Review of: Theodore Zeldin, Conversation. London: Harvill Press, 1998, pp.103. ISBN 1 86046 662 1 (hbk).

The end of rational planning and the turn to conversational communities

Something is afoot. Theodore Zeldin would say we are changing the subject: a new topic is coming to dominate our everyday conversations with each other. Instead of talking of the world around us as 'over there', as an external world, as a dead mechanism, we are now beginning to see ourselves as embedded in a stream of life. Instead of merely 'observing' those others over there, what it means for us to live with each other 'up close and personal' is suddenly a hot topic of discussion. Whether it is in response to us sensing that a new possibility exists for us on the horizons of our current ways of being, or whether it is to do with us sensing an increasing lack, is difficult to say. But, which ever it is, there is no doubt that there is an increasing recognition that the administrative and organization systems, within which we have long tried to relate ourselves to each other and our surroundings, are crippling us. Something is amiss. They have no place in them for us, for our humanness. While the information revolution bursts out around us, there is an emerging sense that those moments in which we are most truly alive and able to express our own unique creative reactions to the others and othernesses around us (and they to us), are being eliminated. In an over-populated world, there seems to be fewer and fewer people to talk to - and less and less time in which to do it.

    When Zeldin first broadcast the material now in this little book as a set of talks on BBC Radio 4, so many listeners wrote in asking for a copy of text - some adding that they had become so absorbed while listening that they were late for work - that the talks have been published here in full. The talks struck a chord. Here are some of the themes and questions Zeldin raises, and some of the commentary on our current age he provides.

    He begins by pointing out that it is not just us talking to each other that matters - the one-way sending and receiving of information - but us being able to enter into conversation with each other. When you sensitively and responsively listen to me, and I see you doing so, and sensitively and responsively shape my talk to you accordingly, then something very special happens. You and I become co-authors of what I say: you become a co-speaker, and become a co-listener. We form of 'we'. But more than this. In not being planned by either of us, what occurs in a conversation in which people are truly intimate with each other, is genuinely creative. A unique response to currently shared circumstances emerges. The face-to-face responsive intimacy matters. This is what e-mail and other such forms of mere information transmission lack. It is the special and crucial nature of our conversational relations that Zeldin wants to emphasize in this book. Talk itself does not necessarily change people. New information may lead to them acting in more effective or efficient ways, but it can never lead them to see the world around them in a new way. "Conversation doesn't just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards" (p.14).

    Thus for Zeldin, the new hero of the age is not the individual but the pair (or the communal group), and their heroic quest is the joint quest aimed "at inventing an art of living together that has not been tried before" (p.31) - the art of living together with decency and without quarrels or violence. Crucial to it is our face-to-face, bodily presence to each other: physical contact is the basis of intimacy, but conversation extends this intimacy. Only in conversation do we reveal our own distinct and unique 'inner worlds' to each other. Only in conversation can we make each other 'gifts' from our own unique 'noticings' of previously unnoticed but important details in our humanly shared surroundings. It is this, says Zeldin, that saves family conversation from being boring. "Family conversation has as its central but unstated theme how people of different temperaments and different ages can live together" (p.41).

    Zeldin's new, joint, heroic quest, then, is a demanding one. It also calls some of our treasured beliefs into question. Convictions, basing our actions in cherished beliefs and principles, will have to go. "Hate makes people feel they have principles and opinions. But... finding something admirable about someone truly obnoxious... is also profoundly satisfying. The feelings of shared humanity, the tears which come to our eyes when we see suffering even in complete strangers, are among our deepest emotions" (pp.47-49). The narrow exclusiveness of the professions, too, will have to go. Doctors, lawyers, economists, chemists, TV producers, and so on - academics too - we will all have to get "rid of at least some of the barriers which prevent us from sharing the thoughts and language and style of other professions" (p.60). Technology also, as is perhaps already clear, is not always a help: it can decrease as much as increase our connections with each other.

    The aim of "the New Conversation," then, as Zeldin calls it, will be to bring "an end the wasteful war between the optimists and pessimists" (pp.79-80). It can never be settled by debate. We need to move on, and only in conversation can we create new possible ways forward. So: The really big revolution will be if we can invent new ways of talking in which, in intimate conversations with each other, we can come face to face with the complexities around us in ways we can all share. But will it be such an effort to do this? Isn't it to an extent already happening? For, as Zeldin suggests, "a new kind of group is growing up in the world, an affinity of people living in every continent, from whom the broadening of their curiosity is a major passion... Already, 400 million people a year travel to another continent" (p. 99). And, perhaps, here is the demise of another cherished belief: instead of waiting for politicians to make the requisite changes - which might take centuries - "ordinary people can make big changes in their lives by improving the way they relate to each other in daily life" (p.90). The future is not centered in this or that exclusive institute, but is all around us. But for us all to draw on it, we must become a 'we': that is the new challenge to us all.