4.05 Reason & Rationality redefined

Once we have extricated ourselves from Weber's overly negative use of rationalisation it is possible to look at the Enlightenment ideal of reason in afresh light.

Rationality is redefined as thinking that is ready to submit to criticism and systematic examination as an ongoing process. A broader definition is that rationality is a disposition expressed in behaviour for which good reasons can be given.

Habermas is now ready to make a preliminary definition of the process of communicative rationality: this is communication that is "oriented to achieving, sustaining and reviewing consensus - and indeed a consensus that rests on the intersubjective recognition of criticisable validity claims".[1] With this key definition he shifts the emphasis in our concept of rationality from the individual to the social. This shift is fundamental to the Theory of Communicative Action. It is based on an assumption that language is implicitly social and inherently rational.[2]

Argument of some kind is central to the process of achieving a rational result. Contested validity claims are thematised and attempts are then made to vindicate or criticise them in a systematic and rigorous way. This may seem to favour verbal language but allowance is also give for 'practical discourses' in which claims to normative rightness are made thematic and pragmatically tested. Non-verbal forms of cultural expression could often into this category.

The force of a non-verbal argument will depend on the consensus achieved. In Exploding Cinema there are no critics leading the audience to selected works but rather this audience are invited to distrust the professional film critics as gatekeepers. They are invited to have a more direct and critical relation to the productive base of culture. With a live audience such a practical discourse may be startlingly direct.

Habermas proposes three integrated conditions from which argumentative speech can produce valid results:

The structure of the ideal speech situation (which means that the discourse is) immunised against repression and inequality in a special wayâ The structures of a ritualised competition for the better argumentsâ The structures that determine the construction of individual arguments and their interrelations.[3]

If we accept such principles of rational argumentation, Communicative Rationality is: 

1. The processes by which different validity claims are brought to a satisfactory resolution.

2. The relations to the world that people take to forward validity claims for the expressions they deem important.[4]

If we assume that a film shown at Exploding Cinema is a statement that issues a validity claim - Does showing a film without a detailed discussion or critical debate allow this claim to be brought to a satisfactory conclusion?[5] It would seem to depend on the coherence of the statement itself and the degree to which the audience have a palpably shared response to it. When this statement authenticates Exploding Cinema norms the film and filmmaker will be lauded and feedback will make this clear. It should be appreciated that the 'norms' of Exploding Cinema are sometimes an inversion of the conventional norms, so that which is idiosyncratic or discordant is perhaps more valued. Art will often play with norms and legitimising procedures which makes analysis of its forms of argument more complex, as negation and ironising of conventions are often used.[6]

Habermas then discusses three further types of discourse that can be used to achieve valid results in addition to verbal argument: these are the Aesthetic, the Therapeutic and the Explicative. Because these are not followed through in the Theory of Communicative Action the impression is given that these are secondary forms of discourse. This is important for us because the communicative action within Exploding Cinema occurs more in these modes that it does in terms of formal verbal discourse.

1. Aesthetic discourses work by mediators arguments bringing us to consider a work or performance which itself demonstrates a value.

A work validated through aesthetic experience can then in turn take the place of an argument and promote the acceptance of precisely those standards according to which it counts as an authentic work.[7]

Habermas considers the mediation of the critic, the curator or the promoter as essential to bring people to the revelatory aesthetic experience. This mediation is often locked into economic interests either directly or through state agency. Exploding Cinema attempts to make a more direct relation between the filmmaker and her audience.

In Exploding Cinema Films are shown to an audience who go away with ideas and some will even feel moved to make their own films. The audience who do not make films may take away expanded notions of film - which changes their cultural frame work in unpredictable ways - adding to what Howard Slater has described as 'the common archive'.[8] On one level this ongoing production of films and their viewers can be seen as a 'practical discourse'. But the making of the context in which these films are seen is also a creative part of cultural production. As Wittgenstein pointed out no understanding is possible without a shared background.[9]

The Exploding Cinema event does provide a background onto which an alternative social discourse can occur. The colourful decor projected onto the walls, the use of MC and performers with its allusion to musichall, all contextualise the reading of the films presented. Meaning is shifted from the normal frame of mainstream cinema towards that of an early cinema, which was more, integrated with the lifeworld. This background is notably different from that in other official short film contexts.[10]

When Habermas considers the question of context he does refer to culture.

Every process of understanding takes place against the background of a culturally ingrained preunderstanding... The interpretative task consists in incorporating the others interpretation of the situation into one's own... this does not mean that interpretation must lead in every case to a stable and unambiguously differentiated assignment.[11]

What seems to be missing is the idea that the context itself is malleable and is as much a part of the production of communication as any specific speech act. Speech acts are embedded in contexts that are also changed b them. The relationship is dynamic and occurs in both directions. To see context as a fixed background or preunderstanding is to push it out of the sphere of communicative action.

2. Therapeutic discourse is that which serves to clarify systematic self-deception. Such self-deceptions typically arise from developmental experiences, which have left certain rigidities of behaviour or biases of value judgement. These rigidities do not allow flexible responses to present time exigencies. Habermas sees this in terms of psychoanalysis but does not expand on this in TCA.[12]

A related aspect of this discourse is the adoption of a reflective attitude, which is a basic condition of rational communication.[13]

Adopting a reflective attitude could be seen to be at the heart of Exploding Cinema. The whole attitude of opposition on which Exploding Cinema is founded implies a level of reflection. For some members of the collective this even occurs on the most formal level such as doing a PhD[14], but it also happens informally in meetings.[15]

But the claim to be free from illusions implies a dimension of self-analysis if it is to engage with change. The most intractable illusions are surely embedded within our subconscious. There is no such practice within Exploding Cinema, unless the very act of making self-expressive movies implies a therapeutic process. Almost any art form might have such a therapeutic value to the producer. At Exploding Cinema the audience response, be it an emotional abreaction or a spontaneous verbal response to those around you; may also be considered to be at least partly therapeutic.

3. Explicative discourse focuses on the very means of reaching understanding - the means of (linguistic) expression. Rationality must include a willingness to question the grammar of any system of communication used to forward validity claims. Exploding Cinema posits an alternative space in which to view projected media and within this space there is often experiment with the conventional grammar of moving pictures. The question of whether visual language can put forward an argument is not broached by Habermas. Although language is broadly defined as any communicative action upon which you can be reflective it is verbal discourse that is prioritised in Habermas' arguments. Verbal language certainly has a prominent place in his model of human action.[16] 

Verbal language does of course have a place within Exploding Cinema activities. It is used in meetings, in programme titles and descriptions, on the web site, in telephone messages, and most of all in the hundreds of murmured conversations that are the buzz of every show. This last particularly is an oral context. Habermas' arguments inevitably reflect the discourse in which they are embedded. They are forms that are essentially literary. Oral contexts of communication have been relatively little studied and the distinction between oral and literary forms is not made in Theory of Communicative Action.[17]

I have already noted that as the System colonises the lifeworld most enterprises are not driven by the motives of their members.

The bureaucratic disempowering and dessication of spontaneous processes of opinion and will formation expands the scope for engineering mass loyalty and makes it easier to uncouple political decision making from concrete, identity forming contexts of life.[18]

The system does this by rewarding or coercing that which legitimates it from the cultural spheres. Such conditions of public patronage invisibly negate the freedom that is supposedly available in the cultural field.

It is exactly this illusion of freedom that Exploding Cinema tries to expose in its most political moments.[19] As an organisation relatively unrestricted by system interests and indeed 'driven by the motives of its members' it attempts to demonstrate that patronage is not a necessity of cultural production and in fact it threatens what I have identified as the central purpose of culture.[20]

The capacity to think freely about changing conditions and to critically challenge norms and traditions in the most open way will allow us to respond most appropriately and wisely. This is my key argument to legitimate Exploding Cinema activity. An open situation that can respond freely to present conditions will be best to equip us for the future, exactly because there has not been a selective gatekeeping or a fetish of control.



[1] TCA1 p17


[2] The use of the word consensus is contaminated by its use as 'consensus politics' with all the perversion of the democratic ideal that representation and national majoritorian politics implies. Consensus here is used as a term stripped of these associations and means a social agreement reached through a process of dialogue


[3] TCA1 p25


[4] TCA1 p75


[5] We can compare this situation with that of Cinema Action and other workshops of the Seventies in which it was held as important that film screenings would be followed by discussion or are even made specifically as 'triggers' for discussion. (see Dickinson 1999 for references to such 'trigger' films)


[6] "The linguistic demarcation of the levels of reality of 'play' and seriousness', the linguistic construction of fictive reality, wit and irony, transposed and paradoxical uses of language, allusions and the contradictory withdrawal of validity claims at a metacommunicative level - all these accomplishments rest on intentionally confusing modalities of being." (TCA1 p331)


[7] TCA1 p20


[8] See, Howard Slater's 'Canon Blasting for a Living Culture', Resonance Vol 8 no 1 August 1999


[9] Wittgenstein had the insight that we can only understand communicative acts because they are embedded in contexts, which are already orientated towards that understanding (TCA1 p115). See 'Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (Blackwell 1953 - 2000). E.g. Proposition 539 'Context of a smile' p145.


[10] The short film is often used in the film industry as a 'calling card' to prove one's proficiency in this or that area. See, 'Get Shorty' by Saul Metzstein, Evening Standard, 27th July 2000. Many of the festivals reflect this career ritual and are dry if not banal affairs. E.g. The BBC 'British Short Film Festival' 21 - 28th September 2000. (www.britishshortfilmfest.com) Or, the Rushes Soho Shorts Festival 24 - 30th July 1999. (www.rushes-soho-shorts-festival.co.uk)


[11] TCA1 p100


[12] Habermas discusses psychoanalysis in Knowledge and Human Interests (1972)


[13] TCA p20


[14] Duncan Reekie has been doing a Ph.D. research by project into underground film and Exploding Cinema at Falmouth Art College in the South West of England concurrently with my research.


[15] This sort of reflection took two kinds of organised formats in meetings. The first was in the meeting that followed a show. There was nearly always a round in which everyone had a chance to air their views on how things had gone. The second format was usually associated with the AGM in which the deeper issues of the collective project could be discussed. I attended AGMs on 28th June 1997 and 5th December 1999 (see, Minute book pp21 and 151)


[16] Habermas associates with the language action emphases of Mead, Garfinkel, Wittgenstein and Gadamer. Habermas' case is that his formulation of Communicative Action makes a full use of languages functions relating to objective, social and subjective worlds whilst other sociological models relate to only one or two. (TCA1 p95)


[17] I have discussed this in the previous chapter on Culture. See, Jahandarie Khosrow's Spoken and Written Discourse, (Ablex 1999) for a good survey of discourse on this topic.


[18] TCA2 p325


[19] A good example is the collective's intervention at the ICA Film Biennale of 1995. Reported in detail in the Politics and Policies section of the narrative account.


[20] "Any practical denial of the relation between conviction and communication, between experience and expression, is morally damaging alike to the individual and the common language". (Williams 1958 p293)