Who wants to be an American Studies major?

Hypervigilance is the cost of admission, I'm afraid.

Hello, dear readers. Welcome to Sintext V. Enjoy, subscribe, like, share.

Share—not on social media but in person. Even if it’s not this newsletter, tell someone about something you read today, or yesterday, or tomorrow. Have them read it, too. Then talk about it. Ask each other: What did you learn? What did you disagree with? What left you curious? What did you not totally follow? What sentence did you particularly like?

I believe I speak for many people when I say I tend to doubt myself. I tend to defer to whichever voice speaks (or tweets) most forcefully, and I tend to forget that I’m allowed to change my mind. I tend to underestimate my ability to engage independently with the world around me.

I’ve been at this newsletter for almost three months now. I’m so grateful to the people reading these words, and to the people who have given me feedback. The main piece of not-praise I’ve received is that my writing can be elevated, complex, difficult to digest. I know! I always try to be as straightforward as I can—the trouble I run into is that what I want to say is never straightforward.

With Sintext, I’m constantly trying to think out loud. With this issue in particular, I’m trying to share the view from inside my head, and explain why it’s a vista that sometimes seems grim.


Mike’s Memes Make Me Want to Scream

What happens when your political viability is predicated on your ability to throw money around? When a sense of your own superiority is the primary principle animating your candidacy?

You hire a company that exploits prisoners in Oklahoma to make your campaign calls.

You reach the top, and leave a long trail of sex discrimination suits, sexual harassment allegations, publicly-documented misogyny, transphobia, and NDAs in your wake. (If you watched Wednesday’s debate, you likely heard about the nine-pager he’s making his staffers sign, which includes a non-disparagement clause that could deter them from reporting workplace abuse.)

In other words, you plunge further into the shameless abyss.

I don’t get it ?? (Paid for by @mikebloomberg)
February 13, 2020
I actually taste amazing tbh (and yes this is really #sponsored by @mikebloomberg)
February 13, 2020

First context, then content.

It shouldn’t shock you that the folks responsible for Bloomberg’s Meme 2020 campaign are the same who marketed Fyre Festival, then produced Fyre, the Netflix documentary, to launder their own reputation. According to Taylor Lorenz, Bloomberg is paying Jerry Media execs to “devise an unconventional campaign, and to build a self-aware ironic character around Mr. Bloomberg.”

“Unconventional campaign” is apparently code for bald-faced astroturfing.

That meme pages are complicit in further commodifying politics should also come as no surprise. FuckJerry has always been particularly scummy. (In the spirit of giving the benefit of the doubt when possible, I should mention that @thefatjewish refused Bloomberg’s money on the basis of his being “a colossal shitbag.”)

I don’t know if continuing to compare Bloomberg to Trump is the wisest course of action,* but it’s absolutely clear that something else he shares with the president is a penchant for mercenary tactics.

Both billionaires abide by the rules of capitalism, of the online economy, the rules that hold up the internet’s insubstantial chaos like whatever solid supports quicksand. Chief among these rules is the transitive equivalence between attention, money, and power.

To succeed, this ideological program wants to boil the water that is our culture down to a green-tinged, vinegary vapor. It needs to crush our aesthetic sensibility. It must make us indifferent to filling our minds with garbage.


The cultural, aesthetic, garbage aspect of Bloomberg’s memes—what really does make me want to scream—is the notion of a “self-aware ironic character.”

Self-aware irony is not necessarily prosocial. In its most innocent, interpersonal form, self-aware irony can effectively convey ~self-consciousness~. It can express vulnerability, and communicate the speaker’s desire to be fully understood, inner turmoil and all. But when self-aware irony is seen simply as the register young people use with one another online, without wondering why it’s been adopted, it becomes an empty way of seeming hip.

Bloomberg is fine projecting a character who is self-aware and ironic—fine making fun of himself—because he ultimately doesn’t care what people think. He doesn’t need to make himself understood (the whole rationale behind his campaign is, again, that Bloomberg knows best); he just needs to make it seem like he’s around.

These memes steamroll us into submission. They want us to laugh at what should terrify us: that Bloomberg could buy the presidency. Parodies don’t even have to change the message, only the tone.

What message do Bloomberg’s memes and meatball tweets really deliver, besides reminding us how rich he is? Not that Bloomberg surrogates understand voters, but that his surrogates get… memes.

Because posting a meme that asks “Can you post a meme to make me seem cool?” does, in fact, in some twisted way, make you seem cool.

It frustrates me that Bloomberg’s memes achieve something I admire in writing and in art more generally: they are autological, self-fulling to some extent. By describing what they’re supposed to do, they succeed in doing what they describe.

This concept is easiest to demonstrate with visual art.

John Martin, The Deluge, 1834, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art

Martin depicts The Flood, the washing away of an irredeemable civilization. Like his contemporaries, Martin also deals with the sublime, our diminutive status relative to the vastness of nature.

My point is that this painting evokes in its viewer the same emotions it captures on the canvas: awe, humility, terror. Martin achieves this effect through composition—no matter where you look first, whether your eye rides clockwise up the illuminated swell of the storm, following the curving clouds until you’re redirected by the bright lightning bolt, or whether it jumps straight to the center, you’ll soon find yourself straining to make out the huddling figures—and through color. Notice the ominous red around the moon, bespeaking the blood that will be spilled before the storm passes.

This effect is also a product of the painting’s physicality itself: The Deluge is five-and-a-half tall by eight-and-a-half feet wide, large enough to swallow into its shadows whoever stands before it.

This painting is a relic of a bygone time, when we had God to blame for our problems, when only the truly elite could consume content. Technology democratized our culture, then corrupted our politics. Or were they both the other way around?


In The Intelligencer, Brian Feldman observes correctly that social media “is not good for individually convincing 100,000 people that Mike Bloomberg should be the president.”

However, it is very good at convincing pundits and politicians watching the race closely that Mike Bloomberg is making weird tweets to try and appeal to young voters. The weird tweets are a type of meta act to capture the attention of people who have broken brains because they have to think about the election all the time.

Most of the media coverage amounted to nothing more than an episode recap. On subjects like meme culture, and how it pertains to our lived experience, the news is usually insufficient—insipid, uninspired. Has anyone seen thoughtful writing on the fake DM meme format itself? I couldn’t find any, but here’s a host of apps that let you fabricate your own.

I’m not saying we need to study memes like paintings. I am saying we need to write about memes in accordance with what they are—objects of cultural significance, designed by human intuition, that seek a specific effect. It’s not enough to describe Bloomberg’s memes, or collect quotes from publicists; we should be writing about what they do, how they work.

Remember what I wrote in issue III about governing technology with laws, codes, and norms? I worry that the fight over norms will be won or lost at the level of social media, the altar at which we sacrifice so much of our moral and intellectual vitality. Obviously—and please agree with me that this is obvious—just because something works, that doesn’t mean it’s good. By that same logic, just because something is already in front of you, that doesn’t mean it should be there.

And if I’m one of the folks whose brain has broken—possible!—then I’m ready to rely on the parts of me that are harder to reach. And if Bloomberg succeeds, I’ll still vote for him;* I just may also be dead inside.

Thanks @jo_ha_nan and @literalgenius for the tips.

One man’s trash is another man’s pleasure

Essentially, what I learned in college was how to “read” “texts”: how to yank meaning from cultural products. If the liberal arts teach you how to think, my major, American Studies, taught me how to critique—specifically along the lines of race, class, and gender. It’s what’s important to me; it’s what I know.

I like analyzing subjects like memes. It took me a long time to figure out what I was trying to say, but I enjoyed writing the above. What I dislike is that, these days, I can’t turn the switch off.

I saw STOMP this weekend. I didn’t know this was a famous show, around since the early 90s, until after it was over. As I watched, I couldn’t help but fixate on my damning observations—I couldn’t do anything but observe and damn.

On the program, the show describes itself as a “unique combination of percussion, movement, and visual comedy.” STOMP is designed to be perfectly legible. It’s family fun that includes the audience in its script—you always know exactly when to laugh and when to clap.

What I experienced in my seat, surrounded by the sound of juvenile joy, began as mild interest, transitioned quickly into disbelief, then curdled into loneliness.

The loneliness I felt was sour—bitter—acrid. It was the loneliness of being apart from the crowd.

I couldn’t enjoy myself because I couldn’t move past the fact that the comedic relief, the butt of the “visual comedy,” was a brown body. Or that the audience’s interlocutor, the hero of the bunch, was a white dude with nice biceps and a manbun.

I couldn’t ignore the fact that the performers wore dirty, tattered clothes; that they were made to look like the unhoused people the audience drove past en route to the show, people who really would dig through a garbage bag, if only to find something to eat.

And now that I’ve read more about the show, I can’t help but mention that one of the two female characters is still referred to on the official website as the “Bin Bitch.”

Yet there was a transcendent moment that pierced through my cloud of reproof. During one scene, the performers were backlit as they neared the front of the stage. The wall where their silhouettes landed—leaped, twirled, stomped—was made of overlapping layers of blemishless wood. I saw them dancing in the firelight, telling stories with a basket woven out of gold.

I remembered then that we have a long history of trying to entertain one other, of laughing, smiling, feeling good. I remember now that optimism is built into criticism. That there’s meaning in those impulses, too.


Other content worth consuming:

  • I haven’t read Yuval Noah Harari’s books, but his grim (it’s the word of the day) New Yorker profile feels pertinent to understanding how some public intellectuals still put their private interests first. (If I’m not capitalizing super bowl, I’m not capitalizing profile.)

  • Historian Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American newsletter. Each night, she surveys the day’s news with an eye towards the larger picture—relating the present to both the country’s past and future. The newsletter strikes a balance between nonpartisanship and moral clarity I haven’t found in other political reporting. It’s the difference between boilerplate journalism and the extended meditation of a single voice.

  • The Between the Covers podcast episode with Garth Greenwell. Listen if you’re bookish, listen if you’re not. Greenwell speaks in paragraphs; with a rare unity of vision, he articulates how he sees writing, how he sees the world, and how he sees writing the world. His interviewer, David Naimon, is exceptionally well-prepared, able to steer those paragraphs towards increasing profundity. (And I again urge you to read Cleanness; it’s a special book, worthy of the exquisite criticism it’s generated.)

  • Any book purchased from Bookshop.org, rather than Amazon. Launched last month, Bookshop lets you order titles online, at a discount, and still support independent bookstores. (Bookstore anecdote: last week, a woman came in to buy her son the National Geographic Atlas of the World for his birthday. Its list price—what bookstores are supposed to sell it for—is $215; Amazon had it for $90. I don’t blame her.)

*Re: voting for Bloomberg: I recently sat with the leftist anti-electoral argument for the first time. (Russell Brand makes the same case sound weaker in this otherwise legendary interview.) It’s worth considering, I think, because nothing—not even voting—should be taken for granted as the best means towards a more just society. But I also simply believe that lives would be concretely imperiled if I didn’t vote for the candidate other than Trump.


Thanks so much for reading. Throw it a like at the bottom if you enjoyed. Please write to me with your thoughts. (You can leave comments now, too.) Maybe I’ll even get you to write with me in a future post. Another guest post is coming soon.

Until then, Sintextually yours,

Marc

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