trying something new(sletter)

When I started teaching communications last fall, I had one goal for the class – to explore how ideas move through the world.

On paper, my class is about public relations. But when you strip away the myths, pseudo-sciences, and caricatures of the field, PR – and strategic communications, more broadly – is about self-awareness, creative thinking, and creating connections between disparate ideas.

These are the same values that have helped me build my own career in communications. I didn’t have the fortune (or maybe the curse) of coming into my profession through a standard pipeline. I didn’t go to a big state school and get a degree in marketing or journalism. I didn’t have any internships. I didn’t have well-connected family or friends. I didn’t even like communications – or the little I knew about the field, anyway.

What I had instead was determination. I graduated with two seemingly useless bachelor’s degrees from definitively useless college. It was 2009, the height of the recession, and my peers were fleeing Chicago like war refugees. But I was committed to making the city work, starting with my first job out of school – a neighborhood bike shop. I used the knowledge I gained on the shop floor to write articles for a bicycle magazine. With those articles I started building a portfolio, which I then used to meet new people and get new work. Through this, I was able to start mapping my career.

The key to building this momentum was learning how to show that my experience mattered and had value, and that nothing I was doing – even the odd jobs, Craigslist hustles, and unpaid gigs – was wasted time. As long as I could find a thread that connected one thing to the next.

In other words, I was learning how to build a narrative.

That’s what communication is – narrative. It’s the thread that connects things. It’s what makes a sentence. It’s what creates meaning. It’s how ideas move through the world.

It’s also something you can only understand by doing. Learning about theory is fun for a minute, and only truly useful if you’re planning on making a career studying theory. But only a few people can have bullshit jobs. The rest of us need to do actual work. And to do that (or do it well, anyway), we need to know how things connect.

So that’s what my new once- or twice-monthly letter is going to be about: My own personal documentary of disparate things, using a blend of curiosity, tenacity, and a healthy dose of tactical impiety to see what stands out – and what connects.

Let’s get started:

DIY Climate Policy (Sierra Magazine)

We already know that the planet is nearing the end of an epoch habitable to most extant life forms. And most of the enlightened world knows that the end has been expedited by human waste and consumption. It feels like we may even be past the point of no return, especially the challenge of reversibility is so monumental – and the barriers so politically and economically convoluted – that environmental redemption seems beyond our grasp. What can any one citizen do?

Well, as Natalya Savka of Sierra (the official magazine of the Sierra Club) reports, any one citizen can do it their damn self. Even a part-time line cook from a Red Robin restaurant on the outskirts of Denver.

Stories of these kind of grassroots initiatives are rightfully inspiring, especially in a time where many of our elected officials are not merely failing their publics – but actively making decisions (or shirking responsibilities) effectively accelerating our culture’s slide into the maw of planetary obsolescence. But these stories also tend to valorize the supposed salvos of bootstrapped derring-do. Or – dare I call it – neoliberalism.

Whatever the hell that is.

(I actually wonder if neoliberalism is nothing more than a magical combination of letters that will get you a byline in n+1 if you repeat them loud enough.)

But when Noam Chomsky says it – as in this interview with the Nation – I think it means something, or becomes less pedantic, anyway. (Stick with me. This is going somewhere.)

When we consecrate the transitory totems of do-it-your-own-damn-self triumphs, we also run the risk of turning society into little more than a swarm of atomized individuals – all trying just as hard to get to their own places, fighting for their own rewards, creating political way of life populated by voices without limbs. This individualized social dynamic inevitably creates a subculture of the trammeled, who have since placed their so-called strong man in the golden throne. And we see all the good that’s doing.

The ABCs of Jacobin (Columbia Journalism Review)

That’s why one of my favorite stories from the past few weeks comes from the Columbia Journalism Review, whose long-firm reportage tells the story of how Jacobin – a self-proclaimed “contemporary socialist quarterly magazine” – has found unlikely success in an age of attention deficit multimedia materialism.

I’m an occasional Jacobin reader (on when I have an intellectual itch on the weekend; off when I’m sitting at my desk for a global corporation during the week). But this is partly because they have a notable presence in Chicago – which itself has historically had a notable presence in the Labor movement – and partly because the editors of Jacobin take a unique and naturally collective approach to their product. It’s a political project, they say. Not a media project.

Meanwhile, on the more solvent end of the media spectrum, GQ welcomed Will Welch as its new editor-in-chief earlier this week, who has heralded a whole new era for the brand.

If you don’t want to read his letter, I’ll summarize it for you: Brooklyn, dancehall, Italian fashion, human creative expression, style, stylishness, Frank Ocean, Vampire Weekend, innovations, SoundCloud rap, shoot me in the damn mouth.

So, not that new.

First Listen (NPR)

Sometimes new is good. But sometimes it’s just fine to stick with what works. That’s why I’ve been streaming Pedro the Lion’s Phoenix. It’s the band’s first new album in 15 years, and it sounds like it was made 15 years ago. Though to the band’s benefit, the unoriginality works in their favor. Their music is what it sounds like when an entire generation of Xennials loses their religion all at once, following a particular rhythm of melancholy and do-it-yourself resolve that can only be received and appreciated on a very specific social register. It won’t win any new Pedro the Lion fans, and it definitely won’t win any Grammys, but we’re nearing the end of the habitable epoch, so who cares?



By Ben van Loon

Writer, Researcher, Chicagoan