Interjections and emojis: the digital reversal of literacy back to the origin of language

Electronic media, as McLuhan noted, retribalized society and therefore diminished the significance and influence of literacy. Retribalization of culture by the switch from literacy media to digital media reverses social communication not just back to orality, but even to the early stages of the origin of language.

The early speech had to be a sort of vocal-dance performance, in which pointing gestures and emotional exclamations served a hunter or a gatherer to deliver meaning to their fellow tribesmen. At the early-speech stage, human communication was rather more persuasion than informing.

Interjections and exclamations, the first human words, combined emotions with the first attempts at semiotic replacement of objects by signs. The oldest part of speech, interjections, remains bound by context up to today. Along with demonstrative pronouns, which are obviously the substitutes for pointing gestures, interjections are tied to the situations of their use; their semiotic (the presence of the absent through a substitutive symbolic representation) is ‘weak’.

The divide between reality and its representation in the human mind is intrinsically semiotic; it is the split between the signified and the signifier. The speech is a semiotic entity and a faculty of mind that allows operations with reality in its absence – the operation with the reality through its representation in signs and thoughts. (The ultimate detachment of signifier from signified by the phonetic alphabet, as McLuhan noted, incited a schizophrenic state of mind: “Schizophrenia and alienation may be the inevitable consequences of phonetic literacy.” – McLuhan, 1969).

Radio and television returned vocal signals and gestures into communicating socially significant content. Interjections, in which the ‘lack of semiotics’ is compensated for by an emotional charge, became the main means of meaning expression on TV shows. The participants of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” whom she starts talking to begin screaming interjections immediately. Of course, they are told to do so; but they are told to do so because this reflects and recreates the pattern of public behaviour assigned to this kind of media. It is needed to overcome the emotional fatigue of the replete audience; but by promoting emotional exaggeration, television maintains and reinforces this pattern for public behaviour, including public speeches and any behaviour ‘addressed’ to the audience.

If theatrical actors exaggerate their performance to ensure they can deliver their acting to spectators on the back rows, TV-shows’ participants exaggerate their emotions because TV is a ‘cool’ medium, in McLuhan’s terms, and it needs additional measures to be applied in order to heat up the audience, blasé about infotainment, for better reception. Exaggerated emotions of the people in the TV studio (or people delivering public speech) are expected to enhance the receptiveness of the indifferent passive audience through transmitting the emotional charge; it is something similar to establishing rapport in neuro-linguistic programming.

Considering the passivity-massiveness and physical ‘absence’ of TV audience (whose absent reaction is often substituted by recorded laughing and applauses), the simulated and transmitted emotions must be exceedingly intensive. This kind of emotional exaggeration represents not feelings but intensities, exactly as described by Lyotard and Jameson. The postmodernist replacement of feelings with intensities goes hand in hand with the replacement of literacy by orality and the retribalization of culture by electronic media.

The interjections’ creeping revolution has proliferated into news and political TV-shows, as they are mostly filled with experts, not reporters, due to the dominance of opinion journalism; i.e. these shows are increasingly often conversational, which mode creates an additional opportunity for interjections to supplant other parts of speech in conveying message. The growth of the public use of interjections, the most ‘non-semiotic’ of verbal means, is a clear indication of the reversal of culture from literate to oral. And this reversal is media-determined, as interjections are not needed in literate speech (unless it quotes or simulates oral speech).

Digital media took the retribalization of speech and mind even further, reversing not just literacy but language itself.

Any behaviour on social media is ‘addressed’ to the audience by default; everyone has become a broadcaster facing the audience’s fatigue. The emancipation of authorship has delivered to the millions the necessity to overcome the unresponsiveness of the audience by means of intensities. In the digital orality, the media evolution of the intensities’ transmission has come down to the semantic structures of communication.

Interjections are partly symbolic, partly indexical signs, according to Pierce’s classification. They directly indicate emotions and feeling (primary interjections) but may also convey residual abstract meanings related to those emotions (mostly secondary, or derivative, interjections). In digital communication, verbal interjections have turned into or are complemented by graphical abbreviations (‘lol, ‘omg’, etc.) and emojis. Emojis are purely iconic, not symbolic nor indexical signs. Emoji’s signifier invokes emoji’s signified by depicting emotions. In the digital media, the schizophrenic detachment of signifier from signified shrinks.

Digital media revers the semiotics of reality’s representation back to immediate interaction with the objects of reality – of the digital reality. The means of digital social communication in the newest media, such as Twitter or TikTok, resemble the vocal-dance communicative performance of the primeval humans in our pre-speech era. Digital orality is based on exclamations and digital gestures (many of which are pointing digital gestures). It aims to persuade rather than inform, it operates with emotions and objects (memes, pictures, videos, etc.) directly, rather than with information that represent objects in their absence.

Not only is a post-literate – a post-speech era coming. McLuhan’s retribalization of society by electronic media is being accelerated with the de-semiotization of culture by digital media. This is only logical, considering the forthcoming resettlement of humans into the medium, into the digital world, the induced reality of which will require direct operations with objects, mediated by the digital sensorium ‘immediately’, with no ‘replacing’ semiotics needed. To comprehend the oddity of this event and the trajectory of media evolution, just imagine the resettling of a caveman into a stone axe.

Media evolution will end up in quitting mediation, when the instrument itself becomes the environment. Media will extend human faculties to the point of the full emergence with the environment, when media are no longer needed, which event can be called the Media Singularity, because the role of media in terraforming goes far beyond terraforming. The so-called Technological Singularity is, in fact, the final event, or, to use the language of Teilhard de Chardin, the Omega point, of media evolution.

Andrey Mir

An excerpt from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization”



Categories: Future and Futurology, Immersive experience, Marshall McLuhan, Media ecology, Postjournalism and the death of newspapers, Singularity and Transhumanism

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