The afterdeath

Why did blogs die? If, that is, it can even still be remembered that once they were alive. I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on this since back when they’d only been dead a year or two.

I remember thinking that they had definitively died when Andrew Sullivan gave up on the monetized version of his longtime blog The Daily Dish. If anyone were going to make a financial go of blogging, it would have been him. That he couldn’t seemed final.

But I suspect that the process of dying began much earlier. It seems almost too obvious to finger social media as blogging’s killer, but sometimes the obvious happens to be the case. Back when blogging still seemed comparatively healthy, I remember resenting terribly the little “Share This” buttons that all my colleagues in blogging began to place at the end of each post. There was one little button for Facebook, then another for Twitter, then another for Stumble Upon, then one for Reddit, et cetera until every post in the blogosphere seemed to be staggering under a Lilliputian colony of parasitic buttons, like an immune-compromised deer studded with ticks. The blackmail was straightforward: If you didn’t add the little buttons to your posts, then fewer people would share your posts, and fewer people come to your blog. If you did add them, however, you were giving free advertising to the big social media sites, which some day, everyone knew, were going to ingest into themselves, macrophagically, the impulse for self-expression that had once gone into blogging, where at least it seemed to have some independence.

The poisoned bait of social-media traffic weakened the herd of bloggers, but it didn’t quite constitute a cull. The cull came as a reflected blow. Since the dawn of blogging, even Luddite bloggers like me had had little hit counters, where we could track how many visitors came to our site. One week—I’m sorry I can’t remember when; all I know is that it was more than a decade ago, and less than two decades ago—I watched my hit counter as the daily population of visitors to this blog drained away, steadily. Google had adjusted its algorithm, I soon discovered. Previously, when you had searched Google for, say, “gay cannibalism” or “does television impair academic performance,” the results had been ranked according to how many times your website was linked to by other websites concerned with the same topic, and this ranking had been more or less independent of time. On social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, however, the newest information was always at the top, and people seemed to prefer seeing newer content first, even if older content was more pertinent to their interest, or more rich in information and context. Under the pressure of competition, Google rejiggered its ranking, and overnight, it, too, began to discount heavily for time. A blogger who only posted a few times a month was doomed. Over the course of one fateful week, my visitors dropped away, day by day, as Google’s rankings of the pages on my blog were quietly recalculated. The crowd never returned. The same shrinking was no doubt inflicted across the blogosphere. One’s only recourse was to post more content, faster! But the sweat-shopping of oneself can only be carried so far, and the psychological costs of trying to always have the latest, hottest take probably aren’t worth bearing.

It was nonetheless still possible, even after this cull, for a blogger to soldier on, less read but still not yet completely unread. In a way there was even liberation in knowing that one had lost most of one’s audience. One could at last delete the little “Share This” buttons (which I had eventually given in to) without a sense of loss. Henceforth one was writing only for the diehards, for those who were committed, like oneself, to keeping themselves carefully impervious to the latest attention-manipulating software. The few, the proud, the Web 1.0.

Then came the coup de grâce: they offered to pay bloggers.

In a recent essay on economics and virtue for the TLS, Antara Haldar explains the paradox:

People often act in ways that conventional economic theory finds hard to predict. Examples range from people, paradoxically, donating less blood when they start being paid to do so, to parents leaving their children at a daycare centre longer after fines are imposed, to firefighters starting to take more leave when financial penalties are introduced. This is referred to as “crowding out” – when an interaction becomes transactional it ceases to engage people’s finer feelings.

Even blogging, unedited and unexamined as it is, or anyway as it’s supposed to be, takes time and energy, even for those of us who are logorrhific and heedless. It’ll probably take me a few hours to fritter awa artfully compose this elegant essaylet right here. If I understand the purpose of my blogging labor as giving an important Truth to the people, or expressing an inner Feeling, in a way that’s somehow beyond price, then it may seem to me that it’s worthwhile to contribute this labor despite knowing that I could have instead spent my time finishing a Kawabata novel, or abating the deterioration of my middle-aged body at the gym, or surfing online for the optimal squeaky toy for my cognitively-declining geriatric dog, who needs focus now more than ever. However, once I’ve written such a post, if I know that the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, or the Paris Review might be willing to pay for it, how can I not try to sell it to them? Even if I claim that in the domain of blog posts I don’t care about money, surely I care about readers, and an established media company can put my post in front of many more readers. Once the legacy media companies added blog portfolios, I found myself with a new habit: whenever I wrote a post (unless it was on its face completely bonkers, like this one), I hesitated before hitting the “Publish” button, and at the last minute sent an email to an editor, who nine times out of ten agreed to buy what I had been thinking of as a throwaway, anyway. I had to be willing to eighty-six a couple of my dollar-and-a-half vocabulary words and prune a supererogatory paragraph here and there. But that was for the best, too. It was all for the best: free money, free editing, more readers. The trouble was, then I knew. I knew the dollar figure that the market put on the time and energy behind my blogging. Maybe I was still donating a Truth, or expressing a Feeling, and maybe the value of those contributions were still beyond price. But part of my blog post had been priced, and it seems impossible for a homo economicus to refrain from equating a price of a thing with the price of the whole thing. “When an interaction becomes transactional it ceases to engage people’s finer feelings.”

I still haven’t quite weaned myself, as you see. I kept this blog for years, and habit is almost as powerful as economic (mis)understanding.

I wonder what would happen if a newspaper were to leak the price, in pennies and dollars, of individuals’ social media feeds. To know how much effort to put into winning and keeping participants, companies like Facebook and Twitter must make such valuations. The prices probably aren’t too difficult to calculate. They’re also probably not very high…

This week, or so, in criticism #807

“Goal-driven systems won’t wake up one day with hostility to humans lurking in their hearts. But they will take actions that they predict will help them achieve their goal — even if we’d find those actions problematic, even horrifying. They’ll work to preserve themselves, accumulate more resources, and become more efficient.” Kelsey Piper explains why we won’t know until too late exactly when it would have been a good idea to turn the computers off (Vox).

“Some of the people have been talking about the movie in terms of how brutal it is, how dark it is, how tough it is. I’m just like: Guys? What world are you living in?” Christine Smallwood profiles Karyn Kusama, director of the new movie Destroyer (NYT Magazine).

What if Trump was right to condemn Fed chair Jerome Powell’s eagerness to raise interest rates last month? Labor’s share of corporate profits has fallen for decades, and it will never rise again if every hint of growth in wages is beaten down by the Fed as a sign of inflation, J. W. Mason points out (The Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal).

J. E. H. Smith thinks the whole having-a-soul thing is over: “A writer who works on the old system of production can spend days crafting a sentence, putting what feels like a worthy idea into language, only to find, once finished, that the internet has already produced countless sentences that are more or less just like it, even if these lack the same artisanal origin story that we imagine gives writing its soul. There is, it seems to me, no more place for writers and thinkers in our future than, since the nineteenth century, there has been for weavers.” (The Point)

A new book of photographs by the German photographer August Sander prints his images of ordinary Germans, of Nazis, and of German Jews whom the Nazis persecuted and killed, and “unfolds with the graceful structure of a sonata,” writes Brendan Embser (Aperture).

The scientific consensus is that cannabis use increases the risk of schizophrenia and other kinds of psychosis, and legalization of marijuana has been followed by spikes in mental illness and in violent crime. Malcolm Gladwell wonders if it might be prudent for public health reasons to slow down the liberalization of the drug (New Yorker).

Notes, 2018

“Je voyais tout en noir avant les élections, je vois tout en noir depuis.” [I saw everything black before the elections, I see everything black since.] —Ernst Renan, quoted by Henry James in a letter to William James, 14 March 1876

I dreamed there were two new hobo symbols, one for “You already know everything I need for you to know” and one for “Felonies.”

“I sat without stirring and gazed, gazed with effort and perplexity, as though I saw all my life before me, as though scales had fallen from my eyes. Oh, what have I done! my lips involuntarily murmured in a bitter whisper.” —Turgenev, “A Tour in the Forest”

“Is treatment, particular bad treatment, ever given to a person?
“No. It is always meted out.
“Is anything else ever meted out?
“No. The only thing that is ever meted out is treatment.” —Myles na Gopaleen, The Best of Myles

“I heard Émile Zola characterize his [Droz’s] manner sometime since as merde à la vanille [vanilla shit].” —Henry James, reporting Zola’s diss of Gustave Droz in a letter to Thomas Sergeant Perry, 2 May 1876

What could Bitcoin possibly be good for other than money laundering and tax evasion? There’s an op-ed in the NYT today that maintains that it will help the poor with their banking and help the Federal Reserve manage the money supply. Surely these are the last things on earth that it would ever do—the things that it is least likely ever to do even accidentally. Governments refuse to allow gift cards that are dischargeable in multiple currencies, so it is inconceivable that they will not eventually be obliged to criminalize cryptocurrencies.

“To fear being ridiculous—is not to love truth.” —Turgenev, “A Correspondence”

equipollent (adj.): possessing equal power, identical in meaning

The two narratives are not equipollent.

—Gareth Dale, Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market

“It appears that my stuff has been over the heads of the readers. Imagine their stature!” —Henry James to Arthur George Sedgwick, 29 September 1876

“I believe fully, in spite of sneers, in interpreting the French Revolution by anecdotes, though not every diner out can do it.” —Emerson, journal, August 1849

“Eizenstat famously rebuked [Alfred Kahn] for publicly suggesting that rising inflation could result in a ‘very serious depression.’ Kahn responded by continuing to issue warnings of inflation-induced depression, but with the word ‘depression’ replaced with ‘banana.'” —Stephanie Mudge, Leftism Reinvented

At first depression seems to make one’s vision of the world sharpen. After all, narrowing the aperture for light increases the depth of field.

punnet (n.): small, light basket for strawberries, mushrooms, etc.

But there is a much more overwhelming sense of the strange beauty of tiny moments, such as [Oliver] Sacks’s response when Hayes dropped a punnet of cherry tomatoes on the kitchen floor (“How pretty! Do it again!”).

—Alex Clark, reviewing Bill Hayes’s Insomniac City in the TLS, 16 March 2018

semibreve: a whole note (under this terminology, a half-note is a minim, a quarter note is a crotchet, and an eighth note is a quaver)

The vaults and arches seem really to swing above you in great semibreves of rhythm.

—A. S. G. Butler, Recording Ruin

rani (n.): a Hindu queen, a rajah’s wife or widow

She had been there, unrememberingly, before, when she was small enough to ride in a backpack, little ranee on a jogging elephant, her view of the paintings relieved by the back of her father’s neck.

—Alan Hollinghurst, The Sparsholt Affair

“I don’t want to do so difficult a thing as dying without any chance of applause after having done it.” —Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, quoted in Edna Longley, ed., Annotated Collected Poems

“The high, thin nose was a little lonely, a little sad, but the bud of her lips opened and closed smoothly, like a beautiful little circle of leeches.” —Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, trans. E. G. Seidensticker

shaw (n.): a thicket; the strip of trees or bushes forming the border of a field

. . . a law
Which was of old when one, like me, dreamed how
A thousand years might dust lie on his brow
Yet thus would birds do between hedge and shaw.

—Edward Thomas, “February Afternoon”

stook (n.): a shock; a group of twelve sheaves placed upright to support each other as the grain dries and ripens

The wheat, tawny with ripeness, had been cut and stood in tented stooks about the fields.

—Iris Murdoch, The Bell

“You make me want to bound about you and about the idea of you like an excited dog.” —Iris Murdoch to Michael Oakeshott, 4 November 1958

“One more step, and he would bid the dying gladiator be comforted by the stanzas of Childe Harold.” —Edward Thomas, critiquing the aestheticized “spectatorial attitude” of Walter Pater, quoted in Edna Longley, ed., Annotated Collected Poems

cagoule (n.): a thin waterproof hoodie

Both were swaddled in layers of fat, shiny nylon—what Alan now thought of as engorged cagoules.

—James Wood, Upstate

Believing in the Kool-Aid does not make it a good idea to drink it.

“Compared with a true artist’s conscience, Tamerlane is tenderhearted.” —Walter de la Mare, foreword to Edward Thomas’s Collected Poems (1920)

Butterflies must sometimes wish they could go back to being caterpillars.

thrawn (adj.): perverse, contrary, cross-grained, ill-tempered

He had some bread and cheese in his pocket, and this he began furtively to toss to the dogs, singling out for his favors those that seemed most thrawn in appearance.

—Gavin Maxwell, The Rocks Remain

“Inside the hall, the faces of the students and the lecturer were equally indistinct, which made everything somehow mystical, like eating a bean jam bun in the dark.” —Natsume Soseki, Sanshiro

What does it say about me that when I play fetch with the dog indoors, instead of saying, “Fetch,” I say, “Bring me the head of John the Baptist.”

Philosophy is a representation in language of what it is like and what it means to be in the world. Therefore it will always be impossible finally to distinguish it from literature and it will never be finished.

daedal (adj.): inventive, ingenious; rich, variously adorned; complex

. . . all the living things
that dwell within the daedal earth.

—Shelley, “Mont Blanc”

“And my relatives, moreover, were beginning to feel that this oldness in him was abnormal, excessive, shameful, and the sort of thing bachelors deserve, as do all those of whom it seems that the great day that has no day after is longer than it is for others because for them it’s empty, the moments in it adding up, from morning onward, without ever having to be divided later with children.” —Proust, Du côté de chez Swann

Listening to Nina Simone, I realize that I miss hearing people ask God to damn something.

How far away is Joan Didion from the character in Play It as It Lays who talks about “third-string faggots”?

Oh, ’tis a joy divine on summer days
When not a breeze is stirring, not a cloud,
To sit within some solitary wood,
Far in some lonely wood, and hear no sound
Which the heart does not make, or else so fit
To its own temper that in external things
No longer seem internal difference.
All melts away, and things that are without
Live in our minds as in their native home.

—Wordsworth, fragment 3 from the Christabel notebook

solatium (n.): a sum of money given to make up for loss, inconvenience, or injured feelings

The master in Osaka (Okubata’s older brother) had given him a modest solatium upon his being disinherited, and he had been eating into his capital ever since.

—Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters

To revisit the past is to say good-bye to it again, which is unbearable.

“Is it possible that any editor should endure any inconvenience without meditating an article?” —Trollope, Phineas Redux

A friend’s counsel to Phineas Finn, after he is slimed by Quintus Slide, the 19th-century version of an internet troll: “I don’t see what you can do. You have encountered a chimney sweeper, and of course you get some of the soot.”

Humans vs. AI: Our disadvantage is that we’re all essentially programmed the same, but we’re building many different AIs. There’s only one kind of “us” to be figured out, but every day someone puts together a new kind of “them.”

Arthur Russell sings in the key of heterosexuality with the same acceptance of generic constraint that ABBA sings in the language of English. One’s appreciation is in both cases heightened by the awareness that it isn’t natural.

“In a world where we are all transparent—unable to deceive each other—it might be rational to deceive ourselves about rationality.” —Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons

“She began crying and laughing. This conflict of tears and laughter always reminds me of the flickering and spluttering of a brightly burning candle when one sprinkles it with water.” —Chekhov, “The Privy Councillor”

“It feels ominous to drive through West Texas with a clean windshield. Road trips always used to be accompanied by the incessant splatter of death. . . . The absence of insects seems to be part of a general diminution of life.” —Lawrence Wright, God Save Texas

clout (adj.): cloth, rag

But whenever did a pan or a clout—when kept clean and tidy—refuse to do its duty, or rebel against its lady?”

—T. F. Powys, Unclay

Music continued for a decade or two after it ended, but unless you already knew the provenance of one of these later songs, you couldn’t figure out when it had been recorded. You couldn’t even write an algorithm that could figure it out. The songs were already outside of music’s history.

After one has learned to manage the isolation and poverty, there is still the challenge of writing itself.

slane, or slean (adj.): a long-handled spade, with a wing or two wings on the blade, used for cutting peat

The men-folk were going to the turf-bogs with their sleans on their shoulders.

—Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool

barm (vi.): mix with yeast or leaven; rise in froth or fermentation

The porter was beginning to barm in bellies.

—Kavanagh, Green Fool

creel (n.): large wicker basket

The pot of potatoes was turned out on a creel.

—Kavanagh, Green Fool

Bassani captures perfectly the way that the mere visibility of a victim or former victim spurs in a fascist (or a fascist-leaning bystander) the impression of being unfairly attacked.

The word “mother” is always to some extent in the vocative.

The sonorous, etymologically spurious second “o” in the word “reportorial” is the reason one likes to say it so often.

“Be nice,” the man growled to his dog.

limber (n.): detachable, two-wheeled forepart of a gun-carriage, used for transporting ammunition

“And also, your honour, Artemyev got drunk yesterday, and the lieutenant ordered him to be put in the limber of a spare gun-carriage.”

—Chekhov, “The Kiss”

“And certainly this doesn’t mean that M. Legrandin was insincere when he thundered against snobs. He was incapable of knowing—on his own, at least—that he was one, because we only ever know the passions of other people, and insofar as we manage to know of our own, it’s only from others that we’re able to learn it. On us the passions only act in a secondary way, through the imagination, which substitutes for primary motives intermediate ones that are more decent. Legrandin’s snobbery never advised him to go see a duchess frequently. It charged his imagination with making this duchess appear to be arrayed with all the graces.” —Proust, Du côté de chez Swann; the passage also seems to describe the operation of unconscious racism

“The ferocity of the financial crisis in 2008 was met with a mobilization of state action without precedent in the history of capitalism. Never before outside wartime had states intervened on such a scale and with such speed. It was a devastating blow to the complacent belief in the great moderation, a shocking overturning of prevailing laissez-faire ideology. To mobilize trillions of dollars on the credit of the taxpayer to save banks from the consequences of their own folly and greed violated maxims of fairness and good government. But given the risk of contagion, how could states not act? Having done so, however, how could they ever go back to the idea that markets were efficient, self-regulating and best left to their own devices? It was a profound challenge to the basic idea that had guided economic government since the 1970s. It was all the more significant for the fact that the challenge came not from the outside. It was not motivated by some radical ideological turn to the Left or the Right. There was precious little time for thought or wider consideration. Intervention was driven by the financial system’s own malfunctioning and the impossibility of separating individual business failure from its wider systemic repercussions. Martin Wolf, the Financial Times‘s esteemed chief economic commentator, dubbed March 14, 2008, ‘the day the dream of global free-market capitalism died.'” —Adam Tooze, Crashed

“I once heard a filmmaker say that in order to be truly creative a person must be in possession of four things: irony, melancholy, a sense of competition, and boredom.” —Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

“He who undertakes anything, thinking he is doing it out of a sense of duty, is deceiving himself and will ruin everything he touches.” —Auden, The Prolific and the Devourer

There is a charm in solitude that cheers,
A feeling that the world knows nothing of;
A green delight the wounded mind endears
After the hustling world is broken off,
Whose whole delight was crime—at good to scoff.
Green solitude, his prison, pleasure yields,
The bitch fox heeds him not; birds seem to laugh.
He lives the Crusoe of his lonely field
Whose dark green oaks his noontide leisure shield.

—John Clare, “Solitude”

This week, or so, in criticism, #32

“‘If you mean to tell me,” an editor said to me, “that Esquire tries to have articles on serious issues and treats them in such a way that nothing can come of it, who can deny it?’” writes the anti-technology terrorist Ted Kaczynski, quoting from memory the 1960s activist Paul Goodman, in an amusing throwaway line in John H. Richardson’s survey of the mostly peaceable activists who find themselves in the awkward position of concluding that the Unabomber made some good points (New York).

In policy debates about the pros and cons of free trade, writes Nicolas Lamp in a new research paper, there are three predominant narratives: Trumpism, establishment economics, and reformism (SSRN). It’s impossible to show empirically that one narrative is correct and the other two false, because the narratives are premised on different value systems. Trumpists think of jobs as national property, and see trade as taking from America and giving to foreign countries; they advocate tariffs, import quotas, and other obstructions to trade that they hope will reclaim jobs for Americans, especially traditional manufacturing jobs, on which they put a higher, more or less sentimental value. Establishment economists, by contrast, see international free trade as win-win. They acknowledge that it can harm some lower-skilled American workers but since they believe it’s a boon to almost all American consumers, they see this inequity as a domestic issue. They defend the status quo, though they’re willing to nudge domestic governments to take better care of free trade’s “losers.” Reform analysts, meanwhile, see free trade agreements as taking from labor, internationally considered, and giving to capital, internationally considered. They argue that a trade agreement should require signatory countries to improve labor safety, strengthen labor unions, and crack down on corporate tax evasion and tax sheltering. Interesting coincidences: both Trumpists and reformers loathe investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) courts, but the establishment-supported and Trumpist-killed TPP would have strengthened labor’s bargaining power in Asia in just the way reformers advocate.

“Like Stalin, Harry Truman was a product of the criminal underworld,” and got his start as the squeaky-clean-looking front man for a Kansas City gang boss in the cement business. The Marshall Plan, meanwhile, was motivated not by altruism but by a concern to guide Europe away from social democracy (generous welfare systems, tightly regulated financial sectors, government involvement in the economy) and toward American-style free enterprise (austerity for the people, and money wants to be free), and is to be praised for goading the Russians to the edge of their patience but no farther. Thomas Meaney examines the unseemly facts beneath the self-congratulatory myths of America’s post-WW2 leadership of the free world (LRB).

“If Ida set its sights on a past that Poles have long evaded and denied, Cold War is a journey into what, at mid-century, was a radically uncertain future.” Giles Harvey surveys the movies of Pawel Pawlikowski (Harper’s).

In order to tame and channel the anger he stirred up among migrant farmworkers, Cesar Chavez felt he had to start a hunger strike. Who will keep the anger rampant in America today from souring into a mere longing to inflict pain on enemies? Charles Duhigg looks into the sociology and recent history of rage (Atlantic).