Saturday, 15 August 2015

Twitter and authority

I have some vague recollections of an INPP (International Network of Philosophy and Psychiatry conference) in Lisbon a few years ago: the surprising defences of lobotomy by a disproportionate number of local psychiatrists (perhaps Portuguese psychiatry was having a moment); a paper by Rom Harre which lacked his customary zing; my own part in a panel presentation, in a big echoing hall of rather fascist-architecture, on Recovery when, after I’d spoken (sceptically? thoughtfully?) and was returning to the panel’s seats on the podium, both Larry Davidson and Bill Fulford had their heads in their hands and wouldn’t meet my eye. But at some point in the conference I was accosted by a stranger who said: “This is dull, let’s go and get something to eat”. A half hour taxi ride into town and the indecisions of people who don’t know one another, and I had an iffy steak but the most enjoyable company. But I’ve not seen much of Dariusz since.

Cropping up – briskly, abruptly as is the nature of the medium - on twitter today, he expressed a common (and my) view from within academia: twitter and its visibility may be necessary for academic work and the stress on dissemination and impact but it is difficult: “I find it exhibitionist. Who cares what I do, did or think?” I don’t think his point is that people will not care what an academic thinks per se (though that may also be true, sadly) but rather what an academic writing via twitter thinks. It strikes me that this highlights a feature of twitter which may be why I don’t like it: it depends on authority. It embodies an appeal to extra-textual authority.

Some tweets won’t. Those which most encourage the label ‘meme’ (a dreadful concept), perhaps. So, for example, tweeted pictures of ducklings cuddling up to cats make an appeal (if they do) which has no need for an author. Perhaps the famous one word proof of Pythogoras’ Theorem: “ecce!” augmented by a suitable diagram. But invoking tweeted images seems to be cheating. Pure text cannot do very much in a 140 characters. Crucially, it cannot offer a case for a claim or display its reasons, the kind of thing for which academics aim. That can be done in the standard media for academic dissemination: the books and papers of tradition. It can also be done in blog posts where, again, there is enough space to make a case.

I realise I risk being naïve about the authority of a text that’s longer than a tweet. David Foster Wallace wrote a fine positive review (‘Authority and American Usage’) of a 700 page work of prescriptive grammar. Such a case raises the difficulty of assuming authority in spades: why on earth should one follow some fellow’s hunches about how English ought to be written? Descriptive grammar seems to be the only intellectually honest approach. But in this case, the author – Foster Wallace tells us – cajoles us into following him through a series of choices. Surely if you want to be clear, you can see how it would be better to write this than that? And hence the authority of the text rests on the display of technical mastery available to the neutral reader. And for any reader who does not see that appeal, no matter. (As the public information film against swimming in dark swampy building sites ended: “Sensible children: I have no power over them”)

But a tweet seems to have to trade on the authority of its author in one of two ways. Either by accord with the principle: Stephen Fry says X (in a 140 characters) so X must be true. Or, worse I think, Stephen Fry’s saying X makes X interesting for that reason alone. This is an instance of the power of celebrity. Stephen Fry eats eggs for breakfast / thinks coffee passé / wears tweed again and thus so should we. It’s not because we think him likely to right about the objective aesthetics of eggs, coffee or tweed as an expert. Rather he is an expert in being Stephen Fry. That’s enough reason for us to do those things. That is, I think, how twitter works and why academics, aside perhaps from celebrity academics (or perhaps even more so for them), should shun it.