Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Robyn Byrd is Itchy Typewriter Finger

I think my current itchy typewriter finger is the result of too much social networking. I use Facebook and Twitter, the former for many uses (personal, school, extracurricular activities), and the latter just for work. I get a lot of good use out of Facebook, and I don't think it's a bad way to stay in touch with people, especially when you're busy. However, the "status" is becoming its own beast, and it may pose a threat to the brains of thinking people everywhere.

The Status seems to have freed itself from the constraints of the SN websites, and is now lurking in all typed messages. It has even burrowed into our brains and begun to effect the way we think -- even when there is no type pad in front of us. The Status may soon be the basis for all communication, both with others and with ourselves. The Status is becoming our only tool of self-consciousness and self-reflection.

Self-consciousness, in many philosophies, is what sets humanity apart from beasts. Also, fully realizing this self-consciousness is the goal of many philosophers, whether that realization happens through thinking rationally, looking at works of art, or by simply allowing one's self to "be." What is the self-consciousness achieved through Status making? Is it valid? Is it healthy?

I call it Status "making" because we turn the initial thoughts and words about our current situation into a status format. While the minds of many young people have begun to think in this format, I think any person who is older at life and newer to social networking may be able to shake or thwart this unholy brain shift that causes our minds to seek to "Statusize" everything we do.

Language, I believe, is something that runs through us, not something we invent and apply for our own purposes. In the tradition of thinkers like Novalis and Heidegger, I also believe that we can mistake the nature and ends of language, and we often do. We try to harness it, and it makes a mockery of us. Instead we should be listening to what it is trying to speak (or in this case, type). Also, hand in hand with this "language speaks" sort of theory is the theory that language shapes our realilty (Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis for you linguists out there, developed around the time Novalis was writing). The...

HOLD ON. I just closed my Facebook window. I couldn't think.

...The thing I'm wondering now is how the structures that shape language get into our heads. Or does the language we learn put them there? Humans are hard wired for language, and linguists have proven we all share very similar trends toward certain types of grammar and syntax. There is a structure there to begin with, and perhaps filling it in with words and rules makes it lock in place. It's not totally cemented -- we can learn languages that break the rules of our own language. But I don't think we can ever lose the characteristics of our original, foundation language. This is getting too scientific so I'm going to veer back into the cosmos for some more philosophical treatment.

So my theory is (I suppose) that the Status has introduced a new kind of grammar or a new way of thinking about "using" language (remember, we're not supposed to use it). If this becomes a part of our language habit -- just like our tendency to label the world for its uses is our current habit -- and if it consistently acts upon the language that is trying to play through us, the the Status has created a new paradigm for language use that is arguably not a good one. And if we let this kind of language work upon our reality, the Status will most definitely effect the way we "be" in the world. Our enitre conception of being, in other words, will be altered.

I know I have treated language as a bit of a two way street here. And I think most linguists and many philosophers would treat it that way. No linguist totally buys the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis ("language creates reality") and none of the philosophers I look to for answers would suppose that we are "in charge" of language, either. The way I've described it, and the way Heidegger thinks of it, supposes an interplay between man and his own experience of language, but that does not suppose that misuse of language alters the essence of Language (let's say with a capital L) itself. It can alter our cultures, habits, and our abililty to be in the world in a healthy way. Heidegger condemns technical use of language for its preventing us from "dwelling" in the world. I condemn the Status for preventing us from having a fully self-conscious and self-reflective existence that is unmitigated by outside forces (Facebook, Blogger, Twitter users poised and ready to comment or give a "thumbs up," the SN "force" itself) that would do violence to our conceptions of self and to our attempts to "dwell" as human beings.

The only way I see to salvage the Status, or to repurpose it as a benign sort of activity, would be to view the Status as poetry. This would also please Heidegger. When the Status was first installed on Facebook, the prompt included not only the user's name but the word "is." The "is" could be deleted if the user wanted to write something that didn't include "is," however, most users often chose to keep the "is." This was true even when the "is" did not make grammatical sense in the Status they were writing! See below examples:

How the "is" was originally intended to be used:

Robyn is doing laundry.
Robyn is wondering why it gets dark so early.
Robyn is done with school.

The "is" eventually became a new kind of "is."

Robyn is a sunny day.
Robyn is attitude.
Robyn is finally I got some iced tea!

None of these examples are particularly poetic, but the "is" factor made many users think about how to use their words. It made them try to be poetic even if they had no knack for poetry. Facebook has since gotten rid of the default "is," but many users have retained it for an occasional poetic Status, or they have at least retained their feeling about the status as being somehow outside normal prose conventions, and above the baseness of slang or texting expectations.

The "is" was important to the development of the Status not only because it forced some language acrobatics (or rather, forced users language channels to stay open) by always being in the way of typing out the normal prose sentence one's brain had already completed, but because it is the word that means "to be." In its final form, before it was dismissed as the official Status prompt of Facebook, it had come to mean what someone "is" when they type in a Status. For many users the Status was no longer the answer to Facebook's query, "What are you doing?" or "What's on your mind?" but the answer to "What are you?", "How do you be in the world?", "What does being mean to you?" For these users, perhaps the Status as a new language construct is a happy accident.

Now I know I've gone and said something against what I said earlier, that the Status is a bad way to let Language get bullied (if we or anything else could ever bully Language). Hopefully I've shown that there are two different movements at work. The Being-as-Status movement, that could be causing us to think of ourselves within a Status-oriented framework, and the Status-as-Being movement, wherein we only go to the Status to let ourselves speak (type) the language that wants to be heard. I am against the first movement, on grounds earlier discussed, and I don't know if the benefits of the second movement outweigh the costs of the first. There are many other ways to think poetically, but if the Status is what it takes to get a generation to speak, and the linguists don't want us to stop the forward (?) march of modern language usages, perhaps it's something that has already left an indelible mark on all of us who inhabit cultures with enough "technicity" to allow us to post-up, blog, Twitter, comment, and Status-change all day long.

1 comment:

  1. This is absolutely brilliant--I've been thinking similar thoughts as I've been putting the "is" back into my status.

    I personally loved what you called the "poetic" effects of the "is" (my favorite is the typo "Mike is is x..." or the even better "Mike is was x...")... I might have just stopped at calling them "ungrammatical" (as you rightly do), but calling this poetry--in precisely the Heideggerian sense of this word--opens my eyes to how very flexible the Heideggerian notion of poetry could actually be. In other words, I always thought Heidegger a bit stodgy when it came to poetry (de Man has a great article on this) but you show how this doesn't have to be the case...

    I do find it a bit odd though that we might condemn the status (like we condemn technology) for keeping us from a fully self-conscious relationship to the world. Maybe it's the Derridian in me, but it seems that there just couldn't be a relation to the status that would be as free of malignant technical influence as we might want it to be. Let me put it a different way: for me, the importance of the "is" is that it provided a quick rule that one could work off of--as you say, a grammar. What was actually more restrictive, much more inhibiting of self-reflection for me was the absence of the "is." This isn't as paradoxical as it might seem, though. Faced with a less restricted grammar, as you rightly call it, in fact all the opportunities created by that grammar in the first place were lost. Perhaps a different way of putting it is to think of this more restricted grammar (with the "is" there) as creating an idiom--the possibility of typing everything erases the idiomatic aspect, which I find unfortunate. When there are so many opportunities to speak out there on the internet, we might actually lose the ability to create any sort of meaningful linguistic practice if we make the status, for example, just another place to say anything. Does that make sense?

    I think you're getting at something though in criticizing the "is:" it restricted us to thinking of what we are in terms of what we do. But this isn't always a misrepresentation of who we are (sometimes, as Heidegger says, we're just hammering). Regardless, I don't know of many people who didn't treat that "is" ironically as well, as something to play with: few, in other words, really did think of it as actually representing all of them. In getting rid of the is, in getting rid of the equation of who we are with what we're up to, we might just lose the possibility to note that these are different... that's all I'm saying. This would be my only reservation to your considering the Status-as-Being as better than the Being-as-Status movement...

    But that is only a small reservation about what is an awesome reflection! Great job!!


I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.