normie wisdom 6: fear

I draw breath; this is of course to wish
No matter what, to be wise,
To be different, to die and the cost,
No matter how, is Paradise
Lost of course and myself owing a death…. 

— W. H. Auden 

As noted in earlier posts, “normie” is a disparaging word, meant to mock those who aren’t distinctive enough in their tastes. It’s a concept that arises from fear, fear of not being different. When people sneer at normies they’re casting a spell to ward off the basic

But of course, we are social animals and are drawn irresistibly to the Inner Ring, which means that to reject being a normie is not to be independent and free but rather to embrace the norms of a subculture. No one is more enslaved to norms than the person who is terrified of being a normie. 

But maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe there’s a more charitable way to describe this fear: as a worry about being sold a bill of goods, of having one’s tastes shaped in a way that maximizes profit for big corporations. This was the primary theme of the social criticism of Dwight Macdonald, who, in a famous essay, worried that one can escape the gravitational pull of Masscult only by being dragged into the orbit of Midcult — of philistinism. After all, companies are always ready to sell you identity markers of all descriptions; moreover, capitalism doesn’t care whether you’re wearing your hat earnestly or ironically; it usually costs the same either way, though sometimes people pay a premium for irony. And when the megacorporations control Masscult, well, that just offers opportunities for smaller businesses to do Midcult, and smaller ones still to do Weirdcult. (Or whatever.) 

Macdonald’s essay is still interestingly provocative, though its categories may not be directly applicable to our own moment, given how fragmented the media landscape has become and how hard it is to get reliable and consistent information. Nielsen will tell you how many people watch America’s Got Talent every week, but Netflix won’t tell you how many people watch Stranger Things — it only tells you about total hours viewed, a stat that makes no sense to me at all. I tend instinctively to think of anything on network TV as Masscult and anything on Netflix as Midcult, but that may not be adequate. We probably should invoke more complex generational and economic categories — though, if we want to achieve a view from 30,000 feet, we should see the entire media landscape as something controlled by a distributed technocratic elite that caters to a wide variety of tastes in ways that grow more precise as the algorithms get better. 

In such an environment — complex, but technocratically managed — the “normie” category might seem useless, but maybe we can still find a place for it. My reasons for wanting to salvage it will appear in a later post. But first, there’s an important element to all this that we haven’t inspected closely enough: the word (a word I just used in the previous paragraph) taste. Because don’t we think that people who predominantly watch network TV tend to have different tastes than people who watch a lot of Netflix? 

We still use the word taste but we don’t think about it much, I suspect, and don’t have a very clear sense of what precisely it means. The term may have had its heyday in the 18th century, with Hume’s great essay “On the Standard of Taste”; but it ought to be retrieved and renewed, because I think it’s essential for us, if we are going to develop into genuine persons of depth and character, is to figure out what we really like — what our own tastes incline us towards. To be a mature person is, among other things, not to be afraid of acknowledging what we enjoy. (Even if what we enjoy is mocked by others as “normie” — which often leads us, in turn, to talk about our “guilty pleasures,” which acknowledges a “standard of taste” as much in the breach of it as in the observance.)  

Achieving one’s own genuine taste is not an individualistic pursuit — not if it’s done properly. You develop your own taste in part by noticing what people you admire enjoy — though René Girard is wrong about most things, he’s generally correct to say that desire is mimetic. But it’s not indiscriminatingly mimetic: you follow the tastes of some other people, not all, and over time you can discern the pattern that your tastes are tracing, the form that they’re converging on. And I think that’s key to personal growth. 

I began with Auden, so let me conclude with him too, a passage from The Dyer’s Hand specifically about reading (though it applies to all the arts): 

A child’s reading is guided by pleasure, but his pleasure is undifferentiated; he cannot distinguish, for example, between aesthetic pleasure and the pleasures of learning or daydreaming. In adolescence we realize that there are different kinds of pleasure, some of which cannot be enjoyed simultaneously, but we need help from others in defining them. Whether it be a matter of taste in food or taste in literature, the adolescent looks for a mentor in whose authority he can believe. He eats or reads what his mentor recommends and, inevitably, there are occasions when he has to deceive himself a little; he has to pretend that he enjoys olives or War and Peace a little more than he actually does. Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology. When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, “I know what I like,” he is really saying “I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu,” because, between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has a genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read.