Home > Academic, Editorial, Media, Philosophy > A review of Christian Hänggi’s ‘Hospitality in the age of media representation’

A review of Christian Hänggi’s ‘Hospitality in the age of media representation’

Christian Hänggi’s dissertation, ‘Hospitality in the age of media representation,’ puts forward an argument for society and culture to integrate a broad sense of economic, ecological, and social sustainability into the atoms and networks of our personal and interpersonal relations. This amounts to a radical transformation of our socio-political landscape, integrating Nietzsche’s concept of reflective withdrawal into the very act of everyday living. This is intended to open a space for life within the network of our social and economic interrelations. I take this to be a manifesto promoting an aesthetic life that is related to the theories on art and aesthetics of Martin Heidegger, and Friedrich Schiller, among others. Heidegger comments that every work of art constructs a world which “opens a space” for human beings: an opening that rests on the stable, enduring, “all-sheltering earth.” Through art we can experience the creative strife of world and earth. Art can be an investigation of strife.[1] This relates to Hänggi’s assertion that we must continuously seek balance as an activity in order to render a life that is sustainable.

Hänggi finds this necessary after reviewing the fabric and function of contemporary communication, focusing on the role of advertising as cause and effect of the primacy of market economy over the public, private, and political spheres. The pre-eminence of this economic sphere is founded upon the driving ideal for productivity, usually measured in terms of the fundamentally abstract unit of currency. This results in a linear approach, compelling the producer, and the citizen-consumer to grasp for ‘more’, as defined by the central value of productivity. Hänggi states that this central principal can and does cannibalize itself, but also ignores or leaves unspoken certain values and costs that would endanger its core principals, such as the environmental costs of production or the impact of media-saturation on human contemplation and interrelations. Commercial communication, in effect, articulates and sustains a specific relation of power that shapes our society privileging the market economy above all else.

We are implicitly and explicitly told by our media-saturated society, that the drive to ever-increasing productivity is a necessary fate of humanity – progress[2] – and that it is based on a rational-positivistic schema, so, veiling itself in the authority of science. There is no other path a thinking person would take. Opposition, alteration, or rupture with it is to turn one’s back on universal (Western) rules of virtue.

“Modernism can be defined in Goethean terms as a continuous process of accumulation of self, in the form of wealth, knowledge, experience. It is a dangerous state where in order to survive the person must be in constant movement. It is an identity without fixed content other than the capacity to develop itself, movement and growth as a principle of selfhood.”[3]

Our modes of production, including the message and medium of communication, are significantly managed by conglomeration of persons in the form of limited companies or corporations. Hänggi details the difference between the legal person, a corporate body composed of numerous interchangeable individuals, and the natural person who is a singularity embodied in the individual human animal. He observes that the legal person, or corporation, is by its very nature limited in the degree of responsibility it can take for any given situation. Responsibility is divided between the multiple individuals that manage it. Responsibility, however, is diluted by division as it is broken into parts and distributed between many, thus lacking a singular focus. Responsibility cannot be transferred from the legal person and multiplied between the natural persons that constitute it; it can only be broken up and in this way diluted.

The legal person, with its numerous interchangeable natural persons, cannot form an I-Thou relationship with individuals, this requires an encounter, something a multitudinous body is incapable of. “The encounter enables us to turn an It, i.e. the thing-world, that which is latent and waiting to be embosomed by us, into a Thou.”[4]

Let us turn to Slavoj Zizek to understand the natural person’s relation to the legal person. In reading Zizek’s Ideology I: No Man is an Island we can understand that in some respects the subject can only exist as an answer to the enigma of the Other’s desire: “The subject’s symbolic identity is always historically determined, dependent upon a specific ideological constellation.”[5] The overbearing presence of commercial communication, carrying advertising that increasingly penetrates our personal barriers, mediates the relationship between the legal and natural persons. This communication, then, helps to establish or reproduce I under social determination dominated by commercial interest. This situation imposes a specific “[…] dialectic that will henceforth link the I to the socially elaborated situation.”[6]

Hänggi clarifies the notion of relationship as something that is not restricted as existing only between humans. Humans can enter an I-It relationship with a brand: “a thing part of their world, who define themselves by the relationship with their objects.”[7] “If people, especially young people in the Western hemisphere, today know thousands of brand names but not even twenty wildflowers, it is a sign of a shift in the perception of our environment.”[8]

Manuel DeLanda has, during a number of lectures at the European Graduate School, discussed that our environment affords us certain risks and certain possibilities, thus guiding our thoughts and behaviours in accordance to this material or virtual landscape. I take this to include our mental environments, articulated by as well as formed by our expanding mediums of communication. Guy Debord warns of the effects on society of the use of modern communications: “What binds the spectators together is no more than an irreversible relation at the very centre which maintains their isolation. The spectacle reunites the separate, but reunites it as separate.”[9] This relationship, mediated by commercial communication in general, and advertising specifically, does not permit an I-Thou relationship, it maintains an I-It relationship that is “nothing other than the sense of total practice of a social economic formation, its use of time. It is the historical movement in which we are caught.”[10]

Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt effectively elaborate on Guy Debord’s critique, that the society of spectacle is:

“[…] an integrated and diffuse apparatus of images and ideas that produces and regulates public discourse and opinion. In the society of spectacle, what was once imagined as the public sphere, the open terrain of political exchange and participation, completely evaporates. The spectacle destroys any collective form of sociability – individualizing social actors in their separate automobiles and in front of separate video screens – and at the same time imposes a new mass sociability, a new uniformity of action and thought.”[11]

Advertising in inherently asymmetrical. Hänggi writes that it sends a message to the spectator but provides no means for a direct response, no avenue for dialogue. No matter its content, the question is always that of will you, as spectator, consume the product? Furthermore, it is not directed at any singular person, but rather to an interchangeable category of consumers, though it is often in the guise of a Doppelganger requesting entry into the private material space (home), or virtual space (mind) of the spectator, thus requesting they provide the hospitality of a host receiving a guest. As it waits on the threshold of the host’s dwelling, its content/question always demands the same binary answer, inscribed within it: buy/don’t buy. This condition of the asymmetric relationship, privileging the sender/producer, means that commercial communication reinforces the hierarchical position of the dominant social order. The “offer swallows up the demand… the question assimilates the answer, or absorbs and regulates it in a decidable form, or invents and anticipates it in a predictable form.”[12]

This spectacle of images and information is intended to produce a material response from a consumer, and is stripped to its bare essentials. The mental environment created by advertising affords limited opportunities for a creative response. Essentially, “it robs us of our ability to shape our environment.”[13]

The relationship between the sender/distributor of advertising and the socio-symbolic order by which we judge ourselves is so intertwined, and in many respects synonymous, that the right of the advertiser to ‘free speech’ lubricated by the pre-eminence of economies of scale with respect to the citizen-consumer is seen as the dominant or only or uncontested form of communication. Other possibilities for communication become difficult to imagine. Therefore, commercial communication is implicated as the neutral medium of speech and communication. There is a threat here that this form of communication becomes “[…] the universal-neutral medium of recognizing other’s identifies.”[14] Also, this situation tends to lead to “three maledications […]:1. You will lack every time you desire; 2. You will only hope for discharges; 3. You will pursue the impossible jouissance [enjoyment].”[15]

Sources/Notes:

[1] Heidegger, Martin. “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Continental Aesthetics: Romanticism to Postmodernism (MA, USA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), pp. 181-211.

[2] George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is one of the first to unify modernity in a linear narrative of ‘progress,’ as is evident in his lectures on the Philosophy of History.

[3] Friedman, Jonathon. “Cultural Logics of the Global System: A Sketch,” Theory, Culture and Society, 5: 2-3 (June 1988), p. 448. Quote first found in Ali Mirsepassi’s book, “Intellectual Discourse and the Politics of Modernization: Negotiating Modernity in Iran.”

[4] Hänggi, Christian. “Hospitality in the age of media representation,” (12 July 2007), p. 57.

[5] Zizek, Slavoj. “Ideology I: No Man is an Island,” lacan.com.

[6] Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.”

[7] Hänggi, p. 57.

[8] Ibid., p. 74.

[9] Debord, Guy. “Society of Spectacle,” (1967) section 29.

[10] Ibid., section 11.

[11] Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio. “Empire,” (USA: First Harvard University Press paperback edition, 2001).

[12] Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulations,” Continental Aesthetics: Romanticism to Postmodernism (MA, USA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), p. 419.

[13] Hänggi, p. 28.

[14] Zizek, Slavoj. “Smashing the Neighbor’s Face,” lacan.com.

[15] Deleuze, Gilles. “Dualism, Monism, Multiplicities.”

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  1. Michael
    October 17, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    Just stumbled across this blog and this particular post. Really wonderful review-cum-disection of our current lover’s quarrel with mass media, and the way this ubiquitous media is shaping and defining the message of ourselves. What was once roads through a landscape has become the landscape itself, and the idea of what it means to be human and what it means to think as a human is being undermined as a result. To wit, fewer and fewer people are donating to and/or visiting museums of art (which would make a fascinating dissertation in itself) and as a result, many are severely underfunded and many others are closing their doors (see http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2009/10/claremont-museum-of-art-is-about-to-close-its-doors.html as an example of one the latest casualties). There are others (http://www.lasvegassun.com/news/2009/feb/20/economy-leads-closing-las-vegas-art-museum/)

    Sure, the economy is to blame, but perhaps the greater threat is our increasing inability as a species to understand and appreciate aesthetic value. If there isn’t either a pragmatic component (what can I *get* out of this?) or a salacious one (oh my god, look at that!), we don’t know what to do. We no longer know how to pay attention.

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