impressionistic criticism

On trolling.

Does our fixation on the character of “the troll” obscure a deeper problem — that the Internet allows us to continuously troll ourselves?

"Troll," by Jolande RM, CC-BY-NC-ND.
“Troll,” by Jolande RM, CC-BY-NC-ND.
Since trolls monopolize every discussion they’re involved in, it should come as no surprise that reflection on trolling itself tends to be preoccupied by the persona of the troll. Wikipedia, for instance, discusses trolling only as a subtopic in its article on “internet trolls.” This sounds straightforward enough: surely, trolling means behaving like a troll. But a more interesting question opens up if we recognize that the verb can float free of the noun — that trolling pervades contemporary discourse, and is performed by everyone.

After all, why does the New York Times write about real estate in the Hamptons, for an audience that mostly can’t afford it? Why does The Atlantic scour every corner of society for trends that prevent professional women from achieving work/life balance? Why do publications for an audience that has already entered or finished grad school run articles advising them not to go to grad school?

They’re all trolling us.

“Wait,” you say. “The way you’re using the word, trolling is just another name for targeted journalistic provocation.”

Trolling may have been perfected by journalists who hold their audience captive in a filter bubble, but trolling is older than journalism. As far as I can tell, Socrates was the first person to practice it. “Why hello there, Gorgias. I hear you’re a rhetorician. By the way, I’ve always wondered, what exactly is rhetoric?”

"Socrates," photo by Sebastià Giralt, CC-BY-NC-SA
“Socrates,” photo by Sebastià Giralt, CC-BY-NC-SA
In fact, Socrates may have been a troll in the noun sense as well, because he clearly enjoyed tormenting interlocutors. But that’s ad hominem and beside the point. I call Socratic discourse “trolling,” not because it was malicious, but because it was in principle interminable. When you first sat down with Socrates, you may have thought “I’m just going to answer this one question and then go buy some olives.” But the first question never gets answered. It always leads on to deeper puzzles, and although you may finally give up and leave, the discourse will be taken up tomorrow by some other victim.

Journalism is, similarly, designed to be interminable. There’s a thin pretense that you’re familiarizing yourself with world events in order to become an informed citizen, but if you actually stopped watching once you had enough information to act, cable news wouldn’t make money.

So I propose to define trolling, generally, as a discourse that is structurally incapable of reaching the conclusion it promises. It seems to be about some determinate object, but either that object endlessly recedes as you approach it, or the rules of the discourse guarantee that other topics can be substituted for the original one, so that a conclusion is never reached.

The Internet is trolling, elevated to Hegelian World Spirit. It’s easy to imagine that people lurk on comment threads denying climate change with endlessly shifting rationales because they are personally insincere, or because online anonymity creates a cool shady place where they can multiply. But in a deeper sense trolls are merely incarnating the structural logic of the Internet. On the Internet, discourse can continue endlessly, unconfined by ordinary social limits. On the Internet, there’s always a new interlocutor — and conversely, there’s always a new provocation, guaranteed to play on your most urgent anxieties, because you designed the filter that selected it yourself.

Of course, once we define trolling this broadly, it becomes nearly useless as a normative concept. It’s hard to locate a line of division between this sort of trolling and legitimate critical reflection. Which will be frustrating, unless you’re a post-structuralist or a troll.

Postscript: The italicized subhed was added on April 22, and wording was changed in minor ways to improve clarity.

impressionistic criticism

Fish wins round two.

This barely deserves to be a blog post, but I can’t resist a brief critical appreciation of Stanley Fish’s second column on the digital humanities.

Fish argues that digital humanists’ insistence on the networked character of human communication (or even human identity) makes them a) postmodern, b) theological, in the sense that they’re promising a transcendence of individual mortality, and c) political in an explicitly leftist way. In making these points, he cites about 2.5% of the people in my Twitter stream, which is one reason why I like the column.

The cover of Neuromancer that I remember. I may not have copyright to this image, but file-sharing is part of my religion.

The main reason I like it, though, is that it raises the bar for stylistic slipperiness in the pages of the NYT. Fish begins the column by posing as someone with a firm belief in the stability of the text, and in authorial identity. He says that he believes in these as strongly, in fact, as the critic Morris Zapp. This is pretty delicious, given that Zapp is a fictional character notoriously modeled on Stanley Fish. He can hardly function as an emblem of stable authorial identity … though he might well emblematize the immortal alter-ego that writing has always made possible. I’m reminded of the “laugh that wasn’t laughter” at the end of Neuromancer.

Which brings me to the only place in the column where I do feel dissed. Fish thinks humanists promoting DH will be shocked by the notion that enthusiasm for the web involves a religious transcendence of mortality. Come on — we’ve read @GreatDismal. Moreover, a lot of us have read Emile Durkheim on the religious character of all social feeling, or Carl Becker on the Enlightenment’s secular faith in posterity. Just about all forms of reflection on history and writing promise a transcendence of individual identity.

What’s more fun are the cases where they become religions in a socially concrete way — like the Swedish church of Kopimism, brought to my attention by James Dabbs, which makes the act of file-sharing its central sacrament.

I enjoyed this column so much that I’m hoping the third installment (about digital analysis of “aesthetic works”) will be equally thoughtful and slippery. I’m rooting for Fish to resist the magnetic pull of formulations like “computers will never …” and “merely counting words can never ….” But those binary assumptions are hard to resist: I’m going to be wracked with suspense.

UPDATE Jan 23rd. This really isn’t worth a blog post. But I should just briefly register my disappointment in Fish’s third column. It’s sophistry, and not even sophistry of an interesting kind. Once you say “excluded middle fallacy founded on willful misreading of two examples,” you’ve pretty much done all that needs to be done with it. Too bad.