I have Maria Popova's blog Brain Pickings in my RSS feed. It seemed like a good idea, a long while back. But I've noticed the last year that when I get to those updates I tend to skip over them.
That whole project is increasingly becoming very precious - the sense I get off it is that it is a shop window for rarefied taste and a kind of snobbery. "Here are Benjamin Franklin's thoughts on frogs, poetry, and the life of man", or "Goethe's letters to his tailor and the meaning of that relationship in his life", and so on. Clever for clever's sake. And ultimately, a vanity window - look how clever I am, how rarefied MY reading is, how exquisite MY taste is. This is very off putting. The other thing that bugged me is the big donation button on the blog, that boldly claims something like "donating is loving". I don't mind the button, but the message is appalling. It's not true.
Then today, something else struck me, as I skimmed her updates in my feed reader, on the way to something better. There's been a trend for about a year, to feature more and more love letters written by famous people often to other famous people. Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, was the first one I remember. I thought that was quite beautiful at the time. But the practice has piled up. And that's tacky. It's emotional voyeurism, disguised as artistic sensitivity, at best.
I just realised, as I saw yet another The Love Letters of x to y post, that those should probably not be published at all. What business is that of anyone else? And having been published, they should certainly not be extracted and blogged and pawed over by millions of people, framed in the Look How Sensitive I Am manner that they are.
If anyone had the real aesthetic sensitivity and good taste that Brain Pickings relentlessly advertises itself as having, these would have been excluded. That's one of the hallmarks of good taste - knowing what NOT to do.
And below all that, after all the swooning over the delicacy, the depth, the humanity and the singular piercing insight of some person's love letters to another person...
...donating is loving.
So, thinking that, while I really do feel that way about this blog, I was maybe being unkind, I went to the About page to try and be more even-handed and see what the intention was. Since this is has been - until now - an unarticulated reaction on my part, I was worried that it was nothing more than my own prejudices and foibles, projected onto something else.
I haven't visited in a long while, so I googled it.Disclaimer: Before I go further, I should state that, despite how this reads (even to me), I'm not gunning for her personally. I'm trying to articulate - partly to myself - a broader set of concerns about this as an increasingly common style of presentation and persona, and only tangentially knocking against some of her specific pretensions. Please bear that in mind. She’s not a target here, even though she's a subject of enquiry.
It appears in Google search as "Brain Pickings: An Inventory of the Meaningful Life." (Thanks, Maria. Now I know who to ask when I wonder if my life is meaningful.)1. On Becoming
The About page starts with this: "(It's) a record of my own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually — and an inquiry into how to live and what it means to lead a good life."
This phrase "my becoming" is a very American thing, so she can hardly be blamed for it - it's in their water, I imagine. It's trivial, probably, but it is part of the problem I have with this whole project, and what I think it represents. Here goes, then.
Americans at a certain level of wealth and luxury seem to be obsessed with their "becoming". No-one else in the world has been obsessed with it - people have explicitly spoken about their "development", their "learning", their exposure to thought and so on, for centuries. Never "becoming".
In Victorian times, for example, the monied classes would send their daughters out to tour the continent, to acquire some learning and exposure. Finishing school had the same purpose - finishing, in the sense of putting the finishing touches on a person, by applying to them those qualities and characteristics that would mark them out as upper class. Language skills, music reading and dressage, or poetics and letters, or decorous behaviour, for example. The traditional tour of "the continent" - Europe - was to ensure that when asked if they'd seen the great art, they'd be able to say yes. The issue of whether they'd had any meaningful response to it was less relevant, and often discouraged. (A meaningful response to the creative life might have led, as it sometimes did, to the young lady in question taking off with the Bedouins or trekking across the Himalayas, the kinds of things that were actively discouraged and then posthumously venerated.)
The purpose of "finishing" was to make them marriageable, by ensuring that young ladies of a certain class would be able to hold their own in conversation and not embarrass the family by confusing the Marquis De Sade with Kierkegaard and suggesting that the latter's progress through life was bawdier than had been thought, or something similar. It's the kind of thing that accrues to luxuried classes with time on their hands and insufficient work. You also see it in Japan at the Imperial Court, when aristocrats feared that with the rise of the shogunate and the dwindling of Imperial power, their influence was marginal. The letters of Lady Murasaki reflect an aristocratic preoccupation with snippets of things, and with entertainments, with refinement of the taste as a substitute for substantial value to the society.
This needs to be clear. A preoccupation with refinement is always an aristocratic preoccupation, because an aristocratic class is always aware that their value and contribution to the society is usually fuck all. That's a pretty unstable position to be in, and so history is filled with their attempts to justify it. Such attempts tend to converge on personal qualities, since the underpinning idea supporting any aristocracy is that of there being certain people in whom inherently better qualities as humans vest. This is supposed to be demonstrated by the process of refinement, in terms of which those qualities are brought out and made visible.
In America, the notion of an aristocracy is anathema. The country’s cultural notions of itself have never allowed for it, and are in fact quite the opposite - classless society, DIY mentality, lack of pretension and so on are all part of the national claim to fame, even though none of them are true. (America is a highly class conscious society, like all Western societies have been, it's only DIY in the field of hustling and marketing, and its pretensions are massive.)
That fact remains though, that it has produced a class of people who need to do little work to live in relative luxury, in part because the country is structured so as to externalise its costs onto other countries, while internalising the benefits it derives from such problems. The rampant consumption of fossil fuels, for example, requires that the people who nominally "own" such resources by virtue of living on the land that holds them, have no say in their distribution. This requires wars, those wars are fought in the Middle East, not in America, and the catastrophic effects accrue there. Similarly, ensuring that mobile phone technology is available to all in America requires both the dedicated and unwavering production lines necessary to extract certain resources, and the ruthless capping of costs of such extraction. Slavery, in fact, and that slavery happens in Central Africa, not in America, while the benefits of such slavery accrue in America.
As a result, it's difficult for Americans to see themselves as "aristocrats" - that is, as largely useless appendages to the society, making little contribution - because their "lower classes" live in other countries. Despite this, that class of people, as everywhere in history exhibits both that yearning for gilding that expressed itself to the Victorians as finishing schools and to the Japanese court as "wabi-sabi" and the urgent desire to prove to world that the accident of their birth into luxury has a deep, natural reason. For those who find themselves consumed with such fears and longings in America, it has developed as this business of "becoming".
"Becoming", is the ultimate DIY, as the only actor in it is you. Being actively fashioned into a reliable marriage partner and a good catch is not. There are others involved in "finishing", but “becoming” requires only you and your innate magnificence. Despite this magnificence, "becoming" is unpretentious, because you are acted upon, you become this wonderful rarity, rather than sweating to be seen as such. You are chosen (by natural forces I assume) to evolve into your true wonder. Such wonder and glory was not sought out by you, and relentlessly marketed to the world, ad nauseum, but descended upon you like the Holy Spirit is wont to do, perhaps in a garden where you had retired to read, all aflame with the desire to learn, learn, learn and improve yourself. Becoming is therefore both indicative of innate superiority and a natural consequence, and therefore class-free even though it expresses a belief in your own class as better. It's a terrible tightrope of bullshit to have to walk.
Critically, "becoming" implies qualities in the individual that are not shared by others. Not all persons are a fit vehicle for "becoming". Many people are exposed to art, and beauty and truth and yet, do not "become". They are lumpen, unrefined and inadequate conduits for the wonder that a "becomed" person is fit receptacle for. “Becoming”, therefore, meets the necessary criterion for justified self-aggrandizement that accompanies any aristocratic class, while also meeting the American criterion for spontaneous and natural superiority, untainted by class.
However, superiority, to be proven to be true, must find outlet in authority of some sort. Historically, such control and authority had very practical expressions, leading to social, political and military appointments that carried weight. In the current time, those appointments are no longer available in that fashion. The rewards have become too great to risk them by appointing dummies, and those positions are limited to technocrats who can be relied on to ensure the system proceeds ruthlessly to its goals. Modern persons with pretensions to aristocracy cannot rely on direct control, as they did in the past, and therefore seek positions of social and moral authority. The new aristocrat, anointed by the forces of "becoming", is now compelled to share with you the correct way to grow, the correct way to live, the correct way to "be". You see this dynamic a lot if you watching American television or read American newspapers. Monetary superiority is never enough and each person who achieves it seems to seek a second career as an authority of some or other sort.
Their society, mediated largely by television and media, is filled to the brim with people who lecture you on things you should do, on the basis that they made money, found the power that having money confers insufficient and now having had the time to read a book leap frantically to shoulder the burden of intellectual authority. It's the Oprah-fication of life, in one sense, this idea that if you read a book, you're entitled to lecture and advise others. (By the way, it speaks to nothing more than the poverty of American intellectual life, that reading a book makes you into a magical wizard.)
This is what it means in the first paragraph of the blog's vision statement when Maria Popova says "... (it is) an inquiry into how to live and what it means to lead a good life
." It means she sees herself as an authority on those subjects. Specifically, an authority to you, the reader. In her case, she derives her authority from (a) clipping notes from great thinkers and sending them to you and (b) the forces of the American desire for natural aristocracy that I described above.
Personally, I have a higher standard for accepting authority over me than Americans seem to, and so I quickly looked her up, to determine the basis for her claims to authority. Maria has a degree in communications, the kind intended to prepare you for the advertising industry. Sure enough, she worked in the advertising industry. She attended the American College in Bulgaria and then the university of Pennsylvania, after which she worked briefly as a "staff member in a small start-up advertising agency". According to her bio, she's a journalist. However, as far as I can see her work experience is largely confined to an intern experience at a small (I assume, failed, because its name is never mentioned) ad agency. It was there that she started mailing her co-workers with snippets, and that practice apparently evolved into this practice, with all the associated grandeur and pretension to achievement that I find so grating. Her achievements are listed as follows: "She maintains a newsletter, a Twitter account, and has numerous Google Plus subscribers. In 2012, she created the "Literary Jukebox", a sub-site where she matches quotes from books with songs."
Read that again.
In service of this extraordinary assumption of moral and creative authority, she cites that fact that has a Twitter account and numerous Google+ subscribers. She also tells you what songs to listen to, if you want to refine yourself, in the manner she has refined herself, through, I assume, "becoming".
Stop and think about that. I could stop writing right here. I probably should.2. On Creating
The next substantive paragraph in her vision statement, after you skip a couple of paragraphs of self-aggrandizement, is this one:"The core ethos behind Brain Pickings is that creativity is a combinatorial force: it’s our ability to tap into our mental pool of resources
— knowledge, insight, information, inspiration, and all the fragments populating our minds
— that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways
. In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new ideas
It may be just me, but her little working background, all of it in advertising, really comes to the fore here. I'm going to tackle only the things that stand out to me, otherwise I'll never get through this.Creativity is a combinatorial force
I don't think that she understands what a combinatorial force is. There are two definitions that apply to that phrase. One is mathematical. The other means "combined".
Applying the first leads to completely and utterly incomprehensible shit, such as (a) "creativity is the arrangement of, operation on, and selection of discrete mathematical elements belonging to finite sets or making up geometric configurations" or (b) "creativity is the arrangement and counting of elements in mathematical sets" or, in more practical terms, (c) "creativity is the rapidly accelerating increase in communication lines as organizations are added in a process" or (d) "creativity is the curse of dimensionality, expressed as the rapid expansion of candidate solutions to a given problem as elements are added to the search set". Frankly, we can rule out the first usage and only the second is available.
What she may actually then be saying is that she thinks creativity comes from combining things. The statement is not true, but it's a likely candidate. Advertising is the only industry in history that created a position called "creative", while at the same time consisting entirely of combining and pillaging other people's creativity and representing it as new, and she's an advertising bunny.
Now, if she'd written that - "creativity is combining things" - it would simply have been another benign and facile platitude, a statement of belief easily proven false, but at least an honest claim about what someone thought. It's honest in the same way that those pictures you find all over the internet of eagles and wolves and fucking lions, with some tacky inspirational slogan pasted on them, are honest. When they say shit like the eagle sees further because he flies fucking alone, or the walrus dreams of the sea, or strength comes from the ability to hunt in pairs or whatever corporate encouragement of the day was required, we know not take it as a claim to truth. In other words, had it been stated that way, it would at least be clearly what it is: an ill-informed view, easily rebutted."it’s our ability to tap into our mental pool of resources — knowledge, insight, information, inspiration, and all the fragments populating our minds — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways.
Essentially, the bolded section is the only material part. Stripped of pretension this paragraph is actually a disclaimer, and reads: “There will have been no effort put into this. You will get the benefits of me merely having been ‘present and awake’. However, if you understood what I meant by “becoming”, you will nevertheless value that, for mystical reasons. Caveat emptor, motherfucker.”"In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new ideas"
“To truly create and contribute to the world” is the key section here. When she says that cross-pollination and fertilization is critical to growth and development, she’s repeating what is well-known. I cannot think that anyone would disagree. However, that’s also not a piercing insight. It’s obvious and creative people are fully aware of it. In the early days of the internet, creative people presented their sources and their cross-pollination and their influences, and we loved that. When Neil Gaiman or John Crowley or William Gibson blog, it’s fascinating, because it lifts the lid on processes that result in artefacts that we have experienced. In other words, their authority vests in their actual creativity – we’re interested because they have created things, and the view that they provide enriches our experience of the things they create. Their authority does not derive from their blogging. It derives from their work outside
Maria Popova doesn't create. But she does assume authority by association, and that assumption of authority is written large throughout her vision statement. She’s constantly stating things about creativity, with complete assurance, without actually having a body of work that would demonstrate her first-hand experience. In so doing, she's contributing to changing the definition of creativity and the definition of achievement, in both cases for the worse.3. On Living
The last part of the vision statement reads as follows:"Brain Pickings — which remains ad-free and supported by readers — is a cross-disciplinary LEGO treasure chest, full of pieces spanning art, science, psychology, design, philosophy, history, politics, anthropology, and more; pieces that enrich our mental pool of resources and empower combinatorial ideas that are stronger, smarter, richer, deeper and more impactful. Above all, it’s about how these different disciplines illuminate one another to glean some insight, directly or indirectly, into that grand question of how to live, and how to live well."
There’s too much to go into here, so I’m only going to pick one thing.“Brain Pickings is a cross-disciplinary LEGO treasure chest, full of pieces spanning art, science, psychology, design, philosophy, history, politics, anthropology, and more… that enrich our mental pool of resources and empower combinatorial ideas that are stronger, smarter, richer, deeper and more impactful”
If you’ve read the blog, you will be aware that Brain Pickings is quotes from books Maria Popova may have read, be reading or have in her house. Sometimes she posts videos from the internet. She now and again annotates these quotes. It is not a “cross-disciplinary” anything. It's her browsing. Calling blogging your thoughts a cross disciplinary exercise is, as with the use of “combinatorial force” earlier, an attempt to invest the exercise with an aura of scientific rigour and it's more ad speak.
The ad speak gets worse though, in the next phrase, where she claims to be “empowering combinatorial ideas” that are “more impactful” as well as being richer and deeper. Those of you who’ve worked in corporates will recognise this language. It’s the language that the Human Resources team uses when they hire an external consultancy in to help you develop your mission statement, so that your boss can find ways to fire people without having to say that’s what he’s doing. Worse, she uses the word impactful without indicating any sense of shame at all.
All of this is applied in service if identifying “how to live and how to live well”, which is why I have been wasting my Sunday afternoon writing this down for an audience of exactly zero.4. Why Am I Writing This
I subscribed to the blog a long time ago. As I said, it was probably because it referenced Richard Feynman or someone else I like. I noticed over time, that I almost never read it, but have been too busy to think about why. Then over the last year, it popped in in other feeds – she was interviewed by Tim Ferriss, an interview I skipped listening to, and referenced in a few online publications I read. The sense I got was that her myth-making was actively being supported by others interested in similar myth-making. I also noticed that the kinds of people referencing her status were the kinds of people who were also claiming to see rubbish like Uber and the like as the modern-day equivalent of the Sistine Chapel. I have mentioned before that I don’t like that and think it’s false. I previously wrote:“This period in history unfortunately often rewards such people well beyond their worth. Uber is a good example - it's a very, very impressive enterprise, but in the end it's really just a facility with code and load balancing across drivers, arising at a point in time when much longer and more complex wave of technology opened a door to spread it quickly. The founders and their fans seem to have no awareness at all of the sheer accidental contingency of their success. They attribute it all to themselves, and as a consequence, the founders of Uber and their fans now make the kind of public pronouncements about their importance to history that would get anyone else locked up as delusional. Yet they are indulged, encouraged and sought after for advice. And predictably, the kind of advice they do have on complex social subjects tend to be adolescent fantasies of the Nietzschean uber-mensch and trivialities.”
Maria Popova and Brain Pickings reflect the same attitude. She doesn’t create anything. When she quotes Goethe or William James or Sartre, for example, she fails to understand that the reason Goethe or William James or Sartre might be worth reading or listening to is that they created something that stood up to time and research. They add to the pool.
We are interested in them as people because of their achievements and their thought process is only interesting because
of the nature and type of their achievements. She - deliberately or accidentally - equates her act of knowing
about their achievements with their achievement.
It's the idea that Maria Popova (or anyone's) ability to hustle their way to a salary - in her case, via Amazon referral revenue and having people to donate money to her - is an act of creation the equal of Darwin or Freud, or Goethe, or Sartre, and it's the associated idea that such hustle can be transformed into intellectual and moral authority simply by saying so. It's infantile, should easily be seen through and almost never is, and that represents what our era is about, and makes me sad.
I suppose it bothers me that no-one can see through that, and that this - often very facile, sound-bite style - collection of "great thoughts" is treated as an body of intellectual work. There's a very American thing at work here, where knowing about the existence of something is taken as just as valuable as knowing that thing in depth.
Familiarity has replaced expertise, and even familiarity requires nothing more than knowing a name, or clipping a quote. It's a world wherein - it seems to me - so few people know anything beyond hustling that hustling itself is taken as a the only actual success, and if, on top of that success you can name drop a few icons of "culture", you're an highly-respected and sought after person. It's saddening, frustrating, and it makes me depressed about the future.5. Predictable RebuttalsYou’re writing something on the internet too.
Yes, I am. I am not assuming an authority in so doing. And there is no donate button that says “donating = loving”. And I’m not claiming to be creating something important by doing so, even though there’s more thought gone into this post than goes into the majority of Brain Pickings. Unnecessary thought, I think. I really wish I had the ability to just let it go and get on with my Sunday like a healthy person.
I don’t have a problem with people writing things on the internet. I wish there were more people doing so. When the internet took off, there were a lot of people being genuinely creative. Writing was often interesting and he fruits of that are all around you, in terms of how it grew.But you’re also posting things you think are important or cool.
See above. Me and billion other people. I don’t have a problem with that at all - I have a problem with people confusing that with (a) doing work, (b) creativity and (c) with people claiming that as a mark of their development, refinement and authority. It's posting things on the internet.But you also have a long post outlining how you think people should live.
No, I don’t. I have a long post outlining how I think I should live, and explaining – quite badly – why I think that way. So do 400 million other people, and that's ok. Also, zero people read that, and so I actively avoid having to make it worthwhile.____________________________________
TL, DR: I unsubscribed from Brain Pickings today.
"The adjective impactful, a late-20th-century coinage, is frequently derided as a meaningless buzzword, but the word is here to stay whether we like it or not, and many people find it useful."http://grammarist.com/words/impactful/