I still remember a sentiment expressed by John Updike in a Washington Post piece I read when I was sixteen. “We read fiction because it makes us feel less lonely about being a human being.” That seemed pompous and I rolled my eyes.
To no one in particular, at the time, I countered that people read fiction to be entertained. And that isn’t wrong. However, subsequent years have only demonstrated to me in a thousand ways how even something as seemingly straightforward as “being entertained” is really a subset of the larger and more fundamental concept of needing to feel less lonely. Updike wasn’t wrong, either, and his reason was more capacious than mine.
(For the record, I hadn’t read any Updike then … and today I still have never read a book by him.)
I also remember a conversation with a dear friend about whether people or cultures are really capable of being radically different; i.e., was there actually anything universal in human experience? I thought No at the time. My friend suggested that we would all have a need or a desire to communicate. I think I’m a lot closer to my friend’s opinion now than I was then.
Changing one’s mind, especially when it happens slowly and with a little resistance, and when perhaps one doesn’t even recognize it until well after the fact, is one of the great intellectual pleasures. It can feel like an unburdening, especially if the new idea has been sitting there for a while, accepted in all but name. It’s pleasurable because it can clarify who we are to ourselves, and it also scans as a kind of legitimate communion with another person or people. Your orbit has entered theirs. You’ve “grown.” This is more just a pleasure, though. I think of it also as a prosocial technique. Through some combination of reason, perhaps sympathy or empathy, and maybe other means, it is possible to address changes for the better and to reinforce other positive aspects of existence. At the same time, being open to changing a view compels us never to rest easy on the doxa.
Over and over again, I am reminded of the importance not only of reading but of writing and conversation—free-wheeling, speculative, unpredictable, personal and yet impersonal reportage and exploration. In this discussion, Zena Hitz closes with a bittersweet recognition of the value of writing:
“I think that writing is really for lonely people. I have wonderful colleagues at St. John’s, so I'm much less isolated than some people are. But if I had enough people to talk to about the stuff I cared about, I’d never write anything. But I never do, so I write stuff, and then I discover all these people to talk to. It's great. It really is a way of building community.”
Hitz’s interlocutor here, Joseph Keegin, has published some interesting pieces this year, including this beautiful reflection on the ways that sincere philosophical inquiry can run afoul of all kinds of institutions and customs, including places of higher education:
“Human beings need to think; they also need to eat. One can never supersede, or come at the expense of, the other. But nor can possession of these goods ensure happiness. In the end, misery can find us regardless of circumstances. And yet there is a suffering that ennobles, and one that crushes; there’s a way of struggling for understanding that, even if ultimately unsuccessful, leaves one in better shape than when one began the journey, and one that leaves one ungrounded, derelict and afraid.”
Philosophy, it’s been suggested, emerges from a division of labor that allows a small class of people the leisure as well as the leverage to look at the world around them and question it in an attempt to understand it without recourse to myth, law, etc. Philosophy, the philosophy that has been recorded and institutionalized in particular, has often been an elite activity, produced among people and classes with material advantages. There are other practices of, and approaches to, philosophy that might be vernacular, of course. Either way, to “do philosophy” in a broad and real sense means that one can never be too comfortable with received wisdom in one’s own environment. One has to be receptive to changing one’s mind.
Meanwhile, the algorithmic subject, i.e. the contemporary self shaped by online demands on attention, can change its mind, in a matter of speaking. It can recant (publicly), it can “do better” (publicly). It can incorporate new data and can shift focus with this new information. Does this technological configuration encourage or enable thought in us, and if so, in what ways? I’m not convinced it does. It does encourage and enable certain ways of dealing with content.
Furthermore, the practical appeal of conceptualizing one another as algorithmic subjects is that it helps impose some order on a slippery, dense, ever-shifting tangle of social information. (In other words, it reinscribes some in-group, out-group logic.) It might even help one feel more grounded in one’s sense of self—who knows? But it definitely can help a person sort out friend, foe, stranger, leader, village idiot, etc. “Of course you’d like this TV show, you’re a trad-Catholic father of three.” “Of course you’d endorse this candidate, you’re an MSNBC-NPR wonk with a verified account.” “Of course you’d hold that opinion, you’re an ace/aro with a furry avatar and a Maoist browsing history.”
And this is where the particular depth—some might call it an illusion of depth—of algorithmic subjecthood relies on exposure and debunking, like an ontological doxxing. “Oh, you’re an ace/aro with a furry avatar who says Maoist things on the Internet but whose browsing history indicates you’re an-cap and your Amazon history shows you’re a normie.” Or whatever. Catching someone in this particular kind of hypocrisy, to underscore the reality of one’s browsing and consumption, that is, one’s participation in the attention economy, buttresses the mythology of this type of Self.
I think that in our broad historical move to audiovisual postliteracy, as we reactivate aspects of Mind that were dormant since oral, preliterate experience, we will continue to see some expansions of capabilities that denizens of the age of text and literacy (of whom we have almost no pure specimens anymore, anyway) couldn’t “keep up” with.
But it’s crucial that we retain our skepticism.
For one thing, the vanguard of the postliteracy regime will not be apportioned in equitable ways and will continue to depend on vast structural economic inequality and the exploitation of people and resources across the planet and in particular in the Global South for the benefit of the rich (and with contempt for future generations). Additionally, the emergent regime is already dominant in some aspects and some locations, and its progression is inevitable for now.
But I believe that some of the hallmarks of textual, literate, authoritative humanity are worth preserving for a number of reasons. Among them are very practical applications of trust and transmission of knowledge as we careen into climate change apocalypse. We should preserve and use these valuable tools so that we are not entirely “ungrounded, derelict, and afraid.” I’m not interested in lamenting decline, but in fact promoting survival. If we cannot practice trust in information sources, images, or other people, but instead hew closer and closer to our in-group alignments, we will die miserable deaths.
Some recommended reading:
Sam Jaffe Goldstein’s interview with Anne Boyer, “Find Something to Hide as Soon as Possible.” Sample: “Those of us who once made art will now, more than ever, be pushed into making “content” which is delivered only over social media platforms owned by the same ultra-rich who steal the days from our calendar and the minutes from our hours.”
Justin E.H. Smith’s “The Substack Discourse and the Self-Referentiality of Everything.” Does a great job exploring how much certain pressures, economic and otherwise, have distorted forms of knowledge and communion.
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference.” This is a well-written consideration of some problems and contradictions that will often arise in social, political, and cultural discussions made in good faith to help (or “center”) marginalized identities. Táíwò doesn’t only expose some deficiencies, he also sketches out a more effective approach, in his opinion, to applying standpoint epistemology. I’ll quote the piece to give a taste: “How would a constructive approach to putting standpoint epistemology into practice differ from a deferential approach? A constructive approach would focus on the pursuit of specific goals or end results rather than avoiding “complicity” in injustice or adhering to moral principles. It would be concerned primarily with building institutions and cultivating practices of information-gathering rather than helping. It would focus on accountability rather than conformity. It would calibrate itself directly to the task of redistributing social resources and power rather than to intermediary goals cashed out in terms of pedestals or symbolism. It would focus on building and rebuilding rooms, not regulating traffic within and between them – it would be a world-making project: aimed at building and rebuilding actual structures of social connection and movement, rather than mere critique of the ones we already have.”