Chuck Klosterman’s Limited Wrongs

Chuck Klosterman. Photo by Rich Fleischman for Kris Drake Photography.

Chuck Klosterman. Photo by Rich Fleischman for Kris Drake Photography.

Chuck Klosterman’s new book But What If We’re Wrong? sets out to look at the present as if it were the past. It’s a premise that’s bound to fascinate those interested in history.

But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman is sober-covered in white. Its title and author name are sprawled thickly across the front of the book in bold black Helvetica. The words stand on their heads. Points for style.

It’s a popular book, not an academic one, but it touches on a wealth of academic discourses, issues, and disciplines. It is on numbers 1 to 3 of the bestseller list for essays as I write (hardcover, Kindle, and audiobook edition respectively). People are interested in this. Historians especially should pay attention to it. Klosterman engages in historical thinking on a fundamental level. This is a good thing. Reflected historical thinking should spread far and wide. It should not be something that people only vaguely apply to problems out of habit. It should not be limited to a professional class of scholars.

Klosterman’s 272-pager asks questions about the present from the standpoint of an imagined future entity looking back. Or rather, from that of a present person attempting to think like someone in the future who is looking back at our age. In the book, he poses a question that historians should be intimately familiar with: How do conceptions of the world around us change over the course of centuries? That raises another question: how are decisions made about who and what to remember as great or not-so-great?

These could give rise to many more interesting and relevant questions. Throughout the book, Klosterman asks some of them, but not others, and then moves on to the next, not entirely related-seeming thing. Music, sports, science (represented mostly by astrophysics and cosmology), politics, whathaveyou. All these fields get name-checked, and Klosterman hops from one to the next like a bumblebee that has drunk up the nectar from one flower and then lost all motivation to stick around.

In the end, though, this isn’t all that bad. There’s much to like in Klosterman’s meanderings. His sentences carry you forward, and all the fields he looks at are interesting in their own right. You may disagree with his assertion, that classical music is appreciated differently and more intellectually than pop or rock (as I do), but Klosterman knows his stuff. He is not boring. He is insightful. Also, there are many facets of “wrong” to explore. If you only have that much space to explore them in, a bit of disjointedness is not all that unexpected, or even all that detrimental.

What is detrimental to the book, however, is that Klosterman bases his whole idea of wrongness on the pretense that there will invariably be a future unitary mainstream that decides what is right or wrong. And in that, Chuck Klosterman is wrong about what it means to be wrong.

He gamingly accepts that his predictions will turn out to be wrong. He gives the problem of predictability his own spin by inventing a caveat he calls “Klosterman’s Razor,” which, in analogy to Occam’s theoretical cutting device, posits “that the best hypothesis is the one that reflexively accepts its potential wrongness to begin with.”

But Klosterman does not follow through. His very assumptions concerning the levels on which wrongness can happen are limited. They all assume that there is a clear, discernible reality out there on which some theoretical observer can safely stand and make objective judgments about what is right and what is wrong. For anything where “wrong” is a cultural judgment by a group of people in a specific moment, this is an untenable position.

The funny thing is, Klosterman seems to know this on some level, but that knowledge goes into hiding whenever he actually goes ahead with one of his thought experiments. Using Melville’s Moby Dick as an example, Klosterman gives the story, familiar to English majors and those who had to listen to them at boozed college parties, that Melville’s magnum opus was panned by the critics when it came out. It was only rediscovered right around World War I.

Melville's White Whale. Illustration from an 1892 Edition.
Melville’s White Whale. Illustration from an 1892 Edition.

The nineteenth century, Klosterman basically says, was a bad judge of what we would appreciate out of it, and so the present will be a bad judge about what the future will like out of our treasure trove of culture. Fair enough. But Klosterman then marches decisively into the weeds by assuming that a wobbly vision of a mainstream canon in “the future” will be codifying, once and for all, what gets remembered from our time.

What’s beneath all this is a simple truth looking for a way out: every age thinks about things from another age in its own way. It chooses to highlight the ones that somehow strike a nerve. Klosterman understands that there is nothing inevitable about this. But he appears to not see that there is also nothing inherently irreversible about it. It is after all conceivable, though not likely, that in five hundred years’ time, no one will care anymore about Moby Dick, but everyone (in the elusive mainstream) will celebrate Melville’s earlier Typee, despite the latter’s much lesser status today. And if that is conceivable about Moby Dick, why should it be inconceivable when it comes to rock music?

The idea that there will be one mainstream voice guarding over right and wrong should work well for the natural sciences. Here, Klosterman pits Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson against each other as supposedly on different ends of a spectrum. Greene is accepting of a notion that science could be based on entirely different premises in the future, Tyson not. This is presented as a true division between the two well-known scholars.

Astrophysicist and Non-Kuhnian Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Astrophysicist and Non-Kuhnian Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Tyson, we learn is quite positivist and doesn’t much like Thomas Kuhn‘s immensely influential and wildly misunderstood The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for its relativist implications. This in itself is a morsel of information that might make a book worth reading for some. Here it’s taken as further evidence that Tyson’s position is on the extreme end.

But there is a conceptual difference undergirding the two scientists’ positions that Klosterman does not pick up on. While Greene’s point of view combines scientific discovery with its cultural embeddedness, Tyson’s separates them and concentrates on the scientific method. For Tyson, every discovery that followed after the establishment of the scientific method in the 1600s is on the continuum of one, essentially unitary and constantly improving science. For Greene, the question is more one of the idea of big concepts in science. That their answers might reply to entirely different interpretations of Klosterman’s questions is not a possibility Klosterman explores in the book.

Brian Greene. Here Seen Explaining String Theory. As You Do.

Even if we accept Klosterman’s conceit that there will be one future mainstream opinion of who best personifies rock’n’roll or who will be the author best remembered from the early twenty-first century, his concept of the future is another problem.

It is variously dated throughout the book as perhaps 200, 500 or 1000 years on. The numbers are just numbers. They don’t actually stand for different social worlds in which different priorities might be set. Klosterman, for the sake of his argument, pretends there is a world which invariably will continue to function in essentially the way in which he thinks the world functions today.

Here, But What If We’re Wrong? is an exercise in naïve forecasting in the technical sense that a current state is simply assumed to continue into the future. Considering the impossibility of accurately predicting any future, it is just as well to assume that this future will continue to do things the way we do things currently. But that should be a stated premise, not a hidden one.

To describe the relation of present and future, Klosterman uses the same terms as Luhmann’s present past and present future. But Klosterman seems to define these, it hardly seems possible, more confusingly than Luhmann. Instead of juxtaposing “present (past)” [our present which will become the past in the future] with “future (present)” [our future which will be the present], he chooses “present (future)” for the latter. This emphasizes that both are presents, but since Klosterman is writing from the perspective of the current present, thinking about a yet-to-come present as a future present does seem more natural.

Overall, despite its focus on the future, there is a dearth of reflection on work involving problems of prediction in the book, just as there is a dearth of reflection on the philosophy or historiography of history. That is, Klosterman does not read much futurology (in the widest sense), and not much actual history or theory. Despite some references to historians, his only in-depth conversation for the book concerning the meaning and construction of history is with Dan Carlin. In general, Klosterman’s choice of experts is somewhat eclectic, and as NPR’s Kelly McEvers points out, they are “[m]any of them dudes.”

As for Carlin, who is a brilliant broadcaster and the creator of Hardcore History, he specifically does not call himself a historian. Klosterman cites Carlin as making that exact statement. Klosterman nonetheless takes at face value Carlin’s opinion that academic history used to be more interpretive, more like the humanities, but then transitioned to become more social-sciency, more quantified and empirical. Klosterman extrapolates this to mean that this is how history will continue to be written:

Barring an unforeseeable academic reversal, one can infer that this fact-oriented slant will only gain momentum. It will eventually be the only way future historians consider the present era of America. And that will paint a much different portrait from the interpretive America we’re actually experiencing.”

It’s lucky he has invented “Klosterman’s Razor” so we can forgive him in this prediction for missing the point that this was a development during a specific historical moment, and may well be reversed. Again, Klosterman engages in naïve forecasting. He presents a continued status quo as common sense by framing another outcome as only possible because of “an unforeseeable academic reversal.”

In a book about how the future may look at our age that uses analogies of how this has happened in the past, it does not seem too far-fetched to assume that a reversal is possible by applying the same logic. During the course of history as an academic enterprise, the pendulum has swung back and forth between these poles several times, and never was there a complete and accepted dominance of one view over the other, even if it seemed that way. History is not a natural science. Its methods are fungible, not fixed.

As the above quote shows, Klosterman moreover fundamentally misunderstands how historians work. More facts, more quantified data, more pieces of information, and more statistical methods do not automatically mean less interpretation. It requires just as much judgment to decide which facts can be adduced to tell a specific story and which methods from the social sciences may yield helpful results as it does to construct a coherent narrative out of very few sources.

Chuck Klosterman Talking About His Book.

Klosterman, in an odd combination, is carelessly circumspect throughout the book, displaying at times the same “casual certitude” he deplores for having taken over our culture. He always seems to understand that it is more complicated, applying “Klosterman’s razor” and concluding that his conclusions might be wrong, but he never quite makes the leap to conclude that his premise might be faulty as well. Klosterman never assumes his concept of wrongness to be possibly wrong. But it is.

“Right” and “wrong” are often not a simple binary hanging from the fixed heavens. They are deeply and necessarily fraught concepts. To assume that there will be future thinkers who can dismiss ideas as wrong from the vantage point of a more complete, better knowledge assumes a philosophy of history that culminates in the never-achievable but always hoped for millennial bliss of complete knowledge. To my thinking, this is not to be had. To Klosterman’s, it seems fundamental. Yet, it remains unstated.

But What If We’re Wrong? is sometimes fun and thought-provoking. But overall, it’s a taxing read. Klosterman is right in thinking about the things he is thinking about. There is value to his approach as well. But he should have jumped up one meta level and realized that ultimately, we can’t even know what “wrong” will constitute in the future. He did not. Therefore, on the underlying concept of what it means to be wrong, he is wrong.

Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is due out in July from Transcript publishers. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the University of Mainz and an adjunct lecturer in History at the University of Cologne.

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