John Shotter on encounters with ‘Other’ - from inner mental representation to dialogical social practices
M. C. Escher, Relativity (july 1953)
“It is then that the reader asks that crucial question, ‘What’s it all about?’ But what ‘it’ is, is not the actual text… but the text the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own.” — Jerome Seymour Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986, p.37.
“Only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H.V. Wright (Eds.). Oxford: Blackwell, 1981, no.173.
“One of our tasks in understanding an Other, is to do justice to the uniqueness of their otherness. But this is not easy, for, as we shall see, it is in how they express themselves in dialogically structured events that occur between us only in unique, fleeting moments, that we can grasp who and what they are. (…)
In his review of George Steiner’s essay (‘A new meaning of meaning,’ in TLS, 8th Nov, 1985), he comments that such a stance in art, is
“a belief that meaning (or meanings) lies in the work of art, embodied, incarnate, a real presence… It is a faith in meaning incarnate in the work of art that captures the ‘immensity of the commonplace’, that changes our very construction of reality: ‘poplars are on fire after Van Gogh’… The literary artist, it would follow from this argument, becomes an agent in the evolution of mind - but not without the co-option of the reader as his fellow author.”
Almost all of us are now members of more than a single active culture. Thus the experience of having to ‘cross’ cultural boundaries, of having continually to ‘shift one’s stance’, of having to view one’s surroundings, fleeting aspect by fleeting aspect rather than perspectively (Wittgenstein, 1953), to make sense of what is happening around us while being ourselves in ‘motion’, so to speak, has now become a ‘normal’ activity. But what, as academics and intellectuals, must we do in the new dialogical, aspectival circumstances in which we now live, to pay attention to ‘the practices of Self’? Can we just apply our old and well tried methods to this new topic of study? Or must we, if we are to grasp the nature of such practices, invent some new methods, act in some new and different ways? (…)
Milan Kundera’s comments - to do with us only very recently coming to a realization of the strangeness of the ordinary, the strangeness of the present moment in all its concreteness - are of crucial importance to us. For presently, as he points out:
“When we analyze a reality, we analyze it as it appears in our mind, in memory. We know reality only in the past tense. We do not know it as it is in the present, in the moment when it’s happening, when it is. The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting”.
Similarly, Jerome Seymour Bruner (1986, p.13) remarks that what he calls the paradigmatic or logico- scientific mode of thought, “seeks to transcend the particular by higher and higher reaching for abstraction, and in the end disclaims in principle any explanatory value at all where the particular is concerned”.
What Kundera and Bruner are reminding us of here, is not only that our current intellectual methods are monological and individualistic, and that as moderns we only really fully alive when set over against our surroundings all alone, but that we also import into our accounts of what happens around us, mythic abstractions of our own making. Positioning ourselves as if observers from afar of someone playing a back and forth, turn taking game - tennis say - we fail to realize that we are the other players in the game, that others act in response to how we act. Lacking any intellectual grasp of the relation of their activity to ours and to the circumstances we share with them, we try to explain what we observe of their activities as if originating solely from within them as self-contained individuals. Ignoring the ‘calls’ of their surrounding circumstances to which they ‘answer’, we invent mythic entities located inside them somewhere that, theoretically, we suppose causes them to act as they do (Wittgenstein, 1953), and set out to prove our theories true. (…)
As I see it, only if we institute a third, dialogical revolution of a kind that calls all our previous methods into question, and suggests wholly new intellectual practices and institutions to us, can we begin to fashion forms of inquiry that will do justice to the uniqueness of the being of Others. (…)
Psychology technicalized and demoralized
In attempting to bring ‘mind’ back into psychology, Bruner didn’t want just to add “a little mentalism” to behaviorism, but to do something much more profound: he wanted to discover and describe “what meaning-making processes were implicated” in people’s encounters with the world; its aim was “to prompt psychology to joining forces with its sister interpretative disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences”.
Indeed, although he admits that “we were slow to fully grasp what the emergence of culture meant for human adaptation and for human functioning” - to contrast with what he calls computationalism - he goes on to outline in this and in his latest book, The Culture of Education), a “second approach to the nature of mind - call it culturalism. It takes its inspiration from the evolutionary fact that mind could not exist save for culture.” As he remarks in Acts of Meaning:
“What was obvious from the start was perhaps too obvious to be fully appreciated, at least by us psychologists who by habit and by tradition think in rather individualist terms. The symbolic systems that individual used in constructing meaning were systems that were already in place, already ‘there’, deeply entrenched in culture and language. They constituted a very special kind of communal tool kit whose tools, once used, made the user a reflection of the community… As Clifford Geertz puts it, without the constituting role of culture we are ‘unworkable monstrosities… incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture.”
The ‘movements’ at work in our dialogic encounters with an Other
To refer to issues he has brought to our attention, let me now return to Bruner’s account of narrative modes of thought in his ‘Two modes…’ (…) In the story, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of a stone bridge, describing it stone by stone. But Kublai Khan gets impatient and seeks what some of us would now call ‘the bottom line’, and asks what supports the stones? ‘The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,’ Marco answers, ‘but by the line of the arch that they form.’ Then ‘Why do you speak to me of the stones?,’ Kublai Khan demands. ‘Without stones there is no arch,’ Polo replies - for the arch is ‘in’ the relations between the stones. And as Bruner goes on to point out, in their reading of the story, the reader “goes from stones to arches to the significance of arches to some broader reality - goes back and forth between them in attempting finally to construct a sense of the story, its form, its meaning”. Sometimes in reading stories, we can attend from the relations among their particularities to something much more general. But, what kind of textual structures allow or invite such a move? How is the sense of a more general significance achieved? And ‘in’ what does that more general significance consist?
It is only in our reading of texts of a narrative kind, Bruner maintains, that we can encounter others or othernesses that are strange and novel to us. In reading such texts, individuals begin to construct what Bruner a ‘virtual text’ of their own - where it is as if readers
‘were embarking on a journey without maps… [Where] in time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader’s sense of the ordinary… [This] is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own’ (Bruner, 1986, pp.36-37).
To repeat: It is the way in which such texts ‘subjunctivize reality’ - or traffic ‘in human possibilities rather than settled certainties,’ as he puts it (Bruner, 1986, p.26) - that makes the co-creation of such virtual worlds between authors and their readers possible. (…)
As he points out, the existence of conventions and maxims that are constitutive of a normative background to our activities, ‘provides us with the means of violating them for purposes of meaning more than we say or for meaning other than what we say (as in irony, for example) or for meaning less than we say’ (Bruner, 1986, p.26).
This background, and the possibility of us deviating from it, is crucial to his whole approach. Indeed, he emphasizes it again in Acts of Meaning, where he comments on his efforts to describe a people’s ‘folk psychology’ as follows: ‘I wanted to show how human beings, in interacting with one another, form a sense of the canonical and ordinary as a background against which to interpret and give narrative meaning to breaches in and deviations from ‘normal’ states of the human condition’ (Bruner, 1990, p.67).
It is the very creation of indeterminacy and uncertainty by the devices people use in their narrative forms of thought and talk, that make it possible for them to co-create unique meanings between them as their dialogical activities unfold. ‘To mean in this way,’ suggests Bruner, ‘by the use of such intended violations… is to create ‘gaps’ and to recruit presuppositions to fill them’. Indeed, our own unique responses to our own unique circumstances are ‘carried’ in the subtle variations in how we put these constitutive forms of response to use, as we bodily react, and thus relate ourselves, to what goes on around us. This is what it is for us to perform meaning. And we ‘show’ our understanding of such ‘performed meanings’ in our ways of ‘going on’ with the others around us in practice - to put the matter in Wittgenstein’s (1953) terms. I shall call the kind of meaning involved here, that are only intelligible to us against an already existing background of the activities constitutive of our current forms of life, joint, first-time - or only ‘once occurrent’ (Bakhtin, 1993, p.2) - variational meanings, that are expressive of the ‘world’ of an unique ‘it’ or ‘I’. (…)
In exploring the problem of how it is possible to perform meaning in practice, of how, say, the process of intending might work, Wittgenstein suggests that we might feel tempted to say that such a process ‘can do what it is supposed to only by containing an extremely faithful picture of what it intends.’ But having said this much, he goes on to point out:
“That that too does not go far enough, because a picture, whatever it may be, can be variously interpreted; hence this picture too in its turn stands isolated. When one has the picture in view by itself it is suddenly dead, and it is as if something had been taken away from it, which had given it life before… it remains isolated, it does not point outside itself to a reality beyond.
Now one says: ‘Of course, it is not the picture itself that intends, but we who use it to intend something’. But if this intending, this meaning, is in turn something that is done with the picture, then I cannot see why it has to involve a human being. The process of digestion can also be studied as a chemical process, independently of whether it takes place in a living being. We want to say ‘Meaning is surely essentially a mental process, a process of conscious life, not of dead matter’…
And now it seems to us as if intending could not be any process at all, of any kind whatever. - For what we are dissatisfied with here is the grammar of process, not with the specific kind of process. - It could be said: we should call any process ‘dead’ in this sense’ (no. 236). ‘It might almost be said,’ he adds: ‘Meaning moves, whereas a process stands still”.
Meaning as movement
In other words, instead of meaning being a cognitive process of statically ‘picturing’ something, Wittgenstein sees it here in a quite different light: as part of an ongoing, dynamic, interactive process in which people as embodied agents are continuously reacting in a living, practical way, both to each other and to their circumstances.
Thus, even as a person is speaking, the bodily and facial responses of the others around them to what they say, are acting back upon them to influence them moment by moment in their ‘shaping’ of their talk as it unfolds. In such circumstances as these, we are inevitably doing much more than merely talking ‘about’ something; we are continuously living out changing ‘ways of relating’ ourselves to our circumstances, of our own creation; or as Wittgenstein (1953) would say, we are creating certain, particular ‘forms of life’.
Thus, in practice, as we tack back and forth between the particular words of a strange, newly encountered, meaning- indeterminate story or text, and the whole of the already ongoing, unsayable, dynamic cultural history in which we all are, in different ways, to some extent, immersed, we perform meaning. In so doing, in ‘bridging the gaps’ with the responsive movements we make as we read, we creatively ‘move’ over what Bruner (1986) calls the ‘landscapes’ of a ‘virtual text.’ And what is general in our reading, what we can ‘carry over’ from what we do as we read into the doing of other activities, are these responsive ‘ways of moving’ of our own spontaneous creation - ways of ‘orchestrating’ our moment by moment changing relations to our past, our future, the others around us, our immediate physical surroundings, authorities, our cultural history, our dreams for the future, and so on, relating ourselves in these different directions perceptually, cognitively, in action, in memory, and so on (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986). We can ‘carry over’ into new spheres of activity what is ‘carried in’ our initial ways of bodily responding to a text in the first place.
Viewed in this way, as calling out from us possibly quite new, first-time responsive movements, rather than as being about something in the world, such meaning indeterminate texts can be seen as a special part of the world, an aspect of our surroundings to which we cannot not - if we are to grasp their meaning for us - relate ourselves in a living way. So, although such texts may seem to be not too different from those presented as being ‘about’ something - that is, from texts with a representational-referential meaning that ‘pictures’ a state of affairs in the world - their meaning cannot be found in such a picturing. We must relate ourselves to them in a quite different way.
For their meaning is of a much more practical, pre-theoretical, pre-conceptual kind: to do with providing us with way or style of knowing, rather than with a knowledge or ‘picture’ of something in particular. To put it another way: in its reading, such texts are exemplary for not of a certain way of going on. It is exemplary for a new way of relating ourselves to our circumstances not before followed; it provides us with new poetic images through which, possibly, to make sense of things, not images or representations of things already in existence.
Concerning the creative effects of certain styles or genres of writing on us, or works of art in general, Susan Sontag (1962) has written:
‘To become involved with a work of art entails, to be sure, the experience of detaching oneself from the world. But the work of art itself is also a vibrant, magical, and exemplary object which returns us to the world in some way more open and enriched…
Raymond Bayer has written: ‘What each and every aesthetic object imposes on us, in appropriate rhythms, is a unique and singular formula for the flow of our energy… Every work of art embodies a principle of proceeding, of stopping, of scanning; an image of energy or relaxation, the imprint of a caressing or destroying hand which is [the artist’s] alone’. We can call this the physiognomy of the work, or its rhythm, or, as I would rather do, its style’ (p.28).
Where the function of such a ‘moving’ form of communication is, not only to make a unique other or otherness we have not previously witnessed, present to us for the very first time, but to provide us with the opportunity to embody the new ‘way of going on’ that only it can call out from us. But to do this, to come to embody its ‘way’, we must encounter and witness its distinct nature in all its complex detail. If we turn too quickly merely to its explanation, not only do we miss what new it can teach us, but the turn is pointless: for, literally, we do not yet know what we are talking about.
As this stance toward meaning as living, only once occurrent, joint, variational movement, is still very unfamiliar to us, let me explore its nature yet a little more: Remarking further about the living nature of meaning, Wittgenstein (1981) comments that he wants to say that ”When we mean something, it’s like going up to someone, it’s not having a dead picture (of any kind)’. We go up to the thing we mean’ (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.455).
For instance, as we view, say, a picture such as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, we can enter into an extended, unfolding, living relation with it, one that ebbs and flows, that vacillates and oscillates, as we respond to it in different ways. What we sense, we sense from inside our relations to it: ‘It is as if at first we looked at a picture so as to enter into it and the objects in it surrounded us like real ones; and then we stepped back, and were now outside it; we saw the frame and the picture was a painted surface. In this way, when we intend, we are surrounded by our intention’s pictures, and we are inside them’ (1981, no.233).
Indeed, he says elsewhere: ‘It often strikes is as if in grasping meaning the mind made small rudimentary movements, like someone irresolute who does not know which way to go - i.e., it tentatively reviews the field of possible applications’ (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.33).
The novelist John Berger (1979) has also written about the act of writing in a similar fashion:
“The act of writing is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about; just as, hopefully, the act of reading the written text is a comparable act of approach. To approach experience, however, is not like approaching a house. ‘Life’, as the Russian proverb says, ‘is not a walk across an open field’. Experience is indivisible and continuous, at least within a single lifetime and perhaps over many lifetimes. I never have the impression that my experience is entirely my own, and it often seems to me that it preceded me. In any case experience folds back on itself, refers backwards and forwards to itself through the referents of hope and fear; and, by the use of metaphor, which is at the origin of language, it is continually comparing like with unlike, what is small with what is large, what is near with what is distant. And the act of approaching a given moment of experience involves both scrutiny (closeness) and the capacity to connect (distance).
The movement of writing resembles that of a shuttle on a loom: repeatedly it approaches and withdraws, closes in and takes its distance. Unlike a shuttle, however, it is not fixed to a static frame. as the movement of writing itself, its intimacy with the experience increases. Finally, if one is fortunate, meaning is the fruit of this intimacy.” (John Berger, 1979, p.6, my emphases).
Describing (and explaining?) the dialogical: ‘the difficulty here is: to stop’
Although such a way of looking for the fleeting, only once occurrent details of our interactions is not easy to implement, it is of the crux. For, as he puts it, the problems we face are not empirical problems to be solved by giving explanations: ‘they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in spite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have already known’ (no.109) - but which so far, has passed us by in our everyday dealings with each other unnoticed.
Thus, as Wittgenstein (1953) sees it, although not easily accomplished, the task is not to imagine, and then to empirically investigate possible ‘mechanisms’ within us responsible for us being able to mean things to each other, but to describe how we in fact do do it in practice. Indeed, to repeat Kundera’s (1993) remark above: ‘an event as we imagine it hasn’t much to do with the same event as it is when it happens’ (p.139) - for we can only theorize events as distinct upon their completion, after they have made one or another kind of sense, once they have an already achieved meaning. Something incomplete, something that we are still in the middle of, something that we are still involved in or ‘inside of’, cannot properly be described in a theoretically distinct way.
Thus, if we still nonetheless attempt to do so, we will miss out - or better, we will tend to overlook - many of its most significant details; and in so doing, we will find ourselves puzzled as to how we do in fact manage the doing of meaning between us. There must - we will say to each other - be something else that we have missed, something hidden in what we do when we mean things to each other, that needs discovering and explaining. But, suggests Wittgenstein (1953), in asking and answering his own question: ‘How do sentences do it [i.e., manage to represent something]? - Don’t you know? For nothing is hidden”. (…) ‘There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call ‘symbols’, ‘words’, ‘sentences’. And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but types of language, new language-games, as we say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten”.
Once we go beyond the confines of established language-games, we are once again in the realm of the indeterminate, where are meanings are ambiguous and can only be made determinate by us ‘playing them out’, so to speak, within a practice. Our language-games cannot themselves be explained, as they are the bases in terms of which all our explanations in fact work as explanations. (…)
Instead of a theoretical, explanatory account of their workings, we need first to come to a practical understanding of the joint, dialogical nature of our lives together. And if we are to do that, if we are to see, as Bruner puts it, the ways in which we ‘violate’ the norms of our institutions, then, we also must violate the norms of our institutions.”
— John Shotter, Emeritus Professor of Communication in the Department of Communication, University of New Hampshire, Towards at third revolution in psychology: From inner mental representation to dialogical social practices
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