Twitter is Ruining Language, Part 56831

Listen, Twitter does not need my defense. It is a juggernaut.

And, inversely, N+1 does not need my analytical razor slicing away its fatty cushioning. It is a fine magazine, full of intellectual sustenance for an aspirational cultural elite.

The kind of magazine that a post-academic might read, were she free of professional obligation to keep up with academic journals but anxious to keep up the shine on her burnished noggin.


But this is the “Intellectual Situation”: N+1 has something to say about Twitter. Twitter has nothing to say about N+1.


Step 1: Twitter is making us “blogorrheic”: compelled to squirt out high volume, low-density verbal masses that may leave our mouths or hands a little sore after a while.

The accidental progenitor of the blogorrheic style is David Foster Wallace. What distinguishes Wallace’s writing from the prose it begot is a fusion of the scrupulous and the garrulous; all of our colloquialisms, typically diffusing a mist of vagueness over the world, are pressed into the service of exactness. To a generation of writers, the DFW style was the sound of telling the truth, as — in an opposite way — the flat declaratives and simplified vocabulary of Hemingway were for a different generation. But an individual style, terse or wordy, can breed a generalized mannerism, and the path once cleared to saying things truly and well is now an obstacle course. In the case of the blogorrheic style, institutional and technological pressures coincided with Wallace’s example. Bloggers (which more and more is just to say writers) had little or no editing to deal with, and if they blogged for money they needed to produce, produce. The combination discouraged the stylistic virtues of concision, selectivity, and impersonality.

I resemble that remark!

The attribution of all this to DFW seems a little bit narrow. He indeed mastered a “fusion of the scrupulous and garrulous,” and his style does sound like the “truth” of contemporary culture, to his fans. And, in fact, his style has pervaded the culture of the written world such that I cannot see a compound adjective, let alone a conversational vernacular phrase hooked onto a highly technical and grammatically complex clause, without shouting in my head “get your own style, broseph!”

But this citation of him feels a little gratuitous. Like, how, exactly, does Wallace’s style help us understand the cultural effects of Twitter? Besides, you know, us missing the essay he’d maybe write about it if he were still around.

This passage made it sound like There was David Foster Wallace. And then there was Digital Journalism. And now we are Lost in an Overly Wordy Wasteland.

There is more to it, right?

Step 2: Twitter is also making us terse. At the same time.

Twitter compels us to tweet both our genius and our meaninglessness.

And here’s where the article smacks of the academic, what with its alluringly contradictory constructions and biggish words:

Twitter’s formal properties bend, simultaneously, in opposite directions: toward the essential but also the superfluous, the concise but also the verbose.

I like that image. Bending in opposite directions. A mobius strip of linguistic compulsion.

But when I finished the article, I didn’t really get anything out of it. The editors wrote some pleasing things about Twitter, but didn’t really make a point that mattered to me.

It’s not like I’m making a meaningful point about Twitter, either. Except that writing about it has, so far, not impressed me. Franzen’s tirade against it, everyone who hates Franzen’s defense of it.This N+1 non-argument.

This was nice: a guide to how to use it smartly, New Yorkerishly. But it’s no more than a guide.

I guess David Foster Wallace really is gone.

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