Diane Davis’ Breaking Up (At) Totality, Leslie Jones & Twitter Trolls

Continuing my summer reading, I arrive at Diane Davis’ Breaking Up (at) Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter.  Though I’ve rarely seen it cited, in my opinion, this is a key rhet-comp text.  I’d like to give a quick summary, then apply Davis’ ideas to a recent media event— Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones being chased off Twitter by racist trolls.  I find Davis’ work highly descriptive of the current media environment.  But does it offer a prescription to help us survive said environment?

For my money, Breaking Up, with its stylistic wordplay and utter rejection of foundations, represents the zenith of postmodern rhet-comp theorizing.  Following Derrida, Avital Ronell and Victor Vitanza, Davis argues that language is suffused with what she calls “laughter,” a form of erotic energy.  Reason and logic, along with conventional discursive forms, inevitably attempt to clean up this eroticism, to pin down meaning.  This project is doomed to failure though.  The result is that subjects and social structures (which from Davis’s pomo perspective are an effect of language) remain fluid, unstable.  Davis celebrates this sense of fluidity and excess.  “To be spoken by a language contorted in laughter,” she writes, “is to be spoken by language on the loose: no/thing is excluded, censored, or negated” (95).

I’m struck by the similarities between the discursive scene Davis describes and that which I encounter everyday on social media.  What is the meme economy but the unchecked proliferation of meaning?  New forms emerge, and with them new logics, only to immediately be submerged by newer forms and logics.  Reason, as embodied in traditional philosophical discourse, has no place here.  Same with morality.  The old rules—about who can speak, what they can say and how they can say it—simply do not apply.  Instead, laughter in its most primal and yes, erotic, manifestation rules the day.

Consider the racist trolls hounding Leslie Jones.  Working under the auspices of notorious alt-righter Milo Yiannopoulus, they swamped her Twitter feed with racist insults and forged screenshots suggesting she made homophobic remarks.  Here we see language wildly out of control.  There’s no demand for “facts” or “objective” referent, no limitations on what meanings can be conjured.  Jones is a comedian and actor?  Jones is the source of AIDS?  Jones believes we need to “gas dese faggots”?  Driven by a desire for “lolz”, and unchecked by either formal restrictions (rules regarding spelling and grammar, for example) or social/technological restrictions, meanings proliferate.  Language, pulsing with vulgar, grotesque human desire, really is on the loose.  No/thing is excluded.

So, in essence, what we have on Twitter is a world where anyone can say anything, think anything—and for many subjects, especially marginalized ones like Ms. Jones, this excess is terribly traumatic.  So what should be done?  The first impulse for many, as Davis suggests, is to try and limit potential meanings, re-erect some of the barriers postmodernity has torn down.  On Twitter, this typically takes the form of appeals to authority (demands that trolls be banned, for example).  According to Davis though, all attempts to limit meaning will inevitably fail.  Indeed, there seems to be a direct relationship between censorship and erotic power—the more we attempt to restrict certain meanings (the racism of the trolls, for example), the more erotically charged those meanings become.  Simply put, the more we protest, the more lolz.

So we can’t restrict meaning.  What then?  It’s a bit tenuous, but I would suggest that Davis does offer something like a solution.  Quoting Victor Vitanza, she suggests an “antibody rhetoric” capable of “enhancing our abilities to tolerate the incommensurabilities” which make up the postmodern condition (102).  As I read it, such a rhetoric demands a rejection of foundations, a rejection of even the pretense of objective reference.  In short, it means we must come to view language—even terrible, hurtful language– as a laughing matter.

Let’s put this vision to work.  In the case of Leslie Jones versus the trolls, we have competing desires—namely, to enjoy Twitter (Jones) and to cause pain in the name of lolz (trolls).  These desires are incommensurable.  And they fuel meanings which are also incommensurable.  Going back to the erotic power of censorship, perhaps the way to drain power from the latter is through a sort of radical acceptance.  Jones must come to “tolerate the incommensurabilities,” to laugh with the (admittedly pathetic) desire of the trolls.  If she can do so, perhaps the incommensurabilities will be rendered mute.  The desire of the trolls, and the accompanying meanings, will fade.

Breaking Up (at) Totality is a radical text, as I believe my attempt to apply it to a real-life situation demonstrates.  In short, thinking along with Davis, we come to the conclusion that marginalized, maligned subjects must somehow come to believe that words simply do not matter.  This is a hard position to accept.  Indeed, word merchants of all stripes want us to believe the opposite.  In a world without rules though—which for better or worse is the world of social media—it may be our only option.

  1. Sam Duckworth said:

    Quite interesting.

    If words simply do not matter, why then are we motivated to even use them? Have they become placeholders for crude emotions and generic concepts only? Or are they necessary to express both complex emotions and concepts? Are they necessary to alleviate the ambiguity that accrues from simple grunting while performing an action? Or is the notion of “complex emotion” a self-aggrandizing or rationalizing myth?


  2. Sam Duckworth said:

    I do see much evidence to support the idea that words have become simple placeholders for crude emotions. When Right-Wingers say, “Hillary Clinton is the Antichrist” (as opposed to “antichrist”, which has a much more generic referent), perhaps they aren’t guilty of the logical fallacy of false equivalence, but are simply using a placeholder for a crude emotion.

    Liked by 2 people

    • mwover said:

      That’s a great example. I tend to think of words as tools. Rather than reference some preexisting reality, they project outward, seeking to accomplish stuff. So what’s accomplished when one says Hillary is the Antichrist? There’s a performative display of dislike, also a community-building aspect (it signals to others that I hate Hillary AND know my bible). It’s very crude and extra-cognitive, yes. There’s no real “concept” at play, as in a conscious thought structure.


  3. Sam Duckworth said:

    And the inference that such uses of language, by unhesitating Right-Wingers say, are amoral seems to be borne out as well. When one points out God’s law that one should not bear false witness, they generally are left speechless or say something about not meaning it literally. If you ask how they mean it figuratively, they don’t mention hyperbole but simply use another outrageous placeholder a few minutes later.

    Liked by 1 person

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