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Thursday, May 04, 2017

aspects of rumor


If in one direction, pheme/kleos moves towards the universal knowledge vested within the people – towards common sensem towards the "public opinion" well beloved by nineteenth century liberals – in another direction, it moves towards rumor, the “angel of ruin”, the fama of Virgil’s Aeneid, the beast perched on the gates of the city:   “Furth she quicklye gallons, with wingflight swallolyke hastning,/A foule fog pack paunch: what feathers plumye she heareth,/so manye squint eyeballs shee keeps (a relation uncoth)/So manye tongues clapper, with her ears and lip labor eevened./ In the dead of nighttime to the skyes shee flickereth, howling/Through the earth shade skipping, her sight from slumber amooving./Whilst the sun is shying the baggage close lodgeth in housroofs,/or tops of turrets, with feare towns loftye she frighteth,/As readye forged fittons, as true tales vayneley toe twattle.” [101, Translation by Richard Stanyhurst, ed. 1895 by Edward Arber, p.101] Such an image could as well be applied to the kind of “rumor panics” in Borneo in 1979, as reported by anthropologist Richard Allan Drake. In the longhouse of the village of Sungai Mulae, he was told that the government was building a bridge nearby, and that of course, they would send out kidnappers to snatch somebody and sacrifice them to the bridge. The village was, ostensibly, Christianized, yet rumors like these “flew” about often; in fact, Drake establishes that the form of this rumor was recurrent in Borneo. It was recorded on the North coast of Borneo as early as 1910; it was recorded in Sandong River region in 1949; and in 1981, it was recorded in the Meratus mountains. In fact, if we extend our search from Borneo to other regions of the world, we find that, for instance, in pre-Revolutionary France, there were rumors about the kidnapping of children and women by the government of King Louis XV; and there was the persistent rumor in Czarist Russia of Jews kidnapping Christian children to use their blood.

Although the circumstances and meanings of these rumors are different, their reappearence puts them in the category of “Tauchgerüchte”, diver rumors – they dive up and they dive down – that was so named by L.A. Bysow, a Russian sociologist who wrote a seminal analysis of rumors that appeared in the twenties, and then disappears from sociological literature. Like many one article authors, Bysow’s position in the construction of the sociology of rumor suffers, itself, from odd distortions – for instance, he is often quoted as D.A. Brysow (for instance, by Curtis Macdougall in his book, Understanding Public Opinion (1952). Bysow borrows the late nineteenth century notion of contagion to model rumors according to an epidemiology, thus continuing a very old analogy between logos and seed. The invisible microbe that replaced the miasma model fit comfortably with the word as organic – and indeed, the word is the product of an organism. In fact, the analogy between sickness and rumor is encoded even in Virgil’s image, for this monstrous bird of ill or true fame conveys the word from mouth to ear in the city bears a visible likeness to the winged demons who shoot the arrows of sickness in the city. Both sickness and rumor “fly”. And both are mass phenomena, often leading to panic. And, in a quiet division between true fame and false, rumors have, over time, been associated exclusively with distortion. The rumor is often treated by the sociologist as though, by definition, it must be false. As often happens, the sociologist is simply following the cop, here – for the justification of using police action against rumor is precisely that it falsifies, as though there were some connection between hegemonic power and the truth

Rumor is the illegitimate sibling – at least mythopoetically – of public opinion. Drake connects rumor in Borneo to the dominance of the “oral”. The logic of evidence here feeds on itself, engages in an act of supererogatory nutrition, is, at the core, exaggeration. Unlike the written, which requires a process of mediation that engages the body as scriptor, the medium as the object inscribed, and the eye as reader, rumor, like the word itself, springs directly from the tongue and flies to the ear. Bysow speaks of its chain-like characteristic – depending on face to face communication, it creates a public of a sort out of haptic space – the kind of public that Gabriel Tarde, writing in the late nineteenth century, classified as essentially the primitive form of the public: the crowd.

In the early modern period in France, as Arlette Farge shows in Dire et Mal Dire, the word on the street was as much a vehicle of news as any official chronicle. Indeed, news was subdivided between the official histories, the private journals, and the gazetins of the police – police reports composed from the reports of the mouchards, the spies, that the police planted in the population. Louis XV enjoyed having these gazetins read to him. The relation of those in power to those underneath is mediated by a concern, on the part of both parties, with what is thought by the other – a concern in which the police can act as brokers. In World War II, there devolved upon some sub-officers the duty of filling out rumor reports – for officers and the upper management of the security apparatus were obsessed with the damage rumor could do. It was during the war that Allport and Postman studied rumors through a series of experiments, in which an image, seen by some subject, was then described by that subject to someone who couldn’t see the image. Then a chain of accounts is produced as the second person tells a third person (who also can’t see the image) about it, and so on. The sadistic element in the experiment (for psychology experiments almost always contain some element that displays the gratuituous power of the experimenter) is that these accounts are made in front of an audience that can see the slide on the screen, while those describing the image have to keep their backs turned to the screen.

Notice two things about Allport and Postman’s experiments. The first is the idea, which forms the whole basis of the experiment, that the story communicated by the rumor is – in contradiction to that reported by, say, the experimenter – essentially distorted. The distortion here is given to us in the frame of the report – although we who read the report cannot ourselves examine the slides, we are told, without any shadow of a doubt, what they depict by the researchers. In fact, of course, these descriptions often carry with them descriptors that are not “contained” in the images. In an experiment made in Britain following Allport’s line after the war, for instance, we are told that one slide is of “students throwing eggs” – which depends for its truth value on, among other things, describing the thrower as a student. But can true and false fama be so easily separated? Does distortion really mean untruth? Whose protocols are in play, here?

The second thing to notice about the Allport/Postman experiments is that they impose an identity on the group of subjects by giving them certain functions, in opposition to another group. Allport and Postman were not concerned with the function of rumor in maintaining the group so much as they were concerned with the transmission of rumor, which meant studying how a distortion generates a story pattern. A distortion like mistaking L.A. Bysow’s name, on the other hand, does not generate a story, although it occurs in the literature of rumor. Indeed, it would be petty to pick at it. However, we are again led to question the provenance of these assumptions. The atmosphere in which Allport and Postman worked reflected the war. As identity was imposed on the mass of draftees and volunteers in forces around the world as a topdown matter, the powers in place in armies and government bureaucracies became obsessed with information control – and thus, with fighting rumors. 

It is worth asking, then, whether rumors can be, among other things, attempts to wrest away that identity power by those upon whom it has been imposed. It is one of the surprises of literature it is shown such respect by the powers that be that they are continually trying to police rumor, or in other words, stories, narratives. The history of the policing of rumor shows a surprising sensitivity by those in power to the view of the ordinary outcasts and non-entities over whom they rule.

The mouchards of the Ancien Regime lead us, etymologically – that science that tracks the rumor of sound and sense behind the current word – to a sort of totemic animal who presides over the contagious rumor: the fly. According to an etymological dictionary of 1856 (Noel, Carpentier), the word mouchard “is not an old one in our language, [it] … derives from the word mouche [housefly], flies going out to search their food everywhere, changing places in the wink of an eye; and what appears to confirm this opinion is that one said and one says still moucher for spy, mouche for a spy. “It is useless, says M. Ch. Nodier, to search there (in the name of the father of Mouchy) this etymology, which presents itself naturally in musca, which had the same figurative acceptation in Latin, as one can see often in Plautus and in Petronius.” [374]

However, there is another story about the word in question here – for the housefly is not, according to Greenburg and Kunich, at the root of musca. Musca derives from the Sanskrit, mukshika, which describes something more like a gnat – the eye fly, musca sorbens, which feeds on secretions of the eye. The fly is shown in lists kept in Mesopotamia, and the gods are compared to flies when they gather around a sacrifice, or fly through the streets. In Lucian’s Praise of the Fly, the connection between the fly and gossip is made part of an origin story:

“Legend tells how Myia (the fly's ancient name) was once10 a maiden, exceeding fair, but over-given to talk and chatter and song, Selene's rival for the love of Endymion. When the young man slept, she was for ever waking him with her gossip and tunes and merriment, till he lost patience, and Selene in wrath turned her to what she now is. And therefore it is that she still, in memory of Endymion, grudges all sleepers their rest, and most of all the young and tender. Her very bite and blood-thirst tell not of savagery, but of love and human kindness; she is but enjoying mankind as she may, and sipping beauty.”

In Steve Connor’s book Fly, there is a wealth of associations culled from literature and life – the life, for instance, that is recorded in the trials of witches - between the fly and devils. The fly as a familiar possesses a number of qualities – its metamorphosis from the worm, its feeding on excrement, its omnipresence as a camp follower of human habitations, its quickness, its flight, its prominent eyes, its buzz – that go into the notion of Fama as well. Oddly, Connor doesn’t touch on the subject of the spy as fly, perhaps because the spy in English is free from the fly’s taint that finds expression in  French. 

Rumor, the reporters of rumor, and the makers of rumor are three faces of the myth of what sociologist Shibutani calls “improvised news”. Shibutani proposed a quantitative model in which a certain demand for information is not met by “official channels”. Rumor, in this view, is a kind of overflow of the demand for news. Thus, Shibutani does not identify rumor with distortion, but instead, with an enduring will to truth – in as much as the demand for news is taken as a will to truth. But is it? Is the news about portraying the world? And does this realistic view of the  news work any better than realism in any of the arts?
The social time of rumor is, ideally, simultaneous.  Rumors connect those who spread them, and create among those who are “in the know“ a sense of the ‘latest’. Because rumors are primarily oral, however, their simultaneity is limited. Observers are surprised by it – surprised by how fast rumors spread. Partly this is because rumors fall on the side of the pre-industrial and the oral. In the early modern period and enlightenment, rumor coexisted with print as the literate coexisted with the illiterate, and as the ideology of progress coexisted with the dying gasps of the image of the limited good – the ideology of Nemesis, of the wheel of fortune. But this period, we can see, looking back, is premonitory of the industrial experience even if it is separate from it. One might say that symbolically, from the moment that Fontenelle noted the ingenuity of Paris’ artisans and Defoe noted the accounting methods of English traders, literature filled with intersignes and prophecies of the industrial future. The great novelists of the first half of the nineteenth century – Balzac, Stendhal, Dickens, Gogol, etc., are all unconsciously prophetic, for in the monumental spasms of negative capability they absorbed, in the experiences they diversely lived, the intersignes lying about, cast up to the surface of society by the great capitalist transformation at work underneath. 


Ian Porter said...

So, if rumors can be attempts to wrest power from the subjects of rumor then counter rumors can perhaps be introduced to restore the balance? Consider Agamemnon: what really happened at Aulis? Did he really sacrifice Iphigenia or was that just a rumor, put about by Achilles,maybe, or Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. The opposing rumor was that the goddess substituted a deer or goat for the daughter at the last minute. That was useful for anyone (Athenian playgoers) hoping to reduce Orestes' reprehensibility for the murder of his mother. Whichever, the play of rumors makes for better drama than foreground factuality.

Roger Gathman said...

I'm not sure that we can make it the rule that rumors are always about wresting power from the subjects of rumor - very often, of course, they endow those subjects with amazing and hidden power. In your example, Agamemnon was divested of power, ultimately, by Clytemnestra's blade. It is interesting to see how oracle functions in this story, since it is the voice of the gods, but was, famously, subject to multiple interpretations. Rumor as a bad thing - and it is true that established power is in a continuous battle with rumor - is often startlingly specific. In fact, it gains its power from seeming to emanate from a source that specifies true but hidden things, no? As i tried to show with the example of rumor research, oftentimes the debunkers of rumor get caught up in the same epistemological knots. Allport and Postman's report of their experiments depends on telling us things for which the epistemological foundations are purely on the word of the experimenters. I suppose on the deepest level, a rumor panic is an epistemological crisis: how do we know? In a collective epistemological crisis, there is a sort of riot involving knowledge itself.