This summer has been, for me, the summer of Twin Peaks. I am a huge David Lynch fan from way back. Twin Peaks gives me all kinds of things I can write about, not least of which is my theory that DougieCoop is Parsifal. But when I sat down to write something about it a couple of nights ago, the words got caught in my throat. I wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote a single page and finally threw it out in disgust. This has been going on for months. Everything I write looks so paltry on the page, so feeble and colorless and trite. It feels dishonest, for some reason. I have been trying to figure out why.
Officially, I don’t believe in writer’s block. As Garrison Keillor once pointed out, plumbers don’t suffer from plumber’s block, and writing is, among other things, a craft you can practice whether or not the muse decides to pay you a visit. And yet I have been struggling, day after day, to write this one goddam thing I promised the Los Angeles Review of Books (sorry, Lee), straining like a sick man on a toilet, trying to squeeze out so much as one little compacted turd of a paragraph. I know what I would tell a graduate student who came to me with this problem: keep writing. Focus on drafting, not revising, when composing your thoughts. Give yourself permission to write what Anne Lamott calls the Shitty First Draft. Sound advice, usually, but it isn’t helping me now. The problem lies deeper.
In his 1940 essay Inside the Whale, George Orwell argues that the novel is the characteristic “product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual.” And the decade just behind him, the 1930s, was uniquely hostile to writing born of free minds:
From 1933 onwards the mental climate was increasingly against it. Anyone sensitive enough to be touched by the zeitgeist was also involved in politics. Not everyone, of course, was definitely in the political racket, but practically everyone was on its periphery and more or less mixed up in propaganda campaigns and squalid controversies. Communists and near-Communists had a disproportionately large influence in the literary reviews. It was a time of labels, slogans, and evasions. At the worst moments you were expected to lock yourself up in a constipating little cage of lies; at the best a sort of voluntary censorship (‘Ought I to say this? Is it pro-Fascist?’) was at work in nearly everyone’s mind. It is almost inconceivable that good novels should be written in such an atmosphere. Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.
What Orwell says of novels is equally true of my own preferred medium, the essay. Fear, I think, is why my writing has dried up.
One of Orwell’s insights about totalitarianism is reminiscent of Foucault’s panopticon bit: the most effective way to control people is to turn them into their own jailers. Once you have been disciplined to ask “ought I to say this? Is it pro-Trump?” — or for that matter, “could this be construed as being racist/sexist/ablist?” — the censors need not tell you to fall in line with the ruling orthodoxies. You do it for them. If you retain some memory of happier and freer days, when you could write without fear of a mob, real or virtual, visiting professional ruin and personal disgrace on you, you are reproached by the ghost of your former integrity as you vacillate weakly over the choice of a pronoun. Your mind turns about smaller and smaller spaces. Like a veal calf, it eventually discovers it can’t turn around at all. You can’t think freely, so you can’t write worth a damn.
And that’s what’s up with me. I write something down; the inner censor frowns; and I start trimming and shaping what I’ve written, not in order to make it more vivid or precise, but to avoid violating the rules, whatever they are.
We are never really told what they are. For our self-appointed minders, this is a feature, not a bug. Anna Holmes wrote an essay about “cultural appropriation” in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review, which concludes with Holmes saying “You can’t always prove appropriation. But you usually know it when you see it.” Which means that Holmes has reserved for herself (and whomever she deems sufficiently woke) the privilege of deciding what appropriation is. In a world where a university can insist that a free yoga class for disabled people be cancelled because of the “cultural genocide” of British imperialism and an artwork accused of appropriation can trigger a petition that it be destroyed, this is no small amount of power.
You know you are dealing with tyranny when the rules are never precisely formulated or written down, so that you can never know in advance when you are violating them. You know you are dealing with tyranny’s ideological enforcers when they make themselves the sole arbiters of the rules — when the rule becomes consubstantial with the rule-givers. And you know you are dealing with a tyrannical rule when merely questioning it is tantamount to breaking it.
The mood in American society at large is more hostile to free minds and free speech than at any point in the 30 years I’ve been here. Not only in the White House — that’s obvious — but also in academia and its outer orbital rings, the culture industry, stocked as it is with the gleaming and toothy spawn of America’s elite private colleges, busily putting the ideas they learned at school into Facebook-ready form. It is a time when any random professor can accidentally say or do something that aggravates the horde of the perpetually aggravated, which then sets about making an example of the offender. Remember Pierpaulo Polzonetti? Remember when Polzonetti made it weird there for a second and we all lost our minds? What did he do wrong, again? Oh yeah, he used the words “frightening crescendo” to describe the voice of a black prisoner getting upset. For this, Polzonetti was called a racist, a white supremacist, etc., and classical music itself — the music that Polzonetti wanted to teach prisoners — became “the music of white supremacy.”
This insane inflation of concepts (white supremacy goes from denoting David Duke to anyone who plays the bassoon) is something intellectuals are prone to. In graduate school, I took a seminar in neo-Marxist philosophy from a student of Herbert Marcuse. He invited a friend, a cranky old German philosopher who had known Adorno, to come speak to us. As worshipful acolytes in the cult of St. Adorno, we all wanted to know, what was he really like? And to our disappointment our guest replied, “he was a fanatic, like all intellectuals.”
If you have read much Adorno, you know what he means. Reading Adorno’s writing on the “culture industry,” you can see him striving to make a theory that covers everything, a theory that brooks no exceptions and from which there is no escape. Freudianism and Marxism (two especially important sources of Adorno’s thought) are the epitome of such totalizing theories; it’s not an accident that academia is the only place they still have much currency.
(Wait, Adorno, Marx, and Freud were all Jewish. Could someone accuse me of anti-Semitism here? Maybe I should throw a non-Jewish name in there, just to be safe …)
And the only thing that intellectuals like more than totalizing ideas is being the ones to whisper them in the tyrant’s ear. This is what Mark Lilla means by the philotyranny of intellectuals, of which there is a long and sordid history.
Many of the ideas that progressives are using as cudgels — for example, “cultural appropriation” — were originally ideas of limited provenance applied in skilled and disciplined ways by people trained to think precisely, which is to say, by academics. But the intellectual’s tendency to fanaticism means that we are never satisfied with the limits we have learned to place on ideas. And so “cultural appropriation” starts off as an intelligent way to discuss why you shouldn’t wear blackface and ends up with campus activists bullying white girls for wearing hoop earrings. Marshall McLuhan was onto something when he suggested that any idea, pushed as far as it will go, reverses into its opposite. And so anti-racist activists end up telling people to stick to their own kind.
Sound like anyone we know?
I hardly need to remind you of Donald Trump’s authoritarian intolerance of thought and speech at odds with his own. I don’t think anyone is in any doubt about that. Even the diehard Trumpists, the ones who will never abandon him no matter what he does, the ones for whom Trump will always be Bonnie Prince Charlie — a loser and pretender burnished to the high shine of a romantic Lost Cause — even they know perfectly well how hostile Trump is to free speech. They like that about him.
But this isn’t the whole danger Trump poses to public discourse. The bigger danger has to do with the fact that he is the first reality-show president. He is must-see TV: his power is to make us incapable of not talking about him. Sure, Trump the man wants nothing but adulation, but Trump the media phenomenon is the ultimate fulfillment of the old maxim that there is no bad publicity. Earlier this summer I was in London for a conference, and there was no escaping Trump; later, I went on vacation in Canada, and there was still no escaping Trump. Trump is everywhere, on everyone’s lips, on their minds, in their Twitter feeds, on TV, in books, in classrooms … Trump has single-handedly recreated the monoculture. Even in our fragmented media world, finally there is a show that everyone is watching. The unspooling disaster of Trump’s presidency is your favorite show. Admit it. You hate him — fine. You still love the show. You say you hate the show — fine. You’re still watching it, and how you feel about it doesn’t make any difference to website click-counters. Trump is a virus, a zombie virus that propagates in our minds: get bitten and you become another shambling recruit in the army of the undead, mindlessly attacking the dwindling band of holdouts who are just trying to live their lives.
You want to know when we will finally be rid of Trump? When we no longer find him entertaining.
You must admit that Trump’s drive to put his brand on everything — Trump University, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump water, Trump this, Trump that — has been wildly successful. Trump has stamped his logo on the mind of practically every public thinker and writer in America today. His extremes have prompted complementary and opposite extremes in his opponents, just as the embossment on a document is the obverse of the stamp. The intellectual options have narrowed down to two: pro-Trump and anti-Trump. But it’s still all Trump. A precise negation of Trump leaves a Trump-shaped hole, which Trump’s ideological enemies fill with their own rages and resentments. And so Trump’s certainties, his brutal simplifications, his foreclosing of all debate, his refusal to talk to other human beings like, well, human beings … all these things appear in an inverted mirror image opposite him.
(I pause to wonder: will this post get picked up by some odious snitch at a site like Campus Reform or The College Fix? You know, those websites that aggregate conservative complaints about liberal professors and send out the flying rage monkeys to write them death threats? Maybe I should tone down the zombie stuff … )
Thus we have lately seen a steady drip-drip-drip of attacks on professors from both the Left and Right. This Chronicle roundup gives a useful overview of the harassment and threats of violence that various unlucky academics have had to deal with. If you are wondering if there is any empirical measure of the vanishing space for the free expression of ideas, check out FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a sort of ACLU for academics) and its database of speakers disinvited from college appearances.* In the early naughts, this happened roughly 10-12 times a year. In 2016 it was 43.
One phrase I have heard a lot lately is “I’m done.” As in, I’m done talking to cis white men, or I’m done talking to social justice warriors, or I’m done talking to you. It’s a satisfying rhetorical flourish, this verbal equivalent to storming out of the room in outrage, cape whirling behind you. (You’re wearing a cape because you’re a hero.) It’s very tempting to say “I’m done.” How much easier life would be without having to make yourself understood to people you don’t like, or to understand them. When we say “I’m done” we might imagine we are one of the characters left onstage after Don Giovanni has been dragged off to hell — my new life stretches out before me, free at last from a troublesome companion.
(Hmm. Left activists don’t like being called “social justice warriors.” I think I’m using the phrase in a suitably ironic and distanced way, as the thing that people say, not what I say, but irony is always the first thing to go in this kind of discussion. Maybe I should change it …)
This way of thinking is totally illiberal. We should be ashamed to announce our unwillingness or inability to talk to those different from ourselves. The fact that everyone seems proud of shutting down conversations is a depressing sign of the times. In his piece on the burgeoning genre of the “How I Felt On Election Night” essay, Carlos Lozada quotes Katie Kitamura, who in a letter to her young child writes “I worry that you will grow up in a time of ideological haste, a time of wild conviction and coarsened thought.” A world of wild conviction and coarsened thought is exactly the world in which writers must make themselves at home now. The enemies of ungoverned speech, thought, and writing are lined up on every side around a rapidly vanishing space of freedom.
Of course, there are those who will automatically discount everything I have said here because I am a white male. Rebutting that notion would take a whole other post. Actually, though, you can never rebut a comment designed to demean you by erasing your individuality and treating you only as the instance of a type. Which is another thing that intellectuals are very good at doing, by the way. And anyway, it’s not as if people usually come back at you with arguments about this sort of thing. What you get is mostly the customary internet attitude of snarky condescension — Aww, did you get your little privileged white-guy fee-fees hurt? To which the only real rejoinder is the one Margaret Atwood imagines for her protagonist in Cat’s Eye, a painter unhappily married to a guy who is suspiciously similar to my Dad.
Jon sits in the living room, having a beer with one of the painters. I am in the kitchen, slamming around the pots.
“What’s with her?” says the painter.
“She’s mad because she is a woman,” Jon says. This is something I haven’t heard in years, not since high school. Once it was a shaming thing to say, and crushing to have it said about you, by a man. It implied oddness, deformity, sexual malfunction.
I go to the living room doorway. “I’m not mad because I am a woman,” I say. “I am mad because you’re an asshole.”
So if you care about any of this, what are you supposed to do? I’ll tell you what I am doing. For a couple of years now, I have been engaged in an extraordinary correspondence with J. F. Martel, filmmaker and author of the brilliant book Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, on subjects related to what I have called “Weird Studies.” And guess what domain name was available? So J.F. and I are going to put to use the 200000 or so words we’ve written to one another by launching the Weird Studies Podcast. The original name for it was “the limits of the thinkable,” which is a bit clunky but nevertheless conveys the point of the show: to discuss ideas that our comfortable habits of mind resist. As J.F. wrote in his own announcement, we “both have a strange attraction to the weird and value the affordances it grants those who choose to look at the world through its lens.” My hope is that one of those affordances — maybe the main one — is the possibility of expanding our limits of the thinkable.
Plus I think we’re going to do a show on Twin Peaks …
*”Disinvited” here can mean a variety of things: the rescinding of a formal invitation, “no-platforming,” shouting down an invited speaker, the old “we can’t guarantee your safety” ploy, etc. This database counts both successful and unsuccessful attempts at disinviting.**
**As I finish writing this, an old friend calls me up and I tell him about what I’ve been writing. “Don’t get fired,” he advises. It’s true, this is a world where craven university administrations sell out their faculties again and again and allow professors to be dismissed for trivial and trumped-up reasons. I suspect that this is due to a wholesale surrender to the customer-is-always-right ideology of the neoliberal university, but this is a topic for another day. I’m looking on the bright side: if I get fired, I will at least have a lot less committee work to do.