June 18, 2009

Some clarifications


Graham makes some important clarifications on the concept of the troll. As Graham rightly points out, trolling does not require anonymity (I would further add that anonymity has nothing to do with facelessness, but that's for another time). Many online trolls use their own names, and in any case, any tag, even if it is only ever used in cyberspace, starts to function as a name if it is used consistently. What's different about the academic environment to the web is not so much that people are named per se. It it that, because of their public profile, academics, as Graham says, are "awash in all kinds of sincerities… we may know a bit about their biases, their hero authors, their musical taste, their personal life, their vices, and so forth." It is these sincerities that compromises their trolling, plus the fact that - if they are actual academics rather than perpetual postgrads - they will be associated with some set of refutable claims for which they can be held accountable . But the continuing influence of poststructuralism (a kind of negative theology of prevaricating academic practice) plus research measurement exercises have made it easier - even mandatory - for humanities academics to retreat into nebulous intricacy and/ or databasing of the sort "X (1993) said Y about Z (1968)". (It's ironic that this discussion should have been prompted by a repudiation of Badiou since one of the great attractions of his theory was a forceful refusal of the academo-deconstructive doxa that making determinate claims or having projects, was 'oppressive'. Not as ironic as making appeals to suffering humanity in a defence of Badiou, but still...)

Without a project, anyone - academic or otherwise - is in danger of falling prey to the lure of the Troll or Grey Vampire subjectivities. Detached from projects, academic skills become pathologies. The only aim becomes to demonstrate how much you have read (never enough - the debt is always infinite) or how much you have thought (always far more than anyone who makes a determinate claim, whom both Trolls and GVs regard as too hasty, too crassly populist, too intemperate, whatever...). It oughtn't be necessary to point out that not everyone who works in an academic institution is an academic qua academic. Many struggle against the structural tendencies, try to hold open higher educational spaces so that they can be something more than an exercise in pointless critique and bureaucratic footnote-policing. The same is true of others facing different structural constraints (such as those imposed by print media). At the moment, it is the discourse networks of the web which provides a unique space, an outside of both the critical compression in the academy and media. It's no accident, for example, that speculative realism is really proliferating and multiplying in an exciting way on the web.

A reader writes, worrying that they might be a Grey Vampire:

    My initial (perhaps defensive!) thought was that the grey vampires potentially offer support, encouragement, and good cheer to those on the frontlines and/or constitute a potential "standing reserve" waiting (maybe that's the problem!) to be mobilized. My current sense is that the greatest or first danger they pose is to themselves and by extension the social or the polity by way of a kind of autoimmune response in which they disable/disarm/disavow/destroy what is most vital in themselves and "deprive" the world of that energy/quality.
I would agree that they pose a threat to themselves, but in some ways they are more toxic to those with projects than the trolls. It's quite easy to identify and distance oneself from a troll: once you've established they are a troll, sever all contact with them and - this is imperative - don't read anything they write. This requires a little discipline, but not much, and after a while you'll completely forget the upset they caused. For what is usually a very short period, trolls cause a great deal of incendiary, fruitless antagonism, but it seldom leaves much of a lasting trace. The final victory over them is achieved by simply persisting in the pursuit of a project, refusing to allow yourself to be ensnared in the self-doubts and impotent autocritique that disables them and which they seek to transmit to you.

The debilitating effects of the Grey Vampire are often much harder to identify and combat. They are 'friendly', they seem to be positive, they make their points respectfully - what's to dislike? Ultimately, though, their stance is precisely the same as the Troll - they are profoundly suspicious of commitments and projects, except that their anti-productivity comes out as sunny scepticism instead of outright aggression. One of their favourite tactics is the devil's advocate appeal to what someone else, not them, might think. Might not things be seen in another way? (This would be completely different if they were making a point that they were prepared to subjectively identify with: then we could get somewhere, then there would be an actual difference of positions, instead of one position confronting an infinite series of movable obstacles and promissory notes.) Another tactic - particularly effective at wasting time and energy this one - is the claim that all they want is a few clarifications, as if they are just on the brink of being persuaded, when in fact the real aim is to lure you into the swamp of sceptical inertia and mild depression in which they languish.

Grey Vampires are not a standing reserve because - this is the awful tragedy, the terrible revelation that eventually strikes you about them - they will never be mobilised. Like the Troll, their alibi - to themselves as much as to others (and to the big Other) - is that they are always about to do something major - their scepticism, equivocation and vacillation is just a temporary phase, soon to be set aside. But the Grey Vampire never has much of a sense of urgency. That's partly because they don't feel that they have to justify themselves to the world (sometimes there is a class dimension here - the GVs tend to have an implacable core of inner confidence which is the birthright of the dominant classes). They worry about their vacillating drift, but not too much. They have doubts, but - sadly in many ways - those doubts will never harden into a breakdown, any kind of subjective destitution.

Another reason that the GVs are so difficult to deal with is that they are very adept at playing to a gallery of 'reasonable' observers - if you respond angrily to them, or cut them off, they will find it much easier to get support than do trolls. After all, they are only asking questions - what could be wrong with that? But occasionally GVs can be caught out. Beneath the moth-grey sadness of the GVs, there is always a raging red core of useless anger and resentment - the worst kind of anger and resentment, because it is directed against those who have projects. This anger is rarely seen, because any expression of intemperance risks undermining the GV's image as friendly and reasonable, upon which their deflationary power crucially depends.

What most worries Grey Vampires is the question of standing - they will tend not to make a claim that might make them ridiculous in the eyes of already-constituted authorities. Of course from outside - and from inside too - it can be difficult to distinguish a Grey Vampire from someone in a state of pre-commitment confusion. One factor, here, as Graham has pointed out, is age - if someone is a procrastinator in their twenties this doesn‘t mean they are permanently trapped, but if they are still vacillating in their late thirties or older, they may well be a GV. Usually, though, the major clue that someone is not a GV is the willngness and capacity to be taken over by a depersonalisng passion. Grey Vampires, like Trolls, tend to be extremely self-conscious, and part of what motivates them is a poisonous envy of others who are possessed by this kind of depersonalising passion.

Fans, of course, do let themselves be taken over by passions of this type. This is why, from the Grey Vampire perspective of jaded postmodernity, fans look gauche and unsophisticated; they lack the proper restraint, they do not have enough humour about themselves. Graham dispels some fallacies about the fan.

    Being a fan doesn’t mean being "uncritical." There is not some sort of opposition between gullible belief on one side and critical distance on the other. The fan stands somewhere in between the devotee and the critic.

    In fact, being a fan of someone most often means "cutting them some slack." A true devotee would not need to do this, because the devotee (or "sycophant", if you prefer) never admits that the object of worship did anything wrong in the first place.

Far from being uncritical dupes, fans will often be more critical of their object of adoration than anyone else is; in part, evidently, because they care far more than those who haven't made the libidinal investment. (This doesn't mean that fans won't close ranks when their object is attacked by an outsider.) I say 'object of adoration' but 'adoration' doesn't really capture the fan's relation to the object. The object isn't so much adored as fetishised, elevated into the position of an idol, the figure around and through which libido is organised. But the mistake of anglo-American deflationism is its notion that we can simply dispense with this kind of fetishism and just deal with propositions. Some kind of attitudinal/ libidinal stake is always necessary to get things going; the issue is whether it is foregrounded and affirmed or occulted and denied. Passing beyond being a fan is not achieved by occupying a chimeric position of libidinal neutrality, but precisely by following the implications of the libidinal investment.

What's interesting is the point at which a fan's criticism crosses over and becomes a betrayal. Often, though, betrayal is not a consequence of critical dissatisfaction, but of fidelity. Take the example of Graham himself - in some sense he is still a fan of Heidegger; in another sense, not least in his refusal of Heidegger's priestly mystagogic ponderousness, Graham is the greatest betrayer of Heidegger. (Zizek could also be considered a betrayer of Lacan for the same reason: expounding Lacan's doctrines in a lucid style could be seen as depriving them of something essential, their late modernist intractability.) Graham's whole dethroning of Dasein in favour of objects is poorly understood as apostasy. Rather, it is a consequence of Graham's being true to what he sees as the essential core of Heidegger's philosophy, what is in Heidegger more than himself.

Interesting consequences also follow from being a fan of more than one thing at the same time. (cf Graham's being a fan of both Heidegger and Latour.) The Last Man stance is to keep the two objects separate, to insist on their irreducibility to one another. But it's far more interesting to ask the question: is there any principle or set of principles that can allow me to be a fan of both of these two things? Is there some invisible consistency that binds them? Or must I favour one over the other, and on what grounds?


Levi adds to the bestiary, and here gives a convincing account both of the initial appeal of Badiou and of some of the problems with his ontology. Levi shows how the emergence of a philosopher depends upon a certain kind of enjoyment.

    I suppose you could say that I took an impish pleasure in how Badiou must stick in the craw of my fellow Continentalists. I will never forget having coffee with a very well known Continentalist in his own right, my face, words, and gestures animated by my enthusiasm for Badiou like a child having at it with a new toy, only to hear him despairingly say “it’s kinda like analytic philosophy, though.” Kinda, but not quite. Badiou had really hit a symptom at the heart of contemporary Continental thought. Where Derrida and the others were endlessly talking about free play and dissemination, Badiou put his finger on the remarkable univocity of mathematical prescription. But this is not all. Where everyone was endlessly talking about difference, Badiou took this one step further, developing a radical articulation of difference. Many of us had become accustomed, through Heidegger, to thinking of maths as the most extreme form of enframing and identity thinking. What Badiou showed, through his deployment of set theory, was that far from the valorization of identity, maths give us the resources to think multiplicities qua multiplicities without one, or absolute difference and dissemination. Similarly, where many were celebrating the accomplishment of Derrida’s thought and the aporetic undecidables it acquaints us with in every domain, Badiou dared to declare that we must decide the undecidable, and articulated a rigorous account for doing so through his discussions of forcing and the generic with respect to truth-procedures. Indeed, the very fact that he said truth at all, and in such an interesting way, was a shock to the system within that intellectual context.

It's worth remembering here, though, how Badiou shares continentalism's contempt for science - the 'science' that Badiou writes of positively is of course nothing other than mathematics - but in his case, the disdain is motivated by opposite reasons. Whereas Heidegger and his supporters recoiled in horror from science's 'totalitarian descralization' of Being, Badiou rejects empirical science because it is too fuzzily mired in the material world.


For those who haven't seen them yet: these three crucial posts by Dominic are invaluable ... For me, militant dysphoria is not something that is already there, it's something that has to be constructed. The question is how to convert the vast black reservoir of youth disaffection into militancy without subordinating the maladjustment to some social-reality-pleasure principle, without, that is to say, sublating its negativity into some higher positivity. Perhaps it isn't a question of conversion at all, but of drawing from the well of negativity. As Dominic says, dysphoria isn't a lifestyle - it would be better to see it as an anti-lifestyle, in the double sense that it rejects not the very concept of lifestyle but also sets itself against the imperatives of life, the idiotic positivity built into the vital. Marxism must be anti-social or not at all. And I really will return to this in the eliminativist Marxism post.

Posted by mark at June 18, 2009 03:10 PM | TrackBack