Shaming, Vigilanteism and the Internet

The dream of justice and the dream of public bloodletting can’t be cleanly disentangled from each other. They co-exist in the public imagination in rotating fashion, each taking turns representing the supposed reality of the other. Public blood lust runs in many directions that tend heavily toward the symbolic. The judicial performance of the law is the mediator of public blood lust first and foremost; it’s in this capacity that it does the most good but at the same time reveals the shortcomings of the elevated status it’s accorded in broad accounts of society.

The whats and whys of vigilante activity seems especially relevant in the present moment now that the internet has loosed the always-already blurry line between acceptable and legal behavior. Non-violent resistance in the form of everything from Silk Road’s decentralized distribution of illegal narcotics to various actions by Anonymous and related offshoots are older activities re-conceived that nonetheless acquire a new bias in translation. Activism’s mirror images as challenge to the state of law coming from the outside, the vigilante posse and the witch hunt, have similarly risen to new digital prominence.

In daily existence the small resentments and outrages pile themselves higher and larger without occasional psychic spring cleaning; the categories of religion and political persuasion serve much of their pragmatic function as a sorting mechanism for the chaotic buildup of grievance that’s encountered in day to day life. The mind would like to connect the phenomena of resentment cleanly to causes in the hopes that their own resentment can be resolved; this is made infinitely more complicated by the general validity of many of these grievances which are nevertheless not necessarily derived from the most “pure” of circumstantial relations to things. But then, nothing arises out of pure circumstances. Your parents fucked each other to have you as mine did to have me and that goes all around. It’s possible the grievance springs forth like the sex drive. We can’t entirely discredit a trend by the lack of purity or simplicity in the progenitors’ intent unless we all want to go back to being Catholics. Much analysis coming from the left and right gets to the step of realizing there’s a money trail and then stops there.

When Reddit and 4chan first started gaining attention for “human flesh searches” the response was, as I remember anyhow, varied. It couldn’t be said then with absolute certainty whether the phenomena was on the whole a good or bad thing. At this early stage discussion of it was essentially a means of exploring in the abstract the related question of how much faith the US public had in the current implementation of the law. There isn’t a great confidence in it. There are reasons not to be especially confident in the rightness of US law, though these reasons aren’t always the reasons people lack confidence in it.

The toxic mixture of people rightly claiming oligarchic preferential treatment within the legal system (the lack of prosecutions etc. in relation to the robo-signed mortgages, the lack of legal fallout from 2008 which makes it look like what it likely was-a pretense for the proto-feudal expropriation of wealth toward the top in light of the decline of traditional methods of capital accumulation) with a ruling class and upper middle class personally defined by a pathological narcissistic state of perceived victimhood that are more than willing to engage in a long term arms race of “I know you are, but what am I?”. On one side an extremely decentralized genuinely populist uprising, on the other a concerted slaveholder’s rebellion. But how does the internet fit into this dynamic?

The internet, as it tends to do in its translation/folding into itself of pre-internet phenomena, brings the always-already present aspect of artificiality and performance into distinct relief; one can imagine (though I’m not sure this actually happened) Reddit attempting to find the Boston Marathon bombers then front-paging an article on Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Dutch tulip mania afterward as a self-reflexive wink at its own destructive excess.

The Boston Marathon bombing should be remembered as historically significant for being the moment when the internet came into wider self-awareness after the utopian hopes and aspirations that defined its collective self-image in the period beforehand. In the two days before anything was definitively know as to what the motives or the identities of the perpetrators were there was a speculative feeding frenzy. All the message boards were giant flurries of activity. Every interest was flushed out with the then unknown Boston bombers serving as a Rorschach blot to focus all the anxieties and vendettas underlying the larger hubs of discourse. I sat drinking coffee and chain smoking, staying up for 19 hour stretches sure this was possibly the only opportunity to see the the internet’s unconscious not obscured by clouds.

Perhaps the most dangerous manic tendency that was laid out in simple superstructural form during this period of observation wasn’t tied to a specific political tendency or space; it was simply the feeling that now that history was being taken in as it happened on the internet instead of the TV, there was a corresponding necessity to do somethinganything. While apathy isn’t necessarily the most healthy reaction to traffic in, neither is its opposite. The collective “problem solving” that Reddit indulged in in those two days left someone in hiding who had no actual connection to the bombing. Everyone else was tweeting “I sure hope it’s not (insert marginalized group.)” There was fresh current events real estate to be parceled out. The two states of the internet news cycle are feeding frenzy and hangover. Careers have often been launched from a state of proximity to crisis.

As long as the law doesn’t have the infrastructure to keep up with the internet, the internet will continue to bleed around the edges. Whole new problems have been posed which have yet to be solved.

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2 comments

  1. Ahhh yesss, the electronic lynch mob. The world where being an informant is suddenly a good thing.
    The ever prevalent and modern Foucauldian discourse. Definitely not enough outward criticism towards it! Thanks for your thoughts.

    1. No problem, I have thoughts laying all over the place and nuthin to do with ’em.

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