Play, Purity, and the Poetics of Moral Counterpublic Discourse on

Author: ORCID icon
Morgenstern, Michelle, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Lefkowitz, Daniel, AS-Anthropology, University of Virginia

For many young people growing up in the 2010s, the social media platform, Tumblr, became an unexpected locus of identity formation, education, and political awakening. This dissertation explores how these young people, who credit Tumblr with shaping their ideas about what it means to be and do good in the world, come to take up and enact new political-ethical commitments and subjectivities through their engagement with the platform. In doing so, I demonstrate the ways in which my interlocutors’ playful poetic practices reveal and bring into being a moral counterpublic – an ethical otherwise composed through circulating texts where moral subjectivity and personhood are what is fundamentally at stake.

Tumblr has a reputation among scholars, its userbase, and the wider digital public, as a site where discourse surrounding issues of social justice flourishes. The young people who are the ethnographic focus of this project ubiquitously articulate their overarching political-ethical commitments in terms of “social justice” and position themselves in opposition to systems, practices, and people that perpetuate racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and other social injustices. However, these cohesive and consistent descriptions do not fully capture the extent to which these young people navigate political-ethical commitments that are neither uniform nor static. By attending to variations in the formal elements of these bloggers’ linguistic practices, I reveal a widening schism over what an ethical otherwise founded on ideals of social justice fundamentally entails. I argue that moral counterpublic discourses increasingly involve navigating the tensions between a movement toward and movement against a monologic approach to social justice. This becomes visible through the ways in which my interlocutors’ discourse – in both form and content – advances or resists understandings of a socially just world as singular, fixed, and normative.

These shifts, fissures, and reassemblages of political-ethical discourse within Tumblr's social justice counterpublic highlight how the constellations of stances commonly used to identify left- and right-wing alignments in the contemporary political landscape in the United States fail to capture the emergent projects, and subjectivities, that are coalescing in various digital contexts. Ultimately, this dissertation demonstrates how poetic elements of digital communication can reveal and propagate online actors’ implicit beliefs and emerging ideologies before they crystallize into explicit, recognizable movements and identities and offers an approach to thinking through and analyzing emergent projects of radicalization beyond a framework of “political polarization”.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Tumblr, Social Media, Ethics and Morality, Digital Discourse
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: