Keywords for the Age of Austerity 6: The Conversation

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Robert Birgeneau, the former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, recently refused to address Haverford College’s 2014 graduation after students there criticized his leadership during Occupy protests in 2011, when UC police violently suppressed student demonstrators. His withdrawal from Haverford’s commencement—which he did on his own, without any pressure by the College—led some to accuse the students of violating academic values of free speech and open discourse.

There are, as Joel Whitney points out, few academic rituals more rigidly scripted and less “open” than the platitudinous commencement monologue. The fact that such a relatively mild protest should be beyond the pale for conservative and even liberal commentators says much about the intolerance of unsanctioned activism on campuses today. It says even more about the piety of those who would prefer to denounce the form, rather than have to address the content, of any oppositional political discourse.

The criticisms lobbed at the students have ranged from the sternly paternalistic to the ingratiatingly pious to the patently ridiculous. They all share an aversion to conflict and an enthusiasm for “dialogue,” “discourse,” and “conversation,” ideals they can never quite explain but which they are sure they hold dearer than any other—like, say, dissent, or freedom, or not being assaulted by campus police for protesting without permission. What austerity keywords have in common is a moral as well as economic meaning. That is, they all frame self-interested economic activities like consumption and accumulation as ethical virtues of cooperation and self-improvement. The responses to Haverford’s activists are evidence of just such an austerity virtue, one with deep roots in liberal discourse that has thrived in the era of Internet media and virtual (in every sense) politics: the Conversation.

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Blogs, news sites, and other media employ the euphemism of “conversation” to refer to any managed interaction with viewers, readers, or listeners. What was once confined to the letters to the editor page is now channeled through social media and online comment-threads that simulate a casual exchange between peers—what most people would call a “conversation.” This usage cultivates the impression of either a carnivalesque free-for-all—as in Fox News personality Greta von Susteren’s GretaWire—or a sober, sophisticated chat about Important Issues, as when NPR implores listeners to “join the conversation” by sending Diane Rehm a tweet.

A Google image search of the phrase “join the conversation” yields pages of similar results that reminded me of two things: The Hairpin’s “Women Laughing Alone With Salad” and Art F City’s “Squiggles, Trees, Ribbons and Spirals: My Collection of Women’s Health, Beauty and Support Group Logos as the Stages of Life in Semi-Particular Order.” Like those two posts, which mocked marketers’ lazy condescension to female consumers, “Join the Conversation” calls up a familiar array of affirmative, brightly-colored images, unimaginative and forgettable by themselves. When viewed in a monotonous sequence, however, they provoke a mocking laughter of recognition tinged with an undercurrent of slowly increasing despair. Multiple speech bubbles bouncing happily into one another, jaunty quotation marks stacked in dynamic formations, and Twitter’s trademark light-blue bird seem cheerful enough.

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Public male restroom-icon stick figures bound in a speech bubble seem harmless too, until you start imagining them all stuck there, forever, in an awkward chat by a crowded urinal.

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You may then start to wonder why the conversers never have faces.

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By this point “Join the conversation!” starts to sound bossily paternal, as if delivered to a sullen child through clenched teeth at an uncomfortable family function. The pictures reading “JOIN” and “HI” finally seem creepily invasive.

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Treated metaphorically, as a model for consensus politics, the “conversation” sometimes summons an ideal of dispassionate scholarship. For example, see this handbook for graduate students that advises them to “join the conversation” at their scholarly association’s convention, where they will certainly get probing feedback and support. A literal “conversation”—as when you talk to another human—is at the least collegial, often friendly, and always direct, unmediated by social rank, power structures, or politics. It takes place between peers, at arm’s reach, just as the silhouettes figures do above. (A real-life conversation may, of course, be hostile or confrontational, but as an austerity virtue all conversations are happy ones.) Taken literally, therefore, a conversation has almost nothing in common with any individual’s actual relationship to any bureaucratic institution, much less the modern mass media and advertising industries. 

For this very reason, of course, the metaphorical “conversation” is particularly well suited to private and public mass media—television, radio, and their online equivalents—that must negotiate their audience’s fragmentation as well as their disaffection from the media itself. As a marketing term, “the conversation” seeks explicitly to counter people’s alienation from advertising by pretending it isn’t advertising: see, for example, Joseph Jaffe’s 2012 book, Join the Conversation: How to Engage Marketing-Weary Consumers With the Power of Community, Dialogue, and Partnership. “The conversation” here is a synonym for “marketing,” but a particular variety of marketing in which 1) the customer is doing much of the work for free and is 2) therefore doing it more profoundly. 

In the political sphere, the model of the “conversation” is the preferred rhetorical means by which race and racial injustice are loudly avoided. In the United States, “National conversations about race” have been proclaimed, demanded, and denounced at least since Bill Clinton’s use of the phrase in his 1997 “Initiative on Race.” The phrase came into heavy circulation with Barack Obama’s election, and Michael P. Jeffries dates this renewed popularity to Obama’s famous 2008 “More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia, when the future president spoke personally and introspectively (thus conversationally) about race and religion. Since a “national conversation” about anything is a logical impossibility, many, if not most, invocations of the phrase are actually about how the conversation never took place, or never will, or shouldn’t ever (or, alternatively, that it may be taking place at this very moment, but we don’t know for sure yet). This “conversation” is an ever-receding horizon, invoked as a way to signal one’s seriousness on racial questions without having to say “racism.” Indeed, the fact that such a deep social and political cleavage is treated as the subject of a “conversation” at all is evidence of how unseriously it is taken. The National League Central or last night’s Jeopardy are good subjects for a conversation; for racism, we’re going to need a bigger boat.

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