Tag Archives: connectivity

Conversational Ping Pong

Before Midnight Wikimedia commons
            Before Midnight/Wikimedia commons

Every theater is a museum of conversation.  In its many forms and formats drama invites us to admire the diligence that goes into a transformative exchange.

In these pages we have frequently worried about how the primary model for human communication—the face to face conversation—seems to be weakening as a default form, taking on more mutations that diminish its essence of human contact in real space and time.  We’ve cited the alarming research of Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015), with its surveys of younger Americans that reveal a distinct discomfort with direct interpersonal connection.  And we’ve noted a decline in emotional affect: emotions seemingly flattened by no-obligations digital devices that absorb so much of our time.

For most of us the challenge of engaging others has never been that easy.  In the presence of another we must also listen, a process we often fake more than fulfill. The means getting out of our own heads long enough to hear what another is saying.  And then there’s the unpredictability of direct contact.  Potential partners in conversation can surprise or even diminish us, as when a listener shows complete indifference to what we are saying. A bored interlocutor who has been entrusted with a precious and personal story can inflict real injury.

It’s a good thing we have theater and all of its variations:  plays, films and television.  Theater perfects conversation.  In important ways it functions as a museum of the form, inviting us to admire the craft that goes into a transformative dialogue.  Characters that aren’t rhetorical–aren’t very fluent or engaging–are seldom the magnets in a story.  In popular theater, at least, we want snappy one-liners.  We want responsiveness.  We welcome a clash of wills between two equally formidable and loquacious people.  Even a dystopian story offers useful lessons.  We wonder why those in a dysfunctional world can’t find the resources of hope and empathy that should be their inheritance.

Anyone’s short list for inclusion in their own cinematic  museum of interpersonal fluency will vary.  The top of my list would include films such as John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998), Richard Linklater’s wonderful trilogy of love and loss that concluded with Before Midnight (2013), and the old film and stage chestnut that has just reopened on Broadway, The Front Page (1931, 1974, 2016).  In both serious and funny ways, all give us characters who are alive to the words and ideas of others.

Amplifying feelings and ideas requires reservoirs of energy, curiosity, and the will to draw others out.

Television is just as fertile in providing good examples. Old chestnuts like The West Wing (1999-2006) and Gilmore Girls (2000-2007) were mostly centered on interpersonal relationships that needed to be negotiated through compelling talk and argument.  The actors in those series were quick to remind admirers that their scripts tended to run twice the length of other shows with the same time frame.  Conversation takes effort and a degree of generosity.  Amplifying feelings and ideas requires the will to connect and draw others out.

Listen to Celine and Jesse, Before Midnight’s couple with a young family and a boat load of unfilled aspirations: he, as a writer, and she as a mother who wants to escape back into the unpredictability of her adventurous youth.  Their love is no longer new.  Yet both are trying to find the safest tracks to a shared future.

Céline: So if we're going to spend another fifty-six more years together...

Jesse: Yeah?

Céline: What about me would you like to change?

Jesse: [Smirks] That's another one of your can't-win questions. I'm not answering that.

Céline: What do you mean? There's not one thing you'd like to change about me? I'm perfect?

Jesse: Okay.

Céline: Okay.

Jesse: Actually...

Céline: One thing.

Jesse: If I could change one thing about you...

Céline: Uh-huh.

Jesse: It would be for you to stop trying to change me.

Céline: You're a very skilled manipulator, you know that?

Jesse: Well, I'm onto you. I know how you work.

Céline: You think?

Jesse: Yeah. I know everything about you.

It’s clear they have a long way to go.  But somehow we believe they have the conversational chops to navigate through the accommodations the will have to make for dreams that have been put on hold.

Of course conversation should not be relegated to a spectator form.  If it is representative of our dramatic arts, it’s one that we need to cultivate in ourselves.  Twitter, and two-word responses in Facebook won’t cut it as forms that will push the potentials of communication forward.  As a teacher it can be painful to be on the frontlines with too many able students who seem to have been rendered mute by shifting too much time and energy to stunted forms of connectivity.  The impulse to interact seems to have become dormant.  What is lost is the expressive power that is our birthright as symbol-using creatures.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

The Sentimental Songs of Dis-Connectivity

Source: Wikimedia
                              Source: Wikimedia

There was a time when connectivity was the enemy of our romance with imagined possibilities. 

The digital DJ in my iPod was on to something the other day when it decided to play a mix that started with Joni Mitchell’s Night Ride Home before proceeding on to Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie bouncing through the classic Tea for Two. 

Mitchell’s song is a favorite.  She rhapsodizes about hitting the “open road,” something that perhaps resonates more with a child of Saskatchewan. An unfettered stretch of highway is the perfect representation of escape from the narrow borderlands of the familiar and domestic. Perhaps I want to see this because I also spent my teens traveling the same kind of narrow asphalt ribbons that threaded through pines and aspens, sometimes reaching pockets of high-mountain snow refusing to yield even to August. The chance to fly along these highways alone or with a girlfriend made them all the more mysterious and promising.

A clear highway to the horizon was a potent adolescent meme. It meant freedom, and an opening to different and perhaps dangerous possibilities: the kind fearless independence suggested in the film Thelma and Louise.  Just without the cliff.

We can make too much of a few song lyrics, but I was struck with lines in both songs that referenced the pleasures of not being connected.  In those days there was romance in the idea of leaving behind the entrapments of the telephone, among other things. Mitchell sings about the pleasure of hitting the “open road” with her boyfriend with the promise of “No phones ’til Friday.”[1]

What’s changed?  How did the phone go from being a nuisance to what it is now:  an addictive preoccupation, especially for the young?

I can’t say I get the same thrill of infinite possibilities today rolling through the countryside of the Delaware Valley, pretty though it is. I’m older.  But for me the car is still an escape from the phone. The automobile salesperson was annoyed when I told him I had no interest in connecting my mobile device to the car’s “Sync” system. To be sure connecting an IPod made a lot of sense, even though the “Sync” lady responds to my requests for music as if I’m speaking Polish. My cell stays off but close, mostly because the not-so-open road now throws up obstacles that can make a night ride home more treacherous.

But here’s the point. There was a time when connectivity was the enemy of our romance with imagined possibilities. The phone was an instrument of obligation.  It represented unwanted entanglements and reminders.  Irving Caesar’s lyrics in Tea for Two promises lovers unbroken time together, uninterrupted by “friends or relations on weekend vacations.”  In this perfect space, he writes,

We won’t have it known
That we own a telephone, dear[2]

What’s changed?  How did the phone go from being a nuisance to what it is now:  an addictive preoccupation, especially for the young? I suspect this reversal is related to changing patterns of courtship and marriage. 50 or 60 years ago there was a clearer threshold that divided living with one’s family from the transition to launching an independent life. Among middle class teens, passing this milestone occurred earlier. And most couldn’t wait to be on their own. The open road in mid-twentieth century America was paved with endless possibilities that would end too soon. In those years, teens caught in the thrall of an escape fantasy could never imagine that Jack Kerouac or Peter Fonda would want to check in with mom every night.

For many reasons we are now less likely to see young couples pairing off into early marriage. Most depend on their cell phones to maintain a larger and less exclusive network of friends. To be sure, they still romanticize moving out of the shadows of the family. But the means for taking on the world is now less physical than psychical. Phones and their digital wonders now function as devices for transporting facsimiles of oneself onto social networks of peers. They promise a better life through the constant connectivity that seems a safer substitute for an actual search to find paradise just beyond the next hill.

So the modern versions of this old family appliance no longer carry the stigma of an unwanted tether. They are now instruments of an inner space few want to leave.         

[1] Joni Mitchell, Night Ride Home © 1988; Crazy Crow Music

[2] Vincent Youmans, Irving Caesar, Tea for Two
Copyright: Irving Caesar Music Corp., WB Music Corp.

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