Day 111: Whatever happened to you?

“Whatever happened to you?”

How, in any context, could that not be a grossly insulting question to pose to someone?

Let me tell you the context in which it was posed to me.

Here’s the back story. It was the classic boy meets girl scenario. You know: girl messages boy about Duran Duran online; boy (who didn’t, according to him, graduate high school, and who does not know at this point that I am a literature professor) asks girl, apropos of nothing, “did you read the Table Talk?”; girl swoons.

Pretty standard stuff.

But then, like many fellows I meet online, he wanted to meet either RIGHT NOW or else, whenever he next felt like meeting RIGHT NOW, and I found that …. inconvenient. So we stopped messaging.

That was exactly three months ago. And then today, there’s a little ping, and the message comes up:

Whatever happened to you?

Whatever happened to you?

 We were just reading Graham Harman in my critique class, and he was talking about what Quentin Meillassoux dubs “correlationism”: the Kantian idea that “we cannot think of world without humans nor of humans without world, but only of a primordial correlation between the two.”

So, my theory is that this dude subscribes to a version of correlationism, but in his version, he can’t think about me without iMessage or iMessage without me, but only of a primordial correlation between the two. I have not texted him in 3 months: ergo, something has happened to me. I have perhaps died, tragically. Or perhaps I have ascended onto a different plane.

Or maybe he thinks of me as akin to Schrödinger’s cat: he is magnanimously initiating this interaction in order to save me from the indignity of being simultaneously dead and alive in a quantum superposition.

Whatever happened to you?

It’s the question you ask innocently enough in the third person of a washed-up child star (cf. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?). In the second person the tone is quite different. The addition of “ever” to “what” has the effect of suggesting the speaker’s befuddlement or incredulity (“what the hell!”), lending the question an accusatory, aghast, or pitying inflection. This is especially intensified because “happened to” has an unambiguously negative connotation, as if it is a synonym for “tragically befell.”

So, for example, say you see someone looking their usual self and then you see them a bit later all dressed up and looking really pretty. You would not say “whatever happened to you?” would you?

On the other hand, say you see someone looking their usual self and then you see them a bit later all covered in mud and looking really disheveled. I think it’s plausible (though it doesn’t sound quite idiomatically natural to my ear) that you would exclaim “whatever happened to you?!”

I haven’t replied to his text and I wish I could think of a really great come back: the only idea I have is “I BID YOU GOOD DAY SIR,” but I’m not sure the dignity, righteous indignation and steeliness with which I would utter that line would come across via text. (See this episode of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist 20:37 to 21:25 for an excellent demonstration of what my affect would be while uttering this line).

I know that silence is the best and most dignified response and that, as Aziz Ansari’s dating manual has informed me, “The person who receives the last message in a convo WINS!”; but I am extremely poor at being stonily silent, which is why I invariably lose this game.

Suggestions welcome!


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



Day 91: love letters.

Sometimes I wonder if the very richness of the relationships that women have with other women means that their relationships with men will inevitably always feel thin and insubstantial by comparison. You know, like a thin gruel as compared to cassoulet.

I’ve been pondering this as I’ve been struggling with the communication protocols of twenty-first-century dating. I’ve been struck by a palpable difference in tone and texture between the messages I write and the messages I receive from men; maybe that difference is not solely attributable to gender, but I suspect that it is a factor.

So far as I can glean from the messages I receive, when exchanging texts with a possible suitor, one is meant to affect a languid carelessness, a kind of apathy about the whole endeavor.

But the duck-rabbit is an enthusiast if ever there was one. It finds it very hard to dampen its enthusiasm.

Moreover, the duck-rabbit positively despises the sleight of hand that goes along with affecting a kind of nonchalant-oh-I-just-stumbled-upon-your-profile-casualnesss when both parties have profiles on a dating website. You have an account on this sorry website because you’re lonely. You didn’t just fall over and accidentally send me a message. So don’t be such an insouciant dick about it.

The stylistic differences between the messages I send to suitors and the messages I receive from them are comically stark. The messages (and here I’m referring mostly to text messages) I receive manage to be both circumlocutory and reticent.

That’s actually quite an impressive rhetorical feat, to be both periphrastic and taciturn at the same time.

The messages I send suitors are the opposite. They are blunt and copious.

I’ll give you some examples.

I send a lot of messages that say something like “so do you wanna go out again or what?” That’s actually a direct quotation from a text I sent last week. Blunt. Straight to the point. No beating around the bush.

But then I also frequently compose texts that are just, I’m gonna say, arabesques. That is, they are long and extended flights of silliness.

Here’s an example. I texted another suitor a fairly long, elaborate idea for a screenplay. This is one of those texts that was so baroque and silly that I still can’t believe he didn’t reply to it. (Don’t worry, readers, I won’t leave you in suspense; since I don’t believe he’ll be capitalizing on the amazing idea I gave him free of charge, it will be my parting gift to you today …) I live to receive copious, baroque messages. Is it possible that this is not in fact a universal human quality?

It’s certainly true that my tastes were formed by my earliest correspondents: Mahin, who sent from India and many other exotic locales long letters on thin gold embossed paper adorned with hearts and kisses; Tamsin, whose letters from Australia, a sunflower always adorning the envelope, were works of art in themselves because of the curving loveliness of her handwriting. And then there were Liz’s! I still remember the thrill of seeing the envelope bearing a stamp from that region yet more exotic than India: the Isle of Man; I remember seeing my name written in blue fountain pen on the envelope (first it was “Miss Duck-rabbit” and then, once she knew me a bit better, it was “Ms Duck-rabbit”); most of all, I remember giddily and gleefully registering the weight of the pages folded within as I snatched up the envelope from the doormat.

Of course, electronic messages have mostly replaced the paper letters; but there is still a thickness, a copiousness, to the way these women write. Sometimes it’s in the warp and woof of the writing itself. Do you doubt me? Consider a couple of snippets from some of Liz’s messages:

“… TT [an annual motor-cycle race on the Isle of Man] really is an extraordinary thing – for two weeks, this island is a place of pilgrimage for 40,000 Swedes, Germans, Americans, Brazilians, Australians, Dutch, French… all here for what’s known as ‘the greatest road race on earth’. And then, when it’s over, it’s back to fielding rapier-sharp barbs from Shakey Phil, who cleans the toilets on the prom, and Norma on her mobility scooter…

“ … The only mantra in the English Language – after three years’ exposure to the best and brightest literary minds dead and living – which means anything to me is ‘oh, fuck it’, which is attributable to anon/me. Perhaps ‘nunc est bibendum’ – ‘now is the time to drink’ (or something like that) – from Horace’ Odes. But not because I care for the Classics; it’s just the tagline from the very first Michelin poster …”

Do you not envy me, as the recipient of such brilliant and funny letters? What I relish in Liz’s messages is what Schlegel calls “the perennial alternation of enthusiasm and irony.” [1] There’s feeling – real feeling! But there’s also that spritz of acid.

Other times the copia inheres not in the texture of the sentences, but rather in the sheer consistency of the correspondence. I literally emailed Em while I was sitting on the toilet, my laptop on my knee, while my waters were breaking before giving birth to the younger. Why did I email her? Because I had been reading a draft of an essay she’d written and needed to explain why I couldn’t finish reading it that evening, of course!

Other times, the correspondence may be more sporadic or minimal (and I know that I’m awfully inconsistent myself) but when it occurs there’ll be a phrase that’s just so characteristic of the person that I’m startled by how vividly I feel her presence; like when KJ Rabbitt, in response to a particularly cringe-inducing story I had emailed her, responded, “face palm to the power of hiding under the covers!!!”

Compare, now, with the response my suitor wrote in reply to my “so do you wanna go out again or what” message. [2]

“I’d lean towards the going out again option but just in more of a casual when it’s convenient for both of us time frame.”

I really feel like I could write an essay about this sentence. It’s truly virtuosic in its equivocalness. I mean, where to start? Oh, how about the first three words, each a qualifier? “I’d”; “lean”; “towards.” Note, moreover, that it’s not simply that he would lean towards going out again. No, no, he would, if he were going to lean—and he’s not necessarily going to, mind you, but if he were to—he would lean towards the-going-out-again-option. But, just in case you are thinking, “dude, let’s not get carried away with reckless abandon here, maybe let’s put on the brakes a bit,” he goes on to further specify that the said going-out-again-option is not one that should be undertaken intentionally, or in some premeditated fashion, or, perish the thought, at any specific time but rather, “just-in-more-of-a-casual-when-its-convenient-for-both-of-us-time-frame.” I did appreciate his specification that “convenient” here means “convenient for both parties” – not just convenient for you, Ms Bossypants!

Oh, la!

Periphrastic AND taciturn, am I right?

Before my combined copiousness-and-bluntness undoes me, let me move swiftly along, as promised, to my screenplay outline, which is really just a long silly riff on a tagline Joshua proposed for a Breaking Bad-style TV show that someone should write inspired by the recent finding that “narcotic drugs can be coaxed from yeast.”

His tagline: “Breaking Bad 2: this time it’s a biology teacher!”

My TV show, provisionally titled, Breaking Bread, was an adaptation of this idea. This is how I described it in my text to the screenwriter I went out with a couple of times (and yes of course I prefaced it by declaring “I have an AWESOME crime show idea for you,” and sending him the link to the article, you know, so that he understood that this was all based in fact and not some kind of whimsical flight of fancy):

“It’s like Breaking Bad but the protagonist is a disaffected baker at Tartine in San Franciso. He gets diagnosed with, oh, I don’t know, chronic fatigue syndrome, and isn’t able to get up at 3 in the morning to bake brioche any more. And SO he turns to a life of crime, coaxing narcotics from the finest organic yeast.”

No reply.

My next text to him said:

“Genius right?”

No reply.

My next text to him said, “If you use it you can take the credit but I’ll need a cut of the profits.”


And there, in fact, our correspondence ended. I’m looking at the screen of my iPhone right now. It says “Delivered” under the blue speech bubble and then there’s just blank space below.

I feel reasonably confident that if I had texted this idea to Liz, she would have texted back approximately seven seconds later saying, “oh yes, and his name should be TARQUIN. Or, possibly, GIDEON.”

letter from Mahin.

letter from Mahin, undated but probably from the mid-80s.


[1] Yeah, yeah, sure it’s wanky to quote Schlegel. But I’ve already used the words “circumlocutory” and “periphrastic” so I figured why not go all out? See Friedrich Schelgel, from the “Talk on Mythology,” Trans. Behler, Ernst, and Roman Struc. Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms. University Park and London: Penn State University Press, 1968. 81–93. 86.

[2] Before I go any further, let me say: I have no interest in being cruel or snide here. I like this person a lot! I asked him out and I’d ask him out again! Hey Scott! You wanna go out again? See? No, I’m merely singling out his response because it distills, quite masterfully in fact, a form of equivocation that I have encountered very frequently in the last several weeks. My point is not that he’s being mean or foolish; my point is that he’s being as non-committal as possible, and I think that if he read my take on it he’d smirk charmingly and say, “yeah, that’s about right!”