Benjamin Geer on 15 Nov 2000 19:17:48 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Re: <nettime> Cellphones and the Cancer of Cellspace

On Wed, Nov 15, 2000 at 07:58:44AM +0000, axel vogelsang wrote:
> therefore, all the things you describe like people trying to provide
> the expected reaction happens in 'real life' as well, not only on
> the mobile.

Yes, the mobile is simply the most recent manifestation of a very
widespread phenomenon.

> because, as i said, communication is mainly not about transferring
> information but about makeing social commitments and reassuring your
> status in a social group.

I agree that `information' (a ghastly word) has little to do with
communication.  However, your description reminds me of sort of
vacuous, competitive social interaction that Proust satirised in his
account of aristocratic social circles.  Far from disappearing with
the decline of the aristocracy, this type of `nothingness' (as he
called it) has become nearly universal.

> i would even say it is more about transferring emotions than
> anything else.

That would be the ideal.  I would love to live in a society in which
people actually expressed their emotions in ordinary situations.
However, I haven't found any such society.  Most of the Western world
appears to match Stjepan Mestrovic's characterisation in his book
_Postemotional Society_: since the expression of real, personal
emotions is taboo, we are reduced to miming certain stereotyped,
watered-down emotions, principally `niceness' and, occasionally,
curdled indignation.

> i don't believe, that people in earlier 'better' days had more
> interesting talks than people today.

Perhaps not more interesting in an intellectual sense, but probably
more frank and more emotional, in certain places and at certain times.
Mestrovic offers some evidence as far as the U.S. is concerned.  I
have only the anecdotal evidence of, for example, friends who
emigrated from Russia and Romania to the U.S., and who had a great
deal of difficulty adjusting to the false `niceness' and emotional
blandness of Americans, compared with the emotional intensity and
effusiveness of their compatriots.  In _Semantics, Culture, and
Cognition_, Anna Wierzbicka points out, tellingly, that English
speakers think of themselves as being composed of a `mind' (which is
thought of as primarily intellectual) and a `body'; this leaves no
room for the emotions.  In Russian, on the other hand, `dusha'
encompasses not only psychological and intellectual life, but also the
idea that people need to, and ought to, freely express what is in
their *dusha*; the behaviour of the Russians I've known certainly
seems to corroborate Wierzbicka's analysis.  If I remember correctly,
Eva Hoffman's book _Lost in Translation_ (an account of her emigration
from Poland to Canada, and subsequent difficulties) also touches on
this issue.  The American Indian narrative _Black Elk Speaks_ also
strikes me as relevant: Sioux society involved, among other things, a
certain implicit trust among individuals (as expressed, for example,
in the value attached to one's word), which seems largely absent in
North America today.

Before anyone chastises me for idealising bygone cultures, I should
hasten to add that I'm not trying to make any such generalisations.
One could argue, for example, that certain kinds of intimacy are
possible today (e.g. between writers and readers, thanks to the way in
which literature has developed) which were not possible in the distant
past.  But certainly a great deal has been lost.  In _A People's
History of England_, A. L. Morton argues that the history of the
thousand years following the arrival of Celtic tribes in Britain can
largely be understood as the gradual weakening and breaking up of
their tribal society, which was based on membership in close-knit
kinship groups that practiced a sort of primitive communism.  This
process was accelerated by industrialisation, which uprooted people
from villages and farmland, and piled them into cities as anonymous
factory workers.  Now, with no history, and nothing to belong to
except the marketing industry's groups of targeted consumers, it's no
wonder that people are desperate for anything (e.g. mobile phones, the
false solidarity of football supporters, or the politics of the
extreme right) that allows them to maintain some semblance of a
connection with others.  Such pseudo-intimacy remains unsatisfying
because it is always mediated by a dehumanising authority, whether it
be that of the culture industry and its campaigns of indimidation, or
that of Nazism.  It remains for us to reject this authority, to
reclaim public spaces for frank, human, emotional interaction, and to
develop relationships that are based on cooperation and understanding
rather than on conformism and on competition for status.

In their 1960 cinéma-vérité film, _Chronicle of a Summer_, Jean Rouch
and Edgar Morin asked strangers on the street the question: `Excuse me
Sir/Madam, are you happy?'  Nobody wanted to answer.  They then found
a few people who were willing to tell their own stories in response to
this question: a student, a factory worker, a fashion model, a
Holocaust survivor, an Algerian, an Italian girl on a journey to the
end of the night.  But they didn't simply interview them; they
confronted them with one another, and brought them together in various
spaces and contexts, so that the participants began to form their own
social group, focused on exploring the reasons for their unhappiness
and the possibilities for happiness.  Each learned surprising things
about whole sections of human experience that they had previously been
ignorant of (e.g. the Algerian had known nothing about the
concentration camps).  Relationships were formed that lasted beyond
the shooting of the film.

In his 1999 film, _La Commune_, Peter Watkins took this idea a good
deal further, by having his cast of 200 non-actors reenact the 1871
rebellion which took control of Paris and attempted to run it as a
socialist experiment (before being brutally crushed).  The Communards
created workers' collectives and women's groups, in which, for the
first time, they had frank public discussions about the real problems
they faced in their daily lives.  During the filming, the actors were
encouraged to bring these discussions into the context of their own
lives in 1999.  The real subjects of the film are thus the development
of frankness and solidarity among the actors, and the maturing of
their own political and social consciousness, as they grappled with
the real problems of creating a democratic society.  I personally know
several of these people, and it's clear that many of them were
transformed by the experience.  When I talk about reclaiming public
space for human purposes, this is the sort of thing I have in mind.
It doesn't require a camera; it needs only a space, and a group of
people willing to take the risk of telling the truth.

Benjamin Geer

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