Thursday, June 21, 2012

Twit twit twit

In Electric Animal, Akira Mizuta Lippit identifies the animal cry as the limit point beyond speech:
The animal cry signals the moment of contact between those two ontic worlds: the cry is, as Derrida explains, a signal burdened with the antidiscursive force of animality and madness. Burke's 1757 reflection on the sublime includes a section on "The Cries of Animals." For Burke, the experience of the sublime aroused by the animal's cry imposes a moment wholly outside time—an extemporaneous moment—in which the dynamics of reason are temporarily halted. (43)

Paul Klee, Twittering Machine, 1922
Yet a long philosophical tradition (including Kant) also locates in the animal cry the source of human speech, insofar as speech is imagined as originating in the mimicry of animal sounds (Lippit 41).

So there is something coy about the way that Twitter names itself after animal sounds,
as if to suggest that there is something fundamentally antilinguistic about social media text. "Don't mind us," it seems to say; "we're just twittering, like animals. No language to see here."

I think that in some cases this makes people feel as though they have to live up to a kind of antilinguistic standard on Twitter, to introduce noise gratuitously as if in homage to the medium—as if to make it really tweeting. That's the only explanation I can think of for tweets like this one from Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa; @ChuckGrassley), whom I imagine writes like this only on Twitter:

In contrast with common abbreviations and slang, which are underwritten by identifiable (if diverse) logics, here the abbreviations and nonstandardisms seem random, even perverse. For example, "evr." does not save any characters; a period would seem better spent at the end of the first, unstopped sentence. As for the wasted space before the question mark or the capitalized "Learn"—what can these be but antilinguistic performances? (I was interested to learn, incidentally, that Sen. Grassley shares my hatred of the "History" Channel.)

T. S. Eliot, from The Waste Land, 1922
The fact that the animal in question with Twitter is the bird adds another dimension to consider. Bird-talk is gendered feminine, from the speechless Philomel ("twit twit twit"—she is turned into a bird to enforce her speechlessness, when cutting out her tongue is not enough) to the cheeping and twittering of the town women in The Music Man:

It's no wonder Twitter is seen as a site of gossip and rumor, intellectual triviality and linguistic disaster. It intentionally casts itself as mere animal noises, or, what evidently amounts to the same thing, female speech. And as I've suggested elsewhere, the radical multiplicity of voices on Twitter likewise suggests a flock indiscriminately cheeping.

This is undoubtedly the source of the fears that are occasionally raised that social media are making us lose our grip on language, as if that were a thing that could be so easily lost. (Try writing like Gertrude Stein. It's not easy.) To lose language might just be to lose our humanity, and then where would we be?

Well, the posthuman turn is so five years ago that it's difficult to get exercised about such a question. The interesting implications do not lie in fears of loss, for we are all already cyborgs or animals.

But good old Twitter—it makes us both at once.


Lippit, Akira Mizuta. Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. Print.

When the birds attack Bodega Bay in Hitchcock's film (1963), a terrified mother lashes out at the film's avatar of liberated (and threateningly undomesticated) femininity, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren): "I think you're the cause of all this. I think you're evil!" One reading of The Birds would take the birds as a furious feminine multiplicity, attacking domesticity and the family as if in revenge.


patrick said...

Any thoughts on Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls? (Especially vis-a-vis it using the dream-vision genre?) :)

Natalia said...

Oh man. Dim grad school memories.

Roger Whitson said...

I, for one, welcome our not-so-new flock of bird-cyborg overlords.