Decorum (L. “propriety”) – To prepon.
As a rhetorical concept, the idea advanced in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and developed by Cicero, Quintilian and others, that style should suit subject, audience, speaker and occasion. No idea was more carefully worked out in rhetorical theory nor more universally acclaimed; everyone writing about rhetoric touches on it in one way or another. And from Horace – really from Aristotle – onward it forms a major theme of literary criticism as well. (For a detailed discussion and list of citations, see D’Alton, Roman Literary Theory and Criticism, pp. 116ff.)
In spite of its obviousness, and venerability, the idea of decorum could use some rethinking. We might notice, for example, that decorum as a stylistic criterion finally locates itself entirely in the beholder and not the speech or text. No textual pattern per se is decorous or not. The final criterion for excess, indecorum, is the stylistic self-consciousness induced by the text or social situation. We know decorum is present when we don’t notice it, and vice versa. Decorum is a gestalt established in the perceiving intelligence. Thus the need for it, and the criteria for it, can attain universal agreement and allegiance, and yet the concept itself remain without specifiable content.
The number of stylistic and behavioral variables such a judgment must take into account leave the rules which are said to inform it far behind. It becomes an intuitive judgment of the sort a modern phenomenologist might examine, dependent on deep patterns of what Michael Polanyi would call “tacit knowledge.” It thus becomes – and clearly was for classical education – not only a rhetorical criterion but a general test of basic acculturation. To know how to establish the “decorum” of a particular occasion meant that you had, as a child or a foreigner might, learned to find your footing in that culture. I’ve taken the phrase “find your footing” from Clifford Geertz, a cultural anthropologist who locates the center of anthropology in something not too different from classical decorum.
From the perspective of postmodern thought, one can also see more clearly that decorum is a creative as well as a pious concept, that it creates the social reality which it reflects. Decorum, not to put too fine an edge on it, amounts to a pious fraud, the “social trick” par excellence. We create, with maximum self-consciousness and according to precise rules, an intricate structure of stylistic forces balanced carefully as to perceiver and perceived, and then agree to forget that we have created it and to pretend that it is nature itself we are engaging with. Rhetorical theory has spent endless time discussing how to adjust utterance to this preexistent social reality without reflecting on how that reality has been constituted by the idea of decorum. Like the human visual system, rhetorical decorum is a bag of tricks which constitutes for us a world that it then presents as “just out there” awaiting our passive reception.
Further, one might even think of decorum as the origin of, and basis for, what we usually call “common sense” or “reasonability.” Richard Harvey Brown has “reformulated” reason along these lines in a brilliant essay, “Reason as Rhetorical: On Relations among Epistemology, Discourse, and Practice,” where he argues for a “reason” which seems to me isomorphic with the “decorum” of classical rhetoric.
With decorum, as so often in current thought, the basic ideas of classical rhetoric have found new life and further development in disciplines other than the study of formal rhetoric.
-Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms
Dialogue on the Metaphyics of Virtues
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Calvin and Hobbes was the comic of my childhood; there is no competition. I got my hands on every collection I could find, from Scientific Progress Goes “Boink” to Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons (which my beagle, perhaps annoyed at my lack of devotion to Snoopy, chewed up at the first opportunity). As a child, Calvin’s wild imagination was an inspiration; I could get lost in it for hours and it was something I aspired to in my own games, especially with fellow fans. As an adult, I’m amazed at how the comic speaks so directly to both 6-year-olds and 28-year-olds, and everyone between and beyond. I am also amazed at the care Watterson took in painting his sprawling, colorful landscapes that served no functional purpose beyond being the background to some philosophical musings of the titular characters. He is a true craftsman, a cartoonist for the ages.
His devotion to craftsmanship is so strong that it would be all to easy to read him as anti-commerce, anti-business when it comes to the influence those things on the art of comics. Most famously, he is very anti-licensing, and as a result we have had no Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, or Spaceman Spiff backpacks. Nevertheless, I think there is more to his position, as I understand it, than this simplified story. I think that even if we cannot reconcile him with the notion that commerce is beautiful, we can nevertheless find in his arguments a version of the bourgeois virtues.
My point of reference is his 1989 speech at the Festival of Cartoon Art, “The Cheapening of Comics”. I realize I may be critiquing a 1989 version of Watterson which the man alive today may well have moved on from. In fact, I am excited by the upcoming documentary on the state of comics that he will be participating in, precisely because I can’t wait to see how his views have evolved. Nevertheless, I found the speech so interesting that I can’t help myself, I must comment on it.
The Sacred and the Golden Age
Watterson begins his speech by discussing the comics that inspired him early in his life; he does so not simply to achieve the rhetorical end of making himself more approachable, but to lay the groundwork for his argument that there is a place for the sacred in comic strips. Peanuts is the greatest example he has to offer in this regard:
Peanuts is about the search for acceptance, security, and love, and how hard those self-affirming things are to find. The strip is also about alienation, about ambition, about heroes, about religion, and about the search for meaning and “happiness” in life. For a comic strip, it digs pretty deep.
Pogo and Krazy Kat are his other two icons of pure expression in comic strip form, with different approaches but nevertheless still reaching towards the sacred. Of the former, he said “The strip had a mood, a pace, and atmosphere that has not been seen since in comics.” Of the latter:
The strip constantly plays with its own form, and becomes a sort of essay on cartoon existentialism. The background scenery changes from panel to panel, and day can turn to night and back again during a brief conversation.
From here, Watterson proceeds to lament the state of comics at that time, making the tired argument that the golden era has already passed:
Amazingly, much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium’s history. The early cartoonists, with no path before them, produced work of such sophistication, wit, and beauty that it increasingly seems to me that cartoon evolution is working backward. Comic strips are moving toward a primordial goo rather than away from it. As a cartoonist, it’s a bit humiliating to read work that was done over 50 years ago and find it more imaginative than what any of us are doing now. We’ve lost many of the most precious qualities of comics. Most readers today have never seen the best comics of the past, so they don’t even know what they’re missing. Not only can comics be more than we’re getting today. but the comics already have been more than we’re getting today. The reader is being gypped and he doesn’t even know it.
I do not buy this argument, for the simple reason that Watterson himself was at this point squarely in the middle of Calvin and Hobbes’ phenomenal run! Like all “golden age gone by” arguments, there is a huge survivorship bias in comparing the few from the past that have survived to the present, to the many that are alive today. Watterson thinks that comics like Peanuts must have hit the comic reading community like a bombshell when they first arrived, but it is much more likely that it was simply one among many, and its greatness was not appreciated until later. Couple Sturgeon’s Law with survivorship bias and you’ll see why these types of arguments always sound persuasive no matter what era you happen to be living in.
Nevertheless, Watterson’s main argument is much deeper than reminiscing about the good old days. Watterson is frustrated by the state of the comics business, and its influence on the work that is getting done. I would summarize his point of view in the form of three arguments: first, the comics industry today is not euvoluntary. Second, at present, the sacred is being entirely sacrificed to the profane. Finally, comic artists and their business partners can do better, and should.
Exploitation in the Industry
Watterson argues that syndicates take advantage of aspiring cartoonists in a number of ways. The original, and cardinal sin is demanding that the cartoonist sign over all the rights to their creation up front. This preemptively takes away any leverage that the creator might have should their creation ever take off in popularity. If the creator doesn’t want to license their work, or doesn’t want to let business considerations change the direction of the strip, they can simply be replaced.
Watterson considers this a very bad bargain, and his arguments echo the tropes examined by Mike Munger and Sam Wilson over at Euvoluntary Exchange. On the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) that a young cartoonist in 1989 had against taking the poison pill offered him by syndicates, Watterson states:
Why does this happen? As the syndicates will tell you, no cartoonist is forced to sign the ridiculous contracts the syndicates offer. The cartoonist is free to stay in his $3.50 an hour bag boy job until he can think of a better way to get his strip in the newspapers. Simply put, the syndicates offer virtually the only shot for an unknown cartoonist to break into the daily newspaper market. The syndicates therefore use their position of power to extort rights they do not deserve.
Watterson also notes the shrinking number of newspapers, and the shrinking amount of space that they provided for comics, as compounding factors. But this also illustrates the risks and costs faced by syndicates, who did the hard work to lower transaction costs to proliferating a comic across newspapers at a time when such costs were prohibitive. A brand new comic strip faced very low odds of success at the outset, and any space it took up was space that another comic, which may have actually succeeded, could be taking up. In order for the expected return of any one comic to break even, the artists had to offer up the option value of ownership.
It need not be that way, however, as Watterson points out: the book industry offers far less onerous terms to new authors.
Now, can you imagine a novelist giving his literary agent the ownership of his characters and all reprint, television, and movie rights before the agent takes the manuscript to a publisher? Obviously, an author would have to be a raving lunatic to agree to such a deal, but virtually every cartoonist does exactly that when a syndicate demands ownership before agreeing to sell the strip to newspapers.
This is interesting, given that the BATNAs here should be similar—but perhaps they are simply not perceived as such by the respective creators in each industry. From this perspective part of Watterson’s argument could be seen as a plea for creators to take their alternatives more seriously when coming to the bargaining table. And indeed, this is the major thrust of his argument, as we will see further down.
Sacrificing the Sacred
But first, to his second argument: the potential of comic strips for inspiring agape, for allowing creators to be driven by the ethic of the craftsman, is being sacrificed at the altar of “efficiency, mass marketability, and profit, profit, profit”. He is not quite so crassly anti-commercial as he first appears, for he says early on that:
The comics are a collaborative effort on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all haves common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art.
Note the implication that business interests do not have to undermine the concerns of art, just that they are at present, and perhaps did not do so in the past (during his golden era of Peanuts, Pogo, and Krazy Kat). I read the “rocky marriage” of business and art as a nod to the reality of trade-offs. Sometimes a balance is struck in which great art is promoted in a profitable manner. Sometimes a balance is struck where profitable strategies are arrived at which sacrifice too much artistic integrity. And sometimes the balance of the moment is neither very profitable nor very artistic, though this balance cannot last forever. It’s getting stuck in the second balance that Watterson is afraid of.
There are several ways in which the profane has intruded upon the sacred in Watterson’s worldview. The first goes back to the ownership problem; syndicates have ultimate creative control. When they say jump, if the creator does not say “how high?” on cue, they can be replaced at a moment’s notice by someone from the sea of unemployed cartoonists out there.
The second debasement comes from merchandise licensing, which Watterson is so famous for abstaining from.
Some very good strips have been cheapened by licensing. Licensed products, of course, are incapable of capturing the subtleties of the original strip, and the merchandise can alter the public perception of the strip, especially when the merchandise is aimed at a younger audience than the strip is. The deeper concerns of some strips are ignored or condensed to fit the simple gag requirements of mugs and T-shirts. In addition, no one cartoonist has the time to write and draw a daily strip and do all the work of a licensing program. Inevitably, extra assistants and business people are required, and having so many cooks in the kitchen usually encourages a blandness to suit all tastes. Strips that once had integrity and heart become simply cute as the business moguls cash in. Once a lot of money and jobs are riding on the status quo, it gets harder to push the experiments and new directions that keep a strip vital. Characters lose their believability as they start endorsing major companies and lend their faces to bedsheets and boxer shorts. The appealing innocence and sincerity of cartoon characters is corrupted when they use those qualities to peddle products. One starts to question whether characters say things because they mean it or because their sentiments sell T-shirts and greeting cards. Licensing has made some cartoonists extremely wealthy, but at a considerable loss to the precious little world they created. I don’t buy the argument that licensing can go at full throttle without affecting the strip. Licensing has become a monster. Cartoonists have not been very good at recognizing it, and the syndicates don’t care.
Emphasis by me.
The final sin is a variation of the first, but perpetuated by cartoonists rather than by syndicates. It is hinted at in the passage above with the mention of “extra assistants” and “having so many cooks in the kitchen”; the established cartoonist hires assistants to produce his work for him, and merely signs his name on it once it is ready to go to print.
All of these dynamics have grown exponentially since 1989. The replaceable nature of specific creators in a franchise has been honed and perfected; turning a successful creation in one medium into every other medium conceivable has as well. And the James Pattersons are famously accused of being in a coma somewhere while a staff of ghost writers continue producing books using the highly predictable formula the actual author made his name using.
I want to push back here for a moment. I am very sympathetic to the points that Watterson makes but I happen to think that the sacred and the profane work together here in more subtle ways than he allows. There is a role for immortal business-owned franchises as well as mortal creator-owned characters. Licensing can and often does coexist with legitimate creative vision and execution. I’ll admit that there’s something fundamentally dishonest about ghostwriting, but the more charitable take is that some “creators” become a brand name for a certain quality of product, making it possible for audiences to gain a degree of predictability in finding something they know they like that would otherwise be lacking.
Moreover, there is sacredness here, for creators working their way up in the world. Just as fanfiction writers today hone their writing by borrowing other creators’ characters and worlds, so too do professional writers working for Marvel or DC comics get to hone their writing—and get paid for the trouble—by writing storylines for cherished classic characters.
Given Watterson’s feelings about the potential for art in comics involving elementary school angst and goofy alley cats, he displays a remarkable snobbery towards comic books, making an offhanded reference to “miserably done super-hero comics.” But it is clear to children who grew up reading such comics that the spark of the divine can be found here, as well. You can see it in an interview with Joss Whedon getting choked up talking about his pitch for a Batman movie that got rejected—people invest a lot of feeling into these franchises, and as creators they want to make their mark.
I also reject Watterson’s special concern for licensing as a source of corruption, as it implies art is only pure when there are no external influences on the creator. He asks us how we can trust that a creator’s characters are saying what they say because of values internal to the creation rather than because it will sell well on a coffee mug, but this is all too convenient a stopping place. How do we know that Calvin said what he said because it worked well with an artistic vision rather than because Watterson didn’t want to make it marketable? This is no reductio ad absurdum—Brian K. Vaughan specifically chose the opening words for the excellent comic Saga in order to dissuade agents from thinking about optioning it for a film. And it doesn’t detract from Saga’s greatness at all—nor does Charlie Brown appearing on MetLife commercials detract from the greatness of Peanuts.
Art, like virtue, is a balancing act—you must balance internal considerations for what you desire to accomplish with the plot, how you want your characters to develop, what sort of visual impacts you want to create, and so on. These are as much a “rocky marriage” as the marriage between them and more external considerations—who your implied audience is, whether there are enough such people to pay your bills, and if so, whether your agent or the syndicate or a publisher can be persuaded as such. To name but a few.
Art is the balance that is struck across all of these factors, not just the internal ones. Sometimes this means taking the Austin Kleon approach (or the one I recommend here) and keeping a day job unrelated to your art, so that what you actually create focuses primarily on striking the internal balance. That is ultimately where Watterson ended up, after he left the public limelight at the end of Calvin and Hobbes’ run.
Often, though, the things we think of as truly great were created by striking the best balance creators were capable of out in the marketplace—in partnership with the many merchants and middlemen who operate in that space. If we judge this process by the average quality of its output, for a sufficiently high standard of quality, we risk falling into the same Sturgeon’s law plus survivorship bias trap that Watterson did.
Of course most art created in the market is mediocre. Most art is mediocre, period. But the aspirational ethic of the craftsman can and does persist and thrive in an atmosphere of beautiful commerce.
Bill Watterson’s Bourgeois Virtues
Nevertheless, no morally serious conversation around creators and creations should ignore the ultimate aim of Watterson’s speech.
The last section of the speech is what you might think of as a call to arms. With a humble admission that he is not a businessman, Watterson lists a few ideas for how the comic business might be changed in order to better promote the artistic values that are important to him. One example:
But suppose someone published a quality cartoon magazine. Imagine full-color, big comics in a lush, glossy format. Why not?
This was already an established practice—though usually not full-color, at least not for every issue—in Japan. The culture of comics and animation in Japan has been different from America’s for a long time, in ways that Watterson would approve of. For instance, they do not consider comics to be primarily a children’s medium.
Watterson’s examples are laden with a lot of anti-commercial rhetoric, but when he comes to his ultimate point it’s a different story:
My point is simply that cartoons are not necessarily doomed to increasing stupidity and crude craftsmanship. With the right publishing, comics can move into whole new worlds we’ve never seen. Moreover, I think any effort to improve the quality of comics would very likely be rewarded in the marketplace. Think of the people who cut out certain comics to put on refrigerators, or to put in scrapbooks, or to send in letters, or to stick on their office walls. Give them a nicely printed, big color comic on good paper and see if they don’t jump. I think the public would respond if there was a publisher out there with an ounce of vision. For too long, syndicates and cartoonists have been congratulating themselves whenever things don’t get worse. I don’t think that’s good enough. This very weekend we’ve got syndicate executives, cartoonists, readers, and newspaper people all together. let’s knock some heads together and see what we can do. Let’s ask people what they’re doing to improve the state of comics.
Folks, if Deirdre McCloskey is right, this is the attitude that lifted hundreds of millions of people out of the subsistence farming of their ancestors. This is the vision of a better future, the willingness to imagine that circumstances are not fixed. This is the living and breathing bourgeois virtues, still with us and still very important.
And Watterson was not just talk—he walked the walk where licensing was concerned. And he fought for every square inch of Sunday comics he could get in order to be able to do his beautiful, sprawling landscapes despite the huge premium on space.
The comic industry has not stood still since 1989, as I’m sure the upcoming documentary Watterson is a part of will discuss. Creator-owned brands like Image have popped up. Webcomics have provided a new option for the creator who wants at least one project where they needn’t take into consideration marketability. Things like Humble Bundle and ComiXology and Paypal make it easier for creators to sell their creations to an audience directly, and Kickstarter makes it possible to get per-project funding up front. These things all came about from a combination of prudent business dealing and aspirations for building a better world.
I see “The Cheapening of Comics” as a prime example of how important McCloskey’s project is of reviving a morally serious conversation about the morality of bourgeois life. The bourgeois virtues are all in there, they are, but they’re stuck in the anti-commercial narratives that we’ve all been fed by the writerly class since the middle of the 19th century. It’s time to move on. Let’s begin again with a conversation on the marriage of artistic aspirations and beautiful commerce.
Hustle is in many ways the master virtue of New York City, and especially of Manhattan. So it may come as a bit of a surprise when I say that most of my struggle with this sometimes-virtue, sometimes-vice occurred before moving here.
2008 was a year that required a great deal of hustle from me. I met Catherine, and so began that terribly awkward dance that is what passes for wooing on my part. I got my first non-retail job, 40 miles away from where I was living at the time. I started grad school, which involved two or three night classes a week, more than 40 miles away from where I worked. And at that point, I was living about a half hour drive away from where Catherine was.
There was a lot of time spent on the road. So much so that I moved on from the family car to a brand new one I bought myself. Nevertheless, it was a tiring thing, to drive so very much. I very quickly grew sick of it, though podcasts helped to ease the pain.
Crunched for time on so many sides, I embraced hustle to what was in retrospect an unhealthy degree. My average driving speed, when traffic allowed it, was 80 mph. That was the average, to repeat—I frequently exceeded it. I fought for even inch of gain I could, weaving around slowpokes (by my skewed standard of slowness) without hesitation.
This embrace of hustle went beyond my driving. I would push my way past people into elevators, almost knock people over on the sidewalk, and so on. Got into a couple of nasty spats for no good reason.
I was already in the process of dialing back on this when we came to New York, but coming here actually helped me get to a healthier place in a number of ways. First of all, I was no longer driving regularly, though I’d like to think I would be more responsible and more calm on the road even if I was. Second, it is impossible to be the person with the most hustle in New York City. It just is. It’s a fractally nested hierarchy of hustle. There’s no point trying to be at the top, so you just shouldn’t.
Finally, it became clear to me, as it already had been becoming clear, that unbalanced hustle doesn’t help anyone. Peace of mind matters, and so does being charitable to strangers. Today, for instance, I’m willing to accept a longer commute in order to avoid having to switch trains, or to minimize the amount of times I do so. In the past, I would try and fight for every minute I could get—but in the end I have to ask myself, what’s the point? I’d rather be relaxed and leave a little earlier if I have to than give up my peace of mind to shorten my journey by five or ten minutes. And I don’t want to remember myself as the asshole who knocked someone’s grandmother off her feet so he could achieve his aspirations of being a minute faster.
Hustle is part of New York’s charm and also one of its frustrations. Like all virtues, it must be balanced with the others; such as temperance, prudence, and love.
A few years ago, when I was shelving books at Borders, Oprah’s Book Club—that gold standard of the book biz—had a bit of a scandal. A Million Little Pieces, a book about the author sinking into a life of drug abuse and crime and then finding redemption, turned out to be basically fabricated (Wikipedia charitably calls it “semi-fictional”). And this after Oprah’s endorsement—how embarrassing!
But why would anyone pretend to have sunk to lower depths than they really had? What is this modern fascination with redemption stories?
Redemption stories are nothing new, of course, and a taste for them is far from unique to we moderns. Witness the Prodigal Son, a story told to christendom for thousands of years. But I do think there is something particularly modern about our craving for stories like A Million Little Pieces, aside from those elements of the story which are, of course, specific to our era.
There’s an element of voyeurism and virtuous people living vicariously through other people’s stories of debauchery, of course. This less than noble but fairly harmless impulse is behind such recent successes as Netflix’s House of Cards. Or, in history, behind the success of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
But I believe that there’s more to it than that, even. We live in a morally uncertain era. Despite the continuing existence of Christianity, the West is for the most part post-christian in its moral reasoning—even among most practicing Christians. We have gone from having the laws of right and wrong inscribed in the cosmos by an Almighty God to the little gods conjured up by Reason. These little gods do not really persuade; for one thing, they rarely have anything to say about actual decisions made in the course of a human life.
What draws us to the story of redemption is the power of the virtues required to walk down that path. It takes less self-command to avoid doing drugs in the first place than it does to overcome an addiction nursed over many years. It takes less courage to “Just Say No” than to try to rebuild the trust that you have squandered, with the knowledge that at best it will take years and at worst you may never be able to get it back. It requires a greater sense of justice to take responsibility for your own actions when those actions have caused a great deal of harm, than when they have not. And, perhaps most crucially, it requires greater generosity to forgive such a person, allowing the audience to indulge in feeling virtuous after indulging in vicarious sin.
The addict and criminal struggling for redemption shines brightly, much more brightly than those who had the prudence to avoid such debauchery in the first place.
This is not healthy. The man who works three modestly paying jobs to provide for his family, and never allows himself to fall into a cycle of self-destruction, has a moral fiber a thousand times greater than those who fail to destroy themselves and manage to find their way back to the light. The woman who lives modestly for many years to get her PhD and then works hard to pay off her student loans is incalculably superior to even the greatest Saint of Redemption.
Our fixation on such stories is the fault of our storytelling class, who Deirdre McCloskey refers to as “the clerisy”. I share McCloskey’s goal to revive “a serious ethical conversation about middle-class life, the life of towns, the forum and agora.” The conversation about this bourgeois life of ours has not been ethically serious since at least 1848. This does not mean that bourgeois life has been immoral—just that moral thinking on the questions that matter to our daily lives has been confused, to say the least.
We should not need to hit rock bottom to discover what a good life looks like, nor should we require others to do so. I understand the appeal of the redemption story—I have lived one myself (a very, very tame one by the standards of A Million Little Pieces). It is indeed praiseworthy to turn your life around; it should not be forgotten that many who walk down the road of self-destruction never manage to return. But whatever praise we may feel someone deserves for it must be balanced against the harm they did to the people around them, and to themselves, before being redeemed.
Dialogue on the Role of Moral Philosophy
@PyrrhicRational Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is excellent, as well http://www.econlib.org/library/LFBooks/Burke/brkSWv2c0.html …
@PyrrhicRational “The Use of Knowledge in Society” is good as well, and has the virtue of being short and online: http://www.econlib.org/library/Essays/hykKnw1.html …
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At the beginning of the year, Eli and Jerry asked if I would write for an online magazine they were going to launch. The Ümlaut launched at the end of January with a piece I wrote on the long tail. I reread Chris Anderson’s book for the piece, which was a fun exercise as I was really just beginning to explore the digital landscape when the book was originally published.
It was very humbling to be asked on board by Eli and Jerry, as, if I may say so, those guys are a way bigger deal than I am—they’ve drawn more attention to themselves, they’re known in the technology and policy space, and they have an institution like Mercatus behind them. I’m just a guy writing about the stuff I’m interested in when I’m not at my day job.
When I started writing for The Ümlaut, I wondered if I would be able to keep it up for the once a week pace that they originally had all the initial authors stick to. I also wasn’t too sure if I could be disciplined enough to write 600 to 1,000 word pieces. At the time, my writing had slowed down to once a month at most, and it usually came in the form of 2,000 to 3,000 word pieces, and beyond—like this one.
It’s actually surprised me how easy it has been. I have questions on my mind, I always have. I deal with such questions by reading, talking with people online and in person, and then writing about them. Churning out a piece week after week has allowed me to follow lines of thoughts much further than I otherwise would have, in the space of a year. Writing pieces between 600 and 1,000 words long has forced me to focus; what might have been a 2,000 word piece might work fine as two or three shorter pieces. In fact, so far, it has been better.
In fact, I ended up writing more than necessary. My natural state this year has been, for the most part, two or three weeks ahead of where I need to be. And I’ve still written the odd longer piece—I just bring it back over here to do so. And I write personal pieces over here, and some geeky things that wouldn’t really be appropriate even for The Ümlaut’s very broad mandate.
Writing pieces like this has become like second nature to me. When I burn through my queue and only have a day or two left before Monday, I’ve found that I can usually churn out a first draft of a 600 or more word piece in less than an hour. It’s no exaggeration to say that I think about and talk about this stuff fairly constantly, with Twitter being a perpetual conversation machine in this regard. So I usually have two or three partly baked ideas that I can get something from in a pinch.
I had such an easy time that I thought it might be high time to start working towards getting to that same point for fiction writing. My idea for doing this was fairly straightforward: writing nonfiction four times a month had been a great experience, maybe doing that for fiction would help me develop in that area.
I’m not really satisfied with the results. I didn’t think I was being very demanding of myself—I told myself I could write literally any length of fiction, even a single paragraph, as long as I did it four times each month. But in practice since I didn’t give myself a set time when I’d do it (since I didn’t give myself a set time for writing nonfiction) I just put it off and then it started to feel kind of like a burden. While I’m glad I finally did get myself to write some fiction, the fact is that I didn’t write anything of the sort in November or December.
I’m not going to give up, though. I’m actually OK with a creative process that has fits and starts, I just also think that I need to build good habits if I want to get anywhere. So I’m going to be drawing some inspiration from Austin Kleon and change things up a bit in 2014.
I can’t overstate how happy I am with the experience of writing at The Ümlaut, though. I’ve got 49 pieces and growing over there. Some questions I’ve looked at:
Is mankind tending towards more diversity or more homogeneity, and if the latter, does this mean that we are globally becoming a single point of failure? Pieces in this topic:
- My first piece on the long tail and mass production
- My piece on the Amish as a source of diversification; I went through something of an obsession with the Amish when I was reading up on them for this piece. Poor Catherine was sick of hearing about them.
- Why I think filter bubbles and the daily me are rubbish, and we actually have more common ground than we used to.
- The Academic Schools, a piece on how lower levels of cross-discipline work actually creates a greater diversity of perspectives in scholarly fields.
- A look at Taleb’s point of view on GMO, and the followup piece on risk in social change in general. The Twitter conversation around these pieces was half the fun!
This year I also struggled with the question of what role stories play in human affairs—and under “stories” I also put things like theory and ideology.
- A Race of Storytellers is, if I’m being honest, a rehash of stuff I’ve said elsewhere.
- Institutional Spamfighting makes the case that formal rules matter very little relative to unarticulated practical knowledge.
- The Dogma of Central Banking basically says the same thing as the previous post, but applies it specifically to macroeconomics. Macro theory is just a bunch of storytellers, central banking is a practice that bears little relationship to the theory. I’m honestly not sure if I believe this as strongly as I worded it.
- This piece claimed that ideology and headline politics have nothing to do with electoral outcomes, next to big things like movements in the economy or catastrophes. It’s my Mandate of Heaven theory of democracy, which I’ve wanted to write about ever since I learned about the concept in Chinese history.
- Science is a Bourgeois Pastime was probably the ultimate form of this line of thought—draws heavily on Taleb and McCloskey, and looks at this material again from a less hostile perspective.
Last year I intended to write a paper that combined ideas from Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations, Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, and Sowell’s Knowledge and Decisions. Life got in the way, and I didn’t end up writing that paper. But writing at The Ümlaut gave me the opportunity to following related trains of thought.
- It all culminated, really, with this post over here. Along with the thinkers mentioned above it threw in stuff I had gleamed from Paul Adams’ Grouped and Oakeshott’s writing, as well as writing about Oakeshott’s philosophy. I’m still in the process of fleshing this out further for a paper, drawing on developments in network science from giants such as Albert-László Barabási.
- The probabilistic stuff is highly inspired by Nassim Taleb, and Chris Reid has a great roundup of my Ümlaut pieces applying this framework and his thinking to policy and analyzing the structure of government.
- Institutions Matter is pretty self-explanatory. Too many people talk in generalities like “government” or “markets” or “society”. Let’s talk about the common law, or the NOAA, or supply chains.
How do you live with the knowledge that you’re fundamentally biased and flawed?
- A Cathedral of Their Own was inspired by a post by Jordan, and was about the futile but never ending craving for certainty, but also how fun it is to wrestle with the uncertain.
- Portrait of an Irrational Mind is much more about the theory of self that emerges from familiarity with the behavioral economics and cognitive science literature.
- This followup post is highly naval gazing, mostly coming to terms with the fact that I became very libertarian in a very short period of time, and now feel myself drifting from that somewhat. Includes a They Might Be Giants song and the statement “I came down with a chronic case of libertarianism”.
There’s a bunch of posts that fall under the header of—what is a good life? How can we improve our lot, make the most of what we have? Maybe it’s a sign of getting older, but I’m finding this question increasingly more interesting than larger, ideal-policy type questions.
- Break the Cycle of Web Addition offers the best advice that I’ve been terrible at following. It boils down to: limit the time you dive into rapidly updating sources of information like Twitter, but when you do dive in, dive deep. Then spend long periods of times reading long essay, or writing, or working on something that requires your absolute attention for extended periods of time—it can even be video games. I like to think I’m much closer to this ideal than I was when I wrote it, but I’m still not very close.
- How to Survive a Major Media Event was written after I saw people hurting themselves by following every tiny detail (true or false) that came out about the Boston marathon bombing the day the event happened and the day the perpetrators were being hunted down. Not worth it. This is advice that I do stick to, and always have.
- Better Living Through Video Games makes the claim that video games can be rewarding. I stand by this.
- The Option Value of Satisfying Work is based on an ethic passed down to me from my parents, who said that the point of work was the provide for yourself and your family, and you can always devote yourself to what you love in your free time. I’m proud of this piece and wouldn’t change a word of it.
- The Universe is Indifferent to Your Illusion of Control is something I want to scream from the rooftops sometimes. Too many of my news and policy minded friends immiserate themselves by focusing intensely on things that they cannot control. You are only ever a small part of a larger whole. Pretending otherwise is no more wise than swallowing a porcupine.
- This post over here is about improving your life by paying attention to and participating in the right conversations. This includes treating the sort of news you consume as part of ongoing conversations—it’s why I read industry publications but don’t read CNN, why I read Marginal Revolution but don’t read The New York Times.
- Virtue is a Desire Modification Technology is the result of a seed that was planted over a year ago when I read Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues but wasn’t quite sure what I had read. The next step came when I read Seneca, who Taleb had recommended. Now I’m kind of diving into Virtue Ethics head first, seeing where it takes me.
There were also a couple of one-off pieces I was proud of that don’t quite fit neatly into the threads above.
- Death in the Modern World is probably the piece I am proudest of writing, perhaps ever.
- The Matt Bruenig piece I’m also proud of, for different reasons. He and I have very different points of view, but I wanted to represent him both fairly and correctly, so I asked for his help, which he freely gave. I had to scrap my first draft entirely (I actually turned pieces of it into two short posts) because I got him completely wrong. Then I wasn’t sure how to even write about him in an interesting way. I returned to one essay by Oakeshott and it turned out to be the perfect response to Bruenig’s thinking. Most of all, I was happy to write about someone I disagreed with in a constructive way.
Writing has always been a part of my life, since I was a little kid. But very lately I have begun to feel the payoff of having spent so many years on it, and it makes it so much more enjoyable to invest yet more time into it.
I can’t wait to get started writing stuff for 2014.