Archives: January 2017

Schadenfreude with bite

Richard Seymour writing for the London Review of Books
troll doll

Writing for the LRB, Richard Seymour takes a closer look at the rise of ‘troll’ culture on the internet:

Trolls are the self-styled pranksters of the internet, a subculture of wind-up merchants who will say anything they can to provoke unwary victims, then delight in the outrage that follows. When Mitchell Henderson, a 12-year-old boy from Minnesota, killed himself in 2006, trolls descended on his MySpace page, where his friends and relatives were posting tributes. The trolls were especially taken with the fact that Henderson had lost his iPod days before his death. They posted messages implying that his suicide was a frivolous response to consumerist frustration: ‘first-world problems’. One post contained an image of the boy’s gravestone with an iPod resting against it.

What’s so funny about trolling? ‘Every joke calls for a public of its own,’ Freud said, ‘and laughing at the same jokes is evidence of far-reaching psychical conformity.’ To understand a joke is to share a culture or, more precisely, to be on the same side of an antagonism. Trolls do what they do for the ‘lulz’ (a corruption of ‘LOL’, Laughing Out Loud), a form of enjoyment that derives from someone else’s anguish. Whitney Phillips, whose research has involved years of participant-observation of trolls, describes lulz as schadenfreude with more bite. The more furious and upset the Henderson family became, the funnier the trolls found it.

In 2011, one of these ‘RIP trolls’, Sean Duffy, a 25-year-old from Reading, was jailed for posting messages online about dead teenage girls. He called Natasha MacBryde, who had killed herself aged 15, a ‘slut’; on Mothers’ Day he posted a message on the memorial page of 14-year-old Lauren Drew, who had died after an epileptic fit: ‘Help me mummy, it’s hot in hell.’ Often, trolls gang up on their targets. Phillips details the case of a Californian teenager called Chelsea King, who was raped and murdered in February 2010. Her relatives were treated as fair game, and supportive strangers who tried to intervene were themselves tracked down and hounded.

RIP trolling treats grief as an exploitable state. It isn’t that the trolls care one way or another about the person who has died. It’s that they regard caring too much about anything as a fault deserving punishment. You can see evidence of this throughout the trolling subculture, even in more innocuous instances. In one case, participants phoned video-game stores to inquire about the non-existent sequel to an outdated game. They called so persistently that the workers answering the phone would fly into a rage at the mention of the game, to the amusement of the trolls. The supreme currency of trolling is exploitability, and the supreme vice is taking anything too seriously. Grieving parents are among the easiest to exploit – their rage and sorrow are closest to the surface – but no one is invulnerable.

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Burns night: the battle over Scottish identity continues

Annalena McAfee writing for the Guardian
rose street poets

In 1950s and 60s Edinburgh, the Rose Street poets led a Scottish renaissance that kindled today’s independence movement. Language remains at the heart of the debate today. Annalena McAfee writes for the Guardian:

Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden wrote. It does, however, provide an excellent excuse for a late-January bacchanal. The annual Burns Night supper, marking the birth of Scotland’s national poet, reprises the excesses of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, with a ritualistic meal, strong drink and verse recitations standing in for carols.

Accessorised in tartan, in pubs, clubs and private homes throughout the UK, revellers raise glasses to the immortal memory, musically recall Auld Lang Syne and, in robust rhyming Scots vernacular, praise haggis then spear, eviscerate and serve it. The rite, with optional ceilidh dancing, is observed from Abu Dhabi to Hawaii, Singapore to Moscow, as well the more obviously diasporic regions of Canada, New Zealand and America (although haggis is currently banned in the Land of the Free).

Some native Scots, however, are sceptical about the tradition, and Scottish scepticism, forged in the birthplace of David Hume, has a particularly abrasive quality. One of the most high-profile dissenters from Burnsian orthodoxy was Scotland’s other national poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, who, in 1926, in his most celebrated poem, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, wrote of the Ayrshire bard: “Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name/ Than in ony’s barrin liberty and Christ.” MacDiarmid attacked the Burns cult for its reactionary kitsch and “kailyard” sentimentality: “You canna gang to a Burns supper even/ Wi-oot some wizened scrunt o a knock-knee/ Chinee turns roon to say, ‘Him Haggis – velly goot!’ /And ten to wan the piper is a Cockney.”

Burns had his “shortcomings” – MacDiarmid, perversely, singled out “a tendency to jeer at foreign things and express a sort of xenophobia”. But it was the “church of Burns”, not the poet himself, who earned MacDiarmid’s true ire: “Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts/ And aa their fancy freens rejoicin/ That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo/ Bagdad – and Hell, nae doot – are voicin/ Burns’ sentiments o universal love,/ In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots”. The devotees didn’t even understand his language, argued MacDiarmid: “No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote.”

The same could, of course, be said about MacDiarmid’s own Scots verse, but for this fierce contrarian, who never claimed the easy charm of his predecessor, accessibility or popularity was not the aim. If the English were baffled by his Scots poetry, so much the better. This was an unsurprising stance from someone who, in his Who’s Who entry, described his hobby as “Anglophobia”. MacDiarmid took pride in contradiction – “Caledonian antisyzygy” he called it – and had the unique distinction of being expelled from the National Party of Scotland, forerunner of the SNP, for being a communist and from the Communist party for being a nationalist. In 1956, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, when thousands of British communists left the CP in protest, MacDiarmid rushed to rejoin the party.

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Playboy cars and pentecostal stars

Noo Saro-Wiwa writing for the TLS
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Noo Saro-Wiwa considers the Nigerian novelists charting a new course, along with the self-help books gripping millions, for a Times Literary Supplement series on global culture trends:

For any country and any culture, there is always a distinction between the highbrow and lowbrow, official and unofficial. Nowhere is this division more apparent than in Nigeria where the wealth gap, religious diversity and large diaspora mean that some of the nation’s various sub-cultures enjoy huge popularity at home but relatively little internationally, and vice versa.

On the one hand, we have high literary culture, which is currently enjoying a boom. The Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka generation of the 1960s and 70s “talked back” to the West with stories that anatomized and challenged colonialism. Their successors have taken a new course, exploring internal dynamics within Nigerian societies. And what great source material they can draw on: family strife, extreme wealth and poverty; corruption, sex and religious tensions. Writers are tackling them in new and original ways. The type of author taking centre stage is changing too. For decades, the most internationally prominent Nigerian authors (Buchi Emecheta, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe and Amos Tutuola) originated largely from the south and wrote in English. But these days, northerners, who traditionally wrote in the Hausa language for a local readership, are beginning to write in English and attracting interest across the country and beyond.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms explores the sexual relationship between a fifty-five-year-old woman and a young gangster, and Elnathan John recently published his first novel, Born on a Tuesday, the story of a young Koranic student who falls in with a street gang. Both books are set in Nigeria’s Islamic north, and this lends a human face and nuance to a region beset by Boko Haram terrorism. The US-based author Chinelo Okparanta explores homosexual relationships in Under the Udala Tree, her award-winning novel. In a country as religious and homophobic as Nigeria, this is brave and adventurous stuff.

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Why we’re post-fact

Peter Pomerantsev writing for Granta.
GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Milwaukee

In the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th president of the United States, we look back to Granta magazine’s revision of why we’re a post-truth society. Words by Peter Pomerantsev:

As his army blatantly annexed Crimea, Vladimir Putin went on TV and, with a smirk, told the world there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine. He wasn’t lying so much as saying the truth doesn’t matter. And when Donald Trump makes up facts on a whim, claims that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the Twin Towers coming down, or that the Mexican government purposefully sends ‘bad’ immigrants to the US, when fact-checking agencies rate 78% of his statements untrue but he still becomes a US Presidential candidate – then it appears that facts no longer matter much in the land of the free. When the Brexit campaign announces ‘Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week’ and, on winning the referendum, the claim is shrugged off as a ‘mistake’ by one Brexit leader while another explains it as ‘an aspiration’, then it’s clear we are living in a ‘post-fact’ or ‘post-truth’ world. Not merely a world where politicians and media lie – they have always lied – but one where they don’t care whether they tell the truth or not.

How did we get here? Is it due to technology? Economic globalisation? The culmination of the history of philosophy? There is some sort of teenage joy in throwing off the weight of facts – those heavy symbols of education and authority, reminders of our place and limitations – but why is this rebellion happening right now?

Many blame technology. Instead of ushering a new era of truth-telling, the information age allows lies to spread in what techies call ‘digital wildfires’. By the time a fact-checker has caught a lie, thousands more have been created, and the sheer volume of ‘disinformation cascades’ make unreality unstoppable. All that matters is that the lie is clickable, and what determines that is how it feeds into people’s existing prejudices. Algorithms developed by companies such as Google and Facebook are based around your previous searches and clicks, so with every search and every click you find your own biases confirmed. Social media, now the primary news source for most Americans, leads us into echo chambers of similar-minded people, feeding us only the things that make us feel better, whether they are true or not.

Technology might have more subtle influences on our relationship with the truth, too. The new media, with its myriad screens and streams, makes reality so fragmented it becomes ungraspable, pushing us towards, or allowing us to flee, into virtual realities and fantasies. Fragmentation, combined with the disorientations of globalization, leaves people yearning for a more secure past, breeding nostalgia. ‘The twenty-first century is not characterized by the search for new-ness’ wrote the late Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym, ‘but by the proliferation of nostalgias . . . nostalgic nationalists and nostalgic cosmopolitans, nostalgic environmentalists and nostalgic metrophiliacs (city lovers) exchange pixel fire in the blogosphere’. Thus Putin’s internet-troll armies sell dreams of a restored Russian Empire and Soviet Union; Trump tweets to ‘Make America Great Again’; Brexiteers yearn for a lost England on Facebook; while ISIS’s viral snuff movies glorify a mythic Caliphate. ‘Restorative nostalgia’, argued Boym, strives to rebuild the lost homeland with ‘paranoiac determination’, thinks of itself as ‘truth and tradition’, obsesses over grand symbols and ‘relinquish[es] critical thinking for emotional bonding . . . In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters’.

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Svetlana Alexievich quits ‘shameful’ Russian PEN

Paula Erizanu for the Guardian
svetlana-alexievich20152

The Nobel Prize winning author joins 30 other writers in leaving the Russian PEN organisation after the expulsion of jailed journalist Sergey Parkhomenko. Paula Erizanu writes for the Guardian:

Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich has quit the Russian PEN centre to protest against the expulsion of journalist and activist Sergey Parkhomenko, joining 30 other writers including novelist Boris Akunin and poet Lev Rubinstein leaving the organisation.

Alexievich, who withdrew from the organisation on 11 January, wrote in a statement: “My comment on Parkhomenko’s exclusion [from PEN] can only be my application to leave the Russian PEN, whose founding ideals were cravenly violated. In the perestroika years we took pride in our PEN but now we are ashamed of it. Russian writers acted as subserviently and outrageously only during the Stalinist period. But Putin will go, whereas this shameful page from the history of PEN will stay. And the names will stay, too. We now live through times when we cannot win over evil, we are powerless before the ‘red man’. But he cannot stop time. I believe in that.”

Thirty writers have now left Russian PEN, with many publishing their withdrawal letters online. Akunin – one of Russia’s most widely read contemporary authors of detective fiction – withdrew the day before Alexievich. Akunin said that he felt Russian PEN did not stand for freedom of speech, that it failed to defend persecuted writers and therefore has “nothing in common” with the global network of PEN centres. There are 145 PEN centres in more than 100 countries, working with the core mission “to defend and promote freedom of expression, and to remove barriers to literature”.

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To Hull and Back

Alan Taylor writing for the Scottish Review of Books.
philip larkin hull

In the Scottish Review of Books, Alan Taylor writes about Hull, the UK’s 2017 city of culture, and once home to Philip Larkin.

Hull is the UK’s 2017 “City of Culture”. I have never been there but I feel I have. It was, of course, where Philip Larkin lived for much of his life. He was the librarian at its university, a post he took up in 1955 and held until his death in 1985 at the age of 63. Obviously, he was best known as a poet but Larkin was a serious librarian and well-respected in the profession. Like all librarians in higher education, one of his chief bugbears were self-aggrandising members of the academic contingent, of whom there were more than few. They were never shy in promoting their own, often unreadable and meretricious efforts and shamelessly petitioned and pressurised Larkin to acquire them for the library. Whenever he spied such individuals in his bailiwick he would hide in the stacks until they were gone.

One of best anecdotes about Larkin and Hull is to be found in Jonathan Raban’s Coasting, an often hilarious account of a journey by boat round the British Isles. Raban, who was educated at Hull’s university, berthed for a night at Humberside port. Hull, he reported, was “baleful” but “a long way from being morose”, taking the demise of the fishing industry in the same manner that it had taken the Blitz.

“If Hull was going to have to endure hard times, it was going to see them out with good graveyard jokes and a face cast in an unflinching, lopsided grin.”

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The Great AI Awakening

Gideon Lewis-Kraus for the New York Times Magazine
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Gideon Lewis-Kraus provides an in depth exploration of Google’s innovative use of AI in translation today, and in the future of tech tomorrow:

Prologue: You Are What You Have Read

Late one Friday night in early November, Jun Rekimoto, a distinguished professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Tokyo, was online preparing for a lecture when he began to notice some peculiar posts rolling in on social media. Apparently Google Translate, the company’s popular machine-translation service, had suddenly and almost immeasurably improved. Rekimoto visited Translate himself and began to experiment with it. He was astonished. He had to go to sleep, but Translate refused to relax its grip on his imagination.

Rekimoto wrote up his initial findings in a blog post. First, he compared a few sentences from two published versions of “The Great Gatsby,” Takashi Nozaki’s 1957 translation and Haruki Murakami’s more recent iteration, with what this new Google Translate was able to produce. Murakami’s translation is written “in very polished Japanese,” Rekimoto explained to me later via email, but the prose is distinctively “Murakami-style.” By contrast, Google’s translation — despite some “small unnaturalness” — reads to him as “more transparent.”

The second half of Rekimoto’s post examined the service in the other direction, from Japanese to English. He dashed off his own Japanese interpretation of the opening to Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” then ran that passage back through Google into English. He published this version alongside Hemingway’s original, and proceeded to invite his readers to guess which was the work of a machine.

NO. 1:

Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

NO. 2:

Kilimanjaro is a mountain of 19,710 feet covered with snow and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. The summit of the west is called “Ngaje Ngai” in Masai, the house of God. Near the top of the west there is a dry and frozen dead body of leopard. No one has ever explained what leopard wanted at that altitude.

Even to a native English speaker, the missing article on the leopard is the only real giveaway that No. 2 was the output of an automaton. Their closeness was a source of wonder to Rekimoto, who was well acquainted with the capabilities of the previous service. Only 24 hours earlier, Google would have translated the same Japanese passage as follows:

Kilimanjaro is 19,710 feet of the mountain covered with snow, and it is said that the highest mountain in Africa. Top of the west, “Ngaje Ngai” in the Maasai language, has been referred to as the house of God. The top close to the west, there is a dry, frozen carcass of a leopard. Whether the leopard had what the demand at that altitude, there is no that nobody explained.

Rekimoto promoted his discovery to his hundred thousand or so followers on Twitter, and over the next few hours thousands of people broadcast their own experiments with the machine-translation service. Some were successful, others meant mostly for comic effect. As dawn broke over Tokyo, Google Translate was the No. 1 trend on Japanese Twitter, just above some cult anime series and the long-awaited new single from a girl-idol supergroup. Everybody wondered: How had Google Translate become so uncannily artful?

Four days later, a couple of hundred journalists, entrepreneurs and advertisers from all over the world gathered in Google’s London engineering office for a special announcement. Guests were greeted with Translate-branded fortune cookies. Their paper slips had a foreign phrase on one side — mine was in Norwegian — and on the other, an invitation to download the Translate app. Tables were set with trays of doughnuts and smoothies, each labeled with a placard that advertised its flavor in German (zitrone), Portuguese (baunilha) or Spanish (manzana). After a while, everyone was ushered into a plush, dark theater.

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Ways of Seeing Japan: Roland Barthes’s Tokyo, 50 Years Later

Colin Marshall writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books
tokyo

In the LA Review of Books, Colin Marshall travels to Tokyo to revisit the city 50 years after Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs:

ROLAND BARTHES FIRST VISITED Japan in 1966, not long after the defeated and reconstructed country announced its return to the international community with the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Japan would have hosted its first Olympic Games there in 1940, had World War II not caused the duty to pass to Helsinki. Now, half a century after the semiotician from Cherbourg walked its streets, the Japanese capital prepares for its second Summer Olympics in 2020, in hopes of signaling another reemergence: not from wartime devastation by the most advanced weapons known to man, but from the long hangover of the postwar economic bubble, burst in the 1990s, and the subsequent “lost decade” now turning into a lost quarter century.

By most economic and demographic indicators, Japan has long looked like a country in trouble, even though a foreign visitor sees signs of robust health everywhere: a refined and efficient service culture; reliable infrastructure; conspicuous displays of high technology; shops filled with an astonishing amount and variety of carefully designed products; lively packs of uniformed schoolchildren, the smallest of whom ride on the back seats of their mothers’ bicycles. The aftermath of 2011’s Tōhoku earthquake may have exposed deep and previously unsuspected societal frailties, and yet, on every one of my trips to Japan I marvel at all those well-put-together moms calmly biking their kids to school. Surely they indicate an achievement of which the rest of the developed world, no matter its wealth, can only dream — even if on paper the country itself looks about to lie down and die.

As a pioneer in the study of signs and symbols, Barthes would have enjoyed grappling with all the conflicting signals sent out by 21st-century Japan. He lived through most of the postwar years when the Japanese economy grew at an unprecedented rate, but he missed the downright grotesque inflation of Japanese asset prices in the decade after his death in 1980. By then the West, and especially the United States, nervously fixated on images of flush Japanese tourists landing in Hawaii and buying mansions in cash, sharp-suited Japanese businessmen lavishly entertaining on sinisterly vast expense accounts, and Croesan Japanese conglomerates snapping up Los Angeles’s movie studios and downtown high-rises.

Japan gave off few such signs in 1966, when Barthes accepted an invitation from his friend Maurice Pinguet, Director of the Franco-Japanese Institute in Tokyo, to teach a seminar there on the structural analysis of narrative. That stay in Japan, followed by two more that year and the next, provided Barthes with the material for 1970’s slim but rich monograph L’Empire des signes, which came out a dozen years later in Richard Howard’s English translation as Empire of Signs. “I am not lovingly gazing toward an Oriental essence,” Barthes, rooted in a monoculture of his own, assures us early in the book. “[T]o me the Orient is a matter of indifference, merely providing a reserve of features whose manipulation — whose invented interplay — allows me to ‘entertain’ the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system, one altogether detached from our own.”

Barthes traveled throughout his professional life, but not all his travels — Oriental, Occidental, or otherwise — suggested equally fruitful premises for writing. His Carnets du voyage en Chine, finally published in English just four years ago as Travels in China, records little more than disappointment with a culture “not at all exotic, not at all disorientating,” in which he finds next to nothing “to note down, to enumerate, to classify.” In Japan, by contrast, he finds a seemingly inexhaustible trove of exotic and disorienting material to note down, enumerate, and classify.

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Darling Nikki

Maggie Nelson writing for the New Yorker
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Author Maggie Nelson recalls her first and most formative encounters with Prince, for the New Yorker:

 In 1984, when I was ten, my father died. He was a small man, five-five tops, jammed with energy. I understood. Energy felt to me then, as it does to so many kids, like an unstoppable force run through a kaleidoscope of affect—at times electric, then liquid, popping, burning. Above all, it felt uncontainable. The miracle is that our skin contains it, for the most part. Was I sexual at ten? I don’t know. I know my father died, and then, suddenly, there was Prince.

1984 was also the year of “Purple Rain.” We saw it in the theatres and then my sister and I watched it innumerable times downstairs in our TV room. Our lair. I had already watched and would watch a lot of rock musicals—“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The Song Remains the Same,” “Tommy,” “The Wall.” I liked parts of these movies and had moments of cathexis, but nothing really stuck. Maybe because they were full of white British men whose angst was fundamentally inscrutable to me, and seemingly tethered to Margaret Thatcher, whoever that was, or grossly thefted from American blues. Maybe it was because the girls in the movies were sticks—who wanted to be Strawberry Fields, chained up while Aerosmith sings “Come Together” at you menacingly? And while, God knows, I wanted to be the hippie chick conjured in Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” I already knew that was just some guy’s dream, because the hippie girls I knew that fit the part either had to go along with their hippie-fascist boyfriends in a haze of suppressed agency or they spoke up and the dudes lost interest “pronto.” Anyway, that girl was pretty and probably liked to get fucked in a field of flowers, blond ringlets spread out on a velvet blanket strewn with empty goblets, but she wasn’t seething with electric energy, she didn’t talk, she didn’t grind.

Then there was “Purple Rain.” Did I want to be Prince or be with Prince? I think the beauty is, neither. He made it O.K. to feel what he was feeling, what I was feeling. I wanted to be a diminutive, profuse, electric ribbon of horniness and divine grace. I bought a white shirt with ruffles down the front and wore it with skintight crushed-velvet hot pants, laid a full-length mirror on the floor, and slithered on top of the mirror, imitating Prince’s closing slither on the elevated amp in “Darling Nikki.” Yeah, he’s telling Apollonia to come back, but you can tell he doesn’t really give a shit about Apollonia. He’s possessed by something else, his life force onstage. Half naked, wearing only black bolero pants and a black kerchief tied over the top part of his face, his torso slick with sweat, Prince is telling us a story. An important one.

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