Digital literate epoch

I’ve long argued that everything you write on Facebook or Twitter or some such social media platform should be considered “publishing.” Much like a newsroom staff, your mind and fingers are “publishing” this status update or that vaguely nihilistic riff or this inane story about how you spilled coffee all over the banana bread. It’s a process that ends with a publicly available creative work. My point, taken from my time in newsrooms, I guess, is that you’re presenting your writing/ideas to a certain marketplace. Act accordingly. Write (publish) with meaning and vision.

Needless to say, I don’t run into this kind of enticing forethought too often in the terrible cave of my Facebook news feed.

And so, anyway, I find this review of The Twittering Machine fairly helpful.

The Twittering Machine is powered by an insight at once obvious and underexplored: we have, in the world of the social industry, become ‘scripturient—possessed by a violent desire to write, incessantly.’ Our addiction to social media is, at its core, a compulsion to write. Through our comments, updates, DMs, and searches, we are volunteers in a great ‘collective writing experiment.’ Those of us who don’t peck out status updates on our keyboards are not exempt. We participate too, ‘behind our backs as it were,’ creating hidden (written) records of where we clicked, where we hovered, how far we scrolled, so that even reading, within the framework of the Twittering Machine, becomes a kind of writing. The rise of print, Seymour points out, played a crucial role in developing the idea of the modern nation, not to mention the bureaucratic state and ‘industrial civilization.’ Now that epoch is ending, and a new revolution in literacy is extending the ability to write in public to billions of people worldwide. What will our new digital-writing culture call into existence?”

À tout à l’heure

A while back, about five years ago now, I was hanging out at a Phish festival in upstate New York when this song came on the event’s commandeered local radio station, The Bunny. Totally entranced in the cerulean-sweet moment and the trippy thrill of the weekend, I snapped into the song and immediately tried to write down the lyrics so’s I could look it up later. Scattered rhymes and a dash of French riffing on a clear blue afternoon. The bass line alone is about as chilled out as they come. This song will always remind me of the past.

And now, zapped headlong into the future-present, it’s a balm for strange summertime violence in America. Like so much of my favorite music, these songs tilt me into some sort of adjacent mindset, a nearby meadow or a backwards-flowing river.

Often, when I write, I loop the same song over and over, letting the reiteration wash over my thoughts as they spill through fingers onto page (screen). It bears the effect of a mantra. It carries me from there to here.

Facebook ramblings, Tuesday morning

Too often, I get about 1,000 words into some screed On Here about the state of affairs (this time dismantling the Washington press corps’ pearl-clutching reaction to Woodward’s new book) and then just think, “You know what? Fuck it.” Delete!

Back in the old days, I shared my thoughts in the dark corners of dive bars. I spoke conspiratorially over sudsy brews and too many shots of Red Stag. I gestured wildly. I pointed vaguely at television screens to illustrate my argument. “There! There, you see! How he crosses his arms when he’s confronted with damning truths! This whole fucking planet’s in trouble with these jackals at the helm!” And now? I type type type type type type type type type type type type type type type

type type type type type type type type

And the more you type the word “type,” it starts to read like you’re just writing total nonsense. Is that even a word? “Type”? Do you mean, “Taipei”?

You may as well open your car door and shout BLURG A-DURG at the guy one lane over, spittle flying out of your mouth. That’s all it is, this Facebook stuff. Shouting insane syllables at strangers on the information highway, all cruising at about 110 toward some flame-throwing angel-demon alighting on the horizon. The brakes are cut, everybody. There is no exit ramp. Crank the volume on that Neil Young CD and pinch the rosary beads off the rearview. WE’RE COMING HOME!


And that was the summer when we moved a ways up the river, far from the city and its National Guard exhaust fumes and its plywood windows and its hunched men selling baseball programs for games that would never be played. Fires over knotty pine, cirrus clouds drifting lazy in the sky. Our dogs ran circles ’round the flames. We toasted high-watt spirits and roasted marshmallows while wisps of the future floated past the blaze. Night fell deeply near the tree line, and we relished the strange summer of 2020. A great comet sailed over the roof, dark ice and rock gliding forever from the far-flung corners of unwritten history. (We tried to hail a ride.) And that was the summer when nothing was certain and nothing was known.

The future belongs to crowds again

The rich smell of cannabis has always reminded me of crowds, like being caught on a summer-stunned day in the herd of weirdos shuffling around the lawn at Blossom or packed tightly into a humid club on the outskirts of a town you’ve already forgotten existed. The band plays on. And why not? The plant and its sweet chemicals are perfectly suited for dissolving a mob of egos into the now. This is maybe why I get freaked out when I’m smoking herb by myself, probably late at night with an old Deftones album in my headphones. Totally melting into the sound, into the dark. And then the terrific odor of the bud starts to settle in the room and I begin doubting what’s really going on here. Is there someone in the kitchen? The music is floating in my ears, and then I yank out the headphones, staring straight into the middle distance of the room and waiting to hear if that voice is going to say something again. Look through the little porthole in the front door, all wobbly hallways and windows. Now, what was I doing? The tree-shadows pirouette along the ceiling. Everyone I’ve ever known is there with me, milling about the living room, running thumbs along the slanted bookshelves, but I can’t see anyone. I feel like Frodo Baggins with the fucking ring on my finger. And who’s banging around the kitchen, for god’s sake?

And I guess the reason I’m writing this is to say I really miss hanging out in crowds, the slipstream of shows and games and local arts festivals, the breezy drift of cannabis in the air. The gathering of a moment. It’s a certain kind of freedom, social circles blending into one another, the parts becoming the sum, the story of a community written anew and all that. Those moments stitch us together. Carefully balancing beers, poured to the very brim, back to the spot stage-left before the set begins. The unmistakable recognition of a joint threading the swarm, returning us again to where we are.

I know enough to know the music never stopped, but now it feels like a dream in the moments after waking. Bleary-eyed and half-remembered. The story is fragmented, breaking apart as the days go by. There’s someone in the kitchen again, telling us to chill out a little longer. Stick around for the next chapter. It’s going to be incredible.

This is not an election campaign

I’ve shared Umair Haque’s blog several times here over the years, and his 2020 writing is only growing more vital and urgent (pardon his need for a good copy editor). Now, we’re flying fast toward a point of no return. A stolen election is a neat and symbolically rich method for consolidating power on a level that Americans, lost outside of history, stuck inside the television forever, simply can’t comprehend.

If you think it can’t happen, I implore you to start thinking critically. Vote, of course (local elections matter!), and do what you can to track your ballot, but look within yourself for the values that will fortify your mind and body for a truly warped sense of reality, for “2 + 2 = 5” stamped onto your forehead each morning when you try to speak the truth.

To quote the authoritarian in the White House, speaking to you and me and everyone else is this Great and Mighty and Blameless country, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” (July 2018)

He is not a president. This is not an election campaign.

I’m thinking less of Republicans and Democrats when I write about this, and more along the lines of what sort of ideology controls our very past and future. What is the meaning of America in the 21st century? What is “real”? Who are you? This is what Simon Sinek would call “the infinite game.”

I write this only to say to friends who’ve ignored the warning signs and disregarded words like “fascism” and “raids” and “shock troops” as alarmist, friends who secreted away their 2016 votes for a deranged tycoon, friends who now discount the total collapse of America—words matter. Reality is a fragile thing.

You still have the power to think for yourself, and that’s a rare treat on the long road of human history.

Praise be to Aristophanes

“And while you laugh, your surmount life’s contradictions, take flight even as the joke-proof all around you wonder what’s so funny.”

– Benjamin Taylor, writing about Philip Roth’s character, Philip Roth, in 1993’s “Operation Shylock.”

It’s one of the best moves on the board and a real ace for any writer trying to navigate these times. Leave the dead-serious sociology textbook dreck at the door and find what makes you laugh. Chances are, you’ll do a hell of a lot more good in this world.

Practice any art

I fell down a brief Kurt Vonnegut wormhole this morning (again) and landed on some indispensable advice for the day/week/month/year ahead:

“What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience BECOMING, to find out what’s inside you, to MAKE YOUR SOUL GROW.”

The panopticon

This is an astonishing feature on the rise of AI in authoritarian power structures. And if it’s not an outright glimpse into what America might look like soon, I’d argue that the story in China reveals more about the shape of the 21st century—a textural pattern that meshes neatly with climate disaster, globalization and the rise of nationalist autocrats. Throw in a pandemic that threatens to “go permanent,” why not?

Here we get a showcase of emerging themes and possibilities, where the state turns inward and develops a type of war against the individual. The political and economic trends are clear enough already.

I don’t mean to be glib or naive or outrageous here, but: Make sure you know who you are. Understand your values. Write down your thoughts and read . Worst-case scenario? This whole thing blows over by 2030 or so, and we’re all better off for grasping our inner universe and writing our stories for posterity.

Things to come

“This is not a once-in-a-century event,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding, a former director of the CDC. “It’s a harbinger of things to come.”

I think that’s a critical baseline to consider this summer.

Predicting the future is a real racket, but it seems helpful to visualize the near-term — the next decade, say — as passage into a strange new frontier. We are unwitting pioneers, but aren’t we always?

There’s a tendency to disregard the historical in this country. We like to think in short bursts. And earlier this year, when “flattening the curve” was a ubiquitous phrase, we measured the future in weeks. By the end of June, maybe this will all be sorted out, right? But there’s ample reason to think now that we’re stuck with the coronavirus pandemic — stuck with the viral transmission and the cultural division and the lasting bruise on our economy. The fear. The idea of it, if not the actual thing itself. If it’s not SARS-Cov-2 ravaging our society, then pick a coronavirus, any coronavirus.

This is where I might make some goofball remark, like, “What we’ve learned is that our culture was the virus all along.”

When I write that America is sliding into collapse, I don’t mean it as a fire-and-brimstone trap door that might open up on us all one day. In a lot of ways, collapse can be invisible and unfelt, especially from positions of economic and racial privilege. But I do mean to tell my friends and family that public institutions are crumbling, and there’s no clear recourse. I do mean to suggest that the ingredients are present for things to get very bad in America. A global pandemic is terrific fuel for authoritarianism (politics), fascism (culture) and depression (economics), each a branch of what we might call society, each failing miserably in an hour of great need. What that means for how we’ll need to adapt or not in the years to come, well, that’s very hard to say. By the end of August, maybe this will all be sorted out, right? Whatever this is, it’s unprecedented territory, and it’s something we should talk about while there’s still time.

“A harbinger of things to come.”

Think about that phrase. It’s a fucking knockout if you’re reading closely.