Mar 31, 2021, 05:57AM

Reading, Writing, and the Work of Your Brand

Reflections on a career spent “generating content” for the marketplace of ideas.

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Kids, let me make you a promise: these thoughts are all mine. Those theorists whose work I’m citing, whose work is integral to my top-tier Public Intellectual Brand... well, I’m the first person who ever truly read them, the first person who ever actually understood them. You see, the philosophers have hitherto merely interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to trademark, package, and then sell these abstruse interpretations to the marketplace of ideas.

That’s how the great game is played, if said game consists of slinging takes for paltry fees and sporadic Patreon subscriptions. Hell, many versions of the game—the most commonly played versions, as it were—involve no exchange of cash at all, only some trickle-down clout in exchange for months of “dabbing the ass” of a better-positioned ideas vendor. It’s a living, ain’t it? That all depends, William James would say, on the liver.

Now let’s say, for example, that I’m the top influencer on Twitter as relates to the thought of the eminent professor Jonas Ruggleteapot. In other words, no one save “ya boi” here lards their takes and podcast episodes with as much “Ruggleteapotism,” no one is more Ruggleteapot-pilled, no one is as careful to engage in a one-sided e-mail correspondence with the 90-year-old Ruggleteapot (to which that grand old man, notorious for replying to all messages in the order received, answers “y” and “n” in glorious “hunt and peck” fashion).

Clearly, then, I own Ruggleteapot. Ruggleteapot is mine, with his monosyllabic email replies serving as debate-enders with regard to both fundaments and fine points of his convoluted ideology. When the editors and podcast producers go looking for the top Ruggleteapot person in the takeconomy, it’s “ya boi”—they look no further and nearly everyone else stays in their own lane. If some Russian bot or troll dares to question my Ruggleteapot bonafides, I stop them cold by telling them I’m not getting paid to educate them, even if they’re in one of my online classes or a subscriber to any of my assorted podcasts. And what, pray tell, if they happen to know so much as a single factoid about Ruggleteapot that “ya boi” doesn’t? Well, that’s why the good lord (Jack, Zuck, one of them) fashioned the block button out of the remnants of the iPads on which the iDecalogue had been written.

Why? “Why ask why? Try Bud Dry!” as the old advertising slogan went. But let me get real with you, kids. Let me go “mask off” here. If someone is muscling in on your beat—and one of my actual beats is muscle, so I know the score—you need to figure out this interloper’s intentions tout de suite. There’s nothing worse than a virtual newsroom, the vast majority of which are filled exclusively with freelancers and other contingent laborers in precarious circumstances, that boasts two people who write about the same micro-niche. Two “fat studies” people can’t break bread in the same e-cafeteria; two “labor organizers” will mercilessly attempt to undercut each other’s job prospects.

This is how it goes, and there’s no getting around it. The competition is worse if these hot take thinkers do it for a living, if this is their life’s work, if they wish to be the show rather than merely seeing the show. To them, the conscientious “stans” who email them aren’t enthusiasts attempting to offer counter-arguments, asking for other books to read, or correcting factual errors: they’re rivals coming for their jobs, such as those jobs are. There’s an endless supply of chum in the takewind-churned waters of the marketplace of ideas, and the sharks are circling, waiting for a moment of weakness: an inappropriate DM slide, an inopportune remark about some “third rail” subject, a Jeffrey Toobin-esque “slip of the zip(per).” Kill your darlings, darlings, and never mind the “stans”: there are no “stans,” only paypigs, subs, and mortal enemies in need of cancellation for clout, clicks, or cash. If they’re not paying, they best not be staying.

Once upon a time not too long ago, I harbored a more naive understanding of the marketplace of ideas. I understood that articles were sold for money, and dumb ideas were treated like proprietary information in the course of careerist media and academic trajectories, but I lacked a proper sense of how bloodthirsty this entire business was. I was cynical, to be sure—what beaten-down, genuine Gen-X refugee wasn’t, as the “Gawker/HuffPo moment” in shoddy online writing effloresced and then dried up into thin air? But my father, a lummox given to moments of augury, was right as always: we kids are never cynical enough, never suspicious enough, and it’s always much worse than we think. No conspiracy theory is needed to explain any of this, because those facts to which we cannot “face up,” the facts making us “tense and nervous” and thus “unable to relax,” stand on their own demerits.

Let me return, then, to the eminent professor Ruggleteapot. Ruggleteapot is mine and always has been, kids. His ideas have changed the world, namely my own private hot take-verse, because I use said ideas to score some loose change for use at the laundromat and the automat. If you see anyone else claiming Ruggleteapot meant X when we all know he meant Y, I must urge you to condemn, report, and block them, in that order. They’re all a bunch of grifters, hustling their thumbsucking takes. But me? Oh, kids, my Ruggleteapotism is as pure as new-fallen snow, as spiritually uplifting as whatever inane pop hit the hot takers at BuzzFeed are now treating with the gravity of “Dies Irae” playing at a mass funeral for first responders. It’s the straight dope, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Because they’d be wrong, actually. They’d be bad, actually. And they’re certainly not doing the work.  


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