One of the great things about The Matrix is the Oracle’s rhetorical strategy. She doesn’t tell the truth. In fact, she outright lies. But, from another perspective, she neither lies nor tells the truth as she operates in a place beyond truth and lies (pace Nietzsche), in a place of action and affect. She tells Neo what he needs to hear. Which is to say, for the Oracle, language is not a conveyor of truths but is itself a mechanism, an agent, an actor. Words don’t say as much as they do.
This is an aspect of language that I’ve believed and taught for over 20 years. I am well versed in the theory of the performative from JL Austin, having not only studied it but having taught it every semester for 17 years. My dissertation, for fuck’s sake, fleshes out a perspective on communication that is post-representational, moving through Derrida, Deleuze, Merleau-Ponty and a host of others. But to state the obvious, and stay with The Matrix, there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.
And so I often find myself in conversations — with co-workers, family, friends, students, lovers — in which I instinctively reach for the word that is true, not for the word that is right. For instance, I’ll be talking to my mother who’ll say something about my son. Rather than just listening and affirming — Sure, Mom—I question, reject, negotiate. That’s not the way he is at all! That’s not a helpful suggestion! Which, needless to say, upsets her.
Why, then, do I do that? I know that words are less about conveying what I believe than they are creating effects. So why don’t I just nod along? I don’t have to do what she suggests; I can listen, acknowledge that perspective, and move on. A shrink might say, Well, clearly you want to rile her. But why? To what end? Or am I just an idiot, sticking to the false belief that what I say should reflect what I believe rather than what I want to happen? This is the point at which comedy and tragedy are indistinguishable: I stumble again and again, buffoon-like, over the same obstacle, namely, the obstacle of insisting that I articulate the truth.
Conversations are weird. When we talk to each other, we are not just exchanging information. Do you have the keys? Yes, I have the keys. In fact, the relaying of facts is often the least interesting, and least motivating, aspect of any conversation. We don’t as much exchange facts as we proffer and parry affective stances and moves. A conversation is a push and pull, a relentless massaging, of postures, moods, and feelings. Someone says something silly when you’re not feeling silly so you parry and return with something somber which, in turn, embarrasses the silly sayer so he self-deprecates in a different silly voice which you notice and, not wanting him to feel embarrassed, reply in your own silly voice. And on it goes. Conversation is an intricate politics of mood.
Often, I misplay these politics by making my language express what I believe to be true rather than negotiating the play of mood politics. A woman who interests me might say, Did you see Life of Pi? and rather than continuing this conversation in a pleasant manner, I reply, You couldn’t pay me to see that drivel. D’oh! Needless to say, our would-be flirtation comes to a screeching halt.
Now, I might have said what I said politically, that is, to repel someone whose taste I clearly cannot trust — and what is taste but a matter of character? Or else I’m once again an idiot who says what he believes rather than what’s right in this situation to make good things happen. It’s probably a mixture of the two.
My mother is fond of quoting some apocryphal rabbi who supposedly once said, Don’t be right, be kind. This is beautiful and complex and speaks to the fundamental performativity of language, something priests and rabbis have always understood. Prayer, after all, is a practice, not a request. Anyway, this perhaps made up rabbi is saying: Forget what’s true, what’s right, what you believe. Consider how your words behave, how they affect others. See the event, not the facts. Consider this when talking with your mother or lover. Don’t insist on what’s right, on what you believe is true and proper. Say what you need to say to foment the outcome you want to happen. Fuck the facts. Heed the event.
Of course, this could quickly devolve into shameless manipulation in which you toss your beliefs in order to achieve your ends (which is what earned rhetoric its poor reputation). But that is not what I am saying, at least not totally. You should still speak according to your beliefs (if that matters to you). But that doesn’t mean you need to state your beliefs. Let your actions reveal your beliefs. Express yourself in what your words do, not what your words mean. Does this mean that you should never articulate what you believe? Of course not. It just means that your expression should not be driven by a will to truth but by a will to affect — which may very well involve stating what you believe. Sometimes, if not often, riling others up is a good outcome.
To converse is to participate in an event that includes facts and states of things as well as feelings, moods, desires, needs. The question I should be asking is not: Do I believe this or that? Is that right or wrong? The question I should be asking is: What is a good outcome of this exchange? How is this event transpiring and how might I like it to transpire? What do I want to happen?
This usually demands that I step back from the fray as well as form myself. Because my first instinct when someone says something I don’t agree with, not to mention find idiotic or that rubs me the wrong way, is to interject myself with a certain smug aggression — even if I like this person, even if there is nothing to be gained from forcing my opinion on the situation. Which really just makes everything worse, especially for me.
I once had a job job where my co-workers would like to say, Oooo! We just got an interesting gig. To which I’d inevitably reply, Interesting? I’ll show you interesting. Read any five pages of Kant. This gig? It ain’t interesting. Now, I may have been correct. In fact, there’s no doubt I was. But what was to be gained by such a retort? Not only did I succeed in alienating myself professionally, I made my coworkers — all fine people, for the most part — feel like dicks. A true no-win situation.
So now I am trying to train myself to say the right thing, not the thing I believe or the thing that is true. For now, this involves hesitating before I speak — a difficult chore for a Hebe know-it-all like me. But it’s a worthwhile discipline. To speak in a language of the event rather than a language of truth forces me to abandon my ego. Rather than reaching for the words that will drive me into the heads of others and prove that I’m smart, interesting (in my own eyes), and an asshole (in theirs), I reach for the words that will fuel and foment the collectivity of the conversation as a whole.
This demands a rearchitecting of the relationship between me, language, and others. It demands I reorient my focus, to look away from the content to see the situation. Who cares if someone thinks this project is interesting or that it’s worth talking about Life of Pi? I mean, in the greater scheme of things, these may be unforgivable offenses making the propagators complicit in an ideology of the mediocre. But what does my saying this do here and now, with these people and me? Why must my language always reflect my beliefs? Clearly, my delving into a diatribe that offends the present parties changes nothing — other than them thinking me an asshole. And they’d be right.
So rather than just operating with me, my words, and what I know, I am trying to reckon the social calculus of bodies, moods, needs, and desires. Sure, sometimes it’s not only o.k. but good to articulate what I know, what I want, what I need. It’s good sometimes to provoke and rile. But, other times, it’s better to navigate and negotiate the collectivity and ask: How do I want to go with these people? I will not lie: this is difficult. My sense of self and my sense of language are wound up together. Detangling them in order to reweave them is not easy.
Just to be clear: to say the right thing is not be proper. It’s to be tactful. It’s to negotiate the play of people, moods, feelings, facts, desires, and needs in order to forge the best possible outcome. What, you wonder, is the best possible outcome? Well, I don’t know. That depends on the situation and you. Do you want to keep the girl? Do you want to make your mother happy? Then don’t demand on articulating the most precise thing, the most true thing. Say what you need to say to help engineer a healthy, vital, beautiful moment.