Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

David Auerbach’s Books of the Year 2021

My two top books are both monuments of, and to, scholarship. The much-needed new edition of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy pays respects to a work that is close to my heart in its obsessive, searching, elephantine reach. Many years ago the writer John Crowley recommended two books to me: The Man Without Qualities and The Anatomy of Melancholy. He clearly saw me well. Mary Ann Lund’s book offers a good introduction to Burton if the monster tome itself seems unapproachable.

Susan Bernofsky’s biography of Robert Walser is simply the best literary biography I’ve read in some time, meticulously researched and beautifully written, the result of Bernofsky’s 30 years of deep engagement with Walser. The writing itself is exceptional, making it also the most literary literary biography I have read in many a year.

Otherwise, it was a good year for books, better than 2020 overall, with the exception of comics, where remarkable entries seemed quite thin (at least among established publishers). This possibly owes to the ongoing genteelification of the medium and the concomitant insecurities. But Brecht Evens’s long awaited new work is his greatest yet, beautiful and dense, with stunning use of color.

Keep reading, and happy new year, as happy a one as is feasible.

BOOKS OF THE YEAR

The Anatomy of Melancholy
Burton, Robert (Author)
Penguin Classics


Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser
Bernofsky, Susan (Author)
Yale University Press

LITERATURE

Be as Children (Dedalus Europe Book 0)
Sharov, Vladimir (Author), Ready, Oliver (Translator)
Dedalus


The Wife Who Wasn't: A Novel
Ifland, Alta (Author)
New Europe Books


The Symphonies (Russian Library)
Bely, Andrei (Author), Stone, Jonathan (Translator)
Columbia University Press


Fetch Muse: Poems
Starks, Rebecca (Author)
Able Muse Press


Kapo (New York Review Books Classics)
Tisma, Aleksander (Author), Williams, Richard (Translator), Rieff, David (Afterword)
NYRB Classics


The Trees: A Novel
Everett, Percival (Author)
Graywolf Press


Impostures (Library of Arabic Literature, 65)
al-Ḥarīrī (Author), Cooperson, Michael (Translator), Kilito, Abdelfattah (Foreword)
NYU Press


At Night All Blood Is Black
Diop, David (Author)
Picador Paper


Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)
Tadeusz Borowski (Author), Madeline G. Levine (Translator)
Yale University Press


Terminal Boredom: Stories
Suzuki, Izumi (Author), Barton, Polly (Translator), Bett, Sam (Translator), Boyd, David (Translator), Joseph, Daniel (Translator)
Verso Fiction


Chasing Homer
Krasznahorkai, László (Author), Miklós, Szilveszter (Performer), Batki, John (Translator), Neumann, Max (Artist)
New Directions


The Notes: or On Non-premature Reconciliation (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)
Hohl, Ludwig (Author), Cohen, Joshua (Foreword), Lewis, Tess (Translator)
Yale University Press


Brief Lives of Idiots
Cavazzoni, Ermanno (Author), Richards, Jamie (Introduction)
Wakefield Press


Kalevala: The Epic of the Finnish People
Lönnrot, Elias (Editor), Korpela, Jukka (Introduction), Friberg, Eino (Translator)
Penguin



The Book of All Skies
Egan, Greg (Author)
Greg Egan


We All Hear Stories in the Dark [Trade Paperback 3 Volume Set]
Robert Shearman (Author), Michael Marshall Smith (Author), Lisa Tuttle (Author), Angela Slatter (Author), Steven Moffat (Author), Reggie Oliver (Illustrator), Reggie Oliver (Illustrator)
PS Publishing


The Stone Face
Smith, William Gardner (Author), Shatz, Adam (Introduction)
NYRB Classics


Storm
Stewart, George R. (Author), Rich, Nathaniel (Introduction)
NYRB Classics


Good Behaviour (New York Review Books Classics)
Keane, Molly (Author), Gentry, Amy (Introduction)
NYRB Classics


Rakes of the Old Court: A Novel (Northwestern World Classics)
Caragiale, Mateiu I. (Author), Cotter, Sean (Translator)
Northwestern University Press


McGrotty and Ludmilla (Canons)
Gray, Alasdair (Author)
Canongate Canons


PARADISE: Dante's Divine Trilogy Part Three. Englished in Prosaic Verse by Alasdair Gray
Gray, Alasdair (Author), Alighieri, Dante (Author)
Canongate Books


The Life Written by Himself (Russian Library)
Petrov, Archpriest Avvakum (Author), Gluck, Michael (Editor), Brostrom, Kenneth (Translator)
Columbia University Press


Anthology of Tang and Song Tales: The Tang Song Chuanqi Ji of Lu Xun
Victor Mair (Author), Victor Mair (Editor), Zhenjun Zhang (Editor)
World Scientific Publishing Company


The Penguin Book of Spanish Short Stories
Jull Costa, Margaret (Editor), Jull Costa, Margaret (Translator), Bunstead, Thomas (Translator), Bush, Peter (Translator), Phillips-Miles, Kathryn (Translator), Deefholt, Simon (Translator), Maude, Kit (Translator)
Penguin


The Spirit of Controversy: and Other Essays (Oxford World's Classics)
Hazlitt, William (Author), Mee, Jon (Editor), Grande, James (Editor)
Oxford University Press


Samuel Johnson: Selected Works
Johnson, Samuel (Author), DeMaria, Robert (Editor), Fix, Stephen (Editor), Weinbrot, Howard D (Editor)
Yale University Press

HUMANITIES

Philosophy and Religion in Plato's Dialogues
Nightingale, Andrea (Author)
Cambridge University Press



Expanding Horizons in the History of Science: The Comparative Approach
Lloyd, G. E. R. (Author)
Cambridge University Press


Inwardness: An Outsider's Guide (No Limits)
Ganeri, Jonardon (Author)
Columbia University Press



St. Matthew Passion (signale|TRANSFER: German Thought in Translation)
Blumenberg, Hans (Author), Müller-Sievers, Helmut (Translator), Fleming, Paul (Translator)
Cornell University Press and Cornell University Library


Cassirer (The Routledge Philosophers)
Matherne, Samantha (Author)
Routledge


Music, Math, and Mind: The Physics and Neuroscience of Music
Sulzer, David (Author)
Columbia University Press



The Philosophical Stage: Drama and Dialectic in Classical Athens
Billings, Joshua (Author)
Princeton University Press



Uncountable: A Philosophical History of Number and Humanity from Antiquity to the Present
Nirenberg, David (Author), Nirenberg, Ricardo L. (Author)
University of Chicago Press




Plato's Sun-Like Good: Dialectic in the Republic
Broadie, Sarah (Author)
Cambridge University Press


A User's Guide to Melancholy
Lund, Mary Ann (Author)
Cambridge University Press

SCIENCE AND TECH




Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality
Wilczek, Frank (Author)
Penguin Books



The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness
Solms, Mark (Author)
W. W. Norton & Company



SOCIAL SCIENCE

Outrageous Fortune: Gloomy Reflections on Luck and Life
Miller, William Ian (Author)
Oxford University Press



Information: A Historical Companion
Blair, Ann (Editor), Duguid, Paul (Editor), Goeing, Anja-Silvia (Editor), Grafton, Anthony (Editor)
Princeton University Press


Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing
Thompson, John B. (Author)
Polity


The Future of Money: How the Digital Revolution Is Transforming Currencies and Finance
Prasad, Eswar S. (Author)
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press



The Banks Did It: An Anatomy of the Financial Crisis
Fligstein, Neil (Author)
Harvard University Press

HISTORY AND POLITICS


My Seven Lives: Jana Juráňová in Conversation with Agneša Kalinová
Juráňová, Jana (Author), Kalinová, Agneša (Author)
Purdue University Press


Law and the Party in China: Ideology and Organisation
Creemers, Rogier J. E. H. (Editor), Trevaskes, Susan (Editor)
Cambridge University Press


The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution
Yang, Jisheng (Author), Mosher, Stacy (Translator), Jian, Guo (Translator)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis
Plokhy, Serhii (Author)
W. W. Norton & Company


Cicero: Political Philosophy (Founders of Modern Political and Social Thought)
Schofield, Malcolm (Author)
Oxford University Press


India and the World: A History of Connections, c. 1750–2000
Markovits, Claude (Author)
Cambridge University Press


China's Leaders: From Mao to Now
Shambaugh, David (Author)
Polity


Hobbes's Political Philosophy: Interpretation and Interpretations
Martinich, A.P. (Author)
Oxford University Press

COMICS

The City of Belgium
Evens, Brecht (Author)
Drawn and Quarterly


Donjon Monsters T13: Réveille-toi et meurs (Donjon Monsters, 13) (French Edition)
David B. (Drawings), Sfar, Joann (Contributor), Trondheim, Lewis (Contributor)
DELCOURT


Alberto Breccia's Dracula (The Alberto Breccia Library)
Breccia, Alberto (Author)
Fantagraphics


Trots and Bonnie
Flenniken, Shary (Author), Hathaway, Norman (Editor), Flake, Emily (Introduction), Hathaway, Norman (Designer)
New York Review Comics


Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise (New York Review Comics)
Panter, Gary (Author), Rudick, Nicole (Afterword), Ruscha, Ed (Foreword)
New York Review Comics


The Fly
Trondheim, Lewis (Author)
Papercutz


Dungeon: Zenith vol. 4: Outside the Ramparts (4)
Trondheim, Lewis (Author), Sfar, Joann (Author), Boulet (Illustrator)
NBM Publishing


Nuft and the Last Dragons, Volume 1: The Great Technowhiz
Milton, Freddy (Author)
Fantagraphics


When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers
Krimstein, Ken (Author)
Bloomsbury Publishing

ART

Myself and My Aims: Writings on Art and Criticism
Schwitters, Kurt (Author), Luke, Megan R. (Editor), Grundy, Timothy (Translator)
University of Chicago Press


Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne: The Original
Warburg, Aby (Author), Heil, Axel (Contributor), Ohrt, Roberto (Contributor), Scherer, Bernd (Contributor), Sherman, Bill (Contributor), Wedepohl, Claudia (Contributor)
Hatje Cantz

Do the Cthulhu: Monster Mashes and Cannibal Dances

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no one knows how to do the Monster Mash, and that the song only describes people doing the dance and not how to dance it.

Yet the Monster Mash can be known. Its own lyrics say as much. The cost—one’s sanity, surely—may just be too great.

For you, the living, this mash was meant too
When you get to my door, tell them Boris sent you

Then you can monster mash
(The monster mash) And do my graveyard smash
(Then you can mash) You’ll catch on in a flash
(Then you can mash) Then you can monster mash

Monster Mash (Bobby Pickett)

The Monster Mash describes a realm in which those who know do and those who do know, a realm in which a “flash” will immediately grant you the terrible knowledge both of the dance and of the creatures who perform it and their realm. Once one sees beyond the veil, once one crosses beyond the threshold of Pickett’s “door” of perception, there is no turning back.

Outside the ordered universe that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.

H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

That flash of Lovecraftian gnosis, in less macabre presentations, is central to the history of dance crazes more generally. Despite the Swingers’ egalitarian claim that it ain’t what you dance, it’s the way you dance it, the privileged knowledge of dance moves has been central to the history of musical exhortations to hit the dancefloor. As with so many in-group declarations (Actor’s Equity, say), the only way to become a member is to already be one.

The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band captured this paradox in their 1969 performance of Monster Mash, in which Viv Stanshall describes a mash that has not yet taken place. As the monsters wake up and begin to dance, the temporal paradox causes the song to self-destruct at the very moment Stanshall begins the countdown to the actual mash:

“The countdown begins now…”

The song becomes its own sequel, in the style of Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation.

The Monster Mash is atypical in not being explicitly prescriptive. It hints at what is behind the veil but only offers a polite invitation and a seductive peek. Most songs about dances do indeed exhort the listener to perform their titular dances, and many go further by shaming those ignorant of the moves, drawing a line between populist inclusiveness (everyone can do this dance!) and elitist exclusion (if you don’t do this dance, you are a loser!).

Now here’s a dance you should know!
When the lights are down low!
Grab your baby, then go!
Do the Hucklebuck, do the Hucklebuck
If you don’t know how to do it
Then you’re out of luck!
Shove your baby in, twist her all around
Then you start a twisting mad and moving all around
Wiggle like a snake, waddle like a duck
That’s what you do when you do the Hucklebuck

The Hucklebuck (Roy Alfred, lyricist)

The song berates the listener for not already knowing the Hucklebuck, as a precursor to the actual instruction. The promise of secret knowledge lures in listeners, and a line is drawn between the elect and the hoi polloi. (The Fall, at the peak of Mark E. Smith’s obsession with H. P. Lovecraft, would ridicule this pretense to exclusive coolness by rewriting it as “Hassle Schmuck”.)

In the classic Honeymooners episode “Young at Heart,” Ralph Kramden hears the song exactly once, after which he somehow has acquired that elect knowledge and can mysteriously dance fluidly and confidently. Ralph has crashed through the barriers separating him from Jackie Gleason and Gleason’s other characters and momentarily partakes of their knowledge. Unusually for the show, Ralph wins over Alice with his new knowledge. He conquers his momentary humiliation when Alice sees him dancing, and she symbolically accepts his pin to join him inside the circle of dance knowledge, so he can continue to revel in his sudden gnosis:

“This is one of those numbers that tells a story.”

Once subject to revelation (to apocalypse, literally “uncovering”), there is no turning back. Not even Alice Kramden can manage it. She too succumbs.

M. T. Anderson, author of Symphony for the City of the Dead and The Pox Party, has traced this rhetorical apocalypse back to very early in the recorded era (as well as to the envoys of Dante’s Vita Nuova):

Let’s examine the question of the division between dance and song (and lyric). Take the Charleston, for example:

Caroline, Caroline, At last they’ve got you on the map
With a new tune, a funny blue tune, with a peculiar snap!
You many not be able to buck and wing
Fox-trot, two-step, or even swing
If you ain’t got religion in your feet
You can do this prance and do it neat… Charleston! Charleston! …

Like “The Monster Mash,” it slurs the difference between the dance and the song (i.e. itself) which elicits the dance. They both posit somehow an imaginary song and moment, anterior to themselves, when the dance becomes wildly popular — as if the dance proceeded the song, and the song merely announces, like John the Baptist at the river, the glory of another mover and shaker. But in fact, in each of these cases, the song is the appropriate vehicle for the dance. The song exists in a loop of self-promotion, declaring a past triumph that cannot have come before itself, the express vehicle of the dance — because you dance the Charleston to the “Charleston,” the monster mash to “The Monster Mash.” It is fundamentally unlike, say, the waltz, which can be danced to any one of a thousand waltzes, or indeed anything in 3/4 time.

This circularity, I think, is an excellent example of the Kardashian effect, a phenomenological moebius bootstrapping in which your fame comes only from announcing your fame. It is a fame simulacrum with an empty core, pointing back at an event which was not an event, deixis without a referent; an ouroboros conga line.

M. T. Anderson

Yet as the Swingers suggested, there’s always been an egalitarian, anti-gnostic tendency, taken to an extreme by the much-covered Land of 1000 Dances (Cannibal & The Headhunters, Wilson Pickett, and many others), which casually rattles off dance names in its lyrics, making it simultaneously parasitic on the other dances it cites (as there is no actual Land of 1000 Dances dance) and utilitarian.

Children, go where I send you
(Where will you send me?)
I’m gonna send you to that land
The land of a thousand dances

Got to know how to Pony
Like “Bony Maronie”
You got to know how to Twist
Goes like this

Mashed Potato
Do the Alligator
Twist, twister
Like your sister

Then you get your Yo-Yo
Say, hey, let’s go-go
Get out on your knees
Do the Sweet Peas

Roll over on your back
Say, “I Like It Like That”
Do the Watusi
Do the Watusi

Then you do the Fly
With the Hand Jive
Then you do the Slop
The Chicken and the Bop

Then you do the Fish
Slow, slow Twist
Then you do the Flow
Got to move solo
Then you do the Tango
Takes two to Tango

Land of 1000 Dances (Chris Kenner)

Here is a song to which you can do every dance! You must dance the waltz to any waltz, where no other 3/4 dances are available, but you can dance any dance to Land of 1000 Dances (save the waltz). Ignorance is not a problem: do whatever dance you want, and you’re in luck no matter what. Kenner is thorough, but Cannibal and the Headhunders dropped over half of the dance names for that nagging “Na na-na na na” vocal hook, illustrating just how irrelevant the specific dance moves were. It ain’t what you dance, it’s the way you dance it.

Na na-na na naaaaaaa

Yet from flattening nondifferentiation inevitably arises the urge to differentiate, and this populist trend did not last. It took the arch-romantic Bryan Ferry to fight back against the democratizing power of the Land of 1000 Dances. He posited a dance so simultaneously ubiquitous and inaccessible that knowledge and performance were reserved for those touched by the demiurge of creativity and genius: the Strand. Ferry goes further: the Strand is not a dance, but “a danceable solution,” a Platonic meta-dance that subsumes all (and exclusively) cool content, not merely dances.

Not Terry Wogan

In the end, Ferry proclaims that all concreta, whether dances, flowers, or paintings, fall away before the abstractum of the Strand:

There’s a new sensation
A fabulous creation
A danceable solution
To teenage revolution
Do the Strand love
When you feel love
It’s the new way
That’s why we say
Do the Strand!

Do it on the tables
Quaglino’s place or Mabel’s
Slow and gentle
Sentimental
All styles served here
Louis Seize he prefer
Laissez-faire Le Strand
Tired of the tango
Fed up with fandango
Dance on moonbeams
Slide on rainbows
In furs or blue jeans
You know what I mean
Do the Strand!…Oooh

Had your fill of Quadrilles
The Madison and cheap thrills
Bored with the Beguine
The samba isn’t your scene
They’re playing our tune
By the pale moon
We’re incognito
Down the Lido
And we like the Strand.

Arabs at oasis
Eskimos and Chinese
If you feel blue
Look through Who’s Who
See La Goulue
And Nijinsky
Do the Strandsky.

Weary of the Waltz
And mashed potato schmaltz
Rhododendron
Is a nice flower
Evergreen
It lasts forever
But it can’t beat Strand power
The sphinx and Mona Lisa
Lolita and Guernica
Did the Strand

Do the Strand (Bryan Ferry)

The Strand’s form can inhabit a wide variety of content, but only content meeting forever-unspecified conditions of total coolness. There’s no teaching the Strand; those who can partake of it do so through some unconditioned gnostic revelation. Some will never and can never know the Strand.

But perhaps they are better off. Cthulhu knew the Strand too.


The punk era atomized the tension between elitism and populism, often by just ignoring it, but occasionally subverting it. Aside from the singular Fall example above, Cabaret Voltaire’s “Do the Mussolini (Headkick)” turns the exhortation into a vague incitement to actual violence, playing on the ambiguity of that most general verb “to do.” Similarly, A Certain Ratio’s “Do the Du” takes an excellent, funky groove and puts lyrics of intimate agony on top of it which seem to have nothing to do with dancing.

The way I read it, doing the “Du” (“you”) is indeed a gnosis, but one of mutual annihilation between two partners locked into each other and away from the world. Dancing to it is running the risk of entering that nightmare. It’s the Monster Mash all over again, except the monsters are two ordinary lovers.

The ultimate riposte to the whole song-and-dance dilemma, though, is The Table’s “Do the Standing Still (Classics Illustrated),” a dance that is not a dance, one performed by corpses over a lyrical bed of quotes from Silver Age Marvel comics, a tribute to all those misfits who stay home from discos in their rooms at night reading Jack Kirby.

It’s the real monster mash.


APPENDIX:

Songs for further reference:

  • The Terminals, “Do the Void”
  • The Method Actors, “Do the Method”
  • The Homosexuals, “Do the Total Drop”
  • Electric Six, “Newark Airport Boogie”
  • Kontakt Mikrofon Orkestra, “Do the Residue”
  • XTC, “Traffic Light Rock”

A special honorable mention goes to Electric Six’s “The Number of the Beast,” which enthusiastically describes the secret knowledge to summon an otherworldly beast, but the knowledge is not dance moves but mathematics. Plato would approve.

When I look out my window
I’m amazed by the curses I see
I’m bound by what I don’t know
And what I don’t know is looking back at me

So make your counting count
Get the precise amount
It’s beyond rudimentary
I need an abacus
’cause I’m bad at this!
Ain’t been to university

Now clear the decks and solve for X!
Slide to the right and solve for Y!
Square root of eight–Triangulate!
From West to East: the Number of the Beast!

When I crunch up your numbers
I’m afraid of the outcome I see
I’m tired of supernumery [sic]
And I know he getting tired of me

Now clear a path!
Do basic math
And feel my wrath
Feel my wrath

Electric six, “The Number of the Beast”

The Bloodsport of the Hive Mind: Common Knowledge in the Age of Many-to-Many Broadcast Networks

Common knowledge is that which I know and that which I know everyone else knows. That, at least, is the easiest way to put it for my purposes here, which is how a large number of people came to believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election—and subsequently constructed an intellectual edifice around this conviction that led to the January 6 Capitol riots.

It’s a commonplace now that we live in a fragmented age of filter bubbles in which everyone can locate a collection of online resources which will reinforce and support their views. That’s not enough, however, to get us to the point of gross norm-violating behavior. The news niches that provide reinforcing fodder to the left, right, and everywhere in between do so with an implicit antagonism toward other niches. Such conflict is their lifeblood. Readers are aware that as they embrace one point of view, there are others that, however erroneous and dangerous they may be, still coexist.

It’s only with the growth of communities of people interacting that most people gain such courage in their convictions to defy that which authoritative sources (media, political, corporate) deem to be acceptable narratives and acceptable norms. These communities generate more than validation of one’s preexisting beliefs. They generate the common knowledge that I know that many others feel the same as I do, others to whom I am joined in a community.

David Lewis gave the most well-known account of common knowledge in 1969:

Let us say that it is common knowledge in a population P that X if and only if some state of affairs A holds such that:

1. Everyone in P has reason to believe that A holds.
2. A indicates to everyone in P that everyone in P has reason to believe that A holds.
3. A indicates to everyone in P that X.

David Lewis, Convention (1969)

In other words, in an imagined group of people P, you get common knowledge of “Trump won the election” only if you have a situation in which every member of the group is not only given reason to believe that Trump won the election, but also that everyone else in the group has reason to believe (and likely the same reason to believe) that Trump won the election.

from Common knowledge, coordination, and strategic mentalizing in human social life (2019)

Gilbert Harman posed a simpler, self-referential version of self-knowledge that removes the more complex “state of affairs” variable:

Mutual knowledge might be explained as knowledge of a self-referential fact: A group of people have mutual knowledge of p if each knows p AND WE KNOW THIS, where the THIS refers to the whole fact known.

Gilbert Harman, Review of Linguistic Behavior (1977)

Historically in offline society, the second condition is the most difficult to attain. If there is consensus in the truth of some belief X in a community, that is likely a product of the ambient environment surrounding the community, attained through news, one-on-one discussions, and so on. But the knowledge that everyone else knows X is harder to glean. It can be asserted, but unless X is some fact/norm blatantly reflected in the behavioral cues of everyone one encounters (say, “You should always wear clothes in public”), the bar for X crossing into common knowledge is rather high.

Online social spaces, by their very structure and nature, lower the bar drastically by providing many-to-many broadcast channels. One rarely communicates to more than a handful of people at a time in offline, everyday life. Online, any space such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, a blog with comments, or a message board by default provides broadcast capabilities to every individual who contributes. To post X to an online community P on any of these networks is to communicate several things:

  1. I believe X.
  2. Everyone in P knows I believe X.
  3. Everyone in P knows everyone else in P knows I believe X.

In real life, everyday expressions of X only communicate (1) and provide a fraction of push on (2), and so no common knowledge is produced. In an online community, however, communications generate all three and provide far greater momentum toward common knowledge. Any person’s post can serve as a proxy for the unexpressed beliefs of any other person in that community. By observing how others react to someone else posting that they believe X, an observer can be implicitly validated (or rejected) within the community if they also believe X.

Many-to-many broadcasting allows, uniquely, for common knowledge to come into being far more easily in the absence of authoritative mediation and without a centralized locus of communication. Everyone in P is, by default, announcing their beliefs with a megaphone, and unlike in real life, the online community P can hear everyone’s megaphone. No one is conversing; everyone is broadcasting.

The result is discursive mob rule. For any significant belief X, momentum quickly builds up in a positive feedback loop to the point where X can reach common knowledge, and does so in the absence of any central authority. The much-vaunted moderation demanded by social network critics is not a sufficient impediment to this momentum, since moderation is very rarely invisible. If moderation removes statements of belief in X, that is tantamount to validating that many others believe that X. Moderation helps the push toward common knowledge of X along just as much as the posting of X does.

Many-to-many broadcast networks can even provide the illusion of greater unity of belief than actually exists, since not all members of a community use the megaphones. If a minority of members proclaim belief X, where X is something like “It would be a great idea to invade the Capitol building,” and there is little stated dissent, the silent votes of abstention or dissent do not get counted in the assessment of common knowledge. Where in real life there is a massive void of ignorance of what other members of one’s community think in one direction or another, in online communities the slant goes toward whoever is most aggressive with their megaphones.

Combined with the low barrier of community creation and the balkanization of online communities into self-selecting and self-reinforcing belief networks, the positive feedback becomes overwhelming, but only after many-to-many broadcasting is in play. A steady diet of clickbait and red meat can provide preoccupied partisans, but do not by themselves ensure radicalization because the concepts being promoted remain at the fairly simplistic level of soundbites. The achievement of QAnon was something beyond that which Fox News or Rush Limbaugh could ever have accomplished, because the actors playing Q only provided the barest of breadcrumbs around which the many-to-many broadcast dynamics forged a common knowledge belief system. This belief system possessed (and still possesses) a coherence, complexity, and sheer resistance to outside intrusion that could not have been possible without a far lower barrier to its constituent beliefs passing into common knowledge than was even possible until recently.

The hive mind is here, and its workings are a bloodsport.

David Auerbach’s Books of the Year 2020

In this chaotic, surreal, and trying year, books as always provided a source of steadiness and continuity, when there was enough time and space to give them full attention.

My two books of the year are both superior anthologies suffused with the editor/translators’ love and reverence for their authors–inspiring feats in themselves. The third volume of Musil translated by Genese Grill and published by Contra Mundum is a massive and masterful anthology of Musil’s plays and theater writings, the most substantial new Musil volume in years, expertly rendered and annotated. Hannes Bajohr, Florian Fuchs, and Joe Paul Kroll collectively perform an even greater feat in drawing together Blumenberg’s essays across the breadth of his career and finally producing an approachable entry point to his work in English. The introductions to both volumes are superb. The works are old, but Grill, Bajohr, Fuchs, and Kroll are their animating spirits today.

The same goes for Steve G. Lofts’s new translation of Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, a massive undertaking of an underappreciated work by an underappreciated philosopher, the third Davos participant who saw more widely than Carnap and more humanely than Heidegger. A more affordable edition is warranted. And the long-awaited reissue of Klibansky, Panofsky, and Saxl’s Saturn and Melancholy, done with immense care and comprehensiveness, is a model example of cultural history at a level of depth and intimacy that has always been rare, and is perhaps becoming rarer.

Fantagraphics’s reissues of Alberto Breccia’s stunning work also deserve more attention. I read part of Perramus when Fantagraphics issued it 30 years ago and was blown away by Breccia’s singular style; its’ good to have the whole thing finally. His version of The Eternaut is also remarkable.

I hesitate to mention too many other books for fear of neglecting the others, but I will say that of the science and technology books, several deal with subjects that are currently inundated with popularizations. In my eye, those below are notably superior to the rest of their crowd, though the marketplace of ideas has apparently and frustratingly failed to raise these books above their brethren. To a lesser extent, the same applies to history and politics.

Jacob Burckhardt said that the 20th century would be the age of oversimplification. The 21st has so far been the age of increasingly desperate and defensive oversimplification, across all domains of knowledge. Here’s to the fight against it.

(Final note: for an anthology of short plague-related stories, please check out my little project The Enneadecameron, featuring worthy tales by John Crowley, Irina Dumitrescu, Genese Grill, Alta Ifland, and many more.)

BOOKS OF THE YEAR

Theater Symptoms: Plays and Writings on Drama
Musil, Robert (Author), Grill, Genese (Translator), Grill, Genese (Introduction)
Contra Mundum Press


History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader (signale|TRANSFER: German Thought in Translation)
Blumenberg, Hans (Author), Bajohr, Hannes (Translator), Fuchs, Florian (Translator), Kroll, Joe Paul (Translator)
Cornell University Press and Cornell University Library

LITERATURE

Eros, Unbroken
Kim, Annie (Author)
Word Works


The Long White Cloud of Unknowing
Samuels, Lisa (Author)
Chax Press


The Bern Book: A Record of a Voyage of the Mind (American Literature)
Carter, Vincent O. (Author), McCarthy, Jesse (Introduction)
Dalkey Archive Press


Peach Blossom Paradise (New York Review Books Classics)
Fei, Ge (Author), Morse, Canaan (Translator)
NYRB Classics


Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: Selected Stories of Nikolai Leskov (New York Review Books Classics)
Leskov, Nikolai (Author), Chandler, Robert (Translator), Rayfield, Donald (Translator), Edgerton, William (Translator), Rayfield, Donald (Introduction)
NYRB Classics


Alexandria: A Novel
Kingsnorth, Paul (Author)
Graywolf Press


Impostures (Library of Arabic Literature, 65)
al-Ḥarīrī (Author), Cooperson, Michael (Translator), Kilito, Abdelfattah (Foreword)
NYU Press


Rogomelec (The Envelope-silence)
Fini, Leonor (Author), Skwersky, Serena Shanken (Translator), Kulik, William T. (Translator), Eburne, Jonathan P. (Introduction)
Wakefield Press


Meaning a Life: an Autobiography
Oppen, Mary (Author), Yang, Jeffrey (Introduction)
New Directions


The Lost Writings
Kafka, Franz (Author), Stach, Reiner (Editor), Hofmann, Michael (Translator)
New Directions


Collected Stories
Hazzard, Shirley (Author), Olubas, Brigitta (Editor), Heller, Zoë (Foreword)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux


Surviving: Stories, Essays, Interviews (New York Review Books Classics)
Green, Henry (Author), Yorke, Matthew (Editor), Updike, John (Introduction), Yorke, Sebastian (Afterword)
NYRB Classics



Lame Fate | Ugly Swans (Rediscovered Classics)
Strugatsky, Arkady (Author), Strugatsky, Boris (Author), Strugatsky, Boris (Author), Vinokour, Maya (Author)
Chicago Review Press


The Third Walpurgis Night: The Complete Text (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)
Kraus, Karl (Author), Bridgham, Fred (Translator), Timms, Edward (Translator), Perloff, Marjorie (Foreword)
Yale University Press


Death in Her Hands: A Novel
Moshfegh, Ottessa (Author)
Penguin Press


I Live in the Slums: Stories (The Margellos World Republic of Letters)
Can Xue (Author), Gernant, Karen (Translator), Chen, Zeping (Translator)
Yale University Press


Other Moons: Vietnamese Short Stories of the American War and Its Aftermath
Ha, Quan Manh (Translator), Babcock, Joseph (Translator)
Columbia University Press


Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow (Russian Library)
Radishchev, Alexander (Author), Reyfman, Irina (Translator), Kahn, Andrew (Translator)
Columbia University Press


A Lover's Discourse
Guo, Xiaolu (Author), Guo, Xiaolu (Author), Guo, Xiaolu (Author)
Grove Press


The Selected Poems of Tu Fu: Expanded and Newly Translated by David Hinton
Fu, Tu (Author), Hinton, David (Translator)
New Directions


Instantiation
Egan, Greg (Author)
Greg Egan


The Evidence
Priest, Christopher (Author)
Gollancz


Piranesi
Clarke, Susanna (Author)
Bloomsbury Publishing


Dispersion
Greg Egan (Author)
Subterranean


Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas: A Novel
de Assis, Joaquim Maria Machado (Author), Costa, Margaret Jull (Translator), Patterson, Robin (Translator)
Liveright

HUMANITIES

Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion, and Art
Klibansky, Raymond (Author), Panofsky, Erwin (Author), Saxl, Fritz (Author), Despoix, Philippe (Editor), Leroux, Georges (Editor)
McGill-Queen's University Press


Michelangelo’s Design Principles, Particularly in Relation to Those of Raphael
Panofsky, Erwin (Author), Panofsky-Soergel, Gerda (Editor), Spooner, Joseph (Translator), Panofsky-Soergel, Gerda (Introduction)
Princeton University Press


The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 1: Language
Cassirer, Ernst (Author), Gordon, Peter E. (Foreword)
Routledge


The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 2: Mythical Thinking
Cassirer, Ernst (Author), Gordon, Peter E. (Foreword)
Routledge


The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Volume 3: Phenomenology of Cognition
Cassirer, Ernst (Author), Gordon, Peter E. (Foreword)
Routledge


Inky Fingers: The Making of Books in Early Modern Europe
Grafton, Anthony (Author)
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press



A Companion to Ancient Greek and Roman Music (Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World)
Lynch, Tosca A. C. (Editor), Rocconi, Eleonora (Editor)
Wiley-Blackwell


Wisdom as a Way of Life: Theravāda Buddhism Reimagined
Collins, Steven (Author), McDaniel, Justin (Editor), Hallisey, Charles (Introduction)
Columbia University Press


Time in Ancient Stories of Origin
Walter, Anke (Author)
OUP Oxford


Anger: The Conflicted History of an Emotion (Vices and Virtues)
Rosenwein, Barbara H. (Author)
Yale University Press


Who Needs a World View?
Geuss, Raymond (Author)
Harvard University Press




Comparing the Literatures: Literary Studies in a Global Age
Damrosch, David (Author)
Princeton University Press


Classical Indian Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 5
Adamson, Peter (Author), Ganeri, Jonardon (Author)
Oxford University Press




Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers
Misak, Cheryl (Author)
Oxford University Press


Early Modern German Philosophy (1690-1750)
Dyck, Corey W. (Author)
Oxford University Press


Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture
Harvey, Eleanor Jones (Author), Sues, Hans-Dieter (Preface)
Princeton University Press




SCIENCE & TECH

The Light Ages: The Surprising Story of Medieval Science
Falk, Seb (Author)
W. W. Norton & Company


Predict and Surveil: Data, Discretion, and the Future of Policing
Brayne, Sarah (Author)
Oxford University Press


How the Brain Makes Decisions
Boraud, Thomas (Author)
Oxford University Press



The Phantom Pattern Problem: The Mirage of Big Data
Smith, Gary (Author), Cordes, Jay (Author)
Oxford University Press


Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind
Godfrey-Smith, Peter (Author)
Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Darwin's Psychology: The Theatre of Agency
Bradley, Ben (Author)
OUP Oxford


The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn
Richard W. Hamming (Author), Bret Victor (Foreword)
Stripe Press

HISTORY


Virtue Politics: Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy
Hankins, James (Author)
Harvard University Press


The Invention of China
Hayton, Bill (Author)
Yale University Press


China’s Good War: How World War II Is Shaping a New Nationalism
Mitter, Rana (Author)
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press


Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe
Herrin, Judith (Author)
Princeton University Press




Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World
Schuman, Michael (Author)
PublicAffairs


Away from Chaos: The Middle East and the Challenge to the West
Kepel, Gilles (Author), Randolph, Henry (Translator)
Columbia University Press



Illuminating History: A Retrospective of Seven Decades
Bailyn, Bernard (Author)
W. W. Norton & Company



Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy
Mahbubani, Kishore (Author)
PublicAffairs


The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History
Mikaberidze, Alexander (Author)
Oxford University Press

SOCIAL SCIENCES

France before 1789: The Unraveling of an Absolutist Regime
Elster, Jon (Author)
Princeton University Press


The Blind Storyteller: How We Reason About Human Nature
Berent, Iris (Author)
Oxford University Press


What’s Wrong with Economics?: A Primer for the Perplexed
Skidelsky, Robert (Author)
Yale University Press

COMICS AND ART

The Eternaut 1969 (The Alberto Breccia Library)
Oesterheld, Héctor Germán (Author), Breccia, Alberto (Author)
Fantagraphics


Perramus: The City and Oblivion (The Alberto Breccia Library)
Breccia, Alberto (Author), Sasturain, Juan (Author), Mena, Erica (Translator)
Fantagraphics


The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud
Tsurita, Kuniko (Author), Holmberg, Ryan (Translator)
Drawn and Quarterly


Nymph
Marzocchi, Leila (Author), Richards, Jaime (Translator)
Fantagraphics


Stay
Trondheim, Lewis (Author), Chevillard, Hubert (Artist)
Magnetic Press


Infinity 8 Vol.7: All for Nothing
Trondheim, Lewis (Author), Boulet (Author), Kennedy, Mike (Editor), Boulet (Artist)
Magnetic Press


Infinity 8 vol.8: Until the End (Infinity 8, 8)
Trondheim, Lewis (Author), Killoffer (Artist)
Magnetic Press


Barnaby Volume Four
Johnson, Crockett (Author), Nel, Philip (Author), Robbins, Trina (Introduction)
Fantagraphics



Winter Warrior: A Vietnam Vet's Anti-War Odyssey
Gilbert, Eve (Author), Camil, Scott (Author)
Fantagraphics


The George Herriman Library: Krazy & Ignatz 1919-1921
Herriman, George (Author), Blackbeard, Bill (Introduction)
Fantagraphics



The Daughters of Ys
Anderson, M. T. (Author), Rioux, Jo (Illustrator)
First Second


Philip Guston: A Life Spent Painting
Storr, Robert (Author)
Laurence King Publishing


Philip Guston Now
Guston, Philip (Artist), Cooper, Harry (Contributor), Godfrey, Mark (Contributor), Greene, Alison de Lima (Contributor), Nesin, Kate (Contributor), Fischli, Peter (Contributor), Hancock, Trenton Doyle (Contributor), Kentridge, William (Contributor), Dean, Tacita (Contributor), Ligon, Glenn (Contributor), Roberts, Jennifer (Contributor)
D.A.P./National Gallery of Art


Year of the Rabbit
Veasna, Tian (Author), Dascher, Helge (Translator)
Drawn and Quarterly


The Phantom Twin
Brown, Lisa (Author)
First Second


Solutions and Other Problems
Brosh, Allie (Author)
Gallery Books


Stuck Rubber Baby 25th Anniversary Edition
Cruse, Howard (Author), Bechdel, Alison (Introduction)
First Second


Paying the Land
Sacco, Joe (Author)
Metropolitan Books


Albrecht Dürer
Metzger, Christof (Editor)
Prestel


Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontës
Greenberg, Isabel (Author)
Harry N. Abrams


Anselm Kiefer in Conversation with Klaus Dermutz (The German List)
Kiefer, Anselm (Author), Dermutz, Klaus (Author), Lewis, Tess (Translator)
Seagull Books


Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual – Revised and Expanded Edition
Gamwell, Lynn (Author), Tyson, Neil deGrasse (Foreword)
Princeton University Press

Uragami Gyokudo

I am too lazy and obstinate to paint small scenes;
I can wet the black ink and grind the red, but ideas are difficult.
Why busy myself to death with my small talents?
Better to discard the brush and face the true mountains.

Uragami Gyokudo (tr. Stephen Addiss)

Uragami Gyokudo (1745-1820) was a musician, poet, calligrapher, and painter affiliated with the Nanga “literati” school of Japanese painting, which drew influence from the earlier Southern School of Chinese literati painting. Known more for his music and poetry during his life, he resigned from his post at age 50 to become an itinerant artist.

The titles below are taken, where possible, from the catalogue of the Chiba City Museum of Art exhibition, Life as Bunjin – The Art World of Urakami Gyokudo and His Sons, Shunkin and Shukin, unfortunately difficult to obtain.

Eastern Clouds, Sifted Snow (~1812)
Rain Cloaks the Mountains
Scholar’s Pavilion by a Stream
Reading the Book of Changes by a Mountain Stream
Mountains Dyed Scarlet
Playing the Koto in the Mountains
Half the Sky is Misty Rain (1813)
Pine Groves on a Cold Peak
Strange Peaks, Autumn Colors
Crossing a Bridge in the Deep Mountains (1818)
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