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Philosophy in Russia

Modern Communication, Culture & Philosophy

Vladimir Mironov on semiotics and postmodernism in a shrinking world.

In the modern world the field of global communications has an enormous influence on society. It has changed the way people interact with each other. Until relatively recently, interactions between cultures took place in ways which were relatively local (traders, soldiers and missionaries travelling slowly and expensively from place to place) or technically limited (such as sea-borne letters or chains of hilltop beacons). This meant that cultures changed very slowly, and most major changes were beyond the scope of a single life.

Such a conservative mechanism secured the stability of any local culture, while slowly adapting new components and gradually modifying the culture itself. This mechanism was based on two large components (upper and lower) which supplement each other. The traditions, preferences and ‘commonsense’ ethical standards of the majority are embodied in one part of the culture, often called ‘mass culture’. On the other hand, culture creates products that are far from standard stereotypes and concepts, and represent a unique cultural layer, sometimes called ‘high culture’ or ‘classical culture’. In principle it is far removed from everyday life. This idealized part of culture is stable, suspicious of change and has a secure, common base.

Thanks to that the culture becomes a dialogue in itself. Everything that belongs to the upper culture is seen as necessary for a truly educated person. Elements of ordinary life are regarded as being outside culture, sometimes even unworthy of it. The upper culture was always the culture of reticence and latency which did not allow discussion of some aspects of human life.

Another important feature of high culture is the principle of completeness. The higher culture is isolated and self-sufficient. Its creative processes are realized in completed works, be they the works of a musician, an architect or a philosopher, and in completed literary texts as opposed to the incomplete, strange and even improper texts of the ‘lower’ culture.

The completeness and sufficiency of a local culture was revealed in its opposition – sometimes vehement opposition – to other cultures. Every culture developed a certain ‘immunity’ to other cultures. That is why one of the central cultural oppositions was the opposition of ‘friendly-alien’, in which everything friendly (internal) to the culture was regarded as ‘mine’, i.e. genuine, and everything alien as a negation of ‘mine’ and consequently false.

Language is a basic element of culture, which is why a culture may be regarded as a semiotic system – that is, a system of signs. In this respect classical culture was a relatively isolated semiotic system. Accordingly, cultures were communicating with each other in a situation where the alien culture represented a coded system that needed interpretation. So acquiring knowledge of another culture required great efforts, which a person could gain by absorbing it into the whole system of the original culture, including everyday life. In this respect the dialogue between two cultures was realized in a special ‘communication field’, which Yuri Lotman (1922-1993) named the ‘semiosphere’. This semiosphere includes not only the languages but also the sociocultural contexts in which they function.

Within such a semiosphere the field of identity was relatively limited, but the field of non-identity was huge. In other words, only the smallest parts of the two cultures coincided, and the other parts required cultural interpretation and translation. The sphere of identity stands as a prerequisite for penetration into the sphere of non-identity, i.e. into that which is unknown to the penetrating culture and therefore non-trivial and interesting.

The Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries witnessed increasing processes breaking down the local character of cultures in ways never before seen in the history of human society. Nowadays we observe a global information field coming into being. The information processes are so powerful here that they influence traditional elements of culture, first of all the traditional system of communication. Communication itself is an independent power arising out of cultural dialogue. The cultures penetrate into each other. The semiosphere was concerned with the difference between cultures which was regarded as a condition for communication. Now, on the contrary, the modern communication field creates the rules and ways of communication itself, making cultures speak its language. As a result, a few languages become dominant due to political, scientific, technical and other conditions.

This modern integrative super-culture of global communications absorbs the variety of local cultures. We are able to understand any person in any place on the Earth – but only to the extent that their notions coincide with or are identical to our own. This is communication for the sake of communication, communication without absorbing differences. The sudden surge in what only superficially seems to be cultural information hastens the ruining of old values, and prevents new symbols and signs from adapting to the traditional sign system of values. This happens during one person’s lifetime or even faster. Old systems of values and traditions that have predominated for many centuries collapse, and new values contradict traditional ones to such an extent that their role in cultural formation is not always clear. As a result, the relationship between the ‘lower’ and ‘upper’ cultures is disrupted. The ‘lower’ culture becomes a popular one not only because of the number of the subjects involved but because of the simplified quality of the consumable products. ‘Pop culture’ as a modern version of mass culture is a typical product of the global information field. It exists under the condition of an integrated information sphere, realized through mass actions that we now regard as a simulation. In a certain way pop culture is a unified whole, in which a principle of simultaneous participation is realized and individual creative work does not prevail.

‘Show’ becomes a part of our everyday life, be it entertainment or politics. Many examples may be given to prove this. During the events of 1993, as people in Moscow gathered to await the bombardment of the White House [the Russian parliament building], the attack was postponed because the television cameramen hadn’t arrived yet. Endless so-called ‘reality shows’, contests and lotteries predominate on TV, and they are the same throughout the whole world. ‘Show’, a modern carnival, has come to our lives. As a result we live in a society where the carnival goes on permanently instead of lasting just one or two weeks.

Thus the natural balance between the upper and lower cultures is destroyed. Carnival penetrates into everyday life and has become an ever-present phenomenon that pushes aside non-carnival lifestyles. What is more, under these conditions the artifacts of the upper culture may be replicated so that they become the objects of mass consumption too. People have no time to absorb new values. Show penetrates even into science, where a layer of results adapted for mass perception appears. Nowadays there are pop-scientists with features typical of pop-stars. This results in an imitation of scientific work similar to the imitation of the performer on stage who lip-synches to a recording. Philosophy as a self-expression of culture is also affected by these processes.

The principle of completeness was typical of classical philosophy as well as of the whole culture that it expressed. It is not by chance that criticism of classical philosophy is first of all joined with criticism of the completed text, and the principle of completeness regarded as the end of thought.

Deconstructionism, as a method of analysis, has become popular in modern philosophy and is the basis of a critical attitude to classical philosophy. But as culture as a whole is based on the text, postmodernism is itself a general cultural viewpoint reflecting modern realities. As for philosophy, there is nothing new in the thesis put forward by postmodern philosophers. New elements appear very seldom in philosophy, if at all, but the form and styles of intellectual thinking experience great changes, reflecting the processes taking place in human culture and society (as described above). As rationalism in philosophy was once expressed as a system of statements interpreted by readers as a text created according to definite rules, now such a rational interpretation is called into question. But a serious thinker would hardly reduce everything to a narrow rational interpretation only.

Postmodernism is revealed in philosophy as a reaction to pure metaphysics and absolute rationalism, which makes us recollect that philosophy originated from literature and poetry, and we should take this into account. We cannot scientifically create philosophy in the image of other sciences. Existentialism changed our notion of value and of the emotional aspects of philosophy, and in postmodernism attention is paid to the self-expression of philosophy as an important aspect, the form of its self-expression creating and dominating reflexive thought structures.

It may sound strange, but perpetual efforts to ruin philosophy turn out to be not harmful but useful, as they cement philosophy’s structure, inoculating it and making it formulate new fundamental arguments justifying its existence. In this respect postmodernism and deconstructivism are, ironically, very constructive.

Postmodernism was fortunate to have such promotion in modern mass culture. New communicative systems such as the Internet turn out to be a full realization of its theoretical aspirations. The ‘death of the author’, the variety of textual interpretations, the structural disorder – all this already exists in the Internet. In the classical text the topic is given by the author and it is the author who has chosen the succession of events. But in hypertext an absolutely different plotline can be developed, or even several plotlines at once. Thus, we have not only another type of text but new opportunities for creation.

Postmodernism stresses the problem of philosophical interpretation, but this has always been discussed in philosophy. What is more important: mirror-like reproduction of Plato’s ideas, or interpretation of his texts and the addition of new philosophical meanings? These questions are not easy to answer, and they are eternal for philosophy.

Such promotion was necessary for postmodernism to protect itself in the academic sphere. Then it became almost invulnerable itself, just like a famous pop star. But popularity is also difficult, as it requires perpetual growth and the broadening of the sphere of influence. In other words, postmodernism now has to appeal to the mob. If it isn’t interesting, it will immediately be bypassed by other no less interesting philosophical theories. This has already happened, as ‘postmodernist classics’ appear and their books with fancy covers stand on the shelves in the libraries and bookstores, attempting to replace the works of Plato or Hegel.

Postmodernism has reflected the fragmentation happening in modern culture. It has become some sort of a signal, stimulating philosophical reflections capable of combining the traditional values of classical culture with the present. And the importance of philosophy in this process will only increase, as postmodernism is superseded by some newer cultural movement.

© Prof. V.V. Mironov 2006

Professor Vladimir V. Mironov is Chair of the Department of Ontology & Theory of Knowledge, and Dean of the Philosophy Faculty of Moscow State University.

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