The War on Wordsmiths
A little while ago, the mere rumor that Instagram might be able to sell to third parties the trove of pictures that its users had been posting to the social media site, started a discussion about what it means to be a content creator in our new virtual world. The conversation went in a number of directions: towards corporate ownership of content; about better protocols for copyright; about the insignificance of the user. But one of the questions that wasn’t given adequate attention had to do with why Instagram — nothing more than a picture sharing app — became so important in the first place and what its explosion means at a cultural level.I submit that Instagram and its cousins represent an undeclared war on writing. On words.
We know Instagram is big. We know that it was acquired for a billion dollars by Facebook. We know that it has more than 100 million active users who have contributed more than a billion images already. We know that in the United States, UK, France, Russia, and many other countries, it is consistently among the most popular downloaded app. We know that it is surprisingly global and will remain that way. We even know it has been parodied by College Humor, perhaps the ultimate nod of relevance.
But why? Why is picture sharing so special? I think the answer lies in the company’s ability to give its user the ability to speak in the most important language of our so-called post-literate society. The image. Ours is a world where the ability to communicate doesn’t require anything more than rudimentary reading and writing. And, in fact, sounds and pictures can do the job just as well.And given time constraints today, perhaps better. This is what virtual reality has wrought.The image is the new word. Don’t send a message expressing your emotion, send an image representing the idea.
It wasn’t always like this. The virtual world that took off in the mid 90's started as a place for words. Every person made a screen-name and then used text to communicate their ideas and feelings. But in an extremely accelerated manner the supremacy of text was weakened. First, by progressively smaller bursts of text (websites became blogs, became status updates, became 144 character tweets), and then through the enthronement of the image. Whether it is moving pictures (Youtube, Vimeo, Liveleak), or photo-sharing sites like Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat, it goes without saying that we are well on our way to communicating with each other by way of pictures. And let’s not forget about selfies and nudity (where we communicate to our privates in pictures).
For many people this transformation hasn’t been jarring. After all, we are descendants of cavemen that told their stories upon stone walls by way of images. And we are descended of societies where the primary language was the hieroglyph, which is nothing more than words represented in imagistic forms. From this perspective we shouldn’t show much concern if our societies transition away from words and move to communicating by way of the image. And, in fact, most people won’t care. Language has only one use, which is to tell a story, and a story can be told in a thousand different ways. In fact, you only have to look at the billions of dollars that world’s various film industries earn to realize that maybe the transition to communicating by way of the image has already happened.
But there is a group of storytellers who aren’t all that excited about this shift to images as the primary vehicle for the delivery of the story. We are the wordsmiths. The poets. The short story writers. The memoirists. The novelists. The journalists. Call us anachronistic. Call us conservative. Call us backward. Whether because we love words — the way they sound, the way they taste, the immensely lonely training we undergo in order to use them effectively — we aren’t very happy with this new image obsessed world. Many of us express our sorrow, our resentment, our rage, by polemicizing against anything that leads to the death of the word. Whether it is our presumptive godfather Jonathan Franzen bashing the internet, or our godmother Lydia Millet laying waste to the image-obsessed celebrity in her stunning short story collection Love and Infant Monkeys, we are engaged in a war (one that we are losing) to prevent the death of the word.
We do this because we know if words don’t matter then we won’t matter. And while many of us, even our greatest ones such as Kafka, Emily Dickinson, and Fernando Pessoa, through the adoption of a mixture of humility and fatalism, were able to handle going unpublished, I don’t think any of us can live with the thought that are also irrelevant. If there are no words there are no smiths. We might as well go back to practicing law. Or perhaps we should get together in Florida and form a cult that helps us end our life. (Some might say that becoming a creative writer in today’s world is precisely the same as joining that nihilist cult — my parents certainly do).
It would be useful, if someone wants to do the research, to trace the history of Western civilization with an eye towards evaluating the war between image and word. Start with the Mona Lisa on one side and Don Quixote on the other and count up the wins and losses in each column (of course we are represented by a crotchety old lunatic!). And while such an investigation would be intellectually stimulating, most realists among the wordsmiths already know that short of some massive cataclysm that lays to waste the electronic grid that makes the delivery of images so easy, we are pretty much done for. Whenever I walk past the cinemas and the cafes with flat screen TV’s and look at our children tapping away at pictures on iPads and think about how no one cares about reading the lengths of Proust, or Yukio Mishima, or Qurratulain Hyder, the thoroughness of the wordsmith’s dispossession comes to mind, along with a couplet by the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Na kisi aankh ka noor hoon
Na kisi kay dil ka qarar hoon
Jo kisi kay kaam na aa sakay
Main vo aik musht gubar hoon.
I’m neither the light of their eyes,
Nor am I the solace of their hearts,
The one that has become useless,
I’m nothing but a fistful of dust.
Yes. Writers are a sad lot. We kind of want to live in that world in Denzel Washington’s Book of Eli where books were sacred (there I go justifying myself through a reference to a film instead of a book).
But if the wordsmiths are despondent and melancholy that doesn’t mean that we have stopped putting up a fight. Many, if not all of us, believe that words have something to contribute to this world, something important. We don’t have to be the center of attention to be significant. We can still serve the societies that we emerged from. These bursts of confidence are short-lived, I admit, but when I read novels like The Commiseriat of the Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus, I do think we have a puncher’s chance of survival.
Set in the revolutionary era Russia and featuring characters ranging from the dying Leo Tolstoy, to the ascending Josef Stalin, to an up and coming young filmmaker working with the French film industry, Kalfus’s beautifully rendered novel is a sustained assault of the wordsmith against the image. In a warm and effusive and persuasive manner the novel travels back to a watershed moment in the rise of the image — both iconic photography and moving pictures — and lays bare the manner in which the idolatry of the image can a terrible, hurtful, and destructive force. For every famous funeral that the image makers brought to the masses, there were scores of sacrifices and humiliations that they inflicted upon their subjects and audience. The Commissariat of the Enlightenment, while recognizing the instrumentality of the image, also goes to show the dark side of the image, from agitprop propaganda films, to pornography, to the way images are manipulated by the religious to control the masses. The novel is good enough for me to assert that once you finish reading it you might become willing to show a little skepticism towards this new form of communication aiming for universality. So. Read it.
Kalfus might not be very much in the long run. He might just be our Bahadur Shah Zafar. But his novel is enough to give our lot a little hope. That is often the most important thing for those faced with obsolescence.
Perhaps what Stendhal once said about writing, that its purpose is to hold a mirror to the world, is no longer appropriate (especially as smartphone screens reflect better). However, maybe the wordsmith now must traverse in those subterranean places that the image dares not go because it is simply too dark to take pictures there.
Ali Eteraz is the author of Children of Dust (HarperCollins, 2009), a prose work about coming of age as a rebellious Muslim. It was a New Statesman Book of the Year and long-listed for the Asian-American Writer’s Award.