Small Talk in the Worlds of WEIRD and un-WEIRD

“Save oxygen: stamp out small talk.”
Thus Spake Aforista

jpegI seldom agree wholeheartedly with the Postfuturist Sage Aforista, but I’m right on board with this saying. Whenever small talk starts, Pat and I both glaze over and remain in a quasi-catatonic state until the conversation returns to something real. As someone who loves language and works with it every day, I find small talk downright offensive. I once had an English teacher who loathed slang, calling it an “abuse of language.” I actually like slang, and agree with Steven Pinker that it enriches and enlarges language. But small talk is another matter. It does use up precious oxygen, and it clutters up the brain.

Call me a snob if you like. I don’t see it that way. Here’s what I’ve always thought: When human beings lived closer to nature and to each other, surely nobody wasted time on pointless blather. Surely small talk is a sign of language in its decadence; we “civilized” people talk in inanities because we don’t give our brains enough meaningful stuff to think about. We’re mentally just plain lazy.

But Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, has given me cause to reconsider. Subtitled “What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?”, Diamond’s book reflects upon years of fieldwork among people living traditional lifestyles. It is an unsentimental assessment of what we in the world of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) have to learn from traditional peoples. Diamond points out that small talk was hardly invented by us WEIRD people:

I have been impressed by how much more time New Guineans spend talking with each other than do we Americans and Europeans. They keep up a running commentary on what is happening now, what happened this morning and yesterday, who ate what and when, who urinated when and where, and minute details of who said what about whom or did what to whom. They don’t merely fill the day with talk: from time to time through the night they wake up and resume talking. That makes it difficult for a Westerner like me, accustomed to nights spent in uninterrupted sleep and not punctuated with conversations, to get a good night’s rest in a hut shared with many New Guineans.

So these uncorrupted children of nature are not communicating gems of ancient wisdom; they’re engaged in the idlest possible chat about food and bodily functions and what have you. (Diamond calls it “gossip” because it consists of people talking about other people; I call it “small talk” because it is about trivialities. Let’s just treat the two terms as interchangeable.) What’s more, explains Diamond, small talk serves perfectly valid functions in the non-WEIRD world. In a society lacking in mass media, it is a justly valued form of entertainment; in a community where interdependence is crucial, it is a way to create and sustain social relationships; in a habitat where danger is everywhere, it is a source of precious information about every possible contingency.

But in his review of Diamond’s book, Steven Mithin goes further …

The value of gossip provides one of the best theories for the evolution of language among our hominin ancestors …

I can’t say I much like this possibility. I prefer Julian Jaynes’s idea that the first words were warnings: not nouns or even verbs, but modifiers like “far,” “near,” “slow,” or “fast”—utterances to communicate the proximity of danger and the urgency to do something about it. That idea appeals to me, because it suggests that language has its origins in matters of life and death importance.

But maybe it’s just not so. Maybe primordial language was all about bowel movements, embarrassing physical mishaps, and spur-of-the-moment sexual encounters—a cultural step lower even than People magazine.

Surely none of this justifies the continued use of small talk by our species. As Diamond also points out, we crave salt and carbohydrates because they were once so hard to come by; now that we’ve got them in abundance, such cravings have become hazardous to our health. It seems to me that our craving for small talk is likewise toxic—an adaptation that has long since turned maladaptive, causing the mental equivalents of hypertension and diabetes. If we can cut down on unhealthy substances at the dinner table, can’t we do the same on Facebook and Twitter?

Concerning Wisdom—Old and New

“There is no such thing as ancient wisdom; it is always new.”
Thus Spake Aforista

Count on the Postfuturist Sage Aforista to say something strident, hyperbolic, and even untrue. Of course there is such a thing as ancient wisdom, and of course we all need to be mindful of it in this speed-of-light age of rampant newness—what Douglas Rushkoff has dubbed Present Shock. As the authors of a recently published novel exploring Mayan culture of a millennium ago, Pat and I would seem to be active proponents of ancient wisdom.

And yet …

Mayan-72Is Mayan Interface really about ancient wisdom at all? There are certainly aspects of indigenous culture that Pat and I extol. In my post of February 13, I wrote about our fascination with Mayan storytelling techniques. A related excerpt written in authentic Mayan fashion may be found in the current issue of SOL: English Writing in Mexico.

But readers looking for a quick and easy fixes based Mayan ancient wisdom will surely be disappointed by our book. Pakabtun’s fictional king Bohol Caan has no more of a grasp on certainty ca. 900 CE than epigrapher Lydia Rosenstrom does in 2012 CE. In our novels, Pat and I just don’t do certainty.

Just yesterday, Pat asked me if any of our novels even had “endings” to speak of. Could I think of just one that culminated in some final resolution, realization, or insight? No, I couldn’t. While I hope that all of our stories have satisfactory and satisfying denouements, Pat and I always leave our protagonists on the brink of fresh discoveries, as if another turn of the page will lead into an entirely new adventure. “And that’s essential,” Pat remarked.

One of my favorite twentieth-century plays is Bernard Shaw’s little-known The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles. In this 1934 extravaganza, an angel arrives, announcing that the Day of Judgment has come. This is not to be the noisy apocalypse of the Book of Revelation, the angel explains:

The Day of Judgment is not the end of the world, but the end of its childhood and the beginning of its responsibility.

According to the angel, there will be no reward or punishment, no heaven or hell—only the quiet vaporization of almost all of humanity:

The lives which have no use, no meaning, no purpose, will fade out. You will have to justify your existence or perish.

The play’s characters are understandably unsettled by this proclamation. How can anyone ever “justify” one’s existence? Whose life can assuredly be said to have use, meaning, and purpose? None of the characters can answer these questions, and one by one they vanish—accompanied, presumably, by most if not all of the human race.

Finally, only two people remain onstage: the priestess Prola and her husband, the priest Pra. Fully aware that their lives have been engaged in folly and futility, Prola and Pra expect to evaporate at any moment. But that moment never comes.

Flawed, failed, and seemingly useless as they are, Prola and Pra share the redemptive belief in the doctrine, “Let Life Come.” And this doctrine is, after all, merely a denial of all doctrines, of all beliefs.

Prola and Pra prevail through the Judgment, for together they grasp that “the future is to those who prefer surprise and wonder to security.” As Prola puts it,

Remember: we are in the Unexpected Isles; and in the Unexpected Isles all plans fail. So much the better: plans are only jigsaw puzzles: one gets tired of them long before one can piece them together. There are still a million lives beyond all the Utopias and the Millenniums and the rest of the jigsaw puzzles.… We are not here to fulfill prophecies and fit ourselves into puzzles, but to wrestle with life as it comes. And it never comes as we expect it to come.

So I suppose Aforista may be onto something after all. There are no endings in the world of Story. There is only wisdom’s perpetually unfolding newness.

Of Back-of-the-Book Indexes and Other Cultural Catastrophes

“Writing originated purely for accounting purposes;
all subsequent uses have contributed to writing’s decay.”
Thus Spake Aforista

The postfuturist sage Aforista recently caused quite an uproar with this remark. Yes, I know, it’s a frightful thing to say, but Aforista will speak her mind. And she’s not the first to express such a sentiment. Indeed, she belongs to a long and colorful lineage of cultural naysayers and profits of doom, one of whom recently referred to Wikipedia as the “end of scholarship.”

I can’t remember who said it, and I can’t turn it up on Google or even on Wikipedia itself, which I guess means it might as well never have been said. But I’m sure I read it somewhere. And I’m not surprised at the sentiment. It’s always the “end of” something vital to humanity, and we are always teetering on the edge of a new Dark Ages. (Never mind that there was never really an old Dark Ages.)

We hear about the end of literature and the end of classical music and the end of all manner of things. The modest and self-effacing Harold Bloom even called slam poetry “the death of art.” Of course, Bloom has said that just about everything fundamental to human culture, including Rock and Roll, is also dead. (I, too, am not altogether sure that civilization can survive the recent passing of Levon Helm.)

None of this doomsaying is new to our postmodern, digital age. Everything good has been ending for a long time. It’s worth nothing that reading ended way back in the seventeenth century. To be specific, nobody has actually read books for more than 300 years. Reading was killed off when indexes started appearing in the backs of books.

In The Tale of the Tub (ca. 1694-99), Jonathan Swift attacks the pernicious influence of indexes by satirically assuming the persona of a scholar who approves of them:

[W]e of this age have discovered a shorter and more prudent method to become scholars and wits, without the fatigue of reading or of thinking.… [T]he choicer, the profounder, and politer method, [is] to get a thorough insight into the index by which the whole book is governed and turned, like fishes by the tail. For to enter the palace of learning at the great gate requires an expense of time and forms, therefore men of much haste and little ceremony are content to get in by the back-door.

And of course, Swift can’t resist an off-color analogy:

Thus physicians discover the state of the whole body, by consulting only what comes from behind.

So the tradition of the death of, well, tradition is a very old tradition indeed—a lot older than Swift, even.

In a similar spirit, Plato would have regarded Aforista’s observation as much too generous toward writing. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates relates how the god Theuth invented writing, and how he was upbraided by King Thamus for doing so:

[T]his discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

So writing itself meant the end of truth, thought, memory, and—I forget the rest of it. And—oh, the irony!—here I sit at my computer, utilizing the most pernicious technology ever devised, putting down words that are useful for nothing except to turn you, dear reader, into “tiresome company.” Besides, I’ve just used up my allotted number of keystrokes for today, so I’ll get back to all this later.

The “Single Synapse” Theory

“The transformation of the personality begins with the deliberate activation of a single synapse.” Thus Spake Aforista.

The Postfuturist Sage Aforista makes it sound so easy! Most of us find it difficult to utterly change our personalities from the bottom up. But maybe, in a world on the brink of fiscal cliffs, climate change, global pandemics, and all manner of other crises, we must learn to do so.

In the November 1987 issue of the newsletter version of the jamais vu papers (which eventually served as the basis of an eponymously titled novel), Pat interviewed the late economist Robert Theobald, who made some striking observations on this very issue:

It is a truism that change happens in crisis. Without a crisis people will go on doing things as they have always done them because change is always time-consuming and usually frustrating.…

Bluntly put, homeostasis is the path of the least resistance, and we are stubbornly inclined to follow it, even when change is needed. Even impending crisis typically doesn’t tend to elicit positive change:

If the scope of the crisis seems too extensive people may well panic and simply deny the possibility of affecting the total situation. I believe that there are reasons to fear that this pattern is developing in the world at the current time. We know that things are getting worse but we are so terrified that we continue to keep things going rather than permit some change to happen by forcing situations to the crisis point. All too often the longer we wait the worse the crisis will become.

It’s sad that Theobald’s observations remain so timely a quarter of a century after he made them. Sadder still, we actually invent end times and eschatological deadlines in order to elicit change from without—by extraterrestrial aid, let us say say. Does anybody happen to remember the Harmonic Convergence of 1987?

In an episode little remembered in New Age annals but recorded in a special issue of the jamais vu papers, Quetzalcoatl and the Goddess returned to earth on August 16 of that year to join in the grand fiesta. They were dismayed to find homo sapiens in an evolutionary rut, and dismayed even further that humanity expected them, ancient archetypes that they were, to completely take over the process of terrestrial transformation. In a seldom quoted outburst, Goddess said,

“The idea that a species like yours would just stay immutable for thousands of years at a crack—well, it seems downright ornery, that’s all. I mean, it’s like a kid holding his breath until his face turns blue.”

Will we once again disappoint our archetypal forces and sentient metaphors when the 13th b’ak’tun of the Mayan calendar comes to an end on December 21, 2012? It’s a question that Lydia Rosenstrom, the protagonist of Pat’s and my novel Mayan Interface, pauses to consider as people all over the world await “a force outside themselves to make things right somehow—either by bringing our world to an end or by transforming the whole of humankind”:

“Well, some folks might experience something. Others might miss their best chance while they’re waiting. Some wouldn’t notice transformation if it up and bites them, because it doesn’t fit the story they’re fixed on. Some just expect transformation to be a one-time thing, so they’ll be stuck wherever they arrive that day.”

As Quetzalcoatl and the Goddess tried to tell us back in 1987, we don’t have to wait, and we don’t need extraterrestrial aid. Human nature itself is mutable, after all. And when you get right down to it, it’s simply a matter of deliberately activating that single synapse.