Recent discussion surrounding trolls, minotaurs, gray vampires and the whole growing bestiary have gotten me thinking about a post I wrote my first year blogging entitled “In Praise of Irritation” later published in Reconstruction. In that post I was making a play on words, seeking to capture the resonance of both being irritated by someone and the sense of dynamic systems theory where a system requires a perturbation, stimuli, or irritant in order to produce new system states. As I wrote in that post,
I find Acephalous very irritating, and for this reason I had a very fine discussion with him that was generative of concepts for me (here and here). I suspect that Acephalous and I understood little of what the other was saying, but it was productive for me as it led me to develop thoughts I would not have otherwise developed– these days I’m becoming more and more sympathetic to his position based on my aleatory materialism –and he wrote about it further. Jodi Dean irritates the hell out of me because she seldom responds to my posts on her site, which I find terrifically rude (no doubt my tone comes off as insulting as I tend to write “dissertations” like I’m lecturing or teaching), but this irritation leads me to write even more with the vain fantasy that she’ll someday respond. As such, her silence generates ongoing communicative events. My friend Melanie irritates me to no end, as she’s always challenging psychoanalysis and attacking my latest theoretical fetish, leading me to throw up my hands in exasperation and heatedly defend what I was claiming, thereby generating ongoing autopoiesis between the two of us. My friend Noah, in graduate school, was extremely condescending, mocking, and abrasive, while brilliantly astute theoretically in a way that diverged sharply from my own views, leading me to constantly spar with him and pushing my thought to develop in ways that it never would have otherwise. My dear friend Robert irritates me to no end, as he constantly misinterprets my claims and pushes them in directions I don’t like, leading me to try to demolish him theoretically, while never really wanting to so that we might continue irritating one another. Yusef drives me up the wall with his playful writing style and rhetorical excesses, and therefore drives me to become even more rationalistic despite the fact that I sympathize with many of his positions, just to spite him.
The thesis behind this praise of irritants was as follows:
Theoretically, of course, it’s odd that I would look for an interlocutor that I could really work with. As a Lacanian I advocate the principle that “all communication is miscommunication.” In my analytic practice I see everyday how my interventions are taken in surprising directions by my analysands, and understood in ways I could have never anticipated. The systems theorist in me adopts the thesis that “all miscommunication is communication.” In some respects, I think the latter thesis is more interesting. If systems are dynamic, this entails that they must reproduce themselves from moment to moment by generating further system-forming events. Systems are composed of events, not objects or things. A social system must generate additional communication on the basis of every event of communication, so as to endure in time. Agreement and consensus tend to diminish further operations or the production of ongoing communicative events as there’s no necessity of continuing communications where there’s agreement, whereas conflict and difference tend to promote ongoing autopoiesis of communication. Irritation (in its system-theoretical sense) generates ongoing communication.
Ultimately I do think there is something to the category of the troll and the minotaur, though it should always be remembered that trolling and minotauring are verbs rather than nouns. It cannot be said that one is a troll or minotaur. Rather one behaves rhetorically as a troll or minotaur in particular communicative situations. The troll is like the protesters at the town hall meetings surrounding the healthcare debates here in the United States. They are not interested in participating in discussion, but in insuring that no discussion takes place. Of course, it’s important to recall that they might not know that they’re doing this. The minotaur is similar. Drawing again on the analogy to health care reform, the minotaur is someone that participates in such a way that that no reform takes place, but rather tries to trace everything back to the infrastructural bureaucracy and legalisms upon which the system is based. The minotaur is the person that traces everything back to some master-thinker, forgetting that there is an issue being discussed. Or they treat every discussion as an issue of misinterpretation, rather than genuine disagreement, implicitly holding that if one simply understood they would advocate the position. Rather than formulating a new, interesting, whizbang version of Kant or Heidegger, for example, they attempt to show that Kant and Heidegger have already addressed such and such an issue in some obscure text. But again, these are verbs, not nouns. They are not essences, but ways of comporting towards others.
Nonetheless, I still stand by my post written back in 2006 praising trolls. This is just part of how I’m put together. The troll makes me think, no matter how much she or he drives me up the wall. Perhaps I’m a bit of a masochist at heart. On the other hand, despite my admiration for those who have formulated the category of “grey vampires”, I think this sorting is sadly mistaken. The measure of a successful philosophy, in my view, is not whether or not it manages to earn converts. In this respect, the very thesis of the grey vampire as the subject that always seems just about ready to agree or endorse a position is deeply, in my view, mistaken. The true measure of a successful philosophy, I think, is whether or not it becomes a difference engine. As I understand it, a difference engine is an entity that is perpetually adept at producing differences. This is not an egalitarian, happy go lucky free for all. There will be antagonisms, conflicts, wars, and so on. But nonetheless differences are produced. The differences that a difference engine produces can be unexpected projects that a philosophy manages to spawn. I have been surprised as a somewhat militant atheist, for example, at the manner in which my onticology has been picked up and sent in very different directions by certain theologians. This is something that I would have never expected.
However, a difference engine is not simply the production of sympathetic projects. It is also to be found at the level of antagonistic projects. If a philosophy can generate antagonisms, alternative thoughts, opposing thoughts, and so on, it has been successful as a difference engine. This might be a painful admission or observation as none of us like existing in a state of warfare and conflict or witnessing our painstakingly developed thoughts trod upon. However, not only has a philosophy made a contribution to the symbolic world in functioning as a stimulus of creating antagonisms and therefore shifting the frame of discourse, but also I think philosophies benefit self-reflexively from the others or the antonyms they generate insofar as they’re forced to generate new concepts, lines of argument, and applications.
In this regard, I cannot agree with the sortal of “grey vampires”, no matter how much I sympathize with and admire those who are formulating it. In my view, the evangelical model of philosophy is a monstrosity. Philosophy should not seek converts, but rather should aim at the proliferation of differences. The difficult issue is how to distinguish between the verb of trollery where the aim is to shut down any and all discourse through shouting and wearing guns on ones hip, and the verb of grey vampirism where it is possible to produce some productive differences. However, in this medium, in this strange universe of the blogosphere, I think it is above all important to remember that from the perspective of the academy, we’re all cranks, trolls, and gray vampires despite any philosophical and theoretical difference we might have. Our very mode of engagement, from an institutional perspective, is illegitimate and lacking in seriousness or productivity. We are cranks, trolls, strange new minotaurs of an electronic world. There is no division here. We’re all selected in one and exactly the same way. The real question is not whether these judgments are true, but whether or not we identify with those who make those judgments. Further, it should never be forgotten that those of us who have attained some success in this medium are outsiders and marginalized figures in an entire institutionalized setting. They are folks who got sick of submitting materials to shriveled and tired dusty figures functioning as the real minotaurs at the gates of journals, conferences, and presses, submitting their work to a scrutiny by these minotaurs to decide whether or not they were worthy of their gate (to be read as worthy of being submitted to their university discourse or established habitus), and who preferred to accept their minor, marginalized status and do what they really wanted to do anyway: think, invent, and talk to other interesting cranks. The real test is whether or not one identifies with those minotaurs guarding the gate, whether one identifies with the whole SPEP and APA assemblage, or whether or not one finds a way to continue thinking and talking. I mean really, are most of the people at the APA, SPEP, and the MLA people you would want to drink with? Are their aspirations and their concerns what you envisioned when you got in to your discipline? Are their aspirations what inspired you to think? Is your highest ambition to engage in “star-fucking” as one of my former mentors described these conferences, and to rub elbows with tired old fellows who’s books will eventually be consigned to the stacks in a few years? Did you really think this misery known as academia was important, that your life was defined by the press you published with or whether you published at all? Sometimes its better simply to collect sea glass and talk about turtles and mothmen. Although we have quasi-minotaurs that appear here in the blogosphere, that’s not where the real minotaurs are to be found.