Saturday, 2 June 2012

You may say only that which you don’t mean: revised early notes on redundancy & communication

–  I want you to type a postcard for me [...], Wish you were here, signed S. It’s an emergency rendez-vous signal.
– How can you be sure you are using the right conventions, the right phrase.
– The postcard itself is the signal, irrespective of what’s written on it. Now, when Elsa gets that tomorrow morning she’s supposed to send a completely innocent and unrelated reply to a prearranged acommodation address and the ideal reply would be a ticket to something that is bound to happen at a certain place at a certain time, like a seat for a concert, or a reserved seat in a train. 
Dialogue from The Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet
Communicating a message is already a problem for the relationship between sender and receiver where there is no acknowledged relation or communication other than this particular message. Such communication takes on a pedagogical form and this both irritates the receiver of the unlooked for message, and militates against the concept of a commonality of position that is being communicated.

If I tell you "we have a common interest", I am asserting the importance of the content of my message as a facet in the realising of our interest, otherwise I wouldn"t have said it. But my communicating separates our interest because I possess the knowledge of it and you do not. Only if you agree with me does that knowledge become neutral between us. If you do not accept my message for whatever reason, our commonality has significance for me and none for you. The possession of the knowledge of commonality indicates an absence of commonality in the relation between us.

The use of the term redundancy with reference to language and compression issues in IT supposes an issue of surplus which may be practically reduced. It is true there is no need to add either the word "men" or "toilet" beneath the pictogram of a "man" on a door. Nor is there any need for traffic lights to have "stop" and "go" inscribed on or near to the red and green lights respectively. Such codes are already adequate to their purpose. We share the same capacity in our receiver position for recognising the coded pattern as those who have transmitted them.
It has been pointed out that, in fact, the term redundancy so used becomes a synonym for patterning.
Coding and redundancy Gregory Bateson.
Shared patterns between sender and receiver can be deliberately disrupted so as to draw further meanings from the ability to recognise/misrecognise: a standard psychological test for mental competence, after sense deprivation experiments for example, involves the recognition of the colour ink used in long lists of words for colours (red written in black, blue written in pink).
I want to be there when they realise that neither of them summoned the other, that the postcard was a trap. 
However, the presence of an internal surplus within a message is not the object in this discussion of redundancy. I am more concerned  with the sharing of coded "patterns" between people, and how these carry meaning between the transmitter and receiver positions.
I would argue however, that the concept of "redundancy" is at least a partial synonym of "meaning". As I see it, if the receiver can guess at missing parts of the message, then those parts which are received must, in fact, carry a meaning which refers to the missing parts and is information about those parts.
 Coding and redundancy Gregory Bateson
If we consider our position to be receptive of pattern, i.e. the patterns of conditioning and ideology and that this functions in contradiction with our position as transmitters of other patterns, then we begin to see why our transmissions of messages of 'change' fail where  messages of 'acceptance' arriving from the other more powerful transmitters are successful (an absurd reduction: our messages of substantial change function superficially and are actually "flooded" by messages of superficial change which behave substantially).

As receivers of a common culture, we share a capacity to refer to characters from sitcoms, we know famous football players and boy bands, even without having any interest in them; we have learnt when we are allowed to speak and when we must remain silent; we know when and how to show appreciation; we know when to sit and when to stand, to queue, to get up in the morning; we have learnt to celebrate and commiserate at the appropriate moment; we have learnt to lie and to spot lies; we know when it is right to interpret, and when we should simply be accepting and go along with the flow. We do not often get the message wrong, even when it has not been spelt out to us.
I apprehend the meaning of its ringing, I am already up at its summons; this apprehension guarantees me against the anguished intuition that it is I who confer on the alarm clock its exigency – I and I alone.
Sartre, Being and Nothingness
These, and so many other automatic knowledges and learnt behaviours are widespread and indicate a high degree of redundancy... if the words, "Brad" and/or "Angelina" are transmitted to almost anywhere in the world there is a high degree of probability that this will trigger in the receiver an association with some other learnt fragments of knowledge as though they were a string of pearls in a box, and by pulling out one pearl I pulled out the one following it. These simple trigger words act as nodes of significance that when communicated activate huge networks of associated conversational significances which are latently present in relations between objects and people.

This is a very different circumstance to the almost absolute absence of redundancy between transmitter and receiver positions in the relation between radical context and general populace. If we take three publications mentioned here recently: An internationalist leaflet on the operation in Iraq, the new issue of Aufheben magazine, and Herman Melville"s Bartleby the Scrivener. In the first two we see, in comparison to the mass media, relatively feeble and doomed attempts to overcome the above mentioned absence of patterned redundancy. The receiver position of the message has not yet arrived at the point where it is able to actively "disagree" with the contents of these messages. It is still in the position where it does not even possess the means for decoding what is being talked about: it is conditioned by other, higher order codes, to receive these messages as babble ‘n smoke.

The transmitter of the message of change responds to the inability of the receiver to decode his message by complicating it with further information (in effect, adding the word ‘stop’ to the colour red). The transmitter of the code for change must supply both the message and within that message the conceptual tools to establish redundancy in order to decode that message. If you had one shot, or one opportunity. To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment. Would you capture it or just let it slip ?

As an example of this predicament, consider this: in order to communicate with you a message concerning the commonality of interest that I share with you as members of the working class, I must also communicate the concept of the division of society into economic classes, a concept which is absent for you (because it has been obscured by other messages concerning commonality: we are all in this together) and to which you are particularly resistant. For this reason my message only circulates within the microcosm where redundancy for that message already exists. Communists speak only to communists. 

In the case of Bartleby, we see an example of how a reading of a message concerning the impossibility of communication between two apparently proximal positions in society can be communicated and reinforced within established relations (in particular within the discursive fields of art and literature).

Thus, when a message does "get through" (strikes a chord) it is then "flooded" or reframed in terms that fundamentally disrupt the pattern intended by the transmitter and in favour of background or contextual patterns which it was originally directed against (I make no claims for a radical message in Bartleby, only an observation about some subsequent claims that have been made for it). There are present within the social relation certain "niche redundancies" in which messages of discontent, change, class relations and so on serve to affirm rather than negate the context in which they are generated.

As indicated above, for reasons of the received patterning in communication, the messianic code is fiendishly difficult to activate in others: "revolution now", or "rise up against your masters" are less than sonorouos gems, making no sense unless class struggle (conceived as such by the participants) is already underway. 

Communication of what we already know makes up the vast majority of all communications and even then this content rarely addresses how communication works or what power structures it relates to – so we must ask ourselves, how does any particular act of speech add to or affirm the social relation, and thereby ensure that established patterns of accumulation are not much disrupted by messages of change?
Forgive my thought for having such a thought.
Unlike political and religious totalitarian regimes which establish explicit pathways of referral to core power relations, the totalitarianism of capital tends to make no reference at all to the wage relation from which it is reproduced. In fact, a specifically capitalist communication can be understood as that which is averse to addressing the restraints (constraints) which set it in motion – resulting in an occult power structure which permits the continued proliferation of hollowed out versions of other power structures: religion, democracy and/or totalitarianism, socialism, technocracy. All of these flourish as ideologies within the higher order constraints set by the commodity form.
I see my tragedy written in thy brows.
An employee working for the NHS might sometimes ask before the sheer mass of them, "what are all these ill people doing?" The people change but the illnesses are all the same. The reason they bring their ailments into this institution is that Health, as an established discursive field, channels their utterances and fixes them as bodily ailments to which a massive bureaucratic apparatus then addresses itself. The appearance of complaint within the discursive field of health is now thoroughly institutionalised. That which once fell into the category of politics through terms such as disaffection and alienation now appears as mood disorder, adjustment reaction, depression.
EDWARD. Something still buzzeth in mine ears
   And tells me if I sleep I never wake.
   This fear is that which makes me tremble thus;
   And therefore tell me, wherefore art thou come?
LIGHTBORN. To rid thee of thy life. Matrevis, come.
   Enter Matrevis, with the spit.
EDWARD. I am too weak and feeble to resist.
   Assist me, sweet God, and receive my soul!
LIGHTBORN. Run for the table.
    Matrevis fetches in Gurney, with a table.
EDWARD. O spare me, or dispatch me in a trice.
LIGHTBORN. So, lay the table down, and stamp on it,
   But not too hard, lest that you bruise his body.
Information is defined by Gregory Bateson as any "difference which makes a difference in some later event" (A re-examination of "Bateson"s rule"). We can see that whilst most information exchanges within the capitalist frame make no mention of capitalism, the accumulation of messages in favour of the dynamic of capital continue to be made in the background.

This patterning of messages which takes the form of accretions around certain defined nodes of concern which recur over and over at different levels from the individual to the corporation (security-anxiety, identity-fixation, distraction urges and so on) are defined by what are called "restraints" (or nowadays "constraints") these are forces that give pattern to connections within the transmitter/receiver relation and which cause communications to recur rather than lapse into the merely random.

For tens of thousands of years, the restraints on communication have been (widely defined) religious. "In this sense all gods, the pagan as well as the Christian ones, have possessed a real existence. Did not the ancient Moloch reign? Was not the Delphic Apollo a real power in the life of the Greeks?". In other words, the gods once acted as a restraint on communications between human beings and bestowed upon them a specific character by which the human beings both understood themselves and reproduced their world.

However, this objective restraint, in large areas of the world has now been removed and religion is conducted in bad faith. Humans are not born into a religious worldview so much as they revert to it as to a comfort blanket. The individual reinvention, through pseudo-adherence to orientalism and/or pagan gods that together is called new age mysticism attempts to impose a restraint through externalised personal whimsy upon the world – this lacks absolutely the objective resonance of a true "inherited" belief system.

For example, whilst many ancient sites, such as Blood Hill in Thetford Forest, have been eroded to the point that all that survives of them are the name (and in the location of the name, the visitor must try and feel the non-specifics of the place) other, better maintained, ancient locations such as Belas Knapp continue to attract religious type behaviours where there is no established relation between the site and such acts. The visitor to Belas Knapp will find in the chambers little offerings of flowers and poems. This wilful relation with invented deities inverts the reality of the gods which Marx describes, and which under present circumstances have no reality at all.

Similarly, this attempt to impose restraints of meaning upon the world and then derive a set of meaningful communications also goes for all "revolutionary" intentions. But this is just one way of interpreting received and pattern-saturated behaviours. Whilst it is true that new ageism and all mystical beliefs tend to add to the accretions around certain ideological nodes there also remains some remnant of what it is to be human by making connections and finding patterns, inventing meaning. 

Jean Laplanche talking of Karl Popper mentions this capacity to both find new meaning in nature and abandon old meaning:
“Nature never says yes; it always says no”. In other words, nature never affirms a truth but is always at our disposal to refute a false assertion. This is something which obviously seems purely negative, but it is actually very positive, for it opens up the possibility of an entire creative imagining of models. Man is a creator of models. Models which try to adapt themselves optimally to the reality he studies. But these models then become subject to “refutation”. They are not, however, subject to “verification”, which is why one does not seek to show that “this or that is successful ‘x’ number of times”, but looks for the point at which this or that could be proved false. At that point, of course, everything is up in the air.
The silence, or meaninglessness of nature, is the source from which meaning may be constructed as new models. This natural source of meaning, Laplanche argued, may counter the ‘unprocessed anger and passions’ of inherited models. 

Human beings have a natural proclivity for pattern recognition and are attracted (as moths to a flame) to certain purely architectural forms (forms which exist prior to meaning) which they deploy for relating to themselves, each other and the world. We know who we are, where we are, when we are because of the marks we have carved onto stones, by the arrangement of those marks and by the act of adding to them. Of course, the content is always decisive in actual encounters, and this content shifts radically in history (but the recognition and reproduction of patterns remains constant).

The drawing of consciousness towards compulsive architectural forms is no accident: a clearing in the forest, an upright stone, scorched lines in the earth, patterns in the clouds, paintings in caves, these are the starting points (which I have elsewhere called the pre-human), and we have a natural will to find "constraint" so as to give shape to the connections we want to then initiate. We will find messages intended for us which we are actually sending to ourselves. 

One of the advantages of truly ancient places, as constrained sites for human communication, is their shedding of contingent meaning – their return to the pure form of message as message. Like Bloodhill, there is nothing left of them but their name. New Age attempts at recuperating them into some timeless landscape of spiritual meaning is ultimately futile; nothing will be found in them that is not projected there, their silence is their message, their meaninglessness for us is the reason of their importance.

For the poetically attuned consciousness, as in contemplation of the Zen garden, these ancient structures have had all meaning eroded from them (in contradiction to the accretions around economically significant nodes) – they remain "congealed labour", identifiably human (belonging to us), but all barbarity (unlike that associated with a factory, or car park), all the content of inheritance but that of the bare remnant of their having been made, has been washed out of them. 

In a world foregrounded by the commodity form, where every point is overdetermined by ascribed further (and exchangeable) significances, there is some sort of redemption to be found in the truly dead, the  empty space in which the message is messagelessness. 

I do not propose that patterns shorn of meaning are any sort of "answer" to our predicament. I do not prescribe a visit to ancient sites (and the pyramids and Stone Henge for example are very much part of the present array) – but I do see a therapeutic potential in objects and places where some absolute break with the patterns of the present may be discerned. 

As a final point, and distinct from the above, it is also worth remembering that there is, in any message, from the perspective of the receiver, not just a single redundancy – it may seem, within a hierarchy of communication, that we are all on message, but each of our acts of agreement contains reservations, disputes, caveats, misinterpretations. Every individual says yes to the received patterns of the world and is then unhappy after his own fashion – or at least, is unhappy according to a pattern he has not agreed to.

I must have wanton poets, pleasant wits,
Musicians, that with touching of a string
May draw the pliant King which way I please.