Brief Notes toward a Political Phenomenology of Gossip
28 May 2021
Three Gossips, Honoré-Victorin Daumier; Image credit: Art Institute of Chicago
Taking its departure from a distinction between chatter and gossip, the following essay argues that gossip, far from a mere “idle” talk, has a vital function: through gossip—an utterance that reveals something to someone about someone else—the community is both revealed to itself and regulated from within. Thus the gossiping community is not only the foundation of the political community, but the original forms of democratic politics—such as the ekklesia (assembly) and techniques of oratory—involve attempts to take control of and manage the constitutive power of gossip. This, in turn, suggests a critique of the situation in which we find ourselves due to the rise of social media: social media satisfies the psychological need for gossip while neutralizing its regulative and community-constitutive function. It is this, rather than some “postmodern” relativism, that has led to the current crisis in public, consensus-forming truth.
Aristotle’s Protrepticus, the longest extant fragment from his so-called popular writings, ends with a word so harsh that, had he posted it online and had it gone viral, might have cost him his job:
We should, therefore, either philosophize or say goodbye to life and leave from here, since all other things seem to be so much silliness and idle talk. (1)
Silliness, idle talk: or in other words: chatter. This word, like so many in English and other languages, suggests the reduction of talk to the mere physical movements of the organs of speech. The critique of chatter has been an incessant theme in the philosophical lineage that traces back to ancient Greece, though certainly not in this alone. It is, one suspects, the only constant. It takes us from the pre-Socratics and Plato and Aristotle all the way to Heidegger’s analysis of “idle talk” (Gerede) and to Carnap’s logical positivism. (2) And it is always a double edged-sword: in their war against chatter, philosophers have more often than not turned against each other, and, more than once, found themselves sawing off the branch on which they sat. The penultimate and final proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus turned this very act into a mystery:
6.54 My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he climbed up it.)
7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence. (3)
It’s satisfying, almost, to imagine Aristotle’s brutal word dropping like a bomb into the vacuous and ephemeral effluvia of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even if it might have gotten him cancelled… But, even if it would have generated some outrage, it also wouldn’t have amounted to anything more than just another tweet, another post—to be read, passed on, passed over, ignored. Chatter, in the end, has nothing to do with the content of the utterance, but how it is taken. On social media, everything becomes chatter.
Let’s assume, then, that everything has become chatter—that we find ourselves in the white-waters of social media. There are no longer thoughts, reposing in and sustained by truth, but only aspiring memes. This river of endlessly flowing word-images is nourished by innumerable propulsive jets that, like a squid’s funnel, take in the surrounding element and pump it back out. Some of these cephalopodan agents are gigantic; we call them celebrities, not only because they are celebrated but because their very existence seems a celebration of themselves. Most are miniscule. But between these extremes there are infinite gradations: the distinctions in social influence, like distinctions of wealth, are neither qualitative nor simply quantitative but distinctions of orders of magnitude. Amid all this turbulence, significance becomes a matter of rhythm and intensity; some word-images have an impact, they reproduce, mutate, “go viral”, they gather together into eddies, and then into devastating cyclonic storms. Others dissipate.
The question, then, becomes: how can something else emerge. How can something like truth—or let us be so bold, how can the truth itself—emerge. But, despite all the chatter about “post-truth,” this is not a new, but an old problem. If it seems new, it is only because of the historical obliviousness that is itself a signature of chatter. But for the most part, the historical nature of our world is what has always escaped us. And hence the question, the eternal question, becomes: how can a historical sense, a sense for history, first emerge? Another thing that people like to say, especially now that the critique of “post-modernism” has reached a fevered pitch, is that historicism is the death of truth. Such an opinion is born of a remarkable complacency toward truth: it is the belief of the one who, imagining himself to sit on the shore of a river, sees in its onrush nothing more than a threat to stability. But once we begin to sense that we are already in the waves’ midst, to gain a sense for history is to become open to more enduring, more truthful rhythms.
Posed in this way, the question points to an answer that, at first glance, might seem perverse: the only way to escape chatter is gossip. Perverse, because, at first glance, gossip and chatter seem to mean exactly the same thing: idle talk. Yet a distinction can be drawn: idle talk is a talk that says nothing, that means nothing—a talk that dissipates as soon as it is spoken, that is never gathered around a meaning, never reveals something about a world beyond itself, but at most gains a kind of rhythmic intensity, a resonance, a persistence or abidance. Gossip is a word in which one member of the community says something to someone else about someone else. It can, of course, be the case that they actually witnessed what they say first hand, but most likely they just heard it from someone else, who heard it from someone else, and so forth. Gossip, in this sense, can be understood as rumor, a saying spread among human beings. The Greek word for this is phēmē, phama—hence, the Latin fama, the English fame—which originally means: a voice from heaven, a prophetic voice. The English gossip—literally, a person related to one in God, and hence a “close friend with whom one chats”—bears a trace of his otherworldly sense.
But one thing is impossible—save at the cost of committing a terrible faux-pas: gossiping about other members of the group. Of course: one could message someone privately with a private gripe, one could ask them “who the hell is X,” who “does she think she is,” “is he insane.” But this would demand stepping far outside the comfort of semi-anonymity.
Through gossip, the community is, in the widest sense, revealed to itself. The limit of fame—how far far-flung fame has flung itself out into space and time—is the limit of the community, which is seldom merely restricted to those who live in an immediate proximity to each other. History begins with fame. But what fame reveals, not least of all, is how much the members of the community can be trusted. The fame of the hero, following ahead of him, tell the world the extent to which great deeds can be attributed to him. The opposite of fame, in this way, is braggadocio. At one limit of fame, then, are gods, who themselves become the source of the prophetic word that tells of their greatness. At the other end, perhaps, is hubris: the human deed that has become fully the author of itself. Or what is almost worse: the deed that exists only as the word, the brag.
Gossip creates a world by sharing information about the members of a community, but it also does a more subtle regulative work. The threat of "being-gossiped-about" is bound up with the restraining force of shame, and hence, while gossip can lead to ostracism, exclusion, violence, it also can serve to protect the many from the abuses of the few.
Moreover, though, it offers a private compensation for the public acts of self-assertion (bragging, lamentation, malignant narcissism) that are themselves, perhaps, necessary to the community but also potentially destabilizing. Thus, it allows hierarchies to exist while at the same time deconstituting, depotentializing them; shielding the self from the claims of the other.
If fame, rumor, gossip has come to be identified with idle talk, it is because, as a word passed on through the community in this way, it has become cut off from its source, its evidentiary basis. Yet for this to even appear as a problem demands a change in perspective: so far as language first brings things into appearance or even into being, then the question of evidence hardly matters. It is only when a world first exists, and conflicts between different word-worlds arise, that the question of evidence, of the source of the word, becomes decisive. In response, various contrivances have been devised. Oaths, juridical procedures torture, historiographic and text-critical techniques, numismatics, seals, formal and informal logic, epistemology, mystery rites, rituals of avowal, cryptography, the scientific method, even the complex and hidden procedures of digital certification that underlie computer technology: these are all technologies of truth. In one way or another, they serve to validate an utterance, an act, a thing. But such validation is only demanded once words and appearance, words and things, have parted ways. Of course, so long as a community, a world exists, such validation will be needed. There is never just one word-world; but there can never be more than one. It is futile, moreover, to dream of a return to an Edenic language before such truth-technologies became necessary, as if they were the source of all oppression. But it is just as futile to imagine that certain of these technologies, unimpeachable in their rationality, could do away with all essential conflict.
Aristotle’s Rhetoric, which seeks nothing less than to systematize the everyday non-philosophical modes of speech and thought whose mastery defines the oratorical art, remarks that orators, if they are to succeed in producing a certain belief or conviction in their listeners, must show themselves to be possessed of prudence, virtue, and good will. (4) Just as the political assembly seeks to regulate and organize the radically democratic mechanism of gossip and fame—in gossip, the scattered voices of the multitude bring forth the first sense of the multitude as community—the art of rhetoric, which is itself a technology of truth, seeks to bring the power of gossip under the sway of orators, who now command the means to establish in speech their own reputation, their credibility. Whereas philosophy, in its battle with sophistry, takes aim at the latter’s unsettling power to produce many worlds, many truths—the sophist is the one who can argue both P and ~P—by deploying dialectic (which argues from conventionally acceptable premises) in the name of Truth, rhetoric preserves a sense for a power of language to produce community, and a common world, prior to all philosophical critique.
The changes that the media landscape has undergone in the last 30 years—primarily as a result of the advent of the internet and social media, but also due to the increasing deregulation and commercialization of television media—has resulted in a situation that, on the surface at least, suggests a sudden collapse in a system of the political-rhetorical regulation of “public opinion” that, despite a massive difference in scale and a complete absence of symmetrical exchange, could be seen to follow the model of the Greek assembly or ekklesia; unsurprisingly, indeed, since the ekklesia (as church) itself became the foundation of the Christian community, and the ancient art of rhetoric was carried over into the sermon. If, on the one hand, the “assembly” of prime-time network news with its middle-of-the-road banality has given way to rhetorical islands where extremism has become the very mark of credibility, on the other hand, these islands are surrounded by the ever more fragmented archipelagos of chatter, such that, indeed, the center is, to an even greater degree, governed by the periphery. And because this situation resembles the crisis of the Reformation, itself precipitated by a change in media technology, it is unsurprising that, once again, we hear calls for a return to the values of the European Enlightenment: critical thinking, scientific objectivity, rationality. This in turn gives rise to endless polemics against all those intellectual forces that seem to undermine these values, which, in a gesture no less miraculous than transubstantiation, are at once “timeless” and “eternal” and yet identified with a specific, if utterly vague, historical entity: “Western Civilization.”
Such critiques are, I would suggest, catastrophically misplaced, just as is the cynical celebrations of the democratic actuality of new media by the oligarchs who control it. The problem with the current situation, exemplified by social media, is not that there is too much historicism, relativism, too much “post-modern” contempt for the truth. Rather, the problem is that there are a multitude of technologies of truth, each functional in its own way, but nothing of a world. There is endless communication or endless information, an endless traffic in word-images, but no community. There is idle talk everywhere, but no gossip… But moreover, the problem is that the originary world-making potency of gossipy language has been almost completely submitted to a capitalist framework that, no longer in the business of “producing content,” presents itself in a beguiling guise of neutrality.
This can be thought of in a rather precise way: social media such as Facebook, profiting from the monetization of information, benefit from a large community of reciprocal or at least semi-reciprocal exchange. Hence it favors the minimal degree of reciprocal connection over either a completely one-sided exchange (the Twitter-Tweeter with a million followers) or intimate communications by way of hidden channels. It is from such exchanges that the largest volume of monetizable information can be extracted. Hence it has created a forum where the path of least resistance is the open—public or semi-public—exchange. Such exchanges are, almost always, about someone or something existing outside the group in which they are conveyed. The content of such exchanges can vary immensely: it could be a profoundly original analysis of a poem, the announcement of an esoteric result in String Theory—it could be banal moralizing, chatter about celebrities, prophetic revelations, conspiracy theories. Often it is political talk of the kind that would not have been out of place in the Athenian agora. Sometimes it is cat photos: the cat is, indeed, the ultimate third party, familiar and unknowable, intimate and aloof. But one thing is impossible—save at the cost of committing a terrible faux-pas: gossiping about other members of the group. Of course: one could message someone privately with a private gripe, one could ask them “who the hell is X,” who “does she think she is,” “is he insane.” But this would demand stepping far outside the comfort of semi-anonymity. Certainly, such exchanges take place—there is still another world, of course—but they shrink in significance. They no longer offer a real counterweight to the dispersing force of discourse… A sign of this predicament is how many people one often finds among one’s social network of whom one has not the slightest idea who they are, or even, in some cases, by what chain of relations they came into one’s (virtual) life. Sometimes one wonders if these people are people at all, and not fabricating identities: there is almost no way to “pin them down,” to use an awful but apt expression, into a world.
The problem with the current situation, exemplified by social media, is not that there is too much historicism, relativism, too much “post-modern” contempt for the truth. Rather, the problem is that there are a multitude of technologies of truth, each functional in its own way, but nothing of a world. There is endless communication or endless information, an endless traffic in word-images, but no community. There is idle talk everywhere, but no gossip.
Social media offers abundant satisfaction to the psychological need for gossip. They provide for the pleasure of gossip, and indeed allows this to eclipse all the other pleasures of life. Indeed, they even lead to a certain hypertrophy of gossip in the sense of chatter. But they don’t fulfill the regulative function of gossip vis-a-vis the community of gossipers, since almost all the chatter is directed outward—toward the easy targets of critique, or, for that matter, admiration. The result of this is, more often than not, a tedious uniformity of opinion: because all opinions are expressed openly to all the members of a group that itself exists only for the sake of its opinions, they tend to converge into an unstated norm, that is, however, specific to this one group. This tedium, in turn, is avoided not through a differentiation and exchange of opinions but by directing attacks on the acceptable targets of critique or praise toward acceptable targets of admiration. But in just this way, the “centers of gravity” of the groups shift ever further to the periphery, until it begins to seem as if there were only a periphery and no center. It is as if, all of a sudden, the most fundamental force governing the social order had changed; or as if water no longer gathered into the universal ocean of a banal consensus but clumped together into ever more rarified particles, dispersed to infinity. Hence, in place of the subtle regulative work of gossip, these increasingly fragmented groups seem to demand, and clear the path for, top-down control, be it from the system administrator, the social media provider, or government. It is symptomatic of this situation, indeed, that all attempts at regulation, even when they amount to a self-regulation that arises organically within the group, tends to become identified with an external authority seeking to enforce “groupthink,” “political correctness.”
Capitalism has submitted human life—and planetary life—to the demand for constant economic growth. This, in turn, demands increased efficiency, which requires, above all else, the transformation of natural factors of growth and life into controllable inputs in a general system of production: trees are turned into firewood; fossil fuels are extracted from the earth; seeds are planted in the field; land is divided, classified and enclosed; the continuous movements of the working body are divided into discrete gestures. Now, however, this process of expropriation, abstraction, and control is reaching deeper and deeper into inner life. The psychological needs and processes on whose subtle interactions social life depends are, to an ever increasing degree, mobilized by social media as independent factors in a system of profit extraction. Thus, these needs are satisfied, perhaps more than ever before, and yet in a manner that no longer serves to constitute and preserve community. The psychological need is isolated from its life-function; it takes on a life of its own. This is the logic of addiction: the dissociating asocialization of pleasure. And it could almost seem as if the only choice that remains is between the macro-addictions of substance abuse and the micro-addictions of the new media.
1. Here I am following Ingemar Düring’s reconstruction of the Protrepticus. Cf. Aristotle, The Complete Works: The Revised Oxford Translation. Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984. Vol. 2. P. 2417; Aristoteles, Protreptikos. Edited and translated by Ingemar Düring, 2nd edition. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1993.
2. A more positive concept of chatter appears, as Peter Fenves argues in his Chatter (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993), in Kierkegaard.
3. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness. Revised Edition. London: Routledge, 1974. p. 89.
4. Aristotle, Rhetoric 1377b -1378a.