At the University of Texas, the official slogan is “What Starts Here Changes the World,” but the one I like better is “The eyes of Texas are upon you.” When I walk out my office, if I turn to my left, I can see “The Tower” where the administrators of this university survey the campus; if I turn to my right, I can see the Texas state capitol building.
These towers overshadow the campus, which has a great reputation and good pillars and statues as well.
Here are some pillars at UT:
In the lovely green space between them–at UT, a university with a great reputation for academic excellence–if you walk from the capitol to the tower, you’ll see statues of people who fought a war to keep black people as slaves in America, on either side of you. You will see generals to your left and confederate statesmen to your left. You’ll pass a pretty fountain, and you might see the following inscription on a nice piece of white marble:
“To the men and women of the Confederacy who fought with valor and suffered with fortitude that states rights be maintained.”
I took a picture of it once, which I can’t find now. But I was pretty startled to see it.
I shouldn’t have been. They’re all over the campus. Here is Jefferson Davis, for instance, who committed treason like crazy:
For this year, as during recent ones, there are calls for the university to rid itself of these embarrassing nods to the Old South. This spring the controversy even spilled over to that citadel of reason, the Texas House of Representatives. CNN devoted some airtime to it, and for a few moments it became a national story. But it is here, on the campus of UT, where the issue will be resolved—or not.
The lightning rod of the statues, the rock star of opprobrium, is Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Before assuming that office, Davis was a colonel in the U.S. Army and the Secretary of War of the United States. One of the most colorful things Davis did, which is not mentioned on the statue, was to introduce camels into West Texas, on the theory that one desert is as good as another in the utilization of eco-correct animals. (The experiment failed; Texans in those days would not walk a mile for a camel.)
Another controversial statue is that of Robert E. Lee, who, following the Civil War, became the president of George Washington College. Before the war, Lee, along with Davis and Johnston, fought in the Mexican War, and he also served as the superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point. But Lee was the soul of the Confederacy, even though he freed his own slaves five years after inheriting them and even though he expressed opposition to slavery, in a letter to his wife, five years before the Civil War. No matter: According to the critics, Lee, Davis, Johnston, and John H. Reagan must go.
John H. who? I certainly didn’t know until I read his inscription. Reagan was the postmaster general of the Confederate States, and after the war he publicly called for Texans to renounce both slavery and secession. He was also the first chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas. If that doesn’t set your blood to boiling, I don’t know what does.
Sometimes the statue gets annotated:
But they always clean it up.
At UCT, this latest round of defacement was sparked by Chumani Maxwele’s “poo protest”:
Oddly, this bullet hole is still here, from the time a UT student killed his wife and mother and then 16 people, shooting from the tower:
Last night, the University of Cape Town took down this statue of Cecil Rhodes:
The CEO of a think-tank on race relations (no, really), Frans Cronje, suggested that
UCT’s reputation will take a step downwards after events of tonight. Can it recover or is it doomed to become Cape Town’s ‘bush college’?
In South Africa, the iconoclasm seems to be spreading. A statue of Louis Botha in front of the Parliament building:
If you didn’t see it on twitter on facebook a few days ago, you may have seen it somewhere like Buzzfeed: Chinua Achebe has died again. First in 2013, and then again in 2015. First as tragedy and then as farce.
These sorts of things happen, a bit like forest fires. You can track down the place where it started if you want—as the novelist Porochista Khakpour did here—but to understand and predict a forest fire, you need to pay attention to why there was so much dry flammable material waiting for a spark. That spark is eventually going to come, but the fire only goes “viral” if there’s something there to burn.
With Achebe, there was something there to burn. While Facebook and Twitter are excellent vectors for this kind of misinformation, Chinua Achebe is the sort of writer who would die twice. For one thing, he’s a hyper-canonized writer whose sainthood outstrips his actual literary currency: because he is more deeply revered than he is deeply read,one can fall easily into the orthodox reaction to news of his passing—gestures like #RIP—without the encumbrance of a personal relationship to the author himself getting in the way. To a great many people (particularly non-Nigerians), the idea of Chinua Achebe means a lot more than does the actual writer himself. Their experience of him is socially mediated, and socially mandated: his books are praised, assigned, and mythologized. Sometimes they are also read, but not as often as you’d expect.
There are two things I might seem to be saying, here, that I’m not actually saying. First, I am not saying that Achebe is overrated. No African writer is more widely known and revered, but if any writer deserves it, he does: it is hard to overstate how foundational and generative his work was, and has been, for generations of writers. It’s also just really good, to put it simply: teaching his novels for many years has taught me that they are genuinely great novels, deceptively simple. It is also worth saying that, as the general editor of Heinemann’s African Writers Series, he built an archive that filled the space where “African Literature” had never existed before. The literary foundation he produced, for better or for worse, is something that African writers in English find themselves standing on. Precisely because he did so much to define “The African Writer” as a thing (and “The African Novel”), his actual novels and the actual writer tend to disappear under the myth; when he had actually died, a lot of non-Africans who made a show of mourning him hadn’t actually read him: they knew the legend better than the writer.
However, I am also not condemning people for being bad readers, here; this is not a jeremiad that ignorant Americans don’t read African literature or know who Achebe is. This might be true, but it’s not the relevant point. If Achebe was more widely read than revered, his death wouldn’t have occurred twice, but his books do carry such a heavy burden of expectation and praise that it really is hard to read him outside the space of his canonization. Moreover, when people gestured in reverence towards the figure of the great African writer by tweeting his obituary and typing #RIP, they didn’t do it because they hadn’t read him, or because they didn’t know who he was. Such gestures emerge from the little that people do know, not what they don’t. Even if people don’t have much familiarity with his work, or only vaguely remember reading his book in college, or have a vague sense that they should have read him, or have heard he’s very important, it is in all cases precisely because people have a positive relationship to the idea of Chinua Achebe that news of his death would strike them as requiring a reaction. It’s too bad that people don’t know his work better, and it’s too bad that they didn’t remember him dying two years ago. But #RIP is the correct reaction to his death. And it doesn’t matter very much whether or not it’s genuine. Formulaic gestures of mourning obviate the necessity of having a direct relationship with the deceased; it’s a gesture of respect, a bit like an agnostic or Protestant bowing their head in Mass; you don’t have to believe, yourself, to respect those who do. Posting a link and a #RIP is a gesture, and a gesture of respect to a writer who deserves it is something I can only respect, in turn.
I’d like to suggest that the reason Chinua Achebe died a second time is that he hadn’t died in 2013. It is certainly true that the human being who carried that name—who was first christened Albert and who renamed himself, as so many African writers do—passed away in 2013, not 2015. But that person was also not, in one very particular sense, the same person as the person who wrote Things Fall Apart. Christopher Okigbo was not the only literary casualty of the Biafran war. The writer who had produced four remarkable novels in eight short years—what Wole Soyinka once called the burst of “unrelieved competence” that was Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966)—essentially ceased to exist after the Biafran war, which began in 1967 and came to a horrible end by 1971.
It was always hard to talk about the fact that Achebe stopped writing after Biafra, but in a way, he did. He had been working on a fifth novel in 1967, but he put it aside and instead became an important part of the Biafran Ministry of Information: he lobbied foreign presidents for diplomatic support, gave interviews to foreign magazines, cultivated the support of writers and artists in the West, and served on the committee that wrote the Ahiara Declaration, a document which describes “The Principles of the Biafran Revolution.” He wrote poetry. After the war, he left Nigeria, which he no longer recognized as home. We don’t tend to think of Achebe as a writer in exile, but he left Nigeria as a Biafran, and in a way, he never really returned. He would spend most of the rest of his life in the United States; after four novels in eight years, he would write one more in the subsequent forty-two.
Achebe’s literary career can be divided into before and after Biafra. The writer who is most broadly remembered is the Nigerian author who stopped writing after Biafra. Chinua Achebe the person kept busy, of course, and anyway, there are few writers in the world who have such laurels to rest upon; his four novels from the 1960s were enough, more than enough, to put him in whatever literary pantheon you want to imagine. But the writer who is canonized is that writer, and the author of Things Fall Apart didn’t really come back from Biafra. This is something I didn’t understand until he published his memoir in 2012, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. It could also have been called a Biafran History of Chinua Achebe, because it shows ad tells what happened to the writer who wrote four books in eight years, how he came to be a Biafran writer in exile.
Before the war, he had been an Igbo and a Nigerian, and this identities were in literary harmony. His novels about Nigeria are also novels about Igbo people, exclusively, but there is little or no dissonance at the time he wrote them, or at the times he wrote about. Igbo and Nigerian were not mutually exclusive. During the war, however, they became incompatible, and in his own mind at least, that stayed the case long after the war.
As he would bitterly write in There Was a Country:
“It was now clear to many of us that we, the Nigerian people, were not what we had thought we were. The Nigeria that meant so much to all of us was not reciprocating the affection we had for it. The country had not embraced us, the Igbo people and other Easterners, as full-fledged members of the Nigerian family.”
It isn’t just Biafra that he mourned; there had also been a country called “Nigeria” that he had belonged to, but which he would never quite return to: it had become clear to him that it had ever existed, and the way the passage above transforms “we, the Nigerian people” in the first sentence to the “us, the Igbo people and other Easterners” gives you There Was a Country in a nutshell. But it also shows why Biafra was such an abrupt halt to the first phase of Achebe’s career. Those four novels in eight years were built out of the boundless futurity that it was possible to imagine in and for Africa in the era of decolonization and independence, and for the Igbo people in Nigeria. For Achebe, Biafra was metonymic for something that was happening across the continent, as the optimistic phase of decolonization gave way to whatever you want to call what followed. And even though much of Achebe’s early work functions as warnings about what could happen, it is the fact that so much of it did happen that made him stumble: what happens to Cassandra when her warnings come true? What does she talk about then?
In a way, the literary project that he began with Things Fall Apart in 1958, had come to completion. He had told a story about the colonial past in his early novels and A Man of the People had predicted the future: the novel ends with military coup and its publication just barely preceded an actual military coup, in Nigeria. It was his last 1960’s novel, and it ended with the thing that also brought the optimistic era of the 1960’s to an end in Nigeria, and elsewhere on the continent.
After Biafra, Achebe left Nigeria, a man without a country, and he struggled to find a new way of writing. He wrote poetry and essays and children’s books and he taught African literature, instead of writing. In 1975, he returned to Nigeria, and spent the next decade editing Okike, “An African Journal of New Writing.” He re-engaged with Nigeria’s politics, and in 1986, he finally produced his long-awaited new novel, Anthills of the Savannah, his best or worst novel, depending on who you ask. But his political hopes for Nigeria would be dashed. The military dictatorship would ban the PRP, the party for which he served as deputy vice-president in 1984, but even by then Achebe had already thrown up his hands in disgust. Nigeria continued not to reciprocate his affection.
In 1990, after a serious car accident left him confined to a wheel-chair, Achebe was flown to Great Britain to recover. He once said that if he had not been taken to England, he would have died in a Nigerian hospital. You don’t have to read too much into his words to hear him describing the way he left Nigeria so as to keep from being killed by what Nigeria had become. He would spend the rest of his life in the United States, where he would teach at Bard College, and then Brown; he would read poetry, remember, and in 2013, he passed away.
If Chinua Achebe survived Biafra, but the author of Things Fall Apart (and the other three tragedies he wrote in the 1960’s) did not. This is not a fact to mourn; it just is. Achebe was a different person into his forties, and part of the reason is the tragedy of Biafra. But part of it is just the passage of time. After all, who isn’t a different person in middle age? Amidst the tragedy of death is the banality of life, and if there’s one thing the author of No Longer at Ease understood, it’s that time keeps moving on. In the sequel to Things Fall Apart, anovel that ends with Okonkwo’s suicide, Okonkwo’s grandson talks about how “Real tragedy is never resolved. It goes on hopelessly forever.” Arguing that “suicide ruins a tragedy,” Okonkwo’s grandson would argue that:
“It’s much too simple. Tragedy isn’t like that at all. I remember an old man in my village, a Christian convert, who suffered one calamity after another. He said life was like a bowl of wormwood which one sips a little at a time world without end. He understood the nature of tragedy.”
There are two things I want to say, then, about Achebe’s second death. One is that, as his own work reminds us, the real tragedy is not that life ends with death, but that it doesn’t. Funerals and obituaries are survivors’ stories, the ways we narrate the absence of loved ones so that we can keep going. But if we wish that the deceased should “rest in peace,” what we really mean is that their death unsettles us, disturbs us, and grieves us. We wish that they would rest in peace because our hearts are anything but peaceful. Achebe died in 2013, but his absent presence continues, in those who remember him. One does not stop saying #RIP, ever, while memory survives.
At the same time, though, if the body lives a set period of time, a writer’s body of workhas a different kind of life. After it is contemporary, it becomes historical. Achebe’s great works stopped being contemporary a long time ago, and they survive because they are historical. History is another way of describing the fact that the past is never really passed; the past changes as we change, and so does art: because Achebe’s body of work became historical a long time ago, that’s precisely why it survives the death of his body, why it can feel like he didn’t die the first time. Either the author of Things Fall Apart died in 1971, or he’s still alive now and any occasion to remember the vitality of what he did—even in so modest a way as tweeting #RIP—is a good thing. If you didn’t realize that Achebe was already dead, you were right, even if you didn’t know it.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently did a two-part interview with Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu, in which she re-visited the “boy-gate” clusterstupidity for which I was, inadvertently, the proximate cause. In the second part of the interview, she suggested that I was partly to blame for what happened, because of the way I edited the interview. As she said:
“I think the journalist [ZZ: That's me!] could have done more. The interview was long and so he edited it. The reason I said the Caine Prize was over-privileged was because he had talked for quite a bit about how he and his academic friends followed it and read each story and discussed it and what not, and my response was to challenge that kind of over-privileging of the prize. Which is a position I completely stand by. Because he edited out the part where he talks about all the attention he and his cohorts were giving the Caine prize, it read as though I had just said the Caine Prize was over-privileged, without the proper context. I don’t think there was any malice in his editing. But I do think he could have responded when it became such an obsession for people. He could have released the whole interview. He could have clarified that I had not meant ‘boy’ in a demeaning way, because he could certainly tell from the tone and context. Also the bit in the interview where I said that I look in my email inbox for new African writing, which I’m told a number of people were quite exercised by, would have been clearer in context. Because I had told the interviewer that he and his group were over-privileging the Caine Prize, he then asked – “well where do you go to find new African writing?” His subtext seemed to be a kind of smug “if you don’t look at the exalted Caine Prize, which you really should, then where do you look?”
I’ll leave it to you to judge; I’ve put both versions of the interview below, so you can compare, if you’re interested. (I should add that I sent her agent the edited version for her approval before we published it. Adichie calls me a “journalist,” but I don’t follow normal journalistic practice when it comes to interviews; I treat interviews like collaborations, and I always want the writer to “own” the final product. She had the opportunity to approve my edits, and since I never heard back from her, I had assumed that she did).
A couple words, though. I don’t think the furor was ever really about what Adichie actually said, which was pretty innocuous. She only looked bad if you were looking for an excuse to tear her down, which it seemed to me that a lot of bruised male egos were looking to do. I wrote a blog post about that, and I stand by my sense that as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has become the most famous and widely read Nigerian writer:
“she becomes a problem—to be blunt—for male writers who prefer that big deal writers be male. Folks who have no problems with Wole Soyinka—for whom the word “abrasive” would be a very diplomatic way to put it—are suddenly appalled at her lack of propriety, her unseemly disregard for the egos of other writers, her astonishing lack of civility to writers who lack her solid personal achievements.”
This is all about gender, obviously, and when it comes to literary criticism (especially in the popular press), the gendered double standard is a real problem. Which is why the words on the page were never the issue. For people looking to tear her down, what she actually said was irrelevant, and no amount of clarification from me would have prevented the haters from doing what they do. They could not have cared less what she meant because it was never about what she said, it was about what she represented to them.
At the time, I did try to clarify my sense of what she had meant to say. Kola Tubosun was kind enough to ask me what I though, so I told him. But again: the people who were attacking her were twisting her statement into something they could get upset with, and—I think—were pretty indifferent to what her original words and intent had been.
Perspective is important. I was slightly irritated this morning to learn that I was being partially blamed for what happened; it is slightly irritatingto my delicate male ego to have it suggested that anything I do is other than wholly perfect. But after a bit of reflection, I don’t have much cause to complain. After all, if I’m annoyed that she has slightly misrepresented me, it seems like a very small thing next to how massively and viciously she was misrepresented. Given how shitty the thing that happened to her was, and given that I was the (inadvertent) proximate cause for it, I really can’t complain too much about getting a little shit splattered back on me.
Anyway, since she wanted the unedited interview released, here are both, so you can compare them.
AB:I would love to ask you about the Caine Prize. I find it interesting that so many Nigerians are on the short list this year—that it’s four Nigerians out of five . . .
CA: Umm, why is that a problem? Watch it.
AB: Well, none of them are you!
CA: Elnathan was one of my boys in my workshop. But what’s all this over-privileging of the Caine Prize, anyway? I don’t want to talk about the Caine Prize, really. I suppose it’s a good thing, but for me it’s not the arbiter of the best fiction in Africa. It’s never been. I know that Chinelo is on the short list, too. But I haven’t even read the stories—I’m just not very interested. I don’t go the Caine Prize to look for the best in African fiction.
AB:Where do you go?
CA: I go to my mailbox, where my workshop people send me their stories. I could give you a list of ten—mostly in Nigeria—writers who I think are very good. They’re not on the Caine Prize short list.
Here’s the transcript that the Boston Review transcriber sent me (so nice to have someone else transcribe it for you), which I edited to produce the version above:
BR: I would love to ask you about the Caine Prize, and I have to tell you that part of why I ask is I do this thing every year where I and a bunch of other bloggers read all the stories that are short-listed for the Caine Prize—this is the third year we’ve done it—and blog about it. I’m an academic, and it’s just a kind of fun thing to have a conversation with whoever wants to take part. And it’s an interesting experience, but it’s also one that’s made me kind of tired of the Caine Prize story, because they’re all interesting, but I find it so interesting that all the Nigerians are on the short list this year—it’s four Nigerians.
CA: Umm, why is that a problem? Watch it.
BR: No, no, no. None of them are you. I love Igoni Barret, and he’s not—it’s not that he—
CA: Did he enter?
BR: I don’t know.
CA: Well ___, Nathan was one of my boys in my workshop [44:20]. So?
BR: But I’m curious—
CA: What’s the overprivilaging of the Caine Prize, anyway? I don’t want to talk about the Caine Prize, really. I also feel that—I suppose it’s a good thing—it brings attention and all of that, but for me it’s not the arbiter of the best fiction in Africa. It’s never been, and—yeah, I’m just not—I know that ___, and I know that ___, [44: 48] I saw her recently, is on the short list. But I haven’t even read the stories— I’m just not very interested. I don’t go the Caine Prize to look for the best in African fiction.
BR: Where do you go?
CA: I go to my mailbox, where a lot of my workshop people send me their stories. No, really. I could give you a list of ten— mostly in Nigeria— writers who I think are very good. They’re not on the Caine Prize short list.
Journalism is not objective, because nothing is objective. We know that. Objectivity is a myth, an impossible standard: you are not objective, and I am not objective. No one is objective, because objectivity does not exist. The closest we could ever come to “objectivity” is careful adherence to a social norm: instead of thinking weird, dissident thoughts (which would be just your individual opinion), you can spew the conventional wisdom, the truth we know to be true because we all know it to be true. That latter will seem objective. It will seem unbiased. It will seem reliable.
On some level, I think, we know this, all of us, and we don’t really expect objectivity from the news media. We’ve learned not to expect that. Yet we complain about how a reporter constructs their account (or how they don’t) because of the careful, painstaking pose of objectivity which they adopt and create, the careful distinctions between the knowable and the unknowable. Some things can be verified from the view from nowhere, it seems; some things can only be seen second-hand. The voice from nowhere can report on the objects it sees, objectively, and also on the subjective impressions which it observes and then turns into objects. There are facts and there are also opinions.
There are sharp distinctions being drawn here between what is known as fact by objective journalists and what can only be speculated about by the opinion-havers on twitter. The police have said they charged a man with murder; this is therefore a fact. Three people were shot dead, and we know they are Muslim students because their identity is knowable. Just look at them! It’s obvious. It’s a fact.
What “compelled” the accused to kill them? I’m sorry; what compelled him “to allegedly carry out the attack”? What overpowering force was it that compelled him to do the thing that (allegedly) he did? We know that the man is being charged with murder, because the police have said that is what they are doing, and we believe them. But while they say that a man has turned himself in for allegedly having been compelled to carry out an act, we can only report what we know. I wonder what role the fact of their religion played? We can only wonder.
I am stuck on this sentence:
“But given the victims’ religion and comments the alleged shooter apparently left on a Facebook page, many social media users wondered what role, if any, the victims’ faith played.”
The religion of the victims is a given. It has been given to us: just look at them. Muslims! It is obvious. Yet the person who has alleged that he was the shooter (it has not been confirmed that he is the shooter) has apparently left comments on FB (it has not been confirmed that he left these comments) that are apparently threats to kill people based on their religion. None of this has been confirmed; none of it is objective fact. Here at CNN, we cannot know for sure about any of this.
If you go back to the first, local news reports of the killing, nothing was known about the killers or the victims, because the police had not yet released that information.
Three people were shot and killed…authorities said.
All three victims were pronounced dead at the scene, police said.
Theirnames were withheld Tuesday night pending family notification.
A suspect in the shootings turned himself in…sources told.
The suspect’s identity was not released.
Investigators have not said what led to the shootings
authorities said there was no reason to believe the public was in any danger.
After the police released the names of the victims, it was immediately known that they were Muslims. When the police released the identity of the suspect who had confessed, on the other hand, a white guy named “Hicks” who hated religions, it raised more questions than answers.
However, we here at CNN can confirm that there are people with opinions, on social media, who have the opinion that perhaps the fact that the victims were Muslims (which is a fact) might be the thing that compelled the alleged killer to apparently carry out the attack that resulted in the shooting death of those factually Muslim students. You might very well think so; we here at CNN cannot possibly comment. Was it the overwhelming force of their Muslim identity that compelled this man to get involved in carrying out an attack? Some have suggested there might be a connection here. But while some things are facts (the fact that they are Muslims, I mean, just look at them), some are merely opinions: things get said on twitter, bu cannot be confirmed. Things also get said on Facebook, but who can tell, really. Who knows. It’s so hard to know. Luckily, authorities have said there was no reason to believe the public was in any danger.
Your brain is good at making you overconfident about what you see and hear, and it works hard to hide your own unreliability from you.
You think you hear “words” when someone talks to you, for example, but what you actually “hear” is an over-superabundance of noise—waves and waves of messy sensory data splashing through your ears—which parts of your brain that you have no conscious awareness of quietly and efficiently process and transform all that noise into something that your conscious mind can understand. That quiet intermediation is incredibly important, and quite thorough. Your brain eliminates sounds that it decides are not relevant and where there are gaps in what you hear, it deduces what should fill them, and adds them in. It’s startling to realize and take seriously, but much of what you “hear” has already been heavily edited for your consumption, by a part of your brain you aren’t even aware of.
The same is broadly true with vision and memory. You see things, and then a moment later, your brain declares that the memory that you have of what you saw is reliable, a perfect copy. It really isn’t, though. As we’ve learned over and over again, eyewitness testimony is notreliable: we are fully capable of remembering that we saw all sorts of things that weren’t quite there (or of overlooking things that were). The quiet, silent little sub-editor in our heads has not only transcribed your notes from the meeting, but has extensively edited them, cleaned them up, converted the font, and even re-written them with more consistent grammar.
In short, we are always playing a game of telephone with the universe. Our unconscious minds are always taking down garbled transmissions as neat typescripts, or turning impossibly complex slices of visual reality into the kinds of rough line drawings that we could use as a street map. On some level, we know this. We know that sometimes our lying eyes and ears deceive us, or mislead us; to get by, we must be aware of our limitations.
On another level, however, we don’t and can’t. To get by, we must also pretend that we are much more reliable than we are. We must take ourselves on faith, suspend our disbelief in what we see and hear and know. It’s all we have to go on. If we sometimes check the transcript against the original recording, we’ve gotten good at suspending our disbelief, in practice.
Memory, listening, and reading are creative. The most passive-seeming activities can often be quite labor intensive, precisely because it’s a kind of labor that we don’t tend to think very much about. Our brain does that for us. When we are watching the thing we are watching, our brains are processing that visual data into pictures; when we are listening, our brains are processing noise into sounds and signals; when we are sleeping, our brains are processing short term memories into long term memories. And so on. Our unconscious minds are busy.
I’m not any kind of expert on any of this, and I’m not trying to present myself as such. But knowing your own lack of knowledge is a kind of knowledge, too, and these are examples of it: some kinds of knowledge can be relied upon, others cannot, and figuring out how to manage the difference—how to know, or how to estimate, where and how you know what you know is true, and where and how it might not be—is an important skill. It is a certainty that you will make mistakes, constantly and continuously; the question is whether you will be open to that possibility in ways that allow you to correct them. Can you accept that fact that you think you know things that you have actually created? Can you engage with that problem in ways that allow you to mitigate the problems created by it?
As readers—both as readers of texts, and as daily interpreters of things we hear people say—we misread constantly, so much that we might as well regard it as the norm. We misread so much and so often and so invisibly that misreading is the dark matter of our social universe. We must necessarily remain more or less unconscious of the fact that a lot of what we take to be the world we share with each other is, more or less, radically variable from person to person. If I say something, every listener hears it a bit differently; if I do something, every witness remembers it differently; if I write something, every reader interprets it differently. We are the blind man and the elephant, arguing about what this beast is that we’ve found.
We can try to control for this problem—if we don’t pretend it doesn’t exist—but we don’t have many resources in doing so. You can repeat yourself; you can anticipate misreadings and try to correct them; you can even ask your audience to repeat back to you what you’ve said, so that you can clarify and correct. Misreaders are going to misread, and we are all misreaders. Which is why, ultimately, we are always relying on the social contexts and communicative frameworks that govern and clarify where and how we are to listen and understand. In the classroom, students know to listen and hear in particular ways—or they should, if the class is going to work—whereas moviegoers listen and watch in other and very different ways. If you read a non-fiction book, you understand what you are reading in different ways than if you reading what you are told is a novel, or a poem. You will listen to your significant other differently than you will listen to your parents, or children; you will listen differently to someone you’ve just met than to someone you’ve known all your life. And they will speak to you knowing and anticipating that this will be the case, always; we are constantly negotiating the contexts in which we are speaking, and the relationships through which those contexts are construed. Words don’t mean what you want them to mean; they mean lots of things, simultaneously, because of the ways they circulate, are heard, are remembered, and are transformatively interpreted.
Fundamentalist preachers and literary critics, police officers, and Clarence Thomas tend to want to live in a world where we can simply blame the badness of bad readers for this swirling and confusing indeterminacy. If you insist that the words mean what they mean vigorously enough—and if you call upon power to enforce your interpretation—you can maintain the polite fiction that words are self-sufficient. But there’s as much ambiguity in the things we say as there is empty space in the universe. To be a literalist interpreter of texts requires a torturous amount of carefully studied ignorance. But while we are all, of necessity, literalists in how we read—as there is no other way to read—we become dangerous readers when we stop trying to correct for our own failings, when we insist that any misreading is the fault of other people, and narcissistically insist that what we have creatively produced is the real text.
This is why we need more generous readers, and more of them. If you aren’t trying to understand what I think I’m saying—if you’re not trying to reconstruct the patchwork of words and thoughts and references in a sympathetic collaboration with the organic set of ideas that I was trying to stitch together—then you and I are not on the same team, we are working at cross-purposes, and our collaboration is not going to work out. If you don’t presume a base-level of good faith, competence, and insight on my part—and try to correct for your own narcissism, incompetence, and mistakes by also forgiving me for mine—then we are not going to understand each other in any meaningful way. Unless you want to hear what I want to say—and unless we both put in the work—then nothing I can do will change the fact that you will creatively reconstruct my words in ways that will suit you. You may not even know you’re doing it, but your transcription service does it job so efficiently that it gives you what you want even if you don’t ask for it.
For this reason, I try to aspire to read other people with a generosity that I don’t necessarily expect them to deserve. Not because I’m exceptionally selfless—this is why I say that I’d try to aspire to it—but to correct for the fact that I’m extremely selfish in the same familiar and banal way that we all are selfish. It’s because I tend to hear in your words what I want to hear that I need to make an extra effort to hear what you want me to hear. And vice versa.
But this is also why I’ve mostly given up on twitter as a place where it is possible to have meaningful, heated arguments with strangers. I think it’s possible to talk to strangers when you’re not having an argument, or to argue when the person you’re talking to is not really a stranger. But if you don’t know and respect the person you’re talking to (and to some extent, understand where they’re coming from, and want to), and especially if you build up a head of aggressive steam as you set out to crush their arguments, both of you are likely to come away from the exchange pleased and unsatisfied. After pleasantly proving to yourself that you are correct, you will be unsatisfied by the failure of your new mortal enemy to admit it. I describe this experience as a person who has experienced it many times, and who is so very tired of it. But it’s left me thinking that “changing minds” is something that twitter is all but engineered to do poorly. If you think it can be done, more power to you; I hope you are right. For me, it seems like a machine designed for creating mutual enraged incomprehension, an alchemy by which anger plus misunderstanding creates the self-righteous confirmation that I am right and everyone else is wrong. The friction between these divergent confirmations can burn extremely hot.
One reason why this is so, I think, is that “twitter” feels like a public space, but it’s neither public nor a space, and in practice, will always frustrate our expectation that it be those things. After all, when we curate “our” timelines, we do so as if we can control what’s in them and what isn’t, as if our timelines were spaces we have the personal power to regulate (and thus, are semi-private). We often expect to have control over what information enters our feed, and then it turns out that we don’t (and not only over our mentions). If we think and act as if we have control over what we see—as if we are choosing and selecting what sorts of people and voices will appear—we will find that choosing the former does not determine the latter. This is mainly because people are large and eccentric and contain multitudes. If you follow me because I have radical politics, you might be irritated by the fact that I’m obsessed with literature; if you follow me because I tweet about African novels, you might be irritated that I tweet about rape culture; if you follow me because we went to school together, all sorts of things I tweet about may surprise you. In other words, you will find that in inviting me into your timeline, I will probably abuse your hospitality. Yet, to me, you’re the one who followed me; what you might experience as a response to something I said, I can easily experience as an out-of-the-blue invasion of my conversational space.
This produces the sealion problem: we both feel like the other person has intruded on our space. We both feel like we’re just sitting here, in our own homes, and who is this asshole acting like he has a right to be all up in my business? I’ve got things to do; what makes you think you have some god-given right to my time and attention, etc.
Again, part of the problem is that social media can feel like a space, but isn’t. In our embodied social interactions, we’re either in one place or we’re in another, because that’s how bodies in space work: if I’m in your house, we both know it; if you’re in my house, we both know it. If we meet on the street, too, we both know that that is where we are, and what that means (or doesn’t), and so we know to act accordingly. Everywhere and anywhere two people meet, in their bodies, is likely to be a place framed and understood by reference to the social norms that obtain there. But how do you have a conversation with someone where both of you think that you are both in your own house, and both of you act accordingly? Both of you are going to turn out to be assholes. What if I think we are in the street, so I step on my soapbox, but you think you’re in your bedroom, getting ready to go to bed?
What makes twitter a potential perfect storm is that there is no more totally de-contextualized piece of text than a tweet: it’s almost the smallest piece of comprehensible speech it is possible to produce that also feels like a complete thought (or fels like it should be), but there’s nothing more to it than that, that and a name and persona. It has to be self-sufficient, because it has little or no context from which we can deduce what we do not know about it. And yet what text is ever self-sufficient? What piece of data or sensory information is enough, on its own?
In the 1970’s H.P. Grice formulated what has come to be known as the cooperation principle. That latter link is a good introduction to it, but what he articulates in careful academic reasoning is more easily described as, simply, the fact that speakers and listeners have to work with each other to make sense of a conversation. What is actually said is only the tip of an iceberg of assumptions, and without the two speakers more or less sharing a sense of the ground rules for the conversation—and more or less adhering to them, or trying to—the conversation breaks down.
Cooperation doesn’t reliably happen on twitter, I think. We all see the same text, but how often do we each assume a slightly or dramatically different iceberg beneath it? Quite often, I suspect. Yet we have to do this. Nothing we find on twitter would make any sense at all if we didn’t place it in some social context, construe it by reference to assumptions about what it is or what it is doing, and treat those projections as if they were basically valid. We have to assume that we are contextualizing the text correctly. Yet proximity is often misleading, particularly if we presume to know what a subtweet is subtweeting, why, or how; our assumptions about who people are, behind the tweet, are extremely tenuous (and often based in almost no solid information); and our sense of familiarity with people on twitter is illusionary. Like the first audio illusion in this video, the text stays the same while we each place it, mentally, in a different context.
All of which is to say, simply, that I think twitter is particularly well-suited for exacerbating and eliding the basic contradiction I started this piece with: we need to pretend more confidence in our own comprehension than is justified—in order to get by and make meaning—even as we also need to check ourselves, constantly, in order to make up for the moments when our confidence is misplaced. But since we are already divided against ourselves, what happens when you meet someone divided against themselves, and you, also, are divided against yourself, and the two of you start arguing—because you are divided against each other—and you have to tell the difference between a misjudgment of context and a Fundamental misjudgment of The Moral Law of the Universe? One of the most important contextual frames we sometimes apply to twitter, after all, is the notion that we are DOING POLITICS. But if some of us are, some of us aren’t. Sometimes I’m making a joke, because it amuses me; when someone takes that joke as the expression of Political Critique, we are unlikely to find ourselves having a useful communication. Jokes are performative speech; “Critique” is usually understood to be constative. If we don’t observe the difference and allow for it, we can find ourselves taking a joke way too seriously (and thus, misunderstanding what it’s trying to do), or vice versa: a deeply felt assertion of a very serious point can be made fun of, as a humorless person who doesn’t get it.
It occurred to me, yesterday, that you don’t hear the term “flame war” all that often anymore. It occurs to me now that this might be because the old new media (bulletin boards, listservs, blog comments) was structured in such a way that you could talk about one person flaming another person—I was flamed; he flamed me; we flamed each other, etc—and that this transitive verb could have an object because there was a sense of a space being crossed by the abuse being hurled. There could be a thrust and counter-thrust dynamic, a reply and counter-reply.
“Twitter” is an oversimplification. There are many twitters, which is also part of the problem: my twitter and yours are different, but they can come into contact with each other and overlap, and do. We can each think the other person is a holographic projection into our living room, and the rooms are similar enough that we can overlook the ways they are different (and then blame the other person for coming into our house and acting like an asshole). But this also means that talking about what “twitter” is or isn’t, or does, or doesn’t, is a similar exercise in polemic misunderstanding. If the underlying structure of the program is a constant, the conversational norms and practical methods we bring to it will vary, radically and dramatically. Some of the problem is the latter thing: people not only use twitter differently, but they sometimes regard other people’s use of it as illegitimate or wrong. Policing other people on twitter can become particularly heated and vicious, if a police from one jurisdiction comes into another, without knowing it, and attempts to apply one set of laws to someone who thinks they’re operating in another. It rarely ends well. And yet if we keep pretending that there is one twitter (ours), we’ll keep crashing into each other and insisting that it’s the other car that came into my lane. Twitter road rage.
One generalization I’d advance about “twitter,” however, is that it’s so space-less, and also so rapid, that instead of flame wars, we now have nuclear conflagrations, chain reactions that explode fast and hot and with such all-encompassing bitterness that it happens in time, not space. We know when it began, and we can tell when it starts to cool, but it can be almost impossible to tell who and why people are fighting (even as we decide that we do know, but disagree about it, making the arguments all the more intractable). That it happened is the only thing you and I both know, but who, what, why, where, and how get lost in the blast, leaving each of us disagreeing as much about what we disagree about as the disagreement itself.