Now that it’s fading into the blessed rear view, it’s worth thinking about the moment when “The Letter” became something you didn’t have to contextualize and didn’t have to explain. You could just say those words, mention “The Letter,” and people knew what you meant. The Letter had been delivered.
I’m talking about twitter, of course, that place that isn’t really a “place,” per se, but which certainly does feel like a place. Then again, what is a place? A place is a context. And one of the ways you can know you’re in a place is when its context is implied, when it doesn’t have to be said. You can tell where you are by what people don’t have to say, because everyone in that place already knows it, because it’s obvious, because it goes without saying. Place is the thing that goes without saying. Place is a feeling.
On twitter, the things that can be left unsaid—that don’t need to be said, because they’re so generally understood—show you where “the discourse” has gotten itself to, where the generalized, aggregated attention of the collected chatter has located itself, oriented itself, and how it has assembled itself. This happens when you discover that other people just assume you are referencing a thing when they read what you’ve tweeted—and which you therefore, inescapably, are referencing, even if you didn’t mean to be—because if everyone is talking about a thing, then you must be too. Place is a coercive context, in this way; if it’s the thing that goes without saying, then “not saying” won’t protect you from it.
And this is something central to how twitter works: because you write so little—because even 280 characters is not a lot of words—the dark matter that holds it together as a discrete place is the weight of all that is unsaid, referenced, implied (and therefore sub-tweeted).
This is why, I think, meaning is more associational on twitter than in most places. Because you write so little, what you tweet will always accrue meaning by what can still be read in the implied context of what you haven’t actually written, what you very literally haven’t said. And because the assumption really is that twitter is a place, and that there is a discourse, and that there is therefore something holding it all together, being a paranoid reader is less a choice than a door charge. Because every tweet is fragmentary, referential, and incomplete, every tweet is filled with implications to be deduced. When added the idea that twitter is a place that we’re all occupying—the there even is a “the discourse”—the conceit will become a reality, a self-fulfilling prophesy, and from there it will become a frame you can’t slip out of. Our minds make meaning and find patterns, and they work even harder and more creatively to do so when we expect them and don’t find them.
This is why, as evasive and hard to locate as a pattern of “unsaying” must necessarily be, it is an observable phenomenon, this moment when a lot of isolated and disorganized subtweets and in-jokes suddenly snap into place as a constellation. Or, worse yet, let me simmer a stew of metaphors and evoke a resonating, echoing hall of mirrors, a space that disorients you a little, but also mesmerizes with its endless variations on the exact same image. This is the moment when twitter becomes unusable for anything other than talking about whatever the thing it is that everyone knows we’re all talking about, even when we quite literally aren’t. This is when everything plausibly becomes a commentary on “The Letter,” if that’s what the thing of the moment is. To the extent that there is a “we”—and we all labor under the self-fulfilling prophecy that there is—it becomes a conversational frame that draws you in and demands that you give it is due.
In a sense, this is what “trending topics” is supposed to do, but (like so much that Twitter tries to do on purpose), doesn’t. Algorithmic framing is kludgy and ignorable, and you only notice that something is “trending” when it’s somehow absurd or offensive for it to be. But you could tell that the letter had become The Letter when—in the midst of a worsening pandemic, as perhaps the largest protest movement in this country’s history filled the streets, and stemming directly from the fact that the president was proposing to use military force to suppress constitutional assembly—it suddenly became hard to talk about anything other than the question of whether “cancel culture” was a thing that needed to stop or be stopped. And as absurd as it sounds when you put it that way, I suspect that for those of us who felt caught up in its gravitational field, this feeling will feel familiar, and all the more for how palpably absurd it feels. So much of what we talk about, when we talk about cancel culture, is the fact that we’re talking about “cancel culture.”
I’ve been using the word “feeling” a lot, but I mean something different than the opposite of intellect, rationality, objectivity, or the empirical. That’s a particular political opposition that has been weaponized to replicate an endlessly gendered and racialized distinction between what white men do—as they think and debate—and what all the other kinds of people do, as they whine and complain, with their hysterical and resentful feelings. It’s the opposition you get from “facts don’t care about your feelings.” It’s a rightwing and reactionary framing, intended to presume and imply that very hierarchy of speakers, and to impose it on people when they do speak, making white men sound rational and objective and making everyone else into what the reactionary mind insists that they are.
It’s also gaslighting. Feeling, in this context, is when you can feel what people mean—even though they haven’t said it—and when they also know you will feel it when they speak. Hemingway compared this to an iceberg, referring to the effect of omitting something fundamental, which would allow a reader to feel more than they understood. Most of what matters, he was saying—the 90% of an iceberg which is underwater, like the unconscious—is something we can intuit and feel, not see. Twitter is a place this unconsciousness is collective, and associational, where you always feel more than you understand, and so do I, and that’s how we communicate. You can complain that this is the case, if you want, but when you’re on the Titanic, complaining about icebergs is not the way to respond to the presence of icebergs.
When a conversation is organized around the thing that, because it hasn’t been said, cannot be discussed (and which, if you bring it up, will only confirm that you’re putting feelings above facts), things start to get strange: if you start to feel that the conversation is about a thing, even though it (literally) isn’t, and if you feel that if you say something about it, you will be punished for it, you either will, and be punished, or you won’t, and feel silenced.
This feeling is not necessarily a good measure of anything, nor does it accurately or reliably reflect an objective reality. We’re paranoid readers, and while paranoia is by definition imprecise, it’s also real. You can feel it.When something is there, even though you can’t point to it, or demonstrate its facticity—but you can feel its touch on your body—it makes no sense to argue that no one meant to say that, or to try to police how people should react to what wasn’t actually said. Those aren’t the standards by which we should judge and understand those kinds of feelings, which are distributed and social. Maybe there are no standards. But if you try less to understand than to feel, you might discover that paranoia has power.
Trumpists and trolls, after all, don’t know how they want to make you feel, and how to do it. They feel their way through. And maybe it’s precisely because they’re so good at feelings—and so dismissive of understanding—that they can so effectively make you feel things (while also making your feelings feel illegitimate). Trolls spread feelings the way an arsonist sets fires: it doesn’t have to be planned or controlled to be effective.
When The Letter became the thing that happened on twitter—when twitter became the thing The Letter was happening on—what had happened wasn’t as controlled or as orderly as a list of names attaching themselves to a proposition. It wasn’t the rational process by which measured debate and civility were imposed upon the id-driven chaos of our censorious climate. It felt like trolling, because it was too vague to be anything but a wave of feelings and implications, because the contradictions were so glaring and the omissions so important, and because it was so hard to tell who had really written it and who it was for. Because it fell apart as a letter—a coherent message addressed to a reader and stamped by a writer—it exploded as an event, producing a climate of its own. The Letter had been delivered.