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On the Necessity of Critics
The axiom of criticism must be, not that the poet does not know what he is talking about, but that he cannot talk about what he knows. To defend the right of criticism to exist at all, therefore, is to assume that criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with.
—Northrop Frye, 1957
I think I will be talking about Balaji Srivinasan for quite a while. He and Lex Fridman have just published a massive podcast which runs nearly eight hours. It’s a landmark folks. I have three main takeaways, and a half. The half is that I have been right to follow Balaji. It validates my T50 approach, but I need to go further.
1. The Block & Tackle
Balaji is a master of the skill I call ‘block & tackle’. It’s one I think most good rationalists and philosophers have and I take some pride in my own level, but what’s key about Balaji is that he can be poetic about it. He is a namer, a categorizer and an associative thinker working on a global futurist plane. As a VC, and as a Bitcoin maximalist it makes him uniquely valuable to speak as someone who connects dots and can subsequently drill down. That he has done so with this very long-form interview which is part online class, part documentary and part book tour is remarkable. Extremely so. When I rewatch it, download it, transcribe it and cull out the references, it’s going to be very useful to me.
This way of communication, which I’m not going to bother to name right now, is something I have been waiting for since I first discovered Hugh Hewitt interviewing Larry Arn. Why oh why, I thought, hasn’t anyone combined the spontaneous sparkle of excellent repartee that is the best of talk radio with the multimedia possibilities of internet live-streaming? Even when Joe Rogan does it with his producer, it’s leaving out too much. Even when people talk about ‘the link in the description’ it leaves too much to be desired. As it stands I have to do the downloading and transcription (Softorino + Descript) on my own. This will be perfected. Maybe AIs will help.
2. Multipolarity & Miscategorization
Balaji, down the road in the interview splits the capitalist world into three. The first is that of the CCP aka the self-described CPC. The three words are Chinese, Communist and Party. I don’t believe for a moment that there’s actually another party in China, so I’m going to stick with the first acronym. The second is the Woke Capitalists. Just wow on that because from his perspective, it’s not actually a contest, the Culture War has already been won here in America and those people I’ve been calling the Wokies are just rearguard loudmouths. The big money, the big media and the party of Biden are fixed and set in their ways. There are interesting details to consider, but not right now. The third pole of capitalism is the decentralized non-fiat economies emerging around left, right and center libertarianism.
Readers may remember how taken I have been with the Mimetic sorts proposed by Peter Limberg. It’s nice to have capitalism disambiguated. There’s not just one, but many flavors of the toolsets that capitalists have deployed. Their nature is emergent from different geographies and networks for different reasons. But that’s seen from a very high level. Good for someone with global VC level visibility, not so much for the rest of us. So as these of Balaji’s functional definitions are good to follow for the perspective they may give actors at his influential level, they are not so good for the rest of us Peasants, who need a praxis other than funding and defunding.
The question remains as to how we should align ourselves in a potentially decentralized society while remaining human. The more I listen to the likes of Limberg and Srinivasan, the less particularly American I feel. Not because I don’t like America, but because of the ways Americans are self-segregating. I think we’re forgetting our human baseline rooted in evolutionary biology and psychology.
The conflict of the Culture Wars here in America has a battlefield of categorical targets for the artillery of hate, shame, bigotry and ridicule. You know their names whether you have been studiously aiming or merely deafened by the constant shelling of every social beachhead. Millenials. SJWs. Terfs. Progressives. Trumpists. Hipsters. Bipocs. Vaxxers. YOLO Investors. Boomers. Fragile Whites, Unarmed Blacks, Proud Boys, Billionaires. You name the category, there’s umpty million of them who fit the profile. Or fall under the sway of their putative leaders, influencers and crowdfunders. Everything but ‘Americans’. Everything but ‘human beings’.
I said as much over here.
3. The New New Criticism
Hashtag ‘Fuck Rotten Tomatoes’. The blindspot of IT, and I presume of Srinivasan is that of subjective aesthetic criticism. That is because the modus operandi of Bitcoin maximalists and venture capitalists implicitly involves picking commercial winners in a decision space of metrics that have nothing to do with certain other critical alignments.
While I haven’t picked up on Limberg in a while, I have a clue that he has a clue, especially when he says:
A new role might be required in the Culture War, that of the Memetic Mediator. This mediator would be a pan-tribalist participant, who has the ability to communicate across tribes in a way that seems fair and reasonable to each tribe. They would have the mental agility, empathy, and wisdom needed to shift between a multitude of perspectives.
So these are critical alignments that can enable us Peasants to sort ourselves out better in ways that are not necessarily engaged in zero-sum conflict. I’m not interested in fighting a culture war; I am interested by dint of my own priorities to be what Limberg calls a ‘sorter’. As one who goes there and code switches in ‘hostile’ ideological terrain, I’m disinterested enough as a Stoic to just communicate in the various idioms. I hope to be consistent by sticking close to the philosophical primitives of these various identity constructions, thinking about them as what we database wonks call ‘attributes’. As I discussed with Jason Littlefield, these are just sorts of people, not kinds. People sort themselves into groups, but having done so, they don’t become different kinds of people. They just behave differently perhaps without understanding how that behavioral transformation takes place.
So how does one get a kind of literacy to be able to understand? Firstly, one has to look for and be amenable to the very carefully constructed aesthetic bias of a good critic. You must use a different rubric of criticism when evaluating the a production of Beethoven by the LSO than what is appropriate for the raps of Black Thought as produced by Danger Mouse. A critic can do so because he is a human being experiencing the creation of other human beings. This must be done for the purposes of cultural edification rather than empowerment. It must therefore be structured in such a way that we in America seem to have completely forgotten.
Without going too much into it, we know that the rankings and virality of [decentralized] social media have little to do with human merit. They are all algorithms, trolls, shitposters & bots with humans emulating algorithms and bots in order to get noticed by other algorithms and bots. So on point while he acknowledges the gamification of Wikipedia, I think Balaji misses this crucial need for talented human critics entirely, despite the fact that he acknowledges that decentralization of power makes corruption and mistakes less costly. We agree about the dysfunction of monopolistic aggregation, we disagree that his tripartite capitalisms are the utmost. Utmost what? I can’t tell. He just wants to position the future Decentralized Blockchain Capitalism to be as powerful and influential in the world as Woke Capitalism and Chinese Communist Capitalism. Poor Lex. As much as he wants to situate love somewhere in that world, Balaji had no answers.
In the meantime, presuming we defend liberty through purposeful decentralization of power and hew to the necessary prerogatives of democratic governance, we ought to remember capitalism doesn’t rule culture. We need to be intelligent navigators through culture as well as smart consumers and producers. So let 1000 well-situated critics bloom, starting with us Stoic Observers, continuing the best traditions and methodologies of criticism. There is a science to it.