CONVERSATION AND COMMUNICATION: A THEORETICAL OVERVIEW (Part 3 of 3)
Why We Need to Cultivate Self-Accountable Conversation
As already indicated, it is not a purpose of this dissertation to explore the existing compromised conditions of conversational life in detail, but rather to make some specific proposals how to ameliorate those conditions through cultivation of conversation as a thematized individual (and larger social) purpose. Some children in our culture are raised in a (family, and/or, possibly, school) milieu in which conversational sociality is prized and cultivated, and the individual's autochthonous faculty of judgment is nurtured in significant degree to "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (to quote a guiding principle of American Unitarianism; 1 Thes. v. 21, cited in Channing, 1819/1969, p. 1). More generally, each generation transmits to the next a pattern of significations of which it itself is largely unaware (Hall, 1981, p. 70). It is therefore largely accidental what specific significations are thus transmitted, and they may as easily be nefarious (an extreme example is the custom of "female circumcision," widespread in Africa and elsewhere (see, e.g., Lightfoot-Klein, 1989)), as beneficent.[] Reflection discloses that the meanings which persons live naively are not themselves meaningfully grounded, but rather the outcome of uncritically enacted transmission mechanisms: things and processes that merely happen to be (Heidegger's term "facticity" [also: "es gibt"] is apposite here). All uncritically lived forms of life are mystified communication insofar as they do not represent themselves as contingencies subject to the individual's assessment of their value -- which possibility of critical judgment, of course, is precisely what these forms of life's mode of presentation (as "natural," "obvious," "the only civilized way," etc.) does not merely not reveal, but effectively conceals. Thus these significations are in truth the antipode of how they appear to naive consciousness and are consequently able to motivate social life.
Before proceeding to my theoretical formulation how to deal with this situation, it may add hope to my undertaking to cite Edward Hall once more. Cases of children in our own society who are reared to be self-reflective and to cultivate their critical judgment ("Prove all things; hold fast that which is good," etc.) are often dismissed not just as anecdotal but on the contention that, if one looks far enough, one will find something about them which "explains it all away." The notion of "human nature" (see, e.g., Hall, 1981, p. 44) dies hard, even though it is demonstrably neither fully human (i.e., a product of conscious decision and action instead of largely unwitting processes of cultural transmission) nor really natural (i.e., genetically hard-wired instead of learned through social interaction). Hall cites one particular South Seas culture reported by Margaret Mead, which Hall considers "unique....
The Manus Islanders treat their culture technically. They apparently have done so for such a long time that there is little evidence that they could accept any other attitude without seriously disrupting their lives. They experiment with their culture consciously, taking it apart and putting it together again to see how it works in different ways. With these propensities it was inevitable that close contact with Americans during [World War II] would make available new systems of behavior and new ways of organizing society. This is what happened. The Manus apparently did the incredible thing of sitting down and saying to themselves, "Now let's organize a new society that's more in keeping with the outside world." They didn't wait for change to overtake them gradually, or drift off in small numbers and lose themselves among the white man. They sat down and designed a society from the ground up. What is not clear, of course, in view of the technical attitude toward life, is where the formal core is and what form it takes in the Manus. One view that can be taken of what happened on Manus is that the things that were changed represented a relatively superficial fringe around a more stable and persisting core.... (Hall, 1981, pp. 86-7) Unless Hall had other sources besides Mead's book (Mead, 1975), it seems what really happened was not that the Manus had always treated their culture technically, but that, in the crisis of the coming of the "white men," the Manus somehow managed to rise to the occasion, and radically change their relationship to their form of life from traditional to self-accountable (what Hall calls: technical). The Manus did have some prerequisites for this: as long distance traders, they had some appreciation for the variety of social customs among peoples, and they were highly adept at mastering technical skills and managing complex patterns of social interaction in a pragmatic way. They (largely through a gifted leader) did sit down and figure out a new way of life based on studying the social patterns of American soldiers who established large bases on their islands during World War II. Prior to this contact with the Americans, however, they did not engage in any programmatic way in "social planning." But even what the Manus did accomplish: an intentional, thoroughgoing and radical reorganization in one step from a stone-age culture to a democratic form of life consonant with the realities of the electronic age, was a remarkable achievement, and one perhaps even more relevant to my purposes here, since our culture does not have a tradition of treating itself technically but traditionally, and, in consequence, if the Manus made this change, maybe we can too. (I note here a decisive difference between what the Manus did and something perhaps apparently similar that has frequently happened in modern industrial societies: In modern industrial societies groups holding power have frequently restructured the forms of life of less powerful groups in the culture, while treating their own mores in a traditional way. What the Manus did was to restructure their own form of life, not "other people's" -- as if, in America today, all the college-educated sectors of society got together and reorganized their own form of life, e.g., discarding their traditions and superstitions, such as fashion and the stock market and consumer-entertainment, and replacing their whole way of life with one combining ancient-Greek style "politics" with a devotion to creative and socially constructive work. Anent this dissertation, the difference between what social planners in "advanced" societies do and what the Manus did is like the difference between "studying [other people's] communication" and studying the communicative process in which oneself as researcher is living.)
What the Manus adopted as the "stable and persisting core" of [what they themselves called:] "the New Way," was conversational political process itself, as they figured it out from studying the Americans' (and British) customs and institutions, albeit, giving disproportionate emphasis to the humane aspects of what they saw. It is an hypothesis of this dissertation that this is the only viable option for our culture.
I have argued that man's true home is conversation and that the social-communicational matrix in which persons in fact live frequently even if not in principle necessarily is at best partly, equivocally, ambivalently conversational. So long as we are human, everything depends on conversation, even if only the conversation singular individuals have with themselves (as we are wont to say:) "in their head." Due to vicissitudes of socialization, however, persons' understanding of social life ("the image") may diverge widely from this perspective and they will act [to shape their own and all other persons' lives over which they have power] accordingly.
If in fact persons live in a social-communicational matrix which is conversationally "good enough" -- to borrow a phrase from D.W. Winnicott --, then it may not be necessary for them to understand the structure of their good fortune. Perhaps many persons in primitive cultures and "close[d] communities" in more advanced societies have this (on the other hand, we know that many do not). But the quality of life of these persons, however appealing or otherwise, is of no help to persons who do not have the opportunity to be primitives or to have grown up in a still-vital close face-to-face enclave in a more advanced culture.
The task is not, in general, how to find our way back to a place we have left or to restore a condition which has deteriorated, but rather to create a good place and condition for the first time, since many persons (me? you?) never have lived in a fully conversational social-communicative matrix. If we want to live in our true home, i.e., a form of life that is truly suitable to us (i.e., to persons), we have, often if not always, work to do to change our factual social-communicative matrix into the form we desire (perhaps this should be put in the plural, since in modern culture persons often participate in several entirely disjoint communicational matrices: family, school, workplace, etc.).
Proactive reconstruction of the micro-communication situations in which we find ourselves is a way we can improve our communicative life. It surely is not the only thinkable way, but it is a relatively accessible way, which does not depend on any environmental factors besides changing what we say in the conversational situations in which we already find ourselves. (The next subsection of this dissertation reviews some points it may prove helpful to keep in mind in pursuing that endeavor.) An essential part of the message is that however much might be presented here (or anywhere), it needs to be elaborated further, always further, no matter how far one may have come already, both in theory, and also in the practical cultivation of real conversation. For conversation is not a substance which endures in its identity, but rather an event which must continually renew itself or degrade, perhaps into nothing, but, more usually, into forms of social life which may still look conversational, in that the persons involved continue to exchange messages in an apparently peaceful way, but are in fact not conversation insofar as the message senders and receivers more or less just "go through the motions" for no clear purpose or make use of them for strategic purposes.
Some Aspects of Self-Accountable Conversation So long as we are human, conversation is inescapable, at least the ["monological"] conversation one has with oneself even when alone. That in conversation we have a representation of a world is invariant across all conceivable disconfirmations of intraworldly validities, including if one (you or I) were suddenly to discover that everything hitherto believed to be real is "really" (or maybe not...) a deception perpetrated by Descartes' evil demon, or a Mission Impossible "set-up," or some computer-science virtual reality project (or ["The Truman Show", or] whatever). "I believed the world was real but now I see it was all a big trick" is, as conversation (with oneself, even if at this point in the fantasy there appears to be no one else in the world), smoothly of a piece with talking with the person next to one on the morning commuter train about one of last night's major league sports events. To doubt, i.e., to express doubt about the reality of the conversation in which one is engaged, is ipso facto to engage in that conversation and to confirm, not just that some "I in general" exists, as Descartes' version of the argument would have it, but that the meaning structure asserted in the conversation exists (as meant), whatever that meaning structure at the moment may be. Should further reflection (conversation) show that, in whatever way, our now current understanding was mystified by as yet undetected factors, this new awareness becomes our new truth, and even the old, superseded belief structure, while no longer thought to describe reality, still can be explored to elucidate how it made sense in and of and for a certain life situation. One can learn valid lessons about conversation (and the general form of the human social-symbolic communicative world) from conversation, even if what the conversation is about subsequently proves invalid or conversants' contributions to the conversation prove to have been [wilfully] misleading.
Conversation, or in Boulding's phrase: the image investigating the image (Boulding, 1956, p. 174), thus shows itself to be a far more epistemologically robust object of knowledge than the various content domains which enter into it, which, if they are exposed as deceptions, retain no value, since their value was in the objective validity of their referents and not in the structure of our engagement with them (to understand them in this latter way would, ipso facto, be to have made the shift to a conversation-reflective perspective!).
Example: The flatness of the earth is no longer of any use to travelers. But the conversational structure in which that notion was elaborated is still alive and well in many persons' belief that the world is flat (that was a typo: I meant: round!) because they were taught (i.e., told) it was. Furthermore, to make judgments and act on second-hand information is not just something credulous folk do: it is an essential aspect of living with others in a world we did not create which is too large for an individual exhaustively to survey.
The foregoing observation about second-hand information is an instance of phenomenological investigation of the Lifeworld. The reflective study of conversation (and, of course, all other aspects of life as lived, in their relation to conversation) constitutes an open-ended field for investigation, which includes, for instance, elucidation of the nature of exact-scientific praxis as a part of the world of life (this was one of Husserl's enduring interests).
This form of theoretical praxis (i.e., what persons do in theorizing) has massive implications for the form of social life (Bateson's "deutero-truth": the propositions whose validity is a function of persons' belief in them). It reorients those who believe in and pursue theory away from endeavors to subsume personal life ("people's lives") under general laws, and toward endeavors how best to situate (interpret) all things -- including whatever general laws -- in conversationally shared social life. Since, in any case, those laws in part have their effects not because they are true but because they are believed as part of shared social life, one gain here is toward demystification of a significant piece of the life (conversation, etc.) of those who concern themselves with theory in their professional work (and who thereby may influence the general public's self-understanding).
This kind of study of making conversation self-accountable is first philosophy: it is not "a" theoretical discipline among others (like physics, geology, mathematics, real estate science, penology, astrology, etc.), but rather a study of the conditions for the possibility of any study at all (see, e.g., Habermas, 1988/1992, p. 38). I again emphasize I am not here referring to observational study of "people communicating," but to study of the communication which, in every case (e.g., me writing this, you reading it) the communicating "I am." This kind of study of conversation is not just an experiment in shaping the form of social life: it is also epistemology and ontology (and, surely, more).
I see this line of argumentation leading toward Edmund Husserl's vision of a new form of human existence in which the significations of daily life would become ever more accountable and not just factical, i.e., a form of life in which that intermediate form "human nature" (see above) would be superseded at last by a fully human social world, in which meanings would be meaningful in depth. Not a fully human world, since the appropriation of material nature, including human physiology, with its radically unhuman aspects of sickness, aging, death, etc. cannot be completed on principle (man did not make the world), and, in practice, for the foreseeable future (AIDS, global warming, the population explosion, nuclear waste, etc.), it does not seem likely that we will even be able to push the frontier of the unhuman back to the point where each person can look forward to 80 or so years of healthy life in a wholesome physical environment.
In a fully human world, nobody would ever get hurt. Matisse's "Luxe, calme et volupte" would be for everyone forever (except for the dead, so that there is a sense -- a massive sense -- in which even this fantasy falls short of full humanity: in a fully human world, the dead would at least be raised, and their sufferings never have been). This is (obviously) not possible. But this impossibility should not deter us from undertaking what very likely is not only possible, but immediately feasible (my examples below shall focus on this): a fully human social world. By this I mean that a person comes to live in an intentionally conversational form of social life, in which all significations are meaningful in depth instead of often, as at present, being hostile or indifferent, mystifications, etc.
Freud and Breuer, in one of the founding texts of dynamic psychotherapy, Studies on Hysteria (1893-1895/1955), especially their "Preliminary Communication" (pp. 1-17), argued that neurotic suffering was not due to persons being hurt, per se, but to their being hurt and then not being permitted to respond to and work through what had happened (pp. 8-9). Conversational blockage prevents the "digestion" of the hurt. All social interaction for the hurt person henceforth has a dimension of having to not deal with the hurt, even when something comes up in conversation or broader social life which triggers recall of the unmetabolized experience.
Freud and Breuer's text opened up a whole previously unstudied and largely unsuspected domain of communication: a kind of obliquely encoded communication, where a person "says" through psychiatric symptoms what he or she cannot (because they dare not!) say in conversation (often even "to themselves"!). "Neurotics" suffer not because the world has hurt them, but because their intimate social world has hurt them precisely in the aspect by which it differs from the non-human and mass social domains, i.e., in its personally communicative dimension.
In a fully human social world, this blockage of interpersonal communication does not happen. In a fully human social world, persons only get hurt by natural forces, not also by "close" communicative interaction. No conquest of nature is required here. Indeed, to return to a previous example, when unavoidable harm due to circumstances outside human control does occur, the best way to help the victim live with suffering that cannot be relieved is through providing the person rich opportunities for conversation, including about their hurt (see, e.g., Fromm-Reichmann, 1959, chap. 4). To the extent that conversation is inclusive and safe, a person's social world is fully human (even if their -- ultimately cosmological -- surround is inimical)..
As previously stated, if the social world was already "good enough" (even if not perfect) in this regard, we might not need to think about it (although, even then, to attend to it would promise to make it even better, by fine tuning and doing preventive maintenance on its structure, and also by adding new, higher order "satisfactions of reflection," etc.). But often it is not good enough, and we have to try to change it from within, i.e., from a position of being in uncertain measure mystified, and also in uncertain measure, having (to borrow Mead's phrase:) imaginations which may be empty even though we think they are free. Our most important resource here is to avail ourselves of reflection in all possible ways in undertaking the often unprecedented work of conversational reconstruction of our communicative world. Following Husserl and Habermas, I call such activity "rational," not in the sense that it follows rules of formal logic or uses methods from physics and other mathematical disciplines, but rather in the sense that it attempts to account for all aspects of itself, and is always eager to offer its reasons and respond with reasons to questions about why it does what it does. Thus, by "rational," I mean a form of communicative life which endeavors proactively to be responsible and accountable for itself [which means: itself in its open-ended social, natural, etc. context] -- including (e.g.) for when and in what ways it employs logical or other methods. [Perhaps the phrase: "reasonable in depth" would be better here.]
As we proceed from the present theoretical reflections to their operationalization in specific example communicative interactions, we may wish to keep in mind some attributes of conversation, which, insofar as conversation aims to cultivate and become responsible for itself, also become notions it attempts constantly to prove and elaborate in the conversation it is.
Conversation cannot be dogmatic (i.e., assert as certainly and exclusively true any positive content or dogma), for [at least] five reasons, all of which are intrinsic to its constitution. First, since it arises out of the cultural unconscious, we can never be sure we have ferreted out all irrational aspects of what we are doing. Conversation must therefore always again test its own rationality, and put forward its conclusions as "subject to possible revision in consequence of future considerations." At least since the advent of non-Euclidean geometries, even the clearest and most distinct ideas of logic and mathematics must now be seen to belong to a process of historical becoming (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, pp. 32, 88-9) which, even if [at least so far!] it does lead to their straightforward refutation, can resituate them in such a way as to radically alter their practical and imaginative influence on individual and social life. Conversationally, it is never justifiable to tell someone: "You should do [whatever]." One can say to the person:
It looks to me, for the following reasons, that you should do [whatever]. Because I care about you, I hope you will seriously consider what I have to offer, and I am open to work with you to improve your, my, and our understanding in any way. Second, for each new child who enters the world, even if (contrary to fact!) the form of life into which the child enters could be known with certainty to be thoroughly rational [and beneficent!], it would still present itself to this child as a fact, as milieu in which he or she was prethematically reared [--a non-self-selected datum: "es gibt", which could just as well have been anything else...]. Therefore each individual must validate the rationality of conversation for him or herself. Indeed, self-accountable conversation must not only tolerate but actively promote this further form of validating process by emphasizing to each individual that it presents itself to him or her as a fact and therefore they need to assess its claims for themselves: "We think we are right but that doesn't make us right. You need to check all this out for yourself and we'll try to help you, but you need to check that out too." [(One of the gratifications persons receive from contributing to such a society is when persons respond to this admonition by freely giving their assent to the society's goodness -- especially when the "assent" takes the form of the persons, in their turn, contributing, too.)] Third, conversation is always personal: it is addressed to individuals for their autochthonous individual judgment and response. Therefore, on principle, a person cannot be coerced into anything conversationally, even by the coercion of logical argumentation. Rather the person must be given "room" freely to assess the situation and decide for him or herself: "We have presented our thoughts to you; we respectfully await your judgment." This desideratum is connected with the first point, since, in principle, we cannot be certain any argument is definitively correct (a.k.a. "the last word on the subject"); it is also connected with the second point since, at first, all our arguments have for each person to whom they are presented only ipse dixit status.
Fourth, every statement has an implicit motivational context, and each interlocutor in conversation must be willing to open up this metacommunicative dimension and bring it thematically into the conversation. In part, this is Habermas's requirement that one dimension in terms of which genuinely communicative (as opposed to strategic) interaction is subject to validation is each speaker's sincerity (Habermas, 1981/1984, p. 307) -- the speaker's commitment to bear witness to his or her speech act (Peperzak, 1993, p. 219). In addition, however, this item urges the interlocutors to reflect upon their interaction to bring to light presuppositions (prejudices) of which, in all sincerity, they may be unaware but which vitiate their communicative process (see, e.g., Gadamer, 1965/1975, pp. 237-242; Hall, 1981, passim): "This is how it seems to us, here, now, but have we perhaps missed something?"
Fifth, no matter how internally consistent a position may be, and no matter how smoothly its application may mesh with experience, even if, per impossibile, we could be sure it would never encounter a potentially disconfirming datum, it still would be only one possible interpretive frame.
Not: I can prove something because reality is the way I say it is. But: as long as I can produce proof, it is permissible to think that reality is the way I say it is. (Lyotard, 1979/1984, p. 24) Feyerabend (1987) proposes the history of scientific investigation shows that ...for every statement (theory, point of view) that is believed to be true with good reasons there may exist arguments showing that either its opposite, or a weaker alternative is true.... [and history shows that] people not only live in... different worlds, they live successfully, both in the material and in the spiritual sense. (p. 74) He goes on to propose that it is an empirical question whether it is possible to say conflicting things about "the same situation," all of which are right, i.e., to what extent the world resembles a duck-rabbit picture (p. 81). To the extent it does, a person or group may be able to assert one particular position forever, without conflict, but also in an unnecessary narrowness of form of life. Conversation between persons or groups initially holding different positions may result in non-convergent changes (enrichments) on both sides. If persons aspire not just to truth but to the whole truth, then, as the constructivist mathematician, Gabriel Stolzenberg argues, we need to adopt an activist policy concerning the invention and following of procedures that entail the undoing of accepted beliefs and habits of thought; and we ought to regard the invention of such procedures as one of the fundamental means by which scientific knowledge can be increased. (Watzlawick, Ed., 1984, p. 265) Even apart from any intrinsic appeal variety may have, this conclusion is not cause for discouragement about a conversational ideal of sociality, since "collaboration does not need a shared ideology" (Feyerabend, 1987, p. 16): one person does not have to agree with another in order to be able to help him or her. A different but also important aspect of conversation is that no matter how intensely "self-reflective" conversation becomes, it does not thereby in the least degree cease to concern itself with the world beyond itself (its transcendent referents). Insofar as conversation does become involuted, it is introspective, but it is not on that account self-reflective, since, as an event occurring within life as a whole, it must understand how it is situated in that larger context to comprehend itself truly. "Self-accountable" conversation goes even further and not only takes into account its embedding context but conceives of itself as answerable for itself to what is "outside itself." Particularly pertinent here is always the social matrix which supports the conversation or at least did not preclude the conversation happening. (The distinction between introspection and self-reflection will be key to my proposals below.)
Beyond these "logical" considerations, however, the spirit of conversation is not to coerce persons but to provide space in which they can freely speak and act, i.e., live in the sense of open-endedly elaborating their symbolic image of the world. If there was some kind of "objective truth," the conversants would need freely to refrain from exercising a coercion which was "rationally" justifiable, or, at least, make clear that, when they exercise such coercion (as practically must happen in cases of trusteeship over persons incompetent to handle their own affairs) they are not conversing, and be acutely sensitive to the risk thereby entailed of depriving persons of their full humanity. Person A's (mine, your...) conversational agreement with person B (you, me...) necessarily requires that B did not in any way "make it happen," but rather that, truly and freely, the matter seems to A the same as to B (or at least the same as it seems to A that it seems to B -- which nuance leads to further aspects of the hermeneutic structure of conversation). Otherwise there is no conversation: To borrow Hegel's variant on the Christian notion of Christ being present when two or three are gathered together in His name, God does not appear in the midst of those who know themselves in the form of pure knowledge (Hegel, 1807/1931, p. 679); there is no polis; B suffers as the object of A's strategic action (etc.).
Conversation thus conceived seems fated to sustain itself uncertainly in a performative tension, in which it is always in process of creating and validating itself, but never can rest finished with this work. The words spoken, which assert the claims of conversation, as acts, provide evidence for their truth. The words spoken, as meanings, are the acts which constitute (i.e., bring into existence and sustain) the conversation as a real event in the world. But in so acting and meaning, we are exercising [communicative] skills we performatively acquired in the process of becoming human, so that we always use them in ultimately undeterminable measure "on faith," even when we use them to test themselves. To repeat: In conversation in general, and, therefore, in conversation on conversation, too, "the last word" can never be in (any candidate would immediately become a previous word to be commented upon). The conversation can investigate these (its) conditions and act upon them to change them, but always with uncertainty as to the effects of such interventions upon itself. "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good" needs to be understood as a process of ever once again enacting itself, including upon itself.
No discourse about conversation can substitute for conversation; such discourse can, however, facilitate conversation. This is an essential aspect of self-accountable conversation: that what it accounts itself as giving an accounting of can be only its own process -- which (to vary a phrase from Aristotle:) includes, in a way, all things (see, e.g., Husserl, 1950/1973, p. 140).