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. 

Bubble babble

I’m entirely certain you’re well-acquainted with the idea that “media bubbles” are a big problem right now, effecting disinformation and perverting ideology and generally destroying society in an orgy of postmodern technological mediation. Certainly, there is cause for concern; unlike in the past, when everyone had complete correct information that they used to make fully rational decisions, nowadays humans have somehow become closed-minded and parochial. The figure of the barely-informed loudmouth shouting his kneejerk opinions into the public square represents a truly new development in history. And now that bad things are happening in politics, which has never been the case before, it’s clear that something must have gone horribly wrong.

No, okay, so I’m super annoyed about all the hyperventilation, there’s nothing more obnoxious than small-minded arguments against small-mindedness, but there’s also a real issue here. The internet certainly is generating a world-historical amount of garbage data, and political polarization really has increased to an extreme degree. The fundamental dynamic at issue here is what pretentious people like to call “epistemic closure.” When one’s sources of information or methods for evaluating it are limited in some fundamental way, certain areas of knowledge become inaccessible – or, worse, only accessible in the wrong way, such that the formation of inaccurate ideas comes to be considered true knowledge. Fox News will never give a sympathetic hearing to an idea like universal single-payer health care, so if that’s where all your information comes from, you can never develop an informed opinion on this topic. It’s important to realize that this is an absolute constraint; it’s not that it becomes harder to get to the truth, it’s that it becomes impossible. This is the double-edge of the Enlightenment ideal: since there’s no such thing as divine wisdom or whatever, you cannot form correct ideas without accurate and comprehensive information, regardless of how smart or conscientious or committed you are.

Now, one of the few positive results of the 2016 election is that no one is any longer laboring under the delusion that there’s any kind of “unbiased” source that can be relied on for complete information. “Traditional” news sources simply represent one particular set of biases. There’s plenty of issues on which they’re incapable of informing you. Most obviously, an enforced centrist perspective will fail to understand a situation where the “center” is falling apart and all new growth is happening on the “extremes” (that is, it will understand the situation incorrectly, as a “breakdown of communication” or a “legitimacy crisis” or whatever). So the popular response to this is the idea of a “balanced media diet.” The worry is that the internet allows and/or forces people to self-sort into ever more polarized communities, so you have to make the effort to seek out sources that oppose your existing beliefs. The villains then become “algorithms” that deliver pre-polarized information, or “cult-like” communities that suppress dissent.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The most important source of epistemic closure is our finitude as physical beings. Simply put, there are only so many hours each day you can spend reading shit, so it’s more than a little odd to argue that people should be spending more of said hours reading things they believe to be more wrong. If you could really read everything, and also spend the requisite time to analyze and distill it all, then sure, that would solve the problem. In reality, though, you have to choose what you’re going to care about, and any choice you make is going to define a particular horizon. If you’re a feminist, for example, you could spend half of your time reading feminist sources and the other half reading anti-feminist sources, and this would give you a “balanced” perspective, in the sense that you’d understand what’s going on on both sides. But this understanding will necessarily be shallower than the one you’d get by focusing your time on one side; you’ll miss deeper arguments and distinctions and internal diversity. For one thing, you might come to believe that there are only “two sides,” which is not the case. Anyone who knows a second thing about feminism knows that its herstory is coated with blood spilled by many thousands of vicious internal disagreements. One way to get over feminist dogmatism is to read more anti-feminism, but an equally effective option is to read more feminism. There isn’t one choice that “works” and one choice that doesn’t. There are different choices that have different effects. Some bubbles are bigger than others, but you can’t not be in a bubble.

This is why blaming the internet or “algorithms” or whatever misses the mark. Like, I don’t enjoy defending tech assholes, but they really just aren’t relevant to this situation. There is a sort of consumer rights issue here; people should be able to find out how their feeds and things are being customized and change them if they want to. But arguing that search results should be more “responsible” is arguing the opposite: it’s arguing for non-transparent corporations to have more control over what people read. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that most people talking about this are only thinking things through from their side. They see lots of “bad” articles floating around, and they feel like “someone should do something,” so they imagine that Google can somehow code social responsibility for them. Practically speaking, though, you can’t make that kind of a distinction in general.1 “Misinformation” is a value judgment made by the end user. If you write an algorithm that adds more articles about global warming to the feeds of denialists, that same algorithm will necessarily also add more denialist articles to the feeds of people who believe in global warming. You can’t have it both ways. Rather, trying to have it both ways is exactly how things get fucked up. Someone at the New York Times gets it into their head that they have a “liberal bias” that needs to be corrected, so they hire an Islamophobic global warming denialist to write opinion columns. Problem solved.

People want to read things that accord with their beliefs, and – this is the important part – they have good reasons for doing so. The reason feminists, for example, disprefer reading misogynist diatribes isn’t because they’re offended or whatever, it’s because they believe feminism to be true, and they’re obviously more interested in reading things that are probably true than things that are probably false.

You don’t just automatically start understanding things once you’ve read broadly enough. You have to process the information, and how you do that – and why you’re doing it – is going to affect what conclusions you end up with. Like, there is a problem with certain types of feminists spending all of their time yelling at Bad Things and not actually developing their ideas. But if you’re one of these people, and you decide to “broaden your media diet,” all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to find more things to yell at. It’s going to strengthen your existing biases, and that’s going to happen regardless of what it is that you’re reading, and the reason for this is because it’s what you want. This isn’t even a bad thing, because the only way this is not the case is if you lack the ability to critically analyze information, which is, um, a somewhat worse situation to be in. If your goal is just to avoid being wrong, then you might as well not read anything. But if your reason for reading things and drawing conclusions is to do something with the information, then you can’t just wait around until you’re “sure,” because that’s never. In order to actually get somewhere, you have to take a stand somewhere and start moving, which will necessitate rejecting opposing ideas. Breathing underwater requires a bubble.

I’m not just applying this to my own side, either. The fact that people believe all kinds of weird conspiracy theories about the Clintons makes perfect sense, because the Clintons really are classic amoral political schemers, so if you’re opposed to them, it’s more accurate than not to assume that they’re up to some shady shit. Besides, liberals believe whatever nonsense people come up with about Trump, too. It’s the same thing. This is the normal way human communication works.

It does remain the case that the normal way human communication works is badly, and that real lies have real consequences. If you believe that Planned Parenthood is literally dismembering infants and selling their body parts to, uh, somebody (I’m not deep enough into this to know whence the nationwide demand for baby torsos supposedly originates), your advocacy on the subject is going to be somewhat more zealous. But learning the actual fact that only X% of Planned Parenthood’s expenditures go towards abortion-related services doesn’t change the moral calculus of the situation. If abortion is evil, then a little bit of it is still evil. It’s certainly worthwhile to correct lies, but you can’t fact-check your way around morality. If abortion is actually moral, then Planned Parenthood’s particular operating details don’t matter. An organization that spent 100% of its funds on abortion and sold the remains for ice cream money would be a moral organization. Focusing on the nuts and bolts here means dodging the real issue, and this is generally the case in political discussions. Even if Clinton really did use her secret email server to help the Illuminati plan Benghazi, the actual question at hand remains which policies we prefer to advance as a society. In general, misinformation does not add a unique problem to our existing difficulties in figuring out how to talk to each other. It makes things worse, but it’s not itself a crisis.

What is a crisis is when these sorts of discussions become impossible, when an enforced “healthy diet” drains the flavor from the world. When you’re stuck reading nothing but “respectable” media sources, that’s when you have a real problem, and extremism is the solution to that problem. It’s what makes new things possible. Which means that, yes, even the recent explosive growth of rightist extremism has to be understood as a positive development. InfoWars may be maximally false, but if you don’t have InfoWars, you also don’t have the truth. The fact that people have these beliefs is a bad thing, of course, but given that they do, it’s better for them to be out in the open. I mean, their agenda hasn’t actually changed, right? Reagan talked pretty on the TV, but his whole cut-services-and-fellate-corporations deal was exactly the same thing as what the current government’s up to right now. People lately have been praising Bush Jr. for talking nice about Islam, but he was doing this at the same time that his administration was turning Muslims into America’s new Great Civilizational Enemy; Trump is just picking up where he left off. Those situations were worse than the one we’re in now – rather, those situations are why we’re now in our current situation – because there was more obfuscatory rhetoric that had to be disentangled before you could get at what was really going on. This is now less of a problem; we’re getting closer to the point where people actually know what the stakes are.

It’s comforting to imagine that there’s a “middle ground” where we can all get along peaceably, but there’s not. Extremism doesn’t create disagreements, it reveals the disagreements that were already there, because people have real disagreements. Pretending this is not the case prevents anything worthwhile from ever happening. We don’t want a society where there’s “reasonable debate” about sexism, where half the time the Hyde Amendment is in place and half the time it isn’t. We want a society where sexism doesn’t exist. We want everyone trapped inside the feminism bubble, permanently.

This is the truth that must be acknowledged. All the things that people are so concerned about these days – political polarization, ideological extremism, the speed and diversity of information, the dethronement of traditionally respected sources of various kinds of authority – are the things that are, in spite of everything, going well. There’s no way to “fix” this, because it’s not broken. What was broken was the “end of history” bullshit that convinced people there were no fights left to be had, and that situation is now better. We are more confused now because we are closer to the truth – we have, in at least some sense, stopped lying. This is what has to happen. Getting the ocean without the roar of its many waters is not a real option. The real options are: retreat or advance.


  1. From a technical perspective, the reason this can’t work is that you have to write the code before you know what data it’s going to be run against, so you would have to be able to predict what information is going to be true or false before that information has actually been generated, meaning you can’t rely on the details of the information itself, meaning you can’t actually be making a real judgment as to whether it’s “disinformation” or not; you can only be relying on contextual coincidence. And if you try to get around this by using human intervention, all you’ve done is appointed an arbitrary, unaccountable person to act as an arbiter of truth, which is obviously several steps backwards. 

Nothing comes from nothing

Master of None isn’t so much a show about Millennials as it is HEY EVERYBODY THIS IS A SHOW ABOUT MILLENNIALS. The opening is basically a New York Times columnist’s fever dream: two attractive young people who just met are having casual sex; when their contraception fails, they both simultaneously use their phones to look up whether it’s possible to get pregnant from the state they were in; they find conflicting information, argue about it, and ultimately decide to play it safe by using a ride-sharing app to go to the pharmacy and buy emergency contraception. There’s nothing wrong with doing something like this, necessarily, it’s just that there happen to be a bunch of things wrong with it.

The show takes a modern, realist approach to the typical young-people-in-New-York setup, which is to say it’s the bizarro-world Friends, which is to say it’s the real-world Friends, since Friends already takes place in the bizarro world. The characters hang out in crowded bars and on the street instead of in brightly-lit coffee shops and on inexplicably large couches. The scripting is low on zaniness and high on mundanity; the number of big laughs in one season can be counted on one hand, but incidental conversations are suffused with constant, low-level humor. Which, indeed, is much closer to the sort of experience that most of us have of real life, which tends to be lacking in elaborate setpieces and explicit punchlines. This isn’t to say that the show is always finesseful; its good intentions occasionally manifest themselves as cringe-inducing bluntness. At one point, Dev tracks down the “best” taco truck in town by spending half an hour on Google and Yelp (which itself is already overwrought NYT op-ed fodder, literally), only to find it closed, at which point he exclaims, “what am I supposed to do, go find the second best taco truck?” This is both verisimilitude-destroyingly blatant and embarrassingly zeitgeist-baiting. (It’s actually even worse than that. When Dev gets to the truck, he asks the guy about what he should get and what kind of meat is popular – as though he’d never eaten a taco before, despite his zeal in trying to find the “best” taco place. The writing here is so tryhard that it’s not even internally consistent.) In general, though, Master of None is calmly relatable where Friends is nakedly escapist.

It isn’t just a matter of style, though. Master of None takes an explicit anti-Friends stance in order to make a political point. Escapism is in fact sinister; the glib whiteness and soap-opera-lite saccharinity of Friends make it an inherently reactionary show, regardless of intentions (if any). In Master of None, by contrast, people have problems that aren’t cute, the world is grinding and unforgiving rather than enjoyably dramatic, and things generally don’t work out. This point is not unrelated to racism. Part of what racism does is shift the burdens of reality onto oppressed groups, such that white people get to live in a comfortable bubble of cluelessness. This is sickeningly blatant in the case of things like slavery and sweatshops, but even within modern America it is mostly not white people doing care work, maintenance work, and farm work, and it is mostly white people writing opinion columns1 and getting media awards2. Unfortunately, this specific intersection forms one of Master of None‘s more significant stumbles. Money basically doesn’t exist in the show, which means that, even though issues of oppression are directly addressed at times, they always come across as matters of convenience rather than matters of life and death. I believe this is what the kids these days like to refer to as “privilege.” In this sense, while Master of None‘s efforts are admirable, it ultimately fails to escape the Friends-zone.

Still, one does not wish to be overly demanding, and Master of None does have its points to make. Dev’s core friend group is meticulously constructed to defy stereotypes: the normal/boring one is Indian, the cheerful, attractive one is an Asian man, the calm, level-headed one is a black lesbian, and the weirdo is the token white guy. Dev’s centrality to the show is particularly important. Presenting an Indian man as an everyman is an explicit political statement – it frames Dev’s experiences as the experiences of normal people. For example, when Dev learns about the experiences his immigrant parents had in India and the racism they faced upon moving to America, this is framed as a typical getting-to-know-your-parents story – the episode is called “Parents,” not “Immigrants.” Because this sort of thing is a typical story; lots and lots of families have experiences like this. In short, Dev is presented as an ordinary guy without the practical reality of his ethnicity being elided. The show not only makes the point but performs the work of constructing people like this as “normal.”

That thing about money is still a problem, though. Dev’s parents are conventionally successful, so their experiences don’t seem to have really disadvantaged them in any way, and they’ve apparently passed quite a lot of privilege along to Dev, who lives pretty blithely, especially for a working actor in NYC. Dev’s reaction to his parents’ story is not the occasion for any kind of revelation, but rather a general “wow, how about that.” This isn’t wrong by itself. It’s still a real story that really has happened to people. It would be equally wrong to portray all immigrants as hopelessly beaten down and never successful, because that isn’t true either. You can’t portray everything at once. How do you get around this? You don’t; you go through it. You portray one specific thing, making it relatable though specificity rather than overgeneralization. Master of None is a perfect test case for understanding this distinction, because it gets this exactly right as often as it gets it exactly wrong.

The show does well when it sticks to what it knows. “Indians on TV” is about exactly what it says: one specific aspect of racism. Indians specifically are still way behind in terms of cultural representation, despite being one of the largest ethnic groups on the planet, as well as one that is becoming increasingly central to everyday American life (random example: a number of “Indianisms” have arisen out of Indian English thanks to everyone’s favorite ongoing world-historical crisis, globalization). Another instance of this same story just came up recently: the actor Kal Penn posted a bunch of racist casting calls that tasked him with playing the same goofy Indian stereotype over and over again. What’s really interesting about this is one particular comment: when Penn was asked to do “the accent,” he was was specifically instructed to make it more “authentic.” Naturally, this is as absurd as it gets; an actual Indian man was told to act like a cartoon character for the sake of “authenticity.” But that’s the thing: because this one aspect of media representation is so unbelievably shitty, this is what Americans actually think Indians are like. That’s why this is a real issue and not just a matter of demographic parochialism, and it’s why the episode’s opening montage of popular TV stereotypes, seen through a child’s eyes, hits unexpectedly hard.

The episode develops this critique in a number of ways. A sympathetic studio head tries to explain to Dev that a show with multiple distinct Indian characters wouldn’t be marketable; it would be understood as an “Indian show” (unfortunately, this same criticism applies to Master of None itself: the only episode where Dev hangs out with his Indian friends is the “Indian episode”). Which is in fact the situation we are currently in; Black-ish is “the black sitcom” and Fresh off the Boat is “the Asian sitcom.” So while this is an excuse, it’s a real excuse. Dev counters that this is an obvious double standard; no show is considered a “white show,” even those that actually are “white shows” in every possible way. So what we can understand here is that the current situation is wrong in a way that makes rational sense; understanding how the parts fit together makes claims of racism plausible. Indeed, the specific reason why such claims are so often blown off is that white people lack this understanding; they don’t understand how racism works. The specific incident that triggers the discussion of racism in the episode is unbelievably minor – it’s literally nothing more than a dumb joke in an email thread. But because the episode takes the situation seriously and follows through with it, it helps us understand how the little things are connected to the big things. It not only addresses a specific, underserved grievance, but also points to a broader understanding of the relevant social dynamics, and it does this simply by addressing its grievance well.

Interestingly, this episode also contains a subtle misstep that illustrates the gap between doing this right and doing it wrong. When Dev and Denise are discussing the situation, Dev tries to claim that black people at least have the advantage of visibility and advocacy via major celebrities, whereas Indian people have nothing. Denise naturally pushes back, but in doing so she refers to Oprah and Beyoncé, and she immediately recognizes this as an own goal: black people really do have top-tier media representation. As a casual conversation, this is all perfectly realistic and entertaining, but the way it’s situated in the episode, it comes across as an actual argument. I don’t think this is intentional, simply because nobody could possibly be clueless enough to argue that the existence of Beyoncé somehow mitigates the effects of racism on black people. In fact, this dynamic is what defines the present situation: black people are very well-represented in popular culture, and they are simultaneously being casually murdered and jailed in unconscionable numbers. The problem here is that the episode has to this point been trying to deal with one aspect of racism – media representation – but is now trying to make a claim about racism in general, and this does not work. While media representation is connected to other issues, that doesn’t mean you can understand everything in those terms. Most of life does not happen on the TV. This is the important difference between generalization and overgeneralization. The concept of the episode being about media representation of Indians is unavoidably a generalization – not every Indian person will have had these same experiences or understand them in the same way – it’s just that, if done well, it’s a valid generalization.

This is something you really have to be conscious of when you’re trying to do things like this. If you’re just doing a story about a particular character, you don’t have this problem so much, since you’re necessarily confined to that perspective. But when you start making episodes that are explicitly about Serious Issues and you start trying to Make Statements about them, you have to mind this gap, or you will fall into it. And, as it happens, the episode that deals with sexism locates this exact gap and proceeds to use it for skydiving practice. The bluntness of the episode titles makes them useful evidence as to intentions – the sexism episode is called “Ladies and Gentlemen,” an empty reference that signifies nothing. This provides a lamentably clear indication that the episode is going to try to address sexism despite not really having anything to say about it other than “it exists” and “it’s bad”.

The episode opens with a contrast between Dev’s night out at a bar, where he fusses constantly over trivial annoyances, and the same night as experienced by a woman, who gets creeped on the whole time and eventually followed home. This is somewhat heavy-handed, with overwrought musical cues that make it difficult to really take seriously, but in terms of content it’s all well and good. It makes the important point that, even though men and women exist in all the same social situations, women nevertheless experience the world as a phantom zone, haunted by ghosts that men can’t see.

The problem is that it doesn’t do the thing that the racism episode does to make its point felt. That is, the woman gets followed home, and . . . that’s it. Nothing really happens, and the situation is not connected to anything broader. There’s no attempt to argue that this amounts to anything more than a bad night out. In fact, when Dev discusses the issue with Rachel and Denise, they simply reiterate additional versions of the same story, which makes it seem even more like a random annoyance and less like a real issue. So the contrast that the episode tries to establish falls flat: a man had a bad night at a bar, and a woman had a worse night at a bar. You and I might understand the issue more broadly, but anyone who doesn’t is just going to see an overreaction to an everyday, if unfortunate, occurrence. In that situation, the conservative advice to just suck it up and defend yourself would actually be valid, because that would actually resolve things. The reason sexism is a real problem is that it goes beyond the individual case, which is to say that it goes beyond you. In the racism episode, we see Dev getting frustrated with the limitations of the roles he’s offered and pushing back; we see him discussing the situation with a friend who’s had similar experiences; we see him fail to make headway when explaining his case to the executives. Through this, we understand that this is a pervasive issue with substantive effects on real people. By contrast, all the sexism episode gives us is “creeps exist,” which everyone outside of Reddit already understands. Because the episode lacks a perspective through which we could come to understand the situation, it is reduced to simply mouthing truisms without connecting them to reality.

In fact, the perspective that the episode offers us is Dev’s – the man’s perspective on sexism. This . . . isn’t the worst possible thing. There are stories to be told about men coming to terms with the effects of sexism and their own unintentional (or otherwise) complicity and soforth. It’s just that this isn’t what happens. As mentioned, Dev’s big revelation in the episode is “creeps exist.” After that he just starts rattling off feminist talking points. This is deeply cringeworthy on its own; as someone who has spent rather a lot of time reading about this type of stuff, I find it personally embarrassing. But in fact it’s significantly worse than that, because what actually happens is that Dev makes these speeches in a bar, surrounded by a crowd of women who cheer him on as he does so. In fact, it’s significantly worse than that, because later on Dev’s female coworkers buy him a cake out of appreciation for him being the most basic feminist imaginable. I guess the bakery was all out of Meets Basic Standards of Human Decency cookies. Y’know, I’m conscious of the limitations of my position here. I try not to pretend like I’m any kind of expert or anything. But I’m pretty sure that a crowd of women cheering on a man while he impresses himself by spouting off a bunch of obvious shit is the exact opposite of what feminism is.

Comparing the resolutions of the racism and sexism episodes is instructive. In the racism episode, Dev ends up working with a new, younger producer who claims to be more “enlightened” than the old one, but who, in her ignorance (slash whiteness), ends up proposing a show with an even more racist premise – and once again requiring Dev to play an Indian stereotype. As mentioned, this elucidates the general dynamics of the situation. It illustrates the fact that racism is a non-trivial problem that can persist despite good intentions. Because few people hew to any kind of principled anti-racist theory, and because everyone’s job compels them to move product, racist stuff keeps happening, and ideology replicates itself despite surface-level opposition. This has been said countless times before, but the fact that the internet has everyone all super up to date on proper anti-racist practice and yet nothing’s actually changing is how you can tell that racism is a structural problem that does not depend on people’s individual attitudes to operate.

In the sexism episode, the exact same situation comes up, and what happens is exactly the opposite. Dev raises the issue of gender imbalance on the commercial he’s working on: all the women are in the background and all the speaking roles go to men. As soon as this is brought up, the director and the company all immediately agree to completely reverse the situation, such that women now get all the prominent roles. This time around, there is somehow nobody making the argument that this would be confusing and alienating, despite the fact that it’s a commercial, and therefore has much less leeway to be unfamiliar than a new TV show. There’s no structural pressure preventing a sexist premise from immediately being swept away at a whim. In other words, what the show portrays is exactly how sexism doesn’t work. Worse, it reifies the conservative argument that it is traditionally-oppressed groups who now have the real advantages, since they can win automatically by merely raising the issue of their identity. Of course, this is not at all the case. If simply raising the issue were enough, there would be no problem. In the racism episode, the issue is raised and addressed sympathetically, but the problem remains intractable. In the sexism episode, as soon as the problem is named, it vanishes into the air like a conjurer’s trick, like it never really existed in the first place. The whole significance of racism and sexism as cultural institutions is that they have their own internal logics and practices, such that, when you push against them, they push back.

Now, there’s still somewhere for the episode to go after all of this happens. Dev’s all proud of himself for getting a B+ in Remedial Women’s Studies 101, so the correct feminist action to take here is to kick him in the dick. That is, he needs to come to the realization that he has only scratched the surface, and that there remain real foundational problems that he has not yet begun to understand. He also needs to realize his own complicity in the situation, that sexism is not perpetuated solely by “creeps” but also by well-intentioned nice guys of the type that he himself is. More specifically, he needs to come to understand that he can’t fully understand the situation, that without the lived experience of sexism, he requires women’s perspectives (that’s plural) to make real sense of things. It is very annoying how close this comes to happening.

At the end of the episode, Rachel and Denise receive a minor social slight from some douchebag – the kind of thing the kids these days like to refer to as a “microaggression.” They complain, Dev blows them off, and they get pissed, which sparks a fight between Dev and Rachel. What needs to happen here is for Dev to come to understand that not all issues are as obvious as creepers or the pay gap – that even when something seems to him to be stupid and trivial, he still needs to respect women’s subjectivity instead of trying to argue over them. The episode gets right up next to the place where it needs to go, and then immediately falls over backwards. The instant the fight begins, the substance of the issues the episode has been trying to raise disappears completely, and we’re left with a completely generic Sitcom Couple Fight, which is resolved by Dev issuing a completely generic Sitcom Boyfriend Apology. This setup is the perfect opportunity for the show to get out of the standard relationship-drama mold and make the point that fights like this are often the result of real conflicts, that the “war of the sexes” is actually oppression, and it totally whiffs it. The only point that the episode needed to make goes unmade. Explicating the problems with reducing feminism to its effects on heterosexual romantic relationships is left as an exercise to the reader.

This is actually why “writing what you know” is not the right way out of this: it prevents you from ever getting out of your own perspective. The basic intent of this episode is correct: men really do need to be able to understand what the world looks like from a woman’s perspective, even if they can never really see it for themselves. But this isn’t a matter of disinterested anthropological investigation; it’s a matter of blood. Reciting the appropriate talking points does not do the thing that needs to be done. In order to do this right, the show would have had to make somebody bleed.

Indeed, the mere fact that there is a “racism episode” and a “sexism episode” is itself what the kids these days like to call “problematic.”3 Racism and sexism precisely do not resolve themselves into isolated, easy-to-understand occurrences; they are always present, baked into ordinary, everyday events, slithering through normality like snakes in the grass, striking when you least suspect. Bungling the sexism episode so badly only exacerbates this effect; again, it reifies the conservative argument that these things are lifestyle choices and not real political problems. And given the show’s blatant thirst for Millennial trends, it further implies that these concerns are only trends, that they’re the kind of things that overzealous young people will eventually grow out of. It presents these issues – the foundational issues of all human societies that have ever existed – as buffet items, from which one can pick and choose what one wishes to sample. The truth, of course, is the opposite: in reality, these things are forced down people’s throats, and the taste lingers.

Far worse, then, than the fact that the show handles its sexism episode poorly is the fact that there is a “sexism episode” at all, that this concern is raised and addressed once in complete isolation (like, I think there’s a term for this). To wit, Master of None does an absolutely atrocious job of handling its female characters. The only well-portrayed one is Denise, who is in fact the most interesting character on the show by a fair margin, but she gets no plot focus and relatively little screen time, and most of it is just her talking to Dev about Dev’s problems (again, I’m pretty sure there’s a term for the notion that women are only there to act as sounding boards for men). Similarly, while Dev’s father is the dark-horse star of the show, his mother barely exists. The real problem, though, is Rachel, a.k.a. “Dev’s girlfriend,” who is the focus of about half the season and whose characterization never advances beyond “Dev’s girlfriend” (this is especially disorienting due to the fact that she’s the best-acted character).

There’s a particularly jarring example of the show dropping the ball on this, hard, like bowling-ball-on-toe hard. There’s a scene where Dev takes Rachel to a barbecue restaurant, only for her to reveal upon ordering that she’s a vegetarian. Rachel is so accustomed to suppressing her own desires that she doesn’t even mention the issue until she’s forced to, and Dev is so self-involved that he doesn’t even notice there’s a problem until it flies in his face (in case it’s not obvious, this is exactly the kind of thing that demonstrates why confining the feminism-related content to its own single episode is hugely damaging to not only the show’s moral standing, but also to its thematic integrity). She gives him the “It’s Fine” deflection, and Dev has a delicious meal while Rachel basically subsists on cornbread. This is actually a really great treatment of a common, emotionally fraught situation – exactly the kind of thing that a show like Friends would either ignore or inflate into zany antics. It subtly raises a number of pertinent issues: Rachel is accustomed to having her desires casually ignored, such that she barely even registers them as desires anymore (she very unconvincingly avers that she “loves sides”), Dev tries to act nice but ultimately doesn’t care and is basically just focused on his own enjoyment, and of course society in general does not do a particularly good job of accounting for the fact that people are different and have truly divergent desires and convictions. But none of this is ever followed up on. The vegetarian thing is referenced like once, and the obvious problem this creates for Rachel and Dev’s relationship dynamic is never addressed even as their relationship is portrayed as being in serious trouble. Hence, this extremely provocative scene exists in total isolation from the rest of the show and absolutely nothing comes of it.

Indeed, Rachel barely does anything at all other than interact romantically with Dev. She complains about her job sometimes and there’s a subplot where she buys a couch. That’s about it. Even in the episode where she visits her grandmother, she bails almost immediately so that the rest of the episode can continue to be The Dev Show. And, I mean, this show actually is The Dev Show, but that’s exactly the thing: people don’t exist in isolation. When you don’t portray others as real subjects, what you have is not just exclusion, but shallowness. You don’t even need to go as far as arguing that Rachel should have had her own story – the weaknesses in Rachel’s characterization weaken Dev’s story. Patriarchy hurts men too.

In fact, the problems in Rachel and Dev’s relationship end up being the show’s primary focus, which means that this dynamic not only weakens the show overall, but cripples its conclusion. As they start getting serious, the stars in their eyes start to fade, and Dev begins to feel that he doesn’t have enough confidence in their relationship to commit to it. So the first problem is that we have no real understanding of why this is; the two of them only ever have generic Couple Fights about things like Rachel being too attached to her job or Dev being a neat freak.4 Indeed, this is the same problem the sexism episode has: by trying to address sexism as a general concept, without a perspective to hook into, it can’t actually get a grip on anything.

The racism episode isn’t about racism per se. It’s about one specific type of interaction in one specific circumstance. And it is because of this that it is valuable: racism against Indians is not a particularly visible subject, so the episode helps highlight something that most people don’t think about. It’s for this same reason that the sexism episode falls flat. Without a specific viewpoint, all it can do is fall back on vague handwaving in the direction of “creepy guys.” Nothing in the episode is capable of helping anybody, because all of it is just the same general noise that everyone hears constantly. In the same way, then, by trying to talk about “Millennials” in general, by assuming that there is such a thing to be talked about, the show fails to be about the thing that it thinks it is about.

So I suppose we can stop beating around the bush now. The only reason I have been using the term “Millennial” in this post has been to fool you. There is no such thing as a Millennial. I mean, this is pretty straightforward, right? There’s obviously nothing that every person born during an arbitrarily-selected twenty-year period has in common. But there’s a reason this type of analysis has currency, and it’s because it’s close to something that is actually valid. As the link explains, there is no such thing as a “generation,” but there is such a thing as a cohort: a group of people with a specific shared experience. And there have indeed been a number of significant social and technological changes recently around which have coalesced cohorts. For example, there are people who have grown up with texting, such that they see it as a normal means of communication. But there are also people who grew up before texting blew up, and only came to it as adults, meaning they see it as something different from normal communication. Similarly, there are people for whom Facebook was a major part of their high school socialization, people who have always been precariously employed and have never known what having a stable office job is like, and people who use ridesharing services every time they go out anywhere. But in no case does any of these groups comprise “everyone” within a particular “generation.” Estimates for the size of the “gig economy” are somewhat divergent, but they seem to max out at around 30% or so – in short, not a majority. These workers are a cohort and not a generation. Each of the individual things that we talk about when we talk about “generations” is actually a cohort; they can of course potentially overlap in meaningful ways, but in no sense are they simply various aspects of the same group. And they’re not even just different groups of “young people” either. Some young people get married right out of high school or college; some middle-aged people get divorced and then have to relearn to navigate the dating world using apps and texting. Some young people actually do get office jobs; some older people have to take ridesharing work to stay afloat.

So whenever you say anything about “Millennials,” you are ignoring these issues. To reiterate: these are real issues, but they can only be understood by addressing them as themselves and not as interchangeable pieces of a general trend. For example, another cohort is people who regularly read social-justice-oriented stuff on the internet, and therefore have a tacit understanding of the norms and terminology used thereby. Meaning all those times when I talked about terminology being used by “kids these days” were also lies, because it is in fact relatively few modern young people who understand or even recognize terms like “microaggression” or “privilege,” and of course older people are just as capable of reading the same sources and acquiring the same habitus. If you assume that these things are simply a property of “young people,” you are failing to understand what is actually going on. Significant example: one of the big thinkpiece panics recently is about something called “trigger warnings” and the fact that they’re coddling young people and failing to equip them for facing the real world and whatever. Except only 15% of college professors have actually encountered such a demand, so it is in fact the case that the vast majority of current college students are not facing this issue in any way (and that’s even if you assume that it is a real issue). It is only those of us embedded in the relevant social-justice-friendly media circles who understand these things; this is not a property of our generation, but of our cohort.

So it’s pretty easy to work out the rest of this. People will pick a couple of these effects and then try to explain that young people are “narcissistic” or “idealistic” or whatever, and we can see now why this is necessarily wrong. It is an overgeneralization: it takes things that don’t actually have the same causes or effects and don’t actually concern the same groups of people and assumes that they do, and is therefore bad analysis. Of course, not all generalizations are overgeneralizations. The condition for a valid generalization is the same as the condition for a valid cohort: when you have a distinct group of people who share a particular experience. Indians living in America and watching television during the same era form a valid cohort in that they all grew up seeing the same stereotypes represented; ergo, one can convincingly generalize on this basis. Women dealing with “creeps” do not form a valid cohort, because different women in different positions in society experience harassment and assault differently. But there exist plenty of valid cohorts through which these experiences can be analyzed: if you look at the specific experience of women in major urban areas being followed home from bars, then you might have something. Or you might look at female professionals being spoken over in meetings, or women who try to report acquaintance rapes to the police. It would be defeatist to insist that all experiences are unique and can’t be aggregated in any way, and understanding where the lines are is what allows us to do real analysis. When you don’t do this, when you simply throw a blanket over what you assume to be a homogeneous area of experience, what you are actually covering is nothing, and what you can justifiably conclude is therefore also nothing.

(This is actually sort of a major thing in feminist history. Second-wave feminism was largely based on the assumption that all women had a shared experience of “womanhood,” and this assumption was challenged in various ways, most notably by black women. The main historical precedent for this argument is Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, where she points out that her experience of womanhood is completely different from that of upper-class white women, and therefore from what upper-class white people in general assume it meant to be a “woman.” So it’s extra ironic that a race-conscious show like Master of None completely misses this point.)

Consider, as a simpler example, this article, which claims that the recent rap beef between Remy Ma and Nicki Minaj constitutes evidence that “hip-hop is dead.” This angle proceeds from the assumption that, because Minaj is a extremely famous hip-hop artist, her values and behavior are representative of the genre in general.5 In fact, the opposite is true: it is precisely because Minaj is super famous that she does not form a cohort with hip-hop artists in general. Rather, her cohort is just that: super famous artists, i.e. cultural capitalists. So of course her beef ends up being based on who’s the most famous and who sells the most records; that’s exactly where the valid generalization is for someone like her.

Furthermore, the fact that there is a famous rap beef happening right now is actually indirect evidence that hip-hop as the writer of the article understands it is alive and well. That is, the fact that there exist super famous hip-hop artists means that hip-hop is a popular genre, which means that there must necessarily be lots and lots of non-famous people doing interesting and original work in it – which would include preserving and expanding the traditions of the past as well as creating new ones. The writer, who presumably knows something about modern hip-hop, knows this, and I know that he knows this, because I know the same thing despite not knowing anything about hip-hop. Rock music, you see, actually is dead in the popular sense. There are literally no non-legacy rock bands that are famous right now. There is, however, plenty of new work being done in the genre by people who are not famous. This includes those who are bringing back cool stuff from the past, those who are synthesizing old influences with new sounds, those who are presently ahead of their time, and those who are fully idiosyncratic weirdos. So if hip-hop is currently more popular than rock, this must necessarily be even more the case for the genre that more people are into.

The problem is that the writer has gotten his cohorts mixed up. He assumes famous hip-hop artists and non-famous hip-hop artists are all the same type of people working in the same situation. They’re not; they might be making similar types of music, but they occupy different territories. But working hip-hop artists do occupy the same situation as working musicians of other types. For example, the explosion of music sharing caused by the internet has meant that artists without major corporate/advertising support can draw from a wider variety of traditions, make more diverse and less immediately appealing music, and still find an audience and income (potentially). This applies to all artists in this situation; thus, they form a valid cohort. Surely, there are plenty of further distinctions that can be made (and I could also be wrong about this; there could be other factors at work which cause this cohort to not cohere), but understanding this dynamic and applying it with the correct level of specificity allows us to make a valid generalization. It is by knowing something (barely anything, honestly) about working rock musicians that I know that working hip-hop musicians must be in the same type of situation. As Nietzsche puts it, “In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak: but for that one must have long legs.” He leaves unspoken the obvious prerequisite: in order to get anywhere, you must first climb one mountain. This is why Friends, which attempts to be a fully general show about people living in society, is actually about nothing (Seinfeld is of course the nihilistic embrace of this dynamic). This is what the concept of “escapist entertainment” properly refers to: the situation in which the thing you are experiencing has fundamentally no connection to the rest of the world.

So back to that TV show we were talking about, there’s a scene where Dev causes Rachel to miss an important flight because he wants to take a side trip and Waze assures him that he’ll be able to make it in time. The intrusive name-dropping here implies strongly that this sort of behavior is a “Millennial” thing; kids these days are impatient and reckless and they just rely on their phones to tell them what to do, blah blah blah. But none of that has anything to do with what actually happens here. Anyone could have made that same decision with or without Waze (P.S. Waze sucks). Furthermore, Dev knows that making that flight is important to Rachel, she explained it to him and they planned their itinerary around it, so even before he takes out his phone, he’s already being an asshole. Glossing this scene over with a kids-these-days veneer obscures the fact that the one and only issue here is that Dev is a notably selfish and thoughtless person. As a result, this issue is never addressed, despite it being a constant theme throughout the season. Everything that happens is treated as just “how things are these days,” when in fact much of it derives from Dev’s specific personality and is specifically his fault.

A contrasting example makes this even clearer. One of the events leading up to the climax is Dev getting fucked out of a movie role that he invested a lot of time and emotional energy into. This is a genuine fucking-over, his own actions had nothing to do with it, and it is correctly portrayed as a consequence of a garbage-producing society that doesn’t care about people and a necessary hazard of precarious employment. In other words, it is a completely different type of thing than Dev’s other problems, but they’re all lumped together in a general “life sucks” fashion. And this is why that generalization is an overgeneralization: because these are different problems, different things can be done about each of them. Some things really are your fault specifically, such that the solution really is for you to quit being such an asshole. Some things are interpersonal problems that aren’t necessarily anyone’s fault, but have to be worked out anyway through compassion and sacrifice. Some things are social problems that can only be addressed through political action. And then there’s the pitiless march of time itself, which is genuinely implacable and can only be accepted.

So the specific failure of Master of None is that it doesn’t climb a mountain. It gazes thoughtfully at various outcroppings, but it never puts its hands on any of them. And it is precisely this that becomes the show’s final conclusion. When Dev’s life appears to be going nowhere, his father advises him that potential by itself is worthless: it doesn’t matter what you can do unless you actually do something. It’s comforting to keep all of your options open, to imagine that they’re all real possibilities, to stay in the pleasingly abstract realm of generalization, but there are in the final analysis two options only: you either put pen to paper and commit a permanent, indelible mark, or you continue to stare at a blank page.

It should be noted that the idea of “committing” here is to be understood broadly; deciding to commit to one or more half-measures is (or at least can be) entirely reasonable. You can decide to use a particular talent of yours to pay the bills while you focus on other things, or you can choose to let’s say learn an instrument just for the experience, without imagining that you’re ever going to get good at it. Assuming that you have to go “all the way” with something or it doesn’t “count” is its own form of constriction – it privileges the idea of achieving something over the actual experience of doing it. And this is exactly the problem that Dev ends up having: he can’t be satisfied with anything unless it’s “at 100%”. What finally precipitates Rachel and Dev’s relationship crisis is Dev’s insistence that they each estimate the “probability” that their relationship will work out. The joke is supposed to be that this is the worst possible idea, but the numbers they come up with are 80% and 70%, which are extremely high. Having a minimum 70% assurance that something is going to work out should in no way be disappointing; it’s actually unrealistically optimistic. So what we understand here is that Dev is not actually after the goal of having a good relationship; what he is after is the 100% assurance itself. And this makes no sense, because a 100% assurance means nothing except in terms of what it is an assurance of. He thinks that being completely certain about his relationship would make it meaningful, but it’s the other way around: finding meaning in his relationship would make him certain that it was worthwhile.

This is, of course, meant to be a critique of “Millennials” and how they “want everything” and they can’t just “settle down” and be “responsible.” But, as we’ve discussed, this framing is not justified, because, to the extent that this sort of behavior exists at all, what it is is not a generational trend, but a cohort effect. And the specific cohort in question is one whose cohortness is based on privilege. It is not “Millennials” who are capable of and desire such things; it is specifically young people who a) can afford to, b) have no other responsibilities, and c) have no principles or convictions guiding their choices of action. In fact, there’s even a cohort that exists in direct opposition to this framework. One of the big trends in “new media” companies right now is unionization. This means that there is a cohort of modern young people who: want stable jobs, are politically engaged (in practical rather than symbolic terms), learn from history, and have chosen ground on which to stand and fight. This is the exact opposite of everything that thinkpiece writers imagine that “Millennials” are about. And these people also do not represent their “generation.” They are another, separate cohort.

I mean, you get that I’m annoyed as hell about all of this, right? Motherfuckers are constantly writing dumbass articles about “Millennials,” thinking they’re being all insightful, when what they’re actually producing is actual garbage on the level of third-rate fanfiction. And the people who try to argue against this are just as bad, because they make the same assumption, that there is such a creature as a “Millennial” and it has the same traits X, Y, and Z, they just argue that these are actually good things. The very basic and very obvious fact of the matter is that this whole framework is empty charlatanry and the only remotely reasonable thing to do is to fucking stop it.

So, uh, anyway, the show contrasts Dev’s situation with that of an older married coworker, Benjamin,6 who admits that there are plenty of days when his own relationship is barely at 20%. The reason this works for him is that he has chosen his relationship, so, as long as it’s still something, he has something. Dev, by contrast, has never made any such choice, so regardless of whether or not each specific thing in his life works out for him, he ultimately has nothing.

So what finally happens is that Dev makes a choice. The show misdirects us into thinking that Dev’s final decision is to pursue Rachel, priming us to expect the standard love-conquers-all ending. By subverting this possibility, the show frames Dev’s flight of fancy as the new thing that kids these days are now doing in lieu of pursing “traditional” goals. Rachel makes the same decision, but we have no idea why, because, again, Rachel has no personality. So rather than this action emerging from who these people are, it is imposed on them by the demands of the show’s intended messaging. Rather than Dev figuring out something he wants to commit to, he picks something to want on the basis of his ability to commit to it. In other words, the reason Dev chooses to fuck off to another country is that it is the easiest thing he can possibly do. It doesn’t require him to address any of his real problems; on the contrary, it is the one thing that allows him to avoid them completely. (It’s also a particularly American form of egoism to assume that the world is basically just a shopping mall of cultures for you to choose from.)

But while the season ends in the air, the show is grounded enough to allow us to put the pieces together. There’s one relatively subtle clue that provides unexpected illumination: Dev is a terrible actor. Like, totally atrocious. This makes sense, because he’s just a moderately attractive guy who got into acting entirely on accident, but this is never brought up in the show. In fact, Dev is fairly successful, as far as being a working actor in New York goes: he’s praised by casting directors and coworkers, and he almost lands a leading role in a new sitcom. I don’t think this is a mistake; on the contrary, Ansari seems to be intentionally bad-acting, and he does a pretty good job of portraying Dev’s acting as coming from someone making an earnest attempt at it while fundamentally not understanding the concept (a D-list Tom Cruise, basically). The situation, then, is that Dev is completely adrift and clueless, and so is everyone else, including the people who are actually presenting themselves as experts and professionals. Deskilling is more than just an economic problem. It makes people feel helpless, like there’s nothing they can actually do other than slot in to a socially-defined role. It naturally results in a desperate yearning for things like “adventure” or “true love” or, indeed, “meaning” itself – things that really do exist, but not as generalities: as particular experiences. Meaning is not something that is given to you by your surroundings, it’s something within you that you give to the world. But this isn’t just a matter of being “sincere” or “passionate” or “chasing your dreams” or whatever, it’s a matter of engaging with reality, going through facticity to get to a new place – a different physical situation. A society that doesn’t allow for this possibility robs people of their specificity, which, given that specificity is the only thing that makes a person exist as a person rather than an empty abstraction, is the one true crime.

Dev is just some guy; he isn’t fighting any kind of moral crusade, and he shouldn’t have to be. The world ought to work for people like him, people who are just doing what they can and aren’t after anything extraordinary. But it doesn’t. So, actually, Master of None‘s general glibness conceals a profound criticism: the world is fundamentally wrong. And this isn’t like Kafka or anything; remember, what’s characteristic about this show is that it portrays everything about young people these days in the most conventional New York Times-friendly manner possible. So if even that portrayal, the least incisive way of understanding the situation, is still fundamentally broken and riddled with contradictions, then the truth can only be far, far worse. The issue isn’t that we’ve got problems, it’s that we’ve got nothing.

So when Dev finally does make a decision about what he wants to do with his life, he doesn’t have anything to hold on to. He considers all the things he’s been doing so far, and concludes that none of them are any good, so his only option is to just completely fuck off and start over in another country. If we take this seriously as criticism, it’s rather unsettling: it suggests that our society is so fucked up that, when one seriously considers how to deal with it, the only possible answer is abdication. The only intellectually and morally honest course of action is to wash one’s hands of everything.

But you’ll note that this is only the case if we ignore Benjamin’s advice. That is, if the fundamentally broken nature of our world causes us to despair, this can only be because we are expecting perfection, and we come to realize that it is impossible. But if we look at things from that other side, we can ask a much more pertinent question: so what? Why should a lack of magic be considered a defect in reality? Why should the fact that things generally don’t work out prevent us from taking them as far as they’ll go? There are plenty of things that are going to slow us down, but until one of them stops us, we’re still moving. Since we can’t get to “100%” anyway, since the concept doesn’t even make sense, a lack of certainty should appropriately have no effect on us whatsoever. There’s no use mourning the death of a god that never existed in the first place. The antidote to meaninglessness is not requiring yourself to be at 100%, it’s accepting yourself at 1%. Rather than everything, anything.

It is of course precisely this criterion that Master of None actually does meet. It’s above 20% when it’s good and below 20% when it’s bad, but either way, it eclipses the Friendses of the world in the one way that matters: it’s not nothing.

  1. Guilty. 
  2. I’m clear of this danger for the foreseeable future. 
  3. I’d like to clarify that I don’t endorse this use of this word. Problematizing is a good thing. 
  4. The couples stuff is in fact completely insufferable. There’s one bit where Dev and Rachel are quirkily bantering in public and some guy gets really mad at how cute they’re being; it’s pretty funny, except that I don’t think that guy was intended to function as a audience stand-in. 
  5. So hey did you notice that the concept of a “genre” is also an overgeneralization, in that it lumps together a bunch of things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other, and that anyone making blanket statements about what a genre “means” or whether it’s “dead” or not is therefore necessarily full of shit? Just checking. 
  6. H. Jon Benjamin, in fact – as a Home Movies fan, I find his role here as the voice of reason deeply unsettling. 

Look me in the eye

I ran into this review of the new La Sera album before I had gotten around to listening to it and it basically irked the hell out of me. The specific claim at issue is that the album is “pretty but defanged,” which first of all is kind of an annoying thing to say in general, and also it’s one of my buttons, and it’s the kind of thing where you know you’re going to be thinking about it instead of being able to just pay attention. Like, I got over it (since I know you were worried), and I also realize that the review itself is not making a particularly substantive claim and is basically just a random #content fragment, but I think this is a fairly common confusion, and it’s also something that the album in question addresses as fangfully as possible. So, personal idiosyncrasies aside, I’m gonna go ahead and hit it.

La Sera’s obvious Thing has always been Katy Goodman’s distinctive singing voice. It’s impossibly high and sweet – “sunny” is a difficult adjective to avoid – but it’s not small or distant in the way that high voices sometimes are. It’s engaging and enveloping, grounded in a subtle but solid forcefulness. She’s a good singer, is what I’m saying. And while this gives the project an immediate obvious appeal, Goodman doesn’t rest on her laurels. She’s been at it for a while now, and she’s been advancing her songwriting and pushing into new areas the entire time. Which is actually where the confusion comes in. The new album is rather bluntly titled Music for Listening to Music to, and the addition of guitarist and occasional vocalist Todd Wisenbaker as a permanent bandmember, combined with slightly heavier production that melts soft vocals into an oceanic guitar sound, makes it feel less quirky and more professional. As a particular point of contrast, the previous album, Hour of the Dawn, had more of a hard-rock edge, opening with the relentlessly driving and mercilessly cruel “Losing to the Dark.” So whereas the new one is basically a country/western album, which classifies it pretty definitively as Not Punk, it’s easy to understand this as the “smoothed out” version of La Sera, in the way that wrong things tend to be easy.


Let’s start with the end – that is, with the fact that this album ends sad. “Too Little Too Late” isn’t just about failure, it’s specifically about doing your absolute best and facing up to the fact that it’s not enough. Think about what this means in the context of a polished and professional album that’s part of a consistently successful career. No matter how well you’re doing, there are always regrets. It’s always too little, and too late. You might, for example, be an experienced musician doing your best work, only to find that, at the height of your powers, you still can’t accomplish what you wanted to. Or you might be a fan, committed to “always find the voice you love and follow it until it fades,” and you might find yourself at the point where that actually happens, abandoning you before you were able to grasp what you were after, leaving you with nothing. This takes direct aim at not only the album itself, but also at you, at the thing you are doing by listening to this music. The approach this album is taking is not at all naive; that’s not what the title means. The sorrow in the vocals weighs the whole thing down like a curse, retroactively haunting the rest of the album.

Which is to say that, at the same time that this album is bright and enjoyable, it’s also pretty consistently sad. “I Need an Angel” is a cute title for a cute song, but it’s not actually a positive sentiment. It’s desperation. The whole point of that phrasing is that angels don’t exist. Saying “I need a miracle” specifically indicates that the thing that you can’t live without does not exist in the real world; you’ve “tried all your luck” and you’re still screwed. That’s pretty fucking hardcore. And, on balance, most of the album lives in similar territory. “One True Love” is the opposite of what both its title and its tone imply: “The woman I love, she said she’s running away, she’s leaving me today.” So if that was your one true love, y’know, that has certain implications. “Take My Heart” is equal parts devotion and despondency: “it’s the only way I know to live,” and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A sharp guitar line slices through the chorus, creating an emotional gap that deepens the sense of ambiguity. The delivery of “do you believe in me?” makes it clear that this is a real question without an easy answer – it may even be that either possible answer isn’t really going to work out.

But it’s not that simple either; these aren’t just songs that sound happy but are secretly sad. Each song does what it has to to get its point across; the issue isn’t which means of expression the album uses, it’s that its means of expression aren’t restricted. This applies both on the macro level, to the conception of this as a pop-country album in the first place, and on the micro level, where each individual song is open to sounding silly or maudlin if it needs to. This is where you fail when you’re looking for things that sound “intense” or “tough” or whatever. You’re living in the shadows. And even if it’s a shadow cast by love, even if the conditions you’re setting are ones born of justified devotion, they’re still stifling.

“Shadow of Your Love” is an extremely down song, but it’s not depressing so much as it is a genuine lament. It’s a sympathetic acknowledgment of the limitations that people inevitably place on themselves, often for the best of reasons. But that sympathy doesn’t go very far, because it’s just the fact of the matter that “nothing grows in the shadow of your love.” The negativity here points to what’s positive about the rest of the album: it stands in the daylight, and that requires a toughness that no amount of screaming or thrashing can match up to. “Are you with me now? Have you ever been?”

And all of this is happening at the same time that this album is smoothly written and just really nice to listen to. So the most basic version of the point here is that trying to categorize things as “hard” or “soft” or whatever is just a dumb way to go about it. Pop songs and hardcore songs are equally capable of childishness; basic songwriting can reveal hidden emotions as easily as complexity can obscure them; explicit inaccessibility can be a challenge or it can be defensiveness. There are a lot of different ways that things can get inside you. “Eyes can meet a thousand ways.”

See, even if you go back to Hour of the Dawn looking for something “harder,” you’re just going to get hit by the same force moving in the opposite direction. The album cover shows Goodman, face obscured, rocking out against a clear blue background while wearing a Poison Idea shirt.1 There’s nothing contradictory about any of this. It’s expressing a total situation that can’t be understood though a myopic focus on individual aesthetic effects. “Running Wild” sounds exactly like its title, but the content turns it completely around. Like the inverse version of “Shadow of Your Love,” this song is also doing both things at once: it’s sympathizing with the motivations that lead a person into this situation, and simultaneously clarifying why things can’t work that way. It’s just a fact that “running wild” is useless when you’ve “got no place to go,” in exactly the same sense that “nothing grows in the shadow of your love.”

Just as Music for Listening to Music to makes its point even as it’s being as cute as possible, Hour of the Dawn makes its point even as it’s going as hard as possible. As mentioned, the first song, “Losing to the Dark,” is both vicious as hell and totally hardcore, tearing the album open with an extreme immediacy. But conceiving of it as a “fuck you” song is too simplistic. For one thing, it’s actually positive, declaring the singer’s intent to step out of the darkness and into the light. But the context of this affirmation is that the singer has been losing this entire time, and that this has been happening because of love. Meaning it’s a love song. The fact that it’s about how love can be a evil force doesn’t change that fact; in fact, it enhances it. It’s a song about being in love, about one of the things that being in love can be like.

In short, aesthetics are non-trivial, and this is true even when you’re talking about something as dumbed-down and overcooked as the concept of the “love song.” You can think of Music for Listening to Music to as an album full of “love songs” if you want, but that doesn’t work as a criticism, because a love song can be just about anything. In fact, it doesn’t really get you anywhere. Even when something really is just a verse-chorus-and-such song, there are still a lot of different ways that can go.

“A Thousand Ways” makes this point explicit. “Love can be cruel, gone and wrecked this town”; “love can be real, it can stick around.” The serial variations on the chorus, rising in intensity, affirm that love can do all of these things. It’s not one affect; it’s a force. Sometimes it’s comforting, and sometimes it’s devastating. Love does not preclude claws. Quite the opposite. In other words, what La Sera is doing here is exactly what they’ve been doing from note one: aiming for the heart. There is nothing more vicious than that.

As though intuiting that this was all too subtle for people, Katy Goodman recently teamed up with Greta Morgan of Springtime Carnivore to produce what is essentially a master’s thesis on this very topic. Take It, It’s Yours is a covers album that redoes classic punk songs in an old-timey slow-pop style. Its approach is very consistent: low-intensity, wall-like synths create a background of noise, simple guitar parts set the basic song structure, and huge vocals shove all the way to the front. This has interestingly different effects on each song. “Bastards of Young” comes across pretty similarly to the original, but it’s refocused towards a different corner of the same emotional space; “Ever Fallen in Love” makes the opposite initial impression but ultimately draws up the same underlying feeling; “Pay to Cum” is completely unrecognizable.

This is easy to understand as a gimmick, so it’s crucial to emphasize how wrong that is. Like, sometimes this kind of thing is done as a joke; you take an “aggressive” song like “Straight Outta Compton” or whatever and you have someone with a little girl voice sing it over acoustic guitar, and it’s like, ha ha, that’s so funny, like it’s different from the regular thing. Take It, It’s Yours is the exact opposite of that. These songs are not ironic in the dumb “joking” sense of the term. They’re ironic in the correct sense of the term: they use context to convey additional, extra-literal information. The contrast is there, obviously; that’s still part of the point. But it’s part of a real point. In one sense, these songs feel reverent, like hymns to dead gods; in another, they’re explicitly blasphemous, intentionally destroying a lot of what people liked about them in the first place. But the stronger impression conveyed by their simplicity and directness is that they’re just songs. They stand on their own; their reinterpretive aspect isn’t required in order to feel what they’re getting at.

Let’s look at “Bastards of Young” a little more closely. The original has a very explicit “angry young man” affect that is closely tied to its meaning. So you might think that if you don’t have that, you don’t have the song; you might even think that that’s the entire thing that the song is, that attempting to remove it can only be an exercise in point-missing. Under this interpretation, aesthetics only operate on the surface, they don’t point to anything deeper. In which case aesthetics are meaningless; it doesn’t matter one way or the other if you “defang” something, because the fangs never sank into anything in the first place.

As a matter of fact, I saw another band cover this song earlier this year. They were a pretty straightforward rock band, and it was a pretty straightforward cover. This would seem to be uncomplicated: a perfectly “faithful” cover, one as close to the original song as possible, should consequently get as much of the original meaning as possible. But this is precisely the shallow understanding of aesthetics that we need to avoid. There wasn’t anything wrong with the performance, it sounded good and everything, but it was basically just “here’s a song you recognize.” Instead of pointing to the same thing that the original song was pointing to, or turning it around to point to something different, it merely pointed to the original song itself. Insisting on intensity can enforce shallowness; trying to be cute can create complexity. Staying as close as possible to something can drive it further away. And given that this song is about emptiness, this approach misses both coming and going. If you’re trying to express an “unwillingness to claim us” and the fact that you’ve “got no one to name us,” claiming it and naming it is kind of the opposite of what you’re after.

That is, there’s nothing wrong with doing a faithful cover, it’s just that . . . well, I’m going to have to get a little bit technical here, because I’m about to use the word “essence,” which is not something that someone in my philosophical position can just throw out there, so I need to be clear about what it is that I’m talking about.

That is, there’s nothing wrong with doing a faithful cover, it’s just that, either way, what you’re aiming at is the essence of the song.2 Essence is not real, but it’s also not magical; it’s a concept. The essence of an apple is what you infer about it from all the different ways you can physically interact with it. So the essence isn’t the “complete” or “ideal” version of the apple, because there’s no such thing. The essence is simply (or not so simply) the aggregation of all potential apple-experiences. The catch is that this isn’t a fixed thing; it doesn’t all add up to the One True Apple. Different people are going to have different reactions to different apple-aspects. If you lived on an apple farm as a child, apples might, for you, be inseparable from the concept of childhood. For someone else, who is allergic to apples and has had a near-death experience from accidentally eating one, the smell of apples might evoke the nameless terror of the true void. And the way you feel about apples might be the way I feel about oranges.

So a) things have different meanings for different people, but b) these meanings are contained within (or at least represented by) the same physical object, and c) the same meanings can be reached through multiple distinct physical means. Does this mean that there is no connection between subjectivity and objectivity? Uh, I fucking hope not, because that would pretty straightforwardly imply pure chaos on the level of meaning. The subjective aspects of the object are what matter, but they can’t be aggregated into any kind of understanding of it, both because they are potentially infinitely many and because subjectivity is not accessible to investigation in the first place. Rather, what it means to understand things is to use objectivity to get at subjectivity. It’s not really a bridge, because subjectivity is absolutely unreachable, but it’s sort of a signpost.

If you’re traveling and you’re trying to find a certain town, there are different ways you can go about it. You can look for signs to guide you there, or you can consult your map, or you can survey the geographical features of the area looking for indications of civilization, or you can ask someone. And maybe your map is out of date, or maybe the person you’re asking doesn’t remember things quite right, but all of these things will still, in some capacity, point towards the thing you’re looking for. Whereas if the terrain changes, if a rockslide blocks off a path or something, this is no longer the case. Nothing about the sign itself changes, but now it doesn’t actually point to anything. It is no longer capable of directing you to the town. Someone has to make a new sign. And a sign whose only purpose is to point to another, already-visible sign isn’t particularly helpful. The artist is the person who has at least some idea of where we need to go.

A song is also an object, albeit a complicated and loosely-defined object, so the same principles apply. The subjective aspect is far more obvious: of course people’s subjective reaction to music is the part of it that’s actually active. That still doesn’t make it magic; a songwriter produces something that can be written down and understood by others, and a performer takes specific physical actions to produce explicable phenomena. But the purpose of these things remains to get to subjectivity, so if you just copy the actions themselves without trying to get behind them, what you are engaged in is mimicry without understanding. You’re working off an old map that doesn’t account for the current terrain. You can do a faithful cover, but you can’t expect it to be a simple apples-to-apples comparison. As a counterexample, I saw another relatively straightforward rock band do a cover of the Pixies’ “Debaser.” It was also a faithful cover, and it wasn’t like a revelation or anything, but it was messy and deranged in a way that drew out the “slicing up eyeballs” aspect of the song. It pointed at something.

The Morgan/Goodman version of “Bastards of Young” is essentially a mellowed-out version of the original, but this doesn’t flatten the song’s intensity; it draws out the sorrow and earnestness that were masked3 by the original’s aggressiveness. It’s a different means of pointing to the same essence. And of course this means it’s not going to work for everybody, but what must be realized is that this was equally true of the original song. This understanding has always been there, and the Replacements themselves are actually a great example of it. They used their “young, loud, and snotty” style to great effect on songs like “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” but they also used that same style to convey naive confusion on “Sixteen Blue,” self-pitying resignation on “Swingin Party,” and anguished desperation on “Answering Machine.” Eyes can meet a thousand ways. Raw power has a healing hand, and it can also destroy a man.

For any song that is meaningful to you, there is someone out there who heard it and actively hated it, and someone else who heard it and had no idea how anyone could possibly care about it one way or the other. So if you really think that there’s something there in a song you like, you should want it fucked up in as many different ways as possible. Assuming this is being done competently, it will broaden the general understanding of the thing that you care about. And if there’s a band you think has something to say, you should be happy to hear them trying different things, including or even especially things that are foreign to you. Not just for the sake of others, but also because you don’t have it all figured out either, and an honest challenge from someone you trust is invaluable guidance towards doing better.

In a sense, what’s happening on Take It, It’s Yours is that these songs have all been redone as “love songs,” but because the results are so strong while being, at first glance, so divergent from the originals, what this ends up doing is problematizing the typical “love song” concept. Because these covers don’t actually change anything in this sense; they reveal that these songs were all love songs in the first place. This version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the song that Danny Fields called the one true punk song, actually feels like it’s the original; it makes the Stooges version sound like the ironic reversal. Because of course it does, because the song was always a slow, tragic love song. And it’s not like it’s an anomaly or anything; songs like “Touch Me I’m Sick” or “The KKK Took My Baby Away” are also love songs. These aren’t a bunch of different songs being redone as the same thing, they’re a bunch of different songs being redone as themselves. Love can do all of these things.

Again, aesthetics are not shallow. A “love song” isn’t one thing, and neither is a “punk song.” Any affect can achieve lots of different effects. Aesthetics are also not neutral. You can’t just redo anything in any arbitrary style and have it mean the same thing. If the only purpose of aesthetics is to put a wrapper around stuff you could just say directly, then aesthetics don’t actually do anything. This is not a contradiction. Words aren’t neutral, but you can theoretically use words to express anything you want. In fact, the reason you can do this is because words are not neutral. Contextual connections are what give words their power. In the same sense, what makes any particular aesthetic mean something is the situation in which it exists. Punk meant one thing at one time, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that thing anymore. Actually, that isn’t even it; punk never did mean “one” thing; like love, it was always a force. The obvious paradox of punk has always been that, if punk is about rejecting traditions and standards and doing your own thing, then as soon as punk comes into being and sets a standard, you’re obligated to reject it. But this is only a paradox if you’re an absolutist. All it really means is that the true meaning of punk is that there is no true meaning of punk. It’s yours.

So I guess I should stop beating around the bush and get to the fact that there’s an obvious political angle here. Saying that something is “pretty but defanged” is basically equivalent to saying that it’s “too girly.” Y’know, speaking of the fact that aesthetics aren’t neutral, the idea that “hardness” is better than “softness” is some pretty basic patriarchal ideology. Everybody gets this backwards: feminism is not an ideological imposition that ignores the obvious truths of reality. It is merely the insistence that ideology be visible, that ideals be justified and not simply assumed as the “natural order” of things.

(While I’m certain that you’re not so unsophisticated as to claim that I’m “overthinking” this, I’ll go ahead anyway and clarify the fact that I’m not. I’m just telling you what I learned from these albums. The fact that music is so unsusceptible to analysis is part of what makes the attempt so useful. It happens to you without your permission, so then you have to go back and figure out what the hell just happened. I’ll spare you the diary entries, but “Running Wild” and “Shadow of Your Love” are both direct criticisms of me. When I first listened to “Running Wild” I noticed that the lyrics were kind of weirdly perpendicular to the tone, and then I started to sort of understand what they were saying, and then I got the hell scared out of me when I realized the song was about my exact situation and behavior. This is the type of thing that becomes possible once you stop trying to line things up properly in boxes and start listening; it is the sense in which apolitical statements are the most political of all.)

So the fact that the songs on Take It, It’s Yours are essentially “girlified” versions of songs that are known for being “manly” makes a non-trivial statement about both the songs themselves and the context in which they are being understood. As maleness is taken as default and femininity as fetish, the masculine versions of things are always considered “normal.” Per the title, Take It, It’s Yours insists on its own normality, and it also insists that you insist on your own normality. The slow, dreamy version of “Pay to Cum” is exactly as justified as the psychotic rush version, and so are the thousands of other versions that people have not yet imagined, because they’re strapped in to the notion that only certain types of people are allowed access to certain affects. We live in a big, complicated world, where many apparently contradictory things are true at once. Multiple simultaneous approaches are required to deal with any issue of substance. Until we start understanding this, we will never be able to understand anything.

And this is why creating “music for listening to music to” is not a simplistic retreat from significance, but rather the basic precondition for significance to exist in the first place. It seems insightful to say that something that’s just “fun” or “pleasant” to listen to is empty, that it doesn’t do anything, that it’s ear candy. This sounds incisive, but it’s actually nihilistic. It denies lived reality in favor of unattainable ideals; it puts meaning eternally out of reach. The fact that music sounds good to listen to is a real thing, and that’s only a problem if you conceive of real things as fake versions of ideal things. This is backwards. The point of ideals is to help us get to reality. The ideal doesn’t supersede the thing itself, it outlines it from behind. Clinging to ideals means hiding in the shadows of reality. If you have to choose, you choose earth, because the experience of living is the only thing that we actually have. Music is for listening to.

So, I mean, the obvious contradiction here is that I’m explaining why you should be able to listen to a record without explanation. Indeed, the album is fairly impressionistic; it resists analysis, in this sense. You’re not supposed to respond to it by . . . doing the only thing that I know how to do. In fact, it’s worse than that, because I’ve kind of been screwing around this whole time. The first song off of Music for Listening to Music to, “High Notes,” addresses the situation as directly and completely as can be done in two minutes and five seconds. If you’re actually listening, there’s little else that needs to be said. So, in the spirit of things, I’m going to go against my instincts and let this one take care of itself. This is yours:

A little girl pulled me aside and said I wouldn’t make it through the night
Well thank you darling, this I know
I threw a look over my shoulder towards the guys who look dissatisfied
I’m sorry, is this song too slow?

Well I can’t sing it for you just the way you want me to
I might be tall but I’m not half the man you thought you knew
Who knew?

I’ll hit the high notes, wink as you walk by
I’ll sing a sad song, smile as you cry
Taking the high road, look me in the eye
Time waits for no man, old man, I’m saying goodbye

  1. If you’re unfamiliar, Poison Idea is a hardcore band that’s more on the “crazy asshole” end of the spectrum. They have a record called Record Collectors Are Pretentious Assholes, which is basically the same sentiment as Music for Listening to Music to
  2. This still applies if you’re fundamentally reinterpreting the song; you’re just reversing the essence, or coming at it sideways or whatever. If what you’re doing has no relationship to the original essence, then there’s no sense in which it’s a cover. Like, that’s actually why it’s called a “cover,” right? It’s a different surface over the same thing. 
  3. Just FYI, masking something is different from concealing it. 

This story must be told

Okay, one more obnoxious post-election lecture and then I’m going to get back to what I was supposed to be working on before the bottom fell out of the world. That’s not a retreat, by the way, it’s actually my first point: the way we get through this is by recognizing that we have better things to do than to pay attention to fucking politicians all day. The way we defeat Trump is by resisting where we can but otherwise continuing on as though he has no power over us, because he doesn’t. Living well is the best revenge.

The problem right now is that people are making various points about everything but nobody’s really connecting the dots. The question isn’t why the media guessed wrong about the outcome, that obviously doesn’t fucking matter, the question is why the media was unable to convey to Trump supporters the fact that he was not actually going to help them. Especially seeing as that’s the exact thing that the media is supposed to be for. Like, of course the Democrats aren’t doing anything to help people who are economically struggling, of course Clinton didn’t offer people anything in this regard, and of course we are required to address this issue if we are to have any hope of constructing a society that works for people. It would be one thing if Trump were a racist/sexist/authoritarian/etc. who was actually going to try to help people who are getting screwed over by technocratic globalization. In that case we would have to have a conversation about tradeoffs and symbolism and soforth. But everyone who’s been paying attention agrees that he’s bad for all those other reasons and he’s also going to be terrible for poor people. So this is not about signing on to Clinton’s agenda, it’s just that anyone concerned about any issue should have recognized that, on whatever issue that was, Clinton would have been less bad than Trump. Asking “whether” Trump won because of racism or economic anxiety is a stupid question, both because the answer is obviously both and because either issue should have disqualified him: his administration is going to be super racist and it’s also not going to help poor people in any way. We do still have to go through all of the usual political nitpicking and maneuvering and everything, but the fact that the worst possible candidate won is a critical issue all by itself.

When Trump started getting popular based on racism, the various branches of the political establishment noticed it, and their reaction was to support other candidates. So there was the “never Trump” movement during the primaries, and then there were all the newspaper endorsements of Clinton during the general. The logic was: “Trump’s campaign is racist, and that’s unacceptable; therefore, you should vote for someone else.” But this is backwards right off the bat: what Trump’s support indicated was precisely that racism is acceptable. Hence, the syllogism fails to hold: people who never thought that Trump’s behavior was beyond the pale in the first place were given no reason to change their minds. Rather, the response to realizing that people are more racist than you thought must be to start doing better at fighting racism. There’s been some complaining that the media just wrote Trump supporters off as racists without trying to understand their concerns, which is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t actually get us to the place where we’re doing something about it. If a better candidate than Clinton had adequately addressed the concerns of working-class voters and thereby won them over, that would not have addressed this issue. It would not have reduced the acceptability of racism. We want it to be the case that racist demagogues are rejected by the general population.

The argument against calling Trump supporters racists is that, sure, people noticed that Trump was running a racist campaign, they just didn’t think that was a big deal; they voted for him for other reasons. Any given voter may have done something to indirectly promote racism, but that doesn’t make them A Racist. But this is an absurd distinction: what can possibly define a racist person other than engaging in racist behavior? If I, during a friendly visit to your home, steal a $20 bill that you left on your dresser, I am a thief, regardless of whether I have ever stolen before or ever will again, and regardless of my opinions on the merits of private property or the conditions under which coercive economic redistribution is justified. And of course all the times I respected your property do nothing to absolve me. I am a thief because I am a person who has “engaged in stealing behavior.” When you find out about this and respond by calling me a thief to my face, you are correctly assessing the situation. In precisely this sense, everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a racist. They engaged in racist behavior.

I really hope this doesn’t come across as a brag, but if you call me a racist, that’s going to be the start of a conversation. If I have some sort of racist tendencies, or I’m making an argument which is racist in some way (both of which are probably true some of the time), I’d like to know about that, and I’m more interested in this than I am in defending myself against charges of being a big bad racist. For most people, being called a racist is the end of any possible conversation. “Racist” is a pure insult, like being called a shithead or human garbage, so once that word comes out, there’s nothing more to talk about. You have no option other than to get offended and angry. The reason for this is that most people have no concept of racism as a structure, which means they have no means with which to analyze claims of racism. So yes, calling people racists doesn’t help, but the solution is not to avoid the issue, it is to start talking about that structure, such that the relevant types of conversations become possible to have.

Regarding Trump specifically, he always does the normal thing were he “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body” and is “the least racist person you’ll ever meet” and etc., and for most people this resolves the issue. Sure, he may “go a little too far” sometimes, but the fact that he says he cares about helping black people means he must necessarily not be a racist. In the same sense, the fact that he hires women for executive positions sometimes must mean that he’s not a sexist.

Let’s follow up on that notion, seeing as it’s become kind of a thing recently to assume that a woman climbing up the corporate ladder is “empowering” and therefore feminist. There’s a specific reason why money is a feminist issue, which is that women being able to support themselves means they are not dependent on men for survival. It does not follow that a woman earning a lot of money is necessarily freeing herself from oppression. If, for example, two paychecks are needed to support her family and she’s still tacitly required to do all of the housework and childcare, then her earning money is in fact not liberatory, but merely another, shinier-looking chain. Understanding things in this sense makes it very easy to understand why “leaning in” is bullshit: it encourages women to embrace rather than resist oppression. (I mean, it’s right there in the name. I was initially very confused as to how anyone calling themself a feminist could view “leaning in” as anything other than a con. I hate hippies, but it’s pretty depressing that we’ve fallen behind the point of “turn on, tune in, drop out.”)

Which brings us back to our point: the fact that these things are structural problems and not ice cream flavors is why, properly understood, they are not competing interests but rather the same issue; they go together. To address them, then, requires a unified approach, which itself requires a cohesive accounting of where we are and where we need to go from here. This sort of thing is commonly referred to as a “story.” A story is more than a plot; it’s not just an A-then-B explanation. It’s also the context in which that explanation makes sense. A story implies a world, and we have not yet established a narrative for a better future. Hence the power of the notion that America can be made great again: the slouching inevitability of neoliberalism, dragging us all into the dullest future, makes such a thing appear to be the only alternative.

Clinton’s story was: everything is fine, we just need to keep gradually doing better. Trump’s story was: everything is not fine, so we have to resort to whatever grotesque measures are required to get back to the imaginary perfect society of the past. As you know, neither of these is the real story: everything is not fine, and the reason for this is because of all the stuff that we fucked up in the past; therefore, what we require is a different future. What was missing from this election was the idea that the world can be made other than as it is. Of course, that’s missing from every election, and that is the central point: politicians will never be able to make this case for us. They’re not the sort of people who are capable of it, and it’s not their job anyway. They’re bureaucrats: their job is to collate the series of forms and signatures required to put things into practice. Our job is to create the world as it must be, and then force them to do the paperwork that makes it so.

Let’s try one of the less charged examples to understand how this can work. The media was very, very concerned about Trump’s failure to release his tax returns during the election. This was supposedly “disqualifying” behavior, because we need that information in order to judge whether a candidate is fit to hold office. But as Tom Scocca pointed out, if the media really believed that, they sure weren’t acting like it:

“There is supposedly a consensus across the entire mainstream press on what the terms here are. It is unacceptable for any candidate to conceal their financial situation. To be a candidate, a person must disclose their tax returns.

Yet reporters continue to ask Donald Trump questions about subjects other than his missing tax returns. When they do this, they are conceding that Trump can be a presidential candidate, after all, despite refusing to release his returns. It is a losing strategy.”

In short, a political crime is not disqualifying unless you actually disqualify someone who commits it. If it’s just one bullet point among many, then it’s merely what business assholes call a “nice-to-have” rather than a requirement. Ergo, nobody cares (I seriously doubt that anyone voting against Trump did it because of the tax returns either).

The same analysis applies with even greater force to the campaign’s more dramatic issues. The Access Hollywood tape and the ensuing accusations raised what should have been the only issue of the campaign: whether Donald Trump is in fact a serial sexual assailant. Surely if anything is to disqualify someone from the presidency, behavior that is both illegal and misogynist is it. Yet the whole thing was treated as just another “scandal,” and the reason for this is that the media – including the Clinton campaign – did not push any better narrative. During the second debate, immediately after The Tape came out, the issue was raised, but it was raised as a Debate Question. Clinton and Trump yelled at each other about it for a while, and then the moderator moved on to the next question. The next day, the “spectacle” was described as follows:

“Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton collided in an almost unremittingly hostile debate on Sunday night, a 90-minute spectacle of character attacks, tawdry allegations, and Mr. Trump’s startling accusation that Mrs. Clinton had ‘tremendous hate in her heart.'”

In other words, the New York Times does not give two shits about whether or not Trump has actually committed sexual assault. Framing the problem in terms of “hostility” and “startling accusations” is a complete evasion of what those accusations are actually of and what reasons people might have for being justifiably hostile. Calling Trump a “divisive” candidate implies that there’s no real problem, that different people simply have different, equally valid opinions. To the media, it’s all just “character attacks.”

So one practical takeaway here is that the way we conduct debates, and indeed the election in general, basically guarantees that issues of substance cannot be raised. Trump’s one-man vaudeville show didn’t change anything; the media had already smoothed out the path so that someone like him could stroll carelessly down it whensoever they chose. We were lucky that this hadn’t happened until just now, so what we ought to do is stop relying on luck. The reason we have these constant back-and-forth shifts based on confused signifiers like “jobs” and “taxes” and “regulations” is precisely because we are not addressing the real substance of the issues. To avoid calling things as they are is to go further down this road, to retreat from the truth. Rather than news personalities carving out space for soundbites, the electoral process ought to be a matter of experts making real assessments of the candidates’ various attributes and relaying these assessments to regular people by means of understandable narratives. Of course, Americans don’t like this sort of thing. They don’t like “being told what to do” by “elitists.” We report; you decide. But the thing about experts is that they actually possess expertise. They have knowledge that most people lack, and disseminating this knowledge into the broader population is supposed to be a major part of what the media is for. Lumping real knowledge into the general concept of “elitism” is perhaps the one true failing of the American media. If we believe that the current lowest common denominator is not good enough – and this belief is strictly required in order to avoid basic nihilism – then we are morally obligated to reject the tactics of dumbing-down and pandering to know-nothings and to instead raise the level of discourse.

You may be thinking that this is too much to deal with all at once. Certainly, that exact point was made during the election: so much was so wrong with Trump that none of it stood out; it all just faded into particularly annoying background noise. But dealing with situations like this is exactly what stories do. They organize a huge amount of information into something that is understandable as a whole. In this case, the story is a simple matter of what all of Trump’s sins have in common: they’re all symptoms of privilege. Trump can get away with things that others cannot because he is a rich white male. This is why pointing out the individual issues didn’t matter to his supporters. Because they believed in privilege, they were already making that excuse for Trump. What must be targeted, then, is those beliefs, and the way this is done is by changing the parameters of the conversation in which we discuss them. Calling Trump “abnormal” gets you nowhere if you continue to treat him normally, and labeling his behavior “disqualifying” is meaningless if you continue to act as through he is qualified. Trump was allowed to plausibly proclaim “I am your voice,” when his supporters should have been made to realize that he is exactly the person who has been picking their pockets all this time. Norms are only functional if you do them rather than merely saying them; you have to actively denormalize behavior that you consider to be unacceptable. Otherwise, what you are actually doing is accepting it.

And the specific issue of sexual assault is really the perfect example, because we actually have seen a major shift in the way the mainstream narrative about sexual assault works, and it has happened very recently. Feminists have refocused the conversation around sexual assault such that it proceeds from the perspective of the victims rather than the perpetrators, and this has had practical consequences. Bill Cosby was about to die beloved as America’s Goofy Dad, but now, thanks entirely to this refocusing, he and his reputation are on a one-way, nonstop flight to secular hell. Now, this was an extreme case: Cosby’s behavior was maxed-out sociopathic, he was already a washed-up relic lacking anyone with a real interest in defending him, and the fact that he’s a black man shouldn’t be discounted, either. But of course our first victories are going to come in the easiest cases. This should still be encouraging: it proves that this strategy works, and that we really can change things by pursuing it. Unfortunately, we still have quite a ways to go. With Trump, we saw a reversion to the usual pattern. A bunch of accusations popped up, it was considered a “scandal” for a little while, and then it all went away and Trump went right back to doing whatever he wanted, which in this case just so happened to include winning the presidency.

But in this same sense, Trump’s victory actually demonstrates that the type of thing that we want to achieve really is achievable. He changed the narrative. Ever since the Republicans decided that he wasn’t worth the fight and instead sent Pence in to manage things, Trump has been an agent of the establishment, but in the beginning he was just some asshole on an escalator. He won in the face of unified mainstream opposition, and since then, the political establishment has had to rearrange itself to accommodate him. It hasn’t had to move very far, because his campaign was never based on any real convictions, but the general shape of these events is what needs to be possible in order for anything to get better. Trump is the bizarro-world version of what we ought to be aiming for. So it’s crucial to remember that he didn’t win by being a great marketer or whatever. He really did bungle things about as badly as possible. He won by coincidentally tapping into a huge, throbbing vein of resentment. The disadvantage we have is that, for us, no such vein is flowing just yet. People know what holding on to their own privileges is like, whereas nobody knows what living as a responsible citizen of a just, caring society is like, because no such thing has ever existed. But there is enough blood for us to work with; we just have to get it pumping. The fact that people can feel that things are wrong and that “something ought to be done” is also to our advantage. Yes, it makes fascism possible, but that’s simply because it makes change in general possible. Maintaining what we have now for fear of something worse also means maintaining what we have now for fear of something better. And since what we have now is really just anesthetized decay, it’s long past time to let go.

So the long and short of this is that there’s no point in arguing for or against the individual candidates themselves. We know this for a fact now: Trump as an individual was argued against as hard as possible, and it didn’t matter., where ideology goes to die, infamously insisted that the only issue in this election was that Trump was an “abnormal” candidate and Clinton was a “normal” candidate, and I hope we can all understand at this point why this is the wrongest possible perspective. Trump’s victory indicates precisely that he is normal to enough people to matter. You can find a handful of weirdos who believe pretty much anything (hi), but it is just flatly implausible that anything approaching 50% of the country voted for chaos. The overwhelming majority of people do not want to remake society. They want jobs, they want low taxes, and they want to feel safe, and it is for these conventional reasons that people voted for Trump. The slogan “make America great again,” a slogan which Trump supporters took much, much more seriously than people normally take slogans, is the exact opposite sentiment to “burn it all down.” It’s been much noted that Clinton’s rejoinder, “America is already great,” was a massive strategic blunder. This is exactly correct, and this is why: what we consider “great” is the entire substance of the issue. Our task, as people insisting on a better tomorrow, is to redefine greatness.

That is, the information needs to be out there; it needs to be known that, for example, The Wall wouldn’t actually have any effect on either immigration or unemployment, and you don’t know that until you run the numbers. But if someone supports The Wall for other reasons, this information doesn’t do anything. That’s what we have to get at: people’s reasons. The problem is that lots of people tried to demonstrate Trump’s racism, but because the situation was so obvious to everyone who cared, nobody bothered trying to explain why Trump’s campaign was actually racist. I know that sounds weird to you, but that’s exactly the point: other people have different ideas about racism than you do. The fact that you think they’re wrong is exactly why you have the responsibility to prove it.

Specifically, the common working notion of racism is that some people just suddenly manifest a snarling fury whenever they see someone with a certain skin color, and anyone who doesn’t do this is perfectly fine. This is why the Black Friend Defense is something that makes sense to people, even though to you and me it’s a transparent joke. A few particularly dense people have taken the fact that a lot of Obama supporters voted for Trump to mean that those people must not have been motivated by racism, which is another version of this attitude. Obama voters had one positive attitude towards one black person one time; therefore, they must not be racists. This is the story that we need to rewrite. The correct lesson to draw from this fact is not that racism is less of an issue than we thought it was, but that racism operates differently than the explainer class has been assuming it does. We need to make racism understandable in terms of its effects as part of a social system, which means synthesizing it with everything else, including our own behaviors. It’s certainly easier to treat racism as an individual pathology, because then those of us who don’t manifest the symptoms can be assured of our purity. Don’t blame me; I voted for Obama. But this is exactly the formulation by which Trump supporters absolve themselves. If we’re going to be better than them, then we need to do better than them.

And again, we have to do this ourselves; the establishment will not help us, because engaging the issues in this way implicates them. It prevents Clinton from glossing over the fact that she helped create the mass incarceration system that is one of the primary vectors of today’s racism. So I guess this is kind of a silver lining: Trump won on racism, sure, but there wasn’t actually an anti-racist candidate opposing him. Same deal for feminism and capitalism and imperialism and everything else: none of these issues are really being addressed in the mainstream conversation yet. To be honest, I’m not optimistic about what the results of a real fight would be. The great mass of humanity has not historically demonstrated any particular capacity for wisdom or discernment, or even basic kindness. But we haven’t lost yet.


Alright shitheads, bereavement period’s over. Time to get serious. Here’s what we’ve learned – by which I mean here’s what we already knew and have been lying to ourselves about:

  • The media is completely useless

There has been quite a lot of introspection about whether the media was doing “enough” to “stop” Trump, or whether it was “enabling” him. This is not the point. The issue is not how often the media got it “right” or “wrong”; the issue is that none of it mattered either way. I mean, they did get things right, for the most part. The media is made up of educated people. They knew what was going on and there were all kinds of investigations and things. They got the facts right and most of their arguments were correct. No one cared. Every newspaper in the country endorsed Clinton in the strongest possible terms, and none of that ink moved one single vote. Clinton was declared the definitive winner of all three debates. Didn’t fucking matter. Everyone was all anxious about whether Trump would try to skip the debates, but he might as well have, because they had absolutely no effect on anything.

All that shit about Clinton’s “ground game” and the “Obama Coalition” was also meaningless. There is no “vetting,” there are no “qualifications,” the debates are not “job interviews.” All just made-up terms inflated by professional hacks to justify their paychecks. The election spectacle has no actual function. This past year has been a complete waste of everyone’s time and money. This is the thing that Trump was the most right about. It is now a proven fact that there was no reason for him to play the game as dictated by the David Brooks contingent, because those people are irrelevant idiots and their game is bullshit.

(This is also the thing that Clinton was the most wrong about. Her entire political life has been hobbled by the mistaken impression that she was required to play pattycake with the gatekeepers of Seriousness and hire a bunch of dull campaign hacks to make sure that everything was being done The Right Way. Even as someone without natural charisma, she would have been better off without them. And it should be pretty clear by now that none of it protected her from sexism in any way.)

Also, what the fuck was all that polling shit for? The amount of yammering about polls was completely insane. Every fucking day it was some new set of arbitrary percentages that supposedly meant something. There was a whole fucking Game of Thrones-level dramatic arc about whether FiveThirtyEight‘s methodology was still valid. All meaningless. Like, what was even supposed to be the point of it? Was there supposed to be some perfect, magical poll that would somehow have locked the election for Clinton? What is the purpose of telling people what the results are supposedly going to be when those people are the ones who are actually going to be making the decision? All the time spent preparing and running and rerunning and analyzing and analyzing and analyzing those polls was time that could have been spent fighting.

Relatedly, the media is a tiny niche population. There are 325 million people in this country. The media speaks for about twelve of them. Which is a real problem when you combine it with the fact that media types fucking love to hear themselves talk. All day, every day, the media is constantly chattering to itself, about itself, and the only people listening, aside from other members of the media, are idiots like me who have nothing better to do with their time. Immediately before the election, everyone in the media was writing pieces under the assumption that Clinton was going to win handily. There were actually debates about whether it was going to be a blowout or just a landslide. How many voters did the people writing these pieces represent? Not fucking enough. We like to make fun of the “right-wing echo chamber” in which hardcore conservatives live, but it is actually us “informed” media-consumers who occupy the smallest and most distorting bubble. The people applauding each new “takedown” of Trump were suffering from just as severe a case of epistemic closure as anyone reading Breitbart or InfoWars. It’s a hell of a drug.

(If we can get slightly technical for a moment, one of the big problems with the internet is the way it facilitates the “small world” illusion. Even as it seems like there’s an incomprehensibly huge amount of stuff going on, you’re really only communicating to your tiny group of friends, while the rest of the world has no idea what the fuck you’re on about. The way you feel about flat-earth theory is exactly the way most people feel about your opinions on most topics. You might know what I mean if I ask you which set of pronouns you prefer, but upwards of 99% of the world would literally not understand the question even after having it explained to them slowly and repeatedly. It is not interpretable within their worldview. You can scroll through page after page of tweets supporting a sexual assault survivor without realizing that they represent about 0.01% of the real-world population. The world is a big place.)

(Also, the fact that Clinton won the popular vote is nice (as well as being genuinely important to remember for the purposes of analysis, especially regarding people who think the problem is that Clinton was a terrible candidate and everyone hated her), but it has no bearing on any of this. Even if she had won the election, the fact that anything approaching 50% of the population looked at Trump and said “yes” or even “sure, why not” contains the entirety of the problem. The fact that Trump is actually going to be president is certainly its own category of disaster, but we lost the battle as soon as he was accepted as a general election candidate. That alone proved that no one who mattered was willing to fight when it counted. Y’know, as painful as this all already is, we have to remember that Trump is not the worst-case scenario. There will come a night on which the glass finally breaks, and when that happens the Responsible Adults will all be down on their knees, poking thoughtfully at the shards. The story of 2016 is this: America allowed Trump to happen.)

Perhaps the most pitiable aspect of all this is the fact that the media was very, very serious about the whole thing, and that seriousness specifically was nothing but empty posturing. People don’t take things seriously just because the media says they should. This whole thing was and is a joke to most people. They’re wrong, but the punchline was delivered anyway.

  • The American political system is completely useless

A Trump presidency is exactly the situation that the entire American political machine is designed to prevent. A large mass of uninformed people made a rash decision based on limited and confused information. The electoral college, the primary system, the Congress, the courts, the media, and the party apparatuses are all designed to safeguard against this, to restrict the ability of the people to make sweeping changes based on momentary whims. Instead, they all indirectly conspired to achieve the exact opposite.

It is easy to understand the basic reason this happened: specific procedural details do not have general effects on outcomes. Sometimes they work one way, and sometimes they work the other. It was initially thought that the Democrats had the electoral college advantage this time around, with Clinton only needing one or two big states to clinch it. And that could very well have been the case; votes could have been distributed slightly differently to achieve the inverse outcome. But in neither case does the process confer any sort of legitimacy on the results. There is no connection between moral or even factual correctness and political victory. The actual outcome of this election was a draw; Trump essentially won on a coin flip. (The fact that this is the second time in living memory that this has happened and the final results favored the Republicans both times is potentially suspicious.)

So not only is there no point in defending the specifics of one particular process, the opposite is true: what we must fight for is dynamism, the ability to change the process as needed. All those people talking about how important it is to respect the process in tumultuous times are worse than wrong; they aren’t even part of the relevant conversation. They’re completely out to lunch, filling out checklists as the world burns.

(Oh, by the way, a Trump presidency guarantees that the U.S. will not respond to global warming in anything approaching an adequate manner. That probably wasn’t going to happen anyway, but now we can all rest assured that we’re definitely going to burn to death. We are past the critical point of action, so the destruction of the planet is now a certainty.)

  • America is not one country

Both sides were completely convinced that they were going to win, and both of them were correct. Within each subculture, there was no debate. The only issue, this whole time, was how many voters were going to turn out for each side. No one was ever going to be “persuaded.” There are, of course, the famous “undecided voters,” but they’re the exception that proves the rule: only a tiny percentage of people are not already in one camp or the other. The celebration of the increased diversity in Congress is all well and good, that’s certainly an improvement, but it’s not a consolation. It’s more evidence that America consists of two trains running on completely separate tracks.

Frankly, it’s starting to look like the Confederacy was on the right side of history. I mean, the Civil War was never really resolved; it ended in the temporal sense, but Reconstruction was thwarted, and we’ve been fighting that battle ever since. There is increasingly little point in pretending that we actually have any kind of “union” going on here. The obvious problem is that, if we accept a division, we are abandoning half the population to a situation that we believe to be immoral. But while force may be justified where something like slavery is the case, there’s little point in trying to save people from a hell they’ve chosen for themselves.

  • The Republican Party is alive and thriving

The speculations about whether Trump was going to destroy the Republican Party were bad enough when he was losing – even without being able to win national elections, the party would still wield massive, agenda-setting power on the state level and in the Congress. But now that whole angle is just downright comical. The Republicans are not “relics” who are being “left behind” because they’re “on the wrong side of history.” This sort of teleological complacency is exactly why the Democrats are such a bunch of losers (see also the use of “this is 2016, why are we still debating this” as though it were an argument rather than an admission of defeat). There is no “march of progress,” no moral arc inscribed onto the universe. “Progress” is a story we tell ourselves after the fact; it has no claim on the future. The first black president, married to a descendent of slaves, has been succeeded by someone who would probably be a literal Klansman if that weren’t bad branding. History does not move in a straight line; it is a tangled mess. Good things happen, but things do not gradually “get better” of their own accord. The corpses keep piling up. This is a war, and we are not fighting it hard enough. While we’ve just been trying to run out the clock, the other team has been constantly scoring behind our backs. If we don’t start getting our shit together with extreme severity, “history” is going to start looking a lot worse than even the pessimists among us have fantasized.

  • America is fucking racist

No one who genuinely opposes racism could possibly have considered supporting Trump. Even if you assume (pretend) that his campaign was not primarily about racism, the raw volume of it should have been a dealbreaker. Unless of course that was the deal you were looking to make in the first place.

Also, religion doesn’t matter, at all. There was never any such thing as the “Religious Right.” They were always just bigots. There are no “values voters,” in the sense where “values” means things like humility and integrity and all of that fluffball shit. In exactly the same way, “conservative principles” were never anything more than the self-important preening of a tiny handful of pompous pseudo-intellectuals. People do, of course, vote based on real values, and the realest of those values are, more often than not, racism and sexism.

  • America is not ready for a female president

I normally wouldn’t discuss things in these terms, but the conclusion seems to be unavoidable. There’s a book (or at least a pretentious blog post) to be written about the exact mechanics by which Clinton’s gender destroyed her, but it’s hard to doubt that it did. She’s basically a human checklist for the ideal presidential candidate, and, if the common media understanding of the situation is correct, her gender should have been an added bonus, a chance to make history. That understanding is not correct. We still live under patriarchy, and a woman still takes a step too far when she attempts to claim the mantle of rulership – even when she is someone who has devoted her life to preserving the existing social order, even when she is specifically expert at walking the finest line through the minefield of gendered expectations, and even when her opponent is as though chosen specifically to let’s say “heighten the contradictions.” Nothing is enough to overcome the fear of a female planet. It remains the overriding concern of a great many people – including women – that the center of the universe be a dick.

One specific fun fact that we are all now inescapably subject to is that sexual assault is not disqualifying behavior for the most important job in the world. Most people are, in fact, totally fine with it, and this group, again, includes a lot of women. This is another example of something the media class agrees on and most other people don’t. While the media whipped itself into a frenzy over the deeply troubling implications of The Tape, parsing and reparsing it endlessly to determine What It Means For America, everyone else was simply hearing normal masculinity, and it was their interpretation of the situation that was correct.

It’s been much noted in much despondency that white women went for Trump, but there’s nothing unexpected about this. Feminists have their own brand of epistemic closure: they believe that all women are naturally sympathetic to feminism. Not true. The real feminist insight here is that men and women are not so different in this regard. Most women are sexists (meaning sexist in the normal sense, against women – yet another thing that’s become clear is that people cannot be relied upon to correctly interpret basic factual statements). White women went for Romney and McCain as well; white women have always gone Republican, because race is what politics in America is about. Gender is not. The recent popular upsurge in feminism has achieved cultural acceptability by abandoning its political content, and these are the wages of that sin.

Actually, America isn’t ready for a black president either (which would be the other half of the reason this happened). Obama was obviously exceptional – his legendary charisma (and ideological chameleonicity) superseded the normal dynamics of the situation. While we’re reminiscing, let us recall that Obama’s 2008 campaign was run on 0% issues and 100% rhetorical razzmatazz. Trump actually did stumble into real issues on occasion; he had more substance than Obama. Which is not surprising, because . . .

  • Elections have always been reality shows

I read something somewhere calling Obama “the first celebrity president.” Come on. Reagan? Kennedy? Roosevelt? Hell, Washington himself was nominated solely on the basis that he was a war hero and people liked him (which itself was mostly because he was tall). The notion that this election had a notable absence of policy discussion, or that Trump introduced reality-show style feuding into politics, or that our discourse has degraded to the level of insults and implications, is entirely mistaken. All of these things have always been the case. Which is to say that . . .

  • Trump is not an anomaly

All the talk about Trump destroying “democratic norms” is completely backwards. What has happened is that Trump has demonstrated (entirely on accident) that those norms don’t actually exist. But of course this is how norms work in any case: they only exist to the extent that people convince themselves that they exist. Other than that, they don’t actually do anything.

Remember how het up the media was about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns? Probably not, because literally no one in the country cared. I’m dead serious about this: does anyone really think there is even a single person who voted against Trump because he didn’t release his tax returns? Given this, what’s the point? Why should any candidate bother releasing their tax returns, ever? How is the process anything other than an establishment-class circle jerk?

Understanding this compels some unfortunate conclusions. If Trump’s unusualness was entirely aesthetic, then there’s no “excuse” for why he won. His “abnormality” didn’t cost him the election, but it’s not why he won, either. He won on the merits. The people comparing Trump to Brexit were entirely correct: Brexit did not succeed because of lies, and Trump did not succeed because he’s a con artist. They both won because more people wanted them to, and the fact that this impulse has triumphed twice so far (and is generally growing in strength everywhere) forces us to reject the comforting notion that these things were flukes. This is the new wave of horror poised to sweep over the 21st century. Face it.

  • Democracy is a real thing and a real danger

All the people hyperventilating about the unprecedented threat posed by Trump to democracy seem to be forgetting that Trump was supported by ordinary morons and opposed by a shadowy cabal of hyper-educated, unaccountable elites. The Founding Fathers may have been a bunch of slavefucking lawyers, but at least they understood that democracy was a threat that needed to be contained and not a magical wish-granting unicorn princess. Every idiot who’s ever rhapsodized about the power of “the people” has now received what they were asking for.

(This is also why we’re double-fucked on global warming. People will never vote to lower their own standards of living in order to save the planet.)

  • Structure decides

There was an article somewhere by some political scientist talking about how structural factors such as which party holds the White House and how the economy is doing correctly predict the outcome of every modern presidential election, and how the factors for the current election predicted a Republican victory. I’m sure most such theories are just as wrong as everything else, but something along these lines is certainly the case. For example, it has almost always happened that a two-term president has been succeeded by someone from the other party, likely as a result of the fickle mushhead contingent wanting “change” or something (this is part of why the two-party system is a greater evil than either party). Trump is an agent of historical and material forces exactly as much as Clinton is a victim of them. They’re both puppets. Which, again, means that everything the media does every election is a complete waste of time. None of this shit about temperament or experience or gaffes or any of it matters at all.

This suggests a somewhat more optimistic interpretation of the results. During the primaries, Clinton was never polling well against any of the potential Republican candidates. We all know how much polls are worth now, but it’s conceivable that she would have lost to any Republican. Someone reasonable-seeming and non-alienating like Kasich could very well have flattened her. So the fact that the election was a virtual tie indicates that Trump actually underperformed expectations. He was such a bad candidate that he almost blew a gimme election. The only reason he won was that he was ultimately a typical Republican – or at least close enough for government work. (Not that there’s anything okay about a typical Republican being president).

This is also why the whole exhorting-people-to-vote ritual is a particularly obnoxious waste of everyone’s time. You will never move significant numbers through individual hectoring. If you want to move numbers that matter, you have to move the structure. For one thing, indirect voter suppression is a critical issue that has not been given its full due. Which leads us to the most depressing interpretation of the results: Trump won because of Shelby County v. Holder; in other words, he won because Jim Crow isn’t actually dead yet.

This dynamic also implies a strategy: given that “electability” has been revealed as an empty shibboleth, the Democratic Party would do better to run candidates who are as far to the left as possible. An extreme leftist, even one as insane and incompetent as Trump, could have won in 2008. Of course, no one who is in a position to implement this strategy cares; quite the contrary, the Democrats are always highly concerned to make sure that no one with scary ideas gets any significant amount of party support. This is among the many reasons why supporting Democrats does not help.

There, that’s it. That’s the situation. Decide what you’re going to do about it. Now.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is why this is wrong:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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