Tutelary Gods

Culture, Justice, Media

Two commenters on my last post make the reasonable claim that in eulogizing Aaron Swartz yesterday I was guilty of reifying genius. That may be so. I do believe in genius. I listen to a lot of Bach, so it’s hard not to. And maybe you want to argue the point, or say that since genius also leads to The Bomb it’s an inherently suspect category, morally speaking. Maybe you think that just using the word implies an undue hierarchy of human worth, which is fair enough; there’s certainly historical evidence to suggest that it’s true, although I tend to believe that, on balance, more of humanity’s great creative minds and beings have been trampled down in their lifetimes and, if elevated, only posthumously, and only in service of something very much other than their selves and essences and all that. But when I said that Aaron Swartz’s prosecution and death were an example of “a society intent on destroying its genius,” I self-advisedly did not say “destroying its geniuses.” Because that’s not what I meant.

I meant, rather, that our culture is uniquely cruel and unforgiving of creativity and difference. (I happen to believe that the former flows from the latter). I would just as soon make the same argument about the young girl who was punished for writing poetry that sympathized with the young man who killed all of those people in Newtown. The capacity to think intuitively or to feel empathically is held deeply suspect, particularly by the powerful forces of government and finance which, for all their talk of “creating” wealth and value, in fact view wealth and value as purely extractive. For all the supposed sophistication of our vast, computer-controlled, post-capitalist financial system, in effect we live in a period in which all worth is commodity value, which is to say, based fundamentally on supposedly natural scarcity. Aaron Swartz was not being prosecuted and made an example of because he “stole” some journal articles. No one gives a fuck about journal articles, and the few billions of dollars in the academic rights management industry are less than rounding errors in the global economy. What he represented, rather—and what many other internet “pirates” and such represent, from great programmers to college kids with bittorrent—is the extraordinary and dangerous idea that information is not a commodity, and that its scarcity is just a construct. How, after all, do you monetize something of which there is an effectively infinite supply?

But back to genius. I’m not going to claim that I was intentionally using the word entirely in its 14th-century definition, but I do believe in its sense of each person’s wit and talent and esprit and generative power. All people have genius, and when I say that our society is antithetical to genius, I don’t want you to imagine a skein of Van Goghs dying penurious with their work only getting noticed after death. Instead, I want you to remember middle school and the last time you felt depressed.