Saturday, July 20, 2013

Toward an Understanding & Normative Model of the Art of Conversation

 Image: Marie ThérèseRodet Geoffrin (26 June 1699 – 6 October 1777)
“One of the reasons why so few people are to be found who seem sensible and pleasant in conversation is that almost everybody is thinking about what he wants to say himself rather than about answering clearly what is being said to him. The more clever and polite think it enough simply to put on an attentive expression, while all the time you can see in their eyes and train of thought that they are far removed from what you are saying and anxious to get back to  what they want to say. They ought, on the contrary, to reflect that such keenness to please oneself is a bad way of pleasing and persuading others, and that to listen well and answer to the point is one of the most perfect qualities one can have in conversation.” —La Rochefoucauld

From La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims (Tr. Leonard Tancock). London: Penguin Books, 1959 (1678). 

With the help of the reading material below, a normative model of the art of conversation can be explicitly tied to democratic theory and practice, in particular, by drawing upon Robert E. Goodin’s elaboration of a cluster of concepts in his book Reflective Democracy (2003), namely, his formulations of  “input democracy,” democratic deliberation “within,” and the “internal-reflective” mode of deliberative democracy that together possess important consequences for conventional forms of aggregative and electoral “output democracy” (as Goodin reminds, the two are causally connected). Goodin mentions by way of illustration the historic role played by social realist art, photo journalism, and radio plays, and the identical or often similar role played today (for better and worse no doubt) by television, film, and video (and music?). I still recall the day in class when I discovered the vast majority of my students had first learned of (and could thus recite) the seven deadly sins from a movie, “Seven,” starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. Goodin also envisions a prominent role for fiction and related artistic forms of  “internal imaginary discourses” as important aids to democratic deliberation, emphasizing the fact that Conversation is useful, but imagination essential.” In Goodin’s words,

Cultural institutions and policies matter. Harriet Beecher Stowes Uncle Toms Cabin famously helped people imagine what it might be like to be a slave, thus fueling the Abolitionist movement, and E.M. Forster’s Passage to India likewise helped Britons imagine what it might be like to be a colonial subject, encouraging sympathy with demands for decolonization.” 

I have similarly stressed the significance of utopian thought and imagination, albeit not for identical reasons but for reasons with robust family resemblance, as they can be readily adapted to Goodin’s model of deliberative democracy “within.

Finally, even public policy has a part to play on this model, Goodin explaining how it can make real such valuable phenomena as social mixing, cultural aids, and collective consumption as further inputs to the internal-reflective mode of deliberative democracy. 

Suggested Reading:
  • Cowan, Brian. The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Craveri, Benedetta. The Age of Conversation. New York: New York Review Books, 2005.
  • Ellis, Markman. The Coffee House: A Cultural History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004. 
  • Goodin, Robert E. Reflective Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.
  • Gordon, Daniel. Citizens Without Sovereignty: Equality and Sociability in French Thought, 1670-1789. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. 
  • Habermas, Jürgen (Tr. Thomas Burger). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.
  • Im Hof, Ulrich (Tr. William E. Yuill). The Enlightenment. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1994. 
  • Kale, Steven. French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Old Regime to the Revolution of 1848. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
  • Landes, Joan B. Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988. 
  • Miller, Stephen. Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.
  • O’Donnell, Patrick S. Ethics, Literature, and (deliberative) Democracy, blog post for The Literary Table, July 25, 2012 (and cross-posted here at Ratio Juris).  
  • Tannen, Deborah. Conversational Style: Analyzing Talk among Friends. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005 ed.
  • Tannen, Deborah. Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialogue, and Imagery in Conversational Discourse. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 


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