In the language which is spoken when one expresses oneself, there lies an average intelligibility; and in accordance with this intelligibility the discourse which is communicated can be understood to a considerable extent, even if the hearer does not bring himself into such a kind of Being towards what the discourse is about as to have a primordial understanding of it. We do not so much understand the entities which are talked about; we already are listening only to what is said-in-the-talk as such. What is said-in-the-talk gets understood; but what the talk is about is understood only approximately and superficially. We have the same thing in view, because it is in the same averageness that we have a common understanding of what is said.

Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, tr. John Macquerrie and Edward Robinson, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1962, I.5, §35 (H.167), p. 212. Google books.

According to this excerpt, what is shared is not something in particular, but on the contrary a thing in its approximation, its “averageness”. In German the last sentence of this paragraph goes like this:

Dieses wird verstanden, das Worüber nur ungefähr, obenhin; man meint dasselbe, weil man das Gesagte gemeinsam in derselben Durchschnittlichkeit versteht.

Macquerrie and Robinson translated “Durchschnittlichkeit” as “averageness” although it has other meanings. It is commonly translated as “ordinariness” or “mediocrity”. The later is used in Emmanuel Martineau’s French translation (PDF 1.4Mo):

C’est celui-ci qui est compris, tandis que le ce-sur-quoi ne l’est qu’approximativement, et au passage; si on vise la même chose, c’est parce qu’on comprend le dit en commun dans la même médiocrité.

Nowadays, the word “mediocrity” ―which originally means “moderation; intermediate state or amount”― is easily associated with some sort of moral judgement: if it’s mediocre, than it’s no good. Is Heidegger being judgmental here? As far as I know, the question of determining whether Heidegger analysis of the Dasein is descriptive or prescriptive is still subject of debate. That being said, it’s worths noting that just a few lines earlier, Heidegger clearly states:

In relation to these phenomena, it may not be superfluous to remark that our own Interpretation is purely ontological in its aims, and is far removed from any moralizing critique of everyday Dasein, and from the aspirations of a ‘philosophy of culture’. (pp. 210-212)

This is the first reason why I chose to use “averageness” in the title of this post instead of “mediocrity”1.

The second has to do with a parallel one can trace between this excerpt and Peirce’s own idea of how communication works:

No communication of one person to another can be entirely definite i.e. non-vague… [W]herever degree or any other possibility of continuous variation subsists, absolute precision is impossible. Much else must be vague because no man’s interpretation of words is based on exactly the same experience as any other man’s. Even in our most intellectual conceptions, the more we strive to be precise, the more unattainable precision seems. It should never be forgotten that our own thinking is carried on as a dialogue and thought mostly in a lesser degree, is subject to almost every imperfection of language. (Charles Sanders Peirce. circa 1905. “Critical Philosophy and the Philosophy of Common-Sense”, Collected Papers, Book 3, Chapter 3, §2 (CP 5.506), see Google books)

There seems to be a conceptual relationship between Heidegger’s averageness and Peirce’s vagueness (on the strict basis of those two quotes). Peirce isn’t judgmental in his explanation, even when he writes about “imperfection”. Given the disparaging meaning commonly associated with the word “mediocrity”, it could be tricky to use it to translate Heidegger’s “Durchschnittlichkeit” without proper explanations.

I find it particularly interesting to study those ideas in the light of the ongoing “Occupy Wall Street” protest. It has been noted that the movement doesn’t seem to have a clear list of demands or goals:

The group’s lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgeably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face — finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out. But what were the chances that its members were going to receive the attention they so richly deserve carrying signs like “Even if the World Were to End Tomorrow I’d Still Plant a Tree Today”? (The New York Times: “Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim” by Ginia Bellafante, September 23, 2011)

A similar argument was put forward by Justin Elliott for Salon.com: “The debate at Occupy Wall Street: To what end?” (September 29, 2011). At OccupyWallStreet.org, an article titled “Who We Are” ends with this claim:

Why occupy Wall Street? Because it belongs to us! Because we can! (June 14, 2011).

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll suggests that most American are uncertain about the movement’s goals (“Most Americans Uncertain About “Occupy Wall Street” Goals”, October 18, 2011).

If all of Occupy Wall Street participants do not share a set of clearly defined goals, maybe they nonetheless share something vague and imprecise, an averageness or ordinariness. This could explain how the gathering ―which appears senseless to some observers, with or without good reasons― can nonetheless perceived itself as a somehow coherent community. The problem related to the efficiency or the value of this endeavour remains open.

[UPDATE – November 5, 2011] Paolo Virno analyses Heidegger’s concept of “idle talk” in his Grammar of Multitude (first published in Italien in 2003, translated to English in 2004). Virno seems to have quite an optimistic view about the power of idle talk:

Idle talk damages the referential paradigm. The crisis of this paradigm lies at the origin of the mass media. Once they have been freed from the burden of corresponding point by point to the non-linguistic world, terms can multiply indefinitely, generating one from the other. Idle talk has no foundation. This lack of foundation explains the fleeting, and at times vacuous, character of daily interaction. Nevertheless, this same lack of foundation authorizes invention and the experimentation of new discourses at every moment. Communication, instead of reflecting and transmitting that which exists, itself produces the states of things, unedited experiences, new facts. I am tempted to say that idle talk resembles background noise: insignificant in and of itself (as opposed to noises linked to particular phenomena, such as a running motorbike or a drill), yet it offers a sketch from which significant variances, unusual modulations, sudden articulations can be derived. (tr. by I. Bertoletti, J. Cascaito, A. Casson, New York: Semiotext(e), 2004, p. 90)

[UPDATE–June 6, 2012] For another take on the “absence of determinate contents” in OWS demonstrations, see what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in his book The Coming Community (1990): Whatever Is Standing – Tiananmen, June 5, 1989.

The photo below was taken by Flickr user Kurt Christensen on October 11, 2011 in Financial District, NY, US. Used under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Occupy Wall Street rally, on October 11, 2011 in Financial District, NY, US. Photo by Kurt Christensen used Photo used under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0)

1. See also George Steiner’s comment about the translation of Gerede into “idle talk” in his book Martin Heidegger (New York: Viking Press, 1978, p. 95). In his essay “The Decision to Existence” Jean-Luc Nancy, commenting on the Gerede writes:

“Idle talk” offers the first form of the everydayness of Dasein. Das Gerede: this is Rede, speech, as a globality of communication in which we talk “with one another” but still do not “participate” in “the primary relationship-of-being toward the entity talked about.” This “communication” does not “communicate” (“die Mitteilung ‘teilt’ nicht”) the understanding-affection of the entity’s Being, from which it nevertheless proceeds or, better yet, of which it is “thrown” or “open” site. Instead, this “communication” chains speech to itself, drags speech over itself, is the “re-saying” (Nach-rede) of speech. The theme of Gerede therefore indicates much less a critique of chatter than the necessity of understanding this: the prattle or, if you will, the parlor of speech, in the originary re-saying of speech, understanding as the disclosedness of Being to existence both gives and withdraws itself, opens itself up and closes itself off, already. (in The Birth to Presence, tr. by Brian Holmes, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993, p. 89) ↩︎︎

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