Dump the Trolls

Yesterday, President Obama came down to the University to have a little chat onstage with five or six “young leaders,” college-age and younger, and to pep-talk at them about getting involved in politics. A few hundred people were in the audience, and something like 12,000 were watching the livestream; I was in that second group.

The organizers of the event opened a sidebar for comments. That wasn’t a good idea.

As the lights went up, about thirty or forty people made more or less the same comment, “I miss him,”  “Nice to hear somebody who’s truly presidential,” “What a difference.”

Then the trolls came on. One kept going on about “BARRY SOETORO” and repeating “GO BACK TO KENYA.” When the camera swerved to one of the Young Leaders, this troll’s contribution to discourse was “That nose– OY VEY.” When someone named Freedman spoke, his name appeared in the now well-known antisemitic brackets as “(((Freedman))).” As the conversation went on, the loquacious zorg was reduced to typing again and again “Nobody cares” and “SHEEEEIIIT.” Another troll was reiterating Trump slogans, irrelevantly, just for the aggression high.

So that’s where we are in America in 2017. If these dolts had been causing a disturbance in a public venue, the management would, uncontroversially, have been empowered to eject them. The fact that they were stupid racists would also have been noted. Who knows what else might have happened IRL; even liberals have tempers.

But lacking the courage to appear in person, the trolls just cluttered up the screens of the people who were trying to watch the event. Unfortunately, the University of Chicago, perhaps putting too much faith in the power of free and unconstrained discourse, had omitted to add a “Hide comments” button. So the trolls trolled on. For a moment I considered logging on and telling them to shut their idiot Nazi traps, but realized that this would just be giving them the attention they craved.

The troll is a person who takes advantage of a public forum in order to discourage, inhibit or destroy that which makes it a public forum. The troll enters rational discourse with no intention of committing rational discourse, only that of subverting it, and for no constructive purpose. (At least not in the immediate. Perhaps destroying democratic forums in general corresponds to somebody’s game plan, e.g., as part of the construction of a new era of dictatorship.) In brief, the troll shits in the swimming pool and provokes all the other swimmers to get out.

This was, in its way, a response to Obama’s advice to get involved in politics and find ways to make life better for those around you. The troll wants to raise the cost of doing that. The troll wants all decent people to get disgusted by the very idea of political engagement.

Of course, the trolls were impotent to crash the actual event, and the inconvenience of being reminded of their existence didn’t ruin my day, or even my half-minute. But the trolls are living on the tolerance of others, a tolerance they don’t show anyone else. For reasons of fairness and public access to a public good, let’s throw them out until they agree to some ground rules (i.e., cease behaving like trolls). Free speech for the enemies of free speech is a waste of good speech. But we are living in the era of the trolls, not just disrupters of conversation, but rapists, hijackers, and pirates of the economic, ecological, sexual, etc., domains.



Plus c’est la même chose.

Since the Printculture archive isn’t easily searchable from the front page, I take the liberty of putting up a direct link to one of our oldies, about caricature and the sacred, contending that the prohibition of images and the freedom of expression are at root the same thing. Thou Shalt Not, Or Thou Hadst Better Not, from 2005. (Incidentally, many of the ideas there were sparked by conversations with O Solovieva.)

And I am sad to see that, no more than in 2005, are people (many of my friends among them) willing or able to make some essential distinctions. Not only do people take it for granted that any jerk with a gun who shouts “Allah akbar!” speaks for all Muslims, they also make the Sassen Error (named for the sociologist Saskia Sassen, who in 2001 opined that the attacks on lower Manhattan were the revenge of the poor world against the rich world, conveniently ignoring the fact that the vast majority of the victims of the Taliban et consortes are poor people in the poor world); they have even found it “ironic” that the policewoman shot by one of the self-styled jihadis was a black woman from the Caribbean, as if operating on the assumption that all people of color are on “the same side.” Come on, people. You would demand subtlety and fine distinctions if someone were analyzing your social world. Do the same unto others, at least a little bit.


The Communicative Action of Trolls

Habermas’s theory of communicative action rests on the idea that social order ultimately depends on the capacity of actors to recognize the intersubjective validity of the different claims on which social cooperation depends. In conceiving cooperation in relation to validity claims, Habermas highlights its rational and cognitive character: to recognize the validity of such claims is to presume that good reasons could be given to justify them in the face of criticism.

Thus spake the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Those of us who have been participating since, say, 1993 in humanity’s biggest communicative enterprise so far will recognize the problem: that there are plenty of actors who are not at all interested in “intersubjective validity” or “social cooperation,” but hijack the rituals of conversation. Trolls, griefers, astroturfers, bots of various make… One’s impulse is to treat such people as flies in the ointment, parasites, bugs, noise– exceptions that crop up alongside a better rule. But proper confrontation with any paradoxical consequence, not sweeping under the rug, is what is needed, if we are ever going to work out this rationality thing. What if we were all secretly trolls? How would that affect communicative behavior going forward?


From Folk to Folk

…When and how did ‘oral literature’ become an object of discourse? To that question I have an answer—the curious history I promised you.

Presumably oral literature itself goes back as far as language. Oral literature becomes something that people write about at moments when their written culture bumps up against a non-written culture that for some reason impresses or frustrates it. You wouldn’t find a lot of attention given, in ancient Greek and Roman texts, to the fact that the villagers of Boeotia don’t spend their evenings curled up with a good book. The illiteracy of the peasantry is absolutely taken for granted. The relative literacy of urban dwellers in the ancient world does get some attention—usually when someone has a complaint about it. The following text from Julius Caesar’s narration of the Gallic Wars is exceptional and I will linger over it for a while:

The lore [disciplina] of the Druids is thought to have been transmitted to Gaul from Britain, where it originated. Those who most eagerly wish to acquire it go there for the sake of study…. There, they are said to learn by heart a great number of verses, and not a few of them spend up to twenty years in study. Nor is it considered in keeping with divine law to commit these verses to writing, though [the Gauls] use Greek letters for almost all other kinds of public or private business. It seems to me that this rule was established for two reasons: one, that they did not wish this lore to be acquired by the common people, and two, that they did not wish the learners to rely on letters and therefore apply themselves less strenuously to memorization, as generally happens to those who, through the help of writing, lose their facility of learning and their memory.

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The Future of the University: A Vision

Some people think MOOCs are bad, some people think they’re good (though I know almost none of the latter). But what you really need to know is: what’s going to happen to the university in the next twenty years as a result of innovations in content delivery?

Luckily for you I have had a vision of the future. I don’t like some of it, but I think it’s accurate. If I were a dean or a university or college president I would be thinking about what I could do right now to respond to the changes that are coming. And if you teach in a university, or attend one, or plan on having friends or children who do, then you need to know what’s coming, because it will affect (and indeed transform) the entire institutional structure of higher education in the United States (and probably worldwide). I’ve put it all in an eay-to-read Q&A format, so no excuses for not following along.

As a bonus at the end I’ll tell you what’s happening to public education at the K-12 level, and offer some suggestions on how to keep the most disastrous vision of the future from coming true. Continue reading


Something you probably didn’t know about satellite radio

So let’s be clear: satellite radio is MUCH MUCH better than regular radio. If you drive as part of your job you should get satellite radio immediately.

That said something you probably didn’t know is that satellite radio has a pornography channel. I listened to it for about 15 minutes (at least that’s what I’m admitting to) during an 11-hour car drive from Springfield, Illinois to State College and heard two kinds of shows:

1. A show with three female hosts in which one of them discussed in detail a three-way she had with her two roomates. The description was surprisingly graphic, and then the other hosts were asking things like, “tell me exactly how you were positioned–were his balls in your mouth or just banging on your chin?” and so on… and then exclaiming things like “oh that’s so hot” and so on. Kind of amazing.

2. Another show in which people call in and tell the hostess what they’d like to do to her. “If I were there I’d be doing bla bla bla,” followed by “Oh, that sounds amazing–I wish you were here right now, I’d totally suck up all your cum,” etc. I honestly could only listen to this for about 20 seconds before becoming too embarrassed so I have no idea how the show goes beyond that.

Still: amazing!


Kleos Aphthiton

From the New Yorker‘s reportage on the MOOCs that people (well, the stockholders of Coursera and the like, anyway) claim will make the brick-and-mortar university obsolete:

“I could easily see a great institution like Harvard having a dynamic archive where, even after I’m gone—not just retired but let’s say really gone, I mean dead—aspects of the course could interlock with later generations of teachers and researchers,” Nagy told me. “Achilles himself says it in [Iliad,] Rhapsody 9, Line 413: ‘I’m going to die, but this story will be like a beautiful flower that will never wilt.’ ”

The speaker is Gregory Nagy, a scholar I’ve been reading for at least thirty-five years and who’s been personally encouraging to me; and I can’t help feeling there’s something sad about the quotation. Greg Nagy has been covered with every honor the world of American learning can dream up. He was tenured and promoted to full professor at Harvard at a young age, he has been the director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, been lauded, fêted, cited, and nonetheless has time to go out for coffee with random visitors and talk about ideas for books that may never be written. Among his many students are some of the most lively minds in Classics; they have generally done pretty well on the perilous career path of that always menaced field. He doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as a dead language. For what it’s worth, I like him immensely. And yet when he thinks about the shortness of life, about the recompense that Achilles received for his early death in battle– undying fame through Homer’s songs– he envisions his own berth in the Elysian Fields as a set of computer videos, chunked into twelve-minute segments, each followed by a quiz: his MOOC on the Greek hero.

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Repurposing “Yujing”

If you pay attention to all the publications of contemporary Chinese cinema and media from the People’s Republic of China in the last ten years or so, or if you have the experience of advising graduate students who studied in mainland China, you may notice a buzzword: yujing (语境; linguistic context). The term yujing is actually composed of two words, yu (语; language) and jing (境; terrain or border). The word jing also carries a quasi-religious connotation of the term jingjie (境界; level of self-cultivation). Hence, when I first heard of the term yujing, I was struck by a certain aura around it, as though it were some state of being that one can achieve only through hours of yoga and daily exercises of Tai chi.

But then, if you were familiar with how the term yujing has been used in media researches, you would find the term incredibly dull and earthly. In all honesty, the term is often employed quite unimaginatively. For example, when some says “Hou xiandai wenhua yujing nei de Zhongguo dianying” (后现代文化语境内的中国电影; Chinese cinema in the postmodern yujing), the term yujing can be roughly understood as the linguistic (cultural, social, political, or literally, linguistic) environment or context within which postmodern Chinese cinema has been produced. The effect of hearing the term yujing is therefore not quite different from our hearing a term such as “discourse.” Very much like the case with discourse, after having read the term yujing in over several hundred book and article titles, you begin to feel indifferent towards what the term can potentially do.

So what is yujing? None of the books that use this term would give me an answer. Likewise, none of my advisees could tell me exactly what they mean by inserting this term conveniently in their sentences––albeit very convincingly. If the term yujing were to be understood interchangeably with the term discourse, it falls short of questioning the dispositif that is crucial in making the term discourse not only a descriptive one, but also a critical one.

Therefore, one day, I decided to ask H. Saussy.

Thanks to him, I now realize that the term “linguistic context” came from the anthropological studies of Bronisław Malinowski of the Kula ring—an institution of trading and gift-exchanges in the French-colonial Trobriand (now the Kiriwina) islands––when he, being a subject of Polish descent, was stranded during the First World War (1914-1918) as an “enemy.” The term “linguistic context” was initially conceived when Malinowski was asked to write his seminal article “Kula; the Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea” by the editors of the magazine Man in 1920 (not the gay pornographic magazine under the same name). The question at stake was: How could Malinowski, as a European man, communicate with the “natives” when no linguistic commonality could be found among them? Malinowski’s answer is: via linguistic context. On the surface, the idea of the linguistic context can be interpreted simply as the syntactical context that precedes and succeeds an utterance (often translated into Chinese as shangxia wen). It can also be extended to the use of facial and bodily gestures that help the addressee understand what she or he has failed to comprehend verbally.

In this sense, the term yujing is not as empty-headed as I almost thought it would be. In fact, I believe that we should treat it quite seriously as a different way of thinking about what we mean by a discourse, especially in media studies.

Notice that yujing presupposes a semantic gap or absence that a human or technological medium can help contextualize. In the Chinese context, this could be an interesting form of intervention. The Chinese term of “media” are meti (媒体) or meijie (媒介). The word meiti was most likely borrowed from the Japanese term baitai, which—at least in Chinese—places the emphasis on a ti (tai; body) that conveys something or negotiates the relationship between two beings, objects or events. The word meijie can be traced back to the “Zhang Xingcheng zhuan” (“Biography of Zhang Xingcheng [587-653]”) in the Jiu Tang shu (Old Books of Tang, Liu Xu, 941-945). It literally means “through the intervention of a go-between.” The term puts the emphasis on the act of intervention, which produces a synergy that would otherwise be missing if two persons or objects were to act alone. The term yujing therefore indicates either a go-between body that sutures discrete linguistic modes or understandings by conveying certain meanings or values between two agents of communication, or a synergy that sparkles between two bodies as a go-between intervenes into a conversation.

Not only that, Malinowski considers the process of mediation as a process of gift-exchanges. For Malinowski, in this process of gift-exchanges, what being transacted are neither “utilities” nor “ornaments”; rather, they are “valuables” that carry no “surreptitious” value other than a certain reconfirmation of a bond between members of a community who are of the same social status. It also has the effect of distinguishing the inside and outside of a community by negotiating the boundary between those who can partake of the process of gift-exchanges and those who are excluded from it (99-100).

A very interesting part of the Kula trade is that the vaygu’a (valuables) are indeed traded for the purpose of stimulating “a desire for wealth, for ownership.” Yet, for Malinowski, the “conception of value and the form of ownership … are different from those current among us.” Malinowski observed that many of these vaygu’a are traded not for the purpose of accumulating them as “capital”; rather, they often circulate the trading ring as tokens for expressing the communal needs, sexual desires, friendship and social recognition (103-105). In other words, the term yujing in fact refers to an economy of social exchanges that are conducted for the purpose of maintaining a certain circulation of desire.

When media scholars use the word yujing to talk about a mediascape, what they have in mind is probably a geopolitical or cultural territory that is being mediated by the various mechanical and electronic media. But what the term implies—perhaps subconsciously—is a set of hierarchical limitations or socio-legal prescriptions that intervene our media space. For example, what our social media (e.g. Facebook, Youtube, Tudou and Weibo) do today is not necessarily open up a fully democratized and free-for-all process of mediation. Rather, they reinforce a process of gift-exchanges or information-exchanges that would consolidate our individual and collective social spaces and in-group affiliations. It also maintains certain distances between media communities that are separated physically by means of their verbal languages, cultural values and political conditions—and more importantly, the semantic gap that is often presumed to be unbridgeable or un-mediable in verbal understanding

Hence, in some ways, this idea can be seen both positively and negatively. On the positive side, the term yujing communicates a hope that contemporary media, through both verbal and non-verbal interventions, can somehow circumvent the linguistic differences between various geopolitical communities and achieve a certain form of mutual understanding. On the negative side, it simply indicates that these differences need to be acknowledged––and to some extent, maintained––in order to corroborate our existing international order and hierarchy of political power. In fact, mutual understanding, in this “negative” interpretation, can be understood as a social consensus that is achieved through the intervention of the state or corporate power.

So, next time when we use the term yujing, it would be interesting to explore further what implications such term might have on the way we understand how our private opinions, sensations, affects and emotions are in fact mediated—or in some cases, failed to be mediated. And more important, out of the very semantic gap between the term yujing and discourse, we may be able to come up with a different kind of critical intervention––a new linguistic context or terrain that can open up new potentialities.

For your interests:

Malinowski,Bronisław. “Kula; the Circulating Exchange of Valuables in the Archipelagoes of Eastern New Guinea.” In Man, vol. 20 (1920): 97-105.


Read To Me 2: The One Who Claws At His Names

The wonderful Cabinet magazine hosted a performed bestiary one recent afternoon at the New Museum. For 4.5 hours, a small group of writers, artists, professors, curators, and others talked about a series of creatures in order from smallest (ant) to largest (whale). We each had 10 minutes. It was an absolute blast.

To represent my creature, the phoenix, I wrote and read a short story based on the birds featured in a 19th century text about Mongolian drugs. The key here is to try to shift the way you’re seeing the pages of the text: the words and names and images all become part of a common landscape. Try to see the words not as descriptions, but as a living part of this tiny cosmos. The images are crucial.

It’s a love story, and I’ve read it for you here:



PODCAST RECOMMENDATION: Lunch Box with Ed and John

The number of podcasts currently available can almost be put in a one-to-one correspondence with infinity.  Which means you might not have heard about this relatively new, relatively small operation called Lunch Box with Ed and John.  The Ed and John here are poet Ed Skoog and novelist J. Robert Lennon.  They talk about lunch, sure, but food serves (as it usually and rightly does) as a vehicle for conversation between good friends about writing, poetry, the ubiquity of sandwiches, and the work of a life.  Consistently good stuff.

ITunes link.


“The Historian and the Etymologist” concluded: some thoughts

I recently concluded “The Historian and the Etymologist,” an experimental Twitter essay. You can find it on Twitter as #etym1, or consolidated and explained here.

Some things learned:
– Next time, the form should incorporate participation/feedback from others as the essay is being written/posted.
– Fundamental to this form is a creation of meaning by reading across the blanks in the narrative
– The extension of a Twitter essay in time is necessary (…or is it?…) to convey an argument or narrative, but this extension of the essay in the form of discrete, immediate, successive posts over time is *very*, very tricky: we are different selves with different understandings and concepts at different times, and these selves don’t necessarily follow coherently on one another.
– I definitely want to experiment with this format again, and change it up completely. Stay tuned…


On the Phone

It was a few years back, at some big reception at the Goethe-Institut or the British Council, in Hong Kong or Taipei– forgive me, I’ve been to a lot of parties. (The fact that I can’t remember the details doesn’t mean I had an exceptionally good time.) As my friend and I were navigating the big room, looking for anyone we knew, I heard some French being spoken over to the side, and halloed: “Bonjour les francophones!” The answer came back: “Pas francophones, nous sommes français.”

The category corrective meant this: although in principle all French-speakers are Francophones, because that’s what the word means (Frankos, “French,” plus “phonê,” voice*), in practice the word is restricted to “people who speak French or something like it, and aren’t French.” French people don’t refer to themselves as francophones, unless by chance they work for the ministerial office of Francophonie, which really exists. The office, that is, exists; it exists in order to make Francophonie, a virtual nation spread out through Europe, Africa, North America, the Caribbean and parts of Asia, exist. The large area of Francophonie is to the small country of France like a sail that pulls the boat ahead into future history and away from extinction. But when it comes down to it, to be a mere Francophone is, as my interlocutors showed with their instantaneous reaction, a second-best to being French.

It would be more normal for France to count itself among Francophone nations, but what would that take? A definitive overcoming of colonial relations between the ex-metropole and the former outposts? A stronger sense among French that their place in the world depends on that of their fellows in Francophonie?

Languages have wobbly borders that don’t usually coincide with states, citizenships, or ethnicities. It is useful– sometimes, even, useful to nations– to have a way of referring to speech communities apart from political jurisdictions. In the case of Francophonie, to mark the difference that follows (perhaps, too, that which preceded) political independence; in the case of Sinophonie, to mark the difference between the big nation that thinks of itself as the One True China and the other nations, areas or diasporic groups that use the Chinese language** while carrying a variety of passports.

Sinophonie? Does anyone say that? Sinophonia? In French, the suffix “-phonie” is what the linguists call productive, that is, it confers meaning on the compounds to which it is attached. I might refer to a Mexican village as “Tlotzilophone,” to distinguish it from the Hispanophone one just to its north. If you never heard of Tlotzil, you’d now know that it was a language, the language spoken throughout Tlotzilophonie. But the power of the suffix to make sense weakens when it’s carried over into English (as it has been probably only a handful of times).

When people talk about “the sinophone”– to back up my last assertion, the suffix seems almost exclusively destined to a career among adjectives– in English, it’s not to exclude Big China, or is it? I’ve heard people speak of “Sinophone literature” in such a way as to exclude what we might call “Chinese and Taiwanese literature,” in other words to reserve the sinophone label for cases where Chinese is used as a minority language. At other times I’ve heard people use “sinophone” in the inclusive sense, meaning all Chinese-speaking areas including the putative Chinas. (Chinese, however you define it, is hardly a minority language in China, though those who know a little more about the place will chip in here to remind us that there are plenty of non-Sinophone citizens of Big China, people who speak languages related to Turkic or Thai or Tibetan, for example, and have putonghua or another topolect of Chinese only as an auxiliary language.)

“Sinophone” operates as a calque on “Francophone,” as the application of the logic of Francophonie to the domain of Chinese extraterritorial speech. But that analogy is sure to hiccup, like all analogies, at certain points. Some, but not all, Francophone regions are populated by descendants of French emigrants, as virtually all of Sinophonia (I think) is populated by descendants of Chinese emigrants. Other regions, the majority in both area and population, are Francophone as a result of conquest or enslavement. That might be true of some areas of China too, but in a far more distant past. And at another level, the persistence of French had to do with the exportation of educational protocols by the Grande Nation herself, something that wasn’t obviously true of the Middle Kingdom in recent decades but now, with the Confucius Institutes, is perhaps taking form.

The relevance of “-phone” comes into view when there is a doubt about the coincidence of nationality and language– that much I’m sure of. But just what the relations of inclusion and exclusion are, and how they came about, and to what degree the different “-phonies” are usefully talked about as a set, are all up in the air for me. What do you say, Shu-mei Shih? Victor Mair? Can I get you on the phone?

* The residual purist in me shudders at the Latin-Greek kludge. In Greek “Frangoi” are Franks, i.e., Western Europeans. “Gallophone” would be the Greek-Greek suture, but no longer recognizable to any French speakers but perhaps Gaullists or Gaulois.
** More accurately, “a Chinese language.” And the mechanism whereby these languages are recognized as Chinese has little to do with speech, phonê, but mostly with the writing system. A poor workman blames his tools.


The Historian and the Etymologist: An Experimental Twitter Essay

In the spirit of experimenting with media, I’m going to write an academic essay on Twitter. Because why not? Let’s play a little with form.
I’m not going to write it ahead of time and just post it after-the-fact in 140ish-character chunks: that seems contrary to the spirit of the medium, which is about immediacy and simultaneity of writing/reading and nowness and against significant editing.
I’m not sure how long it will be, but I’ll indicate when it’s done. Ideally, this will be something that will be meaningful if read forwards (from the bottom of the Twitter screen up) and backwards (from the top down). We’ll see how it goes.
The hashtag for this is going to be #etym1
I’m on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/CarlaNappi


Chris Ware’s _Building Stories_

If you loved Jimmy Corrigan, if you are the kind of person who reads the Printculture blog, if you are a human being with a soul, turn off that commentary on the election and put down that other book you’re reading right now and pick up Chris Ware’s Building Stories. It looks like this, it makes a better bedmate than most people do, (though it’s not as warm and there’s the issue of papercuts to consider,) and it will give you hope for the future of print media.


Natural History According To US Weekly (in which we suppose that aliens wipe out the entire planet except for the web archive of US Weekly and recreate human natural history from that archive)

“I felt like my vagina died,” she shared of her sex life with [former husband]. “Turned off. Lights out . . . you can lie to your relatives at Christmas dinner and tell them everything on the home front is just peachy. But you cannot lie to your vagina.” … “Sometimes your vagina dies,” she explained. “Then you know it’s time to go.” – from “Olivia Wilde: Jason Sudeikis and I Have ‘Sex Like Kenyan Marathon Runners’,”  Us Weekly 09.10.2012


Vagina: (n) Symbiotic organism connected to and communicatively linked with a human woman’s body. Has preternatural powers of lie-detection, especially during Christmas and in matters involving stone fruit. Illuminated when functional. Can proceed through repeated life-cycles with several successive births and deaths, each signaling a change in the locomotive pattern of host woman. Can be resurrected, especially by Kenyan marathon runners.