“I sometimes think, maybe everything would’ve been completely different if I never encountered her. Who was she? An angel, a late-night saviour of sad souls like mine? I never got her name. I didn’t need to. We talked by the bridge, I bought her a coffee at a 24-hour caff, and we went different ways. That was all. I dream about it still.“ – Hussein Malik, Passages (2010).
The problem of talking.
Ideas are viral, passed on by others with entirely different motives through ports, cities, networks, schools, conversations outside pubs, television sets. Ideas are rarely given freely. No. Their origins are forgotten, lost, confused, traceless. Who cares how we acquire ideas. They spread, that’s all. Authorities have always tried to regulate and restrict this flow, from surveillance to social planning, from censorship to support for organs of passive ineptitude.
What dominant ideas define our age? Productivity, wealth-generation? Absolute alienation, so that even tolerance becomes stripped of any social intimacy it might have possessed? We call for a return of the conversation. Not the problematic public sphere as defined by Jurgen Habermas, but a new art of conversing with strangers.
We don’t talk anymore. Reading Hussein Malik’s startling work Passages, we’re reminded that some conversations have the intense power to save lives. The conversation has a distinct social history. It is the start of all human exchanges, resulting in the trade and civilisation which have defined homo sapiens to date. Edward W. Soja poses a new history of civilisation beyond the Darwinian kill-or-compete model, of the earliest cities like Catal Huyuk not being founded on agricultural trade, but a prior agreement of community. But community is founded in conversation. Exchanging stories, ideas and observations with others is the foundation of our work, our friendsh-ips and our social understanding. But unlike speech, which is the power-driven form of communication, conversation must be mutually interesting if it is to succeed, and good conversation will contain humour, generosity, kindness and originality.
Origins of conversation.
For our purposes, we must make several sweeping generalisations to illustrate a grander point. Please reserve disputations for the end, thank you. Cultures are transmitted and manifested orally, with the first writing appearing in cuneiform, administrative and economic records of commodity and labour trade, and later in the language of priests to create or maintain mystified power-systems. Our understanding of writing is based on the findings of the archaeologists, but we have no evidence of early conversation, except stories put to papyrus many years later. Perhaps our ancestors talked about unusual physical features of their livestock or children? Shared ludicrous and bawdy stories about rival tribes, or exchanged useful information and skills to others in their groupings? Argued over whose chunk of stone idol was the biggest and strongest?
We cannot know and the archaeology of conversation is beyond our questioning. Instead we begin with the assumption that conversation precedes and provokes writing, therefore that culture is communicated primarily through conversation, as is the individual’s personality. The vilified Sigmund Freud brought the Catholic confessional into the realm of madness, treating hysterics through a form of cathartic conversation to relieve and exercise unconscious desires. The talking cure is used today, from CBT to conversations with loved-ones and friends – conversations both have working functions but can relieve pressure. So much for the conversations many functions. We ask therefore how can we understand our era through cultures of conversation? Is the art of talking in our age starting to disappear, as we are warned?
In our families or with our neighbours, we observe a decline in intimacy that has also seen the decline of the charged exchange between strangers, with a unique history perhaps illumined by Socrates and the Sophists for the ancients, or in early modern London in the coffee houses and De Quincey’s rambles. The nature of online communities and expression is one with an emphasis on concise headline-like statements and a search for like-minded people, with everything focused on same interests coming at the almighty expense of an encounter with difference – which real social encounters provides.
Yet we are seeing a striking new phenomenon: the rise of the conversation with strangers. This is the one benefit of the earlier forms of online interaction. The internet chatroom brought us into contact with so many different people, and afforded the opportunity to speak on one’s own terms. Two-dimensional internet correspondences and friends were crucial in fashioning a mature sense of self for me. On the internet one is no longer a son, daughter, brother, sister, father, mother, husband or wife. One is no longer a black male or white female, Jew or Muslim, disabled or guilty, not if one does not want to be. One can be a free persona. This is truly significant, and online conversation was vital for my 14-year old self to work out feelings and ideas with others across the English-speaking world.
But you know this reader, at least I trust so. Our revolutionary conversation can be theorised on the internet but must take place in real life, amongst strangers. We see this already in public locations where a measure of intimacy is enforced, such as the seating on public transport, or the sheer lifelessness of urban centres late at night, except at crowded bus-stops. The revolutionary conversation begins in the non-places of our era.
Don’t I know you? Pained, awkward, serially bored reader, brain anaesthetised in caffeine, loretadine, digital devices, packaged sandwiches and ludicrous hopes that you no longer have the heart to question, unless they collapse into dust or shimmer and disappear like mirages – quiet people can’t talk but they can write, that’s one thing at least. Well my hearts, let’s shift from this history of the conversation and learn exactly how we can talk. It is neither science nor art, but a game. In the process I hope to convince myself that it may well be a good world if you don’t weaken. I despise that statement though, as I despise physical exercise and going to work every damned day. Here goes.
The chief problem facing conversation is its conservative and dull nature.
I’ll borrow a generalisation to illustrate: all conversa-tions begin with small talk, with polite greetings and inquiries about personal well-being. Small talk often moves on to common sources of complaint – in British conversation this characteristically involves the dreary weather. Conversation may move on to a second purposeful stage, perhaps business, exercising desire or reassurance, inquiries, exchanging information. A third stage follows, usually at the point where one agent must depart, where the major partners come to some kind of agreement or resolution on the matter. But frequently conversation is defined by small talk, and frankly this is just not good enough.
Reality itself is a game. We all know this, but the rules have rarely been publicly discussed, save perhaps in mental health, where they plumbed post-disciplinary control to new depths. Like all games, there is great risk involved, but if the prize is life then there is everything to lose. For most, a simple risk-free game is enough. But not for you. That is why you are here.
- So begin by introducing yourself and your friends under false names. This small fib begins the thrill – adrenaline pulses as the mind works actively to maintain face. Soon you’ll need to perform, embellish, dramatise. Invent your self a new past and occupation, and do this for your friends. Really drop them in it. They’ll hate you at first, but soon they’ll enjoy this too, and you’ll find the game struggles to stop, as your own identity begins to dissolve in absurd characters and egos invented in moments of high intoxication. This is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways of gaming life.
- Brag about invented and ludicrously impossible pasts. Be a washed-up composer of Wagneresque opera, or a murder-scene photographer, a struggling performance artist (well?). Hear the baleful and the blissfully naive tales of others by introducing yourself to strangers as a journalist for the BBC, or as a sociological researcher. Tell people you’re writing a travel guide on the area. Play by mood.
- Wear disguises. An example would be a high-visibility fluorescent jacket, which enables the wearer to travel to any location or building without question. Another would be the smoking jacket, slippers and pencil moustache of a dandy. If this is already your style, then opt for a strictly bland appearance of blue jeans and black blazer.
- Produce highly offensive or pornographic writing under pseudonyms. Perhaps even create works that have the gall to tell us how we might escape this world. Photocopy in great quantities and distribute for free in public places, reading out certain chapters with the aid of a megaphone.
If you find your current life inadequate you can always borrow another. It is nothing less than a case of adjust-ing your persona, your manner. Too quiet, or clumsy, or half-witted, or dull? You can begin by adjusting your appearance. A colourful or ironic t-shirt, or a designer haircut or jewellery item can act as talking points. Tattoos of sailor’s pin-ups or stars. Most people are too nervous about their own impression to really observe or judge you, but a few blatant signals shifts things.
It would be an insult to the egalitarian exchange of good conversation if we were to leave you with just bare-faced lies. Conversing can be gentle and honest. I’ll supply a recent example of sharing something with a man I encountered, quite accidentally and without any methodology such as the above in mind.
Anyhow, so it was a Southend-in-winter kind of anaemic early afternoon, when there was this ashen man, baggy-faced and celery-lean, wizened and weary as piss-bullied suburban Oak trees. In a melancholic myopia I failed to see him standing outside the old folks’ home, smoking a cigarette against the pale yellow-brick wall, almost athletic with a catch of the moon in his hair, slunk back with a wad of wax with a lemonade tinge. He had that cockney standard issue black leather blazer jacket thing, you know, and a lot of talk about his poorly mum, dementia case. “Too many people are living too long…every time I see her, it breaks my heart…I have to do it, there’s no-one else“.
He shares his suspicions about the staff at the home. I talk about my nan who told me at the back of drinkers’ dormitory night bus to hell or Walthamstow, who knows, who told me nothing less than the entire contents of the universe can be found within the human heart, your very known. Beyond all the mulch of emotions and mouldy days, there is as much evidence of deities at the bottom of bags of Coco Pops as there are in the cathedrals of High Culture, education, fame schools or furniture warehouses.
We exchange pleasantries in the car park. In fairness I should have looked when I swerved round my bicycle into his soft reassuring corpulent flesh, but he only got a broken toenail and a nasty shock, if anything. He asked me one thing before I beat my retreat:
SIR: is it true?
SIR: The way you’re dressed, young man. If that constitutes good taste in this day and age then fuck me, I can’t tell if you are an Arthur or a Martha.
The place where I lost my mother’s only child
There is a word we must understand before we continue: logorrhea. It means an excess of words, an incoherent talkativeness, which we may commonly know of as ‘verbal diarrhea’ or ‘Jean Francois Lyotard’ – messages which deploy many long and difficult words to obscure a lack of intellectual meaning or point.
Conversation is not just an exchange of words. Silence is equally essential to the conversation. Indeed a successful conversation requires a strong degree of self-restraint on the listener’s part, in an exchange of banter we might describe as “batting“ versus “bowling“. Eye-contact becomes the motor of conversation too, and our behavioural experts are today beginning to pay attention to this area – one recent report recommends maintaining eye contact with the speaker, then breaking this contact away, in order to signal to the speaker that you wish to talk.
We must shut up at times as well. Beyond these technical-ities, our theory of the revolutionary conversation demands a strict use of silence. One should be silent for 24 hours for at least once in one’s life. This is primary. Speech must be restrained a little. A quiet partner in conversation invites the speaker to confess and reveal more, helping the exchange to tap through the protective bark of small-talk and reach into the sap of real experience. Laozi and Siddhartha Gautama tell us that we become most wise in our silence. Although no belief can overrule our core personalities, be they loquacious or introverted, if we’re going to blow our minds and explode the anaesthetised expectations of our peers, then an equal mix of bombastic bullshit and Daoist silence are essential.
Agape was a friend of mine
Reader, what are we to make of all this? To fabricate and to be silent, to befriend strangers even when these encounters are tedious or even dangerous? Yes, and none of these. This age understands nothing inside: everything is a code mediated by signs, an international language of faces and brands, a logos of the logo.
Against this I pass to you a weapon, the Greek word for an all-encompassing love: Agape. Unlike the sexual love of eros, or the conditional friendship of philia, Agape is an affirmative love for all life, a friendship with the world. It is not naive. Agape understands that this life is one of often great suffering but it goes beyond this: I am a friend of you despite your faults and mine. Whether you accept this friendship is up to you. I have already made my peace.
We end where we begun, with our conversation with Hussein Malik. The closest thing Hussein finds to an angel in his Passages is Rosa, a woman he encounters on a night-bus. The work ends with their revolutionary conversation, and with Rosa we give the last words here:
“For some, the blind, all they see in this beautiful world is the miserable valediction of their ideas. Not me. I want to know the world without reference to anything, without metaphor even, and so I have to talk to people. I have to know. That, to me, is philosophy. And the language of philosophy is poetry. I talk to the strangers in supermarkets, car parks, train stations, you know I like to shock them out of the loneliness these place are creating. The good ones, I think, are relieved by the contact. I talk to God and my mother whenever I have to lose or regain my sanity. I talk to friends when I have nothing to say. And, when it’s something I cannot possibly speak but I have to express, I share it with the wind.“