[Note: An experiment in impressionistic self-indulgence]
Last week I saw a tweet.
It set off a sequence of thoughts and I considered writing a Twitter thread in response, as I sometimes do. Noticing myself noticing this intention, I wondered why I didn’t think of writing a post instead. The likely answer is that it seemed like too small a thought to be worthy of a full post. I smacked myself over the head and pointed to my new year’s resolution to write more spontaneous posts prompted by small thoughts as an antidote to my usual problem of getting bogged down writing and rewriting multikiloword treatises.
So I wrote a post. I sat down in a coffee shop and wrote for three hours straight in a trance-like state, with no plan or idea of where I’d end up. I figured I’d publish it as an experiment. But first I wanted to edit it a little and write an introduction to explain what I was doing.
Of course, when I reread it I found, like I always do, objections and clarifications that should be worked into the text. And on second thought, maybe the central thesis that emerged just isn’t a very good idea at all. The arguments leading up to it felt half-baked, underdeveloped and perhaps even divorced from reality.
Perhaps it’s for the best that I don’t write more spontaneously. I had hoped my three years of blogging had given me more structured thought patterns that would yield acceptable results if I just put pen to paper, but that’s apparently not the case.
The options were to massage the raw braindump into something better, discard it like the other unsalvageables I’ve got cryogenically frozen on my hard drive, or swallow my pride and publish it to make a point about the writing process.
Luckily I found a way to have my cake and eat it too. Below is my full meditation only lightly edited to correct errors and improve phrasing. My later comments, thoughts and doubts have been turned into a large number of footnotes.
A meditation on accessibility and ambition
This is the tweet I saw:
MarleneJ says she’s stopped reading Quillette Magazine. So have I, with some exceptions, and it’s for the same reason. For anyone that doesn’t know, Quillette is an online publication that writes from a classically liberal perspective about social, political and psychological topics. Unlike almost everyone else, it’s friendly to biology as an explanatory factor for why people behave the way they do and why society looks the way it does. This is valuable because precisely that tends to be missing in public discourse which is a problem because any continent-sized blind spot is bound to cause serious distortions.
Unfortunately, doing so puts Quillette on a collision course with not only the far but much of the mainstream left. I say unfortunately because while waging the so-called culture war has propelled Quillette to fame it has also given it what I think is a too narrow focus. At least that’s what I used to think a while back, and judging by what MarleneJ says it’s still the case.
It’s a good thing Quillette exists. It fills an important function balancing a formerly lopsided public conversation (and I so very much hope it isn’t going to degenerate into a puddle of sneerpieces). But most of the time I don’t bother to read it because I don’t expect to be challenged or pushed in any interesting direction.
The more I think about this issue the more unsolvable it seems to become. Loyal readers of a publication won’t be satisfied by having the same points reiterated again and again. News media get around this by focusing on, well, news. News are events, you can describe them and react to them for a while until they’re no longer news. Publications that aim to be more analytical and focus on discussing ideas, frameworks, slow processes and large-scale narratives instead of events have a more difficult task because their subject matter doesn’t change quickly enough for it to be possible to churn out new material every day without repeating yourself.
Unless you start building upwards. Instead of laying out stone after stone on the ground you put one on top of another, and then one on top of two others laying next to each other, and then one on top of all that, making a single three-level structure. In practice this means writing new material that builds on what came before, taking ideas further and further towards greater complexity, nuance and sophistication. This is what academia does when working correctly.
Mass media (including the more analytical outlets) do it very little and it’s obvious why: it’s too demanding. If an article references six other things you need to have read to fully understand it you’re going to have a lot of difficulty attracting new readers.
On the other hand, I think MarleneJ:s tweet and my own similar sentiments suggests that remaining accessible over the long term comes with the cost of driving away readers that no longer feel they’re getting anything new.
This is far from a unique pattern. It’s a well-known issue in any community with common interests. The old-timers have heard the standard discussions, arguments and opinons already and get frustrated by newbies coming in and bringing them up again and again. Newbies are similarly bothered by elitists being rude or unwelcoming to people who just want to talk about what they like with others who like it too.
Any media outlet needs to deal with a version of this trade-off. On the one hand you need to stay accessible to maintain reach, volume and influence. On the other hand you need to offer the long time fans something interesting. If you also care about more than money and popularity you might want to go for some artistic or intellectual achievement you can feel proud of, which is difficult to impossible if you have to stay at a 101 level all the time.
The expression Eternal September comes from the internet’s childhood when people used to hang out at Usenet, a precursor to forums. Since Usenet was available almost exclusively to university students the user base was small, and the only time the culture had to integrate a large number of newcomers was every September when a new cohort started their educations. Since Usenet became available to the general public in September 1993 that month’s stream of new internet users never stopped, hence the phrase represent the now ubiquitous phenomenon of newbies arriving all the time, causing veterans to get bored and frustrated.
Fandoms experience this tension constantly. When I want to relax I read Reddit discussions about Star Trek, and they can get pretty heated. Opinions on how much the new shows and movies ought to cater to old fans differ: some have fanboyish fantasies about stories deeply embedded in existing mythos that you need encyclopedic knowledge of earlier incarnations to appreciate or even understand while others just want cool stories about spaceships and ray guns.
In some ways TV series (like Star Trek) have shifted to becoming more complex and less accessible over the last few decades. Episodes used to be standalone in that most of the time you didn’t need to see all the previous episodes to make sense of what you were seeing. That was before streaming services and institutionalized binge watching. Now TV writers can demand that everybody’s seen everything so far and TV shows have become more complex and literary as a result.
Online thinkpiece factories haven’t gone through this transformation. It’s not standard practice to publish articles where you have to have read the other articles in the same series to appreciate what’s being said. That’s why they’re less interesting to me than personal (or community) blogs that often do build upon their own prior writing (Less Wrong is the obvious example with its core articles organized into sequences).
The hyperlink was a godsend for this reason. When I want to refer to something I’ve written before I just link to it in the text, and presto, it’s available but not too intrusive. That makes it possible to “import” a set of ideas much like you can import a code library when programming. With this mechanism, increasingly advanced structures can be built. Imagine how it would cripple software if we could no longer reuse code like this. Well, that’s where ordinary journalism is right now. So they become boring to theoretically-minded people who do read a lot and want something more.
I think that’s the real reason I don’t try to pitch more writing to various online publications. In my summary of 2018 I said it was because I thought my writing was “too idiosyncratic, abstract and personal to fit in anywhere but my own blog”. Now I think the main reason is that I don’t so much want to take part in public debate or make myself a career. I want to explore ideas that lie at the edge of my own thinking. To do that I must assume that a reader knows broadly the same things I know and I’m just not that interested in writing about things where I can’t do that. I want to follow my thoughts to for me new and unknown places — and import whatever packages I need to do it. This style isn’t compatible with the expectation that a piece will be able to stand on its own and deliver a single recognizable (and defensible) point.
The downside is of course obscurity. To achieve both relevance in the wider world and to build on other ideas enough to reach for the sky you need extraordinary success — so extraordinary that you’re essentially pulling the rest of the world along with you.
What does that mean?
Have you invented a new method of painting, a new musical form or technique, or pioneered a new storytelling trope or mechanism? You’d want to develop it even further in your next work, for sure. And the work after that? Further. But unless you’re comfortable losing more and more of your audience with each step and wind up a complete irrelevance you need to make sure that they’ll follow you where you go. They must internalize what’s novel in your work enough for it to become the new ground level.
I’m jumping topics here but this is one of my criticisms against much of unpopular, “elitist” art and architecture: sure, experiment with dissonance, atonality, readymades, concept art, brutalism and whatever, but notice when the audience isn’t following you and try something else.
I’m sad there’s a divison between “high” and “low” culture. The benefits of the “high” is that it can build, well, high. High culture and learning make works that rely on, reference, and incorporate a lot of previous works (or the totality of previous work). This helps us discover new and exciting regions in the space of possible creations. This is good. It’s also highly demanding and particular and therefore only enjoyed by a narrow group of aficionados. This is not so good. Why? Because it leads to irrelevance. What’s only known by a small number of people isn’t as meaningful as what’s enjoyed widely enough to earn a place in our collective consciousness. Meaning is made of many minds.
We want to build tall structures, but if those tall structures don’t have the broad bases required to make it into permanent cultural memory — or “cultural blockchain” if you want to be trendy — they don’t matter because they’ll crumble and fall soon.
“Low” culture and knowledge have the opposite problem. Star Wars, Harry Potter and your average list of fun factoids do make their way into collective consciousness and that’s a valuable thing in a culturally fragmented world, but they’re simplistic compared to what’s out there. We’ve got some one-or-two story houses with sturdy foundations while delicate skyscrapers of glass and balsa wood are waiting to fall apart all around us. It’s a shame.
I want it all. I want us to have strong, reliable skyscrapers that reach above the clouds. But we don’t seem to be able to build tall enough and strong enough at the same time.
For that you need extraordinary success. Creators of new cultural and intellectual works need to be so successful that their products become part of the culture, and then produce new works that build on the first and are popular enough to also become part of the culture. Repeat as many times as possible.
This barely ever happens because few creators are the superhumans they’d have to be to accomplish that in an age without captive audiences. But it bothers me when they don’t seem to even try. Do you write a successful book series? Have creative control over a movie franchise? TV show? Maybe you’re a successful composer of pop songs? How do you use that position? Why not make things gradually more complex and ambitious over time? Not too much, just enough to keep the audience following along. If they don’t, back off a little bit and try something else. Always strive.
Maybe a lot of pop culture does try to do this but I don’t quite see it (some exceptions that do constantly push towards higher meta levels exist, like Community). Frankly I don’t understand how a creative person could not be consumed with desire to behave like that. I am. It’s part of the reason I had to leave my job as a consultant: the lack of progression drove me nuts. I wrote reports about social trends and built data analysis tools, but none of the reports built on other reports and the analysis tools weren’t further developed in order to perform more advanced functions (not for lack of trying on my end — there just wasn’t sufficient demand). Super successful creatives that keep churning out stuff at the same level of ambition for years baffle me.
There are so many reasons I could be wrong but I have the feeling that the division between what was most advanced and what got written into cultural memory wasn’t as big in the past and that the literature, music, philosophy and science that we know from the past was in fact the most advanced stuff available at the time. And I feel that what’s going to be remembered from our time is… not that? The most advanced stuff is a niche interest and doesn’t have all that much influence on the future of the culture as a whole.
Of course it was probably a niche interest in the past as well, but then that niche was synonymous with an elite that got to write the history books and the textbooks and the training methods and ensured that the latest and newest thing because part of the foundation for the next generation. That doesn’t quite happen now. Things have become uncoupled.
Or has it? Was it ever really coupled? I don’t know but I can’t stop thinking there’s something broken about how our society produces and distributes knowledge and culture.
My feeling that there’s something wrong reminds me of the more common feeling that there’s something wrong with our modern, systematic, capitalist and bureaucratic societies. There is — all those things are unnatural and it makes sense that they feel somehow wrong to us. I don’t think they’re the same in that my psyche is rebelling against something unnatural but I do think they’re the same in that the impulse in question is potentially dangerous. I’ve just sort of longed for more authoritarianism, haven’t I? Like, I’ve just been nostalgic for a golden age where the tastes and opinions of small elites determined what would be make it into the future. I don’t really support that. I just notice a feeling like something that may never have existed has been lost. I suppose that’s the driving force behind much illiberal sentiment and thus probably better as a fantasy.
• • •
This terminology is hopelessly confused. “Classically liberal” in this context means is “intelligently anti-leftist without being politically conservative”. In other words just liberal (if political labels were sane).
This isn’t correct. Here I distort the purpose of publications like Quillette in order to pivot to my own pet issues. They’re only partially (and that part is quite small) in the business of creating or synthesizing new ideas. Their primary functions are to 1) push a particular perspective into the public sphere, and 2) facilitate coordination and the building of common knowledge among its readers. Both functions work towards claiming a part of the public sphere on behalf of a set of ideas.
It demands too much of journalists, not just of readers. There is some progression (or at least change, since as new ideas enter the public consciousness older ones exit) where the informed public can eventually be trusted to understand — without lengthy explanation — concepts that were once outside the common pool, but that process is excruciatingly slow compared to what could be achieved if only (only!) you could rely on the audience to take in and retain everything perfectly all the time.
Likely I seriously underestimate the difference between mainly creative and intellectual endeavours and those intended to influence public opinion. I dismiss non-intrinsic motives as mere “money and popularity” (implying that they’re empty and unsatisfying in the long term), entirely missing advocacy and impact as powerful motivators. I guess it says something about my own psychology.
This jump from Quillette and similar media, past internet community history and the issue of balance between accessibility and catering to fans just to come back to thinkpiece factories after a few paragraphs is superflous and should perhaps be cut. It’s illustration more than it’s a load-bearing element, and I’m not so sure they illustrate quite the same dynamic. Perhaps it could’ve been a footnote or one of those things I cut out and put in a fresh text file to later expand into a full post but never do.
I got too excited with my associations here. Having long continuous story lines where you need to remember all the earlier episodes of a series isn’t the same thing as needing knowledge of a mythos established in other series to enjoy a story, or the same as having to understand general cultural references and allusions. And even that isn’t the same thing as substantively building on and commenting on earlier ideas. So I’m not sure it makes sense to think of these as expressions of a single phenomenon.
In other words, articles haven’t turned into chapters in books the same way tv episodes have turned into chapters of novel-like narratives. The detour to tv only serves to make this single point.
I don’t think I ever see mass media link to their own earlier writing the way bloggers often do. Have I missed it? Or are they indeed trapped by a set of habits established before the invention of the hyperlink?
To be honest it’s also a question of skill. I’m not a particularly good debater. I’ve never practiced that, partly because I don’t like it. It’s confrontational and antithetical to real exploration of ideas. To write a strong one-sided argument you need to already know your topic very well, and I’m not so interested in writing things where I don’t also learn something myself in the process.
Case in point: This piece. No one would publish this.
I’m trying to describe an abstract concept that I notice across domains, but I have difficulty expressing it in a sequential order. In a way, I have trouble writing the “installation program” for this thought. I’m unsure about whether that says anything about the actual quality of the thought.
This deserves a much more thorough discussion.
I really like this metaphor. A blockchain creates a unified whole out of disparate elements by organizing them into a system where everything gets to be a part of something great and immortal through aggregation and layers upon layers of backreference (it brings my article on the meaningfulness of the Eurovision Song Contest to mind).
I should acknowledge that Star Wars and Harry Potter are odd examples because they in particular do borrow heavily from and echo both earlier pop culture and classic mythology. But I maintain that they don’t so much add, elaborate and comment on them as much as reiterate them increasingly effectively. It suggests we as a culture aren’t quite aware enough of the tropes and themes they’re built on to demand something beyond them.
I probably underestimate the financial and managerial pressure such creators are under. But still, when you already have people’s attention, why not throw something chewier at them? I’m sure it can be coated in enough high fructose corn syrup to be palatable. Why isn’t there a ten minute experimental piece with epic poem lyrics, polyrhythmic drumming and invertible counterpoint inserted at the end of Lady Gaga’s latest album? The best songwriters in the world have serious skills, why don’t we see them really show us what they’ve got? Because it doesn’t pay? Maybe, but how can you keep yourself from trying? I wouldn’t be able to. Don’t just live off the interest on all that attention capital — spend it on something cool!
I’ve already noted that I conflate several different kinds of ambition, letting “aggregating, integrating, subverting, complicating and commenting on previous ideas” stand in for them all. That’s clearly not true. I entirely forgot to note that steadily increasing artistic ambition is in fact sometimes the norm. With special effects there does seem to be a healthy culture of such striving, where we regularly get to see fantastical creations more spectacular and ambitious than anything the world has ever seen before. Why the difference? Maybe it does support my thesis (depending on what my thesis is, exactly, which is unclear) because this progression depends only on compounding skills and innovations among the creators; the audience doesn’t have to do any work or acquire any mental schemas to enjoy the increasingly complex output.
This brings in yet another vaguely related idea that adds to complexity without being necessary. Should probably be cut.
Relating this to my 2017 end of year summary where I said that what I really want is for everyone to have access to and understanding of every idea humanity has ever produced I come to the realization that these fantasies means I seem to want not so much old-fashioned exclusive elitism but… the Borg. (I guess it’s one or the other, the Borg hivemind would be required to get around the limitations of individual minds that makes the exclusive elitism otherwise necessary). That’s is a little disorienting for an otherwise staunchly anti-authoritarian individualist like me.
Some concluding observations:
Studying this dump in detail made me think about thought in the mind vs. on the page. While your typical magazine article follows a linear, logical progression, real thought doesn’t (at least mine doesn’t). Thinking activates a whole network of ideas forming a gestalt that’s hard to express in a straightforward manner. That means that real thoughts more directly expressed in text form is going to be much less coherent than the sort of constructed public discourse we’ve became accustomed to (which is purpose-built to survive in the trading zone). That’s likely part of the reason why public debate on social media (closer to real, raw thought) seems so insane and its disagreements so dysfunctional.
Phrased differently, I see that my writing and thinking process often means building narratives that depend on individual elements that need much more development if I am to communicate how they appear to me from the inside. Trying to do that means overlong articles, a litany of footnotes, hyperlinks or outright failure. This piece is sort of all four.
It doesn’t seem to be true that my three years of blogging has made my stream of consciousness more direct. But people who’ve been writing for public consumption for years do get so good at doing so that they can pick an ordered narrative fit for the trading zone straight from their head. That raises the question: does presenting your thinking in an externally comprehensible way many many times also reshape your internal thinking to be less cluttered, less holistic, and more clear and communicable? If true, what are the benefits? What are the downsides?
Finally, I also note how this session starts with some sober, concrete observations and then grows more abstract and outright romantic the further it goes on, culminating in an expression of my desire for cultural and intellectual history to conform to a Hegel-style grand evolution of capital-I Idea.
Does this reflect a fundamental, one-way tendency of thought as a process to gradually abstract and imbue with meaning, like a counter to the destructive, one-way process that is entropy increase? Is this, perhaps, the religious impulse?
Oh, I’m doing it again, aren’t I? Part of me wants to tell the rest to stop being so pretentious and spin elaborate verbiage around things that aren’t nearly as significant as I think when, well, when I spin elaborate verbiage around them.
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11 thoughts on “A Meta-Meditation”
I don’t remember how I found your blog, perhaps it was through a link on SSC? This was a very good article. Community was the last series I watched on TV. I tried the new Star Trek but felt something was missing.
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Thank you. I mostly think of it as a way of flushing some sludge out of my mental pipes.
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This post reminds me of something I’ve been noticing a lot in cultural criticism recently, particularly in upmarket places like the NYT, New Yorker, etc.: the treatment of “low” or popular culture with much more reverence and seriousness than they would have received in the past. I’m all for high-brow, probing analysis of popular phenomena, and I’m as much of a “poptimist” as anyone, but at a certain point it gets a little silly: remember a few years ago when everyone was tripping over each other to declare that Beyonce was some sort of important artistic/political figure?
It feels to me like an overcorrection for what is perceived to be years of elite (and elitist) control of culture, with the result being that the stuff that gets talked about now is often the most commercial, predictable, lowest-common-denominator stuff that doesn’t need signal boosting in the first place. I guess what I’m saying is that I agree when you say here that maybe things have become uncoupled in this way.
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Good point. There’s another complexity to the high-low distinction that I should also have pointed out: not only is it eroding as you said, but it’s changed and I’m not sure my characterization of what distinguishes high from low is correct any more. If it ever was. What gets considered high now seems to be a matter of social cachet more than depth, but maybe it was like that before too, who knows? I do suppose the mass market and now “mass” production is changing things but I’m not sure exactly how.
“What gets considered high now seems to be a matter of social cachet more than depth.”
I think you’re hitting on something important here. It occurred to me a while back that one defining feature of our era is that no one–not even highbrow intellectuals–wants to be seen as “uncool” or out of touch.
In the old days, the ruling class set itself apart and saw its elitism as a virtue, a mark of sophistication and discernment (think of the idea of “discriminating taste”). There were obvious problems with this, but as your piece suggests, this framework provided incentives for a certain amount of innovation, experimentation, complexity.
What’s interesting is that a field like architecture seems to be marked by an increasing elitism, although one masquerading as populism: the glass-and-steel towers or incoherent pomo eyesores that I don’t think anyone finds truly inspiring or humane, despite their supposed functionality or social significance. In a way it feels like the line there between high and low is bigger now than ever–pre-modern architecture feels much more universally appealing.
Perhaps there’s a through-line here or maybe architecture is just a special case.
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Architecture is a favorite case of mine as I absolutely loathe ugly examples of it. There’s no excuse. That’s why I think we lost something important when that upper middle class elitism you describe imploded. Yes, it was elitist and set itself apart from the “masses”, but it still had to appeal to a decently broad market of educated non-specialists and that kept it from being consumed with excessive sophistication signalling.
With only a small ingroupish elite they become untethered and go off exploring inhospitable territories where the audience won’t follow, and make it a point of pride not to consider this a failure and go back to try something else.
Architecture also feels like a particularly cruel example of untethered (or unhinged perhaps) ingroupish elites indulging their questionable theories, with the mass of people as their guinea pigs.
Not only is architecture visually unavoidable in a way that bad modernist art isn’t, we spend much of our lives literally inside of it. How many of the supposedly “function over form” architecture experiments of the 20th C have turned out to be completely dysfunctional as places to live and work (that is, if you take the Tom Wolfe/James Scott view here)?
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Community is a decent example. Yes, they got very meta, though it was self-referential meta. The ideas didn’t get more complex, just the number of links between the ideas.
That let the individual ideas (jokes/bits/scenes) stand on their own. So the content could still be enjoyed by newcomers, and longtime fans just got more without newcomers losing out.
That’s harder for the content creator. You have to first go up the abstraction chain yourself, and then come back down and create vernacular content that is both interesting to the newcomer *and* coherent with the abstraction world you just came down from.
The Godfather, for example, can be just a simple family/crime drama. Or it’s a meditation on power, american integration and assimilation, the Italian-American origin story, a critique on Old Europe and New America both, etc.
But fuck that’s a high bar.
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Community did a lot of play on genre conventions and such, which I think presupposes at least implicit understanding that the show lifted up and made explicit, which I liked. I don’t think anybody would’ve understood it 50 years ago.
I do think you’re right that most stuff today do “complexity” in terms of linkages, not new structures on top of the old, which is a shame.
It is truly hard to do great work that’s accessible but keeps giving more as you penetrate deeper, but I sort of expect the best creators in the world to be able to do it fairly reliably. 19th century composers wrote coherent symphonies lasting hours, and, as mentioned, animators routinely break records for “most impressive spectacle”. Why is writing (both fiction and nonfiction) not getting better like that?