David Weinberger of Joho the Blog wrote a post several days ago that I’ve been sitting on while I mull it over. In the meantime, a couple of posts here have raised related isses, namely the comments on Perceptions of Asian Perception and Kerim’s Face-to-Face, so I figured I’d add Weinberger’s post to the mix for your consideration.

Weinberger is something of an Internet utopianist, so his post leans heavily on new technologies that have provided conduits for the wide transmission of ideas — as he says, you may not be IM’ing Chinese Communists or Jihadists, but the conversations others are having in out-of-the-way corners of the network are refracting through the whole. But I think his comments can be abstracted from the technology issue to encompass a way of looking at social communication in general. As noted here and elsewhere, the model of cultures as bounded entities is highly unsatisfactory as a way of looking at the modern world (and possibly of looking at human history at any point). For example, the colonial encounter cannot be productively conceptualized as the domination of a monolithic native culture by a monolithic colonial culture; instead, we have to recognize internal differentiation within both parties, including natives for whom the colonial regime offers new and unprecedented opportunities for fulfillment and colonialists for whom the colonial project is considered an atrocity and others who find greater fulfillment in the cultural world of the oppressed than in the colonial structure. Vicente Rafael’s Contracting Colonialism presents a good example of the multiple interconnections and communications that make up the colonial encounter, in this case among the Tagalogs of the Phillipines.

Against the relativistic conception of “cultures” with a small ‘c’ and a plural ‘s’, Weinberger posits the conversation, a world in which differences are not isolated into bounded cultures but are instead constantly confronting and accomodating one another. There’s nothing particularly new about this idea — Volosinov’s 1929 work on ideologies and individual languages says much the same thing in much denser language — but I particularly like the way Weinberger phrases it:

There is a big difference between a relativistic world in which contrary beliefs assert themselves and a conversational world in which contrary beliefs talk with one another. In the relativistic world, we resign ourselves to the differences. In the conversational world, the differences talk. Even though neither side is going to “win” — conversation is the eternal fate of humankind — knowledge becomes the negotiation of beliefs in a shared world. What do we need to talk through? What can’t we give up? What do we believe in common that seems so different? What should we just not talk about? These are the questions that now shape knowledge.

As I said, there’s a touch of utopianism to this — the “negotiation of beliefs” never takes place in a power vacuum, and is often accompanied by the threat of violence — but I think it does point at some of the shortcomings of the traditional relativist conception of culture (not to be confused with the anthropologist’s commitment to “cultural relativism” as a research methodology and a moral position) and offer a somewhat different way to think about the interaction of people with different knowledge claims — whether they are as vastly different as a conservative Midewesterner and a committed Jihadist or whether they are members of the same community or even the same family.

5 thoughts on “Conversationalism

  1. This touches on the comment Ethan Zukerman left on my “The Rest of the World” post. I expressed skepticism about how many people actually bother to read global blogs, even though it is now so easy to do so. He insists that journalists and others do make use of sites like Global Voices, which is great. My skepticism, however, comes from numerous studies which show that the internet has served to make many people more insular. Rather than everyone getting the same information from the same mass-media, people are now more likely to live in an insular world where they only read blogs by like-minded people, thus reinforcing, as opposed to “negotiating” their preconceived notion of the world. Not unlike this graph of Amazon book readers. Not to be too wishy-washy, but in the end I suppose both the optimism and the skepticism are equally justified, and there will be a vast majority of people living more insular lives, but more and more people who are willing and able to seek out opposing views and engage with them. In other words, you can look at that graph of Amazon books and see it as a glass half-empty or a glass half-full…

  2. I see a lot of criticism of Internet “echo chambers”, but what people say doesn’t jibe with my own experience and I wonder how much actual research there is behind those critiques. Here’s the thing: I don’t actually know all but one of my co-Savage Minders. We are a community, however small, composed almost entirely of relations among online personas. I have first met dozens of people, including my current partner, through online forums, chatrooms, email, and so on. I have built lasting online relationships with people as far away as Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Rumania, not to mention people within the US and Canada, through the Internet. As the “Face-to-Face” thread notes, there is a difference between these relationships and my normal day-to-day interactions with physical presences, but one thing that cannot be said is that the Internet has made me more insular. I really do not think I am some great exception.

    At the same time, I can see where many people spend their online time chatting or communicating with real-world friends, as teenagers used phones Back in The Day ™. I can see where the news-gathering potential of the Internet is ignored in favor of games and porn. But the impact of the Internet — and of conversation networking in general — is not that every person is in touch with every other person, but that a handful of people are in contact with a handful of other people, who are in contact with a handful of other people, and so on. It only takes slight overlaps in those networks for information to circulate quite widely.

    For me, though, the interesting question is how much our non-online interactions also follow this sort of pattern. Think, for instance, of Clifford’s _Routes_ and the idea of cultural “flows”. It’s clear that there can be no flow without channels — so what are the channels? In a world of irreducible difference, such difference would stand in the way of meaningful exchange. At some point, there are conversations — people talking to other people — and that implies some degree of commensurability, or there simply would not be cultural flow. So one question is, is there some sort of threshhold, some point at which the overlapping of conversational networks is too low for ideas to spread? What are the factors that allow opposition or unintelligibility to transform into conversation? In a world of conversations, can we meaningfully sort out humanity into cultural units? How?

  3. Consider American vernacular musics as a centuries-long cultural conversation. On the whole, it’s been a remarkably fruitiful affair. Yes, lots of garbage, but lots of good stuff too. And there’s no particular reason to think that it’s over or that all the colorful difference is about to merge into a neutral grey-brown sludge.

  4. I think of the issue of bottlenecks in terms of conversation. For example, how many people can engage in conversation at once? Once that relatively small number of every day practice is succeeded, then most people observe rather than converse as long as a technologically unaided state of face-to-face conversation prevails.

    The Technology (computing communications) moves to expand the input of larger numbers of people in the conversation and shifts the character of information in the conversation. Most conventional content is one-to-many in character of use, books, movies, television, etc,. The receiver does not ‘talk back’ to the content coming into them. In basic conversation, face-to-face, every day speech acts, the characteristics of a technological ‘many-to-many content’ of a conversation is modelled. For example is it real time? Are parallel emotions channels communicated well? Is attention shared well between people?

    To sum up, we have impoverished ways to understand what conversation does. We tend instead because most media functions in one-to-many standards to not appreciate that the exchange process might have larger scales of impact than basic conversation provides. Global culture is dominated by one-to-many models of knowledge. Face-to-face implies technology breeching a barrier in the culture of the bottlenecks of basic conversation.
    Doyle Saylor

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