Boat Stories

Last year, I discovered Ursula LeGuin’s fascinating talk, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, (transcript) by way of Donna Haraway’s equally interesting talk Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene. Both have been nagging at me for a year now.

The theory, building on the significance of containers (bags, baskets) to early humans — the default human here is female of course — in forager societies, offers a model of narrative as a “carrier bag” of community context and its evolution. It is a model that stands in radical opposition to the hero’s journey model of narrative.

Panels from Asterix and the Great Crossing, a boat story.

Thinking about the two opposed theories, it struck me that between the carrier bag story and the hero’s journey, there is a third kind of story that is superior to both: the boat story. A boat is at once a motif of containment and journeying. The mode of sustenance it enables — fishing, especially with a net, a bag full of holes — is somewhere between gathering and hunting ways of feeding; somewhere between female and male ways of being. It at once stands for the secure attachment to home and a venturesome disposition towards the unknown. It incorporates the conscientiousness and stewardship of settled life, and the openness to experience of nomadic life. A boat is a home, but a home away from home. A boat story is a journey, but one on which you bring home, and perhaps even Mom, along with you. But it isn’t an insular home, even though it has a boundary. It is a territory but it is not territorial. It is socially open enough to accommodate encounters with strangers, and is in fact eager to accommodate them. Xenophobes do not generally go voyaging.

Boat stories, like hero’s journeys and carrier-bag stories, are a good way to understand the human condition. They are especially good as a mental model of blogging.


Carrier bag theory has more anthropological depth than I gave it credit for at first. Sarah Constantin has an excellent post on Hoe Cultures (as opposed to plow cultures) that adds a good deal more color to the kinds of societies that might naturally have a carrier-bag approach to narrative. The argument that primitive containers — bags, baskets, pots — were as important in shaping human prehistory as fire, stone tools and weapons, or the wheel, seems strong.

Unlike Haley Thurston’s Heroine’s Journey or even Sonya Mann’s Antiheroine Unveiled, which attempt to understand female-centric stories starting from the hero’s journey framework, carrier bag theory dispenses with the journey motif and heroism as the focal trait altogether. The act of centering a single journeying human, endowed with a special nobility of the spirit, is too essentially male for LeGuin. So carrier bag theory emphasizes contexts over events, evolving relationships over evolving individuals, continuous evolution over disruptive creative destruction, a communal point of view over an individual point of view.

If Tolkien had been LeGuin, I suspect The Hobbit: there and back again would have been Here, in the Shire.

LeGuin reads a specific politics into her carrier-bag theory, declaring the novel to be a fundamentally feminine form. In her polemical view of male narrative, the hero’s journey is something like the campfire bro-brag solemnly mythologized into the paleolithic hunting tale with its cave paintings, and eventually scaled in our time to the cosmic dickishness of (say) the militaristic space operas of Orson Scott Card. The theory actually works well beyond fiction to non-fiction and grand-civilizational narratives. For instance, Daniel Yergin’s The Questwhich I just finished, is the non-fictional story of the search for sustainable energy futures told in the form of an epic hero’s journey. By contrast, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is more carrier bag. Whig history is a hero’s journey. People’s histories are carrier bag stories.

I think I agree with LeGuin about the novel being a fundamentally feminine form. Despite the fact that men have dominated the prose novel form since Defoe and Cervantes, the natural male storytelling instinct is an uneasy fit for the form. It is just not flashy enough a form to be a natural setting for epic peacock hero tales.

MOAR panels from Asterix and the Great Crossing, satirizing the hero’s journey in classic Viking form

It is not surprising that among the earliest male novels (Don Quixote) is one that satirizes the hero’s journey rather mercilessly. Once the novel emerged as the dominant literary form of the industrial age, the only kind of story men could tell while retaining a fully masculine sensibility was the quixotic satire, with windmills (the epitome of sustainable carrier-bag environmental sensibilities today) standing in for dragons.

I find it revealing that my favorite male-authored novels have been of this form, including Huckleberry Finn and Hitchhiker’s Guide. Absurdist echoes of solemn heroic quests. The hero’s journey repeated as farce.

I’d add Sinbad the Sailor (a pre-modern story cycle rather than a novel) and Rick and Morty to this broad genre of male writers coming to terms with the death of the heroic narrative in the age of the novel. You don’t have to acknowledge the supremacy of carrier-bag narratives, or the supremacy of the literary matriarchy, to admit the hero’s journey is kinda past its sell-by date, whatever your gender.

If you’re not willing to laugh at the descent of the journeying hero, the result is somewhat tragic. A particularly telling illustration is the contrast between Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Despite the many many points of similarity, Frodo is neither hero nor antihero. He’s the unhero. A low-agency carrier-bag nonentity swept along by the evolving web of history. At crucial points in the story he and the other hobbits are literally carried around by other, more classically heroic characters, many of whom fade from the historical stage after the story.

But let’s not go on that particular fishing expedition.

Suffice it to say that it is easier to put the hero in the journey if your medium is epic verse. Unadorned prose, unaccompanied by strident, uplifting, operatic music, is not as friendly to that kind of story. If you tell a long story, and it doesn’t rhyme, and cannot be set to music, you kinda have to tell more of the truth.

Unadorned prose at novel-scale is shaped by a sort of commie cultural gravity, dragging demigod heroes down to human-scale lives. The only escape within the novel form is to adopt the lesser conventions of unapologetic genre fiction.

In a carrier-bag world, the genuine adventuring hero gets demoted to the penny dreadful aisle.


Blogging has a father and a mother. It inherits features from both the hero’s journey and the carrier bag.

The most basic way to tell the masculine kind of story is in the form of extended campfire brag, in the complacent afterglow of a successful hunt. The epic poem, preferably one sporting embellishments by many generations of contributors, is the enduring, preserved form for the heroic tale.

It is a form of literary production acknowledged as stylized, ceremonial myth-making, but one that is nevertheless capable of bringing real honors to real authors. And by authors here I mean heroes as authors of said mythologized events rather than the scribes who record them. The installation of heroic journeys into the collective consciousness brings with it narrative rents for heroes (and those who are identified with them). Today you find this form on Medium, with author-as-scribe, and author-as-actor blending together.

I never get tired of taking potshots at Medium.

The most basic way to tell the feminine kind of story is in the form of a whispered rumor at work. The carrier-bag novel can be understood as egalitarian forager-society gossip, reified, elevated and distilled into enduring emergent social truths. Signal and noise snowball, via a game of telephone, until the rumor becomes part of the collective unconscious, as an acknowledged truth with no author. If the hero’s journey brings narrative rents to heroes, carrier-bag tales allow narrative tax revenue to accrue to a Weltanschauung.

There is a pleasing symmetry here. Myth and truth. Stories with and without authors. Stories that hunt between contexts and stories that nest within a context. Self-consciously installed myths that never quite sink into their carrier-bag contexts as lived truths, and lived truths that never quite pop from their carrier contexts as as explicit beliefs or narrative patterns. New information versus open secrets. Narrative rents and context taxes. There-and-back-again finite game stories, play-to-continue-the-game infinite game stories (that last is a reference to James Carse’s finite/infinite game model, which is almost required reading around here now).

Interestingly, one of the ways a carrier-bag story, like the open secret of Harvey Weinstein’s actions, can turn into a hero’s journey type story (villain’s journey here) is via a leak from a carrier bag that turns common knowledge into public knowledge, open secret into on-the-record secret. And going the other way, the only way a hero’s journey can turn into a carrier bag story is through institutionalization. When a hero is memorialized as a named building or something. A case of a story being shoved into the background.

It isn’t quite a yin-yang though.

The boat doesn’t quite fit either mold. It is a carrier bag, but one that goes on journeys. It is a home-away-from-home container of evolving relationships, a string of finite games within an infinite game: Ulysses and his men,  William Bligh and his men, Kathyrn Janeway and her women, men, and energy creatures. Hunting for treasure and whales. Fishing for fish and dilithium. Seeking home, while at home.

The boat is home, but it is also a locus from which you can encounter frontier unknowns. So you have the Sirens tempting Ulysses, Sinbad trying to make a buck, the HMS Bounty seeking breadfruit in Tahiti, Janeway exploring the Delta Quadrant.

All from the comfort of home. Or at least a convincing-enough simulacrum of home in a hostile and strange universe that’s constantly changing around you.


Let’s gossip a bit about Star Trek because why not.

Star Trek is all boat stories; mashups of hero’s journeys and carrier-bag stories. Not just literally (the franchise’s shows play out on starships or space stations), but in terms of deeper narrative structure. Some episodes deal with carrier-bag like plots focused on crew member relationships, and evolution of life inside the carrier bag (both the ships and the Federation). Others are little hero’s journey stories, often in the form of away missions, caused by calls to action from outside the shields.

The ratio of hero’s journey to carrier bag stories varies across the franchise, and between episodes of individual shows in the franchise though.

Of the shows in the franchise, curiously enough, Voyager is my favorite, and not coincidentally, it is the one that hews mostly closely to the (OG masculine) hero’s journey, despite being centered on a woman. It has the least amount of carrier bag DNA to it.

I offer that as Exhibit A in my theory that it is the pattern, rather than the gender of the person enacting it, that is attractive to those who identify with the hero’s journey. I’d rather read a hero’s journey with a female lead than a carrier-bag story with a male lead. Ideally, I’d like to have both, in the form of a well-balanced boat story.

In both the original series (TOS) and Next Generation (TNG), the USS Enterprise seems to mostly mess around in the Alpha Quadrant on the fringes of the known. Despite the stridently declared intent to “go boldly where no man has gone before” (changed to no one in TNG), neither incarnation of the USS Enterprise does much actual exploring compared to USS Voyager. 

If it weren’t for Q (who are so omnipresently at home in the whole universe, in both space and time, they have no stories and must parasitically leech off human stories to entertain themselves), Captain Picard would not have encountered his most famous adversary, the Borg, at all. He’d simply have mucked around, bickering with neighbor races like the Romulans, Cardassians, and Ferengi.

Captain Janeway ends up not just a much more formidable Borg opponent than Picard, but actually grapples with a species even more fearsome (species 8472, whom the Borg themselves fear). Her hero’s journey begins, like Picard’s encounter with the Borg, due to the agency of a much more powerful being, but unlike Picard, she cannot just go back to business as usual in the next episode. She has to begin a series-long journey home. And that makes all the difference. Voyager is the truest boat story, scratching both hero’s journey and carrier bag itches maximally, and going beyond.

The Borg incidentally, represent the ultimate carrier bag story with almost no hero’s journey to their character arc. Individuals subordinated to a web of relationships. Stories reduced to shared, atemporal, cultural memories, with heroic identities erased. A basket-case of a hive mind, ruled over by a queen (unsurprising, the Borg was inspired by Asimov’s carrier-bag subplot in Foundation, Gaia). The Borg, like the Q, occupy the whole galaxy in a sense, and literally cannot journey, heroically or otherwise, since they are sort of present everywhere.

Relative to Voyager’s epic adventure, the bold explorations of the USS Enterprise in both its incarnations seem like improvised bus routes in Federation space.

The show I like least in the franchise is almost pure carrier bag: Deep Space Nine. The damn thing isn’t even a boat. It just sits there, with its characters getting on each others’ nerves. They eventually had to add a used boat, the USS Defiantto the show so it could sustain hero’s journey episodes of larger-than-shuttlecraft scale. Space operas do not live by carrier bags alone.

You might even say Kathryn Janeway was the only man among the franchise’s starship captains. By the time we get to Voyager, the brash Kirk archetype, devolving through Riker in TNG, has been transformed into the nice-little-boy-with-toys archetype represented by Tom Paris. Quite the demotion path, from Captain to First Officer, to mere pilot. Deep Space Nine has no true Kirk types at all as far as I can tell.

We see a similar devolution from Luke Skywalker to Poe Damaron in Star Wars.

Tom Paris and Poe Damaron are mostly harmless, only marginally more heroic than Arthur Dent.

As an aside, the idea of Kirk as a brash, reckless hero’s journey type is something of a latter-day remythologization that the original characterization in TOS doesn’t quite support. I can’t find the link now, but there was a great article about how the J. J. Abrams movies cynically present a Kirk that reflects the contaminated popular fan myth around the original Kirk, rather than the original character (update, this is the article, thanks to rdn32 for pointing it out in a comment).

Briefly, the argument was that the Abrams version of Kirk reflects a false reading of the TOS Kirk character by Star Trek fandom. It gets a little meta here: viewed as a carrier bag, so stay with me. Star Trek fandom produced a false-rumor memory of Kirk that was then reflected back to it in the movies. The TV franchise itself is boat stories, but the movies are much more hero’s journey, thanks to the transformation effect of the fandom carrier bag. I find it hilarious here that a largely male fanbase had a masculinizing effect on a show, in its translation to a movie version, via an archetypally feminine process of carrier bagging and tagging Kirk.

This supports my point (and agrees with my memories of TOS): the original Kirk and Picard were pillars of the carrier-bag community that is the Federation. Janeway is the only actual hero’s journey type protagonist who has to slay a dragon. Her transgressions of Federation morality in the series finale of Voyager far exceed anything Kirk or Picard did.

Anyway, the point is: the hero’s journey and carrier bag are both about narrative models rather than gendered modes of storytelling, and the rise of the novel was a fall of the hero (whether male or female) from epic demigod figure to boy-with-toy. Or girl-with-toy as the case may be.


Though we tend to think of big boats when it comes to boat stories — from Noah’s Ark to USS Voyager — the boats that actually shaped the human psyche were much smaller. Fishing boats, carrying only a few men at best, and not venturing too far from shore. Mostly gathering small, dumb fish the size of say, potatoes and yams, rather than hunting Moby Dick. And instead of responding to a call to action as in the hero’s journey, they’re typically thrown into adventure by the weather.

The sprit of fishing does survive even in the most extreme examples of Big Boat stories. Star Trek starships must occasionally go fishing for dilithium.

From the Asterix and the Great Crossing

I am vegetarian and have never fished or eaten fish, but fishing seems to me closer to gathering than to either farming or hunting. Instead of bears or mammoths, you’ve got schools of small, fairly dumb creatures messing around in the water, and you go out there and scoop them up in a carrier bag. The unsexy net, rather than the spear or the rod, is the main actual tool of fishing.

Rather appropriately for my semiotic needs, a net is basically a leaky bag. A bag full of holes. Let the context leak out, pick out the foreground bits. Take the fish out of water, dead. For the fish, it is the farcical worst of both worlds: dead hero’s journey and context-free carrier bag story. I have no idea what the significance of this is, but I enjoy the thought.

The closest you get to a dragon-like adversary is the weather. The comic-book panels in this post are from Asterix and the Great Crossingpossibly the best boat story ever told. Asterix and Obelix go off to get some fresh fish for the druid, and a great storm carries them across to the Americas. Throughout, they remain convinced they are in some part of Europe. There, some Vikings on a regular hero’s journey (who do know they’ve found a new continent) find them and bring them back, imagining them to be natives (the poor Viking adventurers gain no honors when their tribe realizes that the natives are just Gauls, from their own backyard, and refuses to believe the story of the Great Voyage).

Ported to the context of fishing, the noble hunting legend is reduced to the farce of the fishing tall tale.

“I swear, it was THIS big, I almost had it.”

That’s what he said.

The post-Quixote male story, arguably, is as much a jumped-up fishing tall tale as a fallen hero’s journey. It can be either tragedy or comedy depending on whether you approach it from land or sea.

Blogging is 50% fishing tall tale, and 50% traveling carrier bag. But let’s talk about books first.


I tried writing a novel last year. I didn’t get very far, but I got far enough — about 20,000 words — that I got a sense of my strengths and weaknesses. I now know what the project will take if I ever get time to finish it.

Both LeGuin’s carrier bag idea, and Harraway’s conceptualization of deep time proved extremely useful. The story I tried to tell (a novel-length continuation of my short story The Liminal Explorer of the Adjacent Possible) naturally lent itself to an understanding of a novel as a carrier bag for a set of relationships evolving over multi-generational deep time, and as a journey (since it is a time travel story, there is a real-time path to the future, as well as a time-machine boat-path). In other words, it is a boat story.

From LeGuin, I took, besides the idea of the carrier bag, the idea of context itself as the hero. World building is not merely the act of imagining a milieu, but the act of imagining a living, life-encompassing context that has its own character arc.

Haraway’s idea that we’re now in a Cthulhucene is an example of context as character. The hero’s journey understanding of climate change is in terms of unpredictable events: extreme weather, ocean acidification, and thawing methane. The carrier-bag story is Cthulhu awakening. And farting methane perhaps. The former view is a set of background events a hero might respond to with foreground action and sustainable energy questing of the sort Yergin talks about in his book. The other view is as a planet-scale carrier bag undergoing transformations that require a necessary renegotiation of relationships: between humans and their environment, between humans and other humans.

Speaking of Earth as a carrier-bag, it is also possible to view Earth as a boat, as Buckminster Fuller did. It’s a stretch though.

Carrier bags have proved to be a very fruitful way to think about fiction for me. Though I have only read a couple of LeGuin’s books (and that very long ago, as a teenager), her storytelling sensibility, I find, is something I can adopt with relative ease, at a fingerspitzengefuhl level. Somewhere inside me is a storytelling grandma.

It is interesting to contrast LeGuin’s sensibility with Orson Scott Card’s. I found his book on storytelling, Characters and Viewpoint, to be very interesting as well. His MICE framework (milieu, ideas, characters, events) was very useful in developing the larger superstructure of my sidelined novel. It was not, however, as useful for the actual writing process. MICE is a good way to get organized for telling a story, but it’s not a way to tell a story.

Card is of course the near-perfect anti-LeGuin. Ender’s Game is a classic masculine-hero-who-goes-somewhere-and-kills-something novel. By a homophobic far-right author who apparently has something of a fetish for violence. Fabius Maximus has a good survey of criticism from this tack, including this excellent critical essay that reads Ender’s Game as pornography of sorts.

You could summarize the criticism like so: Ender’s Game is geek-revenge fantasy cast into a pornographic narrative structure. If Tom Paris on Voyager is the Kirkesque hero reduced to boy-with-toys, and content with his fate, Ender Wiggin is boy-with-toys who is not happy with his fate, and is primed to commit genocide due to his systemically cultivated cosmic-scale grievances.

It is a little hard to swallow the pretense that the greatest strategic genius since Genghis Khan graduated from beating a schoolmate to death to exterminating an alien species merely due to the machinations of his devious teachers. Let’s admit it: the kid was more of a natural-born psychopath than the nominal psychopath in the story, Ender’s brother Peter, whose bullying and torture is the nominal explanation for why Ender is such a little psycho.

Yet, I cannot deny that I enjoyed Ender’s Game. It isn’t the fetishized pornographic violence that speaks to me. I found those parts of the book rather cringe-worthy. It is the whole idea of a journey with a learning process and a test against in an unknown and unprecedented situation that appeals to me. And there is also a background carrier-bag type subplot, the one involving Peter and the third sibling, Valentine. So perhaps Ender’s Game is a full-fledged boat story after all, equal parts carrier bag and hero’s journey.

Whatever your feelings about the politics of Card, it feels more than a little unfair to reduce Ender’s Game to geek revenge fantasy. Still, there’s something to the idea that Ender Wiggin is the hero’s journey ending in a sort of maximally, genocidally toxic masculinity.

So where does that leave us? I’d say that Ender’s Game is good despite the pornographic-violence-fetish-geek-revenge sensibility Card brings to the form. What saves it is that the hero’s journey has redeeming qualities that elevate any work that conforms to it.

The hero’s journey is more than male dickishness writ large. To read or write within that pattern is to experience real growth.

Equally, carrier-bag storytelling are more than an antithetical feminine aesthetic of novel writing. To read and write within that form is to uncover truths about the human condition.

As far as I am concerned though, both forms belong in the twentieth century.

We of the twenty-first century are bloggers first, and book writers second. We don’t do dragons or carrier bags. We do boats.


Let’s talk about blogging as boat-storytelling.

Over the break, I read bits and pieces of LeGuin’s collected blog posts, No Time to Spare, which is based on her online essays. I’ll risk lese majeste, and admit I found them rather disappointing. LeGuin can’t blog. As blog posts, the essays are bad. Perhaps because as an already-famous writer, she doesn’t need the little-guy affordances that make the medium what it is for us clickbaiting, meme-dangling proles.

As salonesque literary reflections by a book-era writer, they are fine. Which is not surprising because she appears to have taken her cue for experimenting with blogging from a contemporary, Jose Saramago (born 1922, Nobel Laureate; she was born 1929), rather than say, a blogosphere-native kid like me. In her essays, LeGuin really provides a bloggy window into the traditional writer’s salon rather than blogging per se. She’s not in the blogging boat. She’s using it to provide a view into the salon carrier bag. A literary low-life view of the literary high life.

Which is fine of course. Senior citizens should blog in whatever way they find comfortable. There is no one right way to blog.

So how do you blog with a boat story sensibility? You take 50% fishing tall tale, 50% traveling carrier bag story, and half-bake them together.

Think of the blog as the boat, and individual posts as boat stories. Some are fishing stories, some are hunting stories, some are potato-gathering stories. There is a web of relationships, among online personas, being evolved. You and I, blogger and reader/commenter/retweeter, are as much characters as real people. Like a Star Trek starship, there is a carrier-bag community on a blog. A multi-author one especially, is something like a reality TV show/sitcom, where the performed voices and visible conversations are not quite the same as the ones that go on behind the scenes.

Boat stories hack expectations and hook attention in a crowded sea of voices. They lure you in with clickbait. And once you’re hooked, you are in the boat. Whether you leave behind just a like on a tweet, or a positive comment on the blog, or an angry one on Hacker News, anything you do that makes you part of the conversation the blogger is trying to keep going is a case of being hooked. Note that the overall conversation in/around a blog is an infinite game: we play to continue the game rather than “win” the Internet on any given day, though that’s nice too.

And the best kind of hooking of course, is the kind bloggers do to each other, baiting each other into their own boats, engaging in an endless contest for control of the narrative. The blogosphere overall is like Federation space as a result.

That’s boat theory, applied to blogging.

Boat theory inherits features from both its parents, the masculine hero’s journey and the feminine carrier-bag story.

To blog you need to move. You need to sail in the Zeitgeist Sea to where the memefish are biting, find the there there, and capture things while they still have thingness. You need to have been there, done that, and tell tall tales about it. You need to play ironic, Quixotic hero, tilting at windmills (premium mediocre dragons).

But you also need to be a meme-whisperer, sending your thoughts diffusing into the global carrier bag, revealing the blogosphere to itself. You need to constantly negotiate your web of gossipy relationships with the energy of a Telemundo showrunner. You need to construct myths, and you need to surface truths. You have to do it all.


If the hero’s journey is descended from the campfire brag, and the carrier bag novel from workplace gossip, blogging is descended from trolling.

All blogging is trolling. Some of it merely happens to create some cultural capital. Let’s retcon a new etymology onto troll. Instead of deriving from trolls of the under-bridge variety, let’s pretend it derives from trawl. Dragging a net through a zeitgeist, seeing what you catch, and spinning a story around it. (Edit: apparently, the term does in fact derive from fishing; I lazily assumed it had to do with under-bridge monsters; thanks Zed for pointing it out in a comment).

Let’s recap.

Male storytelling is a sublimated hunting narrative, female storytelling is a sublimated gathering narrative. One is born of brags, the other is born of rumors. One kind of writing throws a metaphorical spear at a metaphorical beast, attempting to kill it and bring back the carcass. The other kind puts relatively unresisting things into bags, and establishes relationships among them, and carries them forward.

The spear and the bag.

And then there’s the net. A bag with holes. That is carried around on a different kind of bag: a boat. Which is used to gather fish the way women once gathered yams while men sat around repeating their hunting stories from last month. Fish fight back more than yams, but less than dragons.

A hero’s journey is sublimated bragging. A carrier-bag story is sublimated gossip. A boat story is sublimated trolling.

Pre-modern epics where pure hero’s journeys, novels were pure carrier bags, and Star Trek was early, pre-blogging boat story. It didn’t have the fully realized boat story quality of the blogosphere, but it came close.


It’s funny how you can go years and years without learning an obscure word, and then, in the space of a few weeks, encounter it twice. That happened to me in December.  The word is feuilleton.

It’s a French-origin word for the supplement-insert/weekend section type publication that newspapers put out.

The blogosphere is a sea of boat stories, but it is also the natural descendant of the feuilleton, the pre-digital boat story medium.

I learned the word from Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game (ht Kiki Schirr for the recommendation). In the book, a key plot element is how the “scholarly province”, the center of the story, arises as a reaction to an age of wars and fake news, which Hesse dubs the Age of the Feuilleton in his fictional history.

Then, over the break, I got a nice little Christmas gift. Ribbonfarm was featured in a major newspaper feuilleton, that of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), which I have been informed, is something like a New York Times level newspaper of record over in Germany. The profile by Niklas Maak, Auf in eine mittelmäßig gute Zukunft, chronicles the trajectory of the premium mediocre meme, and goes on to say various flattering things about ribbonfarm in general, and me in particular. It is not everyday that I get compared to Karl Marx, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag.

As memes go, premium mediocre is good example of what Maak calls the mode of intellectual production that is blogging. This bit, despite the manglings of Google Translate, is as good an understanding of boat theory and meme fishing as I could wish for anyone to have:

“Ribbon Farm” is for America what the “Suhrkamp” were -Bände this country – with the difference that the theory production works differently. Rao had already shot the term “premium Mediocre” at an early stage in the Blogger orbit and get definition proposals from India, China and Africa, which he incorporated into his text; the criticism was integrated before the term was hardened to the theory. In it, a different way of working implies a somewhat öffentlicherer act of thinking that is different from the discussion of new theses in academic research colloquia. That Rao met there with skepticism may be due to this form of production theory of swarm intelligence and the other hand on Rao’s penchant for jokes – when he called about the whole of France as the epicenter of the “Premium Mediocre” in contrast to Switzerland as “the truly elite country in Europe”, which is not only a compliment when Rao.

Boat stories are an evolution in my own understanding of what we do around here. It is interesting to look back on my own earlier theories of blogging, Seeking Density in the Gonzo Theater (2012) and Speak Weirdness to Truth (2016). I think I like the boat theory mental model best, though there is some clear continuity here.

That said, the juxtaposition of the idea of an Age of the Feuilleton in Glass Bead Game and my stuff being, well, feted as part of that age, did make me stop and think hard.

Eventually, I decided that if you read Glass Bead Game right, this all works out in our favor here. With The Glass Bead Game, Hesse intended to construct something of a sly, satirical critique of overly detached intellectual cultures. The titular game is the central, sacred cultural activity of the scholarly province, an abstract, intellectual substitute for life, a stand-in for any kind of retreat from vita activa into vita contemplativa. 

So the Age of the Feuilleton, which is held up as a sort of historical antithesis to the glass-bead game, can be seen as a messy but more truthful-to-the-context human condition. One that does not divorce intellectual and practical life, a noisy but necessary integration of vita activa and vita contemplativa.

A boat, unlike a walled community, is a carrier bag that is the opposite of detached from its larger context. It is always in an intimate conversation with it. Intellectual production construed as a boat story, as opposed to say the academic ivory tower, is a fundamentally situated mode of production.

At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Even if it is fishy.

Speaking of vita activa, it is interesting to note that Hannah Arendt’s model in The Human Condition, in which she popularized that idea (see my gloss of it here), is a carrier-bag theory of political evolution. Her notion of the public realm, as a space for containing relationships between freely acting individuals, is essentially identical to LeGuin’s notion of the carrier bag. As with LeGuin’s version, Arendt’s public centers the web of human relationships and mutuality and marginalizes the frontier spaces where hero’s journeys play out as an expression of gloriously fuck-you sovereignty.

This gives me a satisfying understanding of boat theory as applied to blogging: a blog is a public in a boat, sailing the zeitgeist seas, primarily fishing for sustenance, but not entirely averse to the memetic winds blowing you off to strange and distance places, where you can have premium mediocre intellectual adventures. Adventures that might lack the high ceremony of epic hero’s journeys, but are a good deal more amusing and real. Adventures that might lack the gravitas of responsible adulting inside matriarchal ivory tower carrier bags, but nevertheless offer a sense of home and a web of interesting relationships.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Víctor Feliu says:

    Is human history a hero journey, a bag-carriee tale ir a boat story? May It become a boat story with internet, global culture and earth-as-boat awareness becoming widespread?

    • Víctor Feliu says:

      My apologies for using phone autocorrector in a different language.

    • I’d say capital H History is a mixture of the Monomyth and the Carrier-Bag story, (Big People vs Little Progress, or something like that). Whether it qualifies as a boat-story, probably depends on the telling of it. I suspect any sufficiently competent treatment of history that doesn’t clearly pick one or the other side would probably have the quality of “this is home, and that’s the sea rolling under us” that signifies boat stories.

      But that’s really just storytelling, isn’t it?. History, seems to me, cannot be divorced from narrative; even Nietzsche’s “clever animals wot had 2 die” story fails at not being a story.

  2. Jan Burkart says:

    Dear Venkatesh Rao,

    As someone, who came to your blog because of this article, I thought you might like a translation without any German terms in it. Voila:

    “Ribbonfarm“ is for America, what the “Suhrkamp”-Edition [Note: A big book publisher of German and international fiction as well as Science pubkications] where around here [Note: Germany] – the difference being that the production of Theories works differently. Rao has rocketed the term “Premium Mediocre” in the Blogger-Orbit at an early stage and incorporated proposals he received from India, China and Africa into his texts; The criticism was incorporated, before the term hardened into a theory. This results in a different work approach, a more public act of thought, that is different to any discussion of new theses in academic research colloquiums. That Rao is met there with scepticism which may be due to this form of establishing theories through swarm intelligence and on the other hand due to Rao’s penchant for Gags. An example would be when Rao called the whole of France the epicentre of “premium mediocre” in contrast to Switzerland, which he dubbed “the truly elite country in Europe”, which he surely didn’t mean only as a compliment.

    I hope you like the translation,

    Kind regards from a (new) German reader!

  3. Cornelia Stauch says:

    Dear Venkatesh Rao,

    like Jan Burkart I also came to your blog because of this article and there is an other comment in the blog of the Achse des Guten: (sorry, I can’t set the link properly). Anyways, I am very happy having found your blog, although my poor english gives me a hell of a time. Nervertheless I am in the boat and I ‘ll do my best understanding half of the jokes and wonderful implications.
    (The name of the FAZ-Author is Niklas Maak, not Mann)

    Herzliche Grüße aus dem Markgräflerland south of Freiburg

  4. Dave Foster says:


    I don’t think of the hero’s journey as necessarily heroic. Probably “protagonist’s journey” would have been more generic. I think that the steps in the journey, the realizations and need to surmount impediments, need not at all be bro-douchey. At root, it’s a decent narrative form that structures the proceedings and affords a story with purpose and progression. I do dig the boat story idea – had never thought about it that way before and I’ve been a sailor/owned a sailboat.

    Love the Asterix ‘toon – haven’t thought of those in years. I really enjoyed them.


  5. The etymology of `troll` is already from fishing.

  6. Nice to see your attempt on making LEAP into a boat story. The sailor’s journey might have been more explicitly established with the time travel device as a “boat” cf: Tardis in which the protagonist is stuck in, such as the box in “Havergey”, with further exploration of the relationship between the boat and the narrator, possible Theseus effect and relations.

  7. Also, the connection between sci-fi and boat stories could be explored further by scifi authors, since space_ships_ can serve as home away from home. One prominent example is Stephen Baxter, who uses the motif of spaceship as “home” for descendants to explore finite games within the infinite game of trying to survive and multiply into the cosmos beyond. The characters experience an Age of the Feuilleton of their own due to one character’s obsession with “the outside” leading to conflict between those commited to the “mission” of “stability” within and new theories about the role of the colonists.

  8. Reaching back to your older posts the following concordances occurred to me –> Hero’s Journey is about Getting Ahead, Carrier Bag Story is about Getting Along and the Boat Story is about Getting Away. Perhaps not a perfect overlay as all three stories may contain elements of the each other but I think it fits in general.

  9. A shortcut description of boat stories; a hero experiences, orients, gathers, returns to equilibrium.

    The story of progressive relaxations to equilibrium after discontinuous shocks caused by random chance, expressing itself in functionally unforeseen ways, that do not just represent the subtle structure of societies and how societies change, but models of resourcefulness in the face of out of context events.

    Another obvious example should probably be the actual journals of travellers, on which the “ships log” of star trek is ostensibly based. Conventionally, these tend to be represented in fiction as a series of short phrases building to give an evocative picture of a sense of time, like the knots dragging behind the boat, the succession of small moments, day 12, day 13, day 15, give structure to the velocity of the tale often it’s slow subjective velocity, reflecting distances.

    An actual ship’s (b)log though, reflects on experiences as discontinuous events and seeks to both reflect on them emotionally and to store information and experience held throughout the journey. Even if you watch video logs of modern explorers, there’s a tendency to become philosophical, even when not exploring the genre of travel memoir. After today, while I was cooking/cleaning up the sails, I thought this, and it struck me as something worth recording. Sometimes those thoughts are grim, sometimes they are wry, sometimes reflections on broader principles, however they are the gathered treasure produced from adversity.

    I was never much of a fan of voyager, but I seem to remember that rather than developing experience, they tended to slowly gather tools, levelling up their ship with new capacities that could be reused to solve future problems in an appropriately gadgety way.

    Anyway, the traveller’s memoir is an ancient model, and full of very familiar models for the personality of the blogger. There’s even the “damn it I’m going to get political for 8 posts” stuff, with it’s mix of importance and sense that it’s actually sort of an exception to your primary role of passer by, but with the capacity to actually pass through without comments (because the people you are commenting on will probably only complain after the whole thing has been printed) and move on to other topics.

  10. > the idea of Kirk as a brash, reckless hero’s journey type is something of a latter-day
    > remythologization that the original characterization in TOS doesn’t quite support. I can’t
    > find the link now but there was a great article …

    Maybe (sections 4 & 6)?

  11. name name says:

    “I never get tired of taking potshots at Medium.”

    Even taking the pain to take potshots at that selling platform requires a suspension of self-respect, perhaps.

  12. Nathaniel Peter Eliot says:

    For what it’s worth: the remainder of Card’s work in the Ender-verse was far less typically Heroic Journey (though it was still present) and often has Carrier Bag (the Shadow series, focused on the evolution of politics back on Earth, with several main viewpoints) or Boat (the remainder of the Ender series, during his post-war exodus) elements. Given how much the rest of the books deconstruct and reanalyze what happened in the first book, one might even accuse Card of intentionally writing a (twisted, uncomfortable, and morally grey) Heroic Journey first, just so he would have one available for later deconstruction. Or maybe his writing and thinking matured, as he did.

    (Oh, and you are right: Peter isn’t as bad as Ender. That point gets explored a number of ways.)

  13. I disagree about DS9 being a carrier bag story. This is mostly because I don’t view the differences between the hero’s journey and carrier bag as ones of place/setting, specifically in terms of physically going anywhere. I see it primarily as differences in form. Cisco’s arc is unique in Star Trek (up until now) in that some thought was given to it as opposed to the static quality of characters in nearly all television shows. His metaphorical “place” at the series’ end is nowhere near where he starts out. He’s almost text-book Joseph Campbell (humble origins, of divine parentage, resists the call to adventure, etc.). I might be missing the point, and if I am I fail to see a distinction between a character whose adventures are right around the corner or even in his/her home and one who physically travels to get them. To me, the differences of the two narratives are formal with the settings only an means of portraying them. A mobile version of the carrier bag story would be (as I see it) Kiarostami’s “10” where an Iranian woman drives around Tehran, talking to passengers, collecting the narrative as she does. It’s non-linear storytelling that still has a powerful impact. I see the differences as one of advancing plot through conflict and resolution vs. collecting incidents of ideas and character.

    • I’m willing to partly buy this. I never managed to finish DS9.

      I do think though that a hero’s journey requires a journey in the external world beyond a character arc. The gamma quadrant served as the “other world” but Sisko didn’t truly go on an extended journey there. More like occasional forays. More importantly, it didn’t have a strong relationship to his character arc. The security chief changeling guy had the true hero’s journey in relation to the gamma quadrant I think.

      Still, point taken.

      • (and it is not the physical distance of the journey, but simply the cultural distance of the journey milieu, like in fight club, the other world is simply the same city at night. You need a non-home context/milieu playing a central role in developing the character, even if it’s just around the corner).

  14. Great article!

    You might find James Hillman’s Re-Visioning Psychology of interest. It’s written in the Jungian tradition but as a deliberate critique of Jung/Campbell’s ‘night sea journey’ myth (the chosen underpinning of Star Wars) and uses a feminine ‘hero’ to ground what he considers to be a better founding myth for Analytic Psychology. It’s a container story not a hero story. Hillman’s early work is about deepening the container. I’ve never really dug into his later stuff…I think it got kind of pop-y.

    The common analysis across the Jung/Campbell -> Hillman continuum is that all this has a psychological as well as a cultural driver. Myths/stories seek to bridge the divides both internal and external…and perhaps that distinction isn’t at all crisp.

    (Hmmm, isn’t The Odyssey a boat story?)


  15. Aaron Winter says:

    Adventures are simple and fun.

  16. “When the mariner has been tossed for many days in thick weather, and on an unknown sea, he naturally avails himself of the first pause in the storm, the earliest glance of the sun, to take his latitude, and ascertain how far the elements have driven him from his true course. Let us imitate this prudence, and, before we float farther on the waves of this debate, refer to the point from which we departed, that we may at least be able to conjecture where we now are.”

    Daniel Webster, Second Reply to Hayne, U.S. Senate, Jan. 26, 1830

    A sort of micro boat story.

    Abraham Lincoln considered the speech this came from as the greatest ever written (speeches were, back then, written *after* they were spoken, with much improvement and imbellishment, before being handed over to the newspapers). His “House Divided” speech began with a paraphrase:

    “If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.”

    Abraham Lincoln, “A House Divided”, Springfield IL, June 16, 1858.


  17. Ironically, Webster’s flowery version is especially apt for today’s political debates.

  18. You probably already knew, but if not: encountering a new word and then suddenly encountering it multiple times is also known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

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