Something Understood: “Gossip and Whispers”

Hans_Weiditz gossip sisters

Hans Weiditz the younger (1495-1537), ‘Gossip sisters and the Devil’, engraving

Something Understood’s  “Gossip and Whispers” was simultaneously a good program, with some nice insights and  well-chosen readings and music, and a deeply irritating one. The inclusion of the Calypso piece really didn’t go anywhere, the mood and theme of what should have been an essayistic program lingered and looped, and, though I’d have said it was almost impossible, this program about gossip entirely ignored gossip’s traditional connection with women’s speech. I didn’t necessarily need it to be a thoroughgoing feminist examination of ‘gossip’ as a category, but I did need it to nod to that incredibly obvious link.

Relatedly, I’d like it to have troubled the degree to which gossip is just passing along certain kinds of information that aid in social navigation–the extent to which it might be amoral, even a necessary part of keeping social orders running without constant ruptures. At what point IS something gossip? The program assumes a lot about what ‘gossip’ is and how you feel ‘gossiping’, and also treats gossip as a transhistorical thing that functions the same in a variety of communities. This is very disturbing from a History of the Emotions point of view.

In re: women’s speech, perhaps the big issues of the moment in re: ‘rumors and reputation’ and social media (all of which the program wants to talk about) are rape allegations, whistle-blowing and conflicting testimonies in situations like the year’s high-profile American police scandals. The program avoids these questions of gossip, power and legitimate speech like it’s written by Aaron Sorkin. This is mediocre scholarship/programming, and it insidiously reinforces some dangerous paradigms. If the episode didn’t want to talk about real shit, it could at least have bothered to draw a blatant chalk circle around the stuff it WAS interested in. It would thus have avoided de facto situating ‘allegations of misconduct through unofficial channels/all discussion on social media’ within a delegitimizing ‘feminine’ framework the program does nothing to recuperate.

Are these topics too much for this episode of Something Understood to deal with? Tough. The nature of gossip is /that/ you can’t fully control and defang it, and producing a safe program on gossip is antithetical.

As someone who works on charm, I’m interested in the phenomenology of gossip–the seductions of sharing, in-group communication, the type of information shared, gossip’s role in persona-building for all parties involved, and the way different ways of telling generate or degrade the charm of those parties. IF the program was going to dodge some of what are, for me, the constituent questions about gossip, then the program could have probed these topics, which it did evince a desire to cover, more deeply.


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