Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Mirror wars

The crime novel I referred to in my last post (The diversity of individuals), Leif Persson’s Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End) is a real treasure trove of wisdom on life, love, good, evil, and a host of other things that really matter. It is much more than just a crime novel; it is a roman noir of the highest calibre. I really owe my Czech friend who lent it to me.

In addition to the subjects mentioned above, there is an intriguing (and revealing) conversation on communication between two of the main characters — the chief of the Swedish secret police, Berg, and a man whose name one never learns, and who is simply known as “the minister’s special adviser”. Judging by this exchange between them, Persson knows a great deal about the nature of communication — its pretences, its best intentions (seldom achieved), its disingenuousness, its strategic ends, and so on.

I would guess that Persson has read Gadamer’s hermeneutics (especially in Truth and Method of 1982), as well as Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action (especially Vol 2, 1987), and a whole lot more, to be able to condense into a few short paragraphs such insight about what is really going on when human beings (seem to) communicate. It is worth noting that both Marcel Proust and Henri Bergson had serious doubts about whether one ever really “reaches” the other in our attempts at communicating, and 18th century rationalist, Leibniz, went as far as stating that, as so-called “monads”, each of us is “windowless”. What seems like communicating with another person, is in fact merely the projection, on the screen of our own interiority, of our own version of the other (albeit synchronised with others’ perceptions by the metaphysical principle of the “pre-established harmony”).

I don’t believe that Persson’s account is as radical as any of the last three referred to above; it is probably closer to Foucault’s (and Lyotard’s related) theory of discourse as an engagement in a “battle” of sorts. But judge for yourself — here is the relevant excerpt from Persson’s novel, where Berg and the “special adviser” are in conversation (p175-176):

‘Quite a few years ago, when I was doing my military service … I wrote an essay about mirror war.’

‘That sounds interesting. I’m listening,’ said Berg.

‘Of course my thesis was based on the special operation in which I was serving at the time … Basically it dealt with what we say to one another, in speech, in writing, with gestures and glances and in all other manners and means. For example, by not saying or doing anything whatsoever. Or just by avoiding the reaction that our opponent is expecting.’ Berg contented himself with nodding; he had set his fork and knife aside.

‘The ideal communication in the best of all possible worlds, populated only by good people … How does that look? To begin with, it is true. The sender is not mistaken on that point. What he or she is saying is actually true. In addition it is important to both the sender and the recipient, and in the best of worlds all communications are of course good. They are of use both to the sender and to the recipient and for the world around them.’

‘The best of worlds,’ said Berg, as he experienced a remarkable sense of peace, which he hadn’t felt for a long time.

‘Compare that with the world in which you and I live…’

By implication, the world in which all of us live. The world of mirror wars, of deflecting messages by means of “mirrors” that appear as if they reflect a familiar image, yet work more like shiny shields behind which an adversary hides. Where one is never sure that what is being said or what has been written to you will pass the test of sincerity, let alone truth and good intentions.

This is the domain of what Lyotard depicted, in The Postmodern Condition (Manchester, 1984), as never-ending agonistic sparring among or by means of a heterogeneity of “language games”. Hence his observation (p10), about “the first principle underlying our method as a whole: to speak is to fight, in the sense of playing, and speech acts fall within the domain of a general agonistics”.

Communicational agonistics may be understood as the art, or perhaps the science, of struggle. An art in as far as the struggle-character of linguistic engagement is mostly hidden by all manner of rhetorical artifice; a science to the degree that someone well-versed in it can decode the greatest variety of agonistic artifice. Clearly the “special adviser” in Persson’s novel was someone like that, who exceeded even the chief of the secret police in the realm of “mirror war”.

Lyotard’s understanding of the agonistics of language, or of communication, is much closer to the “special adviser’s” notion of “mirror war” than Habermas’s theory of communicative action, or Gadamer’s hermeneutics. Although Habermas’s theory recognisably belongs to the neo-Marxist tradition of critical theory, given its acknowledgement of ideological distortions and pervasive disingenuousness in communicational acts, together with the normative means to overcome and resist such “strategic” action, its tenor is altogether more optimistic than that of Lyotard. Likewise in the case of Gadamer, whose hermeneutic (interpretive) approach, while displaying a finely nuanced grasp of language, seems positively civilised (or civilising) compared to the undiluted affirmation of conflict in linguistic exchanges encountered in Lyotard’s work.

Where does the truth lie, then? Are these people all referring to the same phenomenon — that of (linguistic) communication? Perhaps Derrida is closest to the truth here, with his deconstruction of communication (in “Ulysses Gramophone: Hear say Yes in Joyce”, in: A Derrida reader: Between the Blinds, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, pp571-598), which effectively proclaims communication to be possible and impossible at the same time. If that sounds like gibberish, think of the following.

I can here at best focus on but one strand of Derrida’s perpetually complex argument, albeit an indispensable one. In every act of communication, Derrida points out, there is a message and a response. Either the message is understood, and “mechanically” repeated (as the “same”) by way of confirmation, or it is not understood, in which case the response takes the form of an “off the wall” (uncomprehending) reaction that has nothing at all to do with the message. In neither of these two alternatives has communication succeeded (except in the sense that mere, mechanical repetition was all that was called for, in case number one).

These are not the only two possibilities, however. If “repetition of the same”, and blind, unrelated reaction are examples of failed communication (as opposed to information-exchange), then successful communication has the paradoxical structure of “repeating differently”, where the response is not merely a repetition of the message, but a repetition with a difference, where something peculiar to the receiver has been added to the original message.

The paradoxical (im-)possibility of communication happens because the very same means of conveying a message to be understood — words or other signifiers — are also, simultaneously, the means of misunderstanding it. Hence, communication is at once possible AND impossible. This means that, although one can never proclaim to inhabit “the best possible world” (as described by the “special adviser”), neither can we claim to inhabit the worst. “Mirror wars” are sometimes interrupted by creative, mutually enjoyable games.

For a sustained treatment of this theme, see my paper, “The (im-)possibility of communication”. Communicare, Journal for Communication Sciences in Southern Africa, Vol. 23, (1), July 2004, pp79-91.

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    • Rene

      No wonder when my girlfriend and I argue it always sounds as if I am talking to myself!

    • Maria

      Remember Karsten Harries’s criticism of Habermas’s ideal speech situation (in a lecture, once)? I’ll refresh your memory. He observed that, far from a scientific community representing the closest approximation to such an ideal of mutual comprehension, it was “lovers’ talk” that instantiated the ideal speech situation. Because what would appear utterly nonsensical to an eavesdropper (little endearments and pet names, etc.,) would make “perfect sense” to the lovers. I could not agree more. Once one has experienced something like that, as both you and I have, one must surely have a modicum of trust and even “faith” in the possibility of communication, even if it is unpredictably intermittent, as Derrida’s persuasive deconstruction of communication in the Joyce essay demonstrates so well.