[WARNING: This post reads suspiciously like an old man’s grumping.]
I think that among many of today’s “content generators” there is a supposition that there is a big conversation going on, among many intellectual people, across the globe, about a handful of topics. The model that is assumed is the model of a small community, perhaps like a remote village or a college campus, or even ancient Athens, in which some thoughtful segment of the population gathers together regularly to discuss Important Matters of the Day. Assume that something like this happens in little towns or college campuses (I have never witnessed such a thing, at any place, at any time, on any scale; but maybe I just haven’t been invited). Now scale that conversation up and spread it over the internet, and what you have is the fiction of a culture: that is to say, some virtual community that shares insights, complaints, theories, satires, jokes, and memes about central issues.
I am supposing myself to be contributing to such a big conversation right now. It won’t be the headline of anyone’s newsfeed, but it will count as a contribution to internet culture, one measly tidbit thrown into the grand bubbling cauldron of public opinion.
But I am deceiving myself, just as all such content providers are deceiving themselves. There is no meaningful culture bringing everyone together into a single conversation. There are many, many small conversations happening at any time, and each one (perhaps) is of some high significance to someone, but no single conversation enfolds us all. There are some conversations among Important People about Important Matters of the Day, and these conversations are sometimes judged by some people (and especially the Important People themselves) as being The Crucial Conversations Animating Global Culture — but all of that is mostly horseshit. The fact is that some people think too highly of themselves, and other people become their groupies in the hope of getting themselves noticed as Affiliates to the Important, and pretty soon there are high mandarins of “our” culture which are mainly just overpaid poopy heads with sniveling sycophants at their feet (or, rather, at their feeds).
In fact, I’m not sure “culture” really means anything. Maybe it did once. The word comes from a farming metaphor, and it is surely true that important developments came along in human history once people moved on from farming crops and raising cattle to farming people, harvesting people’s labor and managing people’s lives in ways that produced strength and profit for a few. Results included big politics, big religion, and culture. Perhaps for some time, each individual could say who they served and to whom they belonged, and that meant something. But nowadays people-farming has become so sophisticated that each of us is being farmed by many entities at once — we serve an indeterminate host of masters — and so it’s nearly impossible to find anyone who can be viewed accurately as belonging to a single “culture”. If you want to know what your “culture” is, list the various ways in which other entities are harvesting your labor (or, equivalently, receiving your credit card payments), and that will tell you everything you need to know about that.
But of course we pretend otherwise. We pretend that we are Beings of Ideas, existing in a flux of concepts which somehow weave together to form an intellectual community, or a culture. By describing that flux we tell ourselves who we are, and as we fight over those ideas we fight over our identities, and perhaps carve out spaces for ourselves in which we may freely develop into autonomous, self-actualized, enlightened beings. But as nice as that sounds, is it really any more meaningful than claiming that by floricating those pampums, we circulate our flimflams, and victuate for our noodles a dicky in which we can clap our sinkums? It seems more meaningful, surely. But see if you can translate the nice phrases into real things you actually do, as opposed to words you tell yourself, or words other people write down for you to read. I’ll wait.
In fact what I see are uncountably many conversations happening all at once, with no significant thing common running through them all. People post memes and photos and insights about Carl Nassib, Billie Eilish, or Pixar’s Luca; they share questions about rules for enemy movement in Gloomhaven, or pictures of their model battleships; they write about clashes in Israel, and artificial intelligence, and melting glaciers; they write about the best refrigerators or glue or electric lawn mowers money can buy; they write fan fictions of their favorite fantasy characters, or opine about the ethics of hairstyles, or judge other people’s tattoos; they write about canceling David Hume, or James Joyce, or the 1619 Project; and on and on and on and on, of course, light years beyond anyone’s imagination. To single out just a few of these — say, Carl Nassib, Israel, and the 1619 Project — and identify them as the hot topics of “our” current cultural conversation is completely arbitrary and without reason, though that is of course what every media channel must do as they attempt to present surfers with a finite list of things they should attend to if they wish to consider themselves “informed”.
But this is a curious notion of being “informed”. It simply means: learning some superficial facts about some random collection of unrelated items someone else is pawning off as significant. Following the latest misadventures of Congress, or the status of Britney Spears’ legal fight over resources, or the appearance of sinkholes in Oklahoma, has the same significance as reading about a model railroad convention in Denver, or the history of the martini, or the meaning behind John Dee’s monadic emblem: it is all just random crap that may or may not grab your attention. The idea that some of it should interest you more than others is a symptom of belief in a reigning culture that in fact does not exist.
So — in case anyone needs to hear such advice — follow what you want to follow, explore whatever engages your own curiosity, and to hell with “culture”.