Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Late last year, I spent some time with the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, reading her essays on politics, literature, Kentucky, and whatever else was of interest to her in a lengthy, fascinating career that has gotten renewed attention since her death in 2007. Hardwick is delightful, cutting, and difficult to pin down, a putative liberal with few shibboleths. But ideology was not why I sought her out or why I kept reading; it was, simply, style. Hardwick is the sort of writer we see too few of these days, someone who wrote with both great precision and ambition, her language in defiance of the ordinary. She was talking to you, always, but she was going to take you seriously.
Here is Hardwick, for example, on the anxiety of the craft.
I have always worked, but I never felt I was working hard enough. Fitfulness of ambition seemed to accompany the general anxiety, and yet to do something was an almost puritanical pressure, bearing down like the pain of a boil. This sounds agreeable enough, even with the image of a “boil,” but it was not pleasant and soothing in the least. Creative and intellectual work is difficult, hard, and disturbing in the deepest way. You are up against the limits of yourself, your mind, your knowledge, your talent, your courage, your fineness, your energy.”
Hardwick, one of a limited number of New York intellectuals to live into the twenty-first century, was actually alive for the genesis of internet writing, though I’m not sure how much she ever engaged with it, given her age. That might be for the best. While I am ultimately optimistic that the rise of Substack has given birth, once more, to an era that favors individuality of voice and creative work that is difficult and even disturbing in Hardwick’s “deepest way,” we are still living under the weight of two decades of monoculture. And that monoculture gave us what I am going to call, for lack of a better term, Gawkerspeak, after Gawker 1.0, the greatly influential and ultimately dubious lifestyle and culture blog that impacted so much of what came after it. In the early 2000s, with the internet still somewhat embryonic and the gilded age of media in its very last days, Gawker was there to punch up, to satirize and mock a culture of lavish magazine parties and publisher expense accounts that was fast disappearing. It was there to be sardonic, acidic, occasionally witty, always chatty, and usually in the first person. Curse words were tossed in the mix. The tone was inviting—I am here, talking to you—and could be framed as subversive when up against writing of the likes that Hardwick or Joan Didion or Gore Vidal or anyone of that era and mien put out, writing that was meant to be read twice or three times before moving onward. Again, observe the sample above, from Hardwick’s essay “The Ties Women Cannot Shake, And Have.” It is the English language, at the very minimum, elevated, sentences and ideas stretched beyond obvious confines. It is the work of someone who wants to be up against her limits.
Gawkerspeak is not that. And it was everywhere, and remains so, particularly on Twitter, where the discourse has flattened to the same predictable cadences and lingo, a generation of aging millenials, gen X’ers (and some Z thrown in) studying the crowd and mimicking accordingly. It’s what the internet enables. The 2000s introduced the concept of search engine optimization and quantifying popularity in a way that was inconceivable beforehand. Content mills raced to keep up. All of them, it seemed, took with them the Gawker imprint, particularly in the 2010s, when BuzzFeed appeared, for a moment, to be hegemonic.
With Gawkerspeak, even loftier topics can be brought low. This came to mind after I read a recent critique of Matt Yglesias in Defector, the sports and culture website founded by former Deadspin staffers—Deadspin, of course, being the original Gawker’s sports outpost. The piece came in reaction to a Washington Post profile of Yglesias, the liberal writer and prolific Substacker, and sought to take him to task for his understanding of economics and the debt ceiling debate. To be frank, I am not an economist and I am not as interested in the substance of Chris Thompson’s argument. For once, I am here to discuss style, because how something is said must matter too, and if I want an analytical opinion on government-issued bonds, I would not make Defector my first stop. The style is a near-perfect distillation of Gawkerspeak—the wearying melding of high and low, the straining toward the kind of banter you’re supposed to hear among the post-collegiate set trying to make it known they aren’t soft yet, that their writing won’t be effete enough to be devoid of allegedly taboo language. “You can get rich doing this shit,” Thompson writes of Yglesias’ punditry. Indeed. Shit appears six different times. “But there’s another problem with Yglesias's dipshit blog” and “wife-edited bullcrap into an already beshitted public discourse” and “true math nerd shit” are a few examples. There’s “his whole fuckin’ deal is summed up very beautifully” which, beautifully, drops the “g” from “fucking” as a modifier. This is what the tough guys do. On we go.
This is not to pick on Thompson or Defector. Both are symptom, not cause, the natural outgrowth of two decades of conformity. It is fine to curse; it is less fine to do it needlessly, to make a painfully belated stab at shock value. In the 2020s, cursing is as subversive as jaywalking—the latter being riskier because your life, in theory, could be threatened. In left-liberal online spaces, there is nothing at all to lose by writing this way. It hardly gets noticed because it is so dominant. Writing like speech, or the idea of speech, is the default, as if the discourse must resemble a college graduate’s conception of shit-talking. When Gawker did it two decades ago, there was an air of revolution to it, even if much of what they produced was frivolous and overheated. The practitioners of Gawkerspeak are like the poets who still think they are challenging the power elite by writing in free verse. For shock value today, declare you’ll only create sestinas and villanelles on rolling hills and love affairs. If you’re a blogger or whatever we call internet writers now—in my view, writer suffices—it’s best to break free from the strictures of the first internet age and roam elsewhere. Feel that puritanical pressure to do better.