Picture this! I was sitting in a Gazebo outside of my public library. The day was wet and the Wi-Fi was free. While the flowers, birds and trees were all contributing their portions to the world of beauty, song and oxygen, I, for my part, was doing my best to transcend my remote-working responsibilities with a YouTube video of a man with a funny beard reading mystical texts. Wisdom and the Upanishads are, surely, proper background consumables while designing a social media post on Canva. Yet, I was stopped on my path to enlightenment by — what? Yes! A Youtube MasterClass ad.
A man with a round face and a shave almost certainly given to him by someone on the makeup crew was on my screen. I looked at the corner of the video. Thirteen seconds. My eyes went back to the ad — I was trapped with nothing better worth doing. Learn Screenwriting. The text was red and glitchy. From the Duffer Brothers.
George Bataille could not have described the viscerality of my gut’s wrenching. Are you there, God? And is this seriously so funny to you? Stranger Things: 4 was the most disappointing piece of media I have hate-watched since my rediscovery of all the PowerPoints I made in Grade 8. The plot was overburdened with characters to the point that dialogue, motive and character subtlety (or depth in general!) was reduced to its most base, naked elements. The original, definitive score, the one that hummed through all our houses and tested our speakers’ bass capabilities in 2016, had been substituted for an overused and under sampled distorted clock-chiming. The original mystery of the Season 1 Demogorgon — subconscious yet real, nonexistent yet threatening — had been traded for —what? A wizard motivated by misconstrued Darwinism and delivered by the modern midwifery of special effects.
Vecna, the ‘big bad’ from Stranger Things 4. (Image Source: images.immediate.co.uk)
You’ll notice that while I did not hesitate to revile Stranger Things: 4, I did it without giving spoilers. This is because you cannot spoil what is already rotten (and condemned beyond compostability). The true enemy today is not a bad shave, a bad set of writers or a surface-level black widow analogy for humanity’s evil emotions — although, the wise will keep wary of all three. I want to level a charge at MasterClass.
For those who don’t know — or else, for those who do, but cannot logically proceed without excessive grounding — MasterClass is a subscription service whereby you can receive exclusive video tutorials on how to bake, weave, tell stories or do astrophysics from those who are famous in their respective fields. Writer Margaret Atwood teaches you writing. Writer and professor Neil Gaiman teaches you mythology. Princeton-Harvard brother Cornel West, grooving Christian philosopher, will teach you critical thinking, and Gordon Ramsey will personally yell at you for being bad at cooking.
MasterClass, therefore, is an affordable and accessible golden ticket to learn directly from ‘the best’. Never blacken that bread, nor add too many walnuts. Never put the hero’s revelation right after the fight scene. Never look up at the stars wrong. You can also gift classes to friends and family at a discount.
Two silhouettes, turned away from the cosmos. Quotation from lines 4-8 of ‘Expostulation and Reply‘ by William Wordsworth. (Image Source: Designed by author)
The issue I take with MasterClass is precisely this accessible delivery coupled with the engine of popular recognition. Let’s say an aspiring writer, looking for guidance, signs up for and takes the Margaret Atwood intensive. Now we have a green literary spirit taught how to grow upwards and break out into the world, trimmed of all ill-doing and fresh for reception with all the stylistic tricks to know. Good for them! How wonderful it is that they found their career. Yet, how many others took that class and received those same structurations? How many sprout from this soil? Have we not planted a monoculture? To what, or whom, do we turn to when the dominant modality of composing literature self-enforces to the point of obliterating alternative systems? Where does this put community college literature professors, with entirely different principles of beauty or wit but hitched to a much steeper price? What of the diversity in all of these disciplines?
Naturally, an incipient point of this polemic is my bitterness towards Stranger Things — and helped along by my curdling, black-biled inner spite besides! But if taken conceptually — abstracted to a higher, societal level — what is MasterClass, as a phenomenon, symptomatic of? What is the future of a ‘MasterClass’ society? The present?
I am of the opinion that this derives from our society’s increasing cohabitation of meaning and algorithm. Not only are politics abstracted, bickered over and then immediately forgotten, they are aborted of all revolutionary significance far before birth and subsequent life — no, this is a pedestrian realization at this point in time. We are disconnected, disheartened, misinformed and bracketed and this, above all, is known and accepted. This fracturing of society is derived, of course, from a sensationalistic algorithm: that which interests us is marked and processed and fed back to us in whatever tangential forms computer intelligence can conceive of. We sit down to consume once more and find the only trajectory we have followed is that of one in a vortex. This must be understood not as explicitly political, but general to modern life as a whole.
The poles around which we orbit in digital space, the constellations we navigate, are drawn, in part, by idols. No-Neck-Ed from 90 Day Fiancé’s latest breakdown. Bethesda’s latest betrayal of the video game industry. Jordan Peterson and the person he ‘owned’ or, for the converse crowd, the horrible thing he said. The hours we dedicate to twitch streamers, alongside thousands of other watchers, are not unlike in form to the hours those of the past might have spent in idolatrous worship of books, paintings, charismatic preachers, kings or possessive husbands — when a man buys Belle Delphine’s feces, he is kin with Juliette Drouet.
‘No Neck Ed’ from 90 day fiance occupying the center of a black hole. (Image Source: Designed by author)
Neither the past-to-present difference, nor my fear, is in devotion proper. Rather, it is when the internet — the immediacy of all news, all relations, all passions and thoughts and publicity — exists to such a pervasive degree that space is gobbled down by time and we are all, collectively, tuned in to the same magnetic forces, worldwide. If the day ever comes that, for instance, all humans have YouTube and a smartphone — a point which we are not far from, of course — is this not the first point in time in which it is actually, realistically possible to have a unanimously recognized ‘wisest person in the world’? Or, put in other terms: ‘greatest chef in the world’? ‘Greatest weaver in the world’? ‘Greatest understander of mythology, or, if that’s not to your liking, the cosmos?
No — passion, devotion, total loss of one’s own self for another is, in its traditional application, harmless here. Charming, even. A habit I myself am rather too taken by, at times. Yet the collective, silent consent to annihilation of originality is a tragedy of epic proportions. Everyone who has ever read Margaret Atwood and enjoyed her, but preferred Balzac — or else hated her for a simple and passional reason that needs no reasonability at all — is a genius in their own right. However unlikely they are to be realized as such, they are surely just as alive and conscious as they who gobbles down Atwood books like Turkish delight. How wide are the horizons of literature! When improving a literary skill, we do not transcend into a Margaret Atwood ideality, but become any one of the infinite possibilities that literature, as an art form (and more besides), implies — in its broadest conception!
Once more, my problem is not Margaret Atwood, nor is it idolization-simple. Peterson and the Duffer Brothers, perhaps, but not at all the point here. When a book is written, its quality must be judged personally, by virtue of its reception in the first-person reader. When a loaf of bread is baked, there are doubtless ratios of ingredients or techniques that are preferable to others, but must these be adhered to exactly? And what wonders of bread or literature do we omit by rebuffing pure, intuitive experimentation for this idea of mastery? When a show is released, moronic appraisal must be tolerated (forgiven to the utmost, in fact!), provided this praise is meant, and meant sincerely, by the morons who appreciate bad writing, bad structure, expiration of all originality and a wizard-ex-machina resuscitation of plot.
‘The Adoration of the Golden Calf’ by baroque artist Nicolas Poussin. Image source: Wikipedia.org)
The crime of MasterClass, then, is that it takes humanity’s propensity for worship and puts it in the context of this aforementioned ‘annihilation of space’, whereas idols in the past remained spatially contextual. No longer is writing, baking, mythology or astronomy a vague pursuit of ideas, bread, gods or planets — writing is Margaret Atwood, myth is Neil Gaiman, Astronomy is Neil Degrasse Tyson. To be otherwise would apparently be to fail in the topic’s mastery.
Each conceivable art form, practical technique, scientific lens or business strategy is reduced to the single point of a single identity and associated practice; how terrible is a world in which Robert Iger, Walt Disney CEO, teaches leadership-par-excellence? Moreover, are we to believe that this is the mastery of a skill, or an advertisement? Is there even a distinction to be made between the two?
Of course I do not mean to say we are not derived from pure, chaotic stardust. My own reasons for this MasterClass-hating skepticism derive in part from the philosopher and journalist Hannah Arendt, who goes, in much more considerate detail, into the role of spatiality in public human life. To quote from The Human Condition, “The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.” This theme seems to hit its totalitarian climax, for Arendt, when a force of “total terror” “substitutes for the boundaries and channels of communication between individual men a band of iron which holds them so tightly together that it is as though their plurality had disappeared into One Man of gigantic dimensions” (The Origins of Totalitarianism).
Robert Iger (Walt Disney CEO) teaches leadership. (Image source: Masterclass.com)
What we have here is not the case of terror, but simple soulless inertia. We are bound, as modern humans, not by iron terror but by our own gravitation towards thematic interests. We are prodded, suggested and enforced by algorithms and marketing strategies designed to maximize our time and attention’s devotion to this or that. A truly empty hedonism. To say it finally, the sin is not in preferring one topic to another, one method of baking to another, or one particular method of leadership and organization. It is the universal equivocation of these particular horizons to necessary modes of practice or thought as necessary, delivered in the form of an idol. The fact that these idols are chosen by popularity in a market-driven schema is no blessing, either.
We have all chosen our path and can revoke this choice at any time! Bread, gods, myths and new leadership all remain readily at our fingertips. It is a matter of a break with the algorithm — of any size! The lived invocation of chaos and spiritual spontaneity, the picking-up of a random book or the ‘getting-wrong’ of ‘the’ recipe — this, and only this, allows the winning-back of our individual, irreducible place and subjectivity. I prescribe anti-prescriptivism.
We are not so close to truth as is supposed. No, we have not ‘Mastered’ bread making, basket weaving, mythology or the planets, nor should we ever truly accept the world when marketed as such. We are individuals, all, with minds and experiences, subjectivity and mistakes. This is inescapable and unreplaceable. In a world of heavy footprints, be untraceable. Think for yourselves. Write your own books. Let them fail horribly! Who knows, perhaps a Martian will discover your notebook, Macbook or notes app in the rubble beneath your post-apocalyptic house on Dreary Lane and find a beauty beyond all the wonders of the cosmos they have seen prior. Perhaps the need for external ‘discovery’ is the first pitfall stepped into, and no Martian validation should be needed in the first place.
Sesame Street ‘Martians’ find and read a book. (Image source: Muppet Fandom)
Don’t buy MasterClass. Buy Margaret Atwood’s books — the Oryx and Crake trilogy, if I have any authority in the way of suggestion. Watch Gordon Ramsey cook on YouTube, or anyone else for that matter. Watch Stranger Things (do not do this), and judge them all for yourself, by your own experience with them. Be satisfied with this. Master nothing.