(He still doesn't get it)
I wanted to echo something Katherine brought up at the end about people searching for structure. I think this is the driving force behind almost every cultural phenomenon of the past decade and probably will be for the coming decade as well.
I grew up in a secular, relatively liberal family that never really put any constraints on my behavior beyond very basic things like "don't get arrested." There was flexibility around gender roles, hobbies, academic interests, extracurriculars, college choices, career paths, sexuality, religion, politics and even drug and alcohol use. I say this not to blame my parents for my problems as an adult but only to illustrate the kind of environment a lot of upper middle class American kids have grown up in since the 90s.
After you finish the race to get into an elite college there is no predefined life path to take if you're inclined to conformity and no predefined life path to reject if you're inclined to rebellion. This leaves the high achievers flailing once they graduate and have no more brass ring to grasp for and the outcasts making increasingly extreme choices - like gender transition and willingly pursuing sex work - in a desperate bid to shock the normies, for whom tattoos and piercings and weird hair colors and starting a punk band and doing drugs are now utterly routine. This state of affairs is not liberatory but paralyzing. You have too many choices for how to live your life and the stakes of those choices are terrifyingly high because if you make the wrong one and fuck it all up you have only yourself to blame (and you have no easy alternative path if you decide you fucked up and want to change).
This is a particularly upper middle class western phenomenon because it's a struggle that takes place within the top layers of Maslow's pyramid; you can't really have these problems when you don't have physical and psychological safety and a relatively stable home life. But at the same time, these problems aren't trivial or stupid - they're very deeply embedded in the human psyche. It's not really possible to be above this kind of search for meaning. Even the self-styled millennial Marxists who pride themselves on their "materialism" are acting out this very immaterial impulse towards self-actualization.
It just so happens that the same people who are the most likely to end up in this situation are also the most likely to end up in the "cultural class" that sets the tone for the discourse in our society. They look insane to people who grew up differently: the working class with their actual material problems, the children of immigrants with their strict rules and very specific parental expectations, people from conservative religious communities with their predefined gender roles and overarching belief systems. Structurelessness seems like paradise when you feel like you don’t have enough choices, but in many ways it’s its own special kind of hell that’s hard to understand until you’ve lived it.
I don't really know where I'm going with this except that I'm a young-ish person who's had a pretty objectively good life and yet I struggle every day with the tyranny of structurelessness. I know there's more meaning, more value, more SOMETHING to be found in this life but I just don't know where to find it. I completely understand why so many millennials and gen z'ers are becoming nuns and following Jordan Peterson and dedicating their life to stanning Taylor Swift and declaring themselves communists and self-diagnosing with chronic lyme disease and pursuing gender transition and making their choice not to have children their entire identity and living the #vanlife and going vegan etc etc etc.
OK, as someone who never got the hang of Tumblr, I could be totally off base here. But the dismissal of postmodernism as the source of "wokeness" reminds me of the left's dismissal of concerns about CRT in schools. "This is an obscure theory that's taught only in post-graduate courses. No one's teaching it to your children!" No, but the teachers who were exposed to these theories then develop curricula and activities that focus on racial differences among the children they teach.
To say that "woke" concepts arose independently on Tumblr waaay back in 2013 ignores the fact that critical theory had been percolating for decades in the academy. There's no reason to think that Tumblr would have been so isolated from the real world as to be immune to this influence. In fact, a Google search for "foucault" on pre-2013 Tumblr turns up hundreds of results. And as Dee's article states, "Tumblr’s user interface made it very difficult to avoid certain topics without serious curation."
I'm guessing this episode will get fewer listens than the more culture-warring ones, but I really enjoyed the sane, unheated discussion with Katherine Dee. I'm going to check out her writing.
On the question Katherine and Jesse briefly asked at the end—whether IRL social settings such as small-town church life can be every bit as toxic as online culture—I think not. (People here will disagree with me; feel free to tell me why I'm wrong!) It is definitely true that culture wars get into real churches on Sunday mornings and cause trouble. People like Tim Alberta (see link), David French, and Peter Wehner have written eloquently about how much politics have poisoned everyday churchgoing culture, in many cases getting pastors fired from their jobs, in the past 6–7 years: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/06/evangelical-church-pastors-political-radicalization/629631/. I could offer examples from churches my extended family and I attend, and you could probably get a good earful if you walked into your nearest neighborhood church and asked the pastor to tell you whether cultural or interpersonal infighting has been a challenge for him/her.
I could also offer examples of giant fights and congregational/denominational splits over esoteric theological issues most people have never heard of, such as whether baptized but unconfirmed young children can take communion or the implications of translation of the Greek phrase "dikaiosune theou" for Christian salvation.
That said, my experience as someone who's attended hundreds of churches, both as a visitor and long-term member, over nearly 40 years has been that IRL interactions are always, always less poisonous than internet fights. Even if there's a churchgoer who brings their online fighting to church—and this definitely happens sometimes—there are multiple other people at church who are there to coordinate meals for funerals, make sure the church is opened at the correct time for the AA meeting in the fellowship hall, take communion or healing prayer (depending on the denomination) to people who are hospitalized or ill at home, or just ask you if you're doing OK because they didn't see you for several Sundays and heard you were home sick with your kids. (This last one is simple but a big deal for me!)
When my dad got a very bad cancer diagnosis and had to have surgery right away to remove the tumor and confirm the diagnosis, his pastor, some elders, and their wives all showed up at the hospital and just hung around with my mom and siblings and me while we were stuck in the family waiting area during the surgery. The church was in the middle of falling apart over dumb political disputes, and it was not my theological cup of tea to begin with, but what mattered a lot more to me was the huge group of people who took care of my parents while my dad was sick and kept showing up at the house for my mom after he died.
People are complicated and often badly behaved. (The Christian writer Francis Spufford suggests we can think of that weird theological word "sin" as "the human propensity to fuck things up.") I have definitely seen a lot of churchgoers fuck things up, and I won't pretend I'm not a fuckup myself. But the great thing about IRL communities is that you have those real-life connections that often, somehow, despite all the fuckups around, manage to give people comfort and encouragement. Or at least a little coffee and "How are you? I haven't seen you in a while" on Sunday morning.
I was a goth in 2003 and remain a goth now, AMA!
Jokes aside, I’m enjoying this episode so far. I was unfamiliar with Katherine Dee and look forward to reading her Substack (especially as someone who somehow missed tumblr).
I do worry about kids who are identifying as asexual, trans, etc. too young. A brief fling with alternative culture is one thing, but claiming a fundamental part of your being before you’ve experienced much of life as it pertains to those identities is a recipe for a brutal identity crisis. I don’t envy how weighty walking back gender identity, sexual orientation, etc. will likely be for a not insignificant number of kids in a few years time.
Congrats on your engagement! I found you a bit ago around when Marcus Andressen was on your show. Then again when some guy named Gio was on your show to promote a writing contest and I always check back. Been very impressed by the depths of your tumblr lore, and I always imagine you in some dark library like Gandalf but trying to read about all the new genders instead of the One Ring (what is the one gender to rule them all?). Great interview and I hope you are back on again to explore the ramifications of everyone being a disembodied soul now.
I would totally subscribe to your substack if my wife were not already wondering how the hell I am already subscribed to so many.
Also the lowest tier of internet life is commenter (slinks into cave to eat raw fish).
I thoroughly enjoy Katherine’s substack, podcast and twitter! Lovely to hear her on the B&R feed.
I’m 15 minutes in and dear God I hope that we’re done talking about Aella now - there’s only so much respect I can lose for you, Jesse.
Like my friend Jane (below) intimated, thanks for introducing me to Katherine Dee. I was completely unfamiliar with her and her work. Great conversation, Jesse. I'm looking forward to reading Katherine and following her on Twitter. She seems a very reasonable thinker-journalist and I'd like more of them in my intellectual life. Thank BAR!
Enjoyed the episode, but I have to say Indiana is not a total wasteland:).
If the punchline of your argument revolves around clapping, it’s 👏 not 👏 an argument 👏!
Last night I listened to Katherine Dee’s ‘The Ghost of Adam Lanza’. It was totally fascinating. One of the best things I’ve heard on a podcast. I can’t find Part 2.
I really enjoyed this conversation and thought that Kathryn was very insightful. One thing I have noticed about Blocked and Reported is that I think that similar to some other heterodox thinkers, they tend to be really dismissive of asexuality. I totally agree with Jesse on the fact that declaring it early in life is a problem. But I also think that they don’t necessarily validate it for adults either and I think it’s a useful way to talk about real differences in sexual desire that has an effect on sexual relationships. I think it’s a way of being seen. I know that identities are very rigid right now but if there was a way for us to really talk about these things in an nonpathologizing way, it would be really helpful.￼ I also think it would be good to talk about in a way that the answer isn’t automatically, how you feel is exactly how I feel or something like that. Anyway I think if we could talk about it in a less stigmatizing way, maybe people wouldn’t have to describe themselves so clearly as an identity label as a way to kind of protect the self.
￼ I guess there’s also stuff around gender nonconforming stuff that also could really be discussed in probably a better way. I have a lot more thoughts about how rigid gender and sexuality expectations are even now and they’re actually exacerbated, rather than ameliorated by labels. However, people against labels are also not doing anything to help it. I think we need like an alternate structure and not just a deconstruction of wokeism.￼
WAIT—Julie Bindel?!! When? We want Julie Bindel! We want Julie Bindel! Could you ask her—press her—on the seeming legions of pro-sex-work prostitutes? I know she says that ultimately, based on her hundreds (or more?) interviews they are all oppressed, but I’d like to hear more about that and whether she’s interviewed the North American Sex-Work Activists. I want to be with her on this, but I’m unsure.
For sure, that's what popular media outlets function to do, which is more my problem with Dee's confused and only partly accurate history of the ascension of wokeness. Pretty much always it goes like this:
radical idea starts in academia > gets taught to students, a minority of whom embrace it > a minority of those students flock to media outlet popular with kids to spread the ideology > ideology is spread.
I mean, this is how queer theory went from the Sorbonne to American sitcoms. Dee seems blissfully unaware of any history at all, it seems. Idk, I don't understand her appeal both with her lack of historical knowledge, insight, and humor or entertainment value.
One of the things that is driving me crazy is the use of political Left and Right to describe one’s stance on identity politics, and, even worse, the commentary that The Most Egregiously Woke = Far Left = Marxist. For the record, Marx and Marxists are far left because they believe in the destruction of the Capitalist system and the redistribution of wealth to the masses. There were no Identity politics in Marx’s time, and self-defined Marxists today still couldn’t give a shit about it—hell, they don’t even give a shit about women.
The Far Right stance is broader: also socioeconomic, believing in pure Capitalism, unrestrained by the State, and the total lack of responsibility by the state for the poor; as well as strong Nationalism and protectionism, as well as cultural puritanism (which in the West reads as white supremacy); and finally, a tendency to be highly patriarchal.
Identity Politics ranges from Woke (translated roughly as “The more Oppressed you are the more Society should make accommodations for you” (but with a prescriptive idea of Oppression that doesn’t seem to include women) — to — Egalitarian (“Everyone should be treated equally”) — to — White Supremacy/Naziism (“Only White able-bodied people are worthwhile and everyone else should be exterminated”) which IS Far Right Fascist.
The vast majority of people (I hope) are in the middle—Egalitarian—but socioeconomically/politically they are split Left/Right.
SO, when Katherine Dee identifies more Right, I have to wonder what that means.
HOW do we come up with new terms for the Woke/Egalitarian/Nazi divide?
On this episode and at least one other recent episode, the idea of solving internet conflicts IRL came up - the oversimplified "if you have a problem with someone, TALK to them about it." (E.g., Katherine Dee's wedding invitee story). But, this is hard! And also applies to non-internet conflicts. I'm going to possibly veer into advice seeking here, as I have been in two situations this past year that I feel I *should* talk about but the awkwardness, the burned bridges, the confrontation, ahhh!
About a year ago, I became victim of a friend who keeps very close tabs on others' internet behavior (person A didn't like her Insta post oh no!, person B commented but omg what does he mean by that, unfriending person C on Facebook because he didn't text her back in 3 days, etc.) and sometimes posts pointed videos directed at certain people. We had "afternoon" plans one day, so I scheduled a date at 8pm. When she asked me to meet her at 8 instead of the afternoon (in my head, ~3-5pm), I said I couldn't. Later I see she's posted a TikTok saying "don't you all have that one friend who always ditches you cus she has to see her booboo..." Yup, I knew that was about me. I noticed she unfriended me on all social media platforms on which we were connected, and I haven't spoken to her since.
IRL, another friend aggressively screamed at me in the public pool's locker room showers over pool lane availability (which I have no control over, was just communicating what the pool manager told me). I have since cut off all social engagement with her beyond niceties on the pool deck, though we used to be closer friends. Her aggression and tone of voice seemed unforgiveable to me.
In my mind, these "friends" should be coming to me if they want to repair our relationships, as they were the ones who initiated the problems. Yet, I've received no word, no apology. Are these situations similar to those the pod references? Should I initiate any contact? Where's the line when things are only IRL, or IRL and spillover online? What if both people think the other is in the wrong? Etc etc etc.