See no evil

My last post requires an addendum. I mentioned that expecting social media companies to filter out bad political content is a fool’s errand, because all you’d be doing is shackling yourself to someone else’s biases. So there’s that, but there’s also a deeper, category-level confusion which has been occurring with increased prevalence and which pretty much nobody is picking up on.

Some time ago, Google changed its search interface to add little boxes and things for “recommended” results. This is supposed to make it easier to find answers to direct questions without having to go through a whole page of links. But people have been noticing that this approach leads to a lot of untoward results; for example, queries regarding the Holocaust used to produce Holocaust denial pages in the boxy results. It’s easy to understand why this happens: most people accept the occurrence of the Holocaust as a historical fact, so the only people who actually input queries along the lines of “did the Holocaust really happen?” are denialists (or at least budding denialists), who then click through to denialist sites. So the Google algorithm is just performing its usual function of showing people the most popular results correlated with their input.

There isn’t actually a way around this. As long as there are Holocaust denial sites on the internet, there will exist some query that directs you to them. I mean, if there wasn’t, Google wouldn’t be much of a search engine, right? But that doesn’t mean that there’s no problem here. Rather, the problem is specifically with the boxes that pick out some of the results and stamp them with the imprimatur of officiality. As long as that’s happening, Google actually is recommending those results. So the only sensible option here is to get rid of the boxy results. Google’s job is to show you what’s on the internet and nothing else.

Importantly, there is a technical reason why this is the correct solution. It is impossible for Google’s boxy results feature to work “correctly,” because it is internally contradictory. It is intended to be both a dynamically-generated response based on the most relevant data currently present on the internet and an Official Correct Answer. You can’t do both of those things at once. You have to pick one. Furthermore, picking the second one is also impossible, because the number of potential questions is literally infinite. What the boxy results actually are is an illusion. They look like a recommendation when they are actually no different than anything else that happens to come up in the list of results. The reason that boxy results specifically reflect badly on Google is because they are lies. It is correct to say in this case that Google is lying to you, even though the results are completely unintentional, because Google has constructed its interface to look like something that it is not, and is thereby conveying false information.1 So the only logically viable option is for Google to quit fucking around and just be a search engine, which, you might recall, was the whole thing it was good at in the first place.2

People seem to be having a certain amount of difficulty understanding this. Naturally, there’s always a performative moral crisis when something like this happens, but in this case the complaints are almost universally targeted at the same, specific, exactly wrong place. Consider this article, which correctly points out that the problem is specifically with the boxy results:

For most of its history, Google did not answer questions. Users typed in what they were looking for and got a list of web pages that might contain the desired information. Google has long recognized that many people don’t want a research tool, however; they want a quick answer. Over the past five years, the company has been moving toward providing direct answers to questions along with its traditional list of relevant web pages.

Type in the name of a person and you’ll get a box with a photo and biographical data. Type in a word and you’ll get a box with a definition. Type in “When is Mother’s Day” and you’ll get a date. Type in “How to bake a cake?” and you’ll get a basic cake recipe. These are Google’s attempts to provide what Danny Sullivan, a journalist and founder of the blog SearchEngineLand, calls “the one true answer.” These answers are visually set apart, encased in a virtual box with a slight drop shadow. According to MozCast, a tool that tracks the Google algorithm, almost 20 percent of queries — based on MozCast’s sample size of 10,000 — will attempt to return one true answer.

Unfortunately, not all of these answers are actually true.

and then immediately descends into psychotic gibberish:

Google needs to invest in human experts who can judge what type of queries should produce a direct answer like this, Shulman said. “Or, at least in this case, not send an algorithm in search of an answer that isn’t simply ‘There is no evidence any American president has been a member of the Klan.’ It’d be great if instead of highlighting a bogus answer, it provided links to accessible, peer-reviewed scholarship.”

. . .

The fastest way for Google to improve its featured snippets is to release them into the real world and have users interact with them. Every featured snippet comes with two links in the footnote: “About this result,” and “Feedback.” The former explains what featured snippets are, with guidelines for webmasters on how to opt out of them or optimize for them. The latter simply asks, “What do you think?” with the option to respond with “This is helpful,” “Something is missing,” “Something is wrong,” or “This isn’t useful,” and a section for comments.

This is all nonsense. The problem is that Google gives some of its results a false sense of authority, so the solution is for it to give a different set of its results even more of a false sense of authority, while also soliciting comments from everyone and putting in 3,000 different links allowing people to leave 30,000 different layers of feedback, because then the results won’t be confusing anymore.

Again, there are a literally infinite number of possible queries and results, which is the whole reason you write a search engine in the first place. Putting in custom results for specific queries both breaks the functionality of what Google is supposed to be doing, and is a futile game of whack-a-mole, a drop of water in a sea of bullshit. Furthermore, when you go down this road you’re trusting Google to provide the “right” results, which is a task at which it has absolutely no institutional competence. Is there seriously anyone who still hasn’t noticed that nerds are generally extremely bad at anything outside of their direct area of expertise? (That’s kind of the definition of “nerd,” actually.) To precisely the extent that you have a curated system, you do not have a search engine. You have some nerd’s journal.

Again, again, Google can either be a search engine or a source of direct information. It can’t be both things, and the practical effect of “solutions” like this is to transform Google into an extremely shitty direct information source. Think about this for literally five seconds: if the problem is that the web has a bunch of shitty content on it, then how is soliciting more information from the same place going to change anything? Are we seriously assuming that Holocaust deniers are going to be above gaming these sorts of things? The idea that individual people can change Google results by yelling at the company loudly enough is not any kind of solution; it’s properly horrifying. It means that search results are constantly subject to the random whims and biases of the people who are the best at yelling about things on the internet. This isn’t order; it’s chaos.

You may recall that the internet already has a source for crowdsourced direct information. It’s called Wikipedia. And, indeed, the problem that a lot of people are having here is that they are expecting Google to be the same thing as Wikipedia. In other words, they are incapable of understanding that a search engine and a source of information are different types of things, and thus, when one of them doesn’t behave like the other, they see it as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed”:

This is a really remarkable comment, especially coming from a guy with a fucking book emoji in his name. There’s not even an argument here, there’s just a completely unexamined assumption that Google and Wikipedia are directly comparable on some kind of “information quality” level or something and that one of them is “better” than the other. This is as far from intellectualism as it’s possible to get. (Don’t even get me started on the pathetic haughtiness of “do better,” as though it were any kind of meaningful statement (as though it imparted any semantic content at all), let alone a solution.)

Since I know I have to say this explicitly, I am absolutely not arguing that there is any such thing as a “neutral” platform or algorithm or that Google is not completely fucked up and deserving of excoriation. This isn’t about “neutrality” and “bias,” this is about what type of thing a thing is. What I am arguing is that things need to be criticized for what they are actually doing. It is correct for people to give Wikipedia shit about, for example, how it addresses trans people, because what’s on Wikipedia was put there by a specific person and approved by other specific people. Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” thing is largely bullshit, because you can’t actually do that, but it is correct for it to attempt to stick to the facts and avoid editorializing. There’s no point in complaining that Wikipedia doesn’t promote your own personal political philosophy hard enough. But when it comes to something like which gender you use to refer to a trans person, there isn’t a “neutral option,” and the issue can’t be avoided. You have to make a choice, and that choice merits criticism.

So, as mentioned, the part of the Google results that is actually wrong is the boxy results, and they’re wrong in general, not just when they display “wrong” answers. Aspiring detectives may have noticed that I lied earlier. The Holocaust denial thing didn’t actually come up in one of the boxy results, it was just at the top of the normal list. So the people complaining there actually were full of shit. More specifically, they were full of shit insofar as they were directing their complaints at Google. The existence of the site is the problem, not the fact that Google’s algorithm noticed that it was on the internet and displayed it to the people to whom it calculated it was probably relevant.

This does not mean the algorithm is “neutral.”3 There’s no such thing. There are a lot of different methods you can use to find and display search results. They can be based on the site’s overall popularity, or on how many people clicked through from a given source, or on how well the content appears to match the search parameters regardless of traffic patterns. You can even switch this around; you could, for example, specifically promote less popular sites when they match certain search criteria. This would distribute traffic more equally and advance less popular opinions, though it might also increase the bullshit ratio. Hell, you could even take all the valid results and just display them randomly – this would actually have the positive effect of promoting previously unknown sources (hi), even though it would certainly increase the bullshit ratio, perhaps by quite a lot (depending on the extent to which “authoritative” sources are actually bullshit in the first place).

These are the real choices Google has to make even if it stops lying, and any choice made here is going to have political results. Pushing all the results towards the New York Times center is just as much of a political action as promoting fringe sites. So criticism of the behavior of Google’s algorithm is in fact within bounds here, as long as that’s actually what you’re criticizing. Pointing out that one bad result appears in one place is not a real argument, because nobody actually put it there. In order to make that argument, you have to argue against the general behavior that results in that particular output, and when you do that, you are implicitly arguing against all of the behavior that results from the parameters you’re selecting for criticism. You can coherently make the argument that Google should be promoting more “authoritative” results, but only if you’re willing to accept that non-authoritative results that you happen to agree with will also get downgraded. And the reason I’m claiming that people are full of shit here is that I don’t think anyone actually believes this. What people actually want is for the bad results to just not be there, because their existence is actively immoral. Which is an entirely praiseworthy opinion, but you can’t just wish them away. You have to think about how you actually want these things to be determined, because the consequences are going to be far greater than the one or two bad results you happen to encounter. I mean, if you really do want only “officially approved” sources displayed when you perform a general internet search, I’m within my rights to conclude that you’re an authoritarian.

There’s a reason this is happening, though. Google is not trying to act as a search engine and failing; it is choosing to promote itself as an source of information and is doing so dishonestly. The reason it is making this choice is that it is what people want. People don’t actually want to know what’s out there on the internet. They want a magic box to give them the right answer. That’s the only possible explanation for the proliferation of those stupid talking internet cylinders. My ability to comment intelligently on this aspect of the problem is somewhat limited, as I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would a) pay to b) put a robot in the middle of their house that c) talks at them and d) constantly monitors them in order to e) sell them shit, all for the sake of f) an inferior version of the functionality that you already have on your desktop and know how to use, because you ordered the thing off of Amazon in the first place. That is literally my idea of hell. Anyway, the reason people buy these things, one supposes, is that they want to be able to yell indistinctly at a robot and have the robot give them the magical Correct Answer. In other words, they want to be lied to. In order to respond to this desire, Google has to be dishonest, because it’s not possible to honestly create an incoherent system.

Pressuring Google to censor “bad” search results one at a time doesn’t solve a real problem.4 I don’t actually object to Holocaust denial sites being delisted (good riddance, obviously), but I do object to intentional delusion. I object to people who think that removing unpleasant things from their field of vision is the same as improving material conditions for living humans. Indeed, what we’re really talking about here is removing unpleasant truths, because it is a real fact that these sites really exist, and that their existence accurately reflects the fact that large numbers of people sincerely believe these things. This is real news. All obscuring it does is make liberals feel better because now they don’t have to see the bad things. You may recall that this dynamic has resulted in some problems recently.

The true fact of the matter is that the world is a disgusting place. This should neither be accepted nor ignored. But not ignoring it also means not fooling yourself about where things are coming from. It means choosing high-value targets and not easy ones. It means understanding how the things you are yelling at work so that you can yell at them accurately. It means taking actions that actually move the world in a better direction instead of the ones that merely move you into a more comfortable chair. Above all, it means keeping your eyes open to the things that are the most disgusting to look at. The only option for interacting with reality is to learn how to navigate the sea of bullshit.

It is for this reason that category errors matter. If you can’t tell the difference between a racist website written by a person and the racist output of an algorithm, you are not actually perceiving reality. Even though those things are both wrong – even though algorithms can be just as blameworthy as individual people – they’re wrong for different reasons, and they require different responses. There’s a reason we have different names for different things. Different things are different. A search engine is not the same thing as a news site. Treating different things as though they were the same thing is called stupidity. It makes you wrong about things.

We also have a name for the desire to retreat from a complicated world into a simplistic shell of officially-verified Correct Answers. It’s called cowardice.

 

 


  1. So, strictly speaking, this is a UX problem and not an algorithm problem. The extent to which a program’s interface determines its functionality both apart from and synergistically with its back-end code is kind of a whole other thing, though. 
  2. In case you’re wondering, AI, in addition to not being a solution, is not even a unique issue here. An actually intelligent AI would actually be intelligent, i.e. it would be a person. A practical AI that is not intelligent is just a fancy executable. This is actually another category error: the kind of AIs we have right now are just really complicated single-function computer programs; the sci-fi type of AI is an actual agent with human-like general reasoning capabilities (or perhaps not-so-human-like, but at least functionally similar). No matter how impressive the former is, it’s not the same type of thing as the latter. People are constantly getting this wrong and freaking out over really simple programs displaying barely surprising behavior; frankly, I don’t understand why people are so eager to leap to the completely unsupported conclusion that robots are about to take over the world. Anyway, the point is that we ought to be using two different terms for these things, because they are in fact different things. 
  3. You might want to note that a search engine is actually an object – it’s a fixed block of executable code. Objects aren’t neutral, but that doesn’t make them the same type of thing as subjects.5 Objects do not (non-metaphorically) have things like “desires” or “goals.” They have inputs that they accept, internal calculations that they perform, and outputs that they generate. (This applies just as well to ordinary physical objects. When you throw a rock, the input is force, the internal calculations involve weight and wind resistance and ductility and soforth, and then the output is force again.) 
  4. Also, this isn’t even the half of it. Google is up to way shadier shit than this; specifically, Google’s advertising monopoly – the fact that it both sells ads and controls and extracts money from ad blockers, meaning it is effectively selling ads to itself – is a book-length problem with serious implications for how the internet is going to work. This is exactly why we have (or are supposed to have) antitrust regulation. Google shouldn’t be allowed to be both things. The extent to which this is a bigger problem than racist websites showing up sometimes cannot be overstated 
  5. The big plot twist is that, even though objects and subjects are distinctly different types of things, living in a material world means being a material girl. Er, it means that all people (subjects) are also objects. They’re physical bodies existing in physical space. Importantly, though, a person is not an object in addition to being a subject, but is rather one thing that is both an object and a subject at the same time, in the same mode of being. Reconciling this apparent paradox is one of the Great Problems. 

Bigmouth strikes again

google_memo_guy_be_like

The Memo of Doom has occasioned more commentary than anyone requires regarding anything, and that’s actually the main problem. Parsing individual claims in a situation like this tends to involve ignoring what the text actually does as a rhetorical action. So I think it would help to review some of the general principles at work here.


Implausible deniability

Various strains of activism in the recent past have succeeded wildly at inculcating the idea that “equality” is a good thing and “discrimination” is a bad thing. It’s actually difficult to remember that this is a very modern idea; for most of human history it was exactly the opposite: the idea was that everyone had their divinely-ordained place in the world and the right thing to do was to treat everyone according to their formal status. Of course, it’s much easier to get people to mouth positive-sounding platitudes than it is to actually change their minds (let alone their behaviors), so the practical result of this is that everyone, up to and including literal Klansmen, always says that they “don’t have a racist bone in their body” and they’re “all in favor of diversity” and they’re “just being realistic” and etc. In fact, this effect is so strong that even unrelated arguments get cast in the same language; for example, conservatives will complain of “discrimination” against their “minority viewpoints” which reduces “diversity.” The fact that such statements are always present all the time means that they do not discriminate between disparate situations. Both racists and anti-racists are equally likely to say that they oppose racism, so a statement of opposition to racism proffers no information about which kind of person you’re talking to. So, given that such statements encode no information, the only rational thing to do is to ignore them completely.


Pure ideology

Anyone who uses the word “efficiency” is trying to sell you a bridge. Efficiency is a technical concept referring to a process’s ratio of inputs to outputs. An alternative process that costs half as much but delivers the same results is more efficient, despite being not more productive; an alternative with twice the cost and three times the output is more efficient despite being more costly. But in order to make such a determination, you must first specify which inputs and outputs you’re looking at. If you care about reducing pollution, then the question is which options give you the greatest reduction for a given cost. If you care about getting a product to market quickly, then the question is which options reduce your production time by the greatest amount. If you care about preserving a particular rare resource, then the question is which process uses the least of that resource, regardless of other costs. “Efficiency” doesn’t mean anything until you’ve made such a specification.

Due to the nature of the society that we live in, it’s common to talk about efficiency in terms of monetary expenditures and corporate profits. When people talk about whether something is “efficient” or “effective” or “a good idea” or any number of other vague references, they are often implicitly talking about corporate productivity. This is usually an unexamined assumption: people don’t consider the fact that not everything has to be discussed in terms of what’s good for rich fucks. So people often argue that diversity1 is more “efficient,” meaning it helps corporations make more money. Certain types of people will argue that engineering is actually about communication and problem-solving, and diverse opinions and traditionally feminine skillsets are more valuable in that endeavor – in other words, they’re better for the company. This may be true (though I don’t think you can really make a general determination about this sort of thing), but if you actually care about equality, it’s a bad faith argument. Anti-discrimination is the thing you care about; it’s your output. The question is not which amount of diversity results in the greatest profits, but rather which structures most effectively reduce discrimination.

And there’s even another layer on top of that, which is that corporate productivity isn’t one thing either. You could, hypothetically, design a facial recognition system that works really well on Europeans and not very well on Asians, or you could design one that works passably well on everybody. You can’t “compute” which of these is better, you have to make a values-based judgment as to which one you prefer. If Google adopts a particular set of policies and thereby becomes super productive while also being super discriminatory, that’s perfectly “efficient,” but it’s also a bad outcome for everyone except Google. Seeing as our current social system rewards monetary success2 at the expense of all other metrics, this is the kind of thing we need to be on guard against.


Manifesto Syndrome

Everyone thinks that their opinions are “thoughtful” and “nuanced” and “fact-based,” and that anyone who disagrees with then is a shallow ideologue who hasn’t done their homework. It’s temping, then, to express this by writing something extremely long. I mean, if you write 10,000 words about something, it has to be nuanced, right? It can’t just be a simplistic expression of unexamined prejudices. Anyone who dismisses it on that basis clearly didn’t read the whole thing.

So obviously writing a ton of words isn’t the same thing as actually saying something worthwhile, but it goes even farther than that: the act of writing a big long manifesto is itself a statement about the underlying topic. It’s the statement that there exists a big long manifesto’s worth of discussion to be had, when that is not necessarily the case. I talked about this earlier with regard to rape apologetics. Trying to “cover the whole story” by including a detailed examination of the rapist’s perspective makes the implicit statement that that perspective is valid. And this can then become a defensive gesture that prevents you from reassessing your own argument, because anyone dismissing you just “doesn’t appreciate the complexity of the topic.” That might be true, but they might be right anyway.

The fact that you sometimes need a certain level of detail to make a point does not entail that anything with that level of detail is necessarily making the same kind of point. When you fail to examine your assumptions, it’s possible to make a lengthy, nuanced argument that says nothing.


Act like it

Speech is a physical phenomenon that occurs in the real world. In no case is the content of speech ever a “pure idea”; it is always an action that has a particular effect, which is partly (and often mostly) determined by the context in which the action takes place. You can’t “neutrally” argue about whether black people have lower IQs than white people in a society with a history (and present) of using intellectualism as a vector for dehumanization. Whining about how it’s “unfair” that you can’t just have a “reasonable discussion” doesn’t change that. I mean, it really is unfair that you can’t bring up certain topics without engaging with racism, but tough shit. You have to decide whether you care more about racism or more about masturbating over bell curves.

One of the major problems that this results in is the idea of “proving” things. After all, “proof” is undeniably objective, so it has to be valid in any possible context, right? But arguing within this framework in the first place necessarily imposes an extremely high standard on whatever it is that “requires” proof, while also slipping in underlying assumptions that are not only not proven, but not even argued for, because you can’t start the discussion without some kind of grounding. With regards to global warming, for example, the underlying assumption is that we have to have capitalism, and the debate is only about whether the negative consequences have been “proven” to a high enough standard to require us to do anything about it. The idea of it being the other way around – of the potential environmental impact preemptively discrediting capitalism – is not a permissible line of argument. And since the future is indeterminate, the more responsible standard is one of risk mitigation: to the extent that our current system of production has possible negative consequences, we should be working to make them less possible. Insisting on “proof” biases the potential responses heavily toward not doing anything, because you’re never going to be completely sure about what’s going to happen. It’s important to remember that the popularly-cited 2° target is not the “everything’s okay” threshold; it’s the catastrophe threshold. If the living standards of humanity in general were really what we cared about, we would have been taking major steps long before Armageddon became a visible possibility, without requiring any sort of “scientific consensus.”

The big catch is that responding to these sorts of shenanigans carries the same caveats. A point-by-point refutation might seem like the most “thorough” way of debunking a claim, but as an action, it implicitly concedes the very point under discussion: that it’s all very complicated and we ultimately just don’t know whether women are good enough to deserve equality. If you’re writing a scientific rebuttal to something, you’re validating the point that scientific debate is the right way to handle it – doing that constitutes having that debate. And while science is all well and good, its modern prominence tends to function as a dodge away from moral issues. You can’t ever “conclude” scientifically that women are definitely being discriminated against, but you can make the moral case that certain behaviors are harmful to human development and ought to be combated. When you don’t do that, you leave people’s existing ideological assumptions in place, which generally means that people reading the discussion will see a bunch of charts on one side and a bunch of charts on the other and go on believing what they already believed anyway.

In order to deal with the amount of noise we all have to deal with these days, you have to remember the basics. You have to figure out what your actual priorities are rather than just accepting the parameters of whatever discussion you happen to be having at the time, and you have to take the specific actions that will advance those priorities rather than just saying the thing that seems like the right answer. Failure to do this is one of the reasons why, despite the wild open-endedness of the internet, everything feels stuck. And it’s why, despite the outcry and the rebuttals and the firing, the true goal of the Google memo has already been accomplished: we’re still having this discussion.

 


  1. For the sake of conciseness here I’m conceding to the use of “diversity” as an imprecise blanket term for various forms of social equality; I trust we’re all capable of keeping the problems with this in mind while focusing on the main argument. 
  2. And it’s actually even worse than that, because financial capitalism has decoupled economic productivity from monetary reward, so current “successful” companies are the ones that are the best at extracting money from investors rather than the ones that actually make things that help people. We are all Juicero now. 

Get victimized

I’m going to suppress my instinctual reaction to the Taylor Swift trial on account of there’s a much more important implication lingering in the background which I’d prefer it if we could try to focus on. I mean, there’s nothing really interesting going on here otherwise; as though it’s at all impressive that one of the richest and most powerful people in the entertainment business was able to . . . er, no, right, I’m not doing that. Seriously, good for her. She was entirely in the right and she dealt with the whole thing as accurately and sincerely as possible. It was actually a just resolution of the situation, for once.

The problem is this:

This is exactly the opposite of what’s happening here. If Swift were really “refusing to be a victim,” she could do that very easily by simply ignoring the issue. From what I hear, she has some other stuff going on for her, so if she didn’t choose to make an issue out of this, it wouldn’t be an issue. (I’m aware that she was sued first, but she could have just let the lawyers wrap it up and it would have been washed away by the news cycle and completely forgotten in about 3 hours. I mean, that’s probably going to happen anyway, but now it’ll at least have a paragraph on her Wikipedia page.) On the contrary, by taking the stand and turning this into a media thing, she has made her status as a victim an indelible part of the public record. When she says things like this:

“I am critical of your client for sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass.”

“Gabe, this is a photo of him with his hand up my skirt — with his hand on my ass,” she said. “You can ask me a million questions — I’m never going to say anything different. I never have said anything different.”

“I am being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions and not mine.”

what she is saying is precisely, “I am a victim.” She’s saying that this happened to her without her consent and she was completely powerless to do anything about it. If this is “badass,” it’s badass because she’s accepting her victimhood.

Now, the original feminist aversion to the “victim” concept resulted from a laudable motivation. Part of the way sexism works is that the things that disadvantage women are blamed on the individual women themselves. Rape is an especially salient example, because not only are women portrayed as “asking for it,” but even blameless victims are still considered to have been “damaged” by the experience. (And of course it’s the other way around for the perpetrators: raping someone is just one of those things that men do sometimes, so there’s no sense in ruining someone’s life over it.) So the counter-tactic here was to assert that, rather than being “victims,” people who have undergone sexual assault are instead “survivors.” This turns the negative into a positive: rather than being a “victim” who will never be able to escape their experiences, a “survivor” is someone whose accomplishments are all the more admirable due to having been achieved despite duress.

So that’s all well and good, far be it from me to tell anyone how to understand their own experiences, but this approach stops working when you try to apply it as a general prescription. The fact of the matter is that rape really does harm people severely, and sometimes you don’t get over it. Some people literally don’t survive rape, and many more fall into trauma, give up on themselves, curtail their ambitions, or simply slog through the rest of their lives latched to a dull, throbbing weight that never really goes away. If these things were not the case, rape would not be a real issue. That’s kind of the whole thing about oppression: it creates an environment in which being casually restrained and put-upon is normal. Furthermore, the people most harmed by rape are the people who are most in need of help – they’re the people that our theory has to be centered around. If our conceptualization of the issue tacitly abandons them, we’re not doing feminism very well.

This is, of course, exactly what’s been happening. The modern mainstream conception of feminism is essentially a self-help program for rich white women based on a skin-deep conception of individual empowerfulmentness and manifested largely through bastardized pop-psych-sci-mythology and snake-oil saleswomanship. I mean, just so we’re clear, I’m not addressing what random Twitter morons are saying about this; I’m talking about the general conception of what feminism is right now. (Also, the real kind of feminism is still alive and well, it’s just that there are now two different things with the same name, and, as always, the bad one is more popular.) “Refusing to be a victim” is a perfect one-line description of this ideology: it’s an individual denialistic response to a society that is assumed to be unchangeable. Hence, among many examples, the current trend towards “advice” about how to properly mangle your own vocabulary to ensure that you aren’t saying anything that will “hold you back.” Rather than analyzing why it is that speech patterns characteristic of women are considered “flawed” in some way, or why we expect people to jump through ritualistic hoops unrelated to the actual work they’re doing in order to succeed (and certainly rather than suggesting that anything about men’s behavior ought to change), we simply assume all of that to be fixed and ask the only remaining question: how can each individual woman act so as to most effectively mitigate her own inherent disadvantages? It is in this sense that the correct response to sexual assault is understood to be “refusing to be a victim”: dealing with your specific personal complications on an individual level and ignoring any broader context.

There’s a reason things have turned out this way. Sexism has its own unique characteristics, but the general dynamic here is the same was what’s happening to everything. Our society has be de-politicized in general such that all problems are understood on the individual level. We see exactly the same dynamic when, for example, liberals respond to unemployment by advocating education and retraining. Rather than modifying society so that it works for everyone, we force each individual person to contort themselves into one of the few permissible shapes.

“Women’s issues” are at the heart of this problem, because the fundamental motivation for patriarchy is to force women into a limited set of socially necessary roles (child rearing, housework, emotional labor) so that these things can be assumed to be taken care of and men are free to do whatever else they want. (The fact that some men may very well want to do the things we’ve cordoned off for women is one of the reasons that patriarchy hurts men too.) As long as our society is organized on the basis of this dynamic, we will continue to see it replicated in different ways for different groups of people. We can’t solve this problem for anyone until we can solve it for women. This is among the many reasons that feminism is for everybody.

But the original impulse here is still valid: conceiving of patriarchy as a vast ineluctable darkness and woman as hopelessly downtrodden is equally fatalistic. Rewriting the script to give yourself a flashier role doesn’t change the fundamental problem, because the fundamental problem is the existence of the script. Creating a new model for how women are supposed to act will make women’s oppression look different while continuing to be oppression, and continuing to leave anyone who doesn’t fit the model out in the cold. “Refusing to be a victim” actually means buying in to the idea that victims have something wrong with them, that only by responding to a tragedy in the proper, socially-approved manner do you qualify as a human being. It is not incumbent upon oppressed people to respond to their oppression in a way that makes everyone else feel good about themselves. To insist on this is precisely to blame the victim. You have to accept how people feel and provide resources to help them regardless of whether they’re sassy sheroes or whether they’re useless losers. The society we want is a society that works for all women, one where even women who are complete stupid assholes are disadvantaged only by their own stupid assholeness and not by sexism. Making moral sympathy contingent on the ability to act in a way that makes other people feel good about themselves is deeply sick.

And it’s more than sick; it’s factually inaccurate. “Victories” make it seem like the current situation is okay, when of course the fact that these things happen at all unavoidably illustrates that it is not okay. Even someone like Taylor Swift, who is privileged enough to be immune to almost everything else, is not immune to the banal impulses of whatever rando she ends up standing next to. The significance of the case is not that Swift “won,” because she didn’t. She broke even: she took a bad thing that happened to her and fixed it (and she really didn’t even do that, because she still had to waste her time going to court and arguing with some asshole lawyer). The significance is that, hopefully, the next guy who gets it into his head to pull some shit will instead think twice. Victory isn’t winning a court case; victory is being treated like a person in the first place.

The state of being a victim is morally neutral. That is, the thing that happened was bad (meaning the state of being a victimizer is morally negative, obviously), but it can happen just as easily to a good person or an awful person, and the fact of it happening does not make the person any better or worse. What being a victim actually indicates is that someone else did something immoral. Not only does it not reflect badly on you, it doesn’t reflect on you at all; the whole point of the term is that the situation was outside of your control. If we accept this, we have to accept that how a victim responds to their victimization is absolutely irrelevant to the situation. It’s fine to prefer certain types of responses to others (especially since many possible responses are themselves immoral in different ways), and we might have advice about how to respond in a healthy manner, but none of that should have any effect on our evaluation of the initial violation. It’s either wrong or it’s not, and if it’s wrong, then we can’t excuse it in either direction: we can’t wave it away as “the way things are,” but we also can’t accept an “inspiring” resolution as a “happy ending.” Because it’s not an ending; the only ending will be when this actually ends, when the last page of the last book of the old order’s precepts is reduced to ashes and scattered to the four winds. Since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, it’s not a fantasy that we can reasonably console ourselves with. We must accept that we are doomed and also accept our responsibility to fight for the sake of the true future. Our only option is to continue to live as victims.

Sadly, the current conception of things hasn’t really been forced on us. It’s certainly something that the ruling class has promoted to their own advantage, but it’s only worked because people have gone along with it, and the reason they’ve gone along with it is because it’s easy. It’s comforting to imagine that any problem can be resolved by simply finding the secret code that turns it off. Actually, it’s more than just comforting; acknowledging that there are vast historical forces arrayed against you but imagining that you can overcome them through nothing but your own cleverness and determination doesn’t just make things okay, it makes it so you’re the hero. And since this rarely works out in practice, we instead find the few people privileged enough to make it work and experience the fantasy vicariously through them.

Neither being a queen nor slaying is a good thing. It isn’t “badass” to pretend like you’re perfect and nothing affects you. It isn’t badass to only pick fights that you’re sure you can win effortlessly. It is badass to admit your weaknesses, to be honest about your history and your emotions, and to confront things that are scary. It’s badass to fight things that you’re probably not going to be able to defeat, to choose just struggle over shallow success.

What this means in practice is that we must, all of us, refuse to refuse to be victims. We must insist on our own victimhood, and on the validity of our cause regardless. We aren’t right because we’re the coolest people with the best hair and the sassiest comebacks. We’re right because we’re right. Victorious or defeated, we remain victims; together or alone, we remain united in the cause of justice.

This is the thing that we all have in common. We all have different situations, but each of us is vulnerable to something. Each of us has been, in some important way, failed by our society. We have all had our potential stifled, our opportunities curtailed, our selves denigrated, and our dreams deferred. We all bear the scars of irretrievable losses; we are all less than we could have been. We’ve all run into walls; we’ve all encountered painfully decisive evidence that we are not equal to the task before us, and we’re all going to keep trying anyway. We’re all broken robots play-acting at personhood. It is this realization, not the cheap glamour of hero-worship, that creates the foundation for real solidarity.

You’re a victim. Admit it.

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. 

Masquerade

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.