In this short essay I would like to propose some thoughts developed as a simple Aha Erlebnis during the practice of virtual writing in some of the most common online spaces such as Facebook, Skype, blogs and chats.
The prophecy of Marshall McLuhan – who argued that with the advent of new electric technologies the practice of wrtiting seems to have left space to the growing visual culture and to its closely related methods– seems complicated by the fact that today, in the online-era as a further step to the electronic age, we actually write more than ever. By all means, we could actually say that we have never written as much since the birth of the so called Gutenberg galaxy. Despite the clear preponderance of images on words, it seems that words have been able to offset this predominance.
The word to which McLuhan refers in his prophecy is still linked to the manuscript writing, that is an amanuensic practice related to the Ars Memoria and to scribal culture. In this sense – despite the awareness of how a new medium affects the previous ones, in some way re-shaping them– in his “Gutemberg Galaxy” (1962), McLuhan isn’t able to forsee the ability of writing to enter the folds of the electronic world (and later virtual) and to compete with quicker practices typical of the oral culture, of the tribal one and of the global village. So, how did online writing change compared to its analogic relative?
In the Electronic Age, like in the Net Era, instantaneity is more important than memory – now externalized – and the “result of instant interplay of cause and effect in the total structure” shifts the focus on the nearly simultaneous interaction of communication at the expense of the sequentiality of a certain written language/alphabetic expression. The latter is often grossly delayed in relation to the Virilian dromology from his work “Speed and Politics” (1977). In recent times, when I write by hand, I tend to overlap letters, as if the synchronous speed of thought anticipated the sequence of the alphabet and overpowered it. Similarly, even now, while I type these lines on the keyboard, I work on shreds of independent texts rather than align them in a sequential order.
The synchronicity of communication probably has to do with the experience of performative writing, and with the instant of sequence: if we think of linguistic exchanges typical of a bidirectional Skype chat, we often face two streams of consciousness that intersect each other in a synchronous way rather than a sequential transmission: my writing proceeds independently to that of my partner and I often have to go back to find the answers. On my side, I have to interact correctly in order to restore a fictitious sequence that nevertheless allows a non schizoid chat. If the writing practice of Skype was exactly translated to itself in the real world, we would have two voices that dominate constantly without listening or remembering the logical connections to move this discussion from point A to point B in a linear practice. Yet, even in conventional oral communication, I think it’s a generational fact that becoming aware of different communication issues overlapping continuously, is replicates the simultaneous use of a variety of contents typical of the network. The Facebook timeline in two columns, compared with its previous vertical structure also moves in this direction, and indeed helps the eye get accustomed to simultaneous reading, both vertically and horizontally, in a more intensive way.
In this direction, both in Skype and in Facebook chats, not only interaction but also the internal syntactic linguistic composition tries to adapt to the logic of synchronicity and real-time, far away from those of the scribal word, which we hear about through McLuhan, completely sequential, slow and by memory. It emerges, then, as a cut, diminutive word, which seeks to reduce the time required for the formulation and preparation of the instant – that of the spoken word, performative in real space between two parties physically and semantically close.
We could also say that the gap between oral and written forms in an online context has decreased on a syntactic base, but has increased in terms of its semantic aspect. In this sense, the virtual written word tries to become oral, gaining body and voice through the written style, the slang, and the interaction between linguistic and non linguistic text – with signs such as emoticons, or any user’s inventions that have converted the combination of more than one letter in micro images trying to fill in the missing semantics.
It is important to highlight the performative side of virtual writing in order to suggest the presence/ absence of semantic physicality as one of its distinctive aspects. Virtual writing recuperates the uniqueness of performativity embodied in the calligraphy of amanuensis writing. This is achieved in the form of a drive towards body and image, embodiment of the word despite the lack of materiality of practice and the resistance of the medium. This is demonstrated by the common linguistic practices emerging in the virtual exchange between lovers – or complete strangers – in Facebook posts or chats, until the peak of Second Life, in which avatars, voices and alphabetic writing rebuild an imaginary intercourse. In “Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore” (1979) Calvino has already remarked the sexual character of literature, an aspect which to me seems clearly emerging in online writing.This element is a confirmation of the performative nature of this practice, despite the coolnees (in McLuhan’s view) of the mediums exposed.
It must be understood, however, that in a process that can be almost considered chiasmatic—in which a human being becomes automatic and the machine becomes organic—the performativity of virtual writing is no longer strictly organic, but belongs to a new form of organic thingly, that transcends the animal-spiritual vitalism typical of the Western philosophical tradition (from Plato to Nietzsche) . It is more similar to “the thing that feels” as Mario Perniola defines it in his “Sex appeal of the inorganic”. A good example of this post-human organicist language would be genetic algorithms, in which both schematic mathematical property in writing and its opening to the world emerge: genetic algorithms are flexible, as in the practices of random mixing of elements, in their search for an appropriate formulation of its alphabetical heritage after the responses they receive from the environment.
Now consider for a moment the T9 function on cell phones, whose spelling of the text messages tend to the normalization of language, automatically preventing mistakes and discouraging the use of any words not listed in the dictionary included in your phone. This device actively flattens the performative character of writing. This performative aspect, however, is recognized by the new T9 systems of some of the smartphones currently on the market. For these systems, the digital practice of writing does not proceed by points – that is, using the finger to touch real keys on the keyboard thus composing text – but by lines – the finger slides on the virtual keyboard composing a network of lines that the software is able to simplify in points, choosing the letters that the finger is selecting. Even passwords are increasingly becoming routes of lines that only the owner knows and can replicate – a phenomenon that underscores the shift from an alphabetic practice to a visual one, also evident in the beautiful RSA feed in which lectures of professors on various topics are converted to linguistic and visual patterns (http://www.youtube.com/user/theRSAorg?feature=watch).
One must then recognize that even though writing is becoming more schematic, it is not incompatible with its performative side. Language tends towards mapping and, thus, to the image. In a sense, it tends to erode its sequential origin. On the other hand, “il faut briser le langage pour toucher la vie” (we must break language to touch life) said Antonin Artaud. Inevitably, the processes of linguistic transformation taking place in virtual platforms are an intermediate moment of a long-term process that will completely change human communication. Retroactively, this will also change our way of thinking, even outside of visual language.
Multitasking is one of the factors that neurophenomenology should investigate to understand how our way of composing thoughts is gradually becoming more a-sequential and is tending to ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), but not as the result of a disorder to be treated with massive quantities of Ritalin. Rather, this transformation should be viewed as an emerging new way of thinking and interacting. We are adaptive sensor to technology. The simultaneous use of multiple windows on your browser, the synchronous communication on more than one chat, the fragmentation of subjectivity in multiple and partial virtual identities (email account, Facebook account, blog account, Skype accounts, etc..) is also manifested in a syncopated and intermittent writing, close to Bergsonian-Deleuzian time crystals, as an expression of simultaneous vortices of present, past and future, such as those that occur sometimes in the skype chat that I have outlined above.
In relation to the images-crystal which Deleuze sees in the cinema of image-tempo of Orson Welles, Alain Resnais, and Jean-Luc Godard (to mention a couple) in his L’image-temps (1985), I would like to talk about crystal-words. In these crystal-words one can find co-existing temporalities and unsaid virtualities tend towards a meaning of words that becomes digital – performative. It is clear that such practice of writing pushed to its extreme approaches schizophrenic modes of expression or, using the definition of Felix Guattari of “Chaosmose” (1992), a schizophrenic-creative expression, closer to the unconscious. The literature of the twentieth century has experienced a lot, both in the performative and unconscious style of writing. Joyce and “Ulysses” (1922) with streams of consciousness, Bukoswski and “Post Office” (1971) with the organic word, Foster Wallace and “Infinite Jest” (1996) with the legal-informatic language, DeLillo and “The Body Artist” (2001) with its attention to microperception, the voltage of the language towards the a-linguistic.
The interaction between language, image, unconscious (collective, photographic, technological), in relation to new media and to the restructuring of subjectivity and temporality that these media exemplify can drastically reformulate our communication tools. The Iconji – a logographic communication system – is an intermediate step towards new forms of coalescence of image and language, though its rather rigid notational structure represents, in my opinion, a limit to the forms of empathic and communicative comprehension that sit outside of language and yet are derived from it; its pictographic matrix is nothing more than a restatement of the traditional hieroglyphic system. The only variation – important and significant – is its opening: the alphabet is a project in progress, and the virtual community adds language units to suit new needs and in accordance with criteria defined by its public.
Without seeking non-verbal communication speculations approaching the a-causal ESP (Extrasensory perception) close to Carl Gustav Jung’s “Synchronicity” (1952), for now, I’d like to imagine a kind of intermediate rebus form, where the alphabetic sequence is converted into the synchronicity of the visual – just like in puzzles. They will be the preliminary tools needed to develop new ways of communicating, new perceptual abilities that will define further communication mechanisms away from the discreteness of language and alphabet. However, they will be as accurate as these mechanisms.