Volume IV, Issue 4 (14), New Series, September – November 2016

Vizualizari articol [post_view]

Towards an epistemology of social noise

Silvio Ricardo Gomes CARNEIRO

Abstract: This paper intends to present some considerations on a possible epistemology of noise as a response to theory of recognition and its bases on theory of communicative action. The principal movement will be to recover some aspects of Marcuse’s and Foucault’s perspective on the disturbances narratives in social sphere. The interest for them becomes stronger from Habermas’ perspective on their “performative contradicions”. Both of them would appeal to social aspects that escapes from critical normativities. Foucault’s structures of power as well as Marcuse’s psychoanalytical drives would represent aspects of the same Habermasian problem: the absence of auto-critical rationality. However, we can question: what would offer to the two authors the limits of communicative action?

Keywords: Marcuse, Foucault, Habermas, recognition, noise.

Introduction: a question on recognition

When Critical Theory refers theory of recognition as central for its diagnosis of the present, it is important to note its implications and limits. Axel Honneth focuses his efforts on the question of “struggles for recognition” presented as a moral grammar by which intersubjective relations would share the same social sphere by a communicative action.1 However, as Vladimir Safatle questions: «how else […] could one understand or term a situation in which no normativities remain to which one might appeal?»2 In other words, how else could be possible to recognize social subjects that lives in social contexts of anomie? Is there a grammar of anomie?

From such questions, we are proposing an “epistemology of noise”. That is an attempt to considering social struggles by systems of resistance. In this sense, we recover two perspectives on resistance by diagnosis of something that escapes from the clear communicative sphere: Foucault and Marcuse. In spite of their philosophical differences, both of them recover a domain of resistance in which aesthetic dimension appear as fundamental. Moreover, Habermas’ theory symptomatically considers these two authors as “performative contradictions” in face of critical normativity. What is at stake in such consideration? Recognition would be under suspect in face of Marcuse’s and Foucault’s questions. They both knows above the silence of social suffering and its dissonant noises.

The question on normativity

According to Habermas, the crisis of advanced capitalism may to a great extent be regarded as a consequence of the imbalance existing between the life-world and the technical-administrative apparatus of the State and the market. When social systems and their institutions advance that much over the life-world, a continuous legitimation crisis is finally established where one of the parties in the struggle adopts pretensions to universality, and ceases to recognize the autonomy of the other parties – with, for instance, the bureaucratic system in the democratic State under the rule of law operated on localized living beings with no regard to their particular modes of living. Consequently, the legitimation of social spheres plunges into crisis the moment the life-world is massively integrated into the State apparatus without the consolidation of an effective political conscience having first occurred. In effect,

the arrangement of formal democratic institutions and procedures permits administrative decisions to be made largely independently of specific motives of the citizens. This takes place through a legitimation process that elicits generalized motives – that is, diffuse mass loyalty – but avoids participation.3

To put it differently, the dynamics of the life-world have no bearing upon the institutions of the social system, and vice-versa. Without a rationality that allows the limits of each social sphere to be recognized, a legitimation crisis is likely to occur, one characterized by normativity conflicts between the social systems and the life-world – something which occurs because, as Habermas puts it, «a process as a crisis is tacitly to give it a normative meaning.».4

Why do such crises occur, after all? The entirety of Habermas’ critical efforts is directed at noticing that in the social conflicts peculiar to a legitimation crisis there is a “privatization of language” – as if two contending groups played according to different rules, each one attempting to impose its own grammar to its adversary. Against that, Habermas’ critical exercise seeks to unblock language from the effects of such a privatization, leading it to the public sphere [Offentlichkeit], and translating the discourses from one to the other party in the struggle so as to promote a new normative cycle where the conflicts of intersubjectivity may lead to self-reflection, and to a subsequent discovery of its own limits and potential compatibilities.5 This translation process suggests, of course, rules of validity through which both groups may attain the necessary recognition for the establishment of a common experience. That is the experience at the bottom of the normativity of a communicative ethics.

Arnold Farr, conversely, will cast doubts on the normative sense of Habermas’ communicative reason, noting that the

cry of the oppressed is often not heard because the oppressed are not always able to articulate the nature of the injustice from which they suffer. That is, the oppressed do not always (nor can they be expected to) appeal to general, coherent, universal theories or norms.6

Indeed, communication between opposites will feature countless noises and silences that Habermas’ perspective disregards, or treats as distortions ensuing from privatizations of language. While Habermas’ separation between argumentative discourse and the discourse of rhetoric and narratives is a necessary one, to give one priority over the other is, as Farr reminds us, an arbitrary choice in the ethics of discourse promoted by Habermas – a choice that, in view of the argumentative nucleus and its rules of validity, risks rendering secondary any silencing beyond the reach of the communicative field. There is, then, a particular rhetoric in transgression – as in the extreme cases of the grammar of violence – that evades the communicational core advanced by Habermas. In this sense, the weakness of Habermas’ normativity is made evident, in particular as it fails

to see that norms are themselves produced by narratives which may be exclusionary. Norms are themselves produced by a narrative form of discourse, which is situated within a certain kind of community.7

Is it possible a social epistemology of dissonant noise? It is within the domain of such dissonances that Marcuse and Foucault will develop their investigations. This renewed interest in the narratives that stem from particular discourses is evident in the Foucaultian sphere; narratives of this sort will be a determining factor, after all, for constitution of the abnormal and infamous individuals who feature so heavily the Foucault’s intellectual experience. Farr, however, will point out the insufficient character of Habermas’ position by means of an appeal to the works of Marcuse. In this context, it may be of interest to note how often the German philosopher will take an interest in discursive forms.

A reified language under psychoanalytical critique: Habermas versus Marcuse

Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man would be dedicated to a critique of the discursive forms that paralyze thought within an enclosed discursive universe; and, after the political upheavals of 1968, he would recognize the risks inherent to repressive-desublimated discursive formations, such as the one espoused by the New Left. Regarding the various left-wing movements and parties, Marcuse will be very suspicious of the effects of the freedom values of anti-intellectualism present in the language of the defenders of the New Left. In a lecture addressed to the students of Berkeley, the philosopher reinforces the idea that the new, post-1968, ideological configuration has a serious impact on the rhetoric adopted by the New Left, with

its withdrawal, its confusion of private with social and political liberation, and even more with its attitudes towards those institutions which can still be used far better than they now are.8

Clearly perceiving both the anti-intellectualism and the dogmatism of the left, Marcuse will develop a critique of the discursive foundations of both camps. At either case, the greatest risk one incurs in is dialectical paralysis, and the subsequent obstruction of critical thinking. Ultimately, what is at work is a reification of discourses, the most significant consequence of which is critical paralysis.

So the reified character of language may be better understood, it is of interest to notice how Marcuse will analyze advertising strategies as a way of neutralizing contradictions. Superficially, what this entails is conceiving the type of thought that turns words into clichés, with an aim to providing a particular discourse with hegemonic rule over all writing and thought; that occurs, more specifically, when the use of a term activates a series of other terms conjugated with it. Thus, the use of terms such as “democracy”, “freedom” or “equality” brings with it a set of additional attributes, a phenomenon configuring what are termed «habits of thought».9

Up to that point, Habermas’ analyses on communication in public spaces bear a great deal of similarities to those of Marcuse. Such clichés, after all, correspond to the “privatizations of language” which occur when a social group assumes a particular “habit of thought” that has to be adequate for the social totality, in complete disregard to the multiple fragmentations of, and contradictions within, the public space. Still, in an even deeper sense than that which was suggested by Habermas, advertising strategies, for Marcuse, are correlated to a one-dimensional experience: their very communicative form consolidates the integration of opposites, with the result that such a strategy reproduces contradictions, rather than assist the social whole to overcome them. Habermas’ own articulation presupposes

language as the medium for a kind of reaching understanding, in the course of which participants, through relating to a world, reciprocally raise validity claims that can be accepted or contested.10

The game of oppositions is not able to escape the trappings of an Orwellian language,11 of a grammar of one-dimensional thought that reproduces the contradictions of social life as a totalitarian scenario constituted by a constant revising of the system of conceptual oppositions. As George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 underlines: “freedom is slavery” and “peace is war” as a way to integrate opposites. As effect, this movement collapses public and private opinion,12 to the point where «the spread and the effectiveness of this language testify to the triumph of society over the contradictions which it contains.»13

A more contemporary example may be found in the expression “surgical strike”, whose component terms bear entirely different – and, to an extent, opposite – acceptations: while “strike” is a word often associated to the attack and death-producing capabilities of the war machine, “surgical” is an adjective commonly characterizing high-precision medical procedures capable of saving lives. The association between the two terms leads to a “habit of thought” that associates the destruction of the enemy to a clean and precise military exercise. Constructions of this sort deactivate the contradictions present in their own lexical composition. More than a privatization of language, this one-dimensional grammar leads to the creation of a field of integrated oppositions and, most of all, to the obstructing of the development of word-meanings into concepts. Publicized by the pages of newspapers and advertisements of all sorts, such terms render discourses and communication immune to all expressions of protest and refusal.14 Furthermore, they turn the exercise of thought something removed from concept-production, subsequently keeping it away from any and all explorations of the multiple meanings of a term when this is expressed within certain socio-historical contexts, as if all concepts were alienated from the workings of thought as means that are alienated from production.

A Habermasian defense against such considerations would be the fact that the return to the language of the life-world – the language of daily existence – is not a phenomenon restricted to the analytic field Marcuse is pitched against. Indeed, Habermas seems to be in agreement with Marcuse’s position concerning the philosophy of language’s potential to reduce the experience of thought to a pure instrumentality. In this sense, both Marcuse and Habermas will see the limits of the neo-positivist adoption of a kind of therapeutics of thought through ordinary language, where thought is reified into an instrument for the reproduction of the ideas circulating within established society. To some extent, additionally, both will make use of psychoanalysis as a counterpoint to analytic therapeutics against to the pathology of communication.

For Habermas, everyday language provides important traces to the extent that it communicates something, that is, to the extent that it is presented within the social context of intersubjective interactions. According to him:

The ongoing text of our everyday language games (speech and actions) is disturbed by apparently contingent mistakes: by omission and distortions that can be discounted as accidents and ignored, as long as they fall within the conventional limits of tolerance. […] If the mistakes in the text are more obtrusive and situated in the pathological realm, we speak of symptoms. They can be neither ignored nor understood. Nevertheless, the symptoms are part of intentional structures: the ongoing text of everyday language games is broken through not by external influences but by internal disturbances.15

The points of coincidence, however, end with this, for while Habermas will orient the psychoanalytic field towards ordinary language (considering it an adequate therapeutics for the communicative deviations present in the life-world). Marcuse will acknowledge the progress of psychoanalysis as a therapy that takes into consideration the discontentment of civilization through the lens of libidinal economy rather than an “internal disturbance”. This allows Prado Jr. to state that both authors will notice the hermeneutic artifice of Freudian therapy. Still, Habermas’ interpretation discards metapsychology in its entirety, turning the unconscious into a discourse of the subject in his «crisis of communicative experience».16 In effect, it is precisely in the crisis of experience that Habermasian self-reflection operates; it is in the experience of the implosion of subjectivity, after all, that intersubjective therapeutic work leads the split subjectivity to reflect on itself. This leads Prado Jr. to the following consideration.

The curious thing about this reading of Freud through the new pragmatics is that the opposition between the normal and the pathological colors the opposition between the public and the private, between ordinary language and privatized language, which is to say language destroyed as such. Dreams, just like the illness of which they are the paradigm, are nothing but a degrammaticalization of ordinary language.17

In light of this – and, here, the differences between Marcuse and Habermas are more clearly noticeable –, the theory of communicative action (still in embryonic form in Knowledge and Human Interests) contemplates the need for a therapy that, given the crisis ensuing from a privatization of language, requires grammar to be relearned in order to structure an asymmetrical intersubjective relation between the analyst and its patient.18 This is reflected in Habermas’ considerations on the clinical-psychoanalytic setting that aims at “pure communication”:

According to this model, all interactions established out of habit, as well as all interpretations that are relevant for a vital praxis, are – at every moment and based on the interiorized apparatus of unrestricted quotidian language – accessible to a public communication free of all coercion, so that the transparency of the biography that is remembered is assured.19

Hence, the work of elaboration of the past in psychoanalysis carries with it a therapeutics that has the grammar of suffering as its object. This “self-reflexive” movement is one in which the therapeutic aspect of communicative action leads to an understanding of the social grammar of language games present in processes of individuation, so that in analysis mutual recognition, the intersubjective validity of symbols, and the verbal mediation of interactions are established.20

Still, this Habermasian conception of psychoanalysis forces critical theory to operate, as Prado Jr. suggests, an «intensive training for the competent reuptake of the various games of language»21 – a process that, according to the commentator, would set aside the Freudian discovery of the unconscious. For Habermas, after all, the unconscious grammar of desire is, deep down, nothing but a normative deformation of language as it becomes conscious through the analytic process. In this fashion, the materiality of psychoanalysis is lost: the sphere of desires, of drives, and all the subsequent pessimism of Freud’s regarding the civilizing process and its repressive mechanisms – all lost, along with everything else that falls beyond the communicational scheme of the community of discourse intended by Habermas. All dissonant noise, lost.

In this sense, Prado Jr.’s diagnosis on what is lost in the theory of communicative action is, generally speaking, an accurate one: Habermas ignores the metaphor pertaining to, and the confusion between, the inside and the outside. In Prado Jr.’s terms, the important thing about Freud’s texts is

the idea that an internal peril […] is transported to the outside: that other who I am […] is like a true other, a danger that threatens from the outside towards me.22

These are ambiguities and contradictions that pervade the language of the oppressed previously described by Arnold Farr: a semantic field that obeys a particular rhetoric and set of narratives that are distant from the argumentative field defended by Habermas. This is the place of a language so near, but it appears distant; so familiar, but it feels foreign. This is the place of that language towards which Marcuse aims to lead his reader, a semantic field within which discourse is constituted in the register of the unconscious. This is a step that makes Habermas and Marcuse diametrical opposites: for the first, what is needed is a renewed, critical apprehension of ordinary language and the debate on public opinion, attuning the experience of thought to the grammar of the doxa oriented by the constitution of a democratic State under the rule of law; Marcuse, in turn, will listen to the dissonant noises coming from the discursive community, the ambiguities of the foreign body inhabiting the life-world.

Habermas versus Foucault: the norm of discourse

This distance of the latter in relation to Habermas is a position that seems sensible for Foucault as well: the French author will cast doubts on this therapeutics advanced by Habermas and its utopian-normative horizon. In an interview from 1984, Foucault summarizes said suspicions in the following way:

The idea that there could exist a state of communication that would allow games of truth to circulate freely, without any constrains or coercive effects, seems utopian to me. This is precisely a failure to see that power relations are not something that is bad in itself, that we have to break free of. […] The problem, then, is not to try to dissolve them in the utopia of completely transparent communication, but to acquire the rules of law, the management techniques, and also the morality, the ethos, the practice of the self, that will allow us to play these games of power with as little domination as possible.23

The problem, then, does not lie in one’s imagining of such a condition of transparency, but rather in one’s failure to question the narrative that operates communicative normativity. How does said normativity conduct all other conducts? Which practices have been elaborated so that the exercise of freedom is possible? Or, additionally, and bearing Farr’s warning in mind, to what an extent can discourses be silenced? What discursive models are relegated to an indeterminate field of suffering? In a way that comes very close to the model of language defended by Marcuse (except, of course, without the burden of repression), Foucault – insofar as he will defend the discoveries of Freud – is himself concerned with that which is “foreign”, the inside which is out, the I who is other, the ambiguities of language.

However, Habermas could insist: wasn’t Foucault risking an incursion into the relativism propitiated by instrumental reduction when he deposited into the ambiguities of language and sexuality an objective criterion that is diluted within praxis?24  Consequently, Foucault’s practice of freedom would be an expression of “performative contradictions”, an endless movement from which every

Counterpower already moves within the horizon of the power that it fights; and it is transformed, as soon as it is victorious, into a power complex that provokes a new counterpower.25

Notwithstanding, Foucault would likely have answered this criticism considering the so-called “counterpower” as a disturbance noise rather than a dispute between two sovereigns that aims a place of speech. At the end of Discipline and punishment, Foucault presents his aims at the place without discursive struggles, but «we must hear the distant roar of battle.»26 Again, the metaphor of noise appears as central to diagnosis different from communicative actions.

The aesthetical front

The point here is not the creation of a critical theory of silence, or a genealogy of power that babbles the inexpressible. Rather, it is the recognition that the philosophical exercise understands ordinary language as the product of contradictions (in the case of Marcuse) or as the effect of a network of powers (in the case of Foucault). This understanding allows both philosophers to affirm that while everyday language is a product of a discourse of normativity, there remains something in it which evades such determinations. Perhaps, in his attempt to bring greater clarity to critical normativity, Habermas has operated an excessive reduction of the normative sphere, disregarding the normative specificity of other spheres – that of art in particular. Saddled with an aesthetic deficit, Habermas defends the doxa against philosophy, setting aside not only the latter’s dissonant noises, and absences, and overall strangeness, but also other possibilities of language.

The role that art plays in Habermas’ perspective could be noted by the text Technical Progress and the Social Life-World, that begins precisely from a disagreement with the aesthetic narrative of Aldous Huxley. The writer of fiction differentiates his literary experience from scientific experience, determining the former to be the narrative of subjective experience as opposed to the objective sphere of technical-scientific experiments. For Habermas, this is a mistaken differentiation, as the question does not pertain to a “disproportion between two cultures” (one objective and the other subjective) but, rather, to the way the life-world is understood in view of instrumental rationality. More than a subjective narration, the life-world is the domain of intersubjectivity and its interactive communicational matrix, within which literature is merely one example – occasionally adequate – brings clarity to opinions, but never to the form of their rationality. At the light of communicative rationality, art lost its mode of intersubjective relation, where silence can express more than words. What is at stake here, finally, is not a defense of pure incommunicability, but an exploration of the frontier between the word and its silencing.

On that topic, Marcuse and Foucault will provide different answers, each author understanding this borderline territory in his own particular way. Both certainly agree with Adorno’s aesthetic theory, which states that «no artwork is to be described or explained in terms of the categories of communication.»27 This is a sentence that echoes within the chasm that separates Habermas from Marcuse and Foucault, as the language sought by the latter two is in no way founded on consensus, but rather on a diffusion of meanings that extends all the way to silence – a language, therefore, that demands self-confrontation. This is a process that communicative action apprehends only as a pathology of privatized language: a silence submitted to the value of the discourse that circulates and normatizes living beings, and which is, therefore, insufficient for any recognition as a critical element in social contexts.

In opposition to this communicational model, aesthetics appears as a foreign body with the potential to significantly divert the discursive order of the world. In this sense, Marcuse and Foucault’s interest in aesthetics as a model capable of critically approaching the biopolitical discourse is rather curious; ultimately, they find in it a valuable dislocation that advances not only a counterpoint to the reified discourse of communication, but also a greater appeal for an aesthetic normativity.

It is quite interesting how both Marcuse and Foucault will appeal to aesthetics as the answer to discourse on status quo; more interesting still is the presence in both intellectual experiences of a common aesthetic imperative: “turn your life into a work of art”. In The Aesthetic Dimension (1978), Marcuse develops the concept of “sensuous rationality” for unveiling a new relation to be found in the “inner logic of the work of art”, one which culminates «in the emergence of another reason, another sensibility, which defy the rationality and sensibility incorporated in the dominant social institutions.»28 In his own way, Foucault will also recognize in aesthetic exercises the composition of the critical narrative capable of deactivating apparatuses of power and their technologies of subjectivation; that is precisely what he will term «technologies of the self»29, defined as those intentional and voluntary actions by which men not only set themselves rules of conduct, but also seek to transform themselves, to change themselves in their singular being, and to make their life an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria.

This is a passage that marks rather well the degree to which the later Foucault will be concerned with the «aesthetics of existence».30 Actually, this position insinuates itself in modernity through what Foucault terms an «ontology of the actuality».31 That, it should be said in passing, was the closest the French philosopher would come to the Marcusean tradition, openly declaring that such an ontology represented “a form of philosophy that, from Hegel to the Frankfurt School, through Nietzsche and Max Weber, has founded the form of reflection within which I have attempted to work.”32 The answer to the social noise is presented by an aesthetic normativity where both philosophers will attempt to provide a response to biopolitical normativity, seeing the aesthetic core of life as a kind of imperative able to refuse – or at the very least, to resist – being shaped by the apparatuses of governmentality.

Note

1     A. Honneth, Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflict, trans. J. Anderson, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995, p. 1.

2     V. Safatle, Grand Hotel Abyss: Desire, Recognition and the Restoration of the Subject, , trans. L. Carpinelli, Leuven University Press, Leuven, 2015, p. 16.

3     J. Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, trans. Thomas McCarty, Beacon Press, Boston, 1975, p. 36.

4     Ibid., p. 1.

5     Ibid., p. 23.

6     A. Farr, Critical Theory and Democratic Vision: Herbert Marcuse and Recent Liberation Philosophies, Lexington Books, Lanham, MD, 2009, p. 153.

7     Ibid.

8     H. Marcuse, The Movement in a New Era of Repression, in Id., The New Left and the 1960s:  Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, D. Kellner (ed.), Routledge, London and New York, vol. 3, p. 152.

9     H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Routledge, London and New York, 2002, p. 91.

10    J. Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and Rationalization of Society, trans. T. McCarty, Beacon Press, Boston, 1985, vol. 1, p. 99.

11    See: H. Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, cit., p. 92.

12    See: ibid., p. 95.

13    Ibid., p. 92.

14      See: ibid., p. 93.

15    J. Habermas, Knowledge and human interests, trans. T. McCarty, Beacon Press, Boston, 1972, p. 219.

16    B. Prado Jr., Autorreflexão, ou interpretação sem sujeito? Habermas intérprete de Freud [Self-reflection or subject-free interpretation? Habermas as an interpreter of Freud], in Id., Alguns ensaios: filosofia, literatura, psicanálise, Paz e Terra, Rio de Janeiro, 2000, 2nd extended edition (my trans.).

17    Ibid., p. 17.

18    See: J. Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, cit., p. 21.

19    J. Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, cit., p. 250.

20    See: ibid., p. 270.

21 B. Prado Jr., Autorreflexão, ou interpretação sem sujeito? cit.,  p. 17 (my trans.).

22    Ibid., p. 24.

23    M. Foucault, The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom, in Id., Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth – Essential Works of Foucault (1954-1984), P. Rabinow (ed.), The New Press, New York, 1998, vol. 1, p. 298.

24      See: J. Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. F. Lawrence, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1985, esp. ch. X, Some Questions Concerning the Theory of Power: Foucault Again.

25      Ibid., p. 281.

26      M. Foucault, Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan, Vintage Books, New York, 1995, p. 308.

27      Th.W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2006, p. 109.

28      H. Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Towards a Critique of Marxist Aesthetic, Boston: Beacon Press, 1977, p. 7.

29      M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality: The Use of Pleasure, trans. R. Hurley, New York, Vintage Books, 1985, vol. 2.

30      Ibid., p. 11.

31      M. Foucault, What is Enlightenment?, in Id., The Politics of Truth, S. Lotringer (ed.), trans. L. Hochroth and C. Porter, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, CA, 2007, p. 95.

32      M. Foucault, The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom, cit., p. 232.

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