There is this torrent of noise that threatens to sweep us away, or better yet, pull us under and drag us along. It’s in on TV, the radio, the internet, it’s the movies that fill the cineplexes, and the stories circulated in newspapers and magazines and bestselling books. It moves us along because it is immediate, easy to scan, and doesn’t require that we reflect on it. In fact, it is born of a literalism that refuses interpretation because its immediacy demands there can’t be more than one way of seeing things, much less of saying them. Unfortunately, there’s so much of it out there that it’s hard not to get carried away by it, but to resist its correlative fungibility—in which one “fact” is as good as another, and one worker is as good as another, as long as he or she is cheapest—we can use the very tools that contribute to it: Twitter and Facebook.
It is the brevity of tweets and Facebook updates that is both their problem and salvation. Problematically, the space limits imposed by texting or tweeting encourage statements that reduce ambiguity and nuance. After all, figuring out how to write something precisely can be rather labor intensive, so there’s a tendency to express only the simplest, most direct statements. In other words, one tends to simplify the kinds of things one says to fit the medium. In itself, that’s not necessarily a problem. However, tweets and texts seem to be the predominant form of written communication for many people, especially young people, through which they practice how to say not much of anything as briefly as possible. “In front of the MOA.” “Mmmm, chocolate ice cream.”
I see what appears to be the fruit of this practice when I teach college writing. Students struggle to meet page requirements that are hardly daunting, even when shown how to develop their ideas. Most gripe that they can say what they have to say briefly and that page requirements encourage verbosity, yet their papers show that there isn’t much being said in the first place, making elaboration nearly impossible. Though one might see this as the perennial struggle for students to do as little as possible, a class discussion I recently led illuminated how the inability to develop ideas is often rooted in a predilection for simple, transparent statements.
Before class, students were asked to analyze several sentences, among them one by Booth Tarkington that was cited in Stanley Fish’s book How to Write a Sentence: “There is a fertile stretch of flat lands in Indiana where unagrarian Eastern travelers, glancing from car-windows, shudder and return their eyes to interior upholstery, preferring even the swaying caparisons of a Pullman to the monotony without.” After some debate, students agreed that the main action of the sentence was the travelers “[returning] their eyes to the interior upholstery.” It’s a simple action, so in itself it’s easy to grasp. However, what the rest of the sentence helps one understand about that action remained a mystery to them. It began with the fact that of twenty students, all but one tried to analyze the sentence without knowing the meanings of the words “unagrarian,” “Pullman,” and “caparisons.” Again, one could chalk that up to laziness, but I think it also points to a lack of understanding about how all the parts of a sentence help one understand and interpret the simple action or idea that lies at a sentence’s core. It suggests that in their reading, students practice to eliminate all but the simplest of expressions. Not surprisingly, the same is true of their writing and even thinking.
Again, though, that’s the problem of brevity. But brevity is also the soul of wit, if one’s willing to put in the time. The Twitter era doesn’t need to be one of insipid literalism; rather it can be a new age of the aphorism. Basically, an aphorism is a pithy statement elucidating some truth. Since truth can be complicated, even apparently contradictory, the best aphorisms often trade in irony or ambiguity, packing a lot of meaning into a relatively brief space. They require some work, though. As Blaise Pascal intimated in his declaration, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time,” short writings with a degree of depth require planning. That is, to write them involves thinking. The same can be said of reading them. Because they can say so much with so little, they demand careful reading, slowing down the pace of that flow, that torrent, if ever so briefly, forcing readers to pause for contemplation.
Admittedly, it’s not reasonable or desirable to constantly write and speak aphoristically. But if you find yourself writing simple, literal statements in your Facebook updates or tweets as a matter of course, recognize that you’re contributing to what is wearing down a kind of thinking that is currently under attack in our nation—even while those in power ostensibly celebrate it. By writing aphorisms, at least once in a while, you’re jamming up the machine, creating new directions for the torrent to flow, and possibly opening up avenues for imagination that can’t be put on a resume or used to contribute to the interchangeability that ultimately does nothing more than help make the rich get richer.