So just who are we all talking to, anyway?

April 8, 2007 | By | 5 Replies More

I wrote a paper for one of my Master’s classes a couple of weeks ago, integrating what I’d absorbed from two textbooks into pages of my actual life.   Shortly after I got it back from my professor, a friend and I were discussing this very blog, which led to a discussion of philosophizing in general.   He lamented how lately, he’s seen an awfully lot of writing overwrought with words at the expense of actual ideas.   This guy is an intellectual himself, a prolific writer and thinker, so his comment gave me pause. 

As I’ve read for this particular graduate Communication class, I’ve worried more than once that some in my degree program seem to overstate the obvious.  I love taking a fragment of seemingly mundane human interaction, analyzing its details and its place in our lives to parse from it a deeper understanding of our connectedness, yet I can’t shake the underlying fear that many would meet our research with a big, “So what?”

I thought I’d share some thoughts from this particular paper here, and ask for the feedback of the ‘blog’s readership.  Based on responses I’ve received to previous pieces and the responses I’ve read here to the writing of others, I believe this audience falls toward the thinking end of the spectrum.  There.  I’ve laid out a blanket compliment.  Be nice when you pick me apart, then, please??

Here goes:

Drama unfolds around us continually, though the mundane events of daily life often blur into methodical sameness until boredom becomes the norm.  The drama goes unnoticed; only when an exception jolts us awake do we take notice of the richness, the texture, the complexity of all that which is life, the human interactions swirling and bending, enveloping us as minute events create our world.

Mikhail Bakhtin believed in the importance of the minutiae.  His complex views of human interaction, as chronicled by Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson in Mikhail Bakhtin, The Creation of a Prosaics, boiled human interaction down to the details.  He did so in his fight to hold the novel up as a viable art form; through his career as a teacher and philosopher in Russia, Bakhtin fought for it the status previously reserved only for poetry. He marveled at how novels created conversations with the readers and by doing so, advanced our human connectedness.

Prosaics are the antithesis, as it were, of poetics.  One might define poetics as the big moments, the artful compilation of emotion into a large event in life, a planned celebration, perhaps.  Prosaics, instead, happen around us all the time, and each interaction weaves into the next to define our constantly shifting identities and world.  This constant shifting gives way to the concept of unfinalizability in Bakhtin’s work.  We are never finalized in this messy, open world, and for Bakhtin, this is imperative to life and freedom.  Unfinalizability invokes potential, innovation, surprise and a rich creativity.  Every utterance moves us to a new place in thought, perched closer to the next “aha” moment that will take us racing joyfully in a new direction.  Our trick, I believe Bakhtin tells us, is to remain open to the possibilities, to live our lives in a state of heightened awareness of the rich nuances all around us instead of giving in to some perceived monotony.  He tells us there is no sameness, but we have to pay attention. He asks us, in a way, to embrace awe, just as Einstein did.

Another concept in Bakhtin’s work is his definition of a “superaddressee” in conversation.  He posits that each of us, when we communicate, has an imagined audience beyond the actual person or group to whom we are speaking.  This “superaddressee” is the imagined perfect audience, that one who would understand most fully and justly what we are trying to say, or the one whose opinion matters most.   Each of us uses one, according to Bakhtin, and they invoke the hope of being perfectly understood and appreciated.  Some consider this “superaddressee” an internal voice, a separate version of self.  Others describe it in ideological terms, calling it God or absolute truth, but Bakhtin did not define it as such, and his biographers caution against containing it in any one box.

I pondered a class discussion in which we discussed empathy and our obvious inability to experience each and every human alternative existence.  I began to wonder how the understanding and acknowledgement of the “superaddressee” concept, if combined with the purposeful creation of a “superother” in our minds, might further positive relations between differing cultures and races.  One class member lamented not our inability to fully walk in the shoes of another, but that our culture seems to toss us a proverbial double-edged sword.  We are told we can never understand the other’s point of view because we’d have to live it to really grasp it in full.  We are expected, simultaneously though, to understand divergent points of view, cultures other than our own, and perspectives we do not share, all in the name of diversity, education and tolerance. 

While I personally despise that particular word in this case–tolerance–I hope we come to a point in human history where we embrace and celebrate diversity rather than merely tolerate those different from ourselves – I do see that cultural expectations play out regularly.  The end result is often a feeling of failure on the part of those who have tried to understand, only to be told that no, they simply cannot understand after all. 

In another book, M. K. Asante’s The Afrocentric Idea, I discovered the history of oratory in the African American culture.  I’d not looked at it from the perspective of slavery before, at least not the direct, pragmatic effects of slavery in terms of reading and writing.  Of course, if reading and written communication are outlawed, orature becomes imperative; as important, perhaps, as in the primary oral cultures most of us can barely imagine.  The importance of being able to verbally transmit messages, share and arouse emotion and maintain history became paramount, and as a people whose every right had been stripped away, keeping what little they had mattered perhaps more than anyone else can understand. 

Never before had I considered that such a reason existed behind the tendency of preachers emerging as leaders in the black community.  I’d noticed that trend, yes.  Thought it . . . interesting?  Yes.  But never had I understood it.   Worse, I’ve heard racist theories allude, in general, to a “flock” mentality within the African American culture, as if they have been sheep being led by dynamic speakers who may or may not possess the intelligence to lead.  I find myself ashamed that I did not understand Asante’s explanation at those moments so that I might have spoken up and corrected such a ridiculous misconception, perpetrated by an uneducated someone to those unwilling or unable to see the others as deserving more respect.

Throughout Asante’s book, I found myself over and over feeling shame.  I felt shame at my lack of knowledge of the complexity of this culture, and I felt burning shame that any people, my people, ever believed that owning another person was acceptable.  I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be part of a group of people taken against our will to a place we’d likely never have come on our own, stripped of our families and possessions and all vestiges of our ways of life and been forced to live at the whims of another group whose lives made little sense to us.  And then to have our descendants told over and over that they should be grateful for what hard-fought freedoms they have and to stop whining about the injustices that remain.  I truly cannot fathom what that would be like.  I cannot fathom how I would feel as an African American today, but I surely have a greater understanding of why the general population’s desire to put slavery behind us, to move on and forget about it, is not met with equal enthusiasm by those whose relatives were enslaved and whose histories were lost because of the greed and undeniable cruelty of others.

These thoughts led me back to Bakhtin’s “superaddressee” concept.  When I say, for instance, that I hold no racist feelings and I would very much like for all Americans to admire, learn about and respect each other’s cultures, my “superaddressee” really believes me, nodding vigorously and then asking the unspoken, “So, can we get on with it already?”  I have to stop and consider how my black neighbor’s “superaddressee” might reply if my neighbor were to respond to me, “but it’s so much more complicated than that! And until racism, which is the looming vestige of slavery, is gone, we have to keep fighting oppression.”  I imagine that his “superaddressee” would be shaking his head in sympathy, commiserating that the white woman next door really doesn’t get it.  I can only hope, though, that the neighbor and his “superaddressee” can at least feel my good intentions, however feeble they might seem.  Perhaps, I think, the next time racism is discussed in his private circle of African American friends, my presence might fly by, a small blip on his radar.  And next time I am discussing race with friends who all happen to be white, I feel certain he will appear on mine. 

I wondered about this concept as I drove around town over the weekend, watching people gather in various places, looking at the racial make-up of groups I passed and wondering what they were talking about and what perspectives they held.  I wondered about it more as I watched the beautifully diverse student body tumble out the doors of my daughters’ school at the end of the day, seemingly oblivious to the color of each others’ skin, much more concerned about who was racing where and who had the balls and was it warm enough for soccer?!  I hoped, as the ideas of Bakhtin and Asante floated around the back of my mind, that perhaps because these children are growing up against a backdrop of widely variegated skin colors and tones, that they would somehow internalize an acceptance of otherness that we, as a whole culture, haven’t yet mastered.  As they grow up believing in their own power to create change, maybe they will find that hope and potential in Bakhtin’s idea of unfinalizability, and create a harmonious reality such as the world has not yet seen.

A mother can hope, right?   As for me, I will embrace the concept of a “superother” who shall sit on the opposite shoulder of my “superaddressee” and remind me that no, I do not know everything.  It will question when my superaddressee nods in complete agreement, and squint with confusion when my superaddressee smiles with full understanding.  It will push me to learn more about the past and the stories that fuel every utterance I hear, so that I don’t just hear it, but I feel its fullness, its depth and the pulse of all the life that has carried it to now.


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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Education, Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Writing

About the Author ()

I am a writer and communication professional in St. Louis, Missouri, a crafter of jewelry, a disorganized optimist and most importantly, the adoptive mom of two China-born daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Ben says:

    Thought provoking, aimed at an intellectual, passionate audience, well I guess I am the perfect audience on this one (pats back). I hadn't put 2+2 together about the possible reason for the (relatively) large proportion of vocal religious black leaders, thanks. I also liked the point about putting yourself in another's shoes. It's easy to say that you can do it, but I sometimes find it horribly painful to try on other's shoes, literally and figuratively.

    Back to the first book, it is mind-boggling what we "decide" to take for granted. The superaddresse concept is good to know about, especially if it turns out that we are indeed talking to ourselves. I hate to keep stealing from PZ, but he linked to an article about Joshua Bell the violin "genius" which you may enjoy. As a prank, he (Bell) pretended to be a street performer…

    Also here is the audio of his first and only "ignored" performance…

  2. Erika Price says:

    Interesting musing and history lesson. I get the feeling that African American history has gone essentially "erased" by that way slaveowning society kept African people down- suddenly implanted into a foreign culture, without literacy or organized, formal education, and relegated to a permanent role of service, the ability to pass down histories as cultures became totally quashed. This applies to Black Americans today as well, I think- no one knows or has much access to African/slave history, leaving not just the nonblack races in the dark on the matter.

    Remember the saying that wisdom lies in knowing that you know nothing? I think empathy follows a similar principle. If you attempt to understand everyone's perspective, and you instead assume you know their position, you've eliminated the very empathy you sought to create. I think we all do it- we look at someone's appearance or demographics and assume the way they see the world follows the typical formula. But maybe true empathy lies in knowing and recognizing that you will never know another person's full range of experience, cognition, and emotion.

  3. Mindy says:

    Exactly, Erika – your last sentence speaks volumes. Now I must go find Joshua Bell . . .

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Bakhtin’s concept of the “superaddressee” reminds me of the “Greek Chorus,” which served some of the same functions for Greek playwrights, though in public way. The Greek Chorus:

    offered background and summary information to help the audience follow the performance, commented on main themes, and showed how an ideal audience might react to the drama as it was presented. They also represent the general populace of any particular story. In many ancient Greek plays, the chorus expressed to the audience what the main characters could not say, such as their fears or secrets. The chorus usually communicated in song form, but sometimes the message was spoken. It was the playwright's job to choreograph the chorus. Originally the chorus had twelve members. Sophocles added three more to make it fifteen. The Purpose of chorus was to act as a link between the actors and the audience. They moved in unison and spoke in unison.

    I didn’t really have a name for it until I read your article, but the “superaddressee” has always been an important part of my writing experience. I tried to express this idea in an earlier post I titled “The Voices You Are.”

    Perhaps the number one rule in writing (I’ve often been told) is to know one's audience. Fair enough. Sometimes I can do that easily, for example, as when I write a letter to one person or a designated group of people. Many times, though, I’m writing to a larger audience of people that includes many people I’ve never met. I can’t really know all the people who make up that entire audience. When I write to such large audiences, I imagine writing to a “jury” representing that audience (it includes many more than the twelve people one would find in a courtroom jury).

    Who comprises that jury? I can imagine seeing the specific people sitting toward the front. Those front-seaters include real people I highly respect. They include some of the authors of books I’ve enjoyed, including wonderful teachers under whom I’ve studied and some close friends. They also include many people who are dead, writers and thinkers such as Bertrand Russell and Hannah Arendt, Shakespeare and Martin Luther King. My jury is a motley group. Even my mom sits among them. And perhaps you are there too!

    If I were to write schlock I would immediately disappoint these people, thereby disgracing myself. They generally know what I’m up to; whenever they spot cheap writing tricks they let out a chorus of moans and boos. No excessive sentimentality is tolerated. They really dislike it when I wrap an idea wrap an idea in obscure language instead of getting clear about it.

    To please me, really please myself, my writing must be respected by the people I respect. At least that is how I seem to operate. I believe that my writing is better to the extent that it is constantly tested by those superaddressees. I’m less sloppy when “they” are watching my every move.

    Sitting further back in my jury one can find hundreds of “superaddressees” from all walks of life, many of them faceless. Some of them are naturally disposed to my ways of thinking and writing. Others are often pissed off some by my writing. I can’t please them all, but I try to keep them all involved. I’m not doing anything interesting if I’m merely preaching to the front rows of my choir.

    I’ve generally imagined my superaddressees as a diverse bunch of real people. They certainly aren’t a jury of twelve copies of me. Twelve copies of me might give easy approval—after all, they are me. But not always, because I am often self-critical (or I’d like to believe this).

    Maybe it’s most accurate to think of my superaddressee as a large diverse group of people that includes at least some copies of me sprinkled in. There’s enough variety in there, I would hope, that I am at least occasionally spurred on by the alternative voices among them. They will (I hope) let me know their disapproval when I stray too far from my own realm of experience. At least some of them will chime in: “You don’t really know much about the sorts of people you are writing about.” or “Who do you think you’re fooling?” When it works best, this “feedback” is enough to keep me honest, but not so harsh that my superaddressees run me away from the keyboard by convincing me that I have nothing to offer (except on those days when I truly don’t have anything to offer). That sort of destructive, taunting hyper-critical voice was captured by Nietzsche in the following aphorism:

    The evil hour.—Every philosopher has probably had an evil hour when he thought: What do I matter if one does not accept my bad arguments, too? –And then some mischievous little bird flew past him and twittered: “What do you matter? What do you matter?

    [The Gay Science, Section 332.] When they are not too harsh, my superaddressees help me to write with more authenticity by reminding me that I shouldn’t write at all unless I have been able to engage meaningfully with the subjects of my writing. It’s not that I speak knowledgably about everyone everywhere. I certainly don’t. But I need to remind myself where I have become unanchored. Where that happens, all is not necessarily lost. After all, the imagination is incredibly powerful. Also, we do share more with most human animals that we might even want to believe. Further, one can sometimes become authentic by doing homework. For example, consider Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Here’s a description of her adventure:

    Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly "unskilled," that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.

    Until now, I didn’t before have a name for my collection of superaddressees, but I did have a sense that people could rig their sense of what is interesting, proper or even moral by stacking their imaginary juries with particular sorts of people. Those who are born wealthy might stack their juries with friends who think similarly. Criminals might seek the approval of imaginary criminals. In the end, the way our superaddressees collectively think is generally coextensive with our sense of conscience. Not that we didn’t rig the entire system. But not that we don’t sometimes disappoint even our own stacked jury . . .

    I suspect also that to the extent people write creatively or as freethinkers they are more likely to have intentionally filled their juries of superaddressees with imaginary people with a wider variety of perspectives. It’s harder work to write for a more diverse audience, but I think this accomplishes two things: A) Such writers are more able to generate effective ideas due to the bad ideas being shouted down—vetoed—by at least some of those diverse people; and B) they are more able to productively work alone, because they carry around a more realistic cross-section of the world in their heads.

    My superaddressees and I thank you for this fine post!

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    There are at least two ways in which we might provide the feedback that Mindy requests. One is to comment on the quality of Mindy's analysis of the books she has reviewed for us; the other is to comment on the ideas those books contain. I'll do both.

    As regards Mindy's analysis, she has done a fine job. Not only does she nicely summarize the themes and ideas of the two books, but she also applies them well — knitting them together in her analysis of the second book and in her own personal observations.

    However, as regards the books themselves and the ideas they contain, I have much less regard. Bakhtin's notion of "unfinalizability" strikes me as utterly worthless. Don't we all know already that time marches on…that change is both inevitable and unceasing? If someone coins a word to encapsulate this fact, exactly what has he added to the intellectual discourse? Are we supposed to be impressed because the word has so many syllables? I'm not. Mindy says that Bakhtin "tells us there is no sameness." Did any of us not know this already? I have to wonder how dull Bakhtin's life must have been in order for this to have been a eureka moment for him.

    Likewise, his notion of the "superaddressee" — an imaginary audience beyond the actual person or group to whom we are speaking — strikes me as more gibberish. When we speak, are we not trying our best to communicate with our actual audience? To the extent that we fail to connect with our actual audience, we have not simply failed to communicate…period, end of story? If someone were to tell us, "Oh, I'm sorry, I failed to communicate with you because I was speaking to an imaginary audience that I invented in my head," would we nod our heads knowingly or worry about that person's mental stability? Count me among the latter. Perhaps my atheism is to blame for my rejection of an imaginary audience that some people apparently call, "god."

    Asante's book offers us a bit more to digest, but is it really a surprise to learn that an African-American slave society in which literacy was banned by law relied on oratory to preserve its heritage and traditions? Haven't *all* illiterate and pre-literate human societies done this exact same thing, including Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, the hill people of Appalachia, the tribes of Papua New Guinea, etc.?

    As regards the injustice of slavery that Asante's book conveys, Mindy speaks of feeling, "over and over," a sense of shame. Why? Mindy did not own slaves nor, presumably, has she ever supported slavery. So, why should she feel shame for something she did not do? Is this why some people can relate to the biblical concept of original sin (the notion that each of us is automatically guilty for someone else's fall from grace), whereas I feel no such shame? Yes, we might feel shame for our own ignorance, as Mindy also mentions, but not for the fact that some people, more than a century ago, traded in human cargo. That might have been their shame, but it is not ours.

    In sum, though Mindy nicely summarizes Bakhtin's and Asante's ideas, I find them unworthy of her efforts.

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