Category Archives: Discourse and the Blog: “Radical Faggot” as Dialogic Response. Steve Cohen

A Screenshot of the blog Radical Faggot

Discourse and the Blog: Radical Faggot as Dialogic Response

Steve Cohen

 

What is a Blog?

Many scholars, especially in the field of genre studies, have taken up the blog as a point of interest. Work by scholars such as Marika Lüders, Lin Prᴓitz, and Terje Rasmussen (2010); Inger Askehave and Anne Ellerup Nielsen (2005); and Susan Herring, Lois Ann Scheidt, Elijah Wright, and Sabrina Bonus (2005) has sought to define the blog as a genre, citing the technology’s capacity to encourage self-expression as a central definition of its purpose. Over the last decade or so, as blogs have proliferated, this work has been complicated by the appearance of new forms of blogs, with what some see as very different purposes. The productive question for genre studies, then, has shifted from “what is a blog?” to “what are the different kinds of blogs, and what do they do?” Carolyn R. Miller and Dawn Shepherd (2009) addressed this question in “Questions for Genre Theory from the Blogosphere.” There, Miller and Shepherd (2009) pointed out that, since the advent of social media sites like MySpace and, more familiarly, Facebook, there are at least two distinct purposes for the blog: “self-expression” and “community development.” They write, “while the personal blog takes advantage of internet technologies of interaction and connection in the interests of identity construction, these same capabilities have been put to other uses, which have action and social change as their goals” (p. 271). They further emphasized the difference between the two “kinds” of blogs, explaining “the blogs that seem most different on this dimension from personal blogs” are what they term “public affairs blogs” (p. 271). While Miller and Shepherd (2009) admitted that both self-expression and community development “can be achieved by the self-disclosure that blogging permits and seems to encourage” (p. 268), the dichotomy they create between personal and public affairs blogs seems inadequate to describing the purposes and functions of a blog like Radical Faggot. While the purpose of Radical Faggot is to make specific interventions in public affairs, it does so through self-disclosure. The particular identity that Radical Faggot produces works toward the disruption of what the blogger sees as normative forces in identity production in order to advance the interests of marginalized communities. The public affairs work the blog accomplishes, then, rests at least in part on the blogger’s expression of a self. The title of the blog, for example, employs the term “faggot” to simultaneously produce an identity for the author and enter into a dialogue with the use and meaning(s) of the term. This relationship with language and with the larger culture characterizes the blog as a whole; the personal disclosures of the author exist in what Bakhtin (1981) would call the “dialogic” relationship with the larger political discourse.

Radical Faggot and the Dialogic

In “Discourse and the Novel,” Bakhtin (1981) pointed out the stratified, ideological nature of language itself. Bakhtin (1981) further pointed to the novel as a place where “a diversity of social speech-types” come together into a single, unified “system of…‘languages’” (p. 262). For Bakhtin (1981), the speech of narrators and characters in a novel represent heteroglot languages that a given novelist organizes into a “higher unity” (p. 262). The blog is not a novel. But, it is a place where a blogger can draw together the utterances of others, forwarding or subverting their original purposes, by fashioning them into a unified whole of his or her own creation—the blog. Radical Faggot for instance, organizes a music video titled “We Coming,” into a blog post contributed by “Pittsburgh-based emcee and activist Jasiri X,” which itself quotes another blog, “Davy D’s Hip-Hop Corner.” These voices and languages (Hip-Hop artist, social activist, and blogger) all contribute to the meaning and experience of labor. They are set in dialogic opposition to the title of the post “Happy Labor Day!” by the blogger. These languages are carefully composed to protest the more familiar meanings of the phrase Labor Day—the post itself organized into a unified protest by the blogger, who identifies himself as “Radical Faggot.”

Similarly, in a later post titled “Why Now?: A New Whole Foods and the Future of Job Justice,” the blogger weaves together such disparate voices as Michelle Obama commenting on the shortage of nutritious food in low-income communities, Wal-Mart workers protesting low wages, and Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb’s famous comment that “it’s a myth that you can’t eat healthy for less money; you may have to be willing to cook” into a story about a proposed Whole Foods market in a depressed urban area. The languages of corporate America and politics are positioned dialogically in a blog post that questions the labor practices of Whole Foods and seeks to advance the interests of the community in which the new store is to be built.

While this blog doesn’t create a personal narrative in the traditional sense, it certainly creates a unity out of heteroglossia in individual posts that themselves become a dialogic narrative. Its overarching rhetorical stance toward social change brings the disparate posts into an overall unity. The quotes in the post become part of the fabric of the language of the blog. While there are important differences between the blog and the novel—notably that the language of the people quoted is “found” rather than a product of the imagination of an author—the blogger is able, nevertheless, to dialogically juxtapose languages in the construction of a narrative about his neighborhood.

Identity and “The Word”

The unity of the blog is due in large part to the particular stance the blogger takes in relation to his community as a whole. An integral part of this stance is the identity he constructs. In the “about” section of the blog, Radical Faggot introduces himself as “a multiethnic, mixed-class, queer man who is dedicated to radical education, brown feminist theory and community-committed activism.” Further, he declares that “Posts may be written in English, Spanish, ballroom slang, hood speak, and academic jargon, but all languages and dialects are welcome,” a clear recognition of the variety of languages he utilizes to construct the whole. More central to his identity claims, however is his choice of the word “faggot.” He explains that this choice was meant not to offend, but to express himself. In “an era of mainstream media representation, invisible trauma and neoliberal reform, it is to remind myself and others who stand by me that we are different, we are abject, and we do exist in opposition to current social, political and economic orders.” Language itself, then, is central to the identity work the blog is doing. It is through particular language that the blogger identifies himself, and it is through positioning his own language in relation to that of others that the arguments in his posts gain much of their rhetorical force.

In choosing “faggot” as a central identity marker for himself, the blogger is both claiming the word and its meanings and intervening in them. He is redefining the word for himself and re-inscribing it for his readers. In Bakhtin’s (1981) terms, he is “striv[ing] to get a reading on his own word, and on his own conceptual system that determines this word, within the alien conceptual system of the understanding reader” (p. 282). In the blogger acknowledging his “opposition” to “current social…orders,” through the use of this word, he works, not only to understand himself the ways the label positions him, but also to ask the reader to consider that positioning as well. It is an acknowledgment of Bakhtin’s (1981) assertion that “the word in language is half someone else’s. It becomes ‘one’s own’ only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word” (p. 293, emphasis mine). The blogger’s use of the word “Faggot” to describe himself has to be understood as dialogic; it is first a term and a tool of oppression and it must be understood that way in order for the “understanding reader” to grasp the ideological shift in the utterance. Readers must understand the dominant cultural (or centripetal) forces that inhere in the word in order to understand the (centrifugal) force the author imbues it with.

This shift in one word is central to the work of the blog as a whole. If “language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other” (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 294) then the borders this blogger draws position the identity produced in ways that come to define the stance of the blog as a whole. The blogger, in Bakhtin’s (1981) words “actively choos[es]” his “orientation among [...] heteroglot languages” (p. 296).

Audience and Response

A central feature of the blog is the invitation for audience participation. In “The Problem of Speech Genres,” Bakhtin (1986) characterized language as always-already in process, and argued that in using language “any speaker is himself a respondent to a greater or lesser degree” in the act of speaking, positing “the existence of preceding utterances—his own and others—with which his given utterance enters into one kind of relation or another” (p. 69). As I’ve said before, blogs are not novels. But there is a way in which the dialogic nature of language is more readily evident in blogs. Not only can blog texts be cut and pasted for use elsewhere, the texts often invite responses to the posts themselves, responses that create and re-create meaning within the same narrative. In a move that’s similar to one made by readers of a novel, a blog reader takes the position of a listener, who “simultaneously takes an active, responsive attitude toward it” (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 68). A blog reader can either “agree or disagree” with a post “completely or partially” or “augment it, apply it, prepare for its execution, and so on” (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 68).

Responses to Radical Faggot vary. Many responses, like the one from Rose Kahendi, simply offer praise and encouragement as in “I love your blog and the thought that you have put into articulating your opinions!” Others go a bit deeper, as Adelita does in saying “Hey RadFag! I started following your blog cause I think your articles are dope, informative, interesting, militant, etc. I saw last night that you are informed by ¡ella pelea!, an organization I was a part of while in Texas. I was wondering if we could chat via email. I’d love to hear how you heard about us, and what you’re up to. I also saw your reading list and liked a lot of them. Anyway, I don’t want to write too much down as a comment. Let me know if you are interested and maybe we can exchange emails.” There are quite a few of these kinds of responses to different posts. If the blog aims to mobilize a community toward solidarity and political action, the number of these responses would seem to indicate at least a small measure of success. The uptake and re-circulation of words like “queer” and “militant” from the blogger into “other people’s mouths” suggests that the blog is participating in a whole community working, at one level, to reinscribe these words with new meaning.

 Conclusion

The work of Radical Faggot exceeds the personal and personalizes the public. “Faggot” is language tied to the body; its meanings here as a personal disclosure and as a political act are inextricably linked. In working to examine the blog as a phenomenon, we have come to see it as a process through which the self is publicized, but we have perhaps not looked closely enough at how certain kinds of public disclosure can do political work. Blogs, especially blogs like this one, are rarely simply disclosures of the self. They orient a self to the culture, and as readers participate in what some have considered a personal form, they too consider their orientation(s) toward the blogger and toward a culture. Radical Faggot, is not simply a traditional narrative, an online diary, or a commentary on public affairs; rather it is all three simultaneously in different ratios in different posts. This blog, and blogs like it, are language in action, centripetal and centrifugal, exceeding genre categories and queering the boundary between the personal and political.

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