It started shortly after 1 p.m. GMT, Wednesday, January 5th, 2012, in Shoreditch, Hackney borough, central London, 2.5 miles (4 km) east-northeast of Charing Cross.
That my attention pauses here on the threshold of history, stooping to collect, like a fistful of wildflowers, the day’s prosaic but not entirely unpretty details—the time and place and, soon enough, the weather—I consider both a smooth and natural extension of my general inclination towards the trivial, and a gift freely given to the silent generations of the future. I am but the footman of posterity; thusly I proceed by halting and allowing my mind’s eye to move out, through, and over the landscape, bird-like, building on some lofty perch a nest of context. We open on dismal English afternoon, glaucus brimming clouds and frigid winds from the north-west, a weatherman in tweeds sweeping his hand in a loose gesture left-to-right across the map, from Shrewsbury to King’s Lynn, and exclaiming, “A massive storm is banging through the Midlands, and we’re in for it tonight,” as 300 miles overhead a satellite in exospheric orbit gazes down, it’s glass fixed on London, which from this height looks like an old, dully-shining coin flung amongst the greens and browns of a fantastic lawn.
Future generations, you are welcome.
Now, for the sake of my peers in the present, I will stow my pretty scenery and cut straight to the chase. Between 1 p.m. and midnight, January 5th, 2012, in Shoreditch, Hackney, etc. etc., the aphorism as we know it died. I watched it happen. So did seven million others.
Or rather, we “followed” it. The distinction between “watching” and “following”—the former being essentially passive, an occasion which befalls a person as, say, frigid winds from the north-west befall an afternoon, and the later being passive-active, the choice not to choose to look away—seems in the main important though, as far as this already quite ponderous essay is concerned, somewhat beside the point. The distinction is a maggot feasting on the rotten core of social media: ethically, there is simply no there there.
Yes, this was a public death enabled and in some sense brought on by Twitter. And like all public ceremonies, it had the rooty, sooty taste of ritual, the bitter herbs we believe to be nourishing precisely because they are distasteful. One the one hand, I believe that the passing of aphorism, a lesser but still venerable art, was fouled by it’s entanglement with Twitter—I am not opposed to social media per se, but when it comes to births and death, sex and faith, family and friendship, I am basically a bumpkin, doggedly provincial, comically protective of old moldy notions of “manners” and “privacy”—but, the point must be made: where else can seven million strangers come together to officiate a rite? Three million Muslims, a strangely tranquil mass of moving prayer, circle the Kaaba. A million drunks welcome the New Year in Times Square. Meanwhile, in the vast non-space of social media, seven million followers assemble, not once, not twice, but 91 times in 12 hours, to bear witness to the gruesome death (and—spoiler alert—the possible rebirth, phoenix-like, from the ashes of prolixity) of aphorism.
About the rant itself: ragged, frantic, gloriously muddled, 91 befouled, confounding gems, like turds transformed into diamonds by Twitter’s rigid 140-character compression mold. The author of this epic stream of babble, Kanye West, is clearly a savant. Deaf, dumb, and blind to anything not illumed by the sphere of his own ego, Kanye (should I take this opportunity to say I like his music? I do, as I like his swagger, though I’m pretty sure his swagger is the stick with which he beats the stuffing out of my beloved “manners”) is a man for whom the world does technically exist beyond of the self, but only as a sleeping tundra desperate for the self’s (Kayne’s self’s) life-giving heat. Of course, a true solipsist wouldn’t tweet, he’d blog. Kanye West is not a solipsist, but he is a first-rate narcissist. He believes that we exist, we little people, and he has proof: his feed is trending. Retweetus ergo sumus; we re-tweet, thus we are.
Kanye’s rant covered a lot of ground. Quotations from G. B. Shaw, Da Vinci, and the Matrix appeared alongside scary-funny digressions on faith and love and money, as well as spooky shouts-out to Steve Jobs and Michael Jackson, both deceased. Variety is Kanye’s milieu, and as an aphorist it’s both his greatest asset and his biggest liability; like Hippocrates, the father of the aphorism, Kanye is a one-man Wisdom Book (his preoccupations are religious-sexual-aesthetic, whereas Hippocrates’ are social-medical-spiritual), and like Hippocrates he’s not afraid to transgress against good taste (Kanye: “My favorite unit of measurement is “a shit load”; Hippocrates: “In confirmed diarrhea, vomiting, when it comes on spontaneously, removes the diarrhea”).
As opposed to wit, which is often just pedantic cruelty, more ingenious than funny, rarely instructive or heartening, Aphorism is, historically, a manly form, laconic, from the Spartan polis of Laconia. Spartan men were said to hold the rhetoricians and the poets in disdain; the Laconians valued bravery, austerity, and, as anyone who’s seen 300 knows, a direct and very un-pedantic sort of cruelty. The first “Laconisms” come from accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae, the bloody contest that pitted a small band Greeks and Spartans against a superior Persian force. Grotesque, frightening, often hilarious, these early Laconisms make the battle out to be a bloody lark. My favorite: when a Persian envoy sent to Sparta asks for a tribute of “some soil and water,” the Spartans throw him down a well; “Dig it out yourself,” they say.
Aphoristic thought tends to be fragmentary but decisive (“Life is short, art long”), in the words of James Geary, a journalist and self-proclaimed defender of the genre,” aphoristic thought is, “definitve, not necessary true.” This paradox points up the central irony of masculinity, an irony (and, to my dismay, an ideal) little changed since the days of Leonidas. We expect men to be stubborn, firm, unwavering—even when they are unsure. Personally, I find this to be a heavy mantle, but Kanye wears it with aplomb, cf: “I’m ready to get out of my own way…the ego is so OVERRATED.”
An aside: Kanye’s fuddled, I-me-mine philosophy fits hand-in-glove with the funnily unfunny pronouncements of George “Dubya” Bush. Publically, Bush and Kanye are enemies, Greeks and Persians, but at the level of language and logic they seem to be allies, almost co-conspirators. Kanye deadpans, “Bush doesn’t care about black people” during a televised fundraiser for the victims of a gruesome natural disaster; Bush, seemingly in earnest, responds, “You can call me anything; don’t call me a racist.” Come to think of it, what was the Bush presidency if not the tragic story of a piggish, Laconian stubbornness refusing to kowtow to, you know, facts. Colin Powell’s break from the administration, and Powell’s insistence that a function national intelligence cannot be based upon “what one man knows,” is basically the separation and eventual purgation of a single Systematic thinker from Bush’s Aphoristic intel network. It is telling that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, in their criticism of Powell (a four-star general), feminized the former Secretary of State, mocking Powell for “making a lot of noise.”
So, to summarize (because, I recall with a slight shrug of embarrassment, the blog post is a succinct, summary form): Kanye, seemingly just the man for the job, murdered metaphor with his distinctly unmanly “noise,” his 91 tweets.
But (a ray of hope) right smack in the middle, number 39 of 91, between a diatribe against “haters who f-cking hate” and his effusive praise of the Tunisian-born couturier and shoe designer Azzedine Alaia, a little miracle arrived through the loose weave of Kanye’s noise machine. One genuine aphorism, a thought that seems to all at once sum-up and contradict his project (and mine): “This is just a train of thoughts…but it’s better to read [sic] than trained thoughts.”