A response to Ross Abbinnett
by Lee Mackinnon
In his article on the phenomenon of Internet trolling, Abbinnett (2015) points out an “ongoing degradation of the self,” and the “staging” of news stories as attributes of digital information platforms. Yet the staging of human life and techniques of self-degradation have animated the drama of the human subject since the earliest recorded literature. Indeed, in his consideration of hatred as ‘sinful’, the biblical tone of the Abbinnett’s article recalls Old Testament wrath with its appetite for vengeance that long provided the basis of a flawed and universalising morality. The idea that the ‘self’ and its social condition were ever anything other than contingent features of specific cultural codes and behaviours, is to give too much credence to either the troll or the academic, presented here as antithetical champions of evil and goodness, respectively. If the self is understood as a substantial essence, it cannot acknowledge its own contingency or the contingency of others. Such a subject is a fragile one that can be easily dismantled by nameless, faceless aggressors who are certainly not interested in whether or not they are being unforgivingly chastised. The idea that online forums might be peopled with liberal intellectuals who reflect one’s own values seems unlikely. If we engage with truly democratic free speech on such platforms, then we must learn to stop giving so much credence to these ‘trolls’ as though they herald the end of days; the alternative is to engineer forums excluding all but those who reassure us of our own virtue. For, while once, we could secrete ourselves in institutions, avoiding those whose explicit violence might muddy the clear-sight lines of liberal tolerance, today, democracy appears fraught with the inconvenience of hearing from those we might rather live without.
In considering hatred to be both sinful and irrational, the author makes light of an essential and powerful human emotion. For instance, what use would we have for forgiveness, had we not hated our foe? In order to forgive, we must overcome the most ready violence of ourselves to seek instant retribution. Without such struggle, it is unlikely we could either love or hate. Emotions would become no more than a bureaucratic formality, which is the very epitome of neoliberalism, whereby everything is mapped in accordance with market values, rationality and irrationality being conflated (Foucault 2008: 269). Lutz (1986) has shown that we tend to think of emotions as irrational in order to maintain the status quo, whereby the white, middle class European male retains sovereignty as the executive, rational, non-emotional subject, defined against those who are not. Abbinnett distinguishes hatred as irrational against the apparent rationality of emotions such as love. Yet this romantic notion of love has long served to rationalise love’s own forms of violence, upholding certain normative divisions of class, labour, gender and power. Indeed, love itself often sanctions the most profound forms of hatred and expressions of violence, whether faith based, or in secular modern romantic intimacy.
The apparent rationality or irrationality of emotion might better be considered a matter of scale. Given enough information about subjects, circumstance and the way in which individuals read a given situation, what, at a distance, may appear irrational can give way to rational explanation. This is very different from saying that rationality and irrationality are simply the same. It concerns the scale of our attention and our ability to see beyond the apparent issue to its symptoms. This is by no means an attempt to justify abhorrent behaviour, but an acknowledgement that ‘rational’ criteria abound with complexity. In an increasingly diverse global milieu, morality is an inextricable web of conflicting interests and ideologies, no longer simply resolved by appeals to universal truth characterised by systems of faith. Let this be no surprise. For many who have not had the advantage of what some may consider a ‘rational’ upbringing. Or access to the liberal tolerance that masks its fury in naturalised power structures, facilitating the success of the few at the expense of the many, hatred and anger are some of the few available tools that ensure immediate attention. Hatred is often objectionable, yet it can also give rise to revolution, mobilizing the powerless.
Undoubtedly, great benefits and great problems attend the technical innovation of every era. And clearly, we must consider the novel permutations of communication in regard to issues of anonymity, censorship, and protection of the vulnerable in postdigital democracy. Solutions will not come with appeals to the spirit or abstract notions of good and evil from those whose own “social and economic isolation” is a product of their privilege. But by extending the scale of our attention to the excluded, and to subsequent formulations of code, practice and legislation that must address the condition of free speech in the context of a newly proximate and anonymous population.
Abbinnett, R. ‘Trolling the Net: The Phenomenology of Love and Hate’ Theory Culture & Society Website, April 15, 2015 http://theoryculturesociety.org/ross-abbinnett-on-trolling-the-net-the-phenomenology-of-love-and-hate/
Foucault, M. The Birth of Biopolitics, translated by Graham Burchell (New York: Picador Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
Lutz ‘Emotion, Thought, and Estrangement: Emotion as a Cultural Category’ in Cultural Anthropology 1:3 (American Anthropology Association, 1986)
Lee Mackinnon is a writer, artist and lecturer, working in the fields of media technology and fine art, and is currently completing a PhD at Goldsmiths College that explores love as a calculation of chance. A chapter from this work is forthcoming in a collection exploring digital calculative devices (Routledge 2015). Articles have also featured in Leonardo (MIT Press) and Third Text (Routledge).
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