Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Communion as the end of ethics

Where communication appears in discussions of ethics, it is either as a problem or an instrument. In Susan Sontag's moving work on images of torture, for example, communication is a means for extending the suffering of victims, while for J├╝rgen Habermas, communication is a means towards the esteblishment of values and norms. Of the two, the position which sees communication as an exercise of power is the most persuasive: there is no question that in a universe of flow, somehow communication has ended up in the hands of the few: ammassed, delayed, detoured, and used as a weapon in information warfare, propaganda, and as both Sontag and Elaine Scarry argue, as an instrument of torture. The sad truth of Habermas' more utopian vision is that communicative agreement between free and equal subjects can result in values and norms which are anything but utopian. Although Arendt uses the case of the Eichman trial to demonstrate the weaknes of kant's categorical imperative, her thesis of 'the banality of evil' is in the end an emprical argument against the idea that discussion among peers will always result in rational results: here, the discussion among ome of the most highly educated populations in Europe resulted in general agreement to the terms of the Final Solution. Something is wrong.

A eudaimonist perspective, deriving from one of the oldest European staements on ethics, Aristotle's Nichomachaean Ehics. In Aristotle (Book 10, Chapter 8), the highest good is the life of the mind: the moment at which we are most godlike, and which as 'Contemplative Soeculation', points both backwards and forwards in time. It is clear today that Aristotle needs to be adjusted in one crucial aspect. The life of the mind can no longer be understood as the life of one brain trapped inside a bone box on the top of the hum,an frame. In what we share with the aimals, and in what we share – throug language and all the other media which form the vehicles of thought – with other human beings, the life of the mind is an entriely collective entreprise: what recent writers refer to as the intellectual commons. Yet here Hardt and Negri are as misled as habermas. The commons is no more an instrument for the realisation of something else than is rational communication. From a eudaimonst persp[ective, communication itself is the Good. It remains to be seen why, if this is the case, communication regularly turns out to be evil, in the cases investigated by Arendt and by Scarry and Sontag. At stake is the nature and definition of 'communication'

Thus far in human history, political economy has served to parcel out scarce resources on the basis of wealth and power, in order to produce and reproduce differential access to the commons of communication. That concentration is no longer necessary. There is enough to go round. There has been enough food, water, shelter, fuel and knowledge to go round for over a hundred years. But the falling rate of profit has ensured that throughout that period, more and more demands for more and more consumption has been necessary to preserve the privilege of the ruling class. Commodification of all sorts of human wants are no longer useful: this is the case with knowledge and communication, for which it is also true that the atomisation of knowledge into data and information is no longer productive. Only the falling rate of profit leads to intellectual property right sin knowledge, the rent-charging regime which poisons the very well-springs of the innovation process it pretends to defend. We do not contemplate or speculate about the Good, because we are already presented with the goods - with commodity consumption as the only path to enjoyment. These are the pleasures which Aristotle analyses before making his final eudaimonist step from pleasures to happiness.

For Aristotle, 'contemplative specualation' fails a final test of wholeness because (1) it dep[ends on a sufficiency of the means of life (including the means of liberality: enough to give away) and (2) it is incapable of persuading, through its own media -– rhetoric for him, mass or personalised media for us – the mass of people to accept it as doctrine. In answer to (2), the masses are devoted to the pursuit of pleasures because they do not possess them, so that, in answer to (1), they do not have those underpinning sufficiencies wituout which happiness is inaccessible. Therefore the purpose of political life – and here we might properly say the purpose of communication – is to provide those pleasures which enable happiness – comntemplation and speculation. What else is intended by Marx's 'Realm of Freedom' (Capital III 820; [Ch 48]) - a realm which begins to be possible with the shortening of the working day.

Neither action nor creation, in Aristotle Contemplative Speculation is not restricted to rationality but includes sensory and emotional life. This consideration should indicate the weakness of his assertion that such happiness escapes non-human creatures: rationality is not the sole copnstituent of happiness, which is therefore not reserved only for the rational animal. Lie his comparison with the gods, the distinction form the animals no longer persuades us. Similarly in Marx, while we take from him the idea of 'socialised man', we part company over the false choice between ruling or being ruled over by nature. Our happiness depends on collectivity, connectivity, and therefore on extending our relations from the means of production (techne) to the physical world in which our pleasures place us as fully physical beings. Communication is not a means to ecotopia: it is ecotopia.

Yet as we have seen communication is in itself an overdetermined, purposive, not to say instrumental concept. We need to revise what weunderstand by it. It ight be possible to speak of true and false communication (as we might of true and false hope - of 'hope' for a win on the Lottery as opposed to hope for a just, open, happy world). Ontologically, mediation is the flow of matter and energuy, which both physical law and human instinct forms into order through negentropic processes. It is these processes which, as Shannon and Weaver showed in the eartliest days of information theory, construct order. yet they too easily construct communication as orders given and obeyed. This is the 'false' communication, yet it is the historical process through which we pass, and which we cannot gainsay or rescind. Perhaps the term we need is something else, somehting of the commons, such as communion (I owe the term to Rafael Lozano-Hemmer), to distinguish from the command-and-control ethic of communications. From universal mediation, and its entropic characteristic, through the negentropic but equally catastrophic command regime of communication, we move towards a eudaimonist utopia of communion, a term which has the added benefit of centuries of usage in which communion with nature, and indeed with the divine, has been part of its meaning. Communion is the goal itself, not a means to anything else. We seek justice,, health, food, drink, shelter. clothing and a modicum of order so that we can be happy communing beyond the artifices of wealth, power, species and phyla.

1 comment:

minko said...

as i read your piece it reminded me of the word koinonia, which i used some time ago in an attempt to write about communication and later on the superficial and the importance of surface in art and design (graphic design in particular). perhaps a "deflation" of depth is offering a glimpse into eudaimonistic experience inside the mirror of wonderland?! anyway, i am glad i came across your thoughts.