Agitate for Beauty

One of the convenient consequences of posting one’s thoughts on a blog is that readers (the happy few in my case) will send along links to interesting ideas or stories related to what I’ve written.  Yesterday I wrote about resisting the temptation to communicate thoughtlessly and artlessly via digital media and pushing back against the pressures for more efficient, mechanical, and soulless communication.  In response I received a link to a post titled, “How ‘EOM’ Makes Your Email More Efficient.” (h/t:  DFR)

EOM, for the blissfully uninitiated, is short for “End of Message.”  The idea is pretty simple: turn your email subject lines into the actual content of the message and add on “EOM” so that the recipient knows they don’t need click through to read the body.  This saves you the time of writing a subject line and a greeting and a body and a closing.  It also saves the recipient the effort of clicking through to the main text of the email.  But wait there’s more!  Actually there are TEN listed benefits to EOM-ing (might as well — texting, emailing, Facebooking, Twittering, friending —  in our exciting, transgressive times nouns become verbs!).  Other advantages include:  if you do it, others will do it too and EOM encourages 100% readership!

All very efficient to be sure.  Reading the cheerfully and engagingly written post I was almost convinced this was a wonderful, life-changing practice.  Okay, dropping the sarcasm, I get it, seriously.  There are certain exchanges that happen over email that do not need to be packaged in the style and form of a royal proclamation or a papal encyclical.  Fine, fair enough.  And to their credit, one of the advantages listed is that you encourage more face-to-face communication.  If you can’t say it efficiently via email, then maybe you just need to go talk to the person (pause for audible gasp).  Great, that would be wonderful (unless our face-to-face adopt the syntax and style of our online communication).  The work place is busy, hectic, stressful; easing the demands of always online work life is commendable.

But (you knew it was coming), there is still this lingering fear that the ideals of efficiency and instrumentality, perfectly appropriate at some points and in certain contexts, will spread into realms of human communication where they ought properly to be unwelcome and shunned.  Yet, efficiency and instrumentality are alluring ideals that make few demands and promise great rewards, and so they insidiously infiltrate and colonize.

Sometimes I wonder if we are not operating under the unspoken assumption that perfect communication is something like the telepathic communication depicted in science fiction and fantasy.   That would be efficient indeed.  No words, no sounds, no effort.  No risk, no charm, no beauty.

So my tendency is to resist the push for increasing efficiency and instrumentality in our communication; not because I fail to see the advantages, but precisely because I recognize their appeal.  I tend to think Goethe was right, “We should do our best to encourage the Beautiful, for the Useful encourages itself.”  Agitate for beauty.

I’ll leave off with another poet, W. H. Auden, who also knew a thing or two about language, beauty, and responsibility.

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

(“Their Lonely Betters”)

7 thoughts on “Agitate for Beauty

  1. I have to say, because language is the only anthem I know (:-}), that you never fail to show something interesting and enlightening in your posts. Thanks for putting a smile on my face this morning.

  2. While I agree with you that our perpetual push toward “verbal efficiency” and saying what we need to say in as few words as possible (I partially blame Hemingway and his damned short sentences for this, particularly since I study British Romantic era texts with sentences so long they become like the Narnia closet – you start in one place and when you come out on the other side you have no idea where you are or how you got there) may be cheapening our use of language and robbing it of its beauty, I do have to disagree with your assessment of telepathy. If we could actually communicate telepathically, it would not need to be wordless since we often think in words. Also, we could supplement our words with emotions, images, and sounds that we cannot convey with our actual voices. And even if a sort of telepathic language of images, emotions, and sounds came to dominate our communication to the utter destruction of words, who is to say that this new language could not be just as beautiful as the ones we have now? I say this only half jokingly. I’m currently in the middle of writing a seminar paper on Meyer’s abysmal Twilight series, and there is a character in her series who is able to communicate not only through words but also by beaming images and emotions into the minds of others. It seems to work quite well in these books; imagine what it could be like if someone with imagination and creativity were to try something similar.

    1. I had the same reaction. If we imagine ourselves into a world where telepathy is the going communication method, I think we’d still find a reliance on language as the primary medium of ideas, even though sound wouldn’t be the medium of the words.

      Ong showed how writing brought about a fundamental change in thinking; telepathy would almost be a reversion to a form of linguistic communication pre-speech. The thought (no pun intended) frankly mortifies me. With the number of times a collection of words get built around an idea and leave my mouth before my internal filter sufficiently processed it, leaving me wishing I could eat my words, I’m afraid that, with telepathy, I’d be left wanting to eat my own brains.

      Hmm. Telepathy leads to zombies? Maybe that was your point all along. :-)

      But the thing is, we all put a degree of thought into phrasing our ideas just right. By the time words bubble up to our consciousness and articulation, they’ve been processed and finessed an awful lot. If we circumvent these processes, we not only omit the uncertainties you rightly see as beauty; we also potentially miss the meaning-making processes of linguistic thought.

      1. That’s a very good point. I think, though, that often in sci fi and fantasy, there is a distinction between telepathy and mind reading. With something like mind reading, yes, we would lose the at times tenuous filter we have on our linguistic output. If someone could just read your thoughts without your explicit consent, that would truly be horrifying because we would have no privacy. Never mind changing the way we think; a change like that would have possibly dreadful ramifications on the viability of our species. If some cognitive behavioral therapists are correct in claiming that we cannot change our thoughts, only our reactions to them, then we would all continue to think the very human things we think despite the fact that anyone could hear us. We wouldn’t be able to help it. And, being human, people would probably become quite offended with one another if they were able to know each other’s true thoughts all the time. That might possibly endanger the continuance of the species unless we all developed much more resilient self-esteem and lower regard for the thoughts and opinions of others.

        With telepathy, though, I think there would be room for us to keep our filter and the meaning-making processes of linguistic thought you so rightly point to as being integral to the beauty of linguistic expression, though perhaps with mind to mind communication this would turn into an ultra-linguistic communication medium, more of a multiple-mode experience. If telepathy requires sender A to purposely send message X to receiver B, then sender A could compose message X before transmitting it. I could see it working much like current spoken communication, except that perhaps it might tend to be a bit clearer. If you could attach emotions, music, or images to your message, it would be like adding multiple signifiers to each signified in order to give further nuance to each message. Of course, that also might just be even more confusing, leading to even more miscommunication than occurs now.

        Hmm…telepathy leads to zombies? That idea is just screaming to be transformed into a terrible novel. I think I know my summer plans if I can’t find anywhere to teach…

        1. “People would probably become quite offended with one another if they were able to know each other’s true thoughts all the time. That might possibly endanger the continuance of the species unless we all developed much more resilient self-esteem and lower regard for the thoughts and opinions of others.”

          While I certainly agree that the initial prospect would be horrifying, your list of required protections makes me wonder whether this wouldn’t be a Really Good Thing overall. Self-esteem is so difficult to build and so tenuous, and I think a large part of its rickety nature is due to our social tendency toward polite sugar-coating. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for us all to become rude and inconsiderate. But I do wonder whether communication would ultimately be easier or more difficult were we to remove the softening barriers that communication provides.

          I wonder whether the forced honesty would make communication collapse, or whether it would allow individuals to gain strength and confidence in their abilities, not de-valuing the thoughts of others, but understanding that other people are but single minds among many.

          I find myself now thinking of one of Feynman’s more famous quotes: “What do you care what other people think?” His challenge there is difficult enough for we who use oral language. To be able to hear that thinking would make the care-free approach so much harder…but so much more rewarding when achieved.

  3. Frank and Chris,

    Enjoyed reading your comments. Wouldn’t have guessed an analogy to telepathy would generate such an interesting exchange, but there it is.

    When the analogy came to mind, I did imagine a kind of wordless communication which, as you both point out, is not the only possible form telepathy takes in sci-fi or in some possible world. And since we’re dealing with possible worlds, I can imagine some kind of beauty emerging out of a wordless communication. Even in this world some forms of dance provide an example of wordless, beautiful, and communicative action.

    But it would be a different sort of beauty altogether. The beauty proper to oral language and its derivatives depends on embodiment: sound waves generated by air passing through a larynx and vocal cords and reaching the ear, etc. In other words, there is the beauty of concepts which can be retained in wordless communication, a Platonic beauty let us say. And then there is the beauty that inheres in the materiality of language. It seems to me that the latter would be lost.

    At any rate, all sorts of issues come up which you guys brought up. For my part, it does seem like an almost inhuman degree of transparency. And there is a balance as far as the whole self-esteem, what other people think issue. While I think I get the point Feynman is trying to make, I can imagine one compelling response: “Not being a sociopath, I care some.”

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