Tuesday, July 25, 2023

A Useful Tool: Trolling History


Troll is a fairly entertaining movie (but that is not what this post is about)

To repeat something I have said before, if,  as it has often been claimed, philosophy begins with Socrates then it also begins with its particular antagonism, its particular anti-philosophy in the sophist and sophistry. It seems to me that if one wanted to read the history of philosophy in this way, with a founding event and founding antagonism, then one might want to consider who is our anti-philosopher today, who is the contemporary equivalent of the sophist? The answer would seem to have to be the troll. 

This is my preamble to what is now becoming an ongoing discussion of Florida's vanguard fight against knowledge and reason; or more to the point, destruction of knowledge and truth in order to preserve whiteness.  As it was revealed recently, the new curriculum of black history in Florida teaches middle schoolers that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” There is so much to unpack about this claim, as they say in grad school. First, there is the assumption that the people captured from Africa had no skills, no knowledge, no history, nothing but their bodies and skin. Such a claim not only follows from the mythology of a Dark Continent, outside of civilization and history, it confuses an effect from a cause. The people who became slaves were stripped of their knowledge, culture, and social relations. What Orlando Patterson calls a social death was also the reduction of a person to pure labor power, to a capacity to work and nothing else, an animate tool, as Aristotle put it. Second, as the architects of this change doubled down on this claim, since that is what trolls do, providing a list of individuals who gained "valuable job skills" during their "unpaid internship" on a plantation, they provided a list of mostly false claims, listing individuals who were never enslaved, or, in the case of Booker T. Washington, learned literacy and other skills after their emancipation. This "feel good" story about slavery is, like so many feel good stories about history, just not true. 

Of course there might be a case, or even a few, of people who learned a valuable skill during slavery--it could have happened. That does not defend the claim, or, more importantly does not defend its inclusion in a curriculum. It is, I would argue, an example of exception trolling, in which an isolated case or incident is used to obscure or confuse a general or structural tendency. Focusing on these isolated or unique cases, which often appeal to an anecdotal way of thinking that is predominant in our culture, is used to obscure what is generally the case. I would argue that part of gaining knowledge, part of thinking, is understanding the difference between an exception and a rule. Once, when I was in sixth grade, I think, I had the job of feeding the school's snake, a python or boa constrictor. I dropped the live rat in the tank with the snake, watched the snake coil and strike, and saw the rat bite the snake in the eye, blood spurting everywhere, eventually killing it. (This is probably why feeding live animals to snakes is no longer recommended. Not only is it cruel; It is also potential risky). This happened, I saw it with my own eyes, but I would still say that snakes kill and eat rats, and not the other way around. Exceptions exist as do rules, and the former does not negate the latter. Exception trolling is a persistent strategy of trolling, in which exceptions are made to obscure or conceal rules.

I should say, as something of an aside, that this exception trolling has one of its conditions the transformation of all knowledge into discrete bits of information, facts, that can be found, cited and circulated independent of context, conditions, and larger implications. Joseph Vogl's book Capitalism and Ressentiment does an interesting job of charting the history of the current regime of contextless and thoughtless information, but that is for another time. (I just finished a review of that book.) In this reduction of all knowledge to isolated facts and bits of information any discussion of meaning or significance of this or that fact, its place within history or a system of values is impossible. As the clip below makes clear, anyone arguing against the claim that slaves learned skills is either an idiot or lying. Meaning, significance, and importance disappear in the absolute binary of facts. One exception is all that it takes to disprove any claim about systemic discrimination, exploitation, or marginalization. This is why the exception troll has a well stocked set of links and tabs of these exceptions, "reverse racism," false claims of sexual harassment,  happy slaves, etc., It is not facts and logic, as is often claimed, but the logic of the (singular and isolated) fact. 

This raises the question, what goal does this trolling serve? I think that trolling has to be understood as not just a failure to think, to distinguish exceptions from rules, but as itself the articulation of its own logic. In other words, trolling must be read symptomatically. It is necessary to see what is being said in what is not being said, or what is not being said by being said. In some sense these remarks about the virtues of slavery, and, if you watch the clip above, the holocaust could be understood as the culmination of "negative solidarity." Even the slave, the denizen of the concentration camp, cannot complain, they are gaining valuable job training, they just have to make themselves useful and everything will turn out fine. There is nothing to criticize, nothing to complain about. (I see culmination because I cannot imagine something worse than someone saying "slavery was not that bad, they were gaining job skills," but what I can imagine and what monstrosities history can produce are two different things). As such it also can be considered the culmination of "right workerism." Work is the ultimate meaning and justification of existence, those who do not work not only do not eat, but do not have a right to exist. The arguments about slavery and the holocaust are not just horrible distortions of a horrible past, they are alibis for a darker future. One in which the worst possible jobs, or unpaid internships, are seen as building valuable skills, or, if there are no skills involved, developing a solid work ethic. Anyone who praises slavery is preparing for you to become a slave. 

1 comment:

S Lewis said...

Another good emblem for modern sophists may be the immense self-help industry, which promotes complacency and adaption to the status quo in place of criticism and thought, and therefore practice over theory, in pursuit of monetary gain. Notably, the troll and the self help guru seem to intersect in the figure of Jordan Peterson.

It would be interesting to explore how this "transformation of all knowledge into discrete bits of information, facts, that can be found, cited and circulated independent of context, conditions, and larger implications" relates to the domination of computers in contemporary culture. Not only the effect on popular consciousness through social media, also worth thinking about is the impact of computers on the minds of scientists. The classical scientific form which seeks to reduce large domains of specialized phenomena to a small set of elegant concepts through a deductive, mathematical system and which is epitomized by Newton's laws is being challenged by the approach based on "data science" made possible by the power of contemporary computers and their algorithms. With the latter, a large number of factually true yet disparate qualitative aspects of a physical system under investigation are to be derived by means of numerical simulations run on computers in place of the pursuit of a small number of all encompassing, logically inviolable and deeply inter-related laws. This represents a big shift in what is even meant by a scientific theory.