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Poetic Thinking 2016 | April 3, 2020

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Scott Weiss

In his video “Different Ways of Looking” (29:25), Jonathan Harris names “compression” as the first of “four shifting forces” in our present culture (the other three being “disposability,” “curation,” and “self-promotion”).  He describes the development from conversations to letters to phone calls to faxes to emails to text messages to chats to tweets as increasingly compressed forms of expression and he suggests that we as a culture are approaching a “terminal velocity of compression” to the point where we cannot compress further.

Harris’ observations resonate with some thoughts I’ve been mulling over since we discussed the formal qualities of Kafka’s Zürau Aphorisms.  The compressed nature of the aphorisms is integral to their poetic strategy.  In class, I commented on the economy of the aphorisms’ brevity and their ability to deliver a quick setup and punch line.  At the risk of bringing up Lessing and classical antiquity two posts in a row, the format reminds me of Martial’s epigrams (short, witty poems), which Lessing classified as having a bipartite structure: Erwartung (expectation created) and Aufschluss (explanation offered).

In Harris’ vision of modernity, we no longer have time for the Aufschluss.  Martial and Kafka could keep below 140 characters, but somehow their compression does not approach “terminal velocity.”  Literary aesthetics often can fetishize economy and polish (cf. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”), and this was as true in antiquity (e.g. Callimachus) as it has been in the past century.  The question remains: can expression compress too much?  Harris offers (33:39) a “counter-force” for each of his initial shifting forces (compression–deepening, disposability–timelessness, curation–creation, self-promotion–self-reflection).  While the last three strike me as intuitive counter-forces, “deepening” leaves me cold.  Is depth the counter to compression?  What exactly does Harris mean by it?  Might compression be a way of achieving depth?  Certainly we can find depth in a haiku of Bashō.  I don’t mean to dismiss Harris’ broader point that internet culture can encourage superficial modes of expression, in which compression plays a large role, but I would like to think further about compression and its place in poetics.


  1. Harry Desmond

    I think you’ve put your finger on a slight misuse of the term “compression” by Harris; as you say this suggests some increase in the density of meaning, as if more profundity had been squeezed into a smaller space. In fact I think his arguments in that talk were concerned simply with brevity, and to the extent that the density of meaning hasn’t increased, shorter texts do tend to be more shallow and superficial (your average tweet, for instance). In this sense then the opposite is depth — which, unless you happen to be Kafka or Basho, requires something of length.

  2. Thanks for this, Scott. And I think you’re right, Harry–Harris seems to mean “brevity” when he says “compression.” But that is a question I wonder about–what are the limits and potential possibilities of including economy as a necessary condition for calling something “poetic”? And for that matter, where does economy fit in our conceptualization of poetic *thinking*? I am thinking of the Hannah Arendt image of climbing up stairs without a banister, which (to me) conjures an image of a potentially limitless number of stairs… but they are each so difficult to climb that each poetically thought step takes a lot of effort to climb, and so some sort of economy is achieved there? I have more questions than answers here.

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