Friday, 24 October 2014

Why I Hate Small Talk

The 'branks', a traditional punishment for gossiping 

There are few things in my life I detest more than small talk. It's very peculiar, the intensity of my reaction to it. I can feel an enormous urge to SCREAM when I realise that I'm in the presence of one of those conversations. Largely, I manage to avoid active participation, but that makes it worse, for when I'm engaged in talking small, I am at least a little distracted by the act. But, hearing it, being in the company of it, having to listen to people talking about nothing at all, oh, that I despise...

The other day, I decided to pick up my long-neglected copy of Being and Time, and remembering that dear old Heidegger had some things to say on the subject, I decided to have a look at Part 1, Division 1, Section V, Sub-Section 35:  'idle talk' (It's good to see that the Teutonic mentality didn't die with Kant...). Reading through this short and, by Heidegger's standards, pithy section of text, a thought occurred to me: it would be interesting to try and apply Heidegger's ideas about idle talk to social media...

Even better, I could probably spin a blog post out of it!

It is not necessary to summarise the entire passage, or all of Heidegger's theory of language (thank God), but the points I want to draw your attention to are the following: talk, as it is spread from speaker to speaker, looses its ground and develops a kind of momentum all of its own. 'What is spoken about as such spreads in wider circles and takes on a authoritative [sic] character. Things are so because one says so. Idle talk is constituted in this gossiping and passing the word along, a process by which its initial lack of grounds to stand on increases to a complete groundlessness, And this is not limited to vocal gossip, but spreads to what is written as "scribbling".' (1.1.V.35.169, Sein und Zeit) That is, the more the word gets around, the less and less involved it is with the original subject of discourse. Idle talk, then, may perhaps be described as a process of greater and greater abstraction, by which all 'real' content in communication becomes lost.

It gets worse: 'The groundlessness of idle talk is no obstacle to its being public, but encourages it. Idle talk is the possibility of understanding everything without any previous appropriation of the matter.' (Own italics, ibid.) Finally: '...[B]y its very nature, idle talk is a closing off since it omits going back to the foundation of what is being talked about. This closing off is aggravated anew by the fact that idle talk, in which an understanding of what is being talked about is supposedly reached, holds any new questioning and discussion at a distance because it presumes it has understood and in a peculiar way it suppresses them and holds them back.' (Ibid.) (An interesting topic all of its own is one Heidegger's assumption that to understanding is, ultimately, a return to an originary point...)

Doesn't that some up social media ever so nicely?


The Internet presents us with a constant stream of facts and images, divorced from the world they occurred in, and packaged up in such a way to stimulate short-term engagement and interest. Consider the plethora of 'listicles' floating around today, offering us an easily digestible and not-too-demanding selection of topics for us to mull over for a few minutes, pass on, share, reblog, and sooner or later forget. It is little wonder that this constant bombardment of information would lead to a shortening of attention spans and disdain for involvement (TL;DR) that requires any particular effort on the part of the user. 

There has always been gossip, there have always been games of Chinese whispers via which information is exchanged and warped and abstracted and ultimately rendered so unattached to its original ground that it bares little, if any, resemblance to its point of origin. The information age, however, has allowed for this to take place which such speed, and with such a global scope, that we ought to be shocked by it, though are perhaps more deadened to it than anything else. Take Cracked's long running series on 'B.S. News Stories That Went Viral.' The link is to the most recent one I can find, but Cracked has been doing these for years now. 

We humans have always put a lot of stock in gossip and rumour, for the pleasure of speculation if nothing else, but consider how the Internet allows such things to have a whole new layer of credence applied to them simply because: they appear in writing, they appear on websites that look professional, they even have pictures. Consider the bizarre spectacle that was Kony 2012 (remember that?), how instantly everyone, your humble blogger included, was swept up by what was, ultimately, nothing more than an unusually well-prepared PR video. By keeping a vague eye on Twitter, on one's Facebook newsfeed, and perhaps a few blogs, one develops the fantasy of having one's finger on the pulse of the world. As if all you need to know about Ferguson, Rotherham and ISIS can be contained within 140 characters. '[Idle talk] feeds on sporadic superficial reading: The average understanding of the reader will never be able to decide how much has been drawn from primordial sources with struggle, and how much is just gossip.' (Ibid.)

The anonymity of discussions that take place entirely online have creates a peculiar, universal pseudo-authority. The result of this is that, although real 'grounded' discourse is still more-or-less impossible, the matter never becomes 'closed', but continues almost constantly, in that every opinion on every matter can be aired with equal, apparent legitimacy. A constant stream of groundless chatter ensues, a thousand empty words competing without ever approaching the topic in truth. Admittedly, this democratic aspect allows us to mobilise and challenge the occasional outright falsehood we come across, but it will always be drowned out by yet more noise. Indeed, considering the vast majority of all communication over cyberspace is essentially written, the old philosopher's fears about the devilish nature of writing renews itself and finds new targets.


Like I said, this isn't really new as such. Kierkegaard had a great deal of contempt for the press of his own day, but the ubiquitousness and sophistication of online idle talk is remarkable. As ever, the new toy that we have here, the Internet, is neither good, bad, nor neutral, but something in between. It cannot be accurately described as having no intrinsic evaluative content to it because of the obvious power that it has, power that can be (forgive me for sounding trite) wielded for good or evil. And, simply observing that we've always engaged in idle talk like this is not enough to dismiss it from moral discussion. Prohibitions of gossiping are found in the Abrahamic religions, interestingly, and it is significant that such idle talk is often accompanied by a sense of guilt. We know that there is something lacking when we only, say, use Wikipedia as a reference. Though, to do just that and quote from the article on 'listicle': 'It has also been suggested that the word evokes "popsicle", emphasising the fun but "not too nutritious" nature of the listicle.'

Finally, I am aware of the obvious irony of moaning about online chatter while contributing to it (as if quoting a bit of Heidegger proves any real authority on my part, as if I don't engage in idle talk)- but, it's my blog, and I'll moan if I want to. 

1 comment:

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