12.0387 talk

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Mon, 1 Feb 1999 23:34:43 +0000 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 387.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Mon, 01 Feb 1999 23:34:19 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: talk

"Talk is cheap" -- a familiar phrase, and often right. We talk in order to
avoid work, we talk around rather than face problems, we confuse quantity
with quality and honesty with the dumping of refuse. It's worse, much worse,
when we're simultaneously perverse and persuasive, as we can hear in the
word "demagogue" and faintly though still audibly in the word "rhetoric".
And, as Ferdinand Mount, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, says in
his review of Theodore Zeldin's <title>Conversation: How talk can change
your life</title>, there's altogether too much of it these days (TLS 5000
for 19/1/99 pp 32f). Oh for the quiet pub of old.

True enough, but such remarks can also be the genuinely cheap talk of
someone who finds the talking out, or through, or toward problems the most
demanding labour of all and so dismisses the whole project to avoid the real
work. Anti-intellectuals find talk difficult if not threatening for obvious
reasons. We all do when it means articulating painful inner secrets, letting
them (to use a favourite Homeric metaphor of mine) "escape the barrier of
our teeth" into the world, where they cannot be ignored and so may affect
how others think about us and we about ourselves. Honesty makes us
vulnerable. Thus so many of us seem to have been trained one way or another
not to talk about what matters to us most, and so be predisposed to
undervalue or otherwise cheapen talk.

Mount's argument is in his title, "Talk isn't cheap" -- it's expensive, if
properly exercised demanding all our resources and mental acuity. Zeldin's
project is to make talk a means of changing us and the world we live in.
Mount notes, "It's hard to think of a shorter book with a more ambitious
programme. The Communist Manifesto, perhaps." Mount's argument is
essentially that Zeldin's purposeful, goal-directed programme for talk
cheapens it by "narrowing existence to what can be accommodated within a
positive strategy".

Whatever the truth of Mount's criticism of Zeldin may be (I have not read
the book and so cannot say), it amounts to a rubble-clearing so that we may
pay attention to what I am persuaded is the core difficulty and the great
value of genuine conversation. To get at this he quotes Michael Oakeshott,
from "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind":

"Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a
contest where a winner gets a prize, nor is it an activity of exegesis; it
is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure. It is with conversation as with
gambling, its significance lies neither in winning nor in losing, but in the
wagering. Properly speaking, it is impossible in the absence of diversity of
voices: in it different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other
and enjoy an oblique relationship with neither requires nor forecasts their
being assimilated to one another....

"Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these
are profitable these are to be recognised as passages in this conversation,
and perhaps they are not the most captivating of these passages. It is the
ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason
cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better
world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilised
man from the barbarian."

Conversation as adventure, as pure research, with no guarantees, "simply a
spontaneous, unpredictable encounter between two or more human agents". An
open channel, which we keep open by exercising it, perhaps define by a
certain subject area and discipline of talking but otherwise leave
undetermined. "Paradoxically", Mount says, "it is this spontaneity which
makes genuine progress possible, while a deliberately 'progressive' spirit
can be a deadening force." I think (as always) of Eliot's Four Quartets, in
this case particularly of the line from East Coker, "For us, there is only
the trying. The rest is not our business."

Why all this? you may be wondering. Two reasons.

The first reason, and primary justification for your editor going on at such
length, is the omphalosceptic return to the basic intellectual design of
Humanist, which was (not surprisingly) not at all the purpose for which our
electronic seminar was originally launched. (O phoenix culprit! as Joyce
said.) Originally it had a quite definite purpose, a few of us older members
will recall -- to reform the world, of course. Well, our corner of it,
specifically our exclusion from the High Table of tenured appointments. When
we realised how impossible such a reformation was, at least in the
short-term, we gave it up and decided simply to talk about whatever came
into our heads to talk about, so long as it fell loosely within the generous
bounds of whatever humanities computing might turn out to be. To the extent
Humanist has succeeded, it has done so by being an open channel without a
programme. And perhaps (as I think) we've discovered what humanities
computing is in the process.

The second reason is private; I mention it in order to bring home the value
of what we do here and in many other such forums but seldom notice, because
our intentional minds are elsewhere. My experience (here offered
Miltonically, sub specie aeternitatis) is of the most intense e-mail
conversation over the last months. This conversation has demonstrated to me
over and over again how wise it is not to plan what one is going to say,
when in an important sense one's life depends on it, rather to attend to
one's openness of mind and then discover by talking what must be said and
how to say it. It is, as I've said before, like love, involving great risks
but offering incalculably greater rewards. It's those risks, perhaps, that
provoke the various kinds of avoidance behaviour that makes talk seem cheap.
But to paraphrase the last chapter of Frank McCourt's marvellous tale of his
Irish childhood, Angela's Ashes, 'Tisn't.

Comments welcome :-).

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5081
<Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
maui gratia

Humanist Discussion Group
Information at <http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/humanist/>