Thursday, 29 January 2009

Plum Pudding, Communicative Action and the Will to Truth

Apologies for the absence. Understandable, I hope, given the vaguely festive period maintained by the states still under the influence, albeit vestigial, of the Pauline message (and was it really St Paul who was to blame?). I will not waste space on details of the plum pudding for I know that they hold no interest for you. You are beyond them. In any case, plum puddings deserve to be written about in a certain way to bring out their real value. Since that value is nothing more than a dim memory to us, since it is no longer present for us, we must leave the description of it to others (and for some odd reason the name Garrison Keillor comes to mind - apologies for the spelling).

A sign of how bad we are with plum puddings is that even while pouring the burning brandy over them with the lights dimmed so that the kids gasp and others worry that the tablecloth might catch fire, we are mulling over the theory of communicative action. This is no doubt a sickness. Perhaps it wouldn't appear to be so much of a sickness if any progress were being made developing something that might be called a groundwork for the critique of the said theory. But it is not. Nearly 20 years later we are still treading the same stagnant waters while obsessively mulling over the same doubts and the same half-remembered quotations.

Here they are again:

Wasn't Habermas wrong to make everything revolve around speech? When we leave our hillside retreat we see that there really is too much speech. People talk a hell of a lot. From a Habermassian point of view that ought to be good, were it not for the fact that so much of what is said (and perhaps it reaches a few decimal points beyond 99%) is of zero cognitive value. Werther will tell me that Habermas was aware of this, despite being surrounded mainly by intellectuals and despite shunning music, and mentioned this fact in a little known letter to someone on the other side of the world. Doubtless he did, but the observation seems to me to be fatal for the theory. People generally don't give a toss about the truth. Let's not beat about the bush. The problem being, not a lack of speech, but a lack of thinking. People think so very little. Speech is easier. You do it with friends, and it can be very pleasant to get carried away by the back and forth of the banter, and you find yourself saying things that you really don't believe in just because those are things that need to be said to keep the conversation going in an appropriately chummy way. Did Habermas develop - as a sideline - a theory of banter, of chatter? We vaguely remember Heidegger's disparaging remarks about the "They" (and I have this impression that the they are those who are lost in chatter and banter and chanting and flag waving and other such activities). Of course there are a few clearings in society where people do seem to comport themselves in a more authentically Habermassian way - one thinks of law courts and the academies - but this is not the kind of speech that really keeps the whole social show on the road.

Hence, again, our fondness for Theo. For him, the only way forward was not for more speech, but more thinking. And does thinking not presuppose a certain ambivalence about the value of speech - a certain disinclination to say very much - an inclination to leave the room once the banter really starts to get going?

If Habermas believed that all speech implied, presupposed or in any way hinted at a will to truth or somehow obliged the speaker to damn well pay attention to the truth, he was wrong. Speech is much more about putting an end to loneliness - that terrible sense of isolation when one pulls up the drawbridge and remains alone with one's thoughts. And because so much of speech is chatter, rather than open people up to truth it continually reinforces the linguistic walls that block it out.

That pretty well sums up what we have been thinking about for nearly a month. Not a kind of thinking that breaks new ground, that moves things forward. More treading stagnant waters. There were fragments of other ideas (though, again, nothing new). The idea of the Homo Sapiens, for instance. Who the hell thought that one up? Who threw both logic and common sense to the wind by proposing that because people think (sometimes and badly) they are essentially thinking beings? True, Adorno makes a lot of thinking. More thinking is our only hope, but for Adorno there is no obvious ground for optimism about some global upsurge of thinking. Even we who do think (a little and badly) feel how unnatural the process is. We who have a field and like to potter around in it confess that pruning trees feels more natural than the more laborious cogitation. We really do enjoy pruning. Of course, even as we prune thoughts are humming around us like oddly lethargic but terribly persistent flies. We carry on pruning, though, because it is so much harder to stop and really think about and lay out in some sensible order those humming thoughts - thoughts that hint at truth, at some meaningful beyond, but actually contain so little, if anything, of it.

Another fragment: If Habermas had bought into Adorno's line that thinking is more important than speaking, what would he have done? Would he have tried to argue that we are all obliged to think, and to think about the truth, and that we are guilty of some cerebral pragmatic contradiction if we just carry on mulling over the same old cogitative rubbish instead of really and logically thinking about the matter in hand, developing our thoughts in the most extensive and systematic way possible? Instead of Descartes' dumb assertion: "I think", would he have tried to argue that I - that we - are morally obliged to think, and to think well - to think about the Truth, and to subsequently base our whole being on that? If so, it would have been another pointless exercise.

As a postfestive postscript, how about this for a conjunction? We came across this little quote in a book by Deleuze on Nietzsche (a book given to us ages ago that we have only just got round to reading - and a good read, as it turns out). The quote is from the third section of the Genealogy of Morals, and begins with an odd statement about the meaning of life, but the more interesting bit for us is what he predicts about the fate of the will to truth.

"What meaning would our whole being possess if it were not for this: that in us the will to truth becomes conscious of itself as a problem? As the will to truth thus gains self-consciousness - there can be no doubt of that - morality [and here Nietzsche seems to be thinking of an austere form of European Christianity] will gradually perish. This is the great spectacle in a hundred acts reserved for the next two centuries in Europe - the most terrible, most questionable and perhaps also the most hopeful of all spectacles."

On almost the same day we read that, we saw Lilly Allen's latest pop video on the Polish channel 4Fun TV. Lilly's song (called Fear for some reason I can't fathom out yet) is a wonderfully British, and apparently sincere, expression of the silliness of stardom. It has its witty moments, one of which is the line: "I am a weapon of massive consumption."

It is clear that Nietzsche had no inkling whatsoever that the cultural pacemakers of the future would be the likes of Lilly Allen.

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