Some Words Are Different from Others

In this age when conversational language is increasingly found in the written form, it’s interesting to see how much privilege people still give to the written word. Robert B Silvers, editor of the NYRB:

The NYRB has had a successful blog since 2010, but Silvers believes many new media haven’t yet found their “critical function”. “Just think of the tweet form,” he says, describing tweets as sometimes “apt and to the point” but often “no more than off-hand wise-cracks”. The challenge now is to find a way of reviewing these things, he says, “just as we would bring a critical perspective to bear on other forms of prose”. He pauses, gazing out of the window. “This is a huge … universe of prose,” he says wistfully, “that is simply slipping through the consciousness of time without any systematic or thoughtful criticism.”

The idea of “bringing a critical perspective” to Twitter is ridiculous. Somewhere right this second someone is saying that 99% of all tweets should be forgotten, and they’re absolutely right. Twitter is conversation, it just happens to occur in prose due to the technologies that we’re using to have it, and you would no more want to systematically sift through Twitter babble than you would want to read back through your daily face-to-face interactions and try to discover the hidden readings or scan through all your text messages for the week. But people seem to think there’s some kind of “readability” to transactions on social media because they’re text-based, instead of spoken.

Obviously researchers can and will find ways to sift the Twitter data, just as they have done for decades with conversational language, but this isn’t the kind of literary critical analysis that Silvers is talking about.


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What do you make of the ways that people like Teju Cole are using Twitter?

A great point about the persistent interest in printed text. Most of the humanities have long ago abandoned the exclusive focus on printed text in favor or oral and visual texts.

On the other hand, I’m sure you can say something systematic and critically interesting about Twitter, or Instagram, of Facebook pictures, or the words you overhear on a subway. Much like there has come to be a serious criticism of works of popular culture, and entire conferences devoted to things like Twilight, Battlestar Gallactica, or Mad Men, I could imagine a future for the humanities that does exactly what Silvers says on, say, LeBron James’s Twitter feed.

What’s needed is a social media Benjamin to start the ball rolling (there probably already are a few candidates…). Now, if someone thinks pop culture studies are ridiculous (there’s a good argument to made!), then I suppose Silvers’s suggestion is just more of the same, but much of the history of modern criticism has been about expanding the definition of what can be analyzed. I would be shocked if there aren’t students in English PhD programs writing dissertations on Facebook and Twitter right now.

I’m not familiar with Teju Cole’s feed, as I found it too aggravating to follow for very long. Szirtes’ is interesting, although, most of the time when I log on to Twitter, that’s not the sort of thing I’m in the mood for. Probably among people who try to use it “creatively,” I’m more interested in the aphorism, the prosaic, or the non sequitur than anything else.

I think that people can certainly turn the medium to artistic purposes, just as people (e.g. monologists) turn spoken language into an artform. But the idea that all of Twitter is some kind of a text for us to read is, to me, very much to miss the point of what Twitter actually is.

Agree. Twitter is the digital variation on postcards, lawns signs, or bumpers stickers. The nearest literary/critical analogies might be Wittgenstein’s tractatus, Neitzsche’s aphorisms, Benjamin’s arcades project—but in all those cases the format unified around the authorial identity, whereas Twitter disperses.

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