In the Place of Conversation

Jean Paul Jungmann — Dyodon experimental pneumatic house (1967)

TL;DR

The capacity of a dialogue to produce action-guiding consensus is dependent on the interpersonal structures that underpin it. Dysfunctional public discourse is a product of the reward systems built into our public spaces — often via the implementations of technical platforms — which undermine our capacity to establish the required interpersonal bonds. In practice, thought is always overtaken by self-promotion. This is not the fault of individuals. Its solution lies not in self-development or in the cultivation of new sensibilities, but in the engineering of new public spaces.

Table of Contents

Intro
Mutual Recognition
Conversation and Consensus
Failures of Recognition
The Social Logic of Strategic Alliance
Recognition and Technical Mediation
Excursus: A Quick Theory of Right Wing Success
Designing Consensus
Why This is Difficult

Intro

In my last post I was quite down on metamodernism, though happily it provoked some fruitful discussion. In this one I’ll pick up the task of turning those critical threads in a more constructive direction, beginning with questions of discourse, consensus, and their role in the foundations of collective agency.

Mutual Recognition

To recognise someone is to treat them in a certain way: it is to acknowledge their authority to place demands on you. To recognise is to do something, not to feel or believe something — it is a gesture made through concrete actions. When it is said that a true friend will let you know when you’re being an asshole, this expresses a recognitive sentiment. But recognition need not imply familiarity or closeness. When you wander out of the desert looking haggard and the townsfolk provide you with meal and water but keep a wary distance, this is also recognition.

Conversation and Consensus

What does mutual recognition have to do with consensus process? I’ll start by considering the example of a group of friends deciding on a restaurant — the banal simplicity of this situation will help to illustrate the dynamics in question, and also to anchor mutual recognition in everyday experience.

  1. No-one voices any preferences at all. Everyone hangs around waiting for someone else to make a decision for them, and the conversation never even gets off the ground.
Jan Švankmajer — Dimensions of Dialogue (1982)

Failures of Recognition

There are many things in life we tend to think of in terms of feelings, but which can be also be looked at through the lens of recognition. To do so is to shift register from internal state to interpersonal function. Anger implies recognition, for example. It only makes sense to be angry at someone you recognise, someone with whom you share social space — in this sense, anger is often a demand for recognition in return. In contrast, to hold someone in contempt is to withhold recognition. You know that phrase, haters gonna hate? The sentiment expressed by this is something like: you have no obligation to respond to other people’s anger (or resentment). While there are no doubt legit applications of this, read as a piece of all-purpose social know-how it starts to look like: don’t respond to anger with anger, respond to anger with contempt. From the point of view of mutual recognition, this doesn’t look like much of an improvement. What it looks like is a recommendation to shear interpersonal space in half rather than do work to maintain it.

The Social Logic of Strategic Alliance

Mutual recognition and strategic alliance are often conflated, but there are crucial differences in their significance for social reasoning and cooperation. If I understand myself to be in a strategic alliance with someone, then I know they will join me in cooperative action only to the extent they judge their self-interest will be served in doing so. This knowledge has objective significance for my own reasoning about how much risk and labour to front.

James Bridle’s 2012 project Dronestagram collected Google Earth satellite images of US drone strike sites, “[m]aking these locations just a little bit more visible, a little closer. A little more real.” No longer a passive spectator, the art consumer as Witness now elevates catastrophe to the order of reality via the pure act of scrolling.

Recognition and Technical Mediation

I’ve outlined two symmetrical interpersonal structures, and how they can facilitate or inhibit the synthesis of collective will. Mutual recognition is required for robust group reasoning, but is costly in social labour. Strategic alliance is seductive in that it provides a way to cheaply and rapidly bind something like collective will, but one which is ultimately too fragile to follow through on anything that works against the existing grain — for instance political struggle or systems change.

Squarespace advertising campaign, Autumn 2019

Excursus: A Quick Theory of Right Wing Success

Perhaps the most important strategic question for the Left to answer is this one: how did it manage to botch one of the biggest political opportunities of the last half century, namely the financial supernova of 2008? Since then, left wing movements have failed again and again to land any meaningful blows on the status quo. The scraps of vitality that have emerged have come from either the radical fringe or the old guard, and have all fizzled out after an initial surge. Meanwhile populist reactionary movements have both found their way into the White House and forced the UK’s exit from the European Union. How has the Right been successfully disruptive where the Left has floundered?

One of Jeremy Bentham’s original design drawings for the panopticon, perhaps the most famous example of a technical artefact materialising an authority structure.

Designing Consensus

If the line of argument I have been pursuing here is right, then the elusiveness of productive dialogue has little to do with people — with some deficiency in their attitudes, skills, or sensibilities — but derives from the fact that mainstream media spaces simply do not support the normative bonds consensus seeking discourse depends on. The practical lesson to be drawn from this is that if we want to achieve a kind of discursive vitality with the capacity to bind collective will, then the first thing we should do is move the conversation to a different medium.

One of the most distinctive traits of postmodern cultural logic is fascination with the serial form — the foregrounding of pure repetition-with-variation found in Andy Warhol paintings and Instagram accounts.

Why This is Difficult

I began this post asking what it is that makes a conversation capable of convergence. I’ve argued that synthetic dialogue depends for its interpersonal basis on a structure of mutual recognition, which is rendered systematically unstable in most contemporary media and institutional spaces. A common though often unspoken assumption is that the failure of public dialogue stems from a failure of the individuals participating in it. Against this I’ve argued (in a somewhat McLuhanite vein) that the failure is necessitated by the formal structure of public space itself. But even if the medium really is the message, this need not be read as a fatalistic conclusion — it simply suggests that we would do better to seek political agency in our choice of medium than in our production and distribution of messages.¹⁰ Recovering the conditions of collective agency is, I would suggest, a matter of redirecting discursive energy away from mainstream media and into communications spaces grounded on mutual recognition. If public space itself is compromised, the solution is to rebuild it in patchwork from the ground up.

Some archaeologists have suggested Stone Henge is an acoustic technology — its stones acting as a kind of low pass filter, the sound is dampened for those standing outside the circle, producing a powerful sense of ritual interiority as one moves into the centre.¹⁰
  1. Robert Brandom, A Spirit of Trust. It’s worth saying that it has been contested whether Brandom is faithful to Hegel’s intentions, or whether he uses Hegel more as a proxy for his own views (see e.g. Stephen Houlgate’s review). This dispute is not particularly relevant to points made in this post, so I’ll bracket it.
  2. See also Brandom’s discussion of the samurai code of Bushido in A Spirit of Trust, Chapter 8. The Structure of Desire and Recognition: Self-Consciousness and Self-Constitution. See my note on this chapter for a quick summary.
  3. The central importance of the principle of charity is emphasised in Donald Davidson’s philosophy of language. For Davidson, charitable interpretation is much more than a matter of etiquette — since it is only possible, he held, to understand what someone means by attributing mostly true beliefs to them, charitable interpretation must in fact be understood as a transcendental condition of the possibility of communication.
  4. This odd temporal effect, in which the integration of the new and reinterpretation of the old collapse into one another, is characteristic of what Brandom calls recollective rationality — a discursive activity he understands as central to Hegel’s dialectics.
  5. Richard Rorty has an interesting discussion of this point in Solidarity, Contingency, and Irony, which I gloss at the beginning of this note.
  6. For an introduction to the prisoner’s dilemma you could do far worse than read Scott Alexander’s.
  7. See Michael Chwe’s excellent book on common knowledge, Rational Ritual.
  8. Marshall McLuhan’s famous slogan, as well as others making similar points — such as Audre Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” or Jean Baudrillard’s insinuation that all agency lies with the code — are often accused of an overly pessimistic technological determinism. But this is not right. None of these statements preclude human agency, they merely suggest that it may lie somewhere other than where we expect it.
  9. The whole argument of the post could be put like this: the public sphere is a panopticon; we need it to be a Stone Henge. This is a technical problem, and has nothing to do with spirituality or self-development. We should start by building micro-henges then bootstrap up to bigger ones. When The Stoa claims to be a “digital campfire,” this kind of sentiment seems to be what is being expressed. But saying it is not the same as doing it — a campfire is, in the first instance, a circle that points inwards. To speak around a campfire is to speak to and for those who are around it with you, a mode of speech which can fully mobilise shared context and implicit knowledge, a speech indexed to a concrete audience. But to speak in a Zoom call destined for Youtube is to do something radically different: it is to speak to and for an abstract audience, a speech with another set of demands, assumptions, and capacities. The difference is not between private and public, but between a discourse produced for those who participate in it and a discourse produced for public consumption. The first is a campfire; the second is an aquarium.

I’m a London based writer interested in technology, subculture, and philosophy. I blog at divinecuration.github.io

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