Browsing through the terrific bookstore in Sisters, Oregon -- Paulina Springs Books -- I knew that I'd buy Chuck Klosterman's newest literary offering as soon as I saw the upside-down title on the front cover.
But What If We're Wrong? I've been wrong about so much, so many times, over so many years, this theme immediately resonated with me. Turning the book over, the subtitle was almost equally appealing: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past.
I already do this in a certain sense, since I'm unable to keep up with the magazines that we subscribe to. Unread issues get put in a bathroom drawer. Then newer issues get piled on top of them.
Catching up some on my magazine reading recently, I found myself picking up copies of TIME magazine from around the November 2016 presidential election. When those copies came in the mail, the news and analyses in them were close to being in the present.
Now, all that stuff is more than half a year in the past.
It takes me much less time to read old news magazines because (1) so much has happened since they were published which alters the relevance of the stories in them, and (2) almost always the confident reportorial prognostications about what will happen in the future has turned out to be closer to guesswork than accurate predictions.
As a cultural critic, Klosterman uses rock music, literature, and such to illustrate his central thesis. Which is pretty well summed up in the final paragraphs of his first chapter.
It's impossible to understand the world of today until today has become tomorrow.
This is no brilliant insight, and only a fool would disagree. But it's remarkable how habitually this truth is ignored. We constantly pretend our perception of the present day will not seem ludicrous in retrospect, simply because there doesn't appear to be any other option.
Yet there is another option, and the option is this: We must start from the premise that -- in all likelihood -- we are already wrong. And not "wrong" in the sense that we are examining questions and coming to incorrect conclusions, because most of our conclusions are reasoned and coherent.
The problem is with the questions themselves.
Klosterman doesn't directly elucidate what he meant by that last statement. (His book is a collection of essays, which fit together well, but by design, not highly logically.)
A few chapters onward he talks about Moby-Dick. Having read this book as a teenager, and not having thought much about it since, I found these observations intriguing.
A few pages back, I cited Moby-Dick as the clearest example of a book that people were just flat-out wrong about, at least during the life span of the author. But this doesn't mean that no one thought it was good, because certain people did. That's not the point. This has nothing to do with personal taste.
What any singular person thought about Moby-Dick in 1851 is as irrelevant as what any singular person thinks about Moby-Dick today. What critics in the nineteenth century were profoundly wrong about was not the experience of reading this novel; what they were wrong about was how that experience would be valued by other people.
What Klosterman seems to mean is that the concept of what a novel is supposed to be about shifted in the twentieth century. Moby-Dick wasn't hugely popular after Melville wrote and published it, with under five thousand copies sold by the time of Melville's death.
Now, though, we have different criteria for what makes a "great novel." Great isn't objective. Great is a subjective cultural determination.
Klosterman observes that a hundred years from now, the same will apply to rock music. Likely the classic bands we revere now -- Beatles, Rolling Stones, Cream (my personal favorite) -- won't earn the same regard from people in the future.
But if we think we're clever enough to break out of our current cultural biases and be able to foretell how our present will be looked upon in the future, we're almost certainly wrong.
This is my favorite excerpt from Klosterman's book, in part because I love the teenage crackhead metaphor. He's just tried to figure out what currently unrecognized literary genius will be revered by the future.
So this is one possibility -- a Navajo Kafka.
But here's where we taste the insecure blood from Klosterman's Razor. The mere fact that I can imagine this scenario forces me to assume that it won't happen.
It's a reasonable conclusion to draw from the facts that currently exist, but the future is a teenage crackhead who makes shit up as he goes along.
The uncomfortable, omnipresent reality within any conversation about representation is that the most underrepresented subcultures are the ones that don't even enter into the conversation. They are, by definition, impossible to quantify. They are groups of people whom -- right now, in the present tense -- it is still acceptable to dislike or discount or ignore.
They are groups not seen as needing protection or support, which makes them vulnerable to ridicule and attack. Who are they?
As already stated in this paragraph, I am in no position to say. If I try, I can only be wrong. Any argument in their favor is an argument against my premise.