4.04 Lifeworld & System

From these bases Habermas develops his concept of communicative action: Communicative action serves to transmit and renew cultural knowledge[1] in a process of achieving mutual understandings. It then coordinates action towards social integration and solidarity. Finally Communicative Action is the process through which people form their identities.[2]

One of the functions of Exploding Cinema is surely to 'transmit and renew' a particular field of cultural resistance.[3] This is both historical, evoking the Sixties, and ideal - using the collective as a symbol of an idealised work community. It is also a cultural space in which people form their identities on various levels. Whether as a person getting their first opportunity to show their film to an public audience or as a long term member who has made a major life commitment to the project.

Society is integrated socially both through the actions of its members and systemically by the requirements of the economic/ hierarchical/ oppressive system in a way that tends to interpenetrate and overwhelm autonomous action orientations. This gives rise to a dual concept of modern society; the internal subjective viewpoint of the 'Lifeworld' and the external viewpoint of the 'System'.[4]

Following Weber, an increasing complexity arises from the structural and institutional differentiation of the lifeworld, which follows the closed logic of the systemic rationalisation of our communications. There is a transfer of action co-ordination from 'language' over to 'steering media', such as money and power, which by-pass consensus orientated communication with a 'symbolic generalisation of rewards and punishments'. After this process the lifeworld 'is no longer needed for the coordination of action'. This results in humans ('lifeworld actors') losing a sense of responsibility with a chain of negative social consequences. Lifeworld communications lose their purpose becoming irrelevant for the coordination of central life processes. This has the effect of ripping the heart out of social discourse, allowing complex differentiation to occur but at the cost of social pathologies.[5]

In the end, systemic mechanisms suppress forms of social integration even in those areas where a consensus dependent co-ordination of action cannot be replaced, that is, where the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld is at stake. In these areas, the mediatization of the lifeworld assumes the form of colonisation.[6]

At the same time the system tends to reward or coerce that which legitimates it from the cultural spheres. These requirements of legitimation cast a shadow over the supposed freedom available on the cultural scenes. This is the intuition that motivates artists to identify with an 'underground' or to band together as independent collectives to form autonomous zones in an attempt to refuse the containment that comes with such legitimation.

Following Weber, we see that specialisation separates the scientific, moral and legal, and art scenes, which develop separate epistemologies cut-off from each other and 'uncoupled from orientations to use value'. Reaching understanding, the primal and binding aspect of social life, requires cultural discourses that range across the whole spectrum of the lifeworld. We can remember this integration of cultural media is commonly part of rural cultures and to some extent of early urban forms. As we have noted Exploding Cinema harks back to early Musichall forms with its mixture of live action and projection, in a space in which the boundaries between media begin to dissolve.

Habermas argues that Horkheimer and Adorno, like Weber before them, confused system rationality with action rationality. This prevented them dissecting the effects of the intrusion of steering media into a differentiated lifeworld and the rationalisation of action orientations that follows. They could then only identify spontaneous communicative actions within areas of apparently 'non-rational' action, art and love on the one hand or the charisma of the leader on the other, as having any value.[7]

According to Habermas, lifeworlds become colonised by steering media when four things happen:[8]

1. Traditional forms of life are dismantled.

2. Social roles are sufficiently differentiated.

3. There are adequate rewards of leisure and money for the alienated labour.

4. Hopes and dreams become individuated by state canalization of welfare and culture.

These processses are institutionalised by developing global systems of jurisprudence.[9]

He here indicates the limits of an entirely juridified concept of legitimation and practically calls for more anarchistic 'will formation' by autonomous networks and groups.

Counterinstitutions are intended to de-differentiate some parts of the formally organised domains of action, remove them from the clutches of the steering media, and return these 'liberated areas' to the action co-ordinating medium of reaching understanding. [10]



[1] 'Cultural Knowledge' is dealt with in a very academic discursive form. The argument is not taken, as we shall see, explicitly into the arts.


[2] See TCA2 p140 for a detailed formulation of these three areas.


[3] This field, the underground, has a canon but is without institutions, or at least authoritative ones, being by definition anti-institutional.


[4] Life world is defined by Maeve Cooke:

"In the lifeworld, co-ordination of action takes place primarily by way of communicative action and depends on the action orientations of individuals in society. System co-ordination, in contrast, operates by way of the functional interconnection of action consequences and by-passes the action orientation of individual agents." (Cooke, 1994, p5)

It is worth noting that Raymond Williams had a similar concept in his hugely influential Culture and Society (1958) with his 'agent' who communicates on the behest of another and 'source' who communicates transparently from her own thinking. The agent's communication can be seen as 'dominative' whilst the sources's is as an 'offering'. See Williams (1958 pp303 and 321).

[5] TCA2 p267


[6] TCA2 p196. In order to examine these pathological side effects in more detail Habermas returns to Marx via Weber in a reverse chronology:

"Capitalist modernization follows a pattern such that cognitive instrumental rationality surges beyond the bounds of the economy and state into other, communicatively structured areas of life and achieves dominance there at the expense of moral-political and aesthetic-practical rationality and... this produces disturbances in the symbolic reproduction of the lifeworld". (TCA2 p304/5)

 These moves are "subjectively experienced, identity-threatening crises or pathologies". At the same time acting subjects are subsumed under the 'objective force' of  bureaucracy and mainstream institutions. In these organisations discourses for mutual understanding are replaced with the steering media of money and power. Although this process can never be complete, most enterprises are at best not driven by the motives of their members. In this way the system gradually colonises the lifeworld.


[7] Habermas cites the welfare state as an example of the intrusion of steering media into the lifeworld justified by a rationalisation process, which produces social pathologies. Welfare is a process which renders class antagonism innocuous whilst reducing the zones with which we organise our own community self-help through communicative actions.


[8] TCA2 p356


[9] A network of 'client relationships' spreads through all, until now, private areas of social life. Schools gradually become welfare institutions. Invaded by economic and administrative subsystems with dynamics of their own, they paradoxically become dysfunctional. (TCA2 p372). When socially integrating processes are not merely supplemented by law but 'converted over to the medium of law' we can expect functional disturbances to arise. (TCA2 p369).  In this way juridification aids the colonisation of lifeworld.


[10] TCA2 p396