Reading Week Thesis Thinking

so, at the close of reading week, i’m starting to realize how little time is left in this term. in six weeks, i will have finished my coursework, and will start writing my thesis. in a little under three months, i have to hand in a final proposal of what this thesis is going to look like, what i’m going to talk about it, and how i’m going to write it.

it’s probably time to tackle that question. i like to write about it because, ultimately, this is a written production i’m making. i like to post these writings in the hope of comments, questions- anything that will help me understand my topic better or push me in new directions. thanks!

well what is this thesis about? in short- what can literary theory, specifically that surrounding 19th and 20th century comic novels (comic in the sense of ‘not tragic’, rather than ‘animated’), tell us about social and political critique as performed via social media, specifically via twitter. the question is not so ridiculous- i’ve tackled a couple of the bases of it already‎.

but really, how do we get from A to B? well, by choosing our corpus carefully. rather than writing about novels in general, which would be ridiculously broad, i’m writing about the ideas of a literary theorist- specifically Mikhail Bakhtin. Where we start is with polyphony: in the comic novel this is to say with many characters speaking with many voices from many different points of view. This speech does more than describe a single object or situation from more than one point of view: it tends to question whether such an object or situation can be singular at all. This is done all over the place in the late 19th and 20th centuries- Joyce, Woolf, and Dostoevsky all count examples of the style among their works. Describe Joyce’s Dublin from a singular point of view: you can do it, but you’ll be missing important details (important depending, again, on your frame of reference).

This is interesting, and explains a couple of things on Twitter for someone treating it as a literary object. The characters or profiles on Twitter are a wild mish-mash of real, dead, and fictional, their authors mostly anonymous. Some are serious, some are ironic, most are both at different times in different messages. When reading twitter responses to a political event (a debate, for example, or a protest), the literary critic is invited to do more than see the same object from multiple angles: s/he is invited to see different lived experiences of it, and to question its different significances to different people in different contexts. Twitter offers more facets through which the reader can perceive a lived experience (or a ‘story’), just as comic novels do.

(Tangent: Polyphony allows an author to say things that s/he couldn’t in an essay or an editorial, because there’s not really an underlying position to attack. It’s a lot easy to slip a folk tale through a government censor than it is a polemic, because the folk tale isn’t grounded in a particular ideology (though it can be dressed up in one) like an essay is.)

Does the rabbit hole go deeper? Of course it does. Bakhtin also talks about a particular kind of style which he calls the ‘carnavalesque‘. These stories, such as seen in Rabelais (which I realize is drastically before the 19th century) and again Dostoevsky, invert expected social norms and thus open society up to questioning, in the same way as medieval carnivals. This limited rupture with the norm helped strengthen society, but novelists were free to extend their literary carnivals, subjecting ideas to constant questioning and giving all views the same stature.

(Tangent: There are echoes here of the split between art and entertainment: art challenges our expectations and brings progress, whereas entertainment reaffirms those expectations and preserves the established order. )

This is interesting, because a reader of Twitter treating it as art, rather than as entertainment, can see there all kinds of subversions of established social order. Aside from the obvious juxtaposition of Barack Obama, the Prince of Wales, and the Curiosity rover in a single digital place, Twitter does not define a hierarchy between users, even though one can be inferred from a profile’s number of followers, retweets, &c. In the real world, this order is made explicit through offices, titles, reporting structures, and the media, but while people on Twitter can bring those titles with them to construct their online identity, the titles themselves hold no inherent power on the site. This dehierarchization allows new questions, dialogues, and discourses that were before impossible outside of literature.

So yes, what can literary theory tell us about Twitter? First, that different voices allow a richer understanding of the subjective experience of events and objects, and that a literary reader of Twitter can experience a similar effect when following a hashtag throughout an event. Second, that the reversal or questioning of social structures allows for the asking of new kinds of questioning, breaks taboos, and enriches discourse. But are literary or twitterary critiques given in isolation, or is there something more?

Enter Marc Angenot. Angenot’s theory is effectively that every utterance, spoken or written, influences and is influenced by the totality of all other utterances. This is to say that texts are interdiscursive, or that writers, authors, and readers in different fields have an impact on each other. Some literary works ‘change the conversation’ in a sudden, dramatic, manner. Others take a very long time to propagate very small impacts. They all, however, have a measure of impact on political, social, economic, and academic discourses, which are all influencing each other at the same time.

This would suggest, then, that things on Twitter also have an influence on other fields of discourse, whether this influence is literary or not. This seems true on the face of it- look at the explosion of news outlets posting hashtags and handles in their infographics, and integrating tweets into their comments from readers/viewers. A literary reader of Twitter, then, can not only see radically different views of the world collide in the form of diverse characters, not only see these collisions on a field somewhat liberated from real life social norms and conventions, but also understand that these exotic new particle collisions can have a broader impact. If that’s the case, it’s worth reading to understand what those impacts could be, and, in the case of certain people, how to influence the direction the cloud is drifting.

So that’s more or less the shape of it for now. It’s easy to blow off a tweet as ‘just some guy’s opinion’, but in most cases it’s a real guy, and a real opinion. His tweet is only a tiny fragment of the totality of his ideas and worldview, but it is a real part, and could in many cases be the only part you get to see. The increased diversity implied by having many, many writers of a text (who can each create multiple ‘characters’ if they want), rather than just one, merely offers a wider selection of viewpoints to compare, without pronouncing on the validity of any of them- that task best left to the reader. If we’re beyond looking for the objective truth of things, and are instead interested in the many ways things can be true subjectively, we can do worse than reading social media through the lens of literature.

Early Thesis Thoughts

the high points of my thesis

for anyone curious, i’m currently preparing a master’s thesis in a program called ‘francophone literatures and media resonance’. in my case what this means, in layman’s terms, is that i study twitter. specifically, i’m out to investigate the theory that social media reflects and interprets the social discourse in a similar way as did literature over the last 150 years. let’s define some terms.

‘social media’ refers to the ensemble of online communications where readers are also writers. when you read a book, you can’t write content into it. when you listen to the radio, you have no control over what the station is playing. you can’t control what is shown on tv, and if you try, you’ll get edited out. however, on twitter, facebook, reddit, or wikipedia, for example, reader contribution is absolutely fundamental, and previous similar networks have fallen apart when contributions ceased. in traditional media, there is a production company, publishing house, or broadcast network that frames and directs (you could say ‘narrates’) the message. this framer/director/narrator is the simple architecture of the site- it governs the form, but not the content, of the message.

‘social discourse’ refers to the whole ensemble of everything said and/or written down in a society. it includes political discourse, economic, literary, judiciary, artistic, poetic, linguistic, gender, and all other discourses. this discourse can be conceived of, but not perceived, by any individual reader/writer (who is anchored to her own social-economic-political-cultural circumstances). All readers/writers contribute to it, and their contributions are informed by it, by ‘that thick is communicable’. thus the social discourse informs, and is informed by, the entirety of a society’s information output.

finally, when i say ‘literature’ i really mean the comic novel, which, in a french context, we can trace back to about as far as the railway paperback in the mid 19th century. one critical interest of the novel is that many multiple characters speak different opinions, in different ways, leading the ‘hero’, the subject of the story, to or from his goal. in the case of the novel though, these characters are all created and narrated by one singular author (or a group of authors not comprising all readers), edited by a singular editor (or group of editors, again not comprising all readers). the novel, like social media, can be described as ‘radically permeable’ to social discourse.

so why study such a thing? it’s interesting because we know a lot about the ways in which traditional media influence the way we speak, act, and think, but we have very little idea about how social media do. part of this is because they are so new- few predate the 21st century. however, if we can identify structural differences between examples of social media and equivalent examples of traditional media (eg. wikipedia v. encyclopaedia, craiglist v. classified ads, reddit v. messenger boards, and most controversially fb and twitter v. realist comic novels), we might come up with, if not answers, some more pertinent questions.

because let’s be clear- social media is revolutionary, and its just as well, because we live in revolutionary times. there are big changes that need to happen in our relationships: foremost with the environment, and then with other human beings throughout the world. the last four years have shown us a social and economic system encountering its natural limits, resulting in persistent injustice. if our social discourse is read by traditional media, we are lost- repeating the same talking points, remaking the same stories, and being directed by fewer and fewer conglomerates. things will continue as they are until their inevitable collapse.

in the social media, however, there is new talk. when the structures erected by the publisher, the network, or the editor are removed, each person is free to engage on equal ground with others. there is bleedthrough from the social discourse: Barack Obama is going to be a celebrity on twitter whether his tweets are good or not. The signs and signals erected by traditional media are not evacuated from the social. They are, however, reinterpreted and repurposed.

I put together a couple of papers this fall (in French) concerning specific examples of funny things on Twitter, as well as outlining its basic format, functionality, and grammar. I reference the works of Saussure, Barthes, Bakhtine, Collot, and Genette, among others, as well as the tweets of Donald Trump, Hurricane Sandy, the rock on Mars what Curiosity blowed up, and many more besides. I establish a) that twitter is a linguistic, if not entirely literary, system, b) that twitter is radically permeable to the surrounding social discourse, and c) that some discursive properties of Twitter are user-generated, while others emerge from the interactions of content generated by different users.

from these conclusions, we can ask some interesting questions. what happens semantically when a profile representing a real person interacts with one representing a fictional/dead one, considering their respective places in the social discourse (when i pray to God on Twitter, does he reply?)? How can one discern the significance of a given tweet considering the multitude of ways its author could intend it (U fucking kidding me Pope?)? how do hypertext and hashtags influence the way a tweet is composed (Why do people use hashtags on Facebook?)? In short, what can social media tell us about social discourse that we could not know otherwise?

Hopefully, some answers, or at least some more pertinent questions, will follow.