Thursday, 1 March 2012

FB, Twitter and the rest: a manner of speaking 1

From one perspective it's rather horrifying how the world plugs into one enormous website and talks till it is blue in the face. It isn't the meditative retreat often recommended for the spiritual, a term that might apply to artists - and to poets in particular - and it surprises me how readily I have adapted to it. Being sixty-three I expected to find this way of communicating somewhat inimical and it may be that at some stage I will feel I have to withdraw from it.

The way I justify it to myself is by regarding all such things as literary forms. It took me a little while to think - and more pertinently, to feel - my way around emails. A form is partly its manners, its way of behaving. I wouldn't have liked paper letters headed, Hi George, for instance. I don't suppose I'd like it now. On the other hand it would be quaint to have one signed, Your obedient servant (I have had a few of these but in clearly ironic spirit), or even Yours faithfully these days. Letters have evolved like everything else: nevertheless we understand their manner of formality, and when we come across love letters or letters of high drama it is their very breach of manners that moves us.

Two thoughts follow from this. First, that all communication works by conformity to, or deviance from, expectation. Once there is no expectation there can be no deviance, so reading becomes cruder. That is the absolute case though in practice people simply tend to alter their ways of close reading. All language is coded. We are continually learning new codes, new distinctions.

The second thought is that manners establish workable social relationships. So Hi George in a letter seems to be claiming a more intimate, brasher form of relationship than I feel willing to grant. It is like someone speaking within three inches of your face without invitation, and Auden had a way of dealing with such intrusions, writing:

Some thirty inches from my nose
The frontier of my Person goes,
And all the untilled air between
Is private pagus or demesne.
Stranger, unless with bedroom eyes
I beckon you to fraternize,
Beware of rudely crossing it:
I have no gun, but I can spit.

I have to add that I myself rarely have the inclination to spit and am not quite so jealous of my private pagus or demesne as Auden was. But I understand. Oh yes, I understand all right.


Then come emails with their hybrid sense of formal approach on the one hand and dashed-off remark on the other. An email is not quite a letter, but not exactly a postcard either. Time plays an important role in this: there is an implicit propriety about a message that passes through appreciable time and space. Time is part of the pagus / demesne. Email has the potential to make time almost vanish, so one might be simply the equivalent of a nod to a tap on the shoulder. OK, we reply. Fine. See you there. Telegraphese, you might say. But email manners range well beyond the manners of telegraphs. In terms of direct speech it's possible that if English were one of those languages with distinctions between various forms of you, it's possible we might be on tutoyer terms with most of the universe most of the time.

So instantaneity changes language. Possibly because I am an immigrant from another language (with four versions of you as it happens) and have had to adapt so many times over the years that I have grown to enjoy the act of adaptation in itself, I have never been completely sure of my pagus or demesne and find the constant shifting into and out of focus quite exciting and pleasurable. (I think of a device like rhyme in much the same way: adaptation is essential to the thrill as well as to the process of discovery.)

[to be contd 1/3


Pam Johnson said...

Very interesting how we writers get drawn into this electronic world... I've been enjoying your tweets so can't wait to hear what you have to say on the subject!

Tim Love said...

Both at work and at play I worry about these issues. My Why Blog posts charts my experiences. As you say, there are different, easily misinterpreted, conventions. If 50% of our students use Facebook at least daily, should we make info available that way? Should I try to be Facebook friends with my sons? Some people who've written web pages for years don't like the thought of other people "writing on their pages" (as in a blog or Wiki).

And yes, each facility encourages certain forms. The switch from letters to phonecalls changed the rules (answerphone messages are a throwback). TXTing is different again. I'm told that ketai fiction (to fit in a text message) and Twitter Lit (to fit Twitter’s limits) are used in SE Asia. I don't hear much about Hypertext poetry nowadays though.

You've seen the scroll/book Medieval Help Desk sketch?