The Internet Cyclops -- Or -- The Blinding of the Citizen

Thinking about Ulysses, Twitter Comments, and the Violence at the Border

Once I entered, I never left

and never stopped going back;

-From “The Citizen” by Pablo Neruda

With the rise of the internet troll and the current rhetoric around the atrocities at the US border with Mexico (as well as many many other issues), there are obvious echoes of past iterations of violent xenophobia, blindness, and the space of debate. I want to try and talk about one particular echo, that, while not a policy suggestion, mobilizes some common cultural stories to re-frame how we are thinking about the internet as a public space and the xenophobia howling up from the American political unconscious. I think an understanding of the story of the Cyclops from the Odyssey, its revision and complicating in the character of the Citizen in Ulysses can help us think about the Internet Troll--which I am tempted, for reasons outlined below, to label as “Internet Cyclops.”

I don’t want to convince readers of the usefulness of Ulysses today or try to talk about Joyce as a prophet. While every writer that writes well about society may appear to diagnose the future, a discussion of these resonances usually degrades into a catalogue of fulfillments or an affirmation of the permanence of forms. Instead, Ulysses offers me, right now, a chance to think about nationalism, anonymity, and derision: themes that have been cropping up everywhere. The resonances with Joyce were coincidental, as I read through Joyce’s famously difficult novel for the first time. Sometimes coincidences come at the perfect time to push us towards thinking and being critical, push us to loving criticism of self and society.

This time, the nudge to think came from Ulysses. In one particular scene, the main actor of the novel, Leopold Bloom—an Irishman and Jew—is confronted by a nationalist in a bar who is referred to only as “the Citizen.” The anti-Semitic and nationalist comments of the Citizen lead to an exaggerated conflict between Bloom and the Citizen. Throughout the scene, the descriptions are interspersed with the fantasies of a grand and mythically infused Irishness by the unnamed narrator of this section, as if the processes of nativism set off metastasized fantasies of national pageantry. Bloom, a non-confrontational man who is somewhat a daydreamer and social dud, ignores the veiled comments directed at him, as the other patrons of the pub tacitly agree or diverge. After Bloom leaves for an errand that the patrons mistakenly believe to be an insider bet on the horse races (a misunderstanding continued from a comic scene earlier in the novel), the rhetoric against Bloom and Jews in Ireland becomes more intense. The other patrons either outright agree or offer half-hearted defenses of Bloom as they try and square his civic involvement or familial relations with his uneasy position as a declared outsider and corrupter of the Irish. While there are complications in this as the English/Irish tension is increasingly blossoming at the beginning of the 20th century, the anti-Semitism of the Citizen, his nativist positions, ring out in this scene that concludes, in true Joycean style, with a vision of Bloom as the prophet Elijah: escaping the scene only in a fantastic way, which suggests the real-world constrictions of such a violent situation. The onlookers can only imagine Bloom escaping this rhetoric violence in terms of divine intervention; Bloom is wrapped in his own dis-identified associations instead of the actual material escape. Escape is possible, in the eyes of the nationalist beholders, only through scripture. In other words, Bloom never really escapes this violence.

As I read this passage, the nativist rhetoric in the United States and other nations regarding immigrants and refugees is becoming more and more irredeemable by reason of national security or the pressure of immigrants on welfare. Even references to AOC and other lawmakers are under fire from the populace. These attacks seem even more derisive given that many outspoken condemners of the current immigration atrocities at the border are women of color within the government. As I was reading Joyce—almost as an escape from my growing mental embroilment with the current situation in the states—I have also been periodically checking twitter in order to (masochistically) gape and fume over the absolute vile that people are posting in the comments sections of AOC’s and others’ tweets. Asking myself all the time: why? What prompts such a level of vitriol? It seemed to me that it was more than just a difference in opinions, especially the direct attacks and threats that supersede any ideological echoes.

Comment sections have been debated more and more in the last decade, from a desire to ban comment sections all together to assertions that comments sections provoke more participation and engagement from the everyday reader. Discourse around the phenomenon of internet vitriol usually mention John Suler’s theory of the “Online Disinhibition Effect,” which posits that people, when gilded with anonymity, say things that would be damaging to other’s perception of them if attached to their “real-world” name and person; as well as Alfred Bandura’s theory of responsibility being diffused in a group (akin to an internet mob mentality). There has been some push back against the belief that every day, sweet family members moonlight as firebrands and trolls, with some commentators suggesting that since we have had any sort of distance communication, the rhetoric has stayed somewhat similar. I take some issue with this view. Telephone, telegraph, and letters surely presented some of the same problems of lack of responsibility or decorum in the anonymity these technologies enabled. However, as some of the same people who suggest that not much has changed have argued, the Internet comment sections provide more of a forum, a civic arena, and public site of contest that makes it different than the other distance communications cited. What hasn’t changed, perhaps, is a corrupt vision of the public where shitty speech foments in anonymity or behind the safeness of sanctioned, nationalist labels at the detriment of those whose anonymity is itself a curse: “immigrant,” “Muslim,” “foreigner.”

But what does this have to do with Ulysses? This question comes along with a long history of commentary about the “outsider” both as Bloom the Jew and from the Homeric Odyssey which structures Joyce’s text. The section of Ulysses in question, with Bloom & the Citizen, is modeled after the famous Cyclops episode in the Odyssey. A quick recap: Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic, lands on an island of patriarchal, “barbaric” Cyclopes, who threaten to eat Odysseus and his crew because of their trespass (and because Polyphemus, the primary Cyclops, thinks they will be a nice variety to their diet). Odysseus famously blinds the Cyclops and then, when asked for his name by the blind Polyphemus he responds “Nobody.” But before Odysseus ends up getting away he relents to his narcissism and identifies himself to the Cyclops, who then hurls a massive boulder at Oddyseus’s ships.

The symbolism of this episode has been taken up by many theorists and writers over the millennia. Freud talked about the Cyclops as the domineering primordial father needing to be overcome (of course), Lacan talks about the Cyclops as the unconscious that must be tricked, and others like Judith Butler have used the myth to talk about the effacement of the self in order to claim a self-given identity that is not recognized by power. But by far the most in depth critique of Polyphemus and The Odyssey in general was the section titled “Odysseus or Myth and Enlightenment” by the Frankfurt School Philosophers Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their seminal Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). The two argue that Odysseus serves as a sort of myth of the beginning of the bourgeoisie subject who defies the natural order and subverts the laws of the gods. By saying that Oddyseus remains an actor despite his negation of his name, the two suggest that he represents the model for rational (European) subjects. But they make a subversive suggestion: that Odysseus most resembles the Jew, wandering, self-effacing, and confident. This suggestion, coupled with the deadly anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany, hinted at the alignment of Odysseus as a model for modern subject-hood and Odysseus as Jew, revealing a paradox of anti-Semitism and a self-hatred inherent in origins of Enlightenment.

Identification with the hero of the Odyssey and the hatred of the wanderer points to a sort of self hatred. As a nation of immigrants, this formula makes sense for the present moment in the United States. But the clever un-naming of Odysseus as “nobody” cannot happen without the deathly blindness of the Cyclops whose land he has happened upon. It is in this confused space that Bloom becomes neither completely foreigner nor hero (it’s interesting to note that Ulysses precedes The Dialectic of Enlightenment by almost a quarter of a century). Things are not clear cut. Joyce’s text suggests how bound together these two figures are. Bloom is not heroic but he is the center of the novel; the Citizen is not wholly uncivilized and imagines himself to be representing the grand tradition the Irish people, however vulgarly. What enables the Citizen to fulfill this role as Cyclops is the cave of the pub, that is not a remote and primordial space but a thoroughly public one. Ullyses parodies the Odyssey by aligning the magical entities and travails of the Greek hero with out-of-control thoughts, desires, and the mundaneness of a normal day in Dublin. This move shows the persistence of Homer’s plot devices, but also the absurdity of clear-cut heroes and villains in modern/nationalist spaces. The barbarity remains, but the lines become blurry.

The dynamic between Bloom and the Citizen is complicated in that Bloom’s nobodyness is his Jewishness, which identifies him in a way that does not allow him to shed the ill-will of the Citizen, who is from the start anonymous. It seems to me that this Citizen, if anything, is the result of Odysseus, the father of the individual/rational subject, and the Cyclops becoming one. Bloom is in a similar category in that he considers himself Irish and is bourgeois, but is subjected to a status as an outsider, to an ideology that, in Adorno and Horkeimer’s words: “becomes blind praise of a blind life subject to the same nexus of action by which everything living is suppressed.”

The internet trolls of today should perhaps be considered Cyclopes: blind and screaming at noone and everyone about an encroachment onto a mythical (not material) and lonely land. They reflect a patriarchal barbarity, they are blinded by their own intention, they represent the repressed (supposedly unconscious) ideological violence of the nation and they are violent towards invaders. Yet they benefit as well from the primary attribute of Odysseus in their interaction with the Cyclops: the self-affirming braggadocio, cleverness, and anonymity. They encompass the whole epic themselves, with anyone that comes against them representing a false narrative. Their words are both law-breaking in terms of decorum and law-affirming in terms of their calls for eternal and vile detainment for the “illegal” aliens. They are both sides of the epic coin, and even if we consider the oh so valiant defenders on twitter who comment back as Odysseus, where, in this limited allegory, does that leave the actual victims of xenophobia at the border?

Joyce was right in showing the absurdity of the mythic roles as they relate to contemporary society. The internet has allowed for a massive movement of the Citizen carbon copies. But perhaps we can learn a lesson from the muddled and ambiguous figures of Odysseus and the Cyclops. If the heart of rational debate is generated from this encounter and marriage of the Oddyseus/Polyphemus, and the public of the internet is the place where the worst desires of both are merged and used to spout hate and spread violence, then maybe we need to rethink these epic face-offs. Or perhaps it is a case of the need for an unblinding of the Cyclops by revoking the cunning and egoistic individual actor as a template. I find this unlikely, reason and heroic ego seems to entrenched into the American imaginary. Maybe it’s a matter of banishing the idea of the American public as an un-encroachable land back to the lonely islands of myth?

One thing remains the same: reason and cunning only blinds these Internet Cyclops/Citizens further. They will never recognize themselves as Cyclopes because they look in the mirror and see Odysseus. Thinking about Ulysses offers probably the most cogent solution. The others in the pub can stand up more rigorously for an undue assault on Bloom’s character via his Jewishness/Outsider-status. What’s more, is that the immigrants who are facing all the hate need to be rigorously made the main characters of this show. Their subjectivity needs to be projected widely, humanely, and with detail as Joyce does with Bloom and his characters, not the politicians and pundits who would frame themselves as the heroes. The people at the border are resourceful, determined, and just looking for home: the hopeful Odysseus of the future, reclaimed.