Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Theodicy of Communication

In a talk at the Digital Aesthetic 3 exhibition in Preston, Peter Campus, speaking of the emergence of what Lévi-Strauss would call pensée sauvage, suggested that the world of primal mediation is hell.

Underlying this perception is the principle that mediation is indeed primary, and that communication is a special case of mediation. Mediation belongs to the concept that everything mediates: that mediating one thing to another is the nature of reality, the essential connectivity of everything. Communication builds out of mediation the nodes which we then learn to see as subjects and objects, as senders, messages, channels and receivers.

Mediation, the intimate ecology of everything, had to be ripped apart to constitute communication. Communication is thus at a first moment the means by which domination and expropriation are secured. At the same time, however, communication makes explicit, precisely by separating, the interdependence of people, but to the exclusion of things, of the environing world (techné and physis.

As automation expands from the factory (organisation of humans and ancestral intelligence) to the internet of things, it strives to complete the universality of the commodity form and probabilistic management of populations. But the vast statistical warehouse of indifferent data begins to yield to the specificity – irreducible and im-mense (unmeasurable) – of the anecdote: the reconnection of the riven parts, the new mediation – peer-to-peer no longer as property of population but as crowd, as particles aligned in the magnetic field of their shared and mutual desire.

Against the immanence of primal mediation, the emergent mediation has learnt from the disconnect of communication the absence of the object of desire. It is now that something more which the commodity always evoked in its false promise of satisfaction, but freed from its bogus anchorage in commodity exchange.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Anecdotal Evidence (first pass)

The dominant models of truth (and knowledge more broadly) in the 21st century do not include anecdotes. Anecdotal evidence is down-graded in common parlance, current affairs, and the neo-liberal university. Data (especially 'big data'), statistics and (with exceptions) models are more trusted. The anecdote, as the prized tool of humanities research, should not be cast as an inherited practice whose archives should be protected: it should be valued as a uniquely powerful method (and site) of analysis and interpretation. At some future date I want to do this properly, with chapter and verse from key concepts like Geertz's thick description, looking back to the vicissitudes of testimonio in Latin American literature, poring perhaps over the use of exempla in early modern literature, and the place of the anecdote among the ancients. Here just the beginnings of a thought.

In an earlier post on happiness, I cited Adorno's principle that 'the greater good' is always a means to defer, displace and deny the happiness of the here and now. We could also mention Derrida's idea that an ethical act only occurs when there is no code of ethics operating to instruct us: when, that is, we have to act on our own resources in the face of a specific situation. Whatever the place of rules (such as the laws of physics or the statistical likelihood of a utilitarian benefit), both happiness and ethical action occur in unique moments. Tolstoy's principle (Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way) should also reflect that happy families have their own uniqueness. Humanities research concerns itself, at least in part, with the unique constellation of happiness and unhappiness, and the unique moments of ethical action. My model here is Bresson's Au Hasard Balthasar.

In law, witnessing calls up the untrustworthy character of the witness. The anecdote must be told. It involves
the event observed
the observation
the recounting
and the situation of the recounting – its position in arguing a case

Thus there is a degree of performativity in the anecdote, at least as much as there is indexicality: its truth concerns both fidelity to the event and the observation, and to the account (the aesthetic form) and the situation of the account. The anecdote concerns the event, recasting an old event in terms of its importance to a new situation, one where an evaluation or decision is in process of being reached. The anecdote has the power to move through time – this is its ontological ground as fidelity.

We might be better thinking of photography – especially cinematography – as anecdote, rather than as datum.

We might be better placed considering a cultural moment (Geertz's example of a wink) or an artwork as an anecdote, whose meaning – whose relation to both past event and present situation – is not permanently fixed, not because there was no initiating event to be witnessed, but precisely because there was.