Mastery, Sampling and the Self

Yet another think piece was added to the pile of literature considering trigger warnings on Salon a couple days ago. This piece begat yet another think piece in the form of this thing you’re reading. Trigger warning: this is a broad meta-commentary.

The piece, “My Trigger Warning Disaster”, details the attempts by a professor, Rani Neutill, to teach a class on the history of sexuality in the cinema only to be constantly interrupted by offended students and boxed into trigger-warning all of her lesson plans and generally just having an awful time teaching the course. She doesn’t mention what college this was at though the bit at the end saying she lives in Cambridge, Mass gives some idea of possible institutions. The essay also gives a helpful informal bibliography of work on the culture of trigger warnings.

The phenomena of trigger warnings seems intimately intertwined with the entrance into college of the first generations to have grown up with the contemporary internet as a social given. That trigger warnings would be the manifestation of this is somewhat surprising given that the internet’s existence in its current form gave rise to a generation of people who saw the most heinous types of pornography and possibly even snuff films by the time they were 18. I dunno. Maybe I was just around weirdos and perverts. For a good couple years though it seemed like the fuel the internet ran on was videos or photos of people eating feces or injuring themselves. After all that, trigger warnings would seem to have become totally redundant.

I brought this up to Stan. Stan was in his 30s when all this was going on and actually worked for a website trying to monetize shock content. He made a good point. “I think most people are desensitized but I think that comes with its mirror image, hypersensitivity. Being desensitized takes any sense of what’s right and wrong away. So you start rebuilding it in the most ham-handed way.”

So this is blow back. We had our decade and a half of simulacural hedonism and indulgence of the id, now we enter the phase of push back. Now that the problem of providing plenty has been decisively conquered on the media front the privilege to be fought over now becomes the ability to control the overwhelming influx. The period in which the internet was the wild west has decisively ended and the major companies of the present are no longer the ones offering infinite options but the ones that can intelligently curate.

Early conversational scares about the potentials of the internet would frequently revolve around the similarities between the TV that watches you in Orwell’s 1984 and the then still novel notion that a website or your e-mail could tailor advertisements to you. These scares never gained much traction because this mechanism is probably what was desired. One of the deliverances most promised in advertising narratives is the deliverance from having to choose; the US population’s desire to be seduced into consumer monogamy has been explored surprisingly little in film and literature. I would often hear complaints from people not especially versed in political or media theory “Why isn’t there a single objective source where I can just get THE news??” These would oddly enough be the sort of people who would say how proud they were that the US is more free than China.

I’ve been collecting books speculatively looking forward at what the internet might turn out to be or become from before 1995 for a larger project. In the opening essay of 1994’s Hyper/Text/Theory (Johns Hopkins, ed. Landow), a collection of essays examining hypertext as a set of literary theory problems, the issue of the “readerless text” comes up. The readerless text is, put simply, a text so vast that no one person could conceivably have read the entirety of it and “mastered” it in the traditional sense. From pg. 34:

“Critics can never read all the text and then represent themselves as masters of the text as do critics in print text. True, one can never fully exhaust or master a particular printed text, to be sure, but one can accurately claim to have read all through it or even to have read it so many times as to claim credibly to know it well. Large hypertexts and cybertexts simply offer too many lexias for critics ever to read. Quantity removes mastery and authority, for one can only sample, not master, a text.”

The language employed here is interesting for more reasons than writer George Landow could’ve foreseen consciously in 1994, though that is why I collect books like this. Insofar as the quantity of data, information and experiences available through the internet are for practical intents and purposes unlimited, the conscious creation of the self reverses its’ trajectory; earlier man actively created himself through active engagement and exploration of the world of objects; things were hard to find and worldliness was a commodity in short supply; a person, and such a person who resided near my apartment recently died and remarks were made to this effect, could become a regional legend in their own time simply for having accumulated records or books in a certain quantity. To an extent, Henry Thoreau followed this model.

This now seems ridiculous. For the cost of a generic smartphone and proximity to some form of wi-fi I can access much of what remains of the past couple thousand years of human culture at no cost if I’m willing to be only slightly clever and motivated and loose in my conception of what’s legal. Within the US, while the degree of access is highly variable and the digital divide is real, the access is there and the accumulation of objects is at this point a ghost dance for the aesthetic joys of conspicuous consumption past. The well-defined self is now defined not by the breadth of its activity but by its aggression in going on the defensive. While the posture of sophistication has always to some degree been defined by negative consumption (“I’d never watch a thing like that!”), the definition of self in the face of media plenty is the inverse of Thorstein Veblen’s famous “conspicuous consumption” of the leisure class-conspicuous negative-consumption.

Because the text cannot be mastered and considered in the positive it must be rejected piecemeal; it refuses to surrender to our speculations, mine obviously included, and as such we go on the attack with such frequency that for those who get their news on the internet, it defines the news cycle. We’re flooded with a volume of content on a single usually not very interesting subject (see: Kenneth Goldsmith poetry conference controversy) that most complaints by those not writing op-eds, those without a vested interest in the “controversy” seeming legitimate, amount to “why does everyone give a shit about this and why do they keep giving a shit about it all over my Facebook feed?”

The nostalgia in the trigger warning, the element by which it transcends its well intentioned origins and grows into its own beast, comes from its context within the assaultive media environment of the present. The screen is an invading race and we are negotiating our peaceful coexistence with it as it encroaches on our territory whether we want it to or not. The nostalgia that popular projections onto the trigger warning almost deterministically pushed it into embodying were the space of plausible deniability in ones’ ignorance, the space that was once called innocence.

A turf war is being fought with the screen, but the screen can’t feel or bleed; we shoot rounds off into the darkness and settle for collateral damage.

The Internet and the Protestant Ethic

When I was younger I had a Sunday school teacher who insisted, long after cable internet became the standard, on keeping her AOL dial-up account. I asked her why. She told me that she would use the time of the slow loading screens to pray, and felt that upgrading her internet would therefore shortchange God. For the rest of that year I was in her class, my mind would drift off toward imagining her whittled down British accent mumbling the Sh’ma over the screeching dial tone as the little hour glass icon would fill and tip over again and again…

The mythologies of technology and of magic have had a long intertwining dialectic. Their terminologies and means of dreaming their futures have made with the hostilely witty repartee of the man and woman in a screwball romantic comedy for some time now. Science fiction’s relation to the longer history of allegorical literature is that of a reversal; the deus ex machina becomes the deus as machina.The radical unexplained narrative shifts that at one time were the defining characteristic of lazy writing become the new social realism. Where looking at a culture’s “low” objects was once the anthropologist’s condescending lens toward understanding the root beliefs of an unfamiliar society, this lens has been turned back on us with a vengeance as critic after critic attempts, sometimes with incredible effectiveness, to search for the underlying identity of America in its most disposable cultural products. We have been, as McLuhan put it, brought into a new tribal relation with ourselves.

The angry Old Testament God is replaced by the feeling of totalistic paranoia that a thing is punishing us for our hubris that’s felt far beyond the more obvious spheres of the anarcho-primitivists and neo-luddites. In those whose economic well-being has been made through the medium of the computer, the internet is more frequently posited as the thing that replaces God in rewarding or punishing those who maintain the Protestant work ethic. These are both manifestations of the logic of old religious folk tales going back to Job and earlier; the narrative discontinuity that favors us is the favor of God, that which cripples us His retribution. That the shift of history now seems to work in continuous radical discontinuities, this societal function of the God figure is no longer necessary; like a Twitter feed, a rapid pronouncement of judgement from an unknowable ether updates itself in “real time”.

The internet revolution is Protestant in character; the great texts are made easily and readily available to the layman while the justifications of an elite’s claims to power grow more circular in their logic; those that follow the logic of the machine are amply rewarded, those that falter are rightfully punished; those that seem to follow the strictures of the internet but struggle must not actually be following its will, those that willfully don’t are idlers who deserve their lot. Internet trolls’ earliest justifications for cruelties like putting a rapidly blinking gif on an epilepsy forum was that the forum users should have had safeguards in place to stop them. Given the seeming novelty of the case at the time, this logic was seen rightly as horrific; however, how different is it from the rationale that undergirds the economic marginalizing of a vast majority of the population as being inherently disposable, the logic of the 1%, the logic of endless attacks on single mothers and the most marginalized and exploited among us-the Mexican immigrant-as the thing “destroying the country”, the Protestant shaming of the person who sits outside the predetermined boundaries of what constitute “usefulness” or success in this warped society?

That what the internet has become is so predominantly Protestant is of course not a thing made so because of anything “inherent” or “essential” in it beyond that it was developed and propagated within the strictures of a capitalism that was already Protestant. So long as we still exist within the framework of capitalism, any mass dump/”redistribution” of “power” such as the internet is still largely controlled by where the money in its various streams was situated before its arrival and takes a position in the popular mythology simply as a means of shaming the larger populace for their impotence in converting it into money. So long as capital continues to accumulate to a smaller and smaller group at the top, any game short of outright revolution is still ultimately the old one on the playground wherein the larger kid grabs the smaller kid’s hand and mockingly slaps him in the face with it while saying “Stop hitting yourself! Stop hitting yourself!”

The internet, like the Christian pretexts to imperialism, was dreamed as a great tool of decentralized raising of an uninformed populace. And like the Christian missionary project, this liberation is rapidly being repurposed for fear it won’t being coming strictly from the top down; for fear, as Zizek might put it, that the principles and dreams that the internet was founded on might be taken more seriously and literally by the user than the Steve Jobs’ with their cynically laughable claims to having “revolutionized” something larger than a technology. For the moment, the internet is simply as the Ipad was to the Iphone; a larger vessel for the same old thing to operate in. But as we learn from Marx, within this new form sit the contradictions that make possible its overthrow.

As the internet revolutionizes society in a distorted repetition of how industrialization did, so we need a new book that can lay out the internal contradictions of this new paradigm in the manner Capital did in the prior epoch. Marx has already helpfully laid out some useful terms in a gift basket from beyond the grave; “fictitious capital” for one. But we must do the rest of the work to bring about the new manifestation of the communist Idea.