HR Tips from Roman slave owners

by Henry on February 6, 2015

A few people in the previous thread pushed me to say more about my underlying theory of trolling, and why Jonathan Chait’s piece (and much of his previous oeuvre) should be categorized as very talented trolling of the second magnitude. I don’t have one – instead I’m trying to suggest that we should evaluate trolling in aesthetic terms. This obviously implies that we can’t and shouldn’t try to come up with a Grand Unified Perspective on Trolling, since aesthetic judgments, a la Bourdieu, are inevitably drenched with positional politics and personal circumstances. I will say that in my personal opinion Chait wasn’t particularly artistically successful (it wasn’t an especially subtle or elegant troll, and entirely lacked that subtle sense of irony that I like myself in a really first rate bit of trollage) but certainly succeeded in getting the crowds out. Hence, the Michael Bay comparison – lots of explosions, noise and box office, but not very much else.

This new piece by Jerry Toner at Aeon is in my opinion a much more successful example, if not quite of trolling, then of something closely related.

Most Romans, like Augustus, thought cruelty to slaves was shocking. They understood that slaves could not simply be terrified into being good at their job. Instead, the Romans used various techniques to encourage their slaves to work productively and willingly, from bonuses and long-term inducements, to acts designed to boost morale and generate team spirit. All of these say more than we might imagine about how employers manage people successfully in the modern world. … Like the weak manager who hides behind the Human Resources department when there is firing to be done, some Roman masters clearly baulked at the violence intrinsic to their system. But most openly embraced taking the unpleasant acts that being a master entailed, seeing them as a means of advertising their power and virility. … Small perks could make a big difference to morale. Masters sometimes made a point of checking the slaves’ rations personally to show them that they were taking an interest in their welfare. … Even when treated relatively well, slaves naturally longed for freedom. This desire could be turned to great advantage by the master. It was a carrot with which to motivate the slave to work diligently and honestly. … In Gellius’ retelling of the famous Aesop fable of Androcles and the lion, the slave Androcles put up with undeserved floggings every day. It was only after endless abuse that he finally took the tremendous risk of running away. No doubt there are few wage slaves who do not also dream of throwing off the yoke of their mundane existence and becoming ski-instructors, writers, or their own self-employed masters. Modern managers must make their staff feel that they are earning enough, or have the possibility of earning enough, that these dreams are possible, however remote they might be in reality.

It took me a couple of reads, and some consultation with a third party, before I was reasonably sure that this was a beautifully constructed satire. It’s so deadpan, and so close to the tone of a certain kind of glib-management-theory-building-on-the-new-institutional-economics-book, that the reader isn’t sure whether this is seriously meant or pince-sans-rire. And this is what brings it close to trolling. Its underlying logic is similar to a Jonathan Swift style Modest Proposal, but Swift is all visible saeva indignatio . He takes the language and assumptions of English elite debates on the Irish question and uses them to dress a solution that is objectively appalling. The reader is discomfited – but has a very clear understanding of Swift’s intention. Toner, instead, strands his reader in a kind of Uncanny Valley of intentionality, with a proposal that may, or may not be seriously meant. It’s a much more profound sense of intellectual discomfort. I don’t think that the piece is trolling – but it evokes a feeling of intellectual confusion that’s related to the kinds of confusion that really good trolling produce. So that’s not, obviously, a definition of first rate trolling, or even an example of it. But it maybe sort of helps all the same.

{ 90 comments }

1

js. 02.06.15 at 5:44 pm

Vaguely relevant. But I like the aesthetic criterion a lot more.

2

js. 02.06.15 at 5:51 pm

One other thing: I don’t really get the “second magnitude” bit. I’ve been reading that as “second order”, which would suggest something like: Chait is trolling the trolls. But that doesn’t seem to make sense in the context.

3

DavidM 02.06.15 at 5:52 pm

I do think the last sentences clear up any doubt to authorial intent:

However much we might prefer to disguise the harsher side of wage-slavery behind a rhetoric of friendly teamwork, we could benefit from some straightforward Roman honesty. Everyone knew where they stood then – even if, sometimes, that was in the line for crucifixion.

4

Rich Puchalsky 02.06.15 at 5:57 pm

Henry: “I will say that in my personal opinion Chait wasn’t particularly artistically successful (it wasn’t an especially subtle or elegant troll,”

I think that he got additional demerits for the jacket copy (“Can a white liberal man critique a culture of political correctness?”) but authors don’t necessarily write their jacket copy.

My hall of fame, role-model trolls include Thersites and Michael Servetus.

5

Roland 02.06.15 at 6:10 pm

Actually, a good case can be made that Swift had slavery in mind when he wrote his modest proposal..

6

Phil 02.06.15 at 6:18 pm

I accused someone of trolling in an online forum the other day; the reaction was pretty much as if I’d accused them of selling child porn. Which is a shame – the original meaning – something like ‘deliberately making extreme but plausible statements for the pleasure of drawing a reaction’ – was distinct and useful.

That said, I’m not sure about your (re?)definition. I think ‘satire’ is quite broad enough to cover this article. Satire doesn’t just mean making people you hate look silly; it can be very, very dark and very, very straight (sometimes at the same time). Think of the Brass Eye segment where the looming threat of war triggers an automated broadcast of reassuring images of Britishness (“This is Britain, and it’s all right. Everything is all right.”)

7

MPAVictoria 02.06.15 at 6:23 pm

I thought this was pretty trolltastic

“End Obamacare, and people could die. That’s okay.”
http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/end-obamacare-and-people-could-die-thats-okay/2015/01/23/f436df30-a1c4-11e4-903f-9f2faf7cd9fe_story.html?hpid=z2

Or can it only be trolling if people are not deadly serious?

8

peep 02.06.15 at 6:26 pm

However much we might prefer to disguise the harsher side of wage-slavery behind a rhetoric of friendly teamwork, we could benefit from some straightforward Roman honesty. Everyone knew where they stood then – even if, sometimes, that was in the line for crucifixion

Wow!

9

bianca steele 02.06.15 at 6:38 pm

I thought this “Like the weak manager who hides behind the Human Resources department when there is firing to be done, some Roman masters clearly baulked at the violence intrinsic to their system” left the reader in no doubt. But with really good trolling it’s just embarrassing to bring up obvious examples because it highlights all the ones you missed. (Conversely, the advantage of trolling is that everyone’s afraid of pointing out your mistakes, lest they appear to have no sense of humor.)

10

MattF 02.06.15 at 6:42 pm

Reading the whole thing helps one see what Toner’s up to– he takes a little too much care and gets a little too much pleasure in describing the way Romans treated their slaves.

11

MPAVictoria 02.06.15 at 6:44 pm

” some Roman masters clearly baulked at the violence intrinsic to their system”

hahahaha! Okay, that is a definite give away.

12

bob mcmanus 02.06.15 at 6:55 pm

“Confusion to the enemy” was said by Edward Ball? McMaster Bujold? This is what Google gets me. There is something in OT Exodus that doesn’t quite fit. Anyway, CTTE covers three components of trolling: agent, intent, relation.

I have also been bothered for two weeks by the lack of a verb form for “iconoclast.”

Thing is, since I could read I have been so very attracted to confusion and uncertainty. I mean that is what reading and learning is for, to break you out of your comfort zone and muddle your dogmas and desocialize your social constructions so you rebuild as an independent mind. Whatever I believe is wrong, and one page away from disproven. I could endlessly list the names from Socrates through Jesus and Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein and how I come I just today learned of Ernest Becker.

So is this a bad thing to do, to sow dissension in the ranks? Well, it is if you like being part of an army or congregation. The key problematic term in CTTE may be “enemy.” We don’t hate Firesign Theater. And well, I decided that Joyce really wasn’t out to hurt me, no matter how hard it was to see that.

But that was, and still is, almost entirely a matter of faith. Soren K taught me that unreasonable faith was ok fine. It’s all love, and we don’t need to be redundant.

13

Zamfir 02.06.15 at 6:57 pm

There’s trolling, and there’s slatepitching. This is the latter, and it’s really something else.

Good trolling is when you know you’re being trolled, you know you shouldn’t respond, but you still do because the urge is just too strong. You know you’re being played, and it still works, and that takes skill.

Good slatepitching is a different skill. It’s about the doubt. Are they serious? Or not? Are they playing with me? They can’t be that stupid? Or perhaps I am wrong? No? They’re just doing it for the contrariness? The best slatepitching is when you never know quite for sure if it was slatepitching.

14

TM 02.06.15 at 7:08 pm

“a much more successful example, if not quite of trolling, then of something closely related.”

No idea what should make this mild satire a specimen of “something closely related” to Chait’s piece. Nobody accused Chait of being satirical. Are you then suggesting that satire is a subcategory of trolling? Roll eyes.

15

praisegod barebones 02.06.15 at 7:28 pm

‘I have also been bothered for two weeks by the lack of a verb form for “iconoclast.”’

I propose ‘iconocladze’.

16

AB 02.06.15 at 7:31 pm

Terry Toner is a Classics Professor at Cambridge and has also written a whole book based on this premise called “How to Manage Your Slaves”.
It has long been held among a certain sort of classically-educated Brit that the ancients (especially the Greeks) were much superior to us moderns because they didn’t kid themselves about being utter bastards. This was Nietzsche’s view too.

17

Neville Morley 02.06.15 at 7:36 pm

Interesting take on something that I’d normally be thinking about from a purely professional perspective. Like TM, I’m not really convinced that this is trolling; it’s basically an extrapolation of Marx’s line about Roman slaves being bound in chains but modern wage-earners being tied to their masters by invisible threads, playing on the standard trope of “bringing the past to life” through modern comparisons in order to satirise modern practices. For what it’s worth, I think one of the consequences is that Toner underplays both the sheer nastiness of much Roman practice and the degree of its ideological confusion.

Much closer to trolling in this field was the argument of the Italian archaeologist Andrea Carandini that Roman slaves should be seen as the ancient equivalent of the robot or the computer, where it is in a masterly fashion kept entirely unclear how far he is simply paraphrasing the Roman idea of slaves as thinking tools and how far he genuinely wants to argue that this represents an unqualified improvement in productive capacity…

18

Neville Morley 02.06.15 at 7:45 pm

@AB #16: Jerry rather than Terry… Agreed that Nietzsche regularly returns to the theme that modern European culture will perish through its lack of slavery, but struggling to think of examples of British classicists making similar claims; the problem is rather than until the last couple of decades the theme of slavery was largely ignored, or reduced to Cicero’s close relationship with Tiro. I’d also say that the Romans were not actually open about being absolute bastards – they claimed never to have fought an offensive war, for example. This is one reason why Tacitus’ accusation that “they made a desolation and called it peace” is so powerful – and of course that was formulated by a Roman.

19

TM 02.06.15 at 8:00 pm

Wait, am I seeing pattern? Maybe the trolling is not in Toner’s piece, it’s in Henry’s suggestion that Toner’s piece is (a kind of) trolling. Second-order trolling?

20

AB 02.06.15 at 8:08 pm

You’re right, I’ve usually heard the claim made about the Greeks, with whose brutal honesty Roman hypocrisy (and the British emulation of it, ‘Pax Britannica’ etc) is unfavourably contrasted.
These claims are not usually made in print, so I’m afraid I can’t cite anything.

21

Dr.S. 02.06.15 at 8:36 pm

Well I’ve never read or posted a comment on one of those internet blog things, but I have detected a kind of obsession among those who do with this “troll” thing. Seems to me it’s just a way to gin up a sense of community by creating an “other.” But then again, I am one of the other.

22

b9n10nt 02.06.15 at 8:36 pm

I will now sensei-mcmanus (definition: trying to get a reaction that holds the potential to derail the conversation):

@12 is an example of trolling (definition: see definition 1 + hiding, within a plausible argument reaching an unorthodox conclusion, a ridiculous premis).

Ridiculous premis? That instances in which trolling can conceivably occur (blog threads, etc…) exist to break you out of your COMFORT zone and muddle your dogmas and desocialize your social constructions so you rebuild as an independent mind. Intellectual interactions are primarily about creating consensus: what is true will be a social construction in which individuals are all working for the hive mind.

It is, after all, so very capitalist-individualist to argue that the individual can be constructed separately from the social. & likewise problematic to suppose that one’s ego could intentionally deconstruct its comfort zone.

23

b9n10nt 02.06.15 at 8:37 pm

I will now TROLL sensei-mcmanus. Lunch break, no time to proofread.

24

Ze Kraggash 02.06.15 at 8:51 pm

Roman slaves at least had Saturnalia. The good old days. No such luck for the modern-day wage slaves.

25

AB 02.06.15 at 8:57 pm

You mean the whole pretend the slaves are in charge business? Still going, but most countries have cut it back to once every four or five years.

26

Luke 02.06.15 at 9:00 pm

‘Testimony only acceptable if extracted by torture’ sounds an awful lot like what we do to terrorists and ‘terrorists’. Then again, in my darker moments I’m convinced the ancient regime is making a comeback. Torture? Check! Lettres de cachet? Check! Collapse of distinction between executive and judicial functions? Check!

Because the thread wasn’t derailed enough.

27

cassander 02.06.15 at 9:35 pm

>Roman slaves at least had Saturnalia. The good old days. No such luck for the modern-day wage slaves.

And modern bosses can’t up and murder their employees. But yeah, those Saturnalia parties were baller, clearly a shitty trade for the slaves…..

There clearly needs to be a word for the opposite of trolling, saying something absurd and ridiculous with the intent to make everyone who reads it feel good and morally superior instead of angry. Frankly, I find that behavior much creepier.

28

The Dark Avenger 02.06.15 at 9:57 pm

Dole Office Clerk: Occupation?
Comicus: Stand-up philosopher.
Dole Office Clerk: What?
Comicus: Stand-up philosopher. I coalesce the vapors of human experience into a viable and meaningful comprehension.
Dole Office Clerk: Oh, a *bullshit* artist!
Comicus: *Grumble*…
Dole Office Clerk: Did you bullshit last week?
Comicus: No.
Dole Office Clerk: Did you *try* to bullshit last week?
Comicus: Yes!
5 of 5 found this interesting | Share this

29

Ze Kraggash 02.06.15 at 10:11 pm

“And modern bosses can’t up and murder their employees.”

Murdering your own slaves doesn’t make much sense; bad business. But you’re right that emancipation shifted disciplinary functions from the private party to the state, maintained by property owners. Different mechanics, yes, but is it really a good reason to end Saturnalia? I think not.

30

ZM 02.06.15 at 10:36 pm

I humbly submit that Saturnalia merged with the new fangled Christian faith back in Roman days to make the celebration Christmas.

http://youtu.be/uozouZVoSpA

31

Michael Drew 02.06.15 at 10:41 pm

Is the assertion that we should judge trolling aesthetically meant to imply that trolling does not or cannot have a social or discursive function of any significant value, and so should not be judged in that respect in addition to aesthetically?

32

js. 02.06.15 at 11:12 pm

Well, the idea seems to be that trolling is an art form (of sorts), so should be judged aesthetically. But of course, artistic productions can have social and discursive functions, and one might even have theories about how best to accomplish these. So perhaps, what we need is for someone to convincingly put forward the Social Realist view of trolling.

33

Michael Drew 02.06.15 at 11:25 pm

Yeah, I don’t think it’s an art form. I think it’s a discursive tactic. That doesn’t mean it can’t be judged aesthetically. I just think it should be judged firstly socially, discursively, or however it is we judge acts of discourse.

I’m still trying to figure out whether when you or Henry say “it should be judged aesthetically” there is an implied “primarily” before “aesthetically.” Or an implied “exclusively,” though I assume not.

I would disagree with either if there were either. It certainly can be judged aesthetically in addition to other ways, though.

34

js. 02.06.15 at 11:50 pm

I wasn’t being entirely serious. I mean, I don’t know what to think about any of this, partly because I don’t think I’ve given it much thought before today.

But yes, of course trolling is a discursive tactic. Which is why it seems rather brilliant to think of it as an art form instead!

35

js. 02.07.15 at 12:01 am

I just think it should be judged firstly socially, discursively, or however it is we judge acts of discourse.

Thinking about it a tad bit more seriously, there’s sort of a problem hidden in this. Because there isn’t _one_ way that we judge acts of discourse, and what the appropriate criterion of evaluation in depends on what _kind_ of act of discourse one os dealing with. This is quite uncontroversial, I take it. So e.g. how you evaluate a joke is quite different from how you evaluate a sincere assertion.

This means tho that—assuming that trolling is a distinctive kind of discursive act—we can’t simply say that trolling ought to be evaluated the way other acts of discourse are evaluated. We first need to determine how to evaluate the kind of discursive act that trolling is. And at this point, the possibility is at least left open that trolling is a kind of discursive act the primary evaluation of which should be on aesthetic grounds. Of course, I am doing anything so crude as to endorse this possibility—just noting its existence.

(This may or may not have gotten a bit tongue-in-cheek at some point. Despite my best intentions.)

36

The Temporary Name 02.07.15 at 12:01 am

37

bob mcmanus 02.07.15 at 12:25 am

But yes, of course trolling is a discursive tactic.

I am not so sure. It might be an identity. It might be a non-identity, since identity is usually assigned by the discourse. If it is a tactic, what is the strategy? What does it look like when someone neither friend nor foe wanders into the party? “No thanks, I’m shrubbery.”

Spivak, Wiki article “subaltern,” italics mine

Many people want to claim subalternity. They are the least interesting and the most dangerous. I mean, just by being a discriminated-against minority on the university campus; they don’t need the word ‘subaltern’ . . . They should see what the mechanics of the discrimination are. They’re within the hegemonic discourse, wanting a piece of the pie, and not being allowed, so let them speak, use the hegemonic discourse. They should not call themselves subaltern.

If one speaks in opposition to the hegemonic discourse, one remains within it and uses it. “Rights.” But can one transit the discourse, and choose to not speak within it, but speak to it? If one tries, it will of course look like nonsense from within the hegemony.

Choosing to be subaltern is contradictory, Wiki: “a subaltern is a person rendered without agency due to his or her social status.”

“Shuttlecock.”

Watamote is highly recommended. “No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular!”
That title is also about agency. From whatever my position is, the title looks both funny and true, but very unpopular.

Very very underrated. Yeah, it is (also) all metaphor. Crippling social anxiety, brilliant internal monologue, but yeah, she is a total jerk. Cheats little kids at cards, contemptuous of everybody, delusions of grandeur. Is this because she has social anxiety, or does she have social anxiety because she is a jerk? Hard to tell. Artistically animated. Trolling, cringe comedy, very uncomfortable to watch and laugh at. Easy to question and dismiss the show.

38

Michael Drew 02.07.15 at 12:31 am

there isn’t _one_ way that we judge acts of discourse, and what the appropriate criterion of evaluation in depends on what _kind_ of act of discourse one os dealing with. This is quite uncontroversial, I take it. So e.g. how you evaluate a joke is quite different from how you evaluate a sincere assertion.

This means tho that—assuming that trolling is a distinctive kind of discursive act—we can’t simply say that trolling ought to be evaluated the way other acts of discourse are evaluated. We first need to determine how to evaluate the kind of discursive act that trolling is. And at this point, the possibility is at least left open that trolling is a kind of discursive act the primary evaluation of which should be on aesthetic grounds.

Totally agreed. I absolutely agree that it should be judged aesthetically: first, as a function of judging it “however it is we judge acts of discourse,” hich requires deciding what kinds of discourse they are, thus what kinds of judgement are called for; second, possibly as a function of judging it as an aesthetic endeavor. I just don’t think that it should primarily be judged as an aesthetic/artistic endeavor, because I think that’s rarely the primary intent of its creator.

39

Michael Drew 02.07.15 at 12:33 am

Fist two paragraphs in 38 are part of the quote, not just the first.

40

bob mcmanus 02.07.15 at 12:33 am

One thing I do know is that “trolling” is called “disruptive” only from within the discourse.
The troll can’t disrupt if she is ignored. And then she is subaltern.

Which global voices do we hear on the evening news, over at Slate?

41

bob mcmanus 02.07.15 at 12:43 am

I absolutely agree that it should be judged aesthetically

I strongly disagree on judging discursive acts disruptive to the hegemony on the basis of how pleasing or attractive they are to us. That is not the way to reach across difference.

But this is certainly a fraught and disruptive position.

42

ZM 02.07.15 at 1:04 am

I am somewhat confused thinking about the emphasis on aesthetics here .
Is an argument being made that “trollish” comments /articles should be judged on aesthetic grounds to a greater extent than non-trollish comments?
If so, would it be right to presume this is because in judging a comment/article to be trolling one therefore nullifies the content of the piece since it is judged to be trolling it is necessarily insincere/merely provocative?
If that is the argument it sort of seems circular….

43

LFC 02.07.15 at 2:09 am

From the OP:

Its underlying logic is similar to a Jonathan Swift style Modest Proposal, but Swift is all visible saeva indignatio . He takes the language and assumptions of English elite debates on the Irish question and uses them to dress a solution that is objectively appalling. The reader is discomfited – but has a very clear understanding of Swift’s intention. Toner, instead, strands his reader in a kind of Uncanny Valley of intentionality, with a proposal that may, or may not be seriously meant. It’s a much more profound sense of intellectual discomfort.

Based on an admittedly cursory reading of Toner’s piece, I don’t see that he has, strictly speaking, a proposal, satirical or otherwise, at all. He appears to be a classics professor presumably versed in Roman history who has decided to make some money by suggesting, no doubt at least partly tongue-in-cheek, a comparison or some parallels between the ‘management’ of Roman slaves and that of modern employees.

It has to be at least partly tongue-in-cheek, otherwise it would simply strike many people (and not only pro-capitalists) as offensive; but it can’t be wholly tongue-in-cheek, otherwise there would be no point in writing the book (or the article that is under discussion here): hence Henry’s feeling of being “stranded,” betwixt-and-between.

As to Neville Morley’s suggestion, above, that Toner is following Marx: not really, I think. Of course Marx talked about wage slavery, but don’t forget that Marx supported the cause of the North in the US Civil War. (It was Southern apologists for slavery, e.g. George Fitzhugh just to cite one name, who argued that the Northern factory workers were worse off, more effectively enslaved, than the actual slaves in the South.)

The other thing is that it would help to have more of a comparative-historical view of slavery than Toner appears to have; but I won’t say more about that, lest I be charged with taking the whole thing too seriously.

44

cassander 02.07.15 at 2:41 am

> but it can’t be wholly tongue-in-cheek, otherwise there would be no point in writing the book

It can’t be wholly tongue in cheek, because management, as a problem, is always the same, figuring trying to minimize the principle agent problem. the problem would remain exactly the same even in some actual glorious worker’s utopia. It was written to be morality porn, something to make people like Ze Kraggash feel superior. It’s so low effort it shouldn’t even qualify as satire.

45

js. 02.07.15 at 5:02 am

I just don’t think that it should primarily be judged as an aesthetic/artistic endeavor, because I think that’s rarely the primary intent of its creator.

I think we’re basically in agreement—we agree to agree, one might say.

Though I suppose if you wanted to undermine some bit of trolling you might judge it primarily on aesthetic grounds precisely _because_ that wasn’t (most likely) the intent—but in any case, I don’t think that’s the sort of thing Henry had in mind.

46

A H 02.07.15 at 6:52 am

@44

Two stars out of five, Well targeted to produce outrage, but the clumsy use of leftist jargon and Ad Hominen make the effort too obvious.

47

maidhc 02.07.15 at 7:56 am

The BBC had an interesting program about gladiators a while back (Colosseum: Rome’s Arena of Death aka Colosseum: A Gladiator’s Story, 2003). It said that a gladiator had about a 25% chance of dying in the arena. Training gladiators was an expensive business, so the owners were reluctant to risk their investment by fighting to the death, unless there was an exceptionally large purse or some other unusual reason.

Most of what is known about gladiators comes from Martial’s poem about the epic fight between Priscus and Verus. These two were both slaves in a quarry where they had a life expectancy of about six months. But they were lucky and were purchased by a buyer for a gladiator school.

Being a gladiator was an elite status for a slave. If you managed to survive you could look forward eventually to being freed with a nice nestegg saved up. Or perhaps continuing on as a trainer.

But this is like judging modern life by looking at professional athletes. What about all those other slaves who didn’t manage to get out of the quarry? The ones whose owners figured it was better to work them to death because it was so cheap to replace them.

48

Neville Morley 02.07.15 at 8:16 am

@LFC #43: I was thinking of Toner following that specific Marx remark, which doesn’t engage with the US situation at all, rather than Marx in general. Entirely agree about the need for a comparative approach to the study of slavery, but that’s something that Toner – at least in the book – deliberately denies himself, by choosing to present his material as if it’s a Roman slave-owner offering advice. He can ensure that the reader picks up lots of implicit parallels to present-day managerialism, but has no way of offering a broader account of slavery without stepping outside his chosen form.

49

Ze Kraggash 02.07.15 at 9:38 am

cassander: “It was written to be morality porn, something to make people like Ze Kraggash feel superior.”

It was written obviously as satire, but you perceive it as an affront to everything you hold dear, a blasphemy. So, from your point of view it is, indeed, trolling, or “morality porn” (whatever the hell that means). In the eye of the beholder.

50

Jim Buck 02.07.15 at 10:33 am

I have also been bothered for two weeks by the lack of a verb form for “iconoclast.”

Vandalise.

51

JPL 02.07.15 at 11:27 am

It seems here, and feel free to unfold the implications of my observation, that people want to distinguish between ‘trolling’, whatever that is (but presumably involving speech acts (as in “first rate trolling” in the OP) that, although they violate some Gricean conventions, are made with at least minimally serious intellectual intent and can be evaluated using aesthetic criteria (which have yet to be identified)), and just being a nuisance. (A blog thread is like a conversation, isn’t it?) (E.g., the goal of any argument as dialogue is to eventually (perhaps on some distant later occasion) come to agreement on the question at issue; participants at least need to share that goal for the process to be productive.)

52

Zamfir 02.07.15 at 11:47 am

@JPl, I would need a specialised parser to understand that post.

53

JPL 02.07.15 at 1:04 pm

Zamfir @52

lol.

Just trying some things. (I liked the comma after the parentheses: “…identified)),”.)

54

chris y 02.07.15 at 1:53 pm

Jim Buck @50. No. I can vandalise things which have no cultural importance and to which no deference is given. Railway embankments, for example.

55

LFC 02.07.15 at 2:21 pm

Neville Morley @48
I was thinking of Toner following that specific Marx remark, which doesn’t engage with the US situation at all, rather than Marx in general

Fair enough; point taken.

56

bianca steele 02.07.15 at 2:25 pm

Ah, I see that I took this–so close to the tone of a certain kind of glib-management-theory-building-on-the-new-institutional-economics-book,–too seriously, having actually read some of those books, and thought the OP was arguing that this language would be not only accurate to managers’ behavior, but actually persuasive to them, being the language they themselves use. (How can those two things be different?! you might ask, and well you might.)

57

Jim Buck 02.07.15 at 2:30 pm

Railway embankments may have no cultural importance to thee, Chris y; in fact, they do so to me. Would you agree that the use of vandalise (as the verb form of iconoclast) is apt in its transgression of the iconic similarities which usually prevail between a noun and its verb —and, by being so, captures the essence of the concept?

58

William Timberman 02.07.15 at 2:36 pm

Bob mcmanus makes the point that cassander, even dressed up in his Übermensch costume, still has the intentions of a clerk, and is pissed that everyone is aware of it. Genuine Übermenschen, if they existed, would be impossible to spot, and not just in this forum.

I disagree with bob to this extent: thinking one’s own thoughts is difficult, but not impossible. Doing so, however, is by definition an anti-social act, no matter how much it may be disguised by tact, irony, or sheep’s clothing. It’s the sort of distinction that a wise person never mistakes for an entitlement.

59

infognom 02.07.15 at 3:05 pm

This might also be called “subversive arguing” as in Subverting cultural hegemony.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subversion#Subverting_cultural_hegemony

Guess what the people thought when they first read Niccolo Machiavelli’s prince?!

The guy above could maybe criticize performance appraisals in the open as e.g. this guy does:
http://lmsgoncalves.com/2014/05/25/rewards-destroy-relationships-people/

However he probably thought it was more fun and also maybe even more fun to do it the subversive way.

What do you think people thought when they first read Nico Machiavelli’s “the prince”?!

60

Rich Puchalsky 02.07.15 at 3:15 pm

bob mcmanus: “If one speaks in opposition to the hegemonic discourse, one remains within it and uses it. “Rights.” But can one transit the discourse, and choose to not speak within it, but speak to it? If one tries, it will of course look like nonsense from within the hegemony.”

The also-quoted bit about subalternity is to the point, but what many people miss about trolling is that no one within the troll/trolled location has any real power. No one is subaltern, because obviously everyone is being heard in some sense. But no one is one of the people actually in charge of our societies, because they don’t waste their time commenting or reading comments. The offended tone that you sometimes hear from one of the upper-level media pundits isn’t just nostalgia for the old days when the Internet didn’t exist, it’s also frustrated social climbing, a complaint that they thought they were part of the upper elite and why do they still have to participate in this.

So yes, there are local power relationships in which some people pretend to be disciplinary (they ban people, “provide content”, police discourse etc.) and other people pretend to be liberatory (they mock, troll, satirize, and otherwise transgress). But it’s all essentially a middle-class activity. That is not to devalue it, but to talk about its limits. Sometimes people get their wires crossed and posters start to mock their commenters, or commenters start to try to ban people, and that’s generally a bad sign because of the mismatch of tools and results.

But in terms of aesthetics… the true aesthete has to be conscious of the characteristics of the form. HR tips from Roman slave owners works because the writer is writing from a position of mock authority (identifying with corporate leadership, purporting to give it advice) but actual powerlessness, despite a putative position as authorized social wisdom-giver.

61

mattski 02.07.15 at 3:35 pm

The Greatest Troll Of Them All?

Here a crucial question arises which is neither raised nor answered in Plato’s Apology. Why should a reputation for wisdom get a man into trouble in a city like Athens, a city to which philosophers flocked from all over Greece and were not only welcomed but richly rewarded as teachers and popular lecturers? … The answer seems to be that Socrates used his special kind of “wisdom”–his sophia or skill as a logician and philosopher–for a special political purpose: to make all the leading men of the city appear to be ignorant fools. … He thus undermined the polis, defamed the men on whom it depended, and alienated the youth. …

Socrates admits in Plato’s Apology that “in addition” to the animosity aroused by his own interrogations, “the young men who have the most leisure, the sons of the richest men accompanying me of their own accord, find pleasure in hearing people being examined, and often imitate me themselves, and then they undertake to examine others; and then, I fancy, they find a great plenty of people who think they know something, but know little or nothing.”

I.F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates. pp. 81-82

62

js. 02.07.15 at 3:54 pm

The verb you’re looking for: kill-yr-idols.

63

bob mcmanus 02.07.15 at 4:19 pm

59: We may be using ” communities” in different senses, and perhaps I use it too loosely.

I do dabble in what I call “cybertheory,” and I am generating a mental model of a plethora of overlapping intersecting whatever virtual communities that form a network (maps have been posted here, a while ago now). Some of them are to your right, some of them larger, some of them way distant in the long tail like a mountain village. Where’s the metropole now? I am usually aware in some sense of engaging several virtual communities across time and space whenever I engage in intellectual activity, even if just gazing at them or their memories.

To tell a story, needed because CT is a general interest blog, if the original post had been posted at a human resource blog, and the classic historians had shown up; or at a Marxist blog and the humorists had shown up; what are the various positions and where is the hegemony? DD tried to expand or narrow the commentariat to his post the other day (Greek voices) and got little but trolls. Regulars and lurkers and visitors, who is the CT community?

And, I could be wrong, and a bad Marxist. but there is far from only one hegemony. I am intersectional to a fault.

64

Rich Puchalsky 02.07.15 at 4:44 pm

bob mcmanus: “I am generating a mental model of a plethora of overlapping intersecting whatever virtual communities”

Those communities all exist, in some sense, but they have voluntary entry and exit. You brought up Watamote before, and there’s a scene in which she’s listening to four kids from her classroom talk to each other (they’re four kids with drawn-in faces, recurring characters) and one of them complains to the others about popular people, and how they should all just die, and the four kids laugh. And our protagonist thinks resentfully about how those four kids are popular and how they should just die, or something similar, with no apparent internal awareness that she just thought the same thing they said, because the four kids are at least one step up from her and that’s really all that matters.

High school is the beloved setting for this kind of thing because it’s the last involuntary setting that’s smaller than the society itself. Everyone in a First World society has to go to high school, and no matter what social clubs and so on they join, the full hierarchy is there and everyone gets implicitly compared with everyone else. (That was the illustration that I remember someone using to explain Piketty’s _Capital_ — that the full hierarchy wasn’t really there at the high school, that the really elite rich kids had their private high school that no one else even saw.) Cyber communities don’t have that, because people take on pseudonyms and change them and drift in and out.

But the cyber communities are still at base part of the larger society. They’re interesting in their own right, but they can’t really be evaluated except in context, and the context is that their local power is illusory.

65

bianca steele 02.07.15 at 6:10 pm

“Morality porn” is over the top, but KZ is too individualistic. Say the book is intended to sell as management advice. In that case the obvious Marxist rhetoric is inappropriate (at least if he intends to tap the lucrative US market). But could sell, to a rather different target audience, who might well use it as something very like “morality porn,” regardless of its author’s higher intentions for it. “Eye of the beholder”? Not quite that.

66

Dr.S. 02.07.15 at 6:16 pm

OK. I did feel that my use of the word “community” was overly generous. I googled “inventing the barbarian cavafy” and found this quote from Shadi Neimneh which seems to speak to you (bob)

“The imperial subjects in Cavafy‟s poem define themselves in contrast to the barbarian other. But since this other is most probably their creation with no objective reality, it fails to show up and thus disproves their privileged status and even very existence. Identity, it turns out, is something made and questioned in discourse. And if identity is not a given, this leaves it as a matter of representation. It might be an exaggeration to claim that the other is simply an idea or a creation because power relations govern racial ones and thus other people, but my point is that there is a process of mythmaking, fabrication, misrepresentation, and distortion that goes in our thinking about and theorizing of the other.”

67

Dr.S. 02.07.15 at 6:28 pm

cf 21

68

JimV 02.07.15 at 7:08 pm

“I have also been bothered for two weeks by the lack of a verb form for ‘iconoclast.'”

Break icons. Or icon-break, if you insist on one word and allow hyphenization as they do on PTI in “What’s the Word” segments.

I tend to take people at their words, especially on the Internet where I can’t see their expressions or hear their tones of voice, so I assume people who express strong contrary opinions mean them, or else are acting as a ‘Poe’. So “don’t feed the troll” (in response to such opinions) I take to mean: it’s no use engaging that person, you won’t change their mind; rather than: engaging them will give them the satisfaction they’re seeking. Okay, it probably means some of both, but I don’t know if I’ve ever actually encountered a pure troll in the classic meaning defined previously on this thread. (Usenet was not before my time but it was before my Internet time.)

69

Rich Puchalsky 02.07.15 at 7:09 pm

“The imperial subjects in Cavafy‟s poem define themselves in contrast to the barbarian other. But since this other is most probably their creation with no objective reality, […]”

_The Art of Not Being Governed_, James C. Scott, talks about how “barbarians” are often made up of people who have escaped from nearly “civilized” communities. Although the civilized communities like to think of them as the other, they are both part of the same system. In a similar way, I wouldn’t say that trolls are not the other that has no objective reality: trolls are the other that is created by the civilized community.

I’ll combine two comments into one, because otherwise I’ll run afoul of the people who like to assert illusory power by criticizing others for posting too much: Toner’s article may be a “troll” in some sense, but it doesn’t exist within the same kind of community that CT has. To use CT as an example you have to look more specifically at what kind of community CT is: a relict community. If you want to argue about certain things in a certain way, CT is one of the last survivors of the shift on most people’s part to Twitter and so on. There are a few other candidates, but if you’re concerned about pushing the commenting envelope at all, then compared to e.g. LGM, CT will always be the lesser evil. As such, there’s a disjunction between what posters think they are there for and what some commenters think they are there for, in which “providing content” takes a large role.

70

Ze Kraggash 02.07.15 at 7:15 pm

“the obvious Marxist rhetoric”

‘Wage slavery’ is not Marxist rhetoric, it’s common sense. It maybe not be immediately obvious to middle-class westerners, because we don’t do any labor. But look around you, at the things you wear, things you use, things you consume. Someone had to motivate the wage-workers in those Bangladeshi factories somehow.

71

bianca steele 02.07.15 at 7:25 pm

I didn’t mean “wage slavery” but “violence intrinsic to the system.” American managers both lack the bloody-mindedness of, apparently, some Brits, and are ideologically too well prepared to plausibly take the satire seriously.

If you’re on the other hand saying it’s directed at employees not managers, I agree.

72

ZM 02.07.15 at 11:02 pm

To make inconclusive a verb just add -ing

“I have enjoyed a pleasant morning fruitfully iconoclasting with friends over brunch”

73

ZM 02.07.15 at 11:03 pm

darn auto-correct : by inconclusive I evidently meant iconoclastic

74

Invigilator 02.07.15 at 11:03 pm

‘I have also been bothered for two weeks by the lack of a verb form for “iconoclast.”’

I propose “break icons.”

75

bekabot 02.07.15 at 11:18 pm

Whether the Jerry Toner article is intended as satire or not, and whether it’s intended as trolling or not, it displays in its tone (whether, again, this is intentional or not) rather a greater concern for the well-being of underlings than can be found in the Chait piece.

Just saying.

76

bob mcmanus 02.08.15 at 1:25 am

22:It is, after all, so very capitalist-individualist to argue that the individual can be constructed separately from the social.

I didn’t ignore you, I just didn’t have an answer for you, or anything witty. Taken aback, as it were. You are right.

Volosinov? Bakhtin? Jean-Jacques Lecercle? D & G? Too much to read.

I feel old and tired sometimes.

77

Ronan(rf) 02.08.15 at 2:41 am

Is ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ any good Rich ? Is it very specific to South East Asia, or does he draw more general conclusions (ie this is how many different groups have reacted to the emergence of centralised states )

78

Rich Puchalsky 02.08.15 at 2:53 am

I’ve read a strange amount of James C. Scott’s books, since I got three of them at once and somehow ended up reading all of them at the same time (and I’m not done with two of them). But based on what I’ve read so far, I think it’s the best of his books. (_Seeing Like a State_ has been so referenced by other people so often that it no longer feels new; _Two Cheers For Anarchy_ seems like it’s a short recap of everything in his other books).

He is very clear that he’s being specific to South East Asia, but this seemed to me like an academic being careful. More general conclusions are not really supported by the book, but if I want to use the idea as a metaphor in a comment box, I don’t think that anyone is going to pull out James C. Scott a la the McLuhan scene in Annie Hall to contradict me.

79

Ronan(rf) 02.08.15 at 3:00 am

“I don’t think that anyone is going to pull out James C. Scott a la the McLuhan scene in Annie Hall to contradict me”

Well, let’s wait and see ….

80

ZM 02.08.15 at 4:59 am

I am still not convinced about the idea that trollish comments/articles should primarily be approached aesthetically. I can sort of see the point with the Roman Slaves article since Henry finds that it creates an Uncanny Valley sensation — then approaching it solely on aesthetic terms would provide a degree of subjectivity by objectifying the writing to overcome the uncomfortable Uncanny Valley feel.

But like JimV I tend to take people/commenters at their words — but in my case I think this is from growing up in a very small town — one friend did realise this once and would have fun making things up that I would think were very interesting but they were untrue.

As it happens the book I am reading has a chapter Truth and Truthfulness in Narrative that partly looks at how people often separate content from style (Henry’s aesthetics) in writing — but it argues that style and content are inseparable. The author quite beautifully looks at the impact of landscape on the tenor and style of his writing — and the impact of this on the truthfulness of his representation of character and events — in this case finding his depiction of his mother somewhat inadequate:

“Strange though it may sound, my sense of that life, of the ideas that informed it, was given intensity and colour by the light and landscape of the area. … More than anything, however, the glorious, tall, burnt-yellow grasses (as a boy they came to my chest and sometimes over my head) moving irregularly against a deep blue sky, dominated the images of my childhood and gave colour to my freedom and also to my understanding of suffering. In the morning they inspired cheerful energy of the kind that made you whistle; at midday, in partnership with an unforgiving sun and alive with insects and other creatures, they intimidated; but in the late afternoon, towards dusk, everything was softened by a light that graced the area in a melancholy beauty that could pierce one’s soul…
Religion, metaphysics or the notions of fate and character as they inform tragedy, are suited to that light and landscape…. For that reason tragedy, with its calm pity for the affliction it depicts, was the genre that first attracted my passionate allegiance: I recognised it in the concepts that had illuminated the events of my childhood.

Perhaps it sounds absurd, but I hoped that the events and the characters of the story I told would be bathed in the light and colours of that landscape. I hoped that in the telling of it I could achieve the same calm pity that I attributed to tragedy as a literary genre.

My mother was never at ease in the landscape. It was alien to her and she seemed alien to it…. just as my mother was ill at ease in the actual landscape of Central Victoria, so she is ill at ease as a character in a book whose narrative genre is conditioned by that landscape and its natural congruence with categories of character, fate and metaphysics…. Perhaps that genre is not one in which she can appear fully individuated, fully a presence in the world, a distinctive perspective of it. I do not know whether that is true, but this clearly is true: genre is essential to narrative and it opens and closes possibilities of characterisation.”

So now I have thought about it more — I think that judging something to be trolling is not an aesthetic judgement — it is a character judgement about the writer.

Then if you make this character judgement, as above, you may want to objectify the comment/article by conducting an aesthetic appraisal of their comment/article rather than engaging with it in dialogue.

81

dr ngo 02.08.15 at 5:08 am

Jim Scott – very nice man, when I knew him (briefly) – seem(ed) to spend most of his spare time on his farm or other outdoorsy-ness, so he’s unlikely to show up here. My reading of him (both literally and metaphorically) is that he’s surprisingly modest for such a deep and wide thinker; he writes about Southeast Asia because that’s what he’s studied for many years, and he doesn’t presume to tell other specialists what their part of the world is like. I’m sure he’s delighted if his ideas find resonance elsewhere, and would be disappointed if they didn’t, of course.

82

LFC 02.08.15 at 2:16 pm

@ronan
I haven’t read J. Scott and thus won’t say anything substantive about his books. But just to mention that H. Farrell, iirc, reviewed Art of Not Being Governed along w another book by someone else (don’t remember which); I don’t recall the review’s substance really though I bkmarked it at the time (I think Henry referenced it here). Also, there was a symposium on Art of Not Being Governed a while back in Perspectives on Politics, iirc. There were five or six briefish reactions to the book. S. Krasner as one might guess was sort of critical, along the lines of ‘states are not as bad as Scott thinks’ (that’s of course a simplification of what SK said).

83

Ronan(rf) 02.08.15 at 4:12 pm

Thanks LFC (here’s the review, which I remember now reading at the time)

http://www.the-american-interest.com/2011/01/01/the-state-of-statelessness/

84

dbk 02.08.15 at 7:08 pm

bob mcmanus @63
“DD tried to expand or narrow the commentariat to his post the other day (Greek voices) and got little but trolls. Regulars and lurkers and visitors, who is the CT community?”

That was a very strange thread indeed, and I’m still thinking about it, and not at all happily. It showed me that there are pretty much no other CT readers in Greece – which makes me very peripheral to this community. But it also showed the poster himself had not imagined there were no readers in Greece – Greek followers of CT, and that was equally revealing.

Was that thread strictly-speaking one long troll-fest, or was it one massive derailing consisting of free-association remarks by regulars who were ticked off at DD but who then proceeded to enjoy themselves riffing off each other?

I have a hard time discerning trolling/trolls on CT threads. For me, trolling is online discourse which involves bad faith arguments generated to provoke/hurt others. Neither satire nor irony are practiced in bad faith, though both are frequently practiced in righteous anger and/or outrage. I suppose one could characterize particular instances of trolls/trolling as witty or clever, even brilliant, but how can discourse which originates in bad faith be aesthetically satisfying?

85

mattski 02.08.15 at 7:35 pm

but how can discourse which originates in bad faith be aesthetically satisfying?

“Thou wretch!-thou vixen!-thou shrew!” said I to my wife on the morning after our wedding; “thou witch!-thou hag!-thou whippersnapper-thou sink of iniquity!-thou fiery-faced quintessence of all that is abominable!-thou-thou-” here standing upon tiptoe, seizing her by the throat, and placing my mouth close to her ear, I was preparing to launch forth a new and more decided epithet of opprobrium, which should not fail, if ejaculated, to convince her of her insignificance, when to my extreme horror and astonishment I discovered that I had lost my breath.

[From a well known American author]

86

dbk 02.08.15 at 9:23 pm

mattski@83

I think I’d consider that passage a “Gothic spoof”. It’s a genre I’m not fond of, and so maybe I’m biased – clever, witty, brilliant, perhaps aesthetically pleasing for Fans of Gothic Spoofs. But I would say it was written in trollerian bad faith.

87

dbk 02.08.15 at 9:24 pm

@ 86 – oops, make that “I would not say it was written in trollerian bad faith.”

88

mattski 02.09.15 at 12:06 am

dbk,

Well, it was a little tongue-in-cheek. But as a rule, wouldn’t you agree that almost anything can be an art if the practitioner is sufficiently skillful/inspired?

89

mattski 02.09.15 at 12:07 am

*Meant to add a smiley-face to make my tone clear:

:^)

90

Markos Valaris 02.09.15 at 3:58 am

I know of a few Greek CT readers, including myself; just didn’t have anything to contribute to that particular thread.

Comments on this entry are closed.