The Eyes of Power by M. G. Piety 

Ah conversation. There’s nothing I love more, not food, not drink, not even sex. It’s a kind of love making, actually, when it’s done properly, when it’s genuine. It’s a constant call and response, a repeated demonstration of the value we place on others, on their thoughts, desires, opinions. Nothing is so satisfying, so edifying as a good conversation. Nothing can so effectively make one glad to be alive, to be part of the human community.

I often explain to my students that I decided to go to graduate school in philosophy, to become a philosophy professor, because I liked talking about philosophy. I didn’t particularly like reading it, and in the early stages of my studies, I loathed writing about it. Writing is so difficult. It’s when they begin to understand this that I tell them about my own early antipathy for writing, so they will know that also this obstacle can be overcome, that although writing is difficult, one can, with effort, become better at it and even, after a great deal of practice, come to enjoy it.

But it’s always difficult. Plato disparages writing in the Phaedrus, first because he, or more correctly, Socrates argues that it destroys memory and second because words cannot explain themselves. “Once a thing is put in writing,” he observes, “it rolls about all over the place, falling into the hands of those who have no concern with it just as easily as under the notice of those who comprehend: it has no notion of whom to address or whom to avoid. And when it is ill treated or abused as illegitimate, it always needs its father to help it, being quite unable to protect or help itself” (275e 1-6) Writing is presented in the Phaedrus as vastly inferior to “living animate discourse” (276a 9) with its multitudinous opportunities for correction and clarification. Writing offers no such opportunities. Every word must be so carefully chosen that the meaning of the whole is as transparent as water. And this, of course, is ultimately impossible because of the vagaries of interpretation and the ultimately ineffable nature of thought.[1]

Noam Chomsky, who revolutionized the field of linguistics with his theory of generative grammar, is pessimistic about the possibility of producing an explanatory theory of semantics that would satisfy the rigors of formal linguistics; syntax yes, but the jury is out on sematics.[2] Given the difficulty of trying to pin down meaning, it is a wonder we ever understand one another at all. We do though, if often imperfectly, and we do this in part because of certain uniformities in human nature across cultures and time periods, and partly because of the myriad bits of ineffable information provided by the contexts of our interpersonal relationships and individual situations.

Intonation, for example, is essential to communication. “[S]peech–natural speech,” observes Oliver Sacks in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,[3] “–does not consist of words alone, nor … ‘propositions’ alone. It consists of utterance–an uttering forth of one’s whole meaning with one’s whole being–the understanding of which involves infinitely more than mere word recognition” (81). Sacks writes about people who lose the ability to interpret intonation, people with what is called “tonal agnosia.” They have to compensate for this loss by learning to interpret facial expressions.

It’s not just intonation in general though, that helps to make the meaning of a communication clear. “Extra linguistic beliefs concerning the speaker and the situation play a fundamental role,” according to Chomsky, “in how speech is understood.”[4] That is, some knowledge of the speaker and the context of the utterance is essential to understanding its meaning.

The importance of intonation and acquaintance with participants in a dialogue as well as the circumstances surrounding it, to a proper understanding of the dialogue is the subject of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation. Gene Hackman, a private detective who specializes in electronic surveillance, is hired by Robert Duval, a wealthy businessman, to find out whether the latter’s wife is having an affair. Hackman is deeply disturbed, however, by what he learns from listening to the conversations of the wife and her lover. It seems the couple suspect the jealous husband is planning to kill them and Hackman begins to fear he may be an unwitting part of this plot. Except maybe he’s wrong, maybe it’s not the husband who is plotting to kill his wife and her lover, but they who are plotting to kill him. When Hackman begins, too late, to suspect this, he goes over and over the tapes of their conversations to see whether he had been misled. The problem came down, or so he appears to decide, to one case of ambiguous emphasis.

“He’d kill us if he got the chance,” asserts the anxious lover.

But where was the emphasis? It is not clear in the recording. Hackman thought it was on “kill” but decides retrospectively that it might have been on “us,” so that what the lover really said was:

“He’d kill us, if he got the chance,” with the implication that they were therefore justified in killing him unnecessary to state.

But Hackman is never really sure. Was that what they said? Duval dies in the end, but did they kill him?

That’s the problem, it seems to me, with surveillance. It is an extremely crude and, more importantly, fundamentally flawed way of trying to control behavior. The 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham thought that if people believed they were under constant scrutiny, they would behave better. That was the idea behind his famous design for what he called the Panopticon, a prison built around a central observation tower, a design on which, to some extent, many actual prisons have been built. It seems plausible to me that the fear of being caught doing something wrong would inhibit some people from doing wrong, people, that is, who might otherwise have been inclined to do wrong. I would argue, however, as I often do to the students in my various applied ethics courses, that most people are not inclined to do wrong. Trust, as Hobbes famously pointed out, is the foundation of civilization. We couldn’t put enough police on the streets if they were really what kept order in society. In fact, if the fear of being caught were the only thing that kept people from doing wrong, where would we get honest police and without them how could we keep order?

Foucault speaks very eloquently about idea behind the Panopticon and how observation has been used throughout history by those in power as a means of controlling people in an interview published under the title, “The Eye of Power.”[5] If you have not read this interview, you should, because it deals with surveillance and this issue tconcerns every American now that we know we are all effectively being surveilled by our own government. People have so far been surprisingly blasé about this. Most people, it seems, are confident that their communications contain nothing incriminating and they are probably correct. But then it is hard to imagine anything as incriminating out of context. The surveillance to which the American public is being subjected is not by people, but by machines. There is no sentient being that sits at the center of this system of observation and interprets what is observed. Emails are trolled for incriminating words, but what sorts of words are incriminating. Plays “bomb,” and people are “lacerated” and “incinerated” metaphorically all the time. How is a machine to know how to interpret communications when even people do it so imperfectly?




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M. G. Piety

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The Eyes of Power, an Essay by M. G. Piety