Ambrose Bierce, Father of the Emoticon \__/!
I'm back from a week at the beach, and will be blogging this week partly based on various things I read and various conversations I had during the week about new technologies and new ways of thinking about technology. One interesting thing I found out was that the emoticon was invented by short story writer, aphorist, andjournalist Ambrose Bierce (aka ?Bitter Bierce?), famous for going up againsthis boss Randolph Hearst and the Hearst newspaper dynasty to oppose theSpanish-American War (Hearst bragged that he created the Spanish-American War asa ?publicity stunt? because wars sell newspapers), who knew that Bierce alsocreated the emoticon. In 1912. On (gasp!) a typewriter: \__/! Alex Williams alluded to this in his NYTimes piece on emoticons ?(-: Just Between You and Me;-)? on Sunday July29, 2007. The one he quotes from Bierceis meant to denote frivolity---hey, everyone, lighten up, I was just kiddin.? Perfect that Bierce invented that because hewas always getting himself in trouble for being sarcastic, ironic, or justplain nasty at the expense of those in power. Sometimes his radicalism would make him seem ?left? by contemporary USperspectives. He exposed the fact, forexample, that Hearst totally faked the image of Cubans raping an American womanin order to enrage Americans to support a bogus war that was good for the U.S. and goodfor newspaper sales but not much of anything else. He was outraged by racial violence againstBlacks, Chinese, immigrants. Hesupported any number of women writers and journalists. Yet at other times, he was, to any contemporary leftist?s way of thinking,appallingly retrograde?sometimes almost a parody of himself when it came tophilosophical issues of gender, sometimes on race too. In other words, you can?t characterize theguy. He wasn?t ?consistent? in hisprejudices and progressive causes, although, to his way of thinking, he wasentirely consistent. But he was alwaysgetting himself in trouble with his scathing, cynical, satirical remarks. That?swhy he invented the emoticon. You neverknew when he was being satirical because his point of view shifted so much, sooften, so variously on different issues that, without the little symboldenoting that he was kidding, you couldn?t be sure. He was a thorn in everyone?s side, including(some of the time) those he loved and championed most. Thus the emoticon. He used it for the same reason that many ofus resort to emoticons in our emails: email is great for variable pov. We don?t necessarily demand consistency in the same way we would in apublished essay. But then we can also bemisread so we use those little bits of punctuation fluff to let our readersknow we?re kidding, just kidding. Different narrative forms require different rhetorical devices?email andblogging need emoticons, and so did Bierce.
If Bierce were alive today, he would absolutely be ablogger, causing trouble just because hebelieved it was important?really vital, in a democracy?to cause trouble, toshake things up, to enrage, to incite dullards to thinking, whether they wantedto be incited or not. His stories arecrazy, again often experiments in point of view like ?In a Grove? or ?MoonlitRoad? that inspired Akutagawa, Soseki, and later Kurasawa in Japan (?Rashoman?is a very close adaptation of Bierce). In 1905, Bierce stories were included in the English-language readers ofevery Japanese secondary student and they inspired a generation and seemed, tomany Japanese, to be very Japanese. Theywere then taken up by the Magical Realists of South America?Borges andCortazar?in the 1970s. All thosewriters, on different continents, are about shifting and variable point ofviews and factualities of the heart that it is almost impossible to pindown. Emoticon time. \__/!
[Cat in the Stack Disclaimer: I know so much about ol Ambrose because whenI started my research for Revolution and the Word, as a Master?s student, Irealized that it was a ten-year project in a field that didn?t exist---whocared about popular literature?s response to political moods of the AmericanRevolutionary Founding Fathers, who cared about British cultural studies andearly American popular culture? Whocared about lending libraries for women and the working classes, relationshipsbetween abolitionism and workers? rebellions and ideologies of gender? Who cared about printing and the cost of bookproduction, distribution, and consumption? Certainly not anyone in English Departments back then. So I dropped that as a dissertation topic andswitched to something ?literary?---and easy. All Bierce?s stories fit into one volume. Perfect for a dissertation. And his cranky, uncharacterizable, crazywriting was very much in sync with the Japanese and South American fiction Iwas reading at the time, as well as with my semiotic interests. So I wrote on Bierce and C. S. Peirce, andcalled it a dissertation. I would have dropped out of graduate school if Ihadn?t been challenged by my director, William Bysshe Stein, to write adissertation in six weeks so he could nominate it for an award. I did it?wrote probably the worstdissertation ever penned. (And then spent six years revising it into abook. And then an edition of hisstories. And then a collection of essayson his work. So much for quickiedissertations.) Bierce remains asinspiring as he is problematic. I stillhave a blogger?s affection for someone who would write his columns under onename, attack his columns pseudonymously in another newspaper, then attack hisattacker, then come in under still another name to be the mediator between thevarious Bierce?s. He knew how to kick updust. And he invented the emoticon,too. Gotta love (and hate) theguy. That?s the autobiographicalbackstory. And, for today, that?s allshe wrote. \__/!)