Craft, Community, and Healthy Ambition

I wrote for The Umlaut for a little less than two years, January 2013 – October 2014. My perspective on many of the topics I wrote about then has changed so much that I rarely revisit any of the posts there. One that I do find myself going back to again and again is a May 2013 piece called The Option Value of Satisfying Work. The argument of that piece is straightforward: you will almost never be able to do what you love in order to support yourself financially. So do what you love because you love it, and put it online so that there is a chance, however small, that your work will be discovered.

[T]he perfect balance is committing to only those crafts that you can perform with satisfaction even if you have to do so in utter obscurity. Then, put your work out in public as part of the process itself — if you’re making homebrew beer or an Arduino hack, make a video or write about the process as a means to think harder about the details of it. If you’re a writer, think of putting it online as simply having the work backed up in one more place.

In this way, you open yourself up to the spectrum of possibilities, ranging from utter obscurity at one end to global fame at the other. Far more likely is something closer to the obscurity end but much more satisfying — that you will draw the attention of a relative few who share your interests.

The last remark about drawing the attention of other enthusiasts was parenthetical, an aside. But I’ve come to think that it is the point.

Romantic notions of the lone artistic genius aside, it is hard to become good at something and harder still to find satisfaction in it without a community. But if you fix your gaze upon the Prize, the slim chance that this craft will turn into your livelihood (or the much slimmer chance that it will bring you fame or fortune), satisfaction and community are likely to elude you. Odds are, you will also miss your chance to develop skills of the first rate.

Community is not simply a nice word for mutual exploitation. A friend who you associate with primarily because they are useful to you is no friend at all; or rather, you are no friend to them, and your friendship is a sham.

And yet, there is no shame in being ambitious. There is no shame in wanting good work to be acknowledged. It is not healthy to obsess over what is not likely to come to pass, but it isn’t bad to wish there was a way to make your living doing what you love.

Over the years, I’ve connected with many young people who yearn to be successful public intellectuals in some capacity. I see it as my role in that situation to disenchant them, to make the odds of achieving such a station clear. But disenchanting does not mean discouraging. A chapter of my long-abandoned book encouraged people to be imaginative when considering their options but clear-eyed about the trade-offs; are you willing to make some serious sacrifices in order to make a real go at the career you want? Or does it make more sense to assume you will never get that career, and try to get jobs which leave you with enough freedom the rest of the time to do what you love?

But on the whole, the healthiest expression of ambition is internal to a community. To work to make friends and find peers who you are not afraid to make mistakes in front of, but whose respect and praise you value. To strive to become skilled enough at the craft you love to earn their respect, and continue earning it with each new creation. To be able to keep on growing, rather than hitting a comfortable plateau and staying there. Such growth is not possible in the first place without finding a community of this kind.

My communities

I love to write. I have always loved to write. For a long time, writing was the point, the main thing in itself. That is part of why engaging in the craft itself is the main focus of that Umlaut post from seven years ago.

After The Umlaut began to wind down, as such communities do, some friends and I launched a little group blog called Sweet Talk. The first post was in May of 2014. It lasted a little longer than The Umlaut, winding down at the end of 2016 (with some dribs and drabs being posted thereafter). Sweet Talk was loads of fun, and many of my dearest friends that I have today I first connected with during that time. I operated it on a fairly promiscuous basis; I invited people to write for us and if they said yes, I gave them carte blanche to post whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. It worked remarkably well for a remarkably long time, until, predictably, it did not.

Liberal Currents, launched in March of 2017 and still ongoing (as it will continue to be for the foreseeable future, thank you very much!) is an actual publication. We greenlight articles on a submission-by-submission basis; no one has an open invitation to publish whatever they want whenever they want. In theory I do, but in practice I never publish anything that our editors have serious reservations about, at least without a frank conversation and revisions.

Somewhere along the way, my writing has become a secondary priority to community-building. I learned some hard lessons from Sweet Talk, but I also wouldn’t change a thing about that experience. I’m also rather older now than when I began. The thing I enjoy most about Liberal Currents is the chance it provides to engage in a bit of mentorship; to be a voice that young writers will listen to and to help promote their work. Getting published by us also means access to our Discord, where several dozen writers and patrons can be found in conversation every day.

There’s a certain irony to all this, too, because I have never taken the quality of my writing more seriously than I do now. At The Umlaut I would run with half-baked ideas and see where they led me, usually applying something from cognitive science or a Nassim Taleb book or some other mediocre foundation. At Sweet Talk I was really engaging in a process of public learning; I don’t regret it, and in fact gained a great deal from it, but most of the 200 or so posts I wrote there are not worth much beyond the exercise of writing them. Towards the end I began to take each individual piece of writing more seriously. While I’m not proud of every one of the 34 articles and essays I have written at Liberal Currents, I have worked quite hard on each of them. To take a recent example, I read hundreds of articles and constructed a timeline of events in order to write my evaluation of the media ecosystem’s performance during the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak. Less concretely, I tried very hard to make my article on Mohamed Bouazizi good from a writing perspective. I am proud of the result but I leave it to the reader to determine if that pride is merited.

But I do not think it is coincidental that I have worked harder at the quality of what I write even as community has become a larger priority. When you are out there writing on your own, it is very easy to become solipsistic and, to put it bluntly, blow smoke up your own ass. The first draft of my article on the media ecosystem was a hit piece on the conservative media’s response. But as I wrote it, I anticipated the criticisms of several people I respect who I know were likely to comment on it. And so I dug deeper and tried to provide more evidence. Only it became clear that my whole argument was simply wrong. So I threw out that draft and started performing a more serious survey of coverage across a lot of different outlets.

One of those people whose response I anticipated, Adam Elkus, once said that whether or not you are capable of becoming a lifelong learner, on the one hand, or stagnate and even see your horizons shrink, on the other, has everything to do with your friendships and your community. I still cultivate the “option value” of my work, leaving open the possibility of really taking off. But I spend much more time cultivating my community, and the rewards have been immeasurable.

Highlights from the Year So Far

This year has not…quite…gone as expected. Remarkable that on March 10th I was writing about constitutionalism without any tip of the hat to the unfolding events. Then again, fixating on an unrelated topic to avoid the matter at hand is a rather predictable tendency of mine. Especially if that unrelated topic involves a lot of reading and writing and arguing.

I’ve been getting that itch to write again, but I’ve just recently completed a rather large writing project and don’t have something else specific I’m working on. So I thought I’d go through some updates here.

Liberal Currents

At the beginning of February we launched a Patreon for Liberal Currents. The immediate goal was simply to get enough to begin paying authors, which we accomplished in the first week. I’ve been blown away by the support we received, especially with the level of support from each individual patron.

By this point last year I had not written a single piece on Liberal Currents, and would not until July. In 2020 I’ve written four so far, two of which I put a significant amount of work into, and the most recent involved more research than I have done for a single piece in many years.

Sometime in February, Jason Briggeman floated the idea of writing a piece about Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation had sparked a series of mass protests that spread and became The Arab Spring (to summarize simplistically). I was a bit unsure about the idea, as I didn’t know what there was to be said about Bouazizi specifically.

The idea was to put up the piece on what would have been Bouazizi’s birthday. I began digging into what was known about him and decided that I ought to use this as an opportunity to try and grow as a writer. I have a tendency to write highly analytical, argument-driven pieces, but I have a great admiration for writers like my friend Dave. Dave filled Sweet Talk with posts that were both beautiful and invited his readers to approach wisdom, without hitting them over the head with it. I have also been reading essays by James Baldwin, for whom the beauty of his prose was also coterminous with the wisdom contained therein. Notably, both of these men are novelists as much as nonfiction writers.

I would not utter my final result in the same sentence as a work produced by either of these talents, but I was quite pleased with it. Of course, by Bouazizi’s birthday, March 29th, everyone had something quite different on their minds than revising the personal story of the man who inadvertently began mass protests back in 2011. All the same, I hope you’ll consider reading it.

My most recent piece is more in line with how I typically write, but producing it was quite an endeavor. As the pandemic steamrolled everything else, I first sat down, in March, to write a hit piece about the conservative media. It was going to be a straight application of my narrative of the conservative media insurgency to those figures in that ecosystem who at that point were claiming that shutdowns were nothing more than a liberal attempt to tank the economy and hurt Donald Trump’s reelection chances. Only as I began to do the research for the piece, the reality did not appear nearly so one-sided. The mainstream and liberal press made many glaring mistakes as well as bad faith maneuvers in the early days of the outbreak.

As my family and I fled to my parents’ home in order to have access to a better hospital situation when our second son was born (as he was, safely and without complication, on April 27th), I tabled the piece. But the question of how the media had performed, and how one would even go about evaluating it, stuck with me. Some individuals who had been sounding the alarm early, like Matt Parlmer and Balaji S. Srinivasan, had blistering critiques of the media’s coverage as a whole. A locked account that I follow pushed back on this category of critiques, saying “I don’t know what people mean when they say the media failed in its coronavirus coverage. I followed the outbreak from the beginning and was only able to do so through the media.” Then there was the blog and social media aspect; a Medium post in early March had gone so wildly viral that it was a subject of conversation at my place of work, with members of my team specifically recommending it to me.

When I began to rethink the piece, Adam Rust and I talked about a collaboration. We would use the media performance during the Spanish Flu as a historical point of reference. He would write about that, and I would write about how the media performed today. So I went and gathered more and more sources, ultimately amassing something like 200 (the exact number is kinda arbitrary to pin down because some were tweets, some were essays, most were articles but some articles I used for constructing a timeline of events rather than for evaluating coverage).

The more I read, the harder a time I had formulating a one-liner version of my evaluation. So once I finished my research, I sat down and simply tried to write something out. The first draft, completed maybe an hour before we went to the hospital for the baby to be born, clocked in at 6,000 words. Rust was kind enough to provide feedback on this draft, but suggested that expanding it by writing an additional section on the Spanish Flu was probably ill-advised. Between his feedback and my father’s (who I probably would have solicited it from regardless given the topic but it was nice to be able to discuss it in person) I shaved the piece down to 5500 words and, more importantly, significantly restructured it.

For such a monster of a piece, it has been among the more successful at Liberal Currents this year. The Neoliberal Project folks liked it so much that they invited me onto their podcast.

I’ve been babbling on about my pieces, but we’ve published ten others so far this year. In addition, our pipeline is as robust as it has ever been—it turns out more people will write for you when you pay them for their work! Liberal Currents has grown in general, in its audience, its social media following, its contributor base, and as mentioned, its revenue. It’s all happening as an unprecedented disaster rocks the world, so it’s easy to lose sight of. But I’m extremely proud of everything we’ve accomplished since we launched three years ago.

The research project

As I mentioned at the outset, my research project is broken up into four reading lists. I made the conscious choice not to share those lists because I planned to be updating them as I went, while keeping them roughly the same length (with the exception of the fourth list, which is more of a place to dump things that would be nice to get to some day).

As an outsider to the fields I am reading up on, my initial lists were self-consciously tentative based on extremely limited knowledge of what I even needed to know. As I read more, and connected directly with more scholars for recommendations, I substituted the books I originally put on the list for better, more relevant, more authoritative texts.

However, at this point I have almost completed the first list, which I had set a (quite conservative) goal of completing by October. It is the only one of the lists I put a deadline on; essentially I wanted this list to give me the bare-bones basics of what I’d need to write the piece I hope to write in November.

It will be a stretch to finish the second list in time, but I think I can realistically get through half of it; hopefully more! Getting to the third list is extremely unlikely, and starting the fourth list by the end of the year is, I think it is safe to say, impossible.

At this point I can share the first list, though:

I can’t even begin to say how much I have learned, compared to how little I knew at the start, and I still know so much less than I need to. As you may have noticed, I began by writing reviews of each to help me absorb them a bit better, as well as some more gut-responses here. I intended to write a joint review of Congress’s Constitution and The Politics of War Powers and still may, but the pandemic intervened; my family left our home temporarily and the books stayed behind. I will undoubtedly write a great deal more and revisit many of these numerous times, but doing it one by one (or even two by two) was simply going to take too long.

I’d love to have the forthcoming Congress Overwhelmed on this list but it looks like the review copy won’t be coming soon enough. Hopefully it’ll make it in time for the second list.

Murderbot

The last few years I’d tried to balance nonfiction reading with novels, but my constitutionalism project has left little room for that this year. After reading The Last Policeman trilogy in December and January—a good series, though it probably could have been a single book rather than a trilogy—I didn’t read any other novels. But then Network Effects, the first full-length novel novel in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, came out, and it seemed an opportune moment to take a break from the research project.

I cannot recommend that series enough. As I mentioned, the latest one is the only novel-length part of the series; the first four are novellas. All Systems Red, the first in the series, can be obtained for two bucks and is a very quick read. If you like science fiction at all, or fun, campy series, (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer for example), you owe it to yourself to give this one a try. I’d love if it took off and we got a Netflix series out of it.

I can’t imagine I’ll be getting to too many more novels this year unfortunately, with the tight timeline I have for my research project. But it was definitely worth the detour for this particular one.

That’s all I’ve got. Thanks for those of you interested enough in what I’m working on to read through infodumps like this.

Disrupting My Book Reviews

This year at Liberal Currents we started going in for book reviews fairly seriously. I picked up two books with the intention of reviewing them together, but am having trouble producing anything worth publishing. So, as is my way, I’m going to spitball a bit here.

I was happy with how pairing two books turned out for my review of Daniel Okrent’s Guarded Gates on the immigration restriction battles and eugenics at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries. I reviewed it together with Thomas Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers, which, published in 2016, was the source of my interest (some would say obsession) with Okrent’s topic. The two books take very different approaches and the subject matter does not line up one to one; Leonard is an academic historian whose topic is primarily the history of economics as a discipline. Okrent is a popular writer who, while diligent in his research, is focusing on telling a compelling story about interesting characters. More importantly, Okrent’s net is much wider. The more I read Okrent’s book, the more I worried that the approach of pairing the books would prove unfeasible for a review. But I found the right angle and I’m happy with how the piece has turned out.

My experience with my current pair was, if anything, the opposite. I had a specific goal in mind when I obtained a copy of Super Pumped, Mike Isaac’s book about Uber: I wanted to see if there was anything to my father’s framing of the primary intraelite conflict being between tech entrepreneurs on the one hand and east coast establishment types on the other, and Uber seemed like a good lens for that. The best lens; no one has thrown down harder against established elites who have gotten in their way than Uber.

I then learned (through conversation with my father, as it happens) of the book Conspiracy, by Ryan Holiday, about the destruction of Gawker by Peter Thiel. I thought, vaguely, that I could deepen my investigation by adding another tech elite’s activities. My first surprise here was to find that Thiel/Uber did not make a very meaningful parallel at all, whereas Gawker, as described by Holiday anyway, basically operated like a media version of Uber without the deep VC pockets to bail it out of any problem.

But there the parallels largely run dry. I wanted to make some general point about the exercise of power and how hard it can be to tell, in the moment, who really has it—Holiday has a great line, after describing an incident in which Gawker ignored an injunction from a Florida judge:

We asked earlier who the underdog was in the dynamic. It is probably not the party that can defy an order from a judge and get away with it.

ignoring legal orders is the benchmark for power, then Uber is in a league of its own. In October of 2010, just four months after the first Uber user hailed a ride, officials from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency showed up at their headquarters to serve them a cease and desist order. The company, then known as UberCab, was in violation of local regulations, and could face fines up to $5,000 per trip, while the company’s management faced up to ninety days of jail time per day they remained in operation.

Isaac sets the scene:

Graves was scared. “What are we supposed to do here? He said aloud, reading his name on a piece of paper that said he could be going to jail. Hayes, the venture capitalist, wasn’t sure what to say. He was used to investing in consumer tech companies, but rarely (if ever) did they run afoul of the law. Geidt, just a few months out of college, stood quiet and nervous, too. This was her first foray into the professional world. Now she was looking a jail time.

Kalanick didn’t miss a beat. “We ignore it,” he said to the room.”

And that was that. They dropped “Cab” from their name and moved on.

This was their first year. Over the next seven years, Uber would not only break numerous local laws with impunity, they would develop a whole playbook for doing so effectively. In Philadephia, where the battle with local authorities was especially fierce, they would rack up 120,000 violations adding up to a $12 million fine. Uber is available in Philadelphia to this day—and in a settlement they managed to get that fine cut down by more than two thirds, to $3.5 million.

The proximate source of Uber’s power in this regard is quite simple: investors had given them an unbelievable amount of cash with basically no strings attached other than the mandate to grow, grow, grow. This allowed them to hire top talent, of course; talent which allowed them to develop sophisticated strategies for staying ahead of local enforcers, among other things. But far more important and not sophisticated by any stretch was their ability to simply throw money at problems. This included paying for expensive lawyers, of course, but also being able to promise drivers that “all costs associated” with run-ins with local regulators would be covered by Uber. During their doomed play for the Chinese market, Uber spent $40-50 million a week in subsidies alone, to entice drivers away from competitors.

Gawker did not have that kind of war chest, though it had very good liability insurance. Thiel, of course, did have the money to burn trying to take Gawker down, and that’s precisely what he did.

But here I find myself dissatisfied with where a potential review would go. Will it really boil down to “money = power”? The halo around tech “disruptors” and being part of the “rude” (but specifically rude and lefty) press plays an important role too, but this amounts to little more than pointing out that money and status are power. Hardly Earth-shattering stuff; not much meat to sink your teeth into.

Ultimately the books are incompatible in the lessons I would want to draw about them. Conspiracy raises some important questions about a court system too expensive for even, as Thiel put it, “single digit millionaires” to afford, as well as the tension between privacy and freedom of expression, and other press-and-judiciary related questions. Super Pumped, on the other hand, is simply a book I would want to give to all my old libertarian buddies, as well as anyone in finance, and anyone too enthusiastic about disruption per se as an approach to creating progress. I think the end of replacing taxi cartels with services like Uber is a good one in principle; I also think one would be hard pressed to square the means Uber employed to that end with even the rule of law as an ideal, even in the most minimal conceivable formulation.

Rather than deepening the material for approaching the same set of questions, pairing these two books seems simply to multiply the set of questions to be addressed. So I think I’m going to have to bite the bullet and drop one of them, probably Conspiracy, which offers a more unique and therefore less generalizable scenario.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been failing to write this Thanksgiving break. Hope you all had an enjoyable one.

The Project of a Nation

One of the best works of political philosophy I’ve read in the last few years is Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country. Rorty’s politics were very much not my own; he was as hard left as they came, though just as adamantly anti-communist. The book came out in 1998 and served as something of a survey of the 20th century left, its accomplishments, its pitfalls, and what we might call its fall into decadence. At 67 years old, Rorty had seen much of this himself, and been born into a politically active family from the start. He had a uniquely rich perspective on the subject, in short.

Rorty was a pragmatist; he cared little for doctrinal disputes or purity and more for results. And so while today we might find it surprising that so committed a leftist was a staunch defender of nationalism, his reasons had nothing to do with blood ties or cultural essentialism or anything smelling even vaguely of metaphysics, as nationalism tends to.

The book opens as follows:

National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.

And like that we’re off to the races. Further down he adds:

Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of. They must tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation’s past—episodes and figures to which the country should remain true.

Rorty emphasized this need for national pride and inspiring national stories because he believed that we had veered too much towards national shame. Or perhaps that the two tasks, of reminding the country “what it can take pride in” and “what it should be ashamed of” had polarized in an unhealthy way. On one side we are told story after story that is meant to make us feel the shame of past and present sins, on the other we are given inspirational stories that have been bled of their human complexity, bleached out to be made into acceptable children’s fables and little more. On this latter score, Rorty cites, with approval, James Baldwin’s description of the:

collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.

Taking Whitman and Dewey as his guiding stars, Rorty offers:

The sort of pride Whitman and Dewey urge Americans to feel is compatible with remembering that we expanded our boundaries by massacring the tribes which blocked our way, that we broke the word we had pledged at the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and that we caused the death of a million Vietnamese out of sheer macho arrogance.

But, one might protest, is there nothing incompatible with American national pride? I think the Dewey-Whitman answer is that there are many things that should chasten and temper such pride, but that nothing a nation has done should make it impossible for a constitutional democracy to regain self-respect. To say that certain acts do make this impossible is to abandon the secular, antiauthoritarian vocabulary of shared social hope in favor of the vocabulary which Whitman and Dewey abhorred: a vocabulary built around the notion of sin.

Here I must part ways with Rorty slightly and admit that I’m quite fine with a vocabulary of sin, but not one that requires abandoning anti-authoritarian shared social hope.

So much for Rorty. I recommend the book very highly; I have thought of it often lately. Though told from the perspective of an old American leftist, I think it provides a clear formulation of the positive path out of the discourse of negation that my dad has spoken about at some length, in his book and many other places. In one interview, he specifically pointed to the difference between how Mark Zuckerberg was portrayed in The Social Network compared to how Edison was portrayed in the 1940 Young Tom Edison. Rorty emphasizes the need to remind a country “what we ought to be ashamed of” far more than my dad would, but their positive discursive vision is almost identical: we need to revive, support, and sustain a healthy national pride.

It is from this perspective that, as an American, I felt jealous as I read Ramachandra Guha’s magisterial India After Ghandi. The subtitle of the book is The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, and this framing is already surprising, though very obviously true. India is the largest democracy in the world and therefore in history. Guha from the beginning emphasizes that, recent economic growth aside (which, shortly after finishing the book, I sadly learned has been less than originally thought), India pulled off a political accomplishment that is nothing short of astonishing. As the second largest country in the world, and by far the most diverse ethnically, religiously, culturally, linguistically, you name it—almost everyone among right-thinking observers assumed the whole project would blow up. And yet here they are, still a united, secular democracy, some 72 years later.

I did not read the book to learn how amazing India was. In truth, I read it because I am abhorrently ignorant about the largest democracy in the world. But as Guha described monumental accomplishments such as the integration of the independent principalities and the rolling out of the infrastructure to allow a universal suffrage election so soon after independence—I thought to myself, boy, how I’d love to read someone with Guha’s careful hand writing about the postwar period of American history, to the present. Guha wrote a book for India that fit the exact specifications of what Rorty wanted for Americans: he did not shrink from India’s internal strife, its mistakes, its abuses, but I find it hard to believe any Indian could read the book and not walk away with their national pride tremendously—and deservedly!—augmented.

My goal this year was to read more books on countries like India that I know far too little about. And I still hope to do so. But the approach Guha took makes me want to read more American history. The section on the first Indian elections in particular makes me want to get to Pauline Maier’s Ratification, which I have heard is phenomenal. I’m slowly working through the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers before doing so, for context.

Context is important. But so is hope. And so is pride.

Rhetoric, History, and Totalizing Abstractions

As has become my habit here, this post is not going to form a whole that is entirely cohesive. I have some thoughts to work through and it may be a bit rough going.

I take rhetoric very seriously, and so when a communications theorist I follow promoted Make America Meme Again as a work by two of the top scholars in the field, I thought this was a chance to put my money where my mouth was and really engage with contemporary rhetorical analysis.

What a vast wasteland that field is, if this work is indeed representative. An enormous amount of space is dedicated to theory review, from Deleuze and Guattari to Guy Debord. Meanwhile, the source material receives far less attention. A single alt right meme will be used as an example for a lengthy discussion of détournement, when the concept of ironic detachment is perfectly serviceable though less academically sexy.

Had I written the book, I would have filled most of the pages with source material, and included an extremely long online appendix for further reference. After describing a basic concept or model, such as the use of ironic detachment to create a veil of plausible deniability, I would go over dozens of specific examples of how it played out. The authors of the book did not convince me that they had done much beyond reading some articles about their subject matter, as well as consulting sources like KnowYourMeme.com.

More valuable but in a way more frustrating is Jeffrey Stewart’s The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke. It is more valuable because Stewart really has done the work of going through Locke’s archives, all relevant paintings and novels and poetry, and even works of philosophy. He covers segments of societies and places that I knew next to nothing about, and thanks to that I was able to learn a great deal. But he has that terrible habit of biographers of going too far beyond his material—in his case, positively leaping. It’s not even necessary; Locke’s relationship with his mom is weird enough on its own and his homosexuality difficult enough for the time period to provide a great deal to unpack. But rather than unpacking, Stewart inevitably overextends himself, going on for pages of analysis when a few suggestive examples would do the trick. Without such heavy-handed forays into abstraction, the book may have had some hopes of being merely 500, rather than 900 pages long.

The next three books I read came as a welcome relief after all that. Nation of Rebels by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter is in many ways the perfect antidote to the kind of overwraught left-theory of the books mentioned above. I’ve meant to read it for years after reading an essay covering the basic argument. In essence, the theory behind the counterculture movement ends up feeding into consumer culture; “counterculture” becomes a source of differentiation and status games expressed primarily through what you buy.

One part on homogenization that stuck out to me:

As we have seen, the tendency toward homogenization (…) is the product of a very complex set of forces. Some of it is a reflection of consumer preference, some of it is due to economies of scale, some of it is caused by distortions in the market and some of it is caused by timeless, universal human tendencies. In many cases, it is not obvious that we can do anything about it; in many more cases, it is not obvious we should do anything about it. The most important point, however, is that there is no single “system” at work producing this effect. There is simply a bundle of different, sometimes contradictory forces.

This hooks up nicely with an argument I made about the use of “capitalism” and “imperialism” in left thought. I can sum up the argument as follows:

  • “Capitalism” as a theoretical system is devised to operate a specific way according to logical necessity, and applied to a diverse set of specific institutional environments.
  • The actual form of commerce is logically contingent on the institutional, technological, cultural, and even individual specifics of time and place.
  • We are better off using a plurality of less ambitious models to make sense of concrete phenomena, than a single totalizing abstraction that subsumes all particulars.

Even since writing that post almost exactly a year ago, I’ve been exposed to enough additional left theory to say that this is a general problem. The way that terms like “neoliberalism”, “imperialism”, “colonialism”, “patriarchy”, and “white supremacy” get used are similarly totalizing and overwrought. From the perspective of the hermeneutic circle, we could say that these theorists, like the authors of the first two books mentioned above, spend far too much time attempting to project the whole without allowing sufficient feedback from the concrete parts we have access to.

The other two book, Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age and Civilization were genuine pleasures to read, and quite consistent with my goal of sticking closely to history this year. One of my biggest goals is to elucidate an understanding of liberalism that puts the relationship between commerce and art front and center. Tyler Cowen’s two books on this subject, along with Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues, and the aforementioned Nation of Rebels, are all excellent material for that. But Holland in the Dutch Golden Age is of particular interest to me, because they really embodied it. Renaissance Florence did too, of course, but the Dutch had an urban middle class of historically unusual proportion who provided a base of art purchasers that was also unusual in how broad it was. I cannot read enough about this period right now and was delighted to get to the section of Civilization which discussed it.

Michael North, the author of Art and Commerce in the Dutch Golden Age, gets into the real nitty gritty details. This is helpful for moving beyond generalizations about markets and art at any time or place. In the case of Holland, the shift in demand towards older works had the consequence of reducing the demand for contemporary art, causing a contraction in the number of painters who could make a living. Big talk about how markets are good for art is not helpful; supporting contemporary artists who you believe are doing good work, and urging others to do so, is an important part of enabling a vibrant creative culture. This is basically what Alain Locke did himself, in fact, with the Harlem Renaissance.

This is a similar level of detail that Cowen gives you in In Praise of Commercial Culture in discussing, for example, how the market for sheet music influenced the kinds of compositions that were created in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is the level of detail that is actually meaningful, and which I have waited far too long to seriously invest in my knowledge of.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Until the next thought-dump.