The Human Conversation

The notion of conversation stuck with me as I finished Kenneth Bruffee’s essay. From time to time, I find myself lost in theory, praxis, pedagogy, rhetoric, and dialogue. I am confronted by an overwhelming sense that the work we do as scholars is meaningless. What good does it do to argue about literature and composition in an impartial, sterile universe where neither the inclusion of marginal authors into the canon nor the philosophies of famous French thinkers mean anything? Perhaps this is a fleeting nihilist streak in me, but it runs deep.

When I get into such a mood, I must stop. I take a mental step backward and tell myself that all the things scholars do (literary or otherwise) is part of a game. We play the game, and if we do well, we are rewarded with tenure or personal satisfaction. Questioning the game makes no sense since that road leads to despair and madness. We play the game, for no better reason than everybody else is playing it. After all, objectively, what does it accomplish to examine the scribblings of people who have been dead two hundred years of more?

So if I want to continue working, I have to stop practical thought and return to the text with some measure of faith and a pinch of suspended disbelief. The work I do, I tell myself, may not be good for the universe, but it is good for me now.

Given all of this, it is natural that I connected with the quotation Bruffee takes from Michael Oakeshott, who writes that we are the inheritors of a conversation “begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries … which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance” (Oakeshott, quoted in Bruffee 419). This conversation is the game I referred to earlier. It is the ongoing activity that I, from time to time, have to consciously choose to take part in. And while I am enthused to find that someone else thinks as I do about the “game,” I am not so enthused about the implications of this line of thinking.

Since humanity takes part in an eternal conversation, some have connected the conversation to thought itself. Geertz writes that “human thought is consummately social” (Bruffee 420), a thought Bruffee furthers when he says thought is “an artifact created by social interaction” (420). Social interaction in the conversation validates human thought. “To think well as individuals,” Bruffee writes, “we must learn to think well collectively—that is, we must learn to converse well” (421). Thought serves the conversation, empowering it. No matter what I do, my thoughts are part of the conversation; all I think or say is social.

I am uncomfortable with this because I also believe in human agency, that ideas have the power to alter perception and, hence, reality—now, I do not equate thought and writing. I think they are two different creatures; related but not identical, the two are perhaps close enough to lump them into a conversation about the conversation. James Berlin thinks similarly: “since language is a social phenomenon that is a product of a particular historical moment, our notions of the observing self, the communities in which the self functions, and the very structures of the material world are social constructions” (“Rhetoric” 731). In a way, I agree with Berlin when he writes that “to teach writing is to argue for a version of reality, and the best way of knowing and communicating it” (“Contemporary Composition” 256). Writing teaches students to shape their own versions of reality by describing what they perceive. Granted, writing is technically useless without an audience (“discourse community”), and I do not claim that students should follow the “expressionist” path Berlin describes. Yet I think there needs to be a balance between human agency and complicity in the conversation.

That’s where John Trimbur comes in. Trimbur believes the coversation, as outlined by Rorty this time, ignores its conflict with identity. The conversation persists because of “our loyalty” to it. There is no end to the conversation, only “continuance” (Trimbur 466). Conflicts are homogenized; they become “abnormal discourses” that restabilize the conversation (468). Trimbur believes we cannot ignore the conflict because it is “a standard feature of contemporary social existence” (469). In response, he wants to preserve the conversation and the consensus that feeds it by making consensus a Platonic ideal, safely perched on a “horizon which may never be reached” (Trimbur 476).

Trimbur instead wants us to read the gaps and irregularities, the “dissensus.” Only in this way can we deal with the conversation in a way that preserves our identities. Rather than identifying one thread of the conversation as privileged, scholars can take an almost hypertextual, non-hierarchical view.

So overall, I find myself uncomfortably wedged between wanting to accept the conversation and wanting to assert my identity, and I think this has to do with the cultural moment in which I find myself. But more on that at a later time. Suffice to say, I think that a perch somewhere in the middle of Trimbur’s conflict-theory and the idea of the all-encompassing conversation is where I belong. It is only a matter of reconciling the theories and finding just what that perch means.

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