Tag Archives: joint commitment

A First Note on Naim’s End of Power

I didn’t read Moises Naim’s The End of Power when it was fashionable to do so a couple of years ago, after Mark Zuckerberg put the book on his recommended reading list. In fact, I am so unfashionable that I hadn’t heard of the book until yesterday, when I came across a reference to it in an article in El Pais and was intrigued enough to download a Kindle sample chapter (the local bookstore didn’t have a copy I could look over). I plan to continue with it, mainly to see what Naim has to say about cooperation, co-deliberation and joint commitment — themes I’ve been exploring in my posts on the power of asking.

So far, not much. Naim tends to present deliberation as a dissolution of power, instead of appreciating that there is power in it. He wants to remind us that the decay of power he’s documenting in this book can lead to stalemates and “ineffectiveness”; but he risks going too far in the other direction:

A world where players have enough power to block everyone else’s initiative but no one has the power to impose its preferred course of action is a world where decisions are not taken, taken too late, or watered down to the point of ineffectiveness.

There is not much patience in these opening pages for gathering as equals and talking things over, little appreciation that taking decisions together can be something other than head-butting, very little room at all here for co-deliberation (in the course of which players might veer, or would be open to veering, from their preferred course and adopt another course). It’s a world without much charity. Conversation and coordination with others — yielding or deferring to them — just delays or creates obstacles to action. Effectiveness is all. Order is a necessary and one-way imposition, for Naim, and the quicker order is imposed, the better. A world in which “no one has the power to impose” upon others, he warns, threatens to collapse into “chaos and anarchy.”

This, I gather, is one of the main arguments of The End of Power. The trouble I’m starting to have with it has to do with Naim’s Hobbesian view of things and his definition of power: “Power is the ability to direct or prevent current or future actions of other groups and individuals.” Look at those verbs. Power directs and prevents others: command and control. Or, look at the preposition Robert Dahl uses when he defines power in “The Concept of Power,” a paper Naim cites approvingly: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.”

Even in that sentence there is much to unpack, and, as I say, I’ve just cracked the book. But I am wondering if in subsequent chapters Naim will offer any consideration of power that is not power over others but power with them.

Another Note on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

I promised myself at the beginning of this long, drawn out election cycle that I was not going to write about the presidential contest. I don’t believe I’m breaking that promise if I quote an article about the presidential race as a quick follow up to my post about Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness.

There, to develop my intuitions about the fundamentally non-transactional character of conversations and other cooperative undertakings, I focused on Nussbaum’s discussion of the shortcomings of transactional forgiveness, and in particular its emphasis on scorekeeping.

Today, I was pleasantly surprised to find Martin Wolf writing about the dangers of a “transactional approach to partnerships” — which would reduce all alliances, agreements and institutions to winner-take-all “deals” — in an excellent piece called “How the West Might Soon Be Lost”:

…the ability of the US to shape the world to its liking will rest increasingly on its influence over the global economic and political systems. Indeed, this is not new. It has been a feature of US hegemony since the 1940s. But this is even more important today. The alliances the US creates, the institutions it supports and the prestige it possesses are truly invaluable assets. All such strategic assets would be in grave peril if Mr Trump were to be president.

The biggest contrast between the US and China is that the former has so many powerful allies. Even Vladimir Putin is not a reliable ally for China. America’s allies support the US largely because they trust it. That trust is based on its perceived commitment to predictable, values-based behaviour. Its alliances have not been problem-free, far from it. But they have worked. Mr Trump’s cherished unpredictability and transactional approach to partnerships would damage the alliances irreparably.

A vital feature of the US-led global order has been the role of multilateral institutions, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. In binding itself by the rules of an open economic system, the US has encouraged others to do the same. The result has been extraordinary growth in prosperity: between 1950 and 2015, average global real output per head rose sixfold. Mr Trump does not understand this system. The results of repudiation could be calamitous for all.

Nussbaum on the Shortcomings of the Transactional

I turned to Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness to gain a better understanding of the transactional model of conversation and what it might and might not comprise, and to think a little more about why it’s of little help, or at least insufficient, when it comes to cooperative undertakings. Here, Nussbaum presents a broad philosophical and historical look at transactional forgiveness in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and while she doesn’t directly address my much more modest concern, some of what she says about transactional forgiveness — a “central theoretical concept in medieval and modern Jewish philosophy and…highly influential…in the Christian tradition” — applies to what I have said in previous posts about asking and bidding.

For my purposes, the main trouble with transactional forgiveness as Nussbaum describes it — and a shortcoming of the transactional in general — is that it involves scorekeeping. (Imagine a conversation about what to do that was tallied as a ledger of asks and bids. You might be able to measure what’s practicable, but it seems unlikely that tally would be of much use to two people who were committed to doing anything together at all. It might just generate a backward-looking mindset, constant interruption to check who allowed for what, or conflict and resentment.)

When it comes to forgiveness, the scoreboard is a register of the wrongs one has committed and the forgiveness one has obtained by confessing to each count, pleading for forgiveness and doing the appropriate penance. For Nussbaum, this makes people especially prone to the payback error, the notion that score-settling, or allaying the anger of the wronged party, will set things right once and for all in some cosmic balance.

This all makes for an “anxious and joyless” life, in which the “primary commitment to God fills up the whole of one’s life”: all this keeping track of one’s performance or non-performance in relation to an angry God means there is “simply not much room to look at or care for another human being as such, and certainly no room for spontaneity, passion or play.” This is a point to which Nussbaum returns a number of times, and it’s one I would emphasize as well in talking about the ways a transactional mindset can obstruct and frustrate human relationships.

The transactional life is full of “worry.” One must always be watchful, take note of every transgression, scrupulously confess every wrongful act or omission and, in the Christian tradition, every wrongful desire and wish.

The transactional forgiveness process is perfectionistic and intolerant in its own way. The list-keeping mentality that it engenders is tyrannical toward human frailty, designedly so. We must constantly scrutinize our humanity, and frequently punish it. At least the Jewish tradition limits the scrutiny to things that a person can be expected to control. The transactional strand of the Christian tradition contains no such limitations and is consequently…punitive toward the everyday…. Stoic philosopher Epictetus’ instruction, “Watch over yourself as if an enemy is lying in wait,” could easily have been said by many a Christian thinker — or by many a parish priest.

“Ritualized and coercive,” transactional forgiveness leaves “no room for generosity or spontaneity”; nothing is “freely given.” Instead of taking an open, constructive and pragmatic attitude toward our shared future, we are stuck worrying over every little thing each has said or thought or done.

How Things Are Between Us, 2

As I wrote in a recent post, it’s reductive and misleading, but all too common, to think about conversations as mere transactions. I ask and you bid; I have my say and you have yours. But in conversation with another person or a group, I can’t be indifferent to how things are between us. If I am actually and persistently indifferent, then I might be a sociopath or another kind of dangerous person. If I am a relatively decent person and happen to lapse into indifference, you can justly complain that I am neither respecting the standing and authority you and others have, nor am I seriously committed to our conversation, which amounts to the same thing.

Grice writes about conversation as “talk exchange,” and that formulation worries me a little, but he clearly has in mind something more than the transaction we entertain when we talk about “an exchange of views.” The phrase, which might suit diplomatic occasions where distinguished persons stand up and make speeches to let their official positions be known (before retreating from public view to have a conversation about what to do), falls short of capturing exactly the point Grice invites us to make: talking things over, figuring out what to do, making meaning, reaching agreement or finding out where we disagree — all of that is a cooperative undertaking, a joint activity.

Cooperation doesn’t mean we set aside differences; even the most charitable interlocutors can be deeply and persistently antagonistic. Like all good collaboration, conversation tends to bring differences to the fore. It puts them out in the open, we sometimes say; and it’s worth pausing over that expression and considering where that open ground might be, and why we regard it as open. But if we pretend we are just trading or trafficking in (different) views, we are ignoring the common ground already beneath our feet. This ignorance opens to the door to all sorts of abuses and indecencies.

Charles Taylor goes much further in this regard:

…language serves to place some matter out in the open between interlocutors. One might say that language enables us to put things in public space. That something emerges into what I want to call public space means that it is no longer a matter for me, or for you, or for both of us severally, but is now something for us, that is for us together.
Let us say that you and I are strangers travelling together through some southern country. It is terribly hot, the atmosphere is stifling. I turn to you and say: ‘Whew, it’s hot.’ This does not tell you anything you did not know; neither that it is hot, nor that I suffer from the heat. Both these facts were plain to you before. Nor were they beyond your power to formulate; you probably had already formulated them.
What the expression has done here is to create a rapport between us, the kind of thing which comes about when we do what we call striking up a conversation. Previously I knew that you were hot, and you knew that I was hot, and I knew that you must know that I knew that, etc.: up to about any level that you care to chase it. But now it is out there as a fact between us that it is stifling in here. Language creates what one might call a public space, or a common vantage point from which we survey the world together.
To talk about this kind of conversation in terms of communication can be to miss the point. For what transpires here is not the communication of certain information. This is a mistaken view; but not because the recipient already has the information. Nothing stops A making a communication to B of information already in B’s possession. It may be pointless, or misguided, or based on a mistake, but it is perfectly feasible. What is really wrong with the account in terms of communication is that it generally fails to recognize public space. It deems all states of knowledge and belief to be states of individual knowers and believers. Communication is then the transmittal, or the attempted transmittal, of such states.
But the crucial and highly obtrusive fact about language, and human symbolic communication in general, is that it serves to found public space, that is to place certain matters before us. This blindness to the public is of course (in part anyway) another consequence of the epistemological tradition, which privileges a reconstruction of knowledge as a property of the critical individual. It makes us take the monological observer’s standpoint not just as a norm, but somehow as the way things really are with the subject. And this is catastrophically wrong.

When Lily Says “No”

Always take no for an answer is a cardinal rule of asking, I wrote in my first post on this theme. It’s a version of the golden rule that’s especially worth bearing in mind when making plans to collaborate or act with others, or just talking about what we are going to do.

While giving someone an order might be a way to delegate authority and raise her stature in a group, asking recognizes the authority and standing she already has. According this basic respect takes precedence over extracting promises and concessions or getting to yes in a conversation or negotiation, and unless another person can say “no” and have that answer heeded, she will never really be able to say “we”. “No” marks the spot where you stop and we begin.

In other words, taking no for an answer is not just about respecting others, but about respecting and caring for how things are between us (the theme of a post I wrote earlier this week) and for the sense of us we have. That sense of us is how we make up and maintain the social world together. When we ask someone to do something, or ask what we are going to do, we openly acknowledge that there is — or can be — a “we,” not just you and I, but a plural first person. Asking creates an opening. It puts us out in the open.

The philosopher Margaret Gilbert seems to be heading in this same direction when she remarks in passing: “successfully questioning someone involves entering a joint commitment with that person.”

Take a moment to consider the example she offers. Bob addresses Lily with the question, “Shall we dance?” And Lily answers, “Yes, lets!” From this point on, the usual Gilbertian scenario unfolds. Having expressed their readiness to enter a joint commitment — indicating “that all is in order as far as one’s own will is concerned” — Bob and Lily are now jointly committed to dance together.

Once they start dancing, or, actually, even before that, once Lily has said yes and as she rises from her seat, each will have to answer to the other in the event one of them violates the joint commitment, or at least Lily would be justified in complaining if Bob were to drag his feet, go outside for a smoke, or give in to sultry Melissa, who is beckoning with her eyes from the other side of the room.

Unfortunately, Gilbert never elaborates on what “successfully questioning someone” entails, or what might make it different from unsuccessfully questioning someone. On the surface, it looks as if Bob “successfully” questions Lily here because she says “yes” to his request: she accepts his invitation to dance. Bob and Lily have therefore reached an explicit agreement. But let’s not confuse successfully questioning someone with getting to yes, or confuse getting to yes with reaching an agreement. (It’s worth noting that for Gilbert, joint commitments don’t always entail explicit agreements. The way Gilbert puts it is: “everyday agreements can be understood as constituted by…joint commitments” [her emphasis]).

What if Lily says “no”? What if she rolls her eyes, or sticks her nose in the air? In that case, has something like an agreement been reached?

Maybe. As long as Bob takes Lily’s no for an answer, we can say he and Lily have agreed not to dance. Of course, Bob might not like our putting it that way. He might say he failed to get Lily to dance with him, but that might also go to show that he was not prepared to take no for an answer and regarded Lily’s consent as the only acceptable outcome. We might do better if we were to characterize Bob’s questioning Lily in terms of Lily’s responsiveness — on that score, both yes and no would count as success — or if we think about what Bob’s asking Lily to dance and Lily’s refusal puts between them, how it constitutes them as a plural subject.

Though not committed to dance together, Bob and Lily are not done with each other or free of shared commitments after Lily says “no.” In a very important way, their relationship has just begun. When one person addresses or flags the attention of another, with a question or a nod, the squeak of a chair or a sneeze, they “jointly commit to recognizing as a body that the two of them are co-present,” Gilbert writes. People mutually recognize each other in this way all the time, on queues and in coffee shops, in bookstore aisles and on city sidewalks. Here we are, a “we”. Asking helps get us there.

So even if Lily politely refuses Bob with a “no thank you,” or rudely brushes him off, Bob can take solace in the thought that he has successfully questioned Lily. Bob’s failed bid to dance with Lily commits Lily and Bob to recognize that the two of them are co-present, there in the dance hall. Bob and Lily now have a sense of us, even if Lily will never dance with Bob, and that sense — that relationship — will endure.

With that enduring sense of us between them, Bob and Lily are now jointly committed to Lily’s refusal as well. So if Bob were to order Lily or insist that she dance with him, or grab her by the arm and drag her to the dance floor, coercing her, Lily has every right to complain. And if the next time Bob saw Lily he were to pretend that she never refused him at the dance, he would be doing Lily wrong.

How Things Are Between Us

Time now to say something about the tendency, nearly everywhere apparent, to reduce human relationships to transactions, as promised in an earlier post. The topic is vast and I won’t pretend to give it comprehensive treatment in this short post. Instead I’ll just outline some of the problems I have with this tendency, and try to work my way back to some of the thinking and reading I’ve been doing about ordinary first-person plural activities, like conversations, taking a walk together, and so on.

I’m going to pass quickly over what seems to me the most obvious point about this transactional way of thinking about human relationships: namely, that it’s crass to recast human relationships as mere exchanges of goods or information or words. I can easily conceive of situations in which a transactional approach might become abusive, destructive or reach sociopathic proportions; and examples (like this ugly item from today’s news) wouldn’t be very hard to find. But I think crass is the word I’m looking for at the moment, especially if we’re talking about the everyday activities of relatively decent people. “Crass” denotes coarseness and a lack of intelligence and refinement. It’s bad manners, we might say, as long as we remember that manners are more than etiquette, but a respect for how things are between us.

In a commercial transaction the seller can be indiscriminate: usually it doesn’t matter who the buyer is, as long as the seller’s price is met. (Of course there are special cases even here: the Christian baker who will not sell a decorated wedding cake to the same sex couple; the Soup Nazi — “No soup for you!”; and so on.) In relationships, on the other hand, we regularly discriminate and sort out our feelings toward people. Attitudes matter. We are friends, lovers, enemies. I like or dislike you, or I am bothered by what you said. It’s easy to spend time with this person; but that one gets my goat within the first few minutes. She is my mentor with whom I enjoy having lunch at the Greek restaurant on Wednesdays; here comes the tedious colleague with whom I despise talking. All these attitudes are fluid and subject to change, but the point is that in relationships we are always discriminating, reacting and adjusting. Relationships involve moral judgments and ground us in moral community.

Transactions tend to be finite; once the price is negotiated and paid in exchange for goods, the transaction is over. (I recognize that there are transactions that trigger other transactions and so on, but even so the extension of that scaffolding does not necessarily amount to a full-fledged relationship.) Relationships are not events but enduring states; and while some relationships may involve negotiations of price (e.g., we talk about relationships with longstanding clients or customers), those negotiations have as it were been imported into the relationship or continue within it, and they can be destructive of it.

Relationships properly speaking involve much more — above all, a sense of “us,” and all that the first-person plural brings with it: mutual recognition and mutual authority, a whole range of changing attitudes, evaluations of beliefs and actions in light of recognized norms, as well as all sorts of promises and obligations, claims and grievances.

In a word: relationships involve care.

Obviously, but care for whom? This, for me, is the essence of the matter. Most of us would probably be quick to say that a relationship involves care for another or someone other than oneself, for a second person or persons. But all the attitudes we have toward others and the actions we undertake on behalf of second persons demonstrate, at a minimum, that we care not just for the other but also for how things are between us. And that is probably the more important point here, or at least the point I would like to stress: that in a relationship we are jointly committed to how things are between us. We are not only a first and second person who have each made an individual or personal commitment, but a first-person plural, a “we.”

A Note on the Latest No-Platforming

There are currently a number of arguments being made on both sides of the question whether the no-platforming of Peter Tatchell constitutes censorship. I won’t say they are all good arguments; but I’d like to suggest there’s more at stake in all this than the speech rights of one very outspoken person. This thought was brought home to me by a turn of phrase in Jerry Coyne’s very thorough post on the Tatchell affair:

If someone is invited to an event and then is disinvited, or someone who’s already agreed to speak at an event withdraws because they don’t like the views of another invited speaker, then that is a kind of censorship, as it constitutes breaking an agreement previously made in an effort to prevent someone’s views from being expressed and heard.

Censorship might well have been the intended outcome of Fran Cowling’s childish refusal to take part in a debate with someone who had signed a letter defending the free speech of Germaine Greer and other writers whose views she found unsavory. I don’t know for certain that she meant to do anything other than stomp her feet in public (some people call this behavior “virtue signaling”) or if she had thought her actions all the way through.

All that involves very complicated questions about her intentions and so on, and it’s beside the simpler point I want to make. Before jumping into questions of what Cowling intended or what were the intended or unintended consequences of her actions, I suggest we pause to consider the simple fact that (as Coyne puts it, or almost puts it) Cowling broke an agreement. Full stop.

Of course, we make and break agreements all the time, sometimes reaching and then rescinding an agreement jointly with others, and sometimes in violation of commitments we’ve made, or without fulfilling the explicit or implicit terms of the agreement. It’s in making and breaking agreements where we come up against questions of what we owe each other.

In this instance, the breaking of the agreement could stand at least as much discussion as the censorship question or the question what Cowling hoped to accomplish by breaking the agreement. It’s not simply that Cowling broke or withdrew from the agreement she’d made to appear alongside Tatchell. He’s even said that he’s ok with that (“She has a right to refuse to speak alongside me, but not to make witchhunting, McCarthy-style, untrue allegations.”). It’s her denouncing him as a “racist and a transphobe” that really bothers him.

But there was a much much more basic agreement in place even before the invitation to either speaker was made, and that’s something like a shared commitment to debate, or the very idea that it’s worth talking things over and listening to what others have to say — as opposed to, say, might makes right or some equally ugly proposition. It’s hard to believe that this even needs saying: when we deny others who share a commitment to talking things over the standing to talk, we wrong them and invite all sorts of abuses against them and against ourselves.

This is one reason why Cowling’s actions appear to be unethical and dangerous even if it can be argued that they are not, as her supporters insist, a violation of Tatchell’s individual rights.

Answering ‘The Ask’ with a ‘Huh?’

I’ve written a number of posts about “the ask” and why we should insist that ask is a verb, but I haven’t said much about the provenance of the ungainly nominative “ask” or taken its origins into account.

“The ask” is not the revival or survival of an archaic or medieval form, as one writer in the New York Times suggested. Far from it: it’s a piece of stock trader’s jargon that crept from the trading floor into bureaucratic conversation. On Wall Street, “the ask” is shorthand for the minimum price a seller sets for a security. The difference between the ask and the bid, or what a buyer is willing to pay, is known as the spread; and the spread is one pretty reliable measure of market liquidity. 

Presumably, when someone uses the term “the ask” or “my ask” to direct work or coordinate action, he expects (or pretends to expect) the second person, his interlocutor, to counter with a bid, as if conversations produced a workable measure of practical liquidity — or a measure of what’s practically possible — in the difference between what one person wants to do and what another wants or is willing to do, or what each thinks ought to be done.

We can sketch a model: the ask would invite the bid and the bid would meet that invitation with an offer. And we can develop this rudimentary model of conversation a little more by exploring the etymology of the word “bid” — itself the substantive form of a verb with roots in Old Teutonic, where *beudan means to stretch out, reach out, offer or present; and by extension beodan or boden in Old English and bede in Middle English come to mean to announce, proclaim or command. So here, again, an ask-bid model might confer some power on the bidder, or help create the appearance of parity, a sharing of command between petitioner and respondent, asker and bidder. What we are going to do is what we together command, or what will fall within the spread, span or scope of our shared command.

That doesn’t seem so bad, on the face of it: at the very least it sounds as if people on both sides can give and get in return. “The ask” holds out the promise of some share in power, or at least more flexibility than command-obedience would seem to allow. That might help account for its widespread use in the first decade or so of the twenty-first century. Ideas about organizational hierarchy are changing, and people have begun to pay outward homage, at least, to the idea that command and control is not necessarily the most effective way to run an organization. In bureaucratic settings, the imperative of command is taking on interrogative affects: the ask makes an order sound more like a request, softening the power one person actually wields over others.

The model has lots of shortcomings: for one, it reduces human relationships to market transactions — and that’s a serious and thorny problem, one I hope to say more about in a future post. But the main trouble with the ask-bid model is simply that it tells us very little about how conversation actually works. Conversations are never so neatly regimented and sequenced as this bureaucratic model makes them out to be, and as I wrote in another post, much of which we might regard as background noise or “beside the point” in a conversation is just as important, if not more important, than the putative point. There’s never just “an ask”; all parties to the conversation are continuously asking and offering, requesting clarification or confirmation, making representations of the other, shifting attention to and from the matter of joint interest, situating, interrupting and re-connecting with each other.

Generally, we’re making it up as we go along, together, and all of that joint effort counts much more than we ordinarily acknowledge. We don’t merely counter asks with bids or requests with offers; we also work together to organize, represent and sustain the conversation as a social act.

A paper published last week by Mark Dingemanse and others at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics stresses this theme. In ordinary conversation, the authors observe, interlocutors ask for clarification and correction about once every 1.4 minutes. This “other-initiated repair” is a central feature of all human conversation; and the cues one uses to initiate repair demonstrate care for the interlocutor and for the “social unit” of the conversation.

There are three main ways interlocutors initiate repair. Interjections like “huh?” are “open requests” for clarification. Asking speakers to repeat what they said (“who”?) are “restricted requests.” Repeating back what the speaker said (“he hit a homerun?”) are described as “restricted offers.” All three are regularly used with the same frequency no matter what language we happen to be speaking and despite differences in grammar and syntax. (For the paper’s authors, this lends support to the hypothesis that there are universals at work in all human language; but rather than get hung up on that point, I prefer simply to appreciate their observation that interlocutors are working constantly together, making repairs on the fly.)

Abbot and Costello's 'Who's on First?' routine is a brilliant send up of other-initiated repair.

So instead of a simple ask-bid or request-offer model, we need a much looser and less linear model in which all parties to a conversation are constantly running requests and offers and making interjections in no particular order or sequence, and so frequently and effortlessly that we don’t even notice we are making them. Requests, offers and interjections might even go unanswered; but they are no less effective for all that. These are cooperative cues and gestures, markers of the conversation as a social act.

(This is, by the way, why,so-called “conversational” interfaces built for digital assistants like Siri are still nowhere near conversational. What the manufacturers of these devices really mean is that you can address your digital assistant — give an order or make a request — in ordinary language, and it will follow. But even if the assistant is designed to say “I did not understand your request, please repeat it” or something along those lines, it’s not producing anything like the steady stream of other-initiated repairs involved actual conversation, where interlocutors are reading each other’s minds and correcting misreadings as they go.)

Conversation recreates and demonstrates joint commitment. That’s what’s really missing from the ask-bid model: human relationship. Asker and bidder, seller and buyer, don’t have a shared project beyond the exchange they are negotiating; their contact with each other can end once the transaction is made, and one or both can just walk away if they don’t agree on price. After all, both the asker and the bidder seek advantage over the other, rather than mutual gain or shared advantage that is the spur, aim and outcome of serious conversation. After the deal is done or abandoned, the bidder is free to pursue his ends and the seller is, too, even if they will be working at cross purposes.

On the other hand, people who are in a conversation about what to do have already committed to doing something together. They’ve committed to acting together, to social action and to a social subject: a “we.” We keep our commitment by repairing as we go. We act together even when we have irreconcilable differences about the way things are or what to do.

Howard Becker’s Idea of A World

Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker profile of sociologist Howard Becker brought this passage to my attention. It resonated with so many things I’ve been reading about and even writing about lately that I immediately searched out the source of the passage Gopnik quotes: “A Dialogue on the Ideas of ‘World’ and ‘Field,’” between Becker and Alain Pessin. There’s a transcript of the 2006 dialogue on Becker’s site; it also appeared in Sociological Forum and in the French journal Sociologie de l’art. Here’s the passage that initially struck me:

A “world” as I understand it–and if my language elsewhere doesn’t convey this then I’ve failed to be clear–consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. Because everyone has a project, and the outcome of negotiations between them is whatever they finally all agree to, everyone involved in such an activity has to take into account how others will respond to their own actions. David Mamet, the playwright, said somewhere I can’t now find that, in a scene in a play, everyone in the scene has something they want. If they didn’t want something they wouldn’t be there, they’d be off someplace where they could pursue something they did want. The scene consists of each one trying to get what he or she wants, and the resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.

A world is a place where, willy-nilly, we find ourselves trying to do things and where we are always already committed to doing things with others; so we need constantly to read their minds or at least get a good working sense of what they want and take their intentions into account. This permits and requires us to make claims or demands on them and them on us. We ask for or compel their assistance in myriad ways, even as they and others do the same to us and myriad others.

In this conception, at least, a world is not a fiat of power, a matter of a coup or command, but an ongoing negotiation and accommodation. As Becker says elsewhere in the “Dialogue,” when Pessin presses him, once again, to differentiate idea of a world from Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of a “field”:

the metaphor of world–which does not seem to be at all true of the metaphor of field–contains people, all sorts of people, who are in the middle of doing something which requires them to pay attention to each other, to take account consciously of the existence of others and to shape what they do in the light of what others do. In such a world, people do not respond automatically to mysterious external forces surrounding them. Instead, they develop their lines of activity gradually, seeing how others respond to what they do and adjusting what they do next in a way that meshes with what others have done and will probably do next.

I like Becker’s sense here that we are never starting from scratch. We are always in medias res and our work is always unfinished, and it keeps unravelling and collecting itself in different configurations, collaborations, joint commitments and shared intentions.

There’s no extra-social territory, no Archimedean point from which we make a world. We are already in it; and we are never very far from each other, even when we think we are making plans of our own. We are constantly making little, often imperceptible adjustments and changes to what we are doing and what we want to do, re-routing desire, fidgeting and digressing, retreating and advancing, even as we gradually recalibrate our next moves (our “lines of activity,” as Becker so nicely puts it).

Inevitably, we end up doing something other than what we initially thought we wanted or tried to do — which we ordinarily allow, because we’ve already conceded and agreed to the imperfect outcome a thousand times over.

Serious Conversations, 5

It’s difficult to have an uninterrupted conversation. We can retreat to some quiet spot, turn off all our devices, put the do-not-disturb sign on the door, and chances are we will still have to deal with interruptions. Bar all intruders, but we cannot bar ourselves from the place where we are. A noise, the aroma of cooking, thirst or a rumble in the gut, a change in the weather or the position of the sun, the sight of a passerby, a bird or squirrel, a tugboat making its way into the harbor: it’s remarkable how little it takes to distract us or take our attention away from the conversation, stop us in mid-sentence or change the point of view.

If the interruption can be pinned on one of our party or an interloper, we are likely to go on the offensive, and start blaming. When we’re done, or if there’s no one to blame, we almost always go on the defensive: we try to go back to where we were, retrench or retrace our steps, restore equilibrium. The truth is, there’s no going back. If conversation can feel like a place we create together, then an interruption can feel like the loss of a world.

Or now it’s a world with a history. When we ask, where were we? what were we talking about? we are already speaking of ourselves in the past tense. There’s no need for nostalgia or remorse, and we shouldn’t lose time searching for a thread that is no longer there. The warp has changed. So must the woof.

Interruptions give us a chance to react, reset, review and recount, to advance new claims or make new demands of ourselves or of others, or simply to renew the joint commitment we made to having the conversation. So we should not think of interruptions merely as noise to signal, but learn to welcome them and think of them as an intrinsic part of the conversation itself.

Polite conversation may be a matter of knowing when and how to interrupt; serious conversation involves give and take, a socializing of attention. Interruption doesn’t have to mean talking over the other, but listening and then redirecting. We attend seriously to the matter between us by making reciprocal claims on one another’s attention.

To put that another way: conversation assumes a shared intention to shift attention.