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How many readers do you need? Kierkegaard only hoped for one

From Copenhagen on his 30th birthday (May 5, 1843), Kierkegaard wrote the following in the Preface for his first book, Two Upbuilding Discourses:

Although this little book… only wishes to be what it is, something of a superfluity, and only desires to remain in secret, as it came into existence in secret, I still have not said farewell to it without an almost fantastic hope. Insofar as it, by being published, is, figuratively speaking, starting out on a kind of journey, I let my eye follow it a little while. I saw, then, how it set out on its solitary way, or solitary set out along the highway. After one and another little misapprehension, when it was deceived by a fleeting resemblance, it finally met that individual whom with joy and gratitude I call my reader, that individual whom it seeks, toward whom, as it were, it stretches out its arms; that individual who is benevolent enough to let himself be found, benevolent enough to receive it, whether in the moment of meeting it found him happy and confident, or "melancholy and thoughtful." On the other hand, insofar as, by being published, it in a stricter sense remains quiet without leaving the place, I let my eye rest on it for a little while. It stood there, then, like an insignificant little blossom in its hiding place in the great forest, sought for neither for its showiness nor its fragrance nor its food value. But I saw also, or believed that I saw, how the bird whom I call my reader, suddenly fixed his eye upon it, flew down to it, plucked it off, and took it to himself. And when I had seen this, I saw nothing more.

Two Upbuilding Discourses

If one person reads your blog, that should be enough to keep you going.

If ten people read your blog, you should feel privileged and extremely motivated to give them better and better work.

If a few hundred people read your blog, this might seem like a trivially small audience relative to social media celebrities but it’s a large audience relative to many great thinkers in history! As I wrote about in Lessons from Nietzsche’s Awful Publishing Results, his book Human, All Too Human only sold 120 copies in the first year.

Lessons from Nietzsche’s Awful Publishing Results

“…the marketbell—The Daily Press—is only run for their own clique and not for the proud and solitary One.”

Nietzsche’s publisher Schmeitzner on the complete failure of Thus Spake Zarathustra

Independent intellectuals today should study closely one of the most profound and impactful thinkers in all of modern philosophy: Friedrich Nietzsche. I’m not referring to his ideas (although one should study those, too). I’m referring to the difficulties he faced publishing his books, and their utter failure in his lifetime. All the historical facts and figures below are drawn from Schaberg’s The Nietzsche Canon: A Publication History and Bibliography.

If you’re an independent intellectual, a review of Nietzsche’s publication history should fill you with a profound sense of gratitude and potency.

To start, consider Nietzsche’s book Human, All Too Human. When it was first published, one thousand copies were printed and only 120 were sold in its first year (1879). And that’s with the benefit of public controversy around Nietzsche’s break from Wagner and the scandal of being banned in Russia! Imagine today publishing a truly brilliant and original book, having a public and talked-about controversy with a famous and influential philosopher such as Slavoj Zizek, and only selling 120 copies! It’s unthinkable. Today, if there is anyone at all talking about your book, you will sell 120 copies at the very least. There are many reasons for this, most of them now banal (speed of information transmission, density of social networks, etc.). The comparison, however, is profound.

Next, consider that the reception of Nietzsche’s books got worse over time, which is the opposite of what happens to contemporary indie authors if their systems are set-up even 50% correctly. Nietzsche’s first book, Birth of Tragedy, made a splash: It received a polarizing but lively reception and sales were presumably healthy (I could not find quantitative sales data for that book). By the time of Zarathustra at the end of Nietzsche’s publishing career, however, Schmeitzner would write in a letter: “There is no question that the distribution of your books is getting worse.” Schaberg reports that Zarathustra was never acknowledged by “the press, the public, or [Nietzsche’s] peers.”

Thankfully, if you’re a blogger or indie book author today, it is nearly impossible for the sad fate of Nietzsche’s late works to befall your late works, unless you have zero systems in place. When you sell an indie book on the internet, you don’t just receive a bit of cash; if you sell through a platform like Gumroad, you gain a personal contact, an email address. And if you’re an open, generous person sincerely interested in your readers, many contacts even become genuine personal relationships. For these reasons, every new book by an indie author should sell at least as many copies as the previous work, and typically more. This, by the way, is why I published Based Deleuze on Gumroad first, and only published on Amazon after Gumroad sales plateaued.

But maybe Nietzsche’s small fanbase was super passionate, you think to yourself. Continuing with Human, All Too Human as an example, Schaberg documents precisely four instances of positive feedback. Two of them were personal friends of Nietzsche (Rée and Gast) and one was a lady he flirted with at the Bayreuth Festival. The only legitimate positive feedback from an objective and significant third party was from Jacob Burckhardt (most famous for his study of The Renaissance). Notably, Burckhardt called Nietzsche’s book a “sovereign book,” which would “increase the amount of independence in the world.” Personally, I think that’s wonderful praise, but even this is a backhanded compliment! He’s not saying it’s good; “independence” or “sovereign” is a praiseful way of calling Nietzsche bonkers.

On this point, the lesson is that you should prepare for nobody to care about your book, except your friends. Consider yourself blessed if you encounter even one polite negging from one smart and disinterested reviewer. Of course, you may very well enjoy more of a splash, I'm just saying you expect and prepare for... crickets.

The first year of Nietzsche’s Observations book saw “200-250” copies sold, then about 30-50 copies per year. Schmeitzner refers to this publication glowingly, suggesting that it was probably Nietzsche’s high-water mark. Based Deleuze has already beat Nietzsche’s high-water mark.

Nietzsche had to spend 881 marks of his own money to print 600 copies of Beyond Good and Evil. That’s somewhere vaguely in the ballpark of $15k in today’s US dollars. He must have turned over in his grave when Amazon first introduced print-on-demand publishing. It is now utterly unremarkable to note that anyone can publish and sell thousands of books for an up-front cost of zero dollars. But compare yourself to Nietzsche to see things with a new light. If that doesn’t give you a real jolt of intellectual virility then nothing ever will. If Nietzsche could follow through on more than 10 books, remind me again why you’re still struggling to publish one?

And then, all the little things.

To publish a book, someone like Nietzsche had to hand-write at least dozens of letters back and forth with his publisher, via snail mail. What a pain in the ass!

When there was an error in a published book—as there was with Human, All Too Human—someone had to go through all the printed books and fix the mistake with a pen, by hand. Today we just edit the file once and re-upload it to Amazon or Gumroad.

Nietzsche frequently dictated his writing, which means that another person was required to type as he spoke, often for about 2 or 3 hours every day for months at a time. Whether he or his publisher(s) paid for this labor isn’t clear. Regardless, we now benefit from computers, which can, for pennies, automatically transcribe spoken words at about 95% accuracy.

Don’t even try to tell me it’s difficult to write or publish a book, don’t even try! I will send you this blog post to shame you!

The Two Meanings of Reaction (Excerpt from Based Deleuze)

The following is an excerpt from my short book Based Deleuze, which will be published on September 20th. Pre-order here and you’ll receive it by email as soon as it’s released.


Discussing the ideological valence of great thinkers is difficult because they have little use for the crutches of ideology. The difficulty is particularly acute today, when ideological labels are used so loosely, and often with ulterior motives. I should therefore clarify, at the outset, what I mean by "reactionary" in the subtitle of this book.

In some sense, Deleuze was explicitly anti-reactionary. He was anti-reactionary in the sense that he was anti-reactive, in the spirit of Spinoza and Nietzsche. To be a reactionary, in this pejorative sense, means to be always responding to active, superior forces, instead of becoming an active force; to be captured by sad affects, to be resentful, and to think and act with these as one's motive forces.

This common sense understanding of reactionism partially maps onto the modern political-ideological sense of the word. The data show that conservatives are more reactive to disgusting stimuli, for instance (Inbar et al. 2009). Experiments have shown that even just the presence of foul odors can make people slightly, but measurably, more conservative (Schnall et al 2008). Conservatives are more likely to see threats and reactively demand "law and order." Edmund Burke watched the French Revolution with horror, and famously wrote about his reactions. Henceforth, we'll refer to this aspect of reactionary or conservative politics as reactivism. I prefer reactivism to reactionism because it will remind us that left-wing progressive activism is much closer to this sense of "reactionary" than we are accustomed to thinking. Reactionary politics in this sense, reactivism, can be a failure mode of left-wing politics no less than right-wing politics.

Things get confusing because modern society also calls reactionary whatever transgresses left-wing or progressive norms. Nietzsche, for instance, is seen by many as a reactionary, even though one pillar of his whole life's philosophy is a contempt for reactive tendencies. Since World War II, any sufficiently disagreeable and strong-willed individual eager to avoid reactivism — who wishes to constitute an authentic, healthy, and autonomous existence — will generally be coded as reactionary. Even if their political beliefs are ideologically ambiguous or ambivalent. Strong and uncompromisingly active drives get coded as "reactionary" if the individual is not plausibly linked to the larger collective liberation struggle of some officially marginalized group. It is only in this sense of the term that we will find a "reactionary" component in the philosophy of Deleuze.

This latter sense of "reaction" is a recurring, subterranean tendency that can arise from the Left as well as the Right. It is most likely to emerge from the Right, but in periods when "the Left" becomes especially, excessively decadent - the responsibility to transgress "The Left" occasionally falls to an otherwise proper leftist.

This is how we will understand Deleuze's “reactionary leftism.”

Based Deleuze (Podcast)

On my new short book project, Based DeleuzePre-order here!

This conversation was first recorded on June 26, 2019 as a livestream on Youtube. To receive notifications when future livestreams begin, subscribe to my channel with one click, then click the little bell. If you'd like to discuss this podcast with me and others, suggest future guests, or read/watch/listen to more content on these themes, request an invitation here.

Big thanks to all the patrons who help me keep the lights on.

Click here to download this episode.

On Being Fired (How Academia Got Pwned 12)

This is the twelfth post in a series about the glorious completion of my academic career, the internet, and the future of intellectual life. This will probably become a book. If you'd like to hear about that when it happens, be sure to subscribe. In fact, now that I'm living out of a backpack and I have received a few invitations, a book tour seems to be spontaneously self-organizing. If you'd like for me to come through your area, please let me know and I'll see what we can do.


[The numbering below does not reflect any formal order or logic. It's just to indicate the relatively stand-alone nature of each item, and the somewhat random chronology in which they came to me.]

1. Many theorists say that social reality is splintering, but how many theorists gamble their life on this claim?

2. Different types of people see predictably different streams of media, have predictably different interpretations of objective facts, and repeat what they learn in predictably different ways, with predictably different consequences, in predictably different subspaces of society. One of the most significant categorical differences among individuals, in this regard, is the difference between those who genuinely search the data of the world for an increasingly true understanding, versus those who scan the data of the world looking for rewards.

3. When one's grasp of these predictable differences reaches a certain threshold, it becomes possible to tell one story — honestly and clearly, with no irony or gimmicks — while also producing systematically different interpretations in different heads. To admit this reality, and to choose one's words accordingly, is not cynicism or dishonesty, but classical oration with digital sophistication. There is dishonesty in speaking to the world as if every person will receive every message in the same way, or at all.

4. There are three different audiences in the theatre of my life. My first audience is composed of the people in my personal life, to whom I have obligations I consider just and binding. Call it Level 1. The second is composed of the people who read my blog and watch my videos and hangout in my server; I've heard it called the Murphyverse, let's call it Level 2. The third are all the normies of the world who happen to have some vague and distant interest in me and my affairs. For instance, other academics aware of my work but also the random person who read one of the Daily Mail headlines about me. These people are Level 3. Who sees what, when, and where, and how they interpret it, differs vastly but predictably. Having observed this closely throughout my protracted 4-month controversy, I now possess a highly granular communications infrastructure. To give you just one concrete example, if I say something significant in the 46th minute of a generically titled Youtube video, it will only ever become known in Level 2, and quite quickly by nearly everyone in Level 2. (Unless it's something scandalous, which always has the possibility of getting picked up by Level 3).

5. I've labeled the Levels to reflect the rank ordering of my ethical obligations, as far as I can see them. There is rarely a defensible reason to make any significant life decision with any respect to Level 3. These people could not care less about you, first of all, and any lifestyle at all dependent on the vicissitudes of Level 3 is worse than fragile. For a real intellectual, it is nothing short of doom. One should generally be as icy as possible toward Level 3, which is composed mostly of idiots following idiots. Level 2 is like extended family, you must love them and give them your all, but also keep enough distance that you don't spread yourself too thin. Level 1 deserves the most undivided and unconditional care. When life becomes complicated and priorities are difficult to sort, truly good and honorable people generally use the simple algorithm of deferring to Level 1.

6. Warhol was wrong about the future, when he predicted that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. In the words of Momus, "In the future, everyone will be famous to 15 people." In 1953, of the American families that owned a TV, about 72% of them watched I Love Lucy at its highest point. That was about 44 million viewers. By one estimate, a popular episode of The Joe Rogan Experience might reach 190 million people, or 12% of the English speaking world (and that's with unlimited playbacks on multiple devices at any time). Therefore, what's impressive and significant about one of the world's biggest podcasts is not how many people watch and listen, but how few. Outside of a few particular occupational or social milieus, there is no location in the English speaking world where you can assume anyone in your Level 1 has watched or heard any particular episode, or even knows anything about the show. What's most interesting about famous people today is that nobody has ever heard of them.

7. To constitute an intellectual life necessarily involves strategic navigation of the meme pool, and yet optimizing for memetic reproduction per se is to betray the intellectual vocation. There is nothing sinister or superficial about memetic fitness; any intellectual you admire enjoyed memetic fitness, by definition, because you learned about them in the first place. Given the utter domination of the memetic landscape by the coarsest players today (marketers, essentially), the very possibility of a non-sinister and non-superficial intellectual life in the 21st century hinges on real intellectuals comprehending the memetic landscape (and risking themselves on this comprehension). The global terrain of the meme pool, divided into increasingly shallow but porous pockets, is increasingly complicated and opaque. The function that should be optimized by a true 21st century intellectual has not yet been established, but assuming you can talk to everyone equally is certain to be a losing strategy.

8. Political correctness has become sufficiently suffocating that, strangely enough, getting fired from prestige institutions has become a badge of honor, and a credible signal of noteworthiness. If you find yourself in trouble, there is a good case to be made that getting fired is the preferred exit mode, in part because it provides a catapult into higher pockets of Level 3. "Dude, you could get on Joe Rogan." But as we've already noted, Level 3 should be the lowest priority for any good person with a long-term intellectual agenda.

9. The flattening of the broadcast-based, central prestige hierarchy into a bewildering quantity of smaller pyramids (with larger absolute numbers given population growth and global delivery) is accelerating. The hundreds of speaking and writing people roughly at Joe-Rogan-level are the fruit of a previous stage of splintering. Divide the Tom Brokaw personality (a generic broadcaster optimized for a captive, mass audience) into a few hundred sub-personalities specialized in different traits and interests, and you'll get a few hundred personalities who are still rich and influential, although their audiences are smaller percentage-wise than Tom Brokaw's.

10. To compete in a meme pool characterized by accelerating segmentation, therefore, one cannot aim for what is currently adaptive (which guarantees you'll be a day late and a dollar short). It seems to me that a promising rule of thumb, consistent with the informal case study data available at this time, is for intellectuals to jump as far ahead as they can into the most precise and obscure depths of their own genuinely motivating curiosities, passions, and temperamental strengths, while escaping as recklessly as possible every occupational and social constraint on these depths. The high-brow intellectual is obviously a different type than most of the writers/speakers currently at the top, no doubt, but the trick is to infer what the intellectual equivalent of the prevailing players would look like. What we do know is that Joe Rogan did not become the Joe Rogan Experience by trying to earn an interview with Tom Brokaw or by trying to be the next Tom Brokaw, he became the Joe Rogan Experience by doing the weird non-lucrative things he liked to do, doing them intensely forever, and then getting selected in a stochastic distributed search process (a market). In 2019, if your goal is to get on Joe Rogan or be the next Joe Rogan, the only guaranteed outcome is that you certainly won't be the intellectual equivalent of Joe Rogan in 2040. When the world's biggest symbol-producers have audiences of only 10,000 people, those winning symbol-producers will be a huge set of people who, in 2019, were maximally disengaged from mimetic rivalry and building out as effectively as possible their even weirder mix of ideas, interests, and aesthetics.

11. Mainstream media can only report on events. I can report non-events.

12. I successfully avoided being fired by the University of Southampton on Wednesday. To this day, I have never once been disciplined, or even warned, for any problematic behavior as an academic. I managed to secure an additional 3 months of pay, which I would not have received had I been fired, and I did not have to sign any non-disclosure agreement whatsoever. To anyone who asks, I can provide a short and sweet account of myself, with my chin held high. I am quite pleased.

13. As the author of this non-event, I am spared the obligation of any social campaigning. No lawyers, no calls from journalists, no pressure toward personal image maintenance, no crying for pity donations. For Level 1, a short and honest message. For Level 2, all the juicy details, reflections, and observations. And for Level 3: nothing. They'll either forget, or guess the ending (probably incorrectly). Except those floating around Level 3 interested enough to hear me out, patiently and openly, which means I've converted them to Level 2. If that's you, thanks for reading this far, and welcome to the Murphyverse. I would be stunned if any Daily Mail journalist could find a lede buried this deeply, though nothing is impossible.

With the conclusion of this long preface, now the real story will begin. My next posts will build out a section of the book I would like to call 12 Rules for Ruining Your Life (To Get a Better One).

Evaluating Exit Modes: Resign or Be Fired? (How Academia Got Pwned 11)

This is the eleventh post in a series about the glorious completion of my academic career, the internet, and the future of intellectual life. This will probably become a book. If you'd like to hear about that when it happens, be sure to subscribe.


I am considering the benefits and drawbacks of simply resigning, compared to being fired in my hearing tomorrow. One of the reasons I’m finding it hard to decide is because I suspect it matters quite little in the long run. Yet I've often insisted on deliberate and disciplined internal accounting about one’s motives and decisions, so I can’t help but think it through. But because it hardly matters to me, I have to zoom-in all the more microscopically on details, to find the pros and cons. Even if I resign, they might still fire me, so that’s another layer of it hardly mattering. Well, now that I’ve got you enthralled by the profound importance of this decision, let’s proceed.

In my mind, the most important factor inclining me to resign is simply that it feels the most honest and authentic way to exit at this point — the simple truth is that this disciplinary imbroglio has radicalized my disillusioning and given me 4 months to prepare for exit. So if I’m now eager to exit — in principle, emotionally, and even practically (I’ve ended my lease as of today and we’ve reduced all our belongings to what fits in our backpacks) — then I should tell them I am done. Clearly, I’m done. The main reasons to let them fire me are all instrumental. And if you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that here at Other Life instrumental rationality is the root of much evil. That’s not to say I’m above it, not at all — it’s a root of evil precisely because our survival is largely conditional on it. It would certainly be a new drop in the bucket of academia’s self-destruction, my case would probably become an official milestone in absurd administrative repression. That would be good, funny, and politically desirable. But things are already at that milestone, anyway; the event of a formal dismissal might trigger some kind of category click in the minds of people who think in discrete variables. In reality, most variables are continuous variables, and I’m already about 99% fired. There are also other instrumental reasons to prefer dismissal, such as notoriety/media/sympathy, but as soon as anyone starts optimizing for those things — you’re doomed.

More than a few people seem to think everything I’m saying and doing is for notoriety/media/sympathy, all of which are ultimately convertible to cash. I generally don’t care what idiots guess about me, but given this objection is the exact opposite of my core vision, I feel somewhat motivated to minimize it. Just to pwn the haters, I am inclined to resign with purposeful quietude, minimizing the probability of both infamy and sympathy. The mainstream media revolve around discrete events, and getting fired is an event, so if I get fired then the chance of receiving phone calls from all the Tucker Carlson types probably shoots to what? At least 25%, conservatively, I would think. If that level of media buzz arrived, especially given that my type of person is quite capable of milking it for all its worth, it would have a long-term expected value of what? At least several thousand dollars probably, at least? Of course, media is stochastic, it’s perfectly possible I am fired and nobody cares. On average, though, in the long-term, there would probably be a fairly large, positive financial upside to being formally fired.

Another reason I’m disinclined to the dismissal->outrage->media->money strategy is that I genuinely can’t access any feelings of indignation, victimhood, outrage. And these seem to be performative requirements of the contemporary media charades. From the beginning, I have said that this a hilarious and wonderful experience in which a once-prestigious institution has become so paranoiacally bureaucratized that it is actively empowering me to leave it behind while it further destroys itself. When you were a kid, did you ever do that thing kids do, where they take the hand of a sibling and make the sibling hit them in order to scream to mom, “Johnny’s hitting me!!!” I feel like the university is doing that with me. I’ve never once set out to harm the university or academia as a whole, but they keep grabbing my hand and smacking themselves with it. I can hardly be faulted for enjoying it!

When I try to tell my story outside of the aggrieved/indignant framing, instead asserting my contentedness with it all, I suppose it must read like monstrous or ridiculous gloating or delusions of grandeur or something. I was recently invited to submit an article somewhere, and I wrote up my perspective but with historical backing that would make it more than just a personal thinkpiece — citing precedents for the model of life I am seeking to live — and it was rejected. That was an interesting signal. I could try to perform yet another rendition of the persecuted academic, there seems to be insatiable demand for such stories, but unfortunately that’s not my story. It’s quite possible my actual story is either too dumb, or too idiosyncratic, or not interesting/valuable enough to succeed in even the para-institutional meme pool. But my story is my story, and I’m sticking to it. That's where blogs excel, in fact. My whole wager is that anyone who does this with sufficient intensity wins in the end, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to soften up now!

I'd also be lying by omission if I did not include some instrumental reasons for resigning. To be honest, the only slight negative emotion I have about any of this comes from thinking about my PhD supervisors, and everyone else who invested in my career as an academic. Getting fired could arguably tarnish them. I don't think any of this will have any real effect on them, ultimately, but I would feel bad — a combination of guilty and embarrassed, I suppose — to have to tell them all that I was fired. Same thing goes for my parents, and in-laws, and so on — all the normal people to whom I would like to give a clear and straightforward accounting of myself. "I decided academia is not for me" is much shorter and sweeter than "I was fired but..." As I said, I could still be fired even if I resign, but if I resign I can immediately after inform my family and mentors, simply and honestly, that I've decided to resign and that will be that. If the university fires me the day after nonetheless, I'm not obligated to send everyone an update. If they ask or read about it in the papers, I would tell the truth. This is, admittedly, a pretty superficial and instrumental reason to favor resignation. It's not the main reason, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a reason.

Another benefit of resigning is that it will improve the generalizability of my practical enterprise model for exiting academia. If getting fired and receiving publicity and sympathy increased my patrons and book sales and so on, and then I’m successful in my plot to achieve a financially successful independent intellectual model, in the future people could say that my plan for exiting academia is not realistic or practical for most people. And they could be right, in that case. So exiting quietly, and succeeding without any huge brouhaha, would make the social value of whatever I’m able to make greater, and more impactful.

Finally, I’m just tired of talking about myself — believe that or not. I’d like to get back to work, on projects that are not just telling the story of this protracted controversy. If I get fired, it kind of makes the story more interesting and longer and spicier, but I'd rather it be over sooner than later.

What would you do?

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