"I've spent most of my life being wrong," states Chuck Klosterman in the opening sentence of his newly released book, But What If We're Wrong? (Blue Rider Press, 2016.) From this initial confession, Klosterman builds his model of universal wrongness, stating that many theories held to be objectively true will inevitably be deconstructed in the future. He deals with the durability of the theory of gravity, the importance of the U.S. Constitution, and predicts a morphing in the literary canon. He supports his claims by including brief interviews with experts in these various fields, and even when they disagree with him, he continues to develop his theories.
The most striking aspect of this book is Klosterman's shamelessly egocentric assumptions. Klosterman makes a series of bold claims about the future of literary greatness predicated on one single idea: that the person who will define our generation is currently unheard of. This obscurity won't be in the sense that we define Kafka as "obscure." Kafka was published and in a circle of writers and intellects. But rather, Klosterman suggests that this person will be entirely unread in their lifetime. In theory, this person is holed up in their room right now, shoving their work in a padlocked trunk. Greatness will be defined by some ramblings on privacy, rotting away on the Deep Web, which archivists will comb through like archeologists to find a hidden piece of the 21st century.
While these ideas are intriguing, they rely on a series of assumptions about the future that Klosterman himself admits are impossible to predict. Nonetheless, he fixates on the idea that future greatness will be attributed to someone unknown, even providing a list as to what they may write about. Klosterman puts blind faith in every baseless conviction, coming to this conclusion via internal logic, despite most of history and experts advising otherwise.
Klosterman is dealing in pop philosophy. He claims that someone unknown will rise to prominence because the future will want fresh perspectives. Not only do they want a different perspective, but also one that has been entirely unheard of. Because with the creation of the internet, most perspectives have been heard, and therefore the future will search for increasingly obscure writing. Hence the Deep Web. As evidence, Klosterman references Junot Diaz's idea that the literary canon is inevitably going to become more diverse. Almost all well-read people agree with that. This trend has already begun. But from that idea, Klosterman assumes that the canon will rapidly become so diverse that the only new wealth of information will come from someone entirely unread. While it is an intriguing concept, it is hyperbolized to the point of absurdism.
In the second half of the book, Klosterman deals with ideas such as "what if gravity isn't real?" and "what if democracy isn't so great?" But these are not new ideas. People have already philosophized, researched, and put into practice these theories. On the flip side, the people who don't know these ideas are not given sufficient evidence to ever get a comprehensive understanding of them. The entire book feels like a summary of an offhanded remark Malcolm Gladwell made about the state of the world.
What If We're Wrong? still seems like it will culminate at the end; We feel like Klosterman will explain why he has chosen to predict the future of the literary canon, rock 'n' roll, the US Constitution, and the concept of gravity. Instead, he just rambles about a series of things that he finds interesting, with little to no cohesiveness. But he vehemently claims at the beginning of the book that it isn't a collection of essays. He means to create an image of the future and a paradigm for examining the present. But most of his arguments are predicated on platitudes, making the entire book feel underdeveloped, unsubstantiated, and unoriginal.
Response from Kyle Petersen, Assistant Editor of Jasper and Frequent Cultural Apologist:
I get your frustration, Olivia, and it seems reminiscent of a lot of the criticism of Klosterman's writing for his NYT column The Ethicist: that he is self-serving, represents other people's ideas incorrectly or superficially, and spirals around a bit in his own meta-reflections rather than advancing a cogent argument.
That being said, your point about "pop philosophy" is well-taken and seems to excuse the book in some sense. Since the concept of the book is patently absurd and admittedly impossible to pull off, and that Klosterman admits all of that right from the get-go, makes this a bit of self-aware sophistry that finds some amusement and stimulation in its own intellectual cul-de-sacs. Klosterman makes the kind of (relatively) astute points about literature, music, and television that he's known for while also providing plenty of the self-ingratiating humor that marks his signature style. He's a bit weaker on the science and politics ends of things, but it also feels like a nice way to illustrate how arguments about culture are always kind of arguments about how we understand the larger world as well. If the ride gets bumpy and digressive in parts, well, he warned us about that too.
There's a moment near the end of the book, in between talk of baseball statistics and octopi, where he gets to the nut of the rationale behind the book: "There is not, in a material sense, any benefit to being right about a future you will not experience. But there are intrinsic benefits to constantly probing the possibility that our assumptions about the future might be wrong: humility and wonder. It's good to view reality as beyond our understanding, because it is. And it's exciting to imagine the prospect of a reality that cannot be imagined, because that's as close to pansophical omniscience as we will ever come."
Whether or not the arguments in this book are uniformly solid (we can probably all agree they are not), the value in spending a few hours going through Klosterman's experience feels edifying, for precisely the reasons he suggests.