Thursday, December 6, 2012

"The More You Ignore Me" - Poetry and Living in a Post-Truth World

Paul Killebrew: Not to get all Terry Gross on you, but you worked for a time at the Poetry Foundation and specifically on its blog when it was experimenting with open comment streams, which were soon taken over by some truly unlikeable voices. When you first told me about writing a novel that was one giant comment on a blog, I thought it would essentially be a spoof of those Poetry Foundation folks, but obviously it’s something much larger than that. Did the novel start out as a response to evil commenters, and if so, how did you get past that?

Travis Nichols: In the “evil commenters” big picture (by Hieronymus Bosch), the commenters on the Poetry Foundation’s site were not that bad. If, for example, you make the mistake of wading into the comments on a big Huffington Post story, you will be able to easily identify the enemy. He is the racist, sexist Neanderthal who seems to be typing with the one half of his thumb he didn’t just accidentally bite off. But on the Poetry Foundation’s site, it was much weirder. The comments section was perpetually late night at AWP on bad acid. Paranoia and erudition and endless self-aggrandizement and somebody bleeding out onto the Aztec carpet. As the designated moderator for the Poetry Foundation’s comments, I felt deeply deeply bonkers for a few months, largely because I took a lot of the rote online bullying personally. I also wanted to try to figure out how best to maintain a common space for people where not just sanctioned voices got through. Turns out, that’s a tough nut to crack and possibly the Poetry Foundation wasn’t the place for that kind of experimentation. We ended up shutting the comments on the main blog down, which led to a few choice specimens starting their own site on which to, initially, post photos of me and call me a fascist.


Comments are a revolutionary way to monetize hate, so it’s a great thing for people who can just count page views with a clear conscience.  For the rest of us?  Like the best poetry it’s happy and sad.  The great hope of the internet was that it was going to allow universal access to information, so that you could, for example, take a philosophy class at Berkeley while sitting in New Hampshire in your jams.  But what it’s turned out to be much more is a gateway to massive amounts of disinformation, leaving everyone in an atomized bubble to sort the truth alone; looking at photoshopped images of Hitler talking with aliens while Sarah Palin tells you your Grandma is going to an apology tour die-in sponsored by 4-H.

I read a pitch for a PR seminar that stated matter-of-factly that we live in a “post-truth” world, because there is as much signal as there is noise.  This is probably no different than when scratches in the temple wall served as a comment stream, when rumors about witchy behavior were rampant, but I do think comment streams are a reality check for anyone who believes too strongly in the Enlightenment, or in progress.  Everything you value is always under threat, always being negotiated, largely by trolls.

Comment sections also show on a minute-by-minute basis how terrible our education system is in this country.  And not because the teachers are bad but because public school teachers and students have largely been left for dead by the corporate right, who, of course, love disinformation.  The most fundamental attack on freedom is the attack on critical thinking skills.  Comments display our universal failure to teach and value critical thinking, leaving the possibility open that both everything and nothing could be true.  It’s a brilliant strategy on the part of the corporate right, and it is what makes people like the narrator of [my new novel, The More You Ignore Me] possible.  He makes up his own truth, and it is endlessly adaptable to his own self-interest.

-- Full interview here.