First draft of paper written for Fourth National 'Writing Across the Curriculum Conference: Multiple Intelligences," Cornell, June 3rd-5th, 1999

Writing from within "living moments:"
"withness-writing" rather than "aboutness-writing"

John Shotter
Department of Communication
University of New Hampshire
Durham, NH 03824-3586


"... those [who wish to think participatively] know how not to detach their performed act from its product, but rather how to relate both of them to the unitary and unique context of life and seek to determine them in that context as an indivisible unity" (Bakhtin, 1993, footnote p.19).

"Philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition" (Wittgenstein, 1980, p.24).

"The spoken word is a genuine gesture, and it contains its meaning in the same way as the gesture contains its" (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p.183).

Although those of us who work and conduct research in the social and behavioral sciences and philosophy think of ourselves as working to analyze or explain human conduct in ways concerned with its refinement, correction, betterment, or improvement, are we in fact doing what we claim to be doing? Far too often those we research into - who are outsiders to the disciplines within which our writing has its currency - find what we have to say in our texts distant and inaccessible. They - and students new to our disciplines also - experience our texts as imposing an external (orderly) influence upon them, as regimenting them, as pushing them in directions irrelevant to their actual lives. And, I think, they are right! Our writing is inaccessible to them. This is because we do not often write from within any kind of involvement in their lives. Mostly, we write as external observers of their conduct. In so doing, we all too often claim that the analytic terms we use in attending to the features of their behavior we think important, are the real influences shaping their lives. Indeed, I remember well an academic meeting in which I was involved a few years ago, in which a well-known psychoanalytic theoretician at twenty minute intervals, said: "Now let me tell you what is really happening here!" We feel able to ignore the actual influences which those others 'over there' sense as important in their own shaping of their lives. But, in attempting to analyze and explain other people's lived lives rationally, in terms of coherent and orderly systems of our devising, as academic professionals we have not only ignored their agency, but we have also ignored the fact that they live out almost every aspect of their lives dialogically. That is, if Bakhtin's (1981, 1984, 1986) claims are correct, in almost all of our everyday activities, we are inter-linked in with the others and othernesses in our surroundings in a whole web of living, spontaneously responsive relationships. And while we can be unresponsive or insensitive to some of the events occurring around us, we cannot be unresponsive to them all.

Bakhtin's (1986) claims about the relationally-responsive nature of our everyday understandings are crucial in everything that follows below. As he puts it: "All real and integral understanding is actively responsive, and constitutes nothing other than the initial preparatory stage of a response (in whatever form it may be actualized). And the speaker himself is oriented toward such an actively responsive understanding. He does not expect passive understanding that, so to speak, only duplicates his own idea in someone else's mind" (p.69). Indeed, for Bakhtin, it matters that we are alive and in the flesh. And what Bakhtin emphasizes, along with Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty, as we shall see, is that prior to what as reflective, cognitive individuals we speak of as our understandings, there is a more immediate, unreflective, spontaneous form of understanding given us in our bodily reactions to events around us. Wittgenstein (1953) notes this in the following, seemingly innocuous, remark: "Our attitude to what is alive and to what is dead, is not the same. All our reactions are different" (no.284). The fact is, we are directly and immediately sensitive, bodily, to certain events in our surroundings whether we like it or not. We cannot not respond to them in some way. We can be shocked by them, compelled, repulsed, enlivened, enthralled in wonder and amazement, awed and overawed, moved in memorable ways, irrevocably changed in our very being. And it is through such 'calls' exerted upon us by events in our surroundings, as we spontaneously participate within the ongoing flow of relational activity around us, that we come to be the kind of people we are. Bakhtin draws our attention to the ceaseless flow of relationally-responsive activity occurring between ourselves and the others and othernesses in our surroundings, and to the way in which it matters to us in our lives.

What Bakhtin also draws to our attention, is the fact that as soon as we do act in response to the activities of an other or otherness, then how we act is partially shaped by their acting. We cease to be wholly responsible for our own actions. In other words, our dialogically-structured activities take place in a strange third realm of activity which is neither under our control, individually, nor wholly out of our control. It is strange because the others and othernesses around us seem to be 'there' with us, 'present' to us in everything we do - it is the realm which in the past was called the realm of "participatory thought" (Levy-Bruhl, 1926). We can get a sense of the peculiar nature of the mutually adjustive connectedness involved in such dialogically-structured relations, for instance, as soon as our eyes meet those of another. Although the precise details of the interplay between their gaze and expression and ours may, as Wittgenstein (1953) points out, be utterly "imponderable" (p.228), we have no doubt of its happening. Indeed, if we feel that the person we are talking to begins to look over our shoulder, to pay attention elsewhere, we immediately take offence (Goffman, 1967). It is the special nature of such moments of living contact between ourselves and others (and the othernesses) around us, and the important role played by such moments in our styles of writing, that I want to explore below.

From within our lives together

There is, we know, something very special about those moments when we just know that we are in living contact with an other or otherness in our surroundings. We turn toward an other, but until we have a sense of having caught their eye, of them being present to us and of us being present to them, of us as beholding each other, we know that it is useless to address them - they will not hear what we have to say, and we will have to repeat ourselves. We know that we are not yet in a relation of joint or reciprocal being with them, a way of being in which we each see an other's expression as "point[ing] beyond outside itself to a reality beyond" (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.236), as having (as Merleau-Ponty points out) a gestural function. However, a moment comes when our eyes meet, and although the evidence for it might be "imponderable" (Wittgenstein, 1953, p.228), we just know that at that moment a living contact exists: rapport has been established. We can not only see the other's eyes 'looking over' us while they can see us 'looking over' them, but we can each sense the responsive intertwining of our eye movements with the other's in our mutual 'seeing' of each other. Alternatively, we might open up such a relational rapport with the ritual of a handshake. And although there is a rhythmic repetitiveness in the movements involved here too, the living repetitiveness within a handshake is never exactly regular. As in the intermingled responsiveness of our eye movements, we can be present to each in the same way, we can express our 'otherness' to each other in the nuanced variations, the slight responsive departures we make in reaction to each other's movements. Indeed, as Finargette (1967) remarks, "...the sensitive person can often plumb the depths of another's attitude from a handshake. This depth of human relationship expressible in a 'ceremonial' gesture is in good part possible because of the remarkable specificity of the ceremony" (p.169). I can feel 'you' in your responsive movements to my hand movements, while you can feel 'me' in mine, and we can both feel something of our relationship to each other in the intertwining of our reciprocal responsiveness: "For example, if I am your former teacher, you will spontaneously be rather obvious in walking toward me rather than waiting for me to walk toward you. You will allow a certain subtle reserve in your handshake, even though it will be warm... There are indescribably many subtleties in the distinctions nuances, and minute variations in gesture" (p.170).

Although the intermingled movements occurring between us and our surroundings may involve a high degree of repetitiveness, unlike the manufactured repetitiveness of mechanically produced events and objects (including the printed characters in a text), they also contain responsive variations. And it is in the minute variations in our living interchanges with our surroundings, that everything of importance to us here, takes place. Our expressions emerge or unfold in responsive relation to events occurring in our surroundings, they change in living reaction to them. Given the local, particular, and unrepeatable character of such events, such variations are inevitably of a unique, first-time nature. With regard to our voiced utterances, Bakhtin (1986) comments on the unforeseeable novelty present in them all thus: "An utterance is never just a reflection or an expression of something already existing and outside it that is given and final. It always creates something that never existed before, something absolutely new and unrepeatable, and, moreover, it always has some relation to value (the true, the good, the beautiful, and so forth). But something created is always created out of something given (language, an observed phenomenon of reality, an experienced feeling, the speaking subject himself, something finalized in his world view, and so forth). What is given is completely transformed in what is created" (Bakhtin, 1986, pp.119-120).

The novelty in such responsive reactions are crucial. They are what makes it possible for us to gain a sense of each other's uniqueness, of the unique particularities of a previously unknown form of life in a previously unknown world. They provide the global beginnings from which further, more refined understandings can be developed. As Wittgenstein (1980) put it: "The origin and the primitive form of the language game is a reaction: only from this can more complicated forms develop. Language - I want to say - is refinement, 'in the beginning was the deed' [Goethe]." Where, by the word "primitive" here, Wittgenstein (1981) wants to make it clear that he doesn't mean something historically primitive, back in humankind's early times, but "that this sort of behavior is pre-linguistic: that a language-game is based on it, that it is the prototype of a way of thinking and not the result of thought" (no.541). Wittgenstein's comments here draw our attention to the importance of those unique, first-time events from which new understandings of the others and othernesses around us in our everyday lives can begin.

But, as with the sense we can gain of an other's attitude toward us in our handshakes with them, our everyday, spontaneous ways of responsively understanding the other expressions of those around us, do not just passively happen to us. As with our handshakes, we have 'to go out to meet the other', so to speak, with a 'fitting' set of 'anticipatory gestures' (or sensitivities) which 'invite' or 'call out' from them 'answering' responses. Even when we are 'struck' by an event in our surroundings, it is because we are already responsively involved in them in some way. And it is in the sensed relations between our outgoing gestures toward them, and responses coming back to us from them as a result - and similarly for them in relation to us - that we can each begin to get a 'sensed shape', so to speak, of each other's inner lives. It is within such ongoing, open, unfinished, spontaneously adjustive and responsive activities as these, in the course of which we orient ourselves to the others and othernesses around us, that we speak of ourselves as perceiving our surroundings, of us as being in a perceptual rather than a cognitive relation to them. Rather than having to 'think out' how to relate ourselves to our surroundings, as the solution to a puzzle, we find ourselves in such circumstances bodily responding to them spontaneously in a certain manner - we behave in such moments in distinctive ways which can serve as a beginning for a way of thinking (a prototype) rather than in ways which are the result of thought. Indeed, in occurring within a complex interplay between both what we do actively and what just happens to us passively as a result, such events are shaped by a complex mixture of uniquely local influences. As such, they have neither a fully subjective nor a fully objective character, neither a completely structured nor an easily changed organization. They are partially structured, still emerging events. And what we later speak of separately as thought, feeling, memory, and imagination, etc., are all so tightly interwoven together within them, that it is impossible to distinguishable which of these functions is most distinct within them. Indeed, about the phenomenon of being 'struck' by an event, Wittgenstein (1953) remarks: "Is being struck looking plus thinking? No. Many of our concepts cross here" (p.211). In being open to being determined as they unfold or emerge, such events - hard to accept though it may be - are really indefinite.

The beginnings of our everyday, responsive understandings, then, can be found in those (only partially determined) events that 'strike' us, that make a difference in our lives. It is in our responsiveness to the unique, nuanced variations in each other's (linguistic and other) expressions that we can find an approach to understand our living understandings of each other, and to our lives, quite different from that which focuses on the exact regularities required if are to work in terms of rules, systems, or principles. Our living understanding of a linguistic sign "amounts to understanding its novelty and not to recognizing its identity," claims Voloshinov (1986, p.68). It does not depend on its "self-identity as a signal but [on] its specific variability," he says. "The constituent factor for understanding the linguistic form is not recognition of 'the same thing', but understanding in the proper sense of the word, i.e., orientation in the particular, given context and in the particular, given situation - orientation in the dynamic process of becoming and not 'orientation' in some inert state" (p.69). In other words, what is understood here is not a new piece of information or a fact but, in Wittgenstein's (1953), how to 'go on' in a practical circumstance, how to 'get on' with each other in unconfused or misleading ways - while we 'come to' a sufficiently clear understanding between us as we 'go on'.

Once able to 'get on' with each other like this - such that we can both touch and be touched, see and be seen by each other, and know that we are each seeing each other's seeing and touching each other's touching - then, even though we may be strangers to each other, it is possible for us to explore each other's uniquely different inner worlds further. For, within such living moments of joint- or reciprocal-being with an other or otherness, in which our responsive activities are intermingled in with those of the other or otherness, not only is an 'I-thou' or 'we' relation created (Buber, 1970), but in the interplay (as in a handshake, a dance, or a game), an 'it' appears too. The unfolding, living relationship between us has 'its' own requirements, and 'it' acts upon us to 'call out' responses from us as much as we act upon it. A unique and distinct world of meaning seems to make its appearance in the space around us as each new 'we' or 'I-thou' relationship is established. And the words (and other expressions) occurring between us come to exist as third agencies in the meaningful field of events between us. Bakhtin (1986) describes their nature thus: "The word (or in general any sign) is interindividual. Everything that is said, expressed, is located outside the 'soul' of the speaker and does not belong only to him... The word is a drama in which three characters participate (it is not a duet, but a trio). It is performed outside the author, and it cannot be introjected into the author" (p.122).

Thus, more than us just being 'present' to each other in such moments, they can play a crucial role in our lives. Bakhtin (1993) calls such moments of reciprocal encounter, "once-occurrent events of Being," and suggests that they are foundational for us in at least two important ways: It is only as a participant within such events that we can 'enter into' the lives of others very different from our own. But even more crucially, it is only from within our common participation within such moments that we can construct between us, a world common to us both: "Even if I know a given person thoroughly, and I also know myself, I still have to grasp the truth of our interrelationship, the truth of the unitary and unique event that links us and in which we are participants. That is, my place and function and his, and our interrelationship in the ongoing event of Being... It is only from within that act as my answerable deed that there can be a way out into the unity of Being, and not from its product, taken in abstraction. It is only from within my participation that the function of each participant can be understood" (Bakhtin, 1993, pp.17-18).

The 'fullness' and 'movingness' of living moments

Elsewhere, I have discussed the ways in which such pre-linguistic, relationally-responsive, dialogically-structured, moments of joint action are crucial, not only to our cultural development as new infants into competent adults (Shotter, 1984), but also in working to create opportunities for entirely new forms of human life, the beginnings of new ways of relating ourselves to each other and/or to our surroundings that have never before existed (Shotter, 1993a and b). In what follows below, I want to discuss the importance of such moments in the writing of those of us who conduct research in the social and behavioral sciences, the humanities, or philosophy. Indeed, I think that we can now begin to see the emergence in this sphere of a new style of what we might call 'instructive' or 'formative' writing, writing that exerts its influence on us, not by depicting a true state of affairs to us in our thought, but which 'moves' or 'strikes' us in such a way that, perceptually, we 'grasp' or 'see' something in our surroundings entirely new to us. We can already find some aspects of this new style of writing in the work of Wittgenstein, Bakhtin, and Merleau-Ponty, among many others. Indeed, there is much use now, as Geertz (1983) has put it, of "blurred genres," in which meanings are seen as "performed meanings" (p.29), which are achieved by writers leading readers through a sequence of movements as they "tack back and forth between ludic, dramatistic, and textual idioms" (p.33), and in which explanation is regarded more "as a matter of connecting action to its sense rather than behavior to its determinants" (p.34). And now, with knowledge of Bakhtin's (1984) account of the dialogical relations at work in our styles of writing to hand, we can appreciate even more fully Geertz's recognition of the importance of such 'tacking back and forth' in our texts. Now, we can do more than attempting to depict a single, objective world in terms of disembodied, disinterested, unsituated (God's eye), abstract, ideal, and formal features, a world from which we are detached. There is point in writing as a participant in the lives of the others and othernesses around us, of writing as one embodied voice, immersed along with many others in a web of dialogical relations with our surroundings - our words may make a difference in their lives.

Our current styles of writing in the human and behavioral sciences, and in philosophy, have a long history to them. There is not space to examine it detail here, but it is clear that in learning to take up the objective attitude of external observers, we have trained ourselves to attend away from (to dis-attend to) the spontaneous, responsive, unique, first-time understandings we create and develop between us, in the ceaseless, ongoing stream of life within which we are all embedded. We have also learned to write in a way which dis-attends to such involvements, in a style that we might call a monological-retrospective-objective style of writing (or aboutness-writing for short).In it, we address only our colleagues in their roles as professional academics, and write about the neutral regularities we have discovered in earlier, now finished events - regularities which we observed as occurring when we were involved with those others whose activities we now try to depict in our texts. As an alternative to such a kind of disengaged writing, I want to explore (and to an extent employ in my writing here) what might be called a dialogical-prospective-relational style of writing (or withness-writing). Rather than the depiction of regularities, central to such a style of writing, is the portrayal of 'striking events' or 'living moments', dialogically shared events which touch us, which matter to us, and which can change us in our lives. It is a style of writing in which we attend to the character of such events from within our ongoing involvements with the others around us. In line with the epigraph quote from Bakhtin (1993) above, I want to try to write "participatively," i.e., from within an ongoing involvement within the activities in question, not as a detached outsider to them.

In an attempt to illustrate to you what I mean by "withness-writing" and the portrayal within it of "living moments," let me drawn a few examples from a time in my own past, many years ago, when I could not bear the arid, stripped down, lifeless world of academic, 'scientific' psychology any longer. For a while, I turned to directing plays in our local, amateur theater. Among others, I directed Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Endgame. In the club discussions after these plays, I was always asked "What, 'precisely', are these plays 'about'? What do they 'mean'?". And I would reply that I didn't think they not have a single meaning, that they were not 'precisely' about anything. Rather, they expressed some crucial aspects of the 'tone' or 'background' themes of our age and our ways of 'orienting' toward them. I was then asked: "Well, how can you direct a play, if you don't know what the play is 'about' or what it 'means'?" And my reply was: "I tried to 'orchestrate' the dramatic action in such a way that every so often, a moment would occur on stage that would provided you (what I then called) 'a flash image'(1)

- an event that would hit you (the audience) in the gut in such a way that you would carry it away with you, to ruminate on for some long time afterwards."

Let me (from the many that I can still remember) give you a few lines from Beckett that still 'move' me in various ways, that still work for me in that way:

Waiting for Godot (Beckett, 1956)

1. (Here's a little exchange very appropriate to a bunch of academics prepared, on a nice day, to sit in an auditorium, just to have the opportunity to participate in talk...)

Vladimir: To have lived is not enough for them.
Estragon: They have to talk about it (p.63).

2. (But yet, isn't it only in talkative interaction with each other, in the space between us, that we can make sense, make meaning?... Isn't such a creative event magical!... Vladimir starts to help Estragon try on some boots they've found on the stage...)

Estragon: We don't mange too badly, eh Didi, between the two of us?
Vladimir: Yes, yes. Come on, we'll try the left first.
Estragon: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?
Vladimir: (impatiently) Yes yes, we're magicians. But let us persevere in what we have resolved to do, before we forget... (p.69).

3. And I want also to give you a line from Endgame (1958) (a line that provokes the hollow laugh of black humor every time I hear it):

Hamm: Use your head, can't you, use your head, you're on earth and there's no cure for that (p.53).

One thing that is special about all these 'staged events' is, that they don't impart any new facts or information. They don't tell us anything that in some sense we don't already know. We know we are talkative, often to the point of paralytic prolixity; but we also know that without talk, we can make very little sense to each other - indeed, we can often be amazed at the magical quality of talk to conjure whole new worlds and new ways of being into existence, seemingly, from out of nowhere.

But something of importance does happen in such 'living moments'. They can - and often do - make the kind of difference in our lives that matters to us. Their effect is perceptual, they can 'move' us, ontologically. They can occasion more than just a change in perspective. They can exert a singular, once-occurrent, unrepeatable, spontaneously creative change in our very way of being in the world. Thus, rather than as standing for things, we can see our words as working both in us and on us in a quite different way. Wittgenstein (1980) expresses it thus: "... the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life... Practice gives words their sense" (p.85).

The inter-sensory 'orchestration' of our understanding of the world 'out there'

The kind of difference they make to our lives is not merely to do with giving us some new information. In suddenly 're-positioning' or 're-relating' us to our own situation, they lead us to 'see' it - ethically, politically, emotionally, perceptually, motivationally, etc. - in a wholly new light. Thus rather than information, they provide us with reorientation. Like Beckett's 'you're on earth"-line from Endgame, quoted above, their point is not "to hunt out new facts" (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.89), but to change our "way of looking at things" (no.144). But more is involved in doing this than merely putting a new interpretation on an old situation. Something creative occurs. In perceptually relating ourselves to our surroundings in utterly new ways, we open up to ourselves new lines of action which, a moment before, were inconceivable to us. We tense ourselves bodily to our surroundings in new ways. George Steiner (1989) puts it well, I think, when he says: "The 'otherness' which enters into us makes us other" (p.188). A stranger can knock on our door, or we can see a stranger across a crowded room, and our lives can changed for ever. Such events are not planned, not the result of thought; they are events of reciprocal encounter in which an otherness enters us and spontaneously creates within us as a result, a new, unforeseen way of relating ourselves to a previously unnoticed aspect of being. This, I think, is what Wittgenstein (1953) means when he remarks that "there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call 'obeying the rule' and 'going against it' in actual cases" (no.201). Without the spontaneously ability of certain events to call out certain ways of acting from us, irrespective of what we as cognitive individuals might think, it would be impossible for us ever to develop orderly (seemingly rule-governed), social institutions shared between us.

The spontaneously creative nature of these perceptual events, the fact that a whole form of life - in Wittgenstein's (1953) terms - can have its beginnings in such an event, is, perhaps, a bit difficult to accept. But nonetheless, this, I think, is what is involved. So used are we to thinking of the process of understanding as a unified, mechanical process of decoding or suchlike, that we are unprepared for the sheer living complexity of what is involved here. Someone who has questioned this too easily accepted stance toward our mental activities, however, is Vygotsky (1986). He notes that: "The unity of consciousness and the interrelation of all psychological functions were, it is true, accepted by all; the single functions were assumed to operate inseparably, in an uninterrupted connection with one another... It was taken for granted that the relation between two given functions never varied; that perception, for example, was always connected in an identical way with attention, memory with perception, thought with memory... Yet all that is known about physic development indicates that its very essence lies in the change of the interfunctional structure of consciousness" (pp.1-2). As we learn different 'ways' of relating ourselves to our surroundings, we learn how to interweave a few moments of looking, with a some of doing, with some of remembering, with some of thinking, and then back to doing again - with each distinct 'way' having its own distinctive inner 'movement' in the complex interweave of functions 'orchestrated' within it. As Wittgenstein (1981) remarks about meaning: "It might almost be said: 'Meaning moves, whereas a process stands still'" (no.237). Human meaning is expressive, it has a physiognomy, a 'face' with more than a discrete vocabulary of fixed expressions. It 'moves' or has a 'rhythm' in Vygotsky's sense of it moving between first one way of relating ourselves to our surroundings and then another and then another.

To grasp the 'inner nature' of the rich complexity of the kind of creativity involved here, we need another example of our perceptual involvement with our surroundings: an example in which two or more what we think of as simple psychological functions work together in an 'orchestrated' way, i.e, in a way in which they play their parts in responsive relation to the parts played by the others. A good (although at first sight, perhaps, a seemingly somewhat arcane) paradigm for the nature of the complexity involved in such an 'orchestrated' activity, is provided in our ability, by the use of our two eyes working together 'in concert', is our ability to see the world around us in three dimensions (in 3-D) in binocular vision(2)

. (And as we shall find in a moment, the complexities involved in such 'orchestrated seeing', are quite closely related to those of 'seeing' the 'meaningful content' in an array of print spread out on a page.) To 'see' what is 'out there' as arrayed before us in 3-D, it is not, as we have already noted, we do not have to learn a way of thinking but a bodily skill, a "way of looking."(3)

In our early lives we have had to learn how to 'look over' what is before us in such a way that, without ever stopping to think about how to do it, we can allow what we are 'looking at' both to 'call out' a response from us, whilst at the same time 'leading' us to 'look toward' another aspect of it with a certain expectation. As our eyes flit over the world before us, it is as if what we encounter in each fleeting fixation, 'tells us' not only of itself, but also how to 'go out' prepared for what we might meet next - so that we can turn toward it, as it were, with our hand already outstretched prepared to shake its hand.

What is special about our "way of looking," is that it involves our two eyes working together 'in concert'. To begin to appreciate why this is important, we should first note that it is only when our two eyes converge and focus on a single point before us, that we have single vision. Otherwise, due to the disparity between the different views given us by our two eyes working separately, we see everything else around us, both in front of and beyond our point of focus, in double vision - although, in only attending to what we have in clear and single vision, we fail to notice this. Thus, as we look over the world before us, fixating here at this distance and then there at that distance, we have an inner sense at each moment in time, of both the direction and distance of each of our points of fixation in relation to our own bodily orientation. Thus, instead of seeing the objects around us merely as small or large, with them all simply as set over against us, we see them all as related both to each other and to ourselves in a well ordered field around us. Indeed, we could say, that we have a shaped and vectored sense of how we are placed, visually, in relation to our surroundings - what we can easily reach, what might block our movements, and so on. In converging together 'out there,' at a certain distance from us, our two eyes 'measure' that distance in the same way as the eyes others(4)

. Indeed, while we might look over an object, say, by fixating first on a near edge, then on a distant corner, then across to another distant corner, and then back again to the edge near us, so someone else might start at a far corner. But the orderly relations of corners and edges in space will be the same for us as for them. At this level, what we see is not a matter of interpretation; all the distances and convergences can in fact be numerically calculated(5)


About the nature of this creative achievement, Merleau-Ponty (1962) notes that "we pass from double vision to a single object, not through an inspection of the mind, but when the two eyes cease to function each on its own account and are used as a single organ by one single gaze. It is not the epistemological subject who brings about the synthesis, but the body..." (p.232). Indeed, as I have already noted above, what is so difficult to accept with respect to such dialogically-structured, joint activities, is that we as individuals have no inner sense of responsibility for them. As Merleau-Ponty (1962) puts it, if I wanted to render precisely the perceptual experience, I ought to say one perceives in me, and not that I perceive... [T]his activity takes place on the periphery of my being. I am no more aware of being the true subject of my sensation than of my birth or death" (p.215). But the fact is, once we 'see' the world around us in this way, we see more than merely inert objects before us, what we see before us we see in terms of a whole set of spontaneously occurring, bodily reactions and anticipatory responses, sentient and sensible responses occurring within our different sensory faculties.

The possibility of a "social poetics" in the inter-working of our senses?

When two or more of our channels (if that is the right word) of contact with the world come into communicative contact with each other, then they must orient us toward our surroundings 'in concert' with each other, in ways which do not confuse and bewilder us. A heard sound of movement should be sensed as coming from the same place as the seen movement that harmonizes with it; a felt hardness in our fingertips should be sensed as the hardness of the object we see our fingertips touching; and so on. Classically we have ignored these complexly interwoven contributions of our bodily capacities to our ways of making a unified sense of our surroundings. While being "focally aware"(6)

of the responsive whole resulting from us 'looking over' what is before us, we have ignored the background structure of anticipations (of which we are only "subsidiarily aware") that guide us as we actively 'do' the relating of ourselves to our surroundings. As a result, not only has the amazing complexity of our perceptual processes, and their flexible adjustment to the situation of their functioning, been ignored, but also their orchestrated 'inter-workings' - how, for example, in watching a movie, or a ventriloquist's dummy, we 'see' people's voices as issuing from that place in our surroundings that is moving in synchrony with the tempo of the sound we hear.

This why Merleau-Ponty takes our two-eyed perception of an object, visually, as a paradigm for the inter-working of all our sense together: "The intersensory object is to the visual object what the visual object is to the monocular images of double vision, and the senses interact in perception as the two eyes collaborate in vision" (pp.233-234). Our senses 'orchestrate' their 'inter-working' to provide us with a richly ordered sense of the world around us - for it is 'out there' in the world around us that perception brings all our different sensory experiences together into a unitary whole. Thus, "the form of objects is not their geometrical shape: it stands in a certain relation to their specific nature, and appeals to all other senses as well as sight. The form of a fold in linen or cotton shows us the resilience or dryness of the fibre, the coldness or warmth of the material" (p.229). Indeed, we can 'see' the weight of an object in how it depresses what it is resting upon, or its 'flimsiness' in how the air movements around it 'blow' it about, or its 'brittleness' in how easily it shatters when it falls to the ground, and so on. We hear a rustling, shuttling noise in a tree, and we look to see the movements of small, quickly moving animal, a squirrel, perhaps, and are surprised to see an unhappy cat.

In focusing on the example of binocular vision, rather than to our relations to another person, as in the handshaking example, however, we miss the socially shared nature of "living moments," we miss the complex inter-weavings of speaking, looking, listening, remembering, doing, and so on, that can go on within the dialogically-structured, responsive relations between two or more of us, as the activities between us unfold. To grasp something of what is involved here, let me introduce some further examples. I have already made use of some of Wittgenstein's quite brief remarks above. We can begin now, perhaps, to see how they work: they draw our attention to otherwise unnoticed aspects of our activities in our everyday lives together. Indeed, as we have already noted, Wittgenstein (1953) himself saw them as serving that function: "[T]he essence of our investigation [is] that we do not seek to learn anything new by it," he says. "We want to understand something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem in some sense not to understand" (no.89). "Our problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known" (no.109).

But how can such brief remarks as his do that? How can they lead us to new ways of perceiving our circumstances? And why is it so crucial that they do? To take the last point first: Such remarks can be crucial in spontaneously sparking off new ways of actively relating ourselves to our surroundings by simply waking us up to the actual facts around us. Thus they can induce us to act toward our circumstances in terms of their particular details, instead merely in terms of generalities or abstractions, in terms of what we see rather than what we think - "don't think, but look!," says Wittgenstein (1953, no.66), when he wants us to wake up to the fact that there isn't anything common to all the activities we call games. Or, famously, "Only connect," says Margaret Schelgel to Herbert Wilcox in E.M. Forster's Howard's End, when she wants to wake him up to how she has overlooked his indiscretions while he is still determined to condemn her sister's. Their function is often to awaken thoughts which already are ours - "to remind ourselves," says Wittgenstein (1953, no.89), of what in some sense we already know - but to lead us into re-orchestrating or re-weaving them into a new set in inter-relationships, according to a new language game suggested to us by our initial, spontaneous, responsive reactions to them. Wittgenstein means his remarks to work on us in this way - but only, of course, when we are already engaged in the flow of worried discussions with ourselves to do with our failure to understand our own ways of making sense to ourselves in the world. Then, if we are in the midst of such worrying, his remarks 'strike' us, they 'move' us to orient or relate ourselves to our surroundings in a new way. And, as Wittgenstein (1981) himself comments: "our language is merely an auxiliary to, and further extension of, this relation. Our language-game is an extension of primitive behavior" (no.545). We further articulate, elaborate, and refine with words meanings already globally operative in such 'striking moments' - as acorns grow into oak trees in the course of their further living interactions with their surroundings.

But how can such utterances work on us in this way? Because in some way they 'arrest' the ongoing, effortless, routine flow of spontaneously responsive, living activity within which we are embedded in our daily lives. They 'deconstruct' in practice the shared background "structures of feeling" (Williams, 1977) which we take for granted in our lives. As a first step, people simply need to say: 'Stop!' 'Look!' 'Listen to this (while gesturing in a certain direction)!' 'Pay attention!' 'Dwell on previously unnoticed details for a while!' But sometimes, this 'arresting' of the routine flow is done in a much more subtle way, by juxtaposing two seemingly very different phenomena or entities in an unexpected way - until we heard Hamm's lament in Endgame, we did not think of ourselves as seeking a 'cure' for living on earth; although now, perhaps, we realize that... just perhaps... there might be a way of escaping its trials and tribulations! Or, when Oliver Sacks (1985) says about Dr P. - the man who mistook his wife for a hat - that "he faced me with his ears ... but with his eyes" (p.8) - he brings two bits of knowledge familiar to us all (to do with looking and listening) together into a strange combination. And when we also take this combination into account along with the fact that Dr P. was a music teacher, we can begin to understand how, much more than most of us(7), he can make sense of the relations between events in his surroundings, more in terms of temporally unfolding rhythms than by 'looking over' static visual shapes.

In Dr P.'s way of looking, visual shapes are remembered and recognized by how they manifest themselves temporally, not spatially. Thus, on reading what Sacks has to say about him, we imagine Dr P. as surveying the features of a scene before him, as if by 'listening over' it (with both his ears and his eyes(8)). The way in which Sacks, and Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty, make use of words, in creating moments in which we are lead to 'bring together' different 'voices' - the voice of the sighted, the voice of the musical, the voice of the surveyor or coordinator, and so on - can be called, I think, a "social poetics." More than just the individual poetic concerned to communicate an individual view, they use an unusual juxtaposition of words to move us all toward a shared reorientation, toward a new way of 'orchestrating' the 'inter-working' of our senses, in terms of what we all already know. As result of reading Sacks's words, we come to share with him a sense of Dr P.'s singular way of relating himself to his surroundings. And we are 'moved' to ask ourselves a whole set of further questions, as to what it would be like for us to orient to the world around us through acoustic rhythms like Dr P. rather than in terms of visual forms.

Conclusions: writing in the social and behavioral sciences.

Our focus on our living, responsive understanding of each other's words in their speaking, reorients our attention toward the ceaselessly emerging chain of our expressions and the responsive reactions of others to them. Instead of seeking to discover the 'dead' structures, forms, or patterns existing, retrospectively, in our already spoken words (in an attempt to understand understanding mechanically in terms of already established conventions), this shift of focus orients toward a different task: to attend to the living, dialogically-structured, complex inter-workings occurring between the many diverse elements involved in all our communicative activities. We are never not in living contact with the others and othernesses around us. I can speak about the world around me because the world around me can speak itself in me. Bakhtin, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty, then, all orient us toward these primordial moments when we are fully open to such living contacts with the otherness in our surroundings. Hence Wittgenstein's (1981) insistence that, "only in the stream of life and thought do words have meaning" (no.173). While our words may be intelligible outside of the stream of life, i.e., capable of being grasped reflectively and intellectually by the cognitive individual, they do not then spontaneously 'call us' into a meaning response. "Every sign by itself seems dead," remarks Wittgenstein (1953), "what gives it its life? - In use it is alive" (no.432).

To try to write in terms of living moments - as I have been trying to do in this text here, and as all the other writers that I have drawn upon have also, to an extent attempted - is to try to write in terms of situated, local meanings, rather than in terms of already existing, decontextualized intelligibilities (systems of already ordered and regulated responsive understandings). Thus, rather than extending already existing orders of talk and thought, its purpose is to bring previously unnoticed aspects of our lives into dialogical relations with each other. In so doing, such writing works to bring them together, not only into a diverse, inter-sensory world, which will, if they can harmoniously inter-relate themselves to each other, will be enriched, but also into a diverse world of diverse people, who can be enriched in the same way.

This then could be the function of a social poetics in our forms of talk and writing in the social and behavioral sciences, and in philosophy: their role could be to put our routine realities on 'freeze frame', so to speak, and then move us to search over that freeze frame for ways in which to relate ourselves responsively to aspects of it that we might not otherwise have noticed. The kind of writing which can achieve this, is writing about concrete details, quoting actual voiced utterances, using metaphors, making comparisons, in short, writing in such a way that, in juxtaposing one's words in unconventional ways, writers create occasions in which readers must creatively complete - dialogically, not cognitively - the process of understanding. A social poetics works noncognitively, for, as long as the gaps created by us juxtaposing our words in unusual ways are not too great, our bodies will responsively create {Gr: poiesis = creation, making} ways of bridging them. Indeed, we can now begin to see, perhaps, how each word in a text, just as each point we look at in a visual scene, can send us on to the next with a certain task already in hand. In this sense, the words in a text are hardly different from a set of 'signposts' staking out a 'journey' over a shared geographical landscape. But in working in this way, our words are doing something very much more than merely 'picturing' or representing such a landscape. Like signposts, they are pointing to a publicly shared reality beyond themselves. Along the same lines as his remarks above about the 'life of signs', Wittgenstein (1981) remarks about attempts to explain the process of intention in terms of 'pictures' as follows: "When one has the picture in view by itself it is suddenly dead, and it is as if something has been taken away from it, which had given it life before... it does not point outside itself to a reality beyond" (no.236) - and our words in their speaking, in their embodied voicing, gesture to or call on the others around us in the same way.

What implications does all this have for how we write 'about' people and their activities in the social and behavioral sciences? How should those of us who conduct research in the social sciences, humanities, or philosophy write of our 'discoveries', of our proposals for possible social constructions not yet in existence in our lives?

As I see it, there are two quite different styles of speaking and writing (talk, for short) within which we, as academics, can relate both to others people around us (and to those we are talking 'about'). A preliminary way of distinguishing these two ways of talking and writing might be as follows: i) Professional: a supposedly 'objective', 'realistic', 'formal' or 'professional' style of talk within which we currently present to our colleagues, the theories and the true facts our studies are meant to reveal; and ii) Conversational: a more 'informal' or 'conversational' style that, traditionally, is thought to be in tension with it.

Each involves the adoption of a quite different relational stance, i.e., a different set of both methodological and ethical commitments, not only to those to whom we address ourselves, but also to the supposed subject matter of our talk: i) Cognitive: professional talk works in terms of us understanding those we study intellectually, as if from afar, in terms of representations, i.e., in terms of supposed regularities of form; and ii) Participatory: conversational talk works in terms of an inner sense the 'presence' of those we talk with, that emerges in the course of our living, embodied relations with them, up close - a sense that emerges as they respond relationally to our actions with actions of their own, a sense whose 'shape' we can only express, initially at least, poetically and metaphorically.

We can set out in summary form the characteristics of these two styles:

We have available to us, then, in the social and behavioral sciences, and philosophy, two very different styles of writing, oriented toward the world in different ways: one retrospectively, to do with what is, and the other prospectively, to do with what might be. But more than this, these two styles not only 'position' their readers differently, they also take very different ethical stances toward those whom they treat as their 'subject matter'. While in our official, professional styles, as we have seen, we are accountable only to our colleagues, in dialogical-prospective-relational writing we are answerable to those others or an otherness while we write. Thus we cannot write simply in relation to fixed and constant theoretical interests; we must write in ways that respect our currently shared but changing conversational or dialogical relations to those others or othernesses. In other words, as we have seen, participatory understandings occur through a quite different route than our cognitive understandings: they come about dialogically, in a way which we are all responsive in a living, embodied way to each other, and in which the others can respond back to us in way denied them in the first. This difference is critical. About it, Bakhtin (1984) remarks: "Monologue is finalized and deaf to the other's response, does not expect it and does not acknowledge in it any decisive force. Monologue manages without the other... The single adequate form of verbally expressing authentic human life is the open-ended dialogue. Life by its very nature is dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds" (p.293). Until recently, we have ignored the part played in our lives by our living, dialogically-structured, responsive relations with our surroundings. By writing from within living moments, with the rest of us rather than about us, Bakhtin, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty try to remind us of this forgotten realm of activity in our lives.


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1. 1. My colleague Arlene Katz and I now call such moments, "arresting moments," "moving moments," or even "struck-bys." We ask groups of medical students and doctors, who are watching a videotape of young doctors and their GP (general physician) mentors discussing their experiences of a mentorship program: "What were you 'struck by' in watching the tape?" (Shotter and Katz, 1996; Katz and Shotter, 1996). We find such discussions useful in helping both the medical students, and already highly qualified doctors, to become even more sensitive to small, local details than they are already. In an event on the tape, a student remarked about a question his mentor suddenly asked him about a child they were treating: "And all of a sudden,... all of the hours you put in and all the associated facts that are supposed to be attached, all of a sudden... it's a person, so it really matters, it means something. And you finally understand why you are doing this, why it matters. Any why it's important to know these things.." (Katz and Shotter, 1996, p.242). The viewing of such a 'striking moment' as this, among many other effects, works not only to orient sceptics toward the value of mentorship programs, but also to provoke others to share similar such experiences, and to create amongst all concerned a "resourceful community" of sharable experiences.

2. 2. In a first draft of this paper, I used the example of the random-dot stereograms that were popular a few years ago, in which, if you could 'cross' your eyes, you could see a 3-D display. But as not many people are now, perhaps, familiar with them, I have switched here to ordinary, everyday, binocular vision. I explore our seeing of the 3-D displays in random-dot stereograms as a paradigm for our perceptual achievements in Shotter (1996).

3. 3. Sacks (1995), among others, explores the tragic visual disorientation of those long blind which is often experienced on the restoration of their sight. Indeed, in the case Sacks recounts, of a man blind since early childhood, the man never succeeded in creating a stable and ordered visual space around himself.

4. 4. Just, indeed, as the range finders on cameras with an auto-focus facility all do also.

5. 5. The 3-D random-dot stereograms popular a few years ago depend upon this fact.

6. 6. Those aware of Polanyi's (1958, 1963) work will recognize the source of the notions of "focal awareness" and "subsidiary awareness" being used here, as well as the 'from-to' vocabulary used above. Indeed, Polanyi's (1963) account of our body's part in giving us a certain kind of ordered access to our surroundings is in close agreement with Merleau-Ponty's account: "Our own body is the only thing in the world which we normally never experience as an object, but experience always in terms of the world to which we are attending from our body. It is by making this intelligent use of our body that we feel it to be our body, and not a thing outside" (p.16).

7. . Scheflen (1972) was one of the first to make us aware of how sensitive and knowledgeable we all are in 'understanding' other's bodily movements.

8. . As Sacks (1985) notes, Dr P. could recognize his students if they moved. "That's Karl," he would cry. "I know his movements, his body-music" (p.17).