I’ve been toying around with an idea recently. It’s about models and metaphors and how we understand the world. It’s not exactly a new idea, but few ideas are truly new.

I won’t try to go into it here. I’m not even sure I can. I’m still hashing out what I think, what I value, what I believe. Quasioptimal is my attempt at thinking, at documenting the process, at exploring the possibilities.

Or at least it ought to be. I’ve been trying to write posts for a few months. There are dozens of outlines and drafts in my notes, but something hadn’t quite clicked into place yet. I feel that it might be clicking in now.

Last year, I read Virginia Woolf’s magnificent essay, “A Room of One’s Own.”1 There’s much to be said about its subject matter, but what most stuck with me was her approach: the narrativized argument. Woolf is faced with a question, the question of “women and fiction,” and she is to deliver a lecture on it. But what to say? What she does is brilliant. The lecture she delivers (the text of which is what the extended essay is based upon) describes her process of thinking through and weighing the different ways in which the question of women and fiction might be approached. She unfolds all of the possibilities and arranges them before the reader without coming to neat conclusions. Sure, she deploys arguments and renders judgements along the way, but it all happens in a context that feels so grounded and human. It’s not a treatise, it’s a story that takes you along with her. You’re not told what to believe, you’re shown how one might come to believe any number of things.

Her approach to thinking, and the possibilities it opens, are what I’m after with Quasioptimal. The neat conclusions Woolf admonishes against and avoids herself are a bad habit I’m trying to kick. I have an unfortunate (and, as Woolf would describe it, mannish) tendency to construct a million small, overspecialized and overconfident arguments that could not possibly be held together without contradicting each other. I suspect it’s the result of my over-application of an approach to knowing that seeks to atomize, to digest, to break apart, to reduce.

That analytical approach has much to recommend it, to be sure. Sometimes—often, even—the right way to solve a problem or understand a situation is to break it down. It’s the approach that has led to so much technological, scientific, social, and institutional progress. But it is a grave mistake to forget that analysis is not the only way to come into knowledge.

There’s a Marshall McLuhan quote I hear a lot these days: “The medium is the message.”2 The thrust of his idea, applied loosely here to my problem, is that an analytical argument cannot hope to build a rich, positive vision, for the medium’s function is to undermine, separate, and deconstruct. It might seem a cruel irony that the previous statement is itself analytical, undermining and deconstructing the notion of analysis. But this irony is making McLuhin’s point for him and gesturing at the structure of the trap. We can’t analyze our way out of overanalysis. We must take a different approach.

With Quasioptimal, I’m going to do my best to situate the ideas I’m having and the analytic judgements I’m issuing within a narrative of my lived experience. I’m going to take the lived experience of other people and creatures really seriously. I’m not trying to construct an indefensible analytic argument, and I’m not hoping to produce a perfect or beautiful object. I’m trying to engage in what C. Thi Nguyen might call a beautiful process.3 I hope you’ll come along with me in that process. I don’t know how often I’ll post here, or what exactly it will turn into, but I’m really thrilled to be starting this project.

  1. An online version can be found here. I first listened to Juliet Stevenson’s narration on Audible then reread it in print because I enjoyed it so much. 

  2. I first heard this quote on this episode of the Ezra Klein Show back in 2020 when it was still at Vox. It comes from the first chapter of McLuhan’s 1964 book Understanding Media, Extensions of Man. Full disclosure: I have only read the first chapter of the book. 

  3. I also first encountered C. Thi Nguyen when he appeared on the Ezra Klein Show in February 2022. Nguyen’s website [objectionable.net] has some lovely, personable introductions to the main ideas of his thinking (and some great food blog content). The paper I’m drawing on here is called “The Arts of Action”