State of the ‘Stack, 2023
Plus: A First-Ever Reader Poll!
It has become a tradition here at The Hinternet, around this time of year, to provide a summary of this site’s vital signs, its principal accomplishments, and its possible future directions. It was already almost three years ago that I began this experiment, in late August, 2020, having just returned to France, at the height of the pandemic, after a year at the Cullman Center in New York. In these three years, I have belatedly yet assuredly come into my own as a writer, found my voice, hit my stride.
This late blooming is not only coincident with my migration to Substack, but causally connected to it in important ways. It is foremostly thanks to Substack, and also, secondarily, to the several other writing projects that have come my way as a result of my work here, that I am able now to use phrases like “as a writer” in a full and booming voice, rather than an equivocal whisper. The horizon of possibilities for me is vastly more expansive now than it was then. I never anticipated things would work out so well.
The truth is back in 2020 I really didn’t know what I was doing. My year at the “Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers”, as the full title has it, had initially given me hope that the conjunction in that title might not, at the individual level, function as a disjunction. In fact on arrival I was discouraged when I figured out that, although I was in a cohort with writers whom I admired a great deal (Ben Marcus, Sally Rooney), I was myself accepted on the “scholar track”, and that track, I then saw, extended indefinitely into my future and right up to the uncertain date of my certain death, with no more switching stations on the horizon. If I can’t switch here, I thought, then it really is too late.
I had then, and have still, significant trouble articulating what my problem is with this lot in life. I suppose what it comes down to is simply that I have always valued imagination more highly than argument.
I mean, I’m capable of rational argument, perhaps even sometimes able to shine in it. But I have seen little evidence over my long career in philosophy that those of my colleagues who adore rational argument, who set it up as the supreme expression of human excellence, are really much better at it than any randomly chosen person. Their adoration therefore seems to me fetishistic, and prideful, like the gleeful boo-yahs of some suburbanite in the middle of a winning streak at Wordle.
It seems to me, now, vitally important for my own flourishing that I continue to survey the wider horizon I’ve described. I’m often reminded of Aristotle’s distinction between poetry and history — only the former ranges over all possibilia, which of course vastly outnumber the truths of fact to which the historian —i.e., for our purposes, the “scholar”— is obligated to restrict himself. This distinction also sits alongside something I read long ago from Steve Martin, who described his discovery of comedy as a liberation from his early undergraduate efforts to make at least some headway as a student of philosophy. The shift away from philosophy to comedy meant that he could now say whatever he wanted — a distinction even sharper than Aristotle’s, since the vein of expression to which our young jester with an arrow through his head had been drawn by instinct was one that makes room for the impossibilia as well, thus, a truly unrestricted domain for the mind to engage with the world, and with its limits and with all that lies beyond those limits.
The truth is even when I’m trying to stay on the straight and narrow path, to adhere to the letter of my job description and to inhabit the rational-argumentative community with all its norms and conventions, I still tend to do so at least somewhat in the gelastic mode.
Gelastics, I’ve long argued, is a suppressed lineage in the history of philosophy, partially overlapping on an imagined Venn diagram with both aesthetics and logic, but also having its own autonomous methods and ends. It’s long seemed to me that much ancient and early modern logic in particular is really only thinly disguised gelastics. A typical logic treatise of the âge classique (take for example Book I of Pierre Gassendi’s Syntagma Philosophicum (1658)), ends up devoting a great deal of its attention not to sound and valid inferences, but to what might be called “fallacy-mongering”: dwelling in excessive length on bad inferences, deductions that get perverted along the way from premisses to conclusion, arguments that go off the rails. The ostensible purpose of this focus is to help the student to avoid such fallacies, but it is pretty clear to me that the real reason for it is that fallacies generally have something of the formal structure of a joke. E.g.:
Haec capra est tua.
Haec capra est mater.
Ergo, haec capra est tua mater 😂😂😂.
That our minds can descend so quickly from the search after truth to what are essentially “yo mama”-style insults says a great deal, I think, about the limited prospects of philosophy as a tool for helping us to draw out the better part of ourselves. Fallacies are funny, while valid arguments are boring, and once you realize this, as Steve Martin recounts of his own precious Bildung, it’s pretty hard to go back to your Wordle klatch.
I should stress that I admire real scholarship as much as ever. I think I’ve contributed some real scholarship myself over the course of my career, and I still have some unfinished scholarly projects that I am committed to completing no matter how I, or the world around me, continue to transform. But for the most part, at least in the humanities, I don’t see the fostering of real scholarship as among the primary raisons d’être of the twenty-first-century university.
These days I read a good deal of philology, linguistics, anthropology, and folklore and mythology studies from roughly the mid-nineteenth to the late-twentieth centuries; right now, the four books I have in rotation are: Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (1881), William Blake’s America a Prophecy (1793, what the hell is that man talking about, incidentally, with his Los and his Urizen and his Enitharmon? I have no idea, for now, but I absolutely love it), William Bateson’s Materials for the Study of Variation Treated with Especial Regard to Discontinuity in the Origin of Species (1894), and G. S. Kirk’s Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient & Other Cultures (1973). Especially with the last of these I continually find myself thinking: I could have been such a great scholar, if the models for what scholarship ought to be looked somewhat more like Kirk’s magisterial account, drawing on his own deep historical knowledge of the Greek world, and on the anthropological scholarship of others in the Americas and in Oceania, of why people around the world tell stories, how these are related to the sacred, to ritual, to science, etc. (So many great classical scholars turned to anthropology in the twentieth century to help them make sense of the primary object of their interest — off the top of my head I can think of F. M. Cornford, G. S. Kirk, E. R. Dodds, Walter Burkert, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre-Vidal Naquet. What a productive turn that was!)
Instead, in the contemporary world work such as this is effectively blocked, as I see it, for two reasons. One is the imperialism of STEM, with all its mechanisms and conventions that are so entirely foreign to humanistic inquiry. I have said before that I will not get an Orcid iD [sic], I will not ever call myself a “PI” or pretend to have a “lab”. I suppose I might bullshit my way through the “methodology” section of a grant application again if I have to, but the truth is there can only ever be one methodology for the kind of humanistic scholarship I value: to read, to think, and to write, generally in that order but also sometimes in reverse, or in hopscotch mode.
The other obstacle, particularly onerous in the academic field of philosophy, is the widespread habit of using the superficial trappings of scholarly argument for the defense of values that one holds on pre-rational grounds, simply insofar as one is a member of the community that produces academic philosophers. If you don’t want to take my word for it on this point, listen to Alasdair MacIntyre instead, that towering insider-outsider of twentieth-century Anglophone moral and political philosophy, who has long wielded Thomas Aquinas and Marx as his twin blades in battle against the default-setting of our culture’s all-surrounding liberalism (a pre-rational presumption if there ever was one). Allow me to cite this grey eminence at some length:
[T]he study of moral philosophy has become divorced from the study of morality or rather of moralities and by so doing has distanced itself from practice. We do not expect serious work in the philosophy of physics from students who have never studied physics or on the philosophy of law from students who have never studied law. But there is not even a hint of a suggestion that courses in social and cultural anthropology and in certain areas of sociology and psychology should be a prerequisite for graduate work in moral philosophy… [W]ithout such courses no adequate sense of the varieties of moral possibility can be acquired. One remains imprisoned by one’s upbringing. And the particular form that that imprisonment now takes is that of an inability to recognize, first, that the contemporary morality of advanced capitalist modernity is only one morality among many and second, that it is, as a morality of everyday life, in a state of disorder, a state of fragmentation, oscillation, and contradiction. So we should not be surprised when academic moral philosophers misconstrue their own subject matter.
MacIntyre’s réponse to this bleak state of affairs, flowing no doubt from his innate character and inclinations, is very different from mine: he races with his swift Marxist-Thomist sword right into the field of battle; I retreat, and look for calmer meadows (or alaases, or pingos) where I am free not to fight but to frolic like a child.
Nor can my discovery, that literature is vastly more interesting than philosophy —which latter I am inclined to see as a long but narrow rivulet of the former— propel me into the pauce ranks of the esteemed anti-philosophy philosophers, who, like Richard Rorty, managed to make significant contributions to their field before defecting across the DMZ, as it were, upon discovering that their discipline could not contain them (and I am definitely not including François Laruelle with his risible non-philosophie — this is not, in spite of the name, non-philosophy, at least not in the sense Laruelle intends, but only a fairly obvious and easy move to make within the frivolous system of academic distinction that has characterized so much post-war French intellectual output; for better or worse, “non-philosophy” like this really is just standard-grade business-as-usual French philosophy).
I only ever managed to produce a few notes on some questions in the interpretation of the philosophy of Leibniz and a few other guys, managed to contribute to the elaboration of a critical apparatus for the study of things they —and not I— wrote, mastered the art of the Latin-heavy footnote, and so on. It was in part in mastering this art that I came to understand that it was, precisely, an art, and that scholarship could itself be used, or recycled, or transfigured, as the raw material for straightforwardly imagination-based creative output. This was the real spirit behind our collective labors on the work of historiographical metafiction published under the title In Search of the Third Bird in 2021. We mastered the art of the footnote, and then we started sculpting footnotes into art. At least that’s how I see it, no doubt somewhat presumptuously and grandiosely. Anyhow it’s work that I’m proud of, a monument to what William Bateson’s no less accomplished son Gregory would no doubt call the moment of my creative “schismogenesis”, and exemplary, I expect, of what you can expect from me in the future.
I have been feeling my way towards a sort of writing that I would describe as “speculative, science-informed (but not classically science-fictional), satirical metafiction”. Here at my Substack I have interspersed several forays into this monstrous new style alongside other more straightforward essays, sometimes in the memoiristic vein, and indeed sometimes straightforwardly rational-argumentative. I have left it up to the intelligence of my readers, which I never doubt, to figure out what is what, and I have radically rejected the hackneyed approach of, say, the New Yorker, which for a long time was in the utterly embarrassing habit of placing a sort of content warning —“SATIRE”— above Andy Borowitz’s equally embarrassing attempts at contributions to the announced genre. There is no more surefire way to take the life out of satire than to frame it as such. You might as well keep the house lights on throughout a play.
Bateson fils was fascinated by the ability, present already in non-human mammals, to convey to their conspecifics metacommunicative signals such as “This is play” as they go about tussling and nipping at each other in bouts of pseudo-combat. The signal is transmitted by paralinguistic and kinesic elements of the animal’s actions, from which we can infer that our own capacity for abstract symbolic communication lies deeper in us than language. It seems plausible, from this consideration, that the essentially “kinesic” art-forms, especially dance, emerge directly out of this mammalian capacity to understand that there are social situations in which actions —e.g., combat— can be summoned to the front of the mind by bodily motions that are not themselves true instances of what is being thought. As Bateson compellingly put it in 1954: “Expanded, the statement ‘This is play’ looks something like this: ‘These actions in which we now engage do not denote what those actions for which they stand would denote’.” Anyhow my point here is that even baboons grok genre distinctions, and if New Yorker readers cannot, perhaps the most fitting response would be less hand-holding, not more.
I have been aware, as I’ve proceeded under the implicit banner “This is play”, that a particularly dull-minded or vengeful university administrator could, plausibly, take my fabrications as a variety of fraud, and seek punishment for them. You might think I’m joking, but it is a real possibility — more than one academic has delved into In Search of the Third Bird shallowly enough to take it for some sort of work of on-the-level scholarship, even if they cannot make out what sort exactly. In part to minimize the damages from such mistakes, but also in order to make public some of the theoretical reflections that led us to create this work —which so far has still been more widely weighed than read, perhaps appropriately enough for something that, as I have been suggesting, is more an objet d’art than a book—, my collaborators and I have recently published an article in an academic history journal, viewed 25 times already (!), on the uses and potentials of historiographical metafiction.
Curiously, my collaborators, who come from history, English, and comp-lit, have done a much better job at integrating this work into the full package of their own output in a way that compels recognition and legitimation from their institutional peers. Only I seem to struggle here, and this may, I admit, in part be because I go about everything the wrong way. But I strongly suspect it also has something to do with the relative restrictiveness of the discipline I ended up in, with its jealous wagon-circling and its addiction to snap judgments as to what lies beyond its boundaries.
So, look, it’s not that I want trouble, but I do truly fear that as the recognized mission of our universities grows ever narrower, as the dull dogmas of human-resources departments grow ever more central to the functioning of those institutions as a whole, in the coming years my irrepressible primate need to play is indeed going to carry some risk with it.
Crispin Sartwell has published a very interesting piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books about a recent turn he has identified in academic philosophy towards what he calls “the new Hellenism”. He has some very flattering words about my own public writing, which of course it made me happy to see. But at least from my own point of view it is somewhat strange to be grouped together with Kieran Setiya, Agnes Callard, and John Kaag, among others, as a representative of what Setiya has nicely called “the confessional turn” in philosophy.
Not at all to denigrate their work, but as far as I can tell all of these esteemed colleagues are doing something that almost every administrator or departmental promotion-committee member could recognize as a contribution to what Alex Guerrero has argued should be “the fourth branch” of activity, alongside teaching, research, and service, for which a career philosopher might wish to seek professional reward and recognition (well, conceivably some of Agnes’s output could trigger debate as to its suitability for consideration as a contribution to “the fourth branch”, but everyone would love the controversy). By contrast I’ve spent most of my career trying to hide all of my non-scholarly writing from those in a position to dole out perks or to withhold them, until it got too big to hide, like a pet baby alligator illegally obtained, after which my strategy has simply been to grit my teeth and hope for the best.
By “Hellenism” Sartwell has in mind a return to that tendency in antiquity to understand the project of philosophy primarily as one of eudaimonistic care of the self, as a form of high-minded self-help. I certainly prefer this understanding of philosophy to whatever Wordle-adjacent exercises the profession currently recognizes within its remit, and I suppose I also engage in it sometimes. But that is not primarily what I am doing here. If I were to go back and reach for a historical precedent for what my part of the “confessional turn” amounts to, I would go not to second-century Greece, but to late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Germany, to the world of Lessing and Schiller and the brothers Schlegel and the brothers Grimm and all the others, where, for the last time, as far as I can tell, philosophy was fruitfully pursued in a mode of creative and intellectual activity that was perfectly intermixed with poetry, dramaturgy, art-criticism, folklore studies, and all the other pursuits that may be hoped to yield up a full picture of the human spirit. If that gets to be philosophy, as it seems to have got to be in Jena in 1800, then count me in! Otherwise, I fear my mind is just elsewhere than where it’s supposed to be, and any new “turn” that might be identified in philosophy by following out the shared traits in the work of a critical mass of philosophers is not a turn of which I may be said to be a part. I’m not turning down a road so much as pushing off from the capsule for a little tetherless space-walk: exhilarating, terrifying, and infinitely lonely.
But let us move back to the terrestrial sphere and pick back up the metaphor of frolicking in an open field like a little child. I realized something after reading the MacIntyre essay cited above, something that had never dawned on me before (truly new thoughts get rarer as we get older, and so for me this realization I am about to share means a great deal). One of the many, many reasons I could never hope to follow in the footsteps of Alasdair MacIntyre, even as we share several of the same guiding lights, is that for him, as for basically all philosophers since antiquity, the human is presumed to be the adult human, while the child is taken to be nothing but a pre-adult, a being not yet fully what it is rightly destined to become. For MacIntyre, it is “only through a discipline of learning” that we
discover what we have hitherto cared for too much and what too little and, as we correct our inclinations, discover also that our judgments are informed by an at first inchoate but gradually more and more determinate conception of a final good, of an end, one in the light of which every other good finds its due place, an end indeed final but not remote, one to which here and now our actions turn out to be increasingly directed as we learn to give no more and no less than their due to other goods.
This is not MacIntyre’s intended point, of course, but I take his account here, which follows Aristotle fairly closely, to entail that no human being, prior to his or her progression through a long process of learning —that is, prior to “maturation”— can be said to be participating in the ultimate human good. One is not born to the good life; the good life must be made.
If MacIntyre’s philosophical commitments are significantly shaped by Christianity, and suitable for publication in such a venue as the Notre Dame Church Life Journal, it strikes me now that we see here the full import of the Aristotelianization of that religion, or at least of the intellectual trappings within which that religion habitually justifies itself to itself and to outsiders. But strip away Christianity’s later accrual of philosophical weight, its gradually emerging need to justify itself with extraneous conceptual resources, and what you find is Christ, in the Gospels, insisting that if you do not become again as little children, then you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3). It seems to me now that this difference, between the childishness of pure faith and the “maturity” of faith supplemented by philosophical reason, explains a lot, about me in particular, and about my various hang-ups and out-of-placenesses, but also about our world and the historical legacies that have shaped it.
I’ve been saying I’m a Christian for about fifteen years now, though for much of that time you would have been well within your rights to raise an eyebrow at such a proclamation, to wonder what the hell I was talking about, and how that self-description could possibly fit with everything else you knew about this particular self. It is only in the past three years —thus in the same period of my life that has centrally involved Substack— that it has come to hit me with stunning clarity what this claim means, and why it is —at least now if not before— substantially true.
I’ll have to write about all of the reasons on some other occasion, but here what I want to focus on is the significance of the “immaturity condition” for eternal salvation. If you are impatient with listening to Christians talk about their faith, I might now speedily subjoin that the rift I am describing, between the child’s world and the grown-up’s world, is one that places not only the faithful on the side of the children, and the philosophers on the side of the grown-ups, but also helps to bound off the artists and other creative types from all that may be placed under the umbrella of that horrible yet somehow appropriate neologistic gerund of the social-media era, “adulting”.
The great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer describes childhood as a “streak of light”, as the head of a comet, and everything that comes after as its long and ever-diminishing tail. This seems to me to get things just right, and I see it, now, it is something that could not possibly be uttered by a philosopher qua philosopher, who is engaged in a millennia-old project that might be said not to have led us into a “forgetfulness of being” so much as a “forgetfulness of childhood”. (I was told recently that Rudolf Carnap —if I’m not mistaken, but maybe it was Neurath or Schlick or one of those gentlemen— constitutes a significant exception here, and has some interesting theoretical reflections on childhood that boil down to the insight that that period of life is in fact “where it’s at”, while adulthood is really just a sort of exile from, or a ghost phase of, what comes before it. So there are always surprising exceptions, and one should always keep reading as widely as possible in areas one’s gut might wish to reject categorically.)
Of course, philosophers today love to talk about parenthood, particularly in the vein of what is sometimes called “analytic existentialism”. But that is a completely different subject, and one that seems to confirm my suspicion of forgetfulness. It is taken for granted in all the recent reflections on “what to expect when you’re expecting” that we, philosophers, are and only ever could be adults, and that these other sorts of beings over whom we have such tremendous responsibility and whom we love so deeply are, in the end, so radically other that we should not even waste our time trying to imagine our way back into their world. This seems particularly strange, given that it’s not bats or extraterrestrials we’re talking about here, but the very beings we ourselves were until just yesterday, and indeed that we ourselves still can be, to some extent, perhaps metaphorical, when we apprehend the world through the lens of art or of faith.
In this light one can’t help but notice a significant tension in MacIntyre’s project, or indeed in Thomism in general, or in the whole long and fascinating history of attempts at harmonizing “Athens and Jerusalem”, where “big words” are constantly brought forth in the futile aim of reinforcing a message that from the beginning was explicitly and emphatically not one that required them in order to work its magic on its intended hearers.
It’s clear what this means for faith: if you’re pressed for time, skip the Summa theologiae and go straight for the Gospels. And it’s clear what it means for those art forms, such as music and painting and dance, that seem to rise up directly out of the soul of the artist without any need for mediation by language. It’s less clear what this means for literature and poetry, which seem often (particularly poetry) to be working towards a level of experience that lies behind language, but that still, by definition, requires the scaffold of language in order to exist at all.
It strikes me now that over the past few years I’ve been struggling to find a way to “write like a child” — not in the sense of consciously introducing mistakes of grammar and spelling (though if we can pass off any that might slip in as intrinsic to the spirit of the project, all the better), but in the sense of striving, to the extent possible, to shed all the artifice of adulthood, to go where the necessarily grown-up project of the philosophers can’t go, to escape from the dull grey tail that makes up the better part of our existence, and to try, at great risk of “burning out”, to reenter the comet’s head.
The risk of attempting such a thing is that one will appear unserious and will accordingly begin to lose the professional and social advantages that slowly began accumulating throughout all those years of pretending to be an adult. I don’t mean to overdo the curious parallels between art and faith, but it does seem to me that to be willing to take this risk is somewhat analogous to the choice Saint Paul said one must make to become a “fool for Christ”. The sixteenth-century Muscovite saint known as “Basil Fool for Christ”, for whom the world’s most iconic onion-dome church is named, was also known as “Basil the Blessed”: it comes out to the same thing.
I want, I mean, to spend the rest of my life, consciously and willfully, as a fool, at least in those domains that matter most to me. Of course I can still “clean up real nice” whenever the circumstances require, but I now see those circumstances more or less in the same way I see filing taxes or updating my passwords — just part of the general tedium of maintaining one’s place in a world that pretends to be built around the interests and expectations of sober-minded grown-ups, but that in the end is a never-ending parade of delirious grotesques.
I have in effect undergone a double conversion, then, to both faith and art, which in the end may be only a single but two-sided conversion, to a mode of existence characteristic of children and fools. That this Substack project is also a successful one by the usual quantitative measures is incidental, yet felicitous, as it gives me at least some hope that in the future I will be able to dwell in this mode more uninterruptedly than my current circumstances require.
I find that whenever I attempt to announce new big plans for The Hinternet, invariably I fail to come good on them. So I will abandon that part of this annual tradition, and will simply tell you that you may expect more foolishness here in the future. It remains to be seen what precise form that will take, or how my present foolishness will evolve. I did intend to run a lengthy poll here, inquiring about reader preferences and interests, but I fear I have surely biased the results with what I have already said, and if you have read this far you are unlikely to be able to answer without hearing echoes of my voice, or of what you imagine to be my voice, pushing you towards the “appropriate” answers. Still, in an experimentalist cast, let me try out at least a few questions:
Just one more very important thing: a few months ago I received a number of submissions after my call for potential guest contributions. I replied to most of you, and I’m deeply thankful to all of you. However, I fear a few of the submissions have gone missing as a result of my general incompetence in inbox management. So I am begging you, if you submitted something and have not heard back from me, to please write to me again and let me know. I’m very sorry about this extra hitch. To remind you that The Hinternet is hardly a streamlined and well-staffed operation should, I hope, be unnecessary.
That’s it for now, dear readers. As always I’m immensely grateful for your continued support and your interest. As I’ve said before, it means the world to me.
August 6, 2023