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Our Dumb Century
This Is What Happens When You Forget Your Shakespeare
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I try, in this space, to avoid picking out particular people for criticism. This is part of a larger concern to avoid “occasional” writing, that is, writing that, like a 24-hour news station, seeks to echo the daily and weekly rhythms of our world.
I’ll get back to the reasons for this anti-occasionalism soon enough, but first I want to say a bit more about my avoidance of the sort of pugilistics that seems, today, practically obligatory in the online ecosystem. It is not that I am concerned to avoid “punching down”, since I tend to think that we all are prone to move so precipitously up and down the social ladder that it’s nearly impossible to say who is above me and who below. It is, rather, simply that I think almost all personally targeted combative writing ends up looking undignified in the long run. Aquila non captat muscas.
I mean, I suppose there are exceptions. Larry Kramer’s biographer once showed me a letter his subject had dashed off to the Bloomingdale’s complaints department, circa 1974, throwing a bitchy little fit about the low thread-count in some sheets he had just purchased there, and this indeed seemed to magnify whatever it is in Kramer’s personality that was, by general agreement, deemed worthy of attention in the first place. But most people worth paying attention to are just not like that. I am pained whenever I read the correspondence of an author I admire, and I find him bogged down in some dispute with a person who otherwise would by now have been entirely lost to history. I want to say: Please, Flaubert, you’re Flaubert! Do not do your enemy the honor of keeping his name alive as a footnote to the critical edition of your collected letters!
I would like to make a brief exception for Richard Hanania, if only because his example can help us take the full measure of the total bankruptcy of the public-intellectual circuit as we near the end of the first quarter of our present century.
As you may know, Hanania is a formerly anonymous writer of “race-realist” interventions in various low-end online venues, who has somehow emerged over the past year or so to continue writing in much the same vein, but now under his own name and with a presumption of legitimacy. He writes opinion pieces in various publications, runs a Substack of his own, and is the founder and president of something called the “Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology”. He is manifestly a cretin, a doofus, a nobody, and it is plainly only in such a rotten information ecology as ours that one such as he could be elevated to the ranks of the somebodies. Whenever I see his unduly confident likeness, I want to say, with the bard: Richard, take thy face hence!
If I am moved to quote Shakespeare, this is because the proximate occasion for granting Hanania a future footnote is not the race stuff, and it is not the Elliot Rodger-level tweet in which he advised loser incels to seek out fat girls with pretty faces and then to neg them into losing weight (“undervalued stock”). I’ll let others handle this rich material. The thing that got me, rather, was Hanania’s recent suggestion that, if given a year, he could come up with a body of work superior to the one left by global Anglophony’s most towering figure. Thus, Hanania on X on October 9:
Pretty sure if you gave me a year I could write Shakespeare quality work. Like if someone hadn’t read all of Shakespeare and you randomly gave them me or him, on average they couldn’t tell the difference. Of course without the blind test people would pretend it wasn’t as good.
In case you interpret this as a “bit”, of the jocular sort we often find on that website, it is important to clarify that Hanania followed this claim with a rather lengthy and earnest statement of the same idea on Substack shortly thereafter. He means it.
Lord, put not another sin upon my head, by urging me to fury.
Unlike the racism and the misogyny, which if you have but glanced at the internet you will have noticed by now have their opponents as well as their defenders, the anti-Shakespearism calls out for a response in part because it is widely and wrongly taken to be a low-stakes affair, and in part because it is so common today at all points on the political spectrum. The presumption that Shakespeare needs to be taken down several notches is found on the cretinous right, as the likes of Hanania show; and it is found unsurprisingly on the left as well, where a general wariness prevails regarding any canonical figure in the European humanistic tradition.
But the real force of anti-Shakespearism, and of anti-humanism more generally, is coming straight from from the purportedly apolitical stats-mongerers and self-styled rationalists who sincerely believe of themselves that they come bearing not ideology, but only “tools”, not world-flattening ignorance, but only “methods”. Thus, even before the fool Hanania rushed in, none other than the disgraced crypto-bro Sam Bankman-Fried was already on the scene, arguing that Shakespeare almost certainly could not have been as great as everyone claims he was, since there were so few people in the sixteenth century, and thus so few candidates for greatness in comparison with the twenty-first:
I could go on and on about the failings of Shakespeare and the constitution and Stradivarius violins, and at the bottom of this post I do, but really I shouldn’t need to: the Bayesian priors are pretty damning. About half of the people born since 1600 have been born in the past 100 years, but it gets much worse than that. When Shakespeare wrote almost all of Europeans were busy farming, and very few people attended university; few people were even literate--probably as low as about ten million people. By contrast there are now upwards of a billion literate people in the Western sphere. What are the odds that the greatest writer would have been born in 1564? The Bayesian priors aren't very favorable.
Where to begin? This is of course a gross misapplication of Bayesian epistemology, which is perhaps well-suited for weighing up subjective probabilities in order rationally to determine your future course of action, but does not, as far as I can tell, hold out much promise for the study of Renaissance literature. Honestly, Bankman-Fried is just saying “Bayesian priors” because it sounds good; he is not in fact assessing his own “Bayesian priors” in order to determine whether valuing Shakespeare is an advisable thing to do or not.
Is Bankman-Fried in jail right now, like, pre-trial detention or whatever? I’m not going to bother to Google that, but if he is, surely we would have to concede, wouldn’t we, that he is at the present moment beneath me on the hierarchy of freedom, of room to move, and of social standing? Is it not then a sort of “punching down” to wrap him in the same blanket as that other grotesque Caliban I set out to batter? Either way, his words have been crammed into my ears against the stomach of my sense, and I feel the need, as if by a sort of counter-writing, to expel them.
The most astounding thing to me about both Hanania’s and Bankman-Fried’s conceit is that it betrays no awareness, at all, of the way genius accrues over the course of centuries. Genius is not simply an intrinsic feature of works of literature, given at the moment they appear and stable from that moment on. It results in part from the particular reception-history the work receives, which cannot ever be predicted. The beauty of a work is to a great extent taphonomical, a product of the way it gets knocked around after the author’s death, the way its turns of phrase enter into our language and our habits of thinking. This is a dimension of genius that it is literally impossible to conjure in one’s work over the course of a lifetime, let alone within a single year.
I mean, there might be someone writing today who is “better” than Shakespeare, whatever the hell that means. But no real meaning can attach to that claim for another 400 years or so. That’s just how it is. If you take a lump of coal to a jeweler he will have no basis for telling you it’s an unworthy lump of coal, but he will be within his rights to tell you to come back later, much later, if you wish to sell it to him as a diamond. Don’t you see how this works?
I suppose I can understand how someone of Bankman-Fried’s particular ideological stripe could fail to “get” Shakespeare — along with his effective-altruist peers, SBF explicitly and proudly wants to faire table rase and start everything over again according to the most optimized and streamlined principles, regardless of how they may have done things in the past. But Hanania is supposed to be some sort of “conservative”. Doesn’t that —or didn’t that, up until our most recent dumb century— require at least some sort of respect for those things that accrue value gradually? When even —or perhaps especially— the conservatives want to wipe the slate clean, that’s when you know you are… I will not say “on Weimar territory”, for that historical resonance is far too overused in the economy of takes… that’s when you know you are living through a period of true crisis.
And this is why the anti-Shakespearism of the present moment, and the larger anti-humanism of which it is representative, is in fact more serious than it may at first appear. The left, the right, and the “apolitical” stats-bro center are all happy to sweep away tradition, as if it meant nothing, as if it did not anchor us in the world, as if it did not invite us to construct ourselves through it. It is a big deal to arrive at such a moment.
Everything Hanania says about Shakespeare is stupid, but the particular way he proposes his challenge is also strangely self-defeating: he wants to prove that he can write like Shakespeare, but plainly, if there were anyone out there who seriously thought Hanania was a writer or thinker of any genius or talent, then the salient challenge would be for others to write like him. I mean of course anyone can, with just a little effort, learn to imitate Shakespeare — I myself have littered the present essay with some modified lines from various of his plays, as well as some lines that are intended to sound like him, but aren’t. The far more challenging task is to write in a way that motivates others to seek to write like you. This is something Shakespeare has clearly accomplished, over and over again, across several centuries. I don’t see it happening with Hanania, not now, not ever.
So look, monster, you smell all horse-piss. You don’t belong here. You have no place in any conversation about Shakespeare.
It seems to me important to consider how someone like Hanania could arrive on the scene and claim a place at the table of the intellectuals.
I take it that Hanania was able to pull up as he has because the table is otherwise mostly unoccupied. Academics certainly have not risen to the task, and done their service as public intellectuals with any real sense of the weight and dignity of the office. Those from my own discipline, philosophy, mostly just come out to check the “public philosophy” box that is now included in the tenure-and-promotion process, with all the transparent eagerness of a high-school senior volunteering at a soup kitchen, thinking to himself the while: “I’m gonna put this on my résumé”. And when they get out there, before the public eye, what do they do? They mostly fumble the initial introduction with an irrelevant appeal to authority (“As a philosopher…”), and then proceed to recite orthodoxies that no one could possibly be surprised to hear from them, and that seldom seem to be the fruit of any real hard-won specialist expertise.
The problem, for philosophers, for academics in general, and indeed for everyone else, is that they have all abnegated the duty of public intellectual intervention, in exchange for the game of what I am in the habit of calling universal takesmanship. Something happens in the world, and everyone who is in on the game is compelled to position themselves in relation to it: that positioning is a “take”. If you wait longer than is expected, and write something longer than a standard-length take, it is a “rant”. If you position yourself outside of the ordinary range of expected takes, either within the usual time-frame or somewhat beyond it, that is a “troll”. These are really your only options. The present essay will probably be classified as a “rant”, by those who came into consciousness in our present dumb century, and have never heard of “jeremiads”, or “philippics”, or “diatribes”, or “screeds”. Those same people will call everything they like “brilliant”, and everything they don’t like “vile”. They will never yet have met a thesaurus.
And outside of academia, where are the intellectuals? Who, among the Americans, could possibly count as an intellectual? Matthew Yglesias? Matt Bruenig? Some other Matt? Shall we look at some pie-charts representing arguments for and against NIMBY-ism for the next several hours? Is that what smart people do?
All we have left, I mean, is social media, a cistern for foul toads to knot and gender in. We can tell ourselves that we have a world of rational deliberation outside of social media, but we all know, at this point, that social media are the great mass around which all other discursive opportunities are orbiting, and the range of what may be said within these orbits is constantly being diminished, pulled downward by the gravitational force now at our society’s center.
Even Substack, I add, is not beyond this pull. It is not an anything-goes domain of unfettered exploration, as it runs on exactly the same like-seeking, metrics-obsessed principles as X, and for that reason, no matter what we would have wanted for it, ends up not as a venue for pathbreaking experiments and innovations, but mostly just as a place for the spillover from X to collect. Take this essay as a case in point. I know already that it will garner much more interest than my freer, more original, non-occasional writing has. This present essay is not experimental. It is not original. You’ve heard all of it from me before. Here I am again, “ranting”. You love to see it.
There could not be a clearer illustration of how big a deal it is to be living through the loss of six centuries or so of humanism than the wave of universal takesmanship on display following Hamas’s attacks in southern Israel a week ago. As usual after major events such as this, it was as if the “universal” part was taken literally, and interpreted to be compulsory: everyone thought they had to issue a statement, and you were suspect if you did not.
On such occasions I am reminded of the ingenious Onion article that appeared shortly after September 11, 2001: “Dinty Moore Breaks Long Silence on Terrorism with Full-Page Ad”. The joke is that there is no real reason for a canned-soup company to be compelled to say anything at all about 9/11, or US foreign policy, or anything really except canned soup. But that was half a decade before social media in the proper sense appeared, and now, with the non-stop 9/11-like ripples the world continues to experience, it is as if everyone has set themselves up as a little Dinty Moore and taken out their little ad. I think this is bad for democracy, and bad for global stability. The truth is there’s just not much for most of us to say.
If I were to position myself as yet another Dinty Moore for just a moment, I would say that in my view the Hamas attack was atrocious and evil, and I’d add that if Israel conducted itself as I would wish, it would confound expectations and immediately set about investing in the very place the attacks came from, raising the standard of living, building up schools and hospitals, offering scholarships to Gazans, etc. That is of course not what Israel is going to do, and things are just going to keep being awful. I think it’s obvious that Hamas sought to goad Israel into retaliating with excessive force, and that therefore it is the worst thing Israel can do, strategically and morally, to react as Hamas expected. But that is just my “take”, and I’m only sharing it because it’s boring, and that’s central to the larger, hopefully non-boring point I am trying to make. In a system of universal takesmanship, it is inevitable that a good number of people are going to try to position themselves somewhere outside of the field of the boring and obvious, not because they have any commitment to what they are saying, but only because the rules of the game practically require it.
Another reaction to 9/11 sticks in my mind: the great German electronic composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who declared that the toppling of the twin towers was “the greatest work of art that ever existed”. This didn’t bother me at the time. I didn’t take it for a “take”. The concept didn’t exist yet, and I was able to process the remark within the entire context of Stockhausen’s life and his various preoccupations. It made me think of Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1757), where the great conservative thinker observes that any of us (yes, that means you, on your phone in the Netherlands, and you too, on your couch in Australia) would eagerly rush out of a theater where we had just been watching some Greek tragedy if we heard they were about to execute a prisoner in the public square out front.
The point is not that the stage artists aren’t talented enough, but rather that art in the narrow sense is only ever a sublimation of the violence of reality. We content ourselves with that sublimation most of the time, in fact we do a pretty amazing job of using art as a tempering and civilizing force. But the hunger for “the real” is still there, and when it bursts through, as for example when you —yes, you (probably)— gawk at the kidnapped kibbutzniks, stunned and wounded, on the back of motorbikes heading back to the Strip, even though strictly speaking your gawking does no good for you or the world, this is among other things an expression of that hunger. When Americans got upset at Stockhausen, this is because they didn’t understand what the composer was taking “art” to be. For them art was something you get called a “genius” by the MacArthur Foundation for, something your friends call you “brilliant” for. It was not for them something that brushes right up against the boundary with the gravest matters of life and death that in fact hang over us at every moment of our existence.
Whatever else you think about his statement, it’s clear that Stockhausen meant what he said, and what made this possible was that he took the matter, of art and life, gravely seriously. Another way of putting this, again, is that his was not a “take”. No such seriousness was on display, I’m sorry to say, in the frenzy of takesmanship following the most recent Hamas attacks.
There were many who enjoyed the opportunity to look somber and serious as they declared their determination to “stand with” Israel in “her” “darkest hour”. Some of these were no doubt earnest, but in the economy of takesmanship it’s impossible to tell —that’s part of the tragedy!—, and somehow almost everyone ends up looking like US Congressman Brian Mast, who decided to show up at work, on Capitol Hill, wearing his former IDF uniform — which in turn looks to me basically as corny and misplaced as Nancy Pelosi wearing a kente cloth.
But surely by far the wildest takes were the ones from the identity-mongering American academics, a portion of whom quickly converged on the view that all Israelis are settlers (presumably also the Thai migrant laborers in Israel? The Arab Israeli citizen who was killed when he showed up on the scene as a paramedic?), and settlers are not civilians, and therefore everyone who was killed was a legitimate military target of Hamas. Some of these inhabitants of the Americas, when pressed, opted for ultimate consistency, and affirmed that they would indeed happily acquiesce, and lay down their lives, should the Native peoples of the continent on which they were themselves settlers ever again attempt a similar Hamas-style rebellion. The contradictions were indeed heightened, as revolutionaries like to say.
It was an extremely clarifying moment. I’ve been saying for years now that there is a fine line between privilege-checking and privilege-flaunting, that to announce that you are yourself a “settler on Indigenous land” can easily sound like a taunt, even if you mean it as a solemn reckoning with past wrongs, and that there is nothing more obnoxiously, maddeningly empty than “land acknowledgments” with no real commitment to material change. Shame on all of you who have slapped them onto your syllabi, thinking this could help you to appear upstanding. Enough of that, now — it’s time to try something else. It has seemed to me in the past week that the world is finally calling on these preening boobies with their empty displays, and it is fascinating, to say the least, to observe their various strategies for dealing with it. But in any case, all of those writing from the New World, for now, were able to watch the slaughter of the Israelis with reasonable certainty that no such “justice” would be exacted on them any time soon, even if their strategy for now was to pretend that in principle they would passively comply with any such future demand for justice.
That’s takesmanship for you: not “just saying whatever” exactly, but saying stuff in order to position yourself on a sort of imaginary game board, in a way that helps you advance in your player strategy. And the game moves fast. Again, here, I think about the aftermath of 9/11, and how slow the transition was from “standing with” the victims’ families, and so on, to any kind of critical mass of voices saying, hey, wait a minute, you’re pointing at Iraq, but Osama bin Laden’s compound is somewhere else entirely! In part, the quick turnaround after 10/7 has a lot to do with Israel’s own turnaround time in its ill-advised retaliation. The events are really not comparable in many significant respects. But part of the feeling of acceleration in the present moment, where it only took hours, rather than days or months, to start hearing a significant number of voices gleefully observing the massacred Israelis and insisting there was nothing there to mourn, is obviously the work of social media. In the system of takes, it takes no time at all to reach the bottom.
I am going to dare to say, now, that the issue of the world’s response to Hamas’s massacre, and the idea that we today can do better than Shakespeare, or that we don’t need to read him anymore, or that he’s overrated, are not entirely unrelated. I know this may sound offensive, like an irresponsible mixture of the trivial and the grave. But here I would dare to say that my own sensibilities match roughly with those I have, rightly or wrongly, attributed to Stockhausen. Artistic traditions matter. They are necessary for cultivating humanity. We really do need a common treasury of great works —which will of course evolve over time, but cannot simply be exchanged for new ones overnight— if we wish to move together “through Beauty’s morning-gate”, which alone, Friedrich Schiller thought, can bring us to knowledge — while knowledge, in the fullest sense, includes sound practical judgment.
If you think you can do away with these works, as our own dumb century thinks, as even our universities now think, you very quickly find that you are left in a world where only our small-scale loyalties remain. You are left with Kamala Harris, who can show you her art collection, and tell you that this vase was made by a gay African-American male, and that silkscreen was made by a Japanese woman, but can tell you nothing, at all, about the aesthetic properties of these works. That’s not actually getting out of your parochial frame of mind, as Harris no doubt believes it is, since it involves no real work of the imagination beyond what is required of a door-to-door census taker. With no proper cultivation of an imaginative faculty that can enable you to get out of your own plight and at least momentarily into someone else’s, all you’ve got left are absolutes —settlers vs. natives, for example— with no resources available to move beneath these absolutes and remind yourself of how much flows from our common experience of humanity. This was just so obvious to so many of us in the previous century.
I may be exaggerating, but to me the absolute viciousness on display on social media over the past week really is what a world without Shakespeare looks like.
As some older readers will have noticed, the title of the present essay was borrowed from a book published by The Onion in 1999: Our Dumb Century: The Onion Presents 100 Years of Headlines from America’s Finest New Source. This was my primary bathroom reading around 2001-02, during which period I seem to have spent enough time on the throne to have effectively memorized every word. I was thinking about this book recently, and it struck me how much it influenced my sensibilities, both in humor and in the method of historiographical metafiction, so I ordered up a used copy on Amazon, and am currently rereading it year by year. It’s a masterpiece, without question, and I know this is not just my nostalgia talking, since the jokes that take Calvin Coolidge as their butt, whose presidency I certainly do not recall, are as great to me as the ones targeting Bill Clinton.
Anyhow I agreed back then that the twentieth century was “dumb”, with Prohibition and Hiroshima and Mr. T and Tina Yothers’s leg-warmers and all the rest. But man, I really did not know how much worse things could get. One significant measure of how bad they are is that The Onion itself is, now, quite dumb. I mean, this might just be the natural course of all human endeavor. National Lampoon was “brilliant” once, too, but then by the early 1990s it was peddling the lowest sort of t-and-a beach capers imaginable. But I think the lesson in this case is a larger one. Many of the headlines in Our Dumb Century could justly be said to “go too far” (“US Troops Pull Out of Vietnamese Peasant Girl”), but this was not an issue when ideas, arguments, and jokes circulated in a media ecosystem free of “takes”. I remember a decade or so ago, when The Onion was still occasionally funny, and its social-media wing attempted a joke involving the child actress Quvenzhané Wallis. The strong negative reaction, along with countless other similar feedback loops, has left us with the remnant of that humor outlet that we have today: one that is social-media optimized, like absolutely everything else. The last The Onion came on my radar was in the wake of a fairly funny joke about Zelenskyy stealing office supplies when he visited the White House, and even that triggered significant feedback-looping to bring The Onion back to heel with the official bien-pensant line on Ukraine. Everything now must pass through the narrow tube of crowdsourced norm-enforcement.
Surprisingly, this new system is not making us more humane or restrained. Quite the contrary. We now skip straight to death threats for speech that is out of line. Having set ourselves the impossible goal of eradicating microagression, now macroagression —real, actual aggression: torture, murder, kidnapping— has become so commonplace we barely notice it as it moves across our newsfeeds, interspersed with the therapeutic talk of self-care, and the targeted ads that have somehow picked up on our worries about a swollen prostate.
The newborn chins of the 9/11 era have long been rough and razorable, and meanwhile I’m living out the lease of nature with an ever-growing conviction that this is no longer my world to judge, let alone to change. But I still do what I can. I took part in some little art thing with some super-cool Palestinian art students in Ramallah a while back. Later this fall I’ll be giving some lectures on Shakespeare, of all things, to a mixed group of Jewish and Muslim students in Israel, if things go ahead as planned. This, I try to tell myself, is the hope against hope that keeps the world whole. This is the sweet milk of concord poured into hell.
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I usually don’t share reviews of my books here, but I was particularly honored by this review of The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is in Critical Inquiry. Its author, Andrew Hui, really seems to “get it”.
And don’t forget! This Thursday evening, October 19, 19:30-20:30 (Paris time), my friend and collaborator D. Graham Burnett and I will be speaking at the American Library in Paris, on “The Attention Economy”, with especial reference to our co-written work, In Search of the Third Bird: Exemplary Essays from the Proceedings of ESTAR(SER), 2001-2021. The event will be moderated by the great Russell Williams. It is a hybrid event, but we much prefer to see your faces.
The Hinternet can’t exist without your support. If you would like to keep reading new work here, please subscribe.