There are ideas that hone the lenses through which we see the world, and if we are lucky, we can point to the precise moment an idea sunk into our soft gray matter and clarified our views.
I have gone on at length about my 4th-grade mind cracking open the first time I read the sonnet metaphor in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, but another mind-scrambling moment took place as a college freshman when I read "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme," a paper published by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin.
The paper begins with the authors setting up the metaphor they'll use to advance an argument for reframing the way evolutionary biologists operate. First, the authors talk about spandrels in the cathedral and how those spandrels are the results of architectural constraints. Then, they point out that the spandrels themselves were turned into opportunities to display breathtaking art. They weren't created to make gorgeous art. The art is the byproduct.
As a metaphorical framework, my big takeaway sprang from the phrase "a secondary epiphenomenon representing a fruitful use of available parts, not a cause of the entire system." [Emphasis mine]
The ostensible purpose of my study in graduate was to learn how to write. The art in my curricula's spandrels, so to speak, were the areas of study that have continued to fascinate me 19 years on.
One of them was the then-nascent field of computer mediated communication, which we often refered to as CMC. Many of our classroom exercises and lines of inquiry centered around the question "How can CMC approximate the depth and complexity of face-to-face communication?" The people I knew who studied rhetoric werre overjoyed by the opportunity to discern and analyze rivers of IRC nattering or email chattering. Surely they'd discover the textual conventions that approximated facial expressions and tones!
(At left: Judge Judy offers her opinion on graduate student BS sessions.)
As it turns out, we were waiting for Tumblr to tell us the answer.
People on Tumblr don't don't struggle to fill in the extratextual communication cues with precise language. What they do is post reaction GIFs.
I think the notion of saying, "Screw it -- it's easier for me to post a picture than write a thousand words" demonstrates a fascinating shift in CMC. It's even more intriguing when you consider that most of the time, people are posting pictures of celebrities or fictional characters reacting to something. What a peculiarly American iteration of the identity play that takes place online!
Back in 1995, in my history of communications technology class (another spandrel), we spent one morning exploring some virtual reality community that was supposed to take off. Users were allowed to pick icons to represent their virtual selves(*), and I remember being appalled/amused that one dedicated, self-appointed troublemaker had decided on the disembodied head of Nicole Simpson Brown for his icon. He'd use it when he wanted to register disgust at other people's goings-on.
Throughout that history class, we circled around the questions raised by structuralist and poststructuralist linguists -- reading up on Noam Chomsky's work on transformational-generative grammar, which posited that our innate, subconscious ability to generate language sprang from a set of rules coded into our brain (**), then contrasting it to Ferdinand de Saussure's argument that there's a loop between a language's social context and the words comprising that language. You cannot know a language without understanding the culture which formed it, nor can you discount the extent to which a culture is shaped by its language.
One of Saussure's significant contributions to linguistics is an argument that goes like this: All languages have concepts and the corresponding sounds/images that go with them, i.e. the signified and the signifier. But the signifiers only work in relation to one another, thereby suggesting that a language is a gestalt, i.e. a whole that transcends and exceeds the sum of its parts. In practical terms, what this means is you can't really understand what one word in a language means unless you study it in situ, or within the larger framework of a conversation as a whole.
I am super-curious to find out if we are witnessing the formation of a new communications mode via GIFs and animation. In some ways, the graphic of a real housewife bugging her eyes in outrage represents a return to the theory of generative grammar: We're tapping something that we already have encoded on one cognitive level.
On the other hand, watching an endless loop of some rageaholic flapping her hands only works as an effective grammatical structure if we know the social context of the original source material and can then apply it to the current comunications exchange.
If you've ever read a history of the alphabet, you know that the letters we use now have their roots in logographs, or specific symbols depicting specific objects and places. It is funny that now, over 5000 years later, we're revisiting a highly specific logographic/photographic grammar.
And what's even funnier: I went to graduate school to learn how to write. All this other hoohah -- the CMC, the histories of technology, the observation of an increasingly logographic communication mode online -- is a mere spandrel.
Man, the next time I need to blow off steam before a deadline, I should just read Buzzfeed, huh?
(*) It will never not be funny to me that the cyberpunk model of virtual reality had people withdrawing from society to create a parallel civilization, while the last 15 years have shown nearly the opposite: people unhestitatingly draw others into the private, virtual worlds they're crafting by means of nearly uninterrupted online access. In other words, Twitter and Instagram are what virtual reality is.
(**) Read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash for the less wonky explanation and the extrapolation of what happens when someone accesses the generative grammar. Hint: It involves enslaving humanity!