- Communication beyond Meaning:On the Cultural Politics of Information
Is it possible to draw on scientific concepts to further our understanding of cultural processes? In Order Out of Chaos, Ilya Prigogine and Isa-belle Stengers proposed that the emergence of nondeterministic scientific approaches to material processes (e.g., thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, chaos theory) constitutes an important opportunity to forge a "new alliance" between the natural and human sciences.1 Prigogine and Stengers understand the gap between the "natural" and the "human" not so much as an ontological claim (based on the irreducibility of the human to the deterministic laws of nature) but as the historical product of a schism between physics and metaphysics. Such a schism, they claim, was precipitated by the modern emergence of mechanicism in engineering and reductionism in science with its image of a complex and free humanity endowed with spirit at loss in a universe ruled by strict mechanical laws. The result of this bifurcation of thinking is well known: disciplinarization and specialization reducing the relationship between the natural and the human sciences to sporadic and conflictual encounters.2
Typical of this situation is the controversy over the value of the concept of information for cultural analysis. The culturalist allegation that informationalism equals the triumph of form over matter underestimates the implications of communication and information theory for our understanding of contemporary cultures where informational dynamics are increasingly gaining priority over the formation of meanings. In particular, to say that information is a disembodied and immaterial form casts an unflattering light on what might be called "informational cultures"—that is, cultural milieus that foreground the interplay of information technologies (logarithmic data compression, information architecture, communication management, cultural recombination) and informational dynamics (such as openness, obstruction, resonance, contagion, bifurcation, and emergence).
Postmodern theory captured and anticipated such a development (the primacy of information networks over networks of meaning) when it described the culture of late capitalism as a culture of "floating signifiers," that is, of signs that have lost their anchorage in networks of signification. The postmodern description of a semiotic world out of control, of signs that [End Page 51] only refer to other signs in a relation of preemptive causality, or "hyperreality," presented this development as the linear outcome of the commodification of culture—that is, the reduction of cultural use value to exchange value (money) and of exchange value to sign value (simulation). The resulting picture was that of an empty cultural milieu (literally, a desert), a real subsumption of culture under capital that problematized even the notion of a cultural politics as such. Is it possible, in fact, to wage a struggle around culture if all culture has become an industry of signification—incessantly drowning meaning in a sea of semirandom noise? More militant strands of cultural theory have thus deemed it necessary to reject the postmodern analysis as simply a sign of cynicism and unconditional political surrender to the state of things (a sign of political reflux after the turbulent sixties and seventies). Much work has thus been dedicated to rescuing the vitality of the social from the grip of simulation (or exchange value gone irreversible and orbital). Empirical work on audiences has shown the persistence of counterhegemonic decodings and the resilience of meaning to all attempts at pinning it down within stable hegemonic formations or a closed logic of simulation. We know that meaning has not simply disappeared in the infosphere but that it has multiplied and proliferated in its interface with social microstratifications and segmentations emerging out of and giving rise to classes, genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and races. But we cannot still reconcile this proliferation and dispersal of meaning with another dimension of contemporary culture, the one that is not simply structured around the codification and decodification of meaning and its articulation into social practices but which revolves around a disturbing imperative and a characteristic dynamics. This imperative in-sists that more communication and better communication are supposed to provide the ultimate solution to all social problems, and its characteristic dynamics involve the power of the "space of flows" over the solidity of the "space of places."3 Here it is not so much a question of...