In Le temps retrouvé, the seventh and final volume of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, World War I has finally begun. All the military analogies of the previous six volumes, which our narrator explicitly acknowledged wishing to master for literary effect when he accompanied his friend Robert de Saint-Loup on his field exercises in the École de Cavalerie, now double in their utility as straightforward descriptions of current events. (Proust’s basic formula is fairly easy to crack: say something about love and its rules of engagement, compare it to illness and the institutions of medicine, compare it to war and the institutions of diplomacy, repeat.)
The war has suddenly made everything different. Old social rifts now seem incomprehensible. Whatever it was that triggered them can scarcely be reconstructed by a thing as unreliable as human memory. The war, in short, has brought about a vibe shift:
M. Bontemps’s Dreyfusism as well, both invisible and constitutive, like that of all men of politics, was now no more apparent than the bones beneath the skin. No one remembered any longer that he had been a Dreyfusard, since the gens du monde were now distracted and forgetful, and also since it had been a long time since then, and they made as if they thought it had been even longer — for it was one of the most modish ideas to say that the pre-war period was separated from the war by something as deep as a geological period, simulating a span of time no less long, and the nationalist Brichot himself, when he alluded to the Dreyfus affair, was in the habit of saying: “In those prehistoric times.”
World War I coincided with the broad infiltration into the French cultural imagination of the idea of deep time, when in particular Palaeolithic parietal art was elevated from a pastime of curious curés de campagne —who struggled to convince the peasants not to stable their donkeys in caves where the burdened beasts would lick the ochre outline of a woolly rhinoceros right off the walls, in vain search of salt— into a field of systematic research that at least sought to imitate science. Many of the leading specialists were still Catholic clergymen, notably the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (famous and infamous for both the Peking Man and the Piltdown Hoax), and for a brief moment it seemed as if the “Old Earth” sensibility was finding its harmony with faith, rather than remaining a bastion for the libres esprits, as it had been when Benoît de Maillet faintly anonymised his 1755 Telliamed (read the title backwards for a hint as to its authorship), a treatise on the sedimentology of the Nile that dated the origin of the earth back several hundred millions of years earlier than Bishop James Ussher would have had it (October 23, 4004 BCE, at roughly 6pm) in his 1650 Annals of the World (delightfully, Ussher’s rank in the church was “Primate of All Ireland”); and as it would be again when American evangelicals came to dominate the debate over the compatibility of scientific and biblical chronology.
For a while, I mean, even reactionaries like the fictional Brichot could “feel” our fragile human existence as one suspended within what Paolo Rossi vividly calls “the dark abyss of time”, human history floating on the surface of an ocean in which human prehistory constitutes the relatively thin mesopelagic zone, while everything beneath that is the geological, which got by just fine in its infinite tectonic patience without any humans at all, prehistoric or historic — Brichot could feel the dark abyss of time, and summon it rhetorically to drive home the experience of the dark abyss of war.
Living as I do, mostly by choice, in a post-Babel cacophony of languages, I find I often discern meanings that are not really there. This is particularly easy to do in the contact zones of the former Angevin Empire, where more than a millennium’s worth of cross-hybridity between English and French has brought it about that this empire’s ruins are populated principally by faux amis, so that one must not so much learn new words, as reconceive words one already knows. Thus deception becomes disappointment, to assist is not to help but only to be present, to report is to postpone, to defend is to prohibit (sometimes), to verbalise is to fine, to sense is to smell, to mount is to get in, to descend is to get out, a location is a rental, ice-cream has a perfume instead of a flavor, and so on.
The gentle shift one has to make to reconcile all these false friends occurs not only at the lexical level, but also in morphology and phonology, and once it takes place one starts to discern the likenesses of outre-Manche cousins that previously remained hidden: thus Guillaume is the cousin of William, and gardien of warden, and guichet of wicket, and guerre of war. There are several more such gu-/w- pairings, and so it should not be too surprising that, when I was recently reading the label on what in France passes for “guacamole” (“tartinade aux avocats”, they feel the need to explain), it struck me that I was reading not a Nahuatl-derived word for an avocado dish, but the French cognate of “whack-a-mole” (“jeu de la taupe”, if you must know).
I get confused, I mean, and the confusion is compounded by the echo in my head of languages I used to know better than French, and the hopeful rattling of new languages that I might someday know as well as French. Thus when I struggle to find the Russian verb приобрести/priobresti (“to acquire”, “to obtain”), often all I can come up with is обтенуть/obtenut’, which after a few seconds of stroke-like disorientation I realise I have made up on the spot, on the model of the French verb obtenir, but which on the presumption of Slavic meanings for its component morphemes appears to mean something like “to cover in shade” (тень/ten’ means “shadow”). This mistake is remarkable in part because it assimilates one language’s relatively rare class of verbal suffix (those ending in -уть/-ut’) to another language’s similarly rare verbal ending, -ir. Other mistakes are more mundane. Whenever I see the German mineral-water brand Reine Quelle, I suppose not that I am seeing water from a “pure source”, but rather the near-nonsensical combination of French words, “Queen, Which”. And, to circle back to the matter at hand, every time I come across the hot new phrase, “vibe shift”, somehow I process it as if there were a woman, or a wife, travelling by ship, or, on a more colloquial reading of the verb, pissing: das Weib schifft.
Homophonic translation has generated greater masterpieces than this, of course. Among the more commendable contributions to the genre we must surely count David Melnick’s 1983 Men in Aïda, a “translation” of Book One of Homer’s Iliad, which begins, in the original:
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
and which is rendered by Melnick as:
Men in Aïda, they appeal, eh? A day, O Achilles.
Allow men in, emery Achaians. All gay ethic, eh?
Paul asked if team mousse suck, as Aïda, pro, yaps in.
And it goes on in this vein, right at the edge of nonsense, for another several hundred lines. The beauty of homophony is that you barely have to change anything; the original text already contains its own translation, which to obtain is simply to effect a slight gestalt in one’s own perception, to switch over to a parallel track, much as when one relearns the many words that constitute the lexical treasuries of both English and French.
You might think by now that I have gone full gonzo, just “saying whatever”, stalling for time until some singular idea comes into focus. But not so fast. What concerns me generically is the shift, in all its many forms, whether of vibes, meanings, magnetic polarity of the earth, or the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation (“redshift”). In the case of vibes, as I understand it the shift was first predicted in an influential piece in the ultra-zeitgeisty section of New York Magazine known as “The Cut” on February 16, 2022. The prophecy was then fulfilled in a handful of interventions in May, notably Will Harrison’s “Escape from Dimes Square” in The Baffler, which refers to “the Vibe Shift”, now capitalised, a total of fifteen times; and in Nick Burns’s trans-Atlantic take on “New York’s Hipster Wars” for The New Statesman. In my Old World senescence I had trouble following most of what these two latter pieces were on about, but I gathered at least that they had identified a change in the winds that was both cultural and political. In particular, they had noticed a surge in cultural prestige and legitimacy of forms of expression that had until recently been understood, at least by those who wished to make use of them, as lying beyond the pale of what the mainstream taste-makers were willing to tolerate.
More concretely, the “transgressive” or “dissident” right was said to have won a decisive battle against the neo-puritan or “woke” left, and could now claim at least a significant portion of Lower Manhattan as its own. The Financial District was now being compared in the confidential group chats to some breakaway People’s Republic of Donetsk, while Park Slope, with its “In this House…” signs and its rainbow flags, not to mention its Ukrainian flags, was now akin to some relatively unperturbed western stronghold like Lviv or Ivano-Frankivsk. These transformations were suspected to be local instances of larger national and global events — the election of Biden, notably, and the corresponding degeneration of the “Resistance” into a desperate like-seeking operation; inflation; war; and, most importantly, the strong sense that the more strident expressions of the Trump-era “progressive” consensus had run their course and fallen out of fashion.
All paper yellows, and any new way of speaking will come to seem out of it sooner or later. Ways of speaking that were first incubated online by children with no knowledge of history, and evidently next to no knowledge of physical, economic, or social reality, naturally did not prove an exception to this rule. It was a strange way of speaking, the strangest to come along in my lifetime: self-certain, undialectical, content with a few easily memorised slogans, much like those Mao helpfully distilled in his Red Book for the peasant masses. Yet the slogans were most zealously interiorised not by the peasants, but by the educated classes, precaritised as they were, anxious about the security of their positions in a changing world, but at least equipped with the power to deftly manipulate symbols.
Yet even if some of these symbols were inherited from revolutionary legacies, even sometimes from Mao himself, those manipulating them seldom seemed really to be taking up the mantle of these legacies. The ones who mastered them while undergraduates at Yale still went on to their Deloitte consultancy jobs. By the time expertise in manipulating the same symbols had filtered down to the state schools, the job opportunities they opened up grew correspondingly less attractive. Someone a month or so ago shared a photograph of a coffee mug with the words “They/Them” on it, spotted, if I remember correctly, at a Dollarama in rural Tennessee. The currency was rapidly devaluing, for any signal weakens as it spreads. An optimist might of course take this spreading to mean the currency had simply become so universally valid as to blend into the landscape almost unperceived. But it also meant, undoubtedly, that the centers of cultural ferment were going to have to come up with new ways of speaking yet again. Hence the vibe shift.
Periodisation is always artificial, and a fortiori it is so when we seek to “call it” in the present moment, rather than simply to project it onto the past, as when we date the “long nineteenth century” from 1789 to 1914, or we say that the Scientific Revolution begins circa 1600. This is to say, among other things, that the Anthropocene is not real, and neither is the Cretaceous for that matter. What are real are events, after which some things are different, and some are the same, such as the Cretaceous-Palaeogene extinction event, when the meteor hit the earth and killed most, but not all, of the dinosaurs. Significantly, even David Wallace-Wells, author of 2017’s bestseller Uninhabitable Earth, has shifted from trying to convince us we absolutely “should be scared” of the anthropogenic destruction of all life, to a somewhat more sanguine view on which we are not “literally killing the planet”, as the youth of Extinction Rebellion often put it, but rather on which we are creating conditions for ourselves that are going to compel radical changes, like it or not, in the way we live: mass migrations and resettlement, war over scarce resources, and so on, but not, strictly speaking, the end.
For a while, as I discussed extensively in this space, it seemed to me the Russian invasion of Ukraine was itself shaping up to constitute a vibe shift, a moment after which everything else would seem, as Brichot put it, like the prehistoric times. But one of the most striking lessons of these past 100 days is the power of the mechanisms that regulate our era, that conserve the perpetual motion of our technological regime, to swallow up even such an enormous event as this, to digest it, and to make it part of itself. I think of the “avian dinosaurs”, as some supercilious taxonomists insist on calling them, after the asteroid hit, who must have gone right on twittering (as birds do), and of how the simple sound of their song must have sounded like a sort of continuity too. While that is reassuring in the abstract, in the lived experience of the present moment it is jarring to see the machine of technologically mediated human discursivity rumble on as it does, ensuring epochal continuity from day to day, and one can’t help but wonder just what degree of cataclysm, precisely, would finally make it shut up.
So the Ukraine war was not so much a vibe shift as the enfolding of new events into a process already in place. This process is not unrelated to the one that landed the pronouns mug in a Tennessee Dollarama. I was struck by a recent survey that showed a sudden, precipitous surge in support for LGBTQIA+ rights in Ukraine. While this might be interpreted at face value as a measure of decreasing homophobia and transphobia, another line of approach makes it appear rather as a measure of increasing interest, for obvious reasons, in joining a geopolitical union in which the rainbow flag is now a clear if still unofficial symbol. This is a familiar process. I can remember in Romania, in the years leading up to that country’s accession to the European Union, the efforts to ban smoking in public venues. This was not first and foremost an anti-smoking campaign, but rather a pro-Europe campaign, in which a “backwards” country still enjoying its backwards freedoms contorted itself to get in line with the stricter rules of a supranational bloc that, rightly or wrongly, represented at the symbolic level the correct way of doing things.
A few years ago in the UK —in Birmingham, I believe, though my memories blur— I was struck to find myself in the city center surrounded by a nearly homogeneous population of Muslim immigrants, walking amongst concrete anti-terrorism barriers that had been painted in the rainbow colours of pride. This was the first time the blunt truth hit me, that the values of diversity and equity are not incompatible with brute force, and can even be delivered as part of the package of violent domination. Jump forward a few years, to Pride Month, 2022, and we find open acknowledgments of this fact that would have seemed pure parody in 2018: the US Marines colouring bullets attached to a camouflage helmet the colours of the rainbow flag; the notorious union-busting security agency Pinkerton announcing its own commitment to fighting homophobia; and so on.
If there has been a critical wave of related events over the past few months, giving rise at least to the perception of a vibe shift, if, as Marx and Engels would put it, this is a moment when the quantity of these events spills over into a qualitative shift in the character of our relations, I would say it comes down to this: that a good number of people are simply no longer buying the false radicalism of the past years. Whether its the HR staff of Fortune 500 companies pretending to seek to demolish capitalism, or the United States Marine Corps pretending bullets can ever symbolise anything other than death, the bluff has been called. It has been called most compellingly, perhaps, by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò in his important new book, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), which at some point I thought I’d review, but about which now I’ll just say a few words.
Táíwò, whom besides this book I know only from Twitter, is perhaps the most intellectually generous philosopher working today. He is the very opposite of the shibboleth-laying progressives who dominates in academic social media. If every left intellectual were like him, I sincerely believe I would feel at home among them. I would also be a lot happier on Twitter. It is a delight to see him there, supporting people with whom he may agree only 30% or 40%, who have trouble articulating coherent views but are clearly onto something nonetheless, who have major blind-spots like all of us, or who belong to cultural strata that academia tends to deplore or to try not to see (I especially love Táíwò’s enthusiasm for good old-fashioned pugilism — as in actual, literal fisticuffs). He is also a philosopher who plainly could not care less where current academic philosophy draws the lines of its discipline, and pursues his interest in the history of South American silver mining or global food policy as someone who is plainly bigger than whatever his Ph.D. is technically held to license.
Anyhow, Táíwò makes a compelling case that there is a salvageable core of “identity politics”, as it was expressed in the 1977 statement of the Combahee River Collective, a group of Black feminists who really could not have foreseen the subsequent corporate uptake of the jargon of identity. He condemns that uptake in terms as strong as you will hear from anyone. This sets him apart from the majority of left intellectuals who have tended to interpret concerns about this uptake, as expressed by moderates, centrists, or liberals, to be a distraction at best, or at worst to be a dishonest crypto-rightist move aimed at discrediting whatever initial political impulse made the jargon available for cynical appropriation in the first place. Táíwò’s willingness to grant to elite capture the serious attention it deserves, more than anything else I can think of over the past few months, marks a true and proper shift in the zeitgeist. It is going to be a lot harder now, I predict, for anyone to pretend they aren’t seeing Lululemon’s fake-ass anti-capitalism, let alone to take it seriously.
Even prehistory is not prehistoric. The advent of writing, which is generally used to mark the beginning of human history off from what came before, is only one of a suite of innovations that makes our past more legible — but that’s a practical matter of relevance for us researchers, and not for the human beings who lived before written records came along. There is no prehistory, and there are no years zero. I have on occasion found myself so moved by the upheavals of the moment as to “call” them, but then what I find afterwards is that I am still living the same life, except that some things are different now.
Social media exacerbate and quicken the perception of radical breaks — their economic logic, in fact, requires that we perceive new such breaks to be happening daily or weekly. Thus nothing will ever be the same after the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial, or after Elon buys Twitter, or after Harry and Meghan escape from Buckingham, or whatever.
But the real break will be the break from these endless breaks. This will come not so much when different things start happening —for different things can always be devoured by the same hungry machine— as when we start to see the same things in a different way… as, again, in a sort of gestalt, as when the rainbow flag that used to signal safety warps before our eyes, without changing in any of its real properties, into something that also looks like a threat.
Don’t forget to listen to the most recent episode of my podcast, What Is X?, featuring Emily Thomas on Time, and what it is. We both decide in favor of “A-theory” (or maybe B-theory; I can never remember which is which). I honestly think this is my favorite episode so far. What a great guest Emily is!
Don’t forget, either, to read my cover story, “Permanent Pandemic”, in this month’s issue of Harper’s. Once I finish today’s ‘stack I have to write a reply to a scathing reader’s letter, to appear in next month’s issue. Stay tuned.
There are several new reviews of The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, including a very thoughtful and comprehensive write-up in the Los Angeles Review of Books. This closes a chapter of long hostility that I felt towards that publication, after they published an unremittingly negative review of my last book, Irrationality, by Evan Selinger, who as I recall was dissatisfied to learn that my book was not focused on “solutions”. I wrote some mocking things about the LARB in the wake of that (“I am delighted at least to learn that Los Angeles, of all places, now has a book review of its own”, &c.), some of which still make me laugh. But all that seems like water under the bridge now.
Finally, and most importantly, if you are in or near Paris this month, well, Oyez, oyez, please take note of the following announcement, and please come to this once-in-a-lifetime event on Friday, June 10!
Chères amies, chers amis,
Certains d’entre vous savent déjà que cette année j’ai publié avec deux illustres collègues un livre intitulé In Search of the Third Bird: Exemplary Essays from the Proceedings of ESTAR(SER), 2001-2021. Dans les mots de Hal Foster, le critique d’art renommé : « Ceci est un livre fort étrange ».
Pour célébrer la parution de ce petit trésor, sur lequel nous avons travaillé intensément pendant 10 ans, nous sommes très heureux de vous inviter à son vernissage parisien, vendredi le 10 juin, à 19h30. L’événement se tiendra à la Librairie After 8, qui se trouve à 7 rue Jarry dans le 10e arrondissement. À mon avis il n’y a pas de meilleur endroit pour fêter ce bouquin que dans une rue qui porte le nom du célèbre auteur d’Ubu Roi !
L’un des co-auteurs du livre, D. Graham Burnett, dans une interview donnée au Journal of the History of Ideas, a récemment divulgué (malgré nos plaidoyers) la « vraie » nature du projet : il s’agit, dit-il, d’une oeuvre de « métafiction historique », c’est à dire d’une sorte de roman expérimental qui ne ressemble que superficiellement à un recueil de textes scientifiques. Les personnages dans ses pages, même s’ils « embrassent affectueusement la réalité » (“kiss reality lovingly”), comme le disait Walt Whitman, n’existeraient strictement pas, et les événements racontés n’auraient point eu lieu. Or, d’autres sources indiquent que l’Ordre du Troisième Oiseau, quoique fugace comme la Nature héraclitienne qui « aime se cacher », existe bel et bien.
Lors de ce vernissage nous allons, D. Graham Burnett et moi (notre troisième co-conspiratrice, la tokyoïte Catherine Hansen, étant absente avec regrets), ainsi que notre prodigieux graphiste Alexandru Balgiu, vous présenter de nouvelles preuves touchant à la question très-délicate de l’authenticité de notre oeuvre. La présentation sera suivie par du vin, du fromage, de la causerie fort-agréable... Vous allez avoir aussi la possibilité d’acheter votre propre exemplaire du livre, qui sans doute sera bientôt une vraie rareté.
Je serai personnellement extrêmement heureux de vous y voir.
Avec mes salutations chaleureuses,
Certain among you already know that this year along with two illustrious colleagues I published a book entitled In Search of the Third Bird: Exemplary Essays from the Proceedings of ESTAR(SER), 2001-2021. In the words of the renowned art critic Hal Foster: “This is a very strange book.”
To celebrate the publication of this curiosity, on which we laboured intensely for 10 years, we are very happy to invite you to its official Paris launch, on Friday, June 10, at 7:30pm. The event will take place at the After 8 bookstore, located at 7 rue Jarry in the 10th arrondissement. In my view there could be no better place to toast this work than a street named for the ingenious author of Ubu Roi!
In an interview in the Journal of the History of Ideas, one of the book’s co-authors, D. Graham Burnett, recently (and very much against our pleas) divulged the “true” nature of the project. It is, he said, a work of “historiographical metafiction”, which is to say a sort of experimental novel that only superficially resembles an edited volume of scholarly papers. The people in its pages, even if they “kiss reality lovingly”, as Walt Whitman put it, strictly speaking do not exist, and the events recounted did not take place. However, other sources indicate that the Order of the Third Bird, however fugitive it is, like Heraclitus’s Nature that “loves to hide”, nonetheless exists full well.
At this vernissage we, D. Graham Burnett and I (our third co-conspirator, the Tokyo-based Catherine Hansen, being absent with regrets), as well as our ingenious graphic designer Alexandru Balgiu, will present to you some new evidence concerning the very delicate question of our work’s authenticity. The presentation will be followed by wine, cheese, and agreeable conversation, and you will also have a chance to buy a copy of the book, which will no doubt soon be a true rarity.
I will personally be very happy to see you there.
With my warm greetings,