The Uses and Disadvantages of Historovox For Life

by John Holbo on March 2, 2019

Corey caught flack for his “Historovox” piece. I have since been intermittently failing to write a useful response. Maybe this one will go better.

There are two thoughts behind the piece.

1) Trump is weak.

2) ‘Historovox’ affords a distorted view.

The connection – the thesis – is that,

3) Because 2, many have been slow to see 1.

If 1 and 2 are true, this is plausible. But 1 and 2 are such distinct thoughts that the link – even if it holds – doesn’t hold the piece together. There are too many angles of pushback and complication. Dealing with 1 and 2 together is too hard. To put it another way: Corey’s piece is framed kind of like a proof of 2, via 1. But since you need 3 for the proof, and 2 for 3, it’s kind of circular. Or is it? In fact it needn’t be viciously so. You know what? I suggest we pocket 3 as interesting, but hard to gauge. Think about 1 and 2 separately. In this post I will talk about just 2.

Corey should have adopted more of a ‘hate the game, not the player’ frame. (I am quite sure this is what he intends, but it didn’t come through clearly.) The Voxsplainer is, by nature, a strange genre. Hot Take Deep Dives to feed the Moloch of social media and the news cycle.

Who’s Moloch? We is. I want to transcend the Never-Ending Now, but I’m checking Twitter. When I feel guilty about checking Twitter, I read Vox. The internet conquers limitations of print space, yet we are slaves to time. ‘Explainer’ journalism wants to leverage the former fact to mitigate the latter – the 24-7 “Slow Tuesday Night” meets “The Machine Stops” pace. Predictably it often just feeds into it. Voxsplainers are more ‘presentist’ than they want to be.

That being the way of it, it’s a mistake to single out particular Vox writers, or pieces – as if something about them, in particular, is the problem. The distortions we see in the mirror of Historovox reflect us. Aspirational distance between the sane, clear-eyed, critical viewers of the contemporary scene we aspire to be and the rather compulsive, sped-up media creatures we are.

Corey sensibly recommends the way to break the cycle is … to break the cycle.

Of course ‘pure’ scholarship that isn’t clamoring to re-insert itself, instantly, as relevant, can be an Ivory Tower retreat. Everything can fail. But that just makes this a more pertinent question: why do I read so many Explainers? What is it doing to me?

One of Nietzsche’s best bits of writing is “The Uses and Disadvantages of History For Life”, which you find in Untimely Meditations. That title in itself – the German is more like ‘meditations out of season’ – says something. It’s about all the ways history can heal or hurt your head, and/or be used – or bent – depending where your head is at. Nietzsche suggests that the time before some emergency, but when everyone fears the emergency, calls forth a variety of types. He mentions three in particular: the man of Rousseau, of Goethe, of Schopenhauer.

The man of Rousseau is the revolutionary. (There’s a bit more to it, but let’s not go there.) Schopenhauerian man? But first, the man of Goethe. Why Goethe? Because Faust wishes to know, to have it all explained. It’s like he wishes for the very best that Vox could be, if the very Devil himself made Vox the best it could be. And the moral of the story is: even if Vox were the very best it could be, you’d eventually go to the devil, living the life of the mind in such an incessantly Voxified way.

I’ll quote. Here we are leaving thunder clouds of Rousseau behind us.

But then see what eventuates from this great bank of clouds – certainly not lightning! And it is in precisely this that there is revealed the new image of man, Goethean man. One would think that Faust would be led through a life everywhere afflicted and oppressed as an insatiable rebel and liberator, as the power that denies out of goodness, as the actual religious and demonic genius of subversion, in contrast to his altogether undemonic companion, though he cannot get rid of this companion and has to employ and at the same time despise his sceptical malice and denial – as is the tragic fate of every rebel and liberator. But one is mistaken if one expects anything of that kind; the man of Goethe here turns away from the man of Rousseau; for he hates all violence, all sudden transition – but that means: all action; and thus the world-liberator becomes as it were only a world-traveller. All the realms of life and nature, all the past, all the arts, mythologies and sciences, see the insatiable spectator fly past them, the deepest desires are aroused and satisfied, even Helen does not detain him for very long – and then there must come the moment for which his mocking companion is lying in wait. At some suitable spot on earth his flight comes to an end, his wings fall off, Mephistopheles is at hand. When the German ceases to be Faust there is no greater danger than that he will become a philistine and go to the Devil – heavenly powers alone can save him from it. The man of Goethe is, as I have said, the contemplative man in the grand style, who can avoid languishing away on earth only by bringing together for his nourishment everything great and memorable that has ever existed or still exists and thus lives, even though his life may be a living from one desire to the next; he is not the man of action: on the contrary, if he does ever become a member of any part of the existing order established by the men of action one can be sure that no good will come of it – Goethe’s own enthusiastic participation in the world of the theatre is a case in point – and, above all, that no ‘order’ will be overthrown. The Goethean man is a preservative and conciliatory power – but with the danger, already mentioned, that he may degenerate to a philistine, just as the man of Rousseau can easily become a Catilinist. If the former had a little more muscle-power and natural wildness, all his virtues would be greater. Goethe seems to have realized where the danger and weakness of his type of man lay, and he indicates it in the words of Jarno to Wilhelm Meister: ‘You are vexed and bitter, that is very good; if only you would get really angry for once it would be even better.’ [Hollingdale translation]

You might say: the complaint here is just that Faust doesn’t do anything, he just watches, so nothing gets done. His knowledge is wasted. But there’s more. You could say this is the original ‘amusing ourselves to death’ diagnosis. Faust amuses himself to damnation. But there’s more. He thinks breadth of vision will steady him, console his soul. That’s why he wishes for it. But it ends up being kind of the opposite. The panorama is repressed, restless presentism, in a weird way.

As consumers of media, we owe it to ourselves to try to be smart about dosages. A bit is fine. A lot is not heroic but neurotic. I’m sure Yglesias agrees. He retweeted Perell today.


I realize what I just said sounds kind of obvious, minus Nietzschean flourish for style points. But I think there’s a level at which what Corey is saying in that piece is kind of obvious. There’s also a level at which it might be wrong. But better to agree about the obvious stuff first.

And now I’m going to get off the internet for at least 8 hours.

{ 35 comments }

1

Sashas 03.02.19 at 6:07 am

Just 2, ok.

2) ‘Historovox’ affords a distorted view.

I think you really need to specify more. This initial version is unfortunately close to “all perspective is bias”, a comment which isn’t terribly helpful to anyone. I think Corey (and you) have something more specific in mind about the nature of the distortion, and I think it’s important to dig into that so we can talk about it properly.

Each of the following is a direct quotation from Corey’s Historovox piece (linked at the top of the OP):

Perhaps the answer lies in a new genre of journalism that forgoes the pedestrian task of reporting the news in favor of explaining it through the lens of academic research.

There’s one thing that’s missing from the world of the explainers, though: facts.

There’s a bad synergy at work in the Historovox – as I call this complex of scholars and journalists – between the short-termism of the news cycle and the longue duree-ism of the academy.

The task is not to provide useful knowledge to the present; it is to insist on, to keep a record of, the most seemingly useless counter-knowledge from the past

Based on these pieces (and I hope I successfully grabbed an acceptable summary!), I would edit (2) to say the following:

2a) Historovox presents as scholarship but actually functions in the same way as day to day news reporting.

2b) Historovox is worse than day to day news reporting because its pretense of scholarship lends bad work more authority.

For my own part, if I’m prepared to concede 2a, then I think 2b follows naturally and Corey’s point is made. I am not, at this time, prepared to concede 2a. In my response to Corey’s post, I raised some specific concerns about the examples in the article. Here, I am less sure how to respond. I’ve addressed the top half (roughly) of your post up to now, and this is the part that I understood and felt comfortable with. I want to say something about the rest, and I feel I should preface this with I don’t have a clue what you’re saying. I’m writing on largely in the hope that from my response you’ll be able to figure out where I got lost and help me recover. Thanks! A third read through the Nietzsche section in particular seems to have cleared up a surprising amount of my confusion. To anyone else lost, I recommend giving it that third go in between writing whatever response you had planned and actually hitting “Submit.” John, hopefully you’ll still point me in the right direction if I’ve gone astray here!

I think the middle paragraphs (with Moloch up to before “break the cycle”) are re-raising the idea that the issue is not Vox per se, but that the whole project which is Vox’s reason for being is fundamentally flawed. I don’t really feel the need to protect Vox from singling out here, since either they’re right or they really should have known better.

I’m confused as to what cycle we’re supposed to break. This looks like a tautology at first glance, but I’ve seen enough statements like this to suspect that this is a metaphor. I think the first cycle is the (something?) cycle which has resulted in Vox doing allegedly bad things up to now, and the second cycle is Vox itself (and media like it).

The Nietzsche… I don’t think it helps your point. As best I can tell, the contemplative, lacking vigor and action, risks turning into a “philistine”, and that this is very bad. Wikipedia tells me that by “philistine”, Nietzsche means more-or-less an anti-intellectual. Focusing in on my best guess at the crux of the matter, I think you still need to make the case that Nietzsche’s Faust/contemplative (a) has an opinion about the type of content they consume, and (b) that there is no comparatively compelling value to Vox-style explainers. To make a food analogy, I’m not convinced that (a) Faust cares about bananas, nor that (b) only Faust cares about bananas. I think I would want both, or at the very least one of them and an “ish” on the other, before I agreed that we should throw all the bananas in the dumpster.

2

Mike-SMO 03.02.19 at 6:31 am

I love the “show”.

President Trump was elected by the core of the old Democratic Party of FDR as a hero [in the old judicial sense] to fight the Uniparty [combined elites of the GOP and the Democratic Party]. He is “weak” because he has few institutional allies. He is “strong” because he is a skilled mechanic who understands the inner workings of the “machine”. “Athoritarian” is a junk, propaganda word that means he has frustrated the goals of the “Lefty” (+ Corruptocrat) wing of the Uniparty. All recent presidents have used “Emergency Declarations”. There is nothing new there. President Trump has carefully used the rules that were made by the Uniparty and then forgotten. The President is using the “pieces” in creative ways and he is being careful not to break the system.

President Trump is frustrating, but chess games are always tedious to watch. But there is no doubt that President Trump is a “player”.

I love the show.

3

politicalfootball 03.02.19 at 12:27 pm

I realize what I just said sounds kind of obvious, minus Nietzschean flourish for style points.

This was the response I was formulating, but wouldn’t have put it this succinctly. Well done!

But I think there’s a level at which what Corey is saying in that piece is kind of obvious.

Well yeah, except the part that’s wrong. But you acknowledge that, too:

There’s also a level at which it might be wrong. But better to agree about the obvious stuff first.

This is more or less the opposite of Corey’s approach, and I think Corey’s approach is correct, even if he gets poor results. Corey writes his essay because he is interested in what is wrong with Vox. I respond to Corey because I’m interested in what he’s done wrong.

4

Cranky Observer 03.02.19 at 3:21 pm

A factor to consider: no human being on Earth has an infinite amount of time to consider, either for understanding or to take a decision. Academics possibly have more time than garbage haulers, but still not an infinite amount. At some point one must stop researching/analyzing/planning and take an action, if only to go to work at the coal face. Where does an informed citizen set that point in today’s world with its social, economic, technical, and political factors?

Also keeping in mind Karl Rove’s “judicious actor” criticism and that fact that those who are opposed to your interests may choose a strategy of contemplating less and taking action more.

5

nnyhav 03.02.19 at 5:06 pm

‘The distortions we see in the mirror of Historovox reflect us. [//…] why do I read so many Explainers? What is it doing to me?’
I tried to gaze long into an abyss but it turned out to be only a mirror.

‘… perhaps academic literalism is diffused from the mainstream venues where scholars often publish. Vox in particular, setting out as it does to “explain the news,” has built a brand around a house style that blends earnest righteousness and complacent, self-satisfied wonkery.’ — CHE

and/but visavis framing, cf CJR on Why the Left Can’t Stand the NYTimes and/or [Nicholson Baker’s] Brain on Cable News

6

NickS 03.02.19 at 5:17 pm

Thanks for following-up on this. I’ve been continuing to mull over Corey’s post and I’m glad to have the opportunity to continue the thought.

I think your re-framing of the question works much better. One of the problems I had with Corey’s post was that it moved too easily into essentializing (“journalists are like that, academics are like this) and your move to center on the reader rather than the writer avoids that.

Reading your piece, however, I wonder if your just indulging in conservatism (of the “standing athwart history yelling ‘stop'” variety). You write

That being the way of it, it’s a mistake to single out particular Vox writers, or pieces – as if something about them, in particular, is the problem. The distortions we see in the mirror of Historovox reflect us. Aspirational distance between the sane, clear-eyed, critical viewers of the contemporary scene we aspire to be and the rather compulsive, sped-up media creatures we are.

Corey sensibly recommends the way to break the cycle is … to break the cycle.

The other alternative, it seems to me, is the “cycle” that you describe is progress (for good or ill). The new journalism tries to solve recognizable problems with the older forms and, in so doing, inevitably creates new problems and only partially solves the the old ones. And yet, despite that, I’d argue that contemporary online political journalism is, much, much better overall than political journalism was a generation ago (even if the are counter-examples).

I remember seeing a comment, maybe 15 years ago, that sports journalism, for all its flaws, was much better than political journalism, because there was many more opportunities for people to “mark their beliefs to market” (as DeLong would say) and the audience expected journalism to bear a recognizable resemblance to observable reality.

In the past 15 years political journalism has adopted more of the practices of sports journalism (not least in the person of Nate Silver), and sports journalism is even further down the road of providing endless 24-7 content. I think in both cases that represents progress, despite the flaws.

Finally, I think of Leon Rosselson singing of the difficulty for people who “see the old world dead, the new world not yet born.” I don’t know what journalism will look like ten years from now, and it’s quite possible that it will be worse. Your phrase, “[t]he panorama is repressed, restless presentism, in a weird way.” is evocative of the ways in which the present resembles cyberpunk science fiction. In Synners Pat Cadigan used the word “porn” to represent media that was designed to provoke immediate fascination and response, rather than mental engagement, in any genre.

Valjean had a screen for every porn channel, jammed together in the wall so that food porn overlapped med porn overlapped war porn overlapped sex porn overlapped news porn overlapped disaster porn overlapped tech-fantasy porn overlapped porn she had no idea how to identify. Maybe nobody did, maybe it had just bypassed the stage where it would have been anything other than porn. Meta-porn, porn porn?

Vox is, quite obviously, trying to resist that impulse in various ways, but perhaps it will fail. Perhaps it will just turn out to be explainer-porn in the end. But I have a hard time seeing Vox as the most salient example of the trend towards “compulsive, sped-up media.”

7

TM 03.02.19 at 5:27 pm

I had to look up “flack” but thankfully there’s the internet:

“The flack for the tobacco company took flak over his statement that cigarettes were not proven to cause cancer.”

Methinks the connection between Faust and “Historovox” needs elaboration. Why is Faust exemplary for the particular combination of academic and journalistic truth-seeking that Robin is talking about? Why are pure academic research and pure journalism less Faustian than the combination of the two?

8

John Holbo 03.02.19 at 11:47 pm

Pardon the ‘flack’ ‘flak’ error.

“Why is Faust exemplary for the particular combination of academic and journalistic truth-seeking that Robin is talking about?”

The first thing to be said is that: obviously it isn’t a perfect analogy. But the fill-in would go like so. Faust doesn’t just want to be a scholar in an ivory tower. That’s what he was already so he wouldn’t wish for that. Faust wants to feel like he’s ‘getting all that life has to offer’. He needs to feel engaged. Being a grand seer of the Big Picture is attractive to him as a persona. Being the person to whom everything is Explained feels like it should be tantamount to engagement. But it’s deceptively not.

9

John Holbo 03.03.19 at 12:11 am

“Based on these pieces (and I hope I successfully grabbed an acceptable summary!), I would edit (2) to say the following:

2a) Historovox presents as scholarship but actually functions in the same way as day to day news reporting.

2b) Historovox is worse than day to day news reporting because its pretense of scholarship lends bad work more authority.

For my own part, if I’m prepared to concede 2a, then I think 2b follows naturally and Corey’s point is made.”

The idea here is that if you have product A – a load-bearing device – that markets itself as stronger than B, when actually it’s pretty much the same, then A is worse. Because the customer is likely to trust it too much.

Corey does make it sound like this is the problem and I think it’s not a good way to frame the problem. I prefer my Nietzschean frame. Briefly: reading Vox feels like taking your vitamins. A virtuous sort of dietary supplement. In fact, the reason why people consume Explainers is that they’re a cocktail of uppers and downers. You get buzzes of insight about politics today – more than you might get from reading some JSTOR. At the same time, the ‘I get it’ feeling that you get it is sort of consoling. Being smart in a sea of stupid – that’s the Trump era – feels good.

It’s important not to overstate the problem of the Explainer as cognitive comfort food. First, because it’s sort of obvious that people today are neurotic about media. Second, because the problem isn’t fatal or anything. But there is a very specific question about the kind of bias this pattern of consumption would likely introduce. Corey’s hypothesis – which I explicitly don’t assess – is that it would make you into a presentist who was in denial about being a presentist. You have these big theories whose character suggests that you are a clear-eyed, level-headed surveyer of the scene. In fact, you are not, and next week you may have a different Big Theory. Every week, the big theory you have got consoles you: I am the sort of person who is a clear-eyed, level-headed surveyor of the scene. But actually you aren’t that.

This isn’t damnation. The Faust analogy takes it too far. But it’s the sort of thing that’s good to think about, in a less accusatory way than Corey managed it. It’s more like this: if Vox really worked it would be the best of both worlds. From the fact that it isn’t the best of both worlds it actually doesn’t mean that it’s the worst of both. It could still be better than both, in a lot of ways. But, even if so,. there would still be dangers of delusions of cognitive grandeur. You want to put that warning on there. DANGER: consumption of this product on a daily basis may produce cognitive delusions of greater intellectual steadiness than you in fact possess.

10

John Holbo 03.03.19 at 12:12 am

“Corey’s hypothesis – which I explicitly don’t assess – is that it would make you into a presentist who was in denial about being a presentist.”

Sorry, I don’t assess it with regard to Trump in the post.

11

NickS 03.03.19 at 12:33 am

The idea here is that if you have product A – a load-bearing device – that markets itself as stronger than B, when actually it’s pretty much the same, then A is worse. Because the customer is likely to trust it too much.

But what is the comparative product? I read that as claiming that vox (and 538, etc) do not inform readers any better than traditional journalism (not that they fail to inform people as well as a careful reading of academic work would do) and I’m not convinced that’s true.

12

John Holbo 03.03.19 at 1:23 am

“I read that as claiming that vox (and 538, etc) do not inform readers any better than traditional journalism (not that they fail to inform people as well as a careful reading of academic work would do) and I’m not convinced that’s true.”

Yes, I don’t agree with it either. The discussion is getting a bit confused because this is the situation that Corey suggests. I was suggested that the complaint should be amended. How about this.

A is advertised as able to bear 50 pounds in weight. And it can.
B is advertised as able to bear 100 pounds in weight, but actually it can only bear about 75 pounds.

Which is better, A or B? Well, obviously B, in a sense. But, in another sense, A.

I fear we are just overthinking it, which comes of posting about it too much! Explainers are a new, hybrid sort of journalism and it comes with its own set of likely biases and weaknesses. This is just common sense. But it’s good to put it into words.

13

phenomenal cat 03.03.19 at 2:42 am

The issue with Vox, it seems to me, is the attempt to combine the slow and the cold of the scholarly (critical) view to the speed and the heat of the hot take – i.e., internet journalism. I only scanned Corey’s article, so maybe he said this explicitly, maybe it was implied, or maybe he didn’t really say it all; but that is what I take to be the problem of historovox or whatever.

At least that’s my problem with it. I leave it for others to work out what problems cascade from the initial one ….Actually no, I won’t. First, the hot takes of journalism are meant to be part of the present political discourse, perhaps to shape, nudge, deform, or redirect the present political discourse in some way, but they’re decidedly within an eternal presentism native to journalism, but lately intensified by internet things. The scholarly, slow and cold, view may seek to do the above in various ways, but its modes for doing so are not and cannot be the same as hot take journalism – mostly for tactical and strategic reasons, and b/c the risk of erasing the virtues of the scholarly take are too great; it just becomes another shitty hot take. But more significant is the scholarly take’s real power, if it has any at all, does not come from being one take among many present takes. It comes from (ideally) being unconcerned with influence, status, shares, and likes. It comes from a remove, and thus seeks to take stock of all the active, fleeting, presentist takes from a historically informed and grounded perspective.
Second, there is something of a bait-n-switch going on with the Voxish model which I kinda got from scanning Corey’s piece. That is, it engages and adorns itself with the virtues of the scholarly while really just doing day to day, dopamine hit, internet hot take journalism. Prime example: the article/opinion piece on the day after Trump won the election in which Yglesias dispensed with the mask of the chin stroking, dispassionate, objective wonk. It was an absurd and telling burst of spleen, toddler-appropriate raging, and sub-Facebook level pissing in the wind.

The thing with Holbo’s Nietzsche’s Goethe’s Faust, which is a fun, entirely roundabout, intellectual catnip way of framing the problem, is it ought to make the tension of the action/non-action axis more explicit. The key is: “When the German ceases to be Faust there is no greater danger than that he will become a philistine and go to the Devil” and “The Goethean man is a preservative and conciliatory power – but with the danger, already mentioned, that he may degenerate to a philistine…” IOW, when the German/Faust/Goethe – for our purposes, the scholar of takes – wishes to become a “revolutionary” or an influencer with the hottest takes he/she merely becomes an ineffectual, mostly clueless sap overwhelmed by the never-ending, immediate contingencies that arise when one chooses to directly effect changes to the world. It requires a certain blind, willful, single-mindedness and determination that cuts directly against all “preservative and conciliatory power”, thus sending such souls straight to the devil.
IOOW, one can know or one can do. Even Goethe couldn’t manage both.

14

nastywoman 03.03.19 at 3:41 am

I love the “show”.

Me Too – but how is it possible in a review of Von Clownsticks Show to come up with words like:

”skilled” – ”understands” – ”inner workings” – ”carefully” or ”creative”?

Especially ”creative”?

And isn’t that the real… problem with this whole ”Historovox”? –
a bunch of Historians using very creative words for something completely un-creative?

Or in other words:
If we all know that there is absolutely ”no there there” – how much are we willing to pretend – as Nietzsche for sure wouldn’t have reviewed ”the Apprentice”?

15

NickS 03.03.19 at 5:11 am

I fear we are just overthinking it, which comes of posting about it too much! Explainers are a new, hybrid sort of journalism and it comes with its own set of likely biases and weaknesses.

I think we agree, and I was thinking that when I wrote that any new form is likely to preserve some of the disadvantages of the older models while introducing new ones as well — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying new things.

First, the hot takes of journalism are meant to be part of the present political discourse, perhaps to shape, nudge, deform, or redirect the present political discourse in some way, but they’re decidedly within an eternal presentism native to journalism, but lately intensified by internet things. The scholarly, slow and cold, view may seek to do the above in various ways, but its modes for doing so are not and cannot be the same as hot take journalism – mostly for tactical and strategic reasons, and b/c the risk of erasing the virtues of the scholarly take are too great; it just becomes another shitty hot take. But more significant is the scholarly take’s real power, if it has any at all, does not come from being one take among many present takes.

This argument doesn’t apply only to vox. The same tension could be said of almost any journal of ideas (NYRB, Harper’s, CJR, take your pick). Vox clearly operates on a shorter time frame than any of those magazines, but they also aspire to, “be part of the present political discourse, perhaps to shape, nudge, deform, or redirect . . .”

My position is still, “criticize the failures and praise the successes.” I think there’s value in being clear about common categories of mistakes, but I don’t see that as a reason to abandon the entire project of publications trying to draw upon the knowledge and practices of both the academy and journalism.

16

Patrick 03.03.19 at 5:57 am

I think this is over thinking a bit. When Vox cites bad humanities research or debunked statistics or just sort of the common wisdom of journalists on twitter as if any of those things were real, they’re just screwing up in the same way any others have. Its not new. I guess you can TRY to argue that since Vox promises to be actually good science informed journalism, this is somehow more misleading than regular journalism. Maybe? But that’s not THAT different to what regular journalism promises. And its kind of tough to even evaluate who’s doing a better job, because who counts? Do we count Fox because its mainstream press or do we throw it out because anyone who’s paying attention knows that its compromised? Do we count CNN or throw it out because anyone who’s been paying attention knows that its sensationalistic and worships he said/ she said political drama? Do we just count NPR? Local newspapers? Fox, but only the journalistic side and not the editorial side, and with a carve out for top down stories imposed on local stations by Sinclair?

I don’t know if we can really make a fair comparison on any of this. So maybe its just simpler to say that Vox takes smart sounding numbers and analysis and Twitter shade at face value when it agrees with their politics, much like everyone else does.

17

sidd 03.03.19 at 6:47 am

Re: Schopenhauerian man?

Where is he ?

sidd

18

TM 03.03.19 at 10:53 am

“Faust doesn’t just want to be a scholar in an ivory tower. … He needs to feel engaged. Being a grand seer of the Big Picture is attractive to him as a persona.”

Isn’t that true of Robin as well – and any academic who engages politically, writes blog posts and articles in journalistic outlets?

In the last paragraph of his piece, CR (quoting Benjamin) writes how he sees the “job of the scholar”: “The task is not to provide useful knowledge to the present; it is to insist on, to keep a record of, the most seemingly useless counter-knowledge from the past.” This is well written but it could easily be misused to justify mere contrarianism, which I’m afraid is exactly what Robin is engaging in with respect to Trump.

19

John Holbo 03.03.19 at 1:44 pm

“Re: Schopenhauerian man?

Where is he ?”

Too depressing!

No, I didn’t want to push the Nietzsche point but, in a weird sort of way I think it can be pushed. We consume Explainers, in part, because it’s a way to avoid really thinking about how awful some things are. You stave off pessimism not with solutions but with interesting complications. (I feel this is true of me.) Anyway, that’s kind of where N. is going in that early essay. Schopenhauer has the courage to look at the world and really see it for what it is. (Later, N. was pretty embarrassed about his early, fanboyish adoration of grumpy Arthur.)

20

nastywoman 03.03.19 at 6:09 pm

and about:
What Faust wants?

There are a lot of books by ”scholars” -(especially by German scholars) – which explain in diminutive details ”what Faust wants” – and even as Faust often has been very surprised about what scholars thought Faust wanted and wants – HE (Faust) sometimes –
(in contemporary ”Inzenierungen” by contemporary Theatre Directors) –
expressed as much amusement about ”what scholars thought that he wanted” – as for example Andy Warhol – when he once was asked what he (Andy Warhol) – wanted –
And as Warhol (truthfully) answered ”Dollars” – and Faust’s always truthfully answered ”Gretchen” – why do US scholars and pundits feel the need to ask what a FF von Clownstick wants?

BE-cause he is ”President” of the YUUUGE US of A? – and WE just don’t want to be satisfied with the simple answer that he just wants to ”grab pussies” and have a golden toilet?

21

bianca steele 03.03.19 at 7:19 pm

The Historovox as a hegemony seems to me like a version of the keys-under-the-lightpost fallacy: if everyone does what they know how to do, truth will emerge. The distinctiveness is a new way of training journalists. As a fallacy, it seems as good as any other. The criticism may be valid, but the perfect is the enemy of the good, and so on. Should we common readers be appalled by the whiplash, or should we understand that it is whiplash, and move on? That’s not in the wheelhouse of either the Historovox or the emerging Historovox-critique industry.

22

bob mcmanus 03.03.19 at 11:34 pm

Vox and Slate etc seem to take the functional position that Time and Newsweek took during their heydays of the 50s-70s:easier than newspapers, but with some kind of cachet that flattered the psuedos and midcult midbrows that they were going into depth. Of course, now that college is much more common in recent generations, the reporters gain credibility not with streetwise investigative worn shoe leather, but with polymathic academic contacts and google-fu.

In any case, besides the things themselfs, what to look at is the changes in the two generations of readers, because they are the same aspirational wanna-be-professional cultural hegemonists imperialcitizens, with empathy and bucoups compassion.

23

Neel Krishnaswami 03.04.19 at 12:20 pm

I think that Corey caught a great deal of well-deserved flack for his Historovox piece. Basically, he seems extremely unwilling to understand the argument that Jeet Heer, Matthew Yglesias and their ilk are making, and so his piece reads as an attempt to evade engaging with an actual honest disagreement.

Namely, the people he criticises already accept his point (1), that Trump is weak. Trump is foolish, ignorant, inattentive, greedy, disloyal, vindictive, deceitful, and so on and so on. How could he not be weak? A version of the actual argument being made is:

(1) Trump is comprehensively incompetent, and consequently unable to work the levers of power effectively, and even unable to effectively cover up his flagrant corruption. (Contrast Trump’s corruption with Dick Cheney’s, say.)
(2) As a result, he turns to overtly-illegal and authoritarian means to protect himself and achieve his ends.
(3) To defend him, mainstream Republicans have to overtly and explicitly defend his lies, corruption and general lawlessness.
(4) Their defence normalises and mainstreams fascist thinking and rhetoric at the highest levels of right-wing politics in a way that is genuinely new. (In contrast, the right-wing establishment was happy to use the Birchers, but also kept them away from the levers of power.)
(5) This leaves us in a very perilous situation with respect to the next Republican president: what if he is an authoritarian who is both intelligent and disciplined, unlike Trump?

Now, you could certainly dispute this argument (if you want to, David Neiwert is probably your man), but Corey does not seriously try. As a result, his article reads like an attempt to use a structural critique to cover up his inability to rebut the actual argument.

24

nastywoman 03.04.19 at 1:42 pm

@23 – GREAT!
and perhaps shorter?

(1) Trump is a ”idiotic. stupid, racist and weak a…hole”
(in that order)
-and HISTORY has shown that ”idiotic. stupid, racist and weak a…hole” can turn into ”real monsters” –
(if NOT stopped by US Comedians)

(2) This leaves us in a very perilous situation with respect to the next Republican president: what if he is a real funny authoritarian who is both intelligent and disciplined, unlike FF von Clownstick?

25

nastywoman 03.04.19 at 1:52 pm

– and can’t we just tell the uncomfortable truth -(for a change)

There were – and there STILL are these… dudes like Mr.Robin -(or Mr. Greenwald?)
who really – REALLY completely misunderstood Von Clownstick – and now they write all these articles and blog post trying to argue that the FF isn’t what he always
WAS! –
IS!!
and
WILL BE!!!

But that’s NO excuse for all of this… this? … how do pundits love to call it?

”PIVOTING” from the real issue.

Or let’s call it: ”Downplaying the danger of a FF like Trump”.
JUST because America doesn’t let him realise all of his Fascistic Dreams!

26

politicalfootball 03.04.19 at 1:54 pm

I fear we are just overthinking it, which comes of posting about it too much!

Alternatively, in your attempt to be charitable to Corey, you have stumbled into a variant of the two-step of terrific triviality. You are fixing something incorrect by turning it into something banal.

27

politicalfootball 03.04.19 at 2:10 pm

Explainers are a new, hybrid sort of journalism and it comes with its own set of likely biases and weaknesses. This is just common sense. But it’s good to put it into words.

“Just common sense” in this context is the “triviality” of the famous two-step. If you actually set out to critique Vox-type journalism — if you want to “put it into words” — you start on the wrong foot:

it’s a mistake to single out particular Vox writers, or pieces – as if something about them, in particular, is the problem.

And if you’re not critiquing that style of journalism, but rather the expectations of readers, then you have to come up with examples of that.

I think the failure of people to take an interest in Vox-type journalism is a much, much bigger problem than Vox-type journalism itself, which (as you acknowledge but Corey does not) is quite useful.

Me, I’m more interested in how scholars balance the requirements of disciplined thinking with their desire to present in the best possible light the work of a respected colleague who has strayed from that path.

28

politicalfootball 03.04.19 at 2:28 pm

Neel Krishnaswami @23: I’d summarize it thus: When people say Trump is dangerous, Corey misinterprets them as saying Trump is strong.

I think Prof. Holbo falls victim to a bit of sleight-of-hand here. Corey’s essay wasn’t about the flaws of explainer journalism. It was about how he was right all along that we are too worried about Trump.

Look at the examples he cites. He doesn’t identify systematic flaws in scholarship or journalism — just people who he believes are too concerned about the direction of the country under Trump. The New Yorker’s headline writer understood what the essay was about:

Why Has It Taken Us So Long to See Trump’s Weakness?

29

WLGR 03.04.19 at 4:35 pm

As I posted on Corey’s blog after comments closed on his original Historovox post on CT, an important caveat is that the Historovox isn’t just journalists dipping lazily into JSTOR to make haphazard use of scholarly tropes, because plenty of historians and other scholars are willing to enter the public arena to participate in this process too. The problem there is that the dumbed-down sycophantic terms on which scholars are allowed to take prominent positions in the public arena are increasingly incompatible with the terms of serious scholarship, so what you often see in the public arena is a mishmash of scholars who have long possessed little to no scholarly authority within their field of study, and by this point are basically just pundits with PhDs (e.g. Niall Ferguson, Charles Murray); scholars who have largely abandoned serious scholarly work in their field of study in order to pursue more public-facing careers, and whose scholarly authority within their field has steadily atrophied as a result (e.g. Timothy Snyder, Richard Dawkins); and scholars whose public-facing work is largely outside their actual field of study altogether, whose work is seen by practitioners of the field in question as essentially no different from unscholarly punditry, but whose capitalize on their status in unrelated fields to assume an unearned aura of scholarly authority in the public arena nonetheless (e.g. Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond).

Part of this disconnect may have to do with scholarship in fields like history becoming more rigorous and drifting closer to the truth (some might say more far-out radical leftist… po-tay-to, po-tah-to) than it was back in the days of widely respected liberal public historians like Hofstadter, and part of it may also have to do with public discourse in the era of the 24-hour news cycle growing more simplistic and less tolerant of nuance or complexity. Aside from these issues of higher or lower “standards,” which of course are nebulous and can be debated until the cows come home, I think at least two other relevant points are worth considering. First, the general economic precarity of scholarship and the constant hum of threats to the basic funding structures of the academy, which seems like it would lead scholars in general to adopt a less confrontational or contrarian public approach in the public arena as a matter of collective self-preservation: “sure, go ahead, plumb JSTOR for whatever the hell you want, just don’t get mad and decide to try to slash state university funding again!” Which of course also holds true for the economic precarity of scholars on an individual level: “sure, go ahead, quote me in your next dumbed-down oversimplistic Vox explainer, hopefully the right hiring committee member will read it on their news feed and remember my name when they see my next tenure-track application!”

Second, as Phil Mirowski might argue, the Historovox is entirely compatible with a core aspect of neoliberal ideology: the belief that knowledge production is best left to the unfathomable workings of the “marketplace of ideas,” that individual claims to broad systemic-level knowledge are a “fatal conceit” (as Hayek famously put it), and that cybernetic-style feedback loops of mass popular ignorance and dumbing-down (including phenomena like “fake news” or “alternative facts”) are actually a positive good, since these are precisely the mechanisms by which the grander information-processing system called the Market pursues its higher truth. In other words, as far as a true Hayekian neoliberal is concerned, Corey may as well be totally correct about the Historovox and its manifest flaws as a way of making individual readers more knowledgeable — but these flaws themselves should only be encouraged, because any individual who presumes to challenge the flawed epistemology of the Historovox is thereby challenging the supreme information-processing capability of the Market, and needs to be burned like Icarus by the hot sun of economic reality to learn their lowly place before the supreme all-knowing Market god.

30

LFC 03.05.19 at 3:23 am

Faith in “the marketplace of ideas” goes back — as WLGR doubtless knows perfectly well — to long before Hayek and “neoliberalism.” You can start with Holmes’s famous dissent in the Abrams case (1919), then go back to Mill, and then back to whoever your favorite early-modern precursor of the notion happens to be (Milton on free speech?).

WLGR talks about precarity, but a lot of the scholars who are prominent or semi-prominent in the public arena these days have tenure. Some probably manage to balance their public roles and their scholarly roles quite well, such that their scholarly authority remains very much intact, and others probably have not managed the balance so well. But to suggest or imply, as WLGR does, that the large majority of scholars in the public arena have forfeited their scholarly authority is simply inaccurate. WLGR doesn’t like Snyder or Pinker (quelle surprise!), but what about all the left-wing scholars who write for Jacobin and New Left Review etc. and make podcasts etc. Have they all forfeited their scholarly authority?

31

nastywoman 03.05.19 at 12:14 pm

@29
”The problem there is that the dumbed-down sycophantic terms on which scholars are allowed to take prominent positions in the public arena are increasingly incompatible with the terms of serious scholarship”

Or the real problem is:

In the case of FF von Clownstick the dumbed-down sycophantic terms of a Presidency on which scholars are allowed to take prominent positions in the public arena are increasingly incompatible with the terms of serious scholarship?

isn’t it just too silly to review a clown-show in serious scholars terms?

32

bianca steele 03.05.19 at 2:40 pm

I agree with some of WLGR and disagree with some, but I’d add that a marketplace of ideas and a marketplace of writers and publications isn’t the same thing.

33

WLGR 03.05.19 at 3:56 pm

LFC, this is exactly why it’s so useful to contrast the Hayekian neoliberal perspective against earlier liberal thinkers like Mill, Holmes, or even Dewey, because part of what distinguishes Hayek (also, hint hint, part of what distinguishes neoliberalism in general from earlier non-“neo” liberalism) is that he takes the “marketplace of ideas” concept far more seriously than the older liberals do, placing it at the very center of his view of knowledge itself. Thinkers like Mill might use the marketplace of ideas as a metaphor to justify freedom of thought in a very abstract sense, but they still ultimately accept the inevitability of market failures in the provision of knowledge, which is why they argue for the role of the state as a “night watchman” for the market in correcting market failures, even setting limits to the market’s sphere of influence through non-marketized services like universal public education or public broadcasting networks. Similarly, Holmes’ free speech jurisprudence is largely about identifying situations in which the state must override the judgment of the marketplace of ideas, by banning the “sale” of certain “information commodities” (such as “hey, everybody in this crowded theater, there’s a fire! let’s panic!”) based on the judgment of a higher authority who, to paraphrase another famous Supreme Court precedent on limits to free speech, knows a failure in the marketplace of ideas when he sees it.

By contrast, one of the core neoliberal arguments is that this old-school liberal appeal to a higher non-market authority, this idea of a non-marketized bedrock of common knowledge that can be decided through a predefined political process, is itself a key part of the problem. The Hayekian view of knowledge in society is about taking the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor far more literally than Mill or Dewey ever would have dreamed, interpreting the market as a sort of cybernetic information-processing system with individual economic actors functioning like nodes in a connectionist neural network, collectively producing forms of distributed knowledge that inherently transcend the cognitive capacity of any individual human node, much like the forms of knowledge attainable by a human brain transcend the cognitive capacity of an individual neuron. A true Hayekian would see the Historovox as an extremely good thing, a necessary corrective to the pretensions of intellectuals that they could ever possibly produce or understand meaningful systemwide knowledge on their own, instead of surrendering their thoughts and ideas to the cybernetic networking capacity of a marketplace of ideas like the modern rapid-fire news cycle — and what puny individuals like you or me or Corey may think are the Historovox’s manifest flaws and failures as a form of knowledge production are actually an essential part of the process, since learning to accept these perceived market failures as natural and inevitable is how we learn to disabuse ourselves of what Hayek calls “the fatal conceit,” the delusional belief that one flawed little human should ever try to second-guess the market as a totality.

Now even though I think Hayekian neoliberal arguments and their epochal influence are extremely important, I’m obviously not a Hayekian myself, since among other things, I’m not committed to the marketization of non-market-based standards of knowledge production like scholarly authority and peer review. In fact these are precisely the standards by which a perennial Historovox mainstay like Steven Pinker can be regarded as a pseudoscholarly charlatan: his background in cognitive psychology and generative linguistics gives him little to no inherent authority on issues more native to fields like economic history, cultural anthropology, archaeology, or political philosophy, and his recent non-peer-reviewed work in books like The Better Angels of our Nature or Enlightenment Now is all but useless as a contribution to the progress of scholarship. (The possibility of these works earning some measure of scholarly credibility despite these obstacles is undermined in part by Pinker’s further disregard for scholarly standards in deciding which other work to cite as authoritative, e.g. his reliance in Better Angels on the work of “atrocitologist” Matthew White.) And when the pop-scholarly work of people like Pinker comes into conflict with scholarly interlocutors, it’s telling that their defenders so often make little effort to argue the case on the intellectual merits (the way, for instance, academic Marxists often do at great length when their economic arguments come into conflict with mainstream neoclassical and/or neoliberal economics) but instead tend to default to a crude, implicitly Hayekian appeal to the overriding epistemic authority of the marketplace of ideas: pop-scholars like Pinker sell far better than their scholarly interlocutors (who after all are often reduced to publishing their lay-oriented rebuttals in marginal lefty outlets like Jacobin) which is at least a strong indicator that they must be right and their scholarly interlocutors must be wrong.

34

phenomenal cat 03.06.19 at 8:28 am

‘This argument doesn’t apply only to vox. The same tension could be said of almost any journal of ideas (NYRB, Harper’s, CJR, take your pick). Vox clearly operates on a shorter time frame than any of those magazines, but they also aspire to, “be part of the present political discourse, perhaps to shape, nudge, deform, or redirect . . .”’

That’s fine. I think there are some real differences, but consider it stipulated. Besides the question of priors, which really hasn’t been mulled over in this discussion but ought to be when considering the principals at Vox, the issue is which set of epistemic constraints, if you will, exert the greater power in “drawing on the knowledge and practices of the academy and journalism.” Which is the weaker party in such an arrangement? Which inevitably makes the greater concessions in the production of the almighty take? Academics, scholars, intellectuals owe it to themselves, their vocation, and the rest of the rest of the world to take such questions seriously. I would argue that collective self-preservation demands it, and I would suspect many reading this have no idea what I’m on about which only goes to show…. I’m not arguing for retreat and non-engagement, but I am saying the Vox model/dashing twitter rogue is basically Mephistopheles for the academy.

But disregard the above entirely and consider just what the sheer gross tonnage of hot takes on Trump’s presidency has given us in terms of light, not heat mind you, but actual understanding and “explanation.” It’s given us a lot of insight into the psychological crackup that accompanies the breakdown of certain class pretensions and self-regard, but that’s about it. The scholars of posterity will no doubt be grateful. I know I would be.

35

Sonny Jim 03.06.19 at 1:26 pm

@34: the sheer gross tonnage of hot takes on Trump’s presidency has given us … a lot of insight into the psychological crackup that accompanies the breakdown of certain class pretensions and self-regard, but that’s about it.

Unfortunately, I think there’s a lot of truth in that, much as it pains me to say it. Another way of approaching the problem might be to ask why an academically informed Vox Explainer always ends up resembling the rest of Vox in its politics and world view and not those of, say, Le Monde Diplomatique. (Or, heaven forbid, The American Conservative.) What does that tell us about the role, agency, and ideological composition of the academic component within (and without) “Historovox”?

Two overlapping explanations suggest themselves. One is that the role that academic content in Historovox plays is simply that of a means to an end—a conveniently authoritative-looking hook on which to hang an already ideologically determined conclusion. The academy has no agency here, in other words—it’s just a storehouse of arguments from authority to be drawn on as necessary to prop up the Vox way of seeing things. The second explanation is that there’s actually a very significant ideological crossover and class-interest convergence between the Vox world view and academia. If we take this tack, the reason that Historovox never resembles Le Monde Diplomatique is the same reason that there are no overt Sanders supporters among my American academic Facebook friends. Anglo-American academia, in other words, leans overwhelmingly liberal-technocratic, but it certainly doesn’t lean Left. That’s why it plays so well with Vox. (If this comment were an essay, I’d here footnote Jeff Schmidt.)

There’s a striking bit in Capitalist Realism in which Mark Fisher talks about the “hedonic consumption” patterns of his FE philosophy students. They’re constantly eating junk food in class, and they correspondingly want him to feed them Nietzsche as though it were a hamburger. I see something oddly similar among my academic friends—only this is a tendency towards a kind of “anhedonic consumption.” They’ve spent the last two years sharing stories on social media about Russian collusion, “Putin is a Global Puppet Master” scare-pieces, and the impending likelihood of impeachment. (Any day now, apparently.) Loading up Facebook nowadays, my news-feed is just a constant parade of Trump outrage stories posted by academic FB friends. You’d think they’d have stopped by now, or at least started to consider the possibility they’ve been gas-lighted due to the fact none of the conspiracy theories they’ve advocated for ever pans out, but no. It’s like they’re addicted to Trump—or the pose of outrage against Trump—in the same way Fisher’s students were addicted to Big Macs. And in both cases, it’s this addiction to easy digestibility (the dopamine rush of the “hot take”) that’s causing them to miss the bigger picture, in which Trump (and Brexit) are merely symptoms of a much deeper and quite possibly terminal malaise and not the proximate cause.

Thinking about the professional-managerial class allegiances here, as well as the news consumption patterns of a great many academics, to me helps explain both Historovox itself, and the evident passion many seem to have for Historovox. It just tastes so good!

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