Media Literacy (part 1)

Late last year, I discovered the work of John Warner, who has a written a book that I’ll need to address soon. The discovery has a led to a series of long and illuminating Twitter exchanges that have clarified my views on a number of important topics. One of them is the blurring of the boundary between literacy and orality in the age of new media. When I retired my previous blog, I was thinking seriously about what sort of activity blogging actually is. I wrote two posts vaguely inspired by Barthes and Foucault about the nature of blogging and then — defeated, I suppose, by the irony of the project — gave up. In my discussions with John, however, I found myself returning to it, insisting that tweeting is not really writing, at least not in the sense of something I’m trying to help students and scholars do well. Indeed, I don’t even think blogging should be counted as proper “writing”. I don’t blame John for balking at the idea, but I want to explore it nonetheless.

As I understand his argument, it’s not quite as simple as pointing out that in order to tweet and blog (and produce similar social media “content”) you have to, literally, write. I don’t deny this of course. But you also have to write in order to make a shopping list or leave a note on the fridge to your wife telling her you’ve eaten the plums. Doing so doesn’t make you a “writer” (though if you are already a writer these notes may famously have some literary merit). John took it a step further by suggesting that tweeting is writing as a matter of neuroscientific fact. The same parts are the brain, he said, are involved in writing a tweet as are involved in penning an essay. I’m not impressed enough with neuroscience to let this change my view. It may be true that at the present stage of science we can’t distinguish the two, but I will insist that my intellectual and emotional posture (and even my bodily comportment) is entirely different when I write tweets and essays. This first hand knowledge trumps any insight a brain scan my provide into my process.

Now, you may say I have shifted the goal posts. I started with “literacy vs. orality” and I’m now talking about literature vs. everyday communication. But let’s keep in mind that I coach writers at a university, which is to say, I work at a relatively high level. I think it’s fair to say that “the ability to read and write”, at least here, always aspires to “literature”, either in the proper sense (poems and novels) or the scholarly sense (“the academic literature”). It marks a higher competence, a greater difficulty than reading signage or even newspapers. You get a university degree in order to learn not merely how get around in a world of written signs, but to make use of what Kenneth Burke called the “equipment for living” that the world of “letters” makes available to us. When Barthes asks “What is writing?” and Foucault asks “What is an author?” they are thinking of something quite specific, even rather specialized, and not something that everyone is capable of or interested in. When I say a tweet is not “written”, I’m trying to be specific in a similar way. When I say that even this blog post is not a case of “writing”, I am, of course, first and foremost trying to be provocative. But that’s not all.

The distinction I want to draw turns on the distance that is established between the “writer” and the “reader”. The scare quotes are there to indicate that this actually works both ways: a writer may very well dictate a book and be no less a writer for that, a speaker may establish a literary distance to the audience. Think of the root meaning of “lecturer”, i.e., a “reader”, as they are still often called in the UK. That is, this has nothing to do with what our hands are doing; it is about the nature of the relationship between the sender and receiver of the utterance. Though I’m sure it is a gross simplification, I think this is why the concept of différance (meaning both to differ and to defer) is at the heart of Derrida’s “science of writing”, his grammatology. Literature, i.e., writing “proper”, is about the spacing and timing of the utterance, about the amount room that is allowed for interpretation, for reading between the lines, if you will.

In conversation an utterance succeeds or fails immediately. A joke, for example, will work or not at the time it is told. It is impossible to fix it by way of interpretation (unless that was part of the original joke), except by making a new joke, which now includes the recovery of the failed communication. Literature does not expect such immediacy; it is asking to be interpreted before it is understood.

Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this now? When we write a tweet we are looking for an immediate reaction from our followers and expect it to otherwise be forgotten. Indeed, much of the tweet-mining scandal-mongering that we’ve been seeing lately seems to completely misunderstand the ephemeral (and highly contextual) intentions behind most tweets. A few years ago, I will add, my blogging degenerated into almost constant live-action engagements with controversial issues. I wasn’t writing, I was thinking out loud. Since I hadn’t made this clear to myself (I saw myself as a writer, not a “mere” blogger), it was an unsustainable position to be in, and these days I don’t think of my blogging here as actually blogging. I don’t have a very big audience (as far as I tell from my traffic) and I don’t seem to engage them on issues of the day. I get very few comments and I don’t interfere with anyone’s mood. I’m basically just drafting things that (I hope) will one day be published in a more permanent, more accessible form. I’m not really blogging, then. I’m writing.

(Update: actually, this post, which was published on the same day it was written and then immediately tweeted, is way too “immediate” to be considered writing on my definition. It’s sort of a hybrid I guess.)

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