” and makes her “small” and “limited,” but these are good things, because that’s where the truth is. On the ground. Down here, not up there. And that’s what the truth is: things aren’t “more true” the more pompous and grandiose they are. True things can be held in your hand. None of this restricts the potential universality of anyone’s work; it’s what allows us to find it in the first place. Being a person doesn’t make you less of a writer, it makes you more of one. As Noreen Malone very succinctly puts it, “being attached to a specific, limited, actual person — rather than an airy abstraction — is only damning if you think there’s something lacking about being an actual person.” Again, it is bizarre that feminists are making the case otherwise. Surely it is feminists more than anyone else who believe that the basic experience of being a person is more important than any abstract social framework.

There is an allowance to be made here for the fact that the readers we’re talking about are mostly if not exclusively women, and we continue to exist in a society that does not really allow women to have their own experiences. It’s entirely understandable that people who have found a rare source of validation will resist any attempted imposition of a different narrative, especially when they are accustomed to such impositions being both unavoidable and wrong. But even if one accepts the value of comfort, which I don’t, comfort can never be enough. Comfort at its best enables you to get by, and if getting by is your goal, you’re a nihilist. The truth doesn’t corral you in to one valid response, but it does establish a line. And you can’t claim honesty or good faith if you’re not willing to allow that line to cut through your comfort zone.

So the reason this issue can’t be left alone is that it’s a situation where cake is being had and also eaten. You can’t defend Ferrante as both a fragile human and an untouchable icon. You have to pick one or the other, and we all know what the right choice is. Indeed, that is whence cometh the defensiveness about all of this: these people know they’re wrong, and that is why they are resisting the truth. This isn’t a case where people are trying to impose their own standards on others; it’s a case where people have incoherent standards. If we take them at their word that they want the thing they say they want, then it’s only polite to inform them that they aren’t actually getting it.

On second thought, no, that isn’t the reason. I should be more honest here. I’m not doing this out of principles. I’m doing it because I’m upset. I’m upset about this:

“To fall in love with a book, in that way that I and so many others have fallen in love with Ferrante’s, is to feel a special kinship with its author, a profound sort of mutual receptivity and comprehension. The author knows nothing about you, and yet you feel that your most intimate self has been understood. The fact that Ferrante has chosen to be anonymous has become part of this contract, and has put readers and writer on a rare, equal plane. Ferrante doesn’t know the details of our lives, and doesn’t care to. We don’t know those of hers. We meet on an imaginative neutral ground, open to all.”

It’s difficult to know where to start with something like this. I suppose I’ll be polite and elide the psychological angle. The clearest flaw here is that all of this has absolute dick to do with how much you know about a writer’s personal details. You’re always doing this; in fact, nothing distinctive is actually being described here. So what exactly is the aspiration that the author feels she is being denied? Given the topic, it can only be the aspiration to avoid confounding details, to read unchallenged. This is cowardice. This demand for anonymity is a demand for a security blanket. I mean, come on. You really can’t relate to a work if there are already existing interpretations out there? You can’t feel understood other than by feeling like a special snowflake? You stop being able to relate to someone once you realize they’re different from how you imagined them? You can’t integrate uncomfortable truths into a deeper and more robust understanding? You call yourself a reader?

What aggravates me is that these people think they’re mounting some kind of brave last stand against the Famous Author Effect, when in fact they’re completely in thrall to it. They have so little ability to resist that they cannot imagine being able to relate to a work that actually makes demands of them. They’re so uncritical that they simply can’t function in the face of alternative theories. They’re so desperate for a smooth ride that they insist that a “neutral ground” be flattened out for them before they even step into the carriage.

You know what? I’m still not being honest enough. Calling this sort of thing “love” is viscerally repulsive. It makes me sick. What these people are saying is that they cannot love something that is actually real. They can only tolerate vague abstractions that allow themselves to be molded into whatever shape the “lover” desires. This is not love. It’s fetishization. It’s objectification.

The reason this is all so annoying is that we’re talking about the absolute basics here. I’m not even approaching any kind of radical critical theory. This is just the basic substance of what reading is. I can describe someone as “conniving” or “strategic” or “Machiavellian,” and these all mean different things, but that’s not because of anything that’s “in” the words themselves but because you bring a different set of associations with you to each word. Which means you might end up having to admit that, for example, you have some sort of weird idiosyncratic context that you’ve developed for a word that no one else has and therefore what you think the word is about is completely different from what everyone else thinks, and I might end up having to admit that I don’t know what words mean. There’s no way around this; there’s no “real” meaning. All text is context, and all language is a game. You can’t draw until you ante up.

And it’s actually even more annoying than that, because Ferrante’s fans were already doing this even when they didn’t know who she was, they just want to be able to deny to themselves that this is what they were doing. As mentioned, Ferrante never was any kind of abstract giant; she was always a person writing about being a person, and that’s what her fans were responding to, even as they histrionically insist the opposite. So all they’re actually doing is refusing to take on the responsibility of interpretation. They want to pretend that their initial naive impression of her work was “real.” Nothing is real. But that doesn’t mean there was necessarily anything wrong with that impression, it’s just that we shouldn’t be relying on intentional ignorance to obscure the situation for us. If we assume that the harshness of the truth is in conflict with personhood, we preemptively doom ourselves. We should be able to recognize that any public presentation is automatically a persona, and that a persona is always a shield.

And we must be able to do this and still find meaning in the work itself. The big kind of meaning, the same kind we’ve always been going for. Because that’s the thing: all those times in the past when someone encountered a work and felt the hand of god gripping them by the throat and decided that this could only be because the work was divinely inspired or the product of an inhumanly great talent, they, again, were doing this. There actually was a context and a set of biographical details that they were taking into account and sublimating into their broader understanding. They weren’t “surpassing” that context because they couldn’t; that’s impossible. They were just using a convenient fiction to make the job easier for themselves, to avoid complicating details and alternative interpretations. We can do better. We can do the job the hard way, the right way, and still get it done.

If knowing that Ferrante is a real human person fucks up your ability to relate to her work, that’s your problem. I don’t mean that as an insult, I mean it sympathetically. This is something we all have to deal with, and we have to deal with it regardless of how much specific information we have in each individual case. It doesn’t matter whether it’s something like 1984 that has already been theorized to death and back and then to death again or whether it’s unlabeled instrumental music that you found at random on a dead webpage. You always have to do your own work within the constraints of reality, and you always have to choose where to make your stand, and you always have to recognize that doing so leaves you open to attacks from all sides at all times. There’s nothing radical about any of this; it is merely the basic structure of how criticism works – how it has to work. The alternatives are phantasmic.

What’s scary about this, what people don’t want to accept, is that it’s up to you. There is no one bigger than you who can lift you up and carry you where you need to go. There are, at best, people who are just as lost as you are but who have been to different places and can suggest better directions, and a lot of the time there’s not even that. Progress requires assuming that you don’t know what you’re doing, and then of course doing it anyway. But the thing about the death of god is that god never existed in the first place. We were just pretending, and all that’s happened now is that we’ve stopped pretending. Because the truth is actually true, the only thing that a revelation can reveal is the thing that was always the case, all along. We have always lived in a world without giants, which means that the work that we’ve done has always been our own. It’s not that it’s up to you now, it’s that it’s still up to you. It has always been up to you; you have always been making this decision. Believe in yourself.

Download your emotion, baby

Why does no one understand anything about the internet? Serious question. Look at this nonsense:

Freed from the anguish of choosing, music listeners can discover all kinds of weird, nettlesome, unpleasant, sublime, sweet, or perplexing musical paths.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I encountered a howler as blatant as claiming that choice is now less important because of the multiplicity of options offered by the internet. Obviously, the opposite is true: choice is now so omnipresent as to have become tyrannical. It used to be that you were justified in just listening to whatever was on the radio, or whatever the officially-licensed music weirdo at the record store recommended, or whatever bands happened to be playing at your local venues, because you didn’t really have any other options. Now you have all the options; you have to choose. At every moment of every day, you must choose the one thing out of an infinity of options that you will spend this portion of your finite human existence on, and you must do so with the full knowledge that you are damning yourself to miss out on all the things you didn’t choose, forever.

I think that much is pretty obvious. But here’s the important part. This:

These paths branch off constantly, so that by the end of a night that started with the Specials, you’re listening to Górecki’s Miserere, not by throwing a dart, but by following the quite specific imperatives of each moment’s needs, each instant’s curiosities. It is like an open-format video game, where you make the world by advancing through it.

is also wrong. (Also this is a typically terrible video game analogy made by someone who has no idea what video games are actually like, but one thing at a time here.) Just because you have theoretical access to every song ever made (which is not actually the case, but seriously, one thing at a time) does not suddenly transport you into an unfettered wonderland of pure personal choices. In fact, the author cites a rather strong piece of evidence against himself: Spotify carries about four million songs which have never been listened to, by anyone, ever. So it is clearly not the case that people are freely venturing into heretofore unexplored terrain. Indeed, the fact that internet discourse is crammed full of nostalgia suggests that people actually aren’t seeking out new experiences at all. You may have noticed that, post-internet, pop stardom and celebrity are bigger industries than ever. The paradox of internet culture is that a practical infinity of choices makes people more likely to stick with what they already know. Except that’s not a paradox at all, because of course that’s what’s going to happen. The internet does not magically remove society’s existing constraints. On the contrary, by strengthening people’s ability to engage, the internet enables people to cleave more strongly to the things that they were already into. Ergo, Beyoncé’s Twitter mob.

This part makes the failure of analysis pretty clear:

Just five years ago, if you wanted to listen legally to a specific song, you bought it (on CD, on MP3), which, assuming finite resources, meant you had to choose which song to buy, which in turn meant you didn’t buy other songs you had considered buying. Then, a person with $10 to spend could have purchased five or six songs, or, if he was an antiquarian, an album. Now, with $10, that same person can subscribe to a streaming service for a month and hear all five or six songs he would have purchased with that money, plus 20 million or so others.

What’s missing here is very obviously the non-monetary component of opportunity cost. A person has only so many hours in the day to spend listening to music. So yes, it’s great that money is less of a constraint now, but the more important constraint, the issue of what you’re actually going to choose to do with your finite human existence, is as strong as ever. In fact, it’s stronger: there is now more nonsense to engage with, more to attend to, more demands on your attention, and hence less time to make these supposedly free choices we’ve all been gifted with.

These factual inaccuracies point us to the deeper philosophical problem, which is that choice is not simply a matter of the raw number of options you have. Having more options makes it more likely that your choice-set will include good choices, but it also makes it harder to find those choices amidst the noise.

Think of it this way: imagine all the songs on Spotify were unlabelled. All you could do was listen to songs at absolute total random out of its entire catalog. Total horrorshow, right? But this is the maximum amount of free choice: it is totally unencumbered by any kind of bias, including your own. Now imagine that the songs were all labelled, but there were no other discovery tools. This is better, because you can at least find things you’ve already heard of and check out new songs with interesting names, but it’s still pretty hard to discover stuff. Now consider the internet as it currently exists, where you’re constantly being barraged with recommendations and promotions and soforth. This is both more constrained and better than any permutation of the above examples, because you actually have stuff to go on: you can find recommenders you trust and branch out from things you already like and etc.

What’s happened here is that our choices have gotten better as they’ve become more constrained, and the reason this happens is because the constraints are operating in the correct direction: towards things you might actually want to listen to. There are, of course, also constraints that operate in incorrect directions; the reason most of what’s on the radio is garbage is because it’s selected based on what executives think will make money rather than what actually sounds good. So, naturally, there is a situation better than the current one, which is one where all of those recommendation engines and music bloggers and soforth don’t have ulterior motives in the areas of commercial appeal and popularity. This is, of course, an additional constraint that removes things from your search queue that got there because of advertising or whatever, and it, again, makes things better. Choice is a false idol; freedom isn’t free.

And this is a good thing, because if your choices really were totally unconstrained, they would be essentially random, which is to say chaotic, which is to say meaningless. Remember that bit above about “each instant’s curiosities”? Yeah, that’s nihilism. If you’re seriously just going off of your pure momentary whims, you’re an animal. Whereas when you do things like check out formative artists in genres you like, or explore the various bands that were part of a scene you’re interested in, you are engaging with the structure of reality and making choices that are actually connected to the things you care about. While there is a real and important distinction between coerced and uncoerced choices (and lack of options can be a form of coercion), a choice has to be based on real-world conditions in order to be meaningful; the concept of an “unconstrained” choice is oxymoronic. It’s only by being attached to contingent circumstances in the real world that your choices have any chance of being worth a shit.

Indeed, this “free choice” framing betrays a disturbing assumption: that any experience is just as good as any other. If the pure number of options you have is what’s meaningful, that can only be because the content of the options themselves is not meaningful. Which, if true, would mean that all experiences are meaningless. This, for example:

When I hear a song for the fiftieth time, I remember the wall color of my studio apartment on Mt. Vernon Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1996, and I remember how cold the awful landlady kept it, and I remember her shivering whippet scratching at my door so that he could come in and curl up in the hollows of my giant furry Newfoundland.

is nothing but the worst kind of banal egoism. If the only significance of music is that it reminds you of some arbitrary shit from your past, then music is meaningless. It might as well be a scrap of paper or an oddly-shaped rock.

Luckily this is a lie, which is obvious when you consider why this is wrong:

Play the songs you heard on February 2, 2013, in the order in which you played them, and you can recreate not just the emotions but the suspense and surprise of emotion as it changes in time.

Dude has literally never heard that a person cannot step into the same river twice. What makes music powerful is the fact that its substance emerges out from particular experiences, not that it is buried within them. Contingency and temporality are what make existence meaningful; without them, you are a portrait and not a person.

Oh and by the way all of this actually has dick to do with the internet. Internet technology enables all of this, but the actual power sources behind these dynamics are political and psychological, just as they always have been. The basic failing of almost all writing about the internet is that it assumes that the same old patterns of behavior somehow assume an unprecedented radical significance now that they’re happening On The Internet.

So, okay, let’s hit this. The first part is easy: the reason people want their experiences to be permanently frozen in time and eternally retrievable is because they don’t want to die. Tough shit, friends. Your name has not been written in the book of life. You’re going to exist for a while, and then you’re going to stop existing.

Moving on, the choice fallacy is a clear outgrowth of consumerism. The idea that picking your very own very special choice from the largest possible menu of options is the ideal situation is a fantasy concocted to sell shit in supermarkets. If contingency matters, then goods are not fungible and capitalism loses its claim to meaning. Which is of course the case; even under the most charitable interpretation of capitalism, what it’s good for is producing enough goods to give people the opportunity to do things that are actually meaningful. Taking economic growth itself as a goal is a blatant capture of the ends by the means. In the same sense, to assume that having the largest number of possible options for which music or movies or books or whatever to experience is what matters is to forget what makes these things worth experiencing in the first place.

The last piece of the puzzle is why everyone constantly talks about The Internet like it actually has its own agenda, rather than simply being an amplifier (or a suppressor) for existing motivations. This is pure ideology. The internet just happened yesterday, so it’s easy to take it as an explanation for everything that’s happening right now and thereby avoid any examination of the underlying forces. Because those forces are not the lizard people and the reverse vampires; those forces are you. The actual conspiracy is the one inside your head, constantly arranging everything you experience to serve its invisible ends. Aggregating data ain’t going to get you out of this. You’ve got to fight theory with theory.

Get the cuts you need

This ranking of Tegan and Sara albums is a remarkably comprehensive argument against the idea that ranking things has any value whatsoever.

The first and most obvious issue is that The Con isn’t at the top, seeing as it’s clearly magical. When Robert Mapplethorpe was taking pictures of Patti Smith for the cover of Horses, he looked at one of the shots and said to her, “this one has the magic.” There’s nothing really remarkable about the image, it’s just a lady wearing a suit and looking at the camera, but it is, in fact, magic. Anyone who’s seen it has it permanently burned into their mind; it has a transcendent itself-ness that gives it an insistent significance; it communicates in a primal language that creates its own understanding; it’s the kind of thing that you feel in your heart before you even know what it is. The Con is the one that has the magic.

This seems like a slam-dunk argument that it’s “the best,” but it doesn’t actually hold up on reflection. The characteristic of magic is precisely that it does not obey the normal laws, so it’s incoherent to say that something is the objective best because it’s magical. On the contrary, the whole point of rankings, it would seem, is to get around vague notions of “specialness” and down to brass tacks.

So, I mean, fine. If you’re trying to rank things, you need to ignore magic and just focus on the things you can measure. This is already pretty suspicious, since we’re ignoring what seems to be the most important thing, but we can at least see if it works. The specific claim made by the listperson is that So Jealous is cohesive while The Con is all over the place. This is certainly true, and it’s also obviously intentional; you don’t follow “Hop A Plane” with “Soil, Soil” because you’re trying to provide a smooth listening experience. But there’s a critical missing step here, which is the argument that a consistent album is better than one with extreme emotional ups and downs. To me, this is clearly backwards: the album that pulls off greater emotional range and more diverse songwriting is the better one.

But the issue isn’t whether I’m right or the listperson is right; the issue is that neither of us is. That missing step is actually just nonexistent: there is no argument you can make as to why one mode of expression is “better” than another. This is professionally known as the is/ought gap: even an exhaustive description of reality does not imply any standard or metric for evaluating that reality. You can spend all day making correct, incisive observations, but everyone still has to decide on the actual value of the underlying content for themselves. So there’s all sorts of analysis to be done as to what an album does and what it’s about, but even after you’ve done that, tacking a number onto it is still completely arbitrary.

So the first two problems with rankings are that they can’t capture transcendence, and that they don’t add anything to the analysis they’re based on. You can just talk about music without sticking numbers next to it. But surely the problem is that we’re splitting hairs between great and greater albums, right? There are certainly some albums that can be said to be better than others, so ratings do have a proper and properly limited utility. For example, Under Feet Like Ours is clearly the worst Tegan and Sara album. They’re pretty much the exact opposite of the band that comes right out of the gate with a fully-formed sound and then struggles to move forward with it: their first record is jittery and awkward, all ideas and no form, and every album after it takes a huge leap in a new direction. The comparison is made extra simple by the fact that This Business Of Art contains many of the same songs reworked to be more fleshy and coherent, making it easy to see it as a strictly superior album.

But what does it actually mean to call something the “worst” album? Does it mean that you shouldn’t listen to it? I mean, maybe; it depends on how worst it is and whether Tegan and Sara are the sort of band who are good even when they’re bad (or when they want to be bad). So even if we take this ranking to be straightforwardly correct, it still gives us no relevant information. After all, we’re talking about the album that has “This Is Everything” on it, which is definitely something I would recommend experiencing (not to mention that that song is itself about transcendent value overcoming practical failure). This is the paradox of aesthetics: being worse doesn’t actually make something worse, so rankings are wrong even when they’re right.

At this point I should probably clarify that I am aware of what the actual purpose of ranking things on the internet is. Rankings are supposed to be bad and wrong, because they’re outrage bait (arbitrary lists of nonsensical rankings are a running joke on Gawker, the internet’s premier source of self-incriminating mockery). What I’m meant to be doing here is ranting about how putting Sainthood in the bottom half of basically any list about anything is blatantly pathological behavior. But the fact that rankings are guaranteed to generate strident disagreement is just more evidence that there’s no substance behind them. If, for example, I were inclined to make a (much) better version of this list, how would I handle Sainthood? The album is fucked up six ways from Monday, from the awkwardly staggered lyrics on “Paperback Head” to the way “Sentimental Tune” crescendos itself off a cliff. “Arrow” bristles with big, gaudy effects, “On Directing” piles up multiple layers of self-reference, “Red Belt” is placid to the point of pain. Are these good things or bad things? Should I just give in to idiosyncrasy and order the albums however I feel like, or should I try to restrain my own impulses as much as possible and put them in the most defensible order? Which of these approaches is less dishonest? The fact that there’s no answer to any of this reveals the fundamental problem: there is zero connection between the score someone gives an album and the actual experience they had listening to it, i.e. the thing that actually matters. The usual distinction is between subjective feeling and objective facts, but actually, neither of these things has any correspondence with rankings.

The reason this is important, the reason we shouldn’t just let these things be stupid and find something better to do (although we should also do that), is that there’s a reason they work, a real insight that underlies their cynical conception: people like rankings. It’s not just internet lists, the basic concept of giving something a numerical score necessarily implies a ranking order. So if it’s so obvious that no one cares which number some hack sticks next to something on a list, why are lists and scores and rankings all over the place?

If you’re reviewing like dishwashers or whatever, some of them actually are going to work better than others, and numerical ratings are a sensible way to represent that. The key, though, is the word “work,” which implies a defined function: the better appliance is the one that accomplishes its intended task more effectively. Some aspects of this will be subjective or situational, but by doing multiple carefully controlled tests and aggregating the results, we can arrive at an assessment that will be broadly applicable in most circumstances, one that is “objective” in the colloquial sense of the term. This process is what we generally refer to as “science.”

And you can’t apply this to art, because art isn’t functional. It is susceptible to analysis; you can focus like a microscope and make all sorts of substantive observations, but none of that is useful until you cross the is/ought gap and start valuing things. And once you’ve done that, you have left the realm of objectivity, turning any kind of rank or score you want to assign into a category error. Subjective experience isn’t just hard to get at, it’s absolutely inaccessible.

Why, then, would anyone get upset about a rating being “wrong,” given that it has nothing to do with how anyone feels about the work in question? The specific feeling at issue is invalidation. When someone gives a low “objective” score to something you care about, you feel like your experience is invalid. And the opposite feeling is the reason people like ratings in the first place: a high “objective” score means that you’re right to like something, that the way you feel is true. But such a source of validation can only be described as cowardice. Certainly, the person who embraces things only after they have been deemed permissible by the appropriate cultural gatekeepers is a coward. But the same is true of any external source of validation: the safety of objectivity is a refuge from the responsibility to determine one’s own values.

Music is one of the less extreme examples here, since the appeal of music is generally understood as idiosyncratic anyway. The most prominent example is, of course, ethics in games journalism. The extreme stupidity of that, uh, “debate” is somewhat offset by the fact that it’s drawing the battle lines very clearly. Some people think games are basically appliances that you plug yourself into in order to be “entertained,” in which case assigning them an objective numerical score according to how entertaining they are makes perfect superficial sense. Others think that the point of games is to create new experiences, which requires engagement with the real world and active acceptance of subjectivity. So the one nice thing about this is that is provides a convenient sanity check. If you find yourself on the wrong side of an argument this obvious, you’ve gotta back it up.

Subjective experience is inherently desperate. It contains within itself the understanding that it cannot be verified or transmitted, that it is a pure moment, that it seems on reflection to not exist at all, even though it’s the only thing of any actual importance. Art is largely an attempt to get around this, to turn subjectivity into something more substantive than simply raw feeling. At a live show in particular, it’s easy to imagine that everyone else in the room is feeling the same thing you are. But the attempt to reify subjective experience as something externally valid is no kind of solution, because this creates only a hollow shell, bereft of the animating spirit that made it matter in the first place. The only real option is to embrace the horror, to hold transience without shaking.

But we have to be careful not to back into reverse nihilism. If everyone just likes what they like, then nothing means anything. There’s no substantive distinction between hearing a symphony and watching paint dry. So it seems like we need a way to preserve objective orders of rank without muffling subjectivity.

The one rating system with a subjectivity-respecting justification is the two-point thumbs-up/thumbs-down system, because it implies nothing other than an answer to the actual question: should I spend time on this or not? But if you accept that, you’ve accepted the idea that there are objective standards that can be applied to art, and that would seem to open the floodgates. Any other rating system, no matter how convoluted, has the same theoretical justification. A rating of 3 stars out of 5 could mean “check this out only if you’re a fan of the genre”; 28.6 points out of 100 could mean “worth it only on a rainy day when you don’t feel like doing anything else.” So it seems like accepting the validity of analysis requires us to countenance every nonsensical rating system that anyone comes up with, and we’re stuck disagreeing with every Bad Opinion on a case-by-case basis.

This is a false dichotomy based on the idea that analysis requires a number as its output, and anything else is just personal feelings. It is not only possible to combine subjectivity and analysis, it is vitally necessary. If you only have your own subjective experience, then there’s no room for any kind of conversation or collaboration; everything is just, like, your opinion, man. And if all you have is analysis, you’ve just got a big convoluted structure that doesn’t mean anything; it might as well just be a big rock.

In fact, it’s perfectly easy to do everything valuable about analysis while ignoring the dumb numerical part. For example, consider this review of Sleater-Kinney’s discography (eMusic used to have a lot of good music writing, but it apparently got run over by the freight train of progress at some point). It has the same album-by-album format, but even as it makes judgments, it doesn’t pretend to be any kind of ranking, and this clarifies the underlying analysis. Actually, the reason I chose this example is because it’s moronic. The person who wrote it thinks that Janet Weiss joined on Call the Doctor, so he disses Lora MacFarlane’s drumming on the first album and then praises it on the second, without realizing he’s talking about the same person. The real problem, though, it that he thinks The Hot Rock was “Sleater-Kinney on an off day,” which I honestly can’t even begin to address. I lack the ability to inhabit the mental space where this is a comprehensible statement. But because the album isn’t “ranked,” there’s no fake argument about whether the ranking is “right” or whether it’s properly “objective” or what the fuck ever. We can just accept that this guy has terrible taste in music and get on with our lives.

What we need to do is to split the concept of ranking along its fault line. As mentioned, it conflates two distinct things that don’t have a real connection: there’s analysis, and then there’s putting a number on that analysis. And what putting a number on something actually means is establishing a hierarchy. Hence the phenomenon of the internet ranking list: a list of which things are better than which other things.

Hierarchy has its uses, but our society has established a hierarchy of people, and this surely ranks among the greatest possible crimes against existence. Its function is to justify the dominance of the ruling class by positing them as the “best” people, and to justify the direction of our development as progress toward a higher goal. People want to feel like they live in an ordered universe, but there are different types of order, and some of them are dispreferable to chaos. Recognizing that there is no real apotheosis, no greatest hit, reveals our society’s horrors as the chosen project of our rulers – a project that we have the freedom to oppose. This is the cure for our crimes.

There’s an old saying, which I thought was Chinese but am completely failing to source, that perfection arouses the envy of the gods. I mean, everything is an “ancient Chinese proverb,” but I genuinely thought that this was a Chinese or Japanese concept. There is, for example, the Japanese term “wabi-sabi,” which expresses the idea that flaws can make something better. But this isn’t like mystical wisdom or whatever; it’s a very practical concept that doesn’t have anything to do with spirituality or metaphysics. What it means is that perfection is impossible not because it is the asymptotic limit of quality, but because it is a self-defeating concept.

If there actually were a perfect album, something that literally every person agreed was the best, that could only mean that no one had an individual reaction to it. If one person were to feel something about it that no one else did, that opens up the possibility that someone else could have such a reaction to a different album, meaning the perfect album is not perfect. In order to actually be perfect, it would have to provide all possible experiences to all people, which is to say it would have to do nothing. The only way to speak to everyone equally is to remain silent. Actually, even that’s not true; 4’33” is one of the most divisive pieces of music in existence. Anything that actually exists is necessarily rough, flawed, divisive, incomplete, and wrong. Perfection is logically impossible.

In a more practical sense, this means that nothing can ever meaningfully be said to be “the best” of anything, even when the category is as simple as 7 albums by the same band. Even on a strictly personal level, this is why it doesn’t make sense to have favorites. Casual conversation is one thing, but seriously conceiving of your values in terms of “favorites,” as a hierarchy, is ridiculous. More than that, it’s a concession to a social schema which is actively trying to kill you, a subordination of your subjectivity, the thing that makes you actually exist, to a fake, boring god of rules and lines. America has a very particular problem with being unable to comprehend quality in any sense other than being “#1” or the “Mattress King” or whatever. Hence certain of our current political problems.

And Tegan and Sara are actually one of the best examples of why this whole idea is dumb, because they don’t make albums that are trying to be better versions of albums they’ve already made. They make different albums. Following up Sainthood with Heartthrob was a good move, even from my perspective, where Sainthood is the kind of music I like and Heartthrob is, uh, less so. The only thing worse than changing is not changing. In the words of Kathleen Hanna, we don’t want to hear you making the right decisions, we want to hear your voice. You might write something that someone might want to read, someday.

Long con

Deadspin brings us the story of a ridiculous “longform” piece from something called SB Nation defending that one rapist cop (you know, that one cop who saw his job as an opportunity to fulfill his pathetic male power fantasies) on the grounds that, uh, he used to play football, I guess. The point is that this is identified not as an individual failure, but as a fundamental problem with the concept of longform writing:

“There had never been a complete failure of concept and execution quite like this one, but it was nearly inevitable. If a company has a gorgeous CMS designed for longform, and a mandate to produce longform, and staff in place to present longform, it’s going to publish longform—whether the stories are there or not.”

Obviously, the problem with the “longform” concept is right there in the name: “long” is not a format. It’s a one-dimensional quantity that imparts no further information. Length does not imply complexity, incisiveness, or insight; nor does it necessitate ponderous meandering. But the fact that the concept exists at all means it has to refer to something. In particular, there are websites that aggregate longform articles regardless of subject matter. Someone who sits down to browse one of these sites is not thinking “I feel like reading something long today.” So what are they actually looking for?

It’s clear what role the longform concept fills in the ecosystem of the internet. It’s a countertrend against the bite-sized “content” delivery of tweets, listicles, and slideshows. In other words, longform pieces are supposed to be substantive. But substance comes in many forms; again, length is not antonymous with vapidity. So what longform pieces actually are is a fantasy: the fantasy that you can avoid being mislead by prejudice and trendiness if you put in the effort to read allllll about something and get the “complete” picture. They’re nuanced, where “nuance” is an internet buzzword for “look at how objective and reasonable I’m being.” The temptation of the internet’s infinite information illusion is that it makes it seem like you can get all the facts, that one perfect story can explain everything. The longform concept insists that there is such a story to be told for every subject. This is not the case.

Hilariously, Deadspin itself falls into this exact trap with their longform piece explaining why longform pieces are fundamentally flawed. The essay aggregates plenty of data about the SB Nation piece, but despite aspiring to figure out “how it happened,” none of it is actually explanatory. For example, word count enforcement is cited as a mechanism for padding non-stories into vectors for insight:

“When Stout launched SB Nation Longform in the fall of 2012, the idea was very much that Stout could bring prestige to the site by regularly running long stories—not stories aspiring to a certain complexity, note, but long ones. One freelancer said that per the terms of his contract, the story had to be at least 4,000 words long.”

Obviously having a strict word count like this is a dumb idea, but it doesn’t actually apply to the piece in question, which was 12,000 words – three times the “required” length. So the issue was not that the author was inflating irrelevant details to make word count; rather, they clearly felt that they had a hell of a lot to say. Similarly, Deadspin claims that “this story serves as an example of why diversity in the newsroom is so important,” as anyone familiar with the dynamics of rape culture would surely have put the brakes on it. But in fact, that exact thing actually happened. The one black woman involved in the process raised hell about it, and was casually overruled. So the story is actually an example of why “diversity” doesn’t fucking matter as long as the same old power dynamics are still in play.

The actual issue here has nothing to do with the mechanics of longform – at least not the explicit ones. The issue isn’t the particular format in which the story was told, it’s the fact that it was told at all. As Jezebel points out, there was fundamentally no story here:

“The question, of course, is why Arnold felt Holtzclaw deserved a more rounded portrait in the first place. By most accounts, Holtzclaw is an unexceptional man who has been found guilty of serial rape. The difference between Holtzclaw and other men who sexually assault women is that his position as a police officer allowed him a unique opportunity to brutalize his victims while keeping them silent. The other difference, of course, is that Holtzclaw actually got caught and will pay for his crimes.”

In other words, any story proceeding from this angle – regardless of length or process or who was writing it – was going to be worthless. The actual direct fist-to-the-face cause of this debacle was that everyone involved in it, excluding the lone ignored objector, thought it would be a good idea to write a sympathetic story about a serial rapist. And this – the idea that there must be a story to be told from the rapist’s perspective, that there must be some mitigating factor to “explain” the situation in the moral sense – is in fact one of the pillars of rape culture.

It’s commonly understood, I hope, that any kind of real understanding of basically anything requires multiple stories from multiple perspectives. But the one thing that stories need to be is true, not merely factually but in the fullest sense: they need to be the right stories. The seemingly-free publishing space of the internet makes it too easy to respond to everything with more words, with an explanation of why someone else’s explanation of an explanation is wrong (which is obviously what I’m doing right now). What’s needed to cut through the fog of confusion is not the ponderous weight of nuance, but the thin, bright blade of discernment. Truth does not result from the aggregate of all lies; it must be carved out. Lines must be drawn. That’s why sometimes, even often, the right story is no story.