"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."
— Marcel Proust, 1871-1922
Our attempts at talking sensibly about political consumption have lead us through a motley of academic and semantic woe. We have tried to find ways to clarify this concept, but in trying, we inadvertently and inescapably created only a new and more sophisticated academic potpourri of conceptual jumble. Near the denouement of the course, the eager young minds in class had turned into Doubting Thomases that question the very nature of the concept of concept; its ability to stretch and travel either paralyzes us or smudges it into omnipresence. Proof of this was displayed in the final discussion session, December 8th: the—few active though representative—discussants exhibited obvious trouble to maintain an agreeable interpretation of the concepts of action and influence (noun and verb!).
In this seeking in, what Proust calls, new landscapes, we misguide ourselves towards increased knowledge. We are in fact not pursuing a noble cause, or superior telos. Au contraire: we increase difficulty in defining the very ground we stand on by formulating ways of interpretation. This postmodernist legacy (the denial of epistemological rock-bottom) doesn't clarify an iota of what political consumption is all about. It only adds to confusion in scattering and fragmentation of multilayered scientific disarray. Instead, let us try and look at political consumption not as a new conceptual landscape, but let us adapt a different view. We must shed that ambiguous postmodern skin that only manufactures academic dissent, but me mustn't step into the trepid trap of modernity either. Let it be clear that I'm not in favor of the modernist take: I, too, am disgusted by the supposition of ‘something’ that embodies the nucleus of noesis. In fact, I’m disgusted by any supposition concerning epistemological gain. However, I'm afraid that's hardly tenable in any fashion of cognitive activity, but that's another bottomless tarpit of despondency I rather refrain from plunging into at this moment. Still, suppositions should be reduced to the minimum amount. This includes the ambiguity created by the overabundance of concepts and, moreover, their interpretation.
Since a rigid and universal interpretation of any concept (abstractions like politics in particular) seems an impossibility, the arbitrary composition of taxonomical schemata must be abandoned for the sake of fruitful and conceivable scientific grounding. An alternative to this could be found in contemporary information technology. The organizational structure of information and knowledge as it is imagined by adherents of the philosophy of Web 2.0 offers a serious alternative that could rule out the festering of contemporary conceptual ambiguity: tag clouds. (Of course, such a thorough revision of the scientific method is as utopian as the intended effort at (continuous) clarification of terms and their offspring, but upholding obsolescent paradigms only amplifies the forthcoming rude awakening.) Tag clouds are not regarded as a formal classification system (due to our modern scientific paradigm), but could prove very effective in structuring our reality. Much like observation has lead preceding scientists—Linneaus in particular—to the composition of hierarchical taxonomies of species, this same observation and evaluation of instances of empirical data in the ontological structure of reality applies to the act of tagging by (post-)modern participants in the maelstrom of contemporary memes. Modern society is an overfed horizontal gathering of empirical data, available to a large part of the world population. The democratization of information has turned ‘reality’ into a topic of subjective inquiry, allowing a multitude of instances of empirical data to suffer from conceptual exhaustion. Since this movement is a typical trait of our time, we must move our focus from the untenable taxonomical structuring of the here and now to the shifting of paradigm (as Thomas Kuhn put it) that is at hand. That paradigm is the one of democracy (I will not try and define that concept through its own method for clarity’s sake), and it allows the people to structure the people’s reality.
To illustrate this, think of an apple. One has easily created a mental image of an apple. But what does this image consist of? What does it encompass? I don’t think anyone will object if I say that this image is composed of a shape and a color. The trouble begins at defining these Wittgensteinian objects. How to describe the shape of an apple? One can say it is round, but the stricter approach would point out that that is a flawed assumption, since there are flaws in every apple’s roundness (I am aware of my own supposition here). Secondly, there’s the color. What colors are apples? They can be green, yellow and red, and, if rotten, brown or a lot of other different colors (not considering the transgression of blossom into apple, which is a conceptual debate in itself). So the very definition of the objects (composing the state of affairs) composing the fact that is an apple can not be successful, unless more than one definition of the objects (and state of affairs) is allowed. But that would imply a sliding scale of relative and gradual values. An apple can thus be described as lumpy and yellow, a description that applies to the mental image of a lemon aswell. Description of an apple, and with that its taxonomical classification, is flawed as a result of our very own flawed (and incomplete) perception. We can only compose contemporary schemes to fit our contemporary input-data. As soon as something out of the ordinary appears—and our induction proves to be faulty as new data is gathered—we are helpless castaways in the “sea of naivité” Sartori refers to.
Then there is the subjective interpretation that might clarify things, like the taste of an apple. This, however, requires a personal—subjective—judgement known as a quale (I’m aware of the fact that color also requires this, as “redness” is a quale if there ever was one, but I should try and keep this text somewhat accessible). Hence, the scientific value of subjective definition of mental images does not add to the classical paradigm of conceptual structure of today. Classifying apples in the old-fashioned way is a tough job and can only be done in a relative scheme, as compared with other instances of empirical data, or facts, like lemons, eggs, tables or clouds. We know what an apple is because we know what it is not. We can only define one by opposing it to the other. This is not based on qualia alone, since it doesn’t necessarily interpret features in terms of “redness” or “roundness,” but it does make a difference between “redness” and “blueness,” regardless of the terms used. The general idea stays in sync with the popular conception of apple.
Scientific deepening of the facts we call apple—attempts at fathoming the objects and grounding the apple in firm, absolute scientific soil—merely obfuscates the notion of apple as it is observed by the people. Forcing apple into taxonomical hierarchy to please the human quest for sense and structure in reality reduces apple to a relative component of the system of empirical data that is in fragile balance, since it is based on human perception alone. Assuming apple is just its scientific definition in this hierarchy of sub-concepts proves a problem as soon as the nashipear enters the equation: it has all empirical features of an apple, but it’s not. I’m not saying we should improve the paradigm we’re upholding now. Instead, we should allow scientific knowledge to come down from its pedestal and merge with the democracy of information, to become incorporated into empirical reality again and prevent it from getting lost in the abstract structuring of structure.
Democratization of knowledge should contribute to a more apprehendible quasi-definition of concepts, putting the apple back in an all-encompassing tag cloud called reality. Reality is hypertext: flat, referential and interactive. Our current paradigm has us waver between postmodern subjectivism and modern structuralism. That is why political participation is impossible to define. As Sartori puts it, the world is over-politicizing, as globalization and individualization expand the political sphere to inconceivable size. (And consuming is what we do as atomized societies.) Thus, we have to study everything “potentially political” (and consumptive) to try and practice political science (and define political consumption), shifting the focus to the periphery and the input-side, inherently meaning loss of all focus. This omnipresence of politics in—not only—science ultimately leads to the disappearance of politics: its fading into obscurity.
So what is politics then, if we try to contract the political sphere back to its core? The concept of politics is obsolete: there is nothing that could define anything as non-political, unless intention and motivation are measured aswell. Unfortunately, that is far from attainable in our current scientific spectrum. It would reduce every unit of research into a tag cloud of its own, obfuscating scientific view on ontology. That’s way science needs the proverbial set of new eyes, not new scenery. Terms should be rejected in favor of common sense (a ‘dirty word’ that defies definition, and that’s why it’s so very appropriate for the new science!). We can go around Hume’s problem of induction by rejecting the Wittgensteinian notion of logical space and facts. Why hold on to this view on reality and truth if the author himself abandoned it in favor of an intuitionistic approach: the very new paradigm I take a stand for. Let reality be as ill-defined as it deserves to be, without having us, meager human species with limited cognitive capacity, trying to force it into synthetic human structures. Let reality impose its autopoietic structure upon us, and let us cease our feeble quest for knowledge. We are failing anyway, only obfuscating our own modern theoretical foundations with postmodern tools.
Concepts are leaking into vast spaces of indeterminacy and ambiguity, being both nowhere and everywhere, undermining their own existence. They change continuously (stretching and travelling), from being defined as abstractions of empirical data to being applied to that very same empirical reality, thereby allowing science to manipulate (paralyze and obfuscate) its own results. Rigid separation and definition of concepts is inherently counternatural and forces science in a passive status quo. Drawing a line to separate action from intention can only be done arbitrarily and requires consensus. Is that science: intersubjective verification and agreement? How can anything sensible be said about concepts if their meaning is to be defined by those discussing it? It doesn’t broaden scientific knowledge but contaminates it with selective subjectivity. If we want to go the subjective way, then go the full nine yards and don’t try and seek a compromise between the two. This is what smudges concepts. Our individualism tears the threads of absolutist modern epistemological rock-bottom. Eventually, our scientific patriarchs, uomini universale as Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo Buonarotti, have created the conditions to allow popular subjectivism back into the scientific scheme. But their knowledge doesn’t apply to our world anymore. We simply can not “stand on the shoulders of giants” because at our altitude, we need other means of analysis of empirical data. We are being misguided by these giants’ insights, because they are defect or flawed. Concepts, the general ideas, change continuously, thereby making it more and more difficult for us to correctly describe and explain the world around us (a critical task of science). Since regressing to absolutist times is firmly disabled by individualism and self-oriented improvement, the only way is up, embracing subjectivism and turning it into the new paradigm, creating unity out of scattering. This way, we set scientific dialectics in motion, setting sail to terra incognita. Discovery through a new set of eyes.
There is no way of escaping the concept of political consumption in an era that is dominated by both. The only thing shakeable is the concept itself. Since the concept seems to cover everyone participating in modern society, that is the thing we should reject.