Ayn Rand mentioned Wittgenstein's work

Cologne Congress 2019The Benefits of Public

The core of the public, political space is the dialogue among friends, fleeting and invisible. This is how Hannah Arendt put it, who was also Richard Sennett's teacher. Indeed, it is striking how the social philosopher's thinking revolves around atmosphere, handling, material and design in our cities. And how he bases his decades of advocacy for ethics and construction, the value and preservation of the productive public on qualities and dynamics that are seemingly difficult to grasp.

Careful interaction among citizens

On the character and attitude of the city dwellers and the cooperation with one another, for example. Or the urban creation of opportunities for non-function-driven, accidental exchanges and prudent interaction among citizens who create a productive, active public in the first place. Sennett combines his socio-philosophical thinking with the unshakable conviction that art in public space can have a civilizing effect. "Theatrum Mundi" is the name of an international research and action project that he initiated.

How we build our world

In an interview at the Cologne Congress 2019, the journalist and curator Gaby Hartel and the journalist Maja Ellmenreich will discuss with Richard Sennett how we can build and live our world beyond sterile urban residential and consumer parks or group-centered interest bubbles - and also which role can be new Media and old radio play as fleeting, invisible, curated spaces in this context.

Richard Sennett, born in Chicago in 1943, teaches sociology and history at New York University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. His main areas of research are cities, work and cultural sociology. Among other things, he is the author of "The flexible person". "The Open City" is the third part of his homo-Faber trilogy after "Cooperation" (2012) and "Handwerk" (2008).



Richard Sennett: Please excuse me for speaking to you in English - my German is very bad - but I will speak slowly. I think that I could open our conversation with one or two thoughts on digital forms of communication, as they appear to me, because digital forms of communication influence public space. As a foretaste of this, I would like to point out to you that a tool, a tool, will be created before people know how to use it. This has been the case across the history of technology. It was already so in the case of a very simple tool, the sharp steel scalpel, a knife with a sharp cutting edge made of hardened steel, which was developed in the 15th century and initially used by barbers, who often injured their customers in the process.

Thinking about the use of instruments

It took about 80 years for surgeons, who often also worked as barbers, to learn to hold this sharp instrument securely in their hands. The same problem with an instrument that pops up before you know how to use it is in the case of antibiotics, which were initially prescribed for everything. The doctors of the 1950s saw antibiotics as an all-purpose instrument. From my point of view, this also applies to digital communication. We have an instrument on hand to use before we know how to use it. I'll explain to you why I think it is.

The digital revolution replaced the primacy of the acoustic with the primacy of the visual, which means that the exhaustion of this instrument takes place entirely in the field of the visual, not the acoustic. It is true that in the field of music we can now make digital recordings that are technically very advanced, on the other hand, many qualities that are inherent in analog sound are lost. But, if you will, the money that was behind the digital revolution was not spent on questions like this.

"To fabricate a picture of needs"

I believe that this transfer from the audible to the visible, i.e. this focus on creating images, enables a kind of tapping into people - data mining - which is directly related to the growth of predominantly digital monopoly positions. Let me put it this way: If the new tool had been used to use the acoustic, we would not have Google today, we would not have Amazon, because the latter rely on the creation of digital images as tools, or, as in the case of Instagram to evaluate images in order to then access the data of the users. Against this background, it seems to me that the shift from the focus of the acoustic to the visual is closely linked to the rise of a new form of monopoly capitalism.

The second point I wanted to bring up is that this shift to the primacy of the image, the window, the box, the graphic, the data mining, which is not interested in the life story of a person, but rather in it, in the blink of an eye to fabricate a picture of wants and needs. This image-generating function is a shift in relation to the way in which communication takes place in public space. A shift from the dialogical to the statement, to the declarative. That is, every type of narration contains a story, is strongly embedded in a context, has to do with what was before and what will come afterwards. I think that the acoustic always creates a contextual relationship in time, but the image can be shown in a way that absolutely only refers to itself.

Abuse in the economic field

I don't know how many of you have ever tried the experiment of having seven or eight windows open at the same time - I myself do it again and again. I've tried to work like this and I really like it ... even the continuous windows that are still open from other programs are completely nonsensical because you immediately focus on only one single one that has nothing to do with the others. And so you can click through from one image that just exclaims something to the next and think that you have reached a turning point that has nothing to do with a loss of meaning. But you only experience a series of images that announce something, announce something, instead of a dialogical process in which the images come into conversation with one another. For me this is an abuse and this abuse in the economic realm has given rise to a new form of tyranny.

In this context, in my opinion, it would be best to think back to the world of sounds and see how we apply it to the digital and thus find better forms of application for this tool. I think that is doable. However, we must first undo the first form of application developed by us and also distance ourselves from excessive use within this shift from the acoustic to the visual reality. Anyway, I hope we have some things to talk about now.

Reclaim the acoustic environment of the city

Maja Ellmenreich: If you put everything you just said together, what are your conclusions? So when you talk about the priority of the visual over the acoustic - do you pick up the phone rather than write an email?

Sennett: Well, while you're asking me how I feel about it personally, I have a research group called "Theatrum Mundi" that can be found online so you can see what we're doing online. And one of our bigger projects is called "Sonic City". It consists in recovering the sounds of the city and making them audible to the public. In addition, we are researching how we can use digital recording technology to make people aware of what they hear in the cities again. Of course, this is not a comprehensive solution to the problem I was discussing, but there are quite a number of environmental and life noises that fall victim to the aforementioned shift. We are developing a range of tools for young students and teenagers in order to give them the opportunity to recapture the acoustic environment of the city, to hear what it actually sounds like. A basic idea is that silence is a form of repression.

Gaby Hartel: It's good that you are doing this! There were many other things that went through my head while you were speaking ... But what I would like to start with is this: When we first met, we met in your office at the London School of Economics. First we talked about the environmental noise in the city. Then you said that after a few hours in your noiseless office, you absolutely had to go out on the street to immerse yourself in the acoustic current between Fleet Street and the beach. So that you know where you actually are again.

Sennett: But I have to confess to you that I wanted to smoke a cigarette too.

"A real revelation to hear an analog produced LP"

Hartel: Well, that's out of date now. But at the time you said you wanted to hear the city. That brings me to another topic: At the time, Mayor Ken Livingstone was a member of the London City Council. And this man had created the position of sound officer. He was responsible for looking after the surfaces in the city. And, for example, to introduce road surfaces that make it possible to hear vertical individual noises instead of the constant horizontal noise of the cars. And so people should be given the opportunity to better orient themselves in space and time. His successor Boris Johnson abolished this position immediately. But actually I wanted to know from you whether you also think that people should be empowered to listen more closely. And also to listen responsibly.

Sennett: Absolutely. And these are inextricably linked - that's one of the reasons why we work with these digital recordings. The recording device that you have in your iPhone has a repressive effect on what you want to do with it. As a camera, it is also repressive, in a disgusting way. But what really impressed me in connection with my work with young people is that these young people also learn to hear very differently when their technology reinforces and promotes what they can hear. You have to excuse me for talking about it for so long, but where you are concerned with sound and that is also my passion, I will expand on it a little bit further - for many young people it is a real revelation, one produced by analogue LP to hear. What they hear in the clubs ... I don't even want to start with that. But they can hear the difference - in all its reverberation and abundance, if you then play something on CD for them, which is basically a two-dimensional image again, if you will. As a classical musician, you have to work very hard if you want to give this fullness its real essence in a digital recording. So I would like to address the aspect of how important it is to use this technology to give people the opportunity to listen to something in the first place.

"An email is the most declarative form"

In the coming year, we want to do another research project to find out how all of this affects the way people talk to one another, because the movement from sound to storytelling, to story, is linear. As you become more attuned to hearing things, you are also more attuned to interacting with someone in some way. Let me give you an example. One thing we devoted ourselves to, like Sherry Turkle, this wonderful Internet researcher and analyst, was the fact that when you write an email you literally get dusty. One no longer perceives the context. An email is the most strongly declarative form that can be used in the high-tech sector. Emails can drift anywhere, they can expand into a rat tail of emails, but each one is a specific, declarative thing in and of itself. We're trying to find out what happens when these young people are more auditory; how they then specifically talk to each other and whether we - whether they - are able to reduce their e-mail usage and instead use better technologies such as Skype, which is a much better technology than e-mail, because it grants the individual room for maneuver. And that's where the political aspect of emailing comes into play again. Because it announces conditions instead of being open in dialogue, it is easier to run a company from top to bottom than if you talk face to face with one another. This is no coincidence, as the Marxists used to say, and they should still say it: It is no coincidence that the companies immediately introduced e-mailing because it prevents the exchange in dialogue, even in the case of these e-mails with the rat tail. And I believe there is a connection between better listening and better expression. At least we hope so.

Imagery in relation to political economy

Ellmenreich: You are currently singing a great song of praise to the ear and I only find that appropriate if you do that in a broadcasting house. Still, I ask you: is it either the ear or the eye? Is one sense really better than the other? Or is it just because our sense of hearing is simply the first one we develop, even before birth?

Sennett: Can you hear before you even have eyes?

Hartel: Yes, meaning is already developing in the womb and, by the way, is the last one we lose.

Sennett: After six years of psychotherapy, you should be completely able to remember all of this. Well, I wouldn't put it that way, I've only just started the project. I think that what needs to be emphasized now is not just hearing, but also the sense of smell, the sense of touch - because what happened in the course of the so-called digital revolution is that the other senses have been degraded. If we were all southern Europeans, we wouldn't be able to communicate properly without touching each other. Quite difficult to do in an email. So it's not really about what's at the top - although I find that very interesting - but how a certain power structure dealt with the senses by using one of them as a hegemonic sense: the picture-making sense. If any of you are interested in Wittgenstein, then you will be very familiar with the "Philosophical Investigations" - number 47, I believe. For us in the research group this is a big project: to understand how Wittgenstein's view that language is a pictorial language is to be understood in relation to his political economy. You can see that in addition to the power relationships contained therein, there is also a great deal of philosophical problem in it. His brother was one of the greatest one-handed pianists of the 20th century, but Wittgenstein himself was a sucker for things he heard. He played an instrument, but I actually heard a recording of his playing once. It was horrible. But it was indicative of what happens when we want to understand the world as an image that we are, so to speak, complicit with this technology, which has really imposed a new order of rule on us.

Visibility and sound - the epitome of democracy

Hartel: You have just touched on a point that I would like to come back to: the central importance of dialogue. For your teacher Hannah Arendt, the smallest unit of public space was created while talking to friends. So the dialogue between the powerful and the ordinary people should definitely be encouraged. I am fascinated by your idea that raising awareness of listening in public spaces could also promote civic dialogue skills.

Sennett: Nice. And, yes, it is also about the fact that people in public spaces, in which they meet each other as strangers, do not primarily pay attention to what the other looks like, but to what can be heard from them. The author Ayn Rand, who died in 1982, had an idealized idea of ​​the Greek polis, which manifested itself in a certain kind of address, but also in the fact that people could see one another. That was the political theater of the polis, and in contrast to the agora, where everyone was mixed up, this theater was in the shape of a semicircle, so that if you heard a number of people voting - and they were voting mainly in neighborhood groups - one clearly heard could see how they choose. For Ayn Rand, this combination of visibility and tone was the epitome of democracy. We have often, let's say, passionately argued about it.Because what this coupling of visibility and sound basically means is that you can define the stranger or the stranger in their otherness and thus create the prerequisites for making someone a stranger. Besides, in a modern city it is not 6,000 people who vote, but millions. It is about the question of whether one should judge the other with the eyes. Well, that's probably a prejudice on my part, but I just think that in a way it is more democratic to listen to people than to watch them organize themselves or what they look like in a room. As you know, I grew up in the United States, and one way of using the visible politically was segregation there; It was very common to say: "You just have to look at it and you will know what it will say". That is a racist remark par excellence. I wanted to show you how complex this topic is, especially for someone who, as I said, grew up in the USA, where the classification of whose voice is worth something or not is literally determined by the color of your skin.

And while preparing for my new research project, I noticed that I was also interested in the question of how we can use this high-tech communication and, by personifying it, to give people a means with which they can do exactly the opposite of what said tech monopolies do. How can we involve strangers in this field again? It's about more than just creating avatars for people on the web. The question goes deeper. How do you manage to bring people into conversation online who really differ from one another? This is what a project at MIT that we are about to start is about: How do you create a political institution in which people do not know with whom they are communicating.

Feel for a factual form of speech

Ellmenreich: Isn't that what we do every day in this building, on the radio? Even if it's a strange situation. Somewhere, often in Cologne, someone speaks into a microphone and somewhere else in the world - it doesn't have to be in Germany, after all, you can receive Deutschlandfunk over the Internet anywhere on this planet - someone else is listening.

Isn't that a strange communication situation?

Sennett: You know what, I haven't even thought about it. What I've been thinking about, however, is the following: I'm currently doing a dissertation on talk radio. You already know: this broadcast format where people call to get their views across. The aforementioned research approach to talk radio now deals with the question of whether these broadcasts could be orchestrated in such a way that they do not even ask who is on the phone, or whether they are really close or not, or whether one has no questions . Normally a malicious statement disguised as a question is distributed on talk radio. Our aim is simply to experiment with this phenomenon: How can you re-establish a feeling for a factual form of speech in the course of a project? That's why we started this "Acoustic City" thing: to make people resensitive. Do you understand? Aesthetically it is not unimportant, but politically it is. I believe that there are other technologies that you can use to experience the acoustic, a simple medium like a DAB radio for example: a very simple technical device. But the basic problem is: we don't know how to use it well.

Data mining logic and invasion of privacy

Ellmenreich: What would you recommend?

Sennett: Ask me in two years. As I said, this is a research project that we want to carry out and we are also doing it in this deliberately bulky, simple way - for example with the question of what the alternative to the telephone calls could be. And we're going to experiment with these things. You understand: This is not about Wittgenstein, it is simply about the question of how one can revive the acoustic with simple means. I taught at MIT for 30 years. And in my little, pretty, inexpensive book I mention that my office was right next to the so-called Media Lab at MIT. This media lab, which was founded in the 1980s, was an attempt to examine the new digital tools in a series of experiments to see how they could be used for the good of all. It is thanks to the computer scientist and Internet-critical author Jaron Lanier, for example, that surgeons can now use 3D imaging methods during operations. Almost everything that is gradually coming into use today has been developed here. But there was no interest in commercializing the results of the Media Lab. Almost everything that was developed here, such as the $ 100 computer, was of no interest to the Media Lab sponsors. So over time the assessment of what was thought to be a promising invention narrowed. Over a long period of time, I have observed how wonderful ideas just ended up in the trash because, according to the logic of data mining and invasion of privacy, they could not be used. And that's why I consider it a form of sensory resistance to a certain form of capitalism to bring out the other senses again. I want to work for that. Do you understand what I mean? That's a way of saying, you can't just privilege this.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt statements made by its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.