a late introduction
I haven’t been writing much lately. Like many people I waffle between open hostility and absolutely crushing sadness re: Earth and its artifacts. I write better when hostile, but hostility requires an enemy, and the hopelessness of it all brought on whatever it is that other writers have other metaphors for. I tend to say “the feeling of humidity in a dry climate,” and I trust that people who know what that means know what that means. A few readers noted it in the nihilism article, they were right. I gather this has been going around, I hope you’re all doing well. Still, it’s either break out or there’s a decent chance that I’m never going to update again. Forgive the introduction while I try to jump-start this blog again, I need to remind myself what I care about. There are many new readers since the last one, and they ask good questions, and I have thoughts and answers to write. Besides, they keep asking about the name.
Samzdat is a pun on the Soviet samizdat and Sam’s data (/sæmz/ in Common Yank). The Sam in question is the prophet Samuel. The data in question is the Book of Samuel. It may as well just be called “blog,” because the name is a description of writing on the internet. Accordingly, this is less about resolving anything than just trying to draw out a couple of images.
Early Israelites were governed by judges – highly localized, tasked with interpretation of law and dispute, without the political power of neighboring kingdoms. This lead to local abuses (Samuel installs his unfit sons), but it didn’t threaten the entire people. Still, the dangers piled up, and the abuses piled up, and a kingdom serves for glory that the regional council does not. They tell God to give them a king.
The Host of Hosts makes clear what will happen:
10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.”
As a side note, most of human psychology – at least the interesting parts – can be found in that passage.
God gives them Saul, and Saul does what God tells them Saul will do. His rage is soothed only by the music of a young hero named David. In time, God selects that David for the throne, and Samuel anoints him in shadow, after which Samuel dies reiterating the warnings of God. Saul learns of the pretender, civil war breaks out, and he has the Witch of Endor drag Samuel’s ghost up from sheol. The shade of Samuel speaks in warning and horror. David is victorious, Saul commits suicide, in time David’s son Absalom rebels, and David is again victorious at the cost of his him.
David is preferable to Saul, but he still fulfills the warnings. Famously, he spies on Bathsheba bathing and finds himself overcome with lust. He asks around and learns that she is married to a soldier – Uriah the Hittite. David waits until Bathsheba is pregnant to order Uriah to return from the current military campaign. Why is up for debate – execution or face-saving apology, I choose the former – but either way Uriah refuses. He sleeps outside the palace rather than complete the homecoming, citing loyalty to his comrades, implicitly against the king. The king, naturally, tells his generals to send Uriah to the front lines and order those brothers in arms to abandon him in the middle of the fight. They do, demonstrating a very different loyalty than Uriah’s. In the beginning, God determined that the fundamental metaphysical law be tragic irony, and I know of no greater empirical demonstration for the truth of Biblical philosophy.
It’s common to interpret the story of Bathsheba as a warning about pride and power. Even King David, blessed, just, and nigh-perfect, succumbs to temptation. His musicianship, piety, strength, and virtue are considered parts of his essence. Bathsheba is an aberration, a mistake, a fluke. I see no reason to think this, and every reason not to.
The Bible is poetry, David was its greatest poet, the lines are poorly scanned – we want “just king” to be trochaic, but it’s iambic. Whatever God knew about Kings, he selected David as the essence of that – he was the kind of man to kill Goliath, the kind of man to write a psalm, the kind of man to wear the crown, and the kind of man to lay with Bathsheba. Or, God already told you what would happen – it’s a necessary flaw in the system, the bad thing after the good thing, antagonistic pleiotropy in the organism. He‘ll allow it, you won’t. David has many wives, but Bathsheba is the mother of Solomon and thus matriarch to the Davidic line. That’s not a mistake – it is the death of Uriah, rhythmically bound in conception and execution. The King is always the King no matter his accidents.
Biological metaphors only get you so far, but that “so” is a lot more than most things, and if you’ve read this blog you’ll understand exactly this metaphor: antagonistic pleiotropy. A gene beneficial for reproduction but harmful later is still passed on; we want things and choose what provides them, the provider is passed to other wanters, and then only later does a Uriah come. By then, it’s too late. The best you can do – one way to interpret the Biblical David – is to lionize the negative components.
Revealed truth is extremely clear about this point: You always get what you want, God sees to that. The hard part is in wanting the right thing.
Now, I have plenty to say about power and state and kings and God, but that’s for another day. There’s a naivete to the way we talk about political regimes: I used to read Samuel as a rejection of worldly power, which is wrong. “Kings are tyrants, better say no,” is not the Biblical attitude. There’s an extreme ambivalence towards worldly power, sure, but ambivalence means ambivalence. A more complex view might be: the possibility of [noble savagery] is gone, so we make do with the best we can. This is closer, but still not quite accurate. If that were the case, the later Bible would prophesy a pre-Davidic utopia, back to the world of the judges and carefully distributed power with direct connection to the Lord. Note: this does not happen. Instead, David’s rule is the prototypical golden age, and he’s either the Messiah or the Messiah is to come from his line. As in, Christ’s carefully crafted patrilineal descent in Matthew; fulfill the prophecy, welcome back David.
If this seems weird – and it should – know that Samuel is framed in a particular way. It’s not a historical narrative, it’s a prophetic book, and (by tradition) the author was Samuel himself up until his death, at which point he becomes the only prophet brought back from the dead by a mortal from the dead to tell you how things once were and how they now will be. Whatever else is going on, you’re hearing the ghost of the last true judge describe the world after him. He doesn’t like it, but –
That it may be unjust or undesirable or […] says nothing. Samuel’s utopia is not ours, whether by divine law or personal preference The Good has changed. I want to be clear on that: it’s not merely that we cannot go back, that there isn’t a material possibility. It’s that whatever happened in that shift also shifts what we want. We want David now, Samuel does not, the wants are new and different. Hence: our utopia is Davidic, not pre-Davidic. The cynical modern knows this is just “a story,” and “actually, the Bible was compiled as a justification and unifying propaganda for…” Sure, why not – why did those kings include Samuel’s condemnation then? More to the point: why didn’t they feel threatened by the possibility of pre-Davidic millenarianism?
Now, I’m not anti-civilization, nor do I want to return to the past. The judges and prophets system looks nicer to me, and I’m more skeptical of the state than your average tyrant, but those aren’t revealed preferences a la my life. More people idealize the present than the past, always have and always will, always for the same reason: the wants our present creates can only be fulfilled by it. Put simply, we know that the Internet did not exist in 1800. Victorians may have been content, but we wouldn’t be. Samuel’s world “seems” nice to me, but it’s alien and 100% chance I’m transposing future desires onto the past.
Or: It’s best to separate two claims. One, good things from the past are materially closed off, it’s not possible to go back, you don’t get to unseat David and bring back the judges because it’s politically/economically/otherically unfeasible. Two, the idea of “Good” has changed enough to render the reactionary view lost. Trads tell you what they want from the future, not the past. The past is helpful to compare and contrast, perhaps aspects can be recalled, but you have to understand them as the people under them did or you will not understand what their installation will bring. That goes for all sides, everyone, myself included, fails at it. I make no claim to know what “good” even is, merely that whatever it is now has changed and will change again. Drag the ghost up if you want to chat, but you’re talking to the dead.
If you think that the modern world is at least somewhat in crisis – and I certainly think so – then this leaves one option. As Frost puts it:
It’s rest I want—there, I have said it out—
Things over and over that just won’t stay done.
And washing dishes after them—from doing
Things over and over that just won’t stay done.
By good rights I ought not to have so much
Put on me, but there seems no other way.
Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.
He says the best way out is always through.
And I agree to that, or in so far
As that I can see no way out but through—
Leastways for me—and then they’ll be convinced.
Inevitable, inescapable, can only be dealt with on its own terms. There is no going back, I can see no way out but through.
I write about value shift plenty, I think it’s a big deal, and my reading of Samuel has a lot to do with that. Also plenty to be said about centralization vs. metis. Still, it’s just an image, and don’t trust me on it: it’s one reading of Samuel, and not even my favorite. I’m relaying the reading that gave this blog its name, but it’s fast-and-loose enough with detail vs. interpretation that it should’t be read as a proper exegesis. (Update is that I should have made this more explicit.)
The shift from Samuel to David, Judge to King, is a move away from God towards man. God to Samuel: “They have not rejected you, but me.” The prophet Samuel has data on a lot of things: human slavishness, the inevitable costs of systemic change, our total inability to handle that, so on, so forth. But, really, the book is about the confused interconnection of all of that. Political shift is value shift is epistemic shift is a shift in the possibilities of communication: what can be said and how it is understood.
Let’s choose the most interesting view of that last sentence fragment. Samuel couldn’t have made his case no matter what. He was prophet and judge, part of the old system. He may have spoken for God, but God’s direct words didn’t matter any more. David, on the other hand, was a poet. He wrote psalms, and the psalms are all about the human relationship to God. Human agency takes center stage. Horrors do come from Kingship, but the Good changes too, and new possibilities arise. The Bible says that Bathsheba is a necessary aspect to David (read: essence of Kingship), but so is art. Now we write psalms and poems. In other words: the kinds of communication possible post-David – style and medium – are different now.
This is no small thing. I get accused of being a reactionary sometimes, but the reason I’m not is simple: a utopia without poetry is no utopia at all, Tyrants are a small price to pay. Accept the mutation in its whole or die like a dog. Accordingly, I may complain about [everything below], but I accept it as… something. Probably fine. I certainly wouldn’t be writing this without the internet.
Our world has changed no less rapidly than Samuel’s. “Now” starts at a date of your choosing, my preference is Napoleon but Al-Gore-binary is also fine – there’s no easy distinction between political and cultural and economic and technological. The issue is communication, and I say that change in communication is infinitely more of a problem than anyone wants to address. Information has become vastly more important for society. It’s necessary, everything is interconnected, there is no escaping the deluge. At the same time, our modes of communication and data transfer have become so alien that we barely understand how to use them. Get the king, open up poetry. Get modernity, open up….
I want to be clear here: we say “it’s a problem,” while ignoring all the things that make it such. The media, God bless its soul, has responded by addressing falsity on the internet, “Did you know that the kids lie on message boards and/or blogs?” as though this were a novelty. Words have been untrustworthy for forever. I trust that not every Pompeian was the sexual dynamo their walls report. Nor is the problem that “twitter makes us read short, thus thin attention spans.” May be part of it, but those same tweeters pour over thousands and thousands of words on the same subject.
The issue is closer to “truth”. How is it conveyed, how does it reach you, how would you know, how do you incorporate that into your worldview? Samuel had prophecy, David had psalms, we have journals and the internet. All of those change how things are expressed and how they are met and, critically, are capable of expressing different things. Yelling about facts will change nothing if you’re expressing “facts” in a way the medium does not allow, that will not be understood by the audience. “Anything can be said on the internet, it’s the most information of all!” The issue is sorting, but anyway: that’s an assumption. It may be correct, but assuming it tells me that you haven’t addressed the problem. Why not the opposite? We can and do drag teenagers for saying a stupid, do you not think that changes how everyone thinks about communication and what they choose to say? What about “how they say it”?
This is about far more than the technology, but that’s what we’re looking at today. Mediums have their own constraints, blah, here’s an example, it’s also only an image: let’s say that poetry is particularly good at expressing x, and prose is particularly good at expressing y. Technological and political shifts suddenly render prose easier to reproduce and more popular. How do you go about relating x? Alternately: a new medium arises and it’s hyper-efficient at conveying z. Efficient enough, in fact, that people are generally skeptical of x and y – they would be, it’s garbled and mangled by the z-medium. It’s great to have z now – more is always better one insists – but our problem is that x and y may be necessary for a well-functioning society with reasonable citizens.
This only makes sense if you think that certain things can only be said in certain ways. I do. Feynman’s lectures are good for a conceptual understanding, but you can’t use them for engineering. An aphorism is not trying to do the same kind of thing as a research paper. Form/content is not a coherent distinction for almost anything we do, same example I always repeat and will continue to repeat: “Life is pretty sad and it’s hard to make decisions.” Is that Hamlet?
Part of this is form – blogs>essays, tweets>whateverwastweets – but a whole lot is context. How you’re told to approach the information will change your interpretation of it. Some groups make entirely too much of this, others far too little, the Aristotelian golden mean hangs always at the horizon. As horizons do, it recedes as fast as you approach.
The Book of Samuel changes with the simple application of author: Samuel is dead, he wrote it and then got unsheol’d, you’re talking to a ghost. I get that it’s just the Bible, but that’s kind of the point – you’re not reading as it was once read, nor am I, and that’s all social context. Is it an appropriate time to make a “death of the author” joke? Which is, of course, the joke itself, understood only by the expectation that one could make a joke, that “is it time to” is a form of humor, that death of the author is a common trope, that Samuel is dead, that God is dead, that –
I get that I’m not saying anything new here, but you understand how serious this is, right? We don’t have an intuitive feel for how the internet contextualizes writing, likely because 20 years and change, which is a shame, because that’s most of the internet. Someone on a blog is not on CNN, someone on youtube is not watching FOX. It’s not merely that “what information comes through” is different – the way you meet it is different. We understand authority differently, search for answers differently, judge which medium we trust differently. Someone could be telling the truth precisely and persuasively, but if the audience won’t listen it won’t matter. This is a trivial concern unless political power is currently in crisis, thankfully –
We have one pretty good model for how this went in the past, though most have forgotten it. Our media externally responded by fretting over attention spans and fake news. Internally, it knew exactly what to do: turn to the samizdat.
It’s a shame that samizdat has become synonymous with “illicit anti-leftist literature,” because that’s the least interesting thing about the historical phenomenon. Some samizdats were anti-communist, but anything from literature to pornography fell under the classification. It was about form, not content.
In 1970, the NY Times reported on a popular Russian joke. It explains a lot:
A Soviet official strides into his wife’s room. “Nastasha, you have been typing for five straight days,” he says. “What takes so long?” “Oh, Ivan, don’t you know? I am typing Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina,’ that’s what.” “But why? There is the book. It’s perfectly legible, you can read it in print.” “Yes, but the children won’t read anything unless it’s typed.”
The word samizdat originally comes from samsebyaizdat, which literally means a “publishing house for oneself.” (Alternate etymology is much the same; sam– and abbreviating izdatelstvo->izdat, meaning “self-publishing.”) First: a hilarious joke for the USSR, given that it implies owning the means of production against the Soviet State. Second: In other words, a blog, but that’s too clever and I’m sorry. Third: Since the state still controlled all printing presses, illicit literature had to be handcrafted. This was normally hand-typed, creating an industry of semi-scribes whose job was to retype any given thing. “Samizdat” only came into popular usage in the 60s. In Stalin’s era they were called “Underwoods,” as in the brand of typewriter one had to write them on. Samizdats were verified by their aesthetic, see the joke’s emphasis on “typed.” It’s not very hard to imagine abuses. Even the government had to get in on the action because no one would trust anything else.
Samizdats created an incredibly weird system of information. All types were popular, but the political ones were useful to reformist members of government as ways to determine popular sentiment. They were also useful to police agencies for much the same reason. Since the samizdat was a useful source of information for [most of the government], and it wasn’t really worth the risk for a lot of people, this meant that a significant consumer of the anti-state samizdat was, in fact, the state itself. That led to a reasonable-if-bizarre incentive system where the more radical publishers were actually more valuable to the state. Even weirder was the fact that many state-run newspapers felt compelled to reply to a samizdat’s arguments, couldn’t do so explicitly, and so developed a kind of shadow-dialogue, each party relaying information to the other in such a way as to render it unintelligible to anyone outside the group. Elites talking to elites they can’t talk to, for the purpose of allaying the concerns of elites who weren’t supposed to know they should be concerned. This is really only a historical tidbit unless you’ve ever read Leo Strauss, in which case it’s only a historical tidbit.
Look at the figures in that Russian joke. They’re officials, i.e. elite, which is correct. Samizdats were primarily read by the elite, just like our current confused system is primarily read by the elite. Since everyone involved knew that the Soviet Press lied, samizdats were often implicitly understood to be true. Historians relay that the typical way to read a samizdat was not dissimilar to how we use blogs: official account side-by-side samizdat’s account, two tabs open in the browser. Check the press against the underground reality, man.
It’s actually somewhat hard to track how warped the effect of this was, but I’m going to try: true information only was understood as true when relayed by fake agencies, and it was often false, but was then made true by the real agency acknowledging it without doing so, that agency relying on the assumption it was true because it had come through the fake channel.
At various points, the state itself had official samizdats printed which were nearly identical but contained information for the party members. At other points, “State Samizdats” were distributed through real samizdat channels, because the Eastern Bloc was completely insane. These were ambiguous enough that party members (many readers of real samizdat) and “illegal” publishers alike both protested that the state make hard-and-fast rules as to what counted as samizdat and what did not. As a historian puts it about Hungary’s version:
The problematic relationship between the ‘official’ and the ‘unofficial’ is exemplified in the Hungarian literature on samizdat which includes references to texts in circulation as state samizdat, official samizdat and semi-legal samizdat… Within this schema, state and official samizdat referred to officially sanctioned material with a restricted and prescribed circulation. Typically this material which included books, foreign translations, press reports and articles carried the legend ‘to be used as manuscript’ and was made available to selected members of the intelligentsia and senior party officials. As with any controlled system of information, access to restricted and confidential material both confirmed and denied status and operated as an instrument for co-option and corruption. […]
Two preliminary comments can be made about this ‘line’ between the ‘official’ and the ‘unofficial’. First, it is misleading to view this ‘line’ as somehow fixed or static. While some topics were more or less permanently proscribed, others occupied a much greyer, more ambiguous status. This uncertainty regarding the boundaries was registered most obviously in demands from samizdat activists in some countries for clear legal definitions of acceptable and unacceptable material. Second, there were times when the line between the ‘official’ and the ‘unofficial’ appeared to disappear.
Because someone will have read this far and still misunderstand: “samzdat” says nothing about legality or Overton Smashing or communist-colored pills, that’s a meaningless concern here. Samizdats weren’t even illegal half of the time. The Man has no need to suppress dissident movements, they do that on their own and defang themselves by design.
Information has always been contextualized, see Samuel, but the samizdat is a particularly interesting example. As you’d imagine, samizdats were poorly and hastily copied. Typos and grammatical errors were plentiful, they were smudged and wrinkled, they looked shitty but authentic. Even if it was Tolstoy, this was Secret Underground Tolstoy. Merely by being a samizdat (read: with the aesthetics of a samizdat) it had to be understood in a specific context. The medium and the message were/are one.
Now consider the internet.
1) Shitty but “authentic,” obsessed with image because that’s the only way to convey anything anyone will trust, relied upon not for quality but reputation. Word spreads differently, so different things are relayed, and the sheer glut of it makes sorting methods nearly impossible. Authorities are gone: it’s not possible for anyone to understand the modern world because understanding even a tiny part requires intense specialization. That focus has an opportunity cost, meaning one has to rely on a reputation they cannot judge – outside the their field via specialization – meaning that reputation becomes critical, but the way we judge reputation is… Typed Tolstoy is better than Printed Tolstoy, but Typed Absolutelunatic is also better than Printed Tolstoy. Something about scarcity and value, I dunno. How would you know the difference? So “writers” focus on the clothing or the content, praying that naked earnesty in the facts will help them. What good are those if you can’t communicate them? Truth kept to yourself is as good a truth as nothing. Not even God will listen – he only comes when there are two of you. Worse – your “facts” may well be the samizdats of yesterday:
2) Just as in the bizarre, esoteric conversation between samizdat and Soviet Press, modern news “officially” responds to [blogger], or [tweeter], or […], and all of it is scrambled, contextually intelligible to some tiny, tiny fraction of the populace, the actual conflict unnameable but its pseudo-response widely distributed. Journos screw this up all the time, sure, but that only adds to the confusion. The biggest difference is, naturally, that there is no state-owned press. This is almost certainly worse, because the thing filling in for “state censor” is every other faction. It also gets worse because everyone knows this, which means that everyone is trying to suss out the buzzwords in the media (equivalent to: which samizdat are they replying to?), which means a series of misinterpretations unlike anything the Soviets could’ve imagined.
3) The pretense of decentralization and democratization accompanies a material centralization. The internet may allow for bubbles or whatever, but all of those are in the same ecosystem, and that ecosystem is vicious. Any given bubble can – and knows it can – be swept up into the public eye. Intellectual grottoes before could exist because no one could do anything about it, and attacking them required too many resources. Now the system doesn’t even need to expend resources: it outsources invective with a bare link. In other words, as always, power gives the pretense of openness while retaining the keys.
If certain things can only be communicated certain ways – and I think this is almost certainly the case – then we have new capacities with none of the ingrained knowledge of their use. On top of that, the “ways” we use them are contextualized, pre-judged, delimited. Overanalyzing death of the author jokes on down the line, up until it influences policy, at which point there will be a better joke.
None of this is original – anyone writing on the internet knows part or all of it. I don’t want the name to imply that I’m relaying secret information some [scary outsider] will gulag me for. I’m not.
My theory is simple: Information is hard to sort, hard to make people understand, and currently distributed via channels that make all our previous theories irrelevant. At no point have reading skills been more important, and we have no idea how to teach them. Most of our supposed teachers don’t even know that they can’t read. At no point has a serious confrontation with aesthetics been more important, and we’ve completely ignored that.
Everything above will get examined in more detail. There’s much to do and little time. Let’s start again.