Poetry—A very common kind of illegibility
crossposted from: https://crispy.substack.com/p/back-to-poetry
As the public space becomes increasingly policed, people make ample use of higher levels of abstraction to describe object-level things. But it’s not all at the meta-level, is it?
A euphemism is not really meta-level, it’s a reference to one thing, understood to be another in context. An implied subject (“SOMEONE wouldn’t like that.”) is the same game.
These, however, are not very effective methods at truly deflecting blame or getting to talk out in the open. This is the internet, if you drop words that trivially correlate with your intended meaning, people will search them and understand. You may even become a target for using such futile measures, because they are so obvious once found. You can write lk th*s all you want, but anything mechanical, is mechanically undoable, and personally punishable by exactly the people you were trying to avoid.
This isn’t a new problem, nor is it a problem that has ever gone away in the first place. When we discuss something sensitive but necessary-to-address at work, like resolving who to hire, we talk in such a way that our intention is clear to the people who will help us, and at least defensible to those who don’t. Usually “defensible” means that you can say “Oh, of course, I’m not saying X is bad, just relatively bad when comparing on this axis…” but much more nicely of course.
“Say, Crispy, since you imply that people some how ‘soften the blow’ in order to be defensible, why can’t you show us how people say things ‘nicely’. in the above example?” I’m glad you asked!
It’s because being nice has to do with the specifics of what you’re dealing with. We use the minutiae that surround us, to pin deciding factors on things that don’t matter but others will have trouble arguing with. This is one reason why people make arguments about politicians that have so much to do with personality: because it’s easy to argue about, and people naturally have opinions of personality. This is why when your teacher didn’t like you in high school they could always find random crap in your essay to give you a worse grade than you “deserved”. This is why when you ask for a promotion your boss says that you’re not “ready” and they “need” you in your current position. To have no reason is so shameful that some superior figure might take action, but your reason is also not defensible to the public eye. To have hard-to-argue-back reasons makes it worth nobody’s time to argue.
When we discuss things, we often do not want to completely steamroll our interlocutor, but we tend to want to control the bounds within which they have freedom to speak. We really do want to have some back and forth, but we don’t want to be open to “attack”. People who are lot more optimistic than me say that this fear is unfounded or at the very least not useful. People like me who don’t know how to vibe, instead see the millions of little handshakes that people are constantly doing—and rejecting—and feel like we’re trying to stay in a very dynamic safety zone, like a hummingbird in a bubble.
The internet is different, but not that different. The point of being oblique on the public internet isn’t usually to be understood by just a single person, unlike when you and your friend were trying to hide behind flimsy metaphors when talking about Forbidden Subjects with mom one room over. Instead, what we put on the internet is meant to serve as a beacon as much as a directed message, and that means we have to make ourselves understood on some level, while defensible to the general view.
Since we tend not to know in advance everybody we’re trying to reach, or at least not know them in depth, the result is a way of talking that’s more like song lyrics, more like poetry. People in my Twitter circles call it “illegibility” but it’s certainly not meant to be universally illegible. It’s meant to be encrypted, with experience as the key—so that when the right person reads it something clicks into place and they say “exactly” to their computer screen.
As the public facing internet begins to evaporate into an “internet of tunnels”—where one node can lead you to other nodes (e.g. group chats, discord servers, urbit planets) but there’s no “front page” the way google or reddit used to be—the need to write poetry comes back. I often thought it ridiculous and fundamentally annoying that so many document from previous eras were written so as to hide behind implications in a way that even the audience of the day often had to search for, and couldn’t directly accuse the writer of. But communication as a beacon isn’t meant to reach everyone, and poetry is how we fill in the “recipient” field without knowing proper names.
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