dialogue with Chuck Klosterman about But What If We're Wrong: Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past
The Guardian, 7th June 2016
by Simon Reynolds
Simon Reynolds: Your new book But What If We’re Wrong? is a series of thought experiments that try to “think about the present as if it were the past”. The concept really speaks to me as a fan of science fiction, but also as someone fascinated by discredited knowledge: things like the late 18th-century belief that infantile masturbation was a terrible, health-damaging problem that required drastic preventive measures, or the 19th-century pseudoscience of phrenology, using skull measurements to assess the character of people, their criminal tendencies … What led you to this subject – the precariousness of human knowledge, the disquieting thought that most of what we feel certain about today will ultimately be disproved and that the future will scorn and deride all our ideas and beliefs?
Chuck Klosterman: It happened sort of gradually and yet suddenly. Over my last few books I’ve been thinking about the history of thought, but it really came from watching Fox TV’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series. I particularly enjoyed the animated clips about these hinge points in scientific history, when everybody thought a certain way but then one individual puts forward this new idea and everything shifted after that. Coincidentally I was reading about how Moby-Dick got mixed reviews at the time, Melville ended up leaving the writing profession, and it wasn’t until after world war one that the culture shifted, the book was rediscovered, and it became the Great American Novel. But What If We’re Wrong? really took off from those two things.
Reynolds: Those are two different kinds of “knowledge”, science and the arts. With science, there are new discoveries and theories emerging around them, but it’s a much harder kind of knowledge. With changing ideas about what is valuable in literature or music, about who belongs in the canon, that’s soft in the sense that it’s driven by taste, by fashion, by social shifts. It’s much more up for debate and revision. Given enough time, nearly everything that’s highly regarded will drop down in eminence, while once-minor things from the past may get elevated. In one chapter you discuss how it’s impossible to know who will come to be regarded as the defining writer of our time. And you speculate about who will be the future’s Kafka – a writer virtually unknown in his own epoch but who later becomes retrospectively epochal.
Klosterman: My thought process with that started with the idea that whatever seems like the most obvious answer will probably be wrong. I build that into my thinking. The obvious example that many people would give for a contemporary author that will be remembered as defining our era is a figure like Jonathan Franzen. So I remove that from the equation. So then it came down to one of two possibilities. Someone who is known and successful but not that respected – a writer who is considered a commercial hack. The other possibility is that it will be somebody who is completely unknown today – like Kafka. Someone who will be discovered later on and that discovery process itself will validate that writer. So the challenge I set myself in that chapter was trying to narrow down the possibilities of who that currently unknown writer might be – what aspects of their career, their identity, their writing. An impossible task. But I try, because that’s what I like to do!
Reynolds: There is an industry – in publishing, in music reissuing, in the arts generally – of rediscovery, repackaging, cultural archaeology and curation. There are so many examples of once hopelessly obscure figures who are now deemed far more central and essential than they once were. Other figures who were deemed central and essential, by critics and the intelligent reading (or listening) public drop away – George Bernard Shaw, Graham Parker. And then there are whole areas of the culture that were once considered beneath consideration, but now get taken seriously. Your example of that in the book is wrestling.
Klosterman: The pro-wrestling thing to me is a weird example of how culture works. All these wrestlers from the 80s are dying now, like Dusty Rhodes, and they are being lionized by people who have this memory from watching them when they were in high school or junior high. When they write about them now they tend to inject them with some kind of secondary meaning – almost a transgressive meaning – and they overlook the fact that at the time, nobody took wrestling seriously, including themselves. But somehow they create the feeling that there was always a sense of it being taken seriously. And more generally this seems to be the way that obscure art becomes venerated – by generating a political meaning for these long ago things that matches what is happening in the political present tense. So if you’re trying – like I am in this book – to find out what will matter in the future, you have to project a visualization of what the future will be like, what people will care about.
Reynolds: Although you’re hyper-conscious about the fragility of cultural convictions, you do still muster enough certainty to make a few predictions in the book. One is that television, as an entertainment format, will shortly not exist. Explain the thought process behind that prophecy.
Klosterman: I started with thinking about the relationship between radio and television. It feels like there should be a continuum there, that TV simply adds a visual component. But in fact TV was a huge break – which is why we don’t aesthetically connect what television drama does and what a radio play does. I think that’ll happen again – something will come along technologically that adds another component to the entertainment format that makes it something completely separate. It could be some kind of virtual immersion, where you’ll be inside whatever show you’re watching, or it’ll relate to the mobility of it, which is already happening to some extent with watching TV on your phone, but it might be even more completely fluid, such that you can slide in and out of the program you’re experiencing. I don’t know what it will be exactly but I think when it comes it will be a cut-off that freezes television as we currently understand it as a period that goes from its inception in the middle of the 20th century to whenever the new thing takes over.
Reynolds: So it’s not that television is going to go extinct exactly – more that it will evolve into something so drastically different it’ll effectively be something else?
Klosterman: Television is already the most dynamic technological experience when it comes to entertainment. The experience of watching television now is drastically different from what it was 20 years ago. Whereas with music or reading, certain elements and aspects change but the experience of hearing a song is – from a physiological standpoint – the same as it was 200 years ago. Reading is a static thing fundamentally. But TV is taken so seriously now, it has really changed the experience completely. Joyce Carol Oates wrote an essay for TV Guide about Hill Street Blues in about 1980 and it starts with her saying how embarrassed and ashamed she is to admit that she and her smart friends find themselves often talking about this TV show. But now it’s like, Emily Nussbaum just won a Pulitzer prize for her New Yorker TV criticism. When something becomes that meaningful, it changes the experience of watching it. TV used to be relaxing. Now you have to concentrate.
Reynolds: Yes, watching the box used to be almost like an opiate or a tranquilizer – idle skimming through the channels. You’d have the desire, or need, to watch television in the abstract, and then look for the least tedious specific thing that was on. Now you make appointments. You manage your viewing and stockpile it. You binge an entire series. And you have to pay close attention, for fear of missing a key bit of dialogue or a narrative twist.
Klosterman: With TV in the past, there was no expectation you were going to have to concentrate. And if you missed an episode of a TV show, you just missed it – no big deal. Nowadays just about the only thing people watch to unwind still is sports.
Reynolds: Another section of the book that struck a chord with me was when you write about dreams – the way they’ve been demoted in the culture. For most of human history, dreams were considered highly significant – they had oracular meaning, they warranted being interpreted. In the early 20th century you had Freud and Jung analyzing the symbolic language of dreams, and an artistic movement, surrealism, that drew inspiration from dreams. But even as recently as the 1970s, books about the meaning of dreams were popular. As a teenager, I kept a detailed dream diary. Maybe it’s just our family, but it doesn’t seem like my kids ever talk about their dreams. It’s just not something people pay much attention to anymore. Why is that?
Klosterman: Freud and Jung were the apex of looking at dreams seriously. But more recently you have scientists who map the brain, like these two guys at Harvard who came to the conclusion that dreams are just leftover thoughts from the day. There isn’t a narrative there, it’s an avalanche of emotions that we reconstruct as a story – because we can only understand things through storytelling. The conclusion of all this neurological research was that the content of dreams is worthless. It’s just an oddity of the mind and how it works when we are sleeping. Those ideas have filtered out to the secular, intelligent public and the general view now is that dreams are a waste of time to think about. The idea that they’re significant is a really fringe, borderline New Age thought at this point.
In the book, though, I wonder if this is something that we could be wrong about. It’s a third of our life almost where we’re having these metaphysical experiences. Sometimes they’re lucid and we know we’re in a false reality. Sometimes we can’t tell we’re in a different reality. Part of the problem is that we are so limited in how we can study them, there’s no way to see or hear or feel someone else’s dream. So maybe we are just going to keep on going down this path of thinking it’s just electrical impulses in the brain, just biomechanic. But I wonder if that’s a huge misstep. I understand the rational argument against dreams, but something feels important to me about them.
Reynolds: One thing I wondered was if the downgrading of dreams as a cultural interest had some relation to digital technology: video games, the internet, computers generally. Has the virtual displaced the oneiric? It’s hard to imagine an art movement like surrealism emerging that was invested in dreams and the unconscious as a source of inspiration. Contemporary artists are more stimulated by digital technology and internet culture. Do we no longer pay attention to dreams because we are so involved with digitally enabled zones of make-believe and magic? And does that also affect a different kind of dreaming that we do in our waking hours – daydreaming? Overall, it feels like these interior and reflective mental activities have declined in the scheme of things – and that this must have something to do with the rise of the internet and social media.
Klosterman: The amount of time we’re looking at an unreal image on electronic screens is so much greater now. Just waiting in line for the bank, nowadays I would always look at my phone. My mind is attached most of the time to something specific. But once, waiting in line, I would have daydreamed – my mind was elsewhere. Perhaps those five or 10 minutes of daydreaming had value.
Reynolds: One interesting thing about your writing style, which is unusual in arts and culture writing – perhaps more common in popular science writing – is the way you reason out an argument. You set out a proposition and then logically follow it through, methodically raising the counter-arguments, the evidence that contradicts it. Mostly in cultural criticism, the writer does that in private and then presents the results to the reader – often bombastically. But you lay out that process in real time, almost, and bring the reader along with you.
Klosterman: What I hope is that when someone reads what I’m writing, that they feel like they’re writing the piece with their own mind. The sequencing of the thoughts, the obstacles you encounter intellectually along the way – I want it to be like a real-time transfer of my mind. I want it to look like it’s easy, so that the person reading it almost feels like they could have written that. Which is kind of a trick, because that’s not what is going on! The hardest thing about doing this kind of writing is creating the illusion that anyone can do this.