“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Imagine Derrida Was a Blogger

Apropos of nothing, my dad played violin on “Who Killed Bambi”—I was proud of him for playing with the Pistols. 

At #c21nonhuman, one of us recalled an online spat last year during which OOO was brought to task, again, for its sensitive members, as the result of some responses to “questions.” The recaller expressed puzzlement as to why on earth OOO'ers would have reacted that way to a list of innocent questions.

I think this represents a kind of sympathy failure. I'm now seeing on Facebook, which happily I'm not on, a discussion that seems to be playing to what we OOO'ers supposed was the case at the time, that there was more than a thread of somewhat sadistic glee that aggressive people had been outed.

The name for this glee is passive aggression, mixed with a bit of Schadenfreude—everyone likes a good old rubberneck of others' pain. It has to do with the new media in which these things are staged.

Online whatever brings a whole new dimension of something or other to the way we interact. What it does, I think, is to prevent the kind of slowness assumed when we read books and put them away on the shelf, think about who wrote them, and then maybe meet them several months later. I'm not saying that the internet makes things metaphysically present. It's more like it supplements books and papers in a way that short-circuits something. There is more room for projection, because there is less time for things to percolate. It works with human brains in ways that bring forth the amygdala and its dopamine and fight or flight and so forth.

For my money, the online thing supplements the usual thing by adding a phenomenological layer of sincerity to it all. Which is different from saying that people are sincere, but rather that people are inescapably shrink wrapped in themselves, and this becomes obvious the more online fora propagate.

Sometimes I've seen live debate go this way—art historians are often prone to it. But it happens now in all kinds of extra settings whose contours perhaps we haven't quite caught up with, or in particular I haven't.

The trouble is that losing your cool is so obvious now, and we mustn't ever lose our cool, right?!

Here's the thing. Imagine a philosopher. This philosopher is used to the cut and thrust of debate—I remember, having been brought up in the more Bambi-like areas of the humanities (media, English), how shocked I was when I first encountered that about 20 years ago: “I'm not satisfied with your point on x, but I accept your point on y.”

I had thought that attacks on positions were attacks on people, which several on the discussion, and on the current Facebook thread on last year's discussion, seem to think too, from the looks of it. They seem to think that scoring a hit because you ruffled some feathers is a worthwhile thing to do and has some kind of scholarly meaning.

What we are dealing with is something like a Lyotardian differend. There is a pure asymmetry between the way the expectations work between the media studies and English type of a scholar, and the philosophy type of a scholar. 

Imagine how frustrated philosophers can get about this, especially if they have been sensitized by many of these “just questions.” I recall Levi on Facebook a few weeks ago, metaphorically beating his head against a wall, because some dissing of OOO as opposed to Marxism had gone down.

Imagine Derrida was a blogger—by the way, I'm happy to be thought a deconstructor, Derrida liked my first book and so forth, so don't get in a muddle; okay, imagine it's Deleuze, with whom The Ecological Thought was happily compared, by one of its readers (was it that obvious?). At such a juncture, he might be tempted to write “As I have fucking said about a thousand fucking times on this fucking blog, rhizomes...” 

Therein is the trouble you see. It's easy to “ask innocent questions,” frustrate people and then run away laughing at the frustration. Here is a nice Blake poem about it:

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears
Night and morning with my tears,
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright,
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine -

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Blake is putting you in the mindset of a psychopathic god who wants his creation to suffer, and passively aggressively arranges it. But he might also be anticipating the ways in which online communication can end up like a kind of road rage.

On the original post, Aaron commented:

All good points, Tim. But take it from an insider: media studies is not always so Bambi-like. Or if it is, it's often in the manner depicted here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXCUBVS4kfQ 

Yes, that was indeed my point. It's just that Godzilla is more honest. 


Ted Geier said...

Troll hard.

Mark said...

You sort of alluded to this, but I'm slightly skeptical of some of the blame-internet aspect that's been going on, because I see this kind of thing at academic conferences offline all the time. Someone will ask a passive-aggressive question, the speaker will exasperatedly respond that they've explained this a million times in journal articles X,Y,Z which the questioner clearly hasn't even read, etc., etc.

Heck, Noam Chomsky got famous for basically real-life trolling in his early career, adopting an ultra-combative personality in Q&A sessions at conferences.