Thursday, December 24, 2009

Conversational Deadness

A primary reason I’ve noted as to we so thoroughly enjoy good company is that something actually develops out of a shared space that we cannot enact alone. It is at once out of participants’ grips as emanating out of them. It is dependent upon the constituents of company, the particular individuals that comprise it, yet the collective development is beyond an individual’s precise attempts at maneuvering it this way or that. Good company is something you relish when you abruptly notice that you’re caught up in it. Your understandings become enlivened. Your experience is enriched and this continues to unfold along a complex mutuality. Whole worlds open up before you with the guides of good company. Whole fields become penetrable. There, a new depth and distinction is illuminated in the self and the world. Ahhh, the interpersonal. I get so wrapped up in good company that when I am thrust into its lack, company becomes its empty shell of mere form, an abrupt, painful absence and aloneness oddly in the midst of being amongst others, that for reasons explored herein, none of this is born. We sit in a shared stagnation. More precisely, the realm of the pseudo-shared, each isolable human a mere component in a noisy but silent crowd.

I try to imagine my identity as something which can be unleashed or suppressed (revealed in being myself or hidden behind facades) depending on the occasion, but this one-sided plan always resists execution. My identity, rather than under the auspices of a cognitive executor, me - the sovereign, seems to be called out, provoked, by certain others, certain configurations of others. As described in A General Theory of Love (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000), “In the vistas of imagination, the self is a proud ship of state - subject to the winds and tides of circumstance, certainly, but bristling with masts and spars and beams, fairly bursting with solidity. We would scarcely imagine that identity could be as fluid as the seas that supposed self rides upon (pg. 143).” Rare and partial sides of myself come to bear more readily, gracefully, more vastly and sweeping, so I am caught in a self-surprise. And good company can enact personality atop its merely drawing buried forms forth.

Over the years, tinkering with social arrangements and with those I prefer to accompany me through life, I’ve come to rely and expect the heights of good company. I’ve always reasoned that if one could do the same or better solo, try reassessing the company. If being with others took away from experience, rather than enlivened and enhanced it, degraded it, it had assumed its deficient mode and was but a mere distracting obstacle henceforth to be avoided. But there are always new arrangements awaiting my disappointment. What are good company’s preconditions that can become so violated?

As I introduced, the foibles of a failed project of good company cannot be blamed on a particularity - no, it probably wasn’t just Uncle Joe’s awkwardness or Mikey’s vapidity that ruined the potentials dormant in the gathering of selves. This is at once a simplification, a simplified scapegoating. There is, however, a fairly predictable pattern to similar configurations that consistently churn out a less-than-enjoyable communal gathering. I have a suspect precondition to good company (and generally a personal bias): the necessity, at the outset, of a privilege of good input. Things worthy of sharing, of bringing to the public sphere. A collection of empty vessels, as an old instructor of psychotherapy taught me, is like a meeting between corpses. Some may claim good company is entirely individualized, relative along the various intersecting planes of interests, pastimes, plans, that conservation’s curvature of compatibility reveals good company. Like people get along with like people and seem to enjoy each other. This may provide the filling, oiling the bearings, but I have another suspicion that there is something more fundamental in company gone awry than the chance of incompatible lives. (As an aside to my blog-reader, I identify myself as a habitual seeker of the more fundamental layers - it’s my draw toward ontology and the conditions that allow for the possibility of being - more, of course, but later). Surely so, for even in the mostly reliable good configurations, there are occasional momentary duds. And the interests, pastimes, and plans remain.

What is it that spurs the enlivening, enhancing generation of conversation? Those involved must hold a contributory motivation. What I mean by this is that along with substantial potential of worthwhile contribution explicated above as my conceptual bias, people must seek and support the effort of good company. This needs to matter in order for it to launch. In a group, we can all just kick back, failing to be present, failing to combine self with other selves in this magnificent production. Why would anyone ignore these potentials? Good company requires work, an efforted, spirited, motivated action. Intragroup conflict can sabotage. But more likely it is intragroup apathy.

What I am leading to is the felt difference between dialogue, and the shared, developing mutuality that it spawns, and conversational deadness. Many do not approach gatherings with rigor or such high expectancy as I do. But a taste of what lies within interpersonality, its greatest unfolding - good company - vitally remembered, will cast constricting forms into the inferior variants they really are. There is a flatness in exchange as propositions are tossed to recipients and promote nothing further, stale lines. A banter of pre-formulated stories, renderings, ideas, intact and unmodifiable (and in my classification, thus unworthy of the sacred demands of shared space). Dead conversation seeps into the very content of its members’ words, now profuse with trite banalities neatly picked up from one source or another and plopped into the nexus of the now-occurring ‘conversation’. Dejà vu possesses me in these cruel moments as I feel I’m somehow in a recording of a prior originality. Attempts to awaken our communal decay fall on already decayed eardrums. More deadness is passed around for a second helping. No, I’ll pass, this is not what I was trying to evoke. It can easily be the case (and by me has been) that these groups garner scathing criticism, as I claim in its aftermath that I was subjected to the bored and the weary. What terribly helpless people they were. But this misses the burden of responsibility in the shared task of good company. For I too am deadened in the process, finding as time proceeds within the interpersonal void, the night stretching on with these people, that more and more I feel I have nothing to offer, and when I do, it takes the form of a banality - I am caught in self-surprise again. I feel hijacked.

Impasse. Struggling for years with the inertia and rigid dichotomy of good company and conversational deadness, it is nearly impossible for me to infuse the latter with the preconditions, to challenge each gathering I wind up in or actively create, prodding for interpersonal jewels. I could take up an explicit technique in cultivation, pull out some Bohmian dialogue strategies, but somehow I am drawn to allowing good company to arise organically.

Blog-readers, bring in the concrete examples, bring in the whole of what I’ve missed or misconstrued, bring in the probably raw portrayal of who I am as a person in order for these things to come to illumination. Let’s get this conversational party started. (Isn’t it ironic how so many gatherings labeled “parties” - conjuring joviality - ultimately fail in this task of good company? The very unjovial strategize throughout its abject duration an exit plan…).


tom hunt said...

1. What about the effects of mind-altering substances/conditions? And not just the drunken conversations that seem deep and endless at the time, but hardly-remembered in the morning (though they certainly add to my point). But what about the great conversations that can come from a long hike. All of a sudden, the companions that you only knew superficially beforehand become interesting and challenging, spurred on by hypoxia, adrenaline, and sweat. I don't think that these situations negate your points about the need for 'contributory motivation', as you put it. But they emphasize your point that the self can be fluid, and perhaps show that the 'deadness' you harp on in the third-to-last paragraph is more fleeting and situational than permanent (the permanence being suggested by your 'decayed eardrums' imagery).

2. I had a friend in college who went to all of her dates with at least three prepared conversation topics. We mocked her endlessly (she was a very highly-planned person in general), but she thought that doing so would both make the date run more smoothly and give her a better judgment on her suitor (if he couldn't keep up a conversation even with her contributing three prepared and -to her mind- interesting topics, well, then, he probably wasn't worth much). What I took out of that was that people can be using conversation for their own motivations, even when it seems like great company. So perhaps such a high pursuit of good company isn't as good and pure as you are thinking.

3. On the other hand, some of the most interesting people I know take meeting new people and having new conversations as a challenge and a chance to show love to strangers. They go beyond having their own 'contributory motivation', and see their chance to show love in the ability to bring others out of their shells, make everyone comfortable, and find out what it is exactly that the others want to talk about. I'm not sure this is always possible, but I find it very noble to think that there is something interesting in everyone, that anyone can be a good conversationalist if put in the right situation.

Ολας Καραγαννις said...

My first reaction to this blog was to think of the notion of a shared language community. If we are using terms vaguely or in a way that is not typically used by the company we are in, we tend to stifle conversation. However, I think you are correct in saying that it is not a likeness that many times creates good company---but it helps. Even if I disagree with what the person is saying about, say, Sartrean ontology, the fact that they speak the language opens us up to conversation and debate, which may in fact turn into a better conversation than if I agree with them.
There is another aspect that I would like to highlight in this as well and that is the environmental concerns. How many times have you met someone at work that you feel indifferent towards, only to go out for a drink afterwards and stay the whole night in wrapped conversation? The institutional and professional work-world disallows good conversation due to the necessity of putting on airs (I'm competent, trust me). Yet still, I am not convinced that this is the whole truth (for if it were, the most bland individual we new would become a good friend with a change of setting). Thus I propose we search for the answer to this question by looking at the supra-text of a conversation.
Is it necessarily true that when I speak to someone, somewhere in me is trying to get something out of them? For instance, I want them to be a good conversational partner, thus I am talking with them to try and facilitate them as a good conversational partner. What's more, do we not try to read what the other person wants from us, what the other person desires? The other is looking at me, they have caught me in their gaze and are expecting something from me. It is not only true that the other possess a part of my identity, but even more, I want to live up to the image they have of me. I can never have direct access to what their image of me is, so I attempt to guess by determining what I think of them. Think of when you meet a preeminent professor as an undergraduate. You know that she will see you in the guise of the undergraduate and (say) you want to prove to her that you are not merely an undergraduate, but in fact a desirable person to converse with. We attempt to fulfill or defy the image that the other has of us with out eye toward their desire. This is intensified in sexual activity, where we meet a raw aspect of the other's desire. We could very well change the nature of this blog and ask “Why is it so hard to find a good sexual partner?” It is not only because the person is “experienced” or “unfledged.” It is not that they want what you want. It is the desire to have the other desire you in the way you want to be desired, and living up to that desire. Thus is, ontologically, on par with all interpersonal relationships.
There is a certain amount of angst when confronting the other's desire and this angst turns into (pathological) terror in intense circumstances. Is this always a reciprocal process in which I desire to live up to your desire as you do the same with me? Or, more appropriately, is it that depending on the material, environmental, and personal circumstances that this relationship is metastable. You are a guest at someone's house that you are not well acquainted with (say the parents of a friend). Before you arrive the host is attempting to appear as clean, decent people, without mal intent. They not only set up the house to ensure your comfort, but also as a spectacle, their showing off their lived-space. They arrange the bathroom with little bars of soap and fragrant candles. They are attempting to realize their desire which can only be realized in another's eyes. When you arrive at the house, you likewise are controlling your space (wearing business casual, but not tying up your hair, etc.). You want the person to see you as a legitimate friend, and as a good guest. Through the course of the evening topics emerge, say you want the other to recognize your intellectual superiority.

Ολας Καραγαννις said...

The problem arises. The other is no longer master of their domain, you are in control of their (intellectual) space, and they feel your desire, the desire that they engage in an intellectual conversation. However, this is not where they desired their identity to go. This engagement is not interesting because it steals their home away from them. They recuperate, and act as though the conversation is unseemly for a civilized dinner. As a good host the attempt to tactfully steer the conversation in a more general, more pedestrian area. They are not interested in the actual topic at hand, but the tact by which they bring the conversation back to home. If the guest persists to pursue the intellectual desire, they present a challenge to the desire of the other. The host will attempt to stifle the conversation by any means possible, even emotional.
This is merely a concrete example of the theoretical form of meeting the desire of the other. It is always on the ground of our pathological desires which interlock with the desires of the other that we create or destroy conversation. The other holds the secret to our self realization, but that other can always become rogue. The relationship can always flip and turn, by way of environment and (psychological) time. When talking to your boss qua boss (in a board meeting, etc) there are a different set of desire-interchange, than when talking to your boss qua friend (at the bar, etc).

Sorry to do it in two posts, but it exceeded the max blog length.

TONIN mckelvey said...

Goodness, it seems there may be more ideas to unpack and explore in the commentary than the original source. Which is well-fitting: dialogue is emerging!

Summatively, I get a general sense that my posting was leaving out important operating dynamics of conversation and the factors that inspire good variants of it. It probably did not help to write such a piece directly following a series of particularly long situations of failed conversation (as I perceived) amongst the same group of individuals. I was at a point of satiation that can edge on blame. I appreciate all of the sharp observations and critiques of my critique that will refine my understanding of how good conversation manifests.

I too have had the experience, on numerous occasions, of unexpected, surprising shifts in previous lockstep interactions when settings or context (both external and mind-altering internal) change. This speaks to an even greater fluidity of selves and exchanges than I originally laid out. But, we have to admit, that these shifts, however possible, are rare. Or are they?

In reference to this endless human play of trying to meet (or defy) the perceived desires of the other, while trying to evoke of them what it is you desire, it is only in cases where there is an impasse of desire that conversations meander along the same wearied lines of deadness we've come to dreadfully expect. Meaning, conversational deadness reveals that each party is attempting to evoke an image of the other that the other consistently refuses, meeting after meeting, again and again. Which means each party has become deadened to the possibilities dormant in human contact. Each rigidified in their reaching-out and the only interchange is wooden.

There is a dimension that has come to bear heavily on this issue of conversation: power. It struck me in the example of the pre-programmed questioning date. As well as the intellectual guest in the civilized, proper, clean home. You're both right in saying that good company doesn't seem to be the aim here when the full preview is open for inspection (her notecards in purse revealed, the strategic soaps). And it is erroneous for me to claim that all meetings of minds are, we all agree, an attempt for good company. We are hungry for parts of our identity to be brought out, nurtured. We are also caught in a dynamic of wanting to be deemed worthy by the other. Liked. Valued.

This is power play. And it is heavily complicated when there exists previously-established differential power, as many of these examples contain. Good company is straightjacked by occupying strict roles of deferring (guest, student, employee) to the powerful (in-law, teacher, corporate).

Despite all of this, I do still believe in the preconditions of good company, however much more I need to cogitate on finding and describing them more true to experience. A privilege of good input and contributory motivation - without these, what do we have? There are those who are "with" us but are fundamentally asleep. Epty vessels as I mention. Or perhaps, here too, I need to acknowledge that these things rise up and diminish within each of us - so that we all can become bearers of good company and fail it. Regardless, these precondtions seem to manifest it.

I also really like re-viewing conversations as a challenge to bring forth the other. A friend of mine studying to be a spiritual teacher calls this "meeting the divine spark of the other". She is always encouraging me to do this.

And I still will take conflict (thanks for introducing me to the concept of a 'shared language community' :)) any day over apathy.

TONIN mckelvey said...

Oh, and, I wanted to find out more, Tom, about when you think it is not possible to do this bringing of the divine spark of the other out?