Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Coffee and The Representation of Absence

Zizek's recent talks at Birkbeck have included the illustration of a man ordering coffee. It's from a film, but I haven't yet found the name of the film. So, at the risk of butchering some otherwise fine dialogue, here's a paraphrase.
The man ordering coffee says, "I want coffee without cream." The waitress replies, "I'm sorry, we've run out of cream, but I can still bring you coffee without milk."
Zizek makes the point that in this exchange we see the importance of the representation of absence. Even though black coffee is black coffee, whether caused by the absence of milk or the absence of cream, the specific absence makes the difference.

I think a similar logic is at work in the question of existential goodness. In other words, a person might give aid to a needy person because they follow the Christian command to love, and another person might do the same thing because they've concluded that it maximises the total amount of happiness in the world. The distinction between the two is only the unseen motivation.

In a pragmatic view, the two should be judged the same. The need was met. Are we then just quibbling about the details if we consider motivation? How about a third case?

A person gives aid to a needy person because they know that doing so they will make the needy person dependent on aid, and later can exploit this dependency. The need was met, but the motivation is vastly different.

The representation of absence can be quite important, especially in cases where something is defined by its absence, or defined by the absent motivation. Sometimes it's a necessary addendum, albeit secondary. After all, there's no point ordering coffee without cream if you don't even get the coffee at all, whether without cream or milk.

2 comments:

Dubie said...

Hello Andrew,

You wrote..."In a pragmatic view, the two should be judged the same. The need was met. Are we then just quibbling about the details if we consider motivation? How about a third case?

A person gives aid to a needy person because they know that doing so they will make the needy person dependent on aid, and later can exploit this dependency. The need was met, but the motivation is vastly different."

Wow, what goes with that the third case, hmmm? I recently came across a very insightful and new commentary by Timothy Wilson on The Psychological Narrative, and here's a link to it so you can take a peek...http://edge.org/conversation/social_psychological_narrative

He makes a very convincing scientific argument for a new paradigm in how we measure social behavior, moving from your pragmatic version to one which involves a interpentration of understanding and consciousness of other.

Look forward to what you may find relevant on issues I believe much larger than semantic quibbling over negation in language. We known your example for instance of the waitress and her absence speak defies any terminus within the statistical average and norm, which is how we consensually arbitrate such matters and their validity.

In other words, not a very instructive or insightful example from which to make your point. More to the point is how to express the absence of absence in people's language and understanding which remains a mystery for them and one necessary to pierce before they may enjoy higher logic and intellectual function.

Andrew Smith said...

Sorry, Dubie, but you've missed the point. The representation of absence is, in fact, quite a fundamental psychological concept (see Lacan).

It is not, however, a reduction of a the impulse for narrative. I'm not discussing that here, only the similarities of the logic between coffee-with-without-X and act-with-unseen-motivation.

The act is the act, and the unseen is the unseen. But it is the absence of the symbols for the unseen which is interesting, and then the naming of those unseen. If there is any implication in what I wrote, it is about moral validity and the debate between intent and act, and not about constructing narrative after the fact.