[When it comes to] by Patton Oswalt

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The first tweet in Oswalt’s performance.

On August 17, 2013 from 3:26 to 5:22 pm comedian Patton Oswalt put together a Twitter writing performance that has been praised as masterful trolling and comedic art. It consisted of a series of 18 paired tweets in which he expressed his views on laundry, voting laws, medicine, illness, God, music, race, and other politically sensitive topics. Written as prose in a document or spoken aloud, these statements would’ve just come across as a leftist leaning rant that promoted peace, understanding, and slammed the absurdities of right-wing American politics. But as an experienced stand-up comedian, Oswalt is also very familiar with the expressive and comedic power of timing, represented by rhythm and pause in vocal performances, and a line break in written ones. As a time-based writing medium that demands brevity, Twitter (a rich platform for e-literature), gave him an opportunity to deliver a series of sentences that when broken in time and space as separate digital entities deliver some powerfully mixed messages (see image below).

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To read this tweet in isolation, out of context, would give the impression that Oswalt is promoting racial segregation in a tweet that reinforces that frame of reference by referring to his “conservative followers.” Of course, when you read the tweets together, the complete sentence reads as follows:

When it comes to doing laundry, I firmly believe in using environment-friendly detergent and I ALSO believe whites and “darks” should be kept separate. Sorry if that sounds too “tree-huggy” to my conservative followers.

Here the subject of the sentence asserts itself as an environmental statement, evoking the laundry frame of reference, by which we understand “darks” as items made with colorful fabric that could release color into the wash and ruin light-colored clothing, if not washed separately. The “conservatives” in this sentence are Republicans, who often refer to environmental activists as “tree huggers,” reinforcing the original schema.

Of course, Oswalt’s performance was all about context and taking things out of context, a rhetorical strategy often used by American right-wing pundits, who deliberately misquote and decontextualize their ideological counterparts to undermine them. Splitting a statement across tweets and designing the second half of the statement to seemingly promote “racism, misogyny, hatred and fear” (to quote one of his tweets) creates a trap for readers anxious to undermine his own leftist comedy.

And it worked. The “offensive” second tweets consistently received twice as many retweets and favorites as their initial first tweets, which amplified the decontextualizing distance between the two. This distance is also reinforced by Twitter’s design: if you read Patton Oswalt’s Twitter stream, you could read all the statements in reverse order, because Twitter displays the most recent contributions at the top of the screen. So if you were to visit @pattonoswalt and scroll to his performance you’d first encounter the following text:

Die, all of you. Seriously. #peace

Gonna hop off Twitter for awhile. Enjoy the sunshine, breathe the air. Hope no one was offended. Cross my heart and hope to

Rap is performed by monkeys in expensive clothes. Sorry if I offended you, white conservatives, but it’s the truth.

And I’m sorry, but I fucking HATE FOX NEWS. Bunch of race-baiting corporate shills. All of their medieval, fact-free clapt

Eat the poor, disabled and hopeless. It’s the only way we can insure our future.

Our country’s worth isn’t in how many billionaires we produce or countries we conquer. History will judge use solely on how we tr

AIDS is a gift from God. I don’t know why people are still so backward in their thinking about this.

God’s greatest miracle? How about science? Penicillin? Gift from God. Polio vaccine? Gift from God. Even aspirin, Pepto-Bismol and ROL

If you don’t know what’s going on you may not think to reconstruct the sentences, especially if the offensive content of the fragments captures your attention and moves you to react rather than calmly reflect upon what’s going on. Note that by cutting across words, he is able to start tweets with word fragments that operate as words of their own. This unexpected e-poem makes powerful use of Twitter as a software platform to engage the poetic function of language.

And for your reading pleasure, here is the complete sequence, in the order they were tweeted:

http://twitter.com/pattonoswalt/status/368826468203122689