The Diderot Effect: Enlightenment Philosopher Denis Diderot Explains the Psychology of Consumerism & Our Wasteful Spending

In pointing out the clear and present dangers posed by out-of-control consumerism, there is no need for Marxism 101 terms like “commodity fetishism.” Simply state in plain terms that we revere cheaply-mass-produced goods, made for the sake of endless growth and consumption, for no particular reason other than perpetual novelty and the creation of wealth for a few. Everyone nods in agreement, then gets back to scrolling through their social media feeds and inboxes, convincing themselves, as I convince myself, that targeted advertising in digital networks—what Jaron Lanier calls “mass behavior-modification regimes”—could not possibly have any effect on me!

While 18th-century French philosophe Denis Diderot in no way predicted (as Lanier largely did) the mass behavior-modification schemes of the internet, he understood something critically important about human behavior and the nascent commodity culture taking shape around him, a culture of anxious disquiet and games of one-upmanship, played, if not with others, then with oneself. Renowned, among other things, for co-founding the Encyclopédie (the first Wikipedia!), Diderot has also acquired a reputation for the insights in his essay “Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown,” which inspired the concept of the “Diderot Effect.”

This principle states that modern consumption requires us to “identify ourselves using our possessions,” as Esther Inglis-Arkell writes at io9. Thus, when persuaded by naked lust or the enticements of advertising to purchase something new and shiny, we immediately notice how out of place it looks amongst our old things. “Once we own one thing that stands out, that doesn’t fit our current sense of unity, we go on a rampage trying to reconstruct ourselves” by upgrading things that worked perfectly well, in order to maintain a coherent sense of who we are in relation to the first new purchase.

The phenomenon, “part psychological, and part deliberate manipulation,” drives heedless shopping and creates needless waste. Diderot describes the effect in terms consistent with the tastes and prejudices of an educated gentleman of his time. He does so with perspicacious self-awareness. The essay is worth a read for the rich hyperbole of its rhetoric. Beginning with a comparison between his old bathrobe, which “molded all the folds of my body” and his new one (“stiff, and starchy, makes me look stodgy”), Diderot builds to a near-apocalyptic scenario illustrating the “ravages of luxury.”

The purchase of a new dressing gown spoiled his sense of himself as “the writer, the man who works.” The new robe strikes a jarring, dissociative note. “I now have the air of a rich good for nothing. No one knows who I am…. All now is discordant,” he writes, “No more coordination, no more unity, no more beauty.” Rather than get rid of the new purchase, he feels compelled to become the kind of person who wears such a thing, by means of further purchases which he could only newly afford, after receiving an endowment from Catherine the Great. Before this windfall, points out James Clear, he had “lived nearly his entire life in poverty.”

Clear gives several examples of the Diderot effect that take it out of the realm of 18th century aesthetics and into our modern big-box/Amazon reality. “We are rarely looking to downgrade, to simplify,” he writes, “Our natural inclination is always to accumulate.” To counter the tendency, he recommends corrective behaviors such as making sure new purchases fit in with our current possessions; setting self-imposed limits on spending; and reducing exposure to “habit triggers.” This may require admitting that we are susceptible to the ads that clutter both our physical and digital environments, and that limiting time spent on ad-driven platforms may be an act not only of self-care, but of social and environmental care as well. Algorithms now perform Diderot effects for us constantly.

Is the Diderot effect universally bad? Inglis-Arkell argues that “it’s not pure evil… there’s a difference between an Enlightenment screed and real life.” So-called green consumerism—“replacing existing wasteful goods with more durable, cleaner, more responsibly-made goods”—might be a healthy use of Diderot-like avarice. Besides, she says, “there’s nothing wrong with wanting to communicate one’s sense of self through aesthetic choices” or craving a unified look for our physical spaces. Maybe, maybe not, but we can take responsibility for how we direct our desires. In any case, Diderot’s essay is hardly a “screed,” but a light-hearted, yet candid self examination. He is not yet so far gone, he writes: “I have not been corrupted…. But who knows what will happen with time?”

Related Content:

Bertrand Russell & Buckminster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More

How Information Overload Robs Us of Our Creativity: What the Scientific Research Shows

Everyday Economics: A New Course by Marginal Revolution University Where Students Create the Syllabus

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear 48 Hours of Lectures by Joseph Campbell on Comparative Mythology and the Hero’s Journey

What does it mean to “grow up”? Every culture has its way of defining adulthood, whether it’s surviving an initiation ritual or filing your first tax return. I’m only being a little facetious—people in the U.S. have long felt dissatisfaction with the ways we are ushered into adulthood, from learning how to fill out IRS forms to learning how to fill out student loan and credit card applications, our culture wants us to understand our place in the great machine. All other pressing life concerns are secondary.

It’s little wonder, then, that gurus and cultural father figures of all types have found ready audiences among America’s youth. Such figures have left lasting legacies for decades, and not all of them positive. But one public intellectual from the recent past is still seen as a wise old master whose far-reaching influence remains with us and will for the foreseeable future. Joseph Campbell’s obsessive, erudite books and lectures on world mythologies and traditions have made certain that ancient adulthood rituals have entered our narrative DNA.




When Campbell was awarded the National Arts Club Gold Medal in Literature in 1985, psychologist James Hillman stated that “no one in our century—not Freud, not Thomas Mann, not Levi-Strauss—has so brought the mythical sense of the world and its eternal figures back into our everyday consciousness.” Whatever examples Hillman may have had in mind, we might rest our case on the fact that without Campbell there would likely be no Star Wars. For all its success as a megamarketing phenomenon, the sci-fi franchise has also produced enduringly relatable role models, examples of achieving independence and standing up to imperialists, even if they be your own family members in masks.

In the video interviews above from 1987, Campbell professes himself no more than an “underliner” who learned everything he knows from books. Like the contemporary comparative mythologist Mircea Eliade, Campbell did not conduct his own anthropological research—he acquired a vast amount of knowledge by studying the sacred texts, artifacts, and rituals of world cultures. This study gave him insight into stories and images that continue to shape our world and feature centrally in huge pop cultural productions like The Last Jedi and Black Panther.

Campbell describes ritual entries into adulthood that viewers of these films will instantly recognize: Defeating idols in masks and taking on their power; burial enactments that kill the “infantile ego” (academics, he says with a straight face, sometimes never leave this stage). These kinds of edge experiences are at the very heart of the classic hero’s journey, an archetype Campbell wrote about in his bestselling The Hero with a Thousand Faces and popularized on PBS in The Power of Myth, a series of conversations with Bill Moyers.

In the many lectures just above—48 hours of audio in which Campbell expounds his theories of the mythological—the engaging, accessible writer and teacher lays out the patterns and symbols of mythologies worldwide, with special focus on the hero’s journey, as important to his project as dying and rising god myths to James Frazer's The Golden Bough, the inspiration for so many modernist writers. Campbell himself is more apt to reference James Joyce, Carl Jung, Pablo Picasso, or Richard Wagner than science fiction, fantasy, or comic books (though he did break down Star Wars in his Moyers interviews). Nonetheless, we have him to thank for inspiring the likes of George Lucas and becoming a “patron saint of superheroes” and space operas.

We will find some of Campbell’s methods flawed and terminology outdated (no one uses “Orient” and “Occident” anymore)—and modern heroes can just as well be women as men, passing through the same kinds of symbolic trials in their origin stories. But Campbell’s ideas are as resonant as ever, offering to the wider culture a coherent means of understanding the archetypal stages of coming of age. As Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler said in 1985, after recommending The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a guide for screenwriters, Campbell’s work “can be used to tell the simplest comic story or the most sophisticated drama”—a sweeping vision of human cultural history and its meaning for our individual journeys.

You can access the 48 hours of Joseph Campbell lectures above, or directly on Spotify.

Related Content:

Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers Break Down Star Wars as an Epic, Universal Myth

A 12-Hour Eastern Spirituality Playlist: Features Lectures & Readings by Joseph Campbell, Christopher Isherwood, the Dalai Lama & Others

The Complete Star Wars “Filmumentary”: A 6-Hour, Fan-Made Star Wars Documentary, with Behind-the-Scenes Footage & Commentary

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Feel Strangely Nostalgic as You Hear Classic Songs Reworked to Sound as If They’re Playing in an Empty Shopping Mall: David Bowie, Toto, Ah-ha & More

"…if he went away, as he had once upon a time, other voices, other rooms, voices lost and clouded, strummed his dreams." - Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms

Is there a word for the emotional floodtide that wells up when a song from the past catches us alone and unawares?

The sensation is too private to be written off as mere nostalgia.

Whatever chemical phenomenon explains it, “Cecil Robert,” a 20-year-old from Kaukauna, Wisconsin, has tapped into it in a big way, by messing with the frequencies of pop songs from the 70s, 80s and 90s, until they sound like something playing on the neighbor’s side of the wall, or the echo chamber of an empty shopping mall.

The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino wrote that his faraway remix of Toto’s early 80s soft rock hit, "Africa," above, sounded like “longing and consolation together, extended into emptiness, a shot of warmth coming out of a void.”




Funny. That pretty much sums up how I feel listening to Cecil Robert’s take on Nena's "99 Luftballons"

It was released in 1983, the year that I graduated high school and in which "Africa"—which I confess leaves me cold—hit Number One on Billboard’s Hot 100 list.

Were it a matter of sheer generational nostalgia, Tolentino (one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 for 2017) should be laid flat by Mac DeMarco’s "My Kind of Woman" “playing slowly from another room.”

And I’d be getting all gooey over "Africa."

It doesn’t work that way.

But it definitely works, as evidenced by the plethora of comments that greet every new Cecil Robert upload:

This is what plays when I’m crying in a bathroom of a party and my crush comes in and comforts me…

This is the song you listen to during the aftermath of a party while everyone is passed out and someone left the music playing...

This really evokes the feeling of slowly bleeding out alone on the kitchen floor & all your senses slowly blurring together under the glare of the fluorescent light overhead set to the tune of the muffled music coming from the record player in the next room…

Such a deep connection begs that requests be taken, and Cecil Roberts does his best to oblige, prioritizing those who make a modest donation on his Patreon page:

I need "Hotel California" playing at an airport restaurant bar late at night…

I need U2—"Beautiful Day"  playing in a diner while it’s raining in the afternoon…

I need "Coming of Age" by Foster the People being played in a diner while I eat a hotdog and wait for my car to get out of the shop across the street...

(For the record, Tolentino asked for an another-room edit of Jai Paul’s dreamy 2011 electro-soul hit "BTSTU.")

Some of Cecil Robert's source material—Julee Cruise’s Twin Peaks theme, "Falling," for instance—is so ethereal that placing it at the other end of the sonic telescope almost feels like overkill.

On the other hand, it could add a welcome layer for fans subconsciously pining for that lost sense of anticipation—for early 90s girls in 50s saddle shoes and pencil skirts, for episodes doled out one week at a time…

Get in a weird mood on Cecil Robert’s YouTube channel.

Fast track a request for $2 on his Patreon page.

Listen to his original ambient compositions on Soundcloud.

via The New Yorker

Related Content:

Hear Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Shifted from Minor to Major Key, and Radiohead’s “Creep” Moved from Major to Minor

The Original Noise Artist: Hear the Strange Experimental Sounds & Instruments of Italian Futurist, Luigi Russolo (1913)

Download 10,000 of the First Recordings of Music Ever Made, Thanks to the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC this Tuesday, March 20 for the second installment of Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How Much Money Do You Need to Be Happy? A New Study Gives Us Some Exact Figures

“If I gave you a million dollars, would you…?” (insert possibly life-altering risk, humiliation, or soul-selling crime here). What about ten million? 100 million? One BILLION dollars? Put another way, in the terms social scientists use these days, how much money is enough to make you happy?

If you’re Montgomery Burns, it’s at least a billion dollars, lest you be forced to suffer the torments of the Millionaire’s Camp. (“Just kill me now!”) As it tends to do, The Simpsons’ dark humor nails the insatiable greed that seems the scourge of our time, when the richest 1 percent take 82 percent of the world’s wealth, and the poorest 50 percent get nothing at all.




Hypothetical windfalls aside, the question of how much is enough is an urgent one for many people: as in, how much to feed a family, supply life’s necessities, purchase just enough leisure for some small degree of personal fulfilment?

As the misery of Monty Burns demonstrates, we have a sense of the 1% as eternally unfulfilled. He’s the wicked heir to more serious tragic figures like Charles Foster Kane and Jay Gatsby. But satire is one thing, and desire, that linchpin of the economy, is another.

“What we see on TV and what advertisers tell us we need would indicate there is no ceiling when it comes to how much money is needed for happiness,” says Purdue University psychologist Andrew T. Jebb, “but we now see there are some thresholds.” In short: money is a good thing, but there is such a thing as too much of it.

Jebb and his colleagues from Purdue and the University of Virginia addressed questions in their study “Happiness, income satiation and turning points around the world” like, “Does happiness rise indefinitely with income, or is there a point at which higher incomes no longer lead to greater wellbeing?” What they found in data from an international Gallup World Poll survey of over 1.7 million people in 164 countries varies widely across the world.

People in wealthier areas seem to require more income for happiness (or “Subjective Well Being” in the social science terminology). In many parts of the world, higher incomes, “beyond satiation”—a metric that measures how much is enough—“are associated with lower life evaluations.” The authors also note that "a recent study at the country level found a slight but significant decline in life evaluation" among very high earners "in the richest countries."

You can see the wide variance in happiness worldwide in the “Happiness” study. As Dan Kopf notes at Quartz, these research findings are consistent with those of other researchers of happiness and income, though they go into much more detail. Problems with the methodology of these studies—primarily their reliance on self-reported data—make them vulnerable to several critiques.

But, assuming they demonstrate real quantities, what, on average, do they tell us? “We found that the ideal income point," averaged out in U.S. dollars, "is $95,000 for [overall life satisfaction],” says Jebb, “and $60,000 to $75,000 for emotional well-being,” a measure of day-to-day happiness. These are, mind you, individual incomes and “would likely be higher for families,” he says.

Peter Dockrill at Science Alert summarizes some other interesting findings: “Globally, it’s cheaper for men to be satisfied with their lives ($90,000) than women ($100,000), and for people of low ($70,000) or moderate education ($85,000) than people with higher education ($115,000).”

Yes, the study, like those before it, shows that after the “satiation point,” happiness decreases, though perhaps not to Monty Burns levels of dissatisfaction. But where does this leave most of us in the new Gilded Age? Given that "satiation" in the U.S. is around $105K, with day-to-day happiness around $85K, the majority of Americans fall well below the happiness line. The median salary for U.S. workers at the end of 2017 was $44, 564, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Managers and professionals averaged $64,220 and service workers around $28,000. (As you might imagine, income inequality diverged sharply along racial lines.)

And while the middle class saw a slight bump in income in the last couple years, median household income was still only $59,039 in 2016. However, we measure it the "middle class... has been declining for four decades,” admits Business Insider—“identifying with the middle class is, in part, a state of mind” rather than a state of debt-to-income ratios. (One study shows that Millennials make 20% less than Baby Boomers did at the same age.) Meanwhile, as wealth increases at the top, “the country’s bottom 20% of earners became worse off.”

This may all sound like bad news for the happiness quotient of the majority, if happiness (or Subjective Well Being) requires a certain amount of material security. Maybe one positive takeaway is that it doesn’t require nearly the amount of vast private wealth that has accumulated in the hands of a very few people. According to this research, significantly redistributing that wealth might actually make the wealthy a little happier, and less Mr. Burns-like, even as it raised happiness standards a great deal for millions of others.

Not only are higher incomes "usually accompanied by higher demands," as Jebb and his colleagues conclude—on one's time, and perhaps on one's conscience—but "additional factors" may also play a role in decreasing happiness as incomes rise, including "an increase in materialistic values, additional material aspirations that may go unfulfilled, increased social comparisons," etc. The longstanding truism about money not buying love—or fulfillment, meaning, peace of mind, what-have-you—may well just be true.

You can dig further into Andrew T. Jebb's study here: “Happiness, income satiation and turning points around the world.”

Related Content:

What Are the Keys to Happiness?: Take “The Science of Well-Being,” a Free Online Version of Yale’s Most Popular Course

Albert Einstein’s Elegant Theory of Happiness: It Just Sold for $1.6 Million at Auction, But You Can Use It for Free

Will You Really Achieve Happiness If You Finally Win the Rat Race? Don’t Answer the Question Until You’ve Watched Steve Cutts’ New Animation

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Harvard Launches a Free Online Course to Promote Religious Tolerance & Understanding

It is difficult to have discussions in our current public square without becoming forced into false choices. Following Marshall McLuhan, we might think that the nature of the digital medium makes this happen, as much as the content of the messages. But some messages are more polarizing than others—with arguments over religion seemingly primed for binary oppositions.

That many nuanced positions exist between denying the validity of every religion and proclaiming a specific version as the only one true path shows how durable and flexible religious thought can be. The widespread diversity among religions cannot mask the significant degree of commonality between them, in all human societies, leading scholars like anthropologist Pascal Boyer to conclude, as he writes in Religion Explained, that “the explanation for religious beliefs and behaviors is to be found in the way all human minds work…."

I really mean all human minds not the just the minds of religious people or some of them. I am talking about human minds, because what matters here are properties of minds that are found in all members of our species with normal brains.

Famed Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky, who happens to be an atheist, claims that somewhere around 95% of the human population believes in some sort of supernatural agency or religious set of explanations, and that such faith has “undeniable health benefits,” and is thus biologically motivated.




The real question, he reluctantly admits, is not why so many people believe, but “what’s up with the 5% of atheists who don’t do that?" The question needn’t imply there’s anything abnormal, inferior, or superior, about atheists. Variations don’t come with inherent values, though they may eventually become the norm.

But if we accept the well-supported thesis that religion is a phenomenon rooted in and naturally expressed by the human mind, like art, language, and literature, we would be negligent in remaining willfully ignorant of its expressions. And yet, Diane Moore, director of Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy Project, tells the Huffington Post, “widespread illiteracy about religion… spans the globe” and “fuels bigotry and prejudice and hinders capacities for cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.”

Harvard aims to help change attitudes with their Religious Literacy Project, which offers free online courses on the world’s five major religions—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism—through their edX platform. The first course of the series, taught by Moore, launches on March 5th. “Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures” surveys the methodology of the project as a whole, exploring “case studies about how religions are internally diverse, how they evolve and change through time, and how religions are embedded in all dimensions of human experience.” (See a promo video at the top and a teaser for the project as a whole above.)

Understanding religion as both a universal phenomenon and a set of culturally and historically specific events resolves misunderstandings that result from oversimplified, static stereotypes. Studying the historical, theological, and geographical varieties of Islam, for example, makes it impossible to say anything definitive about one singular, monolithic “Islam,” and therefore about Muslims in general. The same goes for Christians, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, etc. The fact that religion is embedded in nearly every facet of human experience, writes Moore in an introductory essay for the project, means that we can credit it with the “full range of agency from the heinous to the heroic," rather than flipping between these extremes to score chauvinist points or invalidate entire realms of social life.

We’ve previously featured one of the courses from the big five series of classes, “Buddhism through its Scriptures.” The method there applies to each course, which all engage rigorously with primary sources and scholarly commentary to get students as close as possible to understanding religious practice from both the inside and the outside. Granted this canonical approach ignores the practices of millions of people outside the big five categories, but one could ostensibly apply a similar academic rubric to the study of syncretisms and indigenous religions all over the world.

Professor Moore’s “Religious Literacy” class—which you can audit free of charge or take for a certificate for $50—promises to give students the tools they need to understand how to survey religions critically, yet sympathetically, and to “interpret the roles religions play in contemporary and historic contexts.” Like it or not, religions of every kind remain pervasive and seemingly intractable. Rather than fighting over this fact of life, we would all do better to try and understand it. Begin to enlarge your own understanding by signing up for "Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures" for free.

Related Content:

Take Harvard’s Introductory Course on Buddhism, One of Five World Religions Classes Offered Free Online

Atheist Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky Explains How Religious Beliefs Reduce Stress

Free Online Religion Courses 

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Are the Keys to Happiness?: Take “The Science of Well-Being,” a Free Online Version of Yale’s Most Popular Course

Don't listen to people who tell you they've found the one true path to happiness — but do listen to people who seem seriously in search of it. One such person, Yale psychology and cognitive science professor Laurie Santos, teaches a whole course on the subject: Psych 157, also known as "Psychology and the Good Life." And even though college students are living the best time of their lives — or so the culture keeps insisting to them — enough of them desire its insights to make it the most popular class at the university, with more than 1,180 students currently enrolled.

"The course focuses both on positive psychology — the characteristics that allow humans to flourish, according to Dr. Santos — and behavioral change, or how to live by those lessons in real life," writes The New York Times' David Shimer. "Students must take quizzes, complete a midterm exam and, as their final assessment, conduct what Dr. Santos calls a 'Hack Yo’Self Project,' a personal self-improvement project." The body of knowledge underlying it all is hardly obvious: "Scientists didn’t realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago, that our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade — are totally wrong," the article quotes Santos as saying.




So what, according to the up-to-date research of Santos and others, does make us happy? Now, you don't need to go Yale to find out: you can simply take "The Science of Well-Being," the new online version of Santos' course, on Coursera. "The first half of the course reveals misconceptions we have about happiness and the annoying features of the mind that lead us to think the way we do," says its description. "The second half of the course focuses on activities that have been proven to increase happiness along with strategies to build better habits."

Now open for enrollment, "The Science of Well-Being" officially starts in March, and its number of students certainly won't be limited by the capacity of Woolsey Hall. If you'd like to get a sense of the learning experience on offer, have a look at the course's trailer above, in which Santos explains the origin and development of the course, which began in her own home and now, with a potentially worldwide audience, uses not just the latest science but a specially developed app to help its students develop the elements of their own good life. Will you finish the course perfectly happy? She doesn't promise that, but nobody ever lost their way to happiness by knowing a bit about it.

Enroll in "The Science of Well-Being" here.

Related Content:

Free Online Psychology & Neuroscience Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities

Albert Camus Explains Why Happiness Is Like Committing a Crime—”You Should Never Admit to it” (1959)

What Are the Keys to Happiness? Lessons from a 75-Year-Long Harvard Study

A Guide to Happiness: Alain de Botton Shows How Six Great Philosophers Can Change Your Life

The Keys to Happiness: The Emerging Science and the Upcoming MOOC by Raj Raghunathan

Harvard Course on Positive Psychology: Watch 30 Lectures from the University’s Extremely Popular Course

Albert Einstein’s Elegant Theory of Happiness: It Just Sold for $1.6 Million at Auction, But You Can Use It for Free

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Read the Shortest Academic Article Ever Written: “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block'”

We've featured impressively short academic papers here on Open Culture before, like John Nash's 26-page PhD thesis and this two-sentence "Counterexample to Euler's Conjecture on Sums and Like Powers," but if you've set your sights on writing one shorter still, don't get your hopes up. The almost certainly unbeatable example of a short academic paper appeared more than forty years ago, in the fall 1974 issue of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analyses, its main text coming in at exactly zero words. You can read it, if indeed "read" is the word, above or at the National Center for Biotechnology Information.




Written, or at least thought up, by psychologist Dennis Upper, "The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of 'Writer's Block'" has nothing but its title, one footnote (indicating that "portions of this paper were not presented at the 81st annual American Psychological Association Convention"), and the fulsome comments of a reviewer: "I have studied this manuscript very carefully with lemon juice and X-rays and have not detected a single flaw in either design or writing style. I suggest it be published without revision. Clearly it is the most concise manuscript I have ever seen — yet it contains sufficient detail to allow other investigators to replicate Dr. Upper's failure. In comparison with the other manuscripts I get from you containing all that complicated detail, this one was a pleasure to examine."

Some describe writer's block, whether in science or literature or any other field requiring the proper arrangement of words, as a fear of the blank page. If looking at Upper's void-like paper frightens you, consider having a look at the Louisiana Channel series we featured in 2016 wherein writers like Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, and David Mitchell talk about how they deal with the blank page themselves. Atwood finds that it "beckons you in to write something on it," that "it must be filled,” but if you don't hear the same call, you'll have to come up with an approach of your own. Just don't try titling, footnoting, and turning in the empty sheet — it's been done.

Related Content:

8 Writers on How to Face Writer’s Block and the Blank Page: Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates & More

The Shortest-Known Paper Published in a Serious Math Journal: Two Succinct Sentences 

Read John Nash’s Super Short PhD Thesis with 26 Pages & 2 Citations: The Beauty of Inventing a Field

When a Cat Co-Authored a Paper in a Leading Physics Journal (1975)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

More in this category... »
Quantcast