Edon Qesari/ An elegy for the vanquished two: Slowness and audibility in the era of social media

Edon Qesari was born in 1983. He teaches history and politics, and works in Tirana. His scholarly interests include marxism, especially the Gramscian perspective, nationalism and various issues relating to cultural policies during the rule of social-realism in Albania. He is a keen reader of detective novels, through which he also discovered his other hobby which is collecting pipes. In parallel with his academic work, he also translates and writes essays.

One of social media’s few virtues that is not often recognised, is its peerless ability to absorb the criticism it receives. That includes all varieties of abuse, accusation and foul language. They are transparent in this respect. It appears social media knows how to welcome, and exists to give voice. Still more often, though indirectly, it manages to capitalise on such attacks, exploiting them somehow.

Umberto Eco’s comment, that virtual democracy, via social media, is exercised by “legions of idiots”, is now a well-known anecdote. Today, people are given the right to speak on social media, when previously they only did so in a bar, after a drink, and without harming the community. The famous Italian scholar concluded, “Then they were quickly silenced, but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner”.

It is easy to imagine how Eco’s quotation took root through social media. But his words were not directed so much at the “donkeys”, who in the end are always with us, but today have just simply changed their location: They used to hang out alone in bars and now, mutatis mutandi, they have become avatars. Instead, Eco’s criticism, a clip taken from a television interview, was intended for the social networks themselves.

And yet, in the blink of an eye, the end turned into the means. It didn’t take much to turn the late professor of the University of Bologna – not for the first time – into a pop-philosopher, admired by anyone who knows the difference between the semiotic and the semantic. Hundreds of likes and shares, tweets and retweets, whose ultimate goal was to challenge the social networks, instead turned into an inexhaustible oxygen supply for them.

Such a circumstance, which could lure all kinds of crime-novelists to fall into the grip of a creative crisis – e.g. the inspector who discovers the murderer while following the latter’s instructions – perhaps is more than just a paradox.

Anyone who swims, without any particular direction, in the depths of social media, cannot have missed its openness to all types of assertions (with just a few exceptions, such as the unlawful, but unfortunately not bon sens). And naturally it has this talent because it exploits a general hunger that people have for outrightness. Everyone wants to know – in fact, more to understand than to know – and they want to declare it now, in the immediacy. It seems that social media stimulates people’s desire to rush (rush). Thus suppressing, at the same time, the slowness (slowness) which is essential for memory.

Slowness

 

Some time ago, I used a Facebook post for an ode to reporting, a genre of journalism that, until not long ago, enjoyed a privileged place in Albanian daily newspapers and magazines. The occasion arose when I was leafing through a book called, “Albanian Journalism Guide, 1912-2011” by Sokol Shameti. Constructed meticulously and with devotion, this anthology was dedicated to some of the prime examples of the exercise of the noble craft of journalism, where both writers and readers find refuge.

The first group, the writers, emerged mostly from the world of literature. Many were published for the first time in different periodicals, with their school bags still over their shoulders or with literature degrees newly earned. They saw in journalism an opportunity to write that which shyness stopped them from using in the world of fiction. News reporting therefore enabled them to keep their feet on the ground, but also to try a pindaric flight (Pindaric flight).

The second group, the readers, found in this type of journalism an opportunity, or a bridge to gain something more than news tout court, inviting curiousity and turning it into interest. And sometimes, on occasion, a talented writer emerged, for whom it was worth dedicating a corner, cutting out the important article and keeping it tucked in between the pages of a book. At least, this is what usually happened with us, the schoolchildren of the 90s, who still sought inspiration in the newspapers, looking forward to the time when we would be writing our own articles.

But now we live in different times. If you analyse the quality of the spelling and/or grammar which journalists use to decorate their articles, you understand that they have turned into kalemxhinj (an old word in Albanian, probably of Ottoman origin, denoting a worthless journalist). They don’t read any more and find it difficult to cultivate literary dreams. Every now and then, they bother to collate their articles (based on no more evidence than the gossip of the day) and publish them as a book: This is a real craze, frequently dominating the book fair stands in Tirana.

Also difficult as they rank way behind the realities that are hidden beyond the boundaries of our attention, to the microhistories, that the capital city investigators save (or those who are or pretend to be such). There, where before, the objective of a classic journalistic report touched on an event, uncovered by careful investigation. The reporter engaged in this required dedication, time and especially rows; endless rows of writing and detail, which means depth and investigation for the reader’s eyes. Today it is enough to analyse a tweet released by a politician, where half of the 280 characters allowed are full of emojis.

On the other hand, it is clear that fate has not smiled even on the average reader. His patience to read, to concentrate, is even less than that the authors of the articles he has in front of him. A new type of relationship, totally different to before, has been established between the reader and the media. Instead of do ut des, the reader has been transformed into someone who clicks. With or without realising it, in his eyes pages have been replaced by social media newsfeeds, which invite you to read in a rush; to scan up and down in a rush, with titles designed to attract you to click, only to open up to other enticing titles that every now and then are interrupted by adverts, with accompanying text that is usually no longer than the title itself.

Today’s reader sees the news almost entirely vertically, and finds it difficult to deepen horizontally. The mechanism automatically encourages you to just take a look, and makes it difficult to stop. Inevitably, the patience of the reader is exhausted, in the best case, by the fourth line. They never go beyond the signpost, Continue reading.

In all this mess, reporting as the humble art of observation, depth, conversation, probing and, consequently, all the slowness that is required by any type of reality that lies somewhere beyond us – this pure skill of recognition through the noting of impressions, worn notebooks in a pocket – loses its footprints in forgetfulness: there where dedication to writing and the love of reading is also lost. There where slowness was also lost, the only rhythm for building a memory and conscience around the civil world that surrounds us. Precisely there where, as Kundera suggests, speed is superimposed: Of forgetting, of the past, one status to another, from one news piece to another …

Audibility

A lamentatio such as this above could appear simply like an unchecked reflection of nostalgia, and maybe it is. But if not, it is a sincere expression of the difficulty that people have in accommodating the disappearance of the old – as the British neurologist Oliver Sacks said in an article a few months ago (The Machine Stops, The New Yorker, February 11, 2019 issue).

One of my fondest and sharpest childhood memories, is of the dramatisations that Radio Tirana broadcast regularly during the late evenings. Radio dramas, as they were called, were nothing more than the voice recording of dramatic scenes, often performed on the stage of what was then called the Popular Theatre (now the National), using the voice of actors working just for radio listeners, providing explanations about the dynamic action in the work. It was just the same as if you were to take a dramatic text in its normal format and to put into the hands of a few voices the task of bringing to life the dialogue between characters.

Other times, radio dramas were designed specifically for the audience as a dialogue based on well-known literary extracts, from classic Russian literature up to Remarque and Kadare. The accompanying background sounds, which were essential artistic elements attracting the listener’s attention to a chosen moment in the drama, and also the talent of the actors selected to perform the role of the characters, are now a distant memory.

It was a time in which radio, as a media, still obstinately guarded a tiny part of captivating social communication. It was not only an open window for musical innovation or nostalgic concern – nor just the accompaniment to major political events – but something more alluring.

Radio dramas were also a blessed wander in the dark. At least in my earliest childhood memories, of those bypassing nights of the post-socialist Albanian transition, in a Tirana often submerged in the absence of electricity.

And this wasn’t just about the radio dramas, which were just one important element of the influence that radio, this tool of mass communication, still exercises on society. It was the replacement of visual elements, with just the sound of the voice, that still today reverberates as a form of longing.

And I should emphasize, this is not an exaggerated yearning. Just concern for a time when, together as a society, we dedicated more quality time to the voice, to talking slowly, the ability to analyse through speaking that which was situated beyond oneself. And this fuels my conviction that the extinguishing of radio from our collective lives, or the disappearance of reading through the sense of listening – another “immersing” form of imagination that accompanies a text that does not have to be absorbed by reading – constitutes a tragic loss, not to be ignored in the totality of our relations with one another.

Translated by Alexandra Channer