25 May 2014

Prolegomena to a Discourse on the Ethics of Textual Communication


[I started putting down these notes about a week ago.  They're incomplete, but I need to put them somewhere before they're buried in my computer.]

Now may be the time to strike up a conversation about the ethics of quasi-impersonal conversations.  Probably like most of you, I've been socializing through the internet since early adolescence.  I started arguing with people on a Tolkien-centered web forum around age 12, and have been going in some way ever since (via AIM, Facebook, comboxes, blogs, etc.).  Here are some initial observations.  Supplement and correct at will.

1.  Conversation is an art (i.e. a set of acts, perfected through habit, ordered by reason toward the production of a certain type of thing).  The tools of this art are words and other signs, the object worked on is the mind of the interlocutor, and the end is the communication of ideas and impressions.

2.  An art in itself is not matter for ethical reflection, but becomes such by association with ends perfective of human nature.  If conversation is for the sake of communication, what are the purposes of communication?  (Aside: like all arts, one of the ends of conversation is the simple delight in the excellence of the operation.  I think many of us here experience this a lot.)

3.  Communication is the one of the bases of human companionship (i.e. society), and plays an essential role in all of its aspects.  Through communication we disclose our own inner states, we direct the minds of our fellows toward reality, we describe, dissuade, command, encourage, inquire, etc.

4.  St. Thomas distinguishes two functions of speech (Ia q.107 a.2): the primary function of speech is to enlighten, and in this way communication is for the sake of the one who hears, as the transmission of a form which enables the unenlightened to grasp the truth of things.

5.  The secondary function of speech is to make known one’s will, and in this way communication is for the sake of the speaker, so that those who hear him can aid him in his needs.

6.  The character of communication depends on the relationship of the communicants.  St. Thomas makes this clear in his comparison of the angelic orders.  As usual, his analyses of the angels serve as a kind of intellectual laboratory meant to simplify later analysis of the human situation.  Humans, unlike angels, learn by sensible intermediaries, which means that communication always involves the exchange of signs, and not the direct transmission of ideas from one mind to another.

7.  Let’s cut to the chase, lest this become a full tractatus de signis.

8.  In ordinary human communication, there is a definite context to every exchange: the parties to the conversation share a place, a community (at least secundum quid), and a sense of each other by virtue of their corporeal presence.  All the limitations and confusions of speech are made clear in a face to face conversation, through tone, cadence, and that complex of non-verbal signs we call “body language”.

9.  Textual communication is ordinarily either public or private.  Most private textual communication not performed on account of official duties is based on friendship of some sort.  This means that a certain degree of good will is presumed in the participants, including care for the meaning of what is said: each desires to receive what is given by the other, and each desires to give something worth receiving.

10.  Public communication (spoken or written) has a different character than private communication.  It is directed at the edification of an entire community, and therefore even if addressed in name toward a particular person, it usually abstracts from the particular needs of that person.  Thus, for example, in public debates, the primary hearer is the audience, and not the opponent.  Little concern is wasted ordinarily on the edification or correction of the opponent— the focus is on the exploitation of agreed facts and common sense to cause the hearers to see the world as the speaker sees it.

11.  Textual communication tends to be public by its nature: written words are replicable independent of their authors.  They can travel and multiply while remaining the words of the person who wrote them.  By contrast each act of speaking (viva voce) is personal, and is the act of the one who utters the sounds, even if he is quoting.  Texts communicate independent of the particular author’s originally intended particular audience, and therefore have a universality to them.  A text tends to be read on its merits apart from the one who writes it, and it is often even difficult to incorporate personality into a text, because so many of the tactile features of conversation are absent from it.

12.  The impersonal quality of textual communication gives it stylistic weight.  Text is official, is lasting, deals with universals and not the concerns of a moment.  There is a “world of letters” apart from the world of sense, and whenever one sits down to write, one has to enter into that world, with its own dialect and manners.

13.  The "world of letters" has, over the past 20 years, changed dramatically.  This is evident in the new genera of textual exchange.  Half a century ago, there were letters, articles, books, and perhaps telegrams.  Every textual exchange was slow, delayed by the difficulty of crossing distances or typesetting.  Today, the majority of textual communication happens instantaneously, in the form of SMS Messages, chat conversations, blog posts, comments, etc.

14.  The character of textual exchange is changing.  The written word is losing its weight, not because its mobility or universality are being reined in (they are, in fact, expanding rapidly), but because there is so much text produced from one moment to the next, it is so poorly organized and so little distinguished amidst our continual rush for the new, that it tends to be quickly buried and forgotten.  (The blog is the paradigmatic instance of this: it is thoroughly occasional and current, and discourages by its structure any sense of unity to the presentation of content that extends over the course of more than a few posts.)

15.  Text and personal communication.  The speed of delivery changes the way people interact with each other through text: as a result of the rapidity of their production, texts become more and more occasional.  The formalities of traditional prose style collapse, and along with them the effective universality of each text’s intended audience.  Text, though effectively de-localized by the internet, takes on a new kind of placement, and is “located” more and more by the other texts engaged with it at the time of its production.  To some extent this sort of contextual placement has always existed, but given the ephemerality of texts today, and the carelessness with which they are rattled off, I believe its importance in understanding how textual communication works has greatly increased.