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The Flames of Hell: Death and War in Cyberspace

Today, it seems that the rhetoric of the mass media is once again becoming vitriolic and abusive.
David Hawkes

Issue #18, January 1995

Nor shall I approach unknown nor perhaps unloved, if it be told that I am the same person who engaged in single combat that fierce advocate of despotism till then reputed invincible in the opinion of many, and in his own conceit who insolently challenged us and our armies to the combat, but whom, while I repelled his virulence, I silenced with his own weapons; and over whom, if I may trust to the opinions of impartial judges, I gained a complete and glorious victory.
— John Milton, Second Defense of the English People.
I wish no living thing to suffer pain.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound.

I have just returned from the annual convention of the Modern Language Association in San Diego. One of the most interesting sessions I attended was entitled 'Strategies of Discourse in Cyberspace', in which a paper of particular moment was presented by William B. Millard, of Rutgers University. Millard's piece, ''A Great Flame Follows a Little Spark': Metaflaming and the Functions of the 'Dis' in the Rhetoric of a Discussion List' was, as the title implies, an analysis of the phenomenon of flame wars, focusing especially on the movement such conflagrations engender towards a meditation on flaming in general, or 'metaflaming'. In the course of an entertaining and informative presentation, Millard referred to November's flame war on the Bad Subjects list as a paradigmatic example of the genre. A hand-out was distributed which contained extracts from that war, quoting myself and Ian Mackenzie in the historical context of vituperative, ad hominem debate. Millard's analysis confirmed me in my opinion that the opprobrium with which 'personal' attacks are presently viewed is a recent and specific judgment which rises to prominence with the bourgeoisie, and which is unlikely to survive the advent of the Information Society.

The two quotations with which I preface this piece are separated by 150 years, but also by a yawning moral chasm, which is all the more surprising for the fact that the two authors in question are generally held to have a great deal in common. Like all the English Romantics, Shelley took Milton as his personal hero, and strove to emulate him in his life as in his writing. But Shelley, revolted by the Terror into which the once-admired French Revolution had recently degenerated, differs markedly from Milton over the value and propriety of personal hatred. Both men were thorougoing revolutionaries who felt utter contempt for their opponents, and Shelley's 'Sidmouth and Castlereagh' is one of the most vicious of poetic flames. In his neo-Miltonic epic, however, Shelley makes Prometheus' rejection of the temptation to hate his tormentors the precondition of his redemption. Only once the hero announces his sympathy for and forgiveness of the tyrant can the true revolution be accomplished. Shelley thus endorses the Christian principle of turning the other cheek — a position which is often linked to the recession of the prospects for an English Revolution along the lines of the French, and which can thus be seen to involve a political quietism and resignation.

If Shelley's ultimate position on personal hatred is pseudo-Christian, Milton's is uncompromisingly Old Testament, demanding (at least) an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The virulence of Milton's antipathy to his opponent in this pamphlet war — the hapless Salmasius — is nothing short of astonishing. He starts from the assumption that one's political views are the direct reflection of one's personality and moral character, and that anyone whose politics are conservative must be personally depraved: 'He who maintains this [royal] prerogative must himself be a monster of injustice and inequity' This belief leads Milton to devote a good third of his defense of the English Revolution to personal abuse of 'Salmasius or Salmasia, for to which sex he belonged is a matter of uncertainty', which leaves no holds barred whatsoever. Nor does the poet, who we must remember was writing as the official representative of the English Government, refrain from gloating reflections on the recent exchanges:

'I obtained such a victory over my opponent that notwithstanding his unparalleld assurance he was obliged to quit the field with his courage broken and his reputation lost; and for the three years which he lived afterwards, much as he menaced and furiously as he raved, he gave me no further trouble'.

Salmasius, who had recently had the misfortune to die and thus render himself defenceless, was according to Milton a satanist, an animal, a pimp, a hermaphrodite, a vile worm whom even to mention pollutes the mouths of decent people. Milton's only regret is that he had not been quicker to publish these calumnies, thereby affording his opponent 'a short delay of vengeance and of punishment'. But what seems most strange to modern readers is that Milton — a man who in every other respect appears a model of decency, generosity and virtue — actually claims to have KILLED Salmasius:

But the conflict between me and Salmasius is now finally terminated by his death...there are some who impute his death to the penetrating severity of my strictures, which he rendered only the more sharp by his endeavors to resist. When he saw the work which he had in hand proceed slowly on, the time of reply elapsed, the public curiosity subsided, his fame marred, and his reputation lost... he was destroyed after three years of grief rather by the force of depression than disease.

Milton, the official theorist of the first modern revolution, was an outspoken advocate of murder as a political weapon. He produced the revolutionary government's justification of the execution of Charles I, 'Eikonoklastes', in which he unequivocally argues that kings are subhuman creatures, unfit to live. In the following century, the Jacobin Saint-Just declared that, since 'one cannot reign innocently', the very fact of King Louis' title justified his beheading. The argument was extended to the entire French aristocracy, who were physically eliminated regardless of their professed opinions — the Terror even claimed the King's brother, who had joined the revolution and adopted the name 'Phillipe-Egalite'. This orgy of killing was fueled and inspired by the incendiary rhetoric of the revolutionary newspapers, such as Marat's 'L'Ami du Peuple' and Herbert's 'Pere Duchesne', with their rabid vituperation of conservatives and class enemies.

The twentieth century has seen the nexus of rhetorical and actual violence spread into an instrument of genocide, culminating in 'Der Sturmer', Stalinist propaganda, and McCarthyism. Today, it seems that the rhetoric of the mass media is once again becoming vitriolic and abusive. Paglia and Burchill, Limbaugh and Stern, Ice-Cube and Cutty Ranks all represent notable departures from the standards of decency and decorum which once held for their respective fields. What should be the attitude of decent, kindly people, who 'wish no living thing to suffer pain' (and of whom I am one) towards this development?

One possibility would be to deplore it, disengage from it, and to refuse to participate in it. This would be self-righteous and hypocritical. None of us is free from sadistic impulses, all of us frequently feel angry and contemptuous of those with whom we disagree on political issues. Moreover, we can be sure that by insisting on adherence to bourgeois standards of decorum we will marginalize ourselves into total insignificance. Limbaugh and Gingrich will not stop flaming under any circumstances — their popularity and influence rest upon their mastery of the art. The recent election was won by the party which, along with the talk-radio hosts and conservative pop-culture critics, has successfully incorporated ad hominem abuse into intellectual discourse. Clearly, flaming wins votes. People enjoy reading and listening to flames. Hypocritical rejection of flame culture will lead only to obscurity.

On the other hand, the historical connections between political flaming and violence suggest that this is a medium which must be handled with care. The problem facing radicals today is: how to combat Limbaugh and co. without encouraging actual violence against people? It seems to me that this can only be done by applying postmodern insights into the distinction between the writing subject and the real person. It must be clearly understood that to abuse someone's discourse is not the same thing as abusing the person. The category of 'ad hominem', in other words, must be seen to apply only to the authorial persona, and in no way to the actual human being.

I think Limbaugh and his fans have instinctively grasped this. The people who enjoy hearing him deride leftists are not, by and large, hateful individuals. Rather, they enjoy (as I suspect we all do) the spectacle of vituperative rhetoric. It is of the utmost importance that we establish the fact that it is only rhetoric. The impersonal, anonymous medium of electronic communication provides a perfect opportunity to separate invective against someone's writing from physical or emotional abuse of the person's body or soul. Let us seize this opportunity to develop our rhetorical skills — the popularity influence of Limbaugh and his imitators indicates that others are doing so, and will continue to do so.

The potential of flaming as a tool of radical politics is immense. Nothing is easier than to deride the defenders of capitalism, since capitalism is so obviously indefensible. In free and open public debates, such as have recently become possible and widely accessible through the Internet, the left will trounce the capitalists every time. Any restriction on this medium — and a restriction on form is also a restriction of content — is thus against the interests of the left. Unlike debate on the radio, television, or in print, Net discussions cannot be manipulated by producers or hosts. And compared to those other media, the Net allows a far greater degree of separation between virtual and actual personal attacks. The Internet may allow us to break the link — which has tragically and inexorably led revolutions to degenerate into Terror since the time of Milton — between violent, radical, angry rhetoric and the physical elimination of political opponents.

This is why I found Millard's MLA paper so illuminating. His essential point was that, on the Internet, flame wars inevitably culminate in 'metaflaming' — debate about the phenomenon of flaming itself. This indicates that people are already being led to reflect on the nature of electronic communication, and on the rhetorical possibilities it raises. It has the potential to liberate the legitimate anger and hatred we feel towards political adversaries from the previously constant threat of real violence. On the Net, people can tell each other what they really think of them without having to back up their opinion with physical force.

Rhetoric is power. Writing can and does change things. Violence is also power, and also changes things. The history of revolutions suggests that an imperative task for revolutionaries is to prize apart rhetoric and violence. A violent revolution is neither possible nor desirable. A rhetorical revolution is both. Any radical change in the postmodern age will come about through a revolution of the mind: changes in material circumstances will be the result of spiritual changes, not the other way around. Since all mental processes take place in language, the linguistic battlefield is of central importance. We must not deprive ourselves of the weapons we will need to win rhetorical battles.

Nor must we pretend that they are not battles. If we believe that what we say matters, we must say it with all the force available to us. We must resist the temptation to condemn such virtual warfare as if it were real warfare. Such misplaced morality not only condemns us to eternal impotence, it also bespeaks a lack of understanding and an underestimation of the real dangers of real violence for radical political projects.

David Hawkes is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Lehigh University. Sometimes he gets carried away. His book, Ideology, is forthcoming with Routledge in 1995. He can be reached at the following Internet address:

Copyright © by David Hawkes 1995. All rights reserved.