Tuesday, 22 June 2010

A large (and virtual) kitchen table

Tony Judt doesn't like Twitter and other social media:
In a world of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (not to mention texting), pithy allusion substitutes for exposition. Where once the Internet seemed an opportunity for unrestricted communication, the increasingly commercial bias of the medium—”I am what I buy”—brings impoverishment of its own. My children observe of their own generation that the communicative shorthand of their hardware has begun to seep into communication itself: “people talk like texts.”
This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else...
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (“It’s only my opinion…”). Rather than suffering from the onset of “newspeak,” we risk the rise of “nospeak.”

I wonder whether people said the same thing about the 'communicative shorthand' of the telegram and its occasional 'pithy allusion' (the most concise and accomplished of which was surely Napier's, albeit possibly mythical, 'Peccavi')? In any event, I find many of the tweets I receive pithily allude to a well-written piece of exposition (sometimes 20,000 carefully-weighed words of it).

And as for there being too much 'intellectual insecurity' about? Not something one comes across that often in the more political end of the blogiverse.

But Judt's real beef seems to be with the supposedly private and commercial nature of these social media. Given they're all free and highly accessible, one does question the usefulness of the description 'private'. And commercial? Not unless you dismiss the telephone as no more than a commercial tool because it's used for tele-marketing. Besides, they'd just as well be not-for-profit, given the losses they make.

It's also interesting to ask what public forums of communication - presumably with a brief to maintain 'formal conventions' - are being supported in opposition to these private ones? One thinks of, at least in this country, the BBC and the universities: institutional means of communication which certainly for the vast majority of people are highly inaccessible, perhaps even exclusive.

Judt is a man of the left and the viewpoint expressed here exemplifies a particularly hieratic form of socialism. RS Thomas remarked 'There is an aristocracy of the pit, too'; we're reminded here that there's also one of the academy.

Personally, whilst having sympathy with the desire to maintain written and spoken standards (something that concerns Judt earlier in the post), I don't think restricting control of communication to an élite is any way to do this. This is surely his implicit recommendation; a goal that is probably now impossible as well as undesirable.

Judt begins his post (which, as usual, is elegantly expressed and personally attractive) recalling how words came to be so important to him:
I was raised on words. They tumbled off the kitchen table onto the floor where I sat: grandfather, uncles, and refugees flung Russian, Polish, Yiddish, French, and what passed for English at one another in a competitive cascade of assertion and interrogation. Sententious flotsam from the Edwardian-era Socialist Party of Great Britain hung around our kitchen promoting the True Cause. I spent long, happy hours listening to Central European autodidacts arguing deep into the night: Marxismus, Zionismus, Socialismus. Talking, it seemed to me, was the point of adult existence. I have never lost that sense.

Think of MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and the rest as an opportunity to enjoy your own kitchen table, extendable if virtual; you can sit around it and talk or get down and enjoy the words tumbling off. To worry about something like Twitter being much more than this - a threat to civilised standards, no less - is to break a butterfly on a wheel. But to dismiss it as much less is also to lose perspective.

We mustn't forget how exclusive the means and modes of communication have been throughout history and how cripplingly inhibited many have felt as a consequence. The maintenance of these exclusivities really shouldn't be a concern of someone on the left (though it too often is).

I, for one, prefer the sympathies expressed in the poem below by another old leftist, Tony Harrison, who reminds us that not every working class person has possessed the intellectually confident loquacity of 'Central European autodidacts':

On Not Being Milton

Read and commited to the flames, I call
these sixteen lines that go back to my roots
my Cahier d'un retour au pays natal,
my growing black enough to fit my boots.

The stutter of the scold out of the branks
of condescension, class and counter-class
thickens with glottals to a lumpen mass
of Ludding morphemes closing up their ranks.
Each swung cast-iron Enoch of Leeds stress
clangs a forged music on the frames of Art,
the looms of owned language smashed apart!

Three cheers for mute ingloriousness!

Articulation is the tongue-tied's fighting.
In the silence round all poetry we quote
Tidd the Cato Street conspirator who wrote:

Sir, I Ham a very Bad hand at Righting.

[Harrison's] Note: An 'Enoch' is an iron sledge-hammer used by the Luddites to smash the frames which were also made by the same Enoch Taylor of Marsden. The cry was: Enoch made them, Enoch shall break them! 
Cahier d'un retour au pays natal: Return to the country of my birth, the title of a sequence of poems by the black Martinique poet, Aimé Césaire (b. 1913).

branks: a metal instrument designed to cover the tongue and inhibit speech.

one of the political radicals who planned to assassinate members of the cabinet and seize power in 1820. They were arrested in Cato Street in London.

(Difficult poetry but with explanatory footnotes. That's a decent sort of accessibility).


worm said...

I can see what Judt is getting at - Im currently reading a book called 'boy in the blitz' - a diary kept by an 18 year old chap during the 1940 london blitz, he seems like any normal comprehensive pupil, and yet the quality of his writing is scary - you just can't imagine an 18 year old comprehensive pupil today being able to come anywhere close

Gaw said...

Don't shoot the messenger, which is all Twitter, etc. is. We need better and more traditional teaching, I'd say.