Bubble babble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Our haunt

The revelation that Tony Schwartz was the exclusive author of The Art of the Deal, with Donald Trump providing only indirect thematic inspiration, has been nagging at me ever since that first tweet. Of course, I use the word “revelation” ironically; it’s always been terribly apparent that Trump lacks the capacity and focus to read an entire book, much less write one. But that’s exactly what’s bothering me: it is obvious that Trump did not write this or any of “his” other books, and yet they are still referred to as books “by” Trump and quoted from as though the words therein emanated from Trump himself in any capacity at all. In short: why is everybody constantly lying about this?

Consider, for example, this article, wherein the author not only assumes that the words in The Art of the Deal are Trump’s own, but actually attempts to mine the particulars of their phrasing for insight into Trump’s personal psyche:

Notice the specificity of his observations, his eye for certain details. Notice the irrepressible joy, almost awe, he experiences and expresses. Notice how loving, wistful, aroused he is, by the play of surfaces. It’s hard to believe he’s faking any of this. It seems, to me at least, quite real.

This analysis cannot hold, for the very simple reason that Trump did not write the words being referred to here. That is, Schwartz probably wrote this based on some sort of story or description he got from Trump, and maybe this really is how Trump is, but it’s still bad analysis. It ignores the real situation. It’s fake news. The fact that it “seems real” is exactly the problem: it is a lie that is easy to believe.

So what this means for The Art of the Deal specifically is that it’s essentially Trump fanfiction (without the “fan” part); given its inherent mendacity, it is worthless as evidence (and this probably applies just as well to everything else that has Trump’s name on it). Similarly, it’s been widely acknowledged that Trump’s inaugural address was written by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, and this presents the same problem. Those words were not Trump’s, and yet they are taken as evidence of what Trump personally thinks and believes. And Trump is not a confounding case, but rather the clarifying example here, because it’s rather apparent that he doesn’t think about or believe in a whole hell of a lot beyond his own surface-level aggrandizement.

So of course this phenomenon is not limited to a single series of hype-building hackworks; it is one of the basic properties of the culture that we inhabit. We routinely attribute things to people who did not originate them. This applies not only to ghostwriting in general, or to political speeches in general, but also to pop songs, where analyzing a song written by a committee and composed by a robot supposedly reveals to us the performer’s personal convictions, and to celebrities in general, whose stage-managed public appearances are tugged and prodded for evidence of appropriate ideology, and to technology, where Steve Jobs is given credit for the work done by a variety of different designers and engineers employed by Apple Inc. (to be clear, this is not to insist that someone like Jobs, or like a pop singer, contributes nothing, but simply that a lot of the stuff attributed to them is stuff that they had no real hand in), and to corporations in general, where CEOs are lauded for “spearheading initiatives” that earn them their golden parachutes on the way out, and, yes, to society itself, where workers, the people who actually do the things, are treated like a big dumb lump of human inertia, while living disutility generators like Thomas Friedman go jetting around the world in the guise of “thought leadership.” So this isn’t fine-print pedantry. It kind of matters.

Admittedly, there’s an extent to which this is all shorthand; that is, by “Trump says” we consciously mean “it is the collective public opinion of Trump administration officials that,” but there’s also an extent to which we are falling for our own con. If you seriously think that every anti-Trump protestor and/or commentator understands fully that Trump is the symptom and not the disease, you’re kidding yourself. As above, lots of people are taking what’s happening right now to be representative of Trump as a person rather than a result of the general political situation as opportunized by specific schemers of Bannon’s ilk. For example, “Trump’s” budget proposal, among other things, was poached pretty directly from the Heritage Foundation:

“When we were on the campaign, for Trump’s speeches we would pull stuff from Heritage budget documents and make the arguments that Heritage was making,” Moore said. “I think it’s very accurate to say that a lot of these ideas … even some of the arguments they make, some of the rhetoric is almost verbatim from Heritage.”

If you don’t know this, you are not capable of opposing the entity that is actually doing the things that you are opposed to. And Heritage has been around; it had a major influence on Reagan’s presidency, for example. So this isn’t one misdirection happening right now because of social media or whatever; it is the ongoing cause of everything that has been happening, all along.

We all learn in school that Issac Newton said he was only able to see what he saw by “standing on the shoulders of giants” but we learn this at the same time that Newton himself is drilled into our brains as the lone-genius inventor of physics, as a Great History Man. So we often think we understand the distinction here – nobody will, when pressed, actually claim that Jobs plucked the iPhone fully-formed from his brain – at the same time that we unconsciously assume that things really are that simple (that plucked-from-the-head reference is from mythology, i.e. the stories out of which we construct the underlying assumptions that we use to understand the world). Because of course both things are true: nobody’s a lone genius, but people do make real individual contributions. I’m not saying the relevant dynamics are always obvious, or that it’s never safe to elide the details (I’ll admit to making this very elision myself), but to simply assume that everything with the Trump brand name stamped on it emanates directly from the addled brain of the man himself is to accede to the fantasy that people like Trump attempt to flatter themselves with, and to abandon the truth. We are attributing authorship of the situation to the person who is in reality nothing more than a name on a dust-jacket.

Worse, this is exactly the trap that these people want us to fall into. The whole point of someone like Trump is to function as an attention heat-sink, leaving people like Bannon and organizations like Heritage free to operate in the shadows. The only way to stop these things is to exorcise the animating spirit; otherwise, the same forces will return to possess the next media-friendly stooge who wanders in looking for applause lines. Failing to get this at least half-right is what allows for someone like Trump to get up on a stage and say “I alone can fix it,” and for people to believe him. And the opposing view, that “Trump alone can break it,” makes the same mistake and results in the same ineffectuality. We should try to avoid this. It’s the kind of thing that could come back to haunt us – I mean, more so than it already has.

Masquerade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is why this is wrong:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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