Globalisation: All the Trash in a Single Word
Umberto Eco once wrote of the famous Italian humorist Achille Campanile, that ”he shows us how we become caught up in the web of the language by which we are spoken”. In his Handbook of Conversation Campanile tells of a Professor Codaro who placed an advertisement in the newspapers in which he claimed that he could rapidly transform anyone into a successful public speaker. To his classroom flooded with interested clients, the professor revealed his magic formula. It was simple: in speaking of any things, facts or events you should, at any time and on every opportunity, announce with fervour (a) that they give us reason for faith in the future, and (b) that we should see whatever we are taking about not as an aim and an end, but as a new beginning. Thus, for instance, a company director might announce successful achievements by saying that now we can look forward positively to the future and ask all those present to see this moment not as the end of their efforts but as the start of a new era of growth in the organisation; party members speaking at the funeral of a fellow politician might declare that the death of this special man is not an end but the beginning of a new life since the orphaned party will follow in his footsteps and so they may look forward to the future with confidence. The throng of listeners was pleasantly surprised - so it is that easy, we can all become good public speakers, this is an end to public stammering, we have achieved our aim. ”This will not be your point of arrival, but a point of departure, the beginning of your new public life,” said Professor Codaro, and the crowd broke into appreciative applause.
Recontextualisation: The Recharging of Exhausted Contexts
Achille Campanile is here laughing at the linguistic trap into which modern society is still hopelessly falling. Here I am thinking of its insatiable and obsessive need to ”recharge” exhausted contexts, to rework all our ends into new beginnings, new points of departure. The slogan of modernity is the redemptive power of the New which irrupts into the Present as the revolutionary force transforming the world of the future into something completely different from what it was in the Past. Thus printing, which superseded the oral culture, was a revolutionary invention, as was the steam engine, which superseded human and animal energy, or the Internet, which is transforming the world into one enormous market of information, mystification and chat. The archetype of every faith in the redemptive power of the New is the Christian faith in the revealed word of God which brings a new ”point of departure for Humanity as a whole”. The disruptive force of the New separating the future from the past, which is the substance of any modern era, is often compressed into an inflammatory formula, an abbreviation, which dominates an entire era. These are the ”one-word myths”, a term coined by the Czech philosopher Břetislav Horyna to indicate those modern myths which are not narratives but slogans which cannot be easily resisted, since unlike the old narratives it is not possible to insinuate yourself into them and subversively redirect their energy from inside. The most aggressive of the contemporary one-word myths is the omnivorous word, ”globalisation”.
The revolutionary force of the Present ruthlessly transforms past contexts into semiotic wrecks which are dismissed as ”prejudices”. Any impression, experience, information, fact or point of view can only act as a guide when set in its own context, allowing us to choose, to set priorities or find justifications. A context that is not exhausted transforms facts and information into energy, organises our impressions, motivates us to overcome obstacles and leads us to communicate with others. Even simply looking at the countryside calls for some motivation to distinguish between the background and the elements set in it, to direct our attention to what is attracting us, to concentrate on what is important - all this requires energy. A context is exhausted when the information does not motivate us to anything or arouse any energy in us. Information, impressions and experiences in exhausted contexts die out, with only a few managing to find a place in new contexts and survive in new circumstances.
Exhausted contexts are re-interpreted as documents of human evolution, they are set out textbooks and museums in chronological order and schoolchildren are taught to look at them as at their past.
Post-industrial society is a network in which all the great contexts of the Past, exhausted, obliterated or recharged interweave with each other and break up, run down, intersect with, weaken or strengthen each other. They can unify relatively homogeneous groups of people for brief periods of time but they cannot become new points of departure for mass movements, motivating them to the struggle ”for a better tomorrow”.
In the era of globalisation, contexts soon run down and people can lose themselves among the heaps of exhausted contexts choking their cities. These exhausted contexts become the unending peripheries of global metropolises, often haunted by refugees from bastardised cultures. Information and facts from these contexts disorientate individuals, corroding the idea of society as a whole, which people need in order to be able to act ”in the common interest”. Information and images dropped out of context must be rapidly neutralised, if they are not to flood the entire public space.
One effective way to neutralise the waste of exhausted contexts is their ”recontextualisation”, setting impressions and information into a new context. Today the coalition of global investors engages hundreds of thousands of symbolic analysts in this industrial recycling of communication waste, in recontextualising different forms of communication waste into new one-word myths, in bitter competition with various post-Christian sects, such as the New Age movement.
A context is regenerated (or recharged) when the ruins of our Past come to be seen not as waste, refuse or remains, but as a new point of departure, the ground for a new beginning which ”makes it possible for us to have faith in the future”. The word ”globalisation” has launched a massive recontextualisation of the waste and ruins of our Past - nationalism, colonisation, decolonisation, the Cold War, nuclear arms, the brutal exploitation of the Third World, the ecological crisis, the concealed real cost of industrial growth, the banalization of democracy. The throng of Africans, forced into our cities by poverty, is a remnant of the Cold War which was largely fought in the Third World, where each power bloc supported dictators and mass murderers ”in its own interests”.
The function of the one-word myth ”globalisation” consists of absorbing innumerable facts and images dropped out of their context, of re-unifying them within a regenerated and clearly delimited context. Here I am speaking of facts belonging to long exhausted contexts like the superiority of the white race, the idea of progress or even the fable of the new wealth created by the magic of the Internet, which is only a postmodern version of the old American myth of the frontier, of the self-made man building his life in a country of unlimited possibilities. Recontextualised as moments of the one-word myth "globalisation", these contradictory facts are transformed into a new point of departure, into energy which engages us in the struggle for new aims. It is just that these new contexts are soon shattered into fragments in the continuing flood of new images, information and impressions. Contexts which could be shared by the masses are an archaism, and the energy of every recharged context today is rapidly running down.
Contexts that Cannot be Recharged
The white man has used the word ”globalisation” as a rubbish bin for all the dirty remnants of the Past which he wishes to shed: the concrete suburban jungles, the industrial stewing pot, the remains of DDT in human milk, dioxin, the poverty of the Third World, the egoism which economists have elevated into the supreme imperative. But the global winds are blowing this wreckage back to the coasts of its world. The French coast is polluted with oil, the Danube is poisoned, cities are suffocating in poisonous fumes. The Italian coast is a nightly target for the boats of people smugglers, bringing people from the periphery where the white man once ruled purely in his own interests. These new arrivals roam the cities of Europe without documents, are targeted by police raids, amassed in collection points and then returned to their (Third) world. The spread of people from the periphery throughout the world has not only accelerated, but also become more brutal, hopeless and inhuman. Omofuma, who was black, was expelled from Vienna, bound, with his mouth closed with sticking plaster, and he died in the aeroplane. The streets of the world’s cities are thronged with prostitutes from the post-communist half of the world, from Ukraine, Romania and Russia.
The El Nino effect has been known for centuries, but has become more extreme in the last twenty years, with many analyses attributing this to global warming. ”This cannot go on, we cannot continue to wage a chemical war against ourselves”, said the Czech Minister for the Environment, Miloš Kuzvart, about the smog inversion at the end of November 1999, when the level of nitrogen oxides in some Czech cities were more than twice the permissible level. Can the chemical war against city dwellers be justified by being included in the context of ”Globalisation”? Can this become our new point of departure?
The one-word myth ”globalisation” re-proposes the poverty of the Third world, the ecological crisis, the planetary power of advertising, the fall-out of the nuclear arms race, which for decades were the most efficient context for the mobilisation of energy to increase economic growth, as a new point of departure, a new beginning, according to Professor Codaro’s formula. So a new context is being recharged, in which the images of our ends gain a new setting, new prospects and new energy. But there are some points of arrival that cannot be redefined as new points of departure, which are definitive ends.
The recharging of contexts is successful when a new one-word myth transforms the ruins of the past, massacres and the suffering of millions into the beginning of a new era. It is the old strategy of the white man. Thus, for example, in the eyes of such great custodians of the Christian relation to time as Gioacchino da Fiore or Marx, there was first the era of the Father, followed by that of the Son and now it is the turn of the era of the Holy Ghost, the era of salvation. There was feudalism - the era of the possession of land, then the era of capital, of the possession of labour, capitalism and then socialism, the era of the emancipation of human labour, which will be the renewal of the entire history of the human race. In the middle of the industrial revolution, Auguste Comte, founder of the church of positivists, foresaw the coming of the age of totally positive rationality, in which the religious and metaphysical eras would be definitively overcome. Here ”overcoming” means recycling the waste and contradictions of the past into a new beginning: positivism and socialism were the greatest one-word myths of the Enlightenment.
Globalisation is however an era in which the fragments of the past lacerate every new one-word myth and through the holes in them we see how senseless, how bloody, how filthy they are; we see that they cannot be transformed into a new point of departure. The contemporary discharged contexts cannot be recharged as per Professor Codaro. The holocaust, the hole in the ozone layer, the all-pervasive kitsch of Hollywood movies and presidential speeches, the abstract power of the World Bank, the environmental devastation of the planet, the cars that are brutalising Europe’s historical cities, the squandering of the resources of the Third World, and the degrading language of advertising cannot be redefined as a new point of departure. They are an absolute point of arrival, an end.
The time of the intellectuals who have laundered our bloody ends into new beginnings has gone forever, as the philosopher of dissent - of the conflicts in which the wrongs suffered by one party have no meaning in the language of the other one - J.F. Lyotard has reminded us. But there is one great task remaining for this vanishing class: to use all the strength and wit that they have accumulated in the course of centuries to stand up to those who are seeking to mould the waste of the white man's predatory past into a new myth - globalisation. Can we escape from the trap that transforms every point of arrival into a new beginning, thus preventing us from learning something from our ends? Will we be able to recharge exhausted contexts in such a way that points of arrival remain final - not a new beginning - and yet capable of transforming information, impressions and facts into the energy needed for life? This is indeed a postmodern question.
The Name of the Whole
There are two adjectives today which are colliding, sometimes intermingling but most often serving to obscure one another: postmodern and global. The adjective ”postmodern” proclaims the parting with the idea that the final end of history is the uniting of all humans through the deliverance of reason from all those obscuring prejudices which stand in the way of discerning universal truths. In the postmodern view, differing opinions are not due to errors or to the backwardness of certain human communities, which should be overcome by increased objectivity and neutrality of better educated individuals; a variety of points of view and forms of life is the normal state of the human race, not the consequence of our biological or historical shortcomings.
Globalisation has caught us up in a network in which no point represents the centre, nor signifies the whole or even points the way to it. We never know what act of ours will undo the knots of the web, providing an unpredictable reinforcement for the global effects which spread rapidly, nobody can say where. The adjective ”global” describes this mutual interlinking of human words and deeds which is not however ”governed by reason”, which is not transparent or predictable, which is not based, for example, on the universalising of the experience of the most wisest of us or even of the most courageous. It is simply the effect of a technological environment in which the impact of our actions is global, reaching an unlimited number of living beings and influencing the life-worlds of billions of people, even if we perceive them as local. ”We do not in fact know what type of person would be needed to reduce the huge gap between local spirits and the global form of the world” wrote Peter Sloterdijk.
Satellites show us our world as a whole in which everything is linked to everything else, but who has the right to give this whole a name? Everything is divided, classified, specialised, counted out. The whole has no legitimate name, it is not the context for anything. Every whole is seized on by the white-coated experts and dissected into plain facts.
Our history as white men is one of war for the hegemony of a one-word myth which would give a name to this world as a whole. The adjective ”global” implies a whole, but a whole without a name, an unnameable whole, a whole which cannot be defined by any formula, a whole which manifests itself only through incalculable externalities, unexpected synergies, catastrophes or extreme climatic phenomena.
The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan drew from his revolutionary analysis of the power of the media, a theory which would allow us to understand an idea, life style or artefact by answering the following four questions:
1. What does this artefact (idea, lifestyle) serve to intensify or amplify?
2. What does it consume, render archaic or obsolete?
3. What things that have been rendered obsolete does it awake to new life?
4. What does it invert or overturn once it has reached the limits of its potential?
Every idea, concept or life style is a visible figure set against a background. The figure forces itself upon us, draws our attention, opens up new areas of possibilities for us. The highlighted figure casts its background into the shade, i.e. everything that came before it and that resists it. But eventually the background prevails over the figure and forces it to coexist with the rest of the world and with our past experience. Mcluhan sees the processes of intensification and actualisation as figures which impose themselves on us, while obsolescence and inversion, on the other hand, are signs of the power of the background which resists the hegemony of the figure and so transforms it into something other than what it seemed to be at the outset. For McLuhan, understanding means coming to perceive both the visible power of the figure and the invisible force of the background which the figure has aroused.
To understand the context of our ideas and actions, condensed into a one-word myth, means finding answers to McLuhan’s four questions. The revelation of a hidden context is an important literary genre in western civilisation, with its own poetics, which we call ”interpretations”. Unlike the purely cognitive or explicative genres, interpretations tell the tales of various figures and their different backgrounds, of unexpected confusions, turns and dislocations in the relations between them. This literary genre is concerned not with resolving problems but with throwing light on the whole to which our actions and ideas implicitly belong. Literary genres which reveal hidden contexts are the basis of the "humanities", which have always been driven by the idea of emancipation from the dark power of contexts which are unseen and unrecognised. Understanding frees us from inherited contexts, enabling us to project new and liberating contexts on to the public space in conscious competition with many other ”re-creators of discharged contexts”.
I have constructed four of McLuhan’s tetrads to define postmodern globalisation. Mine is an attempt at a narrative definition and so it is not possible to set these tetrads in a clear and coherent deductive order. Rather than leading on from one another, one overflows into another, grafts on to it or passes through it.
First Tetrad: How people became the Custodians of the Earth
In the foreword to the Czech translation of James E. Lovelock’s The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth, we can read that, ”The concept of sustainable growth paints a sad future for those who take more from the Earth than it can really give them. Gaia warns that if we take too much out of it, we are placing a burden of responsibility on our children, who will also have to become the custodians of the Earth. Just imagine that we are dependent on agreements between the tribal factions that the human race today is divided into, not only for what we eat and where we live, but for every breath of fresh air, which we now get free and take for granted.”
Globalisation means that this responsibility has already been imposed on the human race. We are all already condemned to be the custodians of the Earth; hurricanes and earthquakes, floods and desertification are visible on the scene that our satellites have created for us, and so these are our works. We cannot observe them neutrally, we are responsible for them. The humanity is now condemned to find an agreement which will ensure a breath of fresh air for every person on this Earth. The poetics of the literary genre known as ”ecological activism” consists of disclosing the dim background of Nature behind the luminous figure of technological power, Nature which defends itself by dying. The tension between this figure and its background is the most appropriate context of the unarrestable growth of Growth which is the essence of industrial civilisation. We must pay for the increasing technological power over Nature by becoming the custodians of the Earth, in order to oppose the predatory attack on the biosystem, to resist pillaging the context to which the humans irrevocably belong.
The notion of ”externality” lies at the centre of the global economy and politics and indicates the global impact of the actions of one local group of people, the repercussions of their actions on all human (and non human) life-worlds. The market cannot compensate for externalities because the incalculable costs - such as the consequences of climatic changes in different areas of the Earth - inflicted on unknown people cannot be included in the price of goods and transformed into enforceable claims. Externalities are the result of our inability to perceive the conflict between the global impact of our actions in the technological environment and the local, short-term and narrow-minded points of view imposed on us by our archaic economic and political paradigms.
Politics is ever more a struggle to control externalities, to fence them in behind a wall or a fence of barbed wire. The brick wall in Nestemice, a suburb of the Czech city of Usti nad Labem, which was built to cut off the noise of gypsies from the dignified quiet of a middle-class suburb, was intended to shut out the sounds which reach us from alternative human life-worlds. How many such walls are now being built and how many other places are there where people dream of them? All nature has become an externality which thwarts our plans. Can it be enclosed or fenced in with barbed wire?
The intensification of the awareness of externalities which is the decisive cultural characteristic of postmodern globalisation is the epochal result of mass access to satellite pictures of the Earth. Viewed from this planetary perspective, humans seem just a transitory element of a fragile biosphere, subject to a categorical imperative of solidarity with all living beings on the planet Earth. Such a perspective makes the idea of a private good obsolete.
When the view from a satellite is available to all, individualism and competition for personal gain become obsolete, and instead a consciousness of the whole, the idea of a common good, of the global commons, of the need to act together as humanity is coming to prevail. Only ”rational fools” continue to believe in private goods and their unending exchange. The philosophy of environmental protection is developing rapidly in a discourse which is redefining in the name of bio-solidarity all the values of industrial civilisation, all its axial imperatives that have grown out of the Christian belief in (white) man’s special role on Earth. Bio-solidarity cannot be reconciled with the anthropocentric idea that the aims of Homo sapiens are exceptional and of an entirely different order to those of other living beings on this planet. In the last lesson of his life the American psychologist and philosopher of communication, Gregory Bateson, opposed western logic founded on the Aristotelian syllogism that ”men die, Socrates is a man, so Socrates will die” with a syllogism of fools which he termed a syllogism in grass. It reads: ”Grass dies, people die, so people are grass.” I like to see this syllogism as the basis of the bio-solidarity way of thinking. Bio-solidarity gives new relevance to animism, totemism, body-piercing, oriental religions, Buddhism and pantheism, and undermines the iron curtain which colonialism built between savages and civilised people.
The inverse of ecology, of this planetary perspective of human beings, is a sneaking anti-humanism and a radical limitation of individual freedoms, into which the French liberal philosopher, Luc Ferry, believes that ”the new ecological order on the Earth” may degenerate. Are the humans of the industrial civilisation really only dangerous parasites on this planet? Where does my right to live begin and end when everything I do is an externality for some living creature on this planet.
Second Tetrad: How the difference between the cave of shadows and the world
outside became a fable.
An exhibition in the Gallery of Modern Art in Vienna included, among other objects, a pile of copies of the Austrian newspaper Der Standard. When I left the exhibition the custodian stopped me and officiously took the copy of Der Standard which I had bought at the Südbahnhof that morning and threw it on to the pile. When did my newspaper become a part of a work of art? Perhaps that was how the pile had come about, that was the artist’s intention and it was just that I did not understand it.
When I first visited the Czech National Gallery in the Veletrzni Palace after the modern art collection had been transferred there, I was immediately attracted by a small area roped off on the ground floor, in the middle of which stood a red bucket into which water dripped steadily from the ceiling. I was not the only one to stand gazing at this arrangement and there seemed to be a general uncertainty as to whether this was not already part of the collection. There are many different versions of a story about the woman who visited the Guggenheim Museum in New York during a strike, when all the pictures were covered with black canvas, and declared that it was her greatest artistic experience of the year. Was she right?
How, when, where and by whom must a red bucket be installed in order to become a work of art? The label ”This is not a pipe” on a painted pipe, a heap of teddy bears, the videoclips with revving automobiles shown on a monitor set on a pile of tyres that were shown at the last Venice Biennale represent art seen as the demystification of meaning. Meaning is not a definitive property of signs, which would make them lawfully exchangeable for reality - the convertibility of signs into reality is not warranted by any golden treasure. Every sign points to other signs and the word ”reality” is used to refer to the signs privileged by Power. The reason for this favour which is bestowed on a certain set of signs is usually the will to power and egocentrism, but may also be anxiety, false consciousness, the inertia of habit, laziness, eurocentrism. Art demystifies meaning by forcing us to state the reasons why certain signs are privileged to be seen as ”reality”. But those reasons are lacking.
In the introduction to his book The Birth of Living Form (Prague 1999), the biologist Anton Markoš writes : ”There is a tension in contemporary biology which derives from the dualism of inscription - form. Information about an organism may be of two types. It can be conserved as an inscription, in the form of a linear sequence of signs codifying instructions - programmes, but it may also take the shape of a living form.” In their account of life, biologists become involved in the plot of an ancient narrative: for more than two thousand years philosophers have believed that behind the form we can perceive there is an idea, logos, ratio, an inscription that is the hidden reality of everything but that can only be understood through reason. The only radically new aspect is that we can now ”rewrite” this inscription to suit our strategic interests, thus subordinating living forms to our planning power. Plato’s ideas were intended to reconcile us with the ultimate structure of reality, while DNA invites us to rewrite the form that has been assigned to us. And indeed is the verb ”assigned” the right one here?
The rewriting of the DNA of apples, eucalyptus and oranges is already in use - in order to ensure greater profits for food multinationals. When will it come to be used on our talents, which are all randomly distributed and hardly to be trusted?
Is the living form the meaning of the inscription of DNA, and is the relationship between the ”linear sequence of signs encoding information” and the ”living form” of the same order as that between the sign and its meaning or between imagination and reality? Should theologists reinterpret the Creation in terms of a ”primary inscription”? For millennia we have taken the living form to be reality, rather than the inscription but this was purely for historical reasons, given the practical-historical limits on our knowledge. Will the powerful Christian clan rewrite their famous story of the final judgement and the Resurrection in the style of Jurassic Park?
At the beginning of the 20th century, in one of the winding streets of Prague’s Old Town, Franz Kafka encountered one of the guardians of the Cathedral which houses the inscriptions on the basis of which Power judges us and which we do not understand: police files, school archives, the traces we have left in forgotten places, the documents which prove our identity. Today it is possible to meet such guardians anywhere.
In the era of postmodern globalisation we can no longer delude ourselves that we can flee from the interplay of signs towards reality, but only towards another interplay of signs. The meaning of certain assertions are other assertions and signs are proliferating out of all proportion, while reality is becoming rarer, because no institution has the power to force all of us to accept the precedence of certain groups of signs as one-word myths guaranteed by the State (Church, Science, Party) and able to transform these signs into social energy. Plato’s celebrated allegory of the cave of shadows, from which we must pass out into the light in order to see the real meaning of words, is a perfect summary of the concept of signs as ”vouchers” which guarantee our access to the vision of reality. This fable of the difference between the internal (darkness and shadows) and the external (light and reality) is a founding myth of the West: Christianity, the Enlightenment, technological domination over Nature, colonialism, the holocaust, nuclear power and the destructive automatism of economic growth; all these are only variations on that fable.
The postmodern globalisation of society, which is intensifying our consciousness that there is no escape from the infinite network of signs, is rendering obsolete those genres of communication in which language is conceived as a currency which may be converted into a given quantity of reality at a lawfully guaranteed set price, this price being called ”objectivity”. The great World Banks of meaning - church, state, science, NATO, the EU - have become overexposed; objective facts and other treasures which were believed in the Past to be able to guarantee the convertibility of signs into reality, are now recognised as only a legend. The zero level of language in which the meanings of words would not be distorted by special interests, objective knowledge, is only a deceptive story which the white Conquistadors of distant lands, the Dominator, the Bearer of civilisation to savages have spread through all the continents of the world. Every theory, every image, every living form, every inscription, every trace, every sign, every description of the world, every history carries conviction because of its poetics, not because it shows us true objectivity.
The awareness that every act of a judge, every norm and all knowledge expresses the prejudices and interests of a historical ”us” gives relevance to the concept of justice conceived of not as the application of universal laws by neutral judges on the basis of an objective summary of the facts, but as ”wisdom”, which is best expressed by the philosophical ethics of Emanuel Levinas. In his conception, the fragile ”face of the other man” cannot ever be subordinated to the point of view of totality without our consciences being pricked. The fragility of ”the other face” is more important than the truth, we cannot ignore it so as to define what remains as ”objective truth”. We cannot just brush off the radical responsibility that the fragility of the face of the other man imposes on us as ”mere sentimentalism or subjectivism”. Every person has an absolute responsibility to the face of the other, not to abstract universal principles and objective truth. Even Nature has its mortal and fragile face for which we are responsible. The totalitarianism of the 20th century was the product of the impersonal pseudo-ethos of the administrative-economic system which tends to elevate indifference towards others into a supreme norm of rationality and a condition of its efficient functioning.
The inverse of this intense demystification of meaning is the end of the era of masses unified by faith in a new and finally emancipating definition of reality. The overexposure of the World Banks of meaning has led to the collapse of the system of unified education guaranteed by the nation state: high schools, universities, national history conceived as the history of language and literature. The symptom of this is the wide-spread struggle of all minorities for the right to live according to their own view of the world. The inverse of this intensification of plurality is the political powerlessness and social weakness of the new proletariat - intellectuals bound to their native language, to education in the humanities, to literature and so to the nation state.
The Third Tetrad: How communicative abundance has transformed our cities into global villages
At a conference in Prague, the British philosopher John Keane proposed the term ”communicative abundance” for a central philosophical problem of our era. In his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, John Perry Barlow wrote that the new information technology is creating a universe which is accessible to all, without respect for privilege, racial prejudice, economic power, military force or place of birth. But just as an abundance of material goods does not bring peace and happiness for all, nor will communicative abundance: it produces moral crises, conflicts, inequalities and creates new opacity. Above all it paralyses our ability to understand the information that is proliferating without limit.
Communicative abundance unduly intensifies what sociologists call the "transcendence of place": interaction between people over great distances, the forced general mobility of goods, ideas, information, images and people has created networks linking every city, place and nation in such a way that the place on the Earth where we live has ever less of a role in determining our view of the world, our vocabulary, our interests, our tastes, our limits and our aims.
The transcendence of place, the increasing mobility of all people, is making the idea that the strategic aim of communication is a majority consensus, a unifying interpretation of messages, obsolete. The view that consensus is a strategic aim of communication is based on a mistaken assumption, that the differences between the various descriptions of the world are the result of errors and misunderstandings, and that agreement and univocality are the normal and natural state of society, rather than multivocality and contradiction. This is a dangerous assumption as it makes it impossible in democratic societies to fully explain the irremovable differences between the experiences, interests and life styles of different people. Communicative abundance deepens the obsolescence of social change, understood as the result of pressure on the political system from masses unified by a single ”hegemonic” vision of the world.
Communicative abundance gives new relevance to the art of conversation, of recontextualisation, of the dialogical construction of new contexts for the information and images that are endlessly invading all areas of society. The age of communicative abundance gives a greater role to trust and intellectual openness, the inventiveness and anarchism of the linguistic or ”spiritual” vagabonds, of the various ”limping pilgrims” (Josef Capek). Gregory Bateson uses the term ”metalogue” for a conversation on a disputed question, highlighting not only the contributions of the participants but also the structure of the debate, its implicit rules. The concept of the "metalogue" has great relevance in the age of communicative abundance.
The inverse of communicative abundance is neo-reality, the self-combustion of the media, in Václav Havel’s words. Neo-reality is constructed through recycling the surplus of signs generated by "overcommunication". Scientology for example recycles the vocabulary of psychoanalysis and 1970s science fiction, the transition of the post-communist countries has provided an opportunity for a massive recycling of the vocabulary of neo-classical economics and the moralism of the Cold War - with such expressions as ”the moral devastation of people by communism” put into circulation by the ”Moral right” in the post-communist countries. The Hollywood machine creates continuously various one-word myths to recycle the waste of planetary over-communication.
We are living on the edge of a massive heap of used information, consumed images, discharged contexts, worn-out clichés, semiotic wrecks, removed prejudices, inactivated norms, de-structured suburbs, dismissed traditions, dismantled countryside. Is such waste toxic? Where can it be removed to and eliminated?
The Fourth Tetrad: The Truths whose Opposite are other Truths
There are two types of problems facing us in post-industrial democracy. First there are those that we can solve by increasing our level of competence: gaining more complete information, calculating the relation between quantities better, listing the elements of a set more accurately, observing more closely, and generalising more carefully from the facts. For example, in answer to the question as to whether drug use is spreading among the youth of a given region, it is enough to list the facts as long there is agreement on the definitions of ”youth” and ”drugs” and on the geographical and historical range of the question.
Then there are questions that cannot be solved by an increase in specialised knowledge. These are questions such as whether the State must guarantee its citizens’ social rights, what is the legitimate measure of acceptable damage to the environment, what progress means, whether vivisection is legitimate, what rights animals have, what is the meaning of technological domination of nature, or whether rewriting the DNA of living beings is morally acceptable. Such questions cannot be answered just by providing a more complete list of the elements of a set or through closer and more accurate observation.
Analysts of the democratic decision-making process term these problems ”frame questions”, but I would suggest that we call them ”hermeneutic” as they compel us reflect on a hidden context within which we raise our questions. We cannot answer them without opening a way into the dim background of the system - historical, psychological, moral and political - that determines what we tend to perceive as a problem, what disturbs us and attracts our attention. Those who believe that life was created by a god see the question of whether or not it is admissible to rewrite DNA to subordinate nature as a whole to our will in a very different context than do the evolutionists who accept Richard Dawkin’s idea of the selfish gene. The opposite of small truths - which suffice to answer the first type of questions - is untruths, while the opposite of great truths - which we come up against in our search for answers to hermeneutic or frame questions - are opposite great truths. The conflict between the great truths cannot be resolved through the accumulation of small truths. This is a crucial problem of discussions on globalisation.
Democracy is a way of organising society in which frame questions are always open and "civil society" protects the access to these and sets itself to discuss them. There is a ”permanent” effervescence to the public space in a democracy, where opposite truths collide endlessly, subverting each other and transforming themselves. Conflicts between the great truths make us better and more open, legitimising our decisions and increasing their quality. In the democratic public space exhausted contexts are not secretly recharged in ways that nobody can control or for purposes nobody can share. The basic pillar of democracy is therefore general access to hidden contexts, to the dim background of our traditions, as well as the intense shared interest in clarifying the reason why contexts run down and how they can legitimately be regenerated.
Post-modern globalisation intensifies the conflict between the great truths, between irreconcilable contexts. It renders obsolete those forms of competence that take shape within centralised and hierarchical institutions dominated by the custodians of the objective truth - the Czech biologist Stanislav Komarek terms such institutions ”ecclesiomorphic structures” (pseudo-churches).
The priests of these pseudo-churches, the experts, penetrate political power, shape it through their predictions, opinions, counsels, forming a bridge between public opinion, the masses and the political elites. Post-industrial societies are complex and they could not function without the constant mediation between their different sectors that is provided by the experts. The intensification of the conflict between the frame questions render archaic the epistemic oligarchies, careers through seniority, manuals and closed hierarchical universes of the ”bureaucracy of the truth”, sustained by the political parties, the State and the huge multinationals. It gives, on the contrary, new relevance to discourse, rhetoric, and the metaphorical, anarchic and liberating power of the natural language.
The opposite great truths constitute the fundamentals of our world as powerful metaphors which through their own poetics allow a successful recontextualisation of the discards of Past, dissolved and corroded life-worlds. Examples of the powerful metaphors that linguistically constitute our present universe are ”the invisible hand”, ”the open society”, ”human rights”, or ”globalisation”. These regenerated contexts allow us to recycle the crumbling remains of exhausted contexts into new points of departure. National literature, all forms of art, public debate, eccentric life-worlds, moral anti-conformism and linguistic inventions create tensions and crises which open the way for frame questions whose enormous conditioning power we fail to recognise in the everyday routine.
The inverse of the conflict between the great truths is ingovernability, as it was labelled in the 1970s, or better, the auto-reflexive functioning of the system, as Václav Havel terms it. Modernity is a process in which society becomes ever more rapidly differentiated into specialised sectors which recognise only their own description of the world. This system is ever more contradictory, its different parts are devouring each other, but we are no longer capable of subordinating it to a single great truth and fighting against those who seek to subordinate it to an opposite great truth. Indeed these very assertions of mine serve only to accelerate the auto-reflexive functioning of the system and cannot serve to modify it.
Instead of a Conclusion
The American Marxist James O’Connor has developed the theory of the two contradictions of capitalism. The first, well known from old Marxist manuals, is that between the relations of productions and the means of production, which should be resolved by the efficient socialisation of these.
The second contradiction relates to the means and relations of production on the one hand and the conditions of production on the other. Marx distinguished three types of conditions of production. First there is the ”external environment”, which is nature, the earth’s ecosystem. Secondly there is the human work force, the quality of which depends on the personal situation of each individual and of the social groups to which they belong. Thirdly there are the general conditions of social reproduction, such as the means of communication. Using an updated vocabulary Marx’s three types of conditions of production can be termed the ecosystem, human capital (what people have made of themselves, what they have learned) and socio-cultural capital (the symbolically mediated relationships between individuals, and everything that these make it possible for them to do). The contradiction lies in the fact that capital does not reproduce any of these conditions, but only consumes and destroys them.
Economic capital seeks to grow and feeds its growth with resources that it has not created, that it only alienates from nature and from human society. How can the human race organise itself to defend the ”conditions of production” against Capital’s destructive will to growth? Who will be the avant-garde in this struggle, who will be the strongest opponents of capital and what strategies will they use to free the eco-socio-bio-logical potential of humanity against the wasteful logic of the growth of Growth which Capital is submitting it to?
Witold Gombrowicz wrote that there are two contradictory types of humanism: one that we can call religious, which seeks to bring men to their knees in the face of the works of culture, compelling everyone to venerate and sanctify, for example, God and State. The other is a more rebellious attitude of the spirit which tries to restore people’s sovereignty and independence in the face of the gods that they have in fact created.
Globalisation too is a product of human culture, it is a god that we have created. We should beware of losing our sovereignty in the face of this mystifying recontextualisation of the waste of our past. Transformed into a splendid new beginning, we stand to learn nothing from our end.