Walkthrough for YLE’s “Troll Factory,” an educational game about disinformation campaigns

Before reading this walkthrough, you probably want to play Troll Factory a few times and see if you can get 15000 shares and 2000 followers within a week. If you do, you too can be the “Lord of Lies.” The game is free to play, but be warned: the content is repellent, as it has to be. “Troll Factory” uses the hate we see online to make its case about disinformation forcefully.

Why does an educational game need a walkthrough? An educational game is typically meant to get students talking about what is immediate, how it has impacted them, and how it has more impact and reach than we were previously aware. But I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes you can’t get the discussions during class which a class needs. And in those cases, a proper discussion must be modeled somewhere. This isn’t to try to tell everyone what to think, but to show a way of exploring a topic and questioning one’s own assumptions about how the world works. One shows a way of coming to terms with things only partially observed or strongly felt.

So yes, an educational game most of all needs a walkthrough. YLE does a nice job of pointing out the prevalence of fake news, emotionally charged content, bot armies, and conspiracy cults online. Here’s a screenshot from where they explain the sort of content you use in-game to get followers:

This does a good job of helping explain some of the people we run across online, people who will not read past the headline. Some people want to react, they want to feel confirmed in what they already feel in some way. However: how does this work in tandem with fake news? With conspiracy theories? The answer isn’t as obvious as you would think, especially if it’s your job to spread your posts and build an audience.

I think at this point in the Internet’s history, it’s safe to say all of us at some point have tried to build an audience. What’s remarkable about Troll Factory is that, from your very first post (you could probably substitute “tweet” here), you don’t have to work all that hard to do it. Your first post is invariably hate and it brings the followers to you. In the anti-immigration disinformation campaign, you get the choice of generic “defend the borders” rhetoric, a snarky “liberals are also the enemy,” or a response to another tweet which curses out an entire religion. No matter what you pick, you’ll get a few followers.

To get the followers for the in-game hate campaign, I’ve tended to use the tweets with hashtags. But it isn’t clear to me this makes a substantial difference. People who hate are actively looking for others who share their anger, it seems. I wonder if the makers of Troll Factory would agree with this: the type of content you share alone will attract the audience. After your first post, you share a meme. Your first post gets a few followers, but the meme can bring you 100 followers. Later, one of the in-game events that inevitably expands your reach is a “fake news” event. Your boss has you distribute deliberate disinformation to your followers. This spreads to other nodes no matter what–from what I can tell, it reaches beyond your following at the moment. It may be justifiable to say there’s an audience intentionally looking for fake news, even if that audience is others involved in the disinformation racket. (Others involved in the disinformation racket, like Trump, need fake news to find the easiest marks.)

There are three events which if used properly cause your shares and following to dramatically spike. You’ll be asked, after the game makes you post a hateful meme, if you want to reach a targeted audience. You must reply “Thanks, I’ll give it a try” in order to increase your followers for a multiplier effect for the rest of the campaign:

Screenshot from “Troll Factory”–the awful meme does not represent my views. Migrants should not be demonized.

You are subsequently asked to buy a botnet or visibility for your posts. If you buy bots which share and like your content 100,000 times a day, or spend 50,000 euro on visibility, your shares and follows jump dramatically. If you try for more than either–say you pick a million times a day or spend too much euro–you have no impact. Companies and people recognize you as spam if you try too hard. Try too little and you have no impact. It’s a weird principle: in reality, what you’re doing, whether it be done a little or a lot, is spamming and is quite recognizable as spam. The question of why an audience is desensitized to some hate but not desensitized to a deluge of hate speaks volumes about the “content” you’re sharing.

Finally, your boss asks you to help spread fear. The choice which always garners the most shares and follows centers around the conspiracy theory of an airline crash. You will not get quite the same response with slanderous, dangerous Islamophobia. The strongest response comes from feeding your audience a conspiracy theory (no less racist or slanderous or dangerous, mind you) and giving them a very simple, uncluttered code. I’m honestly not sure what to make of this, the last part of the game. When we were studying Plato’s Apology of Socrates a few weeks ago, we talked about how Socrates says he’s been slandered since many of the jury were children. Aristophanes’ Clouds, as mass media, became a sort of tradition. Mass media isn’t really mass media. It’s an amplification of belief, an amplification of a community’s perception of what reality is. No wonder certain groups always rail against the media—they think that’s the “only” obstacle to why the world isn’t the way they think it ought to be. Hate sells and it needs to be made far less profitable than it is. But there’s something else out there—a complete disconnect from reality, a warped vision of community or divinity or togetherness—that we have only glimpsed.

Rae Armantrout, “Hey”

Sound may be addressed to you or it may not—I confess that when I’ve been neglected I’ve become more tense, felt my blood storm my mind, indulged anger. When I’ve been neglected, I have striven to be indignant, even if I was only composed of self-pity and whimpers.

I don’t quite relate to being lost. Did someone try to say something to me? Were they talking to someone or something else?

Was anything said? Or was there just sound? Armantrout’s first stanza, first sentence, thoroughly deconstructs one’s assumption of oneself. Maybe underneath my anger I secretly knew that I could not be sure I was being talked to or not. That I wasn’t allowed to think there was a world, just “sound,” and if there was a world, I could not be sure it was speaking to a “me:”

Hey
Rae Armantrout

  1

Sound
may be addressed
                to you
or it may not.

  2

A receipt,
blown crazily
across the parking lot,
was, perhaps,
a moth

The funny thing about “Sound may be addressed to you or it may not” is how so much can be said about a world of fragments and a fragmented self. Recently, I’ve dealt with abandonment a lot better than I have before. My anger has shaped itself into a greater sense of self-respect these last few weeks: I don’t need to put myself or other people down, but I can say with certainty that if I’m ignored, it’s the loss of the person ignoring me.

Trying to be real about what I’m feeling goes a long way. It’s helping me see that I do have to work with parts of a self, not necessarily shattered parts but parts which don’t strictly connect, experimenting with how they best fit together. What emotions and habits will help me best be an advocate? What will keep me calm in the face of stupidity and cruelty? What helps me contribute and sincerely be there for people? In order to get an answer that works for you, you have to assume you are whole. “Sound may be addressed to you or it may not,” but that blank in Armantrout’s verse between “addressed” and “to you” is suggestive. It makes you hesitate for a moment—you read “Sound may be addressed…to you” and wonder if those words, themselves a sound, are actually meant for you. It’s a sly joke. You read the words—you took another’s and breathed life into them—you addressed yourself with a sound you have yet to unlock.

*

After working through the skepticism of the first stanza, one knows one can say “Hey.” But then what? A receipt, blown crazily across the parking lot, was, perhaps, a moth. I can’t but feel Armantrout is in dialogue with Sartre about life, non-life, and our perception of both or either:


Mobiles have lives of their own. One day when I was talking to Calder in his studio, a mobile which had been at rest became violently agitated and came at me. I stepped backwards and thought I was out of reach. But suddenly when this violent agitation had gone, and the mobile seemed to have recoiled into rest, its long majestic tail, which had not yet moved, lazily, almost reluctantly came to life. It turned in the air, and then swung right under my nose. These hesitations, renewals, gropings, blunders, brusque decisions, and, above all, this marvelous swan-like nobility make Calder’s mobiles strange creatures existing between matter and life.

Sartre, “Existentialist on mobilist”

Calder’s mobiles are meant to imitate something animate. A great deal of effort goes into constructing a device which the wind could rouse, presenting a range of behaviors. What of a receipt in a parking lot? Armantrout does not let us call it more trash than art. Perhaps it was a moth, a wholly animate being. And perhaps you should have said “hey,” or seen that it was saying “hey.”

The second stanza is a quiet imperative. We were preoccupied that sound could reach us, but then we realized it very much could. In similar fashion, we watch what we imagine to be trash floating by. For a moment, it’s almost like life is a joke centered around that scene with the plastic bag from American Beauty. But I don’t think the title of the poem lets us go there. You wouldn’t say “hey” to a discarded receipt or a moth, but to respond to the sensation that there is life beyond you—well.

Strategies for Students Who Have To Write About Philosophy

tl;dr: 1) start personal 2) read around / think around–if it feels too narrow a topic, it is too narrow 3) they say, I say–find opinions to work with or critique. Whatever you do, start writing, start making notes, keep it real. Do not take being in class for granted, no matter how useless it seems at a given moment. Being a teacher has made me radically revise what classes I thought good, which ones I thought bad.

What I propose here will probably get you in trouble with your instructors. I wonder to what degree I’m writing for them. It took me a long time to realize that polished research papers which advance a specific question or insight are only one part of the field. I don’t even know that it’s a part of the field for which Socrates himself would care, despite his lust for knowledge. One of the most eye-opening moments I had teaching philosophy was when a student said “justice is the interest of the stronger,” Thrasymachus’ defense of tyranny, reminded them of people close to them who were repeating “all’s fair in love and war” like a mantra. How this student felt they were demanding love and respect because of their cynicism, because of their need to feel power no matter the cost.

I guess what I need to say is this: if that kind of moment matters to you as a teacher or student, then what follows will be of use. I get that different teachers do things very differently. A teacher may spend most of their resources modeling professionalism, showing how much effort and consideration goes into meeting obligations. It matters: it helps us remember to respect deadlines, dress properly, stay organized, be orderly and sensitive to what others have to do. When it comes to writing for academic purposes, a teacher can definitely emphasize formal, clean writing–clear thesis, evidence that supports the thesis, headings and subheadings and a “look” to the paper that demands it be taken seriously.

All of this is important. If you hold yourself to higher standards, professional and otherwise, you build confidence. You know the standards and you know you’re meeting them or doing your best to meet them. It’s a lot harder for others to bully you and a lot easier for you to do more. Write one nice paper and the second is much easier. Give an organized talk from which others learn, and next thing you know you’re the most watched TED talk in the world.

So I feel a bit strange giving recommendations which could come from a New Age YouTuber who has reviewed a variety of healing crystals. If the structure and standards of a given class benefit someone, shouldn’t they simply respect the structure and meet or exceed the standards? When I propose “strategies for writing about philosophy,” I’m asking people to meet certain standards anyway, no?

*

The problem is that standards and structure don’t just have to be perceived as beneficial. They have to be seen and felt as credible. It’s hard enough for me as a teacher, an academic, to feel like certain job requirements should be embraced with enthusiasm. Here you are, in a 101 philosophy class–you’ve been thrown into a different world if you’re majoring in finance or nursing or computer science. What are you supposed to do with any of this stuff? How is it possible that trying to write about philosophy is beneficial?

Let’s be real. You’ve been told to write a paper or contribute to a discussion, and you’re staring at a passage like this, from Wittgenstein’s “Lecture on Ethics:”

Now instead of saying “Ethics is the enquiry into what is good” I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into what is valuable, or, into what is really important, or I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into the meaning of life, or into what makes life worth living, or into the right way of living. I believe if you look at all these phrases you will get a rough idea as to what it is that Ethics is concerned with.

What are you supposed to do with this? What you probably want to do is rewrite it in your own words in the hope you’ll think of something to say. That’s actually not a bad plan, but it’s going to run into an obstacle very quickly. The statement “ethics is the enquiry into what is good” is a trap–it sounds too obvious, it sounds like it closes off any other thoughts. It can lead one to say things like “Goodness depends on morality or ethics” in increasingly repetitive ways.

You may want to try to find some hidden inner logic to the text. There is a distinction between “what is good” and “what is valuable,” perhaps. There is certainly a distinction between both “good” & “valuable” and “the meaning of life,” even if Wittgenstein ties the three together (“worth living” would be about value, “right way” would be about what is good). But I don’t think you should always have to solve a puzzle in order to write thoughtfully.

What habits can you build that will help here and in other situations like this one? I believe there’s a few directions you can go with pretty much any text or prompt. First, though, you do have to find a part of the text or a philosophical issue that’s rich enough to talk about. The habits/strategies I’m going to give are useless if you haven’t done any work and are looking to write something at the extreme last minute. You’ve got to read or think about an issue in philosophy and have a few notes or questions to begin with. The notes and questions are how you know what you’re working with is viable. It is easy to pick a topic which can go nowhere–there’s a lot of knowledge which has been lost or where it’s hard to appreciate its full significance.

So. Strategy one: Start personal. A lot of teachers ask you to talk about your life experience when answering a prompt, or to find aspects of a text or topic that strike you a certain way. They’re doing this in part because if you can make one part of the class personal, you’ll be eager to follow up on other parts of the classwork. I got into this teaching thing on the off-chance that someone might actually find something enormously important to them. Why isn’t everything personal? After all, Wittgenstein is really concerned with what on earth it means to inquire into what is good. That doesn’t seem like a small thing for him. Why should it be for us?

“Start personal” goes a lot of places. In the case of something seemingly as bland as “Ethics is the enquiry into what is good,” how did you learn what is good? How did you learn to question what is good? Did you ever seriously question what is good? If you didn’t–and I’m not sure I have myself–then where did we learn to ask questions from? Have any of us ever, properly speaking, asked an ethical question, or just a lot of questions about ethics?

You may be wondering how to build the connection between your personal experience and what you have been assigned for class. There’s a number of stock phrases you can use of the “he seems to be saying” sort. “He seems to be saying” introduces an interpretation, and once you have an interpretation, you’re very close to telling what the assignment means to you and what questions it raises. This is not unimportant—you’re in dialogue with an author or idea. You’re figuring out, in a way, how you yourself think. I’m just gonna say this: it is possible to be a lot more direct. You can write in the first person and talk about what you understood and didn’t understand. You can talk about what you thought you saw and what you hoped to see. One of the original inquiries into ethics is Aristotle’s “Ethics,” which supposes we can find happiness by living rightly. Maybe every paper written on the “Ethics” should only be in the first person: if happiness is at stake, that’s rather important on a personal level.

Start personal, even though you may not end personal. If I had to write on this passage, I’d probably talk about how the “meaning of life” has changed for me, but “what is good” hasn’t quite changed the same way. I think I was more ambitious earlier–now I just want to be visible enough to have a positive impact and survive. “What is good” should correspondingly change, and in some ways, it has, as I can talk about what I value more now. But I can speak at length about a bunch of ideas I have that haven’t changed.

Strategy two: Read around, think around. If something feels too narrow, then it is too narrow. So if the above passage seems to be saying the same thing over and over, then ask if there are parts which strike one differently.

It turns out in the case of the above passage, Wittgenstein has prefaced it with an incredibly thoughtful idea:

And to make you see as clearly as possible what I take to be the subject matter of Ethics I will put before you a number of more or less synonymous expressions each of which could be substituted for the above definition, and by enumerating them I want to produce the same sort of effect which Galton produced when he took a number of photos of different faces on the same photographic plate in order to get the picture of the typical features they all had in common. And as by showing to you such a collective photo I could make you see what is the typical—say—Chinese face; so if you look through the row of synonyms which I will put before you, you will, I hope, be able to see the characteristic features they all have in common and these are the characteristic features of Ethics.

Wittgenstein’s idea: Galton took a bunch of photos of different faces. They were overlapping, so it became readily apparent what each face had in common with others. Just as Galton did this, Wittgenstein wants to define “Ethics” with a focus on what is similar.

Just like “Ethics is the enquiry into what is good,” it’s possible to say “so what? Don’t we all know this already? Ethics has to do with the good, and looking for similarities is what you should do when trying to find out what a thing is.” But ethics having to do with the good opened up any number of personal stories, if one cares to share. And looking for what’s similar in the domain of ethics is actually a peculiar strategy.

How do we know right and wrong? Do we know it because of a strict emphasis on what is right and good? Or are we very much aware of punishment, of learning the hard way what is not acceptable? You could take the time here to talk about how different Wittgenstein’s approach to ethics is—that maybe it raises a whole set of different emotions and ideas that could be linked to ethics on an everyday level. It is the case the “Lecture on Ethics” becomes somewhat mystical by the end. “He is a good man” does not resolve in a similar manner to “he is a good tennis player”–the former points to some kind of ideal of a person. The latter can be broken down into propositions about the quality of play by a tennis player which can be observed and tested.

If you took the idea about finding what is similar to define ethics and then looked at the next paragraph, where Wittgenstein wondered how ethics as the “enquiry into what is good” compared with ethics being “valuable” or about the “meaning of life,” you could write whether the verbal illustrations of these three notions–“good,” “valuable,” “the meaning of life”–can be put on the same plane, allowing what overlaps to be clearly seen. Do our descriptions of things work like comparing images? This is a tough, interesting question–what I’d be interested in is how you got to it. Then we can begin speaking of how a visual and verbal reality relate.

Strategy three: They say, I say. There’s a whole book on this which I revisit periodically to remind myself that I need to learn how to write. Roughly: What do other people–it can be scholars, it can be a different interpretation than yours–say about what you’re looking at?

So. You can begin by imagining someone reading the text you’re reading and reacting differently. If someone is saying that ethics asks questions about what is good, valuable, the meaning of life, is it possible to argue with any of that? Sure–I know plenty of people who would say “Why are you wasting your money on a class on ethics?” What does it mean to inquire into what is valuable on a philosophical level? Why might the inquiry into what is valuable be considered useless? Is it useless?

But you can also consult other voices. I like it when people consult scholars after they’ve made some notes or jotted down their own thoughts or are hopelessly confused. I myself am in the last condition most of the time, so I tend to be bad about writing down notes or my own thoughts. In the case of the “Lecture on Ethics,” Deirdre Smith points out something really interesting: Galton looked for similarities in order to produce an archetype. He failed badly. Does Wittgenstein think the search for similarities will fail to produce what we need in terms of ethics? Does he think the search is worth doing, regardless, or is he up to something else?

You now have 3 strategies for approaching something philosophical and making something of it. Notice how little of the text we’ve actually engaged: in this blogpost, I’ve close read two paragraphs, tops. And I’ve spent abundant time speaking about what one can do with those paragraphs and suggested multiple ideas for papers. You can do this too, and it is of value. As we’re learning the hard way every day, we need leaders who appreciate what is good, not just destroy things, bluster about, create imaginary enemies. We need leaders who are willing to engage in repair, who have the courage to apologize and the integrity needed for peace. Writing about philosophy isn’t going to create those leaders. But it’s one small step toward seeing the good, seeing each other. If I had to go back in time and do my classwork over again, I’d be far more interested in what my peers were writing and asking about than I was.

Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry”

Teaching has changed my views on the interpretation and analysis of fine art and sundry objects (e.g. comic books). On the one hand, while I work with a toolbox heavily influenced by New Criticism, close reading, and the esoteric/exoteric distinction, I love when someone can focus on a detail in a painting or poem and say it spoke to them. If they want to speak of impressions—if the tone of the work struck them a certain way or activated a certain mood—I’m all for that. Going off-topic is perfectly fine when it comes to things made to provoke thought; grappling with one’s bafflement yields only good outcomes.

At the same time, I’m angrier with artists who are hostile to study of their work, as if criticism was meant to pigeonhole them personally. Their hostility isn’t always loud, but it certainly isn’t muted. Naive expectations about audiences and critics abound. It feels like audiences should only be filled with wonder and gratefulness, ready to deliver moving testimonies about the work they’ve seen or heard. Critics are considered from some era of taste-making that has now passed and are only good for publicity. Thing is, let’s say someone earnestly wants to appreciate, say, poetry. These awful expectations on the part of some artists prevent others from even approaching the field. There’s no space for someone new to ask questions about how things are made or the different ways they work. Such questions don’t occur in a vacuum. People ask questions based on what they know and do—they may be eager to link something written today to a line they remember by Walt Whitman. They want to hear about process and how it mirrors their day jobs. They want to know what things mean and deliberate value. Pretending one’s own creation is magical both in its creation and effects does a disservice to serious minds.

With this in mind, I ask myself: is Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” fair? The poem seems to argue that finding out what a poem “really means” is a form of violence. That students, perhaps under pressure for a grade, want to “tie the poem to a chair and torture a confession out of it.” I believe part of the spirit of Collins’ poem is closer to the spirit of my enterprise than many would care to admit. But I’ve known poets who use the words below to argue they are beyond not just criticism, but contemplation. Their craft doesn’t need a reader’s useless thoughts and attempts to grasp meaning. What they need and deserve is whatever validation they demand at the moment. Therefore, I wonder if “Introduction to Poetry” may be missing a crucial consideration:

Introduction to Poetry (from Poetry)
Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means. 

Collins’ description of entering poetry is excessively gentle. I like it, to be honest. There’s something really beautiful about discovering one pure color from a poem. When I’ve held poems up to the light like a color slide, I’ve realized that some poems speak the tender and the bittersweet within wonder, like D. Nurske’s “Venus.” And if you press an ear against the hive of a poem, you can hear in a lot of curious sounds one powerful voice stick out, naturally commanding. Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” works like this, I feel–there’s so much going on with the riddle of nobody that it takes a while to sort out that feeling like nobody is distinct from being treated like nobody.

But again, Collins pushes an excessively gentle approach to poetry, and maybe not every poet wants that approach. Do you really approach Blake with the idea that you can drop a mouse into his work, and watch it find its way out? In one sense, yeah, you’re not tearing apart the poem syllable by syllable looking for code or reading three biographies of Blake at the same time. But his poems ask you to note symbols and press for meanings that have immediate impact. The tenderness of wonder doesn’t matter when one considers the violence inherent to “The Tyger.” The poem asks you to ask hard questions of it, and those hard questions mean you bring your own hardness to analysis and interpretation. You know you’ve been used and abused; you’ve seen violence; you’ve seen “nice” people endorse and do horrible things. A method which feels gentle–questions of the instructor which exhibit innocence and innocence only–is a luxury. Some of the people who use poetry to keep sane can’t conceive of what a waterski is, let alone having one and skimming across the surface of the water.

You may argue that one’s temperament has nothing to do with seeing the possibilities inherent in a poem. The problem is that students want an answer and a grade. They want to be done with reading and writing! Tie up the poem and make it confess! I can’t get on board with criticizing their attitudes–do you know what kind of pressure is on a student who struggles to make the course fees for community college? Do you realize what you ask when you ask a refugee from a war torn country to explore the nuances of meaning in Neruda’s “the blood of children ran in the streets / like the blood of children?”

Do you know how insulting it is to tell someone interested in your work how to read? As if I’m not analyzing and interpreting in order to know better or find some wisdom? As if my job is to please an author with every speck of my being? As if my trying to know better is some kind of threat to a poet focused on a career?

The missing consideration in Collins’ poem and from artists who detest having their work analyzed: you’re missing how privileged you are. Sure, not all of you have “made” it. Careers are a struggle. Sure, you don’t want your work to be badly misinterpreted and dismissed. I get that. I would ask that you consider those who might need to find meaning to live better. Your work does have the impact you thought it would. That’s why it’s being tortured in some cases. People need what you said, even if they don’t understand what they’re looking for or how to look for it. Even if you don’t reap immediate rewards from that need. Even if you’re resentful that you’re being read.

Katia Kapovich, “Painting a Room”

When I first started blogging—really, I should say when I first started writing for public consumption—I worried incessantly about creating the perfect “About Me” page. I worried so much that I created bad ones haphazardly and didn’t bother attending to crafting a proper profile. Maybe I could talk about Emily Dickinson or Shakespeare and people would automatically find me credible. Yeah, that’s gotta be right—wait, why am I reading this blogger’s profile and becoming infinitely more envious? Why am I reading his work instead of writing anything of my own?

Writing (about) yourself is a multiplicity of genres and a genre unto itself. It’s making sure every line you’ve put on a résumé corresponds to a story you can tell about an achievement. It’s hoping for any measure of attention on dating sites. It’s personal essays which bring a few bucks from sites which purchase longform, or in some rare cases, Pulitzer Prizes; talks for getting essential points across to employees and students; explaining what you bring to a client or immigration official.

It’s so strange such a fundamental task entails overwhelming guilt for some of us, as if we’re being held to account for every atom composing our bodies. I have some insight into this—the way a number of people present themselves, like they’re blameless and could never possibly, um, narc on themselves, pushes the rest of us to stay silent. We’d like to be honest, maybe even confess to a few faults, but we know those glowing with the aura of blamelessness also have a shield bash ability which will dent our skulls. Since presenting yourself is a type of advertising, our advertising obsessed society—where YouTube will gleefully promote neo-Nazis for ad revenue—makes this problem even worse. It isn’t just some bitter colleague trying to make himself feel better by abusing you for your confession. Now the world knows you’re worth ignoring, and it will throw dollars and eyeballs at someone more polished and shinier.

The problem of an “About Me” is getting started. When and how does one get started? Katia Kapovich’s “Painting a Room” depicts what seems a singular event: leaving one’s country, one’s home, for someplace new. The self most conspicuously invites remaking, a writing out. But one might say all attempts to write the self are remaking, a painting over, if you will. Here on a March day in ‘89 I blanch the ceiling and walls with bluish lime…

Painting a Room 
Katia Kapovich

Here on a March day in ‘89
I blanch the ceiling and walls with bluish lime.
Drop cloths and old newspapers hide
the hardwood floors. All my furniture has been sold,
or given away to bohemian friends.
There is nothing to eat but bread and wine.
 
An immigration visa in my pocket, I paint
the small apartment where I’ve lived for ten years.
Taking a break around 4 p.m.,
I sit on the last chair in the empty kitchen,
smoke a cigarette and wipe my tears
with the sleeve of my old pullover.
I am free from regrets but not from pain.
 
Ten years of fears, unrequited loves, odd jobs,
of night phone calls. Now they’ve disconnected the line.
I drop the ashes in the sink, pour turpentine
into a jar, stirring with a spatula. My heart throbs
in my right palm when I pick up the brush again.
 
For ten years the window’s turquoise square
has held my eyes in its simple frame.
Now, face to face with the darkening sky,
what more can I say to the glass but thanks
for being transparent, seamless, wide
and stretching perspective across the size
of the visible.
 
Then I wash the brushes and turn off the light.
This is my last night before moving abroad.
I lie down on the floor, a rolled-up coat
under my head. This is the last night.
Freedom smells of a freshly painted room,
of wooden floors swept with a willow broom,
and of stale raisin bread.

Painting a room resembles writing in the worst way. One exposes oneself to a terrible insecurity. A fresh, even coat of paint should give a room new life; a well-written accounting should help dissipate unnecessary fears and grudges. But one’s worry can center on matters which indulge the trivial. Will the paint mess up the floor and furniture? Will my words make me sound like an idiot? The task can be conceived as sacramental—there is nothing to eat but bread and wine—and maybe that’s what sustains us when we do get through it. We feel our imperfect efforts and failures are reaching for something.

Still. Sacraments demand sacrifice. I am free from regrets but not from pain. If I’m going to write about myself, if I’m going to clear a slate and make it blank, I have to confront the fact that I didn’t make a home. I didn’t get the affirmation and love that I wanted. Maybe I can say that I don’t have any individual regrets, but then I have to admit that my failure looms larger. How can I guarantee anything will be better?

Ten years of fears, unrequited loves, odd jobs, of night phone calls. Now they’ve disconnected the line—Russia in upheaval and America in severe imperial decline have some startling similarities. People can live and not feel like they have achieved anything like a life. No money, no people around us capable of mature love, no time we actually control. Our lives are dictated to us by the whims of corporations, themselves the product of fear: they can never make enough money.

In the face of the unknown, simply surviving can seem a full life. But are we even allowed to think that way? Kapovich quietly describes what sounds like another sacrament: I drop the ashes in the sink, pour turpentine into a jar, stirring with a spatula. My heart throbs in my right palm when I pick up the brush again. I drop ashes; I pour an inhuman substance; I stir. Ashes aside, I create the paint, I resume the cleaning. Every moment of purifying these walls is a heartbeat. “My heart throbs… when I pick up the brush.” Not surviving, but purifying, is living. The sacrament is all that’s left, however it may be done.

What is painting for? What is writing for? Living in an apartment, knowing your place affords a clue. With a place comes a perspective: what more can I say to the glass [of my apartment’s window] but thanks for being transparent, seamless, wide and stretching perspective across the size of the visible. The window is a call to step beyond the apartment, out into another world. The window, though, is not a revelation, a moment like a burning bush. It was years of knowledge and the possibility of knowledge. Transparent, seamless, and wide, it offered clarity and consistency. It stretched perspective, making the visible something not be feared, but witnessed and explored.

The sacrament is the promise of seeing differently. There are so many bullies in this world who don’t want to hear about the existence of other people’s pain. Who would rather people not exist, but if others must exist, they should be targets for anger and abuse. Unsurprisingly, these bullies will take power, because it’s the only thing they understand. Often, they don’t want those abused the most to move anywhere, as they depend on being able to dominate someone. I think it’s useful to think about how many of us have internalized that abuse. Freedom and moving away are scary no matter what. But what a strange world we have, where we can speak credibly about having nothing, no support, and people do not need to stretch their imaginations to relate. We are pretty much a world of immigrants and refugees, the transnational held hostage by a few who can loot their own countries (and much more) at will. A few who never are asked to see differently, and react with rage and violence at the mere asking. Freedom is poor, not Spartan as much as monastic. It’s about creating a space where the self can simply be, can see and reach the multiplicity offered it: Freedom smells of a freshly painted room, of wooden floors swept with a willow broom, and of stale raisin bread.