Mimetic Collapse, Our Destiny
the same tired tropes, stomping on a human face forever
I’m not gonna bother with the substance of this. I wrote everything I needed to say about the David-Foster-Wallace-as-perpetual-hate-object phenomenon here, two and a half years ago. That I published that piece two and a half years ago, and remarked on the fact that the bizarre negative fixation on Infinite Jest was incredibly old and tired at the time, is more my concern here. As many commenters on social media have said in response to this Rolling Stone article… what year is this? How are we still doing this? The “litbro” was a tired trope when people were buying their first iPhones; that Dana Schwartz kept her college-era resentments burning for a half-decade never actually amounted to proof that such a character ever existed. (I always found it a very 21st-century piece of tragicomedy that Schwartz was annoyed by the perceived culture of a handful of guys in her undergrad classes, and so… voluntarily marinated in that imaginary culture for years after she graduated.) How has this meme - which is what the litbro is, a meme - survived for so long, when the nature of memes is to die off over time?
The answer, perhaps, lies somewhere in this recent piece from The New York Times Magazine, which argues that the artistic obsession with novelty and experimentation, the primary obsession of modernism and so something like the default goal of artists for more than a century, has recently run aground. This turn from the primacy of the new does not stem from a choice to reject it, but because culture is truly spent, and can produce nothing original. The writer, Jason Farago, suggests that this doesn’t have to be a crisis, that there can be a lot of value in people continuing to iterate on the same old moves. I don’t really agree, but I also don’t have it in me to defend a core artistic principle in a culture that’s so inimical to my values. What I can say, though, is that the condition that Farago describes is ultimately the same condition that leads Rolling Stone to publish an anti-Infinite Jest piece in twenty goddamn twenty-three - discursive exhaustion, the inevitable dark side of meme culture, the sputtering firehose of human expression that is the internet running dry. CT Jones wrote that piece because it’s a thing people write, Rolling Stone published it because it’s a thing publications publish, and people read it because it’s a thing people are known to think. These are not ideas so much as they are the impressions of where ideas once were, like the lines you find on your face the morning after you sleep on the wrong pillow.
If TikTok teens are indeed disdaining David Foster Wallace (who killed himself during the Bush administration) they aren’t doing so from any organic unhappiness within their actually-existing social world. Most people don’t read; men read less; men read even less fiction; young men read least of all; young men certainly are not reading 1,000-page experimentalist novels. That is not occurring. It’s unfathomable to think that a generation that has inspired endless panic about its lack of interest in reading is producing a profoundly 2000s-era, prototypically-Millennial type of person. They’re reading [spins wheel of the names of authors known to people who don’t read] Norman Mailer in between watching Hasan Piker and wasting time on Discord? Really? I understand that TikTok is not literally all adolescents, but adolescents define its cultures. What 20-year-old has ever been in a cultural and discursive space where pompous young men who love [spins wheel] Charles Bukowski are using that fact as a means to establish a position in the social hierarchy? How many 20-year-olds have the slightest idea who Charles Bukowski is? All of this amounts to frustration over an out-of-date literary culture that’s as relevant to young people as Facebook. Yet the animosity towards this type of theoretical person still exists because other people have expressed animosity towards him, and those who are aping that animosity want to perform a certain vision of cultured adulthood.
The litbro, in other words, is a simulacra, a symbol that has eaten what it was meant to symbolize, a representation of something that has never existed. The idea is Jean Baudrillard’s, expressed in several texts but most famously in Simulacra & Sign, published in 1981. In it, Baudrillard argues that there are four phases of the image - a faithful depiction of that which really is, an unfaithful depiction of that which really is, a depiction that covers up for the fact that there is nothing which is actually being depicted, and the simulacra, which exists in a human culture of such universal equivalency that no one has the grounding necessary to know what “reality” might even be outside of equivalencies, outside of depiction. For a long time, Baudrillard’s simulation theory has been like Foucault’s panopticon, in that it has been invoked so relentlessly and thoughtlessly that I’ve usually tried to avoid referring to it. But at this stage, the litbro really exists precisely within Baudrillard’s concepts - it is a representation of someone else’s representation, a second-hand depiction, an archetype that is now developed fully through reference to itself rather than to some underlying reality. Baudrillard said that the development of simulacra is “a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.”
Baudrillard was fond of using Disneyland as an example, given that the theme park is a lovingly-made, carefully-calibrated depiction of a reality that never existed. Another example you often hear is the 1950s diner, the joint that has the neon signs and the art deco styling and the mini jukeboxes at the tables. This classic bit of Americana is not, in fact, based on what diners were like in the 1950s; it’s someone’s idea of what 1950s diners were like, which then spread mimetically from the actual physical 1950s diners that had been built to films and television, which then acted as “proof” that the imaginary diners were real, creating a social expectation of what a diner looks like that diner owners then felt pressure to fulfill…. Eventually most people came to believe that this is what diners were like in the 1950s. The point, though, is not that this is an act of deception. The point is that the consumerist reality in which these restaurants exists obliterates any belief in a true or false depiction. (No one cares whether the classic 1950s diner actually depicts a historical truth, really.) McDonald’s architecture is a pastiche. But a pastiche of what?
You might argue that the litbro is more a matter of Baudrillard’s third phase than the fourth, given that a lot of people (clearly) still insist that the litbro exists. I would argue that we’re on such fundamentally slick footing, at this point, that we’ve reached the fourth stage - we have people too young to remember an obscure cultural moment experienced only by a tiny slice of the most overeducated urbanites, which passed its zenith a decade and a half ago, and which always produced many more people who hated the archetype than the archetype itself. BookTokers are attempting to perform a particular version of savvy smart-kid self-presentation through reference to a kind of person who could have only existed under cultural conditions that could hardly be different from what we see today. I can almost believe that someone living in Williamsburg in 2007 lived in a social atmosphere in which they encountered young men who tried to present a very mid-aughts vision of being literary young men through reference to a short list of male authors who share nothing artistically. I absolutely cannot accept that people born after 9/11 have ever lived in those social conditions. I cannot believe that they are organically resentful of people they never meet in IRL social scenes they’ll never belong to. I think they just wanted to appear to be a particular kind of person online, found that the anti-litbro mask is a popular costume, and put it on.
This is the essence of Sam Kriss’s Person-Guy: the Person-Guy exists to be the representation of other people’s resentments, the people we want to like us. We invent someone to mutually hate. Because we’re lonely.
This is my whole thing with poptimism. I think it has all kinds of pernicious outcomes, maybe the worst of them that music reviewers no longer feel any obligation to share new and obscure music with their readers. (This was, for the record, the primary value that music critics gave to the world.) But I also hate it because the narrative is so false; it was never the case that pop music was structurally disrespected in music criticism. That incredibly tired poptimist origin story, “I just wanted to listen to Robyn, but all the critics only loved Interpol!,” becomes even less meaningful when you actually go back in the archives and discover that Robyn always got great reviews. But the complaint, though false, is useful. It positions the complainant against a conveniently vague authority, a white male authority, a scenario which has great social value for educated liberals in the 21st century; it creates that same type of mutual enemy as the litbro and in doing so allows people to shadow box with racism and sexism, fighting inequality with the lowest of stakes. The poptimist complaint could not possibly do a worse job of describing the cultural conditions of 2023 - Taylor Swift is as inescapable and rich and critically acclaimed and universally beloved as, well, as Michael Jackson and Madonna, whose artistic esteem totally refutes the poptimist version of music history, but never mind. The poptimist complaint persists not because it describes any real thing but because it is socially useful for a class of people who define themselves through reference to these kinds of ideas.
Obviously, I have a great deal of disdain for both the poptimist and the litbro narratives. But the issue at hand here is not their substance, but why they appear impossible to stamp out despite being wildly outdated. My sense is that they persist because they’re predigested narratives that insecure people can grab hold of in a critical culture that is no more capable of generating new ideas than the artwork it describes. With a great deal of popular music now algorithmically produced, designed for streaming and subject to literal A/B testing to see what gets the most streams, we have unsurprisingly entered an era where even many staunch defenders of pop supremacy complain that everything sounds the same. This is, obviously, an utterly different set of conditions than the “rockism” described by Kelefa Sanneh TWENTY years ago. (Sanneh’s refusal to ever offer an appraisal of how wildly the pendulum has swung in the other direction suggests that he, like all poptimists, would rather complain about not getting what he wants than get it.) And yet still poptimist essays get written, constantly, because we have exhausted our ability to produce new critical modes of being and because writers are an insecure species and thus largely content to try and step gingerly in the footsteps of everyone who’s already trod through the dirty snow.
This condition, frankly, sucks. Art that’s just another uninspired retread of what’s been happening for a hundred years can be a real drag, but as Farago suggests, there’s a lot of pleasures still to be had in now-conventional forms. The trouble with this condition infecting artistic criticism, or any other kind of short-form argumentative nonfiction, is that the critical mode has a responsibility to tell the truth that art does not. And arguing entire in shorthand, treating a career as a critic as a game of perpetual Madlibs, making only those claims about the world and the creative expression within it that have already been approved by the mob - this amounts to a guarantee of dishonesty. Schwarz built a brand based on, I’m guessing, about three guys from a single small Ivy League university in a handful of years, guys who no doubt went on to absorb the mockery of the litbro and pivoted to a new kind of self-presentation so as to look cool. (Remember, friends, people are aware of the derisive archetypes we invent, and they adjust their public personas accordingly.) The more that the artistic exhaustion Farago describes infects the critical writing that is tasked with helping us understand ourselves better through art, the more that culture writers will trade clichés, saying only that which is safe. That which is safe is that which has already received community approval, and that has nothing to do with what is true.
I mean, think about those lists of “litbro” authors again. The category has absolutely zero internal literary coherence. For example, a core part of the complaint is that litbros love experimentation and difficulty for their own sake; this is supposed to be a core part of the jabs at Foster Wallace. Of course, experimentation and challenge are utterly indispensable artistic tools, but forget that for now. Why then is Jonathan Franzen so often wedged into this category? Franzen, whose work I really can’t stand, is famously dismissive of difficulty in novels, and has written again and again in favor of simple pleasures in reading, such as in his bizarre drive-by attack on William Gaddis in the New Yorker. Franzen spent so much time attacking anything avant garde in fiction that Ben Marcus felt compelled to take Franzen down, gloriously. So what gives? Why stick the most prominent critic of difficulty in fiction of our era into a set of guys routinely derided for their supposed obscurity? And who told you, exactly, that Infinite Jest is a particularly challenging novel? Both questions have no answer because there was never anything remotely literary about the litbro attack. Reading itself was always besides the point; the litbro critics, after all, almost never have read the work they deride. I mean, who has time to waste on reading?
For the BookTokers, let me simply say what someone should have gently told Sanneh so long ago: you aren’t the shit you like, and no one is under any obligation to humor your taste. Some people will always like what you don’t and dislike what you do. That’s life. The fact that you think this is injustice reflects what a batshit era we find ourselves in. No one is actually forcing you to read Infinite Jest, least of all me, given that I’ve always found it an admirable attempt that nonetheless fails at most of what it attempts, for a thousand pages. But if you want to keep treating it as a hate object, you have to actually read it; you see, you can’t have an opinion on a book you have not read. Personally, I’m sure I’d hate your favorite A Thing of Thing and Thing YA horseshit, if I read it. But I’m not gonna, so I can’t comment on that. If I do, though, and I think it sucks, I’ll tell you, and I’ll also tell you that The Brothers Karamazov is a triumph of human possibility. I have that right. Art is subjective. Get over it.