Suppose we take the recent rise and fall of Daniel O’Reilly, better known as Dapper Laughs, as an opportunity to examine the meaning of “banter” in 21st century Britain. It’s an opportunity which was missed by this site the last time the issue of “banter” really became newsworthy, in the shape of former Cardiff City FC manager Malky Mackay’s leaked text message exchanges with club sporting director Ian Moody. What are the threads that connect these two stories?
Firstly, they are linked by what we might call the “banter defence”. Mackay’s texts, which offered a wide spectrum of offensive content, bridging racism, sexism, homophobia and antisemitism, were explained away by an impotent League Managers’ Association as the result of Mackay’s need to ‘[let] off steam to a friend during some friendly text message banter.’ During the ultimately successful online campaign to persuade ITV against commissioning a second series of O’Reilly’s sketch show Dapper Laughs: On the Pull, those rallying around the cause opened themselves up to entirely unsurprising accusations that they lacked a sense of humour, that they were opposed to freedom of speech, that O’Reilly’s threatening, exploitative misogynistic spiel was nothing more harmful than “banter”. So the term “banter” is an apotropaic issued to deflect criticism of the given individual’s choice of language or conduct: so far, so self-evident.
The second aspect shared by these two events probably needs even less explaining: both centred around a white, heterosexual man who at the moment of crisis stood accused of wielding that identity against other, less privileged identities (I’d add middle-class and cisgendered to the mix, but as far as I know there was no suggestion of classism in Mackay’s texts and I don’t fancy combing back through Dapper’s Vine feed to locate examples of transphobia). One would not struggle to find opinions to the effect that those seeking to have Mackay and O’Reilly answer for their statements were simply failing to get in on the joke, and were imposing cultural politics on speech acts that wanted nothing to do with anything so serious. The obvious retort to this would be that language is never not participative in cultural struggle, particularly when it concerns power differentials between different fields of identity (like O’Reilly’s jokes about groping and rape, subjects which address themselves to a frame in which the difference between men’s and women’s access to public space inevitably comes into focus), and even more so when that language is delivered from positions of privilege.
Banter isn’t necessarily racist, sexist and homophobic. Banter as heartily social and non-serious speech (the OED uses the phrase “good-humoured raillery”) can exist independently of this prejudicial content. It’s just that this isn’t the most characteristic form that banter takes today. If we generously accept the notion that banter is a kind of free speech, in the sense of a speech whose parameters are wide open, whose direction is carefree and perambulatory, it should come as no surprise that banter tends to emit from and conform to the deep-seated prejudices of those who already have the loudest and most sustained voice in the cultural conversation. It is after all much easier for white men to claim space to speak merely for the sake of speaking: one thinks here of John Cage’s line “I have nothing to say and I’m saying it.” Thus, though notionally a language of freedom, banter in practice quickly becomes a policing language, in the sense put forward by Jacques Rancière, and explored in this site’s recent article about the politics of the Man Booker Prize. In what is perhaps his best known critical manoeuvre, Rancière distinguishes “policing” from “politics”, defining these respectively as the force which symbolically constitutes the social and the antagonistic force which disturbs this arrangement. Despite its supposed openness, banter tends to order its subjects in a way that rigidly enforces the social status quo. When banter is used as an apotropaic – it’s difficult here not to think of the former Sky Sports football anchor Richard Keys wielding the term as an excuse for his accidentally broadcast attack on a female assistant referee in 2011 – its adherents thereby perform the characteristic policing gesture, as identified by Rancière, of ordering bystanders to “move along! Nothing to see here!” Banter is both a vehicle and a code word for white male heterosexuals who wish to speak on matters outside their experience without fear of reprisal, which is to say, with authority.
Here we can turn to the contemporary literary theorist Sianne Ngai, in particular her 2005 book Ugly Feelings. Ngai rejects Fredric Jameson’s much-repeated idea that late capitalism marks a period in which we see a “waning of affect” across society as a whole – the famous thesis that all culture in postmodernism comes to us in scare quotes. Another aspect of Jameson’s assertion, at least as interpreted by Ngai, is that it removes from the picture those affects which traditionally motivated workers’ struggles against capitalism’s more baleful effects: the ‘classic sentiments of disenchantment’ under the conditions of wage labour, namely fear, insecurity and anxiety. Drawing on Paolo Virno, Ngai emphasises by contrast that fear, insecurity and anxiety are now central to capital’s project, manifesting as ‘professional ideals’ of flexibility, adaptability and casuality. Affects which once comprised the experience of alienation from capital have not vanished in culture, but simply now serve capital’s ends.
The banter complex, however, would like nothing more than for us all to buy whole-heartedly into Jameson’s earlier concept (this regardless of the percentage of banter adherents that have actually read Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capital). Banter is a language which claims to be drained of any affect besides the mild one we might call “banterousness”, a mood in which conversation is experienced as unserious, uncommitted and open-ended. The curious thing in this respect is that banter is at its most “banterous” when it seems motivated by truly pointed affective intensities, when it paints a picture of assumed racial, class or sexual superiority, and/or a fear of the other. A linguistic practice which insists on its own lack of sentimental or political substance, banter routinely seems to offer an outlet for extreme feelings of ressentiment, presumably fuelled by Ngai and Virno’s ‘insecurity, fear and anxiety’, all feelings which once stood on the side of alienation but with which capitalism now makes itself at home. Banter in 2014 is commonly a language of antagonism which, through its spurious claim to a kind of wandering affectlessness, denies over and over that its choice of targets forcibly reproduces the way things currently are under capitalism. Which is to say, banter is first and foremost a language of emotional dislocation, a privileged language of alienation whose speakers characteristically misrecognise their own place in the scheme of social power. As such, banter takes its place in a much broader subcategory of discourses related to the fantastical “oppressed majority”, from Gamergate to UKIP.