Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump are the same person. If you don’t understand this, you don’t understand anything.
First of all, they’re both rich fucks. This isn’t, like, a coincidence. People don’t “just happen” to get rich. Your relationship to the material conditions of your existence is one of the primary determinants of who you are as a person. Before we even get into any other considerations, the actual act of being rich is itself immoral. When you or I imagine being “rich,” we imagine things like having a big house in a quiet neighborhood and a fancy car and an extensive record collection, but this isn’t what being actually rich is like. Being actually rich means literally having more money than it is physically possible to spend – even after resorting to ridiculous luxuries like owning three summer vacation mansions filled with rare art collections that you only visit one week a year or buying a Hawaiian island. It’s difficult to really imagine what things like this are like, which is why a lot of people resist this argument: they can’t imagine a situation where losing money results in no material deprivation whatsoever. But this is the real situation that our society has decided to create for some people, and it’s the situation that Winfrey and Trump both inhabit every waking moment. Every dollar they hoard is a dollar’s worth of food taken out of the mouth of a starving person. There is no word for this other than “evil.”
People like to talk about whether rich fucks “deserve” their money or not, but this is completely irrelevant to the argument. Remember, we’re talking about money in excess of the amount that you can actually spend on all the luxuries and projects during the amount of time you’re awake each day. Since you would lose absolutely nothing by giving it away, since your life would remain exactly the same with or without it, whereas lots of other people’s lives would improve immeasurably upon receiving even the tiniest fraction of it, there can be no possible justification for keeping it, regardless of its source. It doesn’t matter whether the money came from a big sack you found in the street or whether it was a boon bestowed upon you by god herself in recognition of your exceptional personal character. Philanthropy, which we’ll discuss further in just a moment, has no effect on this, because the issue is not how much money is being given away, but how much is being kept. A person living paycheck to paycheck does not lose virtue points for not giving to charity, because all the money they have is already being put to valuable use. A rich fuck does lose virtue points for every dollar they keep in the bank, because that money is being kept from people whom it could be helping. It is the actual holding of the money, in a situation where billions of others need money to survive, that constitutes the immorality. And considering the scale of the situation, this pretty much overrides any other possible concerns regarding what kind of person someone is. Like, if you knew someone whose construction company built concentration camps, you wouldn’t really give a shit if they seemed nice and empathetic in person. This is almost exactly the same thing.
But even if we do feel the need to interrogate the source of money as an indication of its recipient’s character, Winfrey and Trump are still in the same situation. Just as being rich is not a coincidence, getting rich is also a matter of a particular type of interfacing with present social conditions. Again, when you or I imagine getting rich, we imagine things like getting a big promotion or writing a bestselling novel or something – something that reflects our own abilities and doesn’t hurt anyone else. This isn’t how getting actually rich works. In a capitalist society, they way you make money is through exploitation. People who work for a living can only ever make enough to cover their own expenses, maybe with some extra left over for luxuries and savings if their skills happen to be in demand at the time. The way you make walking-around money is by extracting the value of other people’s labor, and the way you make a lot of money is by extracting a lot of value from the labor of a lot of people. The way you get actually rich is by building an empire. I mean, that’s exactly the term we use, we call things “media empires” or “construction empires,” and that’s exactly what they are. They’re giant exploitation engines in which the lives of millions of people are ground up into lubricant for the lifestyles of the rulers. It’s really not even a metaphor; they literally consume people’s flesh and blood. The fact that Winfrey is a self-made man and Trump is a trust fund baby doesn’t really impinge on any of this. If anything, it reflects worse on Winfrey; Trump inherited his father’s immorality, while Winfrey built her towering edifice of bullshit with her own two hands. Because we live in a society that allocates resources immorally, the people who succeed in it are the people who are the most immoral. Making money is a bad thing that makes you a bad person.
Those are the general principles, but this particular comparison is especially interesting, because Winfrey and Trump are not merely representatives of the same class, but representatives of the same belief system, with exactly the same M.O. Like, Bill Gates got rich by being a monopolist, but his company actually did produce products that people use. He added something to the world. Winfrey and Trump do not merit even this basic distinction; they are pure self-advertisers whose only product is their own image. The way Trump operated was not by actually building things, but by buying other people’s products and inflating their value through hype campaigns. Since the hype always far exceeds any actual value (especially since Trump has negative taste and can therefore be counted on to always select the worst products), there’s inevitably a collapse, at which point Trump sends out his lawyers and accountants to pocket the proceeds and leave other people holding the losses. In almost exactly the same way, Winfrey attaches herself to other people’s books and ideas and uses them to inflate her own image. Since the marketing of these things always far exceeds their actual content (especially since Winfrey is a credulous hack and can therefore be counted on to always select the most diluted variety of snake-oil on display), the fad inevitably dies out, at which point Winfrey shields herself from any fallout by simply moving on to the next trend (or occasionally issuing a Serious Apology if there’s a real scandal). People like this are worse even than rentiers, since they don’t even own the things they put their names on. They are pure value extractors; perfect parasites.
Even more than that, though, the similarities in Winfrey’s and Trump’s approaches point to something deeper than circumstantial convergence; they point to the same underlying ideology. Focusing solely on image and advertising necessarily requires complete adherence to existing values and standards. This is because symbols have to have referents; people have to know what you’re talking about, and if there’s no actual underlying product with its own value, the only way this is possible is if you’re saying something that people already believe.
When personal computers first came out, they were a new type of thing, so people didn’t already understand what they could do. This meant they couldn’t be marketed with pure bullshit, but had to actually function such that people who used them got something out of it. The same thing happened with smartphones; Apple’s insufferable advertising notwithstanding, it was only once people started using smartphones and experiencing the various things they could do (not all of it good, but still) that they became popular. A less compromised example is the Sriracha hot sauce guy. Sriracha has become a cultural buzzword in the complete absence of any marketing or promotion of it whatsoever. I had no idea where the stuff even came from until I saw that article. Because it’s a quality product, you don’t have to conjure up fantasies of fun-loving bikini girls or rugged manliness in order to sell it. It’s actually good; it has its own value, and is therefore able to speak for itself.
So here’s the important part: if you don’t have something with its own value, then you do have to rely on all that other stuff; you have to piggyback off of preexisting sources of value. You obviously have to have some sort of value claim in order to make a pitch to people. If you have a valuable product, this claim can potentially be something new. The concept of “personal productivity” didn’t used to be a thing, but once various types of machines became popularly accessible, it became something that could actually exist and was therefore possible to value. New values like this may or may not end up being good things, of course, but at least they’re new, and they’re based on real things that people can do. If you don’t have a source of value, you have no basis from which to make a new claim, so you have to make an old one. You have to play to a preestablished fantasy.
The fantasy that Trump plays to is the fantasy of opulence. It’s the idea that money determines everything in the world, and therefore aligning yourself with money gets you the best possible experience. Buying Trump-branded products ensures that you’re getting the most expensive and therefore highest-quality goods, and therefore living the best possible life for that and only that reason. The fantasy that Winfrey plays to is the fantasy of self-help. This is almost exactly the same idea: that choosing the right products and thinking the right way amounts to a secret formula for living a perfect life. Buying the products and following the trends chosen by Winfrey’s magical insight ensures that you’re getting real true meaning, and therefore living the best possible life for that and only that reason. (Also, do people really not notice that Winfrey specifically plays to the Magical Negro stereotype? Her whole thing is being “spiritual” and “authentic” and using that to serve as a lifestyle guide for rich white women. I don’t understand why people who would raise hell about this sort of thing in any other context give a pass to the one person who deserves it the least.)
The only actual difference between Winfrey and Trump is aesthetic. Specifically, Trump caters to the masculine side of the consumerist fantasy, selling suits and steaks and golf club memberships to promote the ideal of being a big important businessman, while Winfrey caters to the feminine side, selling diets and empathy and mindfulness to promote the ideal of being a magical unicorn princess. The reason this makes Winfrey look better on the TV is that femininity is significantly closer to a real standard of what being a decent person is like than masculinity is. (As just a few examples, femininity includes care, attention to detail, a focus on practical reality, and a basic level of concern for other people.) But a) aesthetics, while nontrivial, do not override morality, and b) Winfrey’s aesthetics are still overwhelmingly the aesthetics of rich fucks, which is to say their similarities with Trump’s are greater than their differences. Trump’s business books actually are self-help books, just marketed to a different audience. Trump University is exactly the same thing as The Secret, sold with exactly the same language.
Thus, Winfrey, no less than Trump, is a complete prisoner of the existing social order. Under ordinary circumstances this would merely be pitiable, but because these people have actual power, they do not only suffer from but also actively advance these harmful values. Their ideological commitments go so deep that they are unable to escape them even when they’re trying to help. Trump’s idea of charity is giving away free rounds of golf, and his idea of helping people is Trump University, an actual shakedown factory so blunt mafiosi would consider it beneath their honor. Winfrey, while less of an explicit con artist and more of an actual philanthropist, still favors spectacle over substance, as most famously illustrated by her stupid car giveaway stunt. Like, first of all, this was a stunt. I fucking cannot stand people who treat stunts like they’re real things. They’re fake. That’s the whole thing that a stunt is. Anyway, the point is that this is also bad charity. Cars are a modern necessity, so people generally have the number of cars they need, and people attending Oprah tapings are not exactly those in the most dire need of financial assistance. The reason she did this was not out of any consideration of how much it would help people, but because it would reflect well on her: because the recipients are sympathetic and the narrative plays into the “American Dream” – and of course because it gives her a big televised platform to grandstand on. Indeed, this is the exact definition of “philanthropy”: even “good” philanthropy isn’t actually good, because philanthropy is bad charity that promotes the giver more than it helps anyone.
The more concise way to put all of this is that Winfrey and Trump have both killed people through active negligence. Trump hires undocumented workers on the cheap and skimps on safety, resulting in injury and death. Obeying the capitalist imperative to generate profit, he stiffs contractors for his own gain, forcing them to forgo medical care and other necessities. Winfrey promotes quack science, fad diets, and fraudulent psychology, covering up their reality with her own aura of glamour. These are things which people, trusting her, take into their bodies, physically harming them. It’s hard to trace causality here, but given her reach, it’s a statistical certainty that this has harmed people’s health and resulted in deaths. There’s no room for sentimentality here. (Also, people with sentimental feelings toward Winfrey should consider that Trump’s fans have exactly the same sentimental feelings towards him, for exactly the same reasons.) People like this have no place in any decent society. I mean, come on. Both of them sell magazines named after themselves with pictures of themselves on the cover, every month. Come on. I’m embarrassed to even be talking about this.
Maybe this line of argument strikes you as a particularly unfair variety of false equivalence, because Winfrey is clearly a much better person than Trump. Of course she is. Trump is the worst possible person; you get exactly zero virtue points for being better than him, because literally every human is a better person than Donald Trump (as are most dogs and cats and probably a fair number of moles and squirrels). Like, the fact that Winfrey is against sexual assault rather than being a confessed sexual assailant is, y’know, better, but it’s not impressive. Back in the day, we used to call things like that “meeting basic standards of human decency.” More to the point, though, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a good person or not. It matters what you do; it matters what effect your existence has on the rest of the world. It matters whether you’re doing something useful for people or whether you’re paving the road to hell.
13 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
Our only access to reality is through perception, and perception is always partial. Sometimes what we’re seeing is obscured by the glass we’re looking through, and sometimes what we’re seeing is actually just a smudge on the glass itself rather than something on the other side. Because of this, no piece of evidence is ever a slam dunk. Anything that looks good from one angle might turn out to be hideously ugly from another. What this means is that you need to have an organizing principle with which to make sense of your observations. Without that, each individual observation can only stand briefly on its own before the changing wind sweeps it away into insignificance; “whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” If you don’t have the truth, you don’t have anything.
The tricky part, of course, is to determine what kind of thing we’re really talking about here; that is, what exactly is meant by “charity.” It’s originally a translation of the Greek word agape, which means something along the lines of selfless loyalty. It’s not something that you like or that makes you feel good, but something that you choose to be for, regardless of circumstance. Thus, the fact that someone says something that sounds good or does something that appeals to you can never be taken as independent evidence. It must always be evaluated for its accordance with the truth. As Nietzsche puts it, “the knight of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies, but also to hate his friends.” (You’re reading claws of love dot com, the internet’s #1 source for Nietzschean bible study.)
The part of this that’s wrong is the part where the truth is magic. It is incorrect to say, as people often do, that perception is “flawed” or “misleading,” as this implies that there exists a source of “correct” information that reveals things “as they really are.” In fact, there is no reality outside perception, but rather only reality through perception. This does not license us to engage in knee-jerk subjectivity. It does exactly the opposite. It requires us to go beyond each individual impression and to formulate a broad understanding composed of the data from multiple lines of perception. “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be.” It’s not just that “that which is perfect” will never actually come, but that there is no such thing, which means that “that which is in part” constitutes everything that there is. We can never get out of the wicked game; no one is ever a saint or a hero, no indicator is ever universally reliable and no narrative is ever complete. We always have to do the work of figuring out how things fit together, how multiple perceptions accord, and how to create understanding out of disparate parts. You can’t do this using “just the facts,” because the facts themselves can’t tell you how to organize those facts. You need something outside of the facts. Christians call this thing “charity,” Nietzsche calls it “will,” but I just think of it as the truth. And in a society that insists on smooth, clean, one-line narratives, the truth will always cut hard against the grain. It is the responsibility of anyone who claims to be a person to make those cuts. This is the only way to make anything make sense. As Hamlet learned, there’s nothing contradictory about smiling, and smiling, and being a villain.
Hot take alert: Donald Trump is the most politically correct candidate ever to compete in American politics. That was a joke, about it being a hot take. I’m completely serious.
Listen, I’m as interested in writing an internet blog post about political correctness as I am in discussing slash even being aware of Trump in the first place, but this is what the situation is. We should be better than this, but we’re not. The temptation, certainly, is to throw up one’s hands and declare that none of it makes any sense. But what a contradiction actually means is that your assumptions are wrong – the facts cohere based on a different standard than the one you’re applying.
And this is precisely what’s being lost in the chatter: that there are actual facts on the ground that have very little to do with Trump or with the media or with the electoral process or anything other than the actual politics of the situation. Someone like John Oliver can, for instance, do an entire segment on Trump that’s all about who he is as a person and says absolutely nothing about the politics behind why anyone supports him.1 I mean, the man’s definitely a head case, there’s a psychology dissertation or two in there for whoever’s got the stomach, but when it comes to the actual politics of the situation that ain’t really matter. He’s been bloviating for years without ever rising above D-list tabloid fodder – it’s only now that the planets have aligned and the first seal has opened (the first horseman is a false prophet bent on conquest, just FYI) that his politics (such as they are) have coincidentally attained national significance. Trump is not the test, he is the failing grade you get a week later after not studying. There’s a real reason this is happening.
And remember, Trump is our mistake – the people’s choice. The elites wanted to stop him, but they either couldn’t get their act together or they decided that it ultimately wasn’t going to be worth it. At this point, the actual direct cause of Trump showing up on the TV and being taken seriously is that many millions of people voted for him. And now it’s the general, and he’s been consistently polling in the 40% range. This is not a statistical anomaly; that number represents real human people who want him to be President. Trump supporters do not view him as merely a conveniently-placed fool; they view him, frankly, as a hero. They are voting for something that they feel Trump embodies. Our task, then, is not to “stop Trump.” This would merely be to chase away the vampire’s shadow, leaving the real monster free to feed. Our task is to determine the nature of the thing that Trump supporters are supporting, and kill it.
So yeah, I’m going to do this once and then I’m going to stop and also get off my cross. The last thing I want to say before we get started is that I’m definitely right about this. This is the one true Trump take,2 so after this you will be fully and correctly informed and you won’t have to read any more thinkpieces or anything. You’re welcome.
The Trump campaign begins and ends with racism. Anyone who tries to dodge this fact is not a credible source of political analysis. There are exactly two statements of Trump’s that have actually mattered in terms of gaining him support: The Wall, and Ban All Muslims. Nothing about how he acts or the media coverage or anything else matters unless people have a reason to support him in the first place, and racism is the reason.
Neither is Trump properly understood as a protest candidate. Certainly, part of Trump’s appeal is the way he ruthlessly attacks traditional politicians in impolitic terms, especially because most of these attacks are entirely justified. But taking this as an explanation belies the fact that Trump’s supporters are the most zealous that we’ve seen in recent history – they take him seriously. They do not view their candidate as a destructive buffoon who happens to be useful at the present time; they actually like him. Hard to believe, I know, but you can’t get anywhere with your analysis until you learn to cool your projectors. Trump supporters also do not think that he’s going to “tear down the system” or any such thing; part of his appeal is the idea (fiction) that he’s a “successful businessman,” meaning his supporters view him as competent (again, deep breaths).
Trump is, however, seen as an alternative to the existing Republican establishment, and this does not make sense. The Republicans have always (that is, since the party realignment in response to the Civil Rights Movement) been the party of racism, so supporting a conventional Republican candidate is a perfectly effective way of expressing your support for racism. And this isn’t just a misperception, because the Republican establishment also sees Trump as a dangerous outsider rather than as a useful idiot. So something about him really is different; racism as racism is not a complete explanation.
One proposed difference is that Trump is “explicit” about his racism, as opposed to the “political correctness” of typical Republicans, and this is what his supporters are supporting. They don’t want someone who merely advances racist policies, they want someone who gives full-throated voice to their grievances, who stands up and says “yes” to racism. But there’s a rather overwhelming flaw with this interpretation, which is that Trump never does this. I’m a little weirded out that no one seems to have noticed this. Trump expresses his racism in exactly the sameterms that all Republicans do. Trump takes precisely the standard Republican line of claiming that the Democrats are cynically exploiting anti-racism as a political shibboleth (a useful line because it happens to be true), whereas he’d be “so good for the blacks.” Trump always makes the standard move of couching his opinions in plausible deniability by saying things like “some of them, I assume, are good people”; he follows to the letter the typical discourse pattern of saying something racist, denying that it’s racist, then calling his critics the real racists. He’s walked back basically all of his “controversial” statements in response to media pressure. These are the exact behaviors that Trump supporters are supposedly rebelling against! And yet, when white supremacist Andrew Anglin said that Trump was “giving us the old wink-wink,” he somehow saw this as a new, positive thing, even though it’s what every Republican politician has been doing this entire time.
In exactly the same way, all of Trump’s “dangerous” policy proposals are merely gaudier versions of Republican boilerplate. His global warming denialism, gun humping, torture fetishism, myopic focus on the national debt, glib slashes to taxes and spending, and dick-swinging foreign policy have all been standard-issue for decades. Trump wants to ban Muslim immigration, but Cruz wanted to sic COINTELPRO on every mosque in the country. Indeed, The Wall itself is just a bigger and dumber version of something Baby Bush came up with: the whimsically-named Secure Fence Act of 2006.
Even Trump’s rhetoric is unusual only on the most basic level of tone. In terms of content, he’s saying exactly what every Republican always says. He attacks Clinton by saying she’s a “corrupt” political operative who panders to disadvantaged people solely for their votes, which is how every Republican attacks every Democrat. His claim that Obama “founded” ISIS is exactly the claim that Republicans always make about Democrats on foreign policy: that they’re “weak” and possibly secret anti-American traitors, meaning they don’t murder people indiscriminately enough and therefore allow “the terrorists” to do whatever they want. His insinuation that “Second Amendment people” could “do something” about Clinton follows directly from Sarah Palin’s “target map” and Sharron Angle’s reference to “Second Amendment remedies,” and uses exactly the same thin layer of plausible deniability. His histrionic paranoia about the election being “rigged” is exactly how Republicans justify voter ID laws. Indeed, his only transgression is that he cleaves to the Republican party line too strongly for his plausible deniability to remain plausible – his deviance is actually excessive conformity. Trump is nothing but an amalgamation of the various body parts the ruling class has collected over the years – the Frankenstein’s monster of American politics, a Republican in Republican’s clothing.
So this is the dilemma: if Trump support is about racism, then why is literally any other member of the Republican party not good enough? The Republican Party is already the party of racism; an insurgency is not required on this issue. Anyone who values white supremacy should be comfortable supporting basically any Republican candidate. This applies just as well to every other issue, as none of Trump’s policy stances are at all unusual. How does Trump represent an alternative to mainstream conservativism when all of his policies are entirely in line with conservative orthodoxy (the only real differences are the incidental hip-shooting claims that he later walks back or ignores, such as his praise for Planned Parenthood)? And if it’s about image, if it’s a rejection of the self-aggrandizers and empty suits that constitute the existing political class, then how in Loki’s name is daughterfucking Donald Trump the person who represents an alternative to that? The only reason he’s not twice as empty as the usual politician is that he’s three times as full of shit. He panders, hedges, vacillates and dodges, he uses extreme vagueness to cover up the fact that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he harps on low-content talking points, he substitutes insults for discussion. He has backpedaled and then repedaled and then rebackpedaled on every issue he has actually addressed, including The Wall. He is not an “unconventional” candidate at all; as someone with no beliefs, he has nothing going for him other than typical campaigning behavior, so all he actually does is double down on it. He is the most conventional candidate, ever.
So what’s odd about all of this is that it seems like a bunch of sound and fury and more sound signifying no substantive policy distinctions. And of course Trump himself is a high-concept parody of a human being, so there’s significant difficulty in understanding how anyone can even tolerate being aware of him for extended periods of time, let alone want him to be the person with his finger on the button. And this is where the confusion comes in, because after running down all the possibilities, there doesn’t seem to be anything left. It’s not like anyone can possibly be unaware of any of this; the one thing you can certainly say about the media’s coverage of Trump is that there’s been enough of it. It seems, then, that Trump supporters have deliberately chosen the worst possible candidate.
One thing that actually does distinguish Trump supporters is a particular strain of desperation. They are not just middle-aged whites, but middle-aged whites undergoing a suicide epidemic. In other words, Trump supporters are desperate in the philosophical sense: they are people in the throes of an existential crisis. And when you’re having an existential crisis, what you want isn’t money or stability or progress. What you want is to feel important. You want to feel great again.
If we’re going to get this right, we have to pay attention to what Trump supporters are actually saying. Primary sources are a critical safeguard against confirmation and status quo biases. Still, you can’t just trust what people say, and people’s statements about their own motivations are perhaps the least trustworthy category of things. You have to get the story from the horse’s mouth, but you also have to translate it out of horse-language, if you follow me.
So step one is to listen to what Trump supporters have to say for themselves. Seeing as this task does not require insight, The Atlantichas done a fairly good job of it. Okay, I shouldn’t be making fun; The Atlantic is awful, but Conor Friedersdorf has asked Trump supports the exact question at issue here, which is: how is Trump anything other than a less-competent version of a standard politician? So I guess I’m grateful. I guess. I mean, a lot of this is just flatly hilarious:
“We have to stop talking about complete nonsense, and start talking about Making America Great Again.”
But no, we’re being serious here. This is serious. Serious disease.
Distilling, there are essentially three ideological vectors for Trump support. The first is what we already know: these people are fucking racists:
“The world is rising while America falls.”
Hmm I wonder what that could refer to.
“I think my interest stopped right around 2008 because everything started to get really nasty.”
Hmm I wonder what that could refer to.
“He could take the “black lives matter” group and show them how to make black lives matter.”
“A stage on which extremists are permitted to gesticulate and spew their venom via freedoms initially formulated by the much-maligned ‘angry and wimpering’ white male”
Sorry, let’s keep moving. One thing to note here is that this stuff is completely baked in to our political discourse, such that, for example, “the middle class” is basically just code for “white people.” Check this out:
“Politicians pay lip service to the middle class but spend no time helping them. Black lives matter more and illegal immigrants who break the law get a free pass.”
See how “black people” and “illegal immigrants” are the groups that contrast “the middle class”? But again, this type of expression is typical in American politics, so it’s unusual that it would drive support for Trump. The fact that this whole spectacle is based on racism should always be kept in mind, but there has to be more to it than that. We have to be talking about a particular aspect of racism.
The second angle is that Trump is going to “fix things” because he’s a “successful businessman.”
“He’s spent his whole life and career making deals and negotiating deals. In his own words, he negotiates to win.”
As opposed to people who negotiate to lose?
“Trump is not the caricature that pundits would have you believe. Trump did not build his economic empire just with luck.”
“I am thankful for his support and I am ‘Trusting’ that he will treat AMERICA as a business & focus on her sucess.”
“Like him or hate him, he is a businessman”
So yeah, this is all dumb for all of the obvious reasons, but it’s going to become important later, so just keep it in mind. Specifically, the idea that a politician is going to “fix things” actually reflects support for the status quo – it assumes the system as constituted is correct, that it simply has flaws that need to be removed, rather than the whole thing needing to be reimagined/destabilized. So this is another point against the idea that Trump is a protest candidate.
That is, it’s true that Trump voters are mad at the establishment, but who isn’t? While there is an aspect of anti-elitism here, it’s anti-elitism of a very particular type:
“Guess what? They just called me dumb. Now here is the problem. The arrogance and ignorance––together, the dumbness––of these ‘elites’ at the NYT, economics departments, etc. is the true source of misinterpretation of the Trump movement. We are not dumb. We are investment bankers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, rocket scientists. And yes, we might also be farmers, but farmers can actually also be quite smart.
But guess what. We believe YOU (not you, Conor), are very, very dumb. If you are an established economist, you understand NOTHING about economics, and now everyone knows it. If you are the NYT, you printed fake evidence that led to a corrupt and bankrupting war. We believe you are very, very dumb, and shouldn’t say anything, whatsoever. You lost ALL authority over the last 15 years. Most people around me could take on any NYT journalist or professor from whatever fancy school and destroy them––intellectually––on any stage, anytime. We laugh at these people, and we laugh when they are called ‘elites’. They are not elites, they are complete failures.”
This isn’t anti-elitism in general, it’s actually pro-elitism in opposition to the current set of elites. The claim is that they aren’t “real” elites. Which is why it doesn’t contradict Trump being a rich fuck. It isn’t that he represents “ordinary” people, it’s that he represents the good kind of elites. So another way to think about the issue here is to ask: what kind of elite is Trump?
Relatedly, “make America great again” is more than just a slogan. Many of these people are quite preoccupied with the idea of “greatness”:
“He will expect greatness from us, he will tell us how to get to great, he will inspire people to be better than they are and have hope that their efforts will not be thwarted by bigger government.”
“Do we see greatness in America still on a daily basis or even in the movies? The Trump Family is the picture of the American Dream, and I believe Donald Trump is an honest man. When Donald Trump says that he wants to make America great again, I believe him. He has written books for all to read but that is not enough. He wants to lead.
Granted, Donald Trump cannot promise greatness among us as a society or a country. However, he can promise to be a leader for greatness, and he is fitted to do so.”
“He truly wants to make America Great Again, the same way he wanted to make his company great.”
So, again, the question is: what kind of greatness are we talking about here?
The third argument is that Trump is “politically incorrect,” and that this is a good thing.
“I do not believe that I am a racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other negative label that has been affixed to Trump supports. Rather, I feel that political correctness has run amok in this country”
you don’t say
“Beyond speech codes, ‘trigger warnings,’ or Twitter outrage mobs, the preeminence of political correctness among the culture class indicates a momentous shift away from formerly prominent middle-class cultural values and towards something entirely different.”
“Political correctness is a main reason why America is in trouble because it is a grind and so draining to be so politically correct everyday in our personal and professional lives.”
You’ve heard all this before, but look at what’s actually happening here. These people aren’t just saying that they like Trump because he’s politically incorrect. They are saying that, for them, political correctness is a substantive policy issue – one that they prioritize highly enough for it to be a determining factor in deciding who they support, as well as something that they actually expect the President of the United States to do something about. Friedersdorf, understandably confused by this line of thinking, followed up on it in a more in-depth interview, and received the following response:
“This is a war over how dialogue in America will be shaped. If Hillary wins, we’re going to see a further tightening of PC culture. But if Trump wins? If Trump wins, we will have a president that overwhelmingly rejects PC rhetoric. Even better, we will show that more than half the country rejects this insane PC regime. If Trump wins, I will personally feel a major burden relieved, and I will feel much more comfortable stating my more right-wing views without fearing total ostracism and shame. Because of this, no matter what Trump says or does, I will keep supporting him.”
“Having Trump in the White House would both give me more confidence to speak my own opinion and more of a shield from instantly being dismissed as a racist/xenophobe/Nazi (all three things I have been called personally) [ed: waaaaaaaaaah].
Under President Obama, our national dialogue has steadily moved towards political correctness (despite his denunciations), but with President Trump, I think our national dialogue will likely move away from being blanketly PC. Even though, as you pointed out, Obama has criticized PC speech, he doesn’t exactly engage in un-PC speech like Trump does. I don’t expect a President Trump to instantly convert people, but when you have someone in the Oval Office giving decidedly un-PC speeches and announcements, I think that would change the discourse, don’t you?”
It’s at this point that the Atlantic Effect kicks in, as Friedersdorf is unable to come up with an explanation for this beyond “liberals have gone too far.” So this is our starting point.
The obvious interpretation is that “politically incorrect” is just a more palatable way of saying “racist.” This is why the speech at issue is always racial slurs. The fact that people will deny this is not informative; everyone in America denies that anything is about racism at all times (which they have to do, because everything in America actually is about racism, at all times). Whereas the overwhelming majority of anti-PC complaints originate from white people upset that they can’t use slurs, the clear conclusion is that white people want to be racist, but don’t want to actually make the argument “I should be allowed to be racist.” Thus, the going interpretation is that people are tired of politicians pretending like everything is proper anti-racist policy, and they like Trump because he comes right out and “says what they’re thinking” re: race.
But again, this is not enough of an interpretation, because Trump does not actually do this. He also pretends like he’s the one offering the best anti-racist policy. Despite the baffled protestations of the explainer class, Trump is not operating sui generis; he is navigating the same constraints that all politicians face. He actually does have to disavow white supremacists and make up a fake women’s healthcare plan and pretend like he cares about black people. The only difference is that he’s bad at it.
Furthermore, you’ll note above that none of his supporters themselves avow their racism in explicit terms. They express their opposition to political correctness in politically correct fashion. Thus, the thing that they’re supporting as an attack on “political correctness” must be something other than bluntly stated racism, because they’re not getting that, and they don’t even seem to really want it. So what do they want?
And remember, this is not a matter of mere aesthetics. People think that this is a real, substantive political issue, and that Trump is going to do something about it. Moreover, it is not just that people like hearing their own values stated bluntly, it is that these people consider “politically incorrect” expression itself to be an important value. So this is it: we need to figure out what we’re actually talking about when we talk about political correctness.
(Look, I told you I don’t want to do this, alright? Just give it up. You weren’t doing anything useful today anyway.)
Given that Trump is seen as an alternative to the current crop of Republican elites, we can start by asking what it is that distinguishes Trump’s brand of racism from the rest of the Republicans’. As mentioned, there doesn’t seem to be much of a distinction at all. Trump always claims that he’ll be the best for “the blacks” and that Democrats are the real racists and blah blah blah. This is the same nonsense we’re always subjected to.
Actually, the first question we should ask is why Trump’s signature issue, illegal immigration, is an issue at all. It’s not a real problem, because Mexican immigration has been falling and immigration is not exactly an economy-killer. It’s also not a culture war thing; liberals don’t care about it (nor do they care about all the people Obama has deported). It’s an internal issue amongst conservatives, and if we think about why the Republican Party itself would care about it, the answer becomes clear. The Republican Party is the White Man’s Party, and it’s getting to be the case that there aren’t enough white men left for them to be able to win national elections. The largest and most quickly rising minority population is Latinxs,3 so that’s where the numbers have to come from. And this actually shouldn’t be that hard; we’re talking about people who are mostly religious and family-focused, and there isn’t really any overwhelming historical issue preventing Latinxs from voting Republican the way there is for black people. So that’s the angle: an immigration policy that appeals to Latinxs while placating the usual racists could help the Republicans overcome their demographic disadvantage.
But of course the voters themselves don’t care about party strategy, so if that’s all it is, then why do so many Republican voters list illegal immigration as one of their highest-priority issues? Well, because they’re looking at the same situation, but their motivations are reversed: they don’t want to compromise; they want immigration policy to work in white people’s favor. They don’t want to take advantage of the demographic shift; they want to stop it. What “political correctness” means in this context is taking Latinxs’ concerns into account. Trump voters want someone who won’t do that.
And precisely this was Trump’s original claim to political fame. By referring to immigrants as a bunch of criminals and rapists, he unambiguously signaled that his immigration policy was intended for the benefit of white people and only white people. And this is why it doesn’t matter that his policy is completely impractical and makes no sense: because this isn’t a real issue, it doesn’t have to. The establishment’s half-hearted opposition to Trump is half-hearted precisely because it is purely tactical: Trump represents a bad strategy for achieving the same goals the ruling class wants to achieve. But for the voters, because this is a symbolic concern, the desired solution is also a symbolic one. And the unavoidable symbolism of The Wall is: Whites Only.
We’re not quite there yet, because, again, this isn’t actually how Trump’s rhetoric works. Continuing with the symbolism of The Wall, Trump has also said that it will include a “big, beautiful door” for those who want to come here “legally.” This echoes the concerns of the voters: they often say they don’t object to immigration itself, but to people who don’t “play by the rules.” So the “door” symbolizes something slightly more complex than simple segregation. We can be more specific here. Consider this:
“I don’t have a problem necessarily with Mexicans who come here legally, obey our laws, and eventually learn to speak English. I do have a problem with those who look at our immigration laws and say, ‘Nah, I’d rather not obey those.’ This is one of my biggest issues with Hillary Clinton and her policy of amnesty.”
What is “learn to speak English” doing in that list? Why does that matter here? It’s not a law. Mexican immigrants are perfectly capable of coming here legally and contributing to the economy while still speaking their own language in their own communities. Why is that a problem? Yes, I know, racism, but why specifically? I mean, these people don’t get mad when they hear white people speaking any other foreign language, right?
Again, the significance is symbolic: immigrants who don’t learn English are maintaining their own culture. It isn’t just that immigrants are people of a different race, it’s that they’re not from here, they have their own beliefs and ideals, and that’s not okay. The “good” kind of immigrants, the ones who “follow the law,” who properly assimilate themselves into Whitopia, are acceptable; the “bad” kind, who stubbornly insist on retaining their own inferior cultures, must not be permitted. Hence the seemingly irrational anger with which some people react to hearing Spanish spoken in public: such an experience smacks you in the face with the fact that there are other worlds out there. To a certain type of person, this feels like a personal attack.
In fact, our misguided friend is quite explicit about this:
“[Referring to himself]: In favor of “melting pot” culture instead of multiculturalism.”
“I think most of my opposition comes from what I feel is a loss of the patriotic American identity and the advancement of multiculturalism and political correctness.”
So “political correctness” is the same thing as “multiculturalism,” and this is different from the “melting pot culture” which represents the traditional “American identity.” Thus, the connection between anti-PC and anti-immigrant ideologies is not mysterious. Both targets are faces of the same demonhead.
The idea that non-white people are actually inferior used to be the primary justification for racism, but today it’s a fringe belief (though it does very much still exist). What we now like to talk about instead is “culture.” It isn’t that black people are less capable than white people, it’s that “black culture” is holding them back. It isn’t that people from the Middle East are genetically prone to violence and intolerance, it’s “Islamic culture” that drives them to it. This is also the connection between “political correctness” and “moral relativism”:
“I think it comes down to a perception that America has already drowned in a post-modernist nightmare of moral relativism, from which extreme political correctness and protest culture stem. Trump, on the other hand, is all absolutes. Everything he says, accurate or not, is stated in absolute, definitive terms. His personal morality is clear: He respects people who work hard, are loyal, innovate, and ‘win,’ and he shuns those who don’t meet the criteria. Cruel as it may sound, I think America needs to reenergize these fundamental cultural values before we can ever hope to create a better society.”
Obviously, this person has no idea what the words they’re using actually mean – how could “protest culture” possibly stem from a lack of strong morals?4 What they’re talking about is accepting other culture’s values and practices as potentially valid ones. That’s why the preferable alternative is “absolute” support of America’s own “cultural values.” And that’s why it’s okay for people of any race to live and work in America – as long as they adhere to the right standards. The correct ones, in terms of politics.
It isn’t just that these people don’t want to explicitly argue that white men should be the center of everything, it’s that they can’t. When the implicit centering of white male opinions is the foundation of your worldview, requests that you incorporate other people’s opinions into your understanding become literally incomprehensible. Because the demand doesn’t make sense, it gets understood as something else. Ergo, the request that you let other people talk becomes an attack on “free speech,” and the insistence that other people’s opinions are more valid than yours on certain issues becomes “censorship.”
To understand this technically, the old regime of pure segregation is dead, for a number of reasons, and there are two possible alternatives we can pursue in its wake.5 The issue is not whether we’re going to have an all-white society or a diverse society. That ship has sailed. Globalization is the fact of the matter. The question is how we’re going to respond to it, and this is what Trump supporters are supporting: one answer to that question. They oppose “multiculturalism,” under which there are multiple valid cultural standards, and support “inclusiveness,” under which there is one standard that everyone is allowed (meaning required) to follow. “Inclusiveness” means including many different types of people in one culture. “Multiculturalism” means multiple different cultures all overlapping and interacting with each other.
If this seems overly theoretical, some practical examples should clarify that this is both a wide-ranging issue that is currently in high contention, and a basic practical distinction that you probably understand implicitly. Once upon a time, there was a thing called the “Western literary canon,” which included all of the most important stuff that white men ever did. This was a single standard for intellectualism: if you were familiar with it, then you were “educated”; if not, then not. Eventually, it was subjected to the obvious criticism that people other than white men have also done important stuff, and there are two possible responses to this criticism. One is to include non-white-male works in the canon, so that it’s still a single standard, but now it’s fair and representative and accessible to everybody. The other is to kill it, based on the argument that you can’t come up with any kind of objective standard as to which works are the “most important.” Were this situation to obtain, there would not be a single standard, but rather multiple different overlapping sets of works that different groups of people considered important for different reasons.
Another good example is music, which, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this already-bloated post, is ground zero for multiculturalism. The most prominent instance here is gangsta rap. The reason white people flipped their shit when gangsta rap got popular was that it operates under a different standard of values than conventional pop music; it does a different type of thing. It presents black criminals as subjects to be understood as subjects rather than as cautionary objects to be pointed at from a safe distance. Hence the claim that it “glorifies bad behavior”: white people were trying to understand it using their own set of values, whereby pop music is supposed to be abstracted and aspirational. Naturally, then, the hip-hop artists that white people single out for praise are those who are “socially conscious” and “professional” – the ones who follow the correct set of values.
Arbitrarily many examples of this pattern may be accumulated. We have TV shows like Master of None, where an Indian-American is portrayed as an everyman and immigrant experiences are normalized, plays like Hamilton, which reverse-whitewashes American history, and pop stars like Rhianna, whose persona is based on the idea that she’s the “bad” kind of black woman. Regardless of how good any of these things are, the point is that they represent a fundamental shift in perspective. The ideal of inclusion is that non-white people are accepted as long as they acclimate themselves to white people’s standards and practices. Everybody can, in theory, have equal rights, as long as what they’re equal to is white people’s standards. We are currently on the border between this ideal and the ideal of multiculturalism: the idea that there are multiple, simultaneous, equally valid (at least potentially) sets of standards.6
So the reason this distinction is flaring up right now is that we’re on a tipping point: multiculturalism exists, but it isn’t fully accepted, and the wave is eventually going to break one way or the other. And the reason the issue has specific political significance is, of course, Black Jesus. It is the least coincidental thing ever that this is happening at the end of the first black president’s term and in opposition to the possibility of the first female president – and in response to both of them being heralded as “progress,” as the wave of the future. Trump supporters see that the tide is turning against them, and they are desperately trying to hold the line.
Now, you might find this is a little odd. Surely Obama, though a black man, represents the interests of the white supremacist ruling class, and is therefore a perfect example of inclusiveness and not multiculturalism, right? And Clinton re: feminism7 and both of them re: capitalism and everything else are all pretty much the same deal. So why the animus? Well, one way to look at it is that Obama has a bad habit of saying things like “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.” Policy aside, when Mr. America says things like that, it conveys the idea that black people count as equal participants in society. That, y’know, they matter.
Liberals like to imagine that this whole problem is just a misunderstanding. If only conservatives knew “the facts,” and gave up their “conspiracy theories,” they’d stop “voting against their own interests.” Conservatives, whether they realize it or not, have a better understanding of the situation – they understand that symbols are real things. You can’t just put a black man in charge of a fundamentally racist country and expect everything to keep humming along. Something has to give, and what conservatives are doing is trying to make sure that the future breaks one way and not the other. They know that if they allow the door to be left ajar, it’s eventually going to get kicked open.
This might not seem like that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, but it is. I said earlier that this was not a matter of mere aesthetics, and it’s not: it’s a matter of deep aesthetics. Going from being the center of the universe to not being the center of the universe is actually the largest possible transition. It’s the death of god. Remember when everyone got all freaked out at the possibility that the Earth might revolve around the Sun, and not t’other way ’round? Why would that matter? What possible implications for daily human life follow from the particular implementation details of how planets move around? The answer is that it implies that humans are not the center of the universe, that we happen to exist in the universe rather than the universe existing for us, and this is an unacceptable conclusion. Consider similarly the broad popularity of Lovecraft-style “cosmic horror,” where the entire thing that’s scary about it is that humans are not accorded a privileged position in the universe.
Again, symbols are real things, which means that these sorts of shifts have real, practical consequences. The recent sea change regarding rape culture is entirely due to the fact that women have centered the conversation on themselves. This change would not have been possible as long as men controlled the discourse – no amount of “argument” or “reason” would have done the job. Like all political questions, it’s a question of who counts. There remains the work of translating symbolic gains into both policy changes and broader cultural changes, but what makes these next steps possible is the initial symbolic action of changing perspectives.
Understanding this, Trump supporters are trying to shut the door – to recenter white men’s opinions as the universal standard of judgment. This is why it is coherent for Trump to propose an ideological test for immigrants. Everyone is welcome, as long as they properly assimilate themselves to our standards. The reason conservatives constantly harp on symbolic culture-war issues is because they know that there’s a fight to be had. It’s not misdirection or confusion; it’s good tactics. Which is not to say I’m accusing anyone involved of an excess of imagination. Going “back” to the days of unquestioned white normality is just as impossible as “staying the course.” But this raises a contradiction, because we never actually stopped clinging to “traditional American values.” What happened in response to the post-war equality movements was that we reinterpreted them as being about traditional values all along – as though the founders actually had desegregation (or even abolition) in mind when they wrote that “all men are created equal.” And, as mentioned, the ruling class has fully assimilated these movements in the name of inclusiveness, staving off (for now) their radical potential. But if no one who matters is actually advocating multiculturalism, then why have conservatives devolved into aggrieved reactionaries?
You’ve probably been waiting for me to point out the most obvious flaw in the anti-PC argument, which is that it gets the situation exactly backwards. It is black people who are forced to tiptoe around the issue of racism; white people are more than welcome to express their grievances as bluntly and stupidly as possible. Most of all, what characterizes anti-PC arguments is manliness: we need to “toughen up” and stop being so “sensitive.” This is the same thing that characterizes most of Trump’s rhetoric, and it gives the lie to the idea that anything he’s doing is actually unacceptable, because there is nothing more socially acceptable then masculinity. The sad truth is that the situation that reactionaries long for is already the case: white male opinions were never decentered. This explains the fundamental paradox of political correctness. Anti-PC people attack the idea that one’s means of expression should be restricted, and they do this by insisting that others adopt the correct means of expression. “Merry Christmas.” “Islamic terrorism.” “All lives matter.” We must use these exact words, the politically correct terminology.8 What political correctness actually is, then, is the maintenance of white male normativity.
We got a very clear example of how this works recently, when Clinton made her “basket of deplorables” comment. This should have been a slam dunk: it’s an entirely accurate and damning description of the situation, and it’s also an appealingly honest assessment of the type that a normal uncoached human would make. Clinton was both making a strong argument for herself and overcoming her primary flaw. She was telling it like it is. As it turns out, though, what she said was politically incorrect: she was immediately and roundly criticized not for being wrong (she wasn’t), but for saying something she shouldn’t have said. There was no praise for her “authenticity,” no celebration that a politician was finally speaking the unvarnished truth, no defense that she was just making a point and didn’t really mean it. She had committed the unforgivable sin of violating white people’s safe space, and she did it without even issuing a trigger warning.
And it is because political correctness is the maintenance of normativity that Donald Trump is its avatar. This is why someone as incompetent as Trump has been so successful: because he’s on the winning team. Trump is not the less conventional version of the typical Republican candidate; he is the more conventional version. He is the most conventional person possible. This is the truly fatal flaw in the argument against political correctness: the people who rail against it are the most conventional, unoriginal, safe thinkers of all. Their transgressions are barely even performative. Speaking out against political correctness is easy. It’s expected. It’s politically correct.
Think about the content of Trump’s insults toward his opponents: they’re corrupt, they’re liars, they’re not tough enough. These are all completely conventional arguments! They’re the exact things we hear over and over again in every election, and yet somehow when Trump says them they become some sort of horrifying breach of civilized norms, or something. The position that all politicians are clowns and we need a rough tough action ranger to come in and shake things up is the most conventional political opinion that it is possible to hold. Do I really need to point out that Trump, is, like, famous? That he’s conventionally successful within current social parameters? That he gets constant media coverage? That none of this would be possible if anything he said or did were actually beyond the pale? That, in certain circumstances, criticism actually functions as validation? That this can only mean that all of his statements and actions are socially acceptable?
For example, Trump doesn’t explicitly support fringe conspiracy theories; rather, his characteristic move is to fail to deny them. “Some people are saying that, I don’t know, you tell me.” Again, it’s odd that people view this sort of thing as “telling it like it is.” So what is it, actually? What it is is a matter of perspective. If you want to know what Obama’s religion is, the obvious thing to do is to ask him, because, like, he’d know. But this requires you to do something unusual: it requires you to accept a black person’s perspective as a valid source of truth. Thus, the basic act of raising the question, of refusing to consider the matter settled, performs an important political function: it recenters the issue on white people. It isn’t a fact until white people accept it. And the media is, for the most part, completely fine with treating things this way. As long as white people have opinions on something, no matter how dumb they are, it’s a “controversy,” and we need to “hear both sides.”
Trump’s strength is not that he is an “unconventional” candidate who’s willing to “say anything” because he’s not bound by the “normal” constraints of politics. It is exactly the opposite. Trump is a hyper-normative candidate: what is unusual about him is that he takes the conventional wisdom too seriously, without a protective layer of cynicism. It is this that comes across as “sincere” to his supporters, who are also true believers in the lies. It’s not just the deep unoriginality of all of Trump’s (attempts at) policy proposals; it’s that his entire angle rests on appealing to cheap cliches and uninterrogated conventional wisdom. This lack of nuance is not an intellectual failing; it is itself a value. It is the point.
The truth behind Trump’s blatant lack of substance is not that he has “fooled” people and “fallen through the cracks” of the vetting process, but that he has passed the actual test. He may have dented the empty shibboleths of respectability (which exist primarily so that pundits can congratulate themselves on upholding them), but he has obeyed to the letter the real rules of the game – he has succeeded according to the parameters of the system. This is what’s really scary about his campaign: not that it is “abnormal,” but that it is the most normal thing that has ever happened.
But now we’ve actually worsened our contradiction; it seems like political correctness isn’t even a matter of optics anymore. What is haunting Trump supporters is only the specter of multiculturalism. But if the ruling class supports a standard of inclusiveness to ward off the threat of multiculturalism, and if Trump supporters are fighting for the same thing, for the same reason, then why the conflict? And if Trump supporters are merely drawing at shadows, then whence their zealotry? Why are they acting like this is some sort of civilization-defining struggle? What could they possibly want that they don’t already have? Are they actually fighting for nothing?
Yes. That’s exactly it. They are fighting for nothing.
(Christ, this is ponderous even by my standards. Music break.)
We still haven’t quite answered the question of “why Trump?” Again, his angle isn’t actually different from the Republican party line, so it seems like any other candidate should have been able to ride the same wave. I mean, all of them made a big show about being the most opposed to Obama and hating Muslims the most and all the usual garbage. Why the preference for the least competent and most clownish version of the same old thing? At this point, to simply ask the question is to be confronted with the truth, in all its terrible clarity. It is precisely because Trump is a pudgy, bumbling, fraudulent, crude, petty, egotistical know-nothing that he is the only candidate who can carry this torch. Donald Trump is the human personification of mediocrity, and this is the true source of his power.
Recall that Trump supporters like the idea that he’s Big Bobby Businesspants and he’s going to “make deals” and hire “the best people” and so forth. The question, again, is: why is this a difference between Trump and the rest of the Republican clown car? The idea that “government should be run like a business” is among the party’s most tired cliches. Specifically, they just had a candidate who was precisely an empty business suit with magic underwear beneath it: Mitt Romney. And yet Romney is now somehow part of the craven political establishment that Trump voters are telling to take a hike. So: what is the substantive distinction between Business Douche Mitt Romney and Business Turd Donald Trump?9
The difference is just that: one of them is a douche and one of them is a turd.10 Romney presents himself like a professional. He doesn’t look like a hamster wearing a chinchilla suit or talk like an abortive Turing Test attempt. He seems like he might actually know some stuff about business, as opposed to being an expert in bankruptcy, he’s genuinely religious, as opposed to quoting from “Two Corinthians,” and he’s an actual family man, as opposed to . . . well, you know. Romney acts like an actual elite, whereas Trump acts like a hobo’s idea of a rich person.
Pay attention, because this is where it gets important. Certain types of people will look at a dynamic like this and conclude that Trump supporters must be stupid: why else would they support the wrong kind of rich person? Thinking of people you don’t understand as stupid is how you prevent yourself from learning anything. We’re all familiar with Donald Trump the television character, but that’s just it: we’re all familiar with him. No one is confused about who Donald Trump is. Trump supporters are looking at the same person the rest of us are, but they’re judging him by a different standard. So, given that Trump supporters actually like their candidate, what is their standard of judgment? What are the criteria, the values, by which Trump as opposed to Romney is judged to be the right kind of rich person? Trump supporters want him to hold the highest office in the land; they are trying to create a world where Trump is the true definition of an elite. (Continue to take deep breaths.)
Some intriguing evidence here comes from one of Friedersdorf’s correspondents, via an analogy to The Great Gatsby:
“Perhaps Nick Carraway is representative of the disillusioned ‘Silent Majority’ wishing to ‘Make America Great Again.’ Donald Trump personifies a modern-day, extremely brash Jay Gatsby, clawing feverishly for that elusive ‘green light’ at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s beckoning dock. Is it not better to place your chips on hopes and dreams rather than certain nightmares? Those of us who buy into Trump’s vision, nearly to the point of blind trust, are loudly professing our disgust with the current immoral situations that taint and threaten our blueprint of the American dream.”
I trust that you have some initial difficulty understanding how anyone can look to Jay Gatsby as a positive archetype. It is true that, unlike everyone around him, Gatsby actually wants something, but he goes about it in the worst possible way. In blind pursuit of an uninterrogated goal, he embraces everything base and grotesque about his society, squandering his talents and charisma, such that his downfall becomes inevitable. There’s ultimately no possibility that Daisy will accept him, because he has nothing different to offer her. He is merely a less stable instance of the same pile of trash. The whole point of the book is that the standards to which Gatsby acclimates himself are horrible; if he’s the best kind of elite we’ve got, we’re screwed. All of which is to say that the word “great” in the title of The Great Gatsby has a very peculiar meaning – the same meaning that it has in the slogan “make America great again.” It indicates inspired adherence to hidebound goals, the subordination of the flame of life to the dead weight of the past. It is, in other words, not greatness at all. It is mediocrity.
Take special note of the phrase “threaten our blueprint of the American dream” (also go ahead and laugh at “taint” if you need to cheer yourself up). In 2005, in response to a reported design flaw in the original PlayStation Portable hardware, Sony President Ken Kutaragi argued that “nobody would criticize a renowned architect’s blueprint that the position of a gate is wrong.” Obviously, this is absurd; the whole point of being a “renowned architect” is that you don’t get things like this wrong. More significantly, an expert, properly understood, is not someone who simply knows how to do one thing well and doesn’t accept criticism. It is someone with a deep and broad understanding of their discipline, such that they can draw from different traditions and techniques as applicable, in order to meet a variety of standards at once. A true expert must be multicultural.
So if we want to be better at creating a society than Sony is at creating hardware, “threatening the blueprint of the American dream” is exactly what we ought to be doing. Like, this isn’t super hard to understand. America was founded on slavery and genocide. It is not a legacy to uphold; it is a challenge to overcome. America is just a blip on the historical timeline, and even within that blip, what we consider “American values” today would be unrecognizable to the people who founded the country. To embrace the “American dream” as being “good enough” is to embrace mediocrity. To pursue greatness is, instead, to challenge our received values: to strike at the old idols, to destroy the standards that constrain rather than elevate, and to create new, better values.
And this is the exact thing that Trump supporters are afraid of. Remember how the only demographic correlate that explains them is that they’re suicidally desperate white people? What causes desperation? It’s not setbacks or difficulty, it’s when standards change, such that you realize that you have no hope of succeeding, no matter how well you do. These people were born into a world where they were inherently important just because of who they were, and that world is passing them by. The new world will, in fact, be just as bad: the crumbs will simply be portioned out based on utility to capital rather than identity. But when it’s your identity that’s on the chopping block, it’s a little hard to care about getting things right. Much easier, and much more comforting, to simply reassert your initial claim: to reappropriate the concept of greatness for yourself, based on nothing. Who better, then, to represent this ideology than a mediocre white man who thinks he’s better than everyone else? What better enemy than a historically accomplished black person?
Now, obviously, all politicians are mediocrities, it’s the nature of the enterprise, but the thing about Trump’s primary opponents is that they all had something going for them. Bush was the well-bred, establishment-backed dynast, Rubio was the bright young star, and Cruz was the sharp, passionate intellectual (I guess). Rubio in particular is an important point of comparison, because he was the Chosen One, the person who was going to bring balance to the Force save the GOP from itself. He was supposed to have crafted the Great Compromise on immigration, enabling him to ride the wave of accomplishment and Latinx support into higher office. He blew it about as hard as possible, but the point is that he represented a new direction for the party, and this was scary. Not to mention the fact that, you know, he was a Cuban named “Marco Rubio.” What Trump represented that no other candidate did was a steadfast refusal to accommodate to a new future. It is appropriate, then, for the man who represents this to be a gigantic baby, because he actually functions as a security blanket.
While Trump also “has something going for him” – his alleged business acumen – it’s a very particular type of “something.” It doesn’t require him to know anything or have actual skills, he just has to “delegate” and make “judgment calls.” He has to have “leadership,” which is not actually a thing.11 And of course he has to have been born rich, such that being a rich fuck is his identity rather than a contingent result of particular circumstances. It doesn’t even matter if his tax returns come out and he turns out to be broke – he can never not be a rich fuck. Trump is not a Steve Jobs type who is known for his vision and for pushing new ideas. He doesn’t actually advance anything, he just “makes deals.” He defends his sorry escapades in Atlantic City not by pointing to anything he actually accomplished or any lives that he actually made better, but simply by pointing out that, hey, he made out all right. What else is there?
The critical contradiction in the schoolbook version of capitalism is that, on the one hand, the only rule of capitalism is fair exchange: giving equal value for equal value. A worker is supposedly hired at a rate that equals their marginal contribution to production, meaning it should be a wash for the business. A perfectly efficient market is one where nobody makes any profit – but the possibility of profit is the only thing that motivates businesses to exist in the first place. The missing ingredient is exploitation: getting more out of an exchange than you put in. In other words, making a “good deal.” Of course, this is not a hypothetical argument. The fantasy of capitalism is actually true: some people really do get their money for nothing and their chicks for free.
The reason for the popularity of MBAs and management books and soforth is that they promise entry into the fantasy world. The idea that there is such a thing as a “business secret” betrays the fact that there is no real skill involved; it is merely a matter of positioning yourself on the right side of “the deal” (The Secret itself is exactly the same thing). And this, also, is why real estate and stock picking and other forms of capital investment are such hot topics among wannabe business assholes: because they let you make money without actually doing anything. It is this desire that Trump University exploited. If you just learn Trump’s “business secrets,” you too can be a self-important jackass with more money than sense. Per capitalism, business – the “art of the deal” – is actually the art of taking credit for other people’s work.
(Hence it is beyond appropriate that The Art of The Deal itself was 100% ghostwritten. This is what I’m talking about when I say that Trump is the most normal candidate possible: everything about him lines up perfectly. Honesty, the only thing that’s strange is that we didn’t see it coming.)
Some people consider things like skill and wisdom to be beneath them. Not only do they care only about being “in charge” rather than actually being good, they specifically desire arbitrary power. It’s not really power if you have to earn it; authority is necessarily unjustified. The Trump fantasy is about becoming rich and powerful without ever learning anything or developing any skills, and the reason it’s convincing is that Trump is exactly that person. In other words, the fantasy of the business mogul is the same as the fantasy of the white master race, or the fantasy of the masculine genius. It is the fantasy of abstract greatness, untethered from any of the inconveniences of hard work or introspection or compromise or doubt. Rather than having the capability of greatness, you simply are great, just because, and you can just sit there feeling great without actually doing anything. It is about being someone great rather than actually doing something great.
If Trump’s appeal is his self-presentation as a great businessman, then the specifics of his business practices – the nature of his “greatness” – is the critical point. Liberals have attempted to exploit this by pointing out that Trump isn’t actually any good at business, but this argument falls to one of the most basic rejoinders: if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich? The fact is, entirely apart from any practical assessment of what he’s done with his life, Trump lives like a successful business mogul, and for his supporters, that is the entire game. It is, in fact, better for them that Trump has gotten where he is without ever actually accomplishing anything, because that just makes him more of a winner. The truth is that Trump’s mediocrity is not a liability that must be covered by a con; it is an asset – it is his only asset. People support Trump precisely because he is a mediocre businessman.
Another way of saying this is that Trump is a mansplainer. The salient aspect of his much-parodied speaking style is that he talks as though everything he can think of to say is meaningful simply because he’s the one thinking it and saying it. More notable than anything that he actually says is the fact that he just keeps talking. He has to be sure that everyone knows his dumbass opinions about every single thing that happens (hence also his identification with Twitter). The core element of mansplaining12 is believing that you know better than someone else just because of who you are, and who they are. If you try to interrogate the situation to determine who knows what, you run the risk of exposing yourself as ignorant, having your preconceptions shattered, and losing your glib self-assurance. In order to maintain your own sense of importance, you lock yourself in your own perspective, and talk over anything that might refute you. Rather than trying for greatness, you settle for mediocrity, and then just mouth off as though there were no discussion to be had. This is exactly what Trump does, every second of every day. He obviously knows nothing about anything, but he thinks he does, just because he’s a rich white man. His own perspective is the only one he sees any value in considering. It doesn’t matter how long the generals have been fighting ISIS, or what the demographic and economic indicators say about immigration, or what the actual crime statistics are. They can’t possibly tell him anything he hasn’t already figured out, because if they could, that would mean that he’s not special. He’s just some guy. And it is because he is not actually good at anything real that he has no option other than to embrace every practice designed to make useless white men feel better about themselves. Trump is every oppressive social schema crammed together into an approximation of a human being; he is the anthropomorphic personification of unearned and unjustified advantage, and people support him because they want to maintain those advantages for themselves. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that what Trump is doing could never come close to working for anyone other than a white man, right? That even a milquetoast centrist like Hillary Clinton has to constantly walk on eggshells to cover for literally the one thing that differentiates her from any other central-casting political operative?
This is also the significance of Trump’s beyond-parody aesthetics: he’s too good to have good taste. Good taste requires learning about things and placing them in context and exercising restraint and taking other people’s subjectivity into account. All that shit is for poor people. What’s the stuff that only rich people can afford? Gold. Marble. Tall buildings. Whatever, just cram it all together and put my name on it so everyone knows I have more money than them. Oh, you think it’s tacky and stupid and wasteful? Fuck you, I’m going to make it ten feet taller and slap another coat of gold paint on it.
In the same sense, this is why, for some people, a burlap mannequin like Trump is actually appealing as a person. His personal shoddiness proves that you can be a big fancy rich asshole without actually having to make the effort to be any kind of worthwhile person. You don’t actually have to bother trying or looking halfway presentable, as long as you’re the right kind of person. Trump’s “authenticity” has nothing to do with whether he’s sincere or truthful; it’s that no amount of money can disguise the fact that he is a true schlub.
You may be thinking that all of this sounds like the opposite of Trump’s promise to “make America great again,” but remember what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the feeling of greatness minus the substance. The key word is not “great,” but “again.” Hence the advocacy of simplistic nationalism in response to globalization. Hence unjustified confidence and bluster as a response to the hollowness of standard political discourse. Hence, especially, The Wall, which represents escaping from all problems by simply shutting out the rest of the world, responding to the fear of the monster in your closet by hiding under the covers. The slogan would be better rendered as “make Americans feel like precious little angels again.”
All the statistical details about how immigration affects the economy are entirely beside the point. What immigration means is change: it means that the country is going to become something different than what it is right now. The ideal of inclusiveness – of “melting pot culture” – is a safeguard against this. It’s okay for lots of different types of people to come here, as long as they play by our rules, as long as they do their part to keep our country the way we want it, as long as they don’t do upsetting things like speaking Spanish in public or wearing burkas to the beach. People seemed to get a little bit confused when Trump referred to himself as “Mr. Brexit,” but whether he actually had any idea what he was talking about or not,13 he was exactly right. Brexit represents exactly the same thing as The Wall: responding to the big scary outside world by shutting your eyes and plugging your ears.
It is a necessary aspect of greatness that you can’t get it back – it is something that flares up and then burns out. This is the danger that’s always present in “comebacks” from great artists. They’re exciting because they offer the promise of the same original inspiration channeled through improved skills and experience, but that can’t actually happen. They’ll either be trying to do the same thing they did before, in which case it will necessarily manifest itself as a pale imitation, or they’ll do something different, in which case it might actually be great, but it won’t be the same greatness. The recent Stooges album (yes, there was one; no, you don’t need to know anything about it) was completely pointless, because the Stooges can’t exist in the current situation, even when they are the actual Stooges themselves. Whereas Sleater-Kinney’s recent album (which wasn’t really a comeback, but close enough) is actually great, because, as they always do, they did something different. It’s not another album from a ’90s band, it’s a new response to a new situation. What Trump supporters are opposed to is doing something – anything – different.
And since this is what we’re actually talking about when we talk about “traditional American values,” this isn’t some new thing that’s happening just now. We’ve been slowly drowning in it for a very long time. Consider the commonplace idea that “real Americans” are “salt-of-the-earth types” who believe in “traditional values.” Even ignoring how much bullshit this is and taking it on its own terms, isn’t this a completely lousy ideal? It’s an attack against any kind of self-improvement at all; not merely acceptance of current circumstances, but active embrace of the idea that one ought not do any better then one is already doing. It is love of mediocrity.
It’s been noted that Trump is the least plausible candidate to garner evangelical support, ever (especially since Clinton appears to have sincere religious beliefs that she doesn’t go around throwing in people’s faces), but this assumes that evangelicals adhere to the commonly-portrayed peace-and-love fairydust version of Christianity. They don’t. That is not their actual religion. In truth, Trump is a devout believer in exactly the same faith as evangelical Christians. You may have heard recently about something called the “prosperity gospel,” which is essentially bizarro Calvinism. The world is divided up into the “saved” and the “damned” (a.k.a. “winners” and “losers”), but what separates them is not divine predestination, and it’s also not faith or good works. It’s just money. But money by itself is an empty heuristic, and the prosperity gospel mostly appeals to poor people. So it’s not about being rewarded for hard work or anything like that. It’s just about showing up and deciding that you’re going to be one of the “saved.” It is, again, exactly the same appeal as that of The Secret, and of Trump University.
In other words, “positive thinking” is an alternative means of support for the belief that you’re special just because of who you are. And for people with that belief, the fact that the world is simply too complex for any one person to understand is unacceptable. If understanding the world requires keeping an open mind and listening to lots of people with different backgrounds and perspectives, this necessarily compels the conclusion that white people, and men, and you, are not special.14 Each person simply has one perspective among many.
The psychological aspect of white supremacy is the belief that a mediocre white person deserves more than an accomplished black person, a.k.a. Abigail Fisher Syndrome. When Abigail Fisher doesn’t get into UT Austin because she’s a mediocre student, she doesn’t take advantage of the transfer program and resolve to work harder. That would be admitting that she wasn’t good enough; she doesn’t actually want to go to Austin, she wants to be thetype of person who gets in to Austin. That’s why she has to argue that she deserved it in the first place. She can’t just live her own life, she has to make a federal case out of it. Trump becoming president would prove that white male privilege trumps everything else, and that is what his supporters are voting for.
If white people really were superior, there would be no need for white supremacy. This has always been the central contradiction in oppressive discourse: it tries to portray the oppressed group as both hopelessly inferior and overwhelmingly dangerous at the same time. If black people are simply criminal thugs, how are they capable of destabilizing a well-designed society? If women are fundamentally unserious, then why do they have to be bullied out of public spaces? The truth is that oppressed groups really are a threat to polite society, for the precise reason that polite society sucks.
So when your John Oliver types try to argue that Trump is not actually a winner, but is in fact a loser, they are entirely missing the point. Trump is evidently on top of the world; he has won. So the only coherent response here is to argue that Trump has won at a bad game – but that game is American society itself. Again, regardless of how much of a fraud Trump is, he actually is a rich fuck. Our society has decided, implicitly, to value his contributions at an extremely high level. If this was a bad decision, then the aspects of our society that enabled it have to be destroyed. There is no other way to prevent the next Donald Trump from arising. Trumpism actually does represent the limitations of American politics, not because it is an “aberration” that has “broken” the system, but because it is the complete fulfillment of our current discursive structure. To counter it with “normalcy” is to ensure its survival. To respond to the specific immorality and incompetence of Trump himself by clinging to “American values” is to accept a state of permanent Trumpism. I mean, if Trump himself is the problem, then an honest, even-tempered, respectful candidate who advocated the same policies would be perfectly acceptable. Right? Actually, the inverse case is far more apropos: a candidate who was just as much of a ridiculous jackass but who actually advocated good policies would be someone we would be right to support, even though we would have to fight the New York Times in order to do it.
What the Trump campaign truly represents, then, is the retrenchment of mediocrity against the threat of greatness. This, finally, is the real danger, the worm gnawing at the roots of the human project. If mediocrity means accepting what we’ve already got as being “good enough,” then it is a natural fact that mediocrity rules. Once achieved, goals become crutches; once instantiated, vision becomes constraint. As soon as you settle, you’re dead. Which is why fighting for the absolute validity of any one standard is ultimately the same as fighting for nothing. If you win, you will accomplish only the destruction of your sole defense against the inexorable march of time, which is guaranteed to leave you bleached in the desert alongside Ozymandias.
This dynamic was well understood by mediocrity’s most implacable foe: Friedrich Nietzsche. First, because this is just completely amazing, here is Nietzsche’s commentary on our current situation:
“We ‘good Europeans’ – we, too, know hours when we permit ourselves some hearty fatherlandishness, a plop and relapse into old loves and narrownesses – I have just given a sample of that [ed: Nietzsche is referring to his own feelings about Richard Wagner] – hours of national agitations, patriotic palpitations, and various other sorts of archaizing sentimental inundations. More ponderous spirits than we are may require more time to get over what with us takes only hours and in a few hours has run its course: some require half a year, others half a life, depending on the speed and power of their digestion and metabolism. Indeed, I could imagine dull and sluggish races who would require half a century even in our rapidly moving Europe to overcome such atavistic attacks of fatherlandishness and soil addiction and to return to reason, meaning ‘good Europeanism.’
As I am digressing to this possibility, it so happens that I become an ear-witness of a conversation between two old ‘patriots’: apparently both were hard of hearing and therefore spoke that much louder.
‘He thinks and knows as much of philosophy as a peasant or a fraternity student,’ said one; ‘he is still innocent. But what does it matter today? This is the age of the masses: they grovel on their bellies before anything massive. In politicis, too. A statesman who piles up for them another tower of Babel, a monster of empire and power, they call ‘great’; what does it matter that we, more cautious and reserved, do not yet abandon the old faith that only a great thought can give a deed or cause greatness. Suppose a statesman put his people in a position requiring them to go in for ‘great politics’ from now on, though they were ill-disposed for that by nature and ill-prepared as well, so that they would find it necessary to sacrifice their old and secure virtues for the sake of a novel and dubious mediocrity – suppose a statesman actually condemned his people to ‘politicking’ although so far they had better things to do and think about, and deep down in their souls they had not got rid of a cautious disgust with the restlessness, emptiness, and noisy quarrelsomeness of peoples that really go in for politicking – suppose such a statesman goaded the slumbering passions and lusts of his people, turning their diffidence and delight in standing aside into a blot, their cosmopolitan and secret infinity into a serious wrong, devaluating their most cordial inclinations, inverting their conscience, making their spirit narrow, their taste ‘national’ – what! a statesman who did all this, for whom his people would have to atone for all future time, if they have any future, such a statesman should be great?’
‘Without a doubt!’ the other patriot replied vehemently; ‘otherwise he would not have been able to do it. Perhaps it was insane to want such a thing? But perhaps everything great was merely insane when it started.’
‘An abuse of words!’ his partner shouted back; ‘strong! Strong and insane! Not great!’
The old men had obviously become heated as they thus flung their truths into each other’s faces; but I, in my happiness and beyond, considered how soon one stronger will become master over the strong; also that for the spiritual flattening of a people there is a compensation, namely the deepening of another people.”
Returning to business, and sparing you the disquisition on how thoroughly Nietzsche has been misrepresented on this point, the relevant argument is as follows:
“In an age of disintegration that mixes races indiscriminately, human beings have in their bodies the heritage of multiple origins, that is, opposite, and often not merely opposite, drives and value standards that fight each other and rarely permit each other any rest. Such human beings of late cultures and refracted lights will on the average be weaker human beings: their most profound desire is that the war that they are should come to an end. Happiness appears to them, in agreement with a tranquilizing (for example, Epicurean or Christian) medicine and way of thought, pre-eminently as the happiness of resting, of not being disturbed, of satiety, of finally attained unity, as a “sabbath of sabbaths,” to speak with the holy rhetorician Augustine who was himself such a human being.
But when the opposition and war in such a nature have the effect of one more charm and incentive of life – and if, moreover, in addition to his powerful and irreconcilable drives, a real mastery and subtlety in waging war against oneself, in other words, self-control, self-outwitting, has been inherited or cultivated, too – then those magical, incomprehensible, and unfathomable ones arise, those enigmatic men predestined for victory and seduction, whose most beautiful expression is found in Alcibiades and Caesar (to whose company I should like to add that first European after my taste, the Hohenstaufen Frederick II), and among artists perhaps Leonardo da Vinci. They appear in precisely the same ages when that weaker type with its desire for rest comes to the fore: both types belong together and owe their origin to the same causes.”
The narrowness of a single set of unquestioned values, as seen most prominently in nationalism, is a source of power, but also a fatal restriction. It offers an easily-understood goal to aim for, at the cost of being completely unable to operate outside of the context of that one goal. When one gains the “historical sense” of other cultures and value systems, one comes to understand one’s own values as transient, contingent, and even accidental, and one is inflicted with doubt. It becomes impossible to advance once you start thinking that every step you take might be in the wrong direction. This is the threat of multiculturalism – it is what the ranters against “postmodern political correctness” are actually afraid of. Recall that the argument is often along the lines of “things are changing too fast” and “it’s impossible to keep up with all the new terminology” and “you can never know what the right thing to say is.” This is exactly what we’re talking about: people don’t know how to deal with clashing standards.
Naturally, then, there are two possible responses. One is simply to reject doubt – to build a wall against the influences of other cultures. This allows you to “go back” to advancing in the way you were before, but only in the sense of mere denial. You already know that your teleology is phantasmic, so all you’re really doing is going to sleep. The other option is to embrace danger, to harness the conflict within yourself and start moving, even in uncertainty, even knowing that your pursuit may soon reveal itself as quixotic. Indeed, one may even value this danger itself, accepting that the struggle to determine how to advance is part of what advancement itself actually is.
We are, of course, living in an “age of disintegration” with far more “mixing” going on than Nietzsche could ever have anticipated, and the primary response to this has been cowardice. There’s too much noise, too much tension, and all anybody wants is for it all to go away. We want things to “make sense” again. And while it actually is legitimately scary, this is still a better situation than any possible alternative, because it means that we have a chance. We are not obligated to retreat; we can accept the terms of the battle against ourselves, and we can fight. This is our opportunity to turn our gaze towards actual greatness.
The catch is that it doesn’t come lightly; in fact, everything is organized against it. The revolt of mediocrity is not just expected, it’s built in to the basic structure of how the world works. As Nietzsche points out, morality aside, Social Darwinism doesn’t actually happen. Greatness is not the natural result of an optimization process – any optimization process. It can’t be, for the very reasons we’ve just discussed. On the contrary, all roads lead to mediocrity:
“As for the famous ‘struggle for existence,’ so far it seems to me to be asserted rather than proved. It occurs, but as an exception; the total appearance of life is not the extremity, not starvation, but rather riches, profusion, even absurd squandering – and where there is struggle, it is a struggle for power. One should not mistake Malthus for nature.
Assuming, however, that there is such a struggle for existence – and, indeed, it occurs – its result is unfortunately the opposite of what Darwin’s school desires, and of what one might perhaps desire with them – namely, in favor of the strong, the privileged, the fortunate exceptions. The species do not grow in perfection: the weak prevail over the strong again and again, for they are the great majority – and they are also more intelligent. Darwin forgot the spirit (that is English!); the weak have more spirit. One must need spirit to acquire spirit; one loses it when one no longer needs it. Whoever has strength dispenses with the spirit (‘Let it go!’ they think in German today; ‘the Reich must still remain to us.’). It will be noted that by ‘spirit’ I mean care, patience, cunning, simulation, great self-control, and everything that is mimicry (the latter includes a great deal of so-called virtue).”
“Survival of the fittest” is a somewhat inaccurate term. “Fittest” connotes “strongest” – that is, “greatest” – but what it actually means is “best adapted,” which means it is a quality that is not just contingent on but entirely defined by its environment. Certainly, nothing can be said to be “great” which only applies to one tiny set of arbitrary conditions. In the context of evolution, anything more than what is required for survival and reproduction is a waste of energy. Hence, cavefish evolve to lose their sight – to become weaker and less capable, simply because such capabilities are not required of them. With no adaptive pressure, capabilities above and beyond what is immediately required never evolve – no animal ever becomes any better than it absolutely has to be. Naturally, this trend reaches its zenith in the human body, an absurd tangle of vulnerabilities that barely performs its one function of supporting a bloated mutant brain. In short, evolution does not tend towards greatness; it tends towards mediocrity.
Social evolution works in exactly the same way. From a functional perspective, the most successful people are, in fact, people like Trump: those who do exactly what is required to accumulate resources under the current set of rules, and who don’t waste their time with anything extraneous like imagination or taste or morality. The “starving artist” is a somewhat inaccurate stereotype – people who are genuinely good at something tend to be at least somewhat successful – but it remains the case that the people at the top are generally not the best, but the most broadly palatable – the people with the fewest complications and the simplest focus.
Nietzsche’s counterideal to the rising nationalism of his own time was the “Good European”: one with expansive values and broad allegiances, who undertook the difficult task of loving “the farthest” rather than settling for the easy comfort of merely loving their neighbors. Just so, our present task is to reject the simplistic, small-minded ideals of Americanism, understand ourselves as citizens of humanity, and act accordingly.
I mean, globalization is really a good thing, right? It’s kind of hard to keep this in mind under the current circumstances, but increased cultural exchange and productive efficiency really are beneficial. They make people’s lives better. That’s not where the problem is, and even if it was, the clock’s not going to turn back. The only way to go is forward. We have no other option than to make this work, and a return to an imaginary past – whether the blind conformity of the pretend ’50s or the blithe complacency of the pretend ’90s – is not going to work. We require a different future.
And just so no one gets any silly ideas, the Democrats are not capable of resolving this. They are also the problem. Supporting a candidate based on “competence” and “qualifications” is also active embrace of mediocrity and a retreat into the past – as is claiming that “America is already great.” Hillary Clinton is the candidate of the neoliberal consensus, the goal of which is precisely to establish a fully inclusive system of global exploitation. At this point, that may be the preferable alternative, but it’s still evil. And as the evil that’s actually going to happen, it demands our opposition. To defeat Trumpism via Clintonism is to win the battle and lose the war.
It is no accident that The Wall has become the synecdoche for this entire campaign. It is, of course, the perfect representation of Trump himself: as dull as it is senseless, impressive only in what an absolute waste of space and resources it is. But it is also the prefect representation of the ideology that informs his support. It is something understandable that doesn’t actually make sense. It is the simplest, easiest response to the new problems of a complicated world. It is something that looks big and impressive, but is in fact pathetically small-minded. It is a toddler’s idea of greatness. Look what I built, Mommy. Look how big it is. Aren’t I special? Did I do a good job, Daddy? I did it all by myself; you don’t have to bail me out this time. Are you proud of me? Do you love me now, Daddy?
The Democrats have exploited this metaphor in their amicable, self-serving way, promising instead to “build bridges.” But of course this is no solution; the point is precisely that all those bridges lead to the same place – while leaving the existing walls intact. Because The Wall is not actually something new that is going to be built “over there”; it is something that exists directly in front of each of us. There are walls going around us and through us; they divide our homes and criss-cross our streets; they direct our movements, curtail our futures, and overshadow our thoughts. The job of politics is to decide where to build walls, and the task of liberation is to advance the negative response to this question.
Which is why, despite everything, we’re actually not screwed. Quite the contrary: this is a fight we can never truly lose, because the existence of the struggle itself is already victory. Mediocrity rules, but desire burns. You can quell the voice of doubt in your head down to a whisper, but you can’t silence it. It’s still there, waiting for the still of night to rise up again, to get its claws back in you.
Ultimately, Trump is not the enemy. He is merely the shadow cast by our society, something that has to exist given the way things are right now. He really is just some guy. I’m pretty sure everyone realizes that it’s impossible to avoid picking a side at this point – not that it was ever possible before. But there are more than two sides to each story. It’s not enough to merely be opposed to the worst possible thing. You have to look underneath the speeches and the processions, feel the blood pulsing through the hidden veins of the world, identify the real fault lines, and strike. This is how to tear the walls down.
Not to mention that substituting personality for politics, complete with the culmination of soundbytifying the whole thing into a goofy nickname, is Trump’s exact strategy. Abyss/monsters/etc. ↩
Somebody please come up with a better way to do this. ↩
This is actually pretty funny: the anti-PC argument is that PC types are “relativists” for whom “anything goes,” while simultaneously being uncompromising tyrants who insist on one exacting standard of behavior. ↩
These alternatives are typically conflated via the absolutely meaningless umbrella term “diversity,” which is why we have to go through all of this. ↩
By the way, multiculturalism is not going to be the “end of history” or anything. There will still be a ways to go from there – or, rather, multiple different wayses to go. For one thing, we can question the idea of having standards at all. As Marx said, even true liberation will not be the end of history, but rather the end of “pre-history,” i.e. the beginning. ↩
This is what the term “white feminism” refers to in this context: inclusive but not multicultural feminism. ↩
And this is only a paradox for people who claim they’re opposing the “restrictiveness” of political correctness, because words actually do matter. Not in the Sapir-Whorfian sense that they control what we’re allowed to think, but in the Wittgensteinian sense that they represent collective agreement. ↩
Holy Hera I hate this post. What am I doing with my life. ↩
This is the fatal contradiction in egoism, by the way. If the self is all that matters, then no one can ever have any claims on anyone else, meaning that the self doesn’t matter. In order to argue that, for example, men’s opinions matter more than women’s, you need patriarchy to exist as an external structure that can be appealed to for judgment. Without anything external, you can’t make any claims at all. Egoism is a spook. ↩
I’m reading The Ethics of Ambiguity, which I probably should have done a while ago and which you should probably do at your earliest convenience. Despite the moderate philosophical jargon and the frequent references to Hegel, it’s really very practical. I don’t really see it cited much as a big important philosophy book, which I’m sure has nothing to do with the fact that it was written by a woman. Actually, the fact that philosophy has one of the biggest gender gaps out of anything really gives the lie to the whole story about men being good at numbers and women being good at words. The truth, obviously, is that men bully women out of any field they consider to be prestigious or important, or that is high-paying.
Anyway, I ran into some stuff that I thought was awfully relevant to certain modern-day issues. One of the things that’s become increasingly apparent via the internet is the fact that a lot of specialists are complete morons about anything outside of their specialty. As the saying goes, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. Now that we’ve got Twitter giving people like Richard Dawkins the opportunity to mouth off about anything whenever they feel like it, doubt is increasingly being removed.
But the actual issue here isn’t new, as evidenced by the fact that de Beauvoir totally nails it:
“Almost all serious men cultivate an expedient levity; we are familiar with the genuine gaiety of the Catholics, the fascist ‘sense of humor.’ There are also some who do not even feel the need for such a weapon. They hide from themselves the incoherence of their choice by taking flight. As soon as the Idol is no longer concerned, the serious man slips into the attitude of the sub-man. He keeps himself from existing because he is not capable of existing without a guarantee. Proust observed with astonishment that a great doctor or a great professor often shows himself, outside of his specialty, to be lacking in sensitivity, intelligence, and humanity. The reason for this is that having abdicated his freedom, he has nothing else left but his techniques. In domains where his techniques are not applicable, he either adheres to the most ordinary of values or fulfills himself in a flight. The serious man stubbornly engulfs his transcendence in the object which bars the horizon and bolts the sky. The rest of the world is a faceless desert.”
The fact that a specialist tends to rely on techniques which are not universally applicable is pretty straightforward. The insight here is how this error manifests itself. One option is as a “flight,” meaning a retreat from significance via dismissal. Anything to which the specialist’s techniques do not apply must by that very fact be meaningless. This is the most obvious problem with the New Atheists (or whatever we’re calling them now): anything which doesn’t fit into their schema is a “myth,” something that people should just get rid of. It’s even more obvious when it comes to science fetishists, who put the cart entirely before the horse: rather than defining science as the domain of the measurable, they wholly reject anything that isn’t measurable so as to be able to define science as everything.
This is also where the “fascist sense of humor” comes in: it makes it easier to dismiss things. Internet atheists have a constant boner for making fun of how dumb those silly fundamentalists are with their silly stories about angels and demons and their silly preoccupations with virginity and swear words, which conveniently keeps them from considering that maybe these things aren’t what religion is mostly about, that maybe in their blithe dismissal they’re actually missing something important. On the other hand, they’ll completely flip their shit on you if you point out that assuming your own position as the default and requiring people to argue you out of it is a fucking stupid way to communicate.
The second option is even more intriguing: outside of their specialty, specialists tend to revert to conventional values. Why should this be so? Any specialist is aware that the common understanding of their own discipline is usually oversimplified and often completely backwards. Dawkins, for example, could probably say quite a bit about the common understanding of evolution. Shouldn’t one be able to relate this same insight, that greater understanding often leads to a fundamental reassessment, to disciplines other than one’s own? Many find it odd when someone like Dawkins rejects the traditional superstitions of religion only to fall back on the traditional superstitions of white supremacy, or rejects the divine guidance of god only to fall back on the faux-divine guidance of Western imperialism.
But in fact, this is to be expected. Acknowledging the inapplicability of one’s expertise requires confronting the enormity of one’s limits as a finite human being. Someone who devotes their life to mastery of the scientific method must accept that, because of this devotion, there are things that they can never know. The temptation to overapply one’s techniques originates from the fear that the only alternative is nothing. But since these techniques aren’t actually applicable to everything, they don’t actually work. You actually can’t use science to learn about politics. The specialist is thus in a position where they must have an insightful perspective on some topic, but can’t actually develop one. Hence, conventional wisdom dressed up as contrarianism.
Speaking of contrarianism, de Beauvoir follows this attitude through to one of its natural developments:
“Nihilism is disappointed seriousness which has turned back upon itself. A choice of this kind is not encountered among those who, feeling the joy of existence, assume its gratuity. It appears either at the moment of adolescence, when the individual, seeing his child’s universe flow away, feels the lack which is in his heart, or, later on, when the attempts to fulfill himself as a being have failed; in any case, among men who wish to rid themselves of the anxiety of their freedom by rejecting the world and themselves.”
This not only explains the annoying phenomenon of teen contrarianism, but why this phenomenon is concentrated among the privileged. Naively, one might assume that the least oppressed people in a society, the people with the fewest obstacles and the greatest opportunities, would consequently be the least nihilistic. The problem is that a person who can choose to assume any burden tends thus to be “serious” in de Beauvoir’s sense of the term. A person – a white male – who canalready do as he likes, who can freely choose to be a family man or a businessman or anarchist, evaluates each of these goals on their own merits, and finds them all wanting. Of course he does, because no real-world goal actually means anything by itself.
(Writing persona pro tip: de Beauvoir uses “man” and “he” as general referents for “person” because of language and the past and so forth. When I say “he,” it’s because I mean “he.”)
Meaning is found not in goals themselves, but in the transcending of limits. Black people tend to have stronger family ties than white people, not despite but because they live in a society that is actively trying to destroy them. Women pursue professional achievement because they live in a society that tells them the realm of business belongs to men. Gay people fight for marriage rights because they live in a society that devalues their relationships. This is why nihilism tends to manifest itself as a philosophical luxury. Not because it is luxurious, but because it and luxury share a natural habitat: the world without struggle.
But of course there is no such thing as “practical” nihilism, since you have to do something, so the teen contrarian makes the same move as the specialist: adopting conventional values, but dressing them up as iconoclasm. This is most obvious in the common case of Randianism (which, as Hamlet would say, really is common). It presents itself as a great individualist revelation, but in practice it pretty much just means letting capitalism do whatever it wants.
And it’s also the case for poor old Nietzsche, who, despite his best efforts, wound up as the preeminent representative of precisely this sort of banal contrarianism. When Nietzsche railed against “slave morality,” the morality of amelioration rather than achievement, he was talking about historical events that led to a particular mode of thought. He was not dumb enough to believe that the ruling class of his day was actually concerned with making everyone’s lives more comfortable.
But we can see why this misinterpretation is useful to the teen contrarian. If you believe that the problem is that society is “too accommodating,” it gives you something to oppose while doing exactly what the ruling class wants you to do: ignoring morality. It allows you to extract the sense of meaningfulness out of the concept of struggle without the inconvenience of actually challenging yourself. This is all especially sad when you consider that Nietzsche’s philosophy is basically an instruction manual on How to Be a Great Artist, but it winds up being used to support an utter dearth of creativity.
If you frequent some of the internet’s more desperate quarters, you may have encountered people claiming in all seriousness that nowadays white men are oppressed while everyone else has all the advantages. Same deal. Blaming women and minorities for stealing all your advantages seems iconoclastic now that society has accepted the validity of identity-based arguments. But the ancient pattern hasn’t changed: attacking the less advantaged instead of fighting to better yourself and your circumstances is still what society actually wants you to do, so you get to take a stroll down Easy Street while imagining that you’re running a gauntlet. As an added bonus, conceiving of yourself as oppressed in a philosophical sense without actually running into any practical obstacles allows you to maintain a permanent sense of self-serving victimization. If this isn’t the case, if you really are free, then all your failures are all your fault.
And that’s how 70-year-old philosophy explains the internet. The broader point is that theory matters. If you try to react to every dumb thing that happens individually, you’re going to be here all day. A good framework allows you to chart your own course.
As I recall, the first time I encountered David Foster Wallace’s work was the cruise ship essay. This seems to be a common starting point; it’s certainly one of his more accessible and funnier pieces. For me, though, it had a certain personal significance. I had recently been on a cruise myself (not of my own volition), and my precise feelings about the experience were: never again. It was terribly gratifying to find someone who was not only taking an axe to one of society’s more ridiculous holy grails, but was doing so in a way that was both comprehensively intelligent and appealingly human.
I think this explains a lot of DFW’s appeal. Most of us are deeply uncomfortable with various aspects of our absurd society, but since most of these things are taken for granted, we can rarely express our feelings in a way that’s understandable to other people. In Wallace, we found someone who not only felt the same way, but was sharp and observant enough to express those feelings in a way that really brought the issues to life. It’s not hard to see why people yearn for a sort of intellectual-yet-human role model to help us navigate a confusing world. As it turns out, though, that person didn’t exist. We had to invent him.
I consider it a bit of a personal failing that it took me so long to figure out what Wallace’s problem was. Naturally, this would have been a lot more useful back when his mythologization was still a work-in-progress rather than a fait accompli. The truth is, I was so excited to find someone who seemed to be speaking to my concerns in an intelligent way that I failed to listen to my own feelings. The way that Wallace felt about his cruise was actually not at all the way that I felt about mine. The beginning was the end.
For Wallace, the problem with cruises is that they’re too good. Contrary to the typical American view of luxury being the goal of life, Wallace considers the experience of luxury to be an insidious form of nihilism – he pointedly highlights the cruise’s promise that patrons will finally be able to do “Absolutely Nothing.” If the struggle to manage and fulfill one’s desires is what constitutes the actual experience of life, then a situation in which all of one’s desires are met automatically without even any thought being involved is basically the same as having no desires, which is basically the same as not existing (if this is all sounding a bit Nietzschean, you’re going to have to hold your horses).
The basic problem with this is pretty obvious: not only are cruises not “too good,” they aren’t even good. Cruises suck. In addition to the fact that a cruise ship is basically just a crowded, extra-nausea-inducing hotel and the fact that the “entertainment” is all pathetic summer-camp-for-adults garbage, a cruise experience is fundamentally unenjoyable due to the way it smacks you in the face with its own exploitative nature. Maybe I’m a freak, but I don’t find the experience of being waited on to be any fun, particularly when it manifests itself as an army of servile brown people standing around every corner, sporting plastered-on smiles while waiting on pins and needles for the chance to be ordered around by some pompous Hawaiian-shirt-wearing tourist jackass.
The same effect is in play once the ship reaches one of its Remote Island Destinations. You get funneled off the ship directly into a ersatz strip mall full of chintzy tourist trash. The fact that this setup is so wildly incongruous with its location makes unavoidable the realization that it is there because of you, that the money you paid for the cruise is funding exploitation, that your presence on the island is white supremacy in action. The usual way to understand cruising is that it’s the closest middle-class people can get to being upper-class, but it’s actually more like the closest that alienated office workers can get to being imperialists.
In his typically annoying way, Wallace makes an incisive observation about this while also completely dismissing its importance:
“the ethnic makeup of the Nadir‘s crew is a melting-pot melange . . . it at first seems like there’s some basic Eurocentric caste system in force: waiters, bus-boys, beverage waitresses, sommeliers, casino dealers, entertainers and stewards seem mostly to be Aryans, while the porters and custodians and swabbies tend to be your swarthier types – Arabs and Filipinos, Cubans, West Indian blacks. But it turns out to be more complex than that”
no it doesn’t shut up stop talking. Christ. Racism is not a god damn intellectual puzzle for smart white people to thoughtfully pore over. It’s physical oppression, and you’d think that experiencing it in such close quarters would make that obvious. It did for me, anyway. Contra Wallace, the cruise experience did not make me feel pampered. It made me feel like I was on a plantation.
The reason it’s so difficult to figure out where DFW stands is that he pretty much never puts his foot down. He always leaves himself an out. For example, in an earlier post I accused him of advocating for a “kinder, gentler” ruling class. Not only does Wallace preemptively head off this accusation, he uses the exact same reference:
“Besides, the rise of Reagan/Bush/Gingrich showed that hypocritical nostalgia for a kinder, gentler, more Christian pseudo-past is no less susceptible to manipulation in the interests of corporate commercialism and PR image. Most of us will still take nihilism over neanderthalism.”
This is part of the argument in “E Unibus Plurum,” and he has to say this here because his anti-irony conclusion seems to lead pretty obviously to a re-adoption of traditional values. But note that this is not actually an argument, because Wallace obviously does not “take nihilism.” So, is Wallace merely talking about appearances, saying that the Reagan option would be appealing if it were presented better? Or is this rejection based on principles, and in favor of a third option? Given the essay’s conclusion, isn’t an accusation of “neanderthalism” precisely the sort of “risk” we might expect an “anti-rebel” to take? Meaning Wallace actually is in favor of this? He doesn’t say. All he does here is merely defend himself against the expected charge of political conservativism.
So, what I want to say now is that Wallace was “impossible to pin down,” but guess what:
“And make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down.”
Emphasis Wallace’s. Implying of course that Wallace himself is against this position and therefore can be pinned down. At this point, what I’m interested in is why Wallace constantly argues in this manner. Because these aren’t flukes: this sort of automatic backpedaling is an intrinsic part of his M.O., to the extent that it often occurs in the space of a single argument.
For example, part of “E Unibus Plurum” is devoted to debunking a utopian argument that asserts that improvements in technology will resolve the social problems with TV and turn it into a vector for liberation. It’s a transparently silly argument, and Wallace gives it the usual treatment. But then he produces the following paragraph:
“Oh God, I’ve just reread my criticisms of Gilder. That he is naive. That he is an ill-disguised apologist for corporate self-interest. That his book has commercials. That beneath its futuristic novelty it’s just the same old American same-old that got us into this televisual mess. That Gilder vastly underestimates the intractability of the mess. Its hopelessness. Our gullibility, fatigue, disgust. My attitude, reading Gilder, has been sardonic, aloof, depressed. I have tried to make his book look ridiculous (which it is, but still). My reading of Gilder is televisual. I am in the aura.”
Set aside whatever counterarguments you may be considering, and instead ask yourself: why did Wallace write this paragraph? If he actually thought this was a valid criticism of his argument, one expects that he would have, you know, fixed his argument before publishing it. It can only be that Wallace felt that he had to make his argument the way he did, and then do the best he could to do stifle the “televisual” aspect of it with this disclaimer. But that’s obviously wrong; it was obviously within his abilities to have made a straightforward factual argument without ridiculing his target. Rather, then, this paragraph exists because Wallace wants to believe that this is the only possible way of doing things, that he can’t escape “the aura.”
This same dynamic occurs even more provocatively in Wallace’s essay on Dostoevsky. The theme of this essay is that Dostoevsky is an important role model for modern Americans due to the fact that his work is both highly artistic and deeply moral. Naturally, this argument is part of Wallace’s overall claim that we’re “too ironic” nowadays and we don’t know how to be “sincere” anymore.
It is in this context that Wallace writes the following:
“Frank’s bio prompts us to ask ourselves why we seem to require of our art an ironic distance from deep convictions or desperate questions, so that contemporary writers have to either make jokes of them or else try to work them in under cover of some formal trick like intertextual quotation or incongruous juxtaposition, sticking the really urgent stuff inside asterisks as part of some multivalent defamiliarization-flourish or some such shit.”
That bit about the asterisks refers to this essay itself, throughout which Wallace interpolates Big Moral Questions in a manner like such as the following:
“** Is the real point of my life simply to undergo as little pain and as much pleasure as possible? My behavior sure seems to indicate that this is what I believe, at least a lot of the time. But isn’t this kind of a selfish way to live? Forget selfish – isn’t it awful lonely? **”
So again, what Wallace is doing here is explicitly criticizing his own approach rather than trying to fix it. This is a very odd move, because it results in Wallace neither having his cake nor eating it. He could have presented these issues directly, allowing them to stand on their own, or he could have gone deeper into his criticism, attempting to figure out a better way to ask these questions. As it is, half-assing it and then calling himself out like this blunts the immediacy of his questions, making the whole thing feel like little more than a parlor game – exactly the result that Wallace was so afraid of.
So, at this point, there’s only one possibility. Given how central this mistake is to Wallace’s argument, he can’t be doing it on accident. It must be the case that Wallace has a specific positive motivation to present his arguments in this way, to force himself into this apparent double bind. Recall also the way that Wallace’s sloppy arguments in his journalism just so happen to overlap perfectly with his ideological concerns. For example, Wallace thinks that the “Descriptivist” position on linguistics is that “there are no rules,” just like “televisual” irony supposedly means that “nothing means anything anymore,” just like the problem with politics is that “young voters” “don’t believe in anything anymore.” What we’re looking at here is a case of motivated reasoning.
The Howling Fantods
David Foster Wallace’s great fear was what he referred to as “solipsism.” The most vivid expression of this is the fate of Hal Incandenza that opens Infinite Jest: living a rich inner life while being completely unable to communicate with the outside world.
“’There is nothing wrong,’ I say slowly to the floor. ‘I’m in here.’
I’m raised by the crutches of my underarms, shaken toward what he must see as calm by a purple-faced Director: ‘Get a grip, son!’
DeLint at the big man’s arm: ‘Stop it!’
‘I am not what you see and hear.’
Distant sirens. A crude half nelson. Forms at the door. A young Hispanic woman holds her palm against her mouth, looking.
‘I’m not,’ I say.”
The main characters of Infinite Jest, Hal Incandenza and Don Gately, are of course transparently based on Wallace himself; hence, Wallace is here expressing what he sees as the dangers of his own personality and habits. This dramatization of Hal’s terrible fate is precisely Wallace’s expression of his own fear.
As everyone knows by now, one of DFW’s big influences was Wittgenstein. He’s explicit about this in exactly one place: “The Empty Plenum,” his review of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Unfortunately, this is early DFW, before he had gotten his bad habits of pseudo-academic-ese, intrusive name-dropping, and pointlessly convoluted phraseology under control. It’s badly written, his argument is unclear, and he spends a lot of time on some really weak gender analysis that I’m going to ignore. Still, one does what one must.
Wallace’s central claim is that the philosophy espoused by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicusamounts to advocacy of solipsism. Very, very briefly: the Tractatus claims that facts about the physical world are the only things that we can meaningfully talk about (“The world is everything that is the case,” and “What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts.”). But “facts” themselves exist only in our minds; thus, Wallace’s worry here is that:
“This latter possibility – if internalized, really believed – is a track that makes stops at skepticism & then solipsism before heading straight into insanity.”
In other words, all we have are our own experiences, and those are unreliable, so if we take this seriously, what we actually have is nothing, pure chaos.
This doesn’t really have much to do with what Wittgenstein was actually talking about. For him, the importance of this argument was that statements about ethics or metaphysics become meaningless. It was a philosophical problem, not a personal one. Still, it would seem that Wallace’s fear has some justification. We know how hard it is to get through to other people just based on everyday experience; it’s not too much of a stretch to take this difficulty seriously.
But “solipsism” is the wrong term for this issue. The whole point of solipsism from a philosophical standpoint is that there’s no way to actually tell the difference between Solipsist World and Non-Solipsist World. It’s a purely philosophical problem, but what Wallace is talking about is the experience and the feeling of not being able to get through to other people.
The other term Wallace likes to use for this is “loneliness,” which is closer to what he’s talking about, but still not totally precise. Wallace was, after all, a well-known author with plenty going on in his life. He wasn’t “lonely” in the obvious sense of the word (one can, of course, be lonely without being alone). So instead, the term I’m going to use is “intellectual isolation,” the fear that nothing that goes on inside our heads can ever really get out into the real world (and, perhaps even scarier, vice versa). Wallace’s specific fear was that, no matter what he said or did, he could never really express himself to another human.
When we understand the issue in this way, it becomes quite clear that this was the underlying impulse that motivated much of Wallace’s work. One of the notable things about Wallace’s oeuvre is how much he wrote about how to write – not in the technical sense, but in the philosophical sense, i.e. how one ought to write. This was his attempt to resolve the problem of intellectual isolation.
And while Wallace was pretty obviously projecting his own concerns onto Wittgenstein’s philosophy, it just so happens that Wittgenstein got around to addressing this problem as well. As Wallace mentions, Wittgenstein performed a dramatic about-face after the Tractatus, such that his second major work, the Philosophical Investigations, amounts to a direct refutation of the argument in the Tractatus. In the Investigations, Wittgenstein turns his approach around completely: rather than trying to determine the basis for language, he looks at language as it actually exists and is used. What he finds out here is one of those simple insights that has deep implications. Rather than language being purely referential (that is, only communicating physical facts) language is actually not referential at all; it is purely functional (that is, it’s a tool for social interaction).
The reason for this is that language is how people interact with each other, not how one person interacts with the world. If you were alone and looking at a tree, you wouldn’t point at it and say “look at that tree.” But you would do so if you were with another person and you wanted to draw their attention to the tree. You might even do so if there were no tree at all, and you were trying to trick the person. In such a case, your utterance obviously doesn’t refer to anything in the real world. Rather, it performs the function of making the other person look.
This is clearest in highly contrived situations, such as a job interview. The standard sort of exchange like Q: “What is your greatest weakness?” A: “Oh gosh, I don’t know, I guess I’m a bit of a perfectionist” isn’t mean to elicit any real information, it’s just for the interviewer to get a feel for the candidate. Most of the interview is really contentless; it’s a sort of “test” to verify that the candidate can respond to situations in the appropriate manner. Wittgenstein calls this sort of situation a “language game,” and each utterance of this sort can be thought of as one possible “move” in the game.
The insight, though, is that, on a fundamental level, all communication is like this. There are only language games, and every possible utterance is a move in whatever game we’re playing at the moment. A “private language” that could be used by only one person to refer directly to the physical world is an impossibility. The connection between language and the physical world is entirely mediated by other humans.
When Wallace gets to the part of “The Empty Plenum” where he explains the argument from the Philosophical Investigations, he doesn’t follow it through to its conclusion like he does with the argument from the Tractatus. This can only be because he doesn’t think the argument resolves the problem, and, indeed, the fact that he spent the rest of his life trying to work it out shows that he didn’t have a solid answer. But he did have an approach, whether it was consciously chosen or not.
Recall the argument Wallace makes about linguistics in “Authority and American Usage.” His claim is that the “Descriptivist” argument advocating “the abandonment of ‘artificial’ rules and conventions” must result in “a literal Babel,” and this is why prescriptive language rules are necessary. Recall further that Wallace makes this claim while discussing Wittgenstein’s argument against private language. We can now finally understand why Wallace makes the bizarre move from “language is purely social” to “arbitrary usage rules are required for understanding.” It’s because he was between a rock and a hard place. From the perspective of the Tractatus argument, language refers to real things, but it can’t actually be used to communicate our internal thoughts and feelings. Whereas under the Investigations argument, “everything is permitted”; language can be used for any purpose, but it has no grounding, so we can never really know what’s being said. Note that this latter argument is exactly the same as Wallace’s objection to irony: when someone is being ironic, they can say anything, but you can never really know what they mean.
And this is precisely the dilemma that Wallace was attempting to overcome as a writer: the issue of how to really communicate what he wants to say. Which means we’ve finally come to the heart of the matter. This is the central issue which all of Wallace’s work was an attempt to resolve. The approach that I’ve previously identified – Wallace’s sublimation of his own feelings into intellectual argument – was his attempted solution (though of course he never actually felt that he had succeeded).
Hence Wallace’s conclusion in “Authority and American Usage.” He accepts that language is fundamentally social and not a formal system, but he still thinks arbitrary usage rules are required. What he’s getting at here is illustrated best by his position with regard to African American Vernacular English. Wallace, unlike most “prescriptivists,” is aware that AAVE is a fully functional dialect and not a “degraded” version of “normal” English. The fact that “Standard” English and not AAVE is the prestige dialect in our society is entirely arbitrary (I mean, it’s the result of white supremacy, obviously, but it’s “arbitrary” in the academic sense). Wallace knows this, and yet he still demands that his students fully embrace Standard English. Why? Because the existence of a formalized standard dialect resolves his dilemma: having a single rigorously defined means of communication allows us to express ourselves such that we can be absolutely understood. This is the root of the prescriptivist anxiety against “ambiguity,” at least for Wallace. What matters to Wallace is not that his dialect specifically is the prestige dialect, but rather that there is a prestige dialect at all, regardless of which dialect that is.
The reason for this is that Wallace feels this is the only way for humans to really be able to communicate. It evades the Wittgensteinian Scylla and Charybdis (words are great) by preserving the social aspect of language that allows us to express ourselves, while providing a solid foundation that allows us to be unambiguously understood.
And it is this same approach that Wallace took in his writing and argumentation. He could have merely expressed himself as an ideological writer a la Dostoevsky, but then he would have been giving up on making sure that other people understood him (the Investigations approach). Or, if he had gone the academic route and made purely intellectual arguments, then he wouldn’t have been expressing himself at all; it would be as though he didn’t really exist (the Tractatus approach). Instead, he attempted to navigate a middle path through the double bind: he took his own feelings and anxieties, and “rigorously defined” them as intellectual arguments, such that everyone else could understand them.
Okay! So, you remember that all of this is the position that I’m arguing against, right? Yeah. Because this doesn’t actually work. It’s a con. And it wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that everyone fell for it.
The reason all of this matters is that Wallace’s work has almost universally been read in exactly the wrong way. He’s been accepted as an avatar of the current American situation, his earnest confusion and noncommittal intellectualism taken as guidelines. A.O. Scott’s remembrance of Wallace in the New York Times portrays the problem quite vividly:
“The moods that Mr. Wallace distilled so vividly on the page — the gradations of sadness and madness embedded in the obsessive, recursive, exhausting prose style that characterized both his journalism and his fiction — crystallized an unhappy collective consciousness. And it came through most vividly in his voice. Hyperarticulate, plaintive, self-mocking, diffident, overbearing, needy, ironical, almost pathologically self-aware (and nearly impossible to quote in increments smaller than a thousand words) — it was something you instantly recognized even hearing it for the first time. It was — is — the voice in your own head.”
This is a rare example of damning with fulsome praise. This is not how the “shock of recognition” you get from great art is supposed to work. If reflecting what’s already in your own head were all that writing could accomplish, what would be the point? The strength of writing is obviously its ability to capture the sense of internal monologue, but the point ought to be that that monologue is someone else’s, one you couldn’t otherwise hear in your own head. The “recognition” you feel ought to be that of “making the strange familiar,” of not merely encountering an alien perspective but feeling it deeply, such that it becomes a new part of yourself.
What’s critical to note here is the way that Scott recapitulates Wallace’s mistake. He’s aware that Wallace’s work had “his personality . . . stamped on every page,” but then goes on to claim that it “crystallized an unhappy collective consciousness.” This is exactly wrong: it crystallized Wallace’s own unhappiness. And given that Wallace’s unhappiness was in fact the result of serious-fucking-business clinical depression, we have less than no reason to interpret it as a general symptom of society.
Of course, a lot of this kid-gloves treatment has do with the fact that Wallace was a white male. Most people don’t have the luxury of speaking generally; most people are preemptively confined to their own perspectives. People like Wallace are getting an undeserved pass. Again, Scott is aware of this but fails to recognize its significance: he compares Wallace to a bunch of other authors who he refers to as “itchy late- and post-boomer white guys,” but somehow fails to account for the fact that other types of people exist (including other types of white men; not all of us are hopelessly confuddled by phantom postmodernism). These writers, including Wallace, are mapping out one small corner of human experience and not defining a “generational crisis.”
(And I get that Scott is writing an obituary and he’s obviously not going to criticize Wallace here. But the particular way in which he praises Wallace is what makes the point.)
And this is also why it’s so wrong to revere Wallace as some sort of great intellect (I mean, aside from how much of a front the whole “genius” thing was). Everyone’s aware of his personal problems by now, but these have been framed as foibles, evidence that he was a “flawed human being,” a doomed genius. Again, exactly wrong: Wallace’s problems are evidence that he was normal, that he was doing exactly what all the rest of us are doing: trying to make sense of a senseless universe using whatever shoddy tools we happen to have at hand. And this is why the limits of his perspective and the errors that resulted from those limits must be kept in full view.
This is not currently happening. Consider this deeply unfortunate individual, who is terribly interested in what Wallace’s opinion on selfie sticks would have been, had he only lived to tell us. Truly a shame, right? Again, this person has learned exactly the wrong lesson from Wallace: that a rigorous intellectual analysis of her own collection of trivial personal confusions contains the answers to the great questions about meaning and society. Wallace’s projection of his own problems onto the world has encouraged others to make the same mistake.
But the fact that David Foster Wallace was wrong about everything doesn’t mean that his work doesn’t have value. The limited nature of any one perspective is far from a new problem – and it’s far from insoluble. This is actually one of the things that humanity already has a handle on, though perhaps an unwitting one.
Playing the Wicked Game
Here’s the thing: not only is Wallace’s approach not a solution to his problem, it’s actually the only crime: arguing in bad faith. Bad faith is the thing that actually does to communication what Wallace thought irony did: it makes it impossible to tell where someone is coming from. This is why Wallace was able to, for example, write an entire article about John McCain’s candidacy, the point of which was to harangue young people for not having political convictions anymore, and get though the entire thing without ever betraying the slightest hint of what his own political beliefs may or may not have been.
But the reason Wallace couldn’t find a solution isn’t because there isn’t one; rather, it’s because there isn’t a problem. And, ~ironically~, we know this from the very source that sent Wallace tumbling down the rabbit hole in the first place: Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.
Like I said, the whole “language games” thing is really obvious on the surface – of course we communicate in functional ways that don’t actually refer to anything. The trick is to follow this argument all the way through. If we accept that all communication consists of “language games,” then the obstacles to communication that so vexed Wallace reveal themselves as phantoms: they are merely different games. One retains the options of playing by their rules, or choosing a different game.
Thus, Wallace’s insistence on one “correct” method of communication is essentially cheating: refusing to abide by the rules of any one game, he takes the rules of one game and applies them to another. But the truth is, just as language naturally resolves itself into mutual comprehensibility without anyone policing it, each language game serves its own purposes just fine, as long as you don’t expect one game to be able to do everything.
Consider Wallace’s criticism of John Updike. Wallace’s claim is that Updike is a “narcissist,” and while this is again a misuse of a technical term, it’s a common one, so it’s clear what Wallace meant. He meant that Updike only ever talked about himself, which he highlights via the following Updike quote:
“Of nothing but me . . . I sing, lacking another song.”
But that isn’t actually what this means. That is, I’m not familiar with Updike, so I have no idea what he meant by it, but I’ll tell you what I mean by it. What this quote refers to is the fact that none of us actually has access to anything other than our own subjective experience. So everything a person writes ultimately comes out of nowhere but their own head; even when they’re writing about experiences that are totally alien to their own, they’re still writing about their own experiences hearing about those experiences (or making them up). This is what it means to “lack another song.”
The catch is that this is fine. I mean, it has to be, because there’s no alternative. We actually are each trapped inside our own perspective, but that doesn’t stop us from communicating, as long as we don’t expect perfection. Updike can only talk about himself, but we understand this, and we take it into account when we read his work, and this allows us to derive our own insights from Updike’s perspective, or to gain an understanding of the particular type of person that he is, or even to read him entirely critically as an example of what not to do. All of these things are valuable. (Again, I have no idea whether Updike’s work is actually worth reading by this standard, but we’re talking about the principle here. Here’s a pretty good blog post that makes this argument with regard to Updike specifically.)
And all of this applies just as strongly to Wallace’s work, despite his attempts to dodge the issue. Even on a totally naive reading of Wallace, isn’t it pretty obvious that he consistently “sings of himself”? Like, are we supposed to think that all that shit about tennis was just a coincidence? “Uncritical” self-absorption is preferable to a self-absorption that pretends to universality.
So that’s one game: subjectivity. Another game is objectivity. Consider “Consider the Lobster,” where Wallace invokes Peter Singer as support for the argument against meat eating. Wallace brings up Singer only in passing, on the way to his own quietist conclusion. But he couldn’t have reached this conclusion if he had actually taken Singer seriously, because Singer’s argument is part of a moral framework that doesn’t really give you the option to just “worry” about the issue.
The famous example that defines Singer’s approach goes as follows: You emerge from the tailor’s, having just purchased a very nice outfit for $1,000. As you walk down the street, you see a child drowning in the river. No one else is around to help. You’re a strong enough swimmer to save the child easily, but doing so will completely ruin your expensive new outfit. Do you save the child? Obviously, the answer is “yes.” But now consider that, instead of seeing a child drowning, you arrive home and find a letter from a charity asking for a $1,000 donation to save the life a child in some far away country you’ve never heard of. Do you make the donation? Singer claims that the moral calculus is exactly the same in these two situations, and yet, most of us do not make these sorts of donations whenever we can. According to Singer, we ought to, and this results in a broad obligation to consider the moral effects of our spending choices from a utilitarian perspective. It’s the same deal with meat eating: just as $1,000 is not worth a child’s life, the taste of a good burger is not worth an animal’s life.
The point isn’t whether this argument is right or wrong, the point is that it imposes an obligation. In “Consider the Lobster,” Wallace goes well out of his way to make sure his argument doesn’t impose any obligations on anyone, and this is where he fails as an intellectual. Ideas aren’t toys; accepting an important idea ought to obligate you to change your life. But for Wallace, an idea is just an opportunity to reflect his own confusion. He avoids taking precisely the out that ideas are capable of providing: they can provide us with a framework from which to discuss an issue without having to rely on our own personal idiosyncrasies. “True objectivity” is impossible, obviously. (Singer certainly has his own ideological biases). But so what? That’s no excuse to not do our best.
And again, all of this applies just as strongly to Wallace’s work, despite his attempts to dodge the issue. Wallace does make explicit intellectual arguments which can be accepted or refuted on their own terms. I’ve done a little bit of this already, but let’s stick with the meat eating thing just for simplicity. The conclusion Wallace draws, that “it all still seems to come down to individual conscience,” is the one conclusion that is absolutely invalid. Eating animals is either morally permissible or it is not. If it’s not, you are obligated to avoid it to the best of your ability. If it is, then you don’t have to wring your hands about it. And given the current state of things, the latter is the conclusion that Wallace’s argument actually results in, making his position self-refuting. One does not have the option to stand still on an escalator.
So, you’re getting what’s happened here, right? Wallace succeeded despite his best efforts. That’s the amazing upshot of the language games argument: there is no such thing as intellectual isolation. Establishing a connection to other humans isn’t a prize you get for using language really well, it’s a prerequisite to language use in the first place. The mere use of language in any context is necessarily a connection to the broader human enterprise.
Wallace thought that expressing himself entailed this huge burden, but it’s actually impossible not to express yourself, as long as your audience is aware of what game you’re playing. And the problem with Wallace is precisely that he fooled his audience into avoiding this awareness. His approach makes it seems like he’s not playing games, like he’s just a really smart guy doing his best to figure things out, like he’s “the best mind of his generation.” But none of those three things actually exist.
And we’re not beholden to Wallace’s framework; we’re entirely within our rights to fix his mistakes. We don’t have to pretend like he was some kind of generational oracle and discuss him on that basis. We don’t have to play along with his attempted universalization of his own perspective. We can find what’s worthwhile in his work and apply it as needed, whether as insight, counterexample, or cautionary tale.
Once again, Wallace’s argument for linguistic prescriptivism acts as a microcosm of his overall approach. Let’s say you manage to successfully establish some arbitrary usage rule. Great. So what? Why does anybody have to care? Are you actually going to stop people from ignoring your rule whenever they feel like it? You’re not, because you can’t. Whether a person is understood when they speak isn’t up to you. It’s up to the world. And the meaning of Wallace’s work isn’t up to him, either. It’s up to us.
Nietzsche contra Wallace
Here’s a revealing aside from the Dostoevsky essay:
“Nietzsche would take Dostoevsky’s insight and make it the cornerstone of his own devastating attack on Christianity, and this is ironic: in our own culture of ‘enlightened atheism’ we are very much Nietzsche’s children, his ideological heirs, and without Dostoevsky there would have been no Nietzsche, and yet Dostoevsky is among the most profoundly religious of all writers.”
Okay, first of all, this is totally wrong. I’m supposed to be done with the debunking part here, but I can’t let this one slide. Nietzsche only discovered Dostoevsky in 1887 – too late to have influenced the major works that most defined his philosophy, Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morals (in fact, the two men were nearly contemporaries – Dostoevsky’s last work was written in 1880, Nietzsche’s only 8 years later. Nietzsche was never able to read The Brothers Karamazov because it had not yet been translated). It is true that Nietzsche was smitten with Dostoevsky after discovering him; during his final frenzy of work in 1888, Nietzsche repeatedly makes significant use of the word “idiot.” While this is entirely adorable, it’s a far cry from Dostoevsky being one of Nietzsche’s major influences. Moreover, while this is a bit much to get into here, seeing this connection as “ironic” is awfully superficial, as though Dostoevsky could be summed up as merely “Christian” and Nietzsche as merely “anti-Christian.” Nietzsche was, after all, a profound moralist – just not a Christian one.
That aside, it is precisely not the case that “we” are Nietzsche’s children. Most people are not atheists in either the literal or the metaphorical sense. As usual, Wallace is pretending like his own perspective amounts to a comprehensive explanation. What’s actually going on here is that one specific person is Nietzsche’s child: David Foster Wallace.
It might seem like you couldn’t find two more opposite personalities. Nietzsche, the unrepentant elitist, bombastic and reckless, guided by the past while reaching desperately into the future. Wallace, the determined populist, cautious and humble, embedded deeply in the present. Nietzsche was ignored in his own day due to being “untimely,” while Wallace was revered for his (alleged) ability to tap into the zeitgeist.
But the thing about opposites is that they’re two ends of one spectrum. Both men were engaged in a desperate struggle against what they saw as the creeping nihilism of their own time. Nietzsche saw a great void left behind by Christianity’s fading moral authority, a vast, flat plain on which only the “smallest” could survive. Of course, nature abhors a vacuum, even in morals, so the situation in Wallace’s day was quite different. Wallace saw a glut of meaning created by the rise of extreme pluralism, a great cacophony of noise through which no signal could be discerned.
The big difference is that Nietzsche was deeply self-aware in a way that Wallace was not. Nietzsche was explicit about the fact that his proposed new morality was based entirely on his own standards; indeed, that was the point. Wallace, while trying to be egalitarian, stumbled into the same territory unwittingly by universalizing his own particulars.
Nietzsche would not have been surprised:
“Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.”
Nobody’s confused about the fact that Wallace was speaking from his own perspective. But people still talk about his arguments as though they have some kind of formal, universal validity. What Nietzsche is saying here is that this is never the case. It isn’t just the blatantly personal stuff, the supposedly analytical aspects of Wallace’s work are also only expressions of the type of person that he is.
As mentioned, the real trick here is that this isn’t a problem. It isn’t a problem for Nietzsche’s work, which is still valuable despite all the stuff he was blatantly wrong about, and despite the fact that we can no longer countenance his conclusions. And it isn’t a problem for Wallace’s work, because Nietzsche, the ailing diagnostician, has the cure for his crimes:
“The philosopher supposes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the structure; but posterity finds its value in the stone which he used for building, and which is used many more times after that for building – better. Thus it finds the value in the fact that the structure can be destroyed and nevertheless retains value as building material.”
This is why Wallace’s structure needs to be destroyed: so we can build better.
Of course, it would be irresponsible to stop here without at least getting started on the whole rebuilding thing. This has hardly been a comprehensive overview of Wallace’s work (his fiction is a whole other topic), but we’ve been through enough to draw some basic conclusions.
The first and most important should be obvious by now: don’t try to universalize your own idiosyncrasies. In fact, as soon as you find yourself trying to make a big statement about something like “American culture” or “televisual irony,” it’s probably a good idea to just slow your roll. It’s commonly said that great art takes the particular and makes it universal, but that’s not what that means. It means that by expressing yourself creatively you provide other people with something that they can use to make connections that neither you nor they could have anticipated. You can’t force it like Wallace tried to. All you can do is express yourself within your limitations and trust your audience to meet you halfway. You have to play the wicked game.
When Wallace tried to simultaneously work from his own perspective and be objective, he was trying to avoid being “ideological.” But this is impossible; the point of the term “ideology” is precisely that everyone has one. It’s clear from the way Wallace deploys the term (which he does frequently) that he didn’t understand this. And the solution here is pretty straightforward: we always need to be cognizant of our own ideological assumptions, and we can’t let people like Wallace pretend like they aren’t arguing ideologically.
The second is to interrogate your damn frameworks. Wallace never did this and it always cost him. When he tried to talk about the politics of language, he shoehorned the whole thing into the “liberal/conservative” divide, because that’s all he knew about politics. When he talked about TV, his whole argument was based on the notion that TV was “ironic,” because that’s what everyone always says about it. Of course, this failure is what made his writing so appealing: he was telling people what they already knew (and this is where Wallace’s gift as a writer was more like a curse: it made his arguments more persuasive than they deserved to be).
The last is to not underestimate ideas. This is actually closely related to one of Wallace’s own insights – maybe his best. It occurs a couple of times in Infinite Jest, and it takes the form: don’t underestimate objects. What this means is that objects aren’t just things for humans to use; they have their own aspect of being that affects the way people interact with them. This is clearer than ever with the advent of smartphones, which are objects that are pretty obviously affecting people’s behavior in unanticipated ways. A piece of software is ultimately just an object, but its particular characteristics affect the people who use it. For example, one of the reasons search engines are so effective is not because they’re so brilliantly coded, but because people have learned how to phrase their queries in ways that are easy for a piece of software to process (such as focusing on improbable keywords). More disturbingly, we may even be learning to only want to ask things that can be answered by a search engine. The cliche that can be redeemed in order to describe this phenomenon is “the things you own end up owning you.”
Wallace failed to apply this insight to his treatment of ideas. He treated them like they were toys to bounce around (this is another reason why name-dropping really is a bad thing). Crucially, he treated Wittgenstein’s philosophy as an opportunity to merely reflect on his own anxieties. But as we’ve seen, if he hadn’t done this, if he had actually taken Wittgenstein seriously and followed his argument through, it could have resolved his problems. But this could only have happened if he had been willing to let an argument take him somewhere he wasn’t looking to go.
In a discussion of the “Death of the Author” theory, Wallace defines his position as follows:
“For those of us civilians who know in our gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another, the whole question seems kind of arcane.”