How can we make this place more beautiful?
On receiving Vox's Future Perfect Fellowship
Hi, I’m Oshan. This newsletter explores topics around emancipatory social science, consciousness studies, & together, the worlds they might weave. If you’re reading this but aren’t subscribed, you can join here:
Hello, fellow humans.
A few years ago, some apparently enlightened spiritual teacher was giving a talk in my dad’s attic. Bodies huddled, enthralled. People gripped little yellow mugs, sending herby vapors aloft. My dad sat near the back, with a smirk that he did not show outwardly, though I could see it through his skin. Afterwards, the guru took questions. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but my dad asked something like: “What is the ultimate truth?” The guru responded: “There is that which changes, and that which does not. That which does not change is the truth.” Dad sat back, pleased.
A recent change in my life: in December, I received a year-long fellowship to join the Future Perfect team at Vox. I’ll spend 2023 writing about economics, consciousness studies, more expansive varieties of progress, and whatever else gets caught in my web.
I’m excited to join Vox in general, and Future Perfect in particular. I suspect we’ve hardly begun to discover how digital media will transform our relationship to information, and Vox is as good as large organizations get at charting this frontier. Whether my podcast, or building the Library of Economic Possibility, or even my little Research Garden, I’ve spent the last few years fiddling. Getting a year to fiddle at Vox will be fascinating.
And Future Perfect itself is a unique project. The origin story goes something like this: Dylan Matthews was writing one of those banal pieces that mostly gets written because journalism is pegged to the news cycle, forcing it to write about whatever’s happening, whether or not it’s important in more existential terms.
Thinking to himself “God … why does this even matter?”, Dylan said something to his editor, Ezra Klein, who responded: “If we only wrote about stuff that’s really, really important, we’d write about nothing but, I don’t know, malaria.”
A short while after, Future Perfect was born. Its mission: “…to carve out a space, away from the regular news cycle, to cover and think about crucially important issues that are currently undercovered.”
I have never thought of myself as a journalist, nor imagined becoming one with much hint of desire. But Future Perfect was born of a dissatisfaction with the banality and short-termism of ordinary journalism. What if we actually just wrote about ‘things that matter’, insulated from the imperatives of news-cycle coverage, advertisement dollars, and engagement metrics?
“Things that matter” is vague, which is precisely what makes this exciting: working with the team offers an opportunity to participate in defining that scope. What does matter, and how can we best serve it? What is the ‘Good’, and how can we develop institutions that align it with the churn of progress?
I have much to say on the matter, and more to learn.
So, that’s Future Perfect.
Above, I mentioned that the thought of becoming a journalist had never really crossed my mind. Throughout the interview process, I reflected on that.
The philosopher Peter Sloterdijk declared it time we recognize humans as the being who result from repetition. Everything we do is a form of practice, a repetition. Some part of me was concerned: as a form of practice, what does journalism do to writing? Is journalism a death sentence to literary merit? I’ve always felt that writing, at its best, is basically what Annie Dillard managed to do. As a practice, I’ve wanted to develop my writing in a sort of ‘Annie Dillard, but economics’ direction. It never occurred to me that journalism might be a good environment to do that. And honestly, maybe it isn’t. But Future Perfect’s particularities blur the lines just enough.
By the time Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, he’d already been a journalist for 15 years, publishing short pieces on everything from politics to bodybuilding. At age 23, he ran a paper called the New York Aurora. In his late 30’s, he spent two years as a full-time editor for the Brooklyn Daily Times.
Or, consider David Foster Wallace. Though he took great care to disavow the label of “journalist”, some of his most enduring pieces – tomes aside – were those commissioned by a magazine, sending him out to react to, and report on, the world, whether a lobster festival, a luxury cruise, or a tennis match.
There’s also Barbara Ehrenreich, who probably did more for the working poor with her book reporting on low-wage Americans, Nickel and Dimed, than most economists.
I could go on – John McPhee, Joan Didion, Rebecca Solnit, Tom Wolfe.
All these writers comprise a tradition known as literary journalism. In The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, the editors ask just what ‘literary’ journalism means:
“Our five-word answer would be: thoughtfully, artfully, and valuably innovative. The ‘innovative’ is key, for two reasons. First, it is our view that like much else in the twentieth century, journalism has been an object of mass production, turned out according to codified standards and in agreed-upon shapes. These standards are in many ways useful, yet they are also limiting, and for a writer to cast one or more aside can be liberating.”
One reason I was wary towards journalism was that I’d (naively) grown to conflate all journalism with its mass-produced strain. The kind where the fitting of word-to-format is so blaring that the words themselves lose intrigue, knowing how enslaved they are to the market-tested structure of what keeps eyeballs reading and fingers clicking.
I’d grown to equate journalism with writing where you skip as much as you can, skimming only for the scoop. To my mind, writing – real, literary writing – was much more profound. Art! Craft! A reprieve from the banality of everyday life! Writing is a practice of puncturing that banality, cleaving it open with words that are sharp and surprising and variably shaped and atmospheric, inviting more meaningful, subterranean currents to burst out and engulf us, and plunge us into something richer, and more meaningful, and more redeeming of being alive. Real, literary writing is a gust of fresh air that pierces the stale oxygen of everyday life.
But economists formalized what adrenaline junkies and drug addicts have long known: there is a law of diminishing returns. The same practice–or at least, the same structure and form–can only enliven us so many times before we require greater quantities to spark the same magnitude of affect.
And so, it makes sense that “the innovative is key” in literary journalism. You cannot simply uncover a template that works, and recycle it across every piece of media until the end of time, and assume that it will have the continued effect of peeling back banality’s skin, unleashing life’s pulse, and bathing us in some redemptive bath of a feeling, an exorbitant sufficiency, that revives our delight in being alive, if only for a quick moment.
Writing – at its best – can deliver this feeling. So can dancing, love, or dumb luck. But having stewed on this a bit, I think that journalism – at its best – can do that, and maybe a smidge more. If writing can conjure that feeling, journalism can, I wager, I hope, nudge the world more towards normalizing it. Or: can more directly affect the structure of the social world so as to increase hedonic baselines for all.
Journalism is worldly, mundane by nature. It tackles questions of policy, government, bureaucracy, institutions, civil associations, technologies. Conveniently, these are all tools to build a more beautiful world. We can inch the median human experience closer towards a communion with that pulse of life that is always present. That pulse, that rapturous feeling, does not change, but our societies do. And we can either come into greater relationship with it, or not. We can culture more resonant relationships to the world, or let them go mute, as the sociologist Hartmut Rosa would say.
And as luck would have it, I suspect moving in this direction is still simple enough. We’ve been slow to pick the low hanging fruit. As Danielle Carr wrote in the NYT about reification and mental health, a general strategy may look something like “ensuring that more people can live less stressful lives.”
However nebulous things might get towards the upper echelons of enlightenment, however difficult it is to discover some unchanging ground of awareness, to encounter the Truth that does not change, it’s far less difficult to find strategies that can at least move the needle in that direction, given how far we have to go. This, reader, is a tractable project.
Life is short, though I keep this from my children. Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways, a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children. For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird. For every loved child, a child broken, bagged, sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world is at least half terrible, and for every kind stranger, there is one who would break you, though I keep this from my children. I am trying to sell them the world. Any decent realtor, walking you through a real shithole, chirps on about good bones: This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful. – Good Bones, by Maggie Smith
This place is beautiful, and it’s vile. And for the upcoming year, I’ve stumbled into an opportunity. My attitude will be something like this. If there is an ultimate truth worth spending one’s life searching for at this moment in time, it might have something to do with building more affordable, beautiful housing; abolishing precarity from the everyday experience of all citizens, no matter where they fall on the income, wealth, or education distribution; extending healthcare coverage to all citizens that does not burst your entire being into flames if you’re forced to interface with it; increasing the freedom citizens have to choose how they spend their time, rather than having labor markets impose deadening forms of life; building tools and technologies for conviviality; retrofitting the world’s energy infrastructure to help avert the worst of climate change; ending factory farming and taking the welfare of all sentient life a little more seriously; …..you get the idea.
I’ll still meditate most nights, and maintain a healthy skepticism towards utilitarianism, because despite all this, I get the guru’s drift, and think he wasn’t entirely wrong. In the end, I think Alan Watts hit it on the nose:
“My point was, and has continued to be, that the Big Realization for which all these [spiritual] systems strive is not a future attainment but a present fact, that this now-moment is eternity, and that one must see it now or never.”
Meanwhile, and to make the Big Realization a little easier, we can make this place beautiful. We could start with reinstating the Child Tax Credit, without those work requirements that carve out the poorest Americans from receiving benefits and make their lives significantly less beautiful than they might otherwise be.
Until next time,
A quick note on other projects: the fellowship is full time, but both LEP and the podcast live on. LEP recently received a grant, so we put off going public to make a few improvements first (reach out if you'd like to test-drive them). The podcast has averaged a new episode every 2-3 months. I expect that cadence to hold, but no promises.
In part, because despite all that time spent reading DFW, Didion, Wolfe, McPhee, Solnit, etc etc, it never occurred to me that, technically they were journalists.
A private goal for the year: get the term “valence studies” into a Vox article.