Benjamin Cain: ‘Transcend the Medium’

Today’s internet thrives on polarization. Websites profit when people take opposing sides. That’s what happens in what we call “the comments” on just about any article, especially those on websites that are designed to make money for someone. “The game itself is rigged and it deranges the players,” Benjamin Cain says.

There’s no obvious way to respond to online criticism, especially when so much of it is trolling. One type of response works in one situation, another type in another situation. Often, a writer’s best strategy is not to engage the critic at all, especially when the critic isn’t sincerely interested, isn’t informationally equipped to have a real discussion, is going to harass the writer, is backed by an algorithm that will mobilize an army of trolls, or has fled the scene so the writer would be speaking to empty air.

But if he could give one piece of advice, it is to “transcend the medium.”

“…the writer should somehow transcend the medium that encourages or that thrives on cheap conflict.”

— Benjamin Cain, “How Would a Saint or a Prophet Reply to Rude Online Comments?: The dead end of trying to excel on a degrading platform,” 18 March 2022

 I note: He does not say to transcend conflict itself. More specifically, he doesn’t say to transcend the meaningful elements of online conflict. Instead, he says to transcend the medium that is producing unnecessary, ridiculous, unproductive conflict.

Let’s keep that question in mind. What does it mean to transcend the medium in which one writes? How does one do it?

Air rights to my ideas

The Star Market over the Massachusetts Turnpike today.
Photo credit: Edgar B Herwick III/WGBH News.

In the early 1960s, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, designing a highway between the western part of the state and Boston, wanted to build through the parking lot of an existing grocery store in Newtonville. In a Solomonic decision, the state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Turnpike Authority could build the highway there and that the grocery store owners would have “air rights” to rebuild their store above the highway. The grocery store reopened in 1963. (This is explained in a delightful WGBH news story from 2017.)

It feels, to me, like the creative spirit doing battle with hegemonic powers. You may drive me into the ground, but did you know that I have air rights to my ideas?

The process of finding out where we are going

It may be easy to think yourself a “good writer” from a young age. You form letters correctly, spell, and punctuate. You write a poem that pleases yourself and a couple friends. Your teacher pats you on the back. You compose a short essay that satisfies a standardized test. You win a student award. You get a degree in writing. The local newspaper publishes your “letter to the editor.” You formulate a clickbait headline followed by an article that is shared a dozen times on social media. Maybe you can write in a second language. You don’t suffer “writer’s block.” Your boss reads some of your emails.

Why, then, can you look back on something you’ve written only recently and be surprised at the memory of how difficult it was to communicate information that is so obvious to you now, just a few months later? If you were already a “good writer” then, how did you have room to progress so much in this particular area? Why does this keep happening to you with poem after poem? Were you really a “bad writer” all this time, fifty times over, until you learned to write those fifty poems?

Much of our life experience implies to us that it is simple to evaluate whether someone is a “good writer.” Either they can write something — anything — or they cannot. Either they can write to a particular specification or they cannot. Either they satisfy themselves or they don’t. Either they satisfy others or they don’t.

But all of that assumes that the benchmark is known in advance. What about everything we don’t know? Humanity knows a vanishingly tiny fraction of everything there is; each person knows a vanishingly tiny fraction of what is known to humanity; what an individual knows is always skewed by their perspective; an individual changes over time, acquiring new information, forgetting old information; what we want to believe is determined by our values; and what we can communicate, and what our audience can understand, is another matter.

So, yes, last year you had fifty hard-won personal insights and you challenged yourself to express them in fifty poems. You felt you were a “good writer” for being able to do this. This year, you reread your fifty “old” poems, and everything about them seems obvious to you. You no longer feel there was anything remarkable about those insights. Those poems are little more notable to you than your grocery shopping lists.

That’s because “good writing” is not just one thing. In this case, it was fifty different things. Last year, you didn’t know that you didn’t know them. This year, you know that you know them. Later in life, it’s possible you may forget them again. Maybe, at that time, you won’t need them anymore.

This year, there are, of course, many more things you still don’t know that you don’t know. This year, you’ll discover fifty new things that you don’t know, and then you’ll have an opening to work hard to learn them. There will always be an infinite amount more that can be learned. Part of our life’s work is to decide what it is that we want to be good at.

Cultivating writing skills, regardless of whether we already believe ourselves to be “good” or “bad,” is a process of finding out where we are going.

Can fiction writers benefit from falsificationism?

In “The Falsification Mindset: How to Change Your Own Mind,” Mike Sturm explains why a belief system or theory should state “what specific evidence would prove it wrong.” For one thing, as proposed by Karl Popper, the theory isn’t scientific unless you do this. It’s also a useful exercise for making good life choices, even if you’re not a scientist. Contemplating the conditions under which you’d admit your own wrongness, Sturm writes, makes you explicitly state what you believe, realize that you could be mistaken, and commit to changing your mind if you’re proven wrong. This can spare you from making big mistakes.

I wonder how writers might use this insight in fiction. A fictional story as a whole, of course, is false. Still, the details of the story need to hang together consistently, and the insertion of certain details can spoil the story by introducing inconsistencies into its narrative. Other details may interfere with the insight or moral that the writer is trying to convey. Still other details may make the story seem implausible, absurdist, or nonsensical.

It may be wise for a novelist to divine ahead of time at least some of the words that simply will not work out within their tale. I don’t know what this process would be called. “Falsificationism” isn’t right, because the wrong details don’t falsify the fiction; the fiction is already false. “Parasitism” may be closer, because a wrong detail is like an invading organism that drains energy from the story. The writer or any given reader may be unaware of the parasite. Regardless of whether anyone notices it consciously, the parasite can injure or even kill the story. It may be a valuable exercise, therefore, for a writer to list the potential parasites that could threaten their story.


Image: Live Tetragnatha montana parasitized by Acrodactyla quadrisculpta larva. Digitally altered, based on a photo that appeared in Biodiversity Data Journal in 2013 and is available on Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons 3.0 license).

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