sociology of flame culture

Mon, 1 Nov 1993 20:49:39 EST

extremes, anyway, may omit the ritual-insult practices grouped under the
general heading of "flaming." It is this writer's opinion that the general
virulence of these practices have diminished in the past year or so, as many
more novice participants - "newbies" - join ever more rapidly proliferating,
subdividing, minutely specializing lists: Distinctive subcultural traits and
practices get diluted; hard-core addicts are numerically overwhelmed by those
giving greater centrality to RL ("real life," or face-to-face interation; var.
IRL = "in real life").

In two years, one may have already observed the "passing of tradition." This
is of course relative. HISTORY@UBVM, once the scene of absurd ideological wars
with a rightwing trio of an astronomer at Georgia Tech posing as a barroom
redneck, a Second Lieutenant studying Law at the U of West Virginia whose
martial exploits consisted of beating up campus leftists, and an anthropologist
at SUNY Buffalo (as listowner of VWAR-L suspecting George Bush of treasonous
intent of normalizing relations with Vietnam), and myself as the left, has
become quiescent and boring, with nothing on the air but requests for sources
and software-touting. But another of our sister stations, FNORD-L@UBVM, "New
Ways of Thinking List," formerly a convenient repository for humor I had
nowhere else to send, has in the last several months become *exclusively*
devoted to flamerei adepts whose discourse is almost entirely - the exceptions
are just-joined neophytes who have no idea what the list is about, which is
inevitable given that its sole historical constant has been the aversion to
being "about" anything in particular or in general - the genre of ritualistic
insult comparable in virulence to what is found in certain warrior cultures
or street gangs but indulged in by office workers and students. Here is the
novice poster of a single poem getting a ritual initiation,

>Shut the fuck up, you sanctimonious little shit, there is more poetry

which is cited here for its typical usages and because it happened to arrive
in today's traffic.

"Flaming" is so prevalent that one may have, up to two years ago, have
concluded, with little exaggeration, "Flaming is what e-mail is for," which
is how I said it. The alternative would have been pompous sociogibberish about
"latent functions," which is stylistically abominable; moreover is a usage
only an avowed functionalist would countenance; more moreover, Robert K.
Merton was one of the most overrated social science minds of the century now
ending, and only in the context of the vacuity of social thought induced by
state terror and Eisenhower Administration fatuity could Social Theory and
Social Structure have attained classic stature.

[This is a digression. Its genesis is attributable to a recent discussion
of "jargon" in the writing of social science. The passage of the Parsonian
pretend-paradigm has relegated functionalist lingo to the status of improper
expression or obscenity. But well, hell, *everyone* is a functionalist in
synchronic analysis; Marx himself couldn't get out of bed in the morning
without writing something smacking of functionalism; and the earliest versions
of social theory, in Chinese and Greek classical antiquity, were functionalist.
RETURN to calling program.]

There is an immense roiling pit of free-floating aggression, my explanation
ran, in the sedentary, soft-spoken, well-mannered office-worker population,
the higher-education industry included. This is complicated by occupational
stress and the routine performance of activities whose "meaningfulness" is
at best, and quite consciously, the artifact of the consequences of
nonfeasance. Cyber-narcissists have made the point, daily continue to make
the point, that people, or rather, pretended identities of people, are less
"real" "on the net" than "IRL." This invariably, in certain quarters, leads
to endless discussions of what the human personality is, what authenticity
is, and so on; with axiomatic assumption of the existence of "True Self,"
the secularized variant of "Soul," going unquestioned.

Victims of personal slurs, it need hardly be added, rarely do very much
to the perpetrator except retaliate in kind, which the passive viewing audience
- "lurkers" - enjoy more than they care to admit. Consider the duration and
intensity of the "Hardwick Crisis" in the ANTHRO-L folk-history, which is
hardly imaginable had not all too many people not harbored a sneaking sense
of joyous anticipation at what delightfully scabrous insults and injuries the
day might bring; and still others the same orgiastic rage release indulged by
the publicly identifiable villain.

Typical flaming involves personalities who are in principle occupational
colleagues or gonnabes. They are genuinely interested in what the list was
supposed to have been about, even if they are not actually employed in the
occupation: historians, anthropologists, Marxist sociologists. (I am reminded
that the Progressive Sociologists Network, having tired of Chaos Theory, sank
almost with relief into a vituperative exchange between one of the more narrow
minded contributors, whose dogmatic upholding of the freedom of expression of
rightwingers under any and all circumstances has become tiresome, and a younger
scholar who objected that the former protagonist was outraging common sense
and insisting on normative behavior which was in empirically observable social
life quite impossible: When major abstractions are at stake, the partisans of
common sense are at a serious disadvantage. Common sense is as everyone knows
an artifact of bourgeois ideology, hegemonic ideology, anti-democratic
tendencies, or the first step down the slippery slope to recrudescent red-
baiting; and be sure to order his new book Turncoats and True Believers which
proves everyone but him is a dangerous fanatic.)

The point is that no scrutiny of particular cases, which is likely to
include only public postics and omit what in truly egregious "flame wars"
is likely to be the spiciest data of all, private offline e-mail, can evade
the salience of personalities. Social-theoretical generalization, however,
demands the rejection of psychologizing.

The linecounter has reminded me that anyone with any common sense should
knock off right here and say good night. But there is a, pardon the expression,
very serious methodological issue which someone in the mushrooming field of
Cyberspace Studies had better get obsessional about, and quickly. I've
run into the same issues before, and called it "Messodology," defined as "the
study of transitory, evanescent, and explosively self-transformatory social
Thingies." The core of the problem should be obvious: The object of analysis
changes faster than it can be studied by respectable research methods in the
social sciences; faster even than can be accommodated by unorthodox research
methods. Two content areas are most seriously distorted by the inadequacy of
research strategies:
1. The cultural froth of stylistic subcultures as propagated by mass-media-
ted commercialization. Here, the scholarly practice, in the form of
postmodernism, has been absorbed tout court into the object of analysis,
attaining faddish status inseparable from the fads it purports to analyze.
And why bother separating them?
2. When society goes into one of those liminal states we call social
movements, social upheavals, and revolutions, as it does every few decades,
the consciousness and discourse of millions of people may become transformed
in a matter of weeks. When Order is forcibly restored, no matter who has won,
the failure to accurately chronicle - let alone understand - the changes which
did occur are compounded by failures to do representational justice to what
happened. Or sometimes by successful deliberate misrepresentations, falsifi-
cations, smug self-satisfying lies.
There are those who assert that e-mail, "the net," cyberspace are vehicles
of the revolution, or *are* the revolution. They now look foolish. Most things
which look foolish will be foolish in retrospect; some of what seems foolish
on the eves of social upheavals will be platitudes afterwards. Without fear
of disconfirmation in the event of the unknowable, I am certain we will be
too slow, and as happened with the 1960s we will have no theory. The 1960s
have been consigned to the Unknown.

Daniel A. Foss