Day 121: all theory. of everything. ever.

“May I ask which class has just been held in this room?” enquired the British-accented student, very politely.

This morning’s class—our third meeting this quarter—had run a little long and my students were still milling around as the next class filed in. After the three hour seminar, most of which I spent fielding questions like, “can you just go over Kant?” and, “is a ‘suspicious’ reading always Freudian?” and “do you think questions of identity have eclipsed other ways of studying literature?” while hopped up on a potent combination of cold medicine, chocolate and espresso, I was giddy and loquacious. My cheeks burned and my heart beat fast.

The British-accented student’s question was prompted, I noted, from his observation of what I’d written on the blackboard.

In the split-second before I launched into my answer I sized him up, incorrectly, as it turned out, as a beginning graduate student, or, possibly, an advanced undergrad in English. More specifically, for reasons I can’t quite articulate, I not only thought “English major,” I also thought, with possibly the slightest of inner smirks: “Theory boy.”

“Oh,” I answered breezily, “it’s just a seminar—a writing workshop, really— for seniors who are going to be writing their theses—well, they’re not seniors yet, they’re juniors, but this is the seminar they take in preparation for writing the thesis next year. When they’re seniors. Anyway, today, we were just doing this massive overview of Theory,” I said, gesturing to the board and feeling, I’ll be honest, a little defensive, suddenly self-conscious about my jottings because: Theory boy.

Perhaps for this reason, his next question completely threw me.

“Theory based on what?” he asked.

There was a pause. Quite suddenly and unexpectedly, we not only found ourselves at a conversational impasse but I also found myself replaying the conversation in my head in an effort to figure out how we had gotten here. It was as if he had asked, “May I ask what you’ve just eaten for lunch?” And I had said, “just a massive bowl of pasta,” and he had said, “pasta based on what?”

It was just not the follow-up question I was anticipating.

What move is this?! I found myself wondering. What is this “based on?!” Since when did Theory need to be “based on” something?! Ummm, words? Theory boy, you are an evil genius! I am scrambling, scrambling, to answer this!

“Theory based on what,” I repeated. “I’m not sure I understand your question,” I said slowly, “what do you mean exactly?”

Now he looked confused. “What do I mean? I mean …” he paused, clearly wondering how he could possibly make his question any more straight-forward, “theory of what?”

“Well, everything.” I said. “All of it,” I added, helpfully.

Seeing his bewildered expression, I elected to keep talking.

“Well, I mean, literary theory,” I added, it dawning on me for the first time in this exchange that this student might actually be from a discipline other than English. “I mean literary theory, but it’s not really about literature, that’s part of what we were talking about … but anyway, we were talking about all of it, so, you know,” [against all the available evidence, this “you know” indicated my refusal to relinquish my belief that he possessed some kind of expertise on the topic that I needed to acknowledge. Why did I think this? Is it because he was a British man with a slightly posh accent? Unfortunately, yes, that is probably why.] I gestured towards the board behind me, “structuralism and post-structuralism and Marxism and cultural studies and speech-act theory and gender studies and narrative theory and aesthetics and … all the rest …  well, I mean, OK, not actually all the rest of it obviously, because we didn’t have time, but …” I trailed off.

“Thank you,” he said.

I started walking towards the door and as I was leaving recognized another student, a grad student in poli-sci whose dissertation committee I’ve recently joined.

“Oh, hi,” I said, “what is this class?”

“Oh, it’s ancient and medieval political theory,” he said.

“Ohhhhhhh,” I said. “Huh. OK. I didn’t even know you guys had classes in this building!”

“We do!” he affirmed, giggling a little nervously.

“Well now I know!” I said, “and I’m shocked,” I added, facetiously, “deeply shocked at your transgression onto our territory. You’re not even in the humanities, for God’s sake!”

I walked out of the classroom, feeling pretty damn pleased that I had made it abundantly clear to the British-accented student that while his class, punily, namby-pambily, set its sights merely on classical and medieval political theory, my course, no, scratch that, my single class session had grander aspirations: all Theory. Of Everything. Ever. In 2 hours and fifty minutes.

English: thinking big since at least 1762 when Adam Smith, the first English Professor, as I always tell my students—and a Scot to boot!— exhibited precisely zero qualms about launching into a straight-up account of the origin of all language, ever, in the third lecture (it was his third class too! The third class is clearly the optimal time to advance grandiose theories … ) for his course at the University of Glasgow on rhetoric and belles-lettres.



Day 106: by sympathy, to communicate

Last night I went to bed before 9pm. I knew that going to sleep at that hour would likely result in me waking up in the middle of the night, but I was feeling aimless and sleepy enough to sleep. So: I slept. And then, as anticipated, I woke up about 2am.

I didn’t have a book. I thought about going on Amazon and buying one but decided that the act of selecting and purchasing a book would contribute to wakefulness rather than alleviating it.

“Who will not mind me texting them at this hour?” I asked myself.

My mum genuinely doesn’t mind me getting in touch with her at any hour of the day or night. But she only very recently got a smartphone and sent her first ever text a few weeks ago. It was deliberately and I suspect slowly and thoughtfully composed. I just don’t think she’s ready for super-cazh-texting-in-bed.

So then I thought about texting my brother but thought, “no, he has a toddler, don’t be so selfish, D-R, the man needs his sleep.”

Only at this point, ladies and gentlemen, did I remember that it is eight hours ahead in the U.K. and so it was not, actually, the middle of the night there.

So then I thought, oh, I WILL text my brother, and here is where we get to the point of this post.

I was on the verge of texting him but then remembered that he almost never uses SMS/iMessage messaging to get in touch with me; instead, he always uses WhatsApp, I think because SMS messaging is more expensive in the UK.

And I immediately thought, “oh no, I don’t want to text him using WhatsApp!” The very idea almost made me recoil!

Why did I think this? I hadn’t realized, explicitly, that I felt this way until this very moment at 2am last night: but what I realized in that moment is that SMS/iMessage messaging feels to me like a highly transparent, intimate form of communication. Whatsapp feels more filtered and more distant. Whatsapp just seemed, unequivocally, like the wrong service for sending a 2am text message. The very idea felt jarring, like sending a Howler when you meant to send an owl.

Why do these different messaging services feel so distinct to me, I wondered?

Being the duck-rabbit that I am, my mind went first to Adam Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, first delivered at Glasgow in 1762–63. This text, in a lovely example of form mirroring content—or, at least, the content I wish to highlight here— is not actually Smith’s own text but based on his students’ lecture notes. It’s a case of form mirroring content because one of the key points in the lectures is that the essence of “rhetoric,” that is, of the art of speech, is transmission.

Here is Smith:

“When the sentiment of the speaker is expressed in a neat, clear, plain and clever manner, and the passion or affection he is poss<ess>ed of and intends, by sympathy, to communicate to his hearer, is plainly and cleverly hit off, then and then only the expression has all the force and beauty that language can give it. It matters not the least whether the figures of speech are introduced or not” (25-6, my emphasis).

Now, to us, this seems like, duh, of course the point of language is to communicate; but at the time, in the mid-18th century, when the Oxford BA was still mostly devoted to the study of classical rhetoric, for Smith to say this in his lectures on rhetoric was pretty radical. What we witness here, as John Guillory describes in his fantastic essay, “The Memo and Modernity,” is a transmission or communication model of language displacing a rhetorical persuasion model. [1]

In this essay, Guillory argues that Smith is a pivotal figure in inaugurating “a major shift in the conception of language-use toward the explicit acknowledgement of communication” (327). By contrast with rhetoric, communication “posited the transfer of the speaker’s thoughts and feelings accurately to the mind of the auditor” (327).

What does this have to do with texting at 2am?

Well, Smith’s ideal of what he calls “perspicuity” still informs our communication media preferences today, I think. It’s not just in our homes that we look unfavorably upon clutter, Marie Kondo-style. We also favor the uncluttered aesthetic in our media. Instant textual communication (no matter the application) does not replicate face-to-face conversation so much as promise to remove the clutter—of expression, gesture, tone, touch—that always accompanies bodies in space. But I think SMS/iMessage messages (at least as they appear on my devices, which are all Apple; maybe they look different on other machines) performs most dramatically this ideal of a transmission that supersedes, in some ways, face-to-face communication.

Maybe I’m wrong; maybe it’s just that the more you use a medium, the more its formal features become invisible to you; of course, that’s true. But I maintain that there is something about the mise-en-scène of SMS/iMessage texting that foregrounds a Smithian ideal of perspicuity. It’s something about the simplicity of the speech bubbles on the plain white background. By contrast, WhatsApp has this weird busy, doodle-y background; moreover, the actual interface is cluttered with arrows and too many colors, and a little date bubble that slides on top of the messages.

The minimalism of the SMS/iMessage interface reinforces the medium’s promise of “instant” communication: via text message (no matter what the platform) each speaker’s words appear as discrete acts of speech. The uniform speech bubbles make communication less about the personhood or identity of the speakers and more—and I think this is Smith’s ideal—about the affects and thoughts that the speakers transmit.

In conclusion: Smith would be an avid user of SMS/iMessage. And he wouldn’t be seen dead using WhatsApp. But since he is dead, and, therefore, unlikely to mind being woken up, maybe next time I’m up at 2am I’ll message him. Please tell me if you have his number.



[1] See John Guillory, “The Memo and Modernity.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Autumn 2004), pp. 108-132