Charity and Literacy

“Charity I have had sometimes…” (Ezra Pound)

I’ve been thinking about Twitter lately. When Carlo Scannella suggested, back in 2008, that Twitter might be an “oral” (sub-)culture, not a strictly “literate” one, the project was still in its infancy. Like him, I think a strong case can be made that the way people ordinarily use the platform does not exhibit their literacy. That sounds almost like I’m trying to be funny, but there’s a serious meaning behind it. In this post, I want to say a little more about that but keep in mind that Scannella has made a similar argument for blogging. I’ll look at that another time, as a way of picking up a project I started on my now-retired blog but never developed fully.

Let’s begin with the strongest argument for considering Twitter a site of literacy practices. There are explicitly literary projects on the platform, like those of Teju Cole and Eric Jarosinski. These are clearly meant to be read, however ironically, as writing within a symbolic order that connects it to the full corpus of our literature. In other words, Twitter certainly can be a site of literacy practices–it can even be used to produce literature. Of course, you don’t have to produce literature in order to demonstrate literacy, so the question remains. Is Twitter willy-nilly a site of literacy–simply, for example, because it requires people to use written signs?

Well, first of all, it doesn’t actually require that, does it? Twitter now lets people share images, still and moving, as well as recorded sounds, as easily as strings of words. It is possible to retweet someone else’s picture, with a comment that (literally!) is nothing more than a thumbs up. Being able to use Twitter, then, requires a very limited mastery of written signs. But that’s too easy an argument, I’ll grant. The interesting question (especially back in 2008) is whether Twitter is a literate culture even when it uses written signs, letters, words, sentences.

My first hint that it is not comes from my own experience. I have found distressingly many typos in my tweets. Apparently, I don’t proofread them properly; I just fire them off — just as I sometimes deploy imperfect sentences in conversation or extemporaneous lecturing. I treat my sentences on Twitter as utterances that I don’t know how will turn out when I begin. I don’t seem to feel nearly as compelled to edit them as I do when I’m actually writing. I’m also not especially bothered by other people’s typos. While they might make me stop reading a book they had published, spelling mistakes and missing words don’t make me abandon someone’s Twitter feed. It seems perfectly understandable and, where errors make the tweet difficult to understand, I proceed as I would in conversation, asking my interlocutor to clarify what they must have meant. I don’t “correct” them. I think that’s a telling sign.

The same can be said about serious disagreements over facts and ideas. I approach any particular utterance as a tiny piece of a larger puzzle that doesn’t have to make sense on its own but will only be given a meaning as the conversation proceeds. Twitter is, ideally, located on what Rosmarie Waldrop called “the lawn of excluded middle”, “where full maturity of meaning takes time the way you eat a fish, morsel by morsel, off the bone.” Or, as Pound would perhaps have suggested, we must read each other’s tweets with charity, for maximum truth and meaning. Perhaps “it coheres all right / even if my notes do not cohere.”

But now we come to crux of the issue. Are we engaging correctly with what Twitter is when we seize on an individual tweet and denounce it as an expression of someone’s racism, sexism or other vile disposition? Should we not approach an out-of-context tweet initially as a mere fragment of a conversation we’ve overheard? “Did s/he really say that?” does not have to be a rhetorical question. Perhaps there’s a typo or a missing word that accounts for the apparent error in thought, i.e., “incorrectness” of opinion. Perhaps it “coheres all right” in the larger of whole of a detailed argument.

One of the characteristics of a literate culture is that it has a “record”, a body of “documents”. But not every utterance of a literate culture is, in fact, a document, even when, technically speaking, “written down”. Not every receipt or shopping list or scribbled note to oneself is a record of what a culture thinks and feels. We are pretty good at distinguishing passing remarks from serious propositions in speech. (We get a bit confused, however, when someone makes a recording of them.) Perhaps we need to practice greater charity in our approach to tweets. They do not document what any of us believes. They are merely part of the stream of language within which we have to find our composure. It is when we find it that we can produce a proper “text”, i.e., practice our literacy. Only then are we actually writing.

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