Jan 11, 2012

Belief by means of disavowal
Or:
Belief about 'belief' in the days of twitter & Beyoncé's baby's name

People are gullible, but gullible to the second degree. That is, gullible about how gullible other people are.

They are themselves incredulous. Or so imagine themselves to be. Skeptical and cynical. Except when it comes to the question of other people's credulity. People are actually very credulous about how credulous other people are.

Another way to put this: belief, when it happens today, especially when it just sort of bursts forth en masse, a mass phenomenon, seems to happen in third person statements -- "he believes," "they believe," "people believe," and "some people say."

Yet that is also belief: belief about belief, belief by means of disavowal.

Belief happens. But it's displaced onto others. We need belief, and strongly, strongly believe that believing is going on, but no one actually owns it. No one claims it. Except, of course, people do believe and proclaim their belief, but that belief is everywhere the belief that others believe.

The reflexivity makes it sound ridiculous, I know, but it's important if we want to get at what belief is often like vs. how belief is commonly conceived.

Slovoj Zizek explains it this way: "we don't now need to believe, we need another one ... [who is] supposed to believe."

That is, Zizek says, it has the structure of canned laughter: We can experience it, "it" being either laughter or belief, but only vicariously. We are once removed from the virtual, fictitious others actually laughing or believing, and this remove allows us, through that structured distance which alleviates the burden of the responsibility of committing belief or laughter, to have the experience of the same.

We get, in this way, the experience without the responsibility.

The way this structured distancing and disavowal works, though, belief is stronger, actually. One, in this way, can believe without doubting, because one believes without having to think about believing, or at any point actually declare oneself. It's less reflected upon. More credulous, more gullible. It's more what what we imagine belief to be than the believing we imagine to be attributable to other people actually even could be.

As Zizek has elsewhere said, "it's today we believe more than ever."

Literally today, and in the last few days, there's been an outburst, a gushing forth of this kind of believing "more than ever."

The subject, of all things, has been Jay-Z and Beyoncé's newborn baby daughter, Blue Ivy.

More specifically, there's been an outburst of credulity about credulity about Blue Ivy being Satan's daughter.

One finds, first, that there are people who believe that Christians believe this. Lilit Marcus, of Faith Goes Pop, reported on Jan. 9 that "a bunch of Christians on Twitter thought that the name was clearly a reference to Satanism." Today, the blogger returned to the question of Christian's credulity with another post, writing "A church in West End, NC ... has put up this sign claiming that lil’ Blue Ivy Carter is Satan." The post includes a picture of a church sign, which reads: "BEYONCE HAD HER BABY / SATAN IS ON EARTH." There was also a link to the source of the info, the gossip site TMZ.

BUT: that's not what TMZ says. The celebrity gossip site reports the church sign was vandalism. The North Carolina Baptist Church -- which does exist, at least enough to appear in Yellow Pages, although the church signs in the TMZ picture looks like one of those "make your own hilarious church sign" generator things -- didn't put up the message.

TMZ attributes actual belief to the vandals, not the church, though surely a prank should be thought of as a prank rather than a confessional statement.

The Faith Goes Pop writer either missed the update or misread it, and just accepted (credulously) that those crazy Christians down in North Carolina were true believers.

So far as I can find, the only Christian on record on the subject is Charisse Van Horn, a minister and free lance writer who took some time on Jan. 8 to debunk the belief that "Blue Ivy" spelled backwards, "Eulb Yvi," is Latin for "Lucifer's daughter."

Van Horn does not, herself, think there's anything to the "Internet rumor" "spreading like wildfire on twitter," but takes it seriously enough to answer seriously with a bit of Bible exegesis.

"The Bible makes no mention of Lucifer having a daughter," she writes. "There is also great controversy as to whether angels are capable of having sex. Since Lucifer is a fallen angel, he would fall under the category of an angel in terms of reproduction."

The comment thread off the article quickly descends into a debate about religion, with mutual accusations of naive gullibility, one side saying those who don't believe in God will believe in anything, and the other side saying believers are ridiculous to believe.

No one comes forward to claim the idea that Jay-Z and Beyoncé's daughter's name is backwards Latin in Satanic code.

Because no one believes that. Though everyone believes other people believe. But no one does -- there's no evidence, no source, no site of belief except this belief once removed, which is everywhere.

Even "on the internet," which these people write as if they weren't themselves on the internet, one can't actually find real, actual, first person belief that Blue Ivy is Eulb Yvi is Lucifer's daughter. There a million or more tweets referencing "Lucifer's daughter" in the last few days. I can't actually count them, but they go on for pages. There have been more than 10 in the last hour, a few of which have already been retweeted nearly 100 times.

And this is days after the baby was born, days after the rumor started.

In all this, though, belief, the first person kind we find so easy to believe in, is hard to find. One can look at days and days of twittering about "Lucifer's daughter," and what one finds is not naive, gullible statements of belief, but a lot of gullibility about other people's gullibility.

There are only three kinds of statements here:

The first, the most common, is the report. I.e., "people are saying." "People" always being generic, always "other people." Or it's phrased like, "There's a crazy theory," the theory being located "out there," somewhere, free floating without attribution. In none of these reports is it attributed to anyone, but neither is it owned. When there's a link, it's a link to the sites also reporting on gullible people. It's always "someone," but never actually anyone.

In most cases it's only implicit that the report is a report. They're framed and phrased as reports, though, not statements of belief. Explicitly or implicitly, the tweeting and retweeting about what people believe about Blue Ivy's name is done in journalistic terms: we report and you decide, or, "Jst to let u know!"

They're shared exactly in the spirit of "you won't believe this!", whether or not that's actually said.

Ironically (yes, that is the word) -- and this is also exactly my point -- that phrase, "you won't believe this!" is used, if you think about it, to mean that you actually will. "You won't believe this!" means that you will believe this. And it's more believe exactly because there's this disavowal of belief concealing the believing.

This is what's happening in this whole first category of tweets, the largest category by far. It's "you won't believe this!" and "I can't believe this!," though the "I" does and "you" will, without even being particularly skeptical about it, since the skeptical frame of disbelief actually allows for and elicits belief. I.e., "those crazy people, I can't believe how gullible they are."

The second most common category is the correction. That is, tweeting people who believe the reporters' believe, or anyway that the reporters are reporting about people who believe, and are now themselves only responding to other people's belief, calling bullshit. "Total bullshit!" "that shit cray!" "some people will believe anything ... smh" (shake my head).

A good-sized sub category of these are tweets with little Latin lessons, which is very strange in and of itself but beside the point.

The third category of tweets is this tiny fraction where there's some ambiguity. Maybe it's belief. Maybe there's some credulity. Someone being naive. Even in the cases of apparent suckers to the internet rumor, though, it's not just as simple as "I think this is true." Instead it's more like, "for a minute there I thought it was true," or the question, does anybody know if this thing I heard is true?

The true believer here is a fiction. A virtual reality. A hypothesized person to whom belief can be assumed to belong. The believer, the one who holds and confesses to the idea that Beyonce and Jay-Z's baby girl is the spawn of Satan, named the Latin phrase for Lucifer's daughter spelled (for some reason) backwards, is only imagined.

Even if you could roll this twitter flood back to person zero -- the one who started this, who thought this first, who tweeted a moment after the moment of Blue Ivy's birth -- you still wouldn't have the person who "really believers." That person too would be hypothesizing, or reporting a rumor, or making a joke.

The effect, however, is the same. It not necessary for anyone to actually believe, anymore than anyone actually has to laugh at the stupid sitcom of Zizek's example.

Virtual belief is enough to engender belief. To elicit belief without belief, which is, nevertheless, still an experience of believing. It's enough, for believing comes, actually, in the form of believing by means of disavowal of belief.

Because, look, despite appearances of skepticism, this is gushing credulity.

The skepticism itself is a form of naive believing, since in every case the skeptical statement assumes the belief of other people. I.e., once removed and thus safe belief about belief.

Look: Every internet writer knew -- just knew -- that there were people who thought this was true, even though they couldn't quite say who those people actually were. The twittering people all, universally, accepted without even a trace of skepticism that other people accept things without a trace of skepticism. It's exactly the same as how, when someone says "there's a sucker born every minute," everyone knows it's true, but no one ever identifies themselves as the sucker, which is exactly what makes it possible to sucker them.

The structure of disavowal and displacement is exactly such that it makes the disavowed and displaced thing possible, by hiding it.

This can even be seen just in the structure of the statements of skepticism. Statements that, while on one level are disavowals, so we say, e.g., "some people believe (but I don't)," are, in another way actually structured as statements of belief. The third person statements about other people also necessarily involve implied first person statements.

That is: "(I believe) some people believe but I don't."

This second-degree belief allows for and enables intense belief. Unquestioned belief, totally unsupported, hidden in the frame of skepticism.

People are gullible, but gullible specifically in the way they can read that phrase "people are gullible" and agree with it and imagine it not to be about them. In accepting that phrase in the third person: as "people," "other people," "people out there" but of course never, never "you," and certainly definitely not me. It's so easy to assent, and in that exactly prove the point about gullibility.

This idea about belief by disavowal sounds, I know, ridiculous and ridiculously complicated. I think, though, that it's complicated because of how simplistically we conceive of belief, and how systematically we hide our own believing even from ourselves, and how complicated that actually makes actually doing it in practice today.