4 Talking 4 Talking


On the bus

In Addis Ababa under the Derg, the minibuses had two rows of seats in the back facing each other. The regime encouraged citizens to talk about the successes of the revolution, and the buses came to be known ironically as Weyeyitoch, ‘debates’ or ‘discussions’.

Haskell Wexler’s film The Bus (1965) shows a mixed group travelling from San Francisco to Washington to join the March for Jobs and Freedom in August, 1963. It builds the sense of a journey, one which is social and spiritual as well as political, of joining the country through its successive stops along the way. Its action is talk, through all the awkwardness of turning round and leaning over seats, necks craned and twisted, about whether African countries offer a political model, about the limits of non-violence. At one stop, a young man leaves the bus to buy cigarettes but gets involved in an argument about racial prejudice, and a woman protests that ‘the thing to do would have been to call a meeting’. At another, those on the bus meet others from Chicago and Alabama, tell stories and exchange information about routes and plans, as well as news of other demonstrations.

On a different bus, in a different time and place – on the way back from a student protest in London in 2010 – conversations serve not only to develop shared understandings of what has gone on and what might happen next, but also, because they gather people from a local area, they form and consolidate an identity, too. On a five or six-hour trip, ‘There was a real sense that you were going ‘as Manchester’. That sense of a ‘we’ became strong’. For the activist, this collective sense-making is arguably ‘as politically formative as the actual protests themselves’.

My friend Paul set off from Bonn in April 1974 – a very big man in a very small car – and arrived in Lisbon a few days after the coup which removed Salazar. I asked him what it was like, what he found there. ‘I remember people talking, just standing in the squares, talking’.

Close to home

Nina Eliasoph studied citizens’ groups in a suburban community on the US west coast, which meant going to ‘meetings, hearings, demonstrations, raffles, track meets, fairs, parades, fashion shows, rodeos, theme parks, and parties’. She was interested in the way people talk to each other, in ‘the process of conversation that cultivates or impairs citizens’ abilities to talk, think and imagine together‘, and she found three kinds of political talk among three kinds of group.

‘If it’s not something that affects my family, I don’t see me doing it. And I mean of course nuclear war could affect my family. But I still don’t – if it’s not local, I mean, I’m more – maybe it’s small-minded.’

Sherry, in Nina Eliasoph, ‘Close to home’, 1997

Those she called activists were engaged in organising and lobbying, and talked explicitly about the political – institutional and structural – aspects of the problems with which they were concerned. For them, this talk was itself the purpose of their meeting: ”Doing something’ meant, above all, talking, writing letters, complaining, making a scene, trying to learn more about the national and international roots that they assumed were under many local problems. Being a good citizen meant voicing criticism’. Cynics, who got together principally for recreation, such as a dance club, talked politics too, but essentially in order to dismiss it. In conversation, it mattered to demonstrate an awareness of politics, if only in order to castigate individuals and organisations as self-interested, untrustworthy or irrelevant.

Those who took part in other kinds of community group, meanwhile, tended to avoid talking about politics, preferring to address issues ‘closer to home’. For volunteers like Sherry, a schools volunteer, the world of politics seems distant and remote, something over which they have no influence. And even when politics comes up in meetings it tends to be removed – skirted or avoided – in favour of more immediate and practical things. People use what seems to be a self-interested way of talking in fact ‘to preserve a sense that what they are doing together matters, that citizens’ solidarity matters. In doing so, they often assume they have to push the wider world of politics away’.

People in groups talk in different ways, Eliasoph argues, not just because they’re pursuing different topics, but because they hold different assumptions about the value of political talk. These values and assumptions about talk are themselves generated, tested and maintained in talk, in interaction in groups. That is to say that both engagement and apparent disengagement are socially produced, in interaction. Interestingly, too, people seemed prepared to be more political in private and casual encounters ‘behind the scenes’, before or after or outside a meeting, than in the more public context of a meeting itself: ‘the wider the audience, the narrower were the ideas citizens could express’.

To study political talk we need to abandon the idea of a guaranteed existence of groups. These are continuously being formed and reformed, and one of the ways of making them exist, of making them ‘take’, as we say of a sauce, is by surrounding them, grasping them, regrasping them, reproducing them, over and over again, by ‘lassoing’ them, enveloping them, in the curve of political talk. Without this enunciation there would simply be no thinkable, visible, viable and unifiable social aggregate… Perhaps this helps to explain why political discourse cannot be said to pertain exclusively to one particular sphere or domain, that of ‘political’ life or that of ‘political’ men or women. For any aggregate, a process of redefinition is needed, one that requires curved talk to trace, or temporarily to retrace, its outline. There is no group without (re)grouping, no regrouping without mobilizing talk. A family, even an individual, a firm, a laboratory, a workshop, a planet, an organization, an institution: none have less need for this regime than a state or a nation, a rotary club, a jazz band or a gang of hooligans.

Bruno Latour, ‘What if we talked politics a little?’, 2003

Talk as the work

The work of the public official is done in talk as well as on paper. The civil servant tasked with assembling evidence on a specific issue may read the research, for example, but she will also talk to colleagues and to relevant experts. These are usually contacts-of-contacts, making for a provisional degree of trust in a conversation. The reason for talking to experts is because they already have assembled and assimilated a body of research, and because they will offer an assessment of it. But there is also good reason for talk, why their interaction should take place in talk rather than in writing. For talking provides access to the embodied knowledge of the expert – of the potential application of the research to the problem at hand which would otherwise remain inaccessible, perhaps even to the expert herself.

‘In talking about it you get to the point where you think ‘aha! That’s what I was after!’. You might not have known it yourself when you first sat down’.

Civil servant, in Jo Maybin, ‘Proximity and trust’, 2016

Leaders and managers, spend much of their time in talk, such that we should think of their talk as their work, as the way they come to understand the world around them and to establish and exercise control over it.

Something comes up, for example, when the Head is stopped in the corridor by his Deputy. There’s an issue about which teacher should be assigned to which class next year, and the Deputy wants the Head to avoid addressing it just yet. The corridor is a channel of movement and communication, and makes encounters of this kind not just possible but likely; conversation there is not private, but nor will it be overheard. What is at issue, of course, is the definition of the situation, including both the validity of the problem and the authority of the Deputy to raise it.

They meet later in the Head’s office, where the dynamics are different. There is time for more questioning and probing by the Head, which he does on his own territory, his own terms. He listens, and the Deputy’s claims begin to unravel. In the subsequent staff meeting, the Head sets out his plans as he originally intended. What he’s done is ‘standard, unspectacular and mundane, and replicated in hundreds of staff rooms across the state school system. An administrator has directed his staff to see part of the organizational world in his terms. He has defined the situation and they are expected to fall into line with that view’.

In the absence of automatic compliance with norms, words must increasingly be used.

J G A Pocock, Politics, Language and Time, 1973

‘Words do the work because each participant has a subjective understanding of school life that is made manifest in speech’, Gronn says. Control is exerted in talk not by any single statement, but in the relationship between an utterance and the one which precedes it. Interlocutors engage by talking to, at, with, for and over each other as they negotiate not only what is at issue but also their relationship to each other. Some, and sometimes all, of their talk is substantive, to do with the matter at hand, and some may explicitly refer to their relative status and authority. When and how the first person plural (‘we’ and ‘us’) is used is significant, as is what a speaker is doing in listening, since speech which seeks to control the listener tends to provoke resistance.

We were sitting in one of those large faculty groups, arguing about what should go in the next ‘Introduction to Social Sciences’… So we talked about all the cutting-edge, exciting, thrilling, funky stuff, at which point the slightly… conventional professor of psychology… said ‘but we have to do psychology, because individuals matter’. There was a moment of silence, while I have to say I think 9/10ths of the room were thinking: ‘Oh God… If we sit quietly, will this go away?’

And Stuart [Hall] said ‘You are absolutely right… we can’t be doing social science about the contemporary world without having the individual front and centre’ – everything that is going on around us works through the question of the individual, whether it is consumption and economic life, whether it is identity, whether it is… And he was… it was the most… I mean non-sexually seductive engagement that I have seen, and then he did the other bit of disarticulation, and said ‘but of course that means we can’t fall back on older psychologising models of the individual’, and I watched it with absolutely awestruck admiration, because it was, it was how do you … micro, micro, micro, micro level, how do you build an alliance, and that is partly about – what is it Gramsci talks about – making concessions, appropriating the language, but also doing the disconnecting from the other places where you were affiliated, to hold you in place.

John Clarke, Critical Dialogues, 2019

The West Wing is famous for its long single steadicam shots in which characters walk along the West Wing of the White House. Symbolizing continuity, these shots methodically reveal a space characterized by the frantic activity of the people who seem to cross it in all directions. It can be the diverse trajectories of the numerous anonymous bodies of extras (assistants, secretaries, interns) who seem to cross the screen in less than a second, like projectiles, and then disappear, caught up in what they are doing. It can be the continuous trajectories of the main collaborators of the president, or of the president himself, sustained by the continuous dialogue which seems to fuel their movement. It can be the repetitive trajectories of words themselves, darting like projectiles in the martial arts of speech. What does the coextensivity between walk and talk suggest in The West Wing? The continuous steadicam takes make the physical dimension of speech palpable, underlining the constant exertion and the virtuosity of characters, the vertigo of speech or, on the contrary, its utmost performativity. They probably also allow access to the very essence of politics: speech is indeed an actual act in the series, used to convince, legislate, rule—not just some inconsistent rambling.

Ophir Levy, ‘Projectiles: de l’usage du plan-séquence dans The West Wing’, 2015

Jamie Woodcock was on the bus from Manchester, in Matt Myers, Student Revolt. Voices of the austerity generation, London: Pluto Press, 2017, p 49; Myers’s observation is on the same page

Notes about the buses in Addis and Paul in Lisbon are my own

Nina Eliasoph (1997) ”Close to home’: the work of avoiding politics’, Theory and Society 26 (5) 605-647; in-text quotations are from pp 611, 606, 632, 608 and 612, and Sherry is cited p 605

Latour, B (2003) ‘What if we talked politics a little?’, Contemporary Political Theory 2 143-164; the quotation is pp 148-149

The recognition of the importance of talk in the work of civil servants is Jo Maybin’s: ‘How proximity and trust are key factors in getting research to feed into policymaking’, British Politics and Policy at LSE, 27 July 2016

The case study of the head teacher is from Peter Gronn (1983) ‘Talk as the work. The accomplishment of school administration’, Administrative Science Quarterly 28 1-21; Pocock’s Politics, Language and Time is cit Gronn, p 17; that what the Head has done is ‘standard, unspectacular and mundane’ is p 12, and ‘Words do the work…’ is p 17

John Clarke tells the story about Stuart Hall in Critical Dialogues, op cit, p 197

Ophir Levy’s paper on the West Wing appeared in tv series 8, 2015, and is cited by Emily Apter in Unexceptional Politics, op cit, pp 250-251