It all started with what should have been an easy question to answer: why do so many people come nearly to blows over opinions about music, about art; about specific and individual performances?
Or even better: why do so many people who are neither authors nor reviewers treat book reviews like battleground conflicts that affect their direct livelihoods?
There are easy answers to these questions, to do with escalation complexes and human biases and logical fallacies and all that fun stuff. They feel like dismissive types of answers, even though they sound learned and correct to me, because at this point in time there’s a lot of prepackaged thought behind those answers. But if I think for a moment, I realize that, at least in this case, those answers are not really, satisfyingly true.
So, what should have been a straightforward question turned out to be the tip of a sea monster that took quite a bit of dredging to deal with. And in the process I wrote this massively dense letter, a letter that turned out to be about the spinal cord of human behavior, in the name of answering an almost comically trivial question.
Here it is, at long last, the master letter I’ve been promising you for several months.
* * *
I would like to talk about the phrase “politics”, for just a moment.
Wikipedia currently defines politics as “the practice and theory of influencing other people” and I think this is going to be a rare case where the wiki-definition better resembles how the word is used than the Merriam-Webster version.
There are, after all, two ways in which we (as a culture) use “political”. The first is about formalized, government politics. There’s a ritual to those: government as an agreed-upon consensus for practicing power upon others (and ourselves). We put on certain clothes, walk into certain chambers, and make certain decisions about human behaviors and their consequences. The decisions affect millions. That’s government politics. For the most part I won’t be talking about that today.
The second way to use “political” is, well, “the practice and theory of influencing other people”. You can apply it to almost every non-government aspect of human life.
And I think when we use the term in the second sense, we mostly use it narrowly. We say “political” and think of social movements and causes, and especially movements and causes which hope to change the larger fabric of culture. Feminism, for example. Or the civil rights movement. The push for queer rights. And Gamergate too, and also groups like the KKK, and many other things besides.
But: if I personally have a large hand in shaping my niece’s tastes in music and art, then I’m certainly influencing her (whether or not those influences stick), so are my interactions with my niece a political act?
When I bake cookies and share them with office-mates, I’m influencing the lives of my office-mates. Is that a political act?
At what point should I draw the line and decide what makes an act political? (I mean, asides from the basic requirement of “this act must involve at least one other person besides me” since that part is built into the definition.)
There’s two points that need to be made here, and the first has to do with how people behave in groups. So it’s also a point about how cultures are assembled. I have a feeling that most people reading this are kind of familiar with social psychology (or, at least, are observant people), and so any discussion of this could be old news. I do want to talk about it in more detail later in this letter, but the short version (for now) is: my choices, my vocalized opinions, and my lifestyle (among other things) are visible to other people. What is visible has been proven over and over (and over and over again) to shape other people’s perceptions of what is possible, reasonable, acceptable, et cetera. And this tends to snowball outward into shaping how people behave, and how people tolerate and expect behavior from others; and thus it shapes how cultures are formed.
Baking cookies and sharing them with office-mates isn’t only about influencing their diets, but also about affecting the tone of the workplace environment. It creates (or contributes to) a precedent. And, as social psychologists love to point out, in any group setting we’re constantly watching each other for subtle cues on how to act and behave, frequently on a level we don’t even notice, or have to pay attention to. So things can actually snowball very quickly from one individual’s quirks, to a small trend, to a larger fashion, to a general consensus of appropriate behavior that is adopted by nearly everyone.
The second point to make is: the scope of any potential political influence is really important to consider.
Because, if you’re talking about the ability to influence other people, then shouldn’t the amount of people influenced count somehow?
Some acts feel more political than others. Cutting meat out of my diet feels a little bit political, but a lot less political than helping run a non-profit that fights for animal rights. Giving change to a homeless person could feel political, but a lot less political than volunteering at a soup kitchen.
And yet, while my decision to tweet “kohlrabi is the healthiest vegetable and you should eat one right away!” is going to influence almost nobody, Gwyneth Paltrow tweeting that exact same thing would probably cause a small boom in kohlrabi sales and consumption, and a sudden appearance of kohlrabi recipes online; and hell, the tweet might even get picked up by some online newspapers if we’re having a slow day on the crisis front.
Nicki Minaj volunteering at a soup kitchen would probably influence a lot more people than just plain ol’ me volunteering at a soup kitchen.
There is the political component of an act: its little radioactive package of “potential to change how other people perceive things, and thus change how they behave”. And then there is the political reach of that act: how many damn people that act will affect.
Because if we’re talking about the practice and theory of how we end up influencing other people, then the amount of people should be a thing to discuss.
Here’s a chart!
The X axis is self-explanatory. Political reach: sure, you could place my niece’s tweets on the far left of this chart (since she never logs in, and is only followed by family), and you could place Katy Perry’s tweets waaay on the far right, regardless of what her tweets are. A lot of eyeballs will see them. Many words will be generated by them. And many lives will, in one way or another, take them to heart.
The Y axis could get tricky, though. Political component? Or maybe political potential is a better term. How do you measure that? I mean, in some situations it can seem obvious, like, okay, here are two Katy Perry tweets:
And the reasonable thing would be to say “well the bottom tweet is sure as goddamn hell more political than the top tweet” and if that’s the reasonable thing, then I’m going to be unreasonable because: no. I really think both of these tweets are equally political.
The y axis doesn’t exist. I mean, the person who raises two kids in the suburbs, who shops at their local grocery stores, who works a corporate nine-to-five job, who tweets pleasant and amusing things, who watches Netflix with their spouse and reads the news in their Facebook feed and greets their neighbors politely and mows their grassy lawn: that person is as politically radioactive as the leaders of the civil rights movements. Their entire lives radiate, their entire lives uphold a system of power, a culture, a society, as much as the leaders of the civil rights movements are fighting to change it.
All acts are political and they are all equally loaded. The reach, the magnitude-of-effect, is the only part that is adjustable. And—
* * *
—and at this point in this conversation that I was having with a friend, she turned to me and said “Oh I don’t like where this is going, not at all. I mean, I support feminism, and through it, I support a person’s right to owning their sexuality. None of this slut-shaming bullshit for me, thank you very much. But, in my actual life, I’m just very boring, you know? I’m currently monogamous and in a long-term heterosexual relationship. Are you saying that I would have to force myself to be more sexually adventurous on a weekly basis, if that’s an attitude that I wanted to give support to in others?”
And I said “No, absolutely not, because if I’m understanding correctly, it’s not that you think everyone should be hooking up on the regular; but that you support everyone having the option to do so without judgment or stigma? Meaning, you think that hooking up on the regular should be no less regarded than being monogamous and married?”
And she said “Well, yes, I do think that.”
So I said, “See, that’s something I can tell about you. I mean, I know that I wouldn’t be judged if I were to tell you about any potential sexual adventures of my own. I know that you’d be open-minded and non-judgmental about this, and I know this through a lot of little things in the way you live your life. From the way you talk about certain subjects, to your general attitudes that I can infer from little gestures, to the sort of jokes you think are funny (and the sort of jokes you think are not), to the overall philosophies that you openly and cheerfully subscribe to, to the people you hang out with and befriend. (I mean, one of your best friends is exactly as sexually adventurous as you just mentioned, so clearly you don’t mind it at all.) And hell, if I know this about you—if I can tell this about you from dozens of tiny little things in how you live your life—then other people know it, and can tell it, too!
“Living your life the way you do, talking about just average everyday things in the way that you do: you help create a welcoming and open-minded community when it comes to sexuality. People know they can be comfortable around you, in this respect. And they know they can be very uncomfortable around you if their attitude is close-minded and judgmental. So, like… you don’t need to be trans to be part of the push towards broadening the acceptance and support of trans folk in our culture. You don’t need to be a woman to be someone who supports feminism and fights for its ideals.”
(And though I didn’t say it, I was certainly thinking of my close relative’s husband, who in his daily throwaway jokes and quips makes it abundantly clear how people like me are not welcome; not in his home, and not on his streets, and not in his life.
He doesn’t really mean it personally, he and I never talk about it, but I know.
It’s not something you ever need to talk about.)
* * *
The thing is, Awkward-Situation Husband will never run for office because he is too busy being a full-time husband and father; so his political potential is limited to his household and maybe his workplace, plus those occasional loud comments on the street that he likes to make, which I’m sure some people overhear, and either do or do not appreciate.
And it’s probably for the best he’ll never run for office because, interestingly enough, attempts to raise the political volume of an act or an attitude seem to inevitably reshape the nature of the act. Or even change it completely. The message you end up boosting becomes different than the message you originally wanted to boost.
There’s a trio of online bloggers/vloggers that comes to my mind, at this moment in time, as a pretty good example of the adjustment of political volume, in action. And I’ve found that going through them, one by one, actually turned out to be one of the smoothest ways to not only examine this in practice, but to make plenty of other much-needed points about political volume as well. So without further ado:
Boggis, Bunce, and Bean / One short, one fat, one lean—
Just kidding. It’s more like Tony, Dan, and Ben,/ One with half a million subscribers; one with a devoted niche following of some thousands; and one whose intentionally obscured existence I only came upon by sheer crazy accident…
* * *
Anyone who has watched a video from a certain, increasingly popular Youtube channel will be familiar with the intro that goes “Hey, I’m Tony, and this is Every Frame A Painting…”
And, in fact, you can find his full name and his movie-talk credentials quite easily through a Google search. This is at least partly because linking your daily-life identity to your online message is one of the immediate and most effective ways to boost your audience, for a number of reasons that I think are mostly self-evident (but I’ll put some of those reasons into a footnote just in case).
And Tony sure as hell wants to boost his audience.
He’s making his Youtube videos about film as a visual artform, about the things that can be communicated through the visuals in a way that is unique to film. All this is done with a clear intent to not only change/elevate the way movies are discussed by the average person, but to educate all and any moviemakers (and wannabe-moviemakers).
So the videos are highly produced, not too long, extremely fun to watch, and at the same time densely informative in a way you don’t quite realize until afterward, because they’re just so easy to swallow. He has the video equivalent of an super-charming and readable prose style. He also only chooses to discuss directors and films that are, if not always massive blockbusters, at least well-known enough that even I, with my crazy paucity of movie knowledge, can follow along most of the time without any problems at all.
And yes, his films function like John Green’s Crash Course series in that they’re meant to make education so fun that you don’t mind you’re watching a history lesson or a film-style analysis. And more importantly, they’re so well-made that they’ve spawned entire fleets of hopeful imitators eager to fill the sudden demand for “more videos like Tony’s!” But asides from the obvious ways in which his entire project is naturally political, there are also the little touches of political commentary that might not be as obvious but sure as hell ought to be.
For example: his very first video was about Mother, a South-Korean film I’d never heard of until that video. He’s also made two wonderful videos about Kurosawa, who he referred to in one video (in a paraphrased quote) as “the Beethoven of film”. In his video about Satoshi Kon (an anime director) he mentions that there is simply “no one like Satoshi”; and he’s talked engagingly and respectfully about the anime Wolf Children; and Jackie Chan; and the South-Korean Snowpiercer, and—
So. Let me point out that, at the moment, he has only uploaded twenty-three videos. So, slightly less than one-fourth of his entire video output on film mastery is cheerfully ignoring Hollywood and the West. And with Tony’s quiet and pleasant tone, this point is made through omission: “Well, why would you assume I wouldn’t talk about these directors and films? We’re talking about the masters here. They’re the best of the best for the technique I’m about to discuss. So anyway, as I was saying…”
And by saying “these are the masters” he is just as quietly and pleasantly saying that “those others” (meaning, the Hollywood folk we think of as masters) are not necessarily so, at least, not when measured on a wider scale.
There is an interest in providing alternatives to a focus on the so-called West.
Tony has also talked about Chuck Jones, the artist behind Looney Tunes. He’s talked about Robin Williams, and about Edgar Wright’s visual comedy, and Buster Keaton, and comedy in general. He talks about comedy quite a lot, all in the same respectful, friendly, and appreciative tone that he reserves too for Martin Scorsese and Orson Welles.
(The implication, of course, being that they are all equal teachers. More importantly: of equal value as creators.)
Both of these things are massively political in a “I want to change the status quo” way, this is a blatant statement on Tony’s part. I think many of his viewers may notice this detail, but do not pay it too much attention. (And at the same time, I’m sure that many others of his viewers did notice, and heavily appreciated it—I, for one, was pretty excited when I saw that there was a video about Satoshi Kon.)
But just like his video about Michael Bay; and just like his frequent cheerful asides comparing and contrasting recent films like The Avengers or The Hangover III to their better-crafted compatriots—my god, Tony is handing out serious burn and it somehow stings sharper because he doesn’t bother lambasting a film that he thinks is terrible. He just uses it as a casual example, as in, “and here’s a really unfortunate example of exactly the opposite of what I mean” and bam, up pops Captain America for a couple of second while Tony pleasantly explains why this scene was a poor decision in terms of time, money, and resources.
His ultimate insult is to reduce you to a footnote. Not something worth getting angry about. That would give it too much credit.
But at the same time: that’s the only insult available to him. And this is where his attempted political scope most affects his content.
Tony cannot make a video that is too long, or too nitpicky. He cannot make a video that is too wild in its choice of subject matter (can you imagine him doing a video about The Cremaster Cycle? I can’t either). He cannot make a video that is too angry; or one that uses many technical terms, or SAT words. He needs to grow his base of viewers, and his videos have to be as friendly, polite, and enjoyable as possible in order to do so.
They are designed to be swallowed smoothly by as many throats as possible.
And this is a very long-term strategy that I would say Tony is playing, because the goal of this sort of thing is very ambitious, the goal is to breed a new and more intelligent generation of movie-goers and movie-makers.
Tony’s endgame ambition is a hope that, through example and education, he might change the entire movie-going audience; and thus change the movies that we tolerate and demand, and are willing to pay for. Thus: change the movies that are funded, and made.
* * *
In comparison, a man named Dan Olson is also making videos on the internet about movies (and video games, and some other things besides), and his full name and credentials are as easy to find as Tony’s. Even easier, perhaps. But there’s a really big difference in how these two link their identity to their content, and I think it’s representative of their political differences in general.
When Tony gives his name away in the first sentence of all his videos, it makes it a bit easy to overlook how little of his actual person is otherwise present. Tony’s face never appears. Tony’s personal life (for the most part) never appears. Is Tony liberal or conservative? Is he a father? Is he gay? Tony is aware that personality and personal details are polarizing: they can both attract and repel. So Tony gives us his name, and the occasional professional credentials that are connected to it, and almost nothing else. Given his strategy for how he’s approaching his political reach, I think that’s a very smart choice.
Dan Olson, on the other hand, puts nearly all of his personality and personal details into his videos, and I think that’s also a very smart choice… for Dan Olson. Though not entirely voluntary or pre-planned, at least at first.
Dan makes videos under the moniker of Folding Ideas, and he’s part of a group (maybe I should even say genre?) which includes folk such as “Nostalgia Chick”, and “Rantasmo”, and “Todd In The Shadows”, and many others besides. Basically this is a genre where a person with ideas on a subject (and supposed expertise on that subject) turns on a camera, films an entertaining talking-head video-essay on a given subject, and posts it online. And the videos can vary wildly in production level, from “a single frame photo with someone ranting over it” to “highly produced content with crossover actors, and nested sub-plots spanning whole many episodes, and wild homemade special effects, and—”
By slotting his video style into a similar format, Dan Olson was certainly able to capitalize on a pre-existing type of audience. Also, literally a pre-existing audience, because his videos now live under the wing of “Nostalgia Chick”’s larger project/website, which is sort of a team of video bloggers, all doing different things on different subjects, but sure as hell cross-pollinating their audiences constantly and boosting their bases all around.
It’s a smart business model for increasing political reach, as far as business models go.
And it’s a very smart one for Dan because, while his videos are often funny and cheeky and able to provide a similar entertainment/satisfaction value as any of the others in the group, they’re also unusually dense and analytical. And I mean this in a really positive way. Dan uses technical terms; Dan uses SAT words; Dan does analyze and discuss The Cremaster Cycle. (He thinks it’s horrible, in case you were wondering, but he’s also meticulous in demonstrating why.)
That’s a big thing about Dan that sets him aside from the other fan reviewers in this sort of thing. He’s interested in making meticulous, watertight arguments that argue for a point of view I may never have considered otherwise (take his Homer Simpson analysis as an example), but find myself fully nodding along with by the end.
It’s a form of argument which is hard to do well. Diana Wynne Jones compares it to building a chain-mail coat, link by link. A single link out of place, and the thing falls apart, but when it’s done well, my god, there’s such a pleasure to seeing it unfold in action, like a sudoku of ideas. And it’s very nearly arrow-proof too.
In case it isn’t clear by now, this is not the sort of thing most people turn on for entertainment when procrastinating duties and browsing Youtube for something fun to watch. (Though some of us do! But… not most people.)
And it is hard to get an audience for this type of thing when your subject matter is not consistent. For Dan, it’s neither “recent, timely things” nor even “largely popular or well-known things” or even “consistently-of-one-subject things”. Dan essentially talks about whatever the hell he wants to talk about. It is mostly films, television shows, and video games; but he’s made a video about Somalia, for heaven’s sake. He’s made a video analyzing memes. There isn’t much of a predictable pattern to what you’re going to get with Dan’s next video, other than the fact that Dan is the one making it.
That’s intended to be the point of attraction. If you’re a fan of the videos, it’s not because of the subject matter per say, but because of Dan’s analysis. His authorial voice is what you are there for. It’s the same model as “Nostalgia Chick”, in fact, just on a smaller and more rarefied scope: the personality, the humor, and the individual perspective is the draw.
This is the part that is highly polarizing: very attractive to some, highly repellent to others. And since Dan does engage in our more traditional notion of cultural politics (and with a vengeance!), that means that someone who hates his take on the Gamergate movement will be equally unwilling to listen to his take on, say, Homer Simpson or Neon Genesis Evangelion—not because of the ideas, but because it’s Dan who is doing the talking. Because Dan seeds his personal sense of humor, his blatant politics, and his opinions into everything he does.
I’d bet you my cat that Tony Zhou has opinions as polarizing as Dan Olson but we’re never going to hear about them, ever. Tony is too interested in swallowability.
Dan gains a freedom of range and tone in his discussion matter. He can talk about what he wants, how he wants. He can even engage polarizing subjects with battle-horns blaring—at the sacrifice of swallowability.
But to maintain and grow the audience that he has, he still needs to be entertaining. And he absolutely needs to be lucid. Because the game of political reach that Dan is playing is very different from Tony’s. Tony is playing a quiet strategy with a far-out endgame; it is a strategy that relies on its invisibility for its effectiveness. Dan Olson, on the other hand, is participating actively in a volatile subcultural war (I won’t get into the details here, but “war” is definitely the right word); his visibility is his weapon.
Because what he is especially good at, what Dan really excels at, is arming like-minded folk with chain-mail arguments that destroy ideological opponents.
This is maybe most evident with the video he did analyzing the Gamergate movement. The video came out when the movement was still fresh, within the first three months of its upsurge, when there was still a question on the mainstream media’s part of “do we take them seriously or dismiss them as a violent hate-group?” (And it was later uploaded to Youtube and can be found here.)
So Dan put out a video that was his trademark chain-mail analysis: this time analyzing the Gamergate movement, analyzing its basic ideas and functioning—to which many people responded with “YES, THIS. THANK YOU FOR PUTTING THIS INTO WORDS, OH MY GOD” and consequently those people put it into their words, and the message snowballed and swelled, and it changed the nature of discussion. It changed what Gamergate could continue to use as an argument without being shouted down as fools, and also what it couldn’t. In metaphors of weaponry: it made whole swaths of Gamergate artillery obsolete.
It does not surprise me that this video in particular got cited in a recently published book. Nor does it surprise me that there are whole articles online, whole pages of Google results dedicated to attempts to derail and make obsolete this very video.
And it does not surprise me that Gamergate almost immediately declared Dan Olson a high-profile public enemy on their semi-formalized agenda.
So to paraphrase something I said at the beginning of this letter: Dan Olson makes his vocalized opinions and arguments visible to other people. That visibility shapes other people’s perceptions of what is possible, reasonable, acceptable. And that consequently shapes how people act, and thus the world.
That’s what Dan’s best videos do, in general. To bring up Awkward-Situation Husband again: he loves Homer Simpson. He styles himself after Homer Simpson, he sees Homer as a role model. And though I’d never thought about it very much, I happened to watch Dan Olson’s video about Homer Simpson, and it put into words the real scary underbelly of that sort of mentality: a mentality which reads A Modest Proposal and thinks “my god, what a great idea! Why aren’t we doing this already?”
Dan Olson sacrifices broader visibility for volatility of message. The feminists of the 70s and 80s did this too. They hoped against hope that their texts would enter the mainstream, but in practical terms they knew that it was just as important for their texts and their ideas to enter the “mainstream” of their personal subculture.
Because a subculture of ideas is, in terms of political volume, much harder to ignore and far more politically powerful than a single Katy Perry tweet could ever be.
And if you change the voice of that subculture to your voice, then your personal political message has been duly magnified.
* * *
In contrast to both Tony and Dan is a person whose blog I only came across by accident. Ben’s blog has (like all the others here, actually, in a running theme) been cited in published and/or academic work.
His blog also has maybe the largest-output-to-smallest-readership ratio that I’ve personally managed to stumble upon during my own limited internet misadventures.
And I feel a little weird calling him by his name, despite it being given in his Twitter URL, despite it being available on his goddamn personal website, because on his actual blog, Uninterpretative, he sort of goes out of his way to derail all usual attempts at personal identification.
But: I have very limited technological ability. I’ve never managed to successfully install a working app on my smartphone, for heaven’s sake. I only even have a smartphone because my sister got sick and tired of my inability to view her picture-texts on my stupidphone. (So she got me the smartphone for my birthday.)
And though Ben has clearly put an amount of effort into not only maintaining an illusion of anonymity, but mocking attempts at penetrating it—well, this ol’ Luddite was able to penetrate it despite starting at the wrong end of the information trail, and if I can do it, then anyone can.
And this is because Ben deliberately undermines his own gestures at anonymity, over and over.
This is maybe the most interesting blog I could talk about in terms of political volume because Ben also talks about movies, and he also talks about video games, and he seems to give literally no shits about drawing in a wider audience. His tone for nearly all his blog entries exists on a definable spectrum, where one end is the sort of corpulent and discombobulating academic prose that makes tenured professors vibrate with sheer sexual delight—I quote, as an example picked at random:
“The ‘origin’ itself could seem to be an antithetical concept, something necessarily obviated by an embrace of this phrase, a (not so) simple extension of the parental role into the immaterial realm.”
And the other end is personal musings, impressionistically structured, not interested in delving into the layers of a work of art, but in adding an additional subjective layer to the whole.
In between that spectrum of extremes you get the majority of the Uninterpretative entries: these unlikely, dense objects which lovingly pay tribute to such things as obscure videos games, or the rhinestones of pop culture, or experimental and avant-garde films: all through a patina formed by the million rasping fish-tongues of languaga academica.
The Uninterpretative entries are performative—and I hate that the only way to properly talk about what Ben is really doing is to switch into his goddamn fish-tongue language that so absolutely gets on my nerves. But the goddamn entries are goddamn performative, that is the correct word to use; the whole project is at least partially conceived with the same eye that you would give to a conceptual art project. Just look at the damn things as seen on the actual blog: a deliberately obnoxious, smirking kidsy avatar to the left… side by side with the densest of academic language… analyzing a 2005 hip-hop song in relation to a hashtag.
So I could try to say that political volume is secondary to Ben’s primary interests. I could say, “for all we know, the Uninterpetative blog may be primarily a performance done for its own sake.”
Or I could declare “it should be understood as a fish-tongued diary, a way for a fish-tonguer to organize his own thoughts and impressions, so that they get out of his head and don’t annoy him anymore!” (After all this is something I can certainly relate to.)
But if I speculated in those direction, I would have to phrase it as a Sisyphean push-and-pull, because the craving for readers and viewers is a thing that threads itself throughout the project, as an occasional but unavoidable motif. It surfaces now and then in certain language tics, in certain half-ironic phrases and shouts-into-the-dark. It surfaces in the way that Ben structures the whole thing.
Yet I think I can, definitively, claim that Ben gives no shits about the concerns of a theoretical readership. The theoretical readership responds accordingly, mostly by being largely theoretical. Especially compared to Tony Zhou or Dan Olson. There are very few people reading the Uninterpretative entries. (This is not necessarily a shame, for a complicated slew of reasons, but I do kind of wish that it had more appreciative readers just because there aren’t many things quite like it online, at least that I know of.) And I hope by now it’s clear this is not a judgment value on my part to say “gosh he has barely any readers, haha!” because this is where Ben’s unwillingness to change his messages to make them more swallowable completes the circle in my trio of bloggers.
I look at my notes, and my notes say, “remember that this is leading down to what politics is at its most fundamental, remember that they are about a desire to change the world so that it is most receptive to YOU.”
And Ben, to reach a wider audience, would need to change himself.
That is what Dan did. That is what Tony did. In the names of their messages, they—literally—did change themselves. Tony’s whole real-life identity has become in service of preserving the sanctity of the Tony persona of Every Frame A Painting, in the same way of any public identity of any pop star; he cannot say or do anything too public that would have too much “flavor”, that could in any way pollute the swallowability of his message.
Dan Olson has, on the most insignificant level, began paying far closer attention to his appearance (his clothing, his haircut; even apologizing these days if he looks as messy as used to be his default) and become far more aware of his personal presentation as he grows into an increasingly public figure; his production level and outreach strategy have had to evolve and consume more of his time as he has worked on growing his reach; the nature of the videos he makes, and their variety in seriousness and tone, has diversified for the sole purpose of expansion; and on a more significant level, he has—like Tony—begun shaping his life in service to the promotion of his messages.
The actions taken in boosting the volume of their politics have changed the sort of people that they are.
By changing the sort of people that they are: it changed the resulting political message that they radiate.
Ben is unwilling to compromise, unwilling to bend, despite the enormous pressure, despite the signs that, every now and then, he bends, that he can’t help but find himself bending. (Like I said earlier: Ben deliberately undermines his own gestures at anonymity, over and over.)
And there’s that point I find myself making whenever I get this far in this train of thought:
Politics at its most fundamental is about changing the human world, about making that world increasingly receptive to YOU, to people like YOU.
(The writers who advocate for a culture of readers…. The conductors who advocate for a culture of classical-music-lovers…)
And since this is the final-destination-point that this whole letter has been straining towards, I will certainly be talking about what I mean quite a lot in just a moment, making it extra-clear and believable. But I do mean that we promote and love the things that support the promotion and love of our personal existence.
We promote and love the things that support the promotion and love of our personal existence.
But with almost zero exceptions can you boost your political volume without changing your self.
What an infuriating paradox. The sort of thing to make you throw your tea across the room.
Are you willing to change the world so that it loves you and values your personality and your body and your skills and your convictions, at the trifling cost of changing the you that the world will be made to love?
* * *
(By the way.)
(It’s not that Tony and Dan have endgames, and Ben doesn’t have an endgame: because he has an endgame too. The endgame strategy is: patience and hope. Like a jellyfish that has no ability to steer and must rely on the whims of the tides for its movement. Ben’s strategy is 100% integrity at the cost of all control of his political volume.)
(By making his posts so consistently, so meticulously, with such attention, he is putting out this content, he is turning his brain’s material inside out, and putting that out as political content with its own little radioactive potential for changing the world. The human world is shifting constantly, and Ben’s patience relies on waiting for the world to shift just enough that it picks up his content on its own time, recognizes the value, and broadcasts it without further action/change on his part; his hope is that this could even happen in the first place. It has happened, before—Kafka and Van Gogh being the cliché and famous examples, but there are plenty of better and subtler examples too—but there’s no guarantee it will ever happen. No guarantee it will happen this time around.)
(So there is patience, and there is hope.)
(And if the world does change around Ben, enough to notice his messages and pick them up and broadcast them far and wide: then it will be a world that becomes increasingly conducive to the type of person that Ben is. To his mentality, to his aesthetics, to his talents and to his beliefs. His content will feed into that world, and influence it further. Make the world increasingly receptive to him. It will become a feedback loop of sorts. And that will be success.)
(Integrity is a very risky game to play.)
(Pure strategists would not recommend it.)
(But then again: you’re the one who has to live with yourself, more than any other person. And sometimes changing the person you have to live with is not worth the risk of finding out you cannot live with yourself anymore, after all.)
* * *
So I look at my notes again, and my notes still say, “remember that this is leading down to what politics is at its most fundamental, remember that they are about a desire to change the world so that it is most receptive to YOU.”
The original question:
Why do so many people come nearly to blows over opinions about music, about art; about specific and individual performances?
Or even better: why do so many people (who are neither authors nor reviewers) treat book reviews like battleground conflicts that affect their direct livelihoods?
I don’t think it’s just to do with people using a platform of political volume to boost their polarizing opinions… like Dan Olson does, for example.
After all, people who treat book reviews as battleground conflicts are often least concerned with the actual reviews, or with those reviews that most of us would consider most polarizing (since they are often made on tiny blogs, or in crowded noisy bars, by folk with rather limited political reach).
It’s the reviews that seem most “invisible” in their political radiation that tend to generate long-standing, decade-long, unwavering agitation.
It is the fact that, the higher your political volume, the more that what you choose to talk about has an effect—as much as what you choose to omit.
The shaping, the careful pruning of history textbooks by the hands of the conqueror—
The very basis of thought, actually, in Orwell’s 1984 and its vocabulary of Newspeak—
Using political volume to omit and erase for the sake of control, on a large scale, is as old as government politics, at least. (The two are, possibly, inseparably linked?)
But the point of specific omission, and especially by a body that claims (and is treated as) an impartial judge of quality (such as, for example, the reviewing staff of the top magazines in our country), could be argued as the reduction of the political volume of those whose political radiation intersect unfavorably with yours.
This makes sense, I think, if you realize that of course a magazine such as The New Yorker is hoping to grow the community of folk who share the passions and values of The New Yorker. Who love culture and who attend museums and who read books and who pay close attention to international events.
And I doubt that the staff of The New Yorker, for example, set out with a cheerfully methodical agenda of what to promote and what to erase. Can you imagine everyone who does this in their daily lives being conscious of doing it, as if we are conscious always of breathing?
It is simply that, in this example, The New Yorker has a political volume that is so loud that their publication is seen so often as The Benevolent Standard Of Quality instead of what it is in reality, along with all other publishers of fiction and non-fiction: the house of niche tastes.
Their erasures are particularly noticeable, and their famous/infamous snobbery is particularly galling, if you fight for, believe in, radiate a political stripe that The New Yorker is self-interested in smothering.
(Just as you—if in direct opposition to their political stripe—might smother The New Yorker if you could. Or, at the least, co-opt it to your purposes.)
Because to destroy someone’s political volume is:
to destroy the amount of influence they have;
to limit their ability to shape the world in their favor;
and, so often, to limit their ability to directly shape it in your disfavor;
so it is impossible to read our lives as neutral when most of us would, at least, agree that we hope to destroy the political volume of rapists and murderers—for example. We do not want a world that is influenced by them, that is shaped by their ideals and accommodating to their values.
And by the way: it helps me personally to understand “you” and “shaping things in your favor” as really more about shaping things in the favor of your self-conception. Your self-conception as, say, a part of a community (whether formally determined, or more generally vague). Or as part of a family. Or as part of a tradition that you hope to participate in. Even if that self-conception is, as it turns out, harmful to your health, or your freedom, or your own political volume in the end.
* * *
On October 19, 2015, Malcolm Gladwell published an article in The New Yorker which analyzed the uptick in school shootings in America. He pointed out that the increase in school shootings was not only fairly recent, but that the shootings were predominantly of a very certain type and followed a very certain script, which could be traced to the model laid out by Eric Harris (of the Columbine shooting fame). It is unsettling to learn how some of the shooters idolized Harris to the point of wearing the same clothing he wore and using the same guns he used. More unsettling is how intentional this turns out to be on Harris’s part, who left meticulous documentation of planning his shooting in such a way that it could lay down a “cultural script” that others could easily follow, which he hoped would snowball into a sort of cultural “revolution”. Gladwell framed this phenomenon as a riot in slow motion: a riot as a social process where otherwise non-violent people are increasingly primed towards violence as the riot grows. You could frame it also, of course, as Harris carefully, meticulously establishing a political precedent to broadcast and normalize his message. In fact, everything in Gladwell’s article supports this framing at least as much. As Gladwell says in his conclusion, “The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts…” (And it reminds us of why conquerors wipe the history books of events they do not want repeated.)
On December 23, 2014, New York Magazine profiled Lauren Singer, a young woman living in New York who has reduced her “trash footprint” to almost zero while maintaining an otherwise ordinary young-person urban lifestyle. For a year she produced so little trash that it all fit into a mason jar. And it was mostly things like straws that bartenders gave her with her drinks, or stickers from supermarket produce, or a nylon ped that was given to her at a used shoe store. When asked if she had converted any of her friends, Lauren said “I don’t try to convert people. But the people who know me, I think sometimes they start thinking about their trash, being around me. I have friends that have started using Mason jars or eating more organic or started composting. But that’s never something I’ve told them to do. They just started doing it.” And, before this profile on Lauren, if you had asked me if it was possible to maintain a typical urban lifestyle in New York while producing hardly any trash, I would have said “Probably not.” In fact many people (and many politicians) like to argue that reducing our personal daily trash footprint is near-impossible. Lauren’s life brazenly demonstrates otherwise, with startling ease—and provides a living model, down to the most practical of how-to details, of how to follow suit.
On November 6, 2015, The Yale Herald profiled Jonathan Sun, a Twitter comedian working under the moniker of Jomny Sun—an “aliebn confuesed abot humamn lamgauge.” The Yale Herald talks about the politics of visibility (political volume, really) and Jonathan’s awareness of it. They have the following line: “Jonathan’s insistence on sincerity is as much a political endeavor as it is an artistic one: it makes the internet a kinder place…” And, of course, the comments at the bottom include a person expressing gratitude for Jonathan’s online presence, for how much he has influenced them positively, as well as someone completely outraged at the mere fact that The Yale Herald would even think about writing this article on Jonathan and thus increase his exposure.
On July 17, 2015, the film critic who writes as FILM CRIT HULK talked at length about the film Kingsman, making a strong case for it as an “unwinking satire” of the very film most people think it is. Near the end, he says this: “We have to pragmatically accept that Vaughn and Goldman would not have been able to get money to make what would amount to a preachy, not very fun movie. Sometimes, in order to rightfully criticize the execution of blockbusters, you still have to make a blockbuster…” (It was interesting, for me, to read this while working on this letter—to read someone else discussing how reaching for political volume morphs your message by necessity, because of course many of us understand this to be the case…)
As of this moment of writing, North Dakota is statistically the least gay-tolerant American state. There are no gay bars in North Dakota. So it is not surprising that the Wikipedia page for North Dakota’s first gay rights organization—The Ten Percent Society—has the following sentence inserted into its immediate summary: “The organization gained its name from a widely held (but false) belief… that ten percent of the population [is] gay.” The article that is cited as demonstrating the belief’s falsity comes from 1993 and describes a study proposing that only 1% of the population is gay. Whoever keeps updating this Wikipedia entry is certainly not vested in, for example, citing instead the far more recent and scientifically rigorous article from 2013, which uses internet search results to put the number of gay American men firmly at least at 5% and makes it clear that without a doubt it’s quite higher than that (and the article also discusses how difficult it is to get true numbers due to how deeply many gay men will closet themselves, particularly in the more intolerant areas of America… such as, say, North Dakota…). It is just one sentence on one tiny Wikipedia page for one tiny gay rights organization. But the fight over seeding anti-gay sentiment into that gay-rights article clearly matters a lot, to someone, for reasons that this entire letter was about.
An article from August 21, 2006, which appeared in the New York Times, talks about the attempts of online communities of pedophiles to legitimize and normalize pedophilia. Their targets of normalization include the larger outside culture, other pedophiles, and even children, as demonstrated by the presence of a “printable booklet to be distributed to children that extols the benefits of sex with adults.” And, as one pedophile wrote when discussing the online communities: “I am so happy to find this site… I thought having a sexual attraction to my daughter was bad. I now do not feel guilty or conflicted.”
On November 23, 2015, The New Yorker wrote about Megan Phelps-Roper and how she left the Westboro Baptist Church. The New Yorker gave its forum and outreach over to Megan’s voice and allowed her to broadcast her story widely. Thus her story’s reach could weigh heavily on the nature of the Church, and directly affect its future. The wide-reaching story also provided insight and context for similar places, with similar mindsets, with similar structures—and how to dismantle them.
In 2008 Rebecca Solnit wrote her famous essay Men Explain Things To Me and changed the national dialogue, to the point that terms such as “mansplain” and their logical derivatives (“whitesplain” for example) have entered our conversational vocabulary. There is now, suddenly, a common language for easily talking about a phenomenon that existed for far longer than Rebecca Solnit has been alive. And to talk about it is to bring it to the light; it is to examine it and thus (as historical precedent demonstrates over and over) to begin the possibility for societal change.
On February 11, 2015, Aeon published an examination of Hasidic Jews who are secretly struggling with their atheism. And because of it, for any Hasidic Jew secretly going through a similar struggle and doubting their sanity, there is now a sense of not being alone; there is a community of dissent, a normalization of doubt; and there is a precedent, online and easily Googlable, for how they might consider their situation and proceed.
On December 5, 2015, Tom Scocca published his infamous essay On Smarm which, as it turned out, was written largely for the purpose of being a take-down of an award-winning magazine journalist with whom Tom has had a long-running feud. Very smartly, Scocca structured the take-down not as a personal attack (which would have seemed merely petty), but as an ideological and philosophical statement, using every ounce of his writing ability to make the argument as stylishly as he could. It was an essay designed to go viral, and designed also to shoot down everything and everyone that had any vested interest in canceling the political volume of Tom Scocca, while propping up and glorifying everything that was Tom Scocca—but wrapped up in a universal language that could have people nodding along, sharing the link, changing their language for talking about things in the future; changing themselves. Tom Scocca’s strategy for responding to the journalist was not to attack him personally, but to do one better: attack him in a more lasting way by changing the society they both live in; do his best to make it increasingly inhospitable to the journalist and his “type”…
With all this; with this grab-bag of articles snatched half at random from my memory of my recent browsing history; what I mean to say is: people recognize these concepts. People live by these concepts. A fish does not have to give a name to water to understand that water exists, and understand how it functions, and to live accordingly.
If you begin thinking about it, you see politics and political maneuvering in almost everything that happens around you, in the choices people make, in the reasons for why people behave as they do. On the biggest level, on the tiniest level.
On December 31, 2015, I wore a cotton shirt from H&M. That was a political statement, a casual support of their industry, and it’s not a statement I’m proud of. My choice to eat meat is also a political statement. My 9-5 job in a first-world industry is a political statement. My conservative haircut is a political statement. My use of paper products produced by paper mills is, as Wallace Shawn would observe, a political statement. My life, from morning to night, is a massive avalanche, a massive ripple effect, of endless political statements.
As is everyone’s life, all our lives, up till oblivion.
* * *
So… way back when I was talking with my friend about feminism and slut-shaming… she also mentioned something else that stuck with me. She was very bothered by the idea of modeling ethics from these ideas.
And I realized that this could be something that someone would think to do, so I’ll just emphasize that you should not, not, not model ethics from this. This is no more about ethics than Darwin’s theory of evolution was about ethics: this is descriptive, not prescriptive!
This was never intended as a call to change. If anything, I was thinking of it as a call to understanding. This is, at its heart, a letter about human behavior. Something that I observe frequently around me. Something which means I can understand better why people who are very different from me might act in ways they do, or might even act in ways that seem to be directly invested in my annihilation; and better yet, understand why I might seem just as threatening to them.
I can understand more fully, too, why I do what I do. I can think about it better.
And we simply cannot be aware all the time how everything we do is a political statement. We cannot constantly be trying to adjust ourselves accordingly, no more than we can be aware of every muscle and every breath and every blink, at every moment. I think that much of our political radiation is fated inevitably to go relatively unexamined.
And even if we could examine it all and change ourselves accordingly: we can never perfectly predict what political impact any gesture of ours might have.
But I wanted to take the idea of “political” to its logical conclusion, and I think I have done so. And if you were to ask me, right now, if there were two people left alive on the planet and they were on opposite sides of the planet, would their actions still be political: I would say yes. They are sharing a planet. They are sharing air. They dump their food into a river, and it affects the world on the other side too. Even if only in the tiniest sense, they are affecting each other’s world, somehow. And so the ultimate logical conclusion of this letter would say that, even here, with just two people alive, their actions are political.
There is no political neutrality. Whether you want it or not, to be political is to be part of a world where you are not the only person living in it.
To be consciously political is to be aware of it.
 As a famous example of this: you can watch how people move and shift around in an elevator whenever someone gets on or gets off… subtly adjusting the spacing with almost mathematical precision, all through subtle communication of body language. And, if you want to make someone uncomfortable in an elevator: just stand an inch too close to them. That’s all it takes, honestly.
 Linking your daily-life identity to your online message is a quick way to boost your political volume because: you can share your efforts with your friends. You can share your efforts with your family. You can share them with coworkers, and anyone you meet in your day-to-day excursions who might be interested. You can use the pre-existing network we all create just by living our daily lives to plug your online content in a way you certainly cannot if you try to deliberately separate the two.
 I’m thinking of the bit in Year of the Griffin where DWJ delves into the different prose styles of the essays that Corkoran is grading.
 If you find just his blog (as I did, thanks to some weird Google results) you’re left with a deliberate sense of confounding identity via ironic misleading identifiers where the usual “About Me!” sort of information would go. (It’s a bit like wondering “who is this guy?” and getting “Neener neener neener!” as the official response.) But, at the same time: he has published reviews on Strange Horizons, under his actual name. That actual name’s reviewer bio includes a link to the aforementioned blog. Also, he drops personal details in his posts all the time, so that just a little reading of his backlog was enough for me to irritably use Google-fu to locate not only his alma mater, but also information on his undergraduate research award from 2010 (the results of which, coincidentally, appear in part on his blog, and thus complete the circle of identity). So the “neener neener” begins to feel at least partially just for show.