Slate Star Codex and the Crisis of Scott Alexander

Recently, Scott Alexander, the psychiatrist-intellectual behind Slate Star Codex has decided to delete the entirety of the blog in reaction to an NYT reporter refusing to maintain his pseudonymy in an article written about the blog.

I don’t really know how to articulate the magnitude of this loss. While it’s true that his work will remain publicly accessible through websites like The Wayback Machine– if he decides to step back from public discourse then we will have lost not just the best current writing on the internet, but maybe also the only current writing that aims to remain high quality, considered and non-partisan in an increasingly divisive and emotionally violent period of social history. Which would be a tragedy.

Sometimes I think politics is a plague. If it is, then it’s a plague in the same way that war is a plague. Not because there are no just wars, and not because there are no just political conflicts. But because the collateral damage can sometimes be more than I can stand.

That Scott decided to take his website down over the fear that his public work might alienate him from his psychiatric clients, whom he has stated run the political gamut from extreme right to extreme left, is just a sign of what a good-natured and morally practical person he is.

That he has made this decision has to be his to own, and I have to respect it. But I can still mourn the existence of a world where the smartest, brightest thing he could do is to remove all his frankly fantastic work from the public sphere to care for his clients. It seems problematic to me that we live in a world where that’s the best choice.

I don’t know who to blame. I want to blame somebody, but I think that would be contrary to the basic idea. Sometimes, things just happen. I won’t get into the whole drama of the who-saids here, because I hate recounting things like that. But maybe everyone really was out for the best here and the permanently raised stakes of cancel-world have just prompted a meltdown of the most game-theoretically unsatisfying kind.

For those of us who cared about his blog, it will be like so many other awful things that happened this year. I think we’ll just have to learn to live with it.

Luckily it’s still possible to find archives and backups of Slate Star Codex. While I heartily recommend it, I’ll leave that to you. Something feels dirty about linking to a blogger who chose to delete their blog. That being said I do want to promote it in some sense by mentioning it. Just because I value quality thinking and intellectual content.

Those are my thoughts on the matte I guess. I hope this somehow gets undone, but I have the somehow sinking dread that it won’t be.

The Mythology of Making Words.

I am deeply suspicious of any writer who thinks that writing about writing is the right way to go about it. This is a problem, because so many people think the right way to start writing is to feverishly scribble down the one lousy thing they were given to say in their lives, and then they just spend the rest of the time doing that (1).

While I sure hope I have things left to say, I do think I’ve spent enough time in front of a blank page making words appear to talk about what Hubert Dreyfus would call ‘the real phenomenon’ of writing. That is, the experience of doing it, of setting yourself to the physical process and not letting go until it’s done resolving itself. I don’t think this is anything special. It is perfectly accessible to anyone willing to do it.

There is some garbage that culture tells itself regarding what it’s like to write, and I’d like to get it all out of the way, just so I know where I stand on the matter. If you like it too, all the better! Don’t get sucked in by people who think in the following terms. They’re charlatans.

I. ‘Divine Madness.’

Hemingway never said ‘write drunk, edit sober.’ Having done it myself, it’s a terrible idea. I’ve only seen it work once in person, and while it did really work, I’m not convinced the guy who pulled it off wasn’t a genius anyway. In history, as well as in all things, Bukowski is the exception.

Don’t align things like creativity and things like self-destruction. It’s too easy, and too cheap. If I had a penny for every college colleague who lived the idea that Bacchus was optreme angle from which to approach the process of producing a thing– this could include academic work and essays– then I’d have maybe around ten bucks, which I could then spend on a book that was actually good.

The mistake is understandable. If it hurts like love, smells like love, and feels like love, it must be love, right? Wrong. Detecting the loss of your ego could be a sign you got your self out of the way long enough to produce something you couldn’t expect. That’s a sign of good writing. Or it might be a sign that you’ve blasted yourself out of your mind on something prescription or non-prescription.

I like Hunter S. Thompson as much as the next guy, but even he admitted that he could never keep up with his own press. Fitting way to go for a newspaper man.

II. That the Writing is Yours; That it Comes from You.

If it’s true that you have to get yourself out of the way for anything good to come, and it is, then you can’t be the place that it comes from. Because remember, you aren’t so much more than just a bundle of preconceptions about the thing trying to be born through your skull.

The myth of the birth of Athena is archetypal, and as anxious as Jungian analysis makes me these days, I’m tempted to point out the ways in which the myth needs to mirror the truth.

All the plans and structures in the world can only get you so far when you have to confront the page at the end of it. You don’t get anything good without risking carpal tunnel or RSI. That means scribbling out and replacing, frequently. I’m not saying this to sound cool, or exclusive, or elitist– I’m just saying it because it’s true.

The reason why it helps to put down the pages of pre-determination and make is because only when you really enjoy the process of making do you and your preconceptions fuck off for long enough for something good to happen. Just trust it, cause it will happen. And when it does, it can be glorious, and that’s the gamble.

Footnotes.

(1): I say this while apologizing to Quentin Tarantino, whose Inglourious Basterds is really little more than writing about writing inasmuch as it is a film about films. That said, it remains one of the single finest god damn films I’ve ever seen, not because it was art, but because it was good. I don’t think he was one of those people I demean.