Erlich, the name of the popular character T.J. Miller played on Silicon Valley until last month—when he departed the show in a blaze of whatever the opposite of glory is—is a variation on ehrlich, the German word for “honest” that is also used as a stand-alone expression—Ehrlich?—meaning, Really?
This is, coincidentally, how much of humanity felt when we beheld this astounding profile of Miller by Vulture’s David Marchese, a profile worth reading in its entirety but whose deadpan brilliance is well-distilled into the following sentence:
The rumpled Miller, dressed in a red warm-up jacket and wearing a gaudy gold chain, has arrayed a bottle of Mucinex, a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, three small bottles of water, and some sort of facial misting spray on the table before him.
The Mucinex seems to have no role other than satisfying the strange terms of his sponsorship deal; the facial mist he uses to punctuate the staggering stream of (possibly Aurelius-inspired) word salad to which he subjects Marchese and the world at large.
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This particular sort of pontification—name-dropping the Stoic philosophers and “persuasion theory,” issuing proclamations such as “In the American Zeitgeist, you have to recognize that there is no Zeitgeist” (yes, that is a direct quote)—is a phenomenon you don’t have to be a Heideggerian to encounter. Indeed, anyone who has been within 10 miles of a graduate school has met That Guy, a dude exactly like T.J. Miller: the first- or second-year Ph.D. student in comp lit or whatever who’s just started reading Deleuze and thinks he’s blown the universe wide open.
Of course, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see that T.J. Miller is definitively The Worst and almost certainly full of horsenuggets, but I just happen to have a largely unused doctorate sitting around and can thus explain exactly, and to what extent, his particular brand of horsenuggets resembles the seminar-room stylings of every graduate program’s That Guy since time immemorial.
Take, for example, his claim that “Nietzschean moral relativism is ‘frustrating, because it’s so dangerous.’ ” The only thing first-year grad students love more than Two-Buck Chuck is being so over Nietzsche whilst having read a negligible amount of him. Assuming that Miller is referring here to select snippets from Genealogy of Morals, I think he’s talking about Nietzsche’s explanation of Judeo-Christian morality as a societal construct that came out of the slave culture of ancient Greece. While the masters had lives full of pleasure, the slaves had to invent a system of morality that honored sacrifice and suffering, whose rewards came in the afterlife instead of this one. This is all very controversial if you are a seminary teacher in 1887, but when I think of the current dangers to the world, Nietzschean perspectivalism probably falls somewhere beneath I think my roommate gave my parents’ HBO Go password to her shifty boyfriend.
Then there’s the part where Miller explains that his words have “no teleological destination.” Ah, yes. Teleological is pretty much grad students’ favorite word. It comes from telos, the Greek for “end.” In my own first year of grad school, I insisted to a guy I was dating that he needn’t worry about me pushing for a serious relationship too quickly, because I viewed romance in, I quote, a “phenomenological rather than teleological sense,” meaning, in the most insufferable way possible, that I was more concerned with what I was experiencing in the moment than what might happen in the future. 1) I ended up marrying that guy. 2) Teleological destination means “end-based end,” a piece of actual gibberish that means nothing.
Later, when asked why he doesn’t quit Hollywood, Miller “rolls his eyes” and proclaims: “Contradiction is something to pursue rather than avoid.” I lied: There is one thing That Guys love more than being over Nietzsche, and that’s the gleeful embrace of contradictions. Toward the end of Kafka’s The Trial, a priest all but rolls his eyes and informs Josef K., “Understanding something correctly and misunderstanding the same thing are not mutually exclusive.” I spent a good 40 pages of my dissertation yammering about that line, and I’m not proud of it. Josef K. dies.
Speaking of bad Kafka parody, Miller probably hits Peak Grad Student when he tells Marchese, “If nothing means anything, then anything can mean everything.” This is, alas, Nietzsche again, straight out of “On Truth and Lying in the Extra-Moral Sense,” founding document (more or less) of language skepticism and what some people (me) might identify as the first tremulous step onto the slippery slope of poststructuralism. Language, Nietzsche insists, only “works” insofar as its users insist on believing it does. I suppose the designation full of shit is, itself, just “a moving army of metaphor,” a “coin whose face has worn off but stays in circulation,” but to be sure I’d need to consult the dude in my narrative theory seminar whose “thing” is that he doesn’t wear shoes.
I realize my particular antipathy toward Miller’s posturing comes from the discomfiting specularity of self-recognition—or, in human language, because I, too, was once an early-career graduate student and probably this insufferably confident in my own intelligence. Luckily, I grew out of it, as do most other grad students—beaten down as we are by the realities of an employment future of $28,000 program-director jobs, not to mention the funny thing that happens where the more you actually learn about something, the less confident you get about how much you know (#Socrates).*
The trouble with T.J. Miller, of course, is that instead of languishing in obscurity in some doctoral program, spending his teeny stipend on flip-flops and Trader Joe’s frozen quiche, he’s a rich-ass Hollywood actor with a massive platform, surrounded by sycophants (and one long-suffering publicist).
Miller will never see his precious unifying epistemology obliterated thanks to the equalizing misery of comprehensive exams. He will never come to the lonely, sobering realization that successfully finishing a dissertation is about 97 percent tolerance for drudgery and only 3 percent successful quotation of Rabelais and correct deployment of facial misting spray. Ehrlich, T.J. Miller is probably stuck this way, a teleological destination of his own making.
*Correction, July 26, 2017: This post originally misspelled the name of Socrates.