In the first instance, Engber’s essay is something like a nadir for fake iconoclasm — the practice common to click farmers of presenting as novel or challenging an opinion shared by more or less everyone. In his own culture, a vast majority of people unthinkingly accept the comforts of air conditioning. The people arrayed against him are a tiny number of environmentalists and writers, people who have absolutely no control over how relentlessly cooled the average bank lobby is and who are generally unknown to the vast majority of the human and American populations. Engber refers to a “war” on air conditioning, which would be apt if a war was something that could comfortably occur in a closet. Nobody but us sad internet obsessives even know being skeptical of air conditioning is a thing. I look forward to Enger’s next brave stances, such as “In Defense of Anesthesia During Surgery” and “Child Murder is Problematic.”
The essay is also more fuel for my long-standing theory that Slate’s fundamental nature is less about the contrarianism it’s always accused of and more about the bitter antipathy bourgie progressivish types feel for other bourgie progressivish types. There is nothing you vaguely left-of-center, vaguely cultured, vaguely human college grad dislikes more than others who share that condition. Like kittens driven to rage by the mirror, theirs is an unfocused but palpable resentment. Slate’s notorious contrarianism exists, but it’s a second order effect, a function of the commodification of this resentment by writers who sell an endless parsing of meaningless fine-grained distinctions to a readership that needs to find them. Look, publications can have characters and still contain lots of good and bad — Slate publishes lots of great stuff and lots of great people, I read it, I’ve pitched to them, I’d write for them if given the opportunity. But to the degree that Slate has a character, it’s the narcissism of small differences, weaponized, and it’s why Engber’s story was predictably a metrics success: don’t you just hate that guy at the office who complains that AC fuels global warming, who by the way looks just like you and me?
But what Engber’s piece really makes me thing of is the contemporary microgenre whereby moneyed 20-something Ivy League grads ascribe tremendous political and moral valence to their cultural consumption. Or, more accurately, the tremendous political and moral valence they ascribe to the difference between their cultural consumption and yours. You cannot have missed them, at Pitchfork or New York or Grantland or, by god, Tumblr. These are the claims that, far more than a mere difference in subjective and contingent tastes, liking one musical act over another reveals fundamental moral character. Your Spotify playlists, in this reading, are existential. From your preference for Beyonce or Run the Jewels over the now ritualistically-derided indy white guy warblers like Vampire Weekend or the National comes not just aesthetic refinement but, in and of itself, anti-racism, feminism, resistance. To like Pepsi spokeswoman Beyonce, and more importantly to like her against others, isn’t merely to have a preference but to be among the elect. That this form of politics is risk-free, work-free, and progress-free should not concern you. With traditional designations of personal meaning long since discarded, the Company Man dispatched with disgust and the hippie who replaced him with ridicule, you will pretty much be what you consume. Given that art is a commodity but more too, you might as well be your music, and God knows, they’ll sell it to you.
And so too with air conditioning. Here, I suppose, the argument is less subjective, the total impact on the world’s ambient carbon level of the world’s ambient BTUs a matter for scientific disagreement. But for all of his references to empirical studies, Engber writes like a man who knows his argument, fundamentally, is one of culture and not of science. After all, Engber cannot possibly believe that people concerned about the carbon impact of air conditioning want impoverished people in Chicago to forego air conditioning if that means risking death. That’s such a fundamentally shiteating notion, so brazen in its substitution of distaste for sense, that it can’t be motivated by a concern with the science. That sort of thing is reserved for the distinct 21st century flavor of internet-enabled deliberate misunderstanding.
What animates Engber’s essay, for all of its studied insouciance, is a kind of terror. It’s terror in the face of the possibility that other adults could review the same evidence he has, experience the same experiences, have the same purchase on the world, be of the same moral discrimination, and yet conclude something different than what he’s concluded. Like the internet essayist who must forbid the possibility that musical tastes are just tastes — that they reflect not the character and content of the person inside but an inscrutable collection of chancey and contingent preferences that could have played out in any other way– Engber invokes the cudgel of racism and inequality to dismiss those who like a different temperature than he does. In recent years, this vocabulary has been brought to a level of ubiquity never before imagined. While it’s good for these ideas to have gotten such purchase, the inevitable corruption of immediate self-interest has led to their total integration in the project of self-formation and self-defense. Personally, I suspect that Engber’s not so much annoyed that someone doesn’t think every building in Washington DC should be kept at 60 degrees in July but by this understanding that, but for a few random occurrences in his life, he might be that guy. When we attempt to make the self an agglomeration of ready-at-hand takes on the miscellaneous bric a brac of shared experience, when your character is built on as feeble a foundation as your opinions, you will tend to police taste as more than taste. The alternatve is too destablizing.
I’m reading Matthew B. Crawford’s The World Outside Your Head, which like his first book is by turns brilliant and frustrating. I thought of our current refusal to treat taste as taste when I read this passage:
“The fantasy of autonomy comes at the price of impotence. With this comes fragility — that of a self that can’t tolerate conflict and frustration. And this fragility, in turn, makes us more pliable to whoever to present the most enthralling representations that save us from a more direct confrontation with the world. Being addressed to us, these representations allow us to remain comfortable in a little ‘me-world’ of manufactured experience.”
Crawford is talking about a very different subject. He laments the way that our virtual worlds smooth away the insistent frustrations of corporeal reality (the way the wood does not obey the carpenter) and in that way denies us the authentic freedom of constrained experience. But in this passage I see a lot of the current denial of taste as taste that I fear, the denial of the legitimacy of other opinions stemming from fear of the attendant possibility that your opinion might be wrong and that you may therefore be bad. See Buzzfeed’s impossibly creepy position that there is not more than one side on some issues of controversy — not that one position is less correct than another, but that we must pretend no other positions exist at all, or risk the terror of living in an uncertain position, unable to define our character through the correctness of our opinion. (That this comes from an enterprise as thoroughly, existentially corporate as Buzzfeed, and thus amoral in a profound sense, just adds that last little kick.) It strikes me that this posture of an uncomplicated moral universe is a virtual reality in the way that Crawford disdains.
What I want for myself, and for others, is to restore taste as taste, to be willing to float in the possibility that the various expressions of my contingent and limited attitudes, ideas, preferences, and positions could very well indeed be wrong, and in so doing reject the pleasant armor of a finished self. Again I think the challenge today is to find the courage to be human while all other humans ask you to be anything but.