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Some Preliminaries, Some Follow-Ups, and Nothing In Between
It has long struck me that “superette” —as in, I suppose, an urban grocery that combines the virtues of both the supermarket and the convenience store?— is the rarest of words. It’s got a magnifying prefix, and it’s got a diminutive suffix, but it’s got no root between them. Today’s essay will be something like that: some preliminaries, some follow-ups, and nothing, but nothing, in between.
Perhaps this will become a periodic feature here at The Hinternet. Here’s Justin Smith-Ruiu’s “Superette #1”.
First we come to the Superette’s fridge full of cold drinks. Help yourself to a Fresca, an RC, perhaps a Tab.
From the reader poll I ran earlier this summer, I learned to my frustration that while a sizable majority of readers most appreciate my interventions engaging with hot-button issues of the day (uggh), a mere 17% like the Gothic-horror-laced experimental metafictions the best. Faced with this stark quantified truth, it dawned on me that I could either change myself to accommodate my work better to the tastes and expectations of the majority, or I could change my readers. To “change my readers” in turn might mean either of two very different things: I might win over the present crop of readers, changing their hearts and minds, or I might change them as one changes spark-plugs or an air filter — I might, that is, get new ones.
I thought long and hard about the different strategies I could adopt, and eventually concluded that the only honest one is the one where I, your author, not be made to change. This is not to say that I will not change. Indeed to move more in the direction of speculative fiction, when I first presented myself primarily as a non-fiction essayist, is a change in me, about which I can only say one must either evolve in accordance with one’s own innate Bildungstrieb, or one must stagnate and become as unreadable in one’s predictable repetitions as one admittedly risks being in one’s new experiments for which, it may turn out, one has no natural talent. You’ve got to take risks, I mean, and writers who just keep competently writing the same thing over and over again, a pattern I’ve seen all too often, are to my mind a far sorrier species than writers who try new things and fail.
So I’m changing, in the way I’ve described, which is to say changing indeed, but not for you. You, in turn, are going to change one way or another, either by unsubscribing, or by becoming more like that 17% minority who are already on what I take to be the desired wavelength.
It’s always strange, writing on Substack: my overall subscription numbers just keep going up, but the one thing that consistently brings them down is, curiously enough, my decision to hit “publish”. Every time I write something new, a few hundred people immediately unsubscribe, only for that same amount to be compensated once again, and then some, over the course of the following week — this due to algorithmic vagaries within the network that I will never understand, or due to someone sharing some of my old work in some other venue, or just the natural uniformitarian accretion process, if I may use a geological metaphor, that at this point is going to keep happening, it seems, no matter what I do. It’s a weird situation, and it creates some perverse incentives — I’ve come to think of each new piece I write as a sort of “shaking the fleas off”. Remember that when your cursor is hovering over the “unsubscribe” button. (Just kidding, you’re free to go. Fleas.)
I suspect most of the fleas are people who happened to read something I wrote about the internet, say, and imagined I must be a “tech writer”; or read something I wrote about the humanities, and imagine I must be a “higher-ed writer”; or —the worst!— read something I wrote in my capacity as a philosopher, and imagined I must be some sort of “public philosopher” (I’m not! Agnes is!); and so on. And then the first thing that lands in their inbox from me, under the banner of The Hinternet, proves, in view of these expectations, to be entirely indecipherable to them.
Look, though, honestly, I know there are some Substacks that only do one thing. There’s one for example that, when it runs out of things to say about Hannah Arendt’s published writings and correspondences, will give you the deets on her cocktail-party grocery list, so purely devoted it is to its singular subject. But if there’s one thing that’s particularly liberating for me about Substack, it’s that you don’t have to have a “beat”. I don’t care all that much about tech or higher ed, at least not as ends in themselves; do I care about philosophy? It’s complicated. Yes, I suppose, but not under its current prevailing definition and boundaries. As I keep saying, what I care about are, for example, quasars, nudibranchs, Byzantine heresies. I care about everything — I’m a cosmologist, in the Humboldtian sense, or in the sense of the incomparable Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, late of Marseille, Constantinople, Kentucky, &c. So I need a place to put my words about, well, everything, that does not make the circulation of these words contingent on my ability to prove that nudibranchs, say, are “really hot right now”, or that I’m going to be the nudibranch guy from now on. (I’ve never actually written about nudibranchs. I suppose I’m going to have to at some point.)
The relationship between “disintermediated” writing (Ted Gioia’s term) such as we have here, and the kind of traditional media where you have to choose your beat if you want to succeed, is unclear, and always evolving. Like many people I was taken aback by Sam Tannenhaus’s review of Freddie deBoer’s new book in the New York Times, as it seemed primarily concerned with enforcing a hierarchical distinction between the high-status sort of writing Tannenhaus himself does, and the lower-status work of those who, he seems to think, merely settle for disintermediation. But what this seems to miss is that many of us, Freddie and I included, are able to work both sides with equal ease, and if we are producing a lot of words that don’t move through any gatekeeping process before they reach their readers, this is not necessarily because we are afraid of the gatekeepers, or because we believe we could not get through, or we innately know ourselves to be low-status drudges. It’s because we are simply so built as to have more words gushing out of us than could possibly be made to drip through the narrow funnel of traditional media.
Some of my best writing has been pitched, then edited, then copy-edited, then fact-checked, then remunerated by the publication that put it through all this multi-phase rigor. But some of my best writing has also been disintermediated. If anyone is reading me a generation from now, I seriously don’t think they’re going to be categorizing my work according to the criterion of whether it passed through the steps that would cause Tannenhaus to take it seriously or not.
Here’s where we come to the Superette’s limited but serviceable meat department.
Speaking of my edited work, I have been absolutely bombarded with critical responses to my September essay on Gen X for Harper’s. Different people found different things not to like, but the one criticism that was repeated several times was that I failed to say anything about hip-hop. Some, who are not familiar with the range of my writing, imagined that this was because the subject had never crossed my mind.
What I have wanted to tell each of these eager e-mailers is that if I had inserted an account of my early experience of rap music, which is of course large, this would have amounted to a change of subject. Astute readers will have noticed that my story of Gen X alternative music and culture is a critical one. The essay was in part an attempt for me to cast a critical eye on the various ways I, and those like me, were ignorant, and part of this ignorance was that we were members of what was ultimately a racially defined and implicitly racialized subculture, generally without being conscious of that hard fact.
That it was a fact, about us and about our era, was a result of historical and economic forces far larger than us. As Lester Bangs noted of the Downtown No-Wave scene already in 1981, the early Reagan-Thatcher years witnessed the return of a low-key fascist aesthetic — prophesied already in Bowie’s “Thin White Duke” phase, only to become omnipresent five or so years later — this is what I had in mind in the essay when I talked of a shift from the shaggy and baggy, to the jagged and angular, to which we might also add to the clean-cut, buttoned-up, square-shoulder-padded, etc. All of these signifiers, I can see now, spoke subtly or not so subtly to the end of the hippie era of, among other things, aspiration to racial harmony.
This process of “blanchissement” is perhaps most evident in eighties hair-metal, which was by then entirely stripped of any remaining vestiges of rock’s historical origins in the blues. These origins are still very clear in the earliest heavy metal, with what are in retrospect the strangest sort of transitional fossils in between, most notably Led Zeppelin, whose lyrical content is still hung up on themes borrowed directly from the Mississippi Delta —the levee’s imminent bursting, etc.— even as it constructed around itself some sort of quasi-Tolkienian Insular Celtic neopagan mythology. That was at least a curious mash-up, but one does not have to be particularly immersed in the lingo of performance studies and related academic disciplines to agree that whatever Warrant, Night Ranger, et al., thought they were doing, what they were really doing was “performing whiteness”, without, at this point, any lingering musical debt at all to Robert Johnson.
Now as I explain in the essay the hair-metal goofballs were not exactly my crowd, but I can at least see with forty years of hindsight that whatever else was going on in the various alternative music scenes of the 1980s, the political and economic forces that shaped them were not entirely different from those that gave us Whitesnake. It positively short-circuited the preconceived notions of many provincial American goths, I well recall, to learn that the one-time drummer for The Cure was Black (Andy Anderson, RIP). It’s not that these kids thought The Cure should be racially pure, just that the dynamics of race and music in Britain were simply incomprehensible for Americans who had come of age in the era of this mostly unspoken whitening of American music that Lester Bangs diagnosed so well.
And similarly with rap music, for many of us white American teenagers, we had to have it served back to us via the UK in order to appreciate what it actually was. Only after Malcolm McLaren tried his hand at something like rapping, and Johnny Rotten collaborated with Afrika Bambaataa, and so on, did we feel comfortable going deeper and paying proper attention to the music of our own countrymen. And then came that singular moment in what I remember as 1983, though I could be a season or two off, when, in spite of the tremendous exertions of the industry to segregate musical genres no less rigorously than it had been before the moment Elvis pushed his way into the “race music” category, all of a sudden we started receiving images from New York, already a foreign country in its own way for us Californians, of Black youths popping and locking to Kraftwerk. The segregation efforts had failed miserably, but the direction of influence was the opposite of the one the segregationists had feared!
If we see Kraftwerk as pushing almost to the point of satire the disensoulment of rhythmic music through automation (“By pressing down a special key / It plays a little melody”), in 1983 we saw that even that was not enough to make it proprietarily “white”. And that same year we had Midnight Star’s “Freak-A-Zoid”, which I would surely rate as one of the greatest songs of that entire decade, as it perfectly sublated the supposed opposition between the Weimar-derived obsession with the death of the soul in the age of the robot, and, well, soul. (I can remember so clearly riding in the backseat, eleven years old, when this song came on FM-102 for the first time, and thinking, right around the three-minute mark, something not far from: holy shit, it’s the future!)
So, segregation failed, of course, but the most commercial music of the era stands nonetheless as a strange and extreme testament to the desperation of the people who would have wanted to segregate it, and provincial American teenagers like me were caught in the mix of confusing messages — on the one hand, the obvious interest of these new permutations of Black American musical tradition, and on the other hand the almost successful efforts of the proponents of the ideology that governed, had always governed, and continues to govern, in that country, that told us we were white and therefore should limit ourselves to an interest in white things.
So, in short, if it sounds like I’m ignoring a big chunk of musical experience of the era, it’s because I’m trying to convey a sense of my own limitations, as a microcosm of my own country’s limitations, which is to say, as I put it in connection with the great R. Crumb later on in the essay, of its fucked-upness.
Another reason rap music doesn’t figure in the essay is because the overall spirit of the piece is mournful. But rap music doesn’t need, in 2023, a requiem; rock-and-roll decidedly does. Rap music is the great Gen X success story. It’s still evolving in all kinds of interesting ways, and therefore to treat it would for better or worse have constituted a change of subject, or at least of key — again, one I hope to move into soon.
So it’s not that I haven’t given it any thought, nor do I buy at all Melle Mel’s warning to Eminem that he is a “guest in the house of hip-hop”. The corollary of the old rapper’s warning, for us writers, came from the world-class grouch Stanley Crouch, who once warned white jazz critics to proceed very, very cautiously. As I’ve said before, part of rap music’s clear success is in its globalization — and if we are now perfectly well habituated to seeing drill music from Vietnam or mumble rap from Mongolia, it would surely be strange —wouldn’t it?— if the only demographic in the entire world that had proved perfectly impenetrable to this music where white America. That would surely be the sign of a far greater problem than whatever it is that makes some of us uncomfortable about the Jawga Boyz (I know what it is, actually: it’s that they have low-status interests, and we worry about losing status ourselves if we so much as admit that we’ve heard of them).
Regular readers will know that I am not afraid to acknowledge my own low-status interests. I spend much of my time in Paris on the couch watching YouTube, pulling up videos of Ozark catfish-noodling contests (incidentally, Ozark is really aux arcs [en ciel], “to the rainbows”, so it’s not like anything is ever really a total change of subject, which Rafinesque no doubt also appreciated from his own cosmographical perch). I don’t know why I do this. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m homesick, I guess, and feeling bad, in a very complicated way, about betraying my roots — a complication that began, mind you, when I first started listening to Kraftwerk and The Cure rather than The Charlie Daniels Band or whatever and I got it into my head that I was “a cut above”.
These things are just so complicated, music and identity. If there are some lacunae in the Harper’s essay, this is because anyone whose identity was shaped by music in America is going to bear traces of the distortions to which we were subjected by our country’s history, and of the contortions we put ourselves through to make ourselves full nonetheless.
So, anyhow, I’ve definitely got a Part Two gestating, and I’ve only begun to sketch a few of its elements here. Maybe Harper’s will let me do a sequel, or maybe I’ll just throw it up right here, in a disintermediated spirit. But if you want to stick around to read it, you may have to wait through several more installments in one of the several fictional universes I have displayed here so far only in fragments.
As I’ve said before, I was not quite certain what I was doing at first when those early metafictions came out of me. I had come up, as I see it, in the workshop of ESTAR(SER), where we had a very precise recipe for each of the chapters of our multi-author tome, several of whose pseudonymous “contributors” can ultimately be traced back to yours truly.
When I struck off on my own, went into private practice, so to speak, naturally I took some of what I had learned there, while still groping my way towards something different. Some efforts, in hindsight, were more successful, and overall there seems to be a sort of upward curve that gives the earliest experiments something of the quality of “early Garfield”:
while the latest of them seem somehow sprier and leaner, calling to mind Jim Davis’s “late style”:
You see what I mean. Choose a different example, if you prefer. In any case I’m going to keep working at it, keep refining the craft, and all this quite independently of whether you, my dear 83%, want me to do so or not.
If you have not yet read any of this broad class of pieces, allow me to provide a brief list of suggestions, sampling liberally from the Fat Garfield and Lean Garfield phases alike. My favorites, in no particular order, are “Francine”, “Boogaloo”, “The Xylonet”, “ChronoSwooping”, “The Index of Coincidence”, “Bezumov’s Principal Objection”, “Trinkgeld’s Final Wish”, “Friedman’s Universal Key”, “Lunar Caustic” (regrettably also the name of a 1963 novella by Malcolm Lowry, Galen Strawson now tells me), and “The Seat of the Soul”. I was delighted when WIRED republished one of the time-travel pieces. And I suppose the momentum for doing all of this really started picking up when I shared a sample of my complete “translation”, still in progress, of the Voynich Manuscript, and was informed that Neil Gaiman found it “hugely enjoyable”. So, little by little, for better or worse, I sink into this role, and I try to make something of it.
Who knows, once this stuff starts getting 83% approval ratings, I might just decide to leave it behind, and start writing nothing but language poetry (incidentally, what kind of name is that? What the hell other kind of poetry could there be?). One must keep things fresh.
I suppose now we’re in the “-ette” part of this excursion, and I suppose ordinarily I’d italicize this part to indicate that it is what comes after the main body of the work. But since as we’ve said today there simply is no body to speak of, except perhaps to some extent the body that started to form from the meat of the music under discussion in Section 3, it seems warranted to leave the font here unaltered.
I wanted briefly to say that my friend and collaborator D. Graham Burnett and I will be speaking about the crisis of attention, etc., with special reference to our collaborative work as members of ESTAR(SER), at the American Library in Paris, on Thursday evening, October 19, 19:30-20:30. It’s a hybrid meeting, so you can join us on Zoom if you must, but we much prefer to see you in person.
The following day, on the afternoon of Friday, October 20, if you are in Paris there will be a follow-up event, the precise nature of which I cannot divulge here. We only have room for one or two people, so please do let me know right away if you interested. Be warned, though: the exercise requires your entire afternoon, and your willingness, shall we say, to master certain unfamiliar protocols.
Finally, I am writing tonight from Maastricht, where I will be giving a talk tomorrow evening, Monday, October 2, 20:00-21:30 CET. This is not a hybrid event, but it is open to the public. If I have any Limburger readers out there, I’d be delighted to make your acquaintance on this occasion.