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It’s always affirming to learn that two writers we admire also admire one another. After I heard essayist Rebecca Solnit recommend Jia Tolentino’s work on The Maris Review podcast, I discovered their writerly conversation reaches back many years. Solnit has praised the work of younger feminists like Tolentino here. Tolentino is on record celebrating Solnit, too, as in this examination of Solnit’s response to a sexist question about Virginia Woolf.
These warm exchanges between Solnit and Tolentino exemplify writing as a conversation, a key concept in the 5th edition of From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Text and Reader. We are happy to introduce Tolentino’s lively and learned writing to students in our newest edition, so that they, too, can enter this conversation. Tolentino’s essay, “The I in the Internet,” from her 2019 essay collection, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, may be more timely than ever, as we round the corner of a full pandemic year lived mostly online.
As digital natives, students are often far more fluent in the nuances of internet self-representation than their instructors, of course. A skilled writer like Tolentino can invite students into a topic that seems comfortable, even obvious, and then demonstrate — with verve, sparkle, and the occasional swear word — the academic moves that deepen the conversation. For example, Tolentino draws on insights about performative identities from sociologist Erving Goffman in order to investigate our hunches — such as the shallow, guilty feeling many of us have that reposting a social justice meme is not doing much at all: “It’s because of the hashtag, the retweet, and the profile that solidarity on the internet gets inextricably tangled up with visibility, identity, and self-promotion.” Tolentino weaves in political philosopher Sally Scholz’s concepts of social solidarity, civic solitary, and political solidarity, offering readers tools to name and interpret the ways we shape and are shaped by online group identities.
Tolentino also includes arguments about the profit-driven motives of “socials” from media scholar Tim Wu, who explains why it is that the hits we get online are designed to be unsatisfying: To keep us coming back for more, more, more. Tolentino illustrates these concepts in prose that is fun for readers to analyze rhetorically, and perhaps even to imitate as a style-stretcher:
Like many among us, I have become acutely conscious of the way my brain degrades when I strap it in to receive the full barrage of the internet — these unlimited channels, all constantly reloading with new information: births, deaths, boasts, bombings, jokes, job announcements, ads, warnings, complaints, confessions, and political disasters blitzing our frayed neurons in huge waves of information that pummel us and then are instantly replaced. This is an awful way to live, and it is wearing us down quickly. (FIAW 664)
Tolentino’s final, poignant question in this essay resonates painfully in the context of the January insurrection at the U.S. Capitol: “What could put an end to the worst of the internet?” In her closing moves, Tolentino shifts from theory to practice (putting her feminist training to work), and reveals her own imperfect attempts to log off and stay off. Students will have their own insights and practices to share, and you, likely, do, too. Like Rebecca Solnit, who champions the value of reading younger writers, our own answers to Tolentino’s question will be richer, and likely more actionable, if we develop them in conversation with our students.
What texts do you use to invite students into scholarly conversations about the effects of the internet? Have you drawn on films like The Social Dilemma, or different genres? I’d love to hear what’s catching your students’ writerly interests.
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