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04 April 2004

A political ideal of conversation

A conversation, or a certain type of conversation, is a performance. This is why it doesn't matter if we lose our unique tone of voice. That's part of the point. Conversation requires insincerity. Or at least it is often indifferent as to whether a statement is sincere or insincere. What matters is whether it is funny, or disputatious, or revealing, or sad. Conversation shouldn't be directed at a conclusion either, and it shouldn't firmly be about something. It should circle, it should break off, it should recommence at an entirely different point. A conversation is merely a series of juxtapositions. A phrase in what I said, a topic, a point of view, connects with something that you contain. Then you say something. And so we proceed...

There is a strand of thought which holds that a political system prospers from conversation. Habermas wrote that if we were all inserted into an "ideal speech situation" (the economy cabin of a 747?), we would ultimately come to a consensus on any issue. At the very least, our disagreements would be clarified, misunderstandings would be removed... A problem with such models of democracy may be that they conceive of conversation not as a performance but as a process. The point of the conversation is stipulated: it is agreement. Would we want to take part in such a conversation? ... The thing about conversational democracy may be that the people who are good at the art of conversation might be rotten conversational democrats. The ones that prosper would be those that are good at argument. And those who are good at argument - the logical, the single-minded, the dominating types - often have terrible opinions.

That isn't to say that the art of conversation, the art of pure conversation as I have attempted to separate it, has no political implications... What may be politically valuable about conversation is the insincerity it encourages.... Conversation flourishes when we entertain each other. Conversation flows when we, each of us, flit between different points of view. Conversation sometimes requires us to ask questions, the answers to which we are not interested in ourselves, but which we feel the other person might enjoy or appreciate the opportunity to provide. Conversation, in short, promotes civility... It may not be possible for us to agree. But it may be possible for us to disagree entertainingly and be able to disagree in ways so that we can see and even expound each other's point of view.

I have just culled the central thesis from an intelligent personal reflection by Kamran Nazeer in Prospect Magazine and there's a lot more there. Considered autistic as a child, Nazeer gradually came to participate in conversation and understand what it might be for.

His understanding of conversation as a performance reminds me of Richard Sennett's account of 18th century coffee houses in The Fall of Public Man.

See also: A link-based introduction to argumentation over on anti-mega and this Guardian article about the increasing popularity of public lectures and debates in the UK.

Posted at 10:29 AM | Permalink


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