Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

Behind the Laughter the Woulds Are Lovely, Dark and Deep

The topical nature of this graphic, which I first shared with my readers four years ago, makes it worthy of a second look. But I'd recommend looking past the surface in search of its true significance:
At first I was going to write that I'd pay money to read Slavoj Zizek riff on this image. But then I was inspired to jam a little myself. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has a theory of what he terms "communicative action" that I find extremely useful for making sense of social interaction. Like the sociologist Max Weber before him -- one of his biggest influences -- Habermas believes that we have to be mindful of the ideals that structure our experience, even though our practice inevitably falls short of realizing them.

Post-structuralist thinkers have tended to dismiss Habermas either as someone too willing to overlook the power relations that intrude upon everyday communication or too ready to presume that there are human traits that are not bound to particular historical and geographic contexts. What their critiques usually miss, though, is the degree of self-reflexivity that Habermas exhibits in articulating his theory. He repeatedly acknowledges the fact that he is bracketing real-world problems, but feels that doing so is a requirement for figuring out why we continue to hope and strive for understanding, despite all the evidence that suggests how difficult it is to achieve.

Although it is unfashionable and perhaps even dangerous for me to say so, I actually think that Habermas's theory is fundamentally correct. Having made that confession, though, I feel obliged to make it clear that I am conceiving of that word "fundamentally" at a level of abstraction that leaves room for a lot of attention to the details he passes over with big brush strokes. It's like he provides a map of the terrain that's good enough to know how to get where one's going, but too imprecise to determine what to do upon getting there.

Take this graphic with the two chocolate bunnies, for example. While it's easy to grasp in an immediate way that brings laughter, it also doubles as an earnest commentary on what one might term, with an eye towards Habermas, "actually existing communication." From this perspective, the joke's deeper truth would be to show that the sort of "communication oriented towards understanding" that Habermas theorizes may not be a real-world destination so much as a mirage, perpetually shimmering on the horizon but never getting any closer, not because we lack the desire to make the journey, but because we are too deformed to undertake it. In other words, the missing ass and ears of the two chocolate bunnies can be seen to represent the negative effects of social, political and economic forces that precede and exceed us.

If we fail to hear each other properly -- a technical distortion in communication, rather than the sort generated by asymmetries of power -- the problem may not be the sort that an engineer can solve. Who or what has bitten off the bunnies' parts? Is this simply an existential condition that is a sine qua non for all humanity? Or does the answer require that we attend both to the particular and universal constraints that conspire to do so much damage to the chocolate rabbits' integrity?

Personally, I think this graphic reminds us to pay attention to the forces that shape individual experiences and capacities irrespective of personal preference, as well as the ways in which the need to express the pain of perceived injuries can come to dominate interpersonal communication to our collective detriment. Perhaps what this humorous picture is really conveying is not that all attempts to engage in "communication oriented towards understanding" are bound to be hopelessly compromised from the get-go, but that it is impossible for us to communicate our lack to others, since what we are missing -- the ability, in a sense, to realize that others feel no more whole than we do -- is precisely what disables our understanding.
Tags: humor, theory

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