Here for the Ratio
(The reddenda ratio, that is)
After some frustrating months now of watching my respectable but never exactly stratospheric subscriber rates plateau, I am going to step back away from my usual niche interests (Pliny the Elder, reindeer-husbandry on the Taimyr Peninsula…) and do what I had originally intended to do here in this ‘stack first and foremost, the official name of which remains “The Hinternet” and which I initially conceived as a sort of paratext-cum-promotional vehicle for my new book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is. I am, namely, going to focus today on the internet, and the Discourse(s) thereupon, and what all this says about our contemporary techno-politico-cultural conjuncture. With any luck this will be found to be “relatable”, zeitgeistlich; it will be said that I really “have my finger on the pulse” of our historical moment; the “piece” will be shared far and wide, and new subscribers will come rumbling in like unto roughly 30-50 feral hogs.
Never do I feel more trapped in the Matrix than when I attempt to do what I have proposed to do in section 0. above. Paradoxes of infinite regress quickly emerge as one attempts, from any position within social-media or the social-media-adjacent territories of Substack, The New York Times, &c., to critique the media on which one is necessarily relying in order to get the critique out there. You can try to “move up a level”, as you might do in playing Super Mario Bros. (or whatever its later iterations are; I last played in 1992), and say things about the sort of things people are saying at the level beneath you, but obviously you are still inside the same video game. One might imagine a sort of “incompleteness theorem” about online Discourse, whereby no critique that is made of the online world can ever avoid redounding back upon itself, adversis armis conversis.
There have been some valiant attempts. Freddie deBoer is particularly noteworthy for moving up to levels of the game other players generally didn’t even know to exist. He has built what seems to be a thriving post-Twitter presence on Substack, doing almost nothing other than analyzing the absurd circularities and contradictions that he observes, presumably from an anon account, on the bird website he has otherwise renounced. He has moved some distance away, and from this new perch has tried to get on top of what everyone else is saying. Often he exposes and ridicules some truly ridiculous online behavior, as for example the wacky tendency of white people on social media to denounce other white people for being white — the “white-off”, he calls it. His method of exposure is simply to pick out instances, and to say: look at this white guy calling this other guy white, and then to show a photo of the first white guy, which reveals that he is indeed quite white, and then to reiterate: Just look at him!
Now, of course it’s necessary that someone do what deBoer is doing: calling this futile insanity what it is. And at the same time, what he is doing is also an instance of the insanity: it is, yet again, a white guy online calling another white guy online white. And now I find myself trying to manoeuvre one level higher, and to critique the Discourse from a perch that even deBoer has not yet reached. But if I succeed, my critique will also be an instance of the thing of which it is a critique. There is no escape.
Well, at least there is no escape other than retreat into silence, or back to the Taimyr Peninsula. But that would hardly drive up subscriber rates.
One of the primary sticking points that prevents me from being a Marxist, even as I think Marxist analysis is the most illuminating framework we have for making sense of history and economics, is that I could never abide the idea of false consciousness. Another way of putting this is that Marxism is pretty adequate for the study of history and economics, utterly inadequate for anthropology, which I tend to care about most of all, and for which I think an anarchist lens is most revealing. Do you really want to tell a Nuer herdsman that the cattle-centric cosmology he uses to understand his place in the world is just an artefact of ideology, flowing from the relations of labor that prevail in his society and of which he remains ignorant? Wouldn’t it perhaps be more interesting to see what happens when you take his word for it, about what a cow is, for example, and how cows relate to human beings? And if you are willing to approach a Nuer herdsman in this way, why not also a concitoyen of yours who thinks Nascar is the ultimate thrill, or a lower-bourgeois French person who thinks no holiday meal is complete without pigs’ feet in aspic and who simply adores Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube”?
The presumption of the theory of false consciousness, that you as a politically awakened individual can know what’s “really going on” with another person’s tastes, desires, beliefs, aspirations, strikes me as analogous to the one-upsmanship that has people on social media always trying to proffer takes on what others are saying, but to do so from a higher level in the game. Once this dynamic is set in motion, there is no end to the series of moves by which one person might accuse another of false consciousness or of insufficient enlightenment. And this is why social media is such a fertile ground both for the propagation of conspiracy theories —where people are constantly trying to one-up one another in demonstrations of just how far they are prepared to deviate in their beliefs from the standard establishment-media story—, and for the internecine and Robespierrean purges and exclusions that seem practically the raison d’être, rather than the nasty-but-necessary business, of the online left.
One of the more curious bottom-up forms of user engagement on Twitter is expressed in the phrase “here for the ratio”. The idea, for those of you who do not use Twitter, is that the most desirable form of engagement, from the point of view of a poster, is a retweet, which sends the “OP” (original post) to readers it otherwise would not reach. A nice but not nearly as powerful form of engagement is the “fave”, which seems to do something to the algorithms that determine a post’s prominence, but still is not enough to contribute even infinitesimally to its prospects for virality. Counterintuitively, the last sort of engagement one wants on a post is a comment. No one is there for “dialogue” —only an ignorant newb would suppose otherwise—, and the norm for comments is insincere trolling, reply-guy obsequiousness, and outright hostility. If you have something constructive or friendly to say, there are better channels than to comment directly below a post, for example in a praise-laden quote tweet or in a direct message. And so, curiously, the best way to ruin a person’s day, to express your contempt for their failed effort at tweeting, is to pile on in the comments beneath the OP. Sometimes this involves creative insults, or uncreative ones, but just as often a reader will simply write: “Here for the ratio” — that is to say, I’m writing this comment only to widen the gap between the number of faves and retweets on the one hand, and the number of comments on the other.
There is at least some small irony in the recollection that “ratio”, as used in geometry and statistics, and also more recently on Twitter, derives from the same Latin word that we translate as “reason”, as in the faculty of the mind by which a human being may be called “rational”. The Latin ratio in turn translates the Greek logos, which is the thing any number of people in antiquity might have been said to be “here for” — when they went to the agora to discourse with Socrates, for example, or when they read the Gospel of John and learned that the Word has been here all along. It’s hard to say what rationality is. Steven Pinker thinks he knows. I wrote a book attempting to show various ways in which the boundary between rationality and its opposite is far more porous than we would like for it to be, and that reason always brings unreason trailing along with it. Nonetheless, it seems safe to say that whoever is “here for the ratio” is not “here for the logos”. On the contrary, to seek to ratio (as a newfangled verb) is to flee as far you possibly can from the logos, to hate it, to turn your back on it as a sinner does the truth. As I say, this is only a small irony; words have many meanings. But still…
But still, it is worthwhile to pause and think about this new phenomenon of ratioing, as there is something to be learned from it about the particular species of unreason that has taken over the world in the past decade. What is particularly surprising is not that mobs enjoy indulging their unreason and piling on whenever someone says something poorly thought out, cringe- or cancel-worthy, but rather that prominent persons and organizations and even states seem to welcome their own ratioing as not just an inevitable but even a desirable element of their online presence.
I was struck this past week by two such prominent cases of ratioing. One was a tweet from the FBI, which in recent years has taken to the internet to say something maudlin and insincere about the legacy of Martin Luther King whenever the holiday in his honor comes back around. In 2020 Jaboukie Young-White hilariously got himself suspended from Twitter for impersonating the FBI in an MLK Day tweet, declaring: “Just because we killed MLK doesn’t mean we can’t miss him”. But the FBI’s actual MLK Day tweet in 2022 was scarcely less absurd than Jaboukie’s satire: “‘Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’’.” We know for a fact that in 1963 what the FBI was doing “for” Martin Luther King was a covert operation to pressure him into killing himself, which makes Jaboukie’s account of what would happen five years later difficult to put out of our minds altogether. And so of course the FBI got ratio’d right to hell, with 5.1 thousand comments for only 1.8 thousand likes; in the Twittersphere, that is a major, unambiguous flop.
Consider in turn a recent tweet from Planned Parenthood. Attempting to convey sex-positivity while also signalling that it has adopted the new linguistic norm whereby genital organs have no relation to one’s identity as a man or a woman, the organization that until recently defined its purview as “women’s health” declared on December 31 of last year: “Sexually speaking, folks with a vulva are far more than reproductive machines”. And, of course, Planned Parenthood got ratio’d right to hell too, with 106 faves compared to 1.1 thousand comments, many of which featured monotonous word-play about the joys and troubles of owning a Volvo, and many of which, of course, simply said: “Here for the ratio”.
On the face of it, the motivations behind these two tweets might seem to be very different. The one is from a non-profit organization, which sees its role in the world as benevolent, and which sees its adoption of as-yet-minoritarian language as a contribution to a vanguard movement for greater inclusivity. The other is from a cynical state organization that surely only cares about realpolitik, and for which public relations can at most be an afterthought. And yet, there is a suspicion I have trouble shaking that might be formulated like this: The ratio is the reason, not in the sense that “reason” is one of the translations of “ratio”, as we’ve discussed, but in the sense that these organizations are saying what they say on social media in order to get engagement of any sort, positive or negative. The FBI knows there’s no way in hell it’s going to live down its history with MLK, and yet in the social-media era no large organization has the option of simply remaining silent. So the FBI’s social team just plunges ahead and says the corniest most disingenuous thing they can imagine, waits for the ratio to hit, and when it does the bureau finds itself every bit as powerful and unassailable as before. Being able to weather the ratioing is a signal of indomitability. And this is mutatis mutandis also the logic of vanguard linguistic innovations that quite patently the great majority of people have trouble comprehending, but that humanitarian and cultural non-profits insist on deploying. Come at us with your Volvo jokes, Planned Parenthood seems to be saying; the wider the ratio between faves and comments on the OP that replaces women with vulva-havers, the more secure is our place among vanguard institutions, which is really where we want to be — not with the preterite masses, but as close as possible to the sources of power and money, part of whose power is a power over language.
The single greatest pioneer of this new path to power through engagement, be it positive or negative, is of course the former and perhaps future US president Donald Trump. For years brainless “Resistance” members dutifully came up with impotent gotchas each time Trump made some outrageous comment on Twitter, never learning that they were in fact only feeding the beast. Others have followed this general political strategy, from wildly different ideological starting-points: AOC, Lauren Boebert, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In all of their cases, it is often easy to suppose that internet-notoriety is the goal itself, and political office is the means to arrive there, rather than the reverse as is generally supposed.
Increasingly, internet power is the only power there is. Unlike, say, Buzzfeed or the Daily Mail, on the face of it neither the FBI nor Planned Parenthood needs hate-clicks or hostile reactions in order to keep doing what they’re doing, and so we might wonder what’s motivating them, why for example the FBI needs a social team at all. I’m only stabbing at an answer, and I think the next few years will make clear whether I’m right or not, but it seems to me that social media are in the process of swallowing literally everything: first newspapers and books, later education, and, ultimately, banking, policing, and government. If this is true, then even the FBI needs to secure its place there, if it is to have a future, and the logic that dictates how to do this is the same for the bureau as it is for Buzzfeed: just keep churning out disingenuous bullshit.
Allow me to move back a bit closer to the Taimyr Peninsula than I initially promised, or at least to the country whose vast empire it adorns. Notice in the previous section I did not mention war among the things the internet is swallowing up. Here, in particular, I think the question remains open, and could indeed be resolved as early as this year.
I have sometimes been inclined to think that all the verbal viciousness we see on the internet will turn out to have been worth the trade-off, if the internet turns out also to be the engine by which military aggression is sublimated into “sick burns”, as often seems to be the case when we watch the back-and-forth on Twitter between the IDF and Iran — all done in English, of course, in the name of greater engagement. What if war could be contained within the fibre-optic cables and their various terminals around the world, sometimes causing real-world harm, for example when power grids are knocked out by hackers, but never again requiring the evisceration of soldiers on battlefields? Wouldn’t that be a true instance of Pinkerian progress?
And yet today on the cover of the New York Times I see a Ukrainian soldier standing in a snow-covered trench that looks little different from those dug in 1914, and it seems to me I really don’t know what course the world is on. Russia has long seemed to me to be the ultimate troll state — analogically speaking, it establishes its notoriety through comments-level disingenuousness, rather than through OP’s, but it is such a master at the game of trolling that it has earned a reputation usually achieved only through the direct acquisition of a sizeable followership. It has seemed to me that Russia’s modus operandi from here on out, or at least as long as Putin is in power, will be to sow confusion, to never really do what it always seems poised to do, and to make that inaction itself a form of action by which it gets more or less what it wants.
And yet we also know that Russia fights — in the old-fashioned sense of fighting. One does not like to perpetuate deep-seated historical stereotypes, as in truth there really is no such thing as national character. But immersed as I am in primary sources describing the initial contacts of Russia with Europe and Asia in the late Middle Ages and into the early modern period, I am consistently struck by some unmistakable historical leitmotifs. A travel report from Muscovy in Richard Hakluyt’s remarkable compendium of 1589-1600, The Principall Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation, tells us “Of the discipline of warre amongst the Russes”. What we learn there could practically be taken for an account of the Battle of Stalingrad. I’ll transcribe here some key points in what must be the most impenetrable Elizabethan typeface ever chiseled:
Whensoever the iniuries of their neighbours doe call the King foorth to battell, he never armeth a lesse number against the enemie, then 300. thousand souldiers, 100. thousand whereof he carieth out into the field with him, and leaveth the rest in garrison in some fit places… [T]hey are a kind of people most sparing in diet, and most patient in extremitie of colde, above all others. For when the ground is covered with snowe, and is growen terrible and hard with the frost, this Russe hangts up his mantle, or souldiers coate, against that part from whence the winde and Snowe drives, and so making a little fire, layeth downe with his backe towards the weather: this mantle of his serves him for his bed, mast, house, and all… [T]his barbarous, and rude Russe, condemnes the daintines and nicenes of our Captaines, who living in a soile and aire much more temperate, yet use furred boots, and cloakes.
There is a Yakut legend, likely shared in common with other inner Asian peoples, according to which, when the Russians first arrived in the 1630s, they asked the supreme Yakut warlord Tygyn Darkhan to grant them a plot of land “the size of the skin of a bull”. Tygyn Darkhan gave them a hide, and they proceeded to cut it around the edge into a continuous thin strip, until they had a long strand which they placed on the ground in a giant circle. Inside this circle they built an enormous fortress, and moved out from there to conquer all of Yakutia.
Putin has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century. Sometime around 1994, the dissident author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, no friend of the Soviet Union, for his part opined that the break-up of the USSR happened too fast, and more of it broke away than naturally or organically belonged apart from Russia. Solzhenitsyn would have liked to see Belarus, the eastern Russophone parts of Ukraine, and some of the northwestern Russophone parts of Kazakhstan eventually returned to their proper place in the Russian Republic. Putin’s strategy over the last decade has been broadly to make good on Solzhenitsyn’s wish.
It is difficult to know to what extent Russia in its present form is a revanchist empire doing what empires have always done —maximizing its territory and its sphere of territorial influence— and to what extent it is part of this strange new order that I have attempted to describe in the previous sections, in which territory matters less and less, and abstract networks and influence more and more. The brave new world of abstract clout-seeking, however irrational, however frightening, has some advantages over the old world of imperial entrenchments. I often find myself wishing Putin would behave a bit more like Trump, hamming it up online for attention, instead of pulling away altogether from the engine that churns up short-lived influencers such as I still hope our last president will turn out to be. Instead, Putin seems to remain stuck in that old way of seeing things, where reality is still out there in the world itself, in the form of territory, of oceanic shelves and transcontinental pipelines, while the online is a distraction for fools.
I have some important “real-world” writing to do, and will not be back here on Substack for at least two weeks, maybe three. Please don’t forget about me during my short sabbatical, and please consider subscribing if you have not done so already.