In the praise of summer endless pointless useless conversations
In my previous post, I briefly reflected on the ways in which the online relocation of most of interactions and activities due to Covid-19 influenced the organisation and the internal dynamics of social movements. This month I want to continue the line of thinking on communication by talking about gossip as an anti-economic practice.
As summer arrived, I came back home for the holidays, in a small town in the suburbs of central Italy where everyone knows each other. Since I was coming from the United Kingdom, I had to self-isolate for about a week and I took advantage of those days by letting myself linger over the familiar soundscape. The two ladies talking to each other from their balconies at early morning; the drivers making small talks while delivering stocks to the local grocery shop; people bumping into each other and chatting; the bells that always play the same tune every day at noon; crickets chirping in the background.
In these idle moments I became aware of a substantial change that had occurred over the past year in the way I engage with words. The last year has been filled with words. Words chosen with accuracy and attention to convey an idea, to perform a task, to respect a deadline. The transition to remote working and the moving online of conferences, lectures, and events has given many of us the opportunity to have access to a surprising amount of content and information from all over the world. The lockdown created a particularly favourable context for the rise of audio-based social networks, such as Clubhouse or Cappuccino, and the proliferation of live broadcast and podcasting, capable more than other digital formats of responding to the increased need for conviviality and human contact. As rightfully noted by Tanya Basu on the MIT Technology Review, in the age of social distancing and isolation, the audio has succeeded in creating a more intimate and comfortable environment. However, this also meant that every interaction was taking place in a controlled and profit-driven setting, often recorded, and with a specific purpose. To me this felt being permanently in front of an audience, having to perform an acceptable and convincing version of myself even within apparently informal contexts.
In this state of information overload, I was longing for some quietness. Yet, instead of silence, I found myself talking, for hours and hours, without any purpose other than the pleasure of conviviality and mutual presence. While talking to my family, friends, and neighbours I had the chance of appreciating again the great art of talking about nothing and feel recharged, more connected to myself and others.
In the information and service economy, every word counts, and even small talk becomes a tool of constructing one’s identity as marketable and profitable for we could always be in the presence of a potential client, colleague or employer. However, there is still an activity that may interfere with the need to maintain frictionless and useful relationships, and that is gossip.
Having been traditionally associated with the female domain, gossip has been largely dismissed as representing a very trivial form of speech, reflecting the dichotomy of production (male) versus reproduction (female). In the book Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, Silvia Federici goes back to the history of gossip, describing its evolution over the sixteenth to eighteenth century in parallel with the exclusion of women from the public sphere and the strengthening of patriarchal authority and capitalism. In the Middle Ages, the term ‘gossip’ was still mainly used to indicate acquaintances and women friends, and while already entailing a strong emotional component, it lacked its current pejorative connotation. Subsequently, the condemnation of this practice became part of a more general attack on women with the aim of breaking down female friendship and collectivism, which were seen as a major form of support and source of social power. Gossip was deemed inappropriate, a morally abject activity which had to be punished, so much so that in the sixteenth century ‘branks’ – a torture instrument designed to lock a person’s head and mouth, making extremely painful to speak – started being used to punish insubordinate women.
Due to its low reputation, gossip has been long overlooked by scholars and theorists. In the 1960s, as sociolinguistics began to shift their focus to ‘minor’ forms of communication, several studies started recognising the social and relational value of gossip, even though it was still primarily seen as a mechanism of moral policing and exclusion. In opposition to this vision, linguist Jennifer Coates in her study of all-female conversations recuperates and highlights the social value of gossip, used as an instrument to foster solidarity and unity. Also, the author argues that gossip, or as she calls it ‘female backstage talk’, could be seen as an instrument of rebellion by means of which women managed to break the social constrains of niceness, obedience, and politeness.
Even in contemporary times, as the practice of gossip has been absorbed by the media and has become something to be consumed and to profit from through tabloids, docuseries, and TV shows, gossip still holds its radical potential. Intrinsically being an inefficient and indolent activity, gossip may generate spaces of relations that escape processes of production and consumption. It might be considered an anti-social and anti-economic activity to the extent it counters the social pressure of always being nice and pleasant. In these ephemeral moments of sharing, we can be flawed and incorrect, without having to put up a glossy image of ourselves. Talking about nothing becomes a way to make oneself a non-marketable individual and regain possession of one’s time and knowledge, which is then handed down and shared through analogue informal networks.
Despite having mentioned some writings, my aim was not to analyse gossip from a theoretical point of view, but to share some of the personal considerations that arose in these sultry afternoons. Nevertheless, as written in my very first post, the political and imaginative potential of gossip was initially brought to my attention by iLiana Fokianaki, curator and founder of State of Concept Athens, who is carrying out a fascinating research work on the subject. I look forward to discussing it with her during my secondment at State of Concept, and to seeing how it will evolve and branch out.
 T. Basu, ‘The Future of Social Networks Migh Be Audio’, MIT Technology Review, 25 January 2021, https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/01/25/1016723/the-future-of-social-networks-might-be-audio-clubhouse-twitter-spaces/
 S. Federici, Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, Oakland: PM Press, 2018, pp. 35-43.
 J. Coates, Gossip revisited: An analysis of all-female discourse, in J. Coates and D. Cameron (eds.), Women in their speech communities: New perspectives on language and sex, London: Longman, 1989, pp. 94–122.