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My 2022 In Review
My heavens, I wrote a lot this year — surely more than any year prior, and likely more than my first thirty-five years or so combined. This is surprising to me, given that I remain, as I often put it, “situationally illiterate”. I had a messed-up, backwards, and belated education. I was nineteen or so before I knew the difference between “it’s” and “its”. The autodidacticism and the gappiness of my acquaintance with letters still have consequences in the present. I can churn out thousands upon thousands of carefully wrought words for people I don’t know, as easy as breathing, but then when it comes, say, to adding my part to a greeting card for a loved one, I’ll be lucky to conjure so much as the crude form of a “J”. “But you’re supposed to be good with language!” my loved ones tell me. I’m not, I want to explain. It’s just that sometimes language is good with me.
Writing for strangers is usually as easy as breathing. But sometimes the situational illiteracy migrates and takes over in domains where I am not used to having any trouble. Sometimes it expands and becomes total. This is how it has been the last few weeks, as production has more or less come to a grinding halt, and I sit here idle, like a late-Soviet factory, mystified at my earlier ability to hit all those quotas. But fortunately, at least with writing if not with tractor parts, when you reach a fallow period you can always stall for time by placing in review words that have already been written. When poiesis fails, you can move up a level and do some metapoiesis (apparently this word is used in Modern Greek to refer to the tailoring of clothes, which illustrates nicely the dual meaning of the prefix meta-, as both “after-” and “above-”).
If you are going to run out of words, the best time for it to happen is December, as this time of year backward-glancing and retrospection are all anyone is really expecting anyway. So with that in mind, let me stall for time metapoetically, with a bit of after-making, putting off until the new year my promised fiction on René Descartes’s daughter Francine and her afterlife as a wooden automaton, and waxing nostalgic, and just a little bit boastful, about all I’ve accomplished on this here Substack in 2022.
I now have 7,984 subscribers, and the numbers just keep going up. Because I keep all my ‘stacks open, they inevitably get read by far more people than my subscribers — usually somewhere between 12,000 and 20,000 (the record is currently hovering around 55,000). I don’t know who most of my readers are. All I see are e-mail addresses. A few of these addresses contain names I recognize, most do not. Some are .edu’s, most are not. A good number of the addresses are connected to legacy media. Some are the shared address of what I imagine to be sweet retired couples with nothing to hide from each other, e.g.: firstname.lastname@example.org. Some can be traced back to evil defense contractors, or elite law firms. I have a disproportionate number of readers in the Netherlands and Brazil. I am even starting to get some in France, though for many years now it has seemed to me that the country of my chosen residence is also the country where my output has the least effect. I try not to think about any one reader when I’m writing, as that would warp what I say, but I do sometimes have some thought of particular readers, in Australia, in California, and of what I take to be their interests and expectations. I try to ignore my readers when I am writing, but when I am not writing I think about them a lot, with immense gratitude.
Surprisingly, Substack gives me the ability to see not only the e-mail addresses of my readers, but also to see how many times, and when, they open each post. I consider this something close to an invasion of privacy, but since it is offered to me I am happy to invade. There are some readers who open the same post 70, 80, 120 times. I don’t know why they do this, but I picture them getting excited, pacing the room, shutting their laptops, pacing some more, opening them back up again, and again and again. There are some people who consistently open the link only once; I imagine them rolling their eyes a bit when they see me carrying on about my usual things, shaking their heads, quickly getting back to their own rich lives.
I wrote thirty-four original Substack essays this year, including one that I adapted from an earlier publication, and not including the guest-post from Sam Kriss. Six of these were fictions; five were on Russia, whether in its historical or contemporary guises; five or six were meditations on experience and memory in our new technological predicament (which was the originally intended focus of The Hinternet); two are primarily about music; two are, for lack of a better term, concerned with philosophy. My personal favorites this year were Justine-Hélène Le Goff’s “translation” of the first three pages of the Voynich Manuscript, which Neil Gaiman himself deemed “hugely enjoyable”; and “Boogaloo”, a twenty-first-century “remake” of Edgar Allen Poe’s 1839 story, “The Man That Was Used Up”. In 2023 I’ll be casting Justine-Hélène aside (virtually no one noticed her last name is the Breton equivalent of Smith, and I still get people asking me when my veterinarian friend will be making another guest appearance) and will be releasing, under my own name, a complete “translation” of the Voynich Manuscript. This is a major project, and it will probably require me to take a few months away from Substack to complete it.
My podcast for The Point Magazine, “What Is X?”, is going strong, with a few dozen episodes already aired. I still hate the sound of my own voice. I consider myself a natural writer, but not a natural speaker. I also consider myself a natural monologist, who must force himself into dialogue. So the podcast is me working against my natural inclinations, presumably for my own moral betterment and, I hope, with some interesting results for listeners.
I wrote an awful lot for the media this year, often as a result of invitations from editors to further develop points initially made in this space. Though I initially started this Substack with the idea that it would mark the end of my writing for other publications, and even made a bit of an effort to burn some bridges, I find, ironically and unexpectedly, that the two sorts of writing now coexist fairly smoothly. I am a great admirer and supporter of all the editors with whom I’ve worked in 2022.
I turned on the comments-and-likes function early this year, and for the most part things have gone well, much better than I thought. It is surprising to me how civil, intelligent, and supportive people here generally are, given that this is not at all the case on social media more narrowly conceived. We have proof in this, I suppose, that the vicious stupidity that reigns on Twitter is by design, that company’s business model in action, and not a straightforward reflection of human nature.
In the five weeks or so since I left Twitter, I have already been significantly re-normiefied, as I predicted would happen. I am no longer a “high-information” reader/consumer. In fact, I have very little idea at all of what is going on in the world, and particularly in the United States. If something really important happens, I’ll find out about it willy-nilly. Otherwise, I find myself wondering what concrete good might come of remaining informed about what is happening. My sister tells me there is an academic strike, and that my nephew, a sophomore, hasn’t been to class in four weeks. A month ago I would have known all about it; I would by now have seen thousands of righteous iterations of the same basic idea, that the strike is good and just, from people in my broader network. And so on for everything else that is happening — Kyrsten Sinema’s defection, Nancy Pelosi’s succession, and all the other scenes of political theater; the World Cup, Elon, Ye; in short, the constant hum of the eternal present.
And I would still be feeling the normative pressure of all those baroque obsessions indulged on that site, spun out in all the most dazzling and plenitudinous variations imaginable, all the things you are expected variously to affirm or deny, wholesale, about the constitution of our social identities, even if identity remains to you, as it does to me, an utter mystery. Who am I? How did I get here? Why do the things that matter to me matter to me? Twitter has no shortage of answers, but none, ever, with the savor of truth to them. I almost never gave in to that pressure, and sometimes positioned myself as a “contrarian” in relation to it. But now, already, after little more than a month, all of that discourse seems simply to belong to another world. I basically never think about it.
I am becoming ever more convinced of the truth of what my friend Becca Rothfeld said: that a writer should not speak, and if a writer does speak, you should not listen. It is a corollary of this point that a writer should not be on social media (narrowly conceived), and an expansion of it that a writer, or at least a certain kind of writer for whom precious little space remains in this world, should not be defending positions, issuing takes, thumbs up or thumbs down on this or that fragment of popular culture or political maneuvering. I become ever more convinced that our current predicament of universal takesmanship is the ultimate stage of a long process of capitalist privatization and atomization that earlier gave us suburban tract homes — we are expected now to live as micro-emperors upon our micro-domains, each issuing our own constant stream of micro-ukases that no one will heed.
In his wonderful, Whiggish, gay style, Steven Runciman writes of the inhabitants of Cis-Danubian Bulgaria, that one of the greatest incentives for accepting Christianity was that their relatively low-ranking clan-leaders could more convincingly imitate the emperor at Constantinople by adopting more of his symbols. They wanted Byzantine Christianity, and not Roman Christianity, because Constantinople was by now vastly richer and more radiant. Or, as they would put it, Constantinople was itself now Rome. When they met representatives of the Roman church, their thought was something like this: “Sure, you’re from ‘Rome’. But Rome, as in, the Rome, is no longer in Rome.” This does not seem to have been a mere metaphor. The entire history of Europe after the fall of Rome has been the history of a wandering city. Where Rome has wandered off to has always been a matter of dispute, but if you can convince others that it’s wandered onto your own territory, then you will find yourself at the center of the world.
At the gym here in Kypseli you will hear only hard Germanic techno, and transportative, vaguely Balearic house. This is as it should be. There is no enfeebling reggaetón or eunuched auto-tune. Some of the bearded lads there look like they belong on the side of an Attic vase.
When not at the gym a writer needs silence, in the short term in order to be able to write, and in the long term, perhaps, in order to be able not to write. In the meantime, thank you so very much for reading, subscribing, and helping to make this Substack a success. It means the world to me. It’s one of the most satisfying projects I’ve ever undertaken. It has helped me belatedly come out of my shell as a writer, and made so many things possible that I could not have anticipated when I began in August, 2020.
No promises either way, but I’ll probably take the rest of 2022 off, trying to get at least a bit better at the art of silence. I wish you all, admired readers, a joyous Christmas and an auspicious New Year.