Thursday theme – Waters of March

As we turn to consider Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say, our theme song for today is “Águas de Março” (“Waters of March”) written by Antonio Carlos Jobim (aka Tom Jobim) and performed here by Jobim and Elis Regina.

For Graff and Birkenstein, academic writing, at its heart, is a conversation, and, more generally, “writing well means entering into conversation with others” (4th ed., xiv). In their introduction, they quote the philosopher Kenneth Burke’s famous description of “the world of intellectual exchange” as a kind of un-ending conversation at an interminable party.

Here’s the full passage from Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form:

Where does the drama get its materials? From the “unending conversation” that is going on at the point in history when we are born. Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.
(1941; 2d ed., Louisiana State University Press, 1967, 110-11.)

It’s interesting to consider Graff and Birkenstein’s use of Burke alongside Alasdair Macintyre’s claim, which we discussed in class, that “conversation, understood widely enough, is the form of human transactions in general” (Michael Sandel, ed., Liberalism and Its Critics, New York University Press, 1984, 133).

By putting the activity of conversation at the heart of what makes humans human, Burke and Macintyre are pursuing a line of thought that grew out of the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Europe (especially in the writings of J.G. von Herder and Wilhelm von Humboldt). Interest in the origins of human language and in the relationship between language and culture led for some during this period to a re-definition of human identity in general: it wasn’t the capacity for reason (as Aristotle, for example, had supposed) so much as the capacity for language that separated human beings from other animals.

(It’s interesting to consider the fluidity of human identity at this scale. Not only does each of us, arguably, possess an identity that changes over time, but the various attempts to identify a defining characteristic of humanity as a whole means that it may be useful to think of humanity as existing in a variety of “versions.” Wikipedia’s list of names for the human species is instructive here.)

Macintyre describes conversations as “enacted narratives” (133), highlighting the way our conversational engagements often represent the unfolding of some kind of story. This way of thinking about conversation fits his definition of human beings as “story-telling animal[s]” (138). Graff and Birkenstein treat the subcategory of academic conversation as a kind of game characterized by a fairly circumscribed set of “moves,” but there are clearly narrative elements in their conception as well, as evidenced by their quotation from Burke and their advice about “putting in your oar.”

But the Regina-Jobim performance perhaps suggests something even more fundamental about conversation than its narrative element, something about the sheer pleasure to be found in conversation’s back-and-forth dynamic, even when it doesn’t involve an exchange of ideas with what Macintyre calls a telos – that is, a projected goal. If you look at the song lyrics (in either English or Portuguese), you see that Regina and Jobim are simply taking turns running down the items in a list; they’re not conducting the kind of conversation Graff and Birkenstein have in mind at all. There’s no advocacy here, just the pleasure of moving the song forward by taking turns. At the same time, they’re clearly singing to each other, not just trading off. You can see it in their gestures as much as you can hear it in their voices.

I get the same sense of the pleasure inherent in the interactivity of conversation – prior to and apart from its intellectual content – watching this video of a nonsense conversation between twin babies that went viral in 2011. As a basic human activity, conversation doesn’t seem to be entirely about the content of the words.

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