Musk’s Fascination With the Letter X

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Elon Musk has a long history with the letter X. What does it signify?

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:


Solving for X

A few months ago, at the start of an unintended streak of reading novels with characters named X, I started to become curious about the letter. First, I read Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, in which the novel’s protagonist calls his ex-wife “X” as he narrates his version of their shared past (in the next book in the series, he refers to her as Ann). Soon, I spotted X again: In Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, the unnamed teen narrator refers to herself at one point as “Miss X.” And I recently started Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X, in which a widow digs into the hazy past of her late wife, an artist known by the time of her death as “X.” These characters are all shot through with ambiguity; they are people who both invite and resist projection. But they also have nothing to do with one another. Why do they share the same name, or, really, the absence of a name?

X can be a hard concept to pin down. It can be a meaningful signifier—Wrong answer!—and a generic stand-in. The letter is associated with such varied contexts as Christian symbolism, middle-school-math equations, gender neutrality, pornography, a kiss. X both reinforces absence and electrifies objects with meaning. It is sacred and profane. X is also, as of last weekend, the new name of Twitter.com.

Elon Musk, less than a year after becoming the owner of Twitter, changed the site’s name and logo to X. He has started removing bird branding in and around the office. He is reportedly projecting “X” in Twitter’s cafeteria and renaming conference rooms “eXposure” and “s3Xy.” The rebrand, Musk has said, is a step toward transforming Twitter into an everything app—along the lines of the Chinese app WeChat. Linda Yaccarino, the site’s new chief executive, posted on Twitter (on X?) that “X is the future state of unlimited interactivity—centered in audio, video, messaging, payments/banking.” (Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

The letter X is both rich with connotations and ambiguous, which may be part of its appeal for Musk. “When I saw Elon Musk use [X], I thought, he’s definitely a semiotician, at least in spirit,” Marcel Danesi, an emeritus professor of semiotics and linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto, told me. X “reverberates with all kinds of meanings that are intuitive, unconscious, and archetypal,” he said. Jamin Pelkey, a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and the author of The Semiotics of X, told me that “X is both an empty signifier and a signifier of everything … You cannot pin it down or say it means this and only this.” History is marked with X’s, signifying presence and portents: Solitary X marks from more than 10,000 years ago have been found on cave walls in Spain, Pelkey told me. In the Middle Ages, X circulated as a warning symbol, a sign of the cross, and a way for people to seal letters, Danesi said.

Musk—a member of Generation X—has a long and loaded personal history with the letter. In the 1990s, he co-founded an online bank called X.com. When X.com merged with a company that owned PayPal and Musk became the CEO of the new entity, he reportedly attempted to phase out PayPal branding and replace it with X. At the time, in the early 2000s, Musk argued that the name was “novel, intriguing, and open-ended,” as Jimmy Soni wrote in his book The Founders. But X.com apparently reminded people too much of porn. Soon, Musk was ousted from the company. He has since used X in both his brands and his personal life: He runs the company SpaceX, has created corporate bodies called X Holdings and a start-up called xAI, and named one of his children X Æ A-12.

If X is Musk’s personal white whale, his interest in the letter also aligns with broader trends in branding. X was especially hip at the dawn of the millennium (think XBox, X Games): “For marketing purposes in the 1990s, X had a certain cool,” Stella Bugbee wrote this week in The New York Times. “It conferred a rejection of authority.” In the years since, X has retained cachet in Silicon Valley, where Google’s X (formerly “Google X,” domain name: x.company) uses the letter to demarcate its secretive “moonshot” projects. A start-up accelerator associated with Stanford is called StartX. Indeed, hundreds of other companies, including Meta and Microsoft, have intellectual-property rights to X—which means that Musk and company could be facing lawsuits over the name soon.

X’s ambiguity is what makes the letter so compelling. And, Pelkey noted, that’s part of what makes it a good fit for Musk’s troublemaking, boundary-pushing style: “The X mark is for extremes.”

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Today’s News

  1. Hunter Biden’s plea deal over federal tax charges is on hold after a judge expressed concern over the terms for a separate felony gun charge.
  2. Water temperatures around the tip of South Florida have reached triple digits, and could be the hottest seawater measurement ever collected.
  3. Seven major automakers plan to invest at least $1 billion to build a network of electric-vehicle chargers across the United States and Canada.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break

Read. The staff writer Ross Andersen reflects on J. Robert Oppenheimer’s 1949 plea in the pages of The Atlantic for hope.

Watch. Survival of the Thickest (streaming on Netflix) stars the comedian Michelle Buteau as a brokenhearted stylist wrestling with the indignity and joy of starting over after a breakup.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

For a look at the life of another man surrounded by symbols and signifiers, I recommend reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s article on the art dealer Larry Gagosian in this week’s New Yorker. The profile charts Gagosian’s rise from hawking posters in Westwood to brokering deals worth tens of millions of dollars. It also looks at the part Gagosian played in accelerating the role of private interests in art, and in reifying fine art as an investment category. Keefe reveals some of the inner machinations of an industry that, in spite of its prominence as an asset class, remains largely unregulated.

— Lora

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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