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The Trace of the Teen

My one beef with Derrida’s “From Restricted to General Economy: Hegelianism Without Reserve” is that it’s not at all funny. This wouldn’t be a problem except that the essay, a reading of Georges Bataille’s critique of Hegel, hinges on Bataille’s laughter. Only by taking Hegel absolutely seriously, according to Derrida, does Bataille arrive at this laughter, and only by that process—unlike Bataille’s contemporaries, unlike Derrida’s contemporaries, and unlike so many today—does he do something other than reproduce the Hegelian dialectic. The burst of laughter from Bataille is the critical break, and I had hoped to hear something similar from Derrida.

It’s not really fair to call that a fault in this superb essay. Derrida’s method is to apply the same seriousness for which he praises Bataille to Bataille’s writing so that it, like any text, might unfold beyond the bounds of what it thought itself to be. Deconstruction is nothing more than absolute fidelity to the text. It is that fidelity that matters; the reproduction of style is ornamental, and my qualm is a stupid one. 

I recalled that missing moment of mirth when reading Helena Fitzgerald’s take on the Twitter “follow a teen” phenomenon. Here, though, the issue isn’t as superficial as Derrida not being able to tell a joke. It is that follow a teen, a goofy lark spun out of the extended adolescence of people who spend a lot of time fucking around on Twitter, is being taken “seriously” in a way that is not intellectually serious. It is instead a performance of seriousness. It would be like rebutting Bataille’s parodies of reason with formal proofs that the sun, in fact, is not an anus. It is like pointing out that the man from Nantucket was actually from Concord, or telling Warhol he should get a refund from the guy who fucked up his prints. It’s stodgy and sanctimonious and avoids the challenge of the new.

(I should say that Dave Thorpe, the guy behind follow a teen, is a friend of mine, just so that doesn’t get cited as my secret motive here. Even before I met Dave I read his work and thought he was clever. I would think follow a teen is interesting even if I didn’t hang out with Dave. Now that I think about it, follow a teen was one of the things that first got me into Twitter. That was when I realized there was a wishing well into which millions of people were screaming and anyone could go for a listen.)

Follow a teen and Twitter are creepy, Fitzgerald writes. Yes, I agree, there is something really interesting about the heterogeneity of public and private fields projected and accessed in a single space on Twitter. That can produce effects that are “creepy,” if you want to be terminologically rigorous about it. But that is the essence of what is interesting about Twitter: other people have subjectivities different from my own! And I can access them in previously impossible modalities! I find this wonderful and mysterious. But I can see why it would be creepy, too.

"Following" has creepy connotations, like stalking or being a cult member. Like in Kevin Bacon’s serial killer show with literary pretensions, "The Following." In fact, in one of the early episodes Bacon mentions something about the parallels between cults and social media. But even in a hamfest like The Following the writers knew that dog wouldn’t hunt and cut out further half-baked ruminations. The literary idealist confusion between language and material reality is seductive but fallow. A serious interlocutor of Twitter would examine the relationships between followers and followees, which are again heterogenous and surprising, rather than a single word, to understand the multiple cultures built on Twitter. (When you "subscribe" to someone on Facebook, do you think that is a different experience because FB uses a different word or because it is a different network built to create and channel different types of relationships?)

Lol that anyone would write in praise of Facebook: “‘Twitter’s very language encourages voyeurism in a way that Facebook doesn’t. Where Facebook is all about ‘friendship’ and ‘connecting,’ Twitter is about following and talking about people publicly behind their backs (‘subtweeting’).” Yes: Facebook is not a giant oneway mirror. Facebook is all about friendship and connecting, not filtering your feed to ensure you see only the things that Facebook—not your “friends”—want you to see. This is a true and accurate representation of social networks in the year of our Lord 2013.

But I suppose that does answer my rhetorical question from a moment ago. As at least one person sees things, Facebook provides a service equivalent to that which I get from Weird Magazine, while Twitter only ever allows me to be the Zodiac Killer.

That came out meaner than I wanted it to sound. This isn’t supposed to be a hit piece on Helena Fitzgerald, to whom I am grateful for bringing more attention to Twitter and its bizarre dynamics. I apologize for getting ugly. There are writers who are orders of magnitude worse and I will save my bile for them. I merely disagree with Fitzgerald, which I will try to do more politely from here on out.

I think on some level Fitzgerald gets that follow a teen is an expression of intergenerational solidarity. That a 29 year old like myself is interested in teens because he remembers that time with such intense false clarity, and that teen-ness was never overcome so much as folded into a later incarnation of that self. Follow a teen is a celebration of teens. This is teenfest, with the bowl of never-ending teens. Fitzgerald’s kicker, “Your Twitter feed isn’t complete until you follow a teen, and you aren’t entertaining until you start acting like one,” might be a diss at Thorpe et al. (I hope not, since it would hinge on using teen as a pejorative) but it also points to the respect of the follow-a-teeners for the discourse of the adolescent banal. Or maybe this is meant as praise for follow a teen’s entertainment value? Perhaps the distinction between teen and non-teen collapses as the act of observing a teen confers on the observer the epistemology of a teen???

(At this point in the writing I began to seriously question my reading of Fitzgerald’s essay. Maybe it isn’t a critique of follow a teen; maybe it is a critique of all teens, Thorpe included, in which case my whole argument will have been an utter failure. Ack!) 

The fucked up part is that there was a great response from Tavi Gevinson in the form of a “follow an adult” counter ‘shtag (my style guide requires that I refer to hashtags as ‘shtags so no one will ever think they are cool). Now this is an intellectually serious response. Gevinson understood the original content—an agonistic fascination with the other, but an other across a wafer thin temporal divide and with a Sophoclean fatality of becoming—and responded in kind. And was funny. She got the joke and made one back. This is what I had wanted from Derrida.

You see, follow a teen and follow an adult aren’t a “war,” as so many people have called it. It is a game. Twitter is a game of self-revelation (an RPG, if you’re into typology). Only fascists like Hegel or Schmitt or Bush era neocons look at two elements pulling against each other and declare the necessity of a war. If this a war, it’s one fought with water balloons, except both sides are smoking and muttering instead of picking up the balloons. No one takes it seriously even as a figurative war.

Gevinson made the perfect response to continue the game. And, to return for a moment to the idiom of Derrida, this is the only response that can stall the abyss that Twitter brings so close. We each hurl our words out into the aether and hope someone, impossibly, responds. And they do. That, I think, is the magic of Twitter—that it captures the miraculous structure of human isolation and connectedness in full sight of the abyss. Which is to say, it’s creepy as fuck. 

But, what do I know. I am twitter user weedguy420boner. You probably shouldn’t take anything I say too seriously. (If anyone wants to write a reply, please use “weedguy” as my first name and “420boner” as my surname).

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