Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Smash the Twittering machine posted by Richard Seymour
Now this long-standing tradition of paranoid readings on the Left has been conjoined to the Twittering machine. The attack on Jacobin -- those snarky hipster social democrat Berniebro reformist liberal class-reductionist fancy typesetting designer leftist imperialist cop loving etc etc -- resembles nothing so much as what China Miéville has called "punitive schwarmerei".
The outrage, over a tweet, isolated from a series of live tweets reporting a speech by the Indian Marxist Nivedita Majumdar, is completely out of proportion to any specific disagreement with its content. The tweet contains a reference to "intersectional theory" trying to undermine Marxism by displacing the foundational, determining role of class.
No doubt, some of the nuance was lost in being condensed for tweet form. Even in that context, however, it is clear that Majumdar wasn't dismissing intersectionality as a trope, let alone downgrading the political salience of gender, race or sexuality. It was stating a position which, with greater or lesser sophistication and nuance, is probably the default among marxists, viz. that class is more fundamental to the reproduction of capitalism than other oppressions. I don't really agree with this argument, but it is hardly an outrageous position.
Most people responded as if the tweet was standalone, though clearly numbered and threaded, and as if it was a Jacobin editorial statement, though the thread made it clear that it wasn't. Far more importantly, they reacted as if what had been written was politically beyond the pale. As if it was outrageous, shocking, disgusting, that anyone would think that "intersectional theory" is anti-Marxist, or that class is more fundamental to capitalism than the other oppressions bound up with it. As if, moreover, theoretical discussion was reducible to a political instrumentality, so that to assign to class a foundational role at the level of theory must result in a direct diminution of 'non-class' struggles at the level of everyday politics.
To reiterate, one can disagree with this view without sharing the extraordinary, libidinised reactions of those calling it "disgusting," or claiming that Jacobin thinks that gay rights should be dropped from the agenda, or expressing outrage that Jacobin has yet again had to be "called out" or "confronted" on its "shit". One can, for example, think that "intersectional theory" is a straw figure, and that no such cohesive, univocal theoretical entity exists. One can align with any number of theoretical inflections of historical materialism which assign a more "fundamental", determining role to oppressions -- for example, social reproduction theory, or Roediger & Esch's "production of difference" model. But it's hard to see these theoretical differences as being that exciting.
There is, nonetheless, a grumbling in some quarters that Jacobin must have known what they were doing, and if they didn't foresee how it would appear, then they were unprofessional. Of course, it is established by now that the ambiguities of language are always exaggerated in the 140 character format. Polysemy catches people out all the time on Twitter, something we all have to be on guard about. But it does so all the more because quite a large number of people are only paying attention to the extent that it enables them to say something in turn, however inventively disingenuous, which will generate 'likes' and 'retweets'. This is how the Twittering machine works, and people use it at their own peril. Nonetheless, unless we make some fairly authoritarian/paranoid assumptions, users also have to be responsible for their own readings.
Therefore, the question is: is there any way of wording a point like that made by Majumdar, in 140 characters, which would not have led these people to react in exactly the way they did? For quite a large number of their assailants, the problem was merely that someone, somewhere had besmirched the name of 'intersectionality'. For others, it was their own projections about Berniebros and such. Others -- and we know how this works -- joined in without seeming entirely sure what the problem was. None of this really amounts to an engagement even with what was in the isolated tweet, let alone the speech being reported on. A secondary question: is there any way of wording a response to all of this that wouldn't sound defensive or double outrageous to some people? I suspect the answer is 'no'. Once the wheels are turning, the train doesn't stop until it becomes a trainwreck.
This problem can surely only be experienced, ruminated on, and diagnosed so many times before we take the hint. At a certain level, and to a certain extent, Twitter is the organisation of stupidity, malice, paranoia and narrow-mindedness. Unfortunately, it is not the sort of machine to which we can take a Luddite hammer; not the sort of factory we can burn to the ground. We can only find ways to work with the grain of it, use it, or refuse it.
I don't want to tell Jacobin what to do about all this but, in general, it seems to me that the only sensible policy with regard to Twitter is one of disciplined refusal to debate, argue, or even engage beyond at most light conversation or minor clarifications. It can be used for narrowcasting, advertising events, and sharing links, but if people lose their shit, they should simply be ruthlessly ignored, as difficult as that is. If mistakes are genuinely made, they should be deleted and briefly acknowledged. If longer responses are called for, they should be written later, and not published in the form of a Twitter thread, on a separate 'timeline'. But the 'mentions' column should be ignored, and no one should be treated as if they're entitled to a response. People should be told in the bio line that if they want a response on a substantive issue, they have to email -- meaning, they have to put some effort and thought into what they say. This is not a long-term solution, but a coping strategy.