Tumblrism is a phenomenon awaiting its concept. It has been endlessly denounced, mocked and vilified – but do any of its enemies know what it really is? Tumblrism is not an occult practice: it does not hide a secret identity, or emanate from a hidden cause. Everything there is to know about it is there, out in the open. Tumblrism is nothing other than what it gives to be read: not as a sign of the times, but as a signature. It is not a code, but an idiom. The character of an idiom is better grasped through pastiche than through interpretation. Here, however, we will attempt an interpretation.
Tumblrism is flanked by two other contemporary discourses, with which it is engaged in relationships of mutually determining antagonism. On the one side, the discourse of the troll (exemplified by 4chan); on the other, the discourse of the grown-up (mainstream and “serious” media and politics, for which tumblrism is somehow a pressing concern despite its alleged non-seriousness). Where the troll is sociopathic, nihilistic, base and vile, the tumblrist is committed, hopeful and – in spite of every avowed deviance of identity and behaviour – strangely pure. Where the grown-up is civil, sensible, restrained and rational, the tumblrist is passionate, sensual, effusive and in a hurry.
Tumblrism is often mocked for its preoccupation with the minutiae of identity: pronouns, orientations, body shapes, disorders, allergies, fandoms. Tumblrists’ lengthy and sometimes comically exhaustive catalogues of predicates are reminiscent of the geek code block, a protocol whereby an earlier generation, its tongue still firmly in its cheek, codified and publicised their enthusiasms and particularities. Just as the geek code was a code for geeks, which signified first and foremost the user’s geekery, so the tumblr-identity-sidebar is a code for tumblrists, which establishes first and foremost the user’s visibility within the world that tumblrism composes.
Tumblrism’s world is a world in which something like social justice is possible. It is both an escape from, and the utopian critique of, a world in which social justice is impossible, and can only appear between quotation marks – as “social justice”. This world derides “social justice warriors” as angry inadequates, impotently confronting forces vastly and obliteratingly greater than themselves. If the discourse of the grown-up is a discourse of accommodation – getting over yourself, surrendering the imperatives and compensations of narcissism, learning to live with what cannot conceivably be changed – then the discourse of tumblrism is one of unappeasable dysphoria. The tumblrist is not at home in the world, but seeks to construct a secondary world – a Rivendell, or Sunnydale – in which it is possible to live.
The discourse of the troll is also one of rejection of the world, but this rejection takes the form of a direct attack on the social bond. The troll cannot hope to wound the powerful, and so turns on the weak, violating a fundamental (if hypocritically espoused) precept of good and decent behaviour. The tumblrist will always “punch up”, or failing that sideways; the troll invariably “punches down”. For the troll, the universal law of society is that the strong bully the weak: it is a lie that the weak are valued and protected, and the troll’s jouissance is that of the one who exposes the lie. While the tumblrist constructs fantasies with they maintain with an often savage defensiveness, even and sometimes especially against those who might be thought to be allies or collaborators in the work of world-making, the troll tears into the flesh of fantasy in the hope of exposing the social-darwinist skeleton that it adorns. But the troll is no less a fantasist than the tumblrist: as Lacan says, les non-dupes errent.
Tumblrism has, and perhaps even to some extent is, a problem with tone. Treated as if it were a disease by the discourse of the grown-up, it rightly rejects as controlling and condescending the demand of the grown-ups that it moderate its language, speak more pleasingly and temperately, slow down and think through what it is saying (since its utterance is already, and immediately, its thinking – a kind of irrepressible thinking-out-loud, which prioritises emotional expression and personal authenticity over communicative rationality or argumentative coherence). But its rejection tout court of “tone-policing” leaves it without any auto-immune mechanism, any way of guiding its own discursive practice towards the goods that it professes. There have been one or two attempts to diagnose and resolve the “horizontal hostility” facilitated by an unrestrained “call-out culture”, but restraint is not really tumblrism’s style. If tumblrism is characterized by a failure, or explicit refusal, to distinguish between externally-imposed constraint and internal self-discipline, this is no doubt because it recognises that the latter is often merely the “interiorisation” of the former: the cop in the head, who must be disposed of.
We have said nothing about trauma, about oppression and suffering, which are ostensibly the proximate causes of tumblrism. To treat it merely as a configuration of language, as we have done so far, is to neglect the very lived experience on which the discourse rests, and to which it anxiously and repeatedly refers. To be guilty of such neglect is to expose one’s privilege – the only thing it is possible to be guilty of in tumblrism’s scrupulously non-judgemental utopia. Suffering authenticates, and to be relieved of or preserved from suffering is to be inauthentic, a weeper of white tears. We would do well at this point to disclose some episode of hard-living, to give our “theses” – so prim, so undeservedly knowing – the flavour of genuine anguish. Instead we have resorted to a defensive irony, costive and self-pleasuring, which like the plural first-person pronoun we favour shields us from exposure while betraying us utterly.
If we have a bone to pick with tumblrism, it no doubt comes down to this: tumblrism promotes, distinguishes and exalts the authentically human, whose signature is the lyric cry: the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling. Or, emotion recollected in emotion: “I am shaking so hard with rage right now, I can barely type”. This is rhetoric. Its effect is to stigmatise – to use one of its own terms of art – those who are unwilling or unable to “humanise” themselves in this way, assimilating them to that wholly evil creation from which tumblrism offers a place of respite. Tumblrism rests on a Manichean division between the warm and the cold, the passionate and the dispassionate, those who feel – and share their feelings appropriately, employing the modish jargon as if Virtue itself were born yesterday – and those who unfeelingly perpetuate the cold logic of a fallen world. We find ourselves inexorably on the wrong side of that division, yet (unsurprisingly) unconvinced of the moral superiority, the richer and more deserving humanity, of those who place themselves on its right side.