Zizek on Tolerance and Trolls

by on May.01, 2013

I sometimes think about this passage from Zizek’s book Violence (and other places, he does famously repeat himself…):

Today’s liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the Other is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this other is not really other… In a strict homology with the paradoxical structure of the previous chapter’s chocolate laxative, tolerance coincides with its opposite. My duty to be tolerant towards the Other effectively means that I should not get too close to him, intrude on his space. In other words, I should respect his intolerance of my over-proximity. What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society is the right not to be harassed, which is a right to remain at a safe distance from others.

I am frequently reminded of this quotes in discussion in American poetry. It seems frequently that having a difference of opinion (no matter now meekly expressed) amounts to a gave offense, that there’s something “aggressive” or rude about expressing opinions. One becomes a “troll” by expressing one’s opinion.

I remember an angry email I received from a poet for disagreeing with her on a public blog; she wrote “this isn’t about you” and “you are from somewhere else” – as if I was being a megalomaniac foreigner (which of course might be true) by disagreeing with her on a public forum. I was hurt by that; I still think about it.

Of course, there are also these “trolls” that are repetitive and insulting in comment sections, and I find they often tend to be inherently normative (attacking people who express unconventional opinions). I used to have an “open” comment section to my last blog but stopped because I would just get tons of these hateful, thoughtless comments, so that’s why I have to approve comments to this blog (even though I seldom decline comments, and the few times I have I probably shouldn’t have). When does someone with different views become a “troll”? (Troll is of course not human, and that seems important here.)

Recently I noticed somebody wrote that Seth Oelbaum was a “troll” because he had expressed his views (in a highly performative fashion, as always) about poets he liked and didn’t like (as well as disagreeing with my ideas about “the glut”). You may disagree with him, but is he a “troll” for having strong opinions? For being too performative in the way he expresses them? Or for quite simply having opinions that differ from the common consensus?

Can we imagine a version of poetry discourse that is based on exchange or engagement with different opinions, and not on ‘tolerance’ or its phantom twin, shunning (i.e. don’t feed the troll…)?

(For the record: I totally agree with Oelbaum that Joyelle and Chelsea Minnis are two of the “top poets” in the US. But I also really like Aaron Kunin!)

11 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    A related trend I noticed about Seth was how people kept telling each other not to respond to the post, as if to encourage a kind of “silent treatment” even as they failed utterly to follow this encouragement themselves.

    Johannes

  2. adam s

    The Oelbbaum HTML matrix is, I think, fascinating–in some ways, Oelbaum turns the commentators, literally, into fags: they rage and flame their anger, and meanwhile Seth sits back, sort of hilariously, godlike. I don’t think the flamers are wholly correct in their evaluations, but I do think they’re correct to raise eyebrows, so to speak: Oelbaum’s pieces are very logically flawed, and this would be dandy if it’s clear that he knows this, but its not clear, so currently many people rightly suggest that his pieces are at this point too private, and this is really confusing because his mode is to make sweeping statements which are based on very public concepts and or iconography, so it looks external in its orientation, but may not be at-all, which I think raises valid points of contention. All this aside, I really do find myself fascinated by how weirdly gay SOs works are, even as they are, simultaneously, filled with goofy logic regarding gayness: it’s like OHara meets Jesse Helms (thinking of the Ginsberg is a pervert bit, for example, which totally reiterates old, scary linkages made between non heterosexuality and moral deviance). My final thought is that Oelbaum is going through a “crisis” of gayness, and this makes some sense I think: it’s lookin’ like it may be soon to receive more legislative and large-scale cultural well not embrace but something other than nose-scrunching, and this is confusing! What is one supposed to do when suddenly it looks like there’s enfranchisement for this subject position, and that’s a newish dynamic/reality that much theorizing may be unused to.

  3. Johannes

    Adam,
    It seems a lot of commentary suggests Seth’s pieces are “logically flawed” or that he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Someone said he didn’t understand Marxism and that if he’d read up on it, he would give a better critique of the AWP. But he’s obviously NOT a Marxist (he identifies with the “one percent”). I would say that Seth’s pieces are very much logical (logical to a fault) in that he follows his own certain logic to the extreme, and it’s exactly by sticking entirely to his unusual logic that he makes remarks that disturb people.

    Sometimes his critics are so clueless it’s hilarious: someone said he was a “boy” who just hadn’t gotten laid and lots of commentators thought that was funny. But that’s exactly what he’s advocating!!

    His critics seem to constantly avoid what he’s saying by claiming that his thinking is flawed: he has a “crisis” or he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Why this need to see the “Other” as lacking an interiority or intention, or seeing it as being pathological (in “crisis”)? Instead of diagnosis his problems, I think it’s better to focus on what Seth does say – and says very performatively, elaborately – and try to deal with that. His ideas are obviously “scary” to a lot of people, but I think you would get more out of reading his posts if you think about what he does say, instead of what may have caused it. It may be different and unconventional, but I think poetry should be able to deal with difference, instead of so immediately and hysterically trying to silence him in the name of “tolerance.”

    As someone who was Seth’s teacher I also know that his reading in say contemporary theory and such is much wider than most of the critics who claim he doesn’t know what he’s saying. This is a guy who has taken tons of PhD classes in theory. He knows exactly what he’s saying and how he is saying it.

    One key thing I would say that most people seem to be missing is that he’s obviously writing performatively; it’s better to “read” his posts as poems or performances than “sincere” confessions/posts. Hope that helps! / Johannes

  4. Johannes

    Adam,
    It seems a lot of commentary suggests Seth’s pieces are “logically flawed” or that he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Someone said he didn’t understand Marxism and that if he’d read up on it, he would give a better critique of the AWP. But he’s obviously NOT a Marxist (he identifies with the “one percent”). I would say that Seth’s pieces are very much logical (logical to a fault) in that he follows his own certain logic to the extreme, and it’s exactly by sticking entirely to his unusual logic that he makes remarks that disturb people.

    Sometimes his critics are so clueless it’s hilarious: someone said he was a “boy” who just hadn’t gotten laid and lots of commentators thought that was funny. But that’s exactly what he’s advocating!!

    His critics seem to constantly avoid what he’s saying by claiming that his thinking is flawed: he has a “crisis” or he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Why this need to see the “Other” as lacking an interiority or intention, or seeing it as being pathological (in “crisis”)? Instead of diagnosis his problems, I think it’s better to focus on what Seth does say – and says very performatively, elaborately – and try to deal with that. His ideas are obviously “scary” to a lot of people, but I think you would get more out of reading his posts if you think about what he does say, instead of what may have caused it. It may be different and unconventional, but I think poetry should be able to deal with difference, instead of so immediately and hysterically trying to silence him in the name of “tolerance.”

    As someone who was Seth’s teacher I also know that his reading in say contemporary theory and such is much wider than most of the critics who claim he doesn’t know what he’s saying. This is a guy who has taken tons of PhD classes in theory. He knows exactly what he’s saying and how he is saying it.

    One key thing I would say that most people seem to be missing is that he’s obviously writing performatively; it’s better to “read” his posts as poems or performances than “sincere” confessions/posts. Hope that helps! / Johannes

  5. adam s

    Oelbaum does not strike me as a troll–I thought that’s for blog-comment stream posters, not posters of actual blog entries. I guess troll may really just be a synonym for “you’re annoying me/us, so fuck off because you’ve messed with this comment-streams consensus…and hence I am not a fan of the term–wld rather read Ibsen.

  6. adam s

    I kind of get the performance aspect, but also would argue that its not clear what’s being performed, which makes it more difficult to discern this quality (being his prof and seeing the stages of effort may help considerably in seeing the obvious performativity) ; stylistically the works are very close to normative prose, so it lends itself to looking like expository, discursive writing. I love unusual, hyper-logic, it’s what I adore about Italo Calvino, Jabes, Scalapino etc, but SOs pieces, for me, do not display an affinity with those examples. I’m often leary of writers writing statements of intent, but in this case it could help, I think. None of this is meant to be total dismissal: I actually am intrigued, but it seems that assuming hyper-conscious performance is a bit unfair as that suggests one should consent to unstated ground rules. Maybe an angle of approach could be this: think of the works as ambience pieces (you writing read in quotation marks maybe supports this), as ones which are not meant to be analyzed, engaged with, but instead that one should just be with it; but this leads to the question, why use contested, public iconography only to write above any discursive fray in which counterpoints are dealt with. Hmm, but then again, ok, maybe now I get it: this is the aesthetic/ethos of the CEO, the one percent, the one who is above, beyond. Maybe SO is too good an actor and I just can’t tell it’s a schtick. Well although I am certainly not displaying full comprehension or endorzement, I suspect I’ll continue to work through this series if it keeps going.

  7. adam s

    I never would have equated crisis to pathology–interesting twining.

    “but I think poetry should be able to deal with difference, instead of so immediately and hysterically trying to silence him in the name of “tolerance.”

    I’m unclear how Oelbaum’s prose works are dealing with difference–they seem to celebrate intolerance, to have aristocratic disdain for all which is not in their sanctioned purview, a stance which does not seem promising for creating diverse engaged intersections; work which is monologic can be very difficult to be in an alternating current with. I think qualifications can be a crucial space for creating a back and forth conversation, or for making grounds for other than clear opposition, and Seth’s pieces seem to be devoid of any–though perhaps once enough pieces are accumulated, they’ll start to talk to and against each other and make things clearer.

  8. adam s

    Is it ridiculous to see SOs posts as, in some sense, translating the song/video One Night In Bangkok, a sound-image duo I “read” as being about making the world a chess game, making everything that which can be manipulated–a hilarious take on a metaphor for governments/globalized politics (the great lines dismissing the landscape and culture in favor of the amazing paradox of “only watching” and “controlling the game”). Another proposal/question: are SOs pieces seeing what happens when performance loses, discards, its framing? I partly wonder this because calling very clear attention to the performance is such a part of some Plath poems (“Do I terrify?” For example, in which the audience is being so deliciously egged on), with their titles signaling persona etc. Note: the turning figures into dolls part of Oelbaum I don’t find mystifying, or the images of runway shows. Well hopefully it’s clear I’m interested. As bs as this may sound, oh well, I think its true: part of me feels like if I turned my hypothetical love of Queening and xtreme drollness into prose, they could look very kin to Oelbaum; and maybe for just this reason I am trying to really feel that the HTML disgruntled should not be easily dismissed by me/that I need to try and let people’s feelings be, even though those responses never go far with the questions/frames I’m curious about if they even ask at all. If Seth would consent to an interview, perhaps I ought to stage a convo with him!

  9. adam s

    Another (was supposed to be little) bit: Does Seth create a space where there is no frame for one, but simultaneously one has terrific capacity for framing endlessly, in a spectacular demonstration of asymmetric–which starts looking a lot like the nation state and majorly America, which looks like an antonymic cousin of Whitman?! This could account for an extremely authoritarian tone, or am I spinning correspondences “out of thin air” if that’s the colloquialism I think it is. I hope this all gels with Murray Hill or at-least that’s who on Youtube.

  10. Johannes

    I’m not sure I understand what you mean, but yes Seth definitely has an authoritarian tone (and not just tone! He claims to be the 1 percent! He is obsessed with dictators!). This strikes me as incredibly un-American! One of the thing that seems to rub people the wrong way is that he is not afraid to make judgements (ie Joyelle and Chelsea Minnis are the best) without concern for the kind of consensus-building that seems to important to a lot of people. It seems you have thought a lot about this; I think you should interview him./ Johannes

  11. adam s

    For seemingly ages I’ve been obsessed by the notion of dictator chic (by which I ultimately mean non-white which is, dubiously, rac[e]ing dictators!), and especially those daughters of dictators who are high-fashion. I totally am implicitly, too, counting armament dealers kids, and drug lords’; I wish there’d be an international best dressed list for those deemed criminals or in their orbits. Wow, this post is sooooooooooooo me, and likely good reason for why me shouldn’t be! Or should be but primarily be deemed ludicrous.