Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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November 13, 2007
the sociolinguistics of the blogosphere

K. Burke on the "unending conversation":

You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.

Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance.

However, the discussion is interminable.
from his Philosophy of Literary Form

But how to position or present oneself as participant in or listener to the conversation? What to say/not say? How to say/not say it? Whom to address? When? What tone to take? How involved in the conversation should we get? Why?

If we do choose to "put in [our] oar" and participate, rather than merely listen & observe forever, what form should our contribution take? The form of commentary on what others have just said? Or original contribution of something somehow unique and "new"? The form of occasional, ironic quips, thrown in from the sidelines? Of paragraphs-long soapboxing? Or pointing to those with whom we agree, or whose comments are being overlooked by the group, and saying, "What she said"?


Maybe Schopenhauer can help us figure it out, through the warning in his "parable of the porcupines":
The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told -- in the English phrase -- to keep their distance. . . .

A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.
from Schopenhauer's Parerga and Paralipomena

Schop's proposed strategy is only one of many interactive possibilities. Though he and some others might disagree -- that any other genuine, workable choices exist.

However, even if we find what seems to be his advice [in essence, "develop the ability to stay the heck away from everybody"] attractive, his parable doesn't offer too much guidance on the specifics of how to get sufficient "heat" or distance.

There's distance and then there's distance. How "outside" of societay can a porcupine get? What variety of self-imposed differentiation from others does he advise, exactly? Intellectual? Spiritual? Moral? Political? Geographic? Economic? Dietary? Anatomical? Biochemical? Interplanetary? Every possible, imaginable kind, all at once?

But what if you can't have them all at once, because certain kinds of outside-ness undercut others kinds, and turn out to be mutually incompatible? How to choose?

Besides, to what extreme lengths of self-imposed separatism from contact with the species are you required to exile yourself, to prove that you are your own porcupine? How many other Goods is one expected to forego, for the sake of the freedom that comes with solitude?

And who decides the definition of "distance"? What if the distancing mechanisms that you decide to put in place are unrecognizable to others as distant enough or distant at all? Some porcupines, for example, might find very invasive, presumptuous or heavy-handed indeed the degree or form of contact (whatever that is -- definitions of it may differ) that other porcupines consider quite impersonal, removed and disinterested. Again, how to choose?

Does one, then, defer to everyone else's definition, so at least the parties will consent about how they will leave each other alone? Or does that amount to capitulation to the evil, conformist mindset of massified, porcupine society all over again?

One might quite rightly object that I am taking a very clear, simple parable and unnecessarily complicating it.

For example, how dare I call Schop's strategy "interactive"? Is it not a strategy for non-interaction?

Is that not simply obvious? Why do I gotta be all the time inserting supposed uncertainty where obviously none exists?

Well, Schopenhauer's little parable seems not to tell us how to negotiate an apparent (to me, anyway) potential contradiction: The momentum of an excessive preocupation with maintanance of a permanent, protective DMZ "outside" of a system or away from a group might seem to condemn us to a need forever to yoke ourselves closely to the very same group.

In specific, the wary porcupine might ask: How can she stay the heck away from other porcupines without being forced to stay forever aware of what the others are up to, where they hang out, and the direction they're headed next -- so as to better avoid them?

Can one maintain sufficient distance from the pack without having the strategy backfire due to a constant need to monitor the location of the pack's perimeter, which would be quite a tiresome drag, especially if one sometimes feels like one doesn't even want to look at or think about the others, because one hates their stinking Erethizon dorsatum guts??


One imagines that Schopenhauer would advise us that we can excavate the answers to these knotty questions (or pseudo-questions) & others -- if we read more Schopenhauer.

[The "answer" is probably "There is no answer. Deal with it."]

Regardless of [which, of course, means, "because of"] his parable's limitations & mysteriousness (which come with the territory of the parable format), it remains delightful. Credit for bringing it into one investigation into discourse analysis should go to Deborah Tannen.

A wonderful summary outline of her book Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk among Friends is here. The outline alone of the book serves as a great compendium of names of some of the big thinkers and researchers who in the past have tried to map the labyrinth of communication and conversation.

I wonder how different Tannen's book would be, if written from scratch today, to address the unending conversation of the digital world.

As Burke, Schopenhauer, Tannen and all those whom she cites suggest, the task of conversational and discourse analysis was or is dizzying enough in the pre-/non-digital realm.

Now, though, the analysis of "digital" conversational style becomes much more recursive, overlapped, cross-cutting and confusing, because

[and what follows, I concede, is probably an entirely unoriginal thought that's been beaten to death every which way by countless minds far more brilliant than mine

although the mere fact that I feel some need to insert the above disclaimer shows that the thought never goes out of style, however unoriginal]

            the websites, forums and devices that are used to "converse" seem themselves veritably to be participants in the conversation, given how the tools











and influence
what is said
to whom




at what tempo

the codes that are considered appropriate to use

rules for switching between or mixing of codes & registers

the options offered for presentation of the self

and how it is all perceived


and by accident.