The other day, following a conversation with a friend that ranged over current politics and political engagement, then moved on to changing modes of interpretation in the digital world, and ended up with my friend and I exchanging Netflix recommendations, I paused to reflect on the implicit understandings that had under-girded our conversation. These understandings formed a common ground we both drew on in the course of our conversation. The common ground itself represented an intellectual and cultural terrain established primarily through books we had read over many decades; these books (and their authors) had become touchstones in our on-going quest to understand the world around us.
In the past half hour, I said to him, we have drawn on, or alluded to, several books and authors. There was Kuhn’s notion of a paradigm shift when talking about the digital age; Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Lifewhen discussing identity and social media; Arendt’s Totalitarianism, Orwell’s essays and his 1984when attempting to understand the appeal of Trump; we have mentioned Sontag, Tony Judt, Masha Gessen, Camus, and many others. Also in our discussion, we have assumed that we both know the defining events of the modern era, that if 1848 or 1870 or 1905 are mentioned these will immediately conjure up the same events for us both: war and revolt across Europe (1848), a unified Germany and subsequent influx of Russian Jews escaping the pogroms (1870), the first (and failed) Russian Revolution (1905).
When we talk, I said to him, there is a wealth of information and knowledge that we take for granted; it’s not made explicit, it’s background – like respiration. If we were to bring all this material into the conversation, a thirty minute sprightly conversation would become a three hour turgid waffle.
My friend and I share a similar background. We are white, Jewish, secular, and of European descent (for him recently, for me far more remote); our touchstones reflect this. These touchstones both embody and reflect the tools we use in our understanding of the modern world. We could be exploring the appeal of Trump, the role of celebrity in shaping values, the slippery nature of values in secular societies, authoritarianism and popularism in the western world, the assault on the imagination and creativity generally in the digital age, the human capacity for delusion, we could be exploring any number of facets of the contemporary world but in our explorations the interpretative frameworks we would be using would reflect substantial intellectual inputs, the majority of which are of long-standing.
In my twenties and thirties, when much more time was spent in other people’s houses than is the case now, I used to study book shelves. A person’s books revealed who they were and what was important to them; their books also informed their worldview, their interpretative framework. Of course there were times when the books were misleading. There was one woman I knew whose shelves were heavy with Hegel and Habermas, as well as Adorno and Marcuse and the rest of the Frankfurt school (making a comeback, incidentally, with the rise of the pop president). Whenever this woman and I went away for a weekend, two or three of the heavy boys would come along with us; and, at home, two or three of the books would sit on her bedside table. The pattern did not change over the two years we were close. She would, on occasion, read a page or two, but no significant inroads were made in any of the books. I expect they still sit on a shelf somewhere, bookmarks poking out of early chapters.[i]
With most people, however, I found the book-cases a reliable guide to who they were, and if there were no books displayed back in those paper-filled days, that was a reliable guide too. The bookcase scrutiny test also provided for a sense of location and belonging. You learned who belonged to your intellectual and political tribe. Amongst those of us who were readers, there was enormous common ground, and while times have changed and books are not so much on display, the common ground established decades ago, is still revealed when we are in conversation today.[ii]
Common intellectual ground does its work quietly, until you find yourself in a situation where it is missing. Someone wants to discuss the rise of popularism but has none of the touchstones you have. So you can swap a few facts, but when it comes to ideas you’re stymied. Ideas have roots, and if the roots are different, or, which is often the case, missing entirely, how then do you converse?
In these fast-paced times of fleeting knowledge and multi-tasking, common ground is still being established, but the shared touchstones now tend to have a shorter lifespan than their forebears, and they are less likely to be books. A few years ago, feasting on The West Wing and Six Feet Under, a dedication to Seinfeldand being sure to see the latest Woody Allen film even though Woody had gone off the boil since he went off with the stepdaughter implied a raft of common knowledge and assumptions. TV series as touchstones have now morphed into streaming. Who is binging on what carries far more information than just the name of the series.
The laying of solid ground takes time, and our presentday touchstones have a relatively limited lifespan. Indeed, it’s the discontinuities that prevail these days, not the continuities. The contraction and weakening of shared solid ground have repercussions both for the exchange of ideas as well as the sense of who we are and what we believe. As for that old fundamental sense of connection rendered through books and conversation, social media platforms with all their pleasures and pains, their fickle rewards and lasting punishments have taken over that role.
The way we are communicating is changing rapidly: texts and tweets, Facebook and Snap chat, emails (but perhaps for not much longer) and chat rooms. Phone calls are fast going the way of the dodo, and face-to-face communication, with mobile phones screen-side up and in reach, is constantly interrupted.
Conversation is a skill, and like all skills it requires practice. Common conversational ground is not forming as it once did, and when it does appear. shared touchstones tend to be ephemeral. In the wind and dust of these times, in the bright lights and glittering promises of our age, conversation itself is on shaky ground.
[i]This same woman was described by some as ‘a genius’. A few years after our friendship had dwindled out, I heard her referred to as ‘an unproductive genius’. Such an oxymoron: the products are the proof of genius; without the products all that’s left is groundless reputation and myth-making.
[ii]The common ground does not remain static. Books and authors are added over the years, and some figures drop away. In recent times, Tony Judt, Zygmunt Bauman, Timothy Snyder, Alberto Manguel and others have been added to my cultural and political terrain, and I expect Jia Tollentino will earn a place there before too long. With fiction, Elizabeth Strout, Siri Hustvedt and Julian Barnes are in, while out go Lawrence Durrell (extraordinary how a writer so influential in your twenties can become not only irrelevant but actually anathema a few decades later), D.H. Lawrence, and F. Scott Fitzgerald (the latter was perfect for the self-destructive twenties: so much fun to be had while heading for the precipice).