I considered the idea of asking Wallis if he’d like to be interviewed for this review in order to find out more about what makes him tick but thought better of it after realizing that he has already provided the world with a good deal of honestly-delivered information about his life and times on the Internet.
Thus we learn from his article page here on Digital Journal
, from where he regularly catapults his damning condemnations, deep insights and well-researched reports on everything from science to the Web in the form of op-eds and news articles, that he is a self-confessed antisocial “general nuisance and inner-city gargoyle.”
He publishes and promotes his books – this is his thirteenth – on lulu.com
and he has his own website, Sydney Media Jam
. A quick look around that site will teach you that he has seen the sharp end of life, that he equates trying to be popular with a loss of self-respect, that he is (rather mundanely in the context of himself methinks) against poverty, and that pretty much the only friends whose existence he mentions are the dog he owned as a child and a cat he befriended much later. That he chose a dog and a cat as friends is no coincidence.
‘Conversations for Tiny Minds’ is his latest work and it is just 3,300 words long. This e-book would, if ever it found itself in print and on bookshop shelves, find itself in the sociology-ethnomethodology-conversational analysis section, although Wallis would probably disagree wholeheartedly with that, seeing as he is on the record as having said that by publishing it he is “hoping to be accused of something, perhaps treason to mass media or conspiring to commit something.”
In other words, he is being willfully provocative as usual, and provocation is an art form at which he excels. He’s a natural. And he has certainly succeeded here. This is a complex subject but he has had the good sense to avoid wordy technico-linguistic terms such as ‘turn constructional components’ and ‘adjacency pairs’, which are the official names for what he describes here in simpler terms. Also, I was personally gratified to see that he didn’t mention Noam Chomsky once.
Wallis states his global point of view and starting point for what is to come – a demonstration which explains his theory that “the “art” of conversation has now become a sort of verbal graffiti” - in his very first sentence. That was a good idea because what follows is written in his usual (deliberately?) seemingly disjointed style, at least at first sight. There’s method in his madness though, and the arguments and examples he uses to demonstrate his ideas are lucidly expressed, but only on condition that you are able to discipline yourself early on to ignore his baffling affection for sudden and unexpected outbursts of invasively-aggressive and unnecessary put-downs which do to death a given point he is making, such as “The average modern conversation is a meeting of almost pre-kindergarten vocabularies, cliché-based assertions, infantile logic, and lack of depth.” After all, he had already made that point clear in the very first paragraph with his much more succinct – and far more adept – “verbal graffiti.”
His ideas are laid out in a well-organized manner. The introduction is highly informative, and he follows it up with a few amusing yet pertinent comparisons between what the theories and principles of conversation are generally held to be and what the corresponding realities are. This is where we discover for example that instead of being a means of “synergizing intellectual processes”, conversation is “a purely reactive response from ignoramuses’ synergy” which “could be used for reproduction, and save all that messy stuff.” That’s a pretty neat way of describing what many of us know better as the god-awful knee-jerk answers and ruses used by, say, politicians.
Next up comes a very handy potted history and description of the various dead-end short-cuts and sometimes even unwittingly-used conversation-killer tactics that Wallis says have “castrated” conversation since the 80’s. This is followed by examples of the unconsciously cynical use of associative logic in conversation, and Wallis makes the very salient point that as humor is based on the use of variations in associative logic it’s not surprising that people don’t get many jokes.
Wallis castigates the dumbing-down of society which he says has resulted from a wildly misplaced and out-dated sense of egalitarianism and the resulting slaughter of our vocabulary bases on the altar of cliché as well as the diabolization of all things sophisticated in spoken interaction such as original expressions and more advanced forms of sentence structure, all of which now means that we barely even need language any more. He is certainly right there and I for one remember learning how the French Revolution resulted in the pure and simple banning of thousands of verbs and nouns in the name of a more “egalitarian” French language. France, with its poor choice of vocabulary and synonyms compared to English, still regrets that decision to this day (although a Frenchman will never admit it to an Anglo-Saxon.)
That isn’t to say however that the language elites and others who are aware of the power of well-developed language skills do not exist – they do – or that they are all spared his wrath. They too get their come-uppance here with a brutal exposition of how language technique is used in business and other areas to shape and manipulate people and opinion.
Seven aspects of modern conversational techniques and content are discussed in all, and each of them comes under the same withering hail of fire from Wallis who, after taking no prisoners alive, offers his conclusion.
His conclusion is that only freethinking individuals have a cat in hell’s chance of not being drowned in what he seems to think are the treacherous pools of fetid and defensive-minded low-grade sludge which are passed off as conversation these days – and he throws it out in the kind of almost absent-minded and carefree manner which gives one the impression that he were casually offering the reader a beer. No frills, no carefully worded formula, no weasel words. Mind you, that’s only to be expected from Wallis, who has the refreshing and natural knack of saying what he thinks with absolutely no fear of how it may be interpreted. That’s what’s best about his writing – you always get your money’s worth in conviction and honesty.
And it is precisely that conviction and honesty which brings me back to the only two friends he considers worthy of mention in his descriptions of his life – a dog and a cat. Dogs and cats don’t think about their reactions either, they don’t say much – which surely suits him – but at least they are being frank and open when they do express themselves.
And therein lies the inherent and beautiful self-contradiction of this book I mentioned earlier. Wallis doesn’t like most of what modern conversation represents and yet his almost naive but challenging conversational writing style reveals that when he ‘talks’ he uses some of the same methods himself, as do all of us to a greater or lesser extent.
That is a very courageous thing to have done. His frontal attack on the norms of communication between people is so scathing that it is tantamount to declaring that the very verbal communication that is both the origin and the lifeblood of his own expression is dead, or at least dying. And who but the bravest of souls would ever have the courage to engage him in conversation after reading this book, which seems to include no-one out, without feeling that their use of language was being clinically analyzed? Wallis would probably say that that’s not his problem, and he’s right in a way.
This e-book is not as polished as it could have been - it seems to have been hastily written and it reads more as if it was spat out in disgust and anger than written in cold and measured detachment - but then again that was surely his intention and his evident dissatisfaction is surely what motivated him to write it in the first place.
The very fact that the book was created that way convinces me that Wallis deserves a good deal of praise for what is a piece of sincerely-written work, one in which he has had the guts to throw caution to the winds in order to savagely hammer yet another nail into the coffin of his deeply-beloved art of conversation and words, without which he would only have his dog and his cat to communicate with.
Or perhaps that’s what he has always secretly wanted….
‘Conversations for Tiny Minds’ by Paul Wallis is available, as are his other books, in e-book form on his page at lulu.com. He also has a personal website, Sydney Media Jam.