A Good Conversation

A conversation is different than a discussion. A discussion is everyone talking about something — "Jane Eyre" or the latest Spoon LP or whether balding men really ought to shave the whole thing or not. 

But a converation is a beast of another sort. A conversation is a relentless back and forth in ever different rhythms — one party holding the floor, followed by a brief interlude, only to surge forth again; then, later, a rapid pitter patter of banter, each urging the other one in a frenetic frenzy of excitement or understanding or revelation; and so it goes, shifting registers, rhythms, tones, and topics. 

A conversation demands great generosity.  On the one hand, it demands the generosity of listening. And perhaps not just of listening but of assuming that the other person is saying something of value, something worth listening to. 

I will admit that most of the time, I am listening to other people — not friends, mind you, not persons vetted by experience — with a bit of hesitation, with imminent or silent judgment or assessment but in any case not with pure openness and generosity.  I don't assume they'll say something interesting; on the contrary, I assume they'll say something familiar, boring, cliched.

Now, I may be right and perhaps that is often the case.  Still, a good conversation demands generosity, demands that each party assume the best of the other. (The beginnings of conversations — say, at a party — are tenuous affairs, each sniffing out the other for signs of value, signs of a good conversational partner.  I tend to use a few different techniques to suss out whether this or that person will give me the conversational goods.  Probably, I just come off — or I am — obnoxious and the other person can't wait to flee.)

But the conversation demands another kind of generosity, too. It demands the generosity of your own lively intellect, your willingness not just to listen to this other person but to take what they give you and move it into new territory.  It's not just a matter of listening but of giving — and giving wholly of yourself.

A conversation is what Deleuze and Guattari might call a bloc of becoming: together, the conversationalists move each other and, in so doing, create something new, a wave of the world emerging through the magic of their mutual generosity.  It's as if the two — conversations are difficult enough between two people; add more and things get exponentially more complex — the two conversing become like a multiheaded beast — not fused but still sharing a common body: the body of the conversation.

A good conversation demands a certain strength — the strength to feel comfortable with someone else; the strength to remain in and of oneself even while being so intent on another; the strength to enter strange, new realms without getting lost.  It demands that peculiar posture of poise, leaning neither too far in nor too far back but standing strong while always ready for what may come next.

It is erotic, yes.  And musical. It is as physical as it is intellectual, even if seeming to involve only words (as if there such a thing as "only words"). 

Oh, man, a good conversation is a rare and beautiful thing.


what the Tee Vee taught said...

Yes yes, to your note on the physicality of a conversation:

Just last night, I made a few tweaks to my style, as I knew I would be spending the evening with the lady friend's parents... and things don't always go all-too-well.

I opted for quite a bit more vigorous nodding, an animated approach. But not the narrowed brow nod, rather the happy eyes, slightly crinkled forehead, eye brows reaching for the hairline nod — a thoroughly nonthreatening appearance (assuming I fell short of the joyous nut-bag look).

Not too surprisingly, the affect was double: I too was notably more generous with their absurd claims... and they offered those claims with vigor — after all, I was making an "I-dig-it" face.

For what I wanted, it was quite a success: the topics and disagreements were essentially the same as usual, but the tone was vastly less contentious... which is of course quite nice — as food does not enjoy a rumbling belly.

Sarah said...

Coffeen, how I enjoy your writings!

Generosity is key. The eternal observer is a coward, stunting the potential of the conversation. Sharing something makes you vulnerable. Having no one else follow suit, is like them coming to a carnival without a costume. Suddenly the idiots are the ones that bothered dressing up.

kablaamee said...

"He is silent so as to offer himself - or else he talks, well knowing that he will put everything into confusion." I just read that passage today and it reminded me of this post. Also, after reading Søren, I can see his influence on you. I can't comprehend everything you say but boy do I love the challenge you present!

drwatson said...

I remember in Gadamer's Truth and Method he says the good conversation is the one we didn't plan on having. The conversation becomes the force - not the wills of the people having it.

The more I think, the more I think the problem with the modern world is that we see so much in terms of the will. If you haven't looked at Dreyfus' last book All Things Shining - you might enjoy it. The style is lacking, but the content is great - there's a particularly interesting section on David Foster Wallace.

Daniel Coffeen said...

It's not just will — it's everything that goes with will: selfhood, ego, etc. Nietzsche understood that the dominant technology that needs to be re-engineered is selfhood.

The Posture of Things

You're shopping for a chair. As you browse the aisles, you note the variety — from backless computer chairs to high bar stools to plush ...