Monday, June 14, 2010


"Nietzsche's style can be taken to represent a brutally frank admission that today hardly anyone can offer more than scattered profound insights or single beautiful sentences--and his writings abound in both."
--Walter Kaufmann, (from chapter 2 of Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.)

Over the past two years or so I have been an apologist for Twitter, especially since the TwittIran news bath of summer 2009 and resulting backlash among sophisticated intellectual-types.

It is a easy thing to bash Twitter, Google Buzz and all other forms of status updates, probably too easy. I think the main problem is that most of the people who try to explain the usefulness of Twitter tend to focus on the wrong parts. Certainly, the point is to explain what you're doing and how your life is going, but there's an element of curatorial selection, of separating the worthy and interesting from the quotidian. This is the essence of what historians do with primary sources.

 A good tweet will certainly give basic details of what's going on in your life, but writing interesting tweets requires finding the sublime within the minute, similar to the best work produced by the Mass Observation movement of the late 1930s. Twitter is also a good place to put together an aphorism, which is a hobby of mine anyway. (Adam Flynn: Part-time Aphorist). This is a form that rewards terse, tight phrasing, which is in short supply these days.

I suspect, however, that it's not necessarily the content that annoys literary savants--people have been keeping diaries for a long time. For example, you can follow @samuelpepys for the adventures of the seventeenth-century English diarist. The entries are pretty entertaining, and have led me to use the word "vex" more often in everyday conversation.

  Maybe it's just the medium they decry. It's too short, they say, it's disconnected; the broadcast nature of it promotes lazy and idiotic pseudo-sharing of boring lives by people who ought not to seek fame. Leaving aside the elitism bubbling beneath those sentiments, I can't help but think about how they mirror the myopic comments of "typographic man" as described by Marshall MacLuhan in Understanding Media. They judge every medium based on its ability to hold book-like elements, without considering the effect of the medium on either the message, or on human society and organization, nor the current media ecology of readers and writers. They hold up the mighty canons of old as examples of our fallen nature: Who today could write the multi-volume masterworks we associate with those gods of the codex, men such as Gibbon or Spinoza? Furthermore, who would publish it? Hell, who would read it? No one has time for 5-volume monsterworks, no matter how dazzling their joint force and full effect may be.

 This is where Nietzche comes in. He saw himself as the first of the new philosophers, and indeed many of his insights seem more plausible today than they did at the time. The problem, as Nietzsche saw it, was that he lived in an age of decadence, and must adapt to a style of decadence:
"What is the mark of every literary decadence? That life no longer resides in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, and the page comes to life at the expense of the whole--the whole is no longer a whole...every time there is an anarchy of atoms."  (from The Case Wagner, quoted in Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher Psychologist, Antichrist, Chapter 2: "Nietzsche's Method")
 So, says Kaufmann, if we cannot create with the "sustained grandeur" of those older eras, if today we are lucky to be praised on a few good chapters or insights and not the totality of our work, then the great modern artist is instead "'The greatest miniaturist...who crowds into the smallest space an infinity of meaning.' while apparently lacking the gift to fashion a large fresco." (Kaufmann quotes Nietzche describing Wagner, but characteristically applies it to Nietzsche as well.) Nietzsche wrote his works in a way that accepts this disability, that allows an "anarchy of atoms" while still adding up to a philosophy, albeit not a system.[1]

Nietzsche is famous for his aphorisms, but they can't be read any-which-way like the pensees of Pascal or Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch. To him, the sequence (with occasional back-and-forth cross-checking) was ultimately important, though he admitted that for casual readers the aphorisms could act as fish-hooks. It is just so with Twitter: people follow you for the ongoing progress of your life told with scattered profound insights and lonely beautiful sentences, but one of the best ways to get followers is to have your particularly good entries re-tweeted. It is also a basically honest form of writing, in his estimation, since there is less of the smoothening-over of imperfections that book authors perpetrate on their ideas.

Finally, there's the technological aspect, which should not be forgotten. Kittler beautifully describes Nietzsche's failed love affair with a typewriter. Though the machine proved unreliable and was cast aside after six weeks of experimentation, he is the first philosopher to type instead of composing longhand, and may be the first philosopher to use markup.{An important side thought--many great works, from Paradise Lost to Dialectics of Enlightenment, were dictated. How does that change composition?}The power of "instant" publication and contrast with longhand writing were not lost on him: he made the still-hip observation in a letter that "Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts." Clearly, Nietzsche would have loved Twitter.

So, with Twitter, we have instant publication of sequential aphorisms. That sounds like the perfect ingredients for a style of decadence to me. The key is to work within it as Nietzsche did, rather than struggle vainly towards some fading ideal of novelistic wholeness. So the next time you find yourself  before a blinking cursor, ask yourself, What Would Nietzsche Tweet?

 [1] Nietzsche grasped the basic gist of Godelian incompleteness years before it was formulated; he realized that any philosophical system must rest on assumptions that it cannot question or prove from inside the system. Accordingly, he remained skeptical of systems as potential prisons, and instead adopted a perspectivism vaguely reminiscent of American pragmatism or that of Robert Anton Wilson. For more info, see Chapter 2 of Kaufmann's book.


Brendan said...

These are interesting thoughts. As you know, I had to get Twitter due to my work; Since using it, I have become convinced of its utility in certain areas.

Also, you might be interested to know (or perhaps you already knew) that the Library of Congress is seeking to preserve the entire Twitter archive.

The thing that I find the most interesting is the amazing utility of Twitter to future historians --particularly to make more accessible the lives of "ordinary people during ordinary times" (in the words of historian H.W. Brands).

Flynn said...

I hadn't heard about the twitter archive, but it makes sense.

I guess I started getting interested in media as a history student. You read that Beowulf came down to us through a single unique codex, and you start wondering about things like the shelf life of a DVD, or what we'll leave behind (besides lots and lots of plastic bags).

There's a tremendous drop-off in primary sources that comes with the adoption of the telephone, though McLuhan notes that there was a great rise in memoranda, since the boss could call anyone up and demand that they "write me a memo on that."

In Ian Kershaw's book on Hitler, he talks about the dysfunctional organizational structure in Nazi Germany; apparently thanks to the telephone, Hitler could completely bypass the normal flow of instructions down the chain of command, and issue instructions that were impossible to complete, but also (since they came from der Fuhrer) impossible to disobey.