Word of the day: ‘kneejerk’


“He released a statement on Twitter expressing his shock.” – The Guardian on Jeremy Corbyn’s reponse to the terrorist attack in Finsbury Park.

Twitter gathers instant responses to events faster than any other media, so conventional news outlets trail behind it rather like old dogs at the end of a long walk with an excitable six-year old child. In the above example little blame attaches to Corbyn himself, whose response did actually extend to several sentences and thus can’t really be described as kneejerk. In any case “shock” is a reasonable response to such a tragedy. Nonetheless, it could be argued that in basing so much of its source material on Twitter, The Guardian is at fault for following the lazy conventions of all modern media. If reactions to an atrocity or the death of a major figure somstimes seem glib it’s because Twitter just isn’t an adequate medium for thoughts and feelings which go beyond the most immediate emotional reactions. Especially, it should go without saying, in the hands of a child-brained president who (tellingly) considers it his ideal medium.

I’ve always disliked the word ‘kneejerk’ as it strikes me as too much of a cliche, and an increasingly prevalent one at that. It seems too easy to accuse someone of a kneejerk reaction, and thus the word embodies what it describes. Nevertheless, it’s a useful metaphor in that other languages don’t appear to employ it, preferring to describe such reactions as ‘impulsive’, which doesn’t capture the automatic response to a stimulus. If ‘kneejerk’ is a stale metaphor, it’s one that urgently needs reinvigorating as it’s such a useful term to describe how social media works. Tweets, posts and comments are almost always impulsive. A click is a kneejerk reaction. If the whole phenonemon of social media is the early stages of an experiment, it’s a Pavlovian one.

The speed of online interactions seems to be a particularly powerful trigger for cognitive biases we probably can’t apprehend or control, and which are in any case much easier to spot in others than in ourselves. Thus it allows for manipulation of those biases, going far beyond standard advertising techniques in its accelerated interplay of emotions of punishment and reward. It also allows for the insinuation and rapid diffusion of logical fallacies through the phenomenon of memes. A hammer hitting a knee at any point on the planet can reverberate exponentially, far quicker and wider than any Washington Post factchecking endeavour.

The opposite of a kneejerk reaction is careful reflection, the consideration of different and possibly conflicting evidence. Proper serious media provides this.One response to Twitter is the institution in long reads, which by definition demand patience and tolerance of ambiguity and attention to nuance on behalf of both writer and reader*.

Blogs, decrepid market stalls occupying an overlooked corner of the global attention economy, tend to be drawn towards clickbait, the equivalent of shouting out deals that sound too good to be true. Ostensibly left-wing sites such as Skwawkbox and The Canary copy the form of Breitbart and the like, specialising in hot takes designed to fix their followers’ craving for comfort snacks, using the cheapest ingredients available: links to other webpages, with very little in the way of (highly nutritional) original research.

It’s easy to decry the kneejerkery of the others, but what about my own? This blog makes no claim whatsoever to be a news site, but sometimes mimics the format. It uses satire as one means of commenting on events, thus drawing on no resources other than time, imagination and other online content. It does not provide facts. Sometimes fleeting visitors arriving from social media mistake it for an authoritative news site, which explains why in January, when my catnip post about Donald Trump snapping went viral, several people were seemingly googling the phrase ‘is Infinite Coincidence reliable?’. I’ve seen several opinion pieces I’ve posted labelled ‘fake news’, as though the commentor is unaware of the difference between news sites and blogs. Sometimes that term is used as a kneejerk reaction to a given argument instead of a meaningful counter-argument. Maybe sites like this are the problem, encouraging such a response, thus leading us further down the rabbit hole. Maybe not.

I know I should respect my own awareness of these issues and avoid producing anything resembling clickbait if what I write here is to be at all useful or meaningful. One problem with writing online is the ephemerality of links. Most readers don’t click on them and I can’t assume they will. It’s essential instead to summarise facts and opinions from elsewhere, especially when the link is providing insightful analysis. I can’t complain about others’ attention deficits if what I’m producing is guilty of provoking a certain lazy response. There’s also an entropic tendency with blogs, for entries to become shorter and more perfunctory with time, which I’m (consciously at least) keen to withstand.

Some short things I post here, often in the form of outright news parodies, are intended as direct interventions in a debate, a pointed statement of a perspective I haven’t come across elsewhere. I sometimes get it hopelessly wrong. A cursory analysis of my own writing reveals more than the occasional logical fallacy. I should focus on writing longer, more thoughtful pieces that fewer people will read. In market terms, ones that I’m constutionally disinclined to think in, that means writing for a niche audience rather than trying to appeal to a mass audience given to skimming rather than ‘proper’ reading. This experience has taught me a great deal about my fallibility as an interpreter of events, one with the same bad habits as anyone else: selective reporting, virtue signalling, and all the rest. I apologise for getting it so wrong so often and will endeavour to be more reliable in the future. That may well involve thinking and reading more and writing a great deal less. Tl; dr: more long reads, fewer hot takes.
*There’s also their teenage cousin, the Twitter Mega-thread.

In which I renounce blogging


So far today 3,300,798 blog posts have been written and shared. This is the 3,300,799th, or probably, by the time I’ve finished probably the 3,333,333rd. (You can check for yourself here).

Someone has to read all this stuff and (shamefully) it’s not me. I don’t read many other blogs, or at least not regularly. This one is not part of a community of such sites, with fellow bloggers commenting on each others’ latest thoughts and discoveries. Such things can happen (when I was in China it was the case) but it hasn’t this time round. Thus I feel like I have a direct, individual relationship with the Internet rather than being part of a congregation or community of faith. It’s a Protestant relationship, in that there’s no mediating hierarchy and it encourages hard work towards an unclear reward.

Come to think of it, the Internet shares certain properties with a Christian God:

  • Its existence manifests itself almost exclusively thorough rituals (such as status updates, blogging and posting photos)
  • It offers the faithful the very occasional miracle (see below)
  • It’s omniscient
  • It’s ubiquitous
  • It’s omnipresent.
  • Its mood is alternately punishing and consoling

As you can see, theology is not my forte. On this blog I’ve written mostly about what could broadly be considered political questions and my relation to them. Around twenty years ago, for a period of about four years while I was living in Dublin, I was active in (and occasionally wrote for the publications of) a left-wing political organisation. My individual identity was subordinated to the needs of the party. As a foot soldier my time and energy were given over to hard work and disclipine on the basis of a shared faith in a common project. This necessitated being involved in relationships which were never entirely political and never wholly personal. Arguments ensued whose resolution often obliged me to swallow my pride and accept that I was wrong, that my perspective was too limited to see essential details or to grasp the bigger picture. As for writing, I mostly wrote reviews of films or books, evaluating them in terms of how well they contributed to the revolutionary struggle and stalinistically rebuking the cultural worker who had produced them if they had failed to do so.

Inevitably, I find this activity (blogging) much more satisfying. It allows me to fully express my personality and my identity with hardly any risk of admonishment. It engenders no personal dischord and involves as much or as little ‘discipline’ as I like. I am completely unaccountable, whether in terms of choosing what to wrote about or in terms of how true or how good what results is. There is no measure of success or failure. Whether I scribble some mild satire about Theresa May while my students are doing a test and only 25 people read it, or bash out some anti-Trump diatribe on the way to work that (after my having done the rounds of anti-Trump groups on Facebook) gets a couple of thousand views, what I post here is (for the most part) gloriously/frustratingly inconsequential. At the same time, I’ve got some lovely responses from some extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful people who’ve come across the site and whom if I’d never put finger to keyboard I would never have encountered, I’ve discovered some others who make astonishingly inventive use of the medium, and no one’s spat on me outside the GPO for being a ‘Trot’.

Politically, however, it’s hard to make a case for the usefulness of blogging. (Plus it remains a uniquely unpleasant-sounding word.) Even the most popular thing I’ve written here (by far) was essentially urging passivity and complacency. That explains why it took off as it did. The dream of any blogger came true for me – this was the miracle I referred to earlier. My post went viral, with 750,000 views in about four days. The feedback almost universally positive; very few took issue, which was extremely gratifying if also a little perturbing. Hard to keep up with, because a week later, we had a baby, which put things into some perspective.


The internet is a good fit for Herbert Marcuse’s concept of repressive desublimation, in that it allows people to let off fetid bursts of steam while constituting no threat to power structures. On last week’s ‘Under the Skin‘ podcast the filmmaker Adam Curtis argued convincingly that the development of late ’60s hippy counterculture led to an explosion of individualism which consumer capitalism was all too ready to facilitate. Nowadays, the Internet encourages us to believe that our individual feelings, rituals and gestures mean something, that they register on some elusive scale of value. While I may believe that I’m expressing my individuality, my unique perspective on the world, it just so happens that there are probably 30,000 people out there saying exactly the same things. The internet is a perfect manifestation of the power of the spectacle, one adapted to the pretensions and projections of every individual who accesses it and one in which we frantically produce and consume images of ourselves as productive and influential beings; the spider’s web of communicative capitalism eats up all individual protest, all the rants and outbursts and cogently-argued denunciations and feeds upon them. In providing me with a virtual patch of land in which to cultivate my narcissism, it allows me the illusion that I am engaging politically. Who benefits most is wordpress.com, which profits from my (briefly vomits) ‘content’ and that of millions of individuals who are all convinced that what they are doing is unique and important.

The role of the internet in relation to our political consciousness also validates the pessimism of the Frankfurt School, and the subsequent reflections of critical theory as to what Saul Bellow called ‘the late failure of radical hopes’. Our migration to a life lived online is partly responsible for and partly symptomatic of the fact that in the face of the absolute need for immediate and massive political transformation present generations are (in the modern era) unprecedentedly conservative. Adam Curtis hones in on the ubiquity of risk aversion in contemporary finance, and the ways in which this colours our everyday expectations and aspirations. Something I’ve noticed among some of those opposed to Brexit is a sense that everything was perfect before June 23rd and that the vote is a brutal intrusion, an ugly flaw in an otherwise unproblematic reality. For those who benefit from a certain measure of economic stability, any social or political change is something to be feared rather than encouraged. Seven years of talking to (mostly young) exam candidates from around the world, hearing and reading their thoughts about political and social issues, has for me repeatedly confirmed Mark Fisher’s diagnosis of ‘capitalist realism’, the notion that no matter how bad things get there is simply no other horizon to look towards. Curtis gives the example of Yemen – the resignation which which we greet the news that our Governments are funding – indeed, profiting from – what appears to be genocide. Speaking out against such horrors might put our own status at risk. The taboo that governs mentioning climate change on social media is reminiscient of those scenes in which the line-up of troops on parade quivers with fear, terrified that if they stand up against the bullying commandent they will be next to be humiliated. In this case its our peers who we fear might see us overly earnest or excessively serious in a medium designed for irony and levity – or, in the case of Twitter, irony and abuse.

The famous statement that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world that a slight alteration to capitalism implies that we would be unable to respond to anyone who demands to know what our alternative is. Instead we respond to gruesome disasters with Facebook prayers. Some sneer at Twitter hashtags like #prayforparis without reflecting on what a status update or a shared meme is but an invocation of, an appeal to, a higher power. Like Kierkegaard said of prayer itself, it is more useful to the person doing the updating than anything else. And what do memes resemble if not religious icons? The priests of this religion are those wannabe-demagogues who have a sufficient command over the arcane means of diffusing their messages or who already have access to a sufficiently elevated pulpit. Comedians do politics and politicians seek first and foremost to entertain, mostly by evoking outrage and giving it a clear and convincing focus. TED Talks mask the fact that for all that we live in a time of stupendous technological wizardry our age is also one of social stasis marked by economic ruination and a profound and widespread lack of moral and political agency.

Jodie Dean wrote in ‘Communicative Capitalism’ about the illusion that what we share must register in some significant but vague way, and the fantasy that posting online constitutes a meaningful political intervention. Lacan’s Big Other, that invisible and ineffable authority before which we genuflect, is somewhere online, reading everything we write. The Matrix is an increasingly efficient metaphor. FOMO is largely driven by fear of no longer existing. Disconnection means death.

There’s something deeply religious about all this frenetic online blathering, this blind compliance with the rituals of the world’s biggest ever cult. But while most Gods are benign, this one definitely is not. I want no more part in propagating these illusions, principally my own. It’s time to end this vanity project and to get involved in something useful.