A Lamentation, a Survey, and a Workshop on Writing Philosophical Fiction at the American Library in Paris
It struck me recently that it’s been quite some time since I last heard anyone speak of the importance of maintaining a “work/life balance”. Like co-dependency, like low blood-sugar,1 like cottage cheese atop pineapple rings, like “remembering to breathe”,2 like so many other things that once seemed central to the way we talk about ourselves and go about our lives, it may be that the idea of such a balance is in decline. If that is so, I suspect it has something to do with what has been called “work creep”, most noticeable since the pandemic and the concomitant rise of Zoom, which has thoroughly blurred the line between work and non-work. If work is the Vietnam War, our homes are now Cambodia under secret bombardment. Or, as I often say, my computer is my cloaca: the single opening to the world through which everything happens. Truly, the internet has turned us all into a bunch of scurrying monotremes, and it has left me, in particular, perpetually as prickly as an echidna.
I wouldn’t even know where to start if I were, in stubborn ignorance of the real range of my options, to commit myself to achieving a work/life balance. Honestly, at this point I’d be happy with a mere work/work balance: just the minimal ability to get everything people are constantly breathing down my neck to get done, done, and, on top of that, also to get done the tasks that I alone set for myself and that alone make my life meaningful and satisfying.
In spite of the appearance I usually maintain here, I remain a full-time professor, and often the responsibilities entailed by that métier necessarily crowd out every other objective I have. I work in a system that more closely resembles the mandarin examination system of imperial China than anything I had ever known in my North American years, and accordingly I have spent all of 2024 so far assigning points to, or withholding points from, anonymous exams written by first-year medical students fulfilling their humanities requirement, in view of the proficiency with which they recite various key points drawn from Georges Canguilhem’s Le Normal et le pathologique. (I have zero, nay, less than zero, intellectual affinity with this fellow, who everywhere outside of France is rightly considered a thoroughly minor figure, a skippable footnote on Foucault’s early influences, while here in France he remains one of the undisputed greats: canons are arbitrary, but that doesn’t mean some cultures don’t end up with better ones than others.)
This all happens through an online portal, just like bill-paying, medical-appointment-making, invoice-submission, recommendation-letter-submission, e-mails with family, friends, frenemies, enemies, and absolutely everything else. I stare at a screen for about 80% of my waking hours. I fear I’m developing some sort of repetitive-motion syndrome. My eyesight grows drastically dimmer, I learn, each time I visit the optometrist. Honestly, I’m sick of this shit. So, I’m sorry it’s been nearly two weeks since I last ‘stacked at ya, to echo Jim Anchower, and I’m sorry if you’re currently waiting for a reply from me regarding some other outstanding business. Actually, no, I’m not sorry. Why should I be sorry for refusing to spend upwards of eighty-one percent of my waking hours in front of a screen?
I recall reading a delightful interview with Martha Nussbaum a few years back, and laughing when she bluntly declared that her favorite part of each day is waking up, fixing breakfast, and systematically turning down the trickle of invitations to speak at various functions that had come in overnight (I can’t find the piece in question, for the moment). There was a short time in my career when I knew that pleasure too, though at this point even the amount of polite “no thank you’s” I have to send out each day is something I experience as a burden, as time stolen from a properly productive and meaningful life. I say “no” to almost everything at this point, and somehow even that is not enough to get me out from under the infinite garbage mound of things I really do not want to do, but do anyway, because I have to.
Even if I’m no longer constantly jetting around to Australia or Greece and so on (“Nice!” “Lucky you!” the junior professors all say to one another), and even if I’ve figured out by now that the offer of a “keynote” slot is really just a strategy event organizers use to massage vain and middling academics into saying “yes” to what in any case will still be a gross expenditure of time, energy, and fossil fuel simply to recite in front of five to ten people half-way around the world something they could easily just have read instead: even if this is so, I say, it sometimes seems to me that recusal from real-world affairs only causes the amount of screen-mediated work to grow the more. Drive the bullshit tasks out with a pitchfork, and they will vaporize and float right back in through your wifi connection.
Some of you have not figured this out yet, but the rise of our new non-stop screen-mediated social reality really is the first stage of the long, slow machine takeover all the doomsayers have been buzzing about. I continue to take breaks from this work to go down to the gym (15% of my waking life). The treadmills there work only through the mediation of touch-screens. It dawned on me yesterday, as I was trying to change the speed and my sweaty fingers were having trouble getting the screen to notice them, that the decisive moment in this takeover was surely when so many of our devices shifted almost overnight to touchscreen-only functionality, with no possibility for override by dial, knob, lever, or switch.
In a world where touching, swiping, and clicking have become the predominant pathways for human action, even writing full sentences on a keyboard, as I am doing now, feels like relief from the incessant routines of technoserfdom, a brief flare-up of freedom, a real thing just like people used to do, an assertion of enduring humanity. For that same reason, it also feels naughty, like something I could easily get in trouble for doing. But I have to do it. It’s screen-mediated, sure, but unlike all these other things I do it’s actually me. So, dear overlords, carbon or silicon, please understand that I need this time to write at least as much as I need to go to the gym, or to see the smiles of loved ones — which, given that I spend 80% of my waking life in front of a screen, and another 15% at the gym, I am woefully ill-positioned to inspire.
Agnes Callard has brought to my attention a curious survey, on a site called Manifold, where users are invited to rank various “public intellectuals” according to whether they are “overrated” or “underrated”. Agnes and I both made the list (though I am deadnamed once again!), and it turns out she is my closest neighbor, currently ranked as only 1% more overrated (35%) than I am (34%), where every score below 50% means you are “underrated”. The most overrated public intellectual, appropriately, is Robin DiAngelo (90%). Martha herself weighs in just below me at 32%. Others who are less overrated than I am include John McWhorter and Dan Dennett. The “overrated” Jason Stanley and Elon Musk are close neighbors, both hovering around 60%.
I can’t make heads or tails out of this list. It looks to me somewhat like what you might expect if the entries in Borges’s Chinese encyclopedia were to take human form. A mixed bag, I mean, mostly filled with what I have recently seen described as “influenctuals”: people who are almost by definition overrated, whose whole gig is to pump up their ratings by constantly emitting idea-flavored content into the takestream, according to the same strategy by which others emit lifestyle content. I certainly don’t think of myself as a public intellectual of that sort, and I certainly don’t want to be one. I want to be a poet and a dadaist and a sphingid speaker of riddles — more like a blind peasant girl who prophecies the coming of a triple parhelion that signals the fall of the kingdom than like Will Stancil showing you his pie charts or some other yakker in Dockers geeking out about “walkable cities” or whatever.
But let us grant for the sake of argument that I am a public intellectual and that I do in fact belong among the mötley crüe of characters here listed. If that is so, then what strikes me most about the survey is this: while I am somewhere among the more underrated public intellectuals, I am definitely and by far the most underpaid public intellectual. As far as I can determine about half of the people on this list have been passengers on the Lolita Express (including Dennett!). I’m sure none of the others is at risk of carpal-tunnel syndrome from too much blue-book grading. Nick Land (37%) might be somewhat more impecunious than I (I have no idea), but as for all of the others I am fairly certain they are more materially prosperous than I am, and in most cases vastly more so.
To be clear, I am not blaming anyone but myself. I have made many unstrategic decisions in life, and I am very bad at making demands for myself. A big part of me will always be convinced that I deserve nothing but misery, that I am always, by definition, 100% overrated, that I do not deserve even to see another human being’s smile, let alone to fly on private jets. But I do try to push past that, and to affirm without visible shame that, while I do not have any interest in doing whatever the 2024 equivalent of flying around with Jeffrey Epstein is, it would still be kind of nice to be able to spend at least a few years in a mode of life noticeably materially different from that of a grad student. It would be nice to not go straight from the sublet to the hospice, but to know for a brief moment between those two stations on life’s way what it’s like to be a member of the class of homeowners. This is not a question of desert —I mean, children who scavenge in the municipal dumps of Manila work fourteen-hour days too, or more, and are my equals before God in every respect—, but only of following that most basic imperative and doing what one can for oneself in this short life. As we read in the immortal Ṛg Veda (Wendy Doniger’s translation):
I am a poet; my dad’s a physician
and mom a miller with grinding stones.
With diverse thoughts we all strive for wealth,
going after it like cattle.
I wouldn’t take Thiel (40%) money, but nor would I mind if, say, my forthcoming On Drugs gets optioned by Netflix, or even Hulu, or Mubi, or whatever those services are you guys are always talking about. I wouldn’t know. My screentime is reserved, I fear, for more tedious uses. For that matter I also wouldn’t mind if more of my loyal readers were to upgrade their subscriptions to “paid”, as you might also find them doing in great numbers for Bari Weiss (46%) or Glenn Loury (32%). Not only will that small gesture help me to keep up with my de-facto peer group, the “public intellectuals”. It will also enable you to read not the preamble, but the real essay I have written for today, which lies beneath the fold.
Come to think of it, you might also be able to help this particular cow advance towards wealth by going to that Manifold survey and voting me higher in the scale of overratedness. I want to be all the way up there with Ibram X. Kendi! Or at least, say, Alain de Botton. For as far as I can tell there is a clear correlation between overratedness and material advantage. We knew it all along, didn’t we? Manifold is only helping us to visualize it.
But who am I kidding? For a while now it’s seemed to me that within the Substack ecosystem there is also a scale, one that duplicates fairly elegantly the hierarchy we see in the music industry. Bari Weiss is the Taylor Swift of Substack (I was floored when I got the inside scoop on how much The Free Press pulls in per annum: holy shit that’s a lot of money, and basically just for saying things her entire audience always knows in advance she is going to say). Freddie deBoer is, like, I don’t know, Action Bronson or something? Anyhow he writes as if he were tattooing your face. Brother Sam Kriss is weird in that, although he’s still alive, he somehow writes as if he were a long-dead legend, like some member of the “27 club” who keeps churning out new hits from beyond the grave. As for me I fear I’m destined to remain a sort of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy of letters: almost universally appreciated by those who know who I am, but unknown by the great majority; resolutely lo-fi; funny (I always hope) and dead serious at once.
You know what? Instead of placing a real essay below the paywalled fold today, I think I’m just going to wrap things up here. I’ll come back with that sweet members-only ichor within a week, I promise. For now I’ve got to get back to my fucking inbox, and to filling various forms out online, to receiving prompts for password retrieval, and otherwise inching towards death.
But before I go, let me again announce the very exciting new thing I’m about to do thanks to my wonderful hosts at the American Library in Paris: I’ll be teaching a three-week workshop there, February 3, 10, and 17, on writing philosophical fiction. More particularly, I’ll be inviting participants to explore with me ways of using storytelling, and in particular experimental narrative (especially documentary metafiction, which as you’ve probably seen by now is my whole biscuit) to engage with philosophical problems.
I’ll be using some of my recent ‘stacks for the purpose of illustration (e.g., this one, which I’m told has been assigned in a few philosophy of AI courses in the US), but my ultimate hope is that I will receive from at least some of the participants original work that is exciting and cool enough to be featured in this space. That’s right: participants will have the opportunity to write their own philosophical fiction, and might end up getting it published here at The Hinternet.
The workshop does have a registration fee. I believe it’s 60 euros. But allow me again to be characteristically unstrategic: if you are in Paris in February, and you would like to participate, but do not have the funds available, just let me know and I will see about getting you a “scholarship”.
Likewise, if you wish to keep reading my Substack, but can’t afford the paid subscription, let me know and I’ll happily comp you (no need to relate any details about your situation — it’s enough to send me an e-mail that says “comp, please”, or even just “comp”).
That’s all for today, friends. Thanks for reading.
I know hypoglycemia still exists, but back in the ‘90s, in my recollection, appeals to it as the universal explanation for whatever a person might fail to do, or fail to do right, were as common as the vapors at Mme de Pompadour’s salon.
I do not believe any aerobic organism has ever, in the hundreds of millions of years we’ve been around, “forgotten to breathe”. That’s what the autonomic nervous system is for!