Imagine this: Jonathan Swift with access to present-day social media. Would Isaac Bickerstaff have his own Twitter account? (Actually, he has several, some which appear to be bots.) Would Swift troll?
Swift's social and political satire often rose (or sunk) to the status of what we now call "trolling." The definition of "trolling," usually a pejorative, is ripening rapidly while careening from slang to standard, and it certainly encompasses more than just satire. Still, much of today's trolling has plenty in common with Swift’s satiric efforts.
While terming such works "trolling" risks trivializing them, what is trenchant satire if not trolling of a kind? Indeed, the best of 21st-century trolling is satiric performance across media and genres, and not just social media. It seeks to expose, subvert, and vex, thus provoking a response that further lays bare the subject, an objective matched by much of Swift's satiric output.
For readers, the venom of Swift's satire, having traveled across three centuries, tends to grow inert, even fatuous, but viewing Swift through the lens of contemporary trolling can re-intensify the perceived acrimony that pervades his satiric work. It also provides insight into the purposes and methodologies of better present-day trolling. Could some troll, perhaps more literary and less ephemeral than typical, soon emerge as a latter-day Swift? Most pertinently, though, perceiving the troll at the core of Jonathan Swift offers insight into his contemporary impact and his preferred insider audience.
First let’s examine the phenomenon of trolling. Often, trolling is associated with social media, but its scope is far more expansive. For instance, a common observation is that the president of these United States sometimes uses his Twitter account to troll the press, the public, or other enemies. But, it is not too far-fetched to suggest that his trolling activities extend far beyond the Twitter platform. In fact, some of his most troll-like behavior has occurred during public appearances —press conferences, meetings, signing ceremonies, speeches, and the like. Whatever your politics, it is impossible to disassociate President Trump’s more outlandish statements and performances from trolling.
At their worst, trolls are associated with narcissism and sadism. As Jennifer Golbeck writes in Psychology Today, “An Internet troll is someone who comes into a discussion and posts comments designed to upset or disrupt the conversation. Often, in fact, it seems like there is no real purpose behind their comments except to upset everyone else involved. Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend to get a response.” (Jennifer Golbeck. “Internet Trolls Are Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sadists.” Psychology Today. September 18, 2014.)
While trolling is most often deeply negative, it is not always so. More broadly, it involves deploying some degree of anonymity or a persona to disrupt or subvert one’s perceived ideological enemies. It can be playful, cruel, or simply manipulative. Judith Donath, in a paper from 1999, observes that “Trolling is a game about identity deception, albeit one that is played without the consent of most of the players.” The troll deceives in the service of the truth or a truth or some extremely localized version of truth. Trolls could be primarily satirist, parodists, ironists, propagandists, or mere hoaxers. Trolling is, usually, a commentary intended to critique or expose some perceived flaw, challenge a position or assumption, and/or advance a corrective. Trolls utilize humor, irony, parody, hyperbole, etc., and are most happy when they have been most vexing to most of the audience or to a target audience.
In short, trolls have a whole lot in common with satirists, including the frequent use of irony. In fact, irony in both trolling and satirizing are used as covers for all manner of excess and insult. If one were to conceive a Venn diagram of trolling in juxtaposition with satire, the overlap would be significant.
So, was Jonathan Swift a troll in his time?
Swift’s poetry would be a rich source, too rich to be adequately addressed here. In terms of Swift’s prose, among his trolliest works are A Tale of a Tub, A Modest Proposal, and, undoubtedly the pieces known collectively as The Bickerstaff Papers, which we should address at some length.
In A Tale of a Tub, Swift adopts the persona of the modern enthusiast bent on transmitting his extended religious allegory while digressing lengthily on various topics of grave concern. He then added the apparatus of footnotes, his own and others’ commentaries, as well as Edmund Curll’s dubious Notes on the Tale, which lend the work a scholarly air and which is offset by the overcooked allegory and the ostensibly superfluous digressions. The punchline in this wonderfully sophisticated lark is set up in the conclusion with the grave observation that it is the same with “profound writers” as with a well, which is presumed “wondrous Deep, upon no wiser a Reason than because it is wondrous Dark.” Immediately thereafter we learn that the author has all along sought to “write upon Nothing; When the Subject is utterly exhausted, to let the Pen still move on; by some called, the Ghost of Wit, delighting to walk after the Death of the Body.”
To reduce A Tale of a Tub to this elaborately protracted joke—that the Tale itself is meaningless and that the reader has wasted time and brainpower reading it—is not supportable, but the exasperation the joke evokes anticipates the reactions present-day trolls relish. Similarly, the prolix digressions, the overwrought allegory, the pseudo-scholarly apparatus, and even the tenebrous title all contribute to the reader’s building vexation. Any of us who have presented A Tale of a Tub in the typical undergraduate classroom knows that today’s readers struggle mightily with the discursive prose. It is, in fact, a work only a literature nerd could love. One may long to identify as its preferred audience, but that audience is paradoxically the butt of the very joke that only that audience gets. The work is at once discursive, recursive, and subversive. Through intentional evasiveness, misdirection, and obfuscation, it resists, eschews, and denies meaning. For today’s readers to encounter a venerable author’s earliest great work only to learn that they have been set up all along is nettlesome, indeed. For they have been trolled.
Swift’s trolling also significantly manifests in A Modest Proposal some two decades later. While it may escape the notice of the casual reader, Swift’s Modest Proposer famously starts with what can fairly be described as a humblebrag: “whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.” This seemingly generous observation is, in fact, as self-serving as the title of the work itself. The humblebrag is practiced far and wide, but it is often a troll’s move, dripping with intentional or unintentional irony. Witness Donald Trump’s infamous tweet after the Orlando nightclub massacre: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!” (June 12, 2016). As many others have observed, Donald Trump may be the most accomplished troll in existence.
The Proposer trolls the hapless reader by launching with an ostensible reasonableness before slipping subtly into increasingly outlandish claims and suggestions and culminating in a lengthy list of apparently serious-minded schemes. In this way, satire meets trolling, and a tone of bullying, cast ironically, pervades the Proposal, which is more than “a little bordering upon cruelty.” Whatever the Proposer’s scruples concerning the consumption of children as old as twelve, his gastronomical indulgence in the delights of dressing infant flesh “to perfection” is bizarre and mean-spirited. Furthermore, his frequent digs against the Irish Catholic poor ring out like so many nasty tweets, whether it be the potential competition of Irish “breeders” to “bring the fattest child to the market,” the inducement to men no longer “to beat or kick [their wives] (as is too frequent a practice) for fear of a miscarriage,” or his observation that his plan will suffice “for this one individual Kingdom of Ireland, and for no other that ever was, is, or, I think, ever can be upon Earth.”
But the poor Irish do not face the Proposer’s opprobrium alone. The list of reasonable solutions, among other passages, inherently indicts Swift’s fellow Anglicans in power in Dublin. More famously, the very English themselves—often erroneously presumed the only or primary target of Swift’s satire—are, indeed, the inhabitants of that “country, which would be glad to eat up our whole nation without” salt. More subtly, the very structure and tone of the “Proposal” itself parodies the technocratic projects of Protestant Dissenters. In short, A Modest Proposal assaults all, with its author masked by a parodic persona, bitter irony, and satire to avoid blame and shame for his conceptual and verbal excesses. In other words, he is a troll.
As with A Tale of a Tub, the insider audience has a role here. To read A Modest Proposal well and in the spirit of the work is to be complicit in its excesses—however ironic. Again, this complicity correlates with the present-day troll’s insider audience.
Obviously, other Swift satires represent degrees of trolling, but I want to focus the rest of my time on an early and exuberant example of trolling: Swift’s invention of Isaac Bickerstaff in 1708 and his relentless assault on John Partridge, the almanac maker.
To rehearse the events, Swift devised the persona Isaac Bickerstaff to ridicule Partridge through a canny application of what can be identified as early eighteenth-century fake news. Instead of Twitter or Facebook, Swift used a popular medium of his day—the almanac—and led his mock prognostications with “but a Trifle”: Partridge’s death on March 29th, just in time for some April 1st high jinks.
The historical record regarding Swift’s hoax, Partridge’s response, the consequences, and subsequent companion publications is rife with rumor, misdirection, and wishful conjecture—the troll’s tools of the trade. Some juicy items are extant on the internet but have origins far older. For instance, you can look to the prolific William Eddy in 1932 to learn—right or wrong—that the name “John Partridge” was itself a nom de plume for cobbler “John Hewson.” The Dictionary of National Biography famously claims that the Company of Stationers owned the right to the Partridge name and stripped John Partridge or Hewson or whatever his name of his privilege to publish almanacs with the pseudonym upon—among other authorities—the notion that he was dead. The DNB also repeats the claim that the Portuguese Inquisition, upon learning that the first Bickerstaffian prediction came true, burned the pamphlet.
More luridly, there is the claim that Partridge was gay, which is not to say that Partridge was really John Gay, but that John Partridge was himself gay. I admit I have not researched this possibility more than to follow the internet lead. You can see him listed on a UK wiki called LGBT Archive, which cites Ranker.com’s list of Famous Gay Men. Ranker, for its part, cites an authority it no doubt finds unimpeachable . . . Ranker.com. And so the eternal circle of internet authority remains unbroken.
The Bickerstaff brand, if you will, gained its own notoriety, being adopted by a series of tongue-in-cheek authors, Swift’s clearest insider audience. Of course, Richard Steele used the name Isaac Bickerstaff in The Tatler, either as a homage to his then-friend Swift and/or as an exploitation of the joke. Thus, “Isaac Bickerstaff” was reused, recycled, and refurbished in his day. Each iteration was a poke at Partridge, a reference back to the Partridge death hoax, and a signal that here be an attempt at wit. In other words, the name “Isaac Bickerstaff” operated as a meme, which means that the Predictions and its companion pieces were one of the most enduring trollings in history, with their subject rendered a fool for all time. And it was a right-good All Fools Day hoax.
To recap: Swift invented Isaac Bickerstaff to mock John Partridge—via fake news!—and incite him to injudicious reaction. Partridge—a fake name!—obliged and became even more ridiculous for the exchange. Not Swift’s greatest literary contribution, but a fine example of Swiftian trolling: skill level - expert.
Aside from the medium and the literary value, it takes some effort to discern a fundamental difference between the operation of some of Swift’s work and much present-day trolling. This is particularly true with regard to the Bickerstaff hoax, which engendered the sort of frenzied piling-on trolls try to incite and seem to delight in. To this day the hoax and its consequences are subject to misinformation and exaggeration. How many of us in this room have heard at some point—sometimes even from an authoritative source—that a court declared John Partridge officially dead even after he testified to his ongoing existence? As a famous politician says a lot, “Fake news, folks! Fake news!”
So, if much of Swift’s satiric output bears a resemblance to present-day trolling, what does that tell us about Swift? Perhaps nothing particularly new, but it can foreground the more execrable side of Swift. Jennifer Golbeck’s Psychology Today piece describes a Canadian study that strongly correlates internet trolls with what psychologists call the “Dark Tetrad” of narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism, which is, of course, one pathology worse than the more famous “Dark Triad.” I would not suggest that Swift manifested the Dark Tetrad or the Dark Triad any more than I would all internet trolls, and I have no interest or training in psychoanalyzing him or them. But he certainly displayed some of these traits at various times in his life and in his satire.
To be sure, there is a degree of cruelty underlying some of his satires, including the ones I explored here. Whether it be cruelty toward his various satiric targets or even against his audience, there is a sadistic delight one can sense. Swift was a troll, plainly put, but not like a Russian operative sowing dissent and confusion to subvert an election. His trolling is more akin to the alt-right—not in content, but somewhat in style. The alt-right fires its volleys at perceived enemies and then, often, hides behind claims of irony to evade responsibility. President Trump has relied on a similar ploy. How many times have we been told that some of his more outlandish claims were actually jokes, which implies that those who don’t get the jokes are somehow remiss? In reality, though, these jokes—even if they are not entirely serious statements—send messages to an insider audience. At their worst, they are sometimes “dog whistles” to an extremist base.
Swift, similarly, speaks to an insider audience. Sometimes it is his friends, and often it is just those who get his message. No one wants to be the outsider, then or now. This insight can tell us something about how we read Swift’s work, particularly his most cutting satire. We chuckle at his nasty swipes against the Irish poor in A Modest Proposal or against the hapless John Partridge and thus become the insider audience. As such, we become complicit in the cruelty, imagining that the clever irony vindicates the viciousness. I am not taking a moral stance here, but I am trying to show that this is exactly how trolling works: it exposes its targets to thrill its insider audience. We can also see that, like present-day trolling, whatever its literary or historical value, Swift’s satire sought to disrupt, subvert, and vex. His satiric goal sowed disorder to interrupt the normal flow and—one imagines he hoped—to reset the cultural-political order. In this way, we can see that there is nothing new about trolling. So long as there have been satirists, like Swift, there have probably been trolls.
So, in the Bickerstaff spirit, I will make a prediction. In the first week of April in this year 2018, a most famous personage in the United States will tweet a tweet that will bewilder everyone. Covfefe.