by Jesse Miksic
There’s this feeling I get on the subway, when I reach a breakpoint in a book I’m reading, and I realize a whole chapter has just passed right through me without sticking, like my mind has secreted a Teflon coating.
I feel it when I browse my lists, day after day: Goodreads reviews of unremembered books, an Amazon wish list built on abandoned preoccupations, an infinite archive of vaguely interesting thinkpieces in Pocket, an RSS feed reaching into the stars.
I feel it when I look up, blinking, from two hours on Wikipedia and TVTropes.org, and I can’t even remember what curiosity led me into that labyrinth of distraction.
At these moments, I feel a subtle loss of equilibrium that marks a paradigm shift, a sea change in the way knowledge moves and settles around me. I feel our datasphere starting to overheat, and I feel myself fading away.
This feeling is part of a grand constellation of perturbations and effects, but for me, myself — the facet that reflects in my own life — it’s the feeling that I’m losing my purchase in the world of ideas. There’s so much to know… a whole universe expanding exponentially from the singularity of my free time and attention span… and simultaneously and paradoxically, it feels like knowing per se is losing its coherence. On any passing fascination, the amount of reading available and expected approaches infinity, and in inverse proportion, the amount of information I can absorb dwindles to zero. Between wanting to read a text, and having forgotten it, my connection with the content itself is compressed into nothingness.
This is the feeling of having all knowledge before me, and not being able to grab hold of it. As a reader, I am traumatized by it — it’s the greatest crime imaginable against the holy institution of literacy: the making-useless of reading, the reduction of learning to an apparent waste of time.
I’m not the only person to feel this way. In fact, I seem to be part of a large, rather vocal constituency of alienated literati. Many have witnessed this problem, and they’ve written some excellent articles about it. Take this enlightening and exemplary paragraph from “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, a 2006 article by Nicholas Carr in the Atlantic:
Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
Carr cites other intellectual types who are feeling the same things: displacements, diminishments, a gentle sort of siege that been wearing them down as they struggle to keep up with the mass media. The literature on this topic — and on the general subject of information overload — goes back at least as far as Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, and it includes such staples as Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Thomas Friedman’s 2006 New York Times editorial “The Age of Interruption.” I haven’t necessarily read all of these, mind you, but they’re on my various to-read lists.
The trail of thinkpieces ranges over a fair bit of ground, but there are some elements that they seem to have in common: they’re all written by humanists and literati, people devoted to knowledge both rich and trivial, who are suddenly anxious about their changing relationship with it. Their anxieties are always buoyed by a sense of futility in the face of technological determinism, like their home country is a shore they’re all gazing at together as a chill wind bears them away over the horizon.
This is what it feels like, watching your vital age passing away. Like all passings, it’s a melancholy occasion, barely papered over with that nagging disquietude… not that there’s anything to be sad about, really, because it doesn’t particularly shift the balance of joy and suffering in the world, but there’s still some tragedy about it, in the bittersweet sense of saying farewell to an old apartment or a departing friend. All I can hope to offer, caught up as I am in this transition, is a humble testimonial, conceived in tribute and in hope that the coming era will be richer and more humane than ours was.
So what of this age that we’re looking back on?
Back when the written word was more permanent, we coexisted in an intellectual landscape of barriers and obstructions, of gates and their keepers, of hierarchies and arbitrary markers of status. It was expensive to get words onto paper, and time-consuming to keep them ordered on the shelves, and it might have been a long climb up the library front steps. Back then, the great meta-text… the mass of all human knowledge… seemed vast, but finite, and resolute and real and stable.
Back then, we had something called erudition (or being erudite, as it’s more commonly used), meaning you were well-read, versed in the folkways of learning and literature. It meant you’d marshalled a strong standing army of references and informed opinions, and you could deploy them efficiently, effectively, and entirely at your discretion.
Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, Isaiah Berlin… these were the public faces of erudition, the paragons of a scholarly way of life. In their time, being erudite was a virtue held in high regard, the aspiration of many a poetry-penning humanities student. Admittedly, it was sort of vain, and sort of privileged… but what better to be vain about, than an intimacy with literature and intellectual history? And what privilege should we be coveting, if not the privilege of keeping one foot always planted in the world of ideas?
But erudition is one of the casualties of the shifting zeitgeist, for unavoidable and legitimate reasons. The concept assumed a strong link between an individual’s intellectual worth, and their volume of academic knowledge (“trivia,” you might call it)… and in such cases, the confounding factor was always the scholar’s access to libraries, mentors, journals, community, and free time. Intellectual capital was derived from cultural capital, social capital, and straight-up economic wealth.
In the new world we’re living in, this whole structure has been exposed and called out. Access and volume are free, and mentors are search boxes, and communities are instantaneous infinite networks. Erudition is a posture that can be put on at will, downloaded from a content server to a compatible device, and the ease of this experience gives the lie to the pretense. The mere human intellect never had a binding claim on knowledge… though they traveled together, they were always strangers to one another.
This “traveling companion” was (is) the extraneous aggregate of human knowledge, which has been with us since civilization started riding the written word. Once, it was the ward of the erudite alone… They were its keepers, fluent in its tongue, the Pozzo to its Lucky. For most of history, it’s been a sort of alien presence, existing in a parallel space, outside the applied wisdom of everyday life. It’s been non-essential, alienated, and generally at the service of those human subjects who had mastered its language.
That thing, which never really needed a name, is (always-was) a creature of information space. In the context of instantaneous communication and the proliferation of encoded content, it has grown into a behemoth, the dominant force in global intellectual (and social, and political, and economic) life.
It has become Leviathan.
The Leviathan is an amorphous mass of claims and ideas and fictions, histories and philosophies, allegories and chronicles and all the names and dates and publishers connected with them.Books are its calcified scales, giving it the veneer of permanence, but it’s grown beyond recognition within its crust. The Leviathan is infinite and infinitely structured, self-aware enough that it can retrieve any particle of its infinitude at will… with the merest click on a magnifying glass icon, it serves up its optimized answer to every possible question.
The Leviathan is not simply an inert aggregate of facts that we can draw from. It is a sentient thing, and just as we milk it for credibility and insight, so it looks at us and makes its use of us. It is imperative that we recognize it, and that we learn, in the encounter: how does the Leviathan see us? What are we, the denizens of its regime of omniscience, ultimately destined to become?
We’ve known that answer for a while, of course… at least since 1977, when Herbert A. Simon provided a behavioral framework for organizations in an information-rich world. In those early days of information systems, we learned to see attention as a scarce resource, measurable in time and modified by focus and engagement. Human attention, our capacity to recognize and process information: this, it turns out, is the fodder that feeds the Leviathan.
When it’s digested by the Leviathan, attention turns into something more palatable for the human economy: profit, emotional and social leverage, or simply an amplification of the information as it was originally consumed (also known as a “Retweet”). To the Leviathan, this is what we humans look like: pockets of attention to be mined, shards of processing power where its vast excesses of information can be temporarily stored.
Attention is its own bait and hook, of course. The Leviathan deploys it with cunning, giving us a taste via public profiles, website personalization, and all the little inflections of the “intimacy economy”. We see it, a morsel of love and appreciation, dangling from the hooks of social media and pointing toward the phantoms of fame and infamy, and we are fish, drawn to its succor. Of course, the bit of food on the line is just there to drag us into the content flow, where we’re eaten in turn.
By this mechanism, the Leviathan reveals itself to be a fully economic beast, mediating an exchange of absence and presence, and thereby generating both in turn… a living engine of desire, designed to wring every trace of attention out of its environment. Looking into its eyes, we see ourselves reflected back, and we find the cheapening of the intellect laid bare: it’s the inevitable reduction of the human subject, as trivial as it is, into something that the Leviathan can consume as efficiently as possible.
What does the Leviathan gain when we sit patiently with a long book or an epistolary text? What do we contribute when we spend an inordinate number of hours teasing out private, poignant meanings that don’t necessarily intersect with the social plane? The Leviathan doesn’t want our tweets to be specialized and self-regarding… inaccessibility is anathema to it, except occasionally as an offbeat selling point. It needs us to need attention as badly as it needs our attention for itself.
In pursuit of this aim, the Leviathan aggressively optimizes us. It measures us in terms of click-throughs and impressions and conversions, and as such, it needs us to be max-volume information consumers, running in a hypnotic high-yield hum of assimilation. For the Leviathan, engagement is a secondary factor, a necessary annoyance, that should be distributed as shallowly and evenly as possible. Rather a listicle than a deep-dive… rather a retweet than a koan. It needs us to behave as casual fans, reading a few words of every article in a Wikipedia constellation. When we fixate on the depths of the subject — when we click through to Project Gutenberg and let ourselves dissolve into a primary source — we slip through a hole in the Leviathan’s net and it loses us, at least for a while.
But the holes in its net get smaller, and these opportunities grow rare. The wheels of mind and matter keep turning.
So we cross the micron-thin threshold of the present, and find ourselves in the fog of the future, where a question arises: who can carry our legacy forward into this new age, after our collapse? In a vast, flat landscape of knowledge, leveled by cheap omniscience, who can remain round and upright? Who can ride the Leviathan and survive (as sovereign subject, with human dignity) to tell the tale?
I don’t presume to offer prescriptions or promises… this isn’t a manual or a mission statement… so I won’t tell you what to do, or what I might do, to stave off this inevitability. Passing up those people — the first and the second person — I’m forced to find a third, and to make them up, if need be. This person, the one who will survive, is the Savant.
The Savant is the person who will take the higher road through the wasteland of expertise, and find themselves whole, and human, on the other side.
So what does the Savant need to do, in order to accomplish this task?
Several theses, considered below, are meant to be an initial proposal, but be warned, reader: they have no force of certainty or resolution. I am not the Savant, and I have never met the Savant, because the Savant is still an inchoate spirit, dwelling in the margins of the discursive universe. This is a complex, intensive performative role, and it’s one the world is still inventing.
At its simplest, the Savant is a figure of resistance, standing ground: a scaffolding of experience, set against the current of free content and ego liquidation. In the raging rivers of information overheating, the Savant noodles around for whatever it is that can still make a human. When all facticity washes away, the Savant finds something surprising: a paradox that has to be grasped and drawn out of the mud before it pulls us in with it.
The Savant’s scaffolding is a structure built of individual experiences, all leading through a single life, enclosed and sheltered in the hard problem of consciousness. What stands firm, resisting the tides that erode our intellectual foundation, is an embrace of one’s own limitations: the singularity of that experience, and the inability of anyone, including the Leviathan itself, to gain access to it. In embracing specificity, the Savant has discovered the power of weakness, the endurance of naivety and constraint.
The first power the Savant draws from this energy source: the ability to resist the beast’s promises of attention, the self-control to resist biting the hook. In this respect, the Savant is a champion of restraint, preferring to die hungry rather than be digested by the Leviathan’s guts.
This is called “making a nest of the cage.”
Letting go of the hook is hard to do, even for the dedicated. There are a fair number of instances, going back a decade or so, of plugged-in individuals leaving behind social media, or the Internet, trying to let go of the line that drags them back into the data stream. It never seems to work out for them, and this suggests that the most radical approach is also the least effective, the most prone to bad faith and self-sabotage. It’s simpler than that, really, and because it’s so primal, it’s also a million times harder: the Savant can keep their interconnected behavior, but they have to let go of the desire that drives it.
This is nigh impossible, in an age that’s rife with tools designed to feed the information glut. Lists, backlogs, Pinterest boards and personal feeds and notifications and their elderly grandpappy, the email newsletter: the Leviathan uses these to spread out our attention into a wash of plankton, consummately consumable. It’s up to the Savant to escape this dissolution by turning these tools on their heads… lists and feeds and dummy accounts become graveyards, rather than queues. Articles that are archived are effectively quarantined, guaranteed never to be looked at or thought about again.
It’s possible you already do this, inadvertently, because you just never get a chance to go back and read your old articles in Pocket. This is a step in the right direction, but it’s still a long way to the shore. As long as the desire is still there — as long as you imagine those million unread words have value, and that their consumption would make you a better person — you’re still at the mercy of the attention economy, and the Leviathan still has you. To free yourself from its vortex, you have to stop wanting to read those million words.
An accidental virtue is virtuous enough, but it doesn’t do anything for the Savant’s character… and the Savant is nothing if not a crafted, curated character, tempered to withstand the Leviathan’s onslaught. To do this essential work of conscientious refusal, the Savant has to distill their subjectivity into a rigorous set of personal filters, which armor the Savant’s ego against the beast’s siphon. Mastered, this craft of cultivating filters becomes an inchoate art form, an exertion of the Savant’s own infinite un(in)formedness.
This is called “clearing a path through the thicket.”
By all accounts, the Savant should explain these filters. They should be forged in the fires of aesthetics, or informed judgement, or at least a padding of personal taste. But the Savant resists this accountability, as well — the Savant’s filters are one extension of a broader anti-answerable behavioral pattern. Intuition still overmatches the digital algorithmic mind in one respect, after all: where the Leviathan can, at best, simulate randomness through the mathematical generation of unexpected numbers, the Savant can draw upon true spontaneity. For the Savant, and all fellow humans, the mind’s randomness is a true chaotic paroxysm, the result of necessity and probability converging in a strange antagonistic ballet.
What this spontaneity gives the Savant is a certain invisibility, or illegibility, even in the unblinking eye of the Leviathan, which technically knows everything but that can’t leverage uncertainty in our uniquely human fashion. So the Savant performs randomness, not for an audience or a vlog, but when alone, in an unmonitored stairwell, purely for their own personal gratification. I’d give some examples of what I mean by “performing randomness,” but others have written much better programs of this sort than I could ever muster.
This is called “plucking fish from the void.”
The privacy of the expression is important. This is the Savant’s proof, presented to nobody, that their resistance is enacted without any corruption of purpose. If the Savant is going to save us, after all — by bearing a shard of the shattered age we’ve left behind — it has to be done without regressing, or hoarding, or being resentful. This has to be a resistance of self-acceptance.
Self-acceptance: the adoption of a life narrative that brings the Savant peace, and a sense of willfulness, and responsibility. To find this kind of life-project, the Savant reaches back into our recent cultural past, and withdraws a relic of the old libraries: the way of the Eternal Student. This is a fortuitous discovery, because the eternal-student life project is a natural site of resistance, another healthy form of refusal in the face of the Leviathan’s demands.
It is, after all, overtly anti-economic, isn’t it? It’s a commitment to learning without outcomes, an insistence that the mind should be an open-ended project, never cashed out. Ideally, the Savant will always be working toward their degree, they’ll never pay back their loans, and they’ll never let Candy Crush or Hot Takes become their primary material for consumption. They’ll spend most of their time on archival and ad-free sites. If they write think-pieces, they’ll be prohibitively long and inaccessible, and always hidden away on hard drives and private blogs.
After all, the Savant, as lifelong student, is committed to humility. They know that by adding to the noise, they would be setting off on the surest path into their own dehumanization, where they would become one with the great neoliberal font of meaninglessness. So they hold themselves back, desperately, clinging to whatever threads of hope they can find in their subjective lives.
This is called “cultivating the invisible garden.”
These are the ways of the Savant. There are probably many more… I’m just a messenger, and my mark on the great text is a small and silly one… a feeling I get, really, nothing more illuminating than that.
This is a feeling I get, in the halls of unread libraries, in the murk of muttered conversations on the subway, these little maelstroms of brash opinions and stray references… a feeling like we’re an ocean drowning in itself.
But there’s also a feeling I get when my infant daughter looks out from her perch in my arms, acclimating to a world that’s already wandered away from me. She’s my messenger from a world out past the anxiety, where there’s a sort of vacant quietude. She’s the part of “we” that’s already dealing with all this. She’ll be ready to face the Leviathan where I wasn’t, and then perhaps meet a new monster, wielding all the weapons I couldn’t give her.
Maybe she’s the one I’ve been talking about… The one I thought I invented. How strange to reach out into the world, and discover something already so close at hand.
 I’m not going to downplay the fact that the “face of erudition” is generally white, male, and drawn from the vast ranks of Western privileged Bourgeoisie. Struggle with that as your politics demands… I’ve yet to make peace with it, myself.
 These names are from a play.
 Most of us know the Leviathan from the bible, but it’s been lurking in the margins of mythology for much longer, in many other contexts. Rumored to be so large, mythologically, that only Wikipedia can ascertain it in its entirety.
 Simon, H. A. (1971), “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World”, whose text is so torn up and scratched out that it feels like a true apocryphal artifact of our age’s ancient nascency. Was 1971 really that long ago?
 Term via Leigh Alexander, “The New Intimacy Economy,” https://medium.com/thoughts-on-media/the-new-intimacy-economy-51c87dc4a4d6#.sqh9wfoh4
 See Cece Lederer’s “What I Learned” (http://www.dailydot.com/lol/i-quit-the-internet-for-4-years/) and Paul Miller’s “I’m Still Here” (http://www.theverge.com/2013/5/1/4279674/im-still-here-back-online-after-a-year-without-the-internet). These probably have something interesting to teach the attentive reader, but I can’t tell you what it is, which probably means I failed to learn it.
 Peter Lamborn Wilson, writing as Hakim Bey, is generally the go-to guru for this kind of consciousness-shifting. I think it does Bey a disservice to lump him in with the culture jamming media-activism movement… it turns his performative rituals into PSA’s, when they always seemed more meditative than that.
 If you’d like to see the mark a Savant might leave on the world, read what I’d consider one of the great Savantish essays of the last decade, Robert Moore’s article “On Douchebags” in Wag’s Review (http://wagsrevue.com/Download/Issue_1/Moor.pdf). It’s a piece of private-public philosophical poetry, a socio-historical snapshot capturing the spirit of its time in the private light of the author’s intellect. Its readability belies the fact that it’s actually a very private piece of criticism, showing nary a trace of desperation for an audience.
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