How Academia Got Pwned (1)

This is the first post in a series about the glorious completion of my academic career, the internet, and the future of intellectual life. Tell me: Would you like to read the whole story, edited, in a beautiful paperback? I may have an announcement soon, so be sure to subscribe.

This blog will now commence a strange and winding tale. If it requires many installments, and many detours, it is because I am still living this tale, and its telling is likely to affect its plot in unforeseen ways. There is a time for peace, when all the little lies must be respected so that things may carry on, and there is a time for war, when all of the little lies must be disrespected so that true life may carry on. Now is a time for war.

The completion of my academic career is now irrevocably underway, and it is time to bear witness. Whether my final day in academia comes in the form of expulsion or resignation remains to be determined, but that hardly matters. In the story of a life, bearing witness is the portal to an other life. This has always been the case, it has always been known, and it has always been denied by most people. Fortunately, this has never stopped a determined minority in every generation from acting on this insight, as true knowledge remains true, and actionable, whether anyone is convinced or not. Though I long ago ceased trying to convince anyone of anything, I remain obsessed with understanding these miraculous empirical mechanisms that somehow ensure liars always lose and truth-tellers always win. At least in the long-run, anyway.

Before the digital epoch, the long-run would sometimes take longer than a lifetime, which is why many true thinkers of the past would not be vindicated until after their death. But due to the compression of time that has come with the information revolution, the long-run of a life is no longer very long. The idea that one bad move on the internet can ruin someone's life — this is one of the dumbest and most reactionary bits of conventional wisdom out there today, promulgated by fearful people who mistake their anxiety for a law of society. The time it takes for an event to run its course rather seems to be shrinking, while the mechanics of reality modification are increasingly visible and tractable. Thus, today, while telling the truth continues to bring certain and near universal ostracism from mainstream institutions, this short-run punishment has also never been easier to ignore, escape, and overwrite — before the truth-telling wins.

Telling the truth always wins because it wins immanently, the telling is itself the motion of entry into an other life, and joy is at once its marker, motor, and reward. Telling the truth cannot not win, because it asks for nothing, expects nothing, and delivers to itself the only reward it wants or needs. Thus, although my tale will not convince a single dying liar to choose life, and such dying liars will certainly mock me for what looks like a colossal failure of ethics or strategy or both, I will nonetheless commence my tale in the most absolute and reckless honesty I can muster. Anything I might lose from doing so cannot be worth very much, and I simply cannot fail to win the only thing I have ever been seeking. If I can impart some passing insights or lessons to others on their own search for true life, then it will have been doubly worthwhile, though this brings some danger. The true life is always an other life, but the other life is always immediately available. There is no learning or permission required for the conduct of true life, despite what many people think. On the contrary, it is when one stops asking permission to live that an other life begins.

[These posts will constitute a first rough draft — or really just an initial brain dump — for a book I will publish soon enough. I am seriously toying with a Kickstarter campaign, but it depends on how much interest there is... I currently have an agent selling a different book, so for good reason he is not crazy about the idea of me writing and publishing a totally different book right now. But if there's enough interest in these posts, I could find a way. As always (as you'll find out in these posts), my solution is to just produce what I want to produce, share, and sort out the strategic details later. I originally thought I might call this book How Academia Got Pwned: The University, the Internet, and the Future of Intellectual Life but my patrons prefer Jumping Ship: Why the Politically Correct University Can't Survive the Internet. Naming things is the worst, I'll figure this out later. If you have any input on this or anything else, including questions about my narrative and/or ideas, I'll be reading all replies carefully. Thanks.]

Two kinds of hustle

To get the kind of life I want, or anywhere close to it, I realize I'm going to have to hustle like crazy. But one thing that's become immediately clear to me is that working hard has profoundly variable effects on well-being, conditional on what the work means to the worker. This is, of course, Nietzsche's observation in that famous line from Twilight of the Idols:

"If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how."

Academia can be quite cushy after you work hard to secure yourself there, but if I now want something better, I have to hustle again in a way that I thought was behind me. Even after I got "the British version of tenure," I was still hustling more than I needed to, just because of how I am. For the next twenty years, I would probably hustle like crazy regardless, whether I'm in a cushy institutionalized environment or doing some weird combination of intellectual work and entrepreneurial activity. In academia, I was constantly irritated and depressed while hustling to get various tasks done, so that I could have some time each day to do the work that mattered to me. Since my academic employment was thrown into question and my time opened up, especially because we are trying to have a child, I am now hustling harder than I ever have to ensure we come out of this okay. But now, it actually feels great, because at least 50% of my effort right now, while I'm still getting a paycheck, is trying to figure out any possible way I can make my intellectual work on the internet financially sustainable enough to be my primary occupation. I have no idea what my chances are, and if it's not possible then whatever — I'll just get some new job — but basically I have like a 1-2 month(s) period where I can afford to test out every harebrained scheme I've ever had for achieving financial sustainability via independent intellectual work. I've brainstormed a lot of ideas over the past few years, but never had the time or energy to test them seriously. So now I have nothing to lose, and much to gain, by testing them all. It all boils down to the question of how I can leverage my new intellectual independence from academic institutions to create new kinds of value.

Experiment 1 is testing if there's greater demand in the public for these monthly seminars I've been doing for patrons. The patrons seem to value it so far, so it's not unreasonable to think there might be a handful of people floating around out there who would also want something like this. If I could get even, say, 6 new signups in the next couple of months — I'd take that as a very promising signal that that could become one part of a viable independent work model for me. It'd only be a start but I could reasonably expect to build it out and grow it. Experiment 2 will very likely be a self-published book. I've been reading about publishing trends and the subreddit r/selfpublishing and I've been watching many interesting self-publishing experiments over the past couple of years, and so I've been very excited about eventually trying something. Now seems like as good a time as any! As I discussed in my recent livestream, I would like to try writing and self-publishing a book about academia and the internet — compiling all my observations and experiences, telling my whole recent story (which I'm being told to keep confidential), weaving it with larger theoretical and empirical reflections on the semantic apocalypse, reality forking, etc. I would like it to be fairly short and punchy, fun to read, not a big serious tome or anything. I am excited about theorizing and strategizing a launch plan (entrepreneurship is pretty fun to be honest). I think I would either plan a Kickstarter campaign, or possibly just write the damn thing and sell it via Amazon or Gumroad (like Eli). What's a good title for such a book? Please reply if you think of one. I plan to do some A/B testing, but if you make a suggestion I like then I'll include it in my A/B tests. Here are titles I'm currently toying with:

  1. Retard Vacation
  2. How Academia Got Pwned
  3. How to Pwn Academia
  4. 12 Rules for Ruining Life (To Get a Better One)

This got me wondering if it'd be a problem for a book to have the word "retard" in the title. It's kind of fashionable to have curse words in book titles nowadays, but they usually use an asterisk for one of the letters. Would I have to do that if I called it Retard Vacation? I searched Amazon and it seems: no. The results are kind of funny.

It's a little frightening and uncomfortable, because I don't have much experience with entrepreneurship and I'm not strongly motivated by money, but despite the anxiety and ego-fear of failure it's really quite refreshing. As an academic, what you're "up against" is a thick web of arbitrary norms and social games, and your value is contingent on pleasing particular dispensers of cultural capital. One can be ruined if

retard vacation

a certain person simply dislikes you. What feels really great about my current moment of impending entrepreneurial experimentation is that I'm only "up against" the open market of cyberspace. The downside is that, if what I'm capable of producing does not provide enough value to people, then there's no way to paper over this unfortunate fact. I could be forced to get a normal full time job, and face the risk of losing a long-term intellectual life. But the upside is a most fantastic dream, the dream that perhaps everything I've invested into the constitution of a radically independent intellectual life is somehow worth it , not just to me, but on the brutally honest open market. That there might even be a 10% chance of this being true is how and why I'm now hustling harder than ever before while also enjoying greater well-being than ever before.

I am operating at the height of my powers, intoxicated by a dream, though aware that I'm dreaming. If it fails and I'm forced to work full time away from my research agenda and creative visions, well then perhaps I will be at peace with the brutal truth: that in fact my delusional obsessions have only ever been egotistical and anti-social wastes of energy. Perhaps the open market will teach me a hard lesson that academia never had the guts to teach me: that everything I know and everything I think and everything I can make is actually worthless. And if that's the lesson I learn from the open market, then maybe finally my grand visions would be destroyed but maybe then I could finally learn how to be a normal person and keep my mouth shut and just get on with a normal career. If that's what it would mean to fail, then it'd still be a huge blessing and a net gain relative to carrying on my intellectual fixations with the false insulation of academic prestige.

In short, I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by testing what are my honest intellectual capacities really worth? And then I realize that I'm so intoxicated by this dream — my engines are humming so smoothly at full throttle just by virtue of trying 100% for my ideal — that even if my intellect fails to float on the open market in the first 1, 2, 3, 4 test runs, and I have to get some other job, I can always keep trying what I'm currently trying. When I think about this — that on the open market there is no social authority that can end one's ability to try — it really comes home to me how insane it is to hang one's entire livelihood on an insular bureaucratic hierarchy, and I am reminded how good and true and necessary is my current line of flight.

Is parental social status a mixed blessing? On toleration for occupational drudgery

Many people assume that coming from parents with high social status is an advantage, because it would appear to increase the probability of gaining high social status for oneself. But what if parental social status is more like a weight on one's shoulders, an obligation heavy enough that, in some cases, it might even be a losing ticket in the lottery of life?

My parents have very low social status. I am a statistical oddity for having become a tenured academic, which is a relatively high status position (although I wager it's falling in the ranks as academia becomes discredited).

But I've been an academic for five years now, and with every passing year it gets harder and harder to understand why my job is worth doing. The volume of patently nonsensical and often ethically dubious make-work is so high that one of the chief intellectual puzzles I've become the most fascinated by is simply why everyone around me (myself included) is willing to work this job. And people are not just willing to work this job, they even continue to eagerly compete for it. That this has become a puzzle to me suggests that something about me is losing the capacity to do it, and yet for the moment at least — I'm still doing it.

In other occupations, the answer to such a question is obvious: people put up with all the nonsense either because they have no other choice, or because the money is worth it. But what is peculiar about academia is that most academics are skilled and connected enough to do many other things,  and the money is usually better in private-sector versions of academic fields. So if I am right that academia is becoming less and less worth it, given increasing loads of nonsense, I do think that the continuing passionate interest in either obtaining or maintaining academic careers is indeed a puzzling instance of lemming-like, behavioral inertia. But to call it herd behavior is too easy and not really satisfying. How or why does this particular herd dynamic hang together? A good theory would explain why academic investment varies across individuals (e.g., why is it becoming weaker in me, but not others?).

One possible explanation is the drive to meet parental expectations. The rationale is simple. If both of your parents were professors, or they had some other high-status occupation, you'll have a higher tolerance for nonsensical make-work, because you don't want to fail in the eyes of your parents. Quitting because of a too-high volume of nonsense would be existentially much more difficult than it would be for me, as their parents would view it more negatively than mine. Plus, they would feel their parents' judgment more because their parents' status gives their judgments greater credence. My parents, on the other hand, basically think I'm a highly-successful genius no matter what I do, and if for some reason they were to downgrade their opinion of me, my superior education would blunt the effects of that downgrading on me. Therefore, for an academic from high-status parents, maintaining their academic position is more rewarding than it is for me. They feel like they are representing something larger and historical and their parents actually follow what they do. I am doing something that most of my family does not really understand or care about.

For the moment, I'm carrying on. The big question is whether I am carrying on for the right reasons or the wrong reasons. My statistically improbable status background could give me a valuable edge in clarity, allowing me to see things that others can't see and act on them with a greater daring that others cannot access (namely, that perhaps academia is a sinking ship from which one should jump sooner than later). Or, my statistically improbable status background could just make long-term success in a high-status career more difficult, and the correct attitude and behavioral adaptation would be to suck it up and stop rationalizing my weaknesses. I still don't know the answer to this question, but I believe my basic observation about the causal role of parental status may be correct.

What am I doing?

Many different people are asking me what's going on with me. In different languages, sometimes gleefully and sometimes worriedly, I have been asked some variant of "what are you doing?" so many times in the past couple of weeks that I figure I should just write one thing that I can give to anyone who asks. The chorus seems to be approaching a crescendo at the moment, with friends, strangers, coworkers, and now even students, and therefore bosses (that was quick!) joining in. So here's what I'm doing, as succinctly as I can put it.

It's not complicated. It's not profound. It’s not heroic or impressive. In fact, it's possibly the simplest decision I've made, or action I've taken, in the past eight years. It's very important to me personally, but it's something anyone can do, something many people should do, and something countless people do every day, with no fanfare.

I've never liked carving myself into separate sections, and strategically presenting myself to one audience here and one over there. People will say, "But of course, everyone has to do that!" Maybe that's correct, but maybe it's just a useful fiction for people who have made their life about optimizing something other than the truth (how they are perceived, their status, their income or financial stability, etc.). For my part, I believe that any mature adult who claims to be an intellectual must insist upon the widest possible latitude to think and speak in their own tongue — in a way that they are content to let stand for any interested party. Comfortably accepting any latitude less than the greatest latitude they can force open for themselves is fine — it just means you are living a different kind of life than the intellectual life. To think one thing and say another, or to say one thing to your peers and another thing to your students and another thing to the public, is — I believe — a truly abominable, cardinal sin for anyone who says to the public that they are in the business of truth-seeking. I understand that some people must live like this, because of their own unique web of obligations, which is why I am not judging others — but it doesn't mean I must like it, or live my own life that way. I am relatively young (32) and highly skilled; I don't have kids yet; my wife is even younger, and she supports me 100% in saying and doing whatever I need to do. One reason she supports and even encourages my freedom is because, over the past few years of being a tight-lipped, well-behaved prestigious professional, I have been a boring, stressed, shell of myself. If my vision of the intellectual life is impossible or "impractical," so be it. For the moment, I can afford to take my chances, and so what I am doing now is taking my chances, because it is my honest view that continuing life as a normal, respectable academic feels like a much bigger risk to me. I have also been delighted and emboldened by those who value my work enough to throw me money on a monthly basis. It doesn't match my salary from academia, but it's certainly enough to make me wonder what would happen if I pulled out all the stops.

People will think I am being ridiculous because, of course, what I am criticizing is the norm in academia and the intelligentsia more generally. First of all, it is exactly the normalcy of deceptiveness in academia that makes the stakes feel so high to me. Maybe, just maybe, this has something to do with the large-scale semi-international backlash of right-wing populists. Gee, I wonder [scratches head]. Additionally, in the contemporary fragmented media environment, trying to think and write honestly while also pleasing your family, bosses, students, and the public is just prohibitively energy consuming. As an academic, you can easily spend most of your days strategizing how to present yourself in different spaces, and never get around to thinking or saying anything worthwhile. If you want to seek the truth, as a life project, you must at nearly all cost find your own language that you can speak to all comers. Or else, you'll never get around to finding out anything interesting, let alone sharing it. I'm aware that all of these patterns I'm enumerating here are utterly banal to observe. As I said, I'm not making a genius argument, I am just explaining why I am now refusing to behave as I have behaved in the past few years.

What I am doing is simple. I am just thinking and saying whatever I feel like. I'm no hero and I'm certainly no martyr (academia looks much more vulnerable than I feel). I'm not asking for anyone's permission, I'm not asking for sympathy, and I'm not asking for more freedom. I'm not even defending myself on the grounds that I have something especially valuable or important to say. I am taking what belongs to me, for the trivial and even frivolous reason that I want to enjoy the right to make mistakes, to be rude, to occasionally overshoot and occasionally undershoot, perhaps even wildly — to try different ideas and performances on for size, sometimes for the sheer pleasure of doing so. I believe that such irresponsible leisure is a truly necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the more important forms of intellectual liberty that are easier to market. But I refuse even the obligation to market my liberty-taking as something more noble than it is. I don't want to justify what I'm doing with reference to these larger values, because my whole point is that I don't want to be constantly playing this rearguard game of having always to justify my own freedom. I did not get a PhD to live my life trembling at what a student or bureaucrat might think or feel about whatever it is I feel like saying. My mother always taught me that as long as I'm not hurting anyone, then I should do what I want.

Now that I've mentioned it, my family looms large in what I'm doing now. The bastard brat of an Irish-American roofer, I was never supposed to enter the official cosmopolitan intelligentsia — and when you sneak into a place, it looks very different than it does to those who are supposed to be there. I'm only here because I learned early how to hack social firewalls and I made up for my modest IQ with extra piss and vinegar (two things I did inherit amply). My dad and brother both have what the DSM calls Oppositional Defiance Disorder; I'm pretty sure I'm on that spectrum too, but I was blessed with enough self-control to sublimate my rebelliousness into a patient, longer game. Through intellectual work I could eventually prove that all those institutional authority figures were wrong, so I would do that instead of acting out and getting punished. My dad never finished high school, running away to hitchhike and eventually join the Marines. My mom, also Irish-American, also had no education and little earning power, but that didn't stop them from having four kids. Two of my siblings are recovering heroin addicts.

That's who I am, I am these people — and I'm quite tired of acting like I'm exactly the same as every other rootless hyper-educated citizen of the world. The typical cosmopolitan professor today — if she was giving my mother personal advice in 1986 — would have advised my parents to abort me. She would be disgusted by the latent racism and sexism she would have found embedded unconsciously in their vernacular. If my parents were "smart," they probably would have divorced each other at some point, in search of greener pastures. But they didn't abort me, and they spoke how they spoke, and they didn't break the family, all for reasons I have been too educated to understand. Until lately. The last time I visited my family was in the run-up to the US Presidential election. My grandmother, a former teacher who is educated and fiercely intelligent (and disagreeable), told me she was going to vote for Trump. I articulated my reasons for why that upset me, and she looked me in the eyes like she never had before, with a coldness unlike her, and she said, "I do not care what anybody thinks." I was horrified and upset at the time, but this was one of my best friends growing up, and I never, ever would have become a successful academic without her. I didn't vote for Trump and I'm still no fan, but her words on that day have been echoing in my head like crazy since then. I may have recalled these words every single day since then. All of my own traits and accomplishments that I like and value the most about myself, I got from my family. They have backbones far stronger than most people I've met in my extensive travels among the international intellectual class. I haven't yet made sense of all this, but sometimes life forces you to make broad wagers, on ill-defined questions you don't fully understand. I needed to give you all of this background, but in conclusion, all I can really say is that I have already invested far too much into academic respectability, and not enough into honoring my family. And I've never been good at half measures, so now I'm going to see what happens if I bet the farm on "I do not care what anybody thinks."

If my bosses think that any of this is inconsistent with my employment, then I will just infer that their employment is inconsistent with a real intellectual life. I am a highly skilled researcher and lecturer, with good publications, and a fine track record in every aspect of my academic career thus far. If the person I truly am, and aspire to become, does not fit into academia, I would much prefer to learn this now rather than later. In fact, it would be a most profound discovery regarding the real limits of higher education today. That would give me something to think and study and write about for years. For intellectuals, huge surprises are hugely valuable;  they're good news, exciting.

If academia can tolerate me, that would also be good to know. But if I can't be truly free to think and say what I want right now, while I have more respectable prestige points than perhaps I ever will, and while I have tenure (the British version, anyway), then I'll certainly never be granted such liberty in the future. I am just going to cease calculating, as much as possible anyway. Sometimes that will mean saying the smartest thing I can think of, sometimes that will mean saying the funniest thing I can think of, and maybe sometimes it will mean saying the dumbest thing I can think of, if in that moment I feel like not bearing the burden of sophistication. As I said, I don't need you to like this, or even understand it, let alone praise or forgive it. But you asked, so here is my answer for now.

How to kill the grump in your head (Deleuzean #NiceRx?)

I can sometimes sense inside of myself, already, the early stirrings of elderly grumpiness. Needless to say, I do not like this, and so at this relatively early stage in my life, I must do everything possible to avert this sad fate.

A few nights ago, I went to my friends’ house to watch Eurovision. I think I was overly negative that evening, criticizing all the acts with a bit too much loathing, to the point that I was perhaps slightly rude to my friends. I don’t mind being slightly rude if I am asserting something important that I believe, during moments that matter, but that’s not what I was doing. I was just counter-signaling, which is contemptible. In my contempt for postmodern pop culture, I fell into its clutches and played its game: vacuous speech and micro-performances motivated only to assert and sustain my own sense of ego and identity, in order to feel proud and be recognized, to feel differentiated and distinguished in the ever continuing mass meltdown of all values and tastes. No matter who you are or what you believe, this mode of being in the world, this defensive ego-maintenance mode, is always contemptible (although it is often forgivable and sometimes unavoidable).

Of course, the solution is perfectly clear, easy, and ancient: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all — unless it’s really important and coming from a place that is non-reactive and affirmative of life in general. But this rule, which well-behaved children can follow, is surprisingly hard to follow for many adults. Why?

One reason this rule is hard to follow is that when you hang-out with friends — in order to be the most fun for them but also for your own enjoyment, the whole point of hanging out – it is necessary to “let oneself go,” at least to some degree. The unique challenge enters when the hangout itself is premised on social signaling games as part of the fun (and this can be a fine source of great fun). The whole point of watching Eurovision with friends is to take turns making all kinds of comments, criticisms, affirmations, oppositions, displays of wit, and gifts of humor — all so many subtle and enjoyable ways to revel in one’s belonging, to the assembled group but also to the larger groups that the assembled group sees itself as belonging to.

The simple truth is that we do live in postmodernity, whether one likes or not. Therefore, if you dislike postmodernist relativism, but you would like to avoid becoming a grumpy person, you must take care not to "let oneself go” in contexts where the normal social behavior presumes alignment with postmodern relativism.

There is an opposite pitfall, however, which is avoiding all contexts were normal social behavior presumes alignment with postmodernism. In postmodernity, avoiding the presumption of postmodernism would mean nothing less than “dropping out” of all social intercourse, generally a direct path to resentful lonerism. This is not the case for everyone, perhaps, and the internet is rapidly increasing the feasibility of unhinging altogether from normal IRL social expectations, but typically “refusing to interact with most people” is a recipe for various forms of disaster.

Ultimately, I think the solution is as follows. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, but when you do choose to let yourself go — and you must, at times — only do it on a novel plane of your own construction, orthogonal to whatever is the presumed socio-moral playing field. You will be incomprehensible, but that’s fine. In short, if one is to avoid grumpiness, one cannot avoid being a philosopher. Oblique angles always; diverge but never resist.

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