A Review of Theory Pleeb’s: “Waypoint. Timenergy, Critical Media Theory, and Culture War”
As a kid my dad was an electrician and mom a hairdresser. Neither of them went to college, nor did their parents. My entire childhood they warned me that I had to go to college. They created a college savings account for me (though they only ended up saving a couple thousand dollars). I was not very academic, so when I graduated high school I looked for alternatives that did not require me to take any more English literature or science classes. I attended Ecola Bible School, a seven month unaccredited Christian program in Cannon Beach, Oregon. Spending a winter in a small, semi-remote beach town was amazing and character-building, but it did not teach me critical thinking skills. There were no grades, just opportunities for spiritual growth. My dad covered the $5000 for tuition, the dorm room and the meal plan.
After graduating my parents insisted that I attend a “real college.” Again, intimidated by academics, I pursued my interest in computers. I graduated with an associates degree in computer networking from ITT Technical Institute with Highest Honors. It was the first time I succeeded at school, but this time I had to pay for it myself, and my dad was not going to help. It put me back $22,000. I worked as a software tester in the day, and attended school at night. Aside from the boost to my self-confidence, it was a waste of time and money. Fortunately I was single and making enough money in my day job to pay it off quickly.
During these years my interests and my social group evolved into something more cultured, more academic. In high school I listened to punk, but at Ecola and ITT Tech I started listening to the more intelligent, philosophical genres of indie and post-punk, which introduced me to Kerouac, Dostoevsky, Chekov, Camus, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. My interest in literature and philosophy grew. At age 24 I finally attended a liberal arts college. When I graduated at age 29 I had been transformed into an intellectual with about $75,000 of student debt. Twelve years later, I have paid down the principle very little. Shortly after getting out of college, in order to reduce my monthly payment, I converted the 10 year loan into a 25 year loan. The monthly payment of the 25 year loan is comparable to the payment I would have if I had bought an expensive new car. In fact, the monthly payments prevents me from buying a new car. Theoretically, I can have my 25 year loan canceled after 10 years of “qualifying payments” while working as a public servant as part of the Federal Student Loan Forgiveness program. Don’t get me started on what a failure this program has been. The system is broken. This is one among too many examples that expose the reality that the billionaires are the ones making the rules, and the rest of us have few options that don’t result in making them even richer.
In the past someone like me, raised in the working class, had little to no access to education. At one time education was only available to the aristocracy or to those who committed themselves to a religious order. Access to rigorous philosophical discourse is still unavailable to many in the working class. I was able to attend an elite private college, though the debt will follow me during a significant portion of my adult life. This reality is at the center of Theory Pleeb’s book Waypoint. Timenergy, Critical Media Theory, and Culture War, and even at the center of their moniker, “Theory Pleeb.” The book’s preface explains that they (the author) misspelled “pleb” because they are “so much a person ‘from the lower social classes,’ that [they] used to think ‘pleb’ was actually spelled ‘pleeb’ with two e’s.” (If you are not familiar with the word, “pleb” or “plebe” is a derogatory slang term used by the upper classes when refering to the “common people,” the plebians.)
We pleebs, we who come from a working class background, from parents and communities removed from high culture, absent of the social relations that give one access to leisure, now have new opportunities. Technology is democratizing education. Podcasts and YouTube are making available to house cleaners, software testers and factory workers sources of analysis and theory (if we ignore for a moment the mountains of conspiracy theories which these forms of media are also providing).
Waypoint is a collection of essays written over the last few years. If there is a common theme it is this: we live in a era, a capitalist era, in which we spend most of our free time recovering from our job, rather than investing in community-enriching projects, rather than improving ourselves in ways in which we could become valuable resources to our communities. Even when we are unemployed we are too focused on figuring out how to pay the electricity bill to spend time cultivating ourselves. Slow, disciplined thought is difficult and rare. Instead we must focus our energies towards our jobs, focusing our energies towards paying for food and housing. Working is good, character-building, and becoming proficient at our jobs is good, but does a society that demands so much time and energy spent at work prevent us from developing critical thinking skills? The reality is, even if we love our jobs (to reference the title of Sarah Jaffe’s new book) our jobs won’t love us back. A lot of really good jobs demand a lot of overtime. A lot of bad jobs demand a lot of overtime!
And to make matters worse, when we are not working, we are alienated from our communities. As humans we crave recognition for our accomplishments. Social media has replaced many human relationships. Rather than investing in deep friendships or bettering ourselves, that we might become cultural contributions to our communities, social media rewards us with immediate gradification. Social media rewards hot takes and witty retorts. In a very short timeline, social media has encouraged us to score cheap social points over deep, disciplined projects. Our jobs wear us out in the day, making it nearly impossible for us to imagine learning to play the violin or study philosophy, while the feedback loop of Twitter is nearly instantaneous.
The essays in Waypoint cover a lot of territory, from a defence of Heidegger’s obscurantism, an analysis of attention and social media, the exposition of Theory Pleeb’s original concept “timenergy,” an assessment of the positive and negative qualities of Jordan Peterson and the anti-SJW (social justice warrior) Industry, and a few life lessons the author picked up on the journey to, and departing from, academia. Theory Pleeb’s book is intended to challenge “organic intellectuals,” people who have come to philosophy outside of academia, or have come to academia as an outsider. They want organic intellectuals to continue to enrich themselves, to cultivate a working class intelligentsia, becoming conscious of the ways in which capitalism makes this task difficult.
People tend to think the plebes do not have the luxury to waste time on higher things like philosophy. The implication is that we should not bother these people with frivolous things like reasoned discourse. But this attitude is contextual. Capitalism has created the circumstances in which this is the case. We must stop talking down to the working class intellectuals. I speak as an intellectual that came from the working class. Admittedly, philosophy is not for everyone, but as Gramsci said, “All men are intellectuals … but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals (thus, because it can happen that everyone at some time fries a couple of eggs or sews up a tear in a jacket, we do not necessarily say that everyone is a cook or a tailor)” (The Antonio Gramsci Reader, pg. 304–5. New York University Press, 2000).
Theory Pleeb’s book suggests that the left must not talk down to the working class. Instead the left must empower the working class, challenging them to think critically. Self-improvement, self-discipline (and self-organization) is the only road out of the society in which we currently live, a society in which a quality education costs $75,000, driving them, driving us, into what equates to a lifetime of debt. The working class is chained to their jobs, and appeased with impoverished social interactions over social media. Waypoint is a call to free thinkers everywhere to join Theory Pleeb in the struggle for deep, thoughtful discourse, and to one day, perhaps, write their own book solving the struggles facing the working class.