Social Ruptures and Osculative Interpellation: Approaching the Twitterverse Through the Prism of Laclau and Althusser

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Thomas Breideband, Georgia State University and Mainz University, Germany





As a response to various incidents in which individuals and groups have successfully used the micro-blogging platform Twitter to express grievances and advocate change concerning nationally and internationally felt ruptures of the social, I argue in this paper that these particular events provide entry points for scholars of communication and rhetoric to engage in new theoretical discussions and analytical tasks with regards to Twitter. Under these kinds of circumstances, I argue that the various discursive features available on Twitter are reconstituted in such a way that hashtags, re-tweets, tags, and direct messages acquire interpellative dimensions. Using major theoretical concepts from Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Louis Althusser, I introduce the term osculative interpellation as a means not only to assess the much-discussed democratizing potential of Twitter from a theoretical angle, but also to offer osculative interpellation as a heuristic concept for future analyses. I illustrate osculative interpellation processes by way of looking at events of rupture such as the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 or on-going human right efforts such as the so-called “hashtag mosaic” created by Hyperactivate for the 2010 edition of TEDWomen. In addition, I will present the more recent #BringBackourGirls human rights campaign, which has sought to encourage the release of 276 African schoolgirls held hostage by radical group Boko Haram, as a means to illustrate how osculative interpellation processes may aggregate user efforts to protect the integrity of a hashtag conversation when it is being challenged. 



On April 15, 2013, two bombs detonated in Boston while the city was hosting its annual marathon, killing three persons and leaving more than two hundred injured. Both homemade pressure cooker bombs were hidden in trashcans located close to the finish line, i.e. the very place where emotions commonly run high not only for those participating to enjoy the personal satisfaction of having pulled through such a strenuous running effort, but also for the cheering and applauding spectators. Due to the timing of the explosions, many media outlets have interpreted the attackers’ motive as a purposeful and radical attempt to craft a threatening political message designed to transcend the locality of the event and, instead, target the American nation and its international Western partners as a whole concerning their involvement in wars on terror in predominantly Muslim countries (cf. Cooper, Schmidt, and Schmitt; cf. Candiotti).1 In the wake of this radical disruption in the social, Twitter activity peaked as many people commented on the attack and expressed their grievances. While some merely used the micro-blogging service to send messages of comfort and sympathy for the victims and their families, many others felt the need to articulate various demands on how to confront the attack politically. Calls ranged from expanding the budget for U.S. homeland security, retaliating forcefully through military engagements overseas, even ending American military engagements in foreign conflicts altogether, to persevering by organizing tribute runs for the victims to promote unity and resolve. While we can assume that some Twitter users sent their tweets solely to their respective followers, many aligned their tweets with already established hashtags that connected with the running community in general, such as #runchat and #runners,2 and with the #BostonMarathon2013 and #PrayForBoston hashtags in particular, which were specifically created as online communication outlets for the sporting event and the aftermath of the tragedy respectively. In the wake of the bombings, these already established rhetorical nodal points on Twitter, then, signified immediately accessible, public conduits to curate public sentiments, infused by appeals to common American values, and articulated through various expressions of frustration, sympathy, and resolve.


Why is this noteworthy? Certainly, it is my intention to get back to discussing particular tweets surrounding this event and others in the analytical section at the end of this paper. But I want to pause here for a moment and set up my argument. There are two questions that I find particularly interesting as a scholar of rhetoric and civic engagement in light of Twitter activity that occurred in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. The first question broadly responds to a wide-spread debate that has been going on for quite some time in academic and non-academic circles concerning the potential or limit of the Internet to enhance political communication and civic engagement in general (cf. Dahlberg, Papacharissi) and the alleged democratizing function of Twitter in particular. Some have argued that Twitter does, indeed, have a democratizing function with regards to economic, political, and social processes (cf. Murthy; Effing, van Hillegersberg, and Huibers; Kaplan and Haenlein), yet others have questioned the validity of those claims (cf. Dean, Gladwell, Morozov). While I do not presume to resolve this question and the related debate conclusively—in fact, I do not believe that such a task is actually possible given the ephemeral, asynchronous, and ever-evolving nature of Twitter—I do believe that under specific circumstances such as violent ruptures in the social or human rights campaigns, Twitter can, indeed, exert its democratizing potential. In those cases when the everyday is brought to a temporal halt and individuals express their sentiments in line with broadly unifying values, Twitter gives each voice room for expression without one sentiment claiming superiority over another. The hashtag #BostonMarathon2013, for instance, was populated by tweets, as mentioned earlier, that often contained conflicting demands as to how the U.S. should respond to the tragic event in Boston. Still, all those tweets linked together seamlessly under the banner of the hashtag. From more theoretical angles of identity formation, such a conceptualization of the Twitter hashtag brings to mind Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s work on hegemony and rhetorical signification. Laclau and Mouffe broadly argued that in order to gain political momentum, grieving groups would need to engage in rhetorical struggles whereby one particular and prominent grievance among many would be emptied of significance through articulatory practices and elevated in order to temporally sustain common-goal issue publics. On Twitter, however, these required and internal power dynamics seem to become rather optional within specific circumstances of social rupture, if not obsolete, since the hashtag as a communicative nodal point, I would argue, is already de- signified enough to provide thrust and power through its continued (re)articulation in tweets, re-tweets, and hashtags. It is important to note that there have been a number of communication conventions that Twitter users have developed over the years in order to curate and keep track of all the emerging conversations such as the use of the prefix ‘@’ to signal designated recipients of tweets or the abbreviation ‘RT’ to show that a message has been forwarded (i.e. re-tweeted). However, it is the hashtag that has made Twitter unique in the world of new media. Hashtags first appeared on Twitter during the 2007 San Diego wildfires—a fact worth considering giving Twitter’s potential to enable actions in the realms of the social—as a way of administering relevant information about the fire and associated relief efforts by labeling tweets to make them stand out and shareable (cf. Sutton, Palen, and Shklovski). Hashtags function as navigational markers for users to align their tweets either with larger public conversations or general topics, and they fulfill various roles in that regard: as topical identifiers such as #Computers, symbols of community or party affiliation such as #CNN or #GOP, and articulations of demands to propose cultural, political, and social change such as #SaveTheArctic (see Yang et al.). In addition, the application’s ease of access—one only needs an internet-capable device such as a cellphone to create an account on Twitter—has made it possible for people to use hashtags to coordinate and organize efforts collaboratively and in real time. For instance, during the 2010 “Arab Spring” demonstrations and other protest events, political activists have used hashtags both to coordinate their actions on the ground and to garner national as well as international recognition and support for their grievances (cf. Starbird and Palen). Finally, many groups and movement organizations nowadays administer Twitter accounts and hashtags in order to facilitate member interaction outside of scheduled meetings as well as to overcome geographic constraints by building communicative bridges with other affiliated communities on both national and global scales. That being said, Laclau and Mouffe’s theoretical concepts still have their uses, albeit in re-imagined ways. My paper will speak about those aspects of readjusting theory further below.


The other, and in my opinion, more pivotal question, is this: do extrinsic triggers such as social ruptures and tragic events have an effect on the relationship between Twitter’s discursive architecture, i.e. direct messaging, re-tweeting, and hashtagging, and the formation of collective subjectivities? If yes, how can scholars conceptualize and measure these effects more conclusively with regards to Twitter activity? My short answer to this question is, yes, extrinsic triggers have a conditioning effect upon Twitter activity and subject formation, and I believe that the key here is a re-thinking of Louis Althusser’s interpellation claim in light of new media and its potentially democratizing appeal. Therefore, I argue that in tragic circumstances that prompt social and political communities to articulate and express their systems of values, as the aforementioned example highlights, all of the particular discursive features of Twitter, i.e. the hashtag, the option of combining multiple hashtags into a single tweet, the re-tweet function, direct messaging, as well as the multi-layered system of following, gain the additional rhetorical significance of activating processes of interpellation in-between users.


Sample Tweet from the #2013BostonMarathon2013 hashtag

Fig. 1: A sample tweet taken from the #BostonMarathon2013 hashtag

One pronounced example of these specific interpellation practices would be a user’s direct message to another that draws attention to the event, connects the tweet to a prominent hashtag, and even connects the main hashtag conversation to other prominent hashtags on Twitter (see fig. 1). In the example, user “Emily Wilder” interpellates user “RobHaley5” through direct tagging while answering the interpellative call herself by responding to the hashtag #BostonMarathon2013. In addition, she connects her message of support to two additional hashtag conversations, with one (#whataguy) being contextually different. In these kinds of circumstances, Twitter can illustrate its democratizing potential of functioning as a communication environment in which users are configured as active interpellators as well as receivers of interpellation. This, then, has a direct effect upon a hashtag’s relative vibrancy and resonance.


Most inquiries that have addressed questions of Twitter activity so far have primarily emphasized two dimensions: topicality and reach. The topicality perspective has highlighted that discussions of topics on Twitter depend on the use of the hashtag. The findings have shown that hashtags placed next to content that the Twitter community considers relevant draw more tweets and re-tweets and thus grow sustainably over time (cf. Huang et al., Lehmann et al., Yang et al., Yang and Counts). From the angle of reach, the legitimacy of hashtags is amplified by social resonance through complex processes of contagion: hashtag conversations develop both due to social affiliations between users, and through multiple acts of re-tweeting in order to spread the word (cf. Romero, Tan, and Ugander; cf. Romero, Meeder, and Kleinberg). With few, but fruitful exceptions, questions regarding subjectivity on Twitter have not been really explored, yet. Rhetorical scholars have either discussed questions of hashtag use under the premise of a “collaborative and intersubjective rhetoric that simultaneously involves and extends beyond the identity of individuals” (Wilson and Eberly 425), as well as via the lens of “deliberative community”3 (Hauser and Hegbloom 484). It is my intention to continue these latter lines of inquiry, and consider Twitter’s communication conventions as rhetorical conduits of subjectivity, power, resistance, identity as well as group formation and cohesion from a more theoretical angle.


I find that a more theoretical approach becomes possible here to explain how the programming architecture of Twitter can play a pivotal role in configuring and pre- conditioning the formation of collective identities that respond to crises and tragedies, and I submit this paper as a first step towards this line of inquiry. But while I do find that there have been gaps in the academic conversation surrounding the rhetorical affordances of Twitter, I agree with the general tenet of many that one does not necessarily need to reinvent the theoretical wheel to account for developments and trends that occur in the vast and saturated world of digital communication. Therefore, my approach is based on re-imagining and re-considering established theoretical concepts, in this particular case Althusser’s interpellation claim and Laclau and Mouffe’s work on hegemony as they both relate to issues of subject formation. The theories of Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Louis Althusser have aptly described the discursive dynamics of resistance in cultural, political, and social contexts. Their theories already draw attention to the social and ideological nature of subject signification. From this angle, I argue with Laclau and Mouffe as well as Althusser that while the programming architecture of Twitter positions subjects into a matrix of relationships, it is only through articulatory and interpellative processes respectively—inherent, for instance, in the relational fabric of the hashtag—that individuals are shaped as subjects on Twitter. Here, the digital becomes a technology of subjectivity once the subject has been interpellated. The hashtag as an already emptied signifier forms this opening as a conduit. However, I move away from Althusser and Laclau’s emphasis on power when it comes to the question of who interpellates whom and how these articulatory practices are conditioned by ideology or internal hegemonic struggles. To capture these particular interpellation dynamics theoretically, I propose a new term: osculative interpellation. I argue that under the specific circumstances of social rupture, Twitter users interpellate one another osculatively rather than as a result of power dynamics. I define osculative interpellation as a particular articulatory constellation that comes into play when the discursive affordances of Twitter enable individuals and groups to become interpellating as well as interpellated social agents. In contrast to the power dynamics prominent in the works of Althusser and Laclau, social agents preserve their particular, unique subjectivities under the condition of osculative interpellation with regards to the entrainment of tweets into conversational chains and their relative temporal discursive stability.


Osculative hashtags, then, are those kinds of communicative conduits that, infused by an extrinsic sense of belonging, carve out spaces on Twitter where rhetorical agents are able to preserve their individual grievances. I have taken the term osculation from the discipline of mathematics, in which osculation—as an extension of the concept of a tangential relationship—describes a special kind of behavior between two curves. Whereas a tangent line to a curve only shares the location and direction of the curve, osculating lines also temporarily share the curvature (cf. Weisstein). It is important to note in this regard that osculation may or may not affect the curvature of each curve after the osculatory encounter. In other words, interpellated subjects may or may not continue to interpellate others after the fact. Therefore, I apply this mathematical concept as a metaphor for individual and collective practices of articulation that occur between Twitter users on this particular communication platform. Hashtags, then, function as temporal nodal points that index and aggregate diverse expressions of common sentiments. In turn, this enhances Twitter’s role as a social awareness platform. The concept of osculative interpellation can also serve future analysis as a heuristic to measure Twitter activity and hashtag use in terms of resonance and vibrancy. To explore these kinds of rhetorical dynamics on Twitter, I will first revisit Laclau, Mouffe, and Althusser’s respective major theories, and discuss how they would need to be adjusted in view of Twitter’s communication conventions. Finally, I will apply this theoretical paradigm to actual tweets that were posted in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, and then present two additional related examples: one will illustrate how the concept may be used to propose new ways of analyzing resonance and vibrancy on Twitter while the other will be used to show how Twitter users also actively intervene when the integrity of an osculative hashtag is challenged. However, as far as the analytical section is concerned, there is one constraint that I need to point out before proceeding: due to Twitter’s fluid and ephemeral nature, data collection becomes a difficult undertaking. Tweets are usually stored only for a total period of seven days, and unless the researcher does not monitor Twitter activity in real- time, actual numbers that relate to a hashtag’s resonance and vibrancy cannot be retrieved. Therefore, my analysis at the end of this paper can only provide possible entry points for using the concept of osculative interpellation analytically. Hence, the final section of the paper is meant to show what a critical approach through the prism of osculative interpellation might entail and to encourage further studies in the future.


Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have directed their theory of political action against established essentialist, i.e. Marxist, perceptions of the social, which define fixed power structures—base and superstructure—that inevitably affect and configure social agents as passive receivers of ideology. Their discourse theory, presented in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, attempts to show that a theoretical elimination of these fixed structures does not negate political action; in fact, Laclau and Mouffe argue that a blind clinging to these theoretical models would actually constrain political engagement. Through a deconstruction of Marxism, the authors develop an anti-essentialist theory of the social to explain the processes involved in the production and maintenance of social and political identities as a result of power, whereby social realities arrive as consequences of ephemeral hegemonic struggles. This pre-subject, a priori role of power, i.e. power as a means to produce identities, is turned upside down on Twitter. Here, power can be seen as an effect, and not a cause, of communicative reach and vibrancy. Various Twitter-related parameters are involved in that regard such as the number of followers that a Twitter user may mobilize to respond to a given conversation, how often and to what extent a user entrains multiple hashtags into a single tweet to build bridges between conversation spaces, and how quickly a hashtag may become a trending topic so that its content may move beyond the confines of Twitter and find its way, for example, into the realm of news reporting. Power on Twitter is, thus, situated in an a posteriori rather than an a priori relationship to the concept of subject formation.


An anti-essentialist theory of the social, of course, also means that Laclau and Mouffe move away from earlier paradigms of the subject. Instead of treating subjects as passively conditioned through ideology (cf. Althusser, Adorno, and Horckheimer), Laclau and Mouffe consider social agents capable of positioning themselves within hegemonically defined relationships via discursive means. Utilizing a post-structuralist definition of discourse, they find that discourses are, first and foremost, formations that produce and structure propositions. On their own, these propositions do not signify any meaning; they only become meaningful through their relative alignment with other propositions within a discursive system of signification. Laclau and Mouffe’s definition of discourse, however, moves beyond linguistic systems of signification, and also includes non-linguistic practices, i.e. social actions, so that discourse becomes the guiding paradigm to imagine the social (On Populist Reason 68). In a sense, then, the term discourse designates the insoluble bond between linguistic and non-linguistic practices within differential and structured systems of relative subject positions. Subjects are only signified through the practice of articulating their relative positions within a discursively constructed system of differences and relationships. Twitter users can articulate their relative subject positions in two interrelated ways: on the one hand, they may connect with other users by engaging in a complex system of following, i.e. they follow other users and are being followed. I use the conditional ‘may’ intentionally because there are a number of Twitter users who do not sustain their own follower base and merely follow others.4 On the other hand, Twitter users articulate their relative subject positions by crafting tweets that contain one or more hashtags to align their messages with larger conversations on the Twitterverse. The practice of hashtagging responds back to Laclau and Mouffe who argue that “articulation [defines] any practice establishing a relation among [floating] elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice” (105). Through these processes, discursive formations suggest the illusion of totality and constitute as well as organize social relationships within a “field of discursivity” (Laclau and Mouffe 112, 143). One might feel tempted to conclude, as a number of structuralist definitions of the term discourse have assumed (Saussure, Lacan), that, once articulated, signified elements remain eternally fixed. Laclau and Mouffe’s post-structuralist approach, however, considers a fluid field of fixation and non-fixation, which necessitates a relative openness and “unevenness of the social” that becomes crucial for the role of discourses to exert political influence (“Empty Signifiers” 43). Since “[t]he practice of articulation...consists in the construction of nodal points which partially fix meaning,” Laclau and Mouffe emphasize that these processes of articulation remain precarious and contingent (113). With regards to Twitter, these processes become, however, less problematic. On the one hand, hashtags function as open, free, and publicly accessible content clusters where the issue of power only comes into play as an a posteriori effect of osculative interpellation processes. On the other hand, hashtags do not provide explicit directions regarding their respective purposes. With few exceptions such as when a group promotes a specific hashtag to fulfill a special purpose, the context of most hashtags can only be understood implicitly. One prominent example in this regard is the so-called hashtag #firstworldproblems, which came about as comedic way for Twitter users living in developed nations to complain about trivial inconveniences such as: “My 7 dollar starbucks latte came with ONE espresso shot instead of the TWO I asked for!” (taken from Here, the hashtag’s context is implied, but not explicitly stated.

A simplified model of equivalential chains and the creation of an empty signifier.

Fig. 2: A simplified model of equivalential chains and the creation
of an empty signifier. Web. May 1, 2013.


In cases of social ruptures, however, Laclau and Mouffe generally find that discourses operate via two oppositional logics: according to the authors, the logic of difference provides the means both to constitute moments as different and distinguishable from one another within the discursive formation and to establish so-called “nodal points,” or hashtags in the case of Twitter, in order to relatively stabilize “privileged discursive points of this partial fixation” (Laclau and Mouffe 135); the logic of equivalence, then, establishes an antagonistic relationship between the relatively coherent discourse and what lies beyond its limits in order to signify the affiliation of metaphorically chained moments within the discursive formation to the same discourse (On Populist Reason 78, Laclau and Mouffe 143-144). It becomes obvious that both logics get in the way of each other since the latter wants to dissolve what the former attempts to fixate. This ambivalence, then, lies at the core of Laclau’s conception of the “empty signifier.” While maintaining its particular position in the chain, it becomes its job to provisionally signify the emergent equivalential chain as a whole (On Populist Reason 70). Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of hegemony, then, emphasizes the political as defined by the struggles of a multitude of laterally chained demands for one to become elevated within a discursive formation so that it may signify entire discourses, and thereby create socio- political realities (see fig. 2).5


I concur that osculative interpellation practices follow the Laclaudian notion of looking at the ways social agents work within the logics of difference and equivalence in the field of discursivity. These kinds of rhetorical representations at play here do, in fact, not merely signify systems of signs and performances to describe social realities, but they also constitute mediated avenues through which individuals and groups not only craft their own subjectivities but also act and interact with each other in concrete and material, albeit digital, environments. According to Herndl and Licona, agency “does not reside in a set of objective rhetorical abilities of a rhetor, or even her past accomplishments. Rather, agency exists at the intersection of a network of semiotic, material, and yes, intentional elements and relational practices” (137). However, osculative interpellation processes on Twitter enable users to circumvent phases of hegemonic struggles, in which a single demand is promoted rhetorically so that it may rise to the top of an equivalential chain and, in turn, reconfigure the entire discourse synechdocically. In most discursive formations on Twitter, we can find individuals and groups participating through direct messages, calls to actions, or shared Web-content. While any given hashtag might feature particularly prominent demands in the equivalential chain, Twitter users are not restricted to re-frame their personal messages to suit, say, the most prominent grievance of the group. Laclau and Mouffe argue that since an empty signifier renders possible the articulation of contextually different and non-coherent moments, it allows different social agents to rally behind common political goals; with this conclusion, Laclau and Mouffe enter the realm of hegemonic articulations, i.e. the discursive playing fields of power and the political because filling an empty signifier so that it may represent a whole discourse is a highly contested operation (On Populist Reason 70). However, Twitter also allows users to label their messages with more than one hashtag, thus circumventing the formation of a discourse as a contested operation in favor of a more democratic act. In doing so, Twitter users can actively articulate and re-articulate the direction of entire discursive formations by linking together content clusters that would invite more users to be exposed to the same hashtag(s).


A vertical conceptualization of discursivity also permeates the works of French philosopher Louis Althusser. However, Althusser—following Marx—imagined subjectivity not through horizontally exerted hegemonic struggles within groups, but essentially conditioned by pre-established symbolic orders; crucial to his political philosophy was the concept of interpellation, whereby “ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way that it ‘recruits’ subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or ‘transforms’ the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all)” (174). As it becomes clear from his use of parentheses, Althusser conceived the formation of subjectivity solely through ideological interpellation, which means that subjects are, by definition, ideological because they are exposed to the interpellative practices of social formation from the moment they are born. As a “highly structured” process, interpellation then allocates the individual as subject within the social order (Althusser 176). With regards to the ideological and socio-political configurations that Althusser described, we can see that the processes of subject formation have changed on Twitter. While Althusser perceived the recruitment of social subjects via the individual’s submission to idealized, exemplary images taken from religion, the family, and economic systems, interpellation on the Twitterverse does not resemble such a hierarchically informed paradigm.6 Central to processes of interpellation on Twitter is not the requirement of the individual to emulate and mirror a superior entity, but that Twitter users interpellate each other osculatively through the way they craft their tweets, thereby obviating external mechanisms of disciplinary power. Ultimately, the point of contact where power forms subjects has shifted on the Twitterverse: the determining factor for interpellation does not rest in the relationship of the subject to external regulatory bodies, but culminates in oscullative moments between interpellated and interpellating social agents. Moreover and contrary to Althusser’s argument that ideology prompts every subject to submit passively to the interpellative call, Twitter users retain the option of refraining to answer the interpellative call. As individuals and groups tweet messages with accompanying hashtags, recipients are given choices: they may respond only directly to the sender without passing on the hashtag, align their own tweets to the larger discursive formation via the hashtag, or merely consume the information. Furthermore, individuals can also choose to engage with multiple hashtags simultaneously, thus aligning their messages to a number of ongoing conversations as long as the 140-character limit, programmed into Twitter’s tweeting architecture, permits it. Twitters communication conventions provide the openings for osculative interpellation so that Twitter users may temporally share the same curvature, metaphorically speaking; it evidences the kairotic potential of a tweet, so to speak, to form stable group identities that, in the case of social groups, would prompt actual interventions in the social. As Herndl and Licona emphasize, “conceptions of kairos shift away from the individual and toward the opportunity itself—toward the social conjunction or what we call a moment in social space and time” (146). This, in turn, empowers social agents on this digital communication platform. In other words, if users answer the interpellative call of their peers, they become active collaborators in the passing of the interpellative torch. Axiomatically, Althusser’s concept of interpellation, i.e. the subject’s invocation and its appreciation and recognition of its status, can be ascribed to the hashtag. In fact, the transmission of socialization is inherently programmed into the technology of Twitter because all three Althusserian stages can be read into the use of a hashtag: first, the process of invocating/creating a hashtag as part of a tweet, second the appreciation of other Twitter users to accept the hashtag as a navigational marker for a given conversation, and third the recognition of the hashtag by crafting responsive tweets that promote, and thus stabilize, the hashtag. As a technology unique to Twitter, hashtags add another layer of visibility to the World Wide Web that—as Althusser would see it—recruits subjects. However, the osculative call still retains the possibility for the receiver to reject the call, i.e. osculation may or may not affect the curvature of each curve after the osculatory encounter. In other words, interpellated subjects may or may not continue to interpellate others after the fact. Yet, I argue that interpellation here occurs osculatively, i.e. rhetorically in the form of temporal points of contact between two curves—interpellating and interpellated. That means that the hierarchical arrangement paradigm, that Laclau, Mouffe, and Althusser imagine—the ideological interpellation of subjects through the political system as well as the creation of empty signifiers through hegemonic struggles—is precisely the point where we may re-adjust those theories to suit the affordances of Twitter speak and how interpellation processes are propagated by Twitter’s various communication options. Such a new understanding of interpellative processes, then, also invites a critical reevaluation of Laclau and Mouffe’s concept of hegemonic struggles with regards to the creation of the empty signifier. The hashtag as a textual label is already empty enough as a nodal point to allow a multitude of diverse and particular demands to preserve their particularity. While the ideological dimension of a discursive formation is, from Laclau and Mouffe’s perspective, by definition bound to the notion that diverging and oppositional points of view first need to overcome periods of internal struggles, these processes of articulation and re-articulation, that work towards the creation of relatively stable collective identities, can occur on Twitter a- hegemonically. So, while both theories provide entrance points to theorize Twitter activity, neither of them (can) fully account(s) for our understanding of the potential of these particular textual labels (RT, @, and #) to create and sustain stable discursive formations. In the case of hashtag use, for instance, we may substitute the Laclaudian concept of hegemonic struggles with the concept of osculative interpellation that I have distilled from Althusser. Through the concept of osculative interpellation, scholars can take into account the diverse rhetorical ways through which Twitter users create, sustain, and advance discursive relationships.


If we consider osculative interpellation as a way to engage in analytical discussions concerning Twitter activity, then we can classify different levels of user activation through osculative interpellation in reference to established tweeting conventions. In this case, the potential of a simple response tweet to incidents of rupture in order to activate more contributors osculatively would remain relatively low because it would only become visible to the user’s own followers, and would need to rely on the followers’ willingness to re-tweet the post. However, if a tweet also references another user through the textual label “@” followed by the user’s name, then the potential for osculative interpellation increases proportionally since the posted tweet may also activate the tagged user’s follower base. Examples of higher levels of osculative interpellation, then, bring us back to tweets that were posted in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

Amy Derjue posts Tweet to encourage those effected by the tragedy


In this example, user “Amy Derjue” posted a tweet to motivate those affected by the tragedy and she aligned her message with the larger #BostonMarathon2013 hashtag conversation. Her tweet was re-tweeted a total of 35 times, and favored four times. Due to the inclusion of the hashtag, however, the potential of the tweet to interpellate more contributors is significantly heightened because the user provided her follower base with an explicit rhetorical avenue, an opportunity to contribute to an already existing content cluster.


Naturally, the simultaneous incorporation of direct user-tagging and hashtagging further elevates a tweet’s potential to pass on the interpellative torch osculatively relative to balance between user-tagging and hashtagging. In the example below user “Laura Vandervoort” directly tagged user “hildrethmark” thereby reaching out to the tagged user’s followers as well. In addition, she connected her own expression of a demand with the larger hashtag conversation, thus not only giving her own but also the tagged user’s follower base a rhetorical conduit to peruse.

Directly tagging a user reaches out to the tagged users followers as well as join the larger hashtag conversation.


Finally, the highest level of osculative interpellation would occur when a user posts a tweet that features a tagged user and contributes to the major hashtag, but also connects to at least one other hashtag conversation.

Jenna Ruff uses contextually different hashtags
Veronika Schroers uses a photographic image of soldiers responding to the tragedy.


In this particular example, user “Jenna Rutt” not only tags user “TobyKeithMusic” and aligns her tweet with the then prominent hashtag #PrayForBoston, but she also relates her message to the contextually different hashtag #USA. Here, osculative interpellation moves beyond the contextual frames demarcated by the user’s own follower base, the tagged user’s followers, and the Boston Marathon bombing conversation curated by the #PrayForBoston hashtag. To conclude the presentation of examples, one special case relates to tweets designed to build bridges between hashtag conversations while including non-textual elements that communicate sentiments implicitly. This can be seen in the example above, in which user “Veronika Schroers” uses a photographic image of soldiers responding to the tragedy to connect with established hashtag conversations. In addition, however, the user here also builds bridges between existing hashtag conversations, which may have the effect of aggregating additional responses. What all of these examples highlight is that osculative interpellation processes have a cascading dimension. While the notion of choice remains a deciding factor when it comes to measuring the level of resonance and vibrancy that a given tweet might have on the micro-blogging platform, osculative interpellation directly relates to the various ways that Twitter users interact with one another.

A hashtag mosaic created for the 2010 conference TEDWomen: Reshaping the Future.

Fig. 3: A hashtag mosaic created for the 2010 conference TEDWomen: Reshaping the Future. Web. May 1, 2013.


When we consider osculative interpellation in terms of its potentially cascading effects, we may also look at examples where the interactions between users fail to reach higher osculation levels. One example worth mentioning in this regard is the so-called “hashtag mosaic”7 that online company Hyperactivate created for the 2010 TEDWomen conference (see fig. 3). The conference’s theme for that year, “Reshaping the Future,” was specifically tailored to invite Twitter responses on issues currently affecting the lives of women all over the world. These issues ranged from economic inequalities, health, and political representation On this interactive photo mosaic we can see how diverging points of view of social agents are featured together under the empty #TEDWomen hashtag without the need for internal hegemonic struggles. However, once we take a closer look at individual tweets, we notice that users engaged only in low to medium levels of osculative interpellation. While the majority of tweets spoke about the issues of women in various contexts, most tweets featured in the mosaic were actually mere re-tweets (indicated by the textual label “RT” at the beginning) that only referred back to the original hashtag. From the perspective of osculative interpellation, re-tweets indicate a low level of engagement because the Twitter user merely offers his or her account to promote a message posted by another user. In other words, re-tweeting is an activity on Twitter solely designed to amplify the interpellation attempts of the original creator of the tweet.

Re-tweeting is an activity on Twitter solely designed to amplify the interpellation attempts of the original creator of the tweet.


Since the number of Twitter users that a post can reach determines the success of osculative interpellation, tweets that do not move beyond contextual frames have a lower chance of making an issue more vibrant and resonant on Twitter. Furthermore, we can also identify a strong presence of so-called hashtag trolls on the mosaic, i.e. users whose contributions do not advance the conversation in meaningful ways. In the case of the mosaic, we can assume that most Twitter trolls used the opportunity merely to be featured in the mosaic:

We can also identify a strong presence of so-called hashtag trolls on the mosaic.


Yet, some users did engage in higher levels of osculative interpellation activities.

table81 used user-tagging to tap into carious conversation spaces


For example, Twitter user “table81” used user-tagging, incorporated the main hashtag #TEDWomen, and also included the hashtags #women, #philantropy, and #change to tap into various conversation spaces. Those kinds of posts, however, remained in the minority. Despite the creative opportunity of the mosaic to advocate women’s issues to a larger audience and the amount of contributions featured in the mosaic, we would generally be talking about low levels of osculative interpellation here.

First Lady, Michelle Obama, participating in the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter Campaign

Fig. 4: First Lady, Michelle Obama, participating in the #BringBackOurGirls Twitter Campaign. Web. Nov. 11, 2014.


As we have seen in the previous example, so-called hashtag trolls are a common, and mostly unavoidable problem on Twitter. It becomes a completely different issue, however, when Twitter users respond to hashtags, that relate to issues of broad concern, in subversive ways in an attempt to re-direct the conversation into different contexts. Then, we can see how Twitter users aggregate resistance through osculative interpellation in order to preserve the integrity of the original hashtag. Such a case happened recently when conservative political pundit, Ann Coulter, remixed a currently active Twitter campaign dedicated to raising awareness and support for 276 Nigerian schoolgirls held captive in Northern Nigeria by radical Islamist group, Boko Haram. Twitter users, including world leaders and celebrities, have responded to the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls by tweeting a photo of themselves holding up a piece of paper that uses the hashtag as an additional caption (see fig. 4). Rather than joining the cause, however, Ann Coulter appropriated the design of the campaign to make an anti-foreign policy and pro-national issues political statement. Her tweet, “My hashtag contribution to world affairs . . .,” was accompanied by a photo of herself that followed the guidelines of the campaign in general with the exception of the caption on the piece of paper. Her caption read: “#BringBackOurCountry”. As modern-day gatekeepers, Twitter users quickly responded to Coulter’s allegedly insensitive rhetorical act, turning her political tweet into the latest meme by circulating the photo with a variety of different mocking captions such as: “I’m a miserable person who peddles hate to make money off dumb republicans,” “A hotdog is a sandwich,” or “Bring Back Traditional White America” (Fung, see fig. 5). Here, high levels of osculative interpellation practices significantly helped to aggregate the circulation of those rebuttals. As we can see in the example above, Twitter user “Warp Drive” not only aligned his rebuttal with various politically charged hashtags, he also directed his tweet directly to U.S. Republican Congressman, Paul Ryan, presumably in an interpellative attempt to make conservative Twitter users aware of questionable rhetorical practices.

An example of a rebuttal regarding Ann Coulter's attempt at rhetorical appropriation

Fig. 5: An example of a rebuttal regarding Ann Coulter's
attempt at rhetorical appropriation. Web. Nov. 11, 2014


As Tormey and Townshend highlight in Key Thinkers from Critical Theory to Post- Marxism, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe were deeply “dissatisfied with standard class reductionist Marxist explanations of ideology (of ‘class belonging’), and Marxism’s inability to become a hegemonic force in contemporary politics” (88). In particular, Laclau and Mouffe wrote Hegemony and Socialist Strategy to address problems they saw in Althusser’s structuralist approach to Marxism. As Tormey and Townshend note, Laclau and Mouffe’s “critique of Marxism became more pronounced the less they were convinced by Althusser’s...project of establishing its scientific credentials and as they eradicated all forms of potential dualism, as between the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’, from their own thought” (90). Yet, when we look at the creation of relatively stable discursive formations on Twitter, it is fruitful to reconcile both theoretical projects as they both contribute constructively to a theoretical conceptualization of Twitter as a rhetorical environment where “[s]ocial practice, context, and which agency is enacted” (Herndl and Licona 142). My conception of osculative interpellation to understand the ways in which Twitter’s programming architecture may function as a means for users to become interpellating as well as interpellated social agents still relies on the general tenet of Althusser’s theory of interpellation to explain the ways individuals are recruited. Yet, I argue that osculative interpellation processes occur under the condition of choice while Althusser considered them ideologically infused. I have appropriated the attribute osculative from the field of mathematics, in which it is used to explain curve progressions, as a metaphor to imagine temporal configurations of Twitter users as curves and their tweets as vehicles for osculative interpellation. In turn, I have taken from Laclau and Mouffe how the creation of discourses rests on the logics of difference and equivalence while requiring an empty signifier to control and sustain emergent discursive formation hegemonically. My conception of osculative interpellation is designed to act as a substitute for the phases of internal hegemonic struggles that Laclau and Mouffe have deemed inevitable for emptying a particular signifier in the chain so that it may be elevated to represent an entire formation. It is my understanding that the Twitter hashtag circumvents these kinds of hegemonic struggles so that each demand in the chain is able to preserve its particularity.


Nonetheless, this paper can only serve as a starting point to better understand the emergence and spread of discursive formations on Twitter. Future research becomes necessary, especially since my analysis section can only hint at what an analytical approach based on the concept of osculative interpellation might entail. One possible analytical context for researchers might be an assessment of the concept of agency in connection with osculative interpellation. What the analytical section here has shown is that osculative interpellation is largely affected by choice. In turn, researchers may evaluate how choice and agency are connected on Twitter. In addition, future research might address the extent to which theories of affect can further help to explain the relative strength of a tweet to be interpellative. As Teresa Brennan explains in The Transmission of Affect, “[t]he specific waves of affects generated by different cultural constellations could lead to a different and altogether more interesting characterization of stable, as well as temporary, group phenomena” (51). In addition, more work needs to be done with regards to different types of hashtags. On Twitter, we may certainly distinguish between discursive hashtags (e.g. #SavetheArctic, #riseup, #forBoston, etc.) and descriptive hashtags (#firstworldproblems, #tbt, etc.). In all, the explosive spread of digital communication technologies in recent years has provided communication as well as rhetorical scholars a whole range of questions to explore. But these newly emerging ways for people to interact with one another also require us to reevaluate established theories. My conception of osculative interpellation is designed to advance theoretical scholarship on Twitter as a rhetorical environment.  


  • 1. Such a conclusion is further supported by the fact that the Boston marathon is a mass-participation marathon and that the bombs exploded approximately five and a half hours after the beginning of the race. At that time, all of the professional international athletes who attended the marathon as part of the yearly World Marathon Majors championship had already crossed the finish line. Those who still needed to finish the race on that day were, in fact, amateur athletes from all over the world who ran less for competition and more for the satisfaction of personal achievement. Therefore, the victims of the attacks were ordinary citizens of the United States and other countries who generally associate themselves with the larger community of runners.
  • 2. Articulatory practices designed to facilitate the formation and cohesion of particular group identities do not end in ‘real’ world spaces. In fact, many websites such as,, and are tailored to the needs of runners to connect and share information. With digital communication tools like Twitter, sports communities do not have to wait to discuss hot topics; access to other runners is instant and immediate. Twitter is one such medium that helps to establish discourse communities in which agents connect in instant conversations, interact over the course of sporting events, alert each other in times of breaking news in the world of sports, and stay in touch throughout the course of a sport’s season.
  • 3. My understanding of community is informed by the definition provided by Wolfgang Teubert in Meaning, Discourse, and Society: “Our intentionality, our consciousness, comes into existence by being a part of society, a member of a discourse community. We develop thoughts, feelings, ideas, beliefs, and attitudes in collaboration with others. Our intentionality is part of the collective intentionality of the discourse community to which we belong” (108).
  • 4. Twitter also comes with various privacy features that either allow users to prevent being followed by others, or they can restrict the visibility of their tweets only to certain followers.
  • 5. In later works, Laclau does not consider these processes of articulation detached from power dynamics. Instead, he imagines power doubly constitutive: every hegemonically informed articulatory practice is played out in a web of power relations, thus becomes a form of power in itself, and its success to shape and signify entire discourses hierarchically from the top down depends on its ability to prevent alternative articulations from rising up by concealing/emptying its own status of merely being one option among many. This vertical arrangement that emerges once a signifier succeeds in the hegemonic struggle and becomes empty, is central to Laclau’s understanding of the political.
  • 6. In “The Linguistics of Self-Branding and Micro-Celebrity in Twitter: The Role of Hashtags,” Ruth Page has recently suggested that “practices of self-branding and micro-celebrity operate on a continuum which reflects and reinforces the social and economic hierarchies which exist in offline contexts” (181). She also argues that “[d]espite claims that hashtags are ‘conversational’, this study suggests that participatory culture in Twitter is not evenly distributed” (181). While I agree with Page that extra-textual conditioning forces such as “fandom” influence participation on Twitter, my concept of osculative interpellation, first and foremost, treats the Twitterverse in the way it is programmed: as a digital conversation platform that provides each user the same means to engage and interact with others. For more on “fandom,” consult Digital Fandom: New Media Studies by Paul Booth and Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World edited by Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington.
  • 7. So-called “hashtag mosaics” are visually enticing photo mosaics that curate the responses of Twitter users who contribute to specifically created hashtags over a fixed period of time. Once the company has gathered enough tweets, these messages and the corresponding profiles are presented in an interactive advertisement that allows users to zoom in to read individual tweets.


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Thomas Breideband is a dual degree PhD candidate in the Department of English at Georgia State University, Atlanta, and the American Studies Department at Mainz University, Germany. He has Magister Artium degrees in American Studies and Theater and Performance Studies from Johannes Gutenberg-University, Germany. Mr. Breideband currently holds an Innovation Fellowship position at Georgia State University. His research interests lie at the intersection between new media, online political rhetoric, agency studies, and social capital theory.


© 2014 Thomas Breideband, used by permission

Technoculture Volume 4 (2014)