This post is part of a series that takes a closer look at the scholarship behind IU Press Journals. Primarily written by journal editors and contributors, posts may respond to articles, provide background, document the development process, or explain why scholars are excited about the journal, theme, or article.
Erin Greer’s article, “‘A Many-Sided Substance’: The Philosophy of Conversation in Woolf, Russell, and Kant,” from the Journal of Modern Literature’s newest issue, is now available on JSTOR & Project MUSE. Below, Erin elaborates on the creation of shared realities through the art of conversation.
Conversation first began to interest me as an intellectual subject during a period of my life involving many first and second dates. First dates were easy to make interesting through exchanging stories, giving and receiving autobiographical glimpses into unfamiliar forms of life. But on second dates, the labor of making conversation became perceptible. This is the (typically gendered) work that Mrs. Ramsay undertakes in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: “merging and flowing and creating” a “community of feeling with other people,” an effort that, in the best cases, “mak[es] of the moment something permanent” (83, 113, 161). (My dates generally did not represent the best cases.) Conversation, as I argue with Woolf in the JML essay “‘A Many-Sided Substance,’” is an aesthetic project through which we achieve our daily, incomplete intimacies and communities.
Conversation is also a favored metaphor through which many have attempted to describe the elusive ideal of democracy. The contingent fates of conversation and democracy have been acute sources of anxiety in the Anglo-American world following Brexit and the 2016 US election: two events affected, many argue, by the inflammatory, irrational, and divided “conversations” that occur over social media. Barack Obama, for example, told the New Yorker a few weeks after the election that, with new media, “the capacity to disseminate misinformation, wild conspiracy theories, to paint the opposition in wildly negative light without any rebuttal—that has accelerated in ways that much more sharply polarize the electorate and make it very difficult to have a common conversation” (qtd. in Remnick). There is much to unpack here: about the aspirational fiction of “common conversation” and the forces that have historically determined the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in this civic discourse; about the discursive norms of social media; about the significance and consequences of locating so much political discourse on proprietary web platforms, whose profit model, described by some scholars as “surveillance capitalism” and depending upon users’ pleasure and addiction, places their interests at odds with fostering the qualities like rationality, generosity, and openness to new perspectives that we may wish would constitute public discourse.
In Woolf’s novels, I find a different—yet related—unpacking of “conversation,” a literary investigation that connects the aesthetic “effort of merging and flowing and creating” to the politically necessary work of collectively building what Rhoda, in The Waves, calls a “dwelling-place” (163). I argue that Woolf’s depictions of conversation unite aesthetic, epistemological, and ethical projects, reworking strands from the work of Immanuel Kant and Bertrand Russell in a subtle philosophy of conversational sensus communis that anticipates key aspects of Hannah Arendt’s philosophy of the talk that constitutes democratic public life. Sharing a “common conversation” is indeed the route through which her characters discover—through creating—common ground, a sense of dwelling together in the same world.
For Woolf, a “common conversation” is the product of taxing creativity. It requires the self-forgetfulness of artistic effort, taking shape (in The Waves) when the “sharp tooth of egotism” is “blunted,” and the “walls of the mind grow thin” and porous (225, 224). Conversation is a process through which people don’t merely talk, but also construct a shared reality.
I have thought repeatedly of Woolf’s depictions of conversation these past few months, as pundits continuously decry “post-truth politics” and the Trump administration resorts without shame to “alternative facts.” Both trends indicate how far we in the US are from dwelling in a shared reality. Woolf’s novels don’t offer a map toward a “common conversation” that has never yet occurred. Nor, for that matter, do they offer practical guidance for dating. But they do offer an original literary-philosophical lens that might help clarify the aesthetic, conversational projects that generate our communities.
Remnick, David. “Obama Reckons with a Trump Presidency.” The New Yorker 28 Nov. 2016.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harvest Books, 1989.
—. The Waves. New York: Harvest Books, 1978.
Erin Greer is a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.
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