Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Sunday, November 13, 2016

against tweetstorms

A few weeks ago I took to Twitter to unleash a tweetstorm against tweetstorms. (I was in an ironic mood. Also, if you’re wondering what a tweetstorm is, you can see a few by Mark Andreessen, thought by some to be the originator if not the master of the form, here.) Now I want to make that argument more properly. Hang on tight, we’re getting into the Wayback Machine for one of my geekiest posts ever!

One of the most distinctive characteristics of biblical Hebrew is parataxis, which connects clauses almost wholly by coordinating conjunctions — “and” and its cognates. Without getting too technical here, I want to acknowledge that there is disagreement among Hebrew scholars today about whether the Hebrew word waw should always be translated as “and”: some believe that it has different shades of meaning, in different contexts, that translators should strive to bring those shades out. But in the King James translation, waw is always rendered as “and,” which gives to biblical storytelling a very distinctive rhythm, and also contributes to what Erich Auerbach famously called its “reticence.”

A classic example is the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac:

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

As Kierkegaard famously showed in Fear and Trembling, the story fairly cries out for elucidation: What was Abraham thinking? What did he feel? But all we get is this unembellished, uninflected, set of steps: And ... And ... And.....

Parataxis is perfectly suited to the chief genres of the Hebrew Bible — narrative, law, poetry, prophecy — or, maybe better, the genres of the Hebrew Bible are what they are because of the paratactic tendencies of the Hebrew language? Hard to say. In any case, in the New Testament, as long as the genres are carried over from the Hebrew Bible, the parataxis is there also, even though now in Greek rather than Hebrew:

When he was come down from the mountain, great multitudes followed him. And, behold, there came a leper and worshipped him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus saith unto him, See thou tell no man; but go thy way, shew thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them. And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him.

It’s when we get to the letters of Paul that we begin to suspect that God knew what he was doing in bringing the Christian Gospel to the world at a moment and in a place where the lingua franca was Greek. For Greek lends itself to complexities of conjunction and disjunction, all manner of relations between clause and clause, idea and idea. (Sometimes Paul gets himself tangled in those complexities: try reading Ephesians 1, for instance, in any translation, and see if you can diagram those sentences.) If instead of narrating or legislating or poetizing or prophesying you need to be engaged in dialectical exposition and argumentation, Greek is the language you want. Greek gives you parataxis if you need it, but syntaxis also. And the more complex your argument is, the more you need that syntaxis.

Hey, wasn’t this supposed to be a post about Twitter and tweetstorms? Yes. My point is: Twitter enforces parataxis. I don't mean that in the sense that you absolutely can’t make an argument on Twitter, only that everything about the platform militates against it, and very few people have the commitment or the resourcefulness to push back. So a typical tweetstorm, even when it’s trying to make a case for something, even when it needs to be an argument and its author wants it to be an argument, isn’t an argument: it’s a series of disconnected assertions, effectively no more than And ... And ... And.... I think this is enforced not primarily by the 140-character limit itself, but more by the tweeter’s awareness that each tweet will be read individually, and retweeted individually, losing any context. So the tweeter tries to make each tweet as self-contained as possible, forgoing syntactic relations and complications.

Moreover, even a lengthy tweetstorm, by tweetstorm standards, isn’t long enough to develop an argument properly. (You’d need to use seven or eight tweets just for my previous paragraph, depending on your strategy for connecting the tweets. This whole post? Maybe 50 tweets. Who does 50-tweet storms?)

So what does this atomization of thought remind me of? Biblical proof-texting, that’s what. The founders of Twitter are to our discursive culture what Robert Estienne — the guy who divided the Bible up into verses — is to biblical interpretation. Is it possible, when faced with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians divided into verses, to keep clearly in mind the larger dialectical structure of his exposition? Sure. But it’s very hard, as generations of Christians who think that they can settle an argument by quoting a verse, a verse that might not even be a complete sentence, have demonstrated to us all. Becoming habituated to tweet-sized chunks of thought is damaging to one's grasp of theology and social issues alike.

All this is why I think people who have interesting and even slightly complicated things to say should get off Twitter and get onto a blog, or Medium, or something — any venue that allows extended prose sequences and therefore full-blown syntaxis. Of course, in other contexts, Twitter — with its enforcement of linguistic and argumentative simplicity, its encouragement of unsequenced and disconnected thoughts — might be just the thing you need. If you want to be President of the United States, for example.

Stay tuned for a follow-up to this post.


  • Long post for such a short punchline.

  • Yeah, I could've just tweeted that. Probably would've gotten lots of RTs.

  • Sounds right. I often find that rhetorical distinction illuminating. So are tweetstorms good for "narrative, law, poetry, prophecy"? Not sure I've seen examples.

    Maybe 'hypotaxis' works better as the contrary of 'parataxis.' The latter is itself a sort of syntaxis, I'd think.

  • It really is a strange format. The technical limitations, both the character limit and the divisibility -- as you say, the "awareness that each tweet will be read individually" -- end up functioning like a high-pass filter in audio processing -- long-wavelength features are blocked entirely.

    I can't say that I am quite against tweetstorms myself, because I enjoy that strangeness and find it interesting. But I do think writers should be "choosing their weapon" carefully, and not only for the reasons you provide, but also because even a well-received tweetstorm, buoyed by many an RT, is functionally gone within hours. That's fairly deflating, especially when you consider the contortions required to fit thoughts into the format in the first place… you could be using that energy to craft immortal sentences!!

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