Paper given at 49th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, San Francisco, May 27th-31st, 1999


John Shotter, CMN/UNH

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the very first time.

                                                                                                                                                                T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets


In my talk here today, I want to focus on what I shall call the relationally-responsive events occurring between both the others and the othernesses around us - the kind of events occurring spontaneously between us now, as you respond immediately and directly to each of my utterances as they issue out into the space between us. There is something very special about the ever-changing nature of such living, spontaneously responsive, ongoing, bodily relations:

This is what is so special about this kind of joint, dialogically structured activity: it is neither rationally planned within people, nor is it brought about by any causes external to them either: it is produced only in the spontaneously responsive activity occurring between them. It is 'their' activity, and 'they' collectively are responsible for it. The dialogical structuring of our relations both to each other and the othernesses around us, begins to make its appearance as soon as a second living human being responds to the activities of a first. For, as soon as this occurs, what the second person does cannot be accounted as wholly their own activity - for their activities are partly 'shaped' by the activities of the first (and the first's activities, in being responsive to the presence of the second, were 'jointly shaped' also). Let me repeat that, for it is this feature in particular that requires us to make a 180 degree reorientation in our attempts to understand the working of much of the communication between us: As soon as we focus on the spontaneous, relationally-responsive events occurring between us, bodily, in our joint, face-to-face encounters with each other, we find enormous complexity... chaos even (for those of you with an interest in 'chaos theory').

But what we also find, is the working of intelligence and judgment, the possibility at each step in such a sequence of exchange, for those involved in it to 'home in' on, to 'arrive at', a practically effective way of 'going on' with each other. Irrespective of what happens inside people's heads, understanding in practice is something that is 'played out' in interactions with each other (and the rest of our surroundings) - and our understanding of it is not over till it's over, so to speak.

Primarily and primitively, our utterances and expressions work like gestures... [I will enact gestures of 'pointing', of 'sadness and suffering', of 'joy', of 'well... there you are', etc. here] As you respond to my gestures, so you enter into one kind or another kind of relation with me: meaning arises between us as a relationally-responsive event. One of the most useful ways of putting this known to me is G.H. Mead's (1934) account:

"The mechanism of meaning," he says, " is... present in the social act before the emergence of consciousness or awareness of meaning occurs. The act or adjustive response of the second organism gives to the gesture of the first organism the meaning it has" (pp 77-78).

As a global whole - as Ferdinand de Saussure (1911) pointed out - such 'jointly-shaped' relationally-responsive events seem to be composed of "a confused mass of heterogeneous and unrelated things... open[ing] the door to several sciences - psychology, anthropology, normative grammar, philology, etc..." (p.9). If we are to make sense of them, we have two options:

It is the second, clearly that I favor here. Thus I shall take it that it makes no sense to attempt, ahead of time, to try to draw any sharp dividing lines between meaning, understanding, and response in the 'jointly shaped' relationally-responsive events of interest to us: a response is a meaningful act of understanding. It 'translates', i.e., carries across, what is being understood into a new context, from within which a next response will emerge, and so on.


Once we grasp the relationally-responsive nature of our living relations both to each other and to the othernesses around us, as I mentioned above, we require a 180 degree turn in our orientation in our attempts to understand the working of communicative activity between us. So: Let me now turn to set out some features of the reorientation required:

Why we have not noticed this before, I think, is because the amazing thing about this flow of activity - once, as a child we have learnt how to participate in it - is that it occurs between us without any thought, force, special inducements, coercion, or efforts of will. Herbert Fingarette (1967) describes it marvelously well in discussing the act of handshaking:

"I see you on the street; I smile, walk toward you, put out my hand to shake yours. And behold! - without any command, stratagem, force, special tricks or tools, without any effort on my part to make you do so, you spontaneously turn toward me, return my smile, raise your hand toward mine. we shake hands - not by my pulling your hand up and down or your pulling mine, but by spontaneous and perfect cooperative action. Normally we do not notice the amazing subtlety and amazing complexity of this coordinated 'ritual' act. This subtlety and complexity become very evident, however, if one has had to learn the ceremony only from a book of instructions, or if one is a foreigner from a non-handshaking culture" (p.168).

And many of our dialogically structured activities have exactly this same kind of effortless, responsively interwoven rhythm to them.

But consider now the variations that might occur within this flow of handshaking activity between us: i) If I am a long lost friend, my handshake might be long and vigorous; ii) as a reluctant acquaintance, it might be limp and unenergetic; iii) as a respectful novice with a respected elder, I will be circumspect and sensitively responsive to how they shake my hand; and so on. In other words, we are to an extent present to each other in such exchanges: we reveal something of our concerns to each other, something of what our unique 'inner worlds' are like for us.

So this is where we get to, I think, if we follow the lead of those such as Bakhtin and Wittgenstein, and try to grasp the nature of jointly shaped, relationally responsive events in all their complex richness: we find ourselves having continually having to deal with unique, first-time events - events which are only open to any further determination and clarification by those involved in them. And we ourselves, continually - here, now, even - determine between us, for a very first-time, what is happening.

The attempt by outsiders to them, to impose a rational scheme of their own devising on them, will always distort their nature... and will always lead to insiders feeling their freedom to determine their own live usurped.

The place we arrive at, then - in reorienting ourselves toward taking dialogically structured, relationally-responsive events seriously - is, I think, already very well-known to us. It is the world of our everyday lives together. This, surely, is what Garfinkel (1967) means when he suggests that on every occasion a familiar, commonplace activity is recognized as such - your joy as joy, my anger as anger, my distinct kind of suffering as opposed to your's or her's, my take on what's happening in Kosovo as opposed to your understanding of it, and so on and so on - all these are recognized as such "for 'another first time'" (p.9).

As Voloshinov (1986) puts it, in our everyday, practical affairs, "... the task of understanding does not basically amount to recognizing the form used, but rather to understanding it in a particular, concrete context, to... understanding its novelty and not to recognizing its identity" (p.68). Thus, the particular, unique understandings we arrive at in the different, unique, and particular dealings we have with each other depend, as Bakhtin (1993) calls them, on "once-occurrent events of Being." Sudden, brief, fleeting, unrepeatable, unique moments - rather than repetitions and regularities - become of fundamental importance to us.

So let me end my survey of what is involved in coming to an understanding of - and from within - the new, third realm of activity constituted by our joint, dialogically-structured activities together, with these comments:

"Each dialogue takes place as if against the background of an invisible third party [an 'it'] who stands above all the participants in the dialogue (partners)," says Bakhtin (1986, p.126). As Wittgenstein (1980) puts it: "The origin and the primitive form of the language game is a reaction;" says Wittgenstein (1980, p.31), "only from this can more complicated forms develop. Language - I want to say - is refinement, 'in the beginning was the deed'." 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).


This is what I think is crucial: Wittgenstein, like Garfinkel, like Bakhtin, wants also to make it clear that there can be in human affairs some first-time, never before occurring events - and that these beginnings can be the beginnings of a whole new form of life, a whole new way of relating ourselves to our surroundings: a new way of seeing, hearing, feeling, valuing, judging, and of talking and acting in them as a result. For, inevitably, a new way of bodily responding to our surroundings is a new way of relating ourselves to them - the possible origin of a new form of life. And again, as Wittgenstein (1981) 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).

There is something very special then, in those moments in which we sense ourselves in living contact with others and otherness in our surroundings.

The most obvious paradigm example of such a moment, is when we sense someone looking at us: there is something very special about the interplay between our sense of their expressive movements in relation to ours that 'tells' us of their involvement with us. Indeed, although as Wittgenstein (1953) notes, the evidence in this sphere is of an "imponderable" kind (p.228) - in that we are quite incapable of describing it - the fact is, as soon as we do in fact become engaged with another, we can have an almost immediate sense of whether that person is 'with' us or not, of whether their expressions are responsively related to ours or 'out of sync' with them. Indeed, many of you here will be aware of Goffman's (1967) account, in his essay Alienation from interaction, of the many intricate and subtle "involvement obligations" (and "offenses") we can sense as arising in our spontaneous involvements with each other.

Just as it would be impossible to tell from the 'wave-form' graph of a handshake, what those involved in it were experiencing, so - as those of you familiar with the eye-movement records (made, for instance, by Yarbus (1967)) - will know, when we look over another person's face, our eyes move hither and thither in a most haphazard way. We would be unable to say from the objective trajectory of a person's eye movements alone, whether they were looking at 'us' or not - yet, ask a friend to switch from looking at 'you' to trying to see their own reflection on the surface of your eyes, and will instantly sense the difference in the character of their regard. Indeed, as we all know, if we look at someone in the street 'wrongly', we can easily get ourselves into trouble: the interplay of facial expressions can set the scene for the whole of the rest of an exchange.

As an example of the crucial contextualizing role that can be played by a person's initial sense of how a second person is spontaneously relating to them, and how they might make use of that in making sense of the rest of that second person's behavior, let me refer to Oliver Sacks's (1985) well know case of Dr P. - the man who mistook his wife for a hat.

Sacks began by noting that in his initial meeting with Dr P. there was something very odd in how Dr P. related to him: "He faced me as he spoke, was oriented toward me, and yet there was something the matter - it was difficult to formulate. He faced me with his ears, I came to think, but not with his eyes. These, instead of looking, gazing at me, 'taking me in', in the normal way, made sudden strange fixations - on my nose, on my right ear, down to my chin, up to my right eye - as if noting (even studying) these individual features, but not seeing my whole face, its changing expressions, 'me', as a whole. I am not sure I fully realized this at the time - there was just teasing strangeness, some failure of the normal interplay of gaze and expression" (p.8).

Beginning with Dr P.'s strange, spontaneous way of responding to him as a global or 'synoptic' but not wholly unspecified grasp of Dr P.'s way of being in the world - Dr P. looks with his ears! - Sacks went on from within it to make more detailed sense of Dr P.'s afflictions. He concluded (without going into the neurological details) - as I'm sure many of you know - that what was wrong with Dr P., was that in the visual sphere, although he could focus on isolated details, he could not see them as parts of a possible whole. When asked to describe what we would see as a glove, he replied: "An continuous surface... infolded on itself. It appears to have... five outpouchings... a container of some sort... possibly a change-purse... for coins of five sizes" (p.13).

Visually, Dr P. was lost in a world of lifeless abstractions. He lacked the kind of spontaneous, relationally-responsive involvement we have when we are involved with others, visually, face-to-face. As he looked over things, he looked from one feature to another. But in so doing, he was unable to see each detail as connected or related to another in such a way as to make an immediate whole, perceptually. Although he was prolific in the production of cognitive hypotheses, he could not make a cognitive judgment. For, as Sacks remarks, "a judgment is intuitive, personal, comprehensive, and concrete - we 'see' how things stand, in relation to one another and oneself. It was precisely this seeing, this relating, that Dr P. lacked (though his judging, in all other spheres, was prompt and normal)" (p.17).


We can, I think, take Dr P.'s methods for trying to make sense of his visual surroundings as a paradigm of our own, current attempts, to understand our own ways of making sense to each other. We too seem not to be able to take a heterogeneous mass of seemingly unrelated phenomena and to form an inter-related perceptual whole from it - it is as if we have been cast down in a new town or city, and, no matter how much we explore its highways and byways, we are unable to find our 'way about' in it, unable ever to feel so 'at home' in it that we can give up the need for maps.

What do we need to do to become a bit more familiar with our own humanly constructed surroundings? Here, I think, we can now take a lead from Sacks's meetings with Dr P - we can take Sacks's dealings with Dr P. as a paradigm for arriving at the kind of relationally-responsive understanding we seek.

As Sacks recounts it, it took him some time to come to the conclusions I've already mentioned above. The objective tests that he at first did on Dr. P. in his own consulting room, did not help him make sense of Dr. P.'s world at all. While they told him what was wrong with Dr P., they didn't enable Sacks to understand how Dr P. still in fact managed to 'go on' in his life. Sacks need to get of grasp of what Dr P.'s 'inner life' was like, how he was 'oriented', how he achieved a perception of relationally connected events, the dimensions in terms of which he could move without effort from one sphere of his life to another. Thus Sacks arranged to see Dr P. again - this time "in his own familiar habitat, at home" (p.10).

Dr P. was a music teacher, and, without going into the details, it became apparent to Sacks that in his own familiar surroundings, Dr P. sang to himself - it was the musicality, the rhythms in his actions, that helped Dr P. to link one phase of a complex activity (when, say, eating or dressing) to another.

In being a party to such events as these and others - unlike Dr P. (or anyone else taking an uninvolved, objective, outsider's stance) - Sacks was able to 'see' how things stood in relation both to each other and to himself, he was able to come to a global grasp of the relations and connections between events occurring within his relationship to Dr P.

And furthermore, by employing a certain, somewhat poetic style of writing, he is able also to give us some sense of their overall nature (as we have seen above). He depicts in his writing some of the 'moving moments' in terms of which to make a new and unique kind of sense of a special person's life.

It is against our synoptic grasp of the overall relational-structure of Sacks's encounters with Dr P. that we, as readers of Sacks's account, can also orient ourselves toward, make sense of, and give meaning to, the more explicit factual claims about Dr P.'s behavior that Sacks makes within it. As a result of actively engaging with Sacks's account, of responsively understanding it, of actively bringing to mind possible scenes and images of relevance to it, of dialogically replying to Sacks's utterances as they unfolded before our eyes, were we able to 'enter into' Dr P.'s strange world. We arrived at that kind of synoptic understanding of it that Wittgenstein (1953) characterizes as "just that understanding which consists in 'seeing connections'" (no.122). But to repeat, it was only by beginning from within his living involvements with him, that Sacks came to make this kind of 'inner sense' of Dr P.'s 'inner world'.

It is with this comment on beginnings that I must end. Clearly, there is much more that needs to be said: indeed, it is not going too far to say that, once we realize that our task is to become more 'at home' with our own constructions, what is of importance lies in the details and the details and the details. Here I have offering only a small beginning.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

                                                                                        T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets