Monday, June 8, 2009

All Things and Events Are Raw Material

I think there is a lot of similarity between a philosopher and a comedian. We observe life and interpret it, discovering new perspectives on the everyday that had never existed before. Most of the time, when philosophers elaborate these perspectives, we do it in the name of intellectual progress, cultural critique, or moral indignation, to list a few motivations, all of which are quite serious. Comedians do the same, except their motivations are to make us laugh, although the best comedians have the motivations of a philosopher in mind as well.

This is what I enjoy most about Slavoj Zizek, a man who can find the most fascinating interpretations in the most mundane material, who happily blurs the lines between philosopher and comedian. When I say in the title of this post that all things and events are raw material, I mean it in the sense that comedians describe their material, the elements from which they build their jokes and funny narratives.

There is no element of our society today more trivial than twitter, perfectly summarized in this Penny Arcade comic from last April. However, an amazing profundity emerged from the twitter-verse a few weeks ago, as my friend Sheena explained on her blog. CBC's Jonathan Goldstein discovered that he had an impostor on twitter, and neither could convince their followers that they were the real Jonathan Goldstein. But, if I may allow my philosophical comedian to enter the discussion, I don't think such a thing matters anymore. (Imagine that I'm speaking the following paragraphs with a thick Slovenian accent.)

One of the fascinating thing about the internet is that it allows you to be present simultaneously for millions of people, but that presence is in a highly reduced form. This has been true of every long-distance media, that your presence for the people to whom you communicate is reduced to a highly abstract form. When I meet someone face to face, I am a full, nuanced, physical, fleshly human, intricate in detail. And many of those details are beyond my control. If it is hot out, I will be sweaty; if it is raining, I will be wet; and so on. But when I communicate through long-distance media, even the ancient smoke signal, the person to whom I speak only perceives me as smoke. To her, I am smoke. Likewise in writing a letter, to my recipient, I am text on a page. I do not mean this as a metaphor. When I send you an e-mail, I am quite literally text on your screen.

Twitter is possibly the most abstracting of all internet-based communication, and probably the only one that will survive the upcoming bandwidth crush, when there will simply no longer be enough room in our cables and satellites to send the large video and audio files that make up so much internet traffic. On twitter, I am a small profile picture that serves as an iconic part of my name, and 140 characters of text. I can be only what I can manifest in these 140 characters, so if someone were to pretend to be me (or Jonathan Goldstein), it would be a simple matter of replicating the style of 140 characters. Because I am the style of my writing those 140 characters, a skilled mimic could not only pretend to be me, but for my own twitter followers, become me.

In reductive communication, it does not matter who is doing the typing when you are only perceived as that which is typed. There could be a thousand Jonathan Goldstein, all replicating themselves 140 characters at a time. And they would equally be Jonathan Goldstein if they were perceived as Jonathan Goldstein. All the physical bodies sitting at computers typing themselves as Jonathan Goldstein could be entirely different, but if the style was right and they were successfully perceived as Jonathan Goldstein, then as far as twitter-presence was concerned, they would be Jonathan Goldstein.

Being perceived as a set of words makes you into a set of words, just as being perceived as a fleshly human in a face to face encounter is what makes you into a fleshly human. The power of perception to constitute how you exist is immense, and it is not a process of which you are in complete control. Certainly, there is some control. I type what I type on this blog and my twitter. But I cannot control how that typing is interpreted, how it is read. If we were all so aware of the degree to which we depend on others for what we are, perhaps we would not be so quick to consider our interpretation as precisely what was intended. Perhaps we would use that power more carefully, and listen attentively rather than scan, and take what is barely noticed to be the truth of things.

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