Landing : Athabascau University

Speaking in tones

I'm a million different people from one day to the next.--The Verve, "Bittersweet Symphony"

Between drafting a paper for Congress and giving one, last Friday, to a remote audience in Marburg, I've been reflecting on the different voices I adopt in different media and genres (to say nothing of the million different performative personae that "I" go through on any given day).

As genres, the conference paper and research essay demand different kinds of tone, rhythm, and vocabulary. These basically boil down to keeping things simpler, more direct, and more repetitive (as well as much more concise) in a conference paper, to help a listening audience follow along. I've tried drafting conference papers with speaking in mind, but every time I read or speak draft work back to myself, it always needs more paring down and smoothing out.

Which got me thinking about blogging: what kind of voice do I take on in blogging? Is there even any single voice that emerges among posts -- or do different posts themselves speak in different tones? My general sense is that the tone of most of my posts tends to be less formal and more conversational than that of either a conference paper or an essay.

Anyway, the upshot is that it might be worth trying to compose conference papers not as simplified research essays, as I've been doing, but rather as extended blog posts. It might be worth the thought experiment, if only to find out whether the paper would need fewer re-writes afterward.

Say goodbye to a self crystallized around a matrix of consistency. - Christine Tamblyn (150)

Further to the development of different voices in different apps, I don't think there's any point trying to discern any consistent tone for someone's Twitter messages. The extreme brevity of the form, its preponderance of links, and its compulsive re-tweets all seem to work against establishing any consistent voice. It might be more accurate to think in terms of brand, not voice, for Twitter -- with all the commodity fetishism that entails. But I think there is something to identifying one's Facebook voice. It might be the parallax produced by me in my circle of "friends," but Facebook seems to be where facetiousness and sarcasm reign; anytime anyone posts something serious, heartfelt, or otherwise real, it always seems jarring and inappropriate to me.

In admitting this, I think I'm admitting to a symptom of what Tobias van Veen calls "the cryptofascism of corporate perception"; in other words, the modes of communication that are structured and limited by corporate social media (to which the Elgg that supports the Landing is, I think, a notable open-source exception): "the technics of perception in which uncitizens engage with the social network aligns desire with socially networked consumerism. Desire is directed toward a ceaseless flow of objects and data (either LIKED or absented in response)." In other words, you can't "dislike" something on Facebook; you can only disappear it by refraining to like or comment on it. On the implications of "corporate perception" like this for "the youth vote" in the recent federal election, van Veen writes:

There is no rebellion not because youth don’t care; there is no rebellion because youth live in a world created and catered through info-filtering mechanisms tailored so precisely to predict and provide for their consumer and erotic impulses that the practice of democratic choice has no place within it. One can LIKE but one cannot not like; there is no choice per se, only the metrics of one-way desire. [...] Youth—a category no longer of age but of consumer uncitizenry, which is to say, humans who only participate in collective processes through consumption and discourse with corporatized social networks—feel that with social networks and mobile communications that they, each and every one, are the centre of all attention. Uncitizens command and demand—not from their nation-states, but from their corporations, and what they demand is the short-term satisfaction of their pleasures.

van Veen's point is that social networks erase the nation-state and thus cripple democratic participation in it: since, in social networks, the nation-state "does not exist as such—which is to say as a metric of consumer desire," its virtual nonexistence helps expedite its material dismantling by the right-wing powers that be. (BTW, van Veen's blog exemplifies a very different tone for scholarly blogging.)

I'm likewise preoccupied by the message of social media, as McLuhan might say: how social network technologies make specific kinds of environments, how they allow only certain, limited kinds of discourse and communication. And, in the process, how they privilege certain kinds of voices, and construct certain kinds of subjects.

Works Cited

Tamblyn, Christine. "Grafting Tentacles on the Octopussy." Vulvamorphia: Lusitania 6 (1994): 147-52.

van Veen, Tobias. "Technics and Decrepit Democracy." Fugitive Philosophy [blog]. 3 May 2011

The Verve. "Bittersweet Symphony." Urban Hymns. Hut, 1997.


  • I tried to find a description, in "your" language (so in a researched, reviewed article), of the fluidity of gender performances recognized by some queer communities: people who are butch in private, but look femme in public (the best description I can muster for the complicated, culturally-enforced drag act I perform that makes my faggy version of masculinity 'acceptable' in public), or who are privately femme, but butch for work (the queer straight man who proofreads essays for me, for instance). No dice, so I've given the anecdotal examples instead. 

    But more interestingly, while I was searching, I did find a number of studies that recognized this fluidity, pinned it entirely on young people, and made it an issue of subversion, transgression, and deception (not that it ever isn't, but it just doesn't sit right to think it only is). The young people studied were largely "closeted"* gay, lesbian and trans kids, whose identities were seen as 'naturally' whatever kind of queer they were, and when their gender performances varied from that, then they were 'hiding' their queer identities. Seems strange to me because that variance is claimed by many as a genderqueer identity, and I wonder how much of what varies between public and private, or online and offline, among young people gets labelled as static moments in a dichotomy between right and wrong, real or fake, voice by adult researchers simply because we can get away with doing it. Which brings me back to what bugged me the first time I read van Veen's post.


    *I hate that word.

    sarah beth May 17, 2011 - 10:39am

  • I agree that van Veen's representation of youth is problematic, sometimes more caricature than characterization -- but I agree for different reasons, so thanks for highlighting the assumptions about gender and sexuality as fixed, in essential terms, to assumptions about youth and transgression. (Assumptions that Rob Latham's work is so reliably good for challenging.)

    I found van Veen's representation of youth problematic in its caricature of contemporary music:

    A pastiche of postmodern style has stagnated into over a decade of hipsterism that drags on & on without reinvention nor cultural innovation. Music regurgitates itself without push nor force. Meanwhile, this cultural merry-go-round—a kind of cyclism of rehashed styles—rotates around an absent pillar: that of youth displeasure and rebellion against the controlling interests of the nation-state.

    To be blunt (and slightly unkind), this sounds to me like someone's just getting older: identical criticisms were earlier lodged against house, before that, against disco, and even (minus the po-mo lingo) against Roaring 'Twenties jazz (courtesy of Theodor Adorno). I'll admit I don't get the hipster thing, but (to paraphrase Noel Coward) today's cheap pop music is no less potent than it ever was. So what if the kids don't know how to dance to rock and roll? That's what Lady Gaga's for.


    Mark A. McCutcheon May 17, 2011 - 11:05am

  • I can't say I get the hipster thing either; it just looks like a neutralizing appropriation of queer culture to me (and a complicated one at that: it's become increasingly difficcult to tell the difference between butch dykes in their 20s and teenage boys). But I guess that appropriation goes in cycles, too (e.g. your earrings are super gay). 

    I do worry, when old people start taking themselves seriously, about the specific kinds of youth culture that get trivialized. Like the backlashes against Lady Gaga and disco (also: Twilight, which is awful in its own right, but gets attacked for the wrong reasons), it seems to have a lot to do with trivializing young people's femininity, expressing homophobia, and ultimately ignoring their political voices (however fluid and inconsistent -- as you've shown, a characteristic we all work to some extent) in a way that justifies the continued denial of political power (youth 18-25 may not be voting, but maybe they've just gotten used to 18 years of not being allowed to vote).

    On a side note, I did otherwise really enjoy that post, particularly for the distinction between (if not a language for) citizenship on paper and citizenship in practice. 

    sarah beth May 17, 2011 - 11:38am

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