Friday, February 24, 2006

The Quotes Rant

Here's a sobering bit of news. You will never be all that clever. You may be clever, but there will always be an abstractly huge number of people who make you look droll and uninteresting. Same goes for "deep", "insightful", etc.

Many people come to this realization and are deeply relieved. Like Hiro Protagonist realizing that he does not need to struggle to be the world's, um... let's say "most dangerous man", each of these can drop the pretenses of having to sound whatever-they-aspire-to and can merely say things that they themselves find entertaining or interesting. For purposes of this rant, let's stick to "clever."

While some accept it, others claw relentless at the idea of being clever. If they themselves cannot be clever then they will harvest cleverness from various sources and deliver it to everyone around them. This always, always comes in the form of quotes. For many years, I myself did it. I had read or heard something that I found clever and would, when appropriate, say it aloud in conversation. Others would agree that it was indeed clever and appropriate.

What I failed to understand then was that each quote delivered gave me vicarious achievement, as opposed to actual participation in the conversation at hand. Like a sports fan who paints his chest and face in the colors of his favorite team and screams wildly at each success, I was not actually doing anything other than leeching off someone else's accomplishment. The movie Waking Life demonstrated this better than I could have hoped, not as an indictment of the behavior but as the most egregious example. Characters in that movie do nothing more than shuffle around on-screen spouting off quote after quote about the meaning of life. It's supposed to sound deep but it came off sound like a bunch of pretentious snobs trying to smear enough pan-cake quotes onto their faces that you might, perhaps, miss the blemishes of their own shallowness. There, how's that for a quotable.

Nowadays, I have a simple rule about quotes. If someone said something that you found insightful, collect the insight not the quote. Freely share the insight with others, but not as a direct quote. If I say something that you find insightful or clever, claim it as your own and share it. The only things that I have found consistantly worth quoting are unique for their verbal cadence, or perhaps their chiastic qualities. My favorite current example of this is "the difference between theory and practice in theory is smaller than the difference between theory and practice in practice." Its humor is derived from the chiasmus as much as from the concept.

So take a quote, extract the concept, own it, and only then share the concept with others. Once we get used to sharing insights with each other rather than recitations of other's insights we will truly be communicating. But don't quote me on that.

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