Date: Sat, 31 May 1997 02:23:47 +0200
From: Gabor Bora

Interobjectivity: The Link from Communication to Information and Back Again

Gabor Bora

1 The Concept of Interobjectivity

A./ Objective Vacuum; Stable Void

Isaac Newton regarded space as a container. An existent in itself, independent from — and as the space for creation presumably prior to — things that fill it. Being an antagonist to Descartes in respect to the possibility of the void, Newton marvellously legislates the Cartesian division of the world into subject (the thinking substance) and object (the extended substance). The object, the extended substance, is mediated to the subject by pure extension: there is a homology between the observed and the medium of observation. Space becomes the facilitator of pure observability; Newtonian space outlines a media philosophy.

There could be a universe with nothing but empty space in it.(1) Space guarantees exactly this quality: objectivity. Space is as independent from the things in it as a pure instance of observation is independent of the observed; sharing the same objective space, a subject can consider an object objectively. It is space that helps things to become objects. (A Universe with nothing but empty space, where Being and Nothingness would happen to be the same, would be better than our one: it would be a world without the possibility or need of a proof of gravitational force. It would be the perfect Newtonian world, except for the fact that there can be no Newton in a universe with only empty space.)

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz criticised Newton — the discoverer of the Law of Gravitation — for not being able to give an account of the gravitational force. Newton saw it as an immaterial force, God’s omnipresence. Leibniz disagreed rather for physical than metaphysical reasons: he refuted immaterial forces in Nature. (This is one of the themes of a debate between Leibniz and Clarke, a spokesman for Newton.) As an alternative, Leibniz considered space as a relational quality. It is not a container, it doesn’t have an own, independent existence, it is rather a result of the relations between things. Gravitation cannot be explained with action in distance, there must be something material connection between things. In this case space is not an independent variable, it is an effect of things, an effect of, and dependent on, gravitational attraction. (I am deliberately forgetful of Leibniz’ theory of aether in the place of void.)

Thus, space in its Leibnizean formulation can be seen as interobjectivity: the result of that things are connected, and the way of their connectedness. Things in space and space show a mutual dependency; what follows is that there is no possibility of completely pure cases of relation between subject and object: the space of observation is not an independent variable any more. Subject and object share the same place, but this space is not an independent entity, it is effected by precisely this subject-object relation, thus, it always has an unclear, interobjective part. The task for this Leibnizean interobjectivity is: to clarify relations, clarify the mutualities. Interobjectivity is radically different from objectivity as Newtonian science has it. No theory of space without objects, hence no theory of an observation from nowhere, from the alleged objectivity of the empty space.

Interobjectivity destroys subject-object relation. The next step to take is to clarify what is the place of the observing subject within interobjectivity. The task for the thinking of interobjectivity is the clarification of the mutual effects and mutual effectedness. The observer effects the observed system; but what is more important, the moment of a subject-ification of the observed produces at the same instance the objectification of the observer. The observer does not have the position of a subject related to an object but becomes object itself within interobjectivity. Interobjectivity is the case or theory of the elimination of the ‘anthropological predicate’ (as Gilles Deleuze calls it). (2) The Leibnizean thinking of interobjectivity radically differs from the Newtonian objectivity. There is no space without objects, as there is no possibility for an external observer positioned in the objectivity of space. Interobjectivity destroys subject-object relation. Immanuel Kant’s transcendental subject achieves something similar but in the opposite way. Kant folds the entire subject-object relation within the transcendental subject (outside of experience). The Leibnizean resolution folds the same relation into the object.

B./ The Best Beast of All Possible Worlds

There is a little book by Villem Flusser & Louis Bec, entitled _Vampyroteuthis Infernalis_ (3). Vampyroteuthis is an imaginary beast, but it is only slightly on the less real side of the threshold between fiction and non-fiction, if this threshold itself is not completely fictive. It has a well-defined place within the Darwinian taxonomy of the animal world. It is an octopus, a really huge one, living ten thousand meters below the surface of the ocean. Being a result of a different evolutionary line, it is defined, as an antipode to us, not only genealogically but existentially too. Now, the hypothesis of conceiving this monster is a remarkable operation that provides us with an example of interobjectivity. It takes us into an interobjective relation to ourselves. It is not self-observation, not even introspection: these are no good ways, producing a space of observation that is similar to the Newtonian one, emptied, fixed and objective. No, the way Flusser & Bec chose is radically different. It is similar to hermeneutics’ Horizontverschmelzung: it is a fusion of two different ‘Lebenswelts’ in a phenomenological manner. It is Lebensweltverschmelzung. That means, it creates the relative space between Vampyroteuthis and us (somewhat in a rather Merleau-Pontyan than Husserlian manner). Both beings, the human one and the Vampyroteuthis are inhabitants of the same planet and the result of the same — however, bifurcating — evolutional process.

The fusion of the Lebenswelts is thus taking the shape of a cultural criticism. The more radically the result of an evolutionary process differs from our one, the evolution leading to human beings that is, the more disgusting we find a living thing. The most disgusting ones are those that have different symmetries, different segmentarity, no spinal column, etc. Darwin gave this chauvinistic attitude to evolution — the measure of disguise — the form of a scientific evolutionary taxonomy. Lebensweltverschmelzung, the fusion of the lived worlds, is on the contrary, a biological hermeneutics that can lead to a better understanding of ourselves. The procedure reminds, again, of Leibnizianism: instead of the one and only existing Lebenswelt, the human one, it works with the Lebenswelts of possible worlds. The actual and the possible — our world and the world of the Vampyroteuthis, having a well-defined place within the Darwinian taxonomy — land up on one side; the other side is the incompossibility, the non-ability of co-existence. Interobjectivity approaches the Lebenswelt in a way where there is no reality and fictionality as opposed to each other, but actuality and virtuality on the one side and impossibility on the other.

The initiation of interobjective horizons is not exceptional, not even unusual in the phenomenological activity of Flusser. When, for example, he compares our behaviour working on the keyboard of a computer with that of monkeys when searching for parasites in the fur of each other, the description relativizes the human Lebenswelt in a single step. The point of departure is not the significance or the meaning of the observed, but rather the gesture. The observed activity is thus not an intellectual one, but a kind of socially pregnant connoisseurship. The horizon of the consideration is not the actual, but the virtual: the human aspect, the possible subject is relativized and becomes a part of an interobjective horizon. — What all this demonstrates is, that interobjectivity is an example of post-humanistic thinking. (The more common posthumanistic thinking prefers real groups’ real interests to the abstract interests of humankind, finding out that these transcendental interests practically worked oppressively in the name of the emancipation of mankind as a whole. The posthumanism referred to here, is instead bracketing out the ideal notion of humanity.)

If it is necessary, this phenomenology of the gestures continues displacing the horizon until the human gesture, in this case the work on the keyboard of a computer, looses its human determination, it has no dimension of a subject any more.

2. Interobjectivity as a Relationship Between Communication and Information

A./ Connection Versus Content

Until now, I shortly introduced the concept of interobjectivity. This was necessary because the idea is easy to misunderstand. As it should be clear, it doesn’t have a simply opposing relation to intersubjectivity: the opposition appears only when applying the concept to the phenomenon of communication.

To begin with, let’s assume two certainly illegitimate distinctions — they may be instructive: (1) a unit of communication, and (2) that the unit contains two parts: contact and content. These two, then, correspond respectively to a communicative and an infor mational value. Often fundamentally different, they are, however, not opposed to each other. They stand for distinct orders. Contact forms the connection between participants, by touch, signs, telepathy, etc.; it works as a string or as adhesive between communicators. It arranges a relation, whereas the content belongs to an order of information. Its value is measured by unexpectedness, i.e., by informing of something hitherto unknown or forgotten, whereas contact is rendered by a communicative value, ensuring that the communicators are bound to each other, it uses the well-known, it works with familiar riffs, with repeated phrases. In isolation, contact handles relations, assuring the communicators that there is a communication between them (similarly to the phatic function in Jakobson); the pure presence of communication is stressed: something is shared, there is a togetherness, there is a relation. Pure content, deprived of the riffs of contact is cold communication; it would produce an interobjectivity, it would be information of objects. Contact in itself has no object. As Michel Serres provocatively put it, "I shall call poor that which has no object. Myth has no object, nor does theatre or politics." (4) They only have relations.

Now, there is no communication without both contact and content; the one can, however, almost entirely take the part of the other, they are indivisible, they are nevertheless connected. And exactly the way in which they are actually connected can turn us into mere functions of communicative apparatuses. Contact can be objectified, it is then the source of surveillance and manipulation - and conversely, contact can be the only content in a communicative act, "[t]he message becomes the object itself," to quote Serres again. (5) To have an object, for communication to be an interobjectivity, means to stress content, while not transforming contact into content. Vilem Flusser’s phenomenological-cybernetic approach gives a cardinal lesson in just this. It provides us with objects that inform us.(6)

B./ 90s versus 60s

The goal of the distinction is the unfolding of a cultural dynamic. A surprising drama took place during the 60s: advanced and complicated cultural forms, from ‘nouveau roman’ or existentialist cinema to free-jazz and electronic music, became overshadowed. (This progress was carried out differently within the different genres, starting with fine arts, within ten years.) These cultural tendencies had the ability to articulate the existential conditions of the time in such a degree that situations in real life could be recognised due to their preceding articulations in the novels, films or pieces of music; now, they slowly landed up in a vacuum, not dissimilar to the Newtonian one. As if the conditions were dislocated, moved away, so that the series of articulations previously tightly connected to the conditions they articulated, now began to be able to articulate nothing but their own articulatedness. They became forced back into their own enclosures.

These tendencies were quite neutral — if not adversary — towards the official ideology of High Modernism, but this doctrine turned out to be true of them, these cultural forms arrived at a state of hyperautonomy. An avant-garde became rearguard, as if it were. Hyperautonomy is a parodical form of the autonomous work of art: author and recipient are virtually identical. (The most exposed genres proved to be music and ‘frozen music’ — architecture.) What disappeared was not the public, it was rather an unbound valency, a relation. Instead, what appeared was limit, boundary, the liminal. They became overshadowed because there emerged cultural forms articulating that unbound valency, that relation: often poor in content, they were rich in the ability of making contacts, highlighting communication.

During the 60s, there was a vast turn towards communicability. Communication was reinvented by pop, by telephone hacking (that communicated from a site to the same site, making a loop around the planet) etc. Successively, the communicative value became stressed and the informative one ignored. By the 70s, the vast majority of (mass)cultural products were user-friendly interfaces of nothing, familiar repeated phrases of the already known. They suggested contact in any possible way, becoming what Jean Baudrillard calls ‘the ecstasy of communication’ - thus simulating and abusing contact instead of providing it. Contact, togetherness, shared experience, and the flow of cultural signs of these. The shared became sliced into pieces: communication killed information.

Now, my somewhat optimistic view is that during the 90s, there is a reversal taking place. The drama of the 60s repeats itself with a conceptual transformation from communication versus information into contact versus content. And with a reversal. Not in the way that content is becoming the exaggerated part, but rather, by a growing consciousness of what is contact and what is content. The networks of communication still appear to be the networks of contacts (as a delayed effect from the 60s, in advertisements as well as in the majority of the analysis of the networks, contact is still stressed). At the same time they are producing a need for some content, or at least a consciousness of emptiness when contact takes place without content. Communication becomes informed, content becomes more interesting than contact. As it seems, today those cultural forms are most effective that articulate this certainly fictitious difference between a state of having contact and a state of having object, to being informed. And I assume, this articulation will lead into the next century.

Information wants to be free. Sure. But availability as freedom is far from enough: it is no more than the plain fact of contact as connectivity. Freedom wants to be informed.

1. Voltaire tells us, "it is not certain that there is a cubic inch of solid matter in the whole universe." Quoted in: Alexandre Koyre, Newtonian Studies (London: Chapman and Hall, 1965); p. 167.
2. Vilem Flusser & Louis Bec, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, (Goettingen: Immatrix Publications, 1987)
3. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.) p. xxi.
4. Michel Serres, "Panoptic Theory" in: Kavanagh (ed.) The Limits of Theory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989); p. 27.
5. Serres, op. cit. p. 46.
6. For a plea for cybernetics, a suprising one because it is outside technological thinking, see: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank: "Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins", in: Critical Inquiry, Winter 1995, volume 21, Nr. 2; pp 496-522.-
The text is an abridged version of a paper read at the ‘6th International Vilm Flusser Symposium — "Intersubjectivity: media metaphors, play & provocation"’ March 15-16 1997, Budapest Hungary. G.B. is lecturer at the Department of Aesthetics, University of Uppsala, Sweden. His current research fields are: Baroque aesthetics and A. Baumgarten; weak ontology and experience/experiment; the aesthetics of complexity and self-organization; etc.