Running to Stand Still: A Review of “Social Acceleration” by Hartmut Rosa

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I don’t usually add any sub-text to the titles of my book reviews. I want them to stand on their own, without interpretation.

But as it dawned on me that I really wanted to review Hartmut Rosa’s Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, it was because the sub-titles just wouldn’t stop coming: The Need for Speed, Time is Money, The Fierce Rush of Life, and so on. And the fact that all of them were cliches or close variations on cliches (my second place was The More Things Change, the More They Change), told me that Rosa was onto something big. Cliches are cliches for a reason. Despite being a theorist of the airy and arcane, this sociologist from the University of Jena, who has never appeared on the NYT Best Seller list, had found something so organic to late-modern life that all of us have experienced it–the unstoppable speeding up of everything.

To be fair, Rosa objects to the claim that everything is speeding up. We still have traffic jams and download times, for examples. He says it’s “only” three things that are accelerating: technology, social change, and the pace of life. So, okay, that’s not quite everything, but let’s hear him out.

Rosa starts with a well-known paradox. The time-saving features of technology that have appeared since the industrial revolution should have freed up time resources for people in developed societies. But the opposite has happened, despite the fact that new time-saving technologies now appear at an ever faster pace. The more we free humans from time-devouring work, they less free time they have and the more their pace of life picks up. Since this should not happen in theory–it’s like saying 2 + 2 = 3–Rosa looks for empirical causes. There must be something about that way society works in real life that causes speed-ups in technology, social change, and the pace of life to interact with one another and propel a self-perpetuating a cycle of acceleration. Turn one of the three gears faster, and they all speed up.

“Since the Renaissance,” Rosa opens Chapter 1, ” . . . the defenders and the despisers of modernity have agreed on one point: its constitutive experience is that of a monstrous acceleration of the world, of life, and of each individual’s stream of experience.” He goes on to add the Marxian point that the modern human condition is one of “ceaseless dynamism” in which–here’s Marx–“all that is solid melts into air.”

That certainly sounds compelling.

I once had an impressive collection of compact discs. All my favorite albums were on CD, and I played them in my car. Well, up until 2017 I did, when my cars stopped having CD players in them. Everyone was “ripping” or downloading their music onto mp3 players. I hated this change, because I knew I would have to create accounts with passwords and payment methods and buy a new device to connect to my car’s sound system. I wasn’t nostalgic; I just didn’t want to bother with one more goddam account and everything that went with it. My CD collection, which had had such a hard solidity to it, lasted 15 years, at which point it melted into air and I gave in to the ceaseless dynamism of music streaming.

So score one point for Rosa’s basic approach. The “continual unsettling of certainties,” he says, “accompanies all processes of modernization.” It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to let go of my CD collection–I can’t even tell you where those hundred or so discs are anymore–it was more that I could feel the onset of the future change telegraphed by the transformation I was tackling at that time. The unsettling of certainties was going to be continual.

I often fret in a vague kind of way that I won’t be able to understand the lives my children will lead as adults. Their certainties will become unsettled even faster than mine. The “real” things they expect to remain solid will melt into air. Including big things. Rosa writes that a person’s sense of purpose and identity in the world is based on an “expectation horizon” that is stable across time. When we ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, we are introducing this idea of an expectation horizon. Their present gives them enough information about the world and themselves to map out a plausible mental picture of the future.

In pre-modernity, people didn’t have to think much about what they wanted to be when they grew up. There identities were given to them in a cross-generational pattern of cultural inheritance. If your father was a Catholic baker in a medium-sized village, that’s what you were going to be, no questions asked. This setup lasted for centuries.

Then modernity introduced the idea (explicitly through Kant) that people could and should think for themselves, even about who they wanted to be. Individuals had a vote in their own identity. Their choices may have been constrained by geographic, economic, and social factors, but choose they could. And so identity became a generational characteristic: your dad may have been a baker, but you could be a tailor, law student, or what have you. Furthermore, if your conscience tells you to convert to a form of Protestantism, you could do that too. And that old village your family has lived in forever? The horse coach and soon enough the steam train will let you move your whole life miles away if you wish.

Starting in the 20th century, these patterns of change sped up even more. Social ties that people used to hold onto for life–to their spouses, their employers, their political parties, their friend groups–began to change within each generation. The building blocks of one’s identity, which for the longest time had been cross-generational, then for maybe 150 years were generational, were now infra-generational. Quo vadimus? Here Rosa starts to hint at the concept of “critical thresholds,” rates of social change that surpass the individual’s capacity to cope.

Rosa observes early in his book that there are always counter-movements that rise up to oppose the disorienting acceleration of social change, and they always lose. The three gears he identifies–technological progress, social change, and the pace of life–will keep getting faster despite deliberate attempts by some groups to constrain them. Which means: there will almost certainly be some “monstrous acceleration” of change that has my kids sprinting after the things that are supposed to give meaning to life, and those things will melt into air. Will my children have to create meaning from things so fleeting they might as well be nothing?

You can’t break the law of gravity. So it may be that humans, as they approach the critical thresholds of social acceleration will necessarily adapt and adjust. This thought only offers limited comfort, though, because I really do think it will be my kids’ generation that will break upon the rocks of humanity’s critical thresholds of acceleration. They will have to figure out what remains possible after this traumatic collision. And I won’t be there to do the only thing I am even slightly capable of doing, which is, figure things out.

Maybe the only thing I’ll be able to do is leave them a copy of Rosa’s book.

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Review of “This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyber-Weapons Arms Race” by Nicole Perlroth

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The Internet of Things has become the Internet of Everything.

Cyberwar will destroy it all.

The end.

Maybe not. But probably.

This is how Nicole Perlroth tells me the world ends in her explosively revelatory book of (nearly) the same name, published in 2021.

Before I get to my usual wordy, pedantic reflections on whatever book I happen to be reviewing, let me first say clearly: Read this book now. It doesn’t matter how technologically unsophisticated you are. Perlroth has written it for the non-specialist. If you can read a newspaper, you can read This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. (Perlroth writes for the New York Times.)

And you should read it, especially if you are a U.S. citizen. It’s part of our story. Once upon a time, the made-in-America internet connected computers that “talked” to one another. And they only talked. They would send emails, documents, pictures; or perhaps if you worked in a scientific or technical field, they would pass more extensive, specialized data. (Remember, the internet was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense as a system for communicating military orders and instructions.)

Today the internet connects things. From your hotel room in Munich, you can adjust your refrigerator in Muncie to vacation mode, because of course you forgot. You can visually identify your cat-sitter at the front door, unlock for them, watch them feed Fluffy, then lock the door behind them when they leave. Maybe chat and say thanks on the house intercom before they go.

Or try this on for size: If you are the Israel Defense Force, you can stealthily insert code into the computer network that interfaces with uranium-refining centrifuges in Iran’s most advanced nuclear research facility. You can accelerate or decelerate the spin rate of the centrifuges to look like random anomalies, and you can even insert falsified performance data into the computers the Iranians use to monitor the facility’s work. Then, when you want, you can increase the spin rate to a catastrophic level and blow the bejeezus out of a whole bank of centrifuges, setting Iran’s nuclear dreams back by several years.

This is, in rough outline, what the IDF did in 2010, using a virus called Stuxnet.

Stuxnet is the hinge around which we can understand the evolution of cyber security–the collection of threats that could crash our whole global system of computers that talk to one another and do all the things that keep life going at its 21st-century pace–our banking, heating, cooling, manufacturing, health care management, and too many other things to mention. Oh yes, also our jobs for the large part of the labor force that now works from home.

Without telling an overly reductivist story, Perlroth plots a clear throughline from the U.S. government’s first discoveries of isolated ‘exploits’ in the 1990s that gave highly specialized intruders access to the internet’s computer networks to today’s looming cyber-apocalypse brought on the the bonanza of exploits that our own ‘defensive’ hacking corps originally developed. Now everyone has an exploit. (To most of us non-specialists, ‘hack’ would be a perfectly suitable synonym for ‘exploit’, but as Perloth explains, hacks are a much fuzzier thing, really any kind of technological shortcut, which in itself is neither good nor evil. Exploits are always unwelcome and sneaky. They are why you get software updates for your phone, browser, and what have you–to patch in defenses against the latest sneakery.)

In the years before Stuxnet, the U.S. government’s thinking about exploits was driven by two ideas that both eventually proved to be fanciful. The first was ‘NOBUS’, the conceit, as it turned out, that American hacking was so far ahead of everyone else, and had the resources to stay far ahead, that ‘nobody but us’ could do intrusion at the same level we could. And so U.S. security agencies used Americans’ tax dollars to develop exploits that we thought no one else could devise. (Or steal. That happens too.)

As things turned out, large nation states did indeed match our skills. Chinese hackers caught up to us and, by exfiltrating commercial and R&D data from thousands of American networks throughout the early 2000s, achieved what is fairly uncontroversial known as the largest transfer of wealth in human history. They stole the knowledge that powered the only great leap forward China has actually achieved. So that happened.

And, I know this will be a shocker, but because exploits are basically intelligible to individual specialists who can either grow their expertise in splendid isolation or swap it in virtual communities without borders, loners and unaffiliated groups have created some of the most advanced exploits out there. You don’t need the edifice of a nation state behind you to be a highly effective cyber warrior. Perlroth includes a trenchant chapter on the flourishing hacker community of Argentina. Poor, under-serviced by commerce in the supposedly globalizing 1990s, but highly educated, “[i]f Argentines wanted something that normal business channels didn’t provide, they had to hack it.” And so Argentina has produced a generation of “Cyber Gauchos,” one of scores of little-known groups who make constant contributions to cyber chaos. They don’t fight for Argentina; they fight for themselves. There re many others out there.

The chaos that confronts us goes deeper than data, networks and digitization. It is part of the post-truth world, where technology folds back on itself to turn plain realities–in which we put our daily trust–into halls of mirrors.

An isolated but horrifying example: In November 2019 Alabama held a gubernatorial election. Three months before the vote, Evil Corps, a hacker group in Russia’s Federal Security Agency (FSB), breached the network of Louisiana’s Secretary of State, the office responsible for counting votes and certifying elections, and held its data hostage in a classic ransomware attack. Only by a stroke of luck had the Secretary of State kept a copy of Louisiana’s voters rolls off line. Otherwise, the FSB could have done whatever it wanted to the state’s official voter roster, such as changing names or addresses or just deleting the whole thing. It would have ruined the election. So Louisiana dodged a bullet, aimed from the Kremlin.

But wait, there’s more. In the 2016 presidential election, Russian trolls had already discovered that is was “far more efficient to amplify American-made disinformation than create their own.” About this merger of hacking and disinformation, Perloth gives us first the bad news and then the worse. The bad news: Russian hackers have produced definitive proof that you can’t trust the integrity of the voting system. As long as the machinery of voting is hackable, it is vulnerable to theft, fraud or disruption. So if you’ve been comforting yourself with the mantra that voter fraud is actually rare, that’s only part of the story. There remain lots of ways to corrupt the system.

And the worse news? Even if they wanted to, FSB could not outdo Americans for promoting the Kremlin’s narrative on the demise of popular democracy. The GOP and much of its support base wants you to believe exactly what the FSB was trying to get you to believe in November 2019–that you can’t trust the system; inside men are already there manipulating the voter rolls and vote counts. And therefore democracy isn’t really democracy.

In this post-truth hall of mirrors we ask, Is an external enemy attacking us or are we attacking ourselves? And the answer is yes.

Unsurprisingly, Perlroth closes TIHTTMTWE with a mixed message. She lives off the grid much of the time and communes occasionally with some likeminded old computer geniuses who helped build the wondrous, fragile system we have. But most of us have to stay in this networked world with all its promise, risks and flaws. We humans innovated our way into cyber-chaos, and we will have to innovate our way–well, is out the right word? We’ll have to innovate our way to a manageable level of risk, if there is such a thing. Perlroth knows we can’t all live off the grid; so she makes a to do list. Read the book.

Review of “Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography” by John Sutherland

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The most infamous thing George Orwell ever wrote was that the lower classes smell.

Except he didn’t exactly write that.

Well, he did, but it’s complicated.

Hard as it is to imagine, a playful biography of Orwell has been produced, and it captures the intricacies of Orwell’s most conflicted thoughts, like the one about class and odor. John Sutherland’s 2016 Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography is brief (a mere 220 pages), witty, and somehow, despite its brevity, the most intimate of the Orwell biographies.

For the Orwell scholar or committed enthusiast, there is no getting around the half-dozen or so big biographies. You have to read them, because they are in a way an extension of Orwell’s actual life history. Before Orwell died, he instructed his widow Sonia Brownell to forbid any biographies.

But of course biographies would be written, and the first authors to try, Peter Stansky and William Abrahams, had to work with very limited material. Sonia denied them access to Orwell’s papers and wouldn’t even allow them to quote from his copyrighted publications. Imagine. But Stransky and Williams labored on to publish their version of Orwell’s life, based largely on interviews and hearsay.

Their book was so defective in Sonia’s estimation that in 1974 she relented and commissioned an official biography, to be written by the political scientist Bernard Crick. Despite lacking a literary background (or much literary feeling for that matter), Crick focused his whole effort on answering the question whether Orwell succeeded in his career ambition to make political writing into an art. George Orwell: A Life (1980) would be primarily a textual analysis. Sonia was deeply displeased with Crick’s book even before it came out. It was dry. Taking Orwell’s publication record as a rigid outline, Crick hardly touched on the man himself. (I recall thinking the first time I read Crick that he would have done a strict behaviorist proud; in the preface he swears off any attempt to get inside Orwell’s mind, saying he would only be analyzing concrete, observable fact.)

And so correctives of the corrective biography followed. D.J. Taylor naturally took Orwell the man as his focal point in his award-winning 2003 Orwell: The Life. (That definite article was meant to say something.) Five hundred pages long, it is possibly the most comprehensive Orwell biography.

Gordon Bowker’s 2004 George Orwell is also excellent. Bowker turns up a trove of new primary source material, including KGB files showing the Soviets were targeting Orwell in Spain in 1937. Juicy stuff. If you’re looking to take in Orwell’s life in only one biography, I would recommend Taylor’s or Bowker’s. (They’re both great buys, too. I am not an Amazon influencer, but I simply can’t not point out how inexpensive the Kindle versions of these books are: $2.99 for Taylor, $5.99 for Bowker.)

There are a number of semi-biographic books about Orwell that I won’t discuss at length here. Most are take-downs or appreciations, and they all have something to recommend them no matter which “side” they take. Even the sharply canted Inside the Myth, published in 1984 to “deconstruct” Orwell’s allegedly fraudulent self-image as a liberal democrat, helps tell the larger story of how Orwell is constantly being argued about and fought over. Two outstanding, and more recent commentaries that draw substantially on Orwell’s biography without being biographies are Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas Ricks (2017) and The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey (2019). Christopher Hitchens’s 2003 Why Orwell Matters is possibly the best general-purpose critical interpretation if you want to delve straight into the political meaning of Orwell’s works.

[Ian McKellan Gandalf voice] Now where was I? Oh, yes . . .

John Sutherland’s charming and delightful contribution to the catalog of Orwell biographies is in many ways the most enjoyable. As I hinted above, Sutherland exudes a friendly intimacy with Orwell’s life that is not at all evident in the big biographies. And to be fair, this is no surprise. The earlier biographers were all trying to get Orwell “straight” for the record.

Sutherland has an angle.

He retells the history of Orwell’s life through the prism (though that’s hardly the right word) of “naso-pathology,” his playful term for the diagnostic power of smell. You can’t read Orwell without noting the predominance of odors in all of his books and many of his essays. Even if you’ve only read his most famous novel, 1984, you can probably recall the odor of “rag-mats and boiled cabbage” materializing in the first few pages. The foul stench of Victory Cigarettes and the “sickly, oily smell” of Victory Gin soon follow. What a lunch break Winston Smith had that day.

(Image: Amazon)

Sutherland guides the reader on a tour of virtually all the smells that suffuse and punctuate Orwell’s works. And for the record, he doesn’t let Orwell off easily for the is-it-or-isn’t-it odiferous put-down of the lower classes. Anyone who has read the “smell” passage in The Road to Wigan Pier has likely read it several times. Strictly speaking, what it says is, the English culture of class differences has conditioned the upper classes to believe uncritically that the lower classes smell. Period. Which makes it sound like Orwell is in the clear, right? He’s critiquing the system.

But smell is a brute ontological fact that Orwell cannot get around: it exists, and it means something. And despite taking pains to put his observation about class differences into delicate context, Orwell can’t hide his true sensibilities (or do I mean sensitivities?) on this matter. “The fifty occurrences of the word ‘smell’ in the text don’t quite support [the] apologetic explanation,” Sutherland writes. “Later, for example, Orwell asserts, ‘I do not blame the working man because he stinks, but stink he does.'” Case closed?

In case you’re thinking you don’t want to read such a narrow interpretation of Orwell, no matter how zesty it might be, fear not. Most of Sutherland’s detailed naso-pathology is compartmented in three short but dense appendices, about Orwell’s smoking habits and the “smell narratives” of A Clergyman’s Daughter and The Road to Wigan Pier.

Sutherland’s theme, noticeable as it is, can detract from a small but I believe novel contribution he makes to the genre of Orwell biography. Despite Orwell’s lack of specialized education and the totemic power he lends to common sense, Orwell was, Sutherland points out, a world-class brain picker, and he picked the brains of highly educated specialists. (“The proles are our only hope?” Maybe not.)

Right before Orwell invented immersion journalism by joining the ranks of the down and out and writing a book about it, he shot the breeze at length with a Cambridge anthropologist who was leading a new school of thought: “participant observation,” it was called. And if you’ve read Franz Boas you know it became the school of anthropology in the 20th century; going native became a scientific technique. Orwell’s method of “becoming the thing he wanted to understand” did not spring forth fully formed from his head. It was midwived in Cambridge.

One of the most plaintive messages of Orwell’s Nose is that Orwell did not at all appreciate what a great wife he had in Eileen O’Shaugnessy. The reader may count the ways Eileen served George, and they are many. Newly added to the usual list, though, is Sutherland’s observation that George must have derived his critical interest in boys’ literature and the formative power of young childhood from Eileen’s graduate work in early childhood education. (Which she abruptly abandoned to become George’s typist and housekeeper when they wed in 1936.) Orwell’s ideas about the authoritarian’s need to subjugate people in a permanent state of childhood came in good part from Eileen and her studies.

Finally we learn that the font of Orwell’s close analysis of language was his months-long collaboration at the BBC with deskmate William Empson. Empson was a celebrated poet and, in Sutherland’s judgment, “the cleverest literary critic of the century.” Well, that’s something. Although Orwell was not fond of Empson (turning him into the clever but unlikeable Ampleforth in 1984), he must have drawn on the relationship with him to inform his own understanding of how single words, small phrases, and rhythmic devices could charge the meaning of a sentence. Orwell’s laser-sharp discernment of the line between persuasion and propaganda must have been helped along by the thoughts of a cubicle-mate whose doctoral thesis at Cambridge just happened to be Seven Types of Ambiguity. The literary world would not have Newspeak without Orwell, but Orwell, that hero of common sense, would not have come up with it without the flouncy, erudite Empson.

Orwell’s Nose is highly accessible. Even if it does presume a certain familiarity with Orwell’s catalog, there’s no harm in going back in filling in any gaps in your reading as a way of keeping up with Sutherland. If you have time, read one of the big biographies first, but if you don’t, you will probably appreciate this jaunty, intimate portrait of Orwell’s life anyway.

Review of “Or Orwell: Writing and Democratic Socialism” by Alex Woloch

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I’m not much on book reviews that say basically I’m reviewing this book so you don’t have to read it.

But: I’m reviewing this book so you don’t have to read it.

In Or Orwell: Writing and Democratic Socialism, published in 2016 by Harvard University Press, Alex Woloch uses the tools of literary theory to dissect and examine George Orwell’s supposedly straightforward writing style. Woloch unearths a range of unexpected caveats and nuances behind Orwell’s famous dictum that good prose should be clear and simple, “like a window pane.”

Rather than shining a light straight through a window pane on to plain truths, Orwell’s prose actually contorts itself around the deeply complicated “sheer activity of writing,” according to Woloch’s analysis. You may have thought Orwell simply faced unpleasant truths head-on, but, beneath the surface of Orwell’s plain prose, Woloch espies opaque-seeming currents and describes them like this: “Conceptualizing exploitation entails persistently converging on the actual experience of singular persons stuck in oppressive structure; the ramifications of the structure (unlike the structure itself) cannot be fully articulated.”

Ahem.

But if you think this is the point where I start to parody Woloch–and more generally literary theory–it is not. Despite my conservative attitude about truth, facts, and rationality, I read Woloch’s newfangled book with an open mind and found a great deal of pleasure in many of his insights. If your favorite paintings were Renoir’s large canvases and an art critic invited you to come close and pore slowly over their details with him, would you hold back because you thought you saw something shifty in the critic’s eyes?

There is a wonderful chapter on Orwell’s first collection of essays published as a book, Inside the Whale. In it, Woloch makes some surprisingly accessible points about Orwell’s use of a “threshold effect” to describe the tension of being simultaneously inside and outside an abstract problem. This threshold is where a critical writer always exists, trying to gain access to something in the world but from the domain of her own private interiority.

Literary theory often seizes on a very close reading of short phrases or even individual words to make a larger claim. (See the entire 36-page first chapter on Orwell’s use of “quite bare” in “A Hanging.”) This maneuver can seem maddeningly trivial, because who cares about a single word being repeated throughout a longish text: that happens all the time. Or it can seem like a facile trick, because any competent wordsmith can combine small units of language to mean almost anything they wish.

But by the end of the chapter on Inside the Whale, I believed that Woloch actually had something interesting to say about the structure of Orwell’s writing. The odd thing about Inside the Whale is that it comprises only three essays (“Charles Dickens,” “Boys’ Weeklies,” and “Inside the Whale,” the last entry an extended consideration of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer), and Orwell takes no pains whatsoever to say why he has grouped them together. Woloch actually does a convincing job citing some of Orwell’s recurring phrasing (yes, very plain and ordinary seeming) to argue that the thing that unifies the three essays is Orwell’s structural invocation of the “social horizon,” the boundary between class differences. Orwell doesn’t just say there are class differences in capitalist England: he uses form to dramatize how he thinks about those differences.

So much for such subtleties. Or Orwell is full of them, but I have a suspicion that most Orwell enthusiasts come to the man for the plain meaning of his texts and not for a paisley pattern of literary theoretical details. Still, if you find yourself, as I do, wanting to take in everything written about Orwell, Or Orwell surrenders up a number of more concrete, perhaps more satisfying observations. (We wanted to get up close to the canvas with that art critic for a reason, right?)

That chapter on Inside the Whale? In it Woloch mentions a letter in which Orwell said he wanted to write more “semi-sociological” essays like the three in that collection. And then, almost as an aside, Woloch suggests that Orwell may have casually invented what we now call cultural studies. And this seems true. All three essays, especially “Boys’ Weeklies,” explore the social meaning of popular texts, keeping their pure literary value as a side issue. The instinct of the literary critic is to dwell on the good, the true, and the beautiful, but here we have Orwell pointing out that it might be more socially revealing to pay attention to the actual texts that people buy and read no matter how commercial, ordinary, crass, or transgressive. I daresay I would not have been invited to a graduate philosophy seminar about “The Simpsons” in 1994 had Orwell not blazed a trail in the direction of cultural studies in 1940.

As a writer, Orwell has been “ritualized” and frozen in place as a kind of “figure through which two warring entities–two modes of reading–seek to obliterate each other,” Woloch claims. Indeed Orwell has become so paradigmatic in the contest between “na├»ve empiricism” (the idea that the world is knowable through plain old observation) and Critical Theory (the idea that our “observations” of the world are always mediated through cant, self-interest, delusion and, above all, ideology) that Orwell is “not just positioned on one side of the theoretical line, [but] has been invoked to structure the boundary itself.”

I think Orwell would like that: he structures the left-right boundary himself. Why not? He once labeled himself a Tory anarchist, a contradiction in basic attitudes if there ever was one. A committed socialist who wanted to smash and recast the very foundations of society, Orwell also disliked anyone who came across as too out of step with societal norms, notably gays, yogis, vegetarians, and men who wore tight shorts or hiked in groups.

So Orwell himself poses a dilemma about thinking and writing and being in the world. He is a kind of living paradox. In one of his most memorable observations, Orwell says that all socialists (like himself) hope for a world that has been expunged of war, famine, dirt, disease, and fear. But then he pauses to ask if there is anyone who actually wants to live in such a utopia? There would be no struggle, which sanctifies life for the leftist. Woloch answers this question for Orwell by quoting at length from his 1943 essay “Can Socialists Be Happy?”:

[. . .] I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another.

Amen. If socialists cannot be happy, let us hope they can keep striving to be.

Is the Useless Class Coming Sooner Than We Think?

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

In case you haven’t noticed, there has been a flurry of news reporting recently on the astonishing writing capabilities of new artificial intelligence (AI) applications. I haven’t tested one yet, but you can give one of these apps a writing prompt and some basic parameters, and it will produce a stylish and effective text that meets your specifications to a T.

A trick that no journalist seems able to resist these days is to insert a passage into their article written by the AI they are writing about. And the insertion is seamless; it reads as if the author wrote it herself.

In this fairly typical article from the Atlantic Monthly, we learn that lawyers are already using a leading AI app, ChatGPT, to produce legal briefs. And why wouldn’t they?–“ChatGPT passes the torts and evidence sections of the Multistate Bar Examination,” we also learn.

Robo-lawyers, anyone?

But there is much more to consider. If AI can craft an effective legal brief, AI can understand and adjudicate one too. So then we have: Robo-judges, Robo-juries.

Today, I would like to resist my usual urge to plod through a topic and tell you at distressing length how I think Orwell would judge it an offense on the human spirit. Instead I simply ask you: How big a deal do you think this is?

(Image: Smarthistory)

The ability to generate narratives around which groups of humans can be organized and rallied (to do absolutely anything, from underwriting home loans to pursuing happiness to killing millions other people) is the core skill of being human.

The historian Yuval Noah Harari has been arguing for the last several years that knowledge workers will soon follow the path of blue collar workers in being displaced by machines. The literate class has long been able to avoid thinking about the implications of AI-level automation because there was such a clear difference between what we do–manipulate abstract symbols–and what blue collar workers do–manipulate material things. We may have thought, fleetingly, it was a pity that factory workers were having it tough keeping up with machines, but I doubt many of us actually cared all that much. It wasn’t our problem.

But now it is.

Harari believes we are almost all of us destined to join what he calls the useless class, something completely alien in our history. Humans struggle, strive, create, accomplish. What will we do when machines can (and do) concoct the narratives that goad, instruct and inspire us in our highest ambitions? You might not need to lift boxes or sew zippers into jeans to feel human, but by god you need to do something that serves a higher purpose. What will it be? We can’t all create newer, better AIs–they will do that for themselves soon enough.

So I stop uncharacteristically short and ask for your thoughts. What does it mean that AI can now, instantaneously, write better than 99 percent of us? Is the useless class being created right in front of our noses? Are we in it yet?

Reflections on “Animal Liberation” by Peter Singer

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony” is deeply surreal, even by Kafka’s mind-bending standards.

This is the story’s mise en scene: an unnamed military officer in an unnamed tropical colony is demonstrating the operation of a killing machine. He is about to use it to execute a prisoner. The machine does its work over the course of 12 hours, slowly inscribing the text of the traduced law onto the condemned man’s torso, with ever deeper needle punctures.

Kafka’s machine does a job that many civilized people agree needs to be done–eliminating capital criminals–but why must it be done by means so cruel and bizarre?

With slight adjustments, this was the question I was asking myself as I read in Peter Singer’s classic 1975 book Animal Liberation* how beef cattle are slaughtered. Hanging upside down from a conveyor belt ten feet off the floor, the cattle approach the killing line. They are required by law to be alive during this process. They are supposed to be unconscious, but–mistakes are made, mechanisms falter, especially under the pressure of haste, and–sometimes the cattle are awake and aware. What happens then?

The animal, upside down, with ruptured joints and often a broken leg, twists frantically in pain and terror, so that it must be gripped by the neck or have a clamp inserted in its nostrils to enable the slaughterer to kill the animal with a single stroke, . . . .

The strange thing is, it is laws promoting humane slaughter and food purity that result in this nightmare scene of unrestrained sadism. The Food and Drug Act of 1906 requires that slaughtered animals not fall into the blood of other slaughtered animals; other laws protect the faith-based traditions that say food animals must be “healthy and moving” when killed. Taken together, the law, Singer points out, turns what is supposed to be an efficient if not quite benign method of slaughter into “a grotesque travesty of any humane intentions that may have once lain behind it.”

(Image: Animal Welfare Institute)

There are many philosophers with greater name recognition than Peter Singer–Kant, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Nietzsche. But unlike Singer, none of philosophy’s stars founded real-life social movements. Singer has. Go ahead and Google ‘Animal Liberation Front’.

None of philosophy’s pantheon had such immediate and profound life-changing effects on their contemporary world as Singer has. Granted, this is mostly because Singers’ old-fogey predecessors didn’t even try, but that is kind of the point. Singer is alone among his peers in imagining the philosopher’s role to be a doer, not just a thinker. (If you want to throw out Marx as a challenge to this claim–don’t even. How many years did he spend in his London living room writing Das Kapital? And how many years did he spend on the barricades? Marx may have written that the job of philosophy is to change the world and not just describe it, but that’s all he did: write.) Singer believes that the purpose of ethics is to reduce harm done to any sentient being, right here and right now. Therefore his measure of success is not book sales, not endowed professorships; it is not debate-winning arguments at conferences; it is his power to cause more and more people to adopt values that demand the reduction of harm to other sentient beings.

By this measure, Singer has been the most successful philosopher in history. Though he would not claim personal credit for the whole scope of animal rights work accomplished since 1975, it is fair to say that the movement Singer created has (a) changed laws in many countries curtailing and regulating scientific experimentation (much of it pointlessly cruel) on animals; (b) created powerful civil society groups that protect animals from harm, including PETA and the SPCA; (c) exposed the massive waste and cruelty of factory farming, which has led to significant, if far from complete, reduction of harm to food animals; (d) inspired the decision by millions to stop regarding animals’ interests as morally negligible, and, more or less concomitant with this; (e) inspired millions to stop consuming animals or animal products; and (f) informed the widespread realization that using animals for food is disastrously inefficient and globally unsustainable. There is simply not enough Earth to support animal farming on a scale that would provide meat to even a fraction of humans who might desire it. Even providing meat to the tiny fraction who can presently afford it in “Western” quantities is scorching the Earth. People should know that they are not just fiddling but feasting as they actively turn our earthly paradise into a hell.

Pardon me. I am breaking one of Singer’s most important rules. The economic and environmental disaster of meat-eating is so pressing that we proponents of animal liberation cannot afford the kind of pious dudgeon I just worked myself into. It puts others off and–the last 15 years of history notwithstanding–the purpose of rational argumentation is not to incapacitate one’s opponents with outrage. It is to make the world a better place by changing minds.

Weird as it seems, Kafka’s story “In the Penal Colony” is actually a straightforward piece of consciousness-raising literature. There’s a reason the action takes place in a colony. Because in a republic, as Cesare Beccaria first argued in 1764, the state has no right to deprive its citizens of their lives, else it is no republic. Killing by the state may only be done in territories where violent subjugation is the definitive method of governance. (Orwell expresses the sentiment behind this argument simply and powerfully in his 1931 essay “A Hanging.” I recommend it.)

There’s also a reason why the colony and the executioner go unnamed in Kafka’s story. In an “enlightened” society, outrages on morality can only be sustained if they are easily ignored. They must be hidden. They must happen off-stage, done by non-persons in non-places. Before Singer wrote Animal Liberation–in particular the 60-page long chapter “Down on the Factory Farm”–citizens of our liberal democracy might have plausibly pleaded ignorance to the mass-scale harms done to our food animals and the environment by factory farming. But now the institutionalized slaughter has been unmasked, and our citizens need not even be literate to know this. Because of the success of Singer’s writing, the practices of factory farming have been reported on by scores of journalists and documentary filmmakers.

One of the purposes of “In the Penal Colony” was to jolt the polite, educated Europeans who read short stories into asking what kinds of moral travesties were being carried out in their “interest” in the real world. (For an idea of the extent of these, see Adam Hochshcild’s 1998 book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa.)

At one time, mass ignorance of factory farming and other instances of cruelty to animals was excusable. It was all so well hidden. But like Kafka, Singer unmasked the cruelty, brought it right before our eyes for inspection.

Orwell told his contemporaries the uncomfortable truth that “ordinary” middle-class English prosperity was rooted in the colonial system of violent subjugation. Only the enslaver’s whip could produce sugar cheaply enough to provide it to all of England’s clerks, shop-keepers and other workers at an affordable price. Singer tells us a similar uncomfortable truth: the the ordinary practice of meat-eating depends for its viability on a vast system of cruel tyranny and organized coverup. Make meat less cruel, and you price it out of practically everyone’s reach. The system, with its bizarre killing machines (and countless other outrages), is what turns out the ordinary, plastic-wrapped pound of ground beef that you (may) consider your due as an ordinary consumer in a developed country. But read Animal Liberation and see if it does not upset this view by noting your role in this system–where you stand with respect to the killing line, with its Kafkaesque upside-down conveyor belts of “healthy and moving” beef cattle. A heavily moneyed system of propaganda has been set up to prevent you from knowing these things. But, again, read Singer. See if he doesn’t make you want to rebel. See if he doesn’t help you reject the idea that people with money can tell you what to think.

—–

* I read the 2009 updated edition.

Reflections on “Catch-22”

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Even if you’ve never read Joseph Heller’s classic anti-war novel Catch-22, you probably know the basic setup. American bomber crews in Italy in World War Two face not just deadly German flak, but the absurd military logic that forces them to keep flying missions even as their commanding officer keeps extending the number required for a complete tour.

The number of missions goes up to 40, then 50, then 60. Any sane person could see where this was going and would try to get out. And there does seem to be a way out. Any crew member could be grounded for reasons of insanity. But:

There was only one catch, and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.

The result was a logic-chopping paradox. Any pilot who willingly flew more missions was crazy and didn’t have to; anyone who refused was sane and had to.

I had never read Catch-22 until this month, and I expected it to be a romp. Comedy this madcap, even if dark, dark usually lopes along. And, the machinery that advances the plot–American B-25 bombers and German 88-mm guns–could and did strike with slashing speed. The orgies and drinking sprees that punctuate Catch-22 are the same swirling blurs of frenzy they are in real life, occurring too fast to fix any memorial records of the events.

So it came as a surprise when I found myself reading slowly and savoring certain passages. Some days I only read 20 pages at a time. I found myself pausing to ruminate connections to ideas both prophetic and antecedent.

Heller’s most obvious debt is to Lewis Carroll. Page after page, Heller depicts the logic of war and bureaucracy as a baffling hall of mirrors. The feeling of being through the looking glass is evoked by almost every character and plot device. Major Major will only agree to meetings in his office when he is out of his office. Lieutenant Colonel Korn only allows airmen who ask no questions to ask questions. The atheist chaplain’s assistant berates the chaplain for underselling God. Perhaps my favorite is General Peckem’s guidance to his new executive officer: “While none of the work we do is very important, it is important that we do a lot of it.”

Carroll spun a fantasy in which illogic became systematic in a made-up world. Heller showed illogic to be the foundational requirement for making modern war in the actual world.

Indeed, the case is there to be made that Heller normalized the anti-war novel. The Good Soldier Schweik, published in 1923 (1930 in English), was arguably the first in this class, and the Lost Generation produced a string of novels and memoirs throughout the 1920s and -30s that took the glory out of war and showcased its moral desolation. But after Heller, this view of war would be the only one a serious novel could take. Christopher Hitchens notes that the timing of Catch-22, published in 1961, “had an unusual felicity, helping to curtain-raise what nobody knew would be The Sixties.” True, but this piquant note only catches half of Heller’s significance; his drumbeat message that war is a failure of the human spirit helped create the 1960s; it didn’t just land at their doorstep.

Along these lines, it would be going too far to say that Heller’s friend Kurt Vonnegut would not have been able in 1969 to publish Slaughterhouse-Five, another great anti-war novel, without Catch-22 as prologue. But it seems plausible that a reading public would not have made it through Vonnegut’s bizarre plot devices of time travel and alien abduction had they not been softened up by Heller’s more prosaic absurdities.

A handful of writers have, over long ages, made the argument that war is morally wrong. The case is easily grasped. But it would not be until Thomas Pynchon in 1973 put Dadaist elements and a cockeyed existentialism into the blender of Postmodernism to produce Gravity’s Rainbow that the argument would emerge that war violates something even deeper in the human person than morality–some Kantian substrate of order that creates the very possibility of morality. Gravity’s Rainbow deranges this invisible foundation of the human person.

And Heller preceded Pynchon in this project. As with Vonnegut and Slaughterhouse-Five, I cannot say the Gravity’s Rainbow could not have been written without Catch-22, but clearly Pynchon owes Heller a large debt. The whole idea of oddly-named U.S. servicemen hurrying across war-warped Europe on hectic, outlandish missions of unknown authorship and opaque objectives is to be found first in Catch-22. The mess NCO Milo Minderbinder operates a syndicate of black-marketeering air freight services while he himself serves as mayor of several European cities and potentate of several post-Ottoman territories. Is this Heller stretching reality or bending it? The point–which Pynchon took to new heights (or depths)–is that we are not supposed to know.

My U2 Decade (Part One)

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

I recently posted about making the musical playlist for my wake. (I mentioned then, and I repeat now: I am not dying. The playlist thing was just an exercise that I thought might be illuminating and useful. I carried it out in the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut’s old quip, “Should it happen that someday, God forbid, I die, . . . “)

In the course of that exercise, a different theme took shape, and it seemed to call for comment.

Here it is: The soundtrack of my life is U2’s 1991 album Achtung Baby. I hear it inside my head every single day. That must mean something, no? Something that, with effort, can be analyzed and pieced together. It would have to draw heavily on memory. The music inside my head began playing 31 years ago.

It happened like this.

In the fall of 1991, I had recently moved into a studio apartment on a hillside above Heidelberg, Germany. It was my first home on my own. I was discovering how quickly night fell in those months and how long the nights would be. The city lights below started twinkling up at me at four in the afternoon. And the nights lasted forever. If it was foggy the next morning, which it often was, the darkness would not lift until 10 o’clock or so. No matter how sunny one’s natural disposition, the dominant mood was brooding.

I was 25. Like all boys of that age, I had a favorite band, and I thought my favorite band said something about me. So I would play them on my stereo in that apartment above Heidelberg.

My favorite band did say something about me. Up to that point, my temperament had had a religious and puritanical side. I don’t mean that I was either one of those things (although man, did I try). But I did have this keenly moralistic outlook on life, and it had something to do with God, or possibly duty.

I also thought I was cool. I thought having run away from rural Missouri, going to war, and then ending up in Heidelberg had turned me from a bumpkin into a cosmopolitan. The ideas we get. You never really stop being who you are.

Possibly because I was so cool, I also sensed that there was something abroad in the world that needed rebelling against–maybe the unreflective acceptance of the status quo. Like I said, I was 25, and at that age boys don’t really know anything. Vague feelings were all I had to go on.

My favorite band was U2, and they did for me what favorite bands are supposed to do–they helped sharpen my formless, adolescent feelings about the world into more definitive ideas and attitudes.

I didn’t know it at the time, but U2’s first three albums had already mirrored the main narrative of my young life. Boy, released in 1980, showcased a self-interrogating male adolescence in loud, spare punk rock. But its lyrics were earnest, and that’s not very punk rock, is it? Boy posed questions about what it meant to be a morally serious teen. That’s all. It didn’t answer those questions, which is a very good thing because, like I said, boys don’t know anything at that age.

October, released in 1981, narrows down the broader questions of Boy into a single, more focused question. Can the self-serving rebellion of rock-n-roll accommodate a person’s call to serve a higher power? Answering such a call demands quietude, humility, and penitence, none of which is very rock-n-roll. (I would learn years later that U2’s members had nearly broken up over their struggle to answer this question, and October was the expression of this struggle.) October was a good album, but it left me feeling that the band’s central question might need answering, not just recycled into heartfelt new songs.

When U2 gave a definitive answer to the question, in War, their third studio album, it was a knockout blow. They had chosen rock-n-roll and moral seriousness. The answer to their question about faith and art was that there was no way to resolve the dilemma; therefore, there was no need to do so. To be human is to be pulled in different directions. Once you know that, it’s full steam ahead. Just listen to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and tell me that’s band that has not made up its mind.

(War, by the way, was not just an artistic triumph in its own right. It also rid me forever of the need I had felt up until then occasionally to listen to Christian rock. Christian rock sucked supremely. I suppose it still does; I haven’t listened to it in years. Lacking the space here for a full disquisition, suffice it to say that Christian rock is bad in every way that music can be bad, and then it goes on to invent new categories of wrongness and malignity. This is what dishonesty does to art. Subordinating any art form to the strictures of a message–whether political, religious, ideological, what have you–is a form of censorship, and it contradicts the imperative that art must be free.)

Now I deliberately pass over the sonic, ethereal beauties of The Unforgettable Fire, released in 1985, and the expansive, epoch-making victory of Joshua Tree, 1987. They tell their own stories about U2’s growth and evolution, but they did not change my perception of the band’s voice as a sincere and fundamentally hopeful one.

I didn’t know then that life keeps changing even after you feel like you’ve reached firm ground–that things keep happening and happening that turn you into a different person, all the time. Wait, didn’t I say just a few paragraphs ago that I was basically stuck being a bumpkin, that people never really change? I don’t want to bring Aristotle’s theory of change into this, so I’m going to table that problem for now.

It is enough for us to know, as we float back into my small Heidelberg apartment in November 1991, what U2 meant to me at that time. Despite the band’s musical experimentations in the intervening years, their message was still firmly rooted in War–in 1983. At least for me it was.

Then my favorite band disturbed my peace.

I had brought home a CD of Achtung Baby from the PX. I lay on the floor right next to my small stereo. And I listened to the album straight through, track by track. What I heard confused me. The band suddenly had, and exhibited, libido. And doubt. Not teenage doubt about whether you can play rock-n-roll and still go to church, but deeper doubt about whether the floor might fall out from underneath life itself. They were asking whether anything made sense.

The theme of darkness also entered. It pervaded not just the mood and symbols of the album, but it made literal appearances in several of the songs. Before, U2’s songs had countenanced grief, outrages on conscience, and the moral severities of religion, but these trials happened, so to speak, in the clear light of day, and one always got the sense that the protagonist would win. Now Bono sang, “Love is blindness; I don’t want to see; Won’t you wrap the night around me.” He doesn’t want to see? As night pressed in on me, it pressed in on my favorite band, too. And for the first time, they seemed uncertain about whether dawn would break. I wasn’t ready for that.

But the kicker was irony. Up until Achtung Baby, it had been perfectly clear to me that U2 always said what they meant. Now, Bono was singing that he was “ready for the laughing gas;” boasting that his sex appeal was “even better than the real thing.” He dramatized the Last Supper in terms approaching parody. He sang that he was “ready to let go of the steering wheel.” Did he mean any of this? The U2 I knew steered straight and defiantly ahead. What was this chagrined recklessness all about?

These unsettling questions came packaged in a new musical vocabulary as well. That was probably what kept me listening, the thing that kept me open to the band’s new psychological landscape of uncertainty. Achtung Baby is U2’s most industrial-rock album. It is an orchestrated cacophony of metallic clinks, vehicular roars, factory hums, and driving, percussive machine blows singed with feedback. The Edge took a new measure of musical control over the album’s songs, and it seemed he was trying to hit out at the very things Bono was compromising with–fame, grandiosity, moral laxity. Bono was proclaiming a season of dark folly that was alarmingly close to nihilism, and the Edge was leading an insurgency against it. Or so it seemed to me.

I’m probably reading too much into Achtung Baby. I’m only 56. What do boys know at this age? But here goes anyway.

In retrospect, we know that Bono and the band were playacting attitudes that were actually supposed to be the targets of their interrogations. And I literally mean “play-acting.” When U2 toured in support of the album, Bono appeared first as The Fly, a wised-up reincarnation of black-leather Elvis. This was Bono bringing indictments of hypocrisy and cupidity against himself for wanting to be a rock star. Later in the show, he would appear as MacPhisto. MacPhisto was literally the devil in gold lame, but figuratively an homage to C.S. Lewis’s proposition that Satan is a sly charmer who never attacks us frontally.

I won’t bore you with a song-by-song analysis of what Achtung Baby means. It would only be so much blather. Listen to the tracks instead.

Eventually I did figure out why Achtung Baby became the soundtrack of my life. It was because Western history itself was making a revolutionary turn toward unchallenged freedom in 1991, and U2, acting on some mad, artistic insight, had recorded their masterpiece precisely at the hinge of that colossal turn, in Berlin. I would wake up the day after Christmas 1991, hung over in my little apartment above Heidelberg, and the USSR, the only viable enemy that liberal democracy had, would have ceased to exist. All its people had changed sides. They were with us now. Just a little more than two years before, the people of Berlin had torn down their wall and declared themselves to be one people. Now everyone was doing it.

The biggest part of me wanted to believe that History was at an End. That’s what my favorite books said, books by philosophers and other theoreticians. Once civilized people seized freedom, the books said, they would never go back to authoritarianism. The future was now inevitable and bright. But U2 was there to witness the turn, and they recorded a dark and anguished album that said you could never be sure about life and that things keep happening and happening that change you and you never know how you will turn out. I would not know until years later that, at that most unlikely moment, I was also ready to let go of the steering wheel, just like my band.

In My Time of Dyin’: A Post about Music

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

The words are from the title of a song by Bob Dylan, recorded when he was all of 21 years old. It’s a good song, but really what did he know about dying?

What do I know?

I am much closer than young Robert Zimmerman, who, on the cover of his 1962 debut album, Bob Dylan, looked like he wasn’t even shaving yet. Me, I’m close enough to make certain considerations.

Oh, but before I get into those, this is not an announcement of my imminent demise. I am as unaware today as I was yesterday of things actively trying to kill me.

But I am close enough to understand how time will start fraying soon. I know of the things that will turn time from an airy abstraction into hard reality. The heart, the lungs, the liver; they will all start giving up on the jobs they once did so well, for so long. There’s no way Dylan knew of those things when he was 21. He was using death the way poets and essayists have always used it–as an idea to focus the mind.

This blog has never been autobiographical. I’ve occasionally written about my favorite hobby, running, and I once made a big deal of nearly dying from too much morphine after back surgery. I also wrote a florid and intimate declaration of love for a hill one time. But by temperament, I keep a lofty focus on the Olympian heights–books, ideas, and the legacy of Orwell.

But I recently started to address a problem I hadn’t even known existed. And that problem is inescapably autobiographical: the matter of final arrangements. Oh, not the legal stuff. I’m a chary bureaucrat by training and habit, so I’ve checked all the boxes that one thinks of as “responsible estate planning.” Of course I’ve done that. The only thing that really matters to me is my ability to care for the small group of Earthlings I think of as my own, so I’m not going to allow myself to fail, through mere oversight, in that mission. (You know all those memes that start with “You had one job?”–I will not have them appended to the Facebook announcements of my Departure. I simply won’t.)

It has nagged me for several years, though, that there are other, more personal arrangements to be made. Money isn’t everything, after all.

Recently I posed myself the following question: If music were to be played at my wake, what would it be? And a further question arose: Would anyone even know where to start making such a playlist? Given the general glumness of the circumstances and the pressing need for buying tombstones and whatnot, would anyone feel like taking this job on? I fear it might get half done, if at all.

And this cannot stand.

Anyone of my generation knows how decisively important a soundtrack is. The Breakfast Club simply does not, cannot come to its proper end without the booming forth of “Don’t You Forget about Me,” by Simple Minds. The song finishes the story. I’m in search of songs that finish my story.

Well, easy, I thought. My life has a soundtrack, and it is U2’s dark, ironic, but still majestic Achtung Baby of 1991. It says everything you need to know about my inner life: used to be religious, now godless, bonded in some amorphous way to Berlin’s swirl of doom, art, redemption, and American guardianship.

But wait. It’s all very well to have U2’s loudest, most desolate and industrial sounds going through your head literally every day of your life, and to know that the songs are you in a way, but Achtung Baby would be an absolute non-starter at a wake. Take three-quarters of an hour, if you can, and listen all the way through to “Acrobat,” the 11th track on the Album. You’re feeling drained, forsaken and sonically battered by the time it plays. You need a respite of light and air. Instead, “Acrobat” comes on: a buzzsaw of inchoate anguish and rage. All is darkness and moral wrong, it says. Does it project the mood one wants just after a funeral?

It does not.

And this got me thinking: there is an urge to have the last say at one’s leave-taking, but this kind of thing can be taken too far. Last rituals certainly must take the departed as their subject, but they exist for other people. They must take the audience into equal account.

So, I will make time soon enough to write about U2’s formative power over me. There are questions that need answering about how their darkest songs came to score a bright, breeze-kissed life like mine, unmarked by wracked conscience or hint of woe.

But for now, to the task at hand. This is how I got down to the business of choosing the songs I want to be played at my wake, and how they revealed some telling problems.

Balance, is what I thought. The songs need to strike a balance between what they mean/t for me and what they say to the listener. And I came up with a few promising candidates, but I also came up with even more problem cases. To wit:

“Jokerman” by Bob Dylan, would be superb, I thought. It showcases Dylan at his poetic best, managing to be wry, wistful, and vaguely accusatory at the same time. The imagery, much of it Biblical, is supreme. The music, nudged along by Mark Knopfler’s understated guitar work, stays in the background, letting Bob spin out a complex warning of apocryphal menace. “Jokerman” was in.

Why did it beat out other, better known Dylan songs? I think “It’s All Right Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” is Dylan’s greatest poem. It is his apex achievement. But that’s the problem. It’s my wake, and I don’t want people zoning out at it, transfixed by what might be the best song written by a popular musician in the last 100 years. Listen to it on your own time.

Ditto “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, mutatis mutandis. It’s too good. Plus, there’s its unstinting mood of heartbreak, which I presume will be going around freely enough without any prompts from my playlist. I hope for jokes to be told at my wake, sardonic stories to be shared. These things won’t happen if we have Jeff Buckley (doing my favorite version of “Hallelujah”) reminding us how the celestial joy of love is always at risk of being run into the ditch of abject human failure.

I also came to suspect that the effort to avoid the grim or acrimonious note could be taken too far. One of my absolute favorite songs of all time is “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra. It is, on grounds both psychological and musicological, the happiest song in the world. And therein lay the problem, as I saw upon reflection. Wouldn’t I come off as trying to tell the audience how to feel, and being pretty heavy-handed at it?

I submit this for your consideration and await your response: Should I omit “Mr. Blue Sky” for being too happy?

This dilemma raised a more general problem. Why not simplify the task and just write out a list of all one’s favorite songs, consigning other criteria to the wind? It’s a tempting schema. But it too sails into choppy waters. “Fat Bottomed Girls” is hands down my favorite song by Queen, because it rocks consummately and it it explores a theme that is delightful to me. But do I include it just because of its general excellence? Would I not risk slighting skinny bottomed girls, implying that back in the high tide of life I was indifferent to their presence? Wakes are not the place to feel a small hurt has been done to you, and I refuse to be the cause of even one. I am nothing if not gallant. So “Fat Bottomed Girls,” although a certified sterling favorite, was out.

A few songs were too on the nose, I worried. They seemed to be thrown in because they fit a lax kind of formula. If you hear Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” at my wake, you could be forgiven for thinking blandly, “Oh yes, he liked running.” And it’s true, I did like running. But I really like “Running on Empty,” although mostly for its imagery of the road and youth, not because it’s about running. It captures a time of life when the high, white cumulus clouds decorating the skies in one’s 20s start to turn gray and minatory, announcing the coming storm and turbulence of the 30s. Mostly, “Running on Empty” made the cut because of its musical delivery, earnest and bittersweet but not somber.

I also like Bob Seeger’s “Against the Wind,” and I enjoy the moment in Forrest Gump when the song is used to conjure the depleted, defiant mindset of the long-distance runner against the backdrop of Monument Valley. It’s a great song about restlessness and fatigue, but it leaves the listener wondering if not knowing where you’re going is an inevitable part of life. Is restlessness a permanent state? “Against the Wind” raises this question but does not answer it. Certain forms of melancholy are bound to present themselves at a wake, but I don’t think I want my celebrants asking themselves whether constant, pointless exertion is the main ingredient in the human condition. Let that thought emerge in its own way. So “Against the Wind” was out.

I definitely wanted a song or two by REM. They have always been one of my favorite bands, and I felt like my playlist would be incomplete without them. They provided the soundtrack to my life in my early 20s, before U2 shattered it and replaced it with Achtung Baby. But here I ran into a variant of the just-list-your-favorite-songs problem. It doesn’t work with bands either, or at least it doesn’t for REM. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”? It’s definitely me, but the song is a cockeyed lark. Much as I hope my guests feel free to have zany thoughts, I’m not sure I should make the invitation explicit. “Everybody Hurts”? Lovely song, but please, wouldn’t it be slightly overdoing things at a wake? “Losing My Religion”? This one very well might make the cut, but radio overplay has sapped some of its feeling of originality. Plus people might start doing the choppy-hand dance that Michael Stipe does in the video. Could be weird. I guess it would be okay actually.

Feel free, if the mood takes you (Image: IMVDb)

So what I am left with is a handful of REM songs that strike me as inoffensive to the occasion but so obscure I feel I could mislead the mourners into thinking the songs meant more to me than they did. “Driver Eight” fits this description. It’s a quality REM song that I probably listened to hundreds of times in my 20s, but does it signify? In terms of simple musical beauty, “South Central Rain” is my favorite song by REM, but that plaintive chorus where Michael Stipe says over and over that he’s sorry?–It would almost certainly leave some people wondering whether there was a message there. What would I be doing all that apologizing for? And to whom? People might start puzzling out what the industrial scale wrong was that I had done and how it had never come to light. But I still love the song.

So I am at a loss REM-wise. I await your suggestions, dear reader.

I think I should close this post by looping back to U2. I can’t just give their whole catalog the boot because their portraiture of my life is too plaintive and morose for a wake, right? They are my band, after all, and there are questions of loyalty at stake. I must find a song or two of theirs that mark my farewell properly. The songs, it turns out, were easier to find than I thought they would be.

“Kite,” from the 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind is pretty clearly a goodbye to a loved one, but it’s malleable enough that it covers many different kinds of goodbyes. One of a parent’s highest goals in life is emancipation–the moral and practical preparation of a child to stand on their own two feet. It’s a deep paradox, though: if you’ve done it well, you have broken your own heart, let your child go like a kite into the wind. But you have to do it anyway. To leave emancipation undone, or to do it poorly, is to wreck a young life and to risk setting off a broader train of dysfunction. So if it helps to hear Bono put the problem literally, when he sings, “I want you to know that you don’t need me anymore,” you’re welcome. It helped me too.

The second U2 selection was even easier. It was almost perfect for a wake. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it. Also from All That You Can’t Leave Behind, “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” has a lovely gospel uplift to it. It’s addressed to someone lost, careworn, and temporarily defeated. Bono writes a lot of songs like this. (For a more somber variant not quite wake-appropriate but in every way superb, listen to “Stay [Far Away, So Close!].”) And Bono often tells you there is hope, or maybe something even better, like peace or love or affirmation, on the other side of the troubles. The Edge’s backing vocals at the end of the song–while studio-tuned to artificial perfection: oh, well–serve to complete Bono’s message. If we are to be saved at all, salvation will come through other people. Other people will make us who we are. That’s how we go on, I guess.

And so I close with my actual playlist as it stands, with no further commentary (except to say there is no particular order to the songs–that is a whole other problem). It feels okay to leave it this way. It is not just good manners to resist having the last, overbearing word. It is an unavoidable feature of the wake. The songs will have the last word themselves, and then it is up to other people to go on talking.

Bob Dylan: Jokerman, Like a Rolling Stone, Brownsville Girl

U2: Kite, Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of

Jackson Browne: Running on Empty, Late for the Sky

Don Henley: Boys of Summer

Neil Young: My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue), Thrasher, Powderfinger, Comes a Time

Bruce Springsteen: Thunder Road

Fleetwood Mac: Dreams

10,000 Maniacs: Like the Weather, Verdi Cries

REM: Driver Eight, Losing My Religion, Don’t Go Back to Rickville

Chris Rea: Road to Hell

ELO: Turn to Stone, Mr. Blue Sky (?)