Dancing A Thought

Since my early classes in linguistics at the university I was baffled by the model of communication we were presented with. It is a pervasive model, seemingly as widespread and simple as the one which explains visual perception. A sender codes his meanings into appropriate soundbites, utters them, the receiver hears them, and decodes the intended meanings in his head. Then it is his turn to become a sender, to code an answer into soundbites, to utter them, etc. Understanding occurs when the receiver got the meaning the sender intended him to have. 

It’s not only that the codeing/decodeing-process is as equal a miracle as the “translation” in visual perception. It’s not only the same homunculus-fallacy that renders those models inadequate with regards to explanantion (they may still prove adequate with regards to summarize intuitions about visual experience and communication respectively in emblems). It’s not, so to speak, the meta-theoretical flaws those models show. Far more interesting is that the sender-receiver-model of communication doesn’t seem to even adequately picture what happens in a conversation at all. It’s on this that I want to focus here.

When people engage in a conversation much depends on the closeness of the participants and the theme they are talking about. Usually when a conversation gets intense, the words fly back and forth and we experience that the distinction between me and you becomes irrelevant. In the flow we engage without caring about the differences between persons or attitudes. We do  may have the feeling of being different persons, but this happens either in very deliberate, academic discussions, or in anatgonistic situations in which we try to refute an opinion we don’t agree with and which we identify and isolate in the other person. But most often the experience is that the words go to and fro, that the thought is somewhat spinning itself, that the participants are used by the thought to find an adequate articulation.

We have several metaphors or images to depict this situation. The sender-receiver-model is one. A slightly different one is that of a game of chess, in which two persons move the figures one after another. The disadvantge of this picture is that it assumes a situation in which, first, persuasion is the goal; second, the way to achieve persuasion resembles a struggle; and third, that this is carried out via the use of tiny pieces – chess-figures or words. Not only does this image not carry the features of a conversation, it suggests, like the sender-receiver-model, that the participants act one after another, while every beerhall-brawl shows that a conversation is an event of simultaneous activities. So, first of all, we need a picture that covers the phenomenon that all participants do something together and simultaneously. 

The main problem with the sender-receiver-model of communication, effecting the chess-model as well, is that communication is pictured as an interchange or handing over of tiny pieces – be it words, be it chess-figures, whatever. If that were correct, then every form of silence would be tantamount to a stop in the conversation, a breakdown of communication. But that is obviously not the case as silence occurs in many guises, only a few of which signal an end or breakdown. So the sender-receiver-model cannot be adequate as it has to render silence as the breakdown in communication.

In a conversation we usually have (at least the following) three aspects: People do something simultaneously (not one after another); the difference between the persons, between me and you, is most often irrelvant (on the contrary the remembrance of the distinction most often slows or interrupts the flow of the conversation); silence in its many forms is as important as the utterance (and not a breakdown in communication). So we need an image that covers all these aspects, and the best I could find is that of a dance, like a waltz, a tango, a salsa. So what a conversation is going to be is dancing a thought, in which both participants most often don’t know in advance what thought might enter and which way the argument may take. But more important is the observation that the distinction between good and bad dancers, between a beautiful and a somewhat cumbersome dance lies exactly in how much the dancers are able to forget themselves and give in to the movements. The more the dancers are in their movements the more beautiful the dance will be. And it doesn’t matter whether they are both superb performers. The flow of the dance shows itself in the extent of which the dancers give themselves over to the moves. And this phenomenon we find in every enjoyable coffeetable-conversation as well. [1]

Seen that way it is the thought, not the persons’ intended meanings, that has prevalence and uses the participants as vehicles for being expressed. That doesn’t need to sound too esoteric. It is a variant description of our most beloved experience of a conversation in which the words go to and fro and in which it simply doesn’t matter who had which idea. Moreover it takes into account our experience that every conversation that enlightens us, thrills us, brings us joy, is one in which the ego-boundaries resolve (or perhaps better said: become irrelevant). But if a conversation is no more something that is between an I and a Thou, then what is it and where is it? [2] The seeming spacelessness of such conversations just emphasizes the primacy of the thought – or perhaps the bundle of thoughts, the stories that weave through the times. We should take such experiences seriously instead of aiming for the purity of some theoretical model. 

So the image, the emblem I offer is that of a dance. Dancing a thought. Of course there is a variety of dance forms – ballroom dances, the intricate choreographies of modern dance companies, classical ballet, the raves, the individual, lonely dances at home … I just used the ballroom dance of two persons as an image that two participants do something together, simultaneously, and without regard to their own persona. But as we have more dance forms and styles, we might use them to refine the desriptions of communications. As a modern ballet can resemble the movements of a flock of birds or of fishes, what kind of conversation could that be? [3] I hesitate to apply it straightforwardly to the conversations on the web because those are written conversations, not spoken ones. But the images are nice, as the possibilities to explore manifold.

[1] Thank you, Sharon.
[2] On personhood, the distinctions of I and Thou, subjective-objective, you might like to read further here: A Flock of Birds, The Karma of Places, A World Created Anew.
[3] A stunning piece of Modern Ballet is Tabula Rasa — Music by Arvo Pärt, choreography by Miguel Robles, performed by his Company.

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2 Responses to Dancing A Thought

  1. arachnomaria says:

    I find the image of dancing thoughts really haunting and very moving too.At the moment a longer conversation between me and a friend is not going very well. I see now our thoughts waiting at a corner of a ballroom to be alowed to dance together again or maybe not.


  2. simsa0 says:

    Thank you arachnomaria for your kind comment. Interesting, I never thought about its being thoughts that might dance. Rather I saw thoughts being danced as figures are being danced, on the dancefloor, by the partners. Now it’s the thoughts that are dancing, and the people vanish. hmm. Will think about it, thank you, and in the meantime: Perhaps the right music didn’t come up yet to seduce the cornered thoughts to rush onto the floor, into the middle. Keep waiting, it might be the absence of the music that keeps the thoughts in their respective areas ….


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