John Dolan: Conceived in Sin: The Online Audience and the Case of the eXile
The question of audience seems particularly fraught as topic of an
academic conference. As in, whoever said we have one? English-language
academics not only lack an audience - they don't want one. For
starters, connecting with
one requires some shared premise; and the unspoken motive underlying most contemporary Anglophone academic writing is the proud sense of alienation from a despised popular sensibility which is to be surveyed at all only to be deplored.
Contemporary academic discourse continually depicts itself as "speaking truth to power" and "transgressing," thus positioning itself as a dissenting voice - but this discourse without an audience threatens no one, least of all "power," and these "transgressions" are the work of some of the tamest, most harmless people in existence. How likely is it that people afraid of caffeine and secondhand smoke could generate anything that would give "power" a second's worry?
While pretending, against all evidence, that academic critique
constitutes a form of dissent, we are always strangely eager to deny
the possibility that the online community might offer effective ways of
enfranchising new dissident voices. I've heard this said so many times
that the very eagerness with which it's stated and accepted strikes me
as its most interesting feature. For example, in one of the papers
presented at the conference in which this paper was first presented,
the retiring editor of a major academic journal specializing in
contemporary culture described Jameson's
dismissal of postmodern culture as wrong only in its excessive optimism. Then, looking to the future, she indicated wearily that after a century of doggedly deploring film, it would be necessary now to deplore a host of new
media, all of them infected with the original sin of being conceived outside our seminars.
A strange urge, this need to hear that nothing can improve; as the
man said, it out-Herods Herod. When you've heard it as many times as I
have, you begin to notice the nervous, fretful tone in which it's made
- as if the prospect of an indefinite future with no effectual new
forms of dissent is meant to reassure the academic critic.
Perhaps, like Herod, we fear that they will offer salvation, that they will genuinely become what we love to pretend we are--real transgression, real insolence in the face of power. Thus a thousand tenured Herods' eagerness to prove that they will never open up the debate.
Speaking as one who made the transition from academic to popular
online discourse, I find it to be simply wrong. Two years ago, I left a
New Zealand university to write fulltime for the eXile, an
English-language Moscow biweekly intensely loved (and hated) newspaper
which draws real readers (and death threats.) As of September 2004, the
eXile's online edition was attracting 3.4 million hits per month.
The chance to write for large numbers of real readers excited me. Long experience of academic discourse convinced me of the truth of the old, bitter truism that that the average academic article has exactly three readers: the author, anonymous reader, and proofreader.
The very concept of the "reader," in contemporary academic idiom, refers to an anonymous functionary, acting as gatekeeper of a journal, who decides whether an article serves the needs of the Academics' Guild.
These requirements - for example, that the article cite every other academic who has written on the topic - ensure that the text will be unreadable to outsiders; but that never seems to trouble most gatekeeper/readers. Indeed, tracing the lineage of sheer hatred for popular culture and its audience from Adorno to Jameson, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that beneath our surface stance of defiance is envious disdain. We weren't challenging contemporary culture; we were snubbing it, unnoticed - a ridiculous tableau. But defecting to Moscow meant dropping all claims to professional virtue. The eXile got its millions of readers the old-fashioned way: by scandalizing them. From its very beginning, the eXile was steeped in sin.
That's the trouble with the possibility that new media might empower
new voices, from the perspective of the phoney dissenters of our
profession, is that they actually do link up with premises held by
millions of people. And those premises are, almost without exception,
sins in themselves.
Consider a particularly effective example of online dissent presented by the eXile: that strange being known as "the War Nerd." The War Nerd is Gary Brecher, a fat, miserable, and incidentally brilliant self-described "war fan" who lives in Fresno, a particularly nasty city in the hot Central Valley of California. Brecher is a Community-College dropout who works as a data-entry technician by day and, by his own admission, spends every other waking hour surfing the net looking for war news.
In other words, he is someone who would be excluded both from the Lilliputian world of academic stylized "dissent" as thoroughly as he would from the larger world of mainstream journalism. In fact, it's difficult to imagine any discourse community predating the Net which would not exclude Brecher on first meeting; he is, as he confesses freely, an unsightly, unsocial, non-networking individual.
Brecher's unsuitability is what has made so beloved of hundreds of
thousands of bitter, lonely fans. He has never hidden his ugliness, his
hatred of those above him, or the sinful nature of his love of gore. In
fact, he confessed all these disabilities in the beginning of his first
eXile column in early 2003:
"[the eXile] asked me to write a column on how all the wars are going, kind of a war reviewer. And I said yes on one condition, don't send emails telling me liking war is a sign of unhealthiness or some psychoanalytical crap.
I'm a war nerd. I know what I am. All I have to do is look down at
the keyboard and there's my hairy white gut slopping over it, and
there's crumbs between the keys from the fake homemade soft'n'chewy big
cookies in the machine downstairs. I mean they made me pay for the last
keyboard because I spilled Diet Coke all over it. Diet Coke, the most
fattening drink in the world. Every web pig in the world is swimming in
it, farting off the side of the swivel chair, aroma-free carbonation
farts, or at least you hope they are.
So I'm unhealthy. No shit, Sigmund. I live in Fresno which is a death sentence already, and I do about fifteen hours a day at this desk. 6 or 7 hours entering civilian numbers for the paycheck and the rest surfing the war news. I like war. So do you or you wouldn't still be reading. So shut up or leave.
Anyway, war-wise it's been a pretty good year. Let's start with the WTC. Technically that wasn't an act of war, and also it happened last year, but you have to mention it because it was just so beautiful. Come on, be honest, it was beautiful.
It was like a two-course dessert. First there was the towers falling down in slo-mo, over and over. Which was really, really beautiful. Don't tell me you didn't watch them fall about a million times in a row. That was the first time an office building ever got beautiful in the history of the world.
And secondly it was like permission to work out on whoever did it.
Total permission. Total complete permission to do anything you want to
them, like a movie that starts with the hero getting his farm burnt
down or somebody killing his family. You just lean back and relax with
a little grin and inhale those milk duds, because now comes the good
part, 90 straight minutes of revenge.
The best war is when you can hate both sides, and that's how it was
with the WTC. I cheered those jets. I work in like a ten-story version
of those towers, and I know for a fact that I'm not the only one who
perks up every time a plane gets close to the building. Everybody
cheers the planes now. Until those planes hit the WTC Nobody dreamed
you could knock down an American corporation building. Nobody ever
thought one would come down. And when they did, damn. It was like the
noche triste, when Aztecs made the Conquistadors bleed for the first
time and said, "Hey these aren't magic six-legged metal monsters,
they're just a bunch of victims like us!"
Then you saw the ragheads having tailgate parties to celebrate the big WTC bbq, and it's like Whoa! I get to cheer when Americans die but that doesn't mean you can, you hairy-ass goats."
Brecher's sensibility, exemplified in this Credo, has found hundreds of thousands of fans online. Every day devoted followers write to the War Nerd, giving homage to the only online voice they trust. Yet Brecher's sensibility could never be admitted either to mainstream journalism or to academic writing. Brecher's admission that he enjoyed watching the WTC towers fall would instantly disqualify him from the tiny range of acceptable opinion in American discourse, which became even more jingoistic than usual after 9/11. But his voice would be even less acceptable to any academic venue. For one thing, he demands the right to be intuitively right - something American academics accord only to foreign sources. When Baudrillard finally admitted that the fall of the towers was a thing of beauty, the point was couched in language so intentionally dreary that only a committed professional could have plowed through it. Brecher made the point in one paragraph of colloquial American English, more than a year before Baudrillard did.
I would argue that Anglophone academics systematically exclude the
sort of original cultural criticsm exemplified by the War Nerd, unless
it comes to them from a non-Anglophone source. Contemporary cultural
criticism certainly requires occasional injections of the shocking and
iconoclastic, but under the current division of academic labour, these
are produced offshore to be turned into Doxa by the Stateside
In the process, even the most amoral sensibilities are adapted to a Protestant humanitarianism - Frederick Jameson's tedious ars predicandi, endlessly replicated in miniature on a thousand campuses.
Even more fundamentally, Brecher's voice is alone. And that would exclude him from American academic discourse, which is so obsessively communal that it is impossible to make a claim without citing a precedent, and thus impossible to make an unprecedented claim at all.
Non-academic audiences refuse to see in this moralistic, collegial Jamesonian critique any real "transgression." And they are right; that critique is simply a more intense form of Protestant humanitarian Doxa. Jameson is to Bush as the clergyman is to the real-estate develop who sleeps through his sermon.
Brecher's critique begins very differently: with a sense of his own huge sinful pleasure in war. That alone would exclude him from American academic discourse. Such feelings belong to the vast chunk of experience our profession has excluded a priori, except when attributed to a very other Other. This sort of hypocrisy is so advanced that one can sit through an entire graduate seminar in Horror Films, as I did at Berkeley, without hearing one whoop of joy at a particularly juicy killing - the whole purpose and pleasure of these very popular films.
The real claim of the American academic world's critique of
postmodernism is simply that we, the guild of academics, are without
sin. It should be no surprise that for those outside the guild, we are
also without significance.
By contrast, the eXile was conceived in sin - "and proud of it," as Bart Simpson would say - by refugees from the moral world of the American academic. Its editor, Mark Ames, fled Berkeley to set up his own paper in Moscow, then the sin capital of the world. In 1997, when the eXile began publishing, Moscow was without law - especially libel law.
Moscow in the early 1990s was invaded by tens of thousands of
American expats. The eXile, under Ames and co-editor Matt Taibbi,
grabbed the local, then online audience by providing a place for the
sort of voices who were truly excluded, and not in a cute or harmless
way. The greatest example was Eduard Limonov, the writer and radical
politican whose columns in his own unique, uncorrected English were
printed in every issue, even when he was imprisoned for attempting to
buy weapons for an alleged revolt. Even Amnesty International found
Limonov too hot to handle, but the eXile was proud to print his
The key taboo in the Anglophone world is sex, and not coincidentally
the key trade between Americans and Russians in Moscow was sex--paid
sex. The collapse of the prim Soviet façade briefly created an
atmosphere in which this exchange could be celebrated. A survey of
Russian girls in the early 90s showed that the profession to which most
aspired was "valyutka," prostitute gaining hard currency. The Americans
who went to Moscow came, officially, to aid in the development of a
capitalistic, democratic polity—but this overwhelmingly male
community spent all its spare time talking about sex, largely paid
Like every other expat newspaper in the former East Bloc, the eXile derived most of its revenue from the ads placed by prostitutes and strip clubs. For example, I noticed that in my hotel room in Budapest was a copy of the English-language Budapest City Guide, a typical example of the genre. All the stories were about the city's cultural treasures, museums and fine restaurants—but most of the advertisements in the back of the magazine were for strip clubs, escort services, and other sex-industry businesses.
When this wild sexual landscape was admitted to Anglophone discourse
at all, it was as a morality play on "sex slavery." The notion that the
exchange of money for sex might be advantageous to both parties was
Apparently it was better for young Russian women to work eleven-hour days in a vodka kiosk for a pittance than to make several hundred dollars in a night by trading sex for dollars.
The eXile broke the taboo on discussing the central fact of Moscow
expat life by actually writing about prostitutes. Ames had paid sex
with prostitutes, described the act and recorded his conversations with
them in a running feature called "Whore-R Stories." The paper's Death
Porn feature described the funniest, most gross murders of the week
without moral gloss - and was able to take its tone in this directly
from Moscow's most popular newspaper, MK. Since easy access to
prescription drugs was one of the other big appeals of life in Moscow,
the editors talked freely about the pleasures of "hard drugs" like
speed and heroin - which were shared by their colleagues everywhere but
never, ever discussed except as scourges. When Ames wrote that the
reason people take drugs is that "drugs are fun" hundreds of grateful
letters came in - several from prisons where harmless druggies were
being used as real sex slaves for the non-existent crime of drug
Russians were notably un-shocked by these features. Russians, thank God, are not Protestant humanitarian hegemonists. Not yet, anyway.
But a huge online audience of English-speakers reacted with violent devotion. The usual letter to the eXile was a slightly crazed mix of gratitude and disbelief; gratitude that someone at last spoke honestly about why we were those "sex slave" stories so avidly, why we watch the Death Porn of the evening news so eagerly, and disbelief that any English-language publication could say such things and survive.
From shared sin, the eXile derived considerable authority with its online readers. Once again, the War Nerd's example is exemplary. He came out against the war in Iraq, describing his position as that of a "patriot" rather than a "sucker" and arguing that the war would be no fun for anyone, even war fans, since it would devolve into ambushes and punitive expeditions, civilian slaughters without interesting combat.
Brecher's position on the war alienated many of his more
simpleminded fans, but many more rethought their position on the war -
particularly when his predictions proved to be right. It does help to
be right. But it also helps to be steeped in sin - one of the fat
sickos, rather than the skinny, fastidious elite. The notion that the
Iraq invasion could be attacked on nationalist grounds, rather the
implicitly pacifistic, morally superior position of "elitist" antiwar
essays, made Brecher's critique powerful. It was impossible to dismiss
this wretched office slave as a liberal wimp. When the eXile
experimented with allowing readers an online forum, letters for and
against Brecher's antiwar stance quickly overloaded the site. And as
the war went from bad to worse, formerly shocked or hostile readers
began changing their minds, defecting from the uncritical nationalism
of the "suckers" to the bleaker version of the "patriots."
Of course, the eXile's embrace of original editorial sin was never simply a tactical choice. It was more like popping a huge zit onscreen, Jackass-style: an assertion of a sensibility and an act of comic, childish revenge, all at once. It's surprising how few people are willing to take the simple gambit of telling the gross old truth once in a while. And even more surprising how well that old trick actually works.
This offer is open only to academics who actually have been steeped in sin - and so it excludes those at the top of the profession who, in my experience, truly have sequestered themselves so well that they are without sin - and thus without much of interest to say. This crippled elite inhabits its starchy sensibility in utter comfort, and really is as ignorant of the grosser forms of popular culture as its critiques imply.
But go one level beneath them, to the thousands of, ahem!,
"subalterns" carrying out their orders, and you find people writing in
bitter bad faith. These collaborators have sampled the sinful world,
the war games, the sex games, the drug games. When they affect the tone
of shocked horror required by the profession, they make themselves
stupid, writing in an affected ignorance of subjects they actually know
very well. If you've ever gotten drunk with somebody at a conference
and heard their real views, just after they've delivered a secular
homily in the approved style, you know what I mean. Is it any wonder no
one but paid, anonymous readers care to sample the results?
So, Subalterns, ex-colleagues, consider taking the plunge. Readers are there, millions of them, waiting to be warped. And the sin is fine.
Utoljára módosítva 2005-04-21 15:10