I don’t know how much you know about academic philosophy, but it’s all I can think about, all the time.
Picture Jacque Derrida sexily changing a single letter in a French word to create his famous non-concept, or Foucault stripping history naked to expose how the cultural categories we use every day are just as absurd as fantasy. Exhilarating, I know.
Right now I’m rereading Rorty and can’t shake loose the alternative vocabulary of contingency and irony he proposes for postmodernity. He was prolific and widely read, but he died in 2007 before the social media storm of the past decade and its new cultural categories had fully manifested. However, his ideas have never been more salient and timely, especially to the culture Duke undergrads participate in.
One category in particular, that of the ironist, seems to have a direct descendant (or, better yet, cool zoomer grandkid) in the much-less-academic ‘troll’, which is less of the wart-covered creature under a bridge from storybooks and more of the antiheroic poet we love to watch and be.
For Rorty, the ironist is someone who recognized the contingency of history and culture and identity—that all the stories we tell about the past, all the ways we do things now, all the communities we form, and all the identities we parse out of those communities are not dependent on some transcendent, ahistorical reality but rather chance and arbitrary circumstance. Language and the categories it constructs don’t resemble or even get close to representing the reality that transcends it, but are all games with rules that we play to get along with each other. For the ironist, no descriptive system, whether science, religion, art, or industry, get any closer to actually representing reality outside of the bounds of a language game. Consequently, the ironist is always more interested in creating shifts in vocabulary that everyone begins to use (like contemporary systems biology replacing the four humours of premodern science) rather than convincing by logical argument.
Rorty’s ironist is positioned in contrast to the metaphysician who believes the opposite of the ironist and acts like it too. The metaphysician is preoccupied with foundations, rationalism, and sincerity, where the ironist is constantly seeking to lift the veil on these as dependent and illusory. The metaphysician genuinely thinks that the rule of a language game like “stop signs are always read” correspond to and represent an unconstructed, non-arbitrary reality (just reading that sentence out loud demonstrates the contingency of meaning on whether you encounter the sentence in speech or writing). From Plato to Kant, philosophy was all metaphysical, but starting with Hegel and going on to Nietzche, Wittgenstein, Foucault, and Derrida, the ironists have dominated.
You’re probably not using terms like ‘ironist’ and ‘metaphysician’ when you talk with your friends, but if you’re younger than twenty-five you know what I mean when I say someone trolled someone else, who was obviously clowned. In parallel to Rorty’s categories I’m offering up the fun and flirty 2020 versions—the Troll and Clown. And after explaining what I really mean by them I’ll give the best example of trolling you’ll see all year: Wungus Rush 2020.
Trolling isn’t exclusive to postmodernity, but it certainly characterizes a shift away from a deeply-rooted social contract—sincerity. Far from isolating or alienating themselves from their cultural surroundings, the troll participates fully in a cultural game but totally ironically. If irony is the space between appearance and reality, the troll lives and moves about exclusively in irony. Trolling well requires expert knowledge of the rules of the cultural game being played, and like any expert, the troll is so fluent in the expectations for appearance that the only moves left are to subvert them.
Think of Lil Nas X and the flurry of discourse around ‘Old Town Road’. Was it country music or not? Billy Ray Cyrus thinks so. But Billboard didn’t, and then did, and then didn’t again. But as Lil Nas X himself would say, the song is trolling you. It’s participating in a genre, a cultural game, but intensely aware that the game is being played and doesn’t have to be. It can be subverted, played with different rules.
But trolling can’t exist in a vacuum. If everyone were aware that genre rules and cultural games were ironically arbitrary, there would be no one to troll and no reason to either. Enter the Clown, the prototype of sincerity. Traditional clowns act out exaggerated displays of emotional sincerity for entertainment, and the entertaining factor in their displays is how often they are fooled, tricked, and trolled while the audience watches.
‘Clown’, ‘clownery’, and ‘clowning’ in contemporary texts all now refer to a set of relationships to cultural games that pretty closely mirrors the performative sincerity of a traditional clown, sans face paint and costume of course. If you believed, sincerely, that Lil Nas X was trying to genuinely participate in the country music genre, you would be the clown. And the troll’s whole aim is to complete the process of appearing to genuinely participate in a cultural game so that the clown believes them, and then to sink the whole ship by revealing their ironic participation, making the clown look like a fool for not realizing that they were playing a game this whole time.
Now that we’ve gotten from Rorty to Lil Nas X, let’s get on with Wungus, troll par excellence of the SLG rush process.
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What’s Wungus? If we’re accepting of appearances, the Facebook Page for the group would indicate that it’s yet another Duke University Selective Living Community, engaging underclassmen in the process of recruitment through events and parties. They seem to have an affinity for Waluigi and the color purple, a love for cajoling each other in comments, and a preference for deep-fried graphics and memes. Every effort to resemble the cultural games of other SLG’s is extended, from selection cuts to organized community events to a colorful recruitment calendar. The semblance of genuine participation is roughly approximated and at times smoothly too. The move sequence of recruitment is followed seamlessly from round to round, buttressed by talk within and outside the group on facebook and in person, since many of Wungus’s members are also members of genuine SLG’s. However, if you’re not a clueless first year, you know they’re not a real SLG (because they lack legitimation by the institution of HRL). They’re a community of trolls acting as a collective perhaps, but not the sincere participants in the SLG culture game that they appear to be.
Two strains of clown have reacted to Wungus’ immaculate trolling. The first is the simplistic clown who is convinced that Wungus is real, even if for a moment. That is the natural counterpart to the trolling process, and even if they are few and temporary, they certainly validate the act. The second is the more common and more interesting clown who reacts negatively to the Wungus troll because it threatens the sincerity of their own participation in the culture game. While they may be aware that Wungus is not genuine, they are desperately unaware that all SLGs are imagined communities and dependent on a social fantasy in exactly the same way as Wungus.
The Duke Confessions Facebook page contains numerous posts about Wungus that criticize it from various perspectives, all using language that indicates the perception of a threat. If the ironic cultural construction of Wungus Rush is possible and successful, then genuine participation, past or present, is close to clownery. And no clown wants to understand themselves with that term.
Wungus exposes that our housing and selection process is a culture game that we can deconstruct and reconstruct whenever and however we want. For all its frivolity and lightheartedness, it manifests the important category of skilled ironist that everyone from Camus to Wittgenstein had anticipated. Its presence as part of Duke in 2020 provokes the startling question Rorty and others kept asking: do you realize you’re playing a game?
Nicholas Chrapliwy is a Trinity junior. His column, "postmodern pop," runs on alternate Fridays.