I Hate the Internet
By Richard Marshall.
Jarett Kobek, I Hate the Internet: A Useful Novel Against Men, Money, and the Filth of Instagram, We Heard You Like Books, 2016)
‘Not long after any social event or trend, a pornographic response emerges. It will be incredibly creepy and wrong headed, an underbelly view of public life via the worst excesses of capitalism in which the answer to every social problem is the commodification of desire. A good example is the 2008 election, where Larry Flynt produced a film about Sarah Palin, Who’s Nailin’ Paylin?. An Obama lookalike nails the Palin lookalike. Or now that superhero films have become enormous cash cows, the porn industry has begun producing deeply distressing parodies. It’s part of a growing dialogue, with the language of pornography seeping out into the greater society. Characters in the new 90210 or Gossip Girl who will throw around terms that emerged from the pornographic lexicon. Blake Lively talking about MILFs.‘
With the nasty-eyed sharpness of Swift, Burroughs or Houellebecq Kobek writes a tripwire just above the level for walking. Everyone falls down. It’s a satire about losing track of the world. How? It takes a swipe at those that suppose we’re tracking the world we’re in, rather than just the world. The result of that first-person engorgement is a fetishised digitalized idiocy exposed as a blank hate state, a bleak panorama of digitised repression balanced on the corrosive manipulative belief in a centred world. If Donald Trump is the personification of the centred-world, then Kobek’s satire can be directed towards him and all he stands for. Trump works a language that speaks as if there is perspectival information, information that is literally Trumped up, as if by belonging to him the information gains evidential status. He engorges his speeches with this claim via the use of the de se and indexical. Kobak corrodes the legitimacy of this: All information is fundamentally objective information, is used indifferently as such, and Trump and his fellow American fans are wrong.
So America becomes the centred-America – but it’s a phenomenon that isn’t just American obviously. In this novel a Trumped centred-America is skewered via Kobek’s bombardment of its themes, tactics, subjects and venal stupidities such as;
‘…. historical anachronisms, death threats, violence, human bondage, faddish popular culture, despair, unrestrained mockery of the rich, threats of sexual violation, weak iterations of Epicurean thought, the comic book industry, the death of intellectualism, being a woman in a society that hates women, populism, an appalling double entendre, the sex life of Thomas Jefferson, genocide, celebrity, the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, discussions of race, Science Fiction, anarchism with a weakness for democracy, the people who go to California to die, millennial posturing…’
so in the novel we have no naïve realism but rather;
‘… 276 pages of mansplaining, Neo-Hellenic Paganism, interracial marriage, elaborately named hippies practicing animal cruelty on goats, unjust wars in the Middle East, 9/11, seeing the Facebook profile of someone you knew when you were young and believed that everyone would lead rewarding lives…’
working as a numbers-station broadcast of code messages transmitted in various voices, some synthesized and created by theory machines, others live and still operating but with subtly changed schedules, vast quantities of high-level deposits that are random sometimes but offering a ciphertext that deciphers the centered-America problem using low-tech narrative and randomized source material.
Embedded somewhere there’s a thought that what is being satirized might be condensed into the culture’s fetishisation of indexicality, the de se and agency. What is this? Somewhere in the long grass is the assumption that the ability of an agent to project knowledge of the world into relevant action depends on the ability to think indexical thought – in particular those that start with the engorged egoism of ‘I’, ‘here’ and ‘now.’ In public discourse outside the novel this gets imprecisely converted into a kind of identity politics that leads to familiar discourses around unforgivable sinning. This is the sin of a speech act that refuses indexicality and de se as a basis for agency. It’s a denial of having to assert one’s identity location as a condition of fully knowing the world. It’s a denial of the centred world thesis. Kobek’s protagonist Adeline is portrayed as someone committing a type of this kind of wrong:
‘… long after she had committed the only unforgivable sin of the Twenty- First Century, someone on the Internet sent Adeline a message.
The message read: “Dear slut, I hope that you are gang-raped by syphilis infected illegal aliens.”
Kobek’s centred-Americans are the opposite of Galen Strawson’s Weather Watchers. Weather Watchers have ‘… no capacity for action at all: they can’t form intentions or act on intentions. But they still have mental states: they represent the world, and maybe even desire the world in a certain way… A Weather Watcher who sees a coming storm can expect to get wet.’ But expecting to get wet doesn’t make them act in any way because they are just interested in weather watching. Kobek’s centred-American’s assume a necessary and sufficient link between ‘expecting’, ‘caring’, ‘wanting’, ‘desiring’, hating’ etc – and acting. Kobek brings to the table a fearful realization that despite everything the centred world thesis has become an overwhelming force in modern capitalist America and a continually transmitted and reinforced tool. The need to text, email, phone and surf are centred technological actions of thinking in a first person and satisfies a felt need to confirm the spurious centred-world essential link thesis between agency and indexicality and the de se. The Trumpian assumes that self location is a necessary requirement of knowing the world. Without it, so this thought goes, my potential for agency is fatally compromised. This is the view Kobak spears. What if, he sly supposes, but out of reach of explicit representation, indexicality and the de se have only a trivial connection with agency.
An alternative to the centred world American is the mirror creature imagined by philosophers Cappelin and Dever who ‘.. doesn’t learn about itself via internal epistemic routes like proprioception and introspection, but learns everything about itself by watching itself in a mirror – it is a creature that typically carries around mirrors for exactly this reason.’ And when it comes to the USA what we’re talking about is the most dangerous state on earth, where people everywhere watch with alarm its every move and wish it would pick up the mirror and see all its shit for real.
This is a novel only in the sense that Max Headroom is a cartoon character. (As an aside, have you noticed how Trump is edging creepily closer and closer to being the Max Headroom incident character?) Kobek might have once given up the whole event to science and given a full causal history of the world without citing de se mental states at all, because he wouldn’t have mentioned any mental states period. Nodding again to philosophers Cappelen and Dever, they’ve done the philosophical/semantic groundwork on this. Kobek’s novel reveals through splenetic comedy the non-trivial redundancy of the personal for agency. The impersonal is thus not inadequate to the task and breaks through to the other side of the indexical digital capitalist view without losing anything required for full agency. A simple thought experiment clinches it: God thinks: ‘ Redistribute billionaires’ wealth to the rest in order to remove poverty’ and immediately it happens without any further recourse to any de se state. This is imaginable, not self-contradictory nor meaningless. Reference to the ‘I’, indeed to anything indexical, is just not needed. The impersonal is therefore the weapon of choice in Kobek’s novel. He continually writes sentences that strain against the indexical. His satire rests upon the impersonality of his sentences to bring incisive rigor to the novel’s intent. His fun is deflationary, poking at the preferred twisted ideological perspectives that have made essences out of absent individual substances, perspectives that may well be all about mortality denial but nevertheless are vicious and need whacking e.g.
‘According to certain people who self-described as People of Color, which was a remarkably offensive and unexamined phrase, and members of the White Race, Colored skin was the visual byproduct of eumelanin’s presence in the stratum basale layer of the epidermis.
Eumelanin was the product of melanocytes, which are cells located alongside the basal cells in the stratum basale layer of the epidermis. Under histopathologic examination, eumelanin looked a little like a dried mustard stain.
Most members of the White race were so accustomed to their piglet pink that they couldn’t see their own pink. To them, their piglet pink was invisible as the genocides committed by their forefathers.’
This non-indexical informational weave is complete and brandished throughout as the vehicle of attack. The swift movement in the quoted passage from science-textbook dryness to hard-core shock-tactic inference is both detonating and a diaphanous staple of the whole book. Here is a virtual style plying the dry-eyed straight text as dense existential scream. Of course, he can also do the quippish one liner to ensure we don’t miss the big picture, e.g.
‘We are on Earth to make Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg richer.’
And he does that a lot. But where these lines give us the satisfaction of recognizing the niche targets the broader approach of impersonal completeness has a bigger span of enquiry and allows him to give whole mini-histories of the monstrousness of his target – that contemporary US first person porn view embodied in the likes of Trump – that remain hidden. This ability to hide the actual means by which things are produced – the inequalities, oppression etc etc is what Marx of course called the fetish. As I keep saying, Kobek calls out the visual-grammatical metaphor of the ‘first person viewpoint’ as the fetish vehicle. He’s clever at identifying targets that unfold unconsciously in the phenomenal opacity of readers. Gradiants of realness are experienced as mind-independent branding congloms such as Marvel and DC comic franchises where the two dimensional images become floaters in a hyperspace eye of mass hyperreal capitalist exploitation running off the power of cult or cultural consumerist psychoactivity :
‘Despite never appearing as a character within its pages, Jack Kirby is the central personage of this novel. He died in 1994. He was born in 1917.
Jack Kirby is the central personage of this novel because he was the individual most screwed by the American comic book industry, and the American comic book industry is the perfect distillation of all the corrupt and venal behavior inherent in unregulated capitalism.
Here is a list of some characters that he either created or co-created: Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the original X-Men, the Avengers, Thor, Loki, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Doctor Doom, Galactus, Ant-Man, the Black Panther, Nick Fury, The Demon, Kamandi, Klarion the Witch Boy, OMAC, the New Gods, M.O.D.O.K, the Eternals, the Inhumans, the Forever People, the Newsboy Legion.
Here is a list of the above characters that he owned:
JACK KIRBY is also the central personage of this novel because this is not a good novel. This is a seriously mixed-up book with a central personage who never appears. The plot, like life, resolves into nothing and features emotional suffering without meaning.’
Kobek’s ‘not good novel’ is cunningly structured to remove the indexicality and de se elements whilst being about a character who never appears in the fiction beyond being mentioned. The novel is a fiction about Jack Kirby but Jack Kirby is not a fiction. Kendall Walton thinks that a fiction is a ‘ work with the function of serving as a prop in games of make-believe.’ But the fictional character is a species of fictional object. So Kobek, by casting his writing as a novel, allows us to ponder the question of what fictional objects, including fictional characters, are. Are there any? Are they invented? Can they be destroyed? And of course it’s not just about fiction. It’s got so extreme with the centred-America you couldn’t make a character like Trump up.
The territory has been mapped out. There are fictional realists and fictional irrealists. Realists use semantic arguments to make their case. How can we say ‘Jack Kirby invented the X-Men’ if there are no fictional objects to quantify over? The X-Men must exist if the sentence is to be meaningful. And surely it is meaningful. But an irrealist might answer by saying that the meaning comes from it being a syntactically well-formed sentence. It’s gappy – there are no X Men, but nevertheless it’s a meaningful well formed sentence with a gap where there should have been something. Or else a pragmatist like Quine might just say that our best semantic theories allow sentences like ‘Jack Kirby invented the X Men’ , so we are committed, simply by accepting the theories, to accept the reality of the fictional objects. But intuitions from semantic theory might not fit Kobek’s scheme. After all, he’s blasting away at the intuition that we need indexical and the de se to account for agency. A realist can change tack. The argument from intentional identity argues that if we have an opinion about the X Men then we need to accept the fictional entities. Intentional identity pragmatically requires that fictional objects are real. Which raises the Hob Nob argument of Peter Geach: transposed into the Kobek territory it is about the sentence:
‘ Hob thinks a superhero has got away, and Nob wonders if he also destroyed New York.’
The big issue emerges with the use of that pronoun in the second conjunct. Sorting out how to quantify over apparent non-existents, working out the intensional contexts created by attitude verbs and how to deal with that pronoun in the second conjunct with the indefinite of the first is where the action is. Do we read it as if Hob and Nob are thinking about the same superhero or different ones? Or as if they weren’t thinking about any particular superhero at all but just one or other unspecified superhero? Leaving the broadly semantic argument for fictional realism, a metaphysical argument for the reality of fictional characters might go like this: there are existence conditions associated with fictional objects, these conditions are met, therefore there are fictional objects.
Irrealism counters these views. It might take the position of saying that accepting fictional objects means accepting a whole bunch of other, less congenial things such as nightmare creatures that crawl around the ceiling, hallucinated pink elephants that flow up and down the walls every night after a bottle of Laphroaig, and those little imaginary friends from a long time ago . It’ll mean accepting that thinking makes it so. The whole premises of Hamlet collapses! These are what philosophers have called the ‘bad company’ responses to the realist arguments. Or the irrealist changes tack and says that sentences that appear to refer to fictional objects are made true within a scope of pretence, presuppostion or assumption. ‘Captain America is a hero’ is true but doesn’t commit us to the existence of Captain America outside of the fictional world of Jack Kirby, which also, because of the evil of US exploitation, is no longer the world of Jack Kirby, and so doesn’t exist and so deepens the trouble.
Kobek’s useful ‘not good novel’ reminds us that fiction can be useful as well as how. The actual non-fictional Jack Kirby didn’t own the characters he invented. They were stolen from him. He was exploited. He is a reminder of capitalism’s crushed everyman worker drudge, exploited by a dehumanizing fetishising system whose parsimonious real ontology is gappy where Kirby doesn’t own what he created anymore. Where fictional objects in Kobek may be real, the gap in the actual Jack Kirby’s world is also (ir)real. There is a bitter symmetry Kobek is playing out. Being a novel, he rolls back and forth in a smart, dry language game. Indexicality and de se terms are downgraded and fictional metaphysics and semantics are cashed out as satirical depth bombs. The world is as it is. Know the truth and you know everything. This is Kobak’s point. And you know something but not everything. There’s a neat sense of epistemic modesty hovering around that nevertheless leaves us knowing we know enough to recognize the stench.
‘Ayn Rand’s books told very rich people that they were good, that their pursuit of wealth was moral and just. Many of these people ended up as CEOs or in high levels of American government.
Ayn Rand was the billionaire’s best friend.’
It’s important that the reader recognizes that his main focus is not the denizens of any fictional world. Ayn Rand, the repulsive author whose specific functional profile is known, is not a fiction. Neither is the American government. Nor billionaires. Ayn Rand is not a denizen of another possible world fitting the precise description of the one in our world. For, as Kripke famously argues, that wouldn’t be Ayn Rand, nor would any perfect replica in any other world actually be Ayn Rand. The repulsive author is individualized and actual and ours. Moving from real characters like Rand and Kirby to his fictional people Kobek is playing the high jinks novelistic game of the metaphysical tradition that holds Sterne and Kafka and Kundera in an embraced nerve clench of epistemic modality. But his interest is not troubling indeterminacies, platonic entities, Meinongianism, or denizens of non-actual worlds. His interest is a pure political and ethical prompt. This is a teasing metaphysical novel that has a very deliberate and obvious political and ethical direction. It’s a satire which is clear about its targets and sure-footed as it stalks them.
The novel is about the internet because it is about knowing which world is actual and which world one is in. Here’s the hypothesis I’m running with. We are dedicated to social media and the internet because we are seeking propositional omniscience. We are wanting to locate ourselves in one-world accuracy. We search across the digital worlds bemused by the possibility that maybe the inhabited world is opaque, maybe all beliefs about it are false, and maybe we don’t really know where we are in it. We search for location not in logical space but in ordinary space. Here is a reason for the supposed need for the de se and indexicality. We need more than propositional attitudes but rather attitudes towards self-ascribed properties. A property here is a set of possible individuals. In self ascription, one is making oneself a member of that set. The problem of our internet seems to be that there is always some piece of information we are missing that we can’t find. We may know all the propositions of the world but not know where we actually are in it. And this is Kobek’s deep novelistic trope, the mined existential problem he satirises. It’s the relativism of centred worlds that resolve into de se, indexicalised worlds. Philosopher Andy Egan coined the term ‘centred world’ to catch this when he wrote;
‘… some of our utterances express a kind of proposition that determines a truth-value not just relative to a world, but relative to a
What deviance is smuggled in? Talk about the actual world. The actual me. You. Here. Now. This. Today. Yesterday. Tomorrow. Indexicals rear their ugly heads and then set the ball rolling away. Kobek’s works to raise this possibility: we don’t need to indexilise anything here. All one has to do is be provided with true propositions. That’s the world. Not the actual world – which indexicalises. Just the world. Indexicality might be useful for certain reasons but it is dispensible as metaphysics and semantics. It is shallow. Trivial. Kobek shows its harmful nature. The actual world is not the world I am in. It is the world. There is no need to indexicalise, and to do so sends out the wrong signals, as if there’s some sort of alternative. There is no alternative. There is just the world. This is what I read out from Kobek’s insistence on bombarding the novel with true propositions. He’s limning the world, sans centre, sans de se… It’s a strategy used elsewhere e.g. by Mark E Smith and ‘The Fall’, say in ‘Hit the North (Part 1) probably, in the music formulations of John Zorn, in the paintings of Paul Klee. Determining which world we are in is dangerous once it’s taken seriously as an indispensible quest. It’s why the usefulness of the novel is (partly) to show why it’s ok to hate the internet. The Internet has provided a strong rhetorical flourish to a centred world relativism. It erodes omniscience by suggesting that even if this is the world I am located in there is something else I will need to locate myself in it. It suggests that the proposition ‘Kobek hates the internet’ isn’t enough for Kobek to know he hates the internet: it suggests he needs also to know that he is Kobek. It suggests we require property content. Indexical information slides out of this.
The rhetoric of indexical content makes enquiry about the world egocentric. A deep worry in the novel is that everything becomes about the characters themselves. To investigate the world becomes a process of self-examination. It also makes information even harder to find. This sucks if you’re about exposing the hidden facts about corporate America, about the billionaires, about the arms dealers and all that. The plutocratic class has organized things so that secrets are hidden in very dark places – i.e. the eye of the beholder. It’s hard to expose the facts there. The notions of de se and indexicality have been a useful device for burying the facts even deeper. Suppose you want to know where the bad guys are. Knowing that the details are hidden in Swiss bank accounts is surely a good thing to know, generally. But if ‘the details of bad guys are hidden in Swiss bank accounts’ pins down their location more accurately than the possibility of knowing where you yourself are, then surely there’s something wrong with the whole metaphor of ‘knowing where yourself is’ shtick. Why the internet? The internet adds confounding candidates for the searcher. The ur-case is the philosopher David Lewis imagining two omniscient Gods. One would have done the job but he duplicates to add to the confounded omniscience. He claims that they know everything except they can’t know which God they are. They cannot locate themselves even though they know all true propositions. Lewis writes this in his seminal ‘On The Plurality of Worlds’:
‘ Imagine someone who is completely opinionated, down to the last detail, about what sort of world he lives in and what goes on there. He lacks no belief about the world. For him, only one world is doxastically accessible… And yet there may be questions on which he has no opinion. For instance he may think he lives in a world of one-way eternal recurrence, with a beginning but no end, with a certain course of history repeated exactly in every epoch; and he may have no idea which epoch he himself lives in. Every epoch of the world he takes to be his contains someone who might, for all he believes, be himself. He has no idea which one of them he is. If he did, for instance if he somehow became persuaded that he lived in the seventeenth epoch, he would believe more than he does. But he would not believe more about the world. The added belief would not be about the world, but about his own place therein.’ But has the opinionated man a lack? If he knows all true propositions, why hold to the idea that he can’t self locate? What has been smuggled in by Lewis is the idea that propositional knowledge misses out something crucial. It smuggles in the idea that truth conditions are tied, de re, to the possessor of the belief, not because of any de dicto self description. The basic notion of belief here is de se. Kobek moves around this arena. He can jump from ; e.g.
‘Sometimes it feels like there are only eleven people in the world and that the rest are paste…’
which feels like it is a centred world statement – its implication is to locate the truth of the statement we need to self locate i.e. ‘we are paste’ or even ‘I am paste.’ But really, Kobek is just playing. He snips at the metaphors leading to the intuition that we need centred worlds to self locate, and that de se and indexicality are necessary, by denying the logical space for that intuition, using his rhetorical construct, his novel, to show that actually there’s nothing deeper in this than in the puzzle Frege raised about the opacity of meaning. A theory (whatever it is) explaining how its possible to believe Iron Man flies but not believe that Tony Stark flies also explains the cases where centred worlds are unnecessarily introduced. The metaphors for the centred worlds ensure that content is not so fine-grained that self-location is possible. Kobek calls out the sleight of hand of all possible worlds semantics. They are always too coarse-grained.
But what he does is recursively drive home the minimalist point that the world is going to the dogs, a traditional trope of satire from its very start. Let him make this point directly:
‘AMERICA HAD BEEN DRIVEN CRAZY BY: (1) A possibly stolen election. (2) A twice crashed economy. (3) An episode of being terrofucked. (4) An Army scientist mailing Anthrax. (5) Two foreign wars in the Middle East. (6) A guy trying to blow up an airplane with his shoes. (7) Revelations of torture. (8) A hurricane that destroyed much of New Orleans and in particular its African-American communities. (9) The failure of two foreign wars in the Middle East. (10) Tens of thousands of American causalities during two failed foreign wars in the Middle East.’
Cappelin and Dever say our knowledge of the world is ‘scattershot.’ This means that we know more than one kind of thing about the things we know. We know Trump is a man, a demagogue, someone looking like what Christopher Hitchens once described someone else as – ‘an explosion in a pubic hair factory’, someone who inherited his wealth from his rich daddy etc etc. This means that trying to tie all knowledge down to one thing via the de se indexicality move of reducing all knowledge to realizing ends through action – the Trumpian centred-American approach– can’t be right. And a central feature of our ‘scattered knowledge’ is that it all adds up to a unified world. Anything we know bears on everything else we know, and if so then there really is something fundamentally objectionable to singling out de se indexicality as deeply and importantly different from non-perspectival information.
Up against the Trump phenomena spreading exponentially across there’s a need for the difficult and the subtle. Kobek has written a surface denuded of epistemic inflection. With the first-person removed from centre-stage the Trumpian centred-America mysteriously exits and a laughing world appears from its heinous shadow.
Of course I’ve read this at an angle and there’s so much else that could be said. I could have followed this which is more efficient:
‘ What if you told the truth and the whole world heard you? What if you lived in a country swamped with Internet outrage? What if you were a woman in a society that hated women?
Set in the San Francisco of 2013, I Hate the Internet offers a hilarious and obscene portrayal of life amongst the victims of the digital boom. As billions of tweets fuel the city’s gentrification and the human wreckage piles up, a group of friends suffers the consequences of being useless in a new world that despises the pointless and unprofitable.
In this, his first full-length novel, Jarett Kobek tackles the pressing questions of our moment. Why do we applaud the enrichment of CEOs at the expense of the weak and the powerless? Why are we giving away our intellectual property? Why is activism in the 21st Century nothing more than a series of morality lectures typed into devices built by slaves?
Here, at last, comes an explanation of the Internet in the crudest possible terms.’
The world is exhaustively knowable through fine grained propositions. A novel isn’t the ultimate fine grained propositional machine. It just has to be fine grained enough. Kobek’s hard-headed novel is a modern Swiftian display of non-sentimental satirical angst. It’s fine grained enough. Night after night we’re locked in rooms where the image of Trump returns to the screens again and again and Kobek’s words drill:
‘It was a terrible time to be alive. It was like being kicked to the ground and then being kicked while you were on the ground. Again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
Buy his book here to keep him biding!
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 28th, 2016.