[This essay was commissioned by Vodafone’s receiver online journal. It will appear on the site in January 2004. Thanks to Gabriele Dangel and Katja Hoffman for letting me reproduce it here]
Text messaging, intimacy and photography
BACK 2 BACK
Walking up our street
on a summer evening,
all the doors are open
straight onto living rooms;
people sitting out,
the smell of cooking,
sound of tv
In his collection of SMS poetry, Andrew Wilson describes the text message poem as a ‘truthful moment’, or, borrowing from Ezra Pound, ‘the luminous detail’. His poems, all less than the 160 character limit of a text message, have the quality of haikus – small details noticed and framed by the limitation of their form.
Collected, the poems resemble a photo album, with short sequences that draw on the same experiences – a trip to Russia, working in a call centre – punctuated by random singular images. They are a collection of vernacular moments from an ordinary life, but, like photo albums, have a charge under their surface, a melancholy resonance generated by the accumulation of incidental details and observations. But this similarity is not just a product of Wilson’s writing style, as the vernacular practices of photography and text messaging share many aesthetic and social characteristics.
Henri Cartier Bresson once described photography as an attempt to capture ‘the decisive moment’, an echo of Pound’s description of poetry as the ‘luminous detail’. Roland Barthes identified the power of the photograph in the ‘punctum’ , the detail that transcends the photograph’s mechanical depiction of reality and ‘pricks’ us, arousing sympathy, curiosity or melancholy. For Barthes, the power of photography lay in the conflict between its indexing of reality and uncanny invocation of real, lived histories. The photograph is a finger pointing, saying ‘this happened, this was here’, but exists always in the past tense, knowing that as soon as the camera shutter clicks, the split-second is gone forever and only its chemical index remains.
This duality – the simultaneous absence and presence of the photograph – creates a desire to graft physicality back onto the image, perhaps expressing a wish that the light captured in the lens had carried with it more substance, more of a trace of the real life captured in the image. In the vernacular photography of family albums and portraits, images are sometimes accompanied by locks of hair, or annotated with ticket stubs, captions and other mementoes of the real. Geoffrey Batchen has remarked on these attempts to introduce tactility to the photograph, from the brushstrokes of hand-painted tintypes to dual portraits kept in lockets, the photographs touching like lovers when the locket is closed. For Batchen, this tactility is a deliberate function of the intimate scale of vernacular photography. These photographs are not records of the grand sweep of history, but of ephemeral lives and relationships. They ask to be touched, handled and worn, remembered by the hand as well as the eye.
Text messages also carry a tactile quality. Like the photograph, the text message is a kind of pointing, saying ‘I am here’ or ‘look at this’. Texting is also an accumulation of light touches – presses on a keypad rather than the click of a camera shutter. Even more, text messages often arrive with a tactile sensation, a vibration that acts like a tap on the shoulder. Wilson invokes these qualities in the poems themselves – they often refer to tactile as well as visual experiences – but also by asking the reader to send these poems as text messages. In other projects, Wilson has asked people in Leeds to write poems about the city, and then encouraged people to download them when they are in the same physical location . By continually referring to the physical nature of these poems – their status as a series of keypresses rather than words – Wilson echoes the material transformation of vernacular photography. Instead of being captured in lockets, the poems are rooted to a real location in the city, the imagery called to your phone’s screen in through a keypress instead of the click of a camera shutter.
An electric razor.
I clean the dust & gunk
of skin & bristles
with a soft brush, spirits.
Fit it to my neck
pull it up jaw, chin, lip.
& still use it
Text messages carry their tactile experience with them. They are the product of touching, announce themselves with touches, are revealed by touches and erased with a further touch. We no longer carry photographs in lockets, trapped in jewelry worn next the skin, but remember those close to us through their words, transmitted in 160 characters or less from their hand to ours.
Technology often promises transcendence from real life (think of the long-delayed promises of VR) but it is eventually domesticated through its interaction with real bodies in real spaces. We find new relationships with technologies by rubbing our corporeal bodies up against them, not by crossing a threshold into their immaterial worlds. Carolyn Marvin has traced our physical relationship with technology to the early electrical infrastructures of the 19th Century, illustrated by this quote from a contemporary news article:
“The young ladies of Frankford … have recently discovered that by holding a piece of tin against the iron foot-rests driven into the wooden poles of the Southern Electric Light Company they receive a weak electric shock, and almost every evening a group gathers around the poles that are not situated on the main thoroughfares and enjoys the fun for hours… One pretty miss was heard to remark, after her first experience, “Oh, I thought I was squeezing a handful of pins” “yes,” said another, “it’s something like being kissed by a young man with a bristly moustache.”
Photography in turn has been domesticated by the body. Early chemicals were too slow to capture moving figures, so the body had to be made rigid in order to be captured. But the invention of faster and faster chemistries was driven partly by the desire to make photography work for the body, not the other way round. The formal Victorian portrait gave way to the informal snapshot, and now to the intimacy of the phonecam and picture message. Liberated from the physical limitations of chemistry, the digital photograph now zips around, becoming a node on wired and wireless social networks, a point in a map made of bodies. Photographs now come to us, into our pockets, directly from the cameras of friends. Like Victorian lockets, they are made to be carried close to the body, rather than framed and fixed to the wall. The journey from the wall to the pocket takes photography from one extreme – the formal, momentous space of history – to another – the intimate, ephemeral space of memory.
Wilson’s text message poems seem initially to be a step backwards from photo-messaging. If we can send an image, why bother to send text? How can a poem evoke a scene in a way that a photograph couldn’t? Why painstakingly tap out characters on a keypad when you can have one click of a camera shutter?
Wilson’s poems introduce the kind of intimacy that could not be captured in images. Like photography, texting acts as a mechanical record, a message saying ‘I am here’ or ‘look at this’. But texting also gives space to intimate, private languages that are impossible to capture on the public surface of the photograph. The vernacular grammar of text messaging developed partly as a response to its limitations, but also to its intimacy, mimicking the childish languages of lovers. The text message is a note slipped from hand to hand in a classroom, a secret rather than an announcement.
Matt Webb, referring to Transactional Analysis theory, defines the minimum unit of social recognition as the ‘stroke’. For him, this is an example of ‘empty’ communication, like Japanese children who send each other blank text messages to each other as a way of saying a quick “hello” . Would we ever take an empty photo? Reduced to its carrier, a photograph is an inert piece of paper. The text message, meanwhile, carries traces of its history – a name, a time and date, and the vibration that announces it – even without any other content.
So text messages are even more located in tactile, intimate experiences than photographs. Similarly, Wilson’s text poems carry references to tactile experiences on a number of levels. The imagery of the poems themselves often refer to touch; there is the explicit request for readers to retype and send the poems; and there is the tactile qualities of text messages as an intimate communication, a stroke or a glance between confidants.
This intimacy and materiality finds echoes in the vernacular photography described by Geoffrey Batchen, but text messages have even less chance of historical longevity. We will not gather albums of texts as we did photographs (Wilson’s anthologized and paper-bound collection being the exception). Photography’s light touch condemns it to a problematic relationship with the material world, something that it continually has to reclaim through fragments of the real – collages, lockets or albums. The text message is instead condemned to the specificity of its immediate physical moment – it is created, received and destroyed by a series of light touches – finger presses on a key pad, the vibration announcing its arrival, and the final press of the delete key.