Félix Fenéon and the invention of twitter | VICTOR DA ROSA

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Paul Signac, Portrait of Félix Fenéon, 1890

The imaginary of twitter – a social network where users can, at any moment, write for their followers messages of a maximum of 140 characters – is not new. Such imaginary, to begin with, seems to be connected to a series of questions that relate writing to metrics, limit, measure. Somehow, the lot of opinions that attribute superficiality to twitter, on the grounds of statements and values that are always debatable – such as the view that there’s no interest in superficiality itself – must erase a story.

The critic Félix Fenéon, who spoke for writers such as Paul Valéry and André Gide, but also for the most radical painters of the 19th century, such as the divisionists -that became later known as the pointillists -, and was accused of small attacks realized in the most bourgeois cafes of Paris, incarnates what Michel Foucault would call, more than fifty years later, an extreme journalist, a radical. From 1906 and on, among other activities, Félix Feneón writes a column of fait-divers in the French magazine Le Matin – we’d say the lowermost space of a newspaper (and the most literary at the same time) – that gets the suggestive title “Nouvelles en trois lignes”.

There is an ambiguity, and I have to start with it -maybe even a paradox. The significant “nouvelle” -which in English could be translated as “news” or even “novel” (it’s possible to come across both references) – already introduces a doubt about what is fiction and what isn’t. In fact, the discursive statute of news, viewed with the expectation of a representation or an effect of representation, is directly opposed to what we understand as a novel, fictitious genre. Insofar as the two devices come closer, thus, it turns out to be difficult to know under which position the text is written.

“A mad woman in the city of Puéchabon, Mrs. Bautiol, maiden name Hérail, woke up her in laws with hammer bangs”, writes Félix Fenéon in his column. Or even: “It was during bowling that apoplexy knocked down Sr. André, aged 75, from Levallois. He threw a ball that was still rolling when he ceased to exist”. What relates the fragments of Fenéon to fictitious resources is mainly the velocity of his texts. It is as if measure suggests a writing style – or maybe it has to do with an imposition. But the humor that emerges directly from brevity, on the other hand, is definitely connected to the news-related character of the scene. In other words, we somehow verify that the described scene actually took place. Anyhow, in a polemical way it all has to do with what we see as representation.

Moreover, there is an extreme unity of writing in these fragments of Félix Fenéon – the same unity that gives to haiku a classical, closed aspect. Actually, it is what allows us to read such fragments after 100 years without any sentiment of loss. And in this we can assert that the news like character of the scene is also a kind of fraud, it is fake. Anyway, the text doesn’t depend on any external element. There is no news, in the end.

In the introduction of his beautiful essay on Picasso, in which he tries to remove the artist from the sacred place of modernism in order to relocate him in the field of the market – read: below – the north American critic Rosalind Krauss, rightly uses Félix Fenéon’s texts as a point of departure. For Krauss, apart from the speed – and it’s worth saying that no fragment by the writer surpasses the 140 characters permitted in twitter – there is a trace in those fragments that is interesting as a counter-reading of the unlikely modernist transparency, namely: a narrative opacity, the loss of commentary – in short, some kind of betrayal of the communicative process itself.

The Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac, in an interesting reflection on the role of twitter in countries with restricted spread of information, like Iran and China, suggests that the majesty of the Internet is connected to an inherently political question: what are you doing right now? On the other hand, one of the interesting things about twitter is the possibility to create fake profiles, of famous or of anonymous people. The limit between what can be verified and what cannot be verified outside twitter is always unstable. And it occurs quite often to come across fake information that is likely to confuse even the most ingenuous readers. From a political point of view -whether that would be politics of writing or information- it is one of the most versatile media that Internet has been able to create.

It is true that every user uses twitter in the way that they consider more valid, appropriate, but there is an hesitation that becomes more and more difficult to deny: where does fiction start? – where does it end? At the same time, these questions, from my point of view, are a kind of useless trick. I’d like to think, in the end, that it is all about a kind of literature you cannot lend. To enter the network of twitter requires the very abandonment of the dichotomy that separates news and novel.


Félix Fenéon