January 31st, 2004

The Ideal Speech Situation

Aside from lack of sleep -- see my earlier entries on that score -- I'm coming to understand what a high percentage of interpersonal conflicts arise because the parties involved have radically different senses of what constitutes successful communication.

Personally, I get into lots and lots of arguments, both with Kim and with others, that rapidly progress from what at least seems to be a dispute about something in particular to a dispute about the way in which I communicate in disputes about something in particular.

To compress that insight into a lapidary theoretical formula, my conflicts tend to go "meta" too quickly and with bad consequences.

I almost wrote, "You'd think," just now. But there's a good chance that you would not think what I was going to express. That rhetorical second-person has a dimension of passive aggression -- yes, Laura, I do find the concept useful -- built into it that is hard to overcome.

Anyway, I would think, with all the force of desire implicit in the conditional, with the sense of "usually" that the past tense of "will" conveys, that going "meta" would take the dispute out of the realm of intense feeling and into a more dispassionate space, perhaps not Jürgen Habermas's "ideal speech situation" but at least one that comes closer to the ideal of free exchange without the overdeterminations of power and desire.

Have I simply been deluding myself into believing that the desire for abstraction, for reducing the particular to the general, for communication that is in some sense "theoretical" is a desire for good communication when, in fact, it is actually a desire for communication that is good for me, for communication that is regarded by my interlocutors -- conflicts tend to bring out everyone's anxieties that the "good" is always already bound up in or to a zero-sum game -- as being communication that is better for me because it is worse for them?

The length and turned-in-on-itself construction of that question is a pretty fair approximation of the way I like, have liked, would like to communicate in conflicts.

As my cousin Don Matthews once said about me, much to my chagrin, when I was about fourteen and starting to stand up for my views, "He's insufferable."

Or, rather, I recognize the degree to which my desire for this sort of communication would be regarded as "insufferable" by the majority of the people I communicate with.

Have I, then, been deluding myself?

We all delude ourselves, obviously, so the answer is at least partially, "Yes."

What interests me right now, both personally and theoretically, is the extent to which we are able to continue deluding ourselves even after we've recognized our capacity for self-delusion and actually figured out how and why we delude ourselves.

I'm drawn irresistibly here -- a drift I recognize as a symptom without being able to forestall it -- to a much quoted passage in Slavoj Zizek's The Sublime Object of Ideology, the one I like to quote so much in my own writing:
We have established a new way to read the Marxian formula 'they do not know it, but they are doing it': the illusion is not on the side of knowledge, it is already on the side of reality itself, of what the people are doing. What they do no know is that their social reality itself, their activity, is guided by an illusion, by a fetishistic inversion. What they overlook, what they misrecognize, is not the reality but the illusion which is structuring their reality, their real social activity. They know very well how things really are, but still they are doing it as if they did not know. The illusion is therefore double: it consists in overlooking the illusion which is structuring our real, effective relationship to reality. And this overlooked, unconscious illusion is what may be called the ideological fantasy.

If our concept of ideology remains the classic one in which the illusion is located in knowledge, then today's society must appear post-ideological: the prevailing ideology is that of cynicism; people no longer believe in ideological truth; they do not take ideological propositions seriously. The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself. And at this level, we are of course far from being post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way -- one of many ways -- to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.

It is from this standpoint that we can account for the formula of cynical reason proposed by Sloterdijk: 'they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it'. If the illusion were on the side of knowledge, then the cynical position would really be a post-ideological position, simply a position without illusions: 'they know what they are doing, and they are doing it'. But if the place of the illusion is in the reality of doing itself, then this formula can be read in quite another way: 'they know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still, they are doing it'. For example, they know that their idea of Freedom is masking a particular form of exploitation, but they still continue to follow this idea of Freedom.

Quoting a theorist like Zizek at such length is not going to stop me from doing it either. As I typed away, I mused on the fact that Marx is talking about money. Money is based on an illusion. But knowing that it is based on an illusion doesn't stop us from using it. And it certainly won't stop our bills from coming due, with all the danger that entails.

I am not precisely sure how I want the Zizek quote to signify in relation to my own tortured, self-torturing prose. I could have just used the Sloterdijk quote, or extracted Zizek's reformulations alongside it. The more Zizek I have in this entry, the harder it gets to make a good fit. That difficulty, however, comes with the promise of insight.

If I keep on doing what I do in conflicts, trying to move from a discussion of a specific dispute to a space where I can talk about the way in which the dispute is discussed, even though I have recognized that my doing so often makes matters worse, that what I do is regarded as a power move by the other parties to the dispute, then what is the "ideological fantasy" equivalent to money in Marx's example?

Since money and Habermas's "communication oriented toward understanding" are both founded on equivalence, there may be some way of fleshing out a deeper, richer connection between money as an "illusion which is structuring our real, effective relationship to reality" and communication of the sort that I aspire to as an analogous illusion.

Like all abstractions, the word "communication" flattens vast differences of perception and feeling. What I regard as effective communication is not what others may regard as effective communication. What I believe to be a communication among equals, coming close to Habermas's "ideal speech situation," may be considered differential communication, overdetermined by power and desire to such an extent that the "free" in the notion of "free exchange" is a lie.

I've run out of mental energy now, so I'll have to revisit these ideas later.

For now, I'm making a pledge to not only be more mindful of my doings during disputes, but to make a stronger effort to stop doing what I'm so readily inclined to do.

I will surely lapse back into my old ways on a regular basis, but hope that this pledge and your reminding me of it will help me to lapse less frequently over time.

One never recovers. One is always recovering.


Eating snacks at AJ's coffee window tonight, -- Skylar likes to sit right where people would theoretically be ordering their lattés and muffins and perhaps do order same in the morning, but not in the evening -- Kim alluded to her response to my last, long entry.

"I like things to be concrete."

"I prefer a wood floor," I replied.

"Me too," she answered.

Since the wood floor was denied me at the JCC today -- youth basketball practice has now spilled over into late Saturday afternoon, which used to be my fail-safe time for getting a place on the court -- I went upstairs to the gym and watched Stanford play badly against Stanford.

But I had to shoot a little bit, so I ended up on the outdoor court next to the tennis complex, contending with wind, the poorly stabilized rim, and the pounding my knees took on the hard surface.

And to think I used to always play outdoors.

Desire to Purge

I've seen it happen. I fear it may happen to me. But not yet, except in the most minimal way.

The desire to purge overwhelms both collectors and those who simply collect.

I remember when, several years after we moved to Maryland, my mother just started throwing things away. It scared me. It still scares me.

But I think I understand why the impulse arises. This is what Bob Mould, pop-punk legend and present-day electronic music advocate, has to say today:
It's almost time for spring cleaning - I've got a good head start on it already. The detritus that I surround myself with, it needs to be jettisoned. Ticket stubs, contracts, airline boarding passes, CD's never opened, box after box of nonsense - where are I am going to take this stuff to? Where is the final resting place for these receipts? Another storage space in another storage place I lived for a little bit of time, hoping to find some peace of mind? Running toward something better, or walking away from something less?

I used to think that the sum of all these pieces would be some sort of roadmap, like a scrapbook, telling others where I'd been - some fabulous journey, a rich and traveled life, full of adventure and excitement. Now I worry that the hard drive on my laptop might be ready to go, and that concerns me so much more than the thought of losing all those documents, those reminders. It's about the moment I'm in right now, and so much less about the moments behind me. I've never been big on looking back, though I seem to surround myself with physical reminders (packed in boxes).

I'm feeling the weight of the past, and I'm beginning to throw it out.

I feel the weight of the past too, but I still believe it's my burden.

Maybe I'm afraid that, once I start throwing things away, I won't stop until I've thrown everything away.