Sunday 26 April 2015

Between common ground and middle ground; or, the unbearable lightness of being Earthbound

Terence Blake writes:
Do we need a “common ground” in order to communicate with each other effectively or enjoyably?
I think we should have no qualms about needing 'grounds.' Not any more. We now understand very well that no ground—not even the proverbial bedrock—can be understood as a secure, unyielding foundation; however, at the same time, we are equally well aware that there is no groundlessness, no infinite nomadism. Groundlessness is death, floating in the vacuum of space.

However, I think that one can make a distinction between 'common ground' and 'middle ground' (as the latter term is used in ethnohistory). Both imply a convergence, a political or cosmopolitical coming together (in the pragmatic conception, compelled by mutually concerning issues). However, while the common is something shared (thus suggesting an underlying unity either revealed or constructed), the middle is simply the temporary milieu fabricated between two distinct parties that may thoroughly misunderstand each other but, nevertheless, are thereby able to exchange well enough to negotiate. The common aims at a settlement 'for us,' the middle aims at a settlement 'between us.' Settlement—i.e. ground—is the issue for both but borders are drawn in completely different ways.

The common should not be prioritised over the middle because of its greater unity. However, equally, the middle is not preferable simply because of the looseness or bagginess of its mode of belonging. The conception of grounds as constructed between distinct groups implies commonality within these groups (albeit with fractal micro-divergences at every level, and so on and so on).

So, which of these conceptions pertains to democracy? If we are talking institutionalised democracy then I think it is plainly a common ground that predominates. To the extent that there are established rules that authorise participation then we are in the common. Of course, a rule is never simply 'applied' and every democrat constantly pushes their luck; however, the fact that they have to 'push their luck' implies a covenant that is recognised to be binding to some degree.

The common cannot imply harmony or an absence of dissent; however, it does imply a collective project in a way that the notion of middle does not. Although, substituting the French 'milieu' for the English 'middle' brings the notion of environment and envelopment into it. But perhaps this is the difference between ground and atmosphere: an atmosphere can be shared without in any way implying a unity. In this sense we can say that every collective on Earth shares an atmosphere but they do not yet share a ground. Not that there is one atmosphere—there are indefinitely many and of endlessly varied kinds; however, there is an atmosphere that envelops us all and that therefore serves as the medium, the ether for our collective problems—but emphatically not our unity.

There is, as I have said, a connection between atmosphere and ground (without ground we are floating in a vacuum). However, atmosphere carries qualities of envelopment that ground does not. In this much we might say that a middle ground is closer to an atmosphere than is a common ground.

Every ground can ultimately float away as if on a breeze but we would be ill-advised to valorise our being of such unbearable lightness! The bittersweet ungroundedness of the émigré understands both edges of the sword.

'All that is solid...,' says Marx. His voice shook with fury but the ground beneath his feet did not. Do we share his common ground?

The unbearable lightness of being Earthbound.