Interpretation is not Conversation.

I should stop picking at this, but I really feel that it has some serious flaws. But it gives me a sense of being in conversation, something I don’t get enough of. Occasionally, someone comments on one of my little narratives, and that gives me some sense of affirmation, but it isn’t essential to my writing activity. I do however feel that it is important to my feeling a sense of growth as a writer.

Interpretation is what I just did with the Kurt Cobain lyrics. He can’t respond to tell me I’m full of shit. Chances are, he’d just say “choice is yours,” but isn’t that always the case with interpretation? Conversation is different. Conversation involves (not is) implicature. In fact, it’s an essential part of any conversation. Conversation occurs only when exchanges happen, called by linguist Harvey Sacks, turns. According to Sacks, a conversation consists of at least two turns.— question and response, greeting and acknowledgment, or some variation of turn taking, usually called adjacency pairs.

Does this happen on the web? Yes. Is it an essential part of writing on the web? Perhaps, but it’s not a given. Linguistic discourse analysis, as a field, can provide a lot of insight into what happens on the web, and elsewhere, regarding conversation. Linguist H.P. Grice, who first developed the theory of implicature proposes that for conversation to occur, there is a general “Cooperative Principle” in force:

“Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.”

There are a variety of “maxims” which according to Grice, though often violated, provide basic guidelines for conversation. They are really worth looking at in detail. We all do this, sometimes successfully, and sometimes unsuccessfully when trying to sustain a conversation.

  1. Maxims of Quantity:

    1. Make your contribution as informative as is required.
    2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.
  2. Maxims of Quality:

    Supermaxim: Try to make your contribution one that is true.

    1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
    2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.
  3. Maxim of Relation:

    1. Be relevant.
  4. Maxims of Manner:

    Supermaxim: Be perspicuous.

    1. Avoid obscurity /of expression.
    2. Avoid ambiguity.
    3. Be brief.
    4. Be orderly.

Perhaps, to use Grice’s terminology, I’ve just flouted the maxims of quantity and relation. But I do that all the time. Too much information? Okay, so I’ll get back to implicature as a fundamental part of conversation.

Conversations are filled with all sorts of indirect statements, statements whose meaning does not exist coded in what is being said. Participants in conversations literally pull meaning out of thin air. I can’t remember if it was Labov or Grice who said that these meaning units are floating in free space, waiting to be plucked as needed, to make sense of utterances. This makes conversation seem like an event that is contingent on a sort of magical relationship with things we can’t control, know, or see. In the truest sense of the word, conversation is magic.

This is why I suspect that true conversation is so rare on the Internet. It requires that a lot of conditions be present. Another strong linguistic necessity is the notion of common ground. Common ground is where these free floating molecules of implicature exist. Without common ground, communication cannot occur.

We choose for example to infer that a rising tone at the end of a sentence signals a question, in English at least. This implicature is based on the socially accepted form of language. We chose from a variety of possible inferences, floating in space, and pull out the inference that provides the “best fit” with our experience of the signal that is being transmitted to us. Mistakes happen all the time, but we stumble on anyway, because as social creatures we want to have a conversation. Discourse analysis has lead many theorists to declare that without a theory of implicature, conversation cannot be systematically explored. It’s perhaps the most important and mysterious thing about it.

However, the most interesting thing to me is the function of narrative in all this. Labov describes the attraction of narrative quite nicely:

It gradually appeared that narratives are privileged forms of discourse which play a central role in almost every conversation. Our efforts to define other speech events with comparable precision have shown us that narrative is the prototype, perhaps the only example of a well formed speech event with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The explosion of stories which eclipse the notion of conversation on the web is what fascinates me. It’s the only way that closure is ever even approached in writing. Conversations don’t have clear beginnings, middles, or ends, at least from a linguistic standpoint. But they often seem to include stories, stories that make you smile, cry, or laugh.

I do believe that Labov is right, that narrative is the prototype, the foundation which conversation springs from. And though there are few active and continuing classically defined conversations on the web, there are lots of narratives to stimulate them.

Linking to independant sites alone is barely classifiable as conversation. However, responding to them and linking to them is. Posting a comment creates a conversational adjacency pair, as well. The tools are there, but not everyone uses them. Perhaps it’s because this common ground is fairly new, and people are just getting comfortable with this newest form of conversation.