11. Dialogue, bounded dialogue, and emergent knowledge

Expanding understanding through dialogue ◆ emergent knowledge

Key terms and concepts introduced in this chapter:

  • bounded dialogue

Key terms and concepts mentioned in this chapter that should now be familiar:

  • attractor
  • emergence
  • “horizon of expectation”


11.1. Dialogue takes on “horizons”

There are three reasons dialogue is at the center of this course: If we take the concept of “*horizon of expectation” seriously, and if  our course goal to find ways to adjust these *horizons, then one of the most efficient methods to accomplish this is through being open to the ideas of others as encountered through dialogue. On our own, we are at risk of the gravitational pull of  *attractors: we can read a narrative or view a film but we do not notice the” new” (not our usual, personal) ideas that are forming it. But when we can hear in the voice of another the “you just don’t get it do you?” signal, perhaps we can avoid cultural-derived misinterpretations. Our discussions (group and class dialogues) are meant to challenge our interpretations when they are perhaps not quite right. We are not in the socially tactful business of politely confirming another’s misunderstanding. Tension in the discussion is good. A bit of discomfort among group members means that the differences of ideas are out for view, for everyone to encounter and consider. If everyone agrees, it might mean that everyone is right but it might also mean that everyone is wrong, all unknowingly trapped on this side of the same “*horizon.”

11.2. Dialogue, discursive discipline, and community

The second reason dialogue is central to this course turns on the practical benefits of it. Our topic, *love, is incredibly vague and slippery. My decision that we will do analysis for the benefit of others (that is, analysis grounded in the process of dialogue), leads to a cascade of other decisions:

  • for comparison of interpretations, we need well-defined, shared topics . . .  and →
  • we need shared terminology for accuracy in understanding one another (for example, what “he is *faithful” might mean)  . . .  and →
  • we need shared method so our observations and conclusions are based on the same analytic processes.

This series of consequences from the first decision (to put dialogue at the center) leads us to what I want to call *bounded dialogue: discussion that operates under certain rules. *Bounded dialogue is our term for dialogue carried out with  predetermined constraints in discourse as defined by the course rules and standards and pursued with the objective of understanding others, not as a one-way affair where we simply state our opinions. The purpose of dialogue is for several individuals to construct a  ToM based on Theory-theory (“What do you think might be the TF/A of the ToM based on its cultural context?”) not Simulation-theory (“If it were me, what I would be thinking in this situation is . . . )

That being said, some of the best moments of being a part of this class for any one of you will, instead, be a random moment that none of us could have predicted or caused by any particular method to happen. You might hear someone say something that surprises you. One semester, for me, it was when a student used the term “*Natural Love” and that suddenly opened up a whole new line of thinking. Another was when a student said to the class that he did not see a problem with beating a woman when she needed “correction.” Another was when a student told me he was taking this class to learn how to treat women well because he had not dated anyone yet. Another was when, in tears, a student told me that an author we were reading seemed so honest to her but others were laughing at that author, and she wondered whether there was a place for honesty in love. And so on. All of these are moments that have become important to me, and none were part of exercises or were invited in any way other than through a general sense that the student could speak openly in class (or in office hours). So, there will also be times of “open” discussion, to make space for the possibility of these random, invaluable encounters. But, for the most part, we analyze, and we do so via a method and that method has, at the center, *bounded dialogue, or work (independent analysis and research) in preparation for it.

There is another practical value in this dialogue-centered approach. Most of you, once graduated, will be thrown without support into working group after working group, where the purpose will be to generate ideas or produce other objects that benefit some other someone, not you. The basic strategy of “impress the teacher by reflecting her or his ideas, and reap the grade benefits of that” more or less entirely disappears. You will rarely be rewarded for it. Instead your rewards will come (and they will be considerable) when there is a happy answer to this question, “When this person is part of a group does the group become better or worse for it?” I know this to be true by talking with employers, and I have seen many students be hit with this challenge, some responding better than others. Although I do not feel exactly duty-bound, I feel some sort of level of obligation to offer chances to develop these skills while still in the (somewhat) safe zone of the university system. So, again, instead of practicing just expressive skills (knowing your own position and clearly stating it), or rhetorical skills (winning over others with the logic or evidence of your opinion), we practice “thinking together through dialogue”—a much more difficult and humbling process, but one that if you can learn to do well will be of immeasurable benefit for many or most of you.

Finally, because you are in my course, you have little choice but to deal with me and part of my view is that the university should endeavor to create better citizens. For my little corner of the teaching world (appreciation of *East Asian traditions and Japanese literature, mostly) this means engaging in research that benefits the community as a whole rather than indulges merely in one’s own private interests. I think research directions should be the result of a negotiation and compromise between your personal enthusiasms and the interests of the group that is the destination of your research results. I agree that we need specialists whose work is so focused that it seems to be only talking to itself but does, indeed, go very deeply and insightfully into a topic. On the other hand, we also need scholarship that crosses boundaries and looks for discoveries that bring diverse research together more generally. I am of this latter type and it is what I can teach most effectively. And so my courses are full of assignments that include the requirement “credible and interesting,” which means credible and interesting to  imagined others—not only to me as the instructor.

11.3. Dialogue and emergent cultural knowledge

The third reason for dialogue being at the center of this course is more abstract but, ultimately, perhaps the most important of the three. Just as I see my identity as residing in the web of people who know about me, I see “culture” as living in these endlessly many moments of talk about something. We encounter culture not by reading but by being situated in the world as it happens through actions / reactions (past, present and future), and the give-and-take of conversations remembered or happening or expected. Through discourse we generate this sort of ephemeral, but essential, *emergent knowledge that is the result of a complicated web of meanings stretched across the event of the discussion itself, not as any result that can be encoded and kept in written words. While you will make *CDE reports, some of the most important “knowledge” in this course flows past you while you engage in the act of analysis during discussion, not in the products of that analysis.


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Interpreting Love Narratives in East Asian Literature and Film Copyright © 2019 by John R Wallace is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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