An early illustration of the acronym “CEO” turns up in an influential book on corporate governance from 1966.
Back in 2012, I set out to track down the earliest illustrations of the acronym “CEO” (for Chief Executive Officer) and make some historical sense of the evidence I found. For the most part, I have been confining my searches to the American context, and looking at how the term “CEO” gains cultural currency even as real-world CEOs gain unprecedented power and social prestige in American life.
My initial search led me back to 1970 and the pages of the Harvard Business Review. Now I’ve uncovered an even earlier illustration, or, rather, a whole slew of earlier illustrations, in the pages of The Corporate Director, a book by Joseph M. Juran and J. Keith Louden published in 1966.
Juran was a highly influential figure, an industrial engineer turned management guru, mentor to Peter Drucker and W. Edwards Deming. He is remembered today primarily for his writings on quality. The lesser known Louden started out as an industrial engineer (like Juran), moved into the management ranks after the Second World War, and began writing about corporate governance and business leadership starting in the 1960s, with the publication of The Corporate Director.
Their recourse to the three letter “CEO” appears to have been mainly a matter of expedience: “‘chief executive officer,’” they write, “recurs so often in this book that we have chosen to use the shorthand designation ‘CEO’ instead.” (p. 10)
For these authors, the abbreviation CEO is not merely a title, indicative of “rank”: it designates a “role,” or “the broad function or job assigned to an individual.”
This book is primarily concerned with roles, duties, functions, deeds. Hence, as far as possible, it uses words in their sense of describing roles. To the same end, it avoids, as far as possible, the use of words which are mainly descriptive of rank without describing role; for example, “President,” “Officer.” Moreover, it uses the “role-describing” words in their uncapitalized form to emphasize the role rather than the title; for example, chief executive officer, chairman of the board. The abbreviation CEO (for chief executive officer) is capitalized only to prevent a three-letter word from escaping notice. (p. 77)
At the time, those performing the role of chief executive officer (or CEO) mostly had the title of “President.” Juran and Louden cite a 1962 study of 900 industrial companies, which found that the “role of CEO” was assigned to the President 70 percent of the time; the Chairman of the Board 25 percent of the time; and the Chairman of the Board and President 5 percent of the time.
With the libraries closed due to the coronavirus, I’ve only been able to find this 1962 study — a research report from the National Industrial Conference Board and the American Society of Corporate Secretaries by John R. Kinley, entitled Corporate Directorship Practices — on Google Books. No preview is available. A search for “CEO” here turns up 4 instances, but the results do not display the actual text. So there may be a 1962 illustration waiting to be found. Page 86 looks especially promising. (It’s worth adding, however, that the three letter cluster creates a lot of false positives, so I can’t know for certain until I see the actual page.)
Even so, I am uncertain that these earlier illustrations change the big picture. It still seems pretty clear that the 1970s — with the doctrine of shareholder value and the overall financialization of the economy — mark the beginning of the CEO’s American heyday. It’s possible the recent crises and the end of the post-2008 expansion will spell its gradual and inglorious end.
The shareholder theory is usually credited to Milton Friedman, the University of Chicago economist and Nobel laureate. In a famous 1970 New York Times article, Friedman argued that because the CEO is an “employee” of the shareholders, he or she must act in their interest, which is to give them the highest return possible. Friedman pointed out that if a CEO acts otherwise—let’s say, donates corporate funds to an environmental cause or to an anti-poverty program—the CEO must get those funds from customers (through higher prices), workers (through lower wages), or shareholders (through lower returns). But then the CEO is just imposing a “tax” on other people, and using the funds for a social cause that he or she has no particular expertise in. It would be better to let customers, workers, or investors use that money to make their own charitable contributions if they wish to.
Friedman’s theory was wildly popular because it seemed to absolve corporations of difficult moral choices and to protect them from public criticism as long as they made profits. At the same time, it took CEOs down a peg—yes, they were resented even in 1970—by denying that they were visionaries with public responsibilities. And Wall Street saw dollar signs in the single-minded devotion to corporate profits.
Of course, Friedman never mentions “the CEO” in his 1970 article. Friedman uses “managers,” “businessmen,” and “corporate executives” to discuss the agents who enter into “voluntary contractual arrangement” with the corporation’s principals or owners: e.g., “the key point is that, in his capacity as a corporate executive, the manager is the agent of the individuals who own the corporation or establish the eleemosynary institution, and his primary responsibility is to them.” As I’ve observed in a number of posts, the acronym “CEO” would not come into wide use until about five years later, and then only in business journals. The general public would not start hearing about CEOs until the very late 1970s and early 1980s.
So while business executives might have been “resented even in 1970,” CEOs strictly speaking were not. If this is a quibble it’s a revealing one. It allows us to see the CEO historically, and as the creature of Friedman’s wildly popular doctrine.
Though they, too, may have been targets of public criticism and resentment, by the 1980s CEOs were also being made into celebrities and held up as models of American leadership. And as “the single-minded devotion to corporate profits” — and rapidly rising CEO pay — came to be celebrated as “visionary” in its own right by the fledgling business press, the words “visionary” and “vision” would come in for decades of abuse.
Last week, my friend David sent me an excerpt of a 1778 letter from Alexander Hamilton to George Clinton that closes with some thoughts on “a certain faction” that had reared its head and now has gone back into hiding.
You and I had some conversation, when I had the pleasure of seeing you last, with respect to the existence of a certain faction. Since I saw you, I have discovered such convincing traits of the monster, that I cannot doubt its reality in the most extensive sense. I dare say you have seen and heard enough to settle the matter in your own mind. I believe it unmasked its batteries too soon, and begins to hide its head; but, as I imagine it will only change the storm to a sap, all the true and sensible friends to their country, and of course to a certain great man, ought to be upon the watch, to counterplot the secret machinations of his enemies.
I struggled with the oblique writing here and had track down the meaning of “sap” as well. It’s a military term for a covered trench. An eighteenth-century encyclopedia entry included among the OED illustrations lists several kinds of sap, from the single parapet sap to the “flying” sap, which is outfitted with gabions. In the siege of a fortification, sappers excavate a trench toward the wall, allowing infantry to advance without being cut down by artillery fire from above. So the “sap” came to stand for an insidious or devious method of attack, as opposed to the “storm” or direct assault. Having prematurely shown its batteries and revealed its position, the faction will now resort to devious means and secret machinations.
It has not been so easy to solve another little mystery that presented itself just two days later, when I was reading the autobiography of Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, which first appeared in 1902. In his account of the McKinley assassination. Gibbs explains that he is going to focus
on a peculiar phase of the catastrophe, that for the truth of history and in the interest of justice should not be so rudely and covertly buried ‘neath the immature “beatings of time.”
The quotation marks are Gibbs’; the source of the quotation is an open question.
I may be wrong in assuming that Gibbs is actually quoting some other writer, and not just using — I would say misusing — the quotation marks to offset his own figurative turn of phrase. I had a passing thought it might be Wordsworth; but that was just a passing thought and a bad guess. Whitman? Think Leaves of Grass: “The indications and tally of all time…” in “The Song of the Answerer,” or, again:
…from the sea of Time, collecting vasting all, I bring,
A windrow-drift of weeds and shells.
Great stuff, but so far as I can tell Walt Whitman is just another bad guess. Charles later that same day offered the “wild guess” that it might be William James, but I haven’t been able to unearth the phrase in James’ vast work. Besides, I suspect that if Gibbs is indeed quoting another author, it’s probably a poet, one his audience would recognize, and it’s probably a work of poetry along the lines of Sonnet 55 (“Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes,” etc.), a meditation on the passing of all things. So Gibbs’ ticket is still open, and I welcome suggestions, thoughts and wild guesses that might help close it.
A short scene, just 45 seconds in length, from Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 Journey to Italy, about an “impossible” translation, in an Italian English-language film that’s preoccupied with the question whether people can ever understand each other. I’m especially captivated by where this scene ends up, not with people estranged from each other because translation is impossible, but with the shipwrecked Duca di Lipoli looking into Ingrid Bergman’s eyes and seeing stars in the night — a bon mot that makes her laugh. Keep in mind, too, this note from Gianni Rondolino’s biography of Rossellini : this scene, like most scenes in this film, is largely improvised, with actors left to find their way together.
Enzo Serafin, who was the film’s director of photography,recalls that Journey to Italy was truly filmed without a script, instead following the indications written on Rossellini’s note sheets, with the daily help of Vitaliano Brancati who was in charge of the dialogues. It was Bergman who acted as go between for Rossellini and [George] Sanders [who plays Bergman’s husband], mainly inventing things and improvising in turn, because Roberto didn’t give her any direction.
Katherine Joyce: What an unusual home you have — and so comfortable.
Count: That sounds to me like one of those compliments that hide the usual reproach: ‘dolce far niente’.
Katherine: Sorry, I don’t understand.
Count: How do you say in English, ‘dolce far niente’?
Prince: It is impossible to say it in English. Perhaps I could translate it, ‘how sweet it is to do nothing.’
Katherine: Oh, I understand.
Countess: They say that all Neapolitans are loafers. Now I’d like to ask you, would you say that a shipwrecked man is a loafer? In a certain sense we’re all shipwrecked. You have to fight so hard just to keep afloat.
Katherine: Well it looks like a very pleasant shipwreck to me.
Duca di Lipoli: Especially when I look into your eyes: they’re like stars in the night.
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 Timessuggested. 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.
The gringo usually learns the unwritten rules of a place the hard way: he’ll be duped, cheated or swindled. He may be perfectly intelligent, know the geography, history, flora and fauna of a place, but his habits make him a stranger.
Habit has a simple grace that knowledge can only hope to describe. Studying the practices of local people in the way an anthropologist might will not make them one’s own. In fact, it’s just as likely to have the opposite effect, of objectifying and externalizing them. Unless a stranger becomes used to the ways and manners of others, or until their usages become his own, he will never enjoy the easy social intercourse the locals effortlessly enjoy. He will have to settle for making observations and taking notes, and conducting transactions of various kinds.
His lonely case is not unlike that of someone who has mastered the grammar but not the idiom of a language. At best he can correctly fill out forms (making verbs agree with subjects, changing tenses or moods, and so on). But ordinary conversation takes an ease and fluency that can’t be gotten out of a book or committed to memory.
That’s because real fluency is more than successful mimicry. It’s belonging.
I’ve been associating the cultural icon of the CEO with big changes in America, most of which were well underway in the 1970s, when the acronym “CEO” first comes into wide use: the collapse of manufacturing, the financialization of the economy, the emergence of the neoliberal order. David Graeber offers yet another way to characterize these changes: “total bureaucratization.”
What began to happen in the Seventies, which paved the way for what we see today, was a strategic turn, as the upper echelons of U.S. corporate bureaucracy moved away from workers and toward shareholders. There was a double movement: corporate management became more financialized and the financial sector became more corporatized, with investment banks and hedge funds largely replacing individual investors. As a result, the investor class and the executive class became almost indistinguishable. By the Nineties, lifetime employment, even for white-collar workers, had become a thing of the past. When corporations needed loyalty, they increasingly secured it by paying their employees in stock options.
What Graeber at first characterizes as “a strategic turn” and the merging of the corporate and financial sectors, he then goes on to call “a political revolution”:
At the same time, everyone was encouraged to look at the world through the eyes of an investor — which is one reason why, in the Eighties, newspapers continued laying off their labor reporters, while ordinary TV news reports began featuring stock-quote crawls at the bottom of the screen. By participating in personal-retirement and investment funds, the argument went, everyone would come to own a piece of capitalism. In reality, the magic circle only widened to include higher-paid professionals and corporate bureaucrats. Still, the perceived extension was extremely important. No political revolution (for that’s what this was) can succeed without allies, and bringing along the middle class — and, crucially, convincing them that they had a stake in finance-driven capitalism — was critical.
The parenthetical affirmation — “(for that’s what this was)” — asks us to pause and really take the point. Having read only this excerpt, I don’t know whether Graeber goes on to explain why what he elsewhere calls a “shift” or “turn” counts as a “political revolution,” or how exactly he thinks this overturning of the political order was brought about. No doubt there was fraud, collusion and conspiracy, and “everyone was encouraged” to believe they were included; but the passive verb here leaves way too much unsaid. For one thing, the triumph and establishment of the new order at home and abroad was really not so bloodless as Graeber (here, at least) makes it out to be.
The celebration and glamorization of the CEO — as a leader, a rule-maker and a rule-breaker, the agent and steward of shareholder value — was one of the things that duped ordinary, middle-class Americans into thinking “they had a stake in finance-driven capitalism.” It deserves a chapter in the story Graeber’s out to tell. The acronym “CEO” itself belongs to what Graeber calls the “peculiar idiom” of “bureaucratic techniques” and meritocratic myths — a language with origins in self-actualization movements of the 1970s, “full of bright, empty terms like ‘vision,’ ‘quality,’ ‘stakeholder,’ ‘leadership,’ ‘excellence,’ ‘innovation,’ ‘strategic goals,’ and ‘best practices.’” It’s good to see this language held up for scrutiny, especially since, as Graeber rightly points out, it still “[engulfs] any meeting where any number of people gather to discuss the allocation of any kind of resources.” To the victors go the spoils, and that’s not likely to change as long as we are speaking their language and playing by their rules.
A reader of my posts about the acronym CEO suggests I have a look at the organizational chart for the Manhattan Project to gain a better appreciation for the “American and military” provenance of the term. “I believe during a period of intense collaboration between the military and private sector after WWII,” he writes, “it somehow permeated to corporate use.”
I have wondered about that “somehow,” and wondered, too, if I could be a little more specific about the course this permeation took. Is the acronym CEO — and the idea of the CEO — an outgrowth of the military industrial complex? Does the rise of the CEO to a position of cultural celebrity in the 1970s and 1980s tell us something (we don’t already know) about how the postwar environment shaped American ideas of command, power and leadership, in the private sector and in the public sector?
These are questions worth asking, I think, though I’m not sure the organizational chart for the Manhattan Project is the best place to start. Or at least that chart doesn’t include the term “CEO.” There is an “OCE” — an Office of the Chief of Engineers; the role of “Executive Officer” was assigned to J.B. Lampert. That title was also used in the appointment of Leslie R. Groves (of Now It Can Be Told fame), who in the org chart has the title of Commanding General.
The larger point here still merits consideration: just follow the careers of the engineers and military commanders identified in the Manhattan Project org chart, consider the military industrial development of the 1950s and the American business environment in which COs and XOs and members of the OCE worked closely with the private sector, and in many cases left the military to join the private sector: it’s easy to see how a new vocabulary of command might have emerged during that period, and eventually found its way into ordinary usage.
Still, I want specifics and cases I can point to. To that end, I’ve written to the company historian at General Electric, to ask whether the term CEO was in general use before the era of Jack Welch (who for a variety of reasons — not least for his cultural celebrity — probably deserves the title “The First CEO”). I’m looking for some examples of usage from the days of Ralph J. Cordiner (Chief Executive Officer from 1950-1963), Fred J. Borch (Chief Executive Officer 1963-1972) or Reginald H. Jones, who served from 1972-1981.
GE seems like an obvious place to start looking. The company that brought us both Jack Welch and Ronald Reagan was, during the war and then in the postwar period, at the very center of military-industrial development; and big American companies like General Electric were never just manufacturing products — or even “progress,” which Reagan used to tout on TV as GE’s “most important product.” They were also designing models of power that persist to this day.
In a comment on one of my posts about the rise of the acronym “CEO,” a reader named Hugo reports some early Australian illustrations. I thought I’d lift Hugo’s notes from the comments and share them here, because the examples he’s found all pre-date the 1970 illustration of the acronym from the Harvard Business Review, which up until now I had taken to be the earliest. One dates back to 1914.
Time, again, to notify the dictionaries.
I found some earlier 1968 and 1950 examples in Australian newspapers, where chief executive officers were found at hospitals. I also found a 1917 [sic, but the source is from 1914] from a story about a town hall.
— The Canberra Times, 27 July 1968, page 22:
Applications are invited for the above positions at the Hillston District Hospital.
Applications and enquiries to the undersigned or Matron Fairchild, Box 1, PO, Hillson, NSW, 2675.
R. I. Cross,
— The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 1950, page 30:
PARRAMATTA DISTRICT HOSPITAL.
Wanted. Experienced Sister to take
charge of the Out Patient Department
at this hospital.
N. B. FILBY,
Secretary and C.E.O.
— Independent, 7 November 1914, page 3:
BEHIND THE SCENES
BY A TOWN HALL FLY
Of course I am the chief executive officer but I only execute by instructions.
“What a pity,” said the M.M., the C.E.O.
“Not at all, my dear young lady.” the C.E.O.’s voice was tear laden too.
Also uses G.H.U. a few times for Great High Understrapper.
I don’t think these earlier Australian instances should invalidate what I’ve said previously about the widespread use of the acronym CEO in the 1970s and 1980s. Those observations concern the use of “CEO” as an important marker of corporate power, social status and cultural celebrity in America, from roughly 1970-2010.
Still, it’s interesting to consider these early examples. The first two are abbreviations used in newspaper advertisements (maybe just to save money) for positions at hospitals, where the CEOs are clearly in charge of correspondence if not of hiring. Nothing too glamorous. [Update: And one reader, in a comment on this post, suggests that CEO in this context may mean “Catholic Education Officer,” adding that at this time in Australia, “nurses and religious orders go together.”]
The illustration from 1914 offers a satirical, behind-the-scenes account of a municipal office thrown into bureaucratic confusion by a report of 24 cows eating all the flowers and shrubs in the park. Underlings and citizens address the Chief Executive Officer by such honorifics as “Your Chief Executiveness” and “Most Magnificent” and, then, “CEO.” It is an empty title; he seems unable to execute anything at all: “Of course I am the chief executive officer,” he insists, “but I only execute by instructions.” When he finally understands the gravity of the situation, he acts: “I will tell somebody to tell somebody else to tell the inspector as soon as he comes in the morning at nine. I’m sure 24 cows won’t eat all the shrubs in that time.” He is very much the Chief, very much an Officer, but not much when it comes to Execution.
The sculptor Richard Serra tells the following story about a Charles Mingus session at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop, sometime around 1956.
The performance was in the afternoon and there was a fan on. It was really loud and Mingus was going through his set and they were recording, and the bartender turned off the fan. Mingus had an apoplectic fit. He jumped over the bar and practically throttled the guy. ‘That fan was one of my instruments,’ he said. And it made me think, as someone who wanted to be an artist, that you had to pay attention all the time to everything that was going on, because everything was of potential use, if you could see the potential.
Place matters, whether you are playing music, making a sculpture or — as I like to remind people — simply having a conversation. From Mingus, Serra learned “to pay attention to everything that was going on,” and that ambient attention or awareness of place has figured prominently in Serra’s own art, which frequently involves creating site-specific, large-scale sculptures that both fit with and alter their surroundings. Place furnishes the sculptor with context, material and ideas: everything is of “potential use, if you..see the potential”. Place can be both potent and useful, a power and a utility. For Serra, it’s all a matter of paying attention.
Richard Serra creates large-scale, site-specific sculptures that draw on and amplify the power of place.
How, then, might we tap the power of place and put it to use when it comes to serious conversations? How do we pay attention to the place we are and how does that attention get repaid?
This is a vast topic, so for now I want to set out a few markers, just to get the discussion started.
First and most obviously, place situates the participants. We can talk about place in this basic sense as the setting of a conversation — not merely a location, site or spot; the setting is more like a scene in which we are the actors. I am not entirely sure about the theatrical metaphor (which is inescapable when we talk about place as a scene or setting): I don’t mean to imply that conversations are performances for the benefit of anyone other than the interlocutors, that they require an audience, or that the place has the temporary and artificial qualities of a stage or set, put up or constructed for the sake of staging a conversation. That all sounds too contrived, and it implies a grand designer or author behind the scenes. Of course every conversation involves some element of make believe and there is a performative aspect to all conversation, but we ought to imagine an unscripted play, spontaneous or at least unplanned, in which the actors themselves are sole authors and creators — an improvisation.
Place sets conditions and defines limits: this is where we are, not over there, not elsewhere, maybe not even where we most want to be, but here. Limits imply presence, a here and now, and it’s up to us to recognize and attend to that. Our attention registers the basic obligation we have to one another, which is simply to be in this place (and in this conversation). The word ‘obligation’ here shouldn’t be misleading or mistaken for mandate or coercion: when a conversation is serious, we are not under any compulsion. We claim each other’s attention. It makes sense, then, to talk about place as a space of commitment, a setting to which we can both lay claim and which permits us to make some simple claims: stay and talk awhile; listen to me; help me understand what you are saying. As I’ve said before, you can’t just walk away or start playing hula hoops and I can’t take part if I am whistling Dixie or daydreaming of someplace far away. This place is not just incidentally a backdrop for our conversation and our conversation is not a backdrop for some other action that will define or disrupt the place; our mutual presence here commits us jointly to the conversation. Attending to place helps us respect and keep that commitment.
Place creates new possibilities in the conversation, as participants discover and avail themselves of their situation in all sorts of ways. This is close to what Richard Serra is getting at when he talks about paying attention to everything that’s going on — a noisy fan, the voices of children playing nearby, the smell and feel of the lush green grass, the roar of traffic or the flow of a nearby stream, a tweeting bird or a passing cyclist, the wail of sirens or the approach of the police, the patter of the rain, the creak of the wood as we settle on a rough-hewn bench. The important point here is that in conversation we experience a place from the inside and in company with others. To keep company is to be a participant, not merely an observer of the place, looking in or looking on from the outside. Our conversation is what’s going on there — or at least one of the most important things going on.
Place is intrinsic to the unfolding of conversation, the warp to its woof; and to an appreciable extent, place and conversation may be indistinguishable — especially once things get going. Or it might be easier just to say conversation is the place we create between us. It’s not a question of your place or mine. It’s ours.