[This book review was published in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 471-476.]
But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past
Blue Rider Press, 2016
This is the first book we have read by Chuck Klosterman, and our reactions to it are mixed. With its cleverness and use of paradox, it is a fun read, to be sure. The book consists primarily of a flow of disconnected, sparkling fragments, each intelligent and provocative, and readers will in varying degrees find those edifying. One of the book’s principal themes – that we live in a world of mental constructs – may provide the profundity the book’s title had given us reason to hope for; but instead of a systematic and serious discussion of that very significant fact, Klosterman scatter-guns his discussion, coming across as a delightful show-off demonstrating his talent for mental pyrotechnics. The serious point about mental constructs is present in the book, but grasping its importance requires not allowing oneself to be totally preoccupied by the intriguing fragments – and looking past the contradictions, non-sequiturs, self-congratulatory paradoxes, hyperbole, reductionism, and unfathomable statements that play a role in Klosterman’s verbal playhouse. Less serious readers will do well to enjoy the book merely as a light-hearted think-piece.
Klosterman, born in 1972, has been “a paid critic for several years,” was once the “ethicist” for the New York Times Magazine, has seen his work published in a good many major outlets, and now has seven works of non-fiction and two novels to his credit. He says he has written “thousands of words for GQ” [Gentlemen’s Quarterly]. The latter may explain how it is that he has so obviously adapted his writing to the expectations of a young, chic male readership, as evidenced by his bouncy eclecticism and the urban-ghetto cast to his language. The obscenities with which he adds flavor to his text are easily traceable to the legacy of the Berkeley “Free Speech” movement of Mario Savio years ago and are fully in keeping with what we hear in virtually all movies today except animation films for small children. They easily exceed the expletives this reviewer heard (and used) in the Marine Corps sixty years ago. Klosterman is clearly a man of our times, exhibiting both the brilliance and decadence of today’s American culture.
What we call the book’s “sparkling fragments” consist of short passages on highly diverse topics. These range from the Higgs boson, to the consciousness of bats and gorillas, to Franz Kafka, to “the Singularity,” to multiple universes, to dreams, to whether football will continue, to rock and roll, to the nature of gravity, to the intelligence of octopi – but it’s enough to mention just these. Each is a captivating nugget that will hold the reader’s attention.
Apart from the nuggets, the book has at least four themes:
. Speculations about what it will take for a writing, piece of music, or work of art to find long-term acceptance . It is here that Klosterman’s years as a literary critic have their most direct bearing. He conjectures that it is someone who is “either totally unknown or widely disrespected” who will come to be seen by a future generation, quite arbitrarily, “to represent turn-of-the-century literary greatness.” The future will disregard the fluff and look for “deeper themes.” We see an example of his hyperbole, self-contradiction and willingness to make striking but purely conjectural statements, though, when he adds that “it is all absolutely without any mercy destined to evaporate into the memory hole – irretrievably.” This sounds good – but what are we to make of it? We are left to wonder why he thinks his statement is true. And what happened to the work he said will be remembered because of its “deeper theme”?
Just the same, it would be a mistake to write all of it off as verbal showmanship. Some of his reflections provoke us into thinking about the sociology behind what causes something to be remembered. “As the timeline [of mainstream musical memory] moves forward, tangential artists in any genre fade from the collective radar, until only one person remains; the significance of that individual is then exaggerated, until the genre and the person become interchangeable.” He cites John Philip Sousa and marching music as a case in point. When he tells us there is a “winner-takes-all mentality” because inevitably the great volume of work passing into the future requires people to “apply filters,” he is saying the obvious, of course; but his observation that a personality and a genre become inseparable adds something that is not obvious.
. The second theme is expressed in the book’s title, “But What If We’re Wrong?” Klosterman loves a paradox, as we see in his chapter title about “Why This Book is Hopeless,” matched with “Why It Might Not Be.” He says “we have no idea what we don’t know, or what we’ll eventually learn, or what might be true despite our perpetual inability to comprehend what that truth is.”
This radical uncertainty is certainly borne out by history. An article in a recent Smithsonian reports there was human sacrifice in Britain until the Roman conquest, just as there has been in many parts of the world. The beliefs that made that seem necessary have given way to others, just as we no long think the world is flat. The evolution of the mental constructs that guide us is never-ending. If, next, we see the “radical uncertainty” in the context of literary criticism, which is Klosterman’s area, it makes sense to see his stress upon it as particularly fitting for our own age, one in which change races on at a breath-taking pace. Uncertainty isn’t an idea that would be likely to come to mind in a more settled time.
The danger is that it can verge on a destructive, and far from justifiable, nihilism. Klosterman comes close to this when he quotes with favor a statement by John Carey “that there is no such thing as absolute, timeless, eternal artistic values that will inevitably rise and endure.” Certainly Russell Kirk, writer of Enemies of the Permanent Things, would disagree. Kirk bases his belief in “permanent things” on his Christian worldview, but one might well consider that it is essential to civilization, every bit as much from a secular point of view, for people to cultivate a refinement of sensibility. This involves “discriminating” between what serves the human spirit and what does not. When someone argues that there are no timeless values, are they not forgetting, say, the Parthenon or the statues of Michelangelo?
. Klosterman’s third theme provides the root of the others. It is that humanity lives in a mental bubble, a solipsistic existence in which reality is constantly reassessed and perceptions change. Our accounts of history, he says, are “a creative process (or, as Napoleon Bonaparte once said, ‘a set of lies agreed upon’)… We construct what we remember and what we forget.”
There are hard realities which will treat us rather sternly if we don’t treat them as such. We live with these every day, for good and for bad. (For examples we need think only of the mundane facts of everyday existence – such things as the need to mow the lawn, put gas in the car, or not walk off a cliff.) Just the same, Klosterman’s message that to a large extent we live within mental constructs is an important one. It is a point this reviewer has stressed for many years as he has studied the ideologies that build competing worldviews by which people fit together what would otherwise be the disparate parts of their experience. The ideologies are just some of the constructs that guide us; surely we can’t forget the religions in which billions believe; and the understanding we have of many, perhaps most, less-sweeping subjects is similarly fashioned .
It is here that the essential emptiness of Klosterman’s book is revealed. He has deliberately refrained from discussing any of the countless crucial issues involving defects in our mental constructs. Near the end of the book he explains, for example, that he decided against elaborating on “climate change.” That, however, is just one of the issues he could have explored seriously. In this Journal’s Winter 2016 issue, this reviewer’s article “Whom Are We to Believe?” gave a taste of just a few of them when we discussed the fictions surrounding the JFK assassination, the Japanese-American relocation, World War I atrocity propaganda, the “Sand Creek ‘massacre,’” the sinking of the Lusitania – and others. Klosterman has raised a profoundly important point by highlighting how far our minds go in forming the reality in which we are encapsulated, but he has left it is general terms and has avoided tackling any of the innumerable specific fictions that cry out to be examined.
He has done much the same thing with regard to the first theme mentioned above, which had to do with how future generations will either remember or forget today’s literary and artistic works. The “future” is just an abstraction of endless possibilities to him, and hence rather empty, not a projection of realities based on current trends. Projections are no doubt speculative, but at least they represent an attempt to provide substance to the discussion. Surely it matters, so far as future generations’ recollection of today’s work is concerned, whether the West goes out of existence and other peoples – Asian, African or Latino – become predominant. This reviewer recalls a question asked of him by the African-American head of the Honors program at the reviewer’s own university some time ago: “Why should we care about Shakespeare?” (It was not a rhetorical question. He meant that we should not care.) If we are to have any idea about which works will be remembered, and which lost sight of, it helps to have some idea about who will do the remembering. Klosterman seems unaware of such nuances.
. A fourth theme is that Klosterman wants of see the present “in the same way we think about the past.” By this, he apparently means that we should see the present as “temporary and ephemeral,” since that’s the way we see earlier times. Although he mentions this theme, and even makes it part of the book’s title, and although it is very much in line with the solipsism of his other themes, he actually does very little viewing of the present as though it were the past. When he talks about gravity, Moby Dick, Kafka, multiple universes, the Higgs boson, etc., he isn’t doing that. Perhaps it calls for another book.
Earlier, we commented on Klosterman’s “contradictions, non-sequiturs, self-congratulatory paradoxes, hyperbole, reductionism, and unfathomable statements.” It would be unjust to leave it at that, without giving examples. Much of it may be playfulness with words and ideas. Here are some specifics
Paradoxes [turn-abouts]. “Whenever people tell me I’m wrong about something… I assume their accusation is justified, even when I’m relatively certain they’re wrong, too.” “We now have immediate access to all possible facts. Which is almost the same thing as having none at all.”
Non-sequiturs [conclusions that don’t follow from the premises]. “If we’re going to acknowledge even the slightest possibility of being wrong about gravity, we’re pretty much giving up on the possibility of being right about anything at all.” “There will never be a new explanation for why the sky is blue. Unless, of course, we end up with a new explanation for everything.”
Contradictions. That sports statistics are “of interest to people who own teams, to coaches looking for an edge, to team executives… and to gamblers.” But then: “The problem with sports analytics is… that they… benefit almost no one.”
Unfathomable statements. “Our interior thoughts are (ultimately) arbitrary and meaningless.” Another: That a small, deep part of our minds can’t handle the fact that “most of what we’ve learned is either wrong or irrelevant,” and that “it’s that smaller part that matters more, because that part of our mind is who we really are.”
Hyperbole. That “if Newton’s answer really is the final answer… it would mean we’re at the end of a process that has defined the experience of being alive.” Another: In this age where there “is no centralized information.…, every idea has the same potential for distribution and acceptance.” Another: “The Internet slowly reinvented the way people thought about everything.”
Cute. “But then – sometimes – I think something else.”
In all, the book seems more entertaining than serious, albeit a form of entertainment that presents itself as an intellectual challenge. Most assuredly, it is mentally stimulating, and can be recommended for that reason, as we hope we have made clear in this otherwise negative review.
Dwight D. Murphey
1. “The Singularity,” Klosterman explains, is “a hypothetical super-jump in the field of artificial intelligence,” of which Ray Kurzweil is “the best-known advocate.” “The theory’s most startling detail involves the option of mapping and downloading the complete content of a human brain onto a collective server, thus achieving universal immortality… The parts of our brain that generate visceral sensations could be digitally manipulated to make it feel exactly as if we were still alive.”
2. See “Ty Cobb Revisited – A Reminder of a Perennial Question: Whom Are We to Believe?,” The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Winter 2016, pp. 68-86. The article is also available, free of charge, at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as Article 121 (i.e., A121).
 “The Singularity,” Klosterman explains, is “a hypothetical super-jump in the field of artificial intelligence,” of which Ray Kurzweil is “the best-known advocate.” “The theory’s most startling detail involves the option of mapping and downloading the complete content of a human brain onto a collective server, thus achieving universal immortality… The parts of our brain that generate visceral sensations could be digitally manipulated to make it feel exactly as if we were still alive.”