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October 19, 2005

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Conversation Piece

Is it just me, or is the “foobars are a conversation” meme totally played out? The first hundred Google results for the phrase “are a conversation” reveal that among other things:

I could go on. At what point does (did?) this phrase lose all effective meaning?

mthompson-sig.gif
Posted October 19, 2005 at 8:24 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Briefly Noted, Gleeful Miscellany

Comments

probably about the time "discourse" came into vogue. i mean really, what isn't a conversation?

About a year and a half ago, I got into a good, uh, conversation with Roger Chartier over what did and didn't constitute a "text," or more theoretically, what content "textuality" could and couldn't (should and shouldn't?) convey. Dr. Chartier made his career partly through helping kick off the study of what academics call "material texts": histories of reading, publishing, bookmaking, etc.

Around the same time, post-structuralism got going, and textuality became the new key metaphor in the humanities and human sciences. Clifford Geertz argued that the Balinese cockfight was a "text" that you could "read" like you'd read King Lear. People like Stephen Greenblatt started "reading" court rituals together with Ben Jonson masques. Quentin Skinner showed that the best "context" for philosophical works like John Locke's were ephemeral pamphlets that revealed the political semantics of the moment. And so on.

Chartier thought that the great majority of this textuality talk was excessive and that "text" should be reserved for a physical document with words on it. I agreed (although we disagreed about whether musical scores and images in books counted) but argued from a pragmatic point of view that "text" as a metaphor, in all of its valences, was justifiable insofar as it opened up new and sufficiently rich critical dimensions, i.e., avenues for meaning, argument, and scholarly study. The problem with "text" is that its value as a metaphor has been played out -- it's not dead so much as stale. (The study of material texts is still pretty interesting because it found a new way to make the metaphor work -- by taking it literally.)

You could say the same thing about "conversation." The word hasn't lost its meaning, it's still pretty ripe with value -- it's just that some of the metaphorical applications of it aren't very interesting. In most cases, it boils down to a friendly-sounding way of saying "interaction" -- what isn't an interaction? But if you are able to suggest that some kind of "dialogue" is occuring, especially in an area where a dialogical relationship isn't exactly obvious, and this in turn leads to other, valuable conclusions or interpretations, then it's all good.

Tim, excellent essay.

In my experience I like to use the "conversation" metaphor for situations that in fact are quite obviously a non-verbal kind of communicative interaction that literally uses phrase and grammar structure. One major situation comes to mind: jazz improvisation. I also like to use it when I am trying to woo the ladies. Aaron: "hey baby, kissing to me is like a conversation."

Posted by: Aaron on October 20, 2005 at 11:41 PM
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