Aphorism, fragment, tweet


First aired on Spark (7/6/2013)

Twitter is filled with quick quips and pithy posturings that are only 140 characters long. Having such a condensed space to share your thoughts and ideas can't be good for critical thinking, criticism and discussion, can it? Simon Reader doesn't think that's necessarily true. In fact, he's turned the history of the quip into a summer course at the University of Toronto titled Aphorism, Fragment, Tweet. Reader will have his students look at historical uses of aphorism and by doing so, he hopes to combat the bias that quick and pithy communication via social media equals lack of intelligence.

There are two assumptions that Reader hopes to turn upside down in his class. First, that brief writing is a new phenomenon that emerged in language as a result of social media. In fact, aphorisms (which Reader defines as "a short piece of text searching for a context") pre-date the Greek classical era. Before Plato and Aristotle, "philosophers used aphorism as a way to transmit their ideas in economical form," Reader told Spark host Nora Young in a recent interview. And some of the modern era's greatest writers and thinkers, like Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde, used aphorisms frequently.

The second assumption Reader tackles is that tweets -- and other short forms of communication -- are "frivolous." This goes for all short pieces of text, regardless of the medium they are shared on. "It doesn't always have to be something glib, flippant or disposable. It can actually be enduring and convey wisdom." But Twitter is filled with tweets about cupcakes and poodles' haircuts too, and that's what Reader loves about the medium. "We have all these things mashed up together and they are all jostling for our attention."

In fact, Reader believes we are in the age of aphorism. We finally have a forum that is suited to and celebrates brevity. Twitter and Facebook "demand a certain concision or brevity." Reader thinks this is a wonderful development for language because aphorisms were invented with the intention to share, discuss and debate. And we now have a technology that lets us do that instantly. "[Aphorisms] are written not to be located in a single book or single text. They are made to be quoted, they are made to circulate, to meander through different contexts and to stimulate discussion and responses. So aphorisms are written with the intention or being replied to, responded to or debated."

Social media has revolutionized how we communicate, and the future of communication remains uncertain. But that's what makes it exciting. "It's important to have spaces of discussion and uncertainty and possibility where we don't necessarily know where an idea might go or where our discussions might lead."

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