You Don’t Say

Speech has far more potential contexts than any speaker can calculate, yet we’re becoming responsible for them all

At the end of 2013, Twitter was ablaze with one question: has Justine landed yet? Justine Sacco, a senior executive at a communications firm, tweeted an ostensibly racist joke — “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” — and then got on a plane without wi-fi. Reaction to the tweet spun out at the pace viral tweets occasion, and by the time she landed, thousands of shocked, angry, and abusive replies awaited her. She soon lost her job, and the entire episode became an endlessly discussed flashpoint in the discussion of public shaming, and functioned as an anchor case for filmmaker Jon Ronson’s book on the same topic.

Since then, the discourse about online reaction to inflammatory, oblivious, or prejudiced statements has mostly ossified, and one might find its most clearly exemplary expression in the phenomenon of getting “ratioed” — a term used on Twitter for when a particularly inflammatory, controversial, or plain bad tweet has vastly more replies than likes or retweets. The example crystallizes the division between two sides that has emerged around the issue: those who argue that that ratioing represents a pernicious ganging up that harms and stifles debate, and those who argue it represents the voice of both the righteous and an underclass talking back to power.

Online, the author isn’t so much dead as in a state of purgatory

There is, however, another question underlying the disagreement: should individuals who make public statements online be treated as one might in an interpersonal setting, or are they always representative of some broader ideology or structure? The question is in essence what kind of public discourse we want to have, as public discourse not only occurs online, but also takes on some uniquely online characteristics.  

But if we are asking what is the relationship between online discourse and how we treat individuals, this raises two questions in turn: what conception of the subject is put forth by this understanding of the relation between the utterance and a self? And further, what character of social discourse is produced by this digital subject?

The obvious idea simmering under the tension between an individual’s identity and the public statements she or he has made is the death of the author. The endlessly cited concept from theorist Roland Barthes claims that writing is “that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” In short, the capacity of writing to operate in the absence of its author reframes the notion that writing is simply an expression of a subject.

The idea started to more generally refer to a critique of authorial intent. The author, as a kind of conduit for and product of a series of intersecting ideologies, not to mention her own often unconscious processes, wasn’t the master of her own discourse, but at best another interpretive voice — but one that in truth was often absent in the experience of reading. That’s how we ended up with both the concept of reading a text against the grain, but also the situation in which a Twitter user quotes a tweet and asserts that this is what is really being said, despite the protestations of the original tweeter. When text floats freely, the interpretive context of what is said supersedes the author as a kind of guide to what it truly meant.

Arguably overlooked in the so-called death of the author, however, is the technology underlying it: the book. The book and the related technologies of its production and distribution are the things that first produced a world in which the circulation of text as representative of subjects or ideologies became the norm. But only certain people were “authors,” and thus the circulation of text was what one might call constellational. There was a network of public discourse, anchored by individual authors who were themselves representatives of various ideas and themselves. Nonetheless, the death that Barthes asserts — the link between the clear identity of a person and written text — was also enabled by the material technology of print. As scholar Walter Ong argues, writing is a technology that offloads human discourse into a transportable system of signs, erecting a kind of a wall between a literal voice and the far more diffuse authorial voice. Our ideas about the relation between the subject, the printed word, and identity are thus inevitably bound up not just with ideologies of the subject, but technologies of it, too, and writing and printed text are perhaps the most fundamental examples of the latter.

We now live in an era in which text has exploded to be everywhere, most prominently on the screens so many of us keep with us at all times. And to invoke the rhetoric of the cyber-utopians, we are all authors now, all people who are simultaneously a bodily self and a textual one, an identity located at a particular slice of space and time, and also a discursive arrangement of our statements online, an abstract conception that is an amalgam of things we have tweeted and put on Facebook and so on. If what constituted an author is that there was a body of text and statements that accompanied and often superseded a literal body, then authorship as a performance of publicness is no longer merely the domain of, say, novelists. It is everyone who has a public-facing online account.

The shift at work is that the doubled sense of both a public-facing, circulated self and a bodily self is the norm, at least in wealthy segments of societies around the globe. Online discourse is thus not simply a democratic arena, a space for public conversation, or even a raucous or angry cacophony. It is also a networked arrangement of textual subjects, or authors. That network is itself composed of statements — expressions and exclamations that form the matter of online content. We are thus caught up in two contradictory phenomena: on one hand, the tendency of text to float away from its author, suspended in that strange space in which it speaks for itself; and on the other, a cultural insistence that we link bodies to utterances. Online, the author isn’t so much dead as in a state of purgatory, neither quite dead nor exactly alive in the same way.

The question is whether or not there is something about digital sociality and culture that has done something to the statement itself, to how we understand the relation between the utterance and subject that Barthes’ concept has already interrupted. Do we read individuals differently online and in this era? And if the book produced the death of the author, then what has the internet killed?

The context of the print era was the networked discourse between authors, critics, the popular press, and public reaction. The context of online content is flatter, however, and the collapse of context we now take as a normal, if difficult part of online discourse is also the collapse of differing interpretive frames into the same space. In particular, context collapse affects performative statements the most — those expressions that are self-consciously interventions, deliberately over-the-top and intended to enter into an existing context and pull it this or that way. When someone tweets “men are trash” or “all white people are racist” their meaning is often predominantly in the fact that they are said at all — that they either exaggerate productively, or run counter to established narratives — rather than the literal interpretation of the words.

When someone tweets “men are trash” or “all white people are racist” their meaning is often predominantly in the fact that they are said at all

It is what academic writer J.L. Austin might have called the illocutionary (or perhaps perlocutionary) effect of a statement. In his How to Do Things with Words, Austin examined literally performative statements — those like “I promise” or “I do” that enact something through the act of uttering them. But he distinguished the various effects of statements: first, the locutionary effect, which is the literal meaning of a statement, e.g., that men are literally trash; then the illocutionary effect, which is what is more broadly meant or implied by the statement — here, perhaps that the assumption of men’s inherent worth is wrong; and the perlocutionary effect, which is the consequence of the thing said, which in this case may be anger, or occasionally, reflection.

Naturally, statements can have all three effects at once. Indeed, this is just the source of consternation for so many “extremely online” statements in which misreadings of which effect is being foregrounded, in addition to context collapse, end up producing differing interpretive frameworks for the same statement. The reason, for example, that phrases like “you can’t be racist against a white person” or “misandry doesn’t exist” cause such anger is not merely ignorance; it’s that there is a misreading of both the intended illocutionary effect, and the desired perlocutionary effect that gets bound up with power and the identity of the speaking subject. Political difference in the online era is often found less in explicitly stated ideological difference than in how one receives the illocutionary effect of various statements. That conflation of various locutionary effects, however, into the same receptive space is what produces online in particular as a space of such persistent conflict.

Making matters worse is the strange paradox of online discourse. On one hand, the easy markers of subject position, like the body or names, can become murkier or harder to pin down behind pseudonyms, anonymity, or a gulf in context. On the other, and even perhaps in part because of that, we have entered an age in which the desire to connect the meaning of the utterance to a subject position has intensified exponentially. What is often referred to as “identity politics” is in fact just this process: the insistence that the determining context of a statement is the identity of who is speaking. It recalls Helen Nissenbaum’s concept of context integrity, which suggests that one of the ways in which online culture or surveillance disempowers is through robbing individual moments or utterances of their context. For her part, Nissenbaum argues that reasserting the integrity of context is an important dimension of restoring privacy rights, but the concept can be extended more generally — that the dissociative nature of online discourse lends itself to an erasure of context because the pace at which the utterance spins away and multiplies from its beginnings has exponentially increased.

Online content is thus flattened, but it paradoxically produces a cultural arena in which the free floating signifiers of language cannot be allowed to drift away into apolitical nihilism, but must be firmly, aggressively positioned within a set of competing discourses. The networked discourse of online content is thus a field that positions statements in various ideologies, the very terrain of the utterance a kind of amped-up context that places each utterance in a political context whether or not the speaker desired such positioning. It is the revenge of both the death of the author and context integrity such that much of online politicking is an attempt to insist upon the “true” context, despite intent. As such, the aggregate of online discourse precedes individual statements, despite the counter-intuitive nature of the claim. The desire to put in place the statement that has been temporarily, aesthetically dislodged from a body produces a context in which what is said is already overdetermined by an ongoing political debate about what can be said, who is allowed to say it, and what is desirable to say at all.

There is thus arguably a fourth locutionary effect foregrounded online. You might call it the synecdochic-locutionary effect, or synlocutionary effect, in which a statement becomes a representative stand-in for an ideology or subject position, whether or not it was intended as such. It is produced in part by the slippage of performative statements — that we cannot help but read literally what is said with deliberate exaggeration, because that is simply how we apprehend language and its illocutionary force. But it is also produced by the contextual reception of the statement as part of a network. The utterance is always operating as a minor part of a much larger whole composed of clashing ideologies, but importantly, the statement thus becomes a representative of an identity or ideological group — that is, “just the sort of thing that type of person would say.”

Of course, this kind of systemic or contextual reception of utterance isn’t new; it is inevitable in all writing. Rather, what is novel is that it is sped up, intensified, amplified, and concentrated online. The screen itself — the Twitter feed, the Facebook timeline — demands that framing because of the aesthetics of how we receive information within it. One tweet or Facebook comment is visually indistinguishable from another, and we are thus beckoned to find ways to contextualize and generally position what appears at first glance indistinguishable from a million other such expressions. When the network of reception precedes the statements, each utterance must be violently yanked into one framework or another; there is little room in such a system for those utterances that might uncomfortably straddle contradictory frameworks at once.

A further question, however, is what the synlocutionary effect of online speech does to how we conceive of the subject. One might broadly assert that the Enlightenment subject is a sovereign individual, composed of a unique identity that expresses itself outward. One might similarly broadly suggest that the postmodern subject is both constituted externally by a series of historical processes, but also expresses its subjectivity as an intersection of a shifting relation of subject positions, the most obvious and influential of which are gender and race. But if the terrain of something like a digital subject is an overdetermined terrain of positioning, then it may be that the digital subject, rather than being an intersection of identity categories, is instead an amalgam of statements — that is, a conglomeration of utterances that in the aggregate form the subject.

To be a bit cute, digital subjectivity is about the online notion of “receipts”: It constitutes subjectivity as not the flux between subject positions but the flux between what has been said, a fact that, interestingly, appears to be true on both left and right, despite the starting disagreement about the “truth” of the Enlightenment versus poststructuralist subject. The discourse precedes the subject, and thus subsumes it. When the discourse is the ideological ground, the subject is merely occupying the terrain, finding shape and a horizon in the terms of what he or she is standing on — and that is how we are read. Barthes says, “language knows a subject not a person” — that is, language constitutes a person as a construct. The intensified digital version is that the discourse does not know a person, only the subject of ideology, positioned and framed as such.

Online content forces individuals to be representative of systems much larger than they are

When Barthes asserted the death of the author it of course created quite a reaction. Yet, if the argument’s technological predication has perhaps been overlooked, then perhaps the most famous response to Barthes can be of help in the digital age. Foucault’s ”What is an Author?” poked at Barthes’ notion of the author by complicating it, suggesting that an author is less a subject than a discursive organizing principle that helps to make sense of an oeuvre. This becomes most clear in those people Foucault calls “founders of discursivity” like Marx or Freud, whose works become discourses unto themselves. But it is true of authors generally, too — that, more than a person, “an author” is a system of thought that we use to systematically organize one piece of cultural production in relation to all the others, and the interpretive frames that position them. It is the synlocutionary effect of an author’s work: It fits into a systemic whole that asserts itself over and against any individual work, or indeed, individual author.

What happens when one asserts, even tongue-in-cheek, that “everyone is an author”? If the digital subject of online content is a conglomeration of statements, a collection of what she has said, then perhaps these authors are also subject to what Foucault calls the author function. They are subject to series of discourses of power that exceed the subject — sometimes legal, but most often social — that help us understand the subject as positioned by the record of what he or she has said. And in distinction to meta-discourses like Marxism or Psychoanalysis, the framing discursivity are more broadly ideological or political positions: leftism, conservatism, feminism and so on.

The problem is that what makes sense for the author as a kind of discursive principle to organize cultural production may be less helpful when it applies to everyone. After all, it is understandable that the constructs “Margaret Atwood” or “Tom Wolfe” supersede the actual people to whom those names refer. The question is whether or not it makes sense for the notion of the subject as an amalgam of utterances to supersede the everyday individual.

About a year after the Justine Sacco incident, journalist Sam Biddle sat down for an interview with her. Though the piece he wrote about the chat was ambivalent, Biddle — who is otherwise known to be rightly dismissive of those who make fools of themselves — was clearly sympathetic. He was widely derided for perceived softness, as Sacco’s metonymic position as a symbol of white privilege and the callousness it can produce was hard to forgive. At the same time, Biddle noted an uncomfortable fact: Sacco had clearly suffered from PTSD due to the incident.

Justine Sacco had to be punished because the terrain of online content forces individuals to be representative of systems much larger than they are. The blithe, offensively comfortable racism of Sacco’s tweet forced it to become representative of those phenomena of prejudice, such that the utterance and the subject had to be treated with the same discursive lens. The synlocutionary effect of an online statement is a necessary response to a world of context collapse — what tries to float free from consequence is snapped back into place.

The question is whether or not this represents an overcorrection, and here things become far murkier. Understanding subjects as positioned collections of utterances performs a crucial political function: It allows us to hold people to account for abuses of their privilege. By framing the subject as a series of statements that can only be contextually understood in terms of identity, we can interrogate whiteness, the patriarchy, heteronormativity, and the whole range of ideologies that form the ground of Western society.

At the same time, perhaps everything going on in cases like Sacco’s can neither be exhausted by subject position nor an amalgam of statements. Perhaps the author’s function as applied to public individuals who are normally of no particular public interest has two purposes at once: a clarifying lens that allows us to see the exercising of power, and a distorting effect that subjects individuals to a scale of response superseding any normal person’s capacity to handle.

Yet even in writing this, the above paragraph threatens to have a synlocutionary effect that supersedes any of its other locutionary effects — it becomes representative of the defense of a white woman who said a racist thing. Online, one’s political position is as much about the utterance and subject as it is a perspective on material relations or power, or rather it intensifies the relation between those two spheres.

What is clear is that simmering underneath the notion of the synlocutionary functioning of the digital subject is publicness itself. We are grappling with what it means to utter things as authors, as potentially always stand-ins for some much broader cultural debate. And with that we are stuck in the fundamental paradox of being a subject: that to other subjects, we are at best only ever an object, a thing to be placed in the appropriate context despite whatever objections we may exclaim. After all, online, a cri de coeur for one’s subjectivity is, at best, only ever one more utterance.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of CONTENT. Also from this week, Tatum Dooley on influencers’ commitment to nothingness.

Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto. His writing has most recently appeared in the Atlantic, New Republic, BuzzFeed, and the Globe and Mail.