Sunday, January 27, 2013

Of Trolls and Critics

"Beowulf's Dragon, if one really wishes to criticize, 
is not to be blamed for being a dragon but for not being dragon enough"
"Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics"
J.R.R. Tolkien

The problem with Monsters, it seems is not that they are too Post-Human but that they are often far too Human. If the things we wanted to regard as Alien were more fundamentally different, our violence and exclusion of them would be less problematic. If Trolls were more different than their Critics, than Humanists and Digital Humanists might not get criticized in turn for their wars against them. Fortunately, or unfortunately, that is not the world they live in, no matter how new this one may promise to be.

J.R.R. Tolkien knew a thing or two about monsters and world-building: associating the former with Critics and the latter with "Sub-Creation". While the Oxford don might not have been able to operate a Google-Chrome Book, he certainly might have recognized the internet as a proliferation of technologies he already knew. We could extensively discuss differences between books and the world-wide-web, but in  important ways the community activities of writers & monsters, readers & critics, digital-humanists & trolls are extensions of one another. There is a danger in celebrating the "newness" of a Virtual Reality insofar as it blinds us to the ways in which re-inscribes long held power-structures, practices of marginalization and systematic violence.

The Digital World we are creating is a Sub-Creation; it is an extension from this World. As much as we would like to imagine it as an Edenic Paradise, whether or not it existed before us, upon our arrival we bring with us many of our old wars and ways of thinking. In dangerous ways, we build (or rebuild it) in our image. What do we already see reflected?

At the Inaugural Digital Humanities Symposium at the George Washington University scholars presented a host of building projects and how they dealt with getting rid of "bugs" and "trolls" to make way for desirable users and functions. Speakers at times spoke about their "troll-police" like knights-slaying-dragons, making the wild-web safe for civilized occupiers.

In Tech-speak, "Troll" functions as both a noun and a verb. What is a Troll? Well, someone that Trolls. What is trolling then? Well, someone that exhibits unacceptable behavior. A Troll, then, becomes anyone regarded as unacceptable. We haven't changed that much in our Monster Theory since J.R.R. Tolkien, or J.J. Cohen, first wrote on it, have we?

Now, you might say: but a Troll can be reformed! By deleting their comments and banning them from websites, we think we can slowly cultivate in them a sense that "their sort" of behavior must be suppressed if they are going to be integrated into civilized human society. In a performative space, defined by textual presence (defined widely) and interconnectedness, to be labeled a Troll is to be forced into either an integration into the human (the compulsory norm) or else an exile into digital oblivion.

That's not sensible, you might say, painting Trolls as some sort of endangered people. Aren't they just jerks that behave vicious, nasty and usually anonymously online? Shouldn't we want to get rid of them? Well, that depends on who gets to define who we are, who they are, and what exactly constitutes bad behavior. As for anonymity, we all too often come to know our Trolls far too well for comfort. Lumping all undesirables together does make it easier to eject them from our community, but doing so does not eliminate them from existence nor resolve our grievances.

In this way, we make Trolls by marking and ejecting them. In turn, as anyone that is deep in internet culture knows, plenty of people have begun to rally from these electronic margins and appropriate that name. Trolls organize and raid "civilized" spaces of the web, for fun, for revenge, for identity. Those that have internalized the feeling of being unacceptable and found an alternative community, proliferating in the margins with the sense that if they are predetermined as being inhuman, they might as well live up to the name.

That is one story, at very least. There are any number of other stories. Frankly, I don't know most of them and the worst part is, neither do you, neither do the people that block such persons from access to our special places of work. We don't know why they can't or won't or are unable (we might say "disabled") to conform and be productive on our sites. Any theory or story we might tell however brings us back to something that is getting clearer and clearer the more we live in a "new" digital world: it is an extension of the "old" world and that is a place full of people(s) we still don't understand.

The Digital Humanities does change things, certainly, and it changes us, but often only enough to make things unrecognizable. Increasingly I fear and witness a resurgence of prejudices and ideologies that attack or exclude people online in ways which reveal latent racism, sexism, ableism, classism and many other -isms (new and old). The proliferation of "Trolls" and other monsters on our borders should certainly clue anyone familiar with medieval monster theory (like our friend JRR Tolkien) that a resurgence of social divides and prejudices is also at hand.

To clarify, I am not so concerned about either the language or the identity of "Trolls" as I am concerned about how they work with the supposed digital anonymity that via screens and screen-names allow for us to battle and police one another. The Humanities has long devoted itself to dealing more peaceably and ethically with such conflicts, let us not become so blinded by the sparkly "newness" of the Digital that we lose what may be the best thing it offers: a sense of togetherness that only further implicates us in each other's actions and inactions across divides of geography, nationality, language, identity, gender, race, ability, class and other markers of difference.

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