Monday, November 9, 2009

wittgenstein, emoticons, & the death of email

yesterday, i was schooled by austin choi-fitzpatrick. apparently, email is dead. email is "so 2006." according to choi-fitzpatrick (wtf? i'm citing him like he's the fucking scholar he is), email had it's heyday from 1996-2006. now, email is a dead form. for him, email is only his inbox: subject headings, nothing more. for him, it's all about facebook, text messaging, etc. we, as humans, reduced to 140 characters or less as our mode of communication.

this morning, i read wittgenstein's notes & lectures on aesthetics, psychology, & religion. wittgenstein argues that language is not universal; however, physical reactions are. he talks, at length, about the inadequacy of words such as "beautiful" or "lovely," that "beautiful" comes to represent not what is beautiful but an interjection. he argues,
would it matter if instead of saying 'this is lovely,' i just said, 'ah!' & smiled, or just rubbed my stomach? as far as these primitive languages go, problems about what these words are about, what their real subject is, don't come up at all.
whereas i get wittgenstein's point--words like beautiful or lovely are at times empty, they come to mean much less than what we mean them to mean--i don't think we could simply substitute a grunt or a physical action. and i agree that words like "beautiful" never conjure up the same thing to any two people, that does not make the word itself--or words in general--obsolete. after all, facial expressions, gestures, etc. can be just as misleading, if not more so, than words.

but this got me thinking about what austin had to say (see here how i've switched to calling him austin): what if we play wittgenstein out to his logical extreme? in this increasingly technologically fragmenting world, what if rather than communicate via facebook or text or even email, we just used emoticons, as our way of expressing emotion & feeling? rather than say, "i had a shitty day," i could just put up a some frazzle faced grumpy tired face? here's the thing, as austin pointed out, we can't just have our 10-20 emoticons. we need combinatory abilities. then, we'll create a new language, one with more capacity for miscommunication & confusion.

one of my colleagues, a philosopher, asked me, as i was thinking out loud about this earlier this morning, what does this reduction of experience into 140 characters do? i had my standard answer, nothing sophisticated or new: well, obviously, it breaks down communication, such that we're nothing but quippy cleverness that generates as many "responses" as possible. real life people, we're bound to disappoint, but on facebook, we're clever.

this is particularly pertinent to these blogs popping up everywhere. i'm a fan of html giant, but what's there is a lot of self-referential cleverness. is big other any different? is my blog any different? no! but you get a bunch of writers in a room together without booze, and what happens? i remember walking around awp, a freaked out zombie, unable to talk to people. i remember walking around &now, eyes racing from person to person, hiding & wanting to be seen. i'd like to blame technology for that, but it turns out i've just got social anxiety. but the thing is that everyone today has social anxiety, and that's something for reals we can pin on technology. are you cooler than your facebook persona? that's the real question.

and as for email, i love email. i have long email exchanges with many friends. it's my preferred mode of communication. i mean, i'd love to sit & talk to most of these people, but email gives me time to think over things, ruminate, delete, cut & paste, etc etc etc. that, & i don't actually have to leave my house.


  1. like this post

    feel like an emoticon lexicon should soon be developed and books should be written and we should end up with the same idea of the play of emoticon signifiers as the play of word signifiers

    vaguely recall derrida saying something similar about language as wittgenstein, about 'the play of signifiers', that words are unstable, but that they should be used. (though i am severely under-read in derrida). new language (something) should be made, new forms etc, as language is a tool we have to communicate complex thoughts.

    continually feel like it is impossible to connect with as many people as facebook want us to be able to connect with

  2. hey richard: let's write a book about the emoticon lexicon! drop me an email!

  3. I feel like I'm seeming digitally stalkish (in the weird way, not the Josh-Cohen's-story-from-the-reading way. I apologize. I had to reply to this, I think you're on to something (or a lot of somethings) here that really struck me.

    I've sensed this odd 'thing' as well, this feeling I'm not who I am on Facebook, that I only update if there's some random witty thing to say, or I have the opportunity to throw something out there that I think perhaps makes me look 'smart' or 'artistic' or 'with it'. Sometimes this breaks and I have Tao Lin-type moments of wanting to say: 'R. Sanford is thinking about how he only updates when...' but this is just another level of the same thing, yeah? Metaselfalludingwit. Meh. It makes me nauseous, but it's going on.

    And, right, who doesn't seem to have social anxiety anymore? I sure do, most writers I know do. And what does this example say: after Josh's reading I wanted to talk to him, but what's to say? So I'm socially anxious, I leave. Give me a a keyboard, though, and obviously I can go on & on.

    I don't feel like technology has made me 'dumber' but I'm ready to say it's made my brain slower in a sense. I've come to value and thrive on, as you said, time to ruminate, to edit. I like that whatever I want to type about is uninterruptible. People fight online but in large, delineated salvos of comments, not in mixmash talking-over-each-other conversations.

    I'll end this ramble, I think I'm a bit out of steam.

  4. Forgive me, as I'm a 22 year old pre-grad student who is also on the shallow end of the wittgenstein wading pool (literally, I've tasted the W-discourse and about to start reading) but I want to offer a different reading of that passage:

    Is he really saying that words like beautiful and lovely are often used meaninglessly, or is he actually problematizing the function of a specific class of adjective? In this sense, he seems to focus on adjectives describing affect. Maybe he's saying that these reactions are no more than the relations they describe, and beyond that are necessarily vague. If so, he's calling for a reduction to the barest signification in order to reduce that vagueness. Just a thought. Remember, I haven't engaged with W. yet! :)

    Given that I just spent a half hour commenting on a post that's almost two months old, I'll make just one more point: just 10 years after email 'destroyed' letter-writing and thus the 'genuine connections' that came with it, its own aura is threatened by another bastardized form. I'm sure texting and facebook will become intimate too. In fact, I'm sure that they have!

    Sorry, one more thing: after jumping into the internet discourse (and all the sass and scarequotes that come with it) we came to the same conclusion: after the glow of a new, common language fades, social awkwardness always comes back, so revel in it!

    Happy new year!

  5. We being a friend and I, I'm sorry. I'm a little overcaffeinated.