Monologue tolerance

by CarlD

As you may know, Bob, I was trained in one of the smaller and more obscure subdisciplines, a little thing we like to call ‘Intellectual History’ (or sometimes ‘intellectual and cultural history’ if we’re aware, however dimly, that people other than official intellectuals have an intellectual history). Even in the high academy we’re pretty ornamental and there aren’t usually a lot of us around. So it’s been a blessing of sorts for me to live and work just near enough to the Raleigh/Durham node of big research universities to be able to attend the meetings of the Triangle Intellectual History Seminar.

The seminar often brings in bigwigs to talk about their work in progress, and also offers a forum for members and their advanced graduate students. The level is high and the distribution of expertises is broader than someone outside our little field might think possible. In general the room is packed with very smart people who know a lot of stuff, so in principle it ought to be a thoroughly stimulating experience – you know, like a conference. And even better than most conferences, papers are distributed beforehand and we’re all there intentionally, so everyone arrives prepared on the topic of the day and there’s no need for the slow death of droning paper delivery.

In practice of course there’s a little of that droning, by way of introduction, but it’s mercifully brief and usually offered with some ad libs to keep it fresh. But by academic standards we get down to discussion remarkably quickly, and here is the perfect opportunity for the exciting exchange of ideas that we all imagined academe to be!, before graduate seminars, freshman surveys, and committee meetings blew our brains out like egg yolks. Except that even here, where conditions are seemingly ideal, that exciting exchange does not take place.

Why? Well, there are just some logistical issues when you’ve got 15-20 smart people who all have things to say and can’t say them at once. Can’t have the loud and the quick dominating the discussion, so everyone gets a turn. Time is limited so followups have to be moderated and tangents discouraged. And although everyone likes a good joke, we wouldn’t want to short the presenter on the serious discussion about her important work that she deserves.

The result of these reasonable considerations is that nothing resembling conversation actually takes place. Because she knows she’ll get one shot to say what’s on her mind and then the turn will pass to someone else with their own fish to fry, each speaker produces a well-crafted monologue so dense with premises and implications that the presenter can only respond to a fraction of it, of course with another monologue. And of course all exchanges radiate from the node of the presenter, with no direct interactions between the other participants. It’s all very orderly, lots of smart stuff gets said, it’s productive, certainly worthwhile, even beautiful in its way; and there’s no transformative effervescence, no spark, virtually no chance of the happy accidental flashes of insight that come from free-flowing conversation, improvisation, riffing call and response, theme and variation, the jazz of the mind.

I said there was no conversation, but that’s not quite right. There is, but it’s on a very slow and ponderous (in the sense of pondering) rhythm. As I sit in that room aching for something a little more upbeat, it occurs to me that success in the high academy is in part a function of tolerance for monologues, both delivering and receiving: relatively short ones like those in the room, longer ones like lectures and journal articles, really long ones like books. For ordinary mortals this kind of monologic sensibility is just plain rude, but for the beasts of academe it’s the measure of seriousness. We discipline our young to patience for the monologues of others, and patience for the development of their own; and tsktsk at the minds both bright and dull who won’t or can’t adapt to the deliberate pace of our conversations. No wonder serious academics are leery of bloggery.

Which brings me to my last point. The paper last night was by Lloyd Kramer, a very good historian who was engaged in it in a conversation about the right way to do history with his graduate advisors, now very old, and R.R. Palmer, now dead. There was a bit of a recovery of Palmer, an old-school big-picture synthesizer, as against the more fragmented, conflicted history derived from post-structuralism that followed. This is a conversation in which the monologues are at the scale of oeuvres and generations, or rather in which it is only at that scale that the apparent monologues resolve into utterances in a very ponderous conversation indeed. In the course of the ‘discussion’ Lloyd mentioned that one difference between these generations had to do with their understanding of selves and identities: as primordial and singular for Palmer, as dialogically constructed and plural for the post-structuralists. Here I wanted to say that it didn’t take post-structuralism to see self and identity this way, since the insight was there already in Hume, Hegel, Nietzsche, James, Mead and DuBois to name a few. But I held my tongue, and thought about what kind of selves are constructed out of dialogues that take hours, years, lifetimes and generations to unfold.

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18 Responses to “Monologue tolerance”

  1. How “complete” are the works/papers being presented? When I was in grad school, they had “workshops.” In general, they were supposed to be a forum for people dissertating to present drafts of their work; in practice, however, most people were too nervous to present drafts, which meant they were less interested in constructive criticism/conversation. The best sessions were when a person did present something in early enough form so s/he wasn’t wed to every jot and tittle of it, but far along enough so that there was some there there.

  2. Yup, you’re right, ‘workshops’ have a pathology all their own. But no, although the contributions here may be a little rough around the edges their formal purpose is to inform and stimulate collegial discussion, which makes the serial monologuing that much more disappointing to me and intriguing as an ethnographic study.

  3. This is a great take on this problem.

    A related issue is the amount of energy the crowd expends on not appearing visibly bored or asleep. I think this can actually be modeled mathematically as a relationship between the length of the lecture and the amount of time spent carrying out cognitively useless activities like strategic program-flipping and non-sequitur nodding,

  4. Yes. I must admit my own strategy is precisely to look around the room and survey other people’s strategies. Yet, I must say that at this group’s level of monologic discipline there’s so much deferral of gratification and so little awareness of normal interactive ritual that it’s slim pickins.

  5. How does this differ from a seminar, in which people meet weekly for at least a semester and are at a stage in careers where rivalry is real?

  6. In some ways I find the fact of boredom the most intriguing. There is obviously a sense in which academics (or people generally) will always be more interested in what they have to say than in listening to what others have to say, but we read papers and books with genuine interest, and in many cases we may be genuinely interested in the topics being discussed at a seminar. So the boredom is not necessarily for lack of interest. I think that one thing is that most things worth cogitating take a good deal of time to cogitate usefully. In some cases this might just mean that at some point the audience will no longer be able to follow the speaker (which may explain why so many questions in Q&A end up being so terribly irrelevant). Talks could be much lighter in content, and gravitate toward entertainment. But perhaps designing talks to be interactive in some more fundamental way is a solution; by interactive I mean that the audience has a chance to interact with the concepts and ideas themselves (e.g. playing around with a computer model).

  7. If I remember correctly from my own research, most people can go about 11 or 12 minutes listening to an uninterrupted monologue before they forget everything that has been said. A lot of academic culture is about forgetting those limits, and acting as if they don’t exist. I _always_ find the Q&As more interesting at conference than the presentations, and that’s because they offer at least the potential for interruption, er, interaction. Or maybe I’m waiting for the opportunity to talk. But roundtable formats, 5 minute talks, precirculated papers, all these are designed to prevent this problem, but academic culture and expectations are usually too strong for people to resist the urge to stupefy one another into submission.

  8. Hi Dave! I agree with you, so then the question is, why are academic culture and expectations that way? Is it to close off discussion and preserve elite privilege, as Kvond and JohnM suggested in a previous discussion? Is it a corporate bonding ritual, arbitrary and excruciating on purpose to ‘separate the men from the boys’? Is it the product of a perverse recursive dialectic in which earlier versions of ritual scholarly practice made academic discourse prohibitive for anyone who wasn’t at least a little obsessive and/or autistic, and that’s now who populates academe? Or is there, as Jacob suggests, just something inherently monologic about substantive cogitation, as distinct from more immediately entertaining interactions? (Everyone here knows by now that I’m not suggesting these are mutually-exclusive options, right? 😉

  9. Carl, I remember that earlier conversation about academic culture, and I suppose my position remains the same: there are certainly lots of rituals, irrationalities and historical holdovers preserved there, but its conservatism sometimes has its uses, especially when the market’s “creative destruction” threatens to wipe out one-time scholarly privileges like sabbaticals and research workloads. I’m not surprised, for example, that our modes of scholarly dissemination (i.e., lectures, conferences) feel so anachronistic, when we look at the similar resistance to changes in pedagogy. The places with the most prestige can always exhibit the most indifference towards communication with impunity. As I’ve seen recently, one can instantly tell the difference between faculty who constantly learn from, and for, their teaching and research, and those who do not. Where I’d agree with Kvond and JM is that socially recognized expertise and authority place the faculty member in a position where his knowledge (and capacity for learning) become increasingly tacit, unargued, and fixed over time. (I’ve noticed this, too, as I’ve aged at my university, and found myself treated differently than the “young” faculty in their 20s and 30s.) The older I get, the more convinced I am that serious scholarship is a collective endeavor, but the incentives and structures of the contemporary university unfailingly reinforce the individualist, market-driven imperatives of the academic star. So the collective exclusions are certainly there, but criss-crossed nowadays by forces that are coming from outside the university.

  10. I’ve been catching up at Greg’s blog (Slawkenbergius’s Tales, where it’s one great thinky post after another) and was struck today by a resonance with Jacob’s interest in boredom and Dave’s point that “[t]he places with the most prestige can always exhibit the most indifference towards communication with impunity.” In a post on tedium in Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift Greg talks about the main character’s thematic failure to be “a real intellectual occupying a privileged space of incorruptible isolation,” setting up an “ironic distance” and an implicit comparison between the character’s narcissistic regrets and the more accomplished, sanctified narcissism of the ‘real intellectual’.

    Well, who can argue with incorruptibility? If that’s what’s actually accomplished by the privileged isolation. If not, it’s for the best that scholarship is a collective endeavor, and maybe even that its practice is crossed by forces from outside the university.

  11. Well, incorruptibility is a fine idea, but it need not be someone’s ultimate value, especially for intellectuals seeking an audience of some kind for their work. I think that what Greg is getting at is the contemplative ideal at work in most models of intellectual work, and how difficult it is to distinguish contemplation from boredom when we come down to real cases.

  12. Dave, this looks right to me, but I wonder how hard it is to distinguish contemplation from boredom. I don’t get bored much; I entertain myself fairly easily; there’s always something to observe and/or think about. I chauvinistically think of boredom as a failure of imagination, and I think of the reflective disciplining of patience and contemplation as unqualified goods. I find the seminar in question frustrating (like most conferences, faculty meetings, etc.) because of the mismatch between what it is and what it might be, but I never find it boring and I think most participants would agree. So I’m wondering if the difficult distinction is not between contemplation and boredom but between frustration and boredom?

  13. Well, I think that disciplining one’s patience, like any ascesis, to be the kind of activity that many will claim to practice, but I wonder how universally it is practiced, since I see so many situations where speakers exploit the politeness of others to bore them senseless. I suppose we can call that kind of boredom frustration, or say that frustration leads to boredom, but it’s certainly a form of inattention as well. I get so annoyed by the cluelessness of the speaker I cannot focus on the subject at hand. But there are times when a contemplative silence is appropriate, and times when an engaged dialogue is. I just think that the conventions of academic life encourage way too much pseudo-dialogue (along with pseudo-contemplation and pseudo-learning), fostering a kind of proceduralism of learning, and not enough of the real thing. But my view of intellectual life is that the ultimate values have to be communication and action rather than contemplation.

  14. I agree wholeheartedly with everything but the “rather than,” which you’ve appropriately qualified as the ultimate value but that often gets rammed through as the only value, leading to spastic reflex pseudo-activism with gratuitous conceptual overlays. As Greg and I have been discussing in the anarchism post. But as qualified yes, hear hear. Eventually the rubber has to hit the road, and the process of getting there needs to be dialogic, and if neither of those things is true it’s really quite disappointing.

  15. So speaking of which, what is to be done?

  16. I downgraded the priority of contemplation because I think it promotes an ideal of the yes, incorruptible intellectual whose isolation preserves the loftiness of his thought. I got interested in the ancient and modern cynics, however, because of the ways each figure toys with those assumptions. Somewhere in my account you’d have to figure in Foucault’s notions of the Cynics as parrhesiastic (truth-telling), anti-contemplative philosophers who temporalized philosophy by treating it as a way of life that had to be continually instantiated in one’s speech and actions, in whatever context. So yes, contemplative (i.e., considered) speech, action, and thought: but not contemplation to the exclusion of speech, action, or thought.

    I peeked over at your exchanges with Greg over cynicism, naturally, and I agree that for whatever reason a lot of would-be left discourse overidealizes the possibilities of agency or resistance, but this is because it seems to gloss over the questions of audience and communication that I have chosen to foreground. My own suspicion is that most cultural studies, because of its conceptual holism, works much better for populist conservatism than for anything resembling leftist critique, action, etc. For this reason, I always trace it back to Burke’s notions of prejudice, as DeLong seems to do. But I think that there are other ways going about it.

    As to the what to do? questions, I don’t think that there’s any reason to assume that there’s a magic formula or a would-be King of the Intellectual Universe who could save us from this: my focus is on trying to teach better myself, organizing my department and university better around our teaching mission, and teaching myself along the way. Pretty small bore stuff. But since much of my work involves teaching, it seems important that I do it in a way that models for students the kinds of integrity and cooperativeness they will need to survive.

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