Reading the New Yorker this week, I came upon a feature by Tobi Haslett on Susan Sontag that included this quote of hers: “What the word intellectual means to me today is, first of all, conferences and roundtable discussions and symposia in magazines about the role of intellectuals in which well-known intellectuals have agreed to pronounce on the inadequacy, credulity, disgrace, treason, irrelevance, obsolescence, and imminent or already perfected disappearance of the caste to which … they belong.”
The story of Susan Sontag is one of decline, from the heights she reached as a critic of unrivaled elegance and intimidating authority to the tragic lows to which she fell as a dithering and dilettantish fictionist. It’s a story written by other critics, of course, disillusioned by the fact that Susan Sontag herself had become disillusioned with her work and its value. “Her work rustles with the premonition that she was obsolete,” Haslett writes, “that her splendor and style and ferocious brio had been demoted to a kind of sparkling irrelevance.”
I would do the piece an injustice to go on about it at length, but it is quite fascinated by the melancholy of Sontag’s later years that seemed to spark a quest for meaning about her vocation. As Sontag is among the few people of confirmed genius, I hardly begrudge her attempts to apply it elsewhere (though Haslett argues that success was mixed), but I’m at the same time surprised it took her such a long time to come to that conclusion. Chalk it up to the times, perhaps: that vaunted mid-20th century aristocracy of ideas that offered enough solvency to put off facing the darker truth of intellectual uselessness.
We of the blistered 21st century know better. Intellectuals are ever the brick-heavy iPod of forgotten yore. Alas, genius of Sontag’s kind is hard to come by, making helplessness endemic.
But fear not! For I have looked into the matter and divined a whole spectrum of obsolescence, which clearly shows that not all descents into it are equal. Indeed, it appears we’ve been going about it all wrong. We’ve been estimating intellectual merit on a passion-based scale of dispensability. No one is dispensable, of course, but every so often one or two intellectuals are indispensable leaving everyone else in an odd lurch. No more! Now everyone shall know precisely where they stand and, if nothing else, find clarity. I’ve come up with five intellectual types, listed them in order of most to least indispensable before revealing their more accurate obsolescence reading.
So peruse the list, find out where you stand, do it with a coworker or a significant other and compare, it’s probably fun.
The True-ass Believer
Of all the groups, the True Believers are by far the most respected and the most envied. Not for bad reason. True Believers are characterized by fearlessness. Nothing in their general makeup exists to filter their courage, to sedate their resolve, or to obscure their clarity. They take a stand and refuse to settle. This has lent them an air of simplicity, at least with preferred True Believers. Less preferred True Believers betray some notable distinctions. Some are so earnest (à la Robespierre) that they make you want to commission a contraption that claws your eyes out, slits your throat, and uploads the procedure to YouTube. Some are quite clever (à la Pascal) and make you want to do much the same thing. True Believers are not an especially wise bunch, but they have ample heart and energy for what they care about. If metal bands could coalesce into single individuals, this is the type they would be.
True Believers are exposed to considerable risk of obsolescence. They live or die (sometimes literally) by the temper of the times. If one does not have a high threshold for suffering or great personal security, it is a frightful gamble. These are hard terms, but terms they are likely to accept, as they only see the task before them, which only force will restrain them from achieving. Compromise or evenhandedness is worse than death. What is death or purging compared to the disgraceful ostracism of having survived? Ah, to not be Edward Dmytryk, that is Heaven, the True Believer says in the mirror in the morning and on the guillotine in the afternoon.
Obsolescence probability: 50 percent
Risk factors: Aside from temporal shifts, obstinacy, a taste for chaos, and inability to impose order.
Notable True Believers: Ian MacKaye, Mencius Moldbug, Amanda Marcotte, dog owners, Trump era Mike Cernovich, Kurt Vonnegut
The Hard-as-shit Pragmatist
No one wants to be a Pragmatist, or really to ever have to deal with one. Generally they are quite humorless and boring. They think almost entirely in figures, parts, outcomes, balances, contingencies, and logistics. They appreciate a grand vision only insofar as they are able to dismantle it and reassemble it once they’ve determined the most essential parts and the most efficient process. They are quite sensitive about an apparent absence of belief and go to such lengths to delineate their beliefs as to appear bloodless and, um, somewhat subjective.
And yet, Pragmatists are ever in need. What they lack in humor they more than make up for in flexibility. They can accommodate the views of all sorts and take on working relationships without much thought to optics or pleasantries. And they have a sharper than usual sense of calling things as they see them. Where the more intransigent among us see nothing but light, the Pragmatist is leering at the shadows just out of view. It’s a peculiar set of talents, and not talents one can hone so much as talents one gets to have and continuously apply.
Obsolescence probability: 30 percent
Risk factors: No social skills whatever. None. Zero. Total losers.
Notable Pragmatists: Megan McArdle, Edmund Burke, Henry Rollins, Hillary Clinton, mainline Protestants, 85 percent of the American population
The Craven-motherfucking Opportunist
The Opportunist is the closet humans have come to an animal. It’s not so much that they have failed to evolve into human decency, but that they may have evolved away from it, beyond it even. It is as if the Opportunists saw the True Believers and the Pragmatists, took their worst qualities, and made them worse still by utilizing them for the narrowest possible purpose. From the True Believers, the Opportunists take their single-minded determination and slash-and-burn intensity. From the Pragmatists, they take their rigorous cost-benefit cast of mind. The Opportunists mix them into a self-serving protein shake, which makes them more agile predators. What do they hunt? Whatever sustains them. Once that no longer does, they move on to the next kill. Such instincts may, at first, appear exciting, even noble; but Opportunists can’t commit for very long before substantial demands are made on them, and so they are prone to quick leaps. Many crash and burn; but others settle into a predictable pattern, once people see their animalistic habits, they are treated as such, and placed in a kind of zoo of public understanding, watched as much for curiosity as for security.
Obsolescence probability: 87.7 percent
Risk factors: Ends-justify-means instincts, nocturnal.
Notable Opportunists: John McCain, Gamergate era Mike Cernovich, human sexuality professors, actual good journalists, non-pet owners, the Duke of Marlborough
The Chickenshit Cynic
Some may find this inclusion to be redundant. After all, are not Pragmatists and Opportunists guided predominantly by cynicism? I’ll concede that. But one must concede as well that Pragmatists and Opportunists are, at bottom, principled groups. Granted their principles are somewhat malnourished but they have enough strength to drag their respective sleds on the right path with little wavering or drifting. Cynics, on the other hand, are confused by principles. I’m not even sure they can identify a principle should a principle present itself.
The dumbest of our categories, Cynics are attuned to the music of rather than the meaning behind signals, codes, and tics. Some might say they have a sensitive intuition, others an emotional intelligence. They will make reference to “political correctness” or “nuance” or “intersectionality,” but don’t expect them to stop and explain any of them. Who has the time? Cynics could not accommodate substance even if they wanted to. It weighs down on their chests like cinderblocks. Not that any of it matters, because they more or less reinvent language by sheer self-assurance. The lack of seriousness with which they see their opponents and the masses obscures but does not outweigh how seriously they take themselves. The Cynics are lonely, having mastered all that needs mastering—by their own curriculum, of course—and standing monumentally on a column that only fits one.
Obsolescence probability: 99.99999999999999999 percent
Risk factors: Stupidity, replaceability.
Notable Cynics: Christopher Hitchens, Paul Joseph Watson, et al., Damien Hirst, Tumblr users, Cum Town, et al., Lord Bolingbroke
The Unimpeachable Nihilist
“Nihilist” is lately an abused term, often as a term of abuse. A Nihilist is supposedly one who disregards the #actual good in favor of the totally deplorable, and does so flagrantly and spitefully. The espousals of this Nihilist just so happen to align with whatever set of beliefs the accuser disdains. In fact, every one of the aforementioned types can and will have the label foisted onto them at one time or another.
To speak of Nihilists in this fashion means to make the assumptions that Nihilists (a) actively choose this role and (b) relish it having done so, making Nihilists little more than trolls. Not at all the case. Indeed, Nihilists find being so all very draining. They are as horses being ridden across the great plain by an ornery truth that insists on kicking their sides. They get no water, certainly no rest; they are only driving to a destination that is somehow both ominous and getting further off the more they move. Why it falls onto them to undertake this is not known, only accepted. Occasionally Nihilists harbor fantasies about being “saved” from their trials, but at the end of the day they are just that. Nihilists can only live one way, they cannot begrudge those who do not see what they have seen but can’t really help them either. Nihilists live beyond provocation, beyond expectation. To be nothing of consequence, to be nothing of magnitude, to be nothing, that is Heaven, Nihilists say to themselves on their commute, binging This is Us, or at the birth of their children.
Obsolescence probability: zero percent
Risk factors: None that I can recall.
Notable Nihilists: Ambrose Bierce, Mark Rothko, Adlai Stevenson, Fr. James Martin, SJ, ferret owners