He put the old cant of the lawlessness of art and the art of lawlessness with a certain impudent freshness which gave at least a momentary pleasure. He was helped in some degree by the arresting oddity of his appearance, which he worked, as the phrase goes, for all it was worth…This combination at once tickled and terrified the nerves of a neurotic population. He seemed like a walking blasphemy, a blend of the angel and the ape.-GK Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
Still another Goldberg fake, “Tanya Cohen,” was a radical feminist who wrote articles attacking sexism in video games and calling for laws banning hate speech — while his neo-Nazi alter ego attacked Cohen with anti-Semitic and sexist epithets.– Newsday article on Joshua Goldberg
In college I had a couple classes with this kid who was tall and gawky and used to try to sell me pants he’d steal off the backs of trucks. He had a thick Russian accent and was horribly nervous and used to speak in lines from the movie Borat about the Jews. I was never quite sure if he was joking and I wasn’t sure if he was sure either. His presence was so unexceptional it hardly seemed to matter; his impression never threatened the domain of the real, and despite the numerous accolades and heavy discussion surrounding Sacha Baron Cohen in the media around that time, neither did Cohen himself.
The “subversive” element of Cohen’s films, which run on his playing an exaggerated character and tricking people not in on the joke into doing interviews with him, only exists in the moment of the interview and not afterward in the finished product of the film. His comedy is ultimately reassuring in its supposed “subversion”; the interview subjects might think Cohen is real but the audience is let in on the joke from the start. Cohen’s ability to fool his subjects makes the audience the ultimate insiders. They get to sit and look at everyone from terrorists to Noam Chomsky and think “Ha, what idiots, how do they not realize this is a joke?” Cohen’s career hasn’t maintained its momentum since it peaked with Borat’s success because it’s ultimately the same joke repeated over and over without the benefit of any special insight or virtuosity. It’s a forceful comedy from without. As I discussed in an earlier essay the joke frequently revolves around the dynamics of disappearance and deflation; here the joke itself is not the underlying pathos of disappointment but its flip side, the manufactured disappointment. In other jokes, the joker flirts with the absence of meaning but slinks away for fear of being bitten; in these the joker does the biting.
In the case of Cohen and the troll, the lack of identity paradoxically branches out into a multiplicity of identities. The lack of reality being asserted in the trick is in fact vampiric-it can only derive its pretense to meaninglessness by sucking on the strictures of meaning that surround it. At the same time, these “meanings” and their pretense to seriousness need to constantly assert themselves as such; they work in an economy and can’t be intelligently analyzed by declaring one the victor or gloating over the other’s defeat.
Joshua Goldberg was discovered recently as having taken on multiple “false” identities in an act of virtuoso trolling, being everything from an Israeli blogger calling for the extermination of all Palestinians to a member of ISIS to a white supremacist to a feminist attacking his white supremacist identity who he in turn attacked in his white supremacist persona. This strange circular saga finally ended with his outing by the original archetypal troll, the undercover government agent, the person we pay taxes to insincerely take on extremist personas. And with this connection made, this saga of split selves becomes that of one fictional identity, the undercover agent’s, protecting another, Goldberg’s, from breaking the internal coherence of the act’s pretense to fictional meaninglessness. If the terrorist act that Goldberg had been inciting had actually happened, it would undermine the entire point of his prior aesthetic. If Goldberg’s faking had produced something “real” in the form of a bombing, the implied point of his actions would have been put in danger.
So what does this “meaningless” mean?
Most internet writing is basically faceless. Most of the readers of this blog know who I am only because this blog has so few readers. The opinion asserted is the end product of the article. The textual self is the actual self on the internet. We can’t really say what Goldberg believed in, if he could be said to believe anything. Under his own name he wrote articles supporting total freedom of speech, which in and of itself is too insubstantial a political philosophy to do anything besides weakly frame the dominant body of work, the numerous personas he adopted. The charge against Goldberg made by the government is that he was inciting a terrorist act, the charge made by the numerous articles on the piece is that Goldberg undermined the confidence of the various editors and Twitter users he interacted with. The government has the better case.
The sites where Goldberg submitted articles to exist not to celebrate the individuality of the writers who produce their content but to continually recreate themselves and their readers in the lens of the nebulous “editorial standpoint” or “brand”. Popular bloggers and opinion writers in the present become such by endlessly repeating themselves in slightly different contexts depending on whatever the hivemind wants to look at that week. Most blogs and news websites have a uniformity of opinion in their content that would seem to suggest that behind the scenes they were having party meetings and purges. Of course, this probably isn’t the case. Why bother going through the annoying formalities of the purge when you can just hire or fire temps?
When we chastise Goldberg for the crime of duplicity and not simply the fact he was inciting violence, we must ask ourselves: how much do any of the people whose blogs we read really believe anything they’re saying? Do the faceless Buzzfeeders pumping out listicles do so with “sincerity”? Their claim to the real, to sincerity, then exists in the attachment of their name, and who actually checks the byline on an article of that sort? The anonymous Associated Press writer who attempts to uphold the illusory standard of journalism sans beliefs nevertheless ends up back at the point of a less honest bias for his troubles. When we create online dating profiles, do we really believe most of what we put in them? The solicitation of articles creating a collective and often quite narrow viewpoint maintains the power of the editor as funnel; a Joshua Goldberg reveals this function as funnel.
We are constantly implored to “sell” ourselves, the salesmen being the ultimate undercover agent, the false believer who must change gods as the market demands. “I couldn’t sell you this if I didn’t believe in it.” “I couldn’t sell you this if I didn’t use it myself.” It’s well known that advertisements and salesmen lie. But we symbolically construct our self from them (“ethical consumerism”, “the gamer”, etc. etc.). So when the product attempts to seduce us into a faith in it, we want to consummate this seduction in a way that leaves us respecting ourselves the next morning. The consumer identity is internalized in the readers of online news as much as it is in anyone else in a society that indoctrinates its citizens into consumer theology from day one. And lest we risk heresy when faced with capitalism’s Nietzschaen eternal recurrence-the point of purchase-we attempt to affirm. We want to say with confidence “I wouldn’t buy this if I didn’t believe in it.” We want to be insiders. We want to believe. Books upon books of consumer manuals each their own Summa Theologica guide us through the overwhelming multiplicities and outsource the endless work of discovering the true and correct means for practice and interpretation of the purchase. We want to be inside. We consume news to reaffirm we are.
And so, as a symbolic performance, the Goldberg case points not only to the “truth” as being a commodity. It stands in opposition to the Sacha Baron Cohen films selling the position to the viewer of being the true “insider” on the joke. It says there may be no “inside”. And so in the ensuing crisis of faith, the questionable “truth” of the journalist’s sermon/salesmanship must be affirmed through assertion of its “opposition”: the allegorical figure of the confidence man.