by Mahak Uppal.
The term “dialogue” is defined by the Oxford online dictionary as “taking part in a conversation or discussion to resolve a problem”. It is derived from the root “dia” meaning “through or across” and “legin” meaning “to speak”. In its most popular usage, therefore, a dialogue is understood as a means or a tool that is employed to resolve a dispute, or a problem, or a disagreement. However, this popular understanding, according to me, fails to capture the true nature of dialogue in general. Problem resolution, as I wish to show during the course of this paper, is just one mode in which dialogues become manifest, but it is not the only reason why individuals participate in them. Now, the terms “dialogue” and “discursive” are believed to be related in meaning, where the latter is especially taken to convey “going hastily to and fro”. This latter understanding can be taken to imply that a dialogue/conversation/discussion needs to be understood as the possibility for a “transaction”/“exchange”/“going across”/“going to and fro” of ideas, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, experiences, or any kind of information.
In this paper, therefore, I deviate slightly from the popular understanding of the term “dialogue” and wish to retain concepts such as “speaking through”, “speaking across”, “going to and fro” etc. which have transpired from the definitions and etymologies of terms such as “dialogue”, “dialogical”, “discursive”, “dialectic”, “discussion”, “conversation” etc. In particular the idea of a “to and fro movement” and “exchange” appears to me to be the central theme in understanding the true nature of the dialogue.
What is a dialogue? What are its preconditions?
Any dialogue, according to me, needs to be construed as an inter-subjective relational activity, enacted amongst persons/individuals/selves/subjects, etc. It is an activity that presumes and provides adequate grounds for a transaction and an exchange across its participants.
Being a relation, a dialogue is always enacted in and as a shared moment or a shared duration in time, which stems from the past and projects into the future. The participants may or may not inhabit the same spatial location, but they definitely experience each other in time. So inhabiting a shared moment in time appears to me to be a primary precondition for successfully initiating and actualizing a dialogue.
Moreover, it is also required that there should be a common and shared topic/subject matter of discussion. The participants need to be at least talking about the same thing. This Commonality Condition however need not extend beyond the abovementioned requirement, because conditions like a common lived world, common interests/aspirations/ expectations, or aiming for a common end or a common purpose, do not seem to characterize all dialogical encounters and they are, at best, arbitrary. People having different aspirations, expectations, ideas or purposes can very well come together in enacting a dialogue, provided they are talking (broadly) about the same thing.
Another fundamental condition for bringing about a dialogue according to me is that of mutual and active participation. It is what constitutes and allows for the transaction, exchange, and to and fro movement or flow of ideas and information to take place. Along with mutual participation, there also needs to be a mutual receptivity and openness towards encountering new (yet undiscovered) perspectives, recognizing them, and learning from them (even in disagreement) newer (more interesting and yet undiscovered) ways of understanding and describing the given (animate/inanimate) reality. The Mutuality Condition of participation and receptivity (participation being the active aspect and receptivity being passive) is so fundamental that it seems almost like a principle that should not be violated at any stage. If it is violated then the dialogue no more remains an inter-subjective relation, the dialogical relation would then become indistinguishable from the kind of attitude that individuals have towards inanimate objects, i.e. a relation where there can be no possible to and fro exchange of information or ideas. Moreover, if the mutuality condition is not met, then the dialogue runs the risk of degenerating into a monologue or an inquiry; wherein since there is just one active participant and the rest are just recipients, therefore there is no inter-subjective to and fro exchange of information.
The mutuality condition further implies that there must be a difference and multiplicity of participants and perspectives. In fact, the very conception of a dialogue thrives on and presupposes a difference of “epistemic perspectives”, with each participant imbibing and representing a unique, individual, and subjective view onto (and about) the subject matter of the discourse. This difference is what allows for the inter-subjective transaction of ideas and information to come about. However, the difference need not necessarily imply a “disagreement” among the participants (a disagreement which needs to be ultimately resolved in favor of an “agreement” during the due course of a dialogue). Dialogue need not presuppose any implicit commitment towards attaining a Consensus/a Higher Truth/Knowledge/Agreement in terms of which the initial disagreement can be resolved and agreement can be sought. There is no such claim towards Agreement and Truth, even when there is a constant hope for the same.
Self and Another
In a bid to understand the nature of the dialogue, I propose to begin with a description and analysis of how the participants present themselves, confront, meet and experience each other in the moment of the dialogical encounter. Being an inter-subjective activity, a dialogue presupposes the presence of at least two subjects or participants, who hold and represent their respective epistemic viewpoints and views onto the subject matter of the discourse. By mutually participating in a to and fro exchange of ideas two (or more participants) together enact a minimal dialogical relation.
So, on the one hand, there is the speaker/ the I/ the Self (who addresses others), and on the other hand, there is the Listener/ the You/ the Other (whom the speaker addresses; but whom the dialogue is not necessarily about). Now, this Other in a dialogical relation is not just a non-Self, for that category would include inanimate objects as well. The Other is therefore never an It (an inanimate object). Rather than revealing the Other as an It, the dialogical encounter presents the Other as Another Self/ Another Subject/ Another I, just like my-Self. Each individual Self and their views are fundamentally unbound and are therefore not necessarily determined by the opinions, judgments, views, claims, etc. of the others. The Another is similarly encountered as an independent subjective reality, not bounded by me/my opinions/my experience of it. The Another is instead experienced as being fundamentally different from me and yet being alike in terms of the possibilities. The above description seems to reaffirm the assertion that a dialogue is possible only with an unbounded Another, and not with an inanimate bounded It, for it requires mutual and inter-subjective participation.
The duality of standpoints (Self and Another) is however not stagnating, even though it is maintained throughout the course of the dialogue. The mutuality condition ensures that this duality is dynamically maintained, via in-varying reciprocity. With each enactment of the encounter, the epistemic standpoints of the speaker and the listener tend to interchange. The Self continually takes up the role of the Another and vice-versa. This reciprocity continually evolves without privileging either of the positions. A dialogical relation, therefore, tends to destabilize any hierarchical ordering by giving each participant a uniform status.
In what follows I describe how the participants engage with each other in and through this relation.
In trying to put forth a perspective or an opinion, across to the Another, the Self (the speaker) tends to disclose and lay bare a part of itself through words, gestures, expressions, etc. In doing so the Self earnestly hopes and wants to be accepted and understood by Another as what it is and what it intends to convey by the said disclosure; but at the same time, in doing so the Self always runs the risk of being Classified, Categorized, Bound, Known and reduced to an It. This is because the Self and its disclosure can be understood by Another only via an interpretation, which must take place from within the limitations that constitute and ground the Another (and its epistemic standpoint). The Another, therefore, tries to understand the Self through his/her own experiences/thoughts/expectations/views/opinions, etc. Though sincerely empathizing with the sense intended by the Self, the Another cannot but rely on a subjective interpretation in order to understand what is being conveyed. Another’s understanding of the Self is therefore relative. In allowing oneself to be heard and understood the Self therefore always ends up negotiating with the meanings ascribed to it by the Another and the interpretation actuated by those meanings. Even though the Self and the Another are fundamentally unbound, yet every time the Another tries to understand and interpret the Self, it has to do so in and through words and language. Words by their very nature classify, categorize, bind and reduce the self to what it is not i.e. an It, an Object. On its part, however, the Self and its intended standpoint transcends, spills over, and un-conforms to any attempts of being Classified, Objectified and Known. This is extremely paradoxical for, though the Another must try and objectify the Self in order to Know it, yet the Self can never be thus Known/ Judged/ Classified/ Grasped, it can perhaps at best be described, understood and experienced. These attempts of trying to understand and know that which eludes us, gives rise to ambiguity, opaqueness, and obscurity of meaning, thereby opening the doors for misinterpretation, and misunderstanding; apparently threatening and jeopardizing the very possibility of a dialogue, thereby making the whole engagement seem futile.
An act which further obscures meaning and knowing is constituted by the brief bouts of Silence adopted by the participants (especially the speaker) when a dialogue is yet underway. Remaining silent, according to me, is as much a possibility available to the unbounded Self as is speaking and/or addressing. Through it, however, the speaker seems to enclose itself in secrecy, rather than disclosing or revealing itself to the Another. The mysterious nature of this sudden enclosure leaves the Another in puzzlement regarding the possible interpretation of its sense and significance. Now silence could be intended to mean anything, right from nothing at all to everything possible. It is deeper, much more profound, and much more pregnant with meaning and significance than verbal utterances. It encompasses infinite possibilities, some of which are as follows: being a mark of protest, or defeat, or ignorance, or amazement. It might even be adopted to convey that the dialogue as it has unfolded, is utterly irrelevant, unimportant and undeserving of being discussed any further. At times when it is intended to convey agreement and approval, it might be interpreted as a sign of disapproval; while when it is adopted to register disapproval it might be misunderstood as signifying consent and approval. The silence of the speaker on still other occasions might result from a sudden loss of words. For words at times might fail to convey to Another the full force, depth, and the true meaning of certain experiences. Words might end up robbing the experience of its felt vividness, by either restricting it or by generalizing it too much. At such a juncture the Self might choose to remain silent so that matters/thoughts/feelings/beliefs/opinions do not obfuscate further i.e. to avoid any further confusion or misinterpretations. It seems to me that Silence is not exactly a way of disengaging or withdrawing from dialogue, but it is as much a mode of participation available to the Self. It is an act which most certainly allows and demands that the Another interprets, dissects, and understands (yet never fully grasps/ Knows) what the Self wished to enclose/disclose (in choosing to adopt it).
The above discussions hint at the idea that interpretation, misinterpretation, miscommunication, confusion, obscurity, vagueness, the opacity of meaning, etc. all these limitations obfuscate the very possibility of grasping/ knowing an objective truth or reaching to a consensus about the subject matter of the dialogue. There is, therefore, a continuous need and effort on the part of the participants to constantly disambiguate, and reach to a more clear and comprehensive understanding. It is this very need that deters, defers, and defies any kind of closure, thereby keeping the dialogical relation intact, prolonging and perpetuating it; and ultimately keeping the conversation alive and forever on-going.
This defiance of closure and finitude makes the dialogical relation fundamentally open-ended. There are no set limitations on who can participate, when and how. Participants can come and go, speak, or observe silence, agree, disagree, or just remain indifferent. The nature and the possibilities of dialogue are dependent upon the possibilities that the participants bring to the table. A dialogue therefore eludes and non-conforms to any kind of structuring, definition, or definiteness. Moreover, it is through the dialogical relation that the individual Self can accomplish its full potential of being both a Speaker (an I/a Self), a Listener (a You/Another), and everything else in between i.e. an Other (an object/an It).
The lived relation between the Self and Another is not just a criterion which makes dialogue possible, rather it is the fundamental condition that constitutes the very nature of that phenomenon throughout.