Philosophy of the Arts


The transitive transparency of communication

Any reader of Kafka’s stories realise that in them people do not communicate. In fact, it is the break-down, no, the sheer impossibility of communication that makes for the alienated sphere. But how? Do not the characters talk abundantly to each other?
Suddenly the answer to this question dawned on me. The characters talk to one another, yes; but this talking cannot be trusted to be transferred onto those absent to the conversation.

…We need a reconstruction of communication’s
social transitivity…

The other cannot be trusted upon to convey messages to third parties, or to be speaking in their name. Yet, the characters live in a world reigned by conventional systems based in representation (complex theoretical, juridical constructions).

Communication is Transitive

Normally, communication is transitive. You not only convey a message to someone else—which is the traditional account of communication—but you also realize, as in: have a clear grasp of, what effects the things you convey will have on others. The same goes for the influence the other, third parties have on you via the person whom you are talking to.
The best account of communication I know is due to Richard Wollheim. Wollheim thinks that something cannot be communication if the utterer does not have a prior grasp of the other’s mindset, or background knowledge. I.e., the communicator knows how the other will receive what is communicated; he is not merely delivering a message; the message lands.
This argument provides a complication of the traditional sender-receiver model, but the question, for me now, is whether even this account is complex enough to explain the transitivity of communication.
What is needed, is a socially complicated reconstruction of the transitive transparency.

– Richard Wollheim. 2001b. “A Reply to the Contributors.” In Richard Wollheim on the Art of Painting. Art as Representation and Expression, edited by Rob van Gerwen, 241-263. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press.

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