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Something to Talk About

Step Away From the Keyboard and PDA, Open Your Mouths, and Use Your Brain

Jennifer Daniel

Conversation: A History of a Declining Art

Author:Stephen Miller
Release Date:2006
Publisher:Yale University Press

By Scott Carlson | Posted 5/17/2006

A headline in The Economist caught the eye recently. It read: “Blogging is just another word for having conversations.” At first glance the statement looks sensible. The comment sections of blogs sometimes have vigorous, if semiliterate, debates. And blogs with opposite political loyalties often lob arguments at each other—though frequently garnished with insults and cheap shots.

Stephen Miller would not call this act conversation. Where’s the personal connection? The cues conversationalists gather from body language? The on-the-fly thinking that sharpens the mind? Moreover, where’s the polite debate, the essence of stimulating conversation? Blogs are often exclusively the territory of one political allegiance or another, with the blogger as a guru preaching to a choir. Rarely do they directly engage the opposite side.

In the era of blogs, e-mail, IM, talk shows, podcasts, screened presidential forums, prominent political debates, and national dialogues on what-have-you, Miller worries that the most important form of communication is dying. True conversation, he says, has been undermined by solitary technologies, canned ersatz conversations, and the numbing effects of political correctness. In a country so angry and divided, he writes, conversation never starts—as when, in the most prominent recent example of conversation interruptus, Dick Cheney told Patrick Leahy to fuck himself.

Miller’s Conversation: A History of a Declining Art—which is sometimes compelling and provocative, sometimes dull, frustrating, and simplistic—attempts to show how conversation, once regarded as the most stimulating exercise for the mind and the essence of democracy, has withered and died. His perspective on conversation is dominated by the Great Thinkers, particularly those from the Enlightenment. Samuel Johnson, Miller points out, thought the “exchange of ideas in conversation” was a pleasure second only to sex.

Miller’s treatise begins brilliantly, defining conversation and laying out an argument for its importance. Conversation is essentially purposeless—it is not an interview, as a journalist might conduct it. Nor can conversation be conducted with an agenda. Miller humorously points out that when he was in charge of distributing some grants at the National Endowment for the Humanities, groveling academic deans would come calling, and real conversation would never get off the ground. “Any offhand remark I made about a book or movie would often be greeted with an enthusiastic: ‘I agree!’”

Gentle ribbing—Miller prefers the term “raillery”—adds spice to a conversation, but it is also a good barometer for the health of a society. “A raillery index would suggest how politically stable a country is—how much its citizens can engage in good-humored disagreement,” Miller writes. An exchange of ideas and some disagreement is essential, but so is politeness, as bluntness and anger stop conversation dead. But beware: Too much politeness—of the nonjudgmental, politically correct sort—is “suffocating” and just as deadly.

As for conversation’s importance, Miller argues that it is nothing less than the essence of democracy. True conversation doesn’t exist in authoritarian states, and one need only look at Greek society, discussed early in the book, for evidence. In Athens, a celebrated model for our own society, conversation flourished at symposia, and so did intellectualism and the arts. In Sparta, the hypermilitarized city-state, “Spartans thought men who talked a lot were not likely to be men endowed with military spirit,” Miller writes. Perhaps a laconic populace in an authoritarian state like Sparta makes for efficient governance—but, Miller points out, Sparta never produced intellectuals, artists, orators, or writers of note.

Hints of Miller’s political slant start to show up early: Intellectuals—such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Mary McCarthy—who celebrate Sparta today are “like the many ancient writers who praised Sparta but did not choose to live there.” He rather unfairly hangs the suppression of conversation on Leftists: The “Nazis admired the Spartans, but the desire to control thought and inculcate civic virtue—the desire, that is, to destroy the conversible world—has often been the aim of Marxist revolutionaries.” To be fair, as Miller acknowledges elsewhere, suppression of conversation has also been the aim of right-wing fundamentalists and fascist, totalitarian states.

Conversation opens beautifully but quickly becomes dull where the book should have soared. Miller gets into the writings of David Hume, Samuel Johnson, and others who pondered the art of conversation, many of them around the time of the Enlightenment. Too much of the book is merely a recitation of their ideas. Perhaps that’s appropriate—this is a “history of a declining art,” after all. But Miller’s book promised to be not just a history but an argument for conversation and its revival.

Parts of these sections engage, particularly when Miller discusses the influences that religion and women have on conversation; the social life of the British coffeehouse (which is also discussed in the classic sociological study The Great Good Place); and portions of the chapter on conversation in America.

The book picks up again when Miller trains his sights on the “modern enemies of conversation,” but it also presents new problems: You get the sense of being lured into a political rant. According to Miller, the “modern enemies” are pillars of counterculture, such as Easy Rider, Norman Mailer, and vulgar hip-hop stars. He says a decline in conversation occurred in the 1960s, when people were too stoned to think straight and when emotions dominated ideas. Add to this mix the anger of the era—over the Vietnam War, over equal rights for blacks and women—and you have a suffocating environment for conversation. The angry counterculture of the ’60s led directly to angry rap music, according to Miller’s version of history. And with everyone so angry, expressing mere feelings with such ugly words like “fuck,” Miller asks: How can conversation in such a society flourish? The analysis comes off as prudish and overly simplistic at best.

Miller later attacks more technologically enabled conversation killers, and there his barbs are more precise. The television talk show, one of his targets, merely mimics conversation, he says. Talk-show hosts mainly use their guests as springboards for a comedy routine, product endorsement, or inane chitchat. Miller reads dead-on when he says that these artificial conversations provide opportunities for viewers to engage vicariously in conversations that are never risky, never dull. Although Miller skewers The View, Crossfire, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, and others, he naturally presents Jerry Springer as the nadir of television conversation. Springer—whose show is both permissive and angry—embodies the forces that kill conversation in modern America.

Miller also frets about the growing use of “conversation avoidance devices,” like DVD players, iPods, cell phones, video games, or the internet—boot up, log on, and tune out those around you. “I would say that we are moving in the direction of a solipsistic society,” Miller writes, adding that people rush to their “electronic cocoons” because they are losing an ability to communicate verbally. Online “conversations” do not have the same vitality as the in-person real thing, and the stakes are not the same. If you don’t like the discussion, you just log off.

Although Miller acknowledges that there are a growing number of coffeehouses and book clubs—perfect environments for conversation—he is ultimately pessimistic about the future of conversation in an angry, boorish America. His book is sprinkled with anecdotes about people who could not engage him in conversation, offered as evidence of decline. But while Miller has made the importance of conversation clear, you have to wonder if the situation is as bad as he claims. After all, Jonathan Swift was once a great conversationalist, Miller points out, but gradually lost that ability with time. Ben Franklin, who published pamphlets about conversation, had trouble conversing with his own son, a British loyalist. Miller’s own history reveals that real conversation was perhaps always a difficult-to-attain ideal.

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