Manuel Castells: Art and Meaning

What is the most fundamental issue in a meaningless world? In a world dominated by flows of virtual capital processed without control or reason in a global network of computer networks. In a world where our minds are populated by images that are produced and reproduced without a shared experience and with no other purpose that serving profits and power. In a world where the last trench of defense is built from one’s identity (always imagined) without reference to the other. The most fundamental issue is the restoration of meaning.

Of individual meaning and, through free communication, shared meaning. Because if we cannot share meaning, if we cannot have a common language we cannot live together as a human species. Then power games take over, basic instincts govern us, and nasty bureaucracies and invisible markets decide our lives. We cease to exist as humanity, we become non humans, since the essence of humanity is feeling the joy of being alive together. In fact, the evolution of technology, of economy, and of polity point into the opposite direction. The process of globalization binds us but submit us at the same time to uncontrollable forces that appear as non human as the geological cataclysms of our prehistorical past. Institutions that bring together society become pure apparatuses of domination. Individuals built projects on their individuality. Fundamentalist communes appeal to a non-social principle of existence, such as god, nation, ethnicity, and the like. In a world of ubiquituous communication we stop sharing meaning because we do not have a common language. Not a language of words, a language of experience, a language in which words mean different things for different people.

When we do not share meaning, when we do not recognize the other, we become aliens to each other, and then violence follows, because of our fear of aliens and because of the right of self-defense against aliens. Aliens can be the children of another god, Muslims let’s say. Or people with a skin not like ours. Or those who speak languages we do not understand, and so they must be possessed by the devil. Or women who do not behave as women were supposed to do, be it by being too free or too veiled, depending on the taste. Discipline becomes the only tool to keep a semblance of society. The barbarians camp always at the gates of our gated communities. These trends that are spoiling the joy of a beautiful song or of a peaceful morning are not rooted in economic crises or corrupt politics. They are rooted in the loss of shared meaning because of the capture of people’s common experience in manipulated spaces of communication.

Under such conditions, the sharing of meaning can only be restored by going back to the primal experience, to sensing beauty, to suffer drama, to feel the pain of those who represented their pain, to enjoy the joy of those who were truly in love at some time – as we were. And this is what art does. Arts is subliminal communication, does not need logical words, and not even forms because it is not the forms that communicate, but the experience embodied in the forms and received by others, some times centuries later, in other cultures, in other contexts, for reasons that neuroscience starts to know but that they still have not full scientific explanation. We just feel, we are moved. It is in the unseen, unsuspected message that an artist sent from her heart, without intended audience, that has the power to be felt. Artists do not intend to convey the others, they just express themselves, their sorrow, their enthusiasm, their hopes, their outrage. True artists are not ideologues, they do not intend to save the world, they try to save themselves by crying loudly the unsufferable, and projecting brightly their call for another life. In this book artists not only offer their art, but also share reflections on their work in relation to a larger frame of research into witnessing and future participatory dynamics. Beyond the experiences of each one of the individual artists that contributed to this remarkable book beats the heart of emotions that bear witness to our shared humanity. And so, when the darkness of senseless politics and aberrant economics and empty culture come on us, we resort to art and to artistic research as the one displayed in this book, to remind us to include human experience in the work we do, to remind us we can still feel and need to share.

Manuel Castells, Holberg Prize Laureate 2012.

Manuel Castells