Tag Archives: non-coercive power

Some remarks on “another kind of power”

A new post about the merger of two Upper Peninsula environmental organizations on Keweenaw Now includes this short video excerpt of the talk I gave in Marquette, Michigan a while back about the power and responsibility we have to protect water and wild places from unsustainable development.

You can read the full text of my remarks here.

Serious Conversations, 11

“When in the Republic Thrasymachus says that justice is in the interest of the stronger, and Socrates starts to question him about this, Thrasymachus should hit Socrates over the head,” writes Robert Nozick in Philosophical Explanations.

He concedes too much when he enters an activity, discussion, that assumes that there is some mark of correctness and rightness other than (and superior to) strength. Similarly, there are norms of discussion that Thrasymachus draws upon — for instance, that anyone’s objection put seriously and sincerely ought to be replied to — and these norms, too, are incompatible with the position he states. Must the stronger also reply to an objection, if it is not in his interest?

Nozick returns to Thrasymachus’ surrender in his discussion of moral dialogue:

When someone raises a moral objection to something we are doing or planning, we feel we owe him an answer, a moral answer. It will not do simply to hit him on the head or to shrug our shoulders. An ethical egoist would reply only if he thought doing so was in his own interest; we feel we have to respond with moral reasons. (However, we do not have to expend our life’s savings to track down the person who objected and then went off to travel in inaccessible places. We ought to respond, prima facie, although this ‘ought’ can be overridden by other considerations.) Only by responding are we treating him as a value-seeking I; the only way to respond to his requesting moral reasons or raising moral objections, the only response to it qua that, is to offer moral reasons in justification or defense of our actions, to engage, if need be, in a moral dialogue with him. (Recall our earlier remark about how Thrasymachus undercuts his own position by engaging in discussion.) To engage in moral dialogue with someone is itself a moral act, whose moral character does not lie solely in being an attempt to get at the moral truth, or in being a vehicle to change and deepen a personal relationship and thereby be a means toward resolving moral conflict. Rather, (sincere) engagement in moral dialogue is itself a moral response to the other’s basic moral characteristic [as a value-seeking I], apart from its being a means toward satisfactory accommodation with the other. It is itself responsive to him; perhaps that is why openness in moral dialogue, considering carefully and responding closely to the concerns of the other, so often is an effective means toward resolution of conflict. When each is aware that the other is responsive to his or her own (valuable) characteristics in the very act of discussion and in the course the discussion takes, then this noticing of mutual respect is itself a force for good will and the moderation of demands; the altered conditions created by the dialogue may fit different moral principles so that new solutions are appropriate.

A moral dialogue of this sort is an especially clear example of a mutual value-theoretic situation…where each participant is responsive to the other’s basic moral characteristic, is aware that the other is responsive to her own, and is responsive to the other’s responsiveness, is aware of the other’s second-level responsiveness and is responsive to it, and so on….We want to be in mutual value-theoretic situations; only then is the value in us (including our own value responsiveness) adequately answered. Hegel’s discussion of the master-slave relation elaborates how domination thwarts this; the master cannot force this responsiveness from the slave, and unless the master shows responsiveness to the slave’s basic moral characteristic (but then he could not remain his master) the slave cannot respond to that.

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.

Austin and Asking, 2

I’m re-reading Austin’s How to Do Things With Words, trying to come to terms with these lectures and what perspectives they offer on the broad theme of conversation and collaboration I’ve been exploring in a series of posts on the power of asking.

On my first reading, which I discussed here, I must have nodded midway through Lecture VI, or maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate the historical argument Austin advances in that lecture about the “evolution of language” (focusing specifically on the development of the explicit from the primary performative).

…historically, from the point of view of the evolution of language, the explicit performative must be a later development than certain more primary utterances, many of which are at least already implicit performatives, which are included in many or most explicit performatives as parts of a whole. For example ‘I will…’ is earlier than ‘I promise that I will…’.The plausible view (I do not know exactly how it would be established) would be that in primitive languages it would not yet be clear, it would not yet be possible to distinguish, which of various things that (using later distinctions) we might be doing we were in fact doing. For example, Bull or Thunder in a primitive language of one-word utterances could be a warning, information, a prediction, &c. It is also a plausible view that explicitly distinguishing the different forces this utterance might have is a later achievement of language, and a considerable one; primitive or primary forms of utterance will preserve the ‘ambiguity’ or ‘equivocation’ or ‘vagueness’ of primitive language in this respect; they will not make explicit the precise force of the utterance. This may have its uses, but sophistication and development of social forms and procedures will necessitate clarification. But note that this clarification is as much a creative act as a discovery or description! It is as much a matter of making clear distinctions as of making already existent distinctions clear.

One thing, however, that it will be most dangerous to do, and that we are very prone to do, is to take it that we somehow know that the primary or primitive use of sentences must be, because it ought to be, statemental or constative, in the philosophers’ preferred sense of simply uttering something whose sole pretension is to be true or false and which is not liable to criticism in any other dimension. We certainly do not know that this is so, any more, for example, than, to take an alternative, that all utterances must have first begun as imperatives (as some argue) or as swear-words — and it seems much more likely that the ‘pure’ statement is a goal, an ideal, towards which the gradual development of science has given the impetus, as it has likewise also towards the goal of precision. Language as such and in its primitive stages is not precise, and it is also not, in our sense, explicit: precision in language makes it clearer what is being said — its meaning: explicitness, in our sense, makes clearer the force of the utterances, or ‘how…it is to be taken’.

What Austin says here about how human beings came to mark and remark the forces of utterances and took language from a primitive to a sophisticated state can apply to asking as well. In this view, the explicit use of the performative ask (“I ask…” or “I ask that…”) would constitute a step forward in the evolution of language, “a later achievement…and a considerable one.” Austin calls it a “creative act” of “clarification.”

Historically, one thing that act might have helped to clarify — Austin’s caveat about the presumed historical priority of imperatives notwithstanding — is the difference between asking and command, and, therefore, the terms on which interlocutors meet, or the “social forms and procedures” that govern their relationships and necessitate this clarification or distinction.

This puts us in murky territory, and Austin readily admits it. The historical argument here seems “plausible,” as Austin says, but ultimately it may not stand up (though it’s hard to see how it could be decisively knocked down).

This much seems clear: the creative act of explicitly asking will always help clarify the force of asking; and the articulation of that force — that power of asking — essentially creates a new charter for conversation with a second person, an interlocutor or interlocutors whose standing to address us we recognize and whose replies we await and then take into account.

That said, let’s also admit that the explicit performative “I ask…” or “I ask that…” is not (nowadays) so widely used, but is reserved, it seems, for certain kinds of serious inquiry and formal address. (Austin’s own lectures furnish numerous examples of this reserved use, as I suggested in my earlier post; but they were given in 1955, and both words and things have changed, at Harvard and everywhere else, since then.)

Still, making asking explicit can help render the conversation serious, not just because it makes language more precise, but also because it clarifies the relationship between interlocutors and the power they have to reckon with, and share.

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.

Philosophy and Coercion: Boethius on Torture

I’ve written a few posts about non-coercive power and how it can be created and shared through genuine co-deliberation — or what I’ve been calling serious conversations. In the course of my work on this topic, I’ve discovered that good examples of non-coercive power, the kind of real-world examples that illustrate the concept with anecdotal detail and stick with you after you read them, are not so easy to find.

More often than not, history shows us the other side of the coin — namely, coercive power. This is the case when it comes to the history of philosophy as well; and philosophers have written and thought about coercive power and its exercise by the state at least since the days of Socrates.

The release of the Senate CIA Torture Report today sent me back to one of my favorite philosophers: Boethius (480-525 AD), who discussed coercion and torture in a work called The Consolation of Philosophy.

Boethius wrote the Consolation while he himself was imprisoned — and, according to some sources, tortured — before being executed by Theodoric the Great. The Consolation takes the form of a dialogue between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, who appears to Boethius when he is at his most wretched.

Philosophy consoles Boethius

The  passage I remembered today is from Book 2 (Pr 6), where Philosophy argues that what we ordinarily prize as power is actually weakness, or just a temporary advantage that we are likely bound to lose. Another turn of Fortune’s wheel, and the torturer might suffer the very torments he inflicts: a vicious circle. Virtue lies in self-possession:

What, indeed, is this power which you think so very desirable? You should consider, poor earthly animals, what it is that you seem to have in your power. If you should see a mouse seizing power and lording it over the other mice, how you would laugh! But if you consider only his body, what is weaker than a man who can be killed by the bites of insects or by worms finding their way into him? For who can force any law upon man, except upon his body, or upon his fortune which is less than his body. You can never impose upon a free spirit nor can you deprive a rationally self-possessed mind of its equanimity. Once, when a certain tyrant tried to torture a free man into betraying the partners of his conspiracy against the tyrant, the man bit off his tongue and spat it in the raging tyrant’s face. In this way the torments which the tyrant inflicted as the means of his cruelty, this wise man made the means of virtuous action. Indeed, what can any man do to another which another may not do to him? We recall that Busirus, who was accustomed to kill his guests, was himself slain by his guest, Hercules. Regulus had bound many of his African captives in chains; but before long he was himself chained by his captors. How slight is the power of a man who cannot prevent someone else from doing to him what he does to others.

Serious Conversations, 4

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.

“For me, music has no leader”

In 1997, Ornette Coleman was in Paris to play at La Villette, and sat down for an interview with French philosopher Jacques Derrida.  The interview was the subject of a thoughtful piece by Richard Brody in the New Yorker a few years ago, but I came across it only this morning. This part of the exchange especially resonates with me, as it has to do with conversations without a leader (an idea I’ve been exploring in some of my posts on the power of asking).

On the one hand, Coleman has throughout his career had to dispel the notion that in playing free jazz, “I just picked up my saxophone and played whatever was going through my head, without following any rule, but that wasn’t true.”  He struggled, on the other hand, with the hierarchical, bureaucratic rigidity of the New York Philharmonic, where he had to submit a composition “to the person in charge of scores…to be sure the Philharmonic wouldn’t be disturbed.”  He works according to another model — a conversation in which no one is “in charge,” but in which the participants can rely on  a “framework” (usually, but not always, provided by the piano).

Here is Timothy S. Murphy’s translation:

OC: For the Philharmonic I had to write out parts for each instrument, photocopy them, then go see the person in charge of scores. But with jazz groups, I compose and I give the parts to the musicians in rehearsal. What’s really shocking in improvised music is that despite its name, most musicians use a framework [trame] as a basis for improvising. I’ve just a recorded a CD with a European musician, Joachim Kuhn, and the music I wrote to play with him, that we recorded in August 1996, has two characteristics: it’s totally improvised, but at the same time it follows the laws and rules of European structure. And yet, when you hear it, it has a completely improvised feel [air].

JD: First the musician reads the framework, then brings his own touch to it.

OC: Yes, the idea is that two or three people can have a conversation with sounds, without trying to dominate it or lead it. What I mean is that you have to be…intelligent, I suppose that’s the word. In improvised music, I think the musicians are trying to reassemble an emotional or intellectual puzzle, in any case a puzzle in which the instruments give the tone. It’s primarily the piano that has served at all times as the framework in music, but it’s no longer indispensable and, in fact, the commercial aspect of music is very uncertain. Commercial music is not necessarily more accessible, but it is limited.

JD: When you begin to rehearse, is everything ready, written, or do you leave space for the unforeseen?

OC: Let’s suppose that we’re in the process of playing and you hear something that you think could be improved: you could tell me, “You should try this.” For me, music has no leader.

JD: What do you think of the relationship between the precise event that constitutes the concert and pre-written music or improvised music? Do you think that pre-written music prevents the event from taking place?

OC: No, I don’t know if it’s true for language, but in jazz you can take a very old piece and do another version of it. What’s exciting is the memory that you bring to the present. What you’re talking about, the form that metamorphoses into other forms, I think it’s something healthy, but very rare.

JD: Perhaps you will agree with me on the fact that the very concept of improvisation verges upon reading, since what we understand by improvisation is the creation of something new, yet something which doesn’t exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible.

OC: That’s true.


Serious Conversations, 3

So far in these notes on serious conversations I’ve talked about questions of authority and trust as well as the joint commitments conversations entail. What little I’ve managed to say may not amount to more than the observation that what makes a conversation “serious” has less to do with subject matter than with the mutual obligations of its participants and their disposition toward the activity of conversation.

Let me spell that out a little more. In order for a conversation to be serious, all parties would have to enter freely into it. So a police interrogation or a dressing down at work are not very likely to qualify as serious conversation, though I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that they might become serious if things were to take an unexpected turn. Joint commitment can’t be coerced; and while it’s possible that one party in a conversation might officially be in charge of things, by election, contract or appointment, all parties have to be vested with equal authority in the conversation — or have equal standing to make claims of others, despite differences in title, social stature, organizational standing, etc. To put it another way, all parties in a serious conversation are mutually accountable to each other.

In subsequent posts I hope I can explore this basic position a little more and strengthen it — or, if need be, abandon it in favor of something more compelling. Right now I want to be clear that while serious conversation requires parity, it’s still possible to lead a serious conversation, so long as leading the conversation does not violate the covenant or commitment the participants have made. It all comes down to how one leads, and it’s possible — it’s very easy — to mislead a conversation: it happens all the time.

For example, someone might insist on getting to the point. A rule of serious conversation applies here: the point is almost beside the point.

The primary point of any conversation, which takes precedence over any insight, conclusion or plan for action the conversation might eventually yield, is that we have jointly committed to do something together — namely, have a conversation. That commitment will entail obligations to each other, some of which we can enumerate right at the outset, because we know, roughly, what conversation will require: e.g., you can’t suddenly walk away, or I can’t start singing “la la la” while you are talking or patronize you or coerce you into agreement. Others might become apparent only as the conversation wends its way, and neither of us can really know where the conversation will lead — unless, of course, one of us is being disingenuous or duplicitous, in which case the conversation is a sham.

When people insist we get to the point, they are not just short-circuiting the conversation; their efforts to control or wrap up the conversation risk foreclosing on claims we might make or unmet obligations we might have to each other as participants.

This is why, by the way, it’s important to be tolerant of meandering turns the conversation might take and of what I call verbal fidgeting and others call throat clearing: all the little tics and tacks we use before we actually get around to saying anything definite. Verbal fidgeting — “like,” “I mean,” “so…” “you know,” etc. — in conversation can be an annoyance, but it isn’t just noise; and noise-to-signal ratio is not the best metaphor for conversation.

Fidgeting can indicate that someone is uncomfortable with silence, which is worth attending to, because it might tell us the person isn’t listening or feels nervous and doesn’t know how to sit with the restlessness that being with others sometimes involves. But fidgeting can also help coordinate the conversation and the being together that conversation entails, bringing others in, building bridges, redirecting attention. At the very least it can help us get to know the habits and manners of the others with whom we’re speaking, and conversation happens where those habits and manners — those styles — meet.

Serious Conversations, 2

Nora [after a short silence]. Isn’t there one thing that strikes you as strange in our sitting here like this?
Helmer. What is that?
Nora. We have been married now eight years. Does it not occur to you that this is the first time we two, you and I, husband and wife, have had a serious conversation?
Helmer. What do you mean by ‘serious’?
Nora. In all these eight years–longer than that–from the very beginning of our acquaintance, we have never exchanged a word on any serious subject.
Helmer. Was it likely that I would be continually and forever telling you about worries that you could not help me to bear?
Nora. I am not speaking about business matters. I say that we have never sat down in earnest together to try and get at the bottom of anything.
-Ibsen, A Doll’s House, Act 3

Preoccupations may be harder to escape than promises. I went to see a performance of A Doll’s House last night at the Harvey Theater, and this exchange between Nora and Torvald in the final act of Ibsen’s play reminded me of my pledge to say something more about serious conversations. (My first effort to make good on this pledge is here.).

There’s an important point here that I don’t want to overlook. A serious conversation requires something more than a serious subject to discuss. It may not have anything to do with the things we take seriously: business matters, for example. Well before we consider things, or the topic at hand, we have to sit down “seriously together” — alvor sammen, as Nora puts it to her husband Torvald in Ibsen’s Norwegian.

Of course, Torvald Helmer’s “honor” will not survive the serious conversation he and his wife have. The respect Nora ultimately demands —  the claim she makes on Torvald and on herself — will destroy their marriage and upset the bourgeois respectability of the Helmer household, or show it for the sham that it is. Torvald should have known: to sit down seriously together is always more about honoring the other than safeguarding personal honor. Or at least it’s a matter of honoring the joint commitment to have a serious conversation.


Torvald (Dominic Rowan) and Nora (Hattie Morahan) are about to have their first serious conversation in the BAM Harvey Theater production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

I’m using “joint commitment” here in Margaret Gilbert’s sense — a commitment by two or more people as a body or plural subject, a we, to some act or activity: a walk or a conversation, for instance. For Gilbert, these joint commitments are commonplace associations by which we make up “the social world, the world of conversations, friendships, marriages, sports teams, discussion groups, religious orders, partisans, citizens and so on.”

In entering and living up to joint commitments, we share agency with others, and all parties are obligated — have a duty — to act in accordance with the commitment. “If our acting together, our conventions, and other central aspects of our lives together involve our jointly committing ourselves in one way or another, then our lives together are run through with obligations to one another and rights against each other, with the correlative standing to insist on various actions and rebuke for non-performance.”

To read the essays collected in Gilbert’s Joint Commitment (Oxford, 2013) is to appreciate above all how often and how effortlessly we enter into these joint commitments, just as a matter of course, and to be reminded that assumptions of trust, respect and mutual accountability infuse our everyday social experience.

These are all the issues that come to the surface when Torvald and Nora sit down seriously together, for the first time, to have their serious conversation. Whether we commit jointly to take a walk together (to use Gilbert’s favorite example) or have a conversation about work or a stifling marriage, what makes the activity serious is that we are on equal footing and mutually obligated to one another. Acknowledge that, honor it, and we have started to take one another seriously; deny it, or cover it up with patronizing gestures or power grabs, and we are probably heading for crisis or failure.