Technology was the wonder of our age. It seemed to promise us power, and we took this power for our own. What kind of power was it? We didn’t ask. There was too much to do on technology to consider what it permitted in the rest of life. The rest of life in fact fell away, seemed less and less important as a place where technology couldn’t help us.
Technology’s magnetism extended invisibly. It did not control us like an overlord cracking a whip, but as the slope of a mountain controls the water falling down it: by bending our actions toward what it made easy at the expense of what remained hard. What technology did not make easy seemed in turn harder and harder.
Power, as it had long been understood, pertained to what you could do to alter reality. First you imagined how reality could be different, then you endeavored to make it so.
THE NEW POWER
The new power did not arise from imagining what could be done. What could be done arose from the choice laid out before you. You could choose a product, a politician or a television program. You could choose a party, a religion or your personal beliefs. There was no need to justify your choice. On the contrary, to be asked to justify your choice implied a sphere of judgment that preceded and limited the choice. Within the logic of the choice this amounted to heresy.
So many choices. Choices of goods, songs, videos, movies. Choices of podcasts and news sites. Figures to follow, to listen to. “We want to hear what you think.” “Tell us what you think.” So many opportunities to voice displeasure and approval. So many decisions about where to lavish money and attention.
The sea of choices, the apparent bounty of getting so much, obscured an awkward question. What if you didn’t want to get but to give? What if you wanted to give something other than money or attention, something particular to you? I want to invent the goods people buy. I’d like to write the songs they love. I want to be listened to. Impossible requests. You have mistaken the nature of the choice. What you are asking for are not choices but powers, powers that reflect the long cultivation of skill. To do what you are asking the choice does not suffice. You must make the right choice, hundreds of right choices in a row. For that you need guidance, judgment. You need a world that tells you some choices are right and wrong, some ideas better and worse.
THE NATURE OF THE CHOICE
The choice resembled a genie granting wishes. But of a sort. What sort? The sort a consumer or an audience member would make. Requests to trade places with the genie—to move from consumer to creator, watcher to watched, getter to giver—went unanswered. I want to have influence in affairs of importance. Silence. I want to discharge a special duty that makes me valuable to other people. Crickets. I want to matter. Here at last the genie’s lips might curl up in an imperceptible smirk.
Power was freedom from the choice, from the terms of the choice as they had been imposed on us. Almost no one had this power, and this made us resentful and weak.
THE OPPOSITE OF CHOICE
The opposite of choice was not no-choice. The opposite was responsibility. The purveyors of the choice cast this as obligation. By offering us choice instead of obligation they implied that they had relieved us of a burden. But responsibility was much more than a burden: it was a special duty we could discharge that made us valuable to other people. It was thus the basis of our power. Where could we locate power without responsibility? Only in the limited context of being presented with and making a choice. The annihilation of responsibility bound the individual ever more desperately and despairingly to the no-power of making an endless sequence of meaningless choices.
In the absence of responsibility, personal belief became the locus of identity. In what one liked or approved lived the tiny no-power of raising and diminishing figures and ideas on the tide of attention and votes. So much identity rested in these beliefs that it became terrifying to admit they might be wrong. It was much easier to look for voices that affirmed them than to accept that one’s identity might be organized around a mistake.
Critics were people who told you your choice was not a good one, or could be a better one. This made it hard to like the critic since his job was based on knowing better. Sometimes the critic didn’t know better and was simply concerned with protecting his status as a person who knew better. But at his best the critic protected your power by protecting the division between good and bad, better and worse. Between a real choice and a false choice. Every time the critic said a work of art was bad, this seemed mean. But it wasn’t just mean, because in saying a given work was bad he was also saying that within art existed the possibility of good. Taking a stand against inferior work was staking a stand for the category as a whole. The critic affirmed that with effort and imagination you could secure a true power: the power to make an authentic choice.
The critic made what seemed to him an obvious point. This was that superhero movies were not art. Well, this infuriated people. How mean the critic is! How pretentious and elitist he is to think he knows better. But the critic was merely pointing out what people have forever understood: that the strength of our desire, the intensity of our pleasure, is not what determines nourishment or meaning or importance. The measure of nourishment or meaning or importance is what comes after a desire has been satisfied. The desire for a drug can be very strong: Does the strength of the desire make it an authentic love? Does it make it nourishing? The people angry at the critic who says an entertainment is not art are not angry at his elitism. They are angry at being reminded that the choice does not offer happiness or power but a brief distraction from our neglect of everything that holds the key to our happiness and power—everything that is hard, long, boring and not strictly pleasurable. The critic, by reminding us of the work we haven’t done, makes us feel small, guilty and resentful. He reminds us of our distance from power.
What is the critic’s angle, his con? The critic doesn’t have one, and this makes him inconvenient. He upholds a criterion of honesty and defends it against self-interest. The critic with a con is called a pundit. Do not confuse a critic for a pundit. Pundits are critics for hire and sell you their thinking to relieve your confusion. They trade you affirmation and reassurance for your attention.
WHAT IS A CRITIC REALLY?
A critic is any figure willing to be critical when it is not popular. A critic does not think nice lies are better than hard truths, or that niceness is goodness, or flattery love.
WHAT DOES THE CRITIC DO?
A critic needn’t write criticism. A critic is any steward of public discourse who sees this duty as more important than popularity or career. The work of a critic is not fact-checking, although there is that, but tending the ropes and anchors that affix representation to reality. It is a gestalt vocation, prone to endless correction and bickering, which looks to see not just that the facts are right, but that the picture is true. That the significance, the proportionality, is correct.
It matters less that any individual critic gets this right or wrong—there are failed critics, just as there are failed poets and failed professional bowlers—than that a sphere of criticism models certain commitments: to nuanced distinctions and honest reflection; to raising unarticulated feelings and unquestioned desires to the light; to the possibility of upholding other values than self-interest. The critic demonstrates that a person, even a public figure, need not be alienated from her authentic private sensibility. In so doing she keeps this possibility alive for everyone else.
The pundit is like the critic in a certain respect: he plays one on TV.
The pundit is like the critic in this specific respect: he is willing to praise the good when it is liked and condemn the bad when it is disliked. This is as far as it goes. Pundits share the critic’s expertise, but the pundit’s allegiance is different. The pundit’s allegiance is not to honesty but to his career.
A pundit derives his power from his audience. The most important thing to a pundit is his platform; take away his platform and he is a preacher without a flock. The audience gradually realized that the no-power of their choice, while it did not permit them to alter reality, did permit them a debased power within the world of representations: they could “cancel” the pundit, as audiences had long canceled TV shows. They could deplatform him. Within the powerless interplay of pundit and audience a bargain was struck: the pundit would get the no-power of telling the audience what it wanted to hear and the audience would get the no-power of deciding whether the pundit kept his job.
We can say the following about an audience: it has a powerful but limited range of response (applause, booing). These are group responses. They are not qualitatively rich but they are often loud enough to drown out all else. Unlike the solitary reader or viewer, the audience member understands herself as part of a public body, responding publicly. In this the audience claims a power the individual never had. But only if it acts as an audience, which is to say en masse.
Of television George W. S. Trow wrote, “The power behind it resembles the power of no-action, the powerful passive.” For a time, movie producers and studio executives had great power. They could decide whether a celebrity could enter or remain in the celebrated space. Their power over an auto mechanic, a park ranger or a sculptor was not so great. By democratizing the celebrated space, the internet made everybody into a target for elevation or cancelation. This was the passive power of no-action. Your online existence and identity could be sabotaged, destroyed. You could be relieved of virtual citizenship in good standing. If you didn’t care to exist online you were safe. The powerful passive would move on. It was a mark of how virtual our lives had become that most people could not risk crossing the powerful passive. Their careers, their lives, depended on it. The powerful passive ruled over life and death.
Pundits were one name we gave to celebrities when they appeared in areas of culture that we did not immediately recognize as open to celebrity. One type of pundit was a politician—a new politician who didn’t enter politics to make laws but to appear on TV. Increasingly, this was what a politician was.
The emergence of pretense was a consequence of the shifting nature of pundits and audiences. The pretense was that you were still getting criticism (honesty, knowledge, expertise) when you were instead getting flattery—flattery whose core interest was the pundit’s career.
Something changed. Athletes, once viciously competitive and prone to talking trash, became nice. They were complimentary of their opponents, civil toward the media, blithely positive about their own and others’ successes. Edginess drained from culture like color from coral. A safe, inoffensive, public “niceness” took over. This was niceness—not goodness or even kindness—a posture, an image, a pretense. It understood that the arena in which one had to triumph was no longer governed by elite opinion or ability but by an audience.
Niceness took hold not just in sports but in many walks of life. Critics who had once guarded the borders of culture fiercely became lovers not haters. Maybe they had been too harsh all along, too mean. Maybe popular culture was serious and important. Maybe entertainment was art. Maybe asking something to be elite was elitism. Maybe caring about quality was just something grumpy old people did. A masquerade of seriousness: that is, pretentious—full of pretense.
In fact, the opposite was true: the pretense was the diminished standards, the not caring. The pretense was the niceness. The critic tricked himself into believing being “nice” was being nice to someone else, not just to himself. The critic tricked himself into believing the object of his niceness was the work in question, not his career. He flattered himself that acting nice was being good. The critic started to become a pundit.
THE UNLIKABLE WOMAN IN FICTION
That the narrator of Claire Messud’s 2013 novel The Woman Upstairs was unlikable bothered people terribly. Wasn’t there something wrong with unlikable characters, with expecting us to endure their company? Asked whether she would enjoy spending time with her protagonist, Messud responded, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath?”
The question was more telling than the answer, for there had always been unlikable characters in fiction. What there hadn’t been was a significant occasion—an incentive and a platform—to state publicly that you found a particular character unlikable. This was a statement not about a book but about how you, as a member of a responding public, wanted to be seen. You were likable because on the inside you were not like this character who revealed the muddy puddle of the human soul.
A NEW AGE
So dawned a new age of people performatively congratulating one another on Twitter, of personalities on NPR speaking as though they were reading a children’s book to toddlers at the local library, of commentators everywhere venerating the talent and courage of A-list celebrities with questionable talent and courage but vast fan bases you didn’t want to cross. In the new age people worshipped success simply in itself, because liking what was liked ensured you were on the side of the powers that determined likability.
Our new interest in pronouncing on what was and wasn’t likable was merely a literalization of the like button on Facebook. Hit the like button. Smash the like button. No one could mistake this for a qualitatively rich response. Its binary simplicity—the very thing that made it useful to advertisers as a metric of engagement—mirrored the twofold response of audiences (applause, booing), which likewise drew power from the ease of aggregation its lack of nuance permitted. Like a magnet whose potency and polarity arise from the alignment of its atoms, the audience, by judging simply and en masse, achieved the power to elevate and abase. Help me have a richer experience of this movie. No. Tell me how this work of art engages its tradition and unfolds new ambiguities of human nature. Please. Justify, at least, your like or dislike as more than a sense of what you should or shouldn’t like in public. But don’t you understand? The reason I am here is to show that I agree, that I am likable because I am willing to like what other people here have agreed to like.
THE PROFESSIONAL SMILE
Likability was another face of niceness, a smiling face whose owner understood that he was being judged superficially, not as a person who had done something in the world of things. David Foster Wallace called this “the professional smile,” the smile “that signifies nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee.” He associated it with despair. Its warmth had nothing to do with its recipient, was not warmth.
Everyone likes niceness. What a nice person! I met her, and I thought because she’s so cool and rich and successful and popular that she wouldn’t be nice. But she was so nice!
But then: I liked her when she was being nice because I thought it meant she liked me, but I see she’s nice to everyone.
But then: I thought we were friends, but because she has to be nice to everyone she doesn’t have time for me.
But then: I thought because I appreciated her she might regard me as a peer, but she needs everyone to like her and doesn’t distinguish between a peer and an audience member.
But then: If she’s nice to everyone, no matter how loathsome, and she’s nice to me, am I loathsome—is that how she sees me? How would I know?
A gradual realization: niceness to everyone does not permit niceness to anyone.
A gradual realization: niceness isn’t directed at the object of niceness but at the purveyor of niceness, in particular her career.
A gradual realization: to like everything is to like nothing.
A suspicion: niceness is, in fact, a form of hatred.
Trow explains that television has two abilities:
to do a very complex kind of work, involving electrons, and then to cover the coldness of that with a hateful familiarity. Why hateful? Because it hasn’t anything to do with a human being as a human being is strong. It has to do with a human being as a human being is weak and willing to be fooled: the human being’s eagerness to perceive as warm something that is cold, for instance; his eagerness to be a part of what one cannot be a part of, to love what cannot be loved.
What attempts to convince you it loves you by pandering to you does you harm. It teaches you that you are so weak that what does not pander to you—does not obscure difficulty, disagreement and boredom—is to be reviled and punished. To keep you close it teaches you that anything beyond its pandering—anything that does not take your pleasure and comfort, second by second, as its principal consideration—is to be vilified. It insinuates that the very weakness it has cultivated in you is a reflection of the hatefulness of the world beyond.
The night had grown so icy, when we looked up from trading sources of authentic warmth for cold things posing as warm, that we could only relieve the chill with lifeless sparks of distant laughter, empty smiles. These were cold things posing as warm—cold because they did not care about us as anything but their audience, their platform, their power—but we asked them to go on amusing and distracting us because we knew the images couldn’t love us and that this was the closest we could now come to love.
A THIN CRUST
Niceness emerged from the relentlessly public character of modern life—a response to the fear that new communication technologies had made it possible for anyone to tear your reputation to shreds. Niceness was the thin crust atop this hatred. It was toxic in the first place because it was inauthentic and transactional and dominated our relationships to the point that we didn’t know whether anyone actually liked us or we actually liked anyone. But it was more profoundly toxic because it rested on a roiling sea of cruelty and resentment that threatened at any moment to swallow the person who dropped her frantic congeniality and showed herself, however briefly, to be not nice.
The pretense was that the niceness was about you. The truth: the niceness was about the nice person’s career. The pretense: the niceness was about liking you. The truth: the niceness was a form of hating you. The pretense: there was no pretense.
WITHIN THE PRETENSE OF NO-PRETENSE
Our former president was a showman, a bully, a carnival barker, a corrupt soul. At heart he was a con man and a cheat. About facts he was relentlessly dishonest. About the pretense, however, he was honest. The legions of pundits who called out and tracked his lies were honest—about facts. About the pretense that pervaded their lives they were not honest. They didn’t know how to be. The terms of their lives meant believing there was no pretense. Meant the pretense of no-pretense.
The best part of Trump was he was willing to show that he liked you by hating the people who weren’t you.
The best part of Trump was he was willing to hate openly in a culture composed of hate—the hatred of niceness—but committed to the pretense that this hate was no-hate, was niceness.
The worst part of Trump was that the only way out of the hatred of niceness he proposed was hatred of another sort.
The worst part of Trump was he encouraged people to locate their identity and power in their status as members of an audience. He encouraged them to indulge the dark power of the audience, which was to cancel, pillory and destroy. This—as the most potent expression of powerlessness, of no-power—was so intoxicating that even Trump’s enemies embraced the dark no-power of the cancelation, the deplatforming, the termination.
THE POWER OF THE POWERLESS
To the powerless raised on a catechism of their own privilege—to those given choices but not responsibilities—the hunt for this elusive birthright became a bitter quest. They seized on politics for offering a seemingly principled moral language by which to discredit and destroy. That the complaints of the powerless came couched in the language of politics blinded people to the psychological motivations behind the impulse to discredit and destroy, which had nothing to do with politics. They had to do with powerlessness—the apprehension of impotence among audience members as anything but audience members—and with resentment at one’s relative status and influence compared with the figures empowered by one’s attention and applause.
THE IMPOTENCE OF ARTISTS
Artists and writers experienced their impotence with particular acuteness since they had grown up in a postmodern era that attributed singular power to language and discourse. The intensity of political hectoring in the arts increased to the extent that artists felt helpless to change the world. This mistook the nature of language and discourse but even more fundamentally the nature of power, which, although we tend to conceptualize it as coercive, rarely is. Even the state and its police have trouble compelling people against their will without resorting to torture and large authoritarian projects of spying and punishment. The far more common forms of power are not coercive but structural and incentivizing. In the arts they are persuasive and seductive. The power of words—what led Shelley to call poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”—derives from their resonance with truths already potentialized within us. The limit of persuasive and seductive power is that it must work in concert with people’s moral intuitions and natural wishes; it can guide people to their own enlightened interests—toward themselves—but it cannot remake or reform people according to another’s whims. That is brainwashing, hypnosis. The artist or writer who discovers the limits of her work to change the minds of other people in direct, compulsory ways may become frustrated, angry, even vengeful, at a time when moral reformation is seen to be the purpose of all culture.
To speak of a generation is to speak of the values a group of people were steeped in, their response to these values and the culture they created as products of and rebels against these values. It is to describe the tidal shifts in values across the cycles of birth, aging and death.
A generation steeped in the values of sacrifice and modesty found itself able (despite other failings) to venerate difficult but constructive ends. A subsequent generation—raised on TV and the pandering of marketers, living in a culture that had, thanks to Freud and the rise of psychotherapy, learned to understand socialization as a violence inflicted on the individual—came to locate value not in external or transcendent aims but in the wounded self. It took the child’s side. Anything that suggested a person should abandon being a child to become an adult elicited resentment. Partly it was true that socialization involved pain and difficulty, but it was never clear how much of this was anything other than the pain and difficulty of growing up. The TV personality, the salesman and the therapist took the child’s side as well. They asked how you felt, not what, in the world of things, you had done.
Merely having responsibilities does not imply discharging them responsibly. It was therefore reasonable, when the meritorious betrayed our trust, to question the regime that had elevated them to positions of power. Perhaps the very notion of merit was debased. But we were wrong to blame merit. The rot set in because the striving of elites had no ultimate end beyond their personal success, their career. Instead of attacking the rot we responded with the resentment of the Marvel movie fan and attacked the elites’ excellence—the best part of them—since this was the part that made us feel small, inferior and weak. In the voice of the salesman we said of course it was correct for the elite to covet money, power and fame. Who wouldn’t? We disparaged the healthy value and upheld the sickly one—got virtue and vice backward. At least anyone in celebrity’s lottery could possibly become rich and famous. The message we couldn’t abide was that to succeed you had to work long and hard developing excellence. The message we could abide even less was that success shouldn’t come with prerogatives (choices) nearly so much as responsibilities.
In rewarding the pundit over the critic, the TV expert over the adept, the celebrated person over the accomplished person, we shifted focus from attainment in a world of things to success in a world of representation. Being good at something was less important than appearing good at it was less important than being celebrated (for whatever reason) in public. Success, not excellence, was the mark of merit. Celebrity—being famous for being famous—was the apotheosis of our disbelief in transcendent and ultimate ends.
To generations steeped in television, nurtured on a public world populated by actors playing not-actors, to discover that what you took to be a TV set—the United States Capitol—was also a real place where people went about real lives that concerned more or less what we had been told they concerned was shocking. It was shocking because—despite the seductive falsehood at the heart of reality TV—it did not seem possible that the world of representation and the world of reality could intersect. When the January 6th rioters stormed the Capitol, part of the allure and lurid fascination was to see the world of reality try to penetrate the world of representation. Instead of representation, they found representatives. Instead of breaching the mystery of television, they merely penetrated the bland thingness of the physical reality upon which television is staged. Watching TV is a form of dreaming, and you cannot be on TV (awake, on a physical set) and watching TV (dreaming) at the same time. You can force your way onto TV but not into TV, because the world of representation is not a physical place. It is a dreamer’s dream. To discover this is to discover that heaven does not exist. It is to lose one’s religion.
Twenty-four-hour cable news was the first medium to propose that you could remain indefinitely in the world of representation, you never had to puncture the dream. It realized that the story was not limited by events as they transpired. Events were always transpiring or threatening to transpire or ready to give up more meanings and portents. The trick was to stitch together an unbroken cadence of feeling that centered on the idea that small things were being resolved within a sphere where nothing would ever resolve. The sense that you were on the verge of a resolution that would never come inflamed an insatiable desire, like addiction, but also inspired a simmering rage at the unresolved, at a hunger stimulated and toyed with but never sated. This format, so central to the TV serial and now cable news, had previously animated apocalyptic and millenarian religion, which suggested that a great reckoning, a second coming, always lurked around the corner. It seemed inevitable, in retrospect, that politics would take on the character of the programming that narrativized it. Like the coming of God or the triumph of order and good over chaos and evil, politics could not end before the ordained denouement. It certainly couldn’t peter out into the contingency of history. Not even an election could offer temporary resolution to people hooked on this arc of feeling. The slow meting out of tantalizing clues and the promise of a day of reckoning ever deferred was not just the formula of conspiracy theories like QAnon but of most television news.
The ascendancy of social media and the smartphone, which meant you carried the world of representation on your person at all times, joined with cable news and reality TV to create not so much a new world of representation as a world of representation you never had to leave. It was the never leaving, the never having to leave, that begot everything else.
WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF NO-CONTEXT
George Trow’s 1980 essay described a culture that, thanks largely to television, had lost context and proportionality. The mediating institutions that once bridged national and private life had fallen away, leaving us with only the sphere of two hundred million (“the life of television”) and “intimate life” (the unit of one, alone). “It was sometimes lonely in the grid of one, alone,” Trow wrote. “People reached out toward their home, which was in television.” Television was a mystery, he explained, but some of its properties were known. It had a scale, which did not vary. “The trivial is raised up to the place where this scale has its home; the powerful is lowered there.” Accordingly, distinctions of large and small, near and far, important and trivial collapsed.
FROM CONTEXT TO PRETENSE
Trow understood television’s power to enforce scale, but he could not have foreseen the world cable TV and 24-hour cable news would create. (The first cable-news channel, CNN, launched the same year his essay appeared.) He understood that celebrities led a charmed existence as the only figures with both an intimate life and a life in the sphere of two hundred million (“Of all Americans, only they are complete,” he wrote), but he could not have intuited how great people’s desire would grow—as immediate life crumbled before the screen world’s unbroken dream—to pass into the world of representation directly. The implicit figure in Trow’s essay looked out from loneliness at the shimmering face of culture and tried to answer timeless questions: What is the world beyond my immediate experience like? Where do I fit in it? The key idea was context, because it was context that the individual scrutinizing the world and trying to make sense of it needed and context that the culture no longer supplied.
A glance at a newspaper or news show or Twitter suffices to confirm that the collapse of essential distinctions—between large and small, near and far, important and trivial—endures today. But the technological turn from spectatorship to interaction—to commenting, tweeting, influencing, gathering as audiences to respond en masse—has meant a new era of self-presentation in which the key concept isn’t context but pretense. Its central questions are not What is reality like? and Where do I belong in it? but What is the world of representation like? and How am I, as an object of public scrutiny, to behave?
When I attended high school in the late Nineties, I had the sense of participating in an obscure game in which everyone knew the rules but me. To speak of this openly was impossible. To ask what the rules were would have invited mockery. Perhaps there were no rules and I simply found operating without rules terrifying. Or perhaps everyone found this terrifying and we all put on a good show of not caring.
What was clear was that the pretense of not caring—an air of indifference to embarrassment and suffering—was essential to protecting the part of you that was not indifferent. Some people’s natural audacity allowed them to get away with things the rest of us would have been ridiculed for, but you could never simply imitate them. It was necessary, we somehow understood, to pose and posture without seeming to pose and posture, because then you were a “poseur,” and this was one of the worst things you could be.
This meant that authenticity commanded a certain value—a kind of authenticity, which posed without seeming to pose. Some were better than others at striking this posture (this pretense of no-pretense), and the rest of us prayed, I imagine, that life would not continue to require so much posturing later on. Beyond the hermetic confines of high school, we hoped, awaited a world less capable of enforcing the stifling norms and fads that convinced us to hide our true selves in the interest of being accepted.
You can imagine my horror then at discovering in the early 2010s that we had begun reconstructing the social and professional world as a version of high school: a realm of pretense, posturing and insincerity—insincerity posing as sincerity—all in the hushed, breathless, childish tones of niceness, the voice of NPR. Marshall McLuhan wrote that the “electric” age would eventually collapse the expansive world it knit together into a “global village,” possessed of the powers won during earlier ages, now subject to the reactive, integral, mythic logic of the tribal town. Perhaps the implications of his prophecy are brought home more clearly if we describe the culture that arose from our instantaneous networks of communication as a “global high school.” The fad of niceness—the hatred implicit in it and in other performances of camouflaged self-interest—always had far more to do with adolescent clique logic than genuine kindness or goodness. We showed up one day and instead of jock bullies, mean girls and judgy slackers, everyone was now excessively, performatively nice. But it was just a new spin on an old game. They weren’t being nice because they liked you, but because the pose of niceness had become the coin of the realm.
Do not be fooled that pretense has no cost. When little lies degrade the bonds between representation and reality, we corrupt the knowledge that guides action. When misconceptions about our nature become fixed ideas, we are helpless to create the human communities we want to live in. The flip side of niceness is trolling. The latter feeds off the former. Trump’s appeal always had as much as anything to do with the phoniness and false speech and ridiculously puritanical and unserious idea of human beings espoused by the exponents of niceness, the masters of pretense. A figure like Trump understands that people will often empower a venal cynic if the alternative is a self-righteous child.
Do not be fooled that technology’s trade-offs are obvious. It is technology’s nature to make us forget the hidden virtues of the things it overcomes: the temporal, physical processes that cultivate experience, relationships, wisdom. Just as the obligation to exist in a dominant reality dispelled the hallucinatory mists of conspiracy, having to encounter people in physical space placed certain limits on the kabuki of self-presentation. There was no audience to play to, no time to belabor the minutiae of your postures. The truth of who you were leaked out around the edges of pretense and pretend.
Addressing ourselves directly to one another set us up for understanding, for bridging our inevitable differences. But the world of representation, the screen world we now so rarely leave, has taught us to address ourselves to audiences, not individuals. The performer on stage knows it is an act, a charade. But we could not see this clearly, sitting quietly before our laptops and phones. Only in small private moments did we feel the weight of pretense now required of us—if we ever did—and it was very lonely in those moments, in the grid of one, alone. We reached out toward our home in the glowing box, where niceness and hatred, agreement and pretense ruled.
Do not be fooled that reality is easy to grasp. We use representations to get our arms around what we cannot seize directly, but how can we know our representations reflect the world as it is? Only an immense collective project of inquiry and criticism can keep our stories from becoming conspiracies, from taking on lives of their own. Technology has made this more difficult, just as it promised to make everything easier. People revile the critic, the parent, the teacher because she tells them to step away from the effortless pleasures of the machine to do the hard work of growing, struggling, thinking. Because she says the pain of growing up, of facing up to what you cannot immediately master, must be endured. Endured if you want to grow strong and want responsibilities, not merely choice. Want something you can meaningfully give, not just things you can passively get. But this is simply the only path to having a life and mind outside the Skinner Box of stimuli that condition a person to respond with the words that garner a reward and avoid the words that invite punishment; the only path to preserving the fraught relationship between reality and our means of representing it, which requires humility and toil, lest we become converts to our own mysticism and the credulous apostles of our own invented stories.
Art credit: Jason Gringler, “(eBay sculpture) expanded iPhone, 2020 iPhones, plumber’s epoxy, detritus, spray enamel,” 10.5 × 11.5 cm. Exhibited in the artist’s solo exhibition, July 3rd through August 15, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Lo Brutto Stahl (Paris).