But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past — Chuck Klosterman

But What If We’re Wrong? is consistently delightful in both sentence and idea quality: the chapters are full of astute observations, like “Something becomes truly popular when it becomes interesting to those who don’t particularly care.” Klosterman’s example here is football and that is indeed a winning way to describe football in U.S. culture (though see here for one account of how football may decline); I don’t care about football and perhaps unsurprisingly I select for friends who don’t really care about it, yet in January I went to a friend’s apartment for he Superbowl anyway because other friends who also didn’t care about football were going. On some level this makes no sense yet we did it anyway.

but what if were wrongReality TV has that quality too, and Klosterman discusses it in another chapter. I don’t care about it either, though it has spawned one amazing TV show (UnREAL), at least one excellent novel (Arts & Entertainments), along with lots and lots of good articles. Reality TV producers probably have a better grasp of human psychology than most psychologists. It’s also arguably affected the way people use Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and the plethora of other tools we have to broadcast our fabulous, highly edited lives in the sun and exotic locales and so forth. The Real World got to the unreality of living in front of cameras before the rest of us did.

Speaking of the unreal world, the most striking thing to me is the gap between the Facebook faces of the people I know well and the private conversations with those same people, since the former is inevitably sunny and the latter contains the usual set of human challenges and feelings, which are repressed or distorted by reality TV. For good reason, I might add: the makers of those programs are building specific media properties for entertainment purposes. They know their business well, and their job is to present a specific kind of information system that may or may not be “real,” much the way my job is to write a specific kind of information system that may or may not be real.

The preceding two paragraphs are mostly digression, but they are digression that may feel somewhat like a Klosterman digression. Klosterman makes one think and makes one want to have a beer with him. He makes me want to write more and better. Not all of the chapters are equally strong—the one that starts out with comments about the role of dreaming particularly stands out in this respect, and I also have found discussions about the simulation hypothesis boring since I first heard them. But the overall effect is to make one think and to make one think something apart from the usual battle lines and lines of thought one hears, and that is valuable in itself.

There are many other excellent facets to the book, which feels like the cleverest conversation you’ve ever had rather than a slog through tedious ideas. There are some predecessors—”What You Can’t Say” also wonders what the present will look like centuries from now, and it asks:

It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.

Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no. It would be a remarkable coincidence if ours were the first era to get everything just right.

So if you believe everything you’re “supposed” to believe, you’re probably doing something wrong (if you believe nothing that you’re “supposed” to believe, you’re probably also doing something wrong, or simply cannot operate in a society that depends on some level of order and coordination). I think Klosterman would agree, although if he said so explicitly I missed it. He does set up the book this way:

What about ideas that are so accepted and internalized that we’re not even in a position to question their fallibility? These ideas are so ingrained in the collective consciousness that it seems fool-hardy to even wonder if they’re potentially untrue.

The ideas that are so accepted are of course the ones we need to question.

Klosterman also recalls the history of failed predictions; my favorite is Paul Ehrlich, who, in 1968, wrote a book called The Population Bomb, about how over-population would annihilate the world; in Klosterman’s words, summarizing Ehrlich, “we should currently be experiencing a dystopian dreamscape where ‘survivors envy the dead,’ which seem true only when I look at Twitter” (that last clause is a good sample of Klosterman’s humor). As most of outside of Syria know, the living do not for the most part envy the dead, growth has continued, and on an inflation-adjusted basis commodities are cheaper than they’ve ever been. We’re on the verge of an energy revolution in which a combination of solar, wind, and nuclear energy will reduce our carbon footprint, while electric cars should dramatically reduce the flow of oil money that is currently propping up despotic regimes like those in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran.

Those predictions are off. So are many predictions about who and what will matter in literature, music, and art. The cultural world of 2016 looks wildly different than the cultural world of 1950, 1900, or 1850, and all of those periods had artistic priorities and worlds vastly different from today’s. As we look backwards from today, the things we find valuable then are different than many of the things that people found valuable at the time. That implies that the cultural world of 2050 or 2100 will probably be different than the world of today, rendering many of our present values and works moot, but in ways that we probably can’t predict, and, “In fact, it often seems like our collective ability to recognize electrifying genius as it occurs paradoxically limits the likelihood of future populations certifying that genius as timeless.”


So far this essay has only discussed a small part of But What If We’re Wrong. There’s much much more. It’s one of the best books I’ve read recently.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto — Chuck Klosterman

Pop-culture essays age in dog years while retaining the occasional long-term insight that stays fresh by accident. I’m reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto and mostly noticed age spots but also saw a few prescient moments, like this:

But Junod claims that he [made up details about Michael Stripe of R.E.M. in an article] in order to make people reevaluate how the press covers celebrity, and that’s valid. It’s valid because conventional celebrity journalism is inevitably hounded by two problems: Either the subject is lying, or the writer is guessing. Junod just happened to embrace both of those obstacles simultaneously.

The relationship of the Klosterman essay to say John Jeremiah Sullivan’s more recent Real World essay, “Leaving Reality” essay is obvious, but I think Kloosterman is also forgetting—or doesn’t want to simply say—that people read celebrity profiles in part because they want to be lied to. There is more than a little complicity in the lie, which changes the relations of the liar to the person being lied to. Or perhaps people want to feel false intimacy, which can be achieved partially through lying.

klostermanThe “subject” of these profiles—like the Michael Stripe one, or others in its genre—is probably trying mostly not to say or do anything that will make him or her look like an asshole when taken out of context. This can be shockingly hard to do, since the subject can’t tell when the writer is “guessing” or what the writer is “guessing.” In this context “guessing” can be another word for “interpretation.” One reason to read the New Yorker, incidentally, is that its writers appear to attempt to be scrumptiously fair and to avoid gossip—yet those are the very qualities that can give rise to accusations of being “boring.” One person’s boring is another’s accurate.

Imagine someone followed you around, all the time, for a couple of days and maybe for longer, and that the person has some bad will, or at least wants to make your life into a story. Could the person get some stuff that would make you look bad? Probably. I know that someone who could observe everything I wrote, and watch everything I do could make me look really bad. So smart celebrities avoid the real press, or only interact with the relatively small, non-jerk parts of the press—like The New Yorker.

Let’s take a specific example of an article about the world behind celebrity journalism: Sarah Miller’s hilarious “Anna Nicole Smith Kind of Made a Pass at Me.” I dramatically read parts of it to some friends the other night. This paragraph stands out in particular:

I wrote a first draft, in which, without spelling everything out, I attempted to give some real sense of that day. “I can’t publish this,” my editor said, and in her defense, I’m sure she was right. I wrote another version that made it sound like I’d had fun, which took hours and hours, because it was not real; writing something that is not real is not impossible, but it is very close to it. Through every long moment I worked on it I cursed myself for not taking that stupid trip to Magic Mountain, which would have made it all so much easier. Anyway, they published that version, and I got my money.

Miller describes what actually happened this way:

“Sarah Miller,” [Anna Nicole Smith] said, “You’ve got the prettiest blue eyes.” If we were in a movie, she’d have added, “I do declare.”

“Thank you,” I said formally.

“You ever had sex with a girl?”

It was none of her business, but I thought being honest might somehow give her back some of the dignity my mind had robbed her of, and I thought she might sense it, and that we might have a real conversation. “Yes, actually, Anna. I have.”

“Well, did you like it?” The word “like” lasted for several seconds.

“I actually did not,” I said. “It was a…misbegotten adventure.” I was pleased at how much I sounded like my father.

But that can’t be published, not at the time Miller was trying to get the story. Her editor, however, doesn’t want “real.” The number of readers who do is small. How many people watch PBS versus celebutainment shows? How many read The New Yorker versus US Weekly? The truth is hard and amusing fictions easy, so we choose the latter. In the introduction to Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs Klosterman writes that “accelerated culture [. . .] doesn’t speed things up as much as it jams everything into the same wall of sound. But that’s not necessarily tragic.” I’m not convinced there is such a thing as “accelerated culture,” but I am convinced that elements of what passes for low or contemporary or whatever culture do emerge from the collective decisions of millions of individuals.

But it is also worth stepping back and looking for larger patterns, which is what Klosterman almost but doesn’t quite do. He is a little too fond too of grand pronouncements. Like:

The main problem with mass media is that it makes it impossible to fall in love with any acumen of normalcy. There is no “normal,” because everybody is being twisted by the same forces simultaneously. You can’t compare your relationship with the playful couple who lives next door, because they’re probably modeling themselves after Chandler Bing and Monica Geller. Real people are actively trying to live like fake people, so real people are no less fake. Every comparison becomes impractical. This is why the impractical has become totally acceptable; impracticality almost seems cool.

What is an “acumen of normalcy?” I’m not sure either. I had to check Google for “Chandler Bing” and “Monica Geller.” And has it ever been the case that “real people” have not tried to model themselves on “fake people?” If you read major religious texts as fundamentally mythological, as I do, the answer is “no:” people have been trying to emulate the Christian Bible and the Old Testament for literally thousands of years. Early novels with melodramatic endings encouraged their readers to attempt to reenact those ending. We seek narrative fiction in order to learn how to live—and that isn’t at all new. I don’t think there has ever been as firm a normal as we’d like to project on the past.

Eventually, with paragraphs like the quoted section, one comes to the conclusion that either everything is “fake” or everything is “real”—which is the sort of conclusion high freshmen hit when they’re in their dorm rooms at 2:00 a.m. The next day they still get up for class and go to breakfast. What is one supposed to do differently if one decides that real people are fake?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the next essay in the Kloserman collection concerns the video game “The Sims.” Also not surprisingly, some SF writers have wondered what might happen if we get a wholly immersive and wholly fake world. One possible solution to the Fermi Paradox is that sufficiently advanced civilizations make video games that are so cool that they’d rather live in constructed worlds than explore the real universe.

That’s an interesting thought experiment, but like the high freshmen mentioned above no one does anything differently today based on it. Klosterman tells tales about meaningless arguments. Eventually, however, generative people come to realize that arguments that don’t lead to any sort of change or growth are pointless, and they get on with their lives. One sign of “low culture” may be that winning or losing the argument means nothing, and the participants should go build or make something instead.

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