Your comment on BJJ’s facebook yesterday morning offered me exactly the worst/best kind of challenge: an irresistibly delightful topic about which I know precisely nothing and am therefore likely to humiliate myself in speculating. This is either helped or worsened by the fact that the topics involved—The Military, Adultery, Marriage, Online Privacy—are frankly incendiary.
First principles: this is a story, and while ‘people you and I are friends with on facebook’ may not care very much about it, someone certainly does. Whether we’re dealing with a scandal, a brouhaha, or even a capital-A Affair, it’s certainly a story. So what’s a story? What can we learn from it? At a really elemental level a story is: someone talking to someone about something. That’s my secret plan for saying something interesting about L’Affaire Petraeus without having to talk in any detail about The Military or Gender or Sex or anything tricky like that: I’ll talk about the story.
Someone, someone, something: the important thing to remember is that everyone’s implicated. There’s a clip on facebook which you’ve probably seen of D-Mac at the last alumni weekend telling a story about a certain Mardi Gras tournament party. Now in this clip D-Mac thinks that he’s telling a story about a party. And that’s true—everyone in the audience is learning something about the subject of the story. But D-Mac is also communicating something about himself. In the way he tells the story—in the details he chooses to omit, the way he mentions those he mentions—he’s actually giving us a lot of information about D-Mac. And, watching, we can also learn something about the audience. Who are these people, and why are they listening to this story? As important, how are they listening? In the clip they interrupt, ask for different storytelling—you learn a lot from that, as well.
So what we’re seeing with Petraeus isn’t just something about Generals, or guys named David, or double entendre as a trope in mass-nonfiction titling. If we look carefully, we can also see something about the media who are telling the story, and if we look even more carefully we’ll see something about ourselves, the audience.
On to the irresponsible speculation, then, after one last note. The note is that the entire affair, to those of us who get to write about it, really demands that we keep a sense of humor. National events in the 2000s have been as a rule really unpleasantly tense. Everything is at stake, always, and others are always bad actors: socialists or fascists, oligarchs or moochers. That these diagnoses are frequently correct doesn’t make them any less of a drag. But l’Affaire Petraeus is mostly just wacky. It’s more Clouseau than Bond, more Silly Walks than Rise and Fall. Now there’s a relevant argument to be made that every word I’m spending on this, and every minute you’ll spend reading this, is an insidious distraction from climate change, which is what we actually ought to be worrying about—but if we’re going to talk about Petraeus, and apparently we are, let’s remember that the whole thing is, first of all, silly. And that honestly that’s half the reason we’re talking about this. Tampa! How refreshingly quaint! How irrelevantly parochial! A land where any surgeon’s wife can be a socialite! Where quasi-fame and bankruptcy are only ever a few dinner parties away!
The thing I keep thinking about is David Petraeus’ second biographer, the one who’ll come along after he’s dead or properly retired and who’ll have to really assess the man’s life and achievements. It’s going to be weird, because I don’t think that in biographer school they do a lot of lessons on ‘how to write the chapters about the period in your subject’s life when he was sleeping with his first biographer.’ It’d be a little like doing a documentary film on someone, and having them keep sleeping with someone from the other crew doing a documentary about them.
The technical term for this situation (or a very similar one) is ‘mise en abyme.’ Think of yourself as a six-year-old, in a barbershop, having your mind blown by the fact that in one mirror you could see the other mirror, in which you could see the first, in which you could see the second, in which you could see an endlessly receding chain of Kevins Draper, curving slightly upward with the parallax and each just slightly smaller than the last. Except this is happening with some sort of interpretive or critical action: you keep running into reflections of yourself, other biographers and other biographies.
This is something that you get pretty used to as a writer or as a filmmaker of a certain type. You’re constantly encountering yourself in these media, and people are into talking about your identity as an identity-haver. But as a biographer it’s probably pretty infrequent—or at least this particular instance is. You’re expected to read and comment on the earlier biographies, but it’s pretty bizarre for the earlier biographer to be a major character in the later biography, the one that the later-biographer is composing.
So what’s a second biographer to do? This isn’t something common. Intern, coworker, neighbor, student, milkman: this is who you’re supposed to have affairs with. Someone with whom there’s frequent more-or-less incidental contact, and attendant sexual friction. We don’t have as many sleeping-with-the-biographer stereotypes. Part of this is that we just don’t have that many biographers. It’s not exactly a common career path, and—without putting too fine a point on it—not one known as a hotbed of virility. Paula Broadwell, the naughty biographer in the Petraeus story, is in point of fact not a biographer at all. This will bother the second biographer more than he or she would like to admit. Broadwell seems more accurately to be a professional badass, one whose appointment as biographer was based more on a conviction of shared badassery (and perhaps a desire to be ‘All In’) than any perceived biographical competence. And that other guy, who actually wrote the biography after Broadwell was done with her six-minute-mile-based research? Vernon Loeb? This is Vernon Loeb. He looks like a writer. He has four children, but the fleshpots of Egypt these aren’t.
Eventually I suppose the second biographer—biographers in generally seeming cleverer and more historically alert than the average citizen—might reflect that this isn’t the only biographer affair we’ve seen recently. It’s a bit different, but John Edwards was able to append the coveted ‘erstwhile’ to his status as presidential candidate largely as a result of his revealed affair with a documentary filmmaker (who a biographer might grudgingly admit as a modern biographer-correlate) who had been doing a film on his campaign. With this evidence, the second biographer might be drawn towards the conclusion that the relative historical rarity and modern prevalence of the biographer affair isn’t just a question of a low supply of sexy biographers. It’s also an artifact of our changing relationship to history. For a long time, biography, like history, was something that happened afterwards. Someone died, or a war ended, and then people figured out what they were going to write.
One thing the second biographer would probably know that I personally had to look up on Wikipedia is that the roots of biography as profession are generally religious and specifically evangelical: the modern biography—in which we write a book about an interesting person’s life—is a descendant of the ancient hagiography, which was basically a book (or other publication) about how great a specific saint was, designed to convert the reader to this (the saint’s) totally awesome and life-changing faith. This hasn’t been eradicated: biography as genre proceeds from the assumption that the biographed individual is in some way particularly great or interesting, that we as an everyone have something to learn from this person’s habits or achievement. Even in him- or herself the second biographer would detect a brighter or fainter veneration for Petraeus, the chosen object of biography.
All that’s to say that even though biographers may not be particularly sexy, they do have to be great lovers—they have to be people who are constitutionally capable of believing that another human being’s achievements are so important and interesting that the best thing they can do with their time is tell everyone about this other person. They have to be willing to value the other person’s life, in some sense, above their own. LeBron couldn’t do that, and David Petraeus couldn’t do that, and probably you and I couldn’t do that. You have to be interested, affectionate—almost obsessively, if you want to do it right. I’d bet that whoever the second biographer was dating would probably be really totally impressed with how good that second biographer is at being in a relationship.
So maybe the real surprise is that we aren’t up to our knees in biographical affairs. Who better to have an affair with than someone whose actual job is to know and celebrate everything about you? But historically it seems like there’s two factors (in addition to the whole they’re-all-writers thing) that have held back the biographer-schtupping instinct. First, regrettably, is the historic gender-homogeneity of the biography industry: both national political figures (subjects) and academics (writers) have historically been male, which means that if we take homosexuality to be 10% incident, then the odds of both elements of the standard bio-pair being interested in the other would be something like 1%–enough to occur, not enough to be a trope.
But the real reason that biographer affairs are historically rare is that usually one of the people involved is dead. If our second biographer—and assume the second biographer is the naughtiest of all possible biographers—had just finished a biography of John Adams, and had discovered along the way that for the biographer personally there had never been a sexier specimen of human manhood than John Adams, it would still have been difficult to have an affair with John Adams. Because John Adams is dead. And—also historically speaking—the idea of even starting a biography while the person involved was alive would have been pretty difficult. You’d need access, which would mean either ‘being-so-and-so’s best friend’ or ‘having all the letters they wrote,’ which was only possible after their death.
But we’re on a different model now. In this model, Paula Broadwell can decide to write a book about Petraeus at a time when (in general officer terms) his career is definitively not over. This means that, instead of reading his letters posthumously or interviewing him in the nursing home, Broadwell was able to accompany him on his appointment to Kabul, and, being one of our naughtier biographers, have an affair. This kind of best-friend, instant access has a number of effects—first, it accounts for the glowing ‘awesome or super-awesome’ quality of All In. It also probably improves the quality of some of the data collected—you’re right there, after all. But it certainly makes the affair thing more likely.
But the real question isn’t what Broadwell’s proximal biography meant for her book—it’s why she was doing it that way, what that means about biography, or about those scary capital concepts I’m so far doing a good job avoiding talking about. Partially it’s because for her particularly it (sexytime aside) was probably a lot of fun. But why for the marketplace? Why do we as a society write biographies this way? What gives the idea that a mid-career biography is worth a half-million-dollar advance and lots of talk show appearances? Partially it’s probably an import from the corporate-nonfiction or celebrity-nonfiction world, in which branded books on ‘leadership’ and ‘decision-making’ (or alternatively the Snooki book) are released just whenever people have something interesting to say and want to cash in.
But to the second biographer—who, being a classically trained biographer and something of a biography traditionalist, would more or less detest Broadwell’s life-in-progress biography even extrinsic to affairs—would probably realize that it’s also an artifact of our changing relationship to history. The thing about history is that it, like biography, used to be retroactive and effortful: daily interactions, even among the mighty, were verbal or physical, and it took a special effort to record things. Someone had to write it down (a chronicle) and then someone else had to come along and turn those writings into a story. Now things are different. Many of the habits of our daily lives, being both textual and archived, are themselves historical. This is part of what nailed Petraeus—an email, once archived, does not pass calmly into obsolescence as a conversation does. Instead, it lingers, is retrieved, becomes historical. There is a difference between memory and data. One is historical, and the other is not.
Where does Broadwellt, where does Petraeus come into this? As enthusiastic endorsers of instant history. Keep this in mind: Broadwell went to Kabul to write a book about a general commanding a certain war, then published it before the war was over. The war still isn’t over! But that wasn’t a problem for anyone’s book deal. And it wasn’t problem for anyone purchasing the book either. So what if the long-term effects of Petraeusism (which consisted, as far as I can tell, of a hypercompetently conventional counterinsurgency approach in Iraq/Afghanistan coupled with an also-hypercompetent counterinsurgency-inspired press campaign at home, featuring aggressive co-optation of opinion leaders, cheerleading for friendly politicians, and a general focus on the fragile hearts and minds of Washington) won’t be diagnosable for something like the next couple of decades? Maybe another, more reflective generation of consumers would have objected. Not us: becoming self-branders, we’ve also become our own constant historians. The kind of reputation-burnishing once reserved for celebrities has become a daily facebook chore. We don’t just consume instant history—we practice it, constantly record our passing feelings as crucial missives to our Friends or Followers.
So if L’Affaire Petraeus shows us anything about ourselves, maybe it should show us this: that in our lives we’ve begun replacing reflective history with the instant kind, in our bookstores replaced the posthumous biography with the action biography. In this case there’s the second biographer’s mise-en-abyme, which probably sucks. But it’s not too big a deal.
So why should we care if we’ve become instant historians? Maybe we shouldn’t—instant history has a lot of advantages. I have a friend here in New York who worked briefly for a company that basically sent you an email every day saying what you had done on facebook a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago. This is shit that would have been almost certainly lost without instant history. And instant history as practiced by documentary filmmakers and good biographers is something close to crucial. If there’s a fallacy to the reflective biography, it’s in its skeletal reductivism: a life becomes a series of important events, of grand achievements sapped of any human quality, any sense of immediacy or incident. John Adams was born here and went to school here. But how did John Adams hold his cigarettes? Did he like sweet potato pie? What did he do with his hands when he was thinking? Instant history, perhaps alone, can tell us.
There’s probably no problem with instant history as an abstract noun, then. But it does seem weird. Otherwise it wouldn’t make our second biographer’s skin crawl so darn much. What’s the problem? It’s the conceit that we, the instant historians, have a clue what we’re doing as we make it. We don’t think that we need to wait to learn from life. If history is a narrative inflicted on a dataset, then we as moderns are generating both narratives and datasets at a far faster and perhaps more reckless pace than our species has done in the past. If all this is an artifact of anything, it’s an artifact of our conviction that we can see what something means from right beside it.
Can we? Draper, I think maybe we cannot. If there’s anything that’s really troubling about the whole situation, it’s the synecdochic reach of the Petraeus/Broadwell story into the rest of the relationship between our our press and military over the last decade of American war. Here’s a story about a writer, at least ostensibly an academic, who began writing a biography and ended by having lots of intercourse: ‘embedding’ never felt so crudely, morphemically literal. Is David Petraeus super-awesome or just awesome? That was the only question almost anyone was asking, even the writers who weren’t sleeping with him. Now signs point to somewhere between super-awesome and awesome. But we need—and this is me talking, Corley—we need our academics and our writers to be at least a little confrontational. And the problem with powerful people is that even when they’re not carnal, they’re seductive: they’re smart and successful and powerful, and it’s hard to stand right next to them without seeing things from their perspective. I’ve spent time with some extremely wealthy (and wonderful) people who I disagree with about some very important things—but it’s much harder to disagree when you’re standing right next to them, when you’re at their summer house.
The other problem with instant history—and you know this if you’ve ever sent a dumb text—is that our first selves are really rarely our best selves, especially in complicated situations. There’s a reason why precisely no one’s crisis advice is ‘just go ahead and do the first thing that comes into your head.’ The reason is that while we’re extremely good at intuitively processing situations, we’re not always excellent at immediately understanding what to do about them. So the biggest problem with instant history probably isn’t the methodology, but the historian: it’s written by a first self, someone who’s just come back from a six-minute-mile, someone who we should let calm down before we listen to them.
I’m imagining that when the second biographer gets drunk he or she sometimes entertains the rude and not-particularly-promising thought that in both of the general-affairs now implicated in this entire unwholesome situation there’s a radical disjunction between our natural image of the general and the emergent image of the general’s wife. General: conventionally a virile and world-bestriding figure of untrammeled masculinity, a six-minute-miler at 50, a paragon of [American] penetrative manhood. General’s wife: a woman in glasses and a sensible coat, smiling chinnily out at us and lamely offering a picture of a squirrel [!?!?]. The second biographer knows you can’t use the word ‘frumpstar’ in academic discourse. What the hell is going on here? Why do the mistresses—Broadwell’s queen-of-the-universing Hippolyta and Kelley’s strutting Kardashian—seem so much more neatly to match our notion of the general than do the wives? Who—general, wife, or mistress—are we misassessing? Is there something in the military mindset that says marry early? And that then wants to have affairs? Or are generals simply nerds at heart, those who studied harder than the action captains, with all the anxiety and romantic dysfunction that comes from having spent your life choosing to achieve instead of feel?
The second thing we learn from a story is about the storytellers. Here things are pretty direct, and I think you, as a data guy, might like where this goes. To be blunt it hasn’t been a great few months to be in the national/political reporting biz. If you’re a national news reporter, you probably wrote at least once in the last two months about Romney’s momentum, or an ‘electoral dead heat.’ Meanwhile, eggheads like Nate Silver and the PEC team were confidently predicting a narrow-to-sizeable Obama margin. Afterwards, there was an eagerness to report on the election results as a triumph of quantitative over qualitative analysis. Silver’s averages outdid Noonan’s gut.
So why are we hearing so much about the sex life of David Petraeus? I’d argue it’s because to a statistically significant portion of the press this feels like a chance to prove their worth: no statistical method could ever have anything but a bizarre and meaningless bearing on the story. How many win shares is Petraeus worth? What’s Broadwell’s Value over Replacement Mistress (VoRM)? Is Jill Kelley likely to pull her weight on a socialite fantasy team? Do historic generals of Petraeus’ age and position show a similar tendency to adultery?
What’s called for in the Petraeus case isn’t statistics but reporting. Good, old-fashioned reporting! Interviews! Storytelling! Inside sources! Gut Feelings! Spin! Everything that proved irrelevant to the presidential campaign, in other words, is essential in L’Affaire Petraeus, and everything that proved crucial there is bafflingly useless here. Nate Silver posted today about the MLB MVP voting—that’s how useless he is when an actual scandal comes to town.
But why is this situation so impossible to analyze? Ironically, it’s precisely because of its basically irrelevant and nonrepresentative nature. Seriously, what are we going to learn from this for next time? What are the predictive lessons here? Don’t sleep with your biographer? Make sure that biographer doesn’t send catty emails to a separate friend? Be certain that the separate friend doesn’t have a shirtless-picture-sending, Republican-congressman-palling FBI agent on speed-dial? When married, don’t cheat? It’s a roll call of the tautologically obvious and the uselessly specific. The only real conclusion is the grim one above—that somewhere the press forgot how to be skeptical of the power it reported on.
This basic refusal to signify has been troubling for the press, too—when all this dropped, people seemed certain it had something to do with the whole Benghazi cockup. There was no way that the CIA director’s resignation so shortly after an election and so shortly before his scheduled testimony could be anything but a pinko dodge. But of course that seems to be exactly what it isn’t—this is just a really wacky thing that happened one time to some people that happened to be in charge of things. Other than that it stands for nothing, symbolizes nothing. Absent torturous moral gymnastics, absolutely no conclusions can be drawn here about the military, or about the CIA, or about anything except the people involved (and perhaps the changing nature of history).
As a novelist, this is a weird thing. I spend a lot of my time synecdochizing, trying to see big social trends and figure out how to tell a story that’ll access them sort of representatively or metaphorically. I guess I do that because I imagine that those are the best stories—the stories that will matter the most to people. But here’s a story that’s mostly notable for its exceptionality, that really doesn’t synecdochize anything at all—and people love it.
But of course I’m wrong. Obviously there’s a big synecdoche here: the inappropriately intimate relationship we have between the armed forces and the press. But that, like the changing-history thing, is a second-order perspective—something that looks at the story and how it’s told, and then concludes, rather than a first reading. History, rather than chronicle, something that’s damn hard to get right on the first reading.
Anyways. There are bigger questions here. One is whether and in what way we ought to care if the CIA head is caught having sex with Hippolyta anyways. I would say maybe we shouldn’t. Another is why this is so fascinating. I think that part of it is that the Kelley people are (beyond the Palins) sort of the first actual intrusion of reality-television-type individuals into our national-security discourse, and that that’s fascinating. But really the question is, why are we all talking about this? For me the answer has a few pieces—first is that remarkable meaninglessness, second is the sheer proximity of the story. I’ve probably driven past Jill Kelly’s house, probably played Frisbee with MacDill guys. I think that part of my youth in Florida, and part of my continuing worldview ever since, was the notion that nothing important would ever happen in Tampa. Miami, sure—even Orlando, even Jacksonville. But Tampa was just somewhere that people lived, with a too-big bar district and too many strip clubs with 80s architecture and too many streets with numbers instead of names, and houses set back on little lawns, and somewhere a place that did good Cuban sandwiches, and memories of cigar factories. I remember the first time I saw condoms, as a kid, was in Tampa: an urn just overflowing with them, in the corner of an incense-burning smoke shop I can’t remember why I was in. It was in late afternoon, I put my hands on them. To a child a condom feels like candy in its smooth fun-size package. I want this to mean something, but, like the entire Petraeus affair, it doesn’t—or rather means only as much as I choose for it to, only what I intend.
Hope you’re well,