In Defense of Uncertainty (To Willow)

Issue 04's Letter from the Editor Examines Uncertainty as a Radical Act

In Defense of Uncertainty (To Willow)

Dear Willow,

As I understand it, you were brought into this world just short of 200 miles north of Los Angeles, a drive up US-101 long enough that the city’s concrete has time to dissolve into pastoral farmland, the brusque sounds of urbanity giving way to the lapping of waves along the California coastline. I was not there when you were born, so I can’t speak to the event in detail, but I am certain that at the moment you popped yourself into this world’s light, I could sense the tinge of a nascent grace, and the burden of the heavy London sky was lessened, if only for a moment.

I am writing to you because you’ve entered a rather strange world: one so strange that I, hopefully a rather thoughtful person, grapple with its seemingly irreconcilable complexities on a daily basis (often with little to show for my efforts). A world that, were you not careful, could swiftly make mincemeat of your ideals and values: pride, integrity, and self-worth. But this feels too grim – a proclamation veering too close to prophecy.

It is also a world full of wonder, excitement, and opportunity, where we still cherish the unburdened quietude of close friendship, the ineluctable, gut- knotting draw of love, and the vitality of a cool mist on a warm spring morning. Willow, you have entered a world in which life is hard, but it can be oh so good.

I want to get to you now, as you still gather your wits about you, before you have the chance to be swayed by a deluge of words, pictures, and videos; dings, clicks, and buzzes; noise, noise, noise. But this is not because of what these daily impositions ask of us — a regular reckoning with who and what we should be — but instead because what I am asking of you is not a what, but a how. Willow, you can be anything you want and I will love you, and more importantly, respect you for it – it is only how you go about doing so that concerns me. I ask that as you grow and take on the world in increasingly material, weighted, and influential ways, you keep one thing ever-present in your mind: uncertainty can be radical.

Increasingly, I feel a splitting stretch between two polarities, my insides caught in the middle. Everywhere I look, I am pinged (and then conversely, ponged) between irony and sincerity; implored to experience and express everything to the utmost, speaking only with heart-wrenching abjection to our “state of affairs” out of one side of my mouth, then to double back, spewing an insouciant remove between Juul drags out of the other. I feel this tug acutely, in part because I work in media – a profession, by definition, designed to be at least moderately prescriptive – but also because I have at one point or another occupied both of these positions. I have been swayed by the power of unfettered feeling to the point of being maudlin, and I have relished the urbane, reflexive air of intellect that comes with a sardonic and impenetrable wit, so sure of my own joke’s humor that I care not to explain the punchline to others, all of whom are clueless as to what I meant. Neither of these “sides” has yet to show me how one should be, but I too am guilty of trying to find those answers within them.

But despite my own experience and willingness to indulge in both, the distance between these poles grows farther than I can reach, while the stakes only seem to heighten. My own discipline of choice – art and its surrounding cosmologies – has made headlines for these extremes: the rise of NFTs has spawned a digital mania that has left traditionalists aghast, routinely using concerns of “bubbles” and “tulipmania” to thinly veil a distaste born out of the conviction that the intersection of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies could not produce real art, itself indicating a l’art pour l’art approach that borders on mawkish.

Meanwhile, crypto-evangelists simultaneously tut-tut and dismiss “old fogies” for their inability to grasp potential, using platforms like Clubhouse to applaud their own forward thinking, preachers to an expectant and receptive choir. All the while, they swerve dangerously close to letting art cede ground to more direct terms like asset class, dismissing notions of aesthetics and social commentary as painfully provincial.

But so too does the literary world have its own analogues: Twitter, as a platform, demands such constant attention, presence of mind, and insider knowledge – all for a return measured not in currency, but amorphous, intangible “clout” – that it is no wonder that many of its more literary users have adopted so cynical an online persona as to make themselves intellectually and socially unassailable. This in turn has bred a contemporary fiction so reliant on digital mores that many of today’s highest profile works seem to be little more than tangible iterations of the author’s platform savvy. But these conditions appear so similar to the ones that birthed New Sincerity that any adherence to or repetition of the conclusions drawn – as David Foster Wallace put it, that the next literary rebels will be “[born oglers] who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles” – feels tired, like the playing of a record we already know all the words to, and an approach already so steeped in an irony of its own that it’s unclear its deployment could result in anything less than a metacritical clusterfuck. (Even citing David Foster Wallace, I must ask myself if “Camp Irony” has beaten me to the punch before I make any point at all.) Still, as the voices grow louder and the discourse more rancorous, the available entry level positions in the industry dwindle, along with the capital that funds the better-established, threatening even the most hallowed of positions in a top-and-bottom squeeze. Worse yet, neither of these options have brought me any closer to answering not only how one should be, but how one simply can be, as the very premise of living any kind of comfortable life on the basis of the publishing industry alone seems more inconceivable by the day, opinions aside.

So Willow, with all of this said, I implore you to choose neither. I ask that from within the eye of what can appear an all-encompassing storm, you put up your proverbial gone fishin’ sign, understanding that an internalized resignation to your own uncertainty in the face of an exclusivity, stratification, or insistent inscrutability of knowledge and thought will bear a much greater resemblance to lived experience than either (or any) of these cultural catechisms, however self-assured your favorite, most astute tweet may be. And I write this not as some ultimate cop-out, with a grand sweep of the arm and the not-so-soothing comfort that the cosmos holds no answers. There are answers, and some fairly well- trodden paths of how one should be – thoughtful and curious strike me as non-negotiable. But within these, there exist vast multiplicities, for which the hybridization of terms should be encouraged, not punished. Be unafraid to approach topics with severe skepticism only to admit that you have misunderstood, or better yet, have been convinced otherwise. More importantly, respect others’ willingness to express themselves passionately and candidly as a measured choice valid in its own right, even if you choose, possibly for the (understandable) sake of posturing, to express yourself differently. Herein lies the foundation of some boring platitude to the effect of “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” but more bluntly, if you ever feel that you know better than someone else without first questioning why you have been so blessed with this superior knowledge, you are likely wrong, or at least severely naive.

This will, of course, take practice. You are (very) young now, so I don’t expect this to all come at once, or without significant trial and error. Even I, with the gall to try to pass on this advice, require significant coaching, and by my own accord or by that of others, often feel resoundingly incapable of parsing my own lived experience. But I promise, if even loosely adhered to, things will turn out for the better, only building on themselves. Cultivating skeptical distance or ironic intrigue can facilitate observation and analysis that make moments of true profundity all the more consuming, or, perhaps in less declarative terms, you’ll be an easier interlocutor at a dinner party, which I suppose isn’t to be scoffed at either. But I have no doubt that in due time, this will make itself clear. For now, go outside and play in the Central Californian sun, listen to mom and dad – they, I promise, know a thing or two – and take plenty of naps, because you’ll miss them when you’re older. As always, I’ll be here when you need me.

With love,

Jacob Barnes

is a writer and editor born in New York, raised in Dublin, Ireland, and currently living in London. After working in the film industry, he decided to start Soft Punk with Charlie in the summer of 2019. Since then, Jacob has worked as a writer, editor, publisher, and curator for numerous publications and organizations spanning the United States and Europe.

All contributions from Jacob Barnes

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