Speedrunning Through The Language-Game

“Oh I was just PostShitting for laughs” EXactly. And that is why U forever languish in obscurity while i engage brands U could only dream of

Picture this. You are scrolling through your feed one day and you suddenly see something so bizarre, abhorrent, and astonishing that you have a hard time believing it is real. How could anyone possibly believe this? And yet they not only do, but they are shoving it in your face. Everyone has had this moment at some point in time. An easy way to dismiss it is to say that the belief is marginal, fringe, too minor to be taken seriously. But what if the person voicing it is an important, well-credentialed figure, given a platform in a mainstream and respectable venue? And what if the vocal fringe – even if small in numbers – is nonetheless successful at getting their messages amplified and saturating us with it? It’s common to see people lately compare trolling to Sarte’s description of ironic anti-Semitism masking real anti-Semitism.

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play.

They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.

The problem with this quote is that it actually describes a lot of Discourse (TM) in 2019 quite well. It isn’t just limited to anti-Semites. Nor is it something encountered solely on social media. It’s a daily, omnipresent presence in newspapers, television, and books. It is true of both people on the fringes as well as people that think of themselves as having mainstream political preferences. Make an outrageous and frivolous statement (or amplify one), and then turn the tables on the people who react to it. Point it out and you may encounter outright denial or convoluted hand-waving. Inevitably, the person in the weakest position is he or she that “believes in words.” It is common for people to say insane things simply for attention (its just clickbait!), or justify them by referring to layers of meta-positioning that renders ambiguous what they actually believe (it’s signaling, its opening the Overton Window, etc). That is, assuming that “belief” is a meaningful category at all in an era of advertising and PR. And often it is less sinister than merely bizarre and absurd.

The other day I saw someone that I know to have quite milquetoast politics and a staid administrative job boost a meme endorsing revolutionary political violence. I do not believe they are in any way capable of acting out such violence offline, nor do they even passively support people that might be capable of it. But nonetheless they still boost something – without any caveat or irony – that suggests something disturbing and strange about them in light of what I know them to be. And whenever something like that happens, I’m forced to ask myself the following:

  • Does this person actually believe this?

  • Are they just participating in a performative collective ritual?

  • If I questioned them, would they even recognize what they just did?

These sorts of performances play well on the Internet or in offline settings in which no one asks these kinds of questions. When regular people suddenly ask others to explain the performances they are far less accommodating to subcultural niches and their particular rhetorical tropes. And they attempt to force a clear “yes/no” response from people that prefer the freedom to keep those foolish enough to “believe in words” playing catchup. So what gives? Is Sarte correct? Sarte was certainly correct about the people he was literally writing about. I am not sure he is correct if you take his words and generalize them to the trolls and mischief-makers we see today. Nonetheless his explanation is superficially appealing because people do not have many alternative means of understanding our current situation. When you ask yourself how seemingly normal people can legitimate insane beliefs and repulsive symbols, consider that this is actually an activity that most of us inevitably perform a lot of the time without realizing it. It arises from a tension between conflicting desires: our need to see ourselves a certain way and our need to respect the practicalities of the environment we are situated in. It is, at least mildly, normative and natural. All of us end up engaging in mild versions of this habit of playing idle and silly games.

We perform identities and alter them depending on social context, especially when some of these identities cannot be practically realized without incurring known or hypothetical consequences. Furthermore, a capacity for play and make-believe is essential to the development of mind and sociality in many animal species, to say nothing of the cultural role of “play” in human civilization. One of the core aspects of play is the balancing, again, of a particular self-image with its impracticality in the world we inhabit. This has varied manifestations, some of which are obvious and others not so much. A meek office worker can become, via the magic of PC games, a buff space marine (Doom) or a trash-talking bad-ass (Duke Nukem). Some of the messages these games give you when you quit teases you about the possibility that you may be playing them at work, fantasizing about kicking ass while you file the TPS reports. We commonly think of this when we imagine play. A power fantasy. Walter Mitty. Playing a game for the power trip might involve a private self-image of oneself as capable of extreme words and deeds that public life offers no opportunity to live out. But just because we play a computer game does not mean that we will act out our fantasies in public. This runs against the enduring misconception that video games have a strong causal link with real-world violence. However, it is also possible to diagnose circumstances in which particularly grotesque forms of play and make-believe seem to be socially omnipresent, and their omnipresence has significantly negative consequences.

People in the Soviet Union developed elaborate coping mechanisms that mitigated the problem of official ideology that was too insane and illogical to be taken seriously but had to be at least nominally respected in order to participate in society. They would publicly endorse the ideology but privately maintain a distance, telling themselves that they were too sophisticated to believe it. Thus, official ideology could endure despite everyone “knowing” it was rubbish because – cynically – people could carve out a private distance for themselves while publicly participating in it. This is actually the reverse of the PC game scenario. The PC game scenario is about, as noted earlier, living out a private fantasy that cannot be publicly realized due to its privileging of extreme words (“hail to the king baby”) and deeds (chainsawing cacodemons). So what about having to – for the purpose of practically participating in public life – endorsing extreme words and deeds while privately reassuring oneself of savvinness and reasonableness? Similarly, Soviets would at first deny that the regime had committed crimes and then – after it was exposed – say “of course the crimes were committed.” Sometimes they would say both simultaneously: “there were no crimes but if there were they are justified.” To live in such an environment, as Xavier Marquez explained, means forgoing any kind of pragmatic consistency. Emotions should be ideally aligned with beliefs and actions, because if they do not we risk dissonance and strain. But this is very difficult if not impossible to do in a totalitarian political environment like the USSR.

Curiously, though the USSR in the past and North Korea today are extreme examples of the costs of pragmatic inconsistency many of these same psycho-social problems can be observed in democratic states as well. Hannah Arendt described, in a little-read section of her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, how it was characteristic of almost all political factions in Weimar Germany prior to the rise of the Nazis. Mainstream figures made pious public proclamations of values they privately held in contempt. Subcultures and fringes valorized vulgarity and gangsterism – albeit for various reasons. Some saw it as the “true” face of the system beneath the facade of legitimacy. Others agreed with this and added that the facade ought to be totally stripped away as a normative good. At the end of that particular section, Arendt describes the ominous debut of a Bertolt Brecht satire of liberal capitalist society as gangsterism. Brecht was shocked when the audience applauded, and even more dismayed by intellectual reactions to it. Liberals took it non-ironically as proof that the public endorsed their “private” positions. Leftists saw it as proof that the public agreed revolution was nigh. Fascists – perhaps correctly – declared that the public really wanted a vulgar and unapologetic gangster. Brecht was horrified because everyone saw what they wanted to see and no one actually bothered to think through the message of the satire. No wonder that Arendt concludes that the public lost any real trust that anything anyone said could be taken at face value, especially when that trust was badly needed to halt a slide into outright barbarism and savagery.

I am struck throughout this chapter by the observation of how rare any sincere and honest articulations of views were and how common duplicity, bad faith, language-game playing, and meta-positioning were. The intellectuals she describes sound like children playing idle and silly games and then suddenly realizing – far too late – that the game was all too real. Nonetheless, I still disagree with the fashionable citation of Sarte about new and old forms of trolling. It misdiagnoses the problem. The mainstream intellectual today fears a world where “nothing is real and everything is possible” and overwhelming propagandistic noise destroys any hint of consensus reality. Trolling, ironic nihilism, truth decay, etc are supposedly exemplars of this threat. But the picture Brett Fujioka paints in his recent profile of Japan’s “cynical romantics” is very distinct from this particular looming nightmare.

The deep cynicism of the Japanese media audience was developed…by the country’s television culture in the 1980s. The Japanese comedic variety, talk, and game shows of that decade operated in a kind of closed off but connected world that required special insider knowledge for audiences to understand their self-referential jokes and snarky exchanges. Over time, a cynical sense of being in on the joke acquired a harder edge among media consumers who turned against the media establishment that had shaped their outlook. ..Online communities like Ayashii World and Amezou, precursors to 2Chan, sprung up on the Japanese web, forming an alternate media ecosystem in which established press and entertainment became mere fodder for the real event—ironic repurposing and insider snark….The early netizen’s insistence that they only wanted to laugh at everything and didn’t really believe in anything betrayed a powerful desire for empathy and social connection. In the absence of real human bonds, the media provided them with the content for communal discourse and the subjects for emotional experience.

So when netizens adopted political causes, they did so often because the pose of standing for something was more important than the actuality. It gave them a sense of community and power. Ironically, plugging into the net gave them freedom instead of being trapped in the Matrix. The simplest explanation for why many of them, for example, passionately boosted a far-right anti-Korean nationalistic comic is that they were intoxicated by the power of making Internet things happen in the “real” world. The “mischievous pleasure” of these actions – as well as the process of self-documenting them and consuming the self-documentations – was largely about playing a role rather than serious commitment to the right. This, to borrow from a popular meme, is the ideal (post)modern self. You may not like it, but this is what peak performance looks like. And a dystopia full of such selves is very different than what most people fear about trolling’s social effects. I don’t really see any of our current woes as necessarily validating the way in which the Sarte quote is often used in political arguments today. Playing silly and idle games can legitimize extremism or make us lose contact with reality. These are risks. But there are not inevitabilities. We must acknowledge that the vast majority of information we produce and consume is junk and will be forgotten tomorrow, and this includes trolling of various sorts.

More importantly we need to acknowledge the implicit premises of the way in which people cite Sarte on trolling and anti-Semitism and why those premises may be less and less relevant today. One of the assumptions embedded in the way that the Sarte quote is deployed in contemporary arguments about trolling is that people should mean what they say, that people should believe in words, that it is irresponsible to play language-games and so forth. In other words, that they should be constrained and limited by some form of pragmatic consistency. You may or may not normatively agree with this. But what about descriptively? As Walt Whitman lyrically wrote, human beings contradict themselves and contain multitudes. Less romantically, it is the job of the human mind to smooth out these contradictions and impose retroactive consistency. But being troubled by contradictions is ultimately a constraint, and all constraints in theory can be obviated with enough time, effort, and resources. A self that has to see itself as a unified whole – that needs at least the fiction of a private, consistent, persistent, and immutable inner “me” – has to deal with such constraints. But what if these constraints can be lifted? Unsurprisingly science fiction has depicted these concerns in a provocative and memorable manner, because science fiction to some extent is not a prediction of the future as much as it is a distorted reflection of the present. Science fiction prescience is more descriptive than predictive, even though descriptions ultimately are more robust if they generate valid predictions.

In the 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell, the sentient artificial intelligence Project 2501 tells Motoko Kusanagi that “[a]ll things change in a dynamic environment. Your effort to remain what you are is what limits you.” In the context of the anime, Project 2501 is attempting to convince Motoko to abandon her own individuality and merge with the AI. And given that Motoko is already heavily cyberized, her humanity is already open to question to begin with. In another influential anime produced in the 1990s – Serial Experiments Lain – alienated hacker Lain Iwakura discovers that she herself is merely the manifestation of people’s collective unconsciousness within an ubiquitous planet-spanning communications network. There is a different Lain in the mind of everyone that thinks about her, and people forgetting about her is in its own way a kind of death. So perhaps while this fully liberated self refuses to be bound by external reality, the heavy price to be paid is that it vanishes if it cannot maintain itself in the minds of others. As film critic Susan Napier observed, 1990s science fiction animes – in making identity theoretically limitless while also depicting a collapse of reality – cast doubt as to whether human subjectivity can exist outside of an increasingly machine-like environment. When the machine stops, so do we.

This leads me to see the kind of omni-troll that looms large in today’s discourse as perhaps just a vanishing mediator that will go away after we have completed a transition to a different kind of cultural system. Perhaps the personality most optimized for success in the emerging environment is really someone that is unbound by consistency of any sort, because maintaining the fiction of a coherent unified self is just too hard in an era when everything is just streams of data. It is also obviously worth noting that such a personality does not have to be recognizably human, in large part because it thrives within network environments that are increasingly automated and saturated with mechanically reproducible media. Because such a personality does not recognize itself as an independently existing agent within the world, it has no obligation to make anything it says or does consistent with external reality or take responsibility for its thoughts and behaviors. Its only limits come from the way in which its data streams can be retroactively correlated into patterns, but even this may be just another temporary constraint that could one day be overcome somehow.

If such a personality eventually becomes dominant, there will be no one moment – akin to the infamous transformation of 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Dr. Dave Bowman into a star child – in which it theatrically transcends its own humanity and leaves the rest of us mere mortals behind. Nor is there to be (to reference another science fiction trope) a moment when humanity is collectively and irrevocably transformed into a new posthuman species. I think instead of the difficulty present-day historians have in interpreting the meaning of the infamous 1730 Great Cat Massacre in Paris. By carefully scrutinizing all of the relevant context (even if it is impossible to fully know what is relevant and irrelevant), historians can approximate the mentality of a people who are no longer available to interact with us. But there will always be uncertainty about how correct these approximations are, because any reconstructions of the past are crude and imperfect. One day all of us will recede into the past and will become unavailable to those attempting to reconstruct it. And what then? Perhaps people of the future have extreme difficulty appreciating our stubborn (but declining) normative perception of ourselves as finite, consistent, persistent, and unified individuals that – to reference Sarte again – “believed in words.” Such future people never knew a life in which they had to, and in any event are not capable of understanding what it means to do such a thing.