Conversations have a good reputation, perhaps too good. A ‘real conversation’ — open, respectful, equal, honest — is framed as the alternative to coercion, aggression, silencing, bullying, gaslighting, ignoring, and a number of other way of getting your way with another person that does not involve mutuality. More often than not, it’s someone with lesser or no power that is involved when we start to talk about conversation. Women, children, students, employees — possibly every kind of person who is unevenly placed to assert power in institutions and society — are often not seen fit to have a conversation with. They do not have what it takes to have a real conversation, they cannot understand, they do not yet have the experience, do not have the education or the sensibility, and so on. And yet, conversations are offered instead of action to precisely these disadvantaged groups or individuals, who are deemed to be in insatiable need of it. And that, perhaps, is a clue to both the desire for and the impasse posed by conversations.
Appearing to be against conversation is a self-defeating posture for someone who professes to teach. I wouldn’t dream of it. The Socratic method, which is the ground beneath our feet, relies on the professor cultivating a stance of critical, questioning ignorance in a discussion in which her interlocutor is not a generalised other, but someone (even if in a group) addressed individually. The instructor may know the solution to the problem, may enter the conversation with the privilege of ulterior knowledge. But ‘the problem’ is never identical to the one produced through the pedagogical conversation, in which the student’s uncovering of what she did not know she knew (anamnesis), her striving, skepticism, humour, subversion, even rejection, may lead them both to an elsewhere where the initial question seems transformed or irrelevant. Or might lead them nowhere. The risk of coming up against a dead end, and the freedom the participants have to abandon the inquiry for whatever reason — intellectual, social, moral, emotional — renders the Socratic method of dubious value to positivist or instrumentalist purposes, but also secures its radical possibility. You cannot force a conversation like that to go somewhere if the participants do not engage together — and when they do, where they will end up is not entirely in their control.
I have seen much lip-service to the ‘conversational’ or ‘dialogic’ method of teaching, but many who preach it ardently do not have stomach for the actual, messy, uncomfortable experience of it. It requires instructors to relinquish control. Even if practised to a mild degree, the daily experience of not quite getting what you want in the classroom, never being able to perform knowledge authoritatively in the interest of letting the emerging questions inform the exchange, indeed perhaps losing the sense of yourself as an authoritative knower — these are not things that professors easily welcome. They dismember the fragile egos we have agonizingly constructed through mastering the techniques of performative knowing in our own educational apprenticeship. Indeed, the first betrayer of the Socratic method is Plato himself, often revealing himself in his dialogues as an anxious architect of the rhetorical question and the forgone conclusion.
It is surprising then that a method so uniquely invested in relinquishing mastery should so easily be resorted to when the objective is to thwart action against power. And you could say, with justice, that these are travesties of conversations, not the real thing. (The real thing is, in any case, ‘impossible’.) But I am more inclined to treat the travesty as part of the spectrum of conversation, and not its opposite. They both happen when action is in abeyance, they both solicit the other to come forward and engage.
There are so many scenarios we can invoke. I’ll take this one, occupationally familiar to me. It appears that there is an eruption of accusations of bullying, coercion, harassment, at an institution. The institution prides itself on a culture of critical dialogue and progressive learning. Yet it may quickly emerge that such an institution has done much to silence and prevent important conversations from happening that would have inhibited a coercive culture. Faced with a crisis, which they have more or less curated themselves, the institution through various cooperative but entirely accidental representatives, endeavours to engage the students in a conversation about what is going on. We want to hear from you, we feel for you, but only between ourselves: we are part of a privileged circle, a family. It is not clear whether the people who are talking on its behalf are invested with the responsibility to talk, either, or what the standing of their words is. The conversation involves secrecy, obfuscation, limitations on the students’ right and ability to go public with or talk openly about their own complaints or the conditions that enabled them. Furthermore, these conversations are staged as a site of privilege for the students — you are one of the lucky few who can talk about this! — and are paternalistically governed by the logic of granting them as special dispensations what should be a right or a norm. And, worst of all, these conversations leave the students unsure of what they know, fearful, isolated.
Also read: As visual encroaches upon the verbal
This situation, I think, is generalisable, and perhaps one that is fairly recognisable — many of us have been such students ourselves. I have struggled find my way from the conversations we think we have in the classrooms, to these travesties and shadows that exist right next to it, far too close for us to not try and figure out their relationship. My best provisional thought is this. There is conversation, perhaps with different conditions and modalities, that tries to engage the other — in the classroom as well — not in a unique personal address but in a coming together for common purpose, to guard against secrecy and isolation, for solidarity. I do not know yet how we can teach it, but we need to learn urgently how to do so.