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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Making Conversation: Fiction, Philosophy, and the Social medium

  • Author(s): Greer, Erin Elizabeth
  • Advisor(s): Abel, Elizabeth
  • et al.

Making Conversation: Fiction, Philosophy, and the Social Medium originates in the hazy self-awareness of the contemporary networked world, in which activities such as donating to political campaigns, posting on social media, and contributing to online scholarly reviews are frequently characterized as modes of participating in an ethereal and endless digital “conversation.” At the same time, works like Sherry Turkle’s recent Reclaiming Conversation express fears that the digital “conversation” is corroding our abilities to converse in person, thereby threatening our “capacity for empathy, friendship, and intimacy.” Moreover, recent political developments––the US’s 2016 election, the British “Brexit” referendum, and the increasing prominence of digitally organized hate groups––have stimulated fears that online “conversation” in its current form undermines democracy by precluding the development of a central public “conversation” based on agreed-upon facts, openness, and civility.

Contemporary concerns about conversation in the digital age in fact extend a long philosophical tradition in which “conversation” has been made to index lofty aspirations for both public and intimate life. Derived from the Latin figures for turning, vertĕre, and togetherness, com, to converse originally meant “to turn oneself about, to move to and fro, pass one's life, dwell, abide, live somewhere, keep company with.” From John Milton’s claim that “a meet and happy conversation is the chiefest and the noblest end of marriage,” to Jürgen Habermas’s conception of a public sphere in which talk among private citizens critiques and legitimizes the modern state’s authority, this less-instrumental cousin of discussion (from the Latin discutĕre, “to dash or shake asunder”) has frequently represented a playful, open, and aesthetic practice constitutive of both intimate relations and democratic politics.

Making Conversation proposes the novel as a referent to ground and focus our talk of “conversation.” Adopting a method inspired by Ordinary Language Philosophy, I turn to novels that provide exemplary studies of conversation as a social medium. Each chapter moves through increasingly expansive contexts of conversation, beginning in the domestic realm with George Meredith’s The Egoist; moving next, via Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and The Waves, into the realm of intimate community; then to that of national “public” life as critiqued in Salman Rushdie’s Thatcher-era novel, The Satanic Verses; and finally into the global “conversation” of the Internet and social media, as refracted by Ali Smith’s There but for the: a novel. Reading scenes of conversation in these works alongside theoretical invocations of this social medium, I elucidate the discursive, collaborative, and aesthetic processes by which intimate and political communities form and transform across a period stretching from the Victorian novel through contemporary digital media.

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