Slow reading, and slow tweeting
I don't think that Michael Lambek has a twitter account. An anthropologist who divides his time between the London School of Economics and the University of Scarborough, Lambek has written an essay for Savage Minds to lament the decline of 'slow reading' in twenty-first century universities. Lambek argues that many of today's students are either struggling with or avoiding altogether the heavy and heady books that excited earlier generations of scholars.
Lambek explains that, in many anthropology departments, instructors have stopped prescribing classic texts of ethnography, or else have offered these works to students in measured doses. EE Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Amongst the Azande, for example, is given in an abridged paperback edition. Distracted by social media and other epiphenomena of our digital age, students apparently find it difficult to penetrate the forests left behind by scholars like Evans-Pritchard and Malinowski. They cannot do the sort of careful, reflective reading that generates ideas and helps get essays written.
Lambek blames not only social media but the 'substitution of images for text' for the decline in students' reading. He notes that many students are now more accustomed to powerpoint displays, with their reassuringly steady flow of easily identifiable images, than to purely verbal seminars and lectures. The 'traditional classroom arts' of 'listening and note-taking' are, he fears, disappearing.
When I feel the same sort of melancholy as Lambek, I try to banish it by visiting Hookland, the twitter feed run by David Southwell, a British journalist known for his interest in conspiracy theories, gangsters, and the Angry Brigade. Southland's tweets pose as despatches from a sort of alternative England, a place of restless gargoyles, blood-stained power pylons, babbling vicars, and overfriendly UFOs. Like Mortmere, the alt-England invented by boarding schoolmates Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward in the 1920s, Hookland seems simultaneously celebratory and satirical.
I was excited when I discovered Southwell's tweets, because they suggested to me that twitter could be used to create mystery, and to detain a reader's attention, rather than as a lubricant for what Michael Lambek calls 'rapid fire and simultaneous online communication'.
Southwell's tweets frequently combine a text and an image, but the relationship of these parts is not always straightforward. Where the images in a powerpoint presentation normally exist as mere illustrations of the presenter's argument, the blurred or broken photographs, scraps of old maps, and covers of imaginary books that Southwell tweets often seem to contradict, or at least qualify, the lapidarian fragments of text that accompany them. In the space between their meanings an ambiguity alien to much of the twittersphere, but familiar to anyone who understands modernist and postmodernist poetry, appears and prospers.
Sometimes Southwell takes photographs of pages of books or magazines and posts them, alongside cryptic commentaries. Devoid of their contexts, these pages become artefacts that ask to be examined and catalogued. They can only be read slowly.
Hookland is an almost hermetic twitter feed. Its author never joins the high-velocity debates that regular shake the twittersphere, and seldom even acknowledges the twenty-first century world. And yet his tweets are often reposted scores of times. I'm obviously not the only one who thinks David Southwell is inventing a new artform, and suggesting a new and more intellectually important role for social media.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]