4’33” at the Edge of Intelligibility

According to Michel Foucault, every episteme—that is, every historically distinct discursive formation—can be characterized by a principle of communicative scarcity that guarantees the formation’s intelligible integrity: “on the basis of the grammar and of the wealth of vocabulary available at a given period, there are, in absolute, relatively few things that are said” (Foucault 2010, 119). This scarcity, as Foucault argued, is neither established by outright censorship (by the state, the church or other vested interests), nor by ‘internal exile’ of authors, by the magic of spin doctors, or by other mechanisms of silence. Rather, the historically distinct principle of communicative scarcity is situated at the margin of speech, governing what each age rules to be meaningful, and what it does not. It designates the value of statements, a “value that is not defined by their truth … but which characterizes their place, their capacity for circulation and exchange, their possibility of transformation” (ibid, 120).

I argue that the contemporary principle of communicative scarcity is, paradoxically, an abundance of speech. By this, I do not mean simply to endorse the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s concurrence/dissent in McConnell v. FEC (later invoked by Justice Anthony Kennedy in Citizens United v. FEC) that “there is no such thing as too much speech” (540 U.S. 93, 14 [2003]). As has been noted by many commentators, Justice Scalia’s perspective argues against the imposition of governmental censorship, and thus serves to strengthen privileged speech at the expense of its marginalized counterparts (Hasen 2010; Batchis 2012). His adherence to the long-standing tradition of Supreme Court arguments “interpret[ing] the First Amendment in a rigid, literal manner” (Hill 1994, 6)—that is, with a pure and classical focus on defending speakers against government censorship—also neglects to note that the defining feature of contemporary speech is its abundant proliferation rather than an artificially imposed scarcity through censorship (Foucault 1990).

Thus, following Foucault’s caution against putting too much weight on classical gestures of censorship, one can nevertheless identify in current discourse a seam of silence that governs its intelligibility. The contemporary abundance of speech has the paradoxical result that each individual message’s informational value tends towards zero. This follows from the classical definition of information as a coefficient measuring what can be called a surprise effect. Independent of the content of a statement,1 when “the actual message is one selected from a set of possible messages” that the receiver had been expecting, the receipt of this particular content produces information by excluding all other anticipated or possible statements. Thus, given a finite number x of anticipated possible messages, a corresponding number y=1/x “can be regarded as a measure of the information produced when one message is chosen from the set, all choices being equally likely” (Shannon 1948, 379).

It follows that the informational value of each statement is higher the less the receiving party expected this particular content, if their anticipated likelihood is differentiated. Furthermore, each message’s value is lower when the number of equally likely statements is higher. Under both assumptions, knowledge gained per communicative act asymptotically converges to zero as the absolute number of messages goes up: the likelihood of encountering genuinely new information diminishes as the total number of available—and hence possible—messages increases (Shannon 1948, 392-399).

The well-known Internet phenomenon of ‘information cocoons,’ “communication universes in which we hear only what we choose and what comforts and pleases us” (Sunstein 2006, 9), is thus not just due to selection mechanisms, such as personal preference reflected in social media and search engine algorithms. In a saturated environment, all messages are always already anticipated and expected within the given discursive networks designed to label, relegate and discredit them: ‘liberal slander,’ ‘main stream media,’ conspiracy theory. Speech is not scarce in today’s environment of abundant communication, but information is, as the vast majority of all messages are already anticipated. The tendency toward increasingly vulgar echo-chamber politics, therefore, has nothing at all to do with diminishing intelligence or a breakdown of cultural values under liberal assault, as some have argued, nor with the conservative assault on higher and elementary and secondary education, as others maintain (Bernal 1997, 22-26). Instead, the effects of informational abundance operate as simple mathematical coefficients prior to psychosocial or groupthink mechanisms (Sunstein 2006, 45-74).

Yet how is abundance a principle of scarcity governing social intelligibility in general? To be sure, an individual may have less access and understanding to specific messages, yet does not the totality of contemporary discourse expand ever further? I argue that the dynamic of increasing communication and thus of decreasing informational content per communicative act operates as a principle of regulative scarcity in three ways: by the psychology of information overload, in so-called absolute events and through the proliferation of what Jean-Francois Lyotard (1988) has called differends; communicative acts whose ethical or political efficacy is made impossible by their very condition of possibility. I address each of these contentions in turn.

1. In the age of generalized communication and diminishing information, the latter becomes a scarce commodity. Thus, commercial and technical differentiations in the difficulty of access to specific useful messages—selected out of the stochastic noise of abundant communication—is the first result of the contemporary principle of informational scarcity. In some cases, this effect stems from differentiated access to communications technology. It should not be forgotten, but is all too frequently, that access to the Internet is still not universal and, under current economic and social configurations, is not likely to become so any time soon (Raymond 2013). According to World Bank data, the percentage of U.S. citizens using the Internet on any host, with any device, and from any location in 2014 was 87.6 percent of the overall population, while such countries as Bolivia (39 percent), Afghanistan (6.4 percent), and the Central African Republic (4 percent) lag far behind (World Bank 2016). This Internet access challenge also excludes the blind, the illiterate and to a lesser extent, the dyslexic and those whose cognitive preference is auditory or tactile rather than visual. Moreover, the majority of its text is written in the English language (54 per cent of the Web’s top ten million websites, as of April 2016), followed by Russian (6.4 per cent), German (5.6 per cent), and Japanese (5.1 per cent). It furthermore uses the Latin Alphabet and employs Arabic numerals in more than two thirds of the top ten million websites as of April 2016 (W3 Technology Survey 2016). As a result, the Internet is more difficult to access for those for whom these three elements are foreign. Other forms of entry restriction concern selective capacity to review specific economic and particularly financial data, such as the Bloomberg terminals, whose superior latency guarantees its users faster access to market information—fractions of a second may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to those who have superior ability to parse particular data (Philips 2012; Troianovsky 2012).

Even when entry to the Internet’s information is available, however, economies of scarcity result from its abundance on a psychological level: “We are … in a situation of information glut, of an excess, an overload, of information,” where an “imbalance between the supply and demand of attention lies at the root of the panic-depressive syndrome called infostress” (Marazzi 2008, 65). What is scarce here is not messages or communication, but the ability to obtain specific information. One direct effect of communicative abundance of endless streams of messages is scarcity of meaning for the person receiving it.

2. If the individual informational value per message decreases with the total number of communicative acts, it asymptotically approaches zero as the latter number approaches infinity. That is, the vast majority of all messages are already anticipated in the daily maelstrom of statements. By the same token, genuinely new content whose informational value is sufficient to break through the wall of existing noise must be ever more disruptive. Thus, the excessive overall number of communicative acts today results in the escalating importance of watershed events in the so-called ‘real world’ (as opposed to the realm of electronic transmissions). Since such defining events do not increase in frequency, while messages do, the former’s informational value approaches infinity as that of individual messages within abundant communication approaches zero. The principle of scarcity at work here results from the distinction between the already anticipated totality of communicative events (individual messages), whose informational value approaches zero, and what Jean Baudrillard has called ‘absolute events’: “the pure event” by which “[t]he whole play of history and power is disrupted, … [and] so, too, are the conditions of analysis” (Baudrillard 2002, 4). Absolute events are not anticipated, which means that their informational value increases rather than decreases with the total number of circulating messages.

Moreover, absolute events change the boundaries of possible or permissible speech by restructuring the principle of scarcity regulating contemporary intelligibility. According to Baudrillard, the events of September 11, 2001, constituted an absolute event that changed the boundaries of permissible speech: “When global power monopolizes the situation, … when there is such a formidable condensation of all functions in the technocratic machinery, and when no alternative form of thinking is allowed, what other way is there but a terroristic situational transfer?” (Baudrillard 2002, 8-9). In this particular example, the events subsequently known as ‘9/11′ disrupted the post-Cold War complacency of American capitalism, ushering in an era of ever-increasing uncertainty in the West: concerning its military strength, its socio-economic attractiveness and ultimately even its core values.

The absolute event is predicated upon the disruption of its own condition of possibility: the twofold principle of scarcity of informational value arising from the abundance of communication in general. On the one hand, it can only become an absolute event because the contemporary profusion of messages results in a scarcity of information. On the other hand, the absolute event structures the realm of possible speech after it occurs, by introducing a new principle of scarcity. One such absolute event was the attacks of September 11, 2001. One can assume that the fall of the Berlin Wall was also an example. The Gulf War, as Baudrillard has famously argued, was not an absolute event, or even, strictly speaking, an event at all (Baudrillard 1995). Likewise, one could argue that neither the long-anticipated outbreak of World War I, nor the dreaded, yet equally certain, outbreak of World War II were absolute events.2 Neither a Trump nor a Sanders presidency, by this measure, would be an absolute event, although either of them could give rise to one.

3. The distinction between absolute events and their anticipated counterparts within communicative plenty has led to a third dimension of contemporary informational scarcity: the proliferation of differends. Here, as in the previous cases, communicative overload has generated a situation in which the content of individual statements is negated by their own conditions of emergence. For the victims the Gulf War claimed on both sides, there is no difference in their suffering from that experienced by those who were injured or lost in the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the subsequent War on Terror. In both cases, the regulative principle of communicative scarcity is the absolute silence of death (Butler 2009). Yet, in the circulation of abundant communication—permanent 24/7/365 TV and Internet coverage—the Gulf War has long since receded to a phantasmagoric quasi-presence. The American victims of September 11, 2001, on the other hand—but not their counterparts slain in the War on Terror—are memorialized in the pomp and circumstance of pools reflecting, if anything at all, the unquestioned legitimacy bestowed upon the U.S. security apparatus and us-versus-them discourse concerning the absolute event of 9/11 (Debrix 2008, 99-117).

The suffering of the victims of forgotten wars, as well as the casualties of U.S. drone strikes and invasions into Iraq and Afghanistan, has been relegated to the status of a differend. In this case, a “plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim” because the “’regulation’ of the conflict between [the two parties] is done in the idiom of one of the parties while the wrong suffered by the other is not signified in that idiom” (Lyotard 1988, 9). Any attempt to raise the specter of the forgotten dead—the fatalities arising from U.S. drone strikes or those of the Gulf War—drowns in the absence of informational value arising from an overload of total communication.3 Even if heard, however, it is received as speech meaningful only in the idiom of the security apparatus’s self-righteousness, equating the victims of drone airstrikes with those who died in the September 11, 2001 attacks. This principle of scarcity applies not only to war dead, but also operates among the living and the physically and mentally wounded. Numerous analysts have observed that the survivors of domestic violence and rape face a differend, where the condition of possibility of their speech acts rests on grounds that frequently make their successful communication impossible (Lyotard 1988, 13; Menaker and Cramer 2012). Survivors of police brutality likewise face such conditions. They often, if not always, face an institutional wall of silence, and that condition—a differend—arises from the doubly insufficient grounds of their speech: the justice system violating them is the same legal system tasked with restoring them and the political system responsible for hearing them is the same regime silencing them (Human Rights Watch 1998).

The differend relegating the lives of Sandra Bland and Eric Garner, for example,4 to the communicative overload between #Blacklivesmatter and #Alllivesmatter is thus neither deliberate policy, nor censorship, but an effect of communicative abundance. Likewise, the relegation of speech by survivors of rape and domestic violence to what platforms such as 4Chan, Reddit, and Tumblr derisively call Social Justice Warrior (SJW) speech, is a media effect.5 It results from the power of abundant communication to discredit. Since the vast majority of all possible speech is anticipated in the generalized economy of communicative abundance, and if it is not directly anticipated, its argumentative validity rests on grounds that are already discredited, this situation gives the opponents of any speaker ample platforms and time to retaliatefor example, by declaring a rape survivor or advocate a mere SJW. Moreover, in the context of informational overload, conditions such as infostress also serve to make all messages equally (in)credible. Finally, this situation also results in each message becoming an event in itself (DeLillo 2006, 195-196). A tweet is enough for a news cycle, and anybody can be a celebrity, merely for being well known. For the survivor, the victim, the claimant, the speaker, all of these conditions constitute differends, doing irreparable harm to these individuals’ social standing, quality of life and identity (Chivers-Wilson 2006). Such differends and their numerous offshoots and variations, pervade contemporary speech. Their abundance is the regulative principle of contemporary discursive scarcity.

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Notes

1. It is noteworthy, as N. Katherine Hayles (1999, pp. 51-57) has pointed out, that there were actually two formative definitions of information proposed at the Macy conference in 1957, and one of them (Donald MacKay’s definition) is content-based rather than predicated upon surprise value. However, Shannon’s mathematically computable definition has prevailed in the relevant discussions, and is assumed here, too.

2. This leaves open the question whether the Weimar Republic and its saturation with the Volksempfänger airwaves, cinema imagery, and Extrablätter coverage was similar to contemporary conditions of 24/7/365 TV coverage, Flashmobs, Flamewars, and Fappenings, and targeted advertising, for the World War distinction to be meaningful in the context of this discussion.

3. That is, if it is not censored outright, as Apple did in 2015 when the company rejected the integration of two apps, named Metadata+ and Ephemeral+ into its store, both of which show details on the targets and victims of U.S. drone strikes (Dredge, 2015).

4. Sandra Bland, 28, was an African-American administrative assistant who died in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, in July 2015. Though officially ruled a suicide, the circumstances of Bland’s arrest and detention have raised public suspicion concerning whether her death was a suicide. This suspicion arose particularly because her death seemed to be part of an ongoing series of racially motivated incidents of police overreach and violence. Almost exactly a year earlier, Eric Garner, 44, an African-American former horticulturist, had died in a chokehold while being searched by New York City police. His death highlighted issues of racist police brutality and is often seen, along with the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, as a seminal event sparking the Black Lives Matter movement and its Internet offshoot, #Blacklivesmatter.

5. “Social Justice Warrior. A pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.” (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=SJW), accessed March 27, 2016.

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Engel picSascha Engel teaches in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech, where he received his PhD in the ASPECT program in 2016. Sascha holds an M.A. in Political Theory from the Goethe University Frankfurt (Germany) and Darmstadt University of Technology (Germany). He has published in the Journal of Economic Issues and New Perspectives.  Sascha’s research focuses on financial and institutional economics, sovereign debt and international financial governance.

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