I thought I’d blog my way through Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman’s 2009 book of pop culture essays, because it’s a good read and as I go through it I find myself wanting to respond and generate my own thoughts about the topics he covers. This isn’t a review; I may well end up stripping the topics out of these essays and discussing them without saying anything about what Klosterman says about them. Okay? Okay!
I relate to Klosterman because he’s a classic overthinker as well as a contrarian. Fortunately, he’s engaging enough that his beanplating, rambling and convoluted as it frequently is, goes down pretty smoothly thanks to a breezy sense of humor, and he almost never comes off as a rantaholic crackpot, as contrarians are wont to do. (The one unfortunate exception that comes to mind is his grouchy dissection of tUnE-yArDs, in which Klosterman comes off as a crabby what’s-all-this-then oldster as well as a bit of a mansplaining dick.) He reminds me of a cool, geeky college professor, the kind who likes to spend the whole class speculating about stuff and going off on tangents, and never gets past the first third of the syllabus before the end of the semester.
What really endears Klosterman to me, though, is that he’s a master at something I love dearly — making sweeping, counter-intuitive assertions that appear ridiculous on their face. These kinds of statements — “Is there a commonality between the recording of Nirvana’s In Utero and the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco?” or “Football: the most liberal sport?” — seem to be asking for an actual answer, and that answer is nearly always going to be an irritated “No, of course not, and please stop saying things that are bullshit.” 1
Challenging these assertions, though, is missing the point. They’re questions that aren’t meant to be answered so much as pondered. They’re not requests to be coldly evaluated and given a thumbs-up or down, but invitations to journey down a road of speculation and analysis. The journey may or may not lead anywhere definitive, but it’s not about the destination. At the heart of each these meandering, sometimes maddeningly circuitous ruminations lies a koan, not a conclusion. Read with a generous spirit and open mind, they can yield fascinating insights. Or at least a few minutes of diversion while you’re on the toilet.
The first essay, “Something Instead of Nothing,” may be the most divisive of the lot, seeing as how it’s basically Klosterman talking about Klosterman, or more specifically Klosterman, Famous Author Who Gets Interviewed and Feels Angsty About Being Interviewed. But starting the book this way establishes what I suspect is the overarching theme of the collection — or perhaps it’s merely what Klosterman always writes about: our sense of who we are, our sense of how we think others see us, how others actually see us, and the many ways in which the interplay between the three can massively fuck us up.
Interviews, as a journalistic instrument, are interesting because they’re completely unnatural and artificial situations created for the sole purpose of prying open and examining a human being’s inner self. There is no naturally occurring social interaction — except maybe for dating — in which one person peppers another person with questions designed to open up their heads and allow the questioner to peer inside and gather whatever it is they’re looking for.
I’ve been an interview subject twice in my life. Once by a Toronto newspaper for being a vociferous fanboy of a massively popular but critically lambasted film — I will decline to elaborate on this — and once by the New York Times for a website I created (back in the early days of the Internet era, when any halfway interesting website was deemed worthy of notice). Both times, I found the experience intensely disturbing and strange.
When a complete stranger seeks you out and asks you detailed questions about intimate details concerning your history as a person and your motivations, assiduously probing your inner life, it provokes reflexive questions in the back of your mind. The interviewer obviously doesn’t know me personally, barely knows who I am, yet for some reason either cares or is pretending to care about me, my life, and my opinions.
We are not friends. We are not two friendly strangers getting acquainted in a social setting. And the questioning is almost entirely one-way — I do not know what this interviewer’s true motivations are, or what they intend to do with the words and information I am giving them. I don’t know what their feelings are about me — they might even dislike me. How often in life do you find yourself asked to reveal your inner self to someone who not only isn’t genuinely or personally interested in you, but who may in fact hold you in total contempt? 2
Given the unnatural, perhaps even hostile, strangeness of this situation, why do people agree to be interviewed? Aside from the obvious motive of self-promotion, perhaps being interviewed helps the interviewee understand their own self. Errol Morris, a Klosterman interviewee, says something interesting about “privileged access” to one’s own mind:
“My mind resides somewhere inside of myself. That being the case, one would assume I have privileged access to it. In theory, I should be able to ask myself questions and get different answers than I would from other people, such as you. But I’m not sure we truly have privileged access to our own minds. I don’t think we have any idea who we are. I think we’re engaged in a constant battle to figure out who we are.”
Do we really have a clear sense of ourselves? I’m not sure I do. I think thoughts about the world, experience emotions, feel impulses and desires, look back on my past and form plans for my future. I can “see” myself in past events and form impressions and opinions about that past self. That time I found a phone book on the front stoop of an apartment building, and set fire to it? I see myself hunched over that phone book, grinning maniacally while I hold a Bic lighter to the pages, and think, “wow, what a fucking dumbass.”
But for the most part, I suppose most of my sense of self comes from my interactions with other people and trying to see myself through their eyes, sort of an inversion of a blind person feeling someone’s face to get a sense of their form. I am blind to myself and can only know who I am by feeling out other people’s impressions of me.
Something stupid I used to do in college, in letters I wrote to my friend Kevin, was the “self-interview,” where you ask yourself questions about yourself, and go on to answer them. “How is your Weltschmerz expressed through your poetry?” I’d ask myself, and then I’d answer at length. Even at the time I considered this extremely stupid, yet I still did it. Why? What’s the difference between saying something about myself via this artificial device, and just, y’know, saying something about myself?
I think it’s because most people who aren’t narcissists feel some measure of embarrassment or even shame in talking about themselves, even though we very much want to do so. It’s probably tied to one’s self-worth. If you don’t place very much value on yourself or your significance in the world, talking to other people about yourself feels like an unseemly imposition. And yet, even people with shitty self-worth want to be known and understood. The interview, even if it’s a fake one you made up yourself, functions to mediate your desire to make yourself known to the world. 3
Since it’s stupid to interview yourself, people in a position to command the curiosity of large numbers of other people must rely on an outside party to interview them and to share that interview with that audience. But that of course puts you at the mercy of that interviewer, who may well misquote you or misrepresent you. Hence the ambivalence and mistrust and angst that people tend to feel about being interviewed.
If you’re not famous (or infamous), of course, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be asked for an interview, unless you’ve committed or witnessed a crime, or it’s for some minor but interesting thing you’ve done, or for being exceptionally ridiculous in some newsworthy way. Most people are very rarely, if ever, given access to this outlet for self-expression. Hence the massive popularity of Facebook and Twitter.