TECHNOLOGY
PSYCHOANALYSIS

Hashtag: On the new subjectivities that emerge through the language of social media

12 APRIL 2021

 

Within digital vocabulary, the Hashtag introduces a new mode of communication, allowing for new ways of addressing others and expressing ourselves. Indeed, what has undoubtedly become a pervasive and commonplace linguistic gesture — an integral part of our expressive toolset — nonetheless marks an unprecedented mobilisation of the symbolic, at the crossroads of the singular and the collective, which inaugurates new forms of correspondence in time and space. The life of the hashtag within the #Metoo phenomenon sheds light on its strongest and most revolutionary function within the digital language. Let us take a look at the symbol that gave a voice to women all over the world, thereby redefining certain classical structures of speech and silence. It seems that some thresholds of unspeakability are receding, perhaps thanks to subjective representations, in favour of the new imaginary that emerged with this symbol.

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Image credit: Marc Nozell, 2018, Wikimedia Commons

                      ithin digital vocabulary, the Hashtag introduces a new mode of communication, allowing for new ways of addressing others and expressing ourselves. Indeed, what has undoubtedly become a pervasive and commonplace linguistic gesture — an integral part of our expressive toolset —nonetheless marks an unprecedented mobilisation of the symbolic, at the crossroads of the singular and the collective, which inaugurates new forms of correspondence in time and space. The life of the hashtag within the #Metoo phenomenon certainly sheds light on its strongest and most revolutionary function within the digital language. Let us take a look at the symbol that gave a voice to women all over the world, thereby redefining certain classical structures of speech and silence. It seems that some thresholds of unspeakability are receding, perhaps thanks to subjective representations, in favour of the new imaginary that emerged with this symbol.

On the taxonomic origins of the symbol

 

#, Hashtag: this little sign is used more than 125 million times a day. It was Chris Messira who, in 2007, suggested in a tweet that this sign might be used to classify and order messages. In the US, it is commonly referred to as "pound", while in the UK it goes by the name of "number sign" or "hash". The hashtag thus refers, originally, to an abbreviation: that of the word "libra" (lb), the Latin name of the pound in the sense of the unit of measurement of mass. Unknown to French speakers, the # was then translated, because of its resemblance to the musical symbol, as dièse

So, the hashtag — apparently ultra-contemporary and even, for some, a symbol of the end of the language — is first of all the transformation, or rather the reinvention, of a Latin term having the function of unit of measurement. The group of words that follows the # becomes a classifying syntagm, a block, a categorial label, and the words that stick to it become one, redefined and amplified through the # as a singular and new linguistic object. By this agglomeration, a message of another kind is created: digital speech accelerates the creative potential and virtuality of words, and participates in the metamorphosis of language by changing its appearance. With the Hashtag, we no longer read in the same way, we no longer hear the same thing — and so we respond differently, or we respond tout court, when we otherwise would have stayed silent. Here, a new level of meaning is created: the hashtag shows the scope of a message, it puts it in perspective by granting it a kind of elevation of meaning.

What this new linguistic practice creates

Perhaps this is the reason for its proximity to the musical sharp, which suggests the elevation of half an octave? For the # is indeed a way of raising one’s voice through an image, through the screen; it is a tool to create a community and transform silence into voice(s). This meaning-making activity operates through an ordering gesture: by classifying messages in a specific universe of meaning and redefining the scope and the stakes of the message, the hashtag comes to access a new locus of recognition. It enables us to better find our interlocutors, to identify more clearly the right addressees for our message. The hashtag, thus, allows for new forms of recognition, which raise new problems of identification and of political, social and psychological isolation. In a way, it participates in the elaboration of an increased otherness: thanks to it, the place of others can become mine. The #, thus, becomes a symbol of the opening of identity. Opening to another subject of which I can and want to become the spokesperson; or opening to a cause that I support and that supports me, to a word that I claim and that I label myself with. 

Undoubtedly, the hashtag allows for the gathering of voices denouncing the just and the unjust, representing an injustice that until then had not found its proper body. A body is thus constituted through the written word. The partition between the screen and the intimate, possibly risky, narration is suddenly lifted — an intimate story, as in the case of the metoo, or a dangerous one, like in Iran. A passage is created in time and space, and not without consequences.

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                    The partition between the screen and the intimate, possibly risky, narration is suddenly lifted — an intimate story, as in the case of the metoo, or a dangerous one, like in Iran. A passage is created in time and space, and not without consequences.

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Protests, Tehran, 17 June 2009; Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

This was evident with the proliferation of the hashtagged messages "#JesuisCharlie" after the Charlie Hebdo attacks committed in Paris in January 7, 2015. An echo, perhaps, of Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner,” uttered on June 26 1963 in West Berlin, 22 months after the construction of the Berlin Wall. A sentence beyond all walls, which complicates a sense of sovereign identity. The hashtag calls for the overcoming of fences, walls and limits assigned by identity and place. The "I" here only designates the possibility of being at the same time another. It denies the irreducible singularity of the subject to make it a symbol, a discourse, a living being, a corpse, a locus of displacement. The hashtag then binds the speaking subject to otherness. By echoing the word of the other, by taking up the same symbols to build solidarity and community, it allows the individual to open up to the other, to take a different interest in them, to mingle with the being of the other - and this, in an unprecedented way, by way of condensations and displacements. Here is thus a new kind of correspondence. 

This ricochet by the tag of the other produces an entanglement and an alliance — questioning the quality of the human link, of the social link, and of the possibilities for allyship that they afford us. 

This is why, contrary to what we think, digital discourse breaks solitude. It also summons new discursive possibilities within temporality. There is an indelibility to digital writing, the ever-open possibility of reviving previous hashtags, like echos in history that can take on a stronger resonance today. The #BlackLivematter "comes back", "resurfaces", said again after the murder of George Floyd on May 25 2020 in Minneapolis. The body follows the hash, kneeling down — from symbol to body.


The #Metoo case: the unspeakable is written

#Metoo: this global, viral phenomenon sheds light on additional properties of digital discourse. In most countries, the hashtag was directly employed in its original formulation, without any mediation or translation. Its function, in this case, was even more precise, ever more meaningful in terms of the otherness, and of the awareness of the other, which were at stake. #Metoo is a revolution of discourse and society: suddenly, women speak out about the violence they endured. By itself, this new kind of speech act constitutes a response to a first statement that will no longer need to be uttered. 

Without using one’s own words, without entering into a more personal narrative, "#Metoo" is a way to testify, to express one's suffering, to make a first step out of the unspeakable. #Metoo is a way to suppress the space between singular stories, it is a risky move but one that mobilises an unprecedented quality. In other words, this discourse, which is not a discourse, when repeated, authorizes entry into discourse. It is the opposite of the confession, of that intimate and singular account which is most often unavailable to a subjectivity broken by suffering, harassment, rape. Thus, the voice of the subject can only emerge in the outskirts of language, almost in a cry. It is these edges of language that the Hashtag allows us to locate at the edge of the social: by this confused agglomeration of words the voice is inaugurated, introducing an otherness which becomes entity. Is this not another definition of Humanity?

Women respond to each other, in reversed echoes, where each hash, each answer adds a half tone. The very absence of translation and the preservation of the premade formula in English allowed them not to say too much while identifying themselves as victims of violence, a first momentous step in long journey of recognition. The Hashtag #Metoo has allowed thousands of women to show up and to find a voice. A first step, a first demonstration out of silence.

In France, since the recent release of Camille Kouchner's book La familia grande, the silence of incest has been analyzed, studied and, starting on January 16 2021, broken: there has been a multiplication, a surge of hashtags #meetooincest. (1) Once again the # is posed as a vehicle for the word, as a call to a community of voices so far silent. Let us remember the aporia to which the child victim of incest is subjected: either he keeps silent and secret to protect his family, his filiation, his origin, respecting those who have given him access to language despite the perversion of acts and words. Or he speaks, he reveals the facts by breaking the pact of silence which constitutes a perverse family cement. Here, it seems that again the # enables speech where it was impossible and shameful, it performs a transformation: the perverted and trapped word can change matter and become utterable, rediscovering the belief in the benefit of nomination and of speach acts. From menace to founding act.

It was necessary for the victims, in order to break their muteness, to start with the speech of the other, with the absence of details, with a mere citation. This was the condition of possibility of the emergence of their word. The Hashtag was thus able to act as a shelter for subjectivity: it established a protective sororal community. Without it, a testimony of violence, starting from nothing, i.e. starting without the other, would certainly not have been possible. The # functions here as a support, a possible link without which a discourse would find itself orphaned. Perhaps for social or political reasons, but undoubtedly also for reasons that are linked to the texture of the narrative as soon as it approaches the Real. Real, Symbolic and Imaginary, the triptych invented by Lacan. This category of the real will be rethought and redeployed in relation to the symbolic and the imaginary over and over again by Lacan. Let me share a passage from 1955 where the link between the unspeakable and the real is particularly compelling: The image “summarises what we can call the revelation of that which is least penetrable in the real, of the real lacking any possible mediation, of the ultimate real. of the essential object which isn't an object any longer, but this something faced with which all words cease and all categories fail, the object of anxiety par excellence.” (2) The real is thus a dimension of experience where words fail to subsume, to say, to describe the violence and anguish of the images. Words come to a standstill; associations cease around that which words cannot recognize: the unutterable. Speech fails in this dimension of the impossible. 
 

                    The emergence of the unprecedented makes us responsible for the production of new structures while ensuring the circulation of voices. We need therapeutic and regulatory structures to allow the psyche to link public exposure and intimate narrative in a balance of temporalities.

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Image credit: Arthur Cohen 2021

A subjectivity that is constructed through otherness

Where the "I" was impossible, where it was impossible to say "I" in one's own name, it was the "I" of the other that offered support and provided a starting ground for enunciation. The # was a means of confronting the unspeakable and the unthinkable, to reconstruct a traumatized, broken subjectivity. The # of #metoo thus emerges as a subjective territory with new coordinates, a zone where the other-in-us shows its face to break the silence.

We still need to reflect on what would constitute the best frameworks and parameters to do something with this word, so that it does not remain a mere response. We must grant qualified people (clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists and psychoanalysts, to name but a few) the means to recognize each testimony’s singularity and to support them with the long work of listening that is inseparable from the emergence of a voice, of a complaint. These are the first steps towards a discourse of recognition. 

The insertion of new digital symbols necessarily questions the limits of past paradigms. Nevertheless, the efficiency of these new symbols should not exempt us from the possibility of questioning them in their drifts and equivocations.

We must consider the possibility that the hashtag, in light of the qualities previously mentioned, is for some a hub of discourse without demonstration, a handful of tossed words.  What remains "on the edge of language" can be understood as a possible bridge to the unspeakable as well as a threat to reason and demonstration, to what thought requires. The edges of language can just as well be “edges” of truth, dissimulation, misuse. Hasty edges made all the more dangerous by the speed with which words are exposed to the greed of the glance of the other in social networks.

The suppression of the singularity of speech and its collective development are an asset to access a discourse until then unutterable, but they can also amount to the simple, free and economic access to stigmatizing and defamatory speeches. 

What is to be avoided is that the link between the intimate and this radically new possibility of speech, with all of its therapeutic and political virtues, comes to foreclose all other movement of thought. The words glued together by the hashtag must be able to part, to make space for the other and their reasons. If separating words and names is impossible or even forbidden, the qualities of the discourse allowed by the hashtags can only be at risk of communitarian drifts, to the detriment of the democratic strength of the collective.

All ineffaceable discourse raises the question of its authoritarianism and its rejection of other voices, and thus of any dialogue, of any opening to the other.

The emergence of the unprecedented makes us responsible for the production of new structures while ensuring the circulation of voices. We need therapeutic and regulatory structures to allow the psyche to link public exposure and intimate narrative in a balance of temporalities.

Translated by MICOL BEZ

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                    #Metoo is a way to suppress the space between singular stories, it is a risky move but one that mobilises an unprecedented quality.

NOTES

1. Camille Kouchner, La familia Grande, Paris, Seuil, 2020.

2. Jacques Lacan, Seminar II, The Ego in Freud;s Theory and the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955, New York: W. W. Norton and Co.,p. 164.