Thought­ful so­cial media posts stand out in print

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is The Aus­tralian’s chief literary critic.

Note Book By Jeff Nunokawa Prince­ton Univer­sity Press, 360pp, $71 (HB)

It surely says some­thing about the re­silience of the printed book that we should be re­spond­ing to a rad­i­cal new use of online so­cial media only when it ap­pears printed in ink on pa­per. Then again, Note Book is the hand­some record of a pro­ject con­sciously poised be­tween codex and pixel. The phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of a years­long experiment by Prince­ton Univer­sity lec­turer Jeff Nunokawa, Note Book is just that: a book made out of daily Face­book posts, writ­ten us­ing the plat­form’s rarely used Notes fea­ture, which al­lows users to write at length.

What makes Nunokawa’s ef­forts so dif­fer­ent is their crafted qual­ity and the reser­voir of in­tel­li­gence, knowl­edge and feel­ing from which they are drawn.

Each day the Hawai­ian-born spe­cial­ist in English literature uses a sim­i­lar, tri­par­tite method: be­gin­ning with a quo­ta­tion — some­thing re­lated to his re­search or teach­ing, or a book picked up at ran­dom — and then riff­ing for a sen­tence, a para­graph, a page on it, be­fore ap­pend­ing a foot­note and an ac­com­pa­ny­ing im­age (only a few of which, sadly, are re­pro­duced in print form).

So it is that a quo­ta­tion about Mar­cus Aure­lius’s phi­los­o­phy be­comes a point of de­par­ture for a mem­ory of watch­ing the John Cu­sack rom­com Say Any­thing, which is ac­com­pa­nied by a foot­note con­tain­ing the fi­nal lines of The Odyssey in Robert Fitzger­ald’s trans­la­tion.

Mean­while, note 4474 starts with a brief line from Jane Austen’s Emma (‘‘the small band of true friends ... the per­fect hap­pi­ness of the union’’) and then shades into rec­ol­lec­tions of a re­cent dis­cus­sion be­tween the au­thor and his mother about what heaven might look like be­fore con­clud­ing with a line from philoso­pher Stan­ley Cavell about Hol­ly­wood screw­ball comedies of the 1930s.

The ef­fect is like sit­ting in front of a three­part mir­ror, with each re­flec­tion pro­vid­ing a dif­fer­ent as­pect of a sin­gle per­ceiv­ing sub­ject. On the page, it re­calls a mix of old-fash­ioned com­mon­place book (lots of Ro­man­tic po­etry and prose, lines from 19th-cen­tury nov­els and Ger­man so­ci­ol­o­gists), a per­sonal di­ary (old boyfriends and the fail­ures of love are a re­cur­rent theme, and surely no thinker since Roland Barthes has fixed so firmly on his mother) and a se­ries of philo­soph­i­cal frag­ments rem­i­nis­cent of Barthes’s A Lover’s Dis­course.

Take note 4196, ‘‘Be­yond Dis­play’’, which opens with a quo­ta­tion from Thomas De Quincey’s Literary Rem­i­nis­cences: Not that the reader is to sup­pose in Southey a showy master of rhetoric and col­lo­quial sword-play, seek­ing to strike and daz­zle by his bril­liant hits and eva­sions. The very op­po­site is the truth. He seeks, in­deed, to be ef­fec­tive, not for the sake of dis­play, but as the read­i­est means of re­treat­ing from dis­play, and the ne­ces­sity for dis­play.

‘‘I won­der how much the de­sire to daz­zle is ac­tu­ally a for­got­ten hunger for a calmer kind of hu­man con­tact,’’ re­sponds Nunokawa, ‘‘sim­mered be­yond recog­ni­tion by the fear that no one re­ally likes what’s re­ally raw… Some of the best times I have with you are when I’m re­ally tired, and my whole fleet of rhetor­i­cal de­vices and other ves­sels for fancy fly­ing pretty much grounded ...’’

Of course, the re­lin­quish­ment of rhetor­i­cal per­for­mance is a literary per­for­mance in it­self, as Nunokawa, a sub­tle scholar, knows only too well. But un­der­stand­ing this gives us a strong hint of what he is at­tempt­ing to do in Note Book. His tongue-in-cheek in­tro­duc­tion (he calls it an ‘‘Ini­tial Public Of­fer­ing’’) de­scribes a writ­ing process al­most de­signed to nudge the au­thor out of of­fi­cial modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, tra­di­tional crit­i­cal forms and es­tab­lished means of ad­dress, to­wards some­thing at once more pol­ished and more plain.

‘‘Over time,’’ he writes, ‘‘I have grown closer and closer in these notes to the texts that I take up in them: so much so that I have wound up mix­ing them more and more with sto­ries of my own life ... [They] have grown less and less for­mal ex­po­si­tions and ex­pli­ca­tions of the texts where they got their start, and more and more em­u­la­tions and ex­ten­sions of them.’’

The evo­lu­tion is im­por­tant. It shows Nunokawa has been able to use unique as­pects of emerg­ing dig­i­tal medi­ums for com­mu­ni­ca­tion to link his con­tem­po­rary es­says in crit­i­cism with a far older canon.

Like Mon­taigne, Fran­cis Ba­con, Sa­muel John­son, Wil­liam Ha­zlitt, Vir­ginia Woolf, Wal­ter Ben­jamin and Barthes — the ‘‘great an­ces­tors of this lit­tle ad­ven­ture in the es­say form’’ — Nunokawa’s pieces use the per­sonal as a para­dox­i­cal means of grasp­ing uni­ver­sals. They also ven­ture to find words that ‘‘en­shrine and en­cour­age some some­way brave, though some­what frac­tured parts of the lives that we some­how lead, and lead to­gether’’.

I am not sure Nunokawa’s es­says, daz­zling and heart­felt as they can be, will sur­vive as de Quincey’s have done. But what Note Book shows us is that the very dig­i­tal plat­forms we de­cry for the way they ag­gre­gate us only to iso­late us, dumb us down, and mine our in­ner­most hearts and minds for com­mer­cial gain, may also be used to re­verse the cur­rent.

Nunokawa’s es­says should leave us hope­ful that ev­ery new it­er­a­tion of so­cial media is built by us and merely awaits in­fu­sions of sub­ver­sive thought, rough and ready democ­racy, and moral fer­vour. It is a plat­form in which em­pa­thy may be as im­por­tant as com­merce, if we de­sire it, and where an in­di­vid­ual may re­veal them­selves in such a way that in­di­vid­ual pas­sion, pain and un­cer­tainty be­come part of a grand com­mons. ‘‘Ev­ery man has within him­self the en­tire hu­man con­di­tion,’’ wrote Mon­taigne. And ev­ery woman too.

Face­book can serve as a plat­form for eru­dite es­says, too

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