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What makes you acceptable is the accrual of a thousand different pieces of knowledge. You learned how to curl your hair from Youtube tutorials: twist the top part of the strand around the barrel of the curling iron, then slide down and separately curl the bottom, so the finished curl looks natural, a little broken-down, not too Texas prom queen. Your perfume has notes of petitgrain, bergamot and shiso: a “fresh, woodsy take” on a rose scent. There’s the hand balm that smells like citrus rind, the NARS lipstick recommend by a French beauty influencer, the highlighter that’s supposed to make your skin look like glass, the semi-sheer Chanel nail polish, the ribbed joggers that were sold out for three months straight. You’re thin, but you could stand to lose seven pounds so you’d hover just at the edge of underweight. Or you could start weightlifting: strong is beautiful. You could start a body positive TikTok account: recovery takes time.
There’s the right kind of restaurant to pick depending on the friend and the occasion. There’s the right kind of fiction to read, the right philosophers to like, the right kind of political engagement. Now you’re writing and you realize there’s also the right kind of prose, the correct way to structure a scene, the right way to build tension in a book. You feel like you are being tested, constantly, for some kind of fluency: how to converse, how to dress, what ideas to be interested in, what to disclose and what to keep unsaid. What to show off and what to be modest about. You learned from aping, from watching for years and years. Then you realized that it was time to start having opinions.
You cannot believe how much knowledge is needed and how long it takes to acquire it. The only reassuring thing is that no great amount of coherency is required. It’s cool now to be post-minimalist, post-capitalist, post-conspicuous consumerism, post-New Atheism. What does this mean? It means that there’s a wide variety of acceptable stances, as long as you position yourself as aware of the context you exist in. Girlbosses are out, FAANG is out, SJWs are out, performative contrarianism is in, supporting creators is in, psychedelics are back but the 60s aren’t. Pick a few: biological essentialism, loneliness is a modern epidemic, diversity and reparations, privilege-is-disgusting, censorship-suffocates-free-speech, AGI as religion, finding solutions for the impending climate catastrophe, stagnation, resisting the attention economy, the heroic American meritocracy, the inescapable neoliberal regime. Rorschach test: do you think it’s difficult to be a pretty girl in tech?
Your friend said she broke up with her boyfriend because his desires were too conventionally bourgeoisie: Brooklyn brownstone, Eames chair, three kids close together in age. The female writer everyone is reading is “good, but she doesn’t deserve the hype.” It turns out that being able to articulate your hypocrisies doesn’t absolve you of them anymore: self-reflexivity is over! You can’t remember anymore if you’re for narrative or against it, whether you believe our society’s failings stems from lack of nuance or lack of commitment. Your friend says he believes young men need to work hard labor jobs to build character. On a double date you bring up that in 1970 a quarter of the American workforce was employed by the manufacturing sector, but 2005 that number had dropped to 10%; the deindustrialization of America has hurt the middle class. Now a half of America doesn’t believe covid is real and post-workout milkshakes at Barry’s Bootcamp cost $11. Your friends all say that everything’s broken, but no one seems to agree on how to fix it.