In an often-citedpassage from Allegories of Reading (1979), Paul de Man referred to “the metaphorical model of literature as a kind of box that separates an inside from an outside, and the reader or critic as the person who opens the lid in order to release into the open what was secreted but inaccessible inside.”
Once upon a time, the implications of this model, and of de Man’s painstaking deconstruction of it, were discussed in such depth, and at such length, as to test the limits of human endurance. But literary scholars have somehow neglected to draw the obvious connection to Sidney Kugelmass, a professor of humanities at the City College of New York, who, during the 1970s, transformed the experience of reading Flaubert. (See “The Kugelmass Episode,” in Woody Allen, Side Effects , also available here.)
Unhappily married for the second time, Kugelmass yearned for romance, but dreaded the financial ruin of taking on a second alimony. Traditional psychoanalysis proving no help, he enlisted the services of a magician in Brooklyn who had built a special cabinet that allowed a reader to enter the world within a book. Customer and book went in together, and then … well, magic is inexplicable. But whatever the thaumaturgical hydraulics, the magician’s device gave Kugelmass direct access to (as de Man put it) “what was secreted but inaccessible inside” a paperback copy of Madame Bovary.
Which is to say, access to Emma herself -- as miserable in her marriage as the professor was in his. Soon they were doing what came naturally, just as often as Kugelmass could sneak away to use the cabinet in Brooklyn.
Complications followed; they always do. Daphne Kugelmass began to wonder why her husband kept disappearing for hours at a stretch. Undergraduates doing their assigned reading tried to understand how a bald, middle-aged New Yorker in a leisure suit could be part of a novel set in provincial France during the 19th century. And Emma herself, yearning to escape the boredom of small-town life, managed to flee the book and went on a spending spree in Manhattan. In the words of a professor at Stanford University, at the time: "I cannot get my mind around this. First a strange character named Kugelmass, and now she's gone from the book. Well, I guess the mark of a classic is that you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new."
Yes, quite. To sum up this allegory of reading without giving away too much, let’s just note that Kugelmass himself came to a very bad end. But then, so did Emma in Flaubert’s novel. Each was led astray by desire and by fiction, tangled up with one another in ways both comic and tragic.
In On Rereading, published by Harvard University Press, Patricia Meyer Spacks is not content to play variations on the unnamed Stanford professor’s chestnut about the infinite richness of a classic. That’s truism enough. But more interesting (and much closer to the real reason why people reread, most of the time) is the desire, not for new interpretations, but for pleasure. Clearly that was what drove Kugelmass, although his years of rereading Madame Bovary to teach it yielded more blindness than insight into the novel.
Spacks, a professor emerita of English at the University of Virginia, spent a year revisiting novels she had read at different stages of her life, whether for pleasure or from obligation. Most had been enjoyable the first time through; a few of them were things she’d reread often over the years. Her report on this experiment might be called a critical memoir, or memoiristic criticism perhaps. The volume is too informal to be called scholarly, but too much the work of someone with decades of experience in careful reading for it to be just impressionistic.
“Reading a book, or rereading it,” she says, “we enter into relation not only with the text but with an imagined author. Rereading it, we relate also to one or more versions of our past selves. Examining the textures of those relationships, we learn both about ourselves and about complicated connections informing the mysterious process of reading.”
Not that this is necessarily a matter of deliberate assessment. If anything, it tends to be off-the-cuff: you start rereading a novel, and this sets off a chain reaction of memories and evaluations, regarding both the text and whatever the circumstances were in which you previously engaged with it. Most of On Rereading presents an orderly and argued version of processes that otherwise flow spontaneously within the stream of consciousness.
At another point, Spacks writes: “To be sure, it’s possible to reread because you remain puzzled by a text and obliged to tackle it again in order to figure it out. Most rereading, though, is undertaken for reasons other than exegesis, and it doesn’t involve conscious, purposeful work.”
Here she means the rereading of fiction, or of imaginative literature more generally. Something like it can also apply to nonfiction, certainly, but rereading it is more often task-driven. Even on first reading a novel, the reader “engages in constant judgment and interpretation,” says Spacks, “involved in a sequence of challenge and response” to what the author has put on the page. But this changes upon return:
“Willingness to yield oneself to the text in a way impossible the first time through is, I think, the crucial element in rereading.… The rereader customarily feels less pressure. She can allow herself a state of suspended attention comparable to Keats’s ‘negative capability,’ a condition of receptivity devoid, as the poet says, of irritable reaching after fact and reason — of irritable reaching after anything at all.”
A book remains the same through time, but the context and personality of the reader don’t. Whether the consequence is nostalgia or embarrassment can be the luck of the draw. Some of the most interesting material in On Rereading concerns the bewilderment that can occur upon revisiting a once-beloved work and finding that the thrill is gone. Spacks describes rereading Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing and trying to understand the changes in the world and in herself that made them disappointing, or worse, after the passage of decades.
“Rereading oneself is especially dangerous,” she also notes. “I’m thinking in particular of the experience of coming upon old notes in works read long ago for the first time. ’Symbol!’ I find in the margin of a novel read in college, and cringe.”
One lesson of On Rereading is that the metaphor of the reader of literature as someone “open[ing] the lid in order to release into the open what was secreted but inaccessible inside” also applies to rereading – except vice versa, with the text prying open the self.
With frequent rereading, Spacks says, a work “comes to inhabit the deep reaches of the brain.” This seems allied to something that the late John Leonard said: “The books we love, love us back.” But as we learn from the example of Sidney Kugelmass, you really have to be careful about that.
Last week, the journal First Monday – a prominent venue for scholarly research concerning the Internet – published a paper called “LOLing at tragedy: Facebook trolls, memorial pages, and resistance to grief online.” The author, Whitney Phillips, is a graduate student in English at the University of Oregon. The shooting at Virginia Tech came three days later. Talk about an unhappy coincidence…. The paper itself is smart, and written with more verbal flair than the prospect of peer review normally inspires. It is required reading for anyone trying to come to terms with the strange and sometimes ghastly ways people now respond to horrible news.
“RIP trolling” targets the webpages set up to commemorate death and disaster -- defacing them with comments and images intended to offend or enrage visitors to the page. There is no law against being a creep, as such, but disgust at RIP trolling has inspired efforts to work around that fact. In Australia, for example, one Bradley Paul Hampson recently received a three-year sentence for the graphics he put up on Facebook pages devoted to two murdered schoolchildren.
According to an article in the Queensland Courier-Mail, he posted “photographs of one victim with a penis drawn near their mouth and highly offensive messages, including ‘Woot I'm Dead', ‘Had It Coming' and others too offensive to publish.” Hampson was arrested for the possession and distribution of child pornography. But it seems more fitting to call him “the first person to be charged and convicted of Facebook vandalism,” as the newspaper’s caption writer did, beneath a photo of Hampson almost certainly chosen because of his smirk.
Whitney Phillips’s interest in the topic is ethnographic and analytic, not prosecutorial. Her graduate work in English has a “structured emphasis in folklore,” and she’s as scrupulously non-judgmental about RIP trolling as Alan Lomax would have been about the morality expressed in a murder ballad. The article in First Monday is based on research for her dissertation, now in progress, which is called “Internet Trolling: Cultural Digestion, Lulz, and the Politics of Transgression.” The word "lulz" in the subtitle is a bit of in-group slang, to be discussed below in due course. (It's a troll thing, you wouldn't understand.)
After reading the article, but before getting in touch with its author, I went to Facebook expecting to locate the inevitable Virginia Tech Shooting 2011 memorial page(s) -- and the no less inevitable defacement. But searching for “Virginia Tech shooting” yielded no hits. A little more exploration turned up a page called R.I.P Virginia Tech Dec 8 2011. It had been created almost immediately after the news came out, but there was no subsequent activity. For that matter, no administrators for it were listed.
“If the shooting had happened a year ago,” Phillips said when we spoke by phone, “there would have been 50 pages on it. There’s been a pushback from Facebook since then. The algorithms are keeping the space as safe as possible. They shut things down before they even exist, almost.”
The vigilance makes her research more difficult. In a blog post, Phillips writes that when a tragedy occurs she has to rush to her computer to document the troll response “because this shit isn’t going to archive itself.” One remarkable thing about the bibliography of her paper is that it lists numerous webpages with a parenthetical “since deleted” following the title.
The constant erasure of trollic discourse, if you’ll pardon the expression, is part of the dynamic that Phillips is studying. In a sense, it is a much softer form of the policing that landed Bradley Paul Hampson in jail. Phillips indicates in conversation that she has experienced such policing firsthand: at one point, Facebook shut down her account for abusive behavior -- although all she’d done, she says, was “friend” various trolls and observe their behavior. The vigilant FB algorithms took this to be complicity. Phillips appealed the decision, making clear that she was engaged in research, and won reinstatement. But since then, she’s shut down her profile out of misgivings over Facebook’s role as a platform devoted to generating money out of identity in ways over which users have little control.
According to Wikipedia, which in turn cites the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest confirmed reference to trolling (in the sense of a kind of Internet behavior) dates from 1992. I try not to argue with the OED any more than necessary. That seldom goes well. But in this case, it is simply wrong. A search of the Usenet archives shows one person accusing another of “trolling for commentary” no later than 1986. By 1989, somebody responds to a comment with “Trolling for abuse, Eliot? Or is this some weird self-immolating postmodernist gesture?”
One folk etymology has it that trolling is a variant of “trawling”: pulling a net or a baited line from the back of a boat to capture fish. The other, considerably more common explanation is that the noun came first, with “troll” as an insulting label for the Usenet provocateur. The image of an irritable creature living under a bridge in turn gave rise to the injunction, “Don’t feed the trolls” (i.e., don’t let yourself be provoked because that’s what nourishes them), which then caught on in the blogosphere at some point in the early ‘00s, albeit without much success in thinning the population.
The old-school Usenet troll sometimes posted under his real name, and he tended to act alone. But the species has undergone a significant mutation, according to Phillips, who thinks the new breed came into its own in the mid-‘00s. The contemporary troll always uses a pseudonym, and usually more than one -- and keeps a number of email accounts and Facebook profiles in case he is banned, which happens a lot. Any serious troll is a past master at cloaking or disguising his Internet service provider.
Concealment, then, is essential. At the same time, the notion that trolls are antisocial is misleading: A crucial point about the new sort is that they interact with one another, form friendships, and work together. Phillips says she has interacted with certain trolls for three years now -- but still does not know their real names or even, with any certainty, in what part of the world they are located.
Her observations and interviews across that period suggest that trolls constitute a subculture, with its own distinct tradition, lingo, and outlook. They have gathering points and networks; they have ways to recognize one another even when obliged to change pseudonyms. While RIP trolling has generated media attention and moral panic, their influence is both broader and less obvious. Phillips told me that trolling is “both ubiquitous and invisible” and “permeates the online ecosystem” in ways that outsiders tend not to recognize.
Among the phenomena with “ties, and often direct ties, to trolling” that she listed in an e-mail note are “LOLcats, RickRolling [in which individuals are unwittingly redirected to a clip of Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’], ‘hactivism,’ Anonymous, the Guy Fawkes mask, [and] half the memes on Reddit, the list goes on.”
Trolls are in it for the lulz, and they take getting b& in stride.
Clearly a little translation is in order. It is simple enough to figure out what b& means. Just pronounce it: “banned” – enough of an occupational hazard to merit a shorthand expression. But "lulz" takes a bit of unpacking. While derived from the familiar interjection LOL, for “laugh out loud,” lulz carries a special in-group nuance. Lulz refers to “a particular kind of unsympathetic, ambiguous laughter similar to schadenfreude,” explained Phillips by email. “Unlike schadenfreude, however, which is often described in passive terms (a bad thing happened to someone I don't like, so I laughed), lulz are much more active, or at the very least imply the vicarious enjoyment of others' direct actions (I made a guy so mad he started typing in all caps, so I laughed and/or I saw someone else make a guy so mad he started typing in all caps, so I laughed).”
Well, everybody needs an ethos, I guess, and a case might even be made for understanding the troll as some kind of trickster figure.
Still, it’s hard to see RIP trolling as anything more than the blend of sadism and cowardice. The lulz of making jokes about, say, a teenager’s suicide involve all the satisfactions of inflicting psychic violence at random, with none of the inconvenience of swallowing your own teeth when somebody punches you in the face repeatedly.
Based on interviews with trolls, though, Phillips says that there is more to it than vicious misanthropy – that at least some of them have a very specific agenda, and a moral code, of sorts. They do not violate pages set up by family of the deceased, and don’t mean to hurt them.
What angers and disgusts them, she says, is how the media will pick out certain deaths or catastrophes and do saturation coverage – after which, people rush to set up online memorials that then draw “grief tourists.” The latter are people “who have no real–life connection to the victim,” explains Phillips in her paper, "and who, according to the trolls, could not possibly be in mourning. As far as trolls are concerned, grief tourists are shrill, disingenuous and, unlike grieving friends and families, wholly deserving targets.”
One way of trolling is to set up a FB memorial for a nonexistent dead person and then mock the visitors who soon turn up. “This isn’t grief,” Phillips quotes one troll as arguing. “This is boredom and a pathological need for attention masquerading as grief.”
By this logic, the point of RIP trolling is to disrupt -- or at least challenge -- the sensationalism, narcissism, and vapid communitarian sentimentality fostered by the 24-hour cable news cycle and social networking. They subject anyone who gets caught up in all of it to scathing laughter. Possibly this will be for the lemmings’ own good. Their rage might be a first step towards learning the difference between phony emotion and meaningful experience. Or maybe it will give them a heart attack. It’s lulz either way.
Phillips presents as strong a case for this interpretation as can be made, perhaps -- while also analyzing the dissociation between online and real-life identity that allows trolls to avoid thinking about the collateral damage to bereaved family members and friends of the deceased. I read the paper with interest, but also with the nagging thought that RIP trolling provides a critique of the contemporary media in roughly the sense that lynching offered one of the criminal justice system. In either case, malice is more evident than principle.
On the other hand, trollery includes RickRolling, which never hurt anybody, apart from getting that song stuck in people’s heads repeatedly. Trolling covers a multitude of activities -- most of them irritating, though not actually sociopathic.
The thought that there might be a million trolls in the United States, as Phillips thinks is possible, seems…what? Perplexing? Certainly that. But also a complicating factor in all sorts of ways. A troll is Mark Zuckerberg’s sinister twin, cloned to infinity.
And since Whitney Phillips has thought about the phenomenon more than anyone, she should have the last word. After listening to my misgivings by phone, she wrote
“Although I fully understand the impulse to denounce trolls and trolling behaviors (ironically, trolls actively pursue this very response), I would simultaneously argue that trolling has much more to offer, and much more to say, than critics might realize. My basic argument — although it is an argument riddled with caveats and qualifications — is that, contrary to the assumption that they represent all that is terrible about human nature, about anonymity, and about the internet generally, trolls also perform an important cultural function ….. they take whatever they find, the good, the bad, the hateful, the creative, the hypocritical, the amusing, anything and everything else, and put it on display.
“Sometimes they do this purposefully, with political intent. Sometimes they do things simply because they can. Either way, by mapping trolls’ behaviors, it is possible to similarly map trends and tensions within the host culture — the byproducts of which trolls consume, recombine, and eagerly hurl back at an unsuspecting populace. Tell me what the trolls are doing, in other words, and I’ll tell you about the world they live in."