Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Twitterpocalypse Now: Beings of Earth

Welcome to the latest installment of Twitterpolcalypse Now, an ongoing conversation where Nick Hanover and Kim O’Connor theorize the impending collapse of America’s least favorite website. For the archival records of the slow and steady decline of our
biological neural nets, you can read Part 1 at Loser City, Part 2 here, and Part 3 at Loser City. 

Kim: Nick, we seem to have entered a new stage of the Twitterpocalypse, and we’re here today to try to make sense of it. It feels like there’s a way in which it was always coming to this: the day that Kanye West hailed Hitler on a livestream with Alex Jones and got suspended by Elon for tweeting a swastika [or posting that Ghislaine Maxwell pic?]. There’s the inevitability of it all, where Ye himself has become the zeitgeist incarnate. Bigotry, nationalism, gross spectacle, conspiracy theories, celebrity dysfunction—basically every bad vibe we’ve endured as a culture over the last decade has accumulated in this man, and now he’s spewing it back onto us.

But at the same time, there’s a way in which this all feels disorienting. It’s in the same vein of how I felt when Trump won the election, that dialectic of “I can’t believe this fucking guy is the president” and “of course he was always going to be president.” Even though I understand and agree with the popular notion that Kanye’s been spouting extremist views for years, it felt like today was the point at which he finally became his own inverse. I’m old enough to remember when Kanye told the world that George Bush doesn’t care about Black people, which I saw live and may have been the single most shocking thing that I’ve ever seen happen on TV, including 9/11. So these two pop culture spectacles are very weird bookends on the last 17 years of American history. 

Kanye’s antisemitism is vile and dangerous, and he’s obviously responsible for it, but I think the consensus that we should draw a hard line between his ideology and what appear to be catastrophic mental health problems is wrong. It’s maybe more useful to think of him as a walking Pepe meme: a really ugly, empty vessel that has been appropriated by people with ill intent. 

As usual with the Twitterpocalypse, none of this has any meaning, yet all of it is meaningful. There’s a fundamental incoherence that makes talking about it difficult, but I want to ask you about how you see the broad political implications of what’s been going on. Lately I’ve been around relatives who watch MSNBC and the sentiment in the mainstream seems to be that we’ve reached a point where Trump’s actions have finally caught up with him and that his dinner with Kanye and Nick Fuentes was a “political nightmare.” I…do not agree, nor do I agree that he’s being used by the far right as a ploy to make their key players seem more moderate by comparison. But I’m very interested to know how you’re reading the mood and the meaning of this particular moment in time. What do you see?  

Nick Hanover: As weird as this might sound I think Kanye has once again forced a do or die conversation in national politics, albeit in the polar opposite way he did with the Bush moment you mentioned. I don’t think either of us want to get into a discussion about his mental state at all other than to say whatever he is experiencing right now has amplified his historic lack of a filter and that the GOP players who clearly sought to exploit that are realizing too late that they couldn’t control him and he made explicit what they probably intended to just be (louder than usual) dogwhistling. I agree with you that the GOP did not intend for this to be a situation that made them look more moderate, I firmly believe they wanted Kanye to be aggressive and controversial they just didn’t expect him to go full “Hitler is cool, actually” and now it’s causing a lot of groups that are anywhere left of alt-right to not only unify behind shutting down Kanye but also finally recognizing that maybe Twitter does need some kind of governing body.

Right as we began this conversation today, President Biden himself used the platform of Twitter to unequivocally call out everyone who shares Kanye’s Holocaust denying beliefs, and he also seemed to suggest he felt that the platforms that enabled this misinformation were a major problem that may require government intervention. I could be reading too much into Biden’s statement, only time will tell, but even if the government does not step in directly with Twitter, Biden sent a very clear message that he and the party he leads consider the ongoing rise in antisemitism to be a major concern. More cynically, I can’t help but feel that Biden and his team are probably relieved that Kanye and Musk would fuck up so badly right now as the Democrats are facing blowback to their response to the railroad workers’ demands for better treatment.

One of the biggest obstacles for the progressive movement in America has always been the unwillingness of most people to “take a side” or involve themselves in conflict. You see this throughout our history, whether it’s WW2 or the Civil Rights Movement; we just generally avoid getting involved until the situation is either right on our front steps or too disturbing to look away from any longer. And I think in his typical chaotic way, Kanye just forced a lot of Americans to acknowledge that Nazis are definitely back, they are definitely not kidding and they really do believe Hitler had the right idea. And worse than that, the world’s richest man is directly aiding these Nazis and wants Twitter to be their greatest propaganda weapon. 

You said you don’t feel that Trump’s actions have caught up with him, so my question back to you is do you mean that in the sense of within the GOP or the culture at large? Do you think this situation with Kanye going full Hitler is going to help or hurt Trump in the long run?

Kim: It’s too early to tell. My own sense of things is that Trump is currently in a better spot than most people seem to think he’s in. He has in some ways reset the outsider/underdog status that served him so well in 2016. Historically, people have underestimated Trump and especially underestimated the degree to which his most racist and horrifying actions and words stir up his rabid base. Key Republicans are obviously starting to distance themselves, and DeSantis has emerged as a plausible rival. But does DeSantis have dragon energy? No. No, I don’t think he does. That is supposedly his advantage! But I’m not so sure. 

Outrage remains a very powerful political currency and it doesn’t always unfold in straightforward and predictable ways. So we have this situation where Trump and Twitter and Kanye are on the national news every night. We’re hearing “condemnation from all sides.” But is what we’re seeing the American public finally rejecting fascism once and for all? Or the launch of the most unhinged presidential campaign of our lifetimes? What have Republicans even got without the sheer force of Trump’s terrible personality? Deeply unpopular ideas and beliefs?? 

So I don’t know, we’re obviously a long way out, but I think Trump’s still in play. At the end of the day, if Republicans feel that he’s their path to power, they will line up behind him like they always have. If their path to power is some guy who’s not Trump, they’ll do that, too—but that seems harder. 

Going back to your point about progressive Americans being conflict averse, the obvious corollary is that regressive Americans are not. As we watch what’s happening with hate speech on Twitter, my question is how much more purchase are these people going to find now that the subtext has been made text?

Nick: Literally right after you responded, Trump announced that he was using Elon Musk and Matt Taibbi’s questionable “Twitter Files” stunt as yet another pretext for demanding a 2020 recount/redo. It doesn’t seem to matter to a not-inconsiderable portion of the American population that the “Twitter Files” unveiled nothing that would be considered election fraud, nor does it seem to matter that everything Taibbi “revealed” happened before Biden was president not during his presidency, these people are running with it as reason enough to go to war. 

I’m sure you are just as tired of bringing everything back to Hitler as I am but it’s hard not to feel like history is repeating here and we’re heading towards a similar situation as the decline of Hindenburg after his final re-election that paved the way for Hitler to seize control. Over and over and over again the Democrat leadership has been generally unwilling to take this nu-fascist party seriously but they have specifically failed at fighting back against Trump’s continued distortion of reality. Even the way Biden condemned the rising antisemitism shows this– rather than directly name Musk or Kanye or even Trump as fueling this hate movement, he vaguely stated what the facts are and even more vaguely suggested someone should probably do something about it. As great as it is to see him condemn antisemitic rhetoric and identify it as a major problem, this response is still the definition of too little too late and I truly believe we’re heading towards a new version of the Reichstag Fire where the Democrats help the GOP pin the blame on the Democrats themselves.

There is no way out of this mess without shutting down or seizing control of the propaganda vehicles these nu-fascists are using, and that includes Twitter. But how do you even do that now without playing right into the “deep state” conspiracy these terrorists continuously yell about? Similarly, sending Trump to prison now rather than right after January 6th is only going to embolden that movement. Our “lesser evil” party has failed in every possible sense.

I’m also extremely concerned about how quickly and loudly Musk is using Twitter as a means to get around the donation and advertising restrictions that are in place for elections. On his Substack, Matt Taibbi revealed just how much involvement Musk had in shaping that story, making it abundantly clear that Taibbi is a full blown political operative now instead of anything resembling a journalist. Taibbi has already promised more “episodes” of the “Twitter Files,” but with Musk gloating about how he views his acquisition of Twitter as a license to dredge up whatever private correspondence serves as ammunition for his political aims, we are undoubtedly going to see the most chaotic and disruptive political contest of our lifetimes and possibly of the entire American lifetime. What do you predict will be next? Who else do you think is going to reveal themselves to be a Musk crony? How long before Matty Y gets his own “Twitter Files”?

Kim: I mean, I’m pretty worried! Trump is never, ever going to jail; I’ve always been sure of that much. The Democrats are as impotent as you say. Maybe worse, they’re overconfident because they didn’t fail as badly as expected at the midterms. Post-Obama, scraping by or just not losing egregiously is what they count as a mandate. And the superior smug shrill tone of the pundits on MSNBC throughout this latest series of episodes with Trump suggests that the center thinks this has been some sort of turning point. Which is what they always think.




I agree with you that what Musk is doing with the Twitter Report(s) is scary and so far it seems that almost everyone is underestimating the significance of that, too. Just because we don’t care about Hunter Biden’s laptop, “lock[ing] her up,” etc. doesn’t mean it’s no big deal. It literally doesn’t matter that there’s nothing there of substance. As we’ve talked about, content matters, but meaning is vestigial. “Hunter’s laptop” is like a fight song at a sporting event. Matt Taibbi’s credibility doesn’t matter because he’s singing their song. His background at outlets like Rolling Stone is an asset in the same way that Glenn Greenwald’s background is an asset when he goes on Tucker Carlson. So far as I can tell, there is no one who seems more credible to the other side than a media personality who has defected from their party. That’s true on both sides, actually. That’s half the anchors on MSNBC. So those are the types that seem like the obvious candidates for joining Taibbi at Musk News. We already know he approached Bari Weiss. Alex Berenson? Any of these anti-establishment types who pander to the right. Probably not Greenwald, but he’s a spiritual advisor. The script writes itself.


I agree that shutting down the propaganda is the lever here. I don’t know if there’s a way to go about that on the federal side, just in terms of their practical tools. The government has stayed way behind on regulating Big Tech, so the idea that they could find a timely way to deal with these new developments is pretty far-fetched. I know some people think that Musk is going to be in deep trouble with the Federal Trade Commission for not complying with its consent order, but that seems real shaky to me. 
So that brings us full circle, back to our original questions about where we even are with the Twitterpocalypse. Namely, when is Twitter gonna die? And how? The existential threat seems to have been all but forgotten on the timeline, but the company is plainly still in serious financial distress. The service is spotty, but working better than I expected. And as of Saturday night (when I’m writing this response) (…because I’m cool), Musk claims that advertisers are coming back. While his posturing may contain a seed of truth, reports say that Twitter’s revenue is nowhere near normal. So what do you think, is the Twitterpocalpyse still on track? Or do we need to reconsider?

Nick: I think the Twitterpocalypse is definitely still on track because the platform continues to hemorrhage active users and is boosting the activity of other platforms in the process, even massively uncool platforms like LinkedIn. On top of that, there are the ongoing security and public safety concerns, which are now amplified since Musk publicly admitted to sifting through private correspondence for ammunition. If 2024 doesn’t go the way Trump and Musk want, I think Musk has placed a giant crosshair on himself, too, and if Twitter isn’t a rotting corpse by then he will almost certainly carve it up as much as he can to save himself. I don’t exactly trust his claims about the return of advertisers, either; even if Apple has come back the odds that they are still putting as much money into the platform as before are next to nil. If Twitter was actually doing well and entities like Apple were not as much of a concern, I don’t think Musk would be spending as much time as he has been promising everything is just fine.

At this point, what I’m most curious about is who else Musk is going to suck into the vortex with him. The Kanye reinstatement experiment flamed out even quicker than expected so I suspect Musk is desperately trying to find a more malleable toxic celebrity to enlist because he seems to rightly assume Twitter’s best asset right now is its status as Must See (Trash) TV. What could be next? A New Year’s Eve Twitter Circle Extravaganza featuring Louis CK, R Kelly and Bill Cosby and exploding Teslas in place of fireworks? The sky’s the limit!

Kim: Maybe Dave Chapelle will do a special! Men’s rights terf comedy is probably Twitter’s most viable path to solvency at this point. 


Well, I think that about sums up where we are in the Twitterpocalypse. To quote Ye, “It ain’t funny anymore.” Thanks for reading, and if you haven’t left Twitter yet, you can follow Nick Hanover @nick_hanover and Kim O’Connor at @shallowbrigade.

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Twitterpocalypse Now: The Wheels Are Falling Off


Kim O’Connor: Nick, since we published our last conversation about Twitter around 36 hours ago, some 4,500 contractors have been fired. Elon Musk provoked a U.S. Senator, made bizarre false claims about Twitter and its reach, and accused his ghosts of stealing food. Oh, and reports broke that a rogue Tesla Model Y maimed or murdered five people in China?

All to say we’ve had a relatively quiet Twitterpocalypse news cycle, and I want to take advantage of the lull to pose a somewhat philosophical question.

I’ve been thinking through the idea of “influence” and how it’s adjacent to, but ultimately really different from, power and money. Historically, it seems that influence, much like Twitter itself, has been hard to monetize. The people we talk about as social media “influencers” are mostly grifters or guerilla marketers. The influencers who actually shape the world we live in—trendsetters, artists, intellectuals, “the Russians,” etc.—are a lot more important. But they don’t necessarily get paid.

There are people who talks about Musk’s designs for Twitter as colonialist or fascist. It seems to me that his agenda (insofar as there is one?) is a lot more selfish and idiosyncratic and poisoned with Chad memes than that. Yet I can’t ignore that he talks constantly about making Twitter an “everything app.” For a lot of reasons, that ambition seems absurd on its face. But it’s also my belief that when the richest man in the universe talks about making an everything app, he shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. The tech world is still very much moved by unhinged gambles and cults of personality, despite the constant stream of press on Silicon Valley snake oil conspiracies.

All Elon on Elon quotes from @bestofdyingtwitter

So let’s just set aside for the moment the very real possibility that Twitter will stop existing sometime soon. Is it even possible that a platform that’s influential in the real sense of shaping the world (not just selling pink sauce) can be well and truly monetized? Can Twitter’s influence be harnessed, or is it inherently unruly? Or has its influence been grossly overestimated, just in general?

Nick Hanover: I’m glad you brought this up because Alex De Campi had a thread about this the other day that I felt hit the nail right on the head. Alex argues that Twitter’s real problem, as far as profitability, is how broken its approach to ads is, specifically in terms of metrics. As Alex mentions in that thread, brands and publications and influencers all still cling to Meta because of how robust its metrics system is and how easily it allows you to effectively market to users. But everybody in those worlds also hates Meta because of how often and how brazenly it lies about those analytics– the biggest, most catastrophic example of this would be the pivot-to-video push Meta was behind that ended up being a lot of (ultimately fatal) smoke and mirrors. Every client I work with on this sort of thing, be it a musician or a food service company or a publication, is desperate for pretty much anybody to offer an alternative to Meta. But because of incompetence or misaligned priorities or whatever, Twitter has continuously shit the bed on this front.

Musk’s takeover has, perhaps more than anything, illuminated how poorly the tech world at large understands what Twitter is, what it could be and how it can be profitable. No one wants Twitter to be an “everything app” any more than anyone wants Facebook or Instagram to be an “everything app,” they just want to hang out in these spaces and have a reasonably civil experience. The best way I can think to frame these platforms is that they are basically digital bars– Twitter is the neighborhood dive bar where you catch up on gossip and debate news with friends and select coworkers, Facebook is the somewhat sterile family friendly bar where you’re more likely to run into family members and former classmates and Instagram and TikTok are the nightclubs where you don’t go to be able to have conversation but to see glamour and style and maybe a few drunken fights/embarrassing situations. Where these platforms fall apart is in attempting to ape one another and integrate things that really only work on the other platforms– no one goes to the neighborhood dive bar to scope out the latest fashion trends and no one goes to the nightclub with their family in an attempt to talk out their differences. Likewise, you aren’t going to have a profitable experience if you get rid of all of the cheap beer at the dive bar and try to get everyone to sip on overpriced syrupy cocktails instead.

So if you want these things to be profitable, you have to moderate and control the experience properly for the environment you have. Musk, however, seems to want to force Twitter to fit the experience he and his cronies want to have and in the process of doing that he is making an environment that is too toxic for advertisers and too chaotic for a normal ass person. I don’t think “fascist” is the right framing for his approach, it’s more like the “It’s a Good Life” episode of The Twilight Zone, where a petulant child has incomprehensible power but pretty much only uses it to bully and break people. As the texts from the lawsuit show, Musk and his partners have wanted to buy Twitter for a while just to punish its users. There is no plan here other than “I want to be able to direct my horde of unhinged followers towards whoever I don’t like at the moment but I also don’t want anyone to be able to criticize me” and that is the sort of plan that will never make money no matter how many resources you throw at it.

It’s especially bad here, though, because Twitter is in a way a sentient organism itself and it is actively resisting efforts to shape it into anything it isn’t, and this isn’t new to Musk (this is also why I don’t think its influence is overestimated, if anything any platform that is this autonomous and resistant to forced change under the hostile ownership of the world’s richest man has probably been underestimated). There is clearly a societal need to gossip and talk shit and Twitter remains the best platform for that so if you want to make money off Twitter, embrace that! Stop putting more money behind bloat, stop laying off the engineers keeping the quality of life stable, stop encouraging what are basically drunken hooligans to storm the dive bar. Put the energy and money instead into fixing your metrics systems and into better moderation because that is what advertisers and users both want– they want the app to work, they want to be able to be seen easily, they don’t want to deal with paywalls or “shadowbanning” or whatever other nonsense Musk thinks is a road to success.

Kim: It’s such an interesting question, what level of user experience Twitter needs to maintain to keep its users (and attract new ones). One way to interpret these crazy rounds of layoffs is that Musk has been Benjamin Buttoning the platform. He’s taken a mature, functional service and is stripping it down to the studs, moving backward toward a minimum viable product. It’s like a reverse startup? Which is an enormously risky approach, even if it weren’t being executed in such a haphazard and unprofessional way, under unfathomable financial duress.

I mean, we could talk all day about the very plain deficiencies in Musk’s understanding of how anything works. There’s his total lack of insight into the advertising and social media businesses, as you mentioned. There’s also his outrageous plan (perhaps former plan…?) to throttle engagement for users who won’t pay for a subscription. That would repel droves of people on, like, the level of neurochemistry. It’s bonkers!

It seems worth noting that Facebook made a lot of money not because of Mark Zuckerberg, but because of Sheryl Sandberg (who has, notably, abandoned ship in the transition to Meta). There does not seem to be anyone in Musk’s life to play that role. His lieutenants are a rogue’s gallery of Robert Greene wannabes, plus that one lady who sleeps in the Twitter conference room. Musk should be surrounding himself with normie pragmatists, not people who describe themselves as alphas who found “spirituality” at Burning Man. The idea that those are the people you want on your team to realize One App to Rule Them All is so funny.

A good leader must listen, reflect

But…Silicon Valley is still chasing unicorns, which is why Musk is who he is. His belief that Twitter has a lot of bloat – that it should be focusing on a lean payroll and minimum viable product rather than integrity or network effect – is on some level rational. Historically, Musk is a person who has been enormously successful with this notion of minimum viable product. Look at Tesla! Year after year, on a material level, it has jerked and burned its way toward massive profitability. (I am wandering well outside my expertise here, but it seems like to me that bringing MVP to the luxury car space…is the most American innovation in history?) Musk’s main lines of business have been in manufacturing more than tech. But he has shown this huge capacity for successfully translating tech startup principles to the material world, which is experience that seems relevant.

Again, setting aside the real possibility that Twitter will simply break in the near future – is there a world in which Musk could succeed without a Sandberg-like figure at Twitter? Or, put another way, how much does reality matter? lol

Nick: With Tesla, and SpaceX, the main difference is that Musk is selling a philosophy/status more than an actual product. People buy from Tesla because they want to be seen in a Tesla and/or they have bought into this idea of Musk as the “savior of humanity” and thus buy his products to support his quest. Tesla and SpaceX neither aspire to nor want the average person to be able to consume their products. That approach is of course antithetical to a social media business, because social media only really works when it is embraced by a large number of people as well as by celebrities who need the adoration of the masses. So no, I don’t think there is a world in which Musk can succeed at any social media platform that he himself is in charge of unless he goes through some kind of process that puts his ego in check.

Employees are for betas 

This is also why every attempt to make a more closed off form of Twitter– be it the various libertarian hell holes or on the other end of the spectrum, federated platforms like Mastodon– never really goes anywhere. This is also why I think that Musk’s emphasis on “going lean” is so catastrophic, because a giant ecosystem like Twitter can only really function if there are a lot of people involved in checking its engineering systems and keeping it stable, as well as doing the thankless work of moderation. Even Meta and Google understand this to a degree, and that’s why Facebook and YouTube sustain entire content moderation industries, like sharks carrying remoras.

To me, all of this has become less of a question of “will Musk kill Twitter?” and more of a question of “will Twitter kill Musk?” What has surprised me the most since Musk took over Twitter is how much it is resisting him and also how much it is wreaking havoc on his finances, the stability of his businesses (and honestly the entire market) and the very notion of him as a genius. Maybe I’m reaching here but it legitimately feels like this Twitter takeover is helping destabilize Silicon Valley in general, because we are now seeing simultaneous breakdowns at Meta and Amazon and in the latter case we even have Bezos trying to figure out an exit strategy for himself. Yes, these companies and this industry were having issues before this but I think the Twitter situation, and the intense scrutiny Musk has inadvertently brought down on his fellow billionaires in the process, has rapidly escalated a fierce public turnaround on these figures and the parasitic businesses they front. Bezos in particular seems to now grasp that even the billionaires can’t stop the return of a labor movement in America and that the “eat the rich” shouting that has intensified over the past few years might become a very real threat soon.

So I guess my question back to you is even if Musk were to find this mythical Sandberg-esque figure, do you think he or anyone can stop the avalanche or is this going to take down this entire god forsaken industry or am I perhaps crazy for thinking it might?

Kim: I think grift culture is fundamental to American business, finance, religion, everything, and it genuinely cannot be overestimated. Trumpism, the self-help industry, Silicon Valley, evangelicals, etc.—these are powerful and intertwined forces in society. The nature of their grifts keep getting more complicated and abstract, as we have seen with the “Soylent Green is people” business model of social media platforms and the cyber Ponzi schemes of crypto. And many of the grifters themselves seem to have been growing emboldened to share their message of white male supremacy.

Approaching the singularity 

So I really don’t know. I think you’re more optimistic than I am. The layoff announcements at Amazon belie the reality that the company is still growing, just not fast enough by the standard of modern greed. Still, I take your point. I agree wholeheartedly that Musk has been showing his ass in a truly spectacular fashion. I agree this could effectively be the end of him. And I agree that there’s a growing sense of hope, in the way that people talk about labor in general and the outcome of the U.S. midterms, that eyes are opening to the fact that the emperors have no clothes.

It’s such a potent metaphor that so many of these guys are pouring their resources into space and AI and virtual reality. They really do operate outside reality a lot of the time. They often seem to transcend its laws. But let’s look at some facts without spin: Bezos donned his cowboy hat and spent about 10 minutes from launch to landing, only approaching the edge of what most people consider space. His fortune sent him there. But the laws of gravity brought him back.

And with that, we'll conclude the second installment of Twitterpolcalypse Now, a series where Nick and I dust off our defunct blogs to discuss the delightful and unsettling implosion of twitter dot com. You can read the first installment over in Nick's part of town, aka Loser City. As of this writing, you can still find Kim tweeting about Todd McFarlane @shallowbrigade, and Nick Hanover at @nick_hanover.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Who should have access to the Philip Roth Fuck List?

I guess anyone reading this will be familiar with the scandal surrounding Philip Roth and Blake Bailey, the biographer Roth handpicked to secure his legacy. Since that book’s publication, Bailey has been accused of multiple rapeschild grooming, and serial sexual harassment. There’s no way to know if Roth knew about any of that; perhaps he just vibed with it. What is certain is that Roth didn’t anticipate this type of public scandal would sully the book, and by extension his own reputation. This is widely understood to be a shame, both for Roth and a world full of people who wish to understand him. But I wonder if it was providence.

There’s a whole Internet full of takes out there about what the Roth/Bailey relationship means or implies about literature, and publishing, and academia, and criticism, and the fraught art of biography. (In summary: nothing good.) But there’s also the idea, a consensus even, among scholars and critics that Roth’s reputation and legacy dont deserve to be closely tied to Blake Bailey for all eternity. There are many ways I could describe this view, but above all, it’s ahistorical. 

Was Roth a misogynist?[1] This question, which has long been on the table, is shallow and misguided. It’s more illuminating to consider the ways in which some of Roth’s actions were misogynistic. To that end, in a NYT article wondering “What Happens to Philip Roth’s Legacy Now?” a suggestive little sentence caught my eye:


Roth also gave Bailey copies of two unpublished manuscripts, “Notes for My Biographer,” a 295-page rebuttal of his ex-wife Claire Bloom’s 1996 memoir, and “Notes on a Slander-Monger,” a response to the notes and interviews Miller had compiled.


These two items are among the texts that the Philip Roth estate is actively suppressing from the public (and might eventually destroy, per Roth’s wishes). They’re now at the center of a second scandal tied to the Roth estate. I suppose it’s actually a third scandal, if you count the “censorship” of Bailey’s book by Norton. As ever, discussions about “censorship” and intellectual freedom tend to co-opt narratives that are, at heart, about sexual criminality. This is not an accident.


While I think the bald facts in that sentence quoted above really speak for themselves, let’s consider the materials under discussion more closely for just a moment. First, we have an unpublished novel-length manuscript—not a memoir, but a “rebuttal” to his ex-wife’s memoir—that was not meant for public access. Roth did not choose to share this particular story in his own voice, though apparently the manuscript was originally slated for publication (and only pulled on the advice of Roth’s friends). Beyond those minimal details, we can only speculate about why. I can certainly see the appeal of putting out his side of the story posthumously, through a proxy, in an official biography. It has a patina of objectivity and the imprimatur of canon. Roth’s ex-wife’s memoir, on the other hand, was characterized in its time as bitter, exploitative, and dubious, even if her portrait of Roth as a misogynist hit a nerve with readers (Roth himself most of all). 


Second, “Notes on a Slander-Monger,” a collection of Roth’s “unpublished essays on such subjects as money, marriage and illness, and a list of his relationships with women, with commentary,” is owned (but not fully controlled) by Princeton University. These materials are currently locked down and inaccessible to researchers or anyone else, at the behest of the Roth estate.


“A list of his relationships with women, with commentary.” This phrase has the ring of euphemism, does it not? Can we really characterize such a thing as an “essay”? Because what that sounds like to me is that Philip Roth wrote a fuck list.


I don’t know, maybe that’s going too far. I hope at least we can agree that both unpublished manuscripts sound like nasty pieces of work. The words “rebuttal” and “slander” suggest a certain spiteful tone. The fact that they were more or less written for Blake Bailey’s eyes only is also suggestive. Most suggestive of all is the fact that the Roth estate is leaning on Princeton to suppress “Notes on a Slander-Monger,” a move that is by every indication aggressive and unusual.


Is it fair that the estate has restricted access to (and might go so far as to destroy) these texts? Scholars and writers would have you believe that these documents are hugely important to literary history, and that to destroy them would be a crime against humanity and, worse, Philip Roth himself. “It’s fundamental material relating to a major American writer,” said Ira Nadel, whose unauthorized biography on Roth will be released next year.


I mean…is it, though? 


More specifically, the question I’d like to raise is this: Is there something inherently misogynistic about characterizing these texts as having immeasurable scholarly value? 


What does it mean that, in the future, I might have to be granted a special pass from Princeton University to access an annotated list of every woman with whom Philip Roth ever slept? Should Roth’s unpublished screed against his ex-wife be assigned reading in American literature classes? Are these really the kinds of items that deserve to be preserved and lionized for posterity and, if so, what does that say about the kinds of information and sources that we value? And those that we do not? 


The fact that the estate considers the fate of the Philip Roth Fuck List to require a decision at all indicates that they intend to honor the spirit, rather than the letter, of Roth’s wishes, which were to destroy the materials after Bailey’s biography was published. Plainly, the estate’s mandate is to protect Roth’s legacy, and they have latitude to do that in whatever way they see fit. While the estate hasn’t announced a timetable or any criteria for their deliberation, it seems fair to assume that it will remain on hold until the Bailey scandal has settled and some sense of Roth’s legacy as a person has cohered. (Roth’s legacy as an Important Artist is of course firmly settled, at least for now.) What else could they be waiting for?


Whenever it’s made, the estate’s decision will itself be an important source of information. These people have already demonstrated a keen aversion to values like open access and crowdsourcing. (Roth did too, as his efforts with the Bailey biography show.) If the estate chooses to release the materials, it will be because they think it will exonerate or at least improve the author’s reputation to some degree. If they destroy the materials, it will be because they believe they would damage his reputation further. That will be the calculus.


In my uneducated opinion, the latter option seems much more likely. When the decision to destroy the materials is announced (if it is announced?), the estate will emphasize how important it is to honor Roth’s dying wish. When the time comes, remember: demonstrably, that is not the estate’s priority. 


In any case, the “debate” is moot. The fate of these papers is out of our hands, meaning it’s naturally the angle the commentariat has trained its focus on. A hallmark of public conversation in the wake of #MeToo is the Othering of its villains. There’s plenty to say along these lines about Blake Bailey and Philip Roth, as the Take Economy has shown. It’s much more delicate and unflattering work to examine what these news stories imply about our own values and institutions. All this handwringing over the future of the Philip Roth Fuck List is an indictment, not of Roth, but of a culture that refuses to reflect on its past or build a more equitable future. It is a culture that places absurd worth on preserving some people’s literal garbage at the expense of a very long list of people, some of whom are still alive, who never signed up for all this. It is a culture whose treasured objects have quite a lot to say about the eye of the beholder, but all that gets shrouded in institutional norms and high-minded arguments about cultural preservation and intellectual freedom.


I just don’t see the inherent value of these materials, at least with regard to Roth’s romantic life, that others seem to take as a given. I don’t see why these texts should be objects of study, or why a raft of scholars imagine they’re entitled to see them. I don’t think it’s some neutral, pro-intellectual, principled stance to assume that Roth’s private notes to an alleged rapist are valuable public property. That kind of thinking is itself the dumb vestige of patriarchy.  


I think if it were up to me, I’d let the papers “burn,” not least of all because that’s what Roth wanted. Inevitably, people would worry about what might get destroyed next. We’re in a historical moment in which the canon has been destabilized, if not displaced, and what people envision on the blazing Farenheit-451 fires in their dim imaginations is much more than some geniuss Fuck List, or even the Classics. It’s a certain sense of self. 


LOL. Let them sweat. 




Monday, August 17, 2020

myth and magic in the age of mechanical reproduction

Ricky Jay’s most pristine miracles were not intended for strangers to see. 

These were events that were never captured on film. Jay preferred to deal his best magic in bright impossible bursts—ephemeral shows for audiences as small as one that will pass from living memory within decades. 
Arguably, Jay’s most powerful performance was staged for an audience of just one woman, in 1995. 
I find this to be such an interesting choice for a performer in the age of mass media, especially given Jay’s deep connections in show business. He appeared in dozens of films, consulted on others, and was a fixture on late-night television from the 1970s. On the prestige drama Deadwood, Jay played some version of himself, a card sharp from another era, and before that, he had an enormously popular show off-Broadway, directed by David Mamet and taped for HBO. 
Despite these many appearances on stage and screen, the fact remains that Jay’s most brilliant performances unfolded in front of a select few. Like most things in Jay’s carefully controlled life, this was surely by design.
He was an enthusiastic and careful historian. So it seems meaningful that Jay’s most profound acts of magic appear on the historical record only as described by the handful of people who were lucky enough to witness them. Like the great acts of his beloved forebears—magicians and other oddball performers who lived in a time before video—the most deeply compelling magic of Ricky Jay will persist only in arcane territory, somewhere between history and myth. To reconstruct these transient works of art, we’re confronted with the wonders and limitations of imagination.
Authenticity is not reproducible.
Jay’s most elaborate tricks required intricate setups that were informed by a lifetime of experience and made possible by months of site-specific preparation. These were artful illusions that hinged on opportunities that might have never presented themselves.  (I wonder most about the magic that Ricky Jay never had the chance to perform.) It’s thrilling to read about a diabolical card trick he performed at a party, late at night. Or an uncanny display of mentalism at a bar. This past Saturday, I had a complicated feeling watching a scene in a documentary where a man described the time Jay manufactured a two-dollar bill out of thin air—not on the stage, but in the shower after a workout. This interlocutor was a skeptic who had hoped to catch him off guard. But Ricky Jay was always ready.
Each of these perfectly executed moments in time was a polished piece of technical theater seamlessly woven into the events of everyday life, to the wonder and delight of whoever was watching. In the 2012 documentary Deceptive Practice, Jay described this genre as “impromptu magic,” which he regarded as the highest form of art. 
One of the magicians Jay most admired and studied was Max Malini (1873-1942), a world-famous practitioner of impromptu magic. Malini was known for his splendid spur-of-the-moment performances. He often staged them in rich people’s homes in a bid to capture their interest (and their dollars). These were acts composed not of scripted stunts, but minor miracles. Or so it seemed.
Jay’s innovation in the practice of impromptu magic, from what I gather, was in catching people completely off guard, and his near total lack of agenda. This kind of magic was very personal and enormously special. Jay loved to surprise people in mundane places and offhand moments—in a diner, say, or at a hotel bar. The banality of the setting must’ve made the magic that much more real. 
“For it truly to be magic…a magical moment, it has to be spontaneous,” Jay explained in the documentary. “It has to be something that just happens. Not in a stage show that’s carefully plotted from beginning to end but, rather, in a moment.” 
That which withers in the age of mechanical production is the aura of a work of art.
In the film, Jay describes how Malini was known for a dinner-party trick in which he produced a large block of ice from the seemingly empty space beneath a hat lying on the table. Jay recreated this magnificent show and arguably did it better, if only because the person he performed it for never saw it coming. (For Malini, it was a signature piece.) But Jay’s performance did not appear in the documentary; it was only described by the woman who saw it. The actual event had transpired in a diner some 15 years before.
The context is very important: in 1995, Jay was being filmed for a BBC special. He had been clashing with a producer who wanted him to perform Malini’s ice trick as a set piece for the show.
Jay had zero interest in doing this. But privately, he planned a surprise: instead of performing for the camera, he chose to conjure the huge block of ice for one person, a journalist named Suzie Mackenzie who had been hanging around the set. At the time, they were having lunch in a busy diner. I think she was profiling him for a story.
As she described the ice trick in Deceptive Practice, Mackenzie visibly struggled to find words to express how much it moved her. It was like religious awe: not for Ricky Jay, but the for the experience that he had given her.
The BBC didn’t get the footage, because there was none. At the diner, between Jay and Mackenzie, the ice began to melt on the table—a potent symbol for a fleeting moment. It was a very hot day.
Artistic production begins with ceremonial objects destined to serve in a cult. One may assume that what mattered was their existence, not their being on view. 
At a memorial service for Jay in 2019, Mark Singer (who wrote the definitive profile of Jay and worked as a producer on Deceptive Practiceadded this remarkable coda to Mackenzie’s story:
It was the only time Ricky performed this [trick]. For anyone, ever. … When it happened, Suzie Mackenzie burst into tears. In the film, she says, “It’s a moment I’ll never have again. I’ll never forget it. It was a kind of supreme piece of artistry that I witnessed, that was done for me.”
What she doesn’t say is what Ricky told me, years ago, about her reaction. After she had regained her composure, he asked her what she felt. 
“Love,” she said. 

Jay often spoke about the difference between magicians and con men. I don’t think he’d put it this way—he seemed to think about the distinction in terms of honesty—but my understanding is: one gives where the other takes. 
“He’s unbelievably generous,” David Mamet said of his friend. “One of the world’s great people.” 
Jay reportedly worked very hard. Before a performance, Michael Chabon once said to him, “You must get tired of it sometimes, night after night, show after show.”
“Yes, Michael, sometimes I do,” Jay said. “But once I get out there, I guarantee you, not you or them or anybody is ever going to know.” 
As a performer, Jay kept a lot of secrets, which people sometimes regarded as elitist or stingy. “Ricky won’t perform for magicians at magic shows, because they’re interested in doing things,” said Michael Weber, the magician who was Jay’s business partner. “They don’t get it. They won’t watch him and be inspired to make magic of their own.”
The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.
It seems to me that Jay’s professional secrets were in the spirit of giving people something (an experience, a feeling) rather than a selfish wish to withhold. Jay had his reasons for performing his most amazing magic for so few people. It certainly wasn’t a problem with resources; he had access to all the right people, plenty of money, and a surplus of tools. 
“Today, audiences are just as curious, just as willing to be amazed” as audiences from the distant past, Jay remarked. “But look at everything we’re barraged with—it just doesn’t lodge in the imagination in the same way.”
Everything we’re barraged with.
As a magician and a historian, Jay had a special understanding of perspective and constraints. Talking about the HBO special of his off-Broadway show in an interview, he said
The show is different live. Particularly something that deals with magic: The very essence of it is the spontaneity; that’s the moment you’re looking for. The very idea that you have a TV camera there, even though we went through great lengths not to cut away and not to use camera trickery… [Mamet] even came out and directed himself, which was nice. But it’s still different. It’s a live show, and it’s meant to be seen live.
Reading the interview, I came to an understanding of why Jay saved his best stuff for off-camera; it would have been a degradation to film it. Impromptu magic cannot occur on film, by definition; it’s an experience that only occurs if and when the right moment presents itself. 
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be
Jay wasn’t interested at all in showing people how his tricks were done. (Why would it matter?) But he did impart a kind of understanding of what it might have felt like to experience them. The experience was the art. His process was only a method.
In the age of Google and Wikipedia, it is perhaps notable that the obituaries for Jay in mainstream outlets differed on the point of whether he had died at the age of 70 or 72. Like so many of the magicians who came before him, the details of his life are fuzzy. Most of us don’t know so much about him as an individual who existed in the world. We watched the parts he wanted us to see, and the rest is stories.
The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.
I’ve always had a fondness for people who do amazing pointless things. I don’t have that kind of talent, but it’s an impulse I understand. It resonates with me now more than ever, in this sad time of accelerated media consolidation. It hums faintly somewhere deep within my chest as I try to live through this period of US collapse. 
“Behind every transcendent, unforgettable performance is a deeply ordinary chore,” Jay’s former assistant wrote. I can’t decide if that’s some rarified philosophy, or just one way to describe a life. 
I read a story about a time Jay performed a stunning miracle for yet another audience of one: Steve Freeman, a fellow magician who stopped by Jay’s apartment to return a shirt. 
“It was nice to be fooled,” Freeman said of the experience. “That’s not a feeling we get to have very often anymore.” 
A mystery doesn’t always yield an answer, but may yet offer some reward.
I don’t know much about magic. Nevertheless, it exists.  

Saturday, April 18, 2020

faux food insecurity

An interesting thing about the whole self-quarantine experience is how much of my anxiety and horror about what's happening in the world get poured into the grocery shopping, an activity I used to really enjoy. Except for maybe a two- to three-day respite following a given shop, I work on the grocery list constantly, with weird intense pathological desperation. That list is by far the most cursed thing in my home (or on my phone, I guess). Hundreds of years from now, if an anthropologist finds one of my pandemic-era grocery lists, its horrible dark energy will probably kill them instantly. They won't even have time to wonder why I have so many different kinds of fake milk while also using real cream in the coffee.

Like a lot of my anxieties relating to the pandemic, this new unhinged relationship to food feels... unearned. Whatever I'm feeling isn't food insecurity, a real actual problem that a lot of people have, especially now. The extremely disordered way in which I sterilize and put away the groceries (which is somehow both completely inadequate and wholly over the top?) may make me feel like Meredith Baxter Birney in a Lifetime movie, but I don't in fact have obsessive-compulsive disorder. So it's this very circular stupid psychodrama of having weird fears and fake problems, and then feeling guilty and even ashamed about the fears and problems, because honestly it seems reasonable that those of us who aren't sick or grieving or working for Bezos (yet) should buck up and not complain. Part of the problem is that I know my brain is equipped to scan the landscape for predators and instead it has been reduced to checking the same five websites for my preferred brand of paper towels. For the first few weeks I think my body was flooded with stress hormones, like I woke up every morning and ate several handfuls of stimulants, but that seems to have died down, at least. Finally, my nervous system (if not my brain) seems to have grasped that the stakes of human survival in this household are - for now - having enough cans of the good tomatoes.

Anyway part of this whole melodrama is the new (fake, but deeply felt) stakes of cooking, another formerly pleasant activity which now feels very fraught. There was a viral reddit post (also fake, imo) about someone's girlfriend burying cans of beans in the woods "for when things get bad" and that is like 100% the mentality I have to fight to cook a dinner. That reddit post is either a parable for whatever my problem is, or an actual story about my future, and I'm not sure which. Anyway I'm now (probably appropriately...) worried about food waste and using the gross stems of vegetables, etc. So a type of quarantine content I have really appreciated is chefs who are committed to helping people figure out how to cook stuff. I mean, I can cook, more or less, but it's been hard to take any pleasure in it. Or, worse than that, where cooking used to feel pleasurable, I find it sort of upsetting now. So I'm just intensely grateful for any podcast or show or anything else hosted by people who make me feel better about food: buying it, cooking it, eating it, experimenting with it. There's a lot of this content right now (I'm sure I haven't even scratched the surface), but my very favorite is a TV show with Jamie Oliver called Keep Cooking and Carry On. It's not available in the US, but some kind soul links up all the episodes on deep reddit.

Jamie Oliver is probably my favorite celebrity chef? In a profession that is so often about machismo and misery (which whatever, I'm into some of that too), he stands out. He just seems like a good person, plus I really like his recipes. One time someone gave Chris Morocco a Jamie Oliver recipe on Reverse Engineering. It was just the saddest burger in the world, and CM spent the entire show making fun of whatever chef had devised this terrible recipe. But then! After the reveal, when Chris Morocco he found out this burger he had insulted for half an hour was made by Jamie Oliver, he immediately backtracked and talked about how much he loved and respected Jamie. I'm not sure if that's a meaningful anecdote to anyone else, but to me it had the same kind of magic as when someone's difficult pet decides that you're all right. The Chris Morocco blessing.

The incredible thing about the new Jamie Oliver show is that it was sort of thrown together, but still quite well produced for about a week before he started literally filming it on a phone in his garage. After a handful of episodes it went from this:

To this:

Dirty t-shirt. Uncombed hair. I think the first thing he made was quesadillas. It was straight up dorm-kitchen cooking, albeit in the cake pan storage area(?) of his literal estate, and I love it so much.

You know...working through it.

Good things:
My favorite Jamie recipe
My other favorite
Highly entertained by these coronavirus update videos from Spiegelman and Seth
The Longform podcast interviewed Ed Yong, my fave science writer