Our stupid awesome inevitable Afterlife

Why do I want to write about Kenneth Goldsmith and Sheila Heti and Social Media and The Afterlife? Cause they all add up to this really hot sweaty tangled love story. With a surprise ending. Here, come with me…


I’ve been running along this intellectual trail for a few months. It’s got some awesome leaps and feel-good views. It starts with Kenneth Goldsmith. He’s the most interesting writer I’ve encountered in the past few years — since Grad School I think? (Although DFW, Dave Hickey and Carl Wilson totally stand out since then.) Goldsmith exists for me in that pantheon of Western thinkers who helped me reach my current state of understanding of the world. (Along with Foucault and Rorty and Baudrillard and a dozen others — you know who they are.) Uncreative Writing is not an easy book; it’s a little wacky at times, sometimes a smidge boring, but so original, so totally worth reading. Please, go read it. Especially if you were an English or Philosophy major. Really it’s for anyone who likes having their brain re-wired once in a while. But his book is just a jumping off point for this essay.

I’ll start like this:

In Diane Johnson’s Nov 2012 review in The New York Review of Books of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? she writes:


how should a person be?

“Their talks are amusing, candid, fast, relevant, the minimalist opposites of old-timey, stolid writers like, say, Thomas Mann, with whom they share some concerns — art, anxiety, the solitude of the self — and add some new ones just for us, especially issues around ‘communication.’ For someone living in the era of Facebook, lack of communication, not making yourself known is viewed as tragic or at least, as they put it, ‘retarded.'”





I love that part. That for us, living in the Facebook era, “not making yourself known is viewed as tragic” — or better — “retarded.” Let me repeat. Not making yourself known is absolutely stupidly “retarded.” It’s just a fact. Something we have to live with. An absolute truth. Like gravity and the speed of light. Right? Anyway, this is actually the place where I will end this essay. So I’m going to leave it there for a minute.


It’s a strange(?) coincidence that one of the reviews (“Praise for”) of Sheila Heti’s novel — printed on the back cover, the last quote, at the bottom — is from our very own Kenneth Goldsmith.


He writes this endorsement of her book:

“The most candid fictionalized memoir ever written…I predict Sheila Heti’s book will continue to be read for 600 years, not just for its sex (which can be found elsewhere), but as a picture of artistic and literary North America in the first two decades of this century.”

Wow! Really? 600 years? It’s fucking fantastic praise. Who wouldn’t want it said about your book that it will be read 600 years from now? (Weirdly, why 600?, not 500 or 1000? What’s with that number? Maybe Bryan can ask Kenny next time they hang out. Perhaps, is that how long ago the printing press was invented?) So there, there, on the last page (the actual back) of Heti’s novel, in the very last sentence, there is Goldsmith with his review and his name and his book’s title Uncreative Writing. Those are literally the last two words of her book. Uncreative Writing. So let’s go there. To Kenny G’s book.

uncreative writing

One of the things I like most about Goldsmith is the final chapter, or the Afterword, of his book Uncreative Writing. It is not the best chapter. By far. It’s not even the fifth or sixth best chapter. (Fwiw, there are twelve chapters plus an afterword.) But it explores a topic that I find dear. The future. He gets a little unexpectedly predictive. And starts imagining what our future will look like someday. Kind of like he did with that review of Sheila Heti and the 600 years and all. But mind you, he’s discussing the future of writing.

Basically what he imagines for literature is this. In the future, writing will be produced by machines for machines (Seriously?). He makes a good argument though, citing other authors, that the future of literature will not be written by humans. That some day computers will write “literary productions” deployed for and “readable only by other bots.” He predicts a day when there is an end to human-produced literature. And in announcing such a stunning and uncomfortable future for literature — basically an end to literature as we all love and adore it in its present form — he is sweet, self-deprecating and circumspect and says things like this:

“These predictions make me feel old-fashioned. I’m part of a bridge generation, raised on old media yet in love with and immersed in the new. A younger generation accepts these conditions as just another part of the world: they mix oil paint while Photoshopping and scour flea markets for vintage vinyl while listening to their iPods. The don’t feel the need to distinguish the way I do. I’m still blinded by the web. I can hardly believe it exists. At worst, my cyberutopianism will sound as dated in a few years as jargon from the Summer of Love does today.”

He is a self-conscious and melancholy adapter (like the rest of us) to a barely imaginable future of computing and a totally incomprehensible version of self-ness.

Which brings me around to one more writer. Another futurist. Good ole Ray Kurzweil. If you guys don’t recall, he wrote a book a few years ago called The Singularity is Near in which he predicts ff_kurzweil1_fthat in the next 40 years or so, in our lifetime, that computers will reach a point of such devastating memory and power that they will be able to store and enact an individual’s very mind. We will at that point reach an event he names “the singularity” where humans will attain a version of immortality. Our mind will forever be stored on a computer somewhere to be re-uploaded as needed. (I’ve written about him before here.) He also predicts that biotechnology will keep up and provide self-healing, self-youthing bodies for us. And the computer versions of our minds will be back-ups in case of accidents that destroy the original body and mind. Sounds pretty rad to me. Immortality. It also sounds like the predictions of a long line of loony optimist prophets that goes back for centuries — millenia? And his book is terribly written and unreadable at times and it’s like 800(?!) pages long. For me, it’s kind of a joke to bring up Kurzweil in conversation. He requires a bit of ironic body language and knowing glances before you can really talk about his ideas. But still, no one else has laid out a vision of the future quite as clear and confident (and weirdly believable) as he has.

AND, Google saw something in him too. And a few months ago they hired him to be their Director of Engineering. So there’s that. But still, he’s kind of a PT Barnum of immortality. And this year he published a new book called How to Create a Mind: the Secret of Human Thought Revealed which is just a terrible, terrible book and should never have been published. I wish I never bought it. Please don’t read it! But still, once again, he is writing about exactly that subject which matters so much in our possible evolution towards immortality. We really do have to figure out how to create a mind.

Sheila HetiBut in the mean time, I’m stuck with Sheila Heti and that quote about how we just don’t exist unless we are making ourselves known on the internet. Is it true? Really? And does our afterlife depend on our internet existence? Because until the day comes that they can fully replicate an individual’s mind on a computer (which I do kinda believe can happen someday, maybe quite longer than 40 years though) there will be a lot of versions of life extension software filling in the void. And this is where my brain is stuck lately. With this frustrating dumb-ass question. Does my afterlife fullness depend on my current day-to-day (hour-to-hour) internet activity?

When they start advancing the current primitive versions of software that absorb all of a person’s online postings and writings and deploy them after we are dead as a version of us, will that be the day? Will Facebook become the first most powerful corporation of the afterlife? Or will it be Google? Because our afterlife avatars will be a combination of everything we have said and everything we have searched for. The day is quickly coming where dead people will continue as a version of their online selves. facebook_logoSending out updates and emails based on all of those things that they did in the past. Interacting with all the other cyber versions of people they used to know. The day is coming. No doubt. And the fullness of our afterlife, will it depend on just how stupidly active we are in our day-to-day internet activity? Is that how it will be? It’s totally possible. Seriously. Isn’t that weird?


And I can’t even imagine yet the body of law that will grow up to govern how our cyber afterlives are conducted. But it will be gigantic. Supreme court decisions about our afterlives. Weird. But it’s coming someday.

And this too. That all those millions and billions of people living in poverty without a computer presence. My recent visit to India. Will they slip into death without leaving behind an avatar of themselves. Will we someday see this as a horrible injustice? That there is a universal human right to immortality? Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. And the right to an afterlife.

Which sickens me a little. Not the Supreme Court (well, yes) and not the idea of billions of people denied the right to an afterlife (well totally) but about the prospect of my afterlife identity depending on what I say publicly, on-line, on Facebook or some other social platform. Yuck. I really don’t want this to be the case. Is it really going to be like that? If I accept that proposition, then I suddenly find myself in a weirdly familiar gross place again. I feel this strange guilt, a childhood guilt, about not being more active on the internet. “Not making yourself known is absolutely retarded.” I don’t jesus and kidswant to be retarded! Shit, I have to make myself known! And suddenly, I am back to the strangest place of all — the horrible place where I started in my religious faith as a little pre-schooler. The concept that all of the things I do — or don’t do — today will affect my position in the afterlife tomorrow. Seriously? We’re back to those fucked-up illogical eye-rolling concepts? That how I spend my time every day somehow affects the quality of heaven? Fuck!! I’m super fucking bummed with this idea.

But simultaneously, I’m absolutely thrilled that I might go on existing in some version of “myself.” I really do like that concept. I fucking LOVE that concept. Cause it opens up so many lovely lovely possibilities. Obviously, it means that when I die, I have this new consolation that a part of me — all my online (perhaps, my off-line writings too) will form a new version of me. That concept is really quite explosively consoling. In the face of death. It’s absolutely emotionally rescuing. More than any concept that any religion or philosophy has ever ever offered before. It’s a humungous fucking step forward in dealing with mortality.

And besides the deux-ex-machina possibility of continuing to exist, there is something something else very unexpected and profound. Perhaps, perhaps, most exciting of all is the possibility that my future post-mortality existence could involve a multitude of life opportunities. Paths that I never got to take. Those pick-your-own adventure books. And I’m not talking about careers and hobbies. Suppose in MY WILL in cyberspace I state, I want my afterlife avatar to finally pursue a romantic relationship with x-person and x-person and x-person and x-person from years ago in my past. I want the software to produce a relationship that slowly sweetly interacts with that delightful person that I met in my teens, 20s, 30s, 40s,..until we are old people. I think it’s absolutely possible and so tearfully heart-repairingly lovely to imagine it. That MAYBE we all get a chance to pursue ALL those star-struck relationships that couldn’t quite happen during our actual flesh-and-blood years. 3-gates-of-heaven-jill-van-doren-roloMaybe the timing was off. We were in another relationship. Maybe we weren’t quite ready for that person. But imagine being able to meet that person finally and everything is cool. And you’re 29 and they’re 29 and life is full of fantastic possibility. Imagine it. It sounds so lovely. The future is ours to invent. We can all have our cake and eat it too. Again and again and again and again and again and again. In fact, maybe that’s what we’re doing right now. This blog is just part of one singular version of our multiple life choices. Oh, that’s weird and awesome and romantic and moving to think about.

So, I hate long goodbyes. Like Jeremy, I think they’re just awkward and unnecessary. So without much more to add to this stupidly long essay, let’s just hug and say goodbye. Thanks for coming out on this stroll with me. Enjoy the loved one you’re with right now. Kisses! Kisses!!! Kisses…

11 responses to “Our stupid awesome inevitable Afterlife”

  1. Bryan says:

    Hi, Farrell — I’m so, so, so glad finally to read this. I read it really early this morning and thought about it all day and only now am I getting a chance to respond. Quick things first. I love the idea of KG as “our own,” and I’m glad for another push to read Heti, which I own but haven’t really attempted in earnest. (It’s been in the bathroom for months in a stack of books but I’ve only read the first few pages once or twice.) I remember your Singularity stuff fondly. So I’m really pleasantly surprised to read abt all of this together in a mashup with your thoughts on social media and the afterlife. The only things missing were the NSA and Aaron Swartz — I’m sure they’re related somehow.

    It’s funny, of all the things I love about Uncreative Writing, I hadn’t really considered the bots writing for bots thing with the seriousness you have. And I missed that bit about KG’s still being “blinded” by the web. Maybe his movement to print it out is his revenge: the web is his Moby Dick.

    Speaking of literature and immortality, I wonder if you’ve encountered the work of KG’s pal Christian Bök, who has been hard at work on a project in which he “uses a ‘chemical alphabet’ to translate [a] poem [about language and genetics] into a sequence of DNA for subsequent implantation into the genome of a bacterium (in this case, a microbe called Deinococcus radiodurans—an extremophile, capable of surviving, without mutation, in even the most hostile milieus, including the vacuum of outer space).” More here.

    I love your idea of afterlife bots/avatars/holograms carrying on alternate versions of our lives. Would make a fun novel. Maybe one of your future selves will write it?

  2. GF says:

    [Flippant response, real response later] I would emphatically prefer my google searches not form my afterlife. Leaving out searches for famous people naked, here are some recent winners from my phone browser:

    -how long do horses live
    -elizabeth taylor helena bonham carter
    -jesus tortilla

    I don’t want my afterlife to be made of that. Ok I guess it’s fine if the afterlife is made of my porn searches. But definitely not if it’s made of my most frequent search: what am I dying of right now if X is my symptom?

  3. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Bryan: “The web is his Moby Dick.” So perfectly said. He’s an unsung hero. Someday he’ll be heralded. In the mean time, I really didn’t bother to mention his web project at all. Which is so awesome. I’ll just let readers discover that fantastic project on their own if it interests them. They can alway wiki Kenny if they want. I am aware of Christian Bok. Only b/c KG writes about him. It’s the craziest awesomest idea. It’s a project that exists somewhere exactly between art and science. I swoon. And thanks for your idea about the novel. But one of my future selves has already written it. You’ll love it!

    Oh, ps. Sheila Heti’s novel is really not that good. It’s not. But there are some totally great moments. That section about fucking Israel. Man. That’s just so hard to read. And so brave and genius.

    GF: You made me laugh really hard. “How long do horses live.” And “jesus tortilla”. And “what am I dying of right now”. Thank you for giving me some deep laughter today. And yes, I also totally agree. I don’t want my searches to be a part of my afterlife. So totally lame. So embarrassing. But sorry. It’s all in there. It’s part of the software. Part of your future avatar. That’s who you are. It’s the big picture. PORN!! elizabeth taylor. And that’s why we all love you so so so much.

  4. jeremy says:

    holy shit. i’m drunk and other things right now.

    but that is some profound and wonderful lunacy/brilliance/yesyesysyes right there.

    i might have to read that three more times. i’m gonna go and read that three more times right now.

  5. swells says:

    The energy and connections in this post are stunning.

    I disagree about that Sheila Heti book—I really do think it’s great, if not always wholly enjoyable, if only because it made me stop and reconsider what a novel even is. A book can still do that in the 21st century, post-Tristram Shandy? It perplexed and surprised me all the way through, and not just in gimmicky ways. And the Israel section is really like nothing I’ve ever read. The whole thing is. (Except for that use of the word “retarded,” which I hate and am not yet at the stage of “appropriating un-PC words as screw-that-I’m-cool” or whatever.) I read an earlier book of hers, Middle Stories, that was kinda whatever, but this one really floored me.

    As for Kenneth Goldsmith, I do find Seven American Deaths and Disasters incredibly compelling—the traumatic version of Duchamp’s urinal, in a way—but what I’ve read of Uncreative Writing has unsettled me, which I guess makes it good art . . . I mean, Heti unsettled me too. Goldsmith’s take on plagiarism (like Jonathan Lethem’s before it) is just depressing to me, but I can also recognize that maybe it’s the future and I’m too pre-postpostmodern to get my old ass there. Yet. Somehow I can process it when it’s Sol Lewitt and visual art, though—I think Goldsmith is a language visionary and I’m dragging my feet about that future. You make me want to read him more because of your description of him as a “melancholy adapter;” I thought he was more of an anarchist rubbing his hands with glee at the demise of the literary processes we love.

    I’m still puzzling over the afterlife part, though. I need more explanation re. how you envision an amalgam of your online searches and blog posts translating into the afterlife garden of forking paths. I’m sure at least one future me gets it, and another one has refuted it with a different theory, but current me is struggling a little with the leap. Very invigorated, though, about the ways this post has jostled my thinking. I especially love its velocity and heart.

  6. GF says:

    Less flippantly. I don’t really have the references for some of this but of course it interested me. I know zippo about Baudrillard and Rorty. But now the singularity, there’s the shit of nightmares. I first heard about it on (sorry Dave) NPR on my commute home during Bay Area I in 1999.

    To me there’s a myth of permanence about this stuff, and that’s fine, because as scare as I am of death, I also think immortality (and maybe this is a limitation of my pre-singularity mind) just might be the only thing that’s worse. What if you wanted to quit? Does suicide exist after the singularity? Is it committed with a degausser?

    Incidentally it seems to me almost nothing gets read 600 years later, certainly not what’s expected to (I was just reading the Gopnik neuroscience thing in the NYer and he mentions in a big digression at the beginning, a pregression if you will, that nobody would ever have guessed that Arthur Conan Doyle would still have many enthusiasts while George Meredith was stuff for specialists) so I guess my point is a shallowly Buddhist one: impermanence will get us all, and that’s fine.

    And so I’m also, fully cognizant of the irony here, warmly in favor of not making yourself known online. (I post more horseshit on fb than anyone I know, but I recognize it for what it is: a little dose of connection when I need it.) The unexamined life,, we know about that, but if I understand syllogisms correctly, it does not follow that the constantly examined life is constantly worth living.

    I don’t want to try everything again in infinite future lives. I want to learn to enjoy this one more than I generally do and then stop. Sometimes lately a thing I say to myself that is soothing is “in 200 years, nobody will remember my name.”

  7. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Oh Jesus, so drunk too tonight, cheers and chinchin Jeremy. Goddamn the demands of comment responses! Can’t we all just meet for drinks somewhere and talk this out? Argh!! Until then, still able to write a few things. For a few more minutes.

    To swells: I really appreciate that defense of Sheila’s novel. You’re totally right. I was too dismissive. I do that sometimes. A lot. It’s rude. But, yes, it really is a great novel, isn’t it? It totally grabbed me. I’m still fucking writing about it a year later! I think partly it’s my crush on her. But also, it really did “perplex me and surprise me all the way through, and not just in gimmicky ways.” It floored me too. It should be recommended and read. I hope that’s one of the take-aways from this post. Go read her novel. It fucking rules. You’re right swells.

    And your thoughts on KG, you’re lovely, so lovely, but don’t take “melancholy adapter” too far. He’s also a really psyched dude about totally upending the way we think about originality and writing. And he should be. He kind of realized something that most of us have been ignoring. That “writing” is a funny old concept. Don’t take too long to get on board with this. He really does have a sound understanding of writing things. Join us. It’s nice over here. The water feels great. You’ll really like it eventually.

    Your hardest question. About “the afterlife part.” I wish I could be more helpful. But I feel like I’ve just proposed a concept like some nerd at a synposium called ‘the internet in 1993.’ I woulda had so many head-shaking questions about what that meant. The internet? WTF? But here we are 20 years later and it’s a fucking WONDER. And we totally take if for granted now. It’s just a part of our lives. And it’s so fucking amazing. I think that’s kinda how the afterlife software will happen. It will be nothing, then it will be here, a permanent part of us. And it won’t just be your emails, FB updates, and textings. But everything you do. EVERYTHING. Where you go, where you pause, and purchase, or where you like something, dislike something, read something, don’t read something, call someone, text someone, email someone, listen to a song, comment on a blog, buy a tampon, throw away a condom, poop, orgasm, check your bank account, order takeout, call your mom…all of that. It’s all going to be absorbed into a version of you somewhere beyond your physical body. I have no idea. But it’s coming. And it will be pretty fucking thrilling. The way the current internet would seem to someone in 1993.

    While I was in LA last month, Parrish said: Privacy is over. Did you hear me? Privacy is over. Many thanks to Parrish to saying what is so hard to deal with. Our lives of privacy are something historical. Privacy is over. Privacy is over. Privacy is over. Privacy is over. Thank you Parrish.

    To GF: I’m really glad you made a comment here more than the first one–the one that made me laugh deeply. Cause you really make me pause. Is there any reason to want anything beyond this life? It’s a really good question. Confusing question. It made me think. It made me realize that there might be a lot of people who don’t fucking care about an afterlife. That never occurred to me. But it makes complete sense. There are those people who are satisfied, who don’t want more, who will be fine turning their existence off after a few interesting decades.

    But I have to be honest, that concept is so hard so hard SO HARD SO HARD for me to imagine. Just wanting for this existence to be over. It feels so false. Cause, every part EVERY PART of my being wants to continue to continue existing and experiencing this world in all its exciting evolving ways. I never want to die, NEVER want to die. Fuck 200 years. There are so many more things I want to do and experience. I’m super fucking selfish for sure. But I don’t care.That even as a really old person, I want TO GO ON. For so so so so so many years, Until Immortality is a reality. That’s what I want. Don’t we all? Seriously, don’t we all? I want to go on. And on. And on. And on. And on And on. and on. And I intend to do so in whatever way is available to me. I will not give up. Cause existing feels so good. Feels so good. Let’s all continue. Those who want to. in whatever way we can. Cause existing fucking rules. Let’s go on. Let’s figure it out…

  8. Bryan says:

    Best comment of 2013.

  9. ssw says:

    I was just catching up with some of this and reacting to F’s last paragraph about wanting to exist. I’ve reached the point of being so much more aware of existing and aware of time passing (that people do die, etc) and this generally propels me into living the way I want my life to look more. It hit around mid-to-late 30s as a bit of an aging crisis–and helped me take charge of my life. I think there’s something a bit magical about aging that helps you clarify things-but there’s a little anxiety in there too, because you’re so much more aware it could be taken away (and does, sometimes). It’s very different (and much more of a motivating force for me) than the pressure of the 20s, which seemed to be very external: ‘what am i going to do with my life? am I good enough? what is everyone else doing?. At some point, I should hope it clicks in that you should really do what you want if you can with your life and it’s easier to do if you’re exercising, eating and sleeping well. That said,life can still dish up some pretty shitty days. I’m so glad when those days/moods end, and have relief in another day to face things again. There’s stuff you run into about yourself that can make you worry things will never get better without you changing something, possibly quite radically. It’s a good nudge. You probably do need to change some things. And there’s no time like the present to switch your strategy a bit and explore new paths of doing things differently and see what happens. I don’t know exactly how this relates to the idea of striving to go on and on–i guess just that sometimes that monotony of going on and on actually does support healing, it supports change, it supports being able to reverse or reorder where you’re going and how you’re doing it. I’m also into yoga again and there’s something so specific of being in the present moment that it’s a really nice balancing act with that bigger striving/energy to keep going. You know I could do this all day long, sit around and philosophize xx I just really connected with the idea of wanting to exist-wanting to continue. Is it universal, or are there certain personalities that really gravitate towards the marathon of full-impact living?

  10. ssw says:

    btw, that picture of jesus with the children is just too too much.

  11. Dave says:

    This is a great comment thread.

    As for the Singularity and uploading consciousness: I would argue that humans are quite rare and lucky in having consciousness, and that even if we create computers that we can upload all our experiences into, those computers are very unlikely to have any kind of consciousness, let alone some kind of consciousness that I would recognize as “me.” Human consciousness is partly a result of our having very complex brains, but it is also partly dependent on our limitations as embodied creatures who develop and die.

    I mostly agree with Cosma Shalizi, who suggests that the singularity has already happened and we’re part of it, although as components of vastly more complex organisms. (Like how cells are components of humans, or mitochodria are components of cells.) And these more complex organisms are not conscious; they’re too big and distributed.