Digital Semiotics & Pandemic Intimacy

or What being (black) on Twitter has revealed to me

by Amari-Grey Johnson

Art by Julie Kim


Setting: Conversation – the site where interpersonal reality is created and existence is realized

Characters:

  1. Language – a failing endeavor
  2. Meaning – negotiated across the temporal and social experience of linguistic change 
  3. Goal – to cultivate a precise experience

Premised on the silence of singularity, Hannah Arendt roots the human condition in the embodiment of plurality, “the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world” (Arendt 7).

Distinguishing between the fact of existence and the act thereof, Arendt  reminds us where the transition occurs:


“the language of the Romans….used the words ‘to live’ and ‘to be among men’ (inter homines esse) or ‘to die’ and ‘to cease to be among men’ (inter homines esse desinere) as synonyms” (8).


Contemplation starts in media res

This co-constructed reality, this conversation, is a series of approximated forms. The sensual poetics generated by such forms reiterates the originating vastness of this reality. For language is unable to confer the experience of a person’s meaning.

The promise of the sentence represents an attempt to narrow this approximation by invoking the auxiliary powers of context and performance. In our compulsion to construe reality, to (be) perceive(d), we are subject to the failure of conversation, yet a need to reconcile the miscommunication of self, to create something, persists. Here, in the virtual sphere, the “profile” (you) take up the act of the speech-performance, disrupting a codified distinction between physical and digital identity and the act or result of speaking.

Who is you?

Tisha Lewis Ellison outlines a translation of identity into digital space that mirrors the Piercian model of semiotics. The Piercian model, which reinvents Saussure’s signifier/signified semiotic framework, distinguishes between the “the sign vehicle (e.g., a letter, word, picture, or sound) and its referent” (Smalls, “Race, SIGNS, and the Body”, 325). Participation in the digital realm divides the self along axes of the “real, virtual, and projective” (Ellison 337). Applied to social media, the “real” is the assumed body of the user, the “virtual” is the profile, and the “projective” negotiates between the two, forming the assembled consciousnesses with which we interact. 

Charles Sanders Peirce offers a relational model of semiotics that inserts a third component in the mediation of signs: mediation itself, which he termed the “interpretant” (1974). Ultimately, the Peircian model introduces a process, or relation, to Saussure’s static dyad and reconfigures the “signified” as “object” (i.e., the dynamical object as the thing in the world being denoted by the sign and the immediate object as the meaning created vis-à-vis the sign) (Smalls, “Race, SIGNS, and the Body”, 325).

As the creation of an online profile materializes a new object, this projection gains meaning as both a “thing in the world” and an auxiliary to the “sign”, the physical self. When the realm of discourse shifts completely to the digital, the projective self is our only access to the sign, the act of signification itself takes on a presence.

The (digital) context of the exchange figures in this creation by centralizing choices regarded in analog speech as “non-linguistic extras” (Crystal 139). Social media interfaces, Twitter in this case, engage David Crystal’s two arenas of “Internet semiotics”: multimodality, “the various ways in which users interact with the technology”, and multimedia, “the use of text, speech, music….video, still photography, and other forms of interactivity” (139). The digital context situates conversation on a visual plane that is manipulable by the speaker, the spoken, and the spoken to. In this way, text not only communicates through content-meaning but also through its arrangement around the elements of the screen, which are themselves  malleable. Reference begins to compound itself by amplifying indexical multiplicities, allowing us to attempt to compensate for what is lost in speech-performance by sensory expansion.

Transforming the range of linguo-visual opportunities extends the possibilities of what language is and what it can be, a potentially new landscape for self-translation/creation, community formation, and a deduction or intentional complication of the intra-linguistic gap. The nature of digital communication, “extend[ing] and limit[ing] the ways in which we can operate in spoken, written, and signed language”, extends and limits the human condition (139).

The ability to converse in the digital is particularly essential right now, in isolation (more or less), as we (you) are barred from “all human activities and [are] defined [now] from the viewpoint of the absolute quiet of contemplation” (Arendt 15).

Are you lonely?

I (We) come Here not to be:

Focus on the general negative condition of the human can detract from the particular social death of black enslavement and its “afterlives” (us). For the black slave, communal (dis)identification collimates a (un)construction of the self – a “ negation of the subject” through which blackness is rendered fungible (Hartman, 231). “Put differently, the fungibility of the commodity makes the captive body an abstract and empty vessel vulnerable to the projection of others’ feelings, ideas, desires, and values…the surrogate for the master’s body….and the sign of his power and dominion” (21).

Extracted from the status of enslavement, Carlyle Fielding Stewart wrestles with the particular significance of black spirituality and marks it as the origin and essence of a black consciousness. “Stewart views African-American spirituality and culture as creative, integrative, and transformative forces that have undergirded the quest for social and political freedom over time” (xi). Read as an interpretive force, spirituality diffuses a liberatory social space into a liminal sociality, a plane in which blackness can be (re)constituted. Stewart situates the creative possibilities of spirituality such that the theological takes up discursive responsibility, “represent[ing] the full matrix of beliefs, powers, values, and behaviors that shape people’s consciousness, understanding, and capacity of themselves[…]” [my working definition of language] (Yusoff 50). The space of transformation intersticed in black socialities, “crafted in the indices of fungibility and fugitivity” engages the “senses as theoreticians” to locate within “black oral culture of the New World…a counter-aesthetic” whose positionality carries the virtual, multimodal self (50).  Flight into digital space forms a precondition recalling Christina Sharpe’s “Trans*Atlantic”:

That place, condition, or process that appears alongside and in relation to the Black Atlantic but also in excess of its currents. I want to think Trans* in a variety of ways that try to get at something about or toward the range of trans*formations enacted on and by Black bodies….as a means to mark the ways the slave and the Black occupy what Saidiya Hartman calls the “position of the unthought” (Hartman and Wilderson 20003). The asterisk after the prefix “trans” holds the space open for thinking (from and into that position). It speaks, as well, to a range of embodied experiences called gender and to Euro-Western gender’s dismantling, its inability to hold in/on Black flesh.

Making manifest an “embodied experience” of “dismantling” against the imposed conditions of whiteness, around the captive position of the unthought, reflects the slippage of blackness through fugitivity, a “transplantation to reconceptualize how black bodies reclaimed a right to geography” first in the earth across the Atlantic, now in the digital beneath (Yusoff).

Similar to the interpretive work of black spiritual space, as Black Twitter extends the creative possibilities of blackness, by engaging semiotic exchange, We (black users) actively reconstitute not only the formation of blackness but the terms thereof.

André Brock’s conception of Black Twitter as “Twitter’s mediation of Black cultural discourse, or “signfiyin’ (Gates, 1983)” highlights the centrality of language formation in the tradition of black agency and begins to implicate the public realm in its use (530).

Twitter’s discourse conventions, ubiquity, and social features encouraged increased Black participation….In particular, Black hashtag signifying revealed alternate Twitter discourses to the mainstream and encourages a formulation of Black Twitter as a “social public”; a community constructed through [its] use of social media by outsiders and insiders alike (530).

Digital space redefines the inherent “fungibility” of blackness by selecting new avenues of transformation, evident especially when those avenues no longer make up for what is lost in speech but replace speech itself. Brock’s investigations of black Twitter’s “cultural conversation” implicates language – both the speech act and act of speaking – in the realm’s potential energy. Ultimately, the fungibility of virtual blackness simulates the mediation of blackness on the “physical” plane such that the effects of the death of the social – identificatory anxiety and (in)visibility – are premised on the social death. 

Wait, 

run that back

Krystal A. Smalls locates this discursive formation within a genealogy of language in which black Twitter might be read as  the cultural history of “‘counter language’ [… or]   ‘a conscious attempt on the part of US slaves and their descendants to represent an alternative reality’” (Smalls, “Race, SIGNS, and the Body”, 327).

Black digital spaces, like their physical antecedents, play a metalinguistic role in the formation of black consciousness (grammar) as an act of subterfuge (Hartman 8). Hidden within/around a now digital grammar of whiteness, Black Twitter 

…grapple[s] with the complexities of black subjectivity and the way it transpires in the afterlife of slavery (Hartman 1997). And, in this particular moment of that long afterlife, when digital sociality is no longer a tangential or optional mode of being for so many black young people around the world, we must bear witness to their intensely public mediation of a subjectivity that is emphatically human and emphatically black (Smalls, “Languages of Liberation, 59).

Both the act of subversion and a reliance on the intangible metalinguistic sense reflect a strategy of fugitivity bound up with  the contemporary attraction to an intentionally racialized digital space. 

Smalls speaks on “digital emphatic blackness,” an emphasized performance of recognized or stereotypical black signs that indicate referential meaning as well as racial and gender indices; the necessity of signage within digital space implies the persecution of those signs beyond the digital space and assumes the nonexistence of a black sense of place outside of  the digital (7). 

The formation of a sensory grammar in fugitive digital space continues the tradition of black discursive agency such that Black Twitter effaces not only the “social public” that Brock speaks about but also a metalinguistic sociality. Instead, racialized digital space embodies black expression through a lexicon with its own potentialities, structures, and requirements for authenticity. An exercise in world-building as much as language-making, Black Twitter materializes a political temporality and subjectivity which users can engage to define themselves in relation. 

Naming a generational moment when “digital sociality is no longer a tangential or optional mode of being”, Smalls parenthetically invokes the conditions of quarantine in which the digital is the primary mode of being: the politic of digital fugitivity and the projective self are oppositional constructions; each are extractions of being – from the physical plane and the observable self, respectively. For this reason, digital profiles are an extension of our presence, a space predicated on the assumption that it is not the only plane that exists; nonetheless,  as if in an extended isolation(i.e. quarantine), access to the physical self is completely lost.

For many, particularly young people, extended loneliness can induce a desire for parasocial interaction that ushers a generational flight to digital space (Walsh). This identificatory anxiety intensifies the process of self-creation such that the stakes of the projective self are heightened. In pursuing recognition, Black Twitter’s occupancy of racialized digital space then reflects a double fugitivity from/towards both visibility and tangibility.

*Gestures wildly*

In the total absence of the physical, what power do our “projective selves” hold? 

If the digital becomes our only access to the other, the projective self, a negotiation between the on- and offline, flattens into (indeed is subsumed by the notion of) the virtual. 

What happens when Twitter is no longer an extension of ourselves but our sole contact with one another? When black communities gather digitally rather than physically? At what point might  race change from casual to compulsory in digital identification? In other words, how do emphatically black signs and signers become necessarily black? 

To quell pandemic anxieties, We (black people) may exist on the plane of digital blackness to destabilize distance and approximate presence in the metalinguistic consciousness. “Black Twitter (digital) practice draws upon cultural referents and discourse conventions (“signifyin”) drawing from African American culture” such that we conjure what Carlyle Fielding Stewart calls “a black soul force” – “the capacity to create, interpret, and construct [a] reality,” here within the realm of the digital just as the soul in the body (Stewart 104; Brock 1013). The co-creation of a connective/communal plane now alternates between a compulsion and intention, a dual state of signifyin and the awareness thereof. Blackness enters the frame of consciousness such that its fungibility is self-perceived.

This frame is duplicitous.

As black twitter engages, and acts to engage, a metalanguage within a public sphere, the performance of emphatic, necessary blackness attracts non-black viewership. Becoming “increasingly visible”, “black internet usage….dominate[s] Twitter discourse” such that Black “narrative acts” then develop beyond the identificatory needs of their enablers into a phenomenon engaged by non-black users. In the end, blackness is revealed as the underlying material resource for the network (Brock 529; Browne).

Twitter’s prototypical whiteness, realized and revealed through its programmatic assumptions, necessitate an antithesis for their functioning. In other words, the algorithmic structure of the site therefore implicitly understands digital blackness as its dark matter, the invisibilized infrastructure through which legibility is negotiated. The maintenance of this structure then simultaneously suppresses and hyperfixates on blackness.

For example, Twitter “continually suspends accounts of Black organizers” and restricts communication to hinder community organizing (an inheritance of colonial policing), disproportionately targeting black speech and imposing a linguo-ontological silence (Strike; Ghaffary). These suppressive strategies, enacted by digital overseers (moderators), are the “spectacles of mastery orchestrated by….the slaveholding class [see “Jack”, the CEO of Twitter] to establish its dominion and regulate the little leisure” of fugitive space (Hartman 8). Nevertheless, the appropriation of policed black semiotic and linguistic patterns enacts a form of cultural currency. 

The acts of digital blackface, minstrelsy, metalinguistic appropriation, explicates blackness as the material resource for building power, platform, and virtual agencies. Emphasized by an anxiety for identification, the measure of this legibility has become increasingly precise and the desire for it pathological. Non-black users appropriate black signage (albeit incorrectly) as a series of spectacles, momentarily engaging the apparatus of surveillance to exit the perceptive void of quarantine.¹ The placement of one’s non-black self into the frame evokes a pleasure in being read particularly critical in isolation and available only in the absence of consequences.

Cultural appropriation, beyond the virtual, is an act of eroticism in which the taboo of blackness is enjoyed by those who can relinquish it. Those who engage in culturally appropriative acts perform hypervisibility before abdicating into a norm of privacy; the option for privacy maintains an exemption from perception and identification, yet privacy itself approaches a pathological state as the option is removed, when its consumer is indefinitely secluded. Urgently now, non-black Twitter users eschew their state of privacy – having become their sole space of existence in pandemic – in order to be (hyper)visible for the moments of their choosing. The ephemerality of this voyeurism stimulates an erotic pleasure that satisfies their relational withdrawal and avoids the “constant threat of a suspension” to which black users are subject (Sankin).

Conclusions // my continued thoughts

If language is the result of the human condition and blackness finds metalanguage, then blackness escapes the need to be human, excelling inistead in its ability to be un-thought, emphatically more than – something after

A “post” more than a “counterlanguage”, a refusal rather than a response, Black soul force(s), digital or otherwise, do  not endeavor to approximate white grammars, but constantly flow around the confines of such grammars. 

“The semiotic weight of Blackness (as the utter antithesis to Whiteness) presses upon many of the meaning-making activities performed by individuals who inhabit such [black] bodies and pulls on the expansive interpretive frames through which these individuals are read and treated” (Smalls, “Race, SIGNS, and the Body”).

The experiences of presence (distance), liminality (connection) in blackness are attractions of the digital, which simulates, but cannot replicate, the experience. Blackness is not only the tool but the goal of the digital itself, an extension of whiteness’s attack against itself, its own limitations.

Beyond a simple dichotomy of authenticity and performativity, black Twitter as a public/private sphere mediates blackness’ accessibility. Therefore, movement around blackness becomes the intrinsic premise for the racialization of everyone – as opposed to proximity or distance from an independent whiteness. Black Twitter is effectively Twitter, and vice versa. Again, We are the foundation, and Y’all are weird.

Amari-Grey has recently started using Twitter again. They are a writer and avatar interested in blackness, un-language, and anything trans. Her work is an attempt to find something (mostly herself) beyond the physical and ontological grammars of whiteness. You can follow them @amarixgrey

Notes

  1. This TikTok from user “mylesocean” references instances of AAVE from the discourse space of “K-pop Twitter.” This is one example of the distribution of digital blackness across online communities globally as a measure of legibility. AAVE becomes abstracted from its context and invisibilized as “stan language” so that some users may unknowingly take up a thin version of the vernacular. Rather than demonstrate a distance from the apparatus of white supremacy, this represents the symbolic work of cultural & linguistic appropriation to deradicalize the affective powers of AAVE and reaffirms the function of blackness as the underlying even unconscious, resource of the platform.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Charles R. Walgreen Foundation Lectures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Brock, André. “Critical Technocultural Discourse Analysis.” New Media & Society 20, no. 3 (2018): 1012-030.

Brock, André. “From the Blackhand Side: Twitter as a Cultural Conversation.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56, no. 4 (2012): 529-49.

Browne, Simone. Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Ghaffary, Shirin. “The Algorithms That Detect Hate Speech Online Are Biased against Black People.” Vox. Vox, August 15, 2019. https://www.vox.com/recode/2019/8/15/20806384/social-media-hate-speech-bias-black-african-american-facebook-twitter. 

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-century America. Race and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Sankin, Aaron. “How Activists of Color Lose Battles against Facebook’s Moderator Army.” Reveal, August 16, 2017. https://revealnews.org/article/how-activists-of-color-lose-battles-against-facebooks-moderator-army/. 

Sharpe, Christina. “The Ship.” In In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2016.  

Smalls, KA 2018, Languages of Liberation: Digital Discourses of Emphatic Blackness. in N Avineri, LR Graham, EJ Johnson, RC Riner & J Rosa (eds), Language and Social Justice in Practice. Routledge, New York, pp. 52-60. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315115702-7

Smalls, Krystal A. “Race, SIGNS, and the Body.” In The Oxford Handbook of Language and Race, The Oxford Handbook of Language and Race, 2020-10-29. 1st ed. OXFORD HANDBOOKS SERIES. Oxford University Press, 2020.

Strike, When is the General. “Yup! They Continually Suspend Accounts of Black Organizers. I’m Sick of It.” Twitter. Twitter, August 8, 2020. https://twitter.com/SoulRevision/status/1291900594509066240?s=20. 

Stewart, Carlyle Fielding. Black Spirituality and Black Consciousness: Soul Force, Culture, and Freedom in the African-American Experience. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999. 

Tisha Lewis Ellison. “Digital Ontologies of Self: Two African American Adolescents Co-construct and Negotiate Identities through The Sims 2.” Digital Culture & Education 6, no. 4 (2014): Digital Culture & Education, 2014-12-01, Vol.6 (4).

Walsh, Colleen. “Young Adults Hardest Hit by Loneliness during Pandemic, Study Finds.” Harvard Gazette. Harvard Gazette, February 17, 2021. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/02/young-adults-teens-loneliness-mental-health-coronavirus-covid-pandemic/. Yusoff, Kathryn. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.