The other day my friend Carl the Rhetorician completely stunned me by offhandedly presenting me with an entirely different concept of “commonplaces” or locus communis, far richer and more interesting than anything I had heard before. In my own case, I had always thought of the commonplace as a synonym for the cliche. Indeed, many of us who teach spend a good deal of our time fighting the commonplace in student papers. Apparently in traditional rhetorical theory, however, the concept of commonplace has a very different meaning. If I understood Carl correctly, commonplace does not refer to the cliche, but quite literally to a common place. And here, rather than writing the concept as a single word, we should write it as two words to underline its topological dimension.
When taken in this sense, the concept of common place would refer to sites where relations between heterogeneous actors can be forged. These sites, of course, can be of a literal spatial nature, or they can be of an incorporeal semiotic nature. With respect to the former, I’m reminded of my adventure with my daughter a couple weeks ago at the Taste of Dallas. The Taste of Dallas is a large festival where local restaurants present some of their signature dishes and where there is great live music all day long. Now ordinarily, I can be somewhat reserved in real life. Unlike my father who is the master of the random, warm conversation with strangers, I have a very difficult time striking up conversations with strangers. In fact, I tend to loath small talk because it makes me extremely anxious. However, for some reason, in this situation, I found myself talking to all sorts of strangers. Why was that? In part, I believe, it was because my daughter created a common place. Rather than being a strange and potentially dangerous man alone, I instead became a harmless and beleaguered father walking about with his highly energetic three year old daughter and was therefore capable of entering into wry conversation with strangers without posing a threat to the bubble of their security. A topological site was formed where network relations could be forged.
Other common places can be architectural in nature. The classroom, for example, is a common place. In the classroom a highly heterogeneous group of people are brought together in a single place for a somewhat common purpose. In many respects, the classroom functions almost like a software program. Because we’re all there to discuss and learn, resonance becomes possible among the students and with the professor, allowing for forms of discussion that would be largely impossible outside the classroom. The classroom provides a reason for discussion and engenders an exploration of ideas that it might otherwise be rude to discuss (e.g., the ultimate nature of the universe which might lead to a discussion of hypotheses that others might find rude, offensive, or threatening).
Events, also, can create common places. A year or so ago, after picking my daughter up from daycare, we returned home to discover that the power was out. This was quite a disaster, for my daughter, not quite being human yet by virtue of lacking speech, had, at the time, a ritual she had to follow in the afternoons, requiring the watching of Yo Gabba Gabba and Sesame Street and eating her afternoon snack. Howls of frustrated outrage followed. Very quickly we found ourselves outside, milling about with our other neighbors. Now in Texas I’ve found that neighbors seldom talk to one another or interact with one another. We tend to live very isolated existences unlike the neighborhoods that I grew up in as a child. However, suddenly we were all chatting with one another, speculating about why the power was out, wondering when it would come on, talking about the neighborhood, our children, school, our professions, etc. The event of the power failure had created a common place, allowing for the genesis of a collective.
Uniforms and costumes function in this way as well. The police officers uniform creates a common place that renders him approachable by other people out of the blue and which allows him to approach other people randomly. Likewise, the Halloween costume, for some reason, allows complete strangers to talk to one another. The woman can approach the handsome man at the supermarket wearing his uniform to ask a question in a way that she wouldn’t be capable of doing were he wearing plain clothes. Likewise, at the semiotic level certain topics like the weather form common places by providing a stock topic for discussion that allows heterogeneous people to bridge their separation from one another. “How about that heat!” “Oh I know, it’s ridiculous this year!”
In The Reality of the Mass Media Luhmann talks about how the mass media creates a common place. The mass media creates something like a shared lifeworld that allows extremely diverse people, coming from very different ethnic, geographical, occupational, religious, and economic backgrounds to perceive themselves as “the same”. Benedict Anderson analyzes this to great effect in Imagined Communities, showing how the rise of print media contributed to the formation of nationalist identities.
In my last post I observed that how to produce resonance is one of the key questions of political theory. Resonance, it will be recalled, refers to the capacity of one object to be perturbed by another. If resonance poses such a problem for political thought, then this is because objects are operationally closed. Objects draw their own distinction between themselves and their environment, such that they are only selectively open to their environment. I cannot, for example, sense the world through electric signatures like Amazonian electric eels are able to do. My cats are unable to sense the color red as I am able to do. Every object is only selectively open to the world.
One consequence of this is that objects cannot be steered or dominated from the outside. Objects are not black boxes that produce a reliable and predictable output based on a particular input. This is especially the case with complex autopoietic objects. Here I think we encounter one of the central problems with forms of theory such as we find in Foucault, where there seems to be a residual behaviorism and an over-optimism (or over-pessimism) about just how successful strategies of subjectivization can be. This is why the question of resonance is such a crucial question. The first question to ask is whether or not a particular object even exists in the environment of the system or object one wishes to perturb or influence. Insofar as much of what we know about the world, for example, we only know through the mass media, there are a number of things that don’t exist for average people because they don’t exist in the mass media. We simply don’t see or hear about them because they’re not reported. Returning to the WTO example I discussed yesterday, this was one of the major problems with these protests. The WTO protesters were a pretty informed bunch. Actions like breaking the windows of Starbucks and Gap did not strike the more peaceful protesters as particularly irrational (though it might of struck them as strategically irrational) because they were informed about the actions of these corporations elsewhere in the world and the working conditions of people in these other countries.
However, to the viewing public that watched these events unfold, the actions of these companies fell into the blind spot of their distinction. Unaware of what the WTO was/is up to, its effects on other countries, its effects on American workers, and of the labor practices of these companies, the viewing public could only interpret these protests and the actions of some of the protesters in terms of their own distinctions. “Why are these people so angry?” the public might have speculated. “They must be anti-consummerist, communist, wacko, dirty hippie, kids! Those kids will think differently when they have kids to support!” The things that motivated the protesters were invisible to much of the viewing audience. This, in turn, allowed the WTO and corporations to use the protesters to their advantage, further strengthening their iron grip, rendering changes in labor, economic, and environmental policy more difficult.
It is for this reason that questions of how to produce resonance is so crucial to political activism. The question of how to produce resonance is, in its turn, the question of how to produce or generate common places. Here, however, it is necessary to remember that because objects are withdrawn or operationally closed, it is impossible for one object to steer another. The formation of a common place does not steer or control other systems, but creates a space in which one object takes on the capacity to perturb another. In other words, common places are sites where structural coupling among distinct objects takes place. Structural coupling refers to a repetitive relation where one system or object begins to draw on another for perturbation. This relation is depicted in Maturana and Varela’s diagram to the left, and is what Morton refers to as interdependence.
The important point is that these structural couplings, rendered possible through the formation of common places, will nonetheless unfold in such a way that each object involved will continue to translate the world in terms of its own distinctions. As a result of structural coupling, objects will indeed evolve or develop but where that development will is anyone’s guess. It is a creative process. Moreover, the structural coupling rendered possible through the formation of common places can take a variety of forms. It can, for example, be unilateral or bilateral. In the case of the mass media, structural coupling and resonance was largely a unilateral affair. The media disseminated and we consumed. Consequently, the media could perturb the public, but the public had very little ability to perturb the media. Even letters to the editor are selected by the editors in such a way as to be representative of a pre-existent narrative and set of distinctions. In the late 90s this began to change with the formation of the internet that eventually led to the formation of citizen media that could begin contesting corporate media and playing a role in what stories are reported. Indeed, today shows like Countdown with Kieth Olbermann and The Rachel Maddow shows are largely summaries of stories reported on democratic blogs. Media has increasingly become bilateral in its structural coupling. As a consequence, what we get are the formation of new common places that also allows for the formation of new collectives.