Waterbug Blues

by rsbakker

So I was ‘spammified’ again. By spammified, I mean someone on some blog has marked some comment of mine as spam rather than simply trash the thing. This means I once again have to send another message to the Akismet folks asking to be removed from their master spammer list to be able to post comments. There’s no way of knowing who did it, but I suspect it was another continentalist, same as before.

It seems preposterous, in hindsight, the length of time it took me to realize that the critical thinking mantra so often espoused in the humanities was little more than a shill. People. Hate. Questions. They only pretend to welcome them. I do my best to welcome them here, but I still suffer the tweak of irritation, still catch myself thinking, ‘Not another one, fuck,’ particularly when the question is a routine objection I feel I’ve answered multiple times before. I regularly reprimand myself for my hypocrisy—too often to be healthy, I’m sure.

Nobody likes a contrarian, unless they happen to be that contrarian.

It seems downright preposterous, in hindsight, the length of time it took me to realize that the content of a claim is not nearly as important as the social status of the claimant. People, as a rule, are far more interested in who you are than in what you have to say. When abstraction, complexity, and ambiguity, insulate them from the possibility of socially decisive contradiction, people primarily argue to advance their social standing. This is probably why they hate genuinely critical questions: their desire to discover what’s actually going on is little more than a political gloss. The internet is a great place to see this little nugget of human nature in action as well. The Great Ignorium. On the net, the questions can be vetted in advance—any exercise in ‘critical thinking’ can be groomed into an infomercial. Ignore someone ‘big,’ and there could be consequences. Small inquisitors are easily brushed under the rug.

Before coming to these two realizations I was regularly dismayed by the hostility—active or passive—that my questioning generally provoked. Life has become much easier since. In a sense, it’s a hard row I find myself hoeing. TPB really is an interstice between ‘incompatible empires,’ a place where fantasy meets cognitive science meets continental philosophy meets analytic philosophy. TPB is one place on the web where the ingroup is the enemy. Since fantasy is where I possess the most institutional credibility, I speak of and to it the least. I spend almost all my blog time, rather, tripping outgroup alarms within the latter three communities. I’m not an idiot: I know that I roll far more eyes than I catch. I recognize that I’m not an institutional expert in any of the fields I comment on—this is why I welcome corrections, critique. Nowadays, the only way to become an expert is to enter the mines, to lose sight of the landscape, and to become thoroughly invested in some ingroup—something which I seem incapable of doing.

So I play the waterbug.

Should I not play the waterbug? I know the kinds of questions I ask here are show stoppers because I’ve asked them in person, in venues where prestige demands they be blunted or papered over. Otherwise, I feel I’ve been ahead of the curve in a number of respects. Heuristics and metacognition are exploding as research fronts, as is groupishness. I think the scientific evidence backing Blind Brain Theory becomes more conclusive every month, let alone every year. It even seems like some of my metaphors are becoming common currency—think of Graziano’s recent New York Times piece.

Meanwhile, the consequences of the Semantic Apocalypse pretty clearly seem to be piling up. Just consider the tremendous bind that the technological occlusion of our collective future imposes on political theory, for instance. How does one motivate radical political change once ‘for a better future’ becomes an out and out religious claim—which is to say, a claim that has no hope of commanding consensus? I’m convinced, in other words, that the suite of concerns motivating TPB are the concerns, the dilemmas that humanity will confront no matter how hard they wish upon this or that humanistic star.

But more generally, amateurism is often exactly what problem-solving requires. A 2006 study of the scientific problems solved via InnoCentive, a crowdsourcing website, revealed that outgroup problem-solvers had actually outperformed ingroup problem-solvers. Apparently, the same holds true of Kaggle (which is dedicated to problems of statistical analysis). And this just makes sense: Longstanding problems often require ‘fresh perspectives.’ Since ingroups are defined by the conformity of perspectives, we should expect outsiders to have a ‘freshness’ advantage. The problem, of course, is that ingroups become so inured to their own stink that ‘fresh’ tends to smell ‘fishy’ to them.

All this gives me confidence in my incompetence! So I weigh in with observations and questions here and there, on a wide variety of sites and venues. I strive to be polite, but to make my questions as direct as possible—I don’t want to waste my time, let alone anyone else’s. Sometimes I have great exchanges, sometimes I don’t make it past moderation, or if I do, I’m roundly ignored. Sometimes I’m greeted with ad hominem vitriol, to which I respond by restating my question. And sometimes, twice now, anyway, I’m spammified.

This is a thumbnail of my meagre internet life. I don’t lie awake at night grinding my teeth over not getting any respect. I don’t silently shout, ‘The fools!’ in the privacy of my thoughts. I understand full well that this is how it works, that this is simply the human game. And most importantly, I try to remind myself that I’m just another idiot when all is said and done. I very well could be deluded by all this—after all, I’ve been argued out of every position I’ve held prior to my present one! The difference now is that I find myself tethered to what the science has to say.

So why the waterbug blues? Being spammified, after all, is pretty clear evidence that I’m on the right track, the fact that the continental emperor has no clothes. Part of it I’m sure has to do with being burned by Ray Brassier earlier this year: after delaying Through the Brain Darkly for months dodging emails, he finally bailed on his original agreement to write the Forward. Apparently I’m too much of a waterbug!

So maybe this most recent act of petty e-larceny has caught me exhausted in some way I wasn’t aware of. Maybe I’ve simply ‘got the hint’ at some somatic level…

The problem, of course, is the more they tell me I’m not welcome at the party, the more convinced I become that I’m offering something genuinely critical, the very thing they pretend to be. I’m wrapping up the rewrites on The Aspect-Emperor now and will be sending out the manuscript in January. If all goes well, perhaps I’ll be a bit more difficult to brush under the rug in the near future. As an intellectual masochist, all this love I’m not getting just makes me more horny.

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