Friday, August 11, 2006

Performance and engagement

Simon Jenkins discusses Stephen Miller’s book Conversation: A History of a Declining Art. Jenkins prizes intellectually stimulating interaction over the series of self-projecting mini-performances that you can see on any talk show (and at all too many parties).

But I don’t think this is quite the distinction that matters. Listening to someone perform – whether a long speech or a brief anecdote or explanation of an opinion – can be stimulating (or moving, or amusing). And replying in kind can stimulate in turn. Performance as part of social interaction is not a bad thing as such, as it can inform and provoke any number of thoughts and feelings, especially when done non-aggressively and received open-mindedly. (It can also be dreary and arrogant and competitive.)

Performance also need not be prepared; Jenkins classes spontaneous wit and quick thinking as interactive stimulation rather than performance, but I think that in many ways the intent of both (if not the method of production) is the same. Improvisation may require a sharper mind and perhaps greater confidence than serving up set-pieces, but that doesn't preclude its purpose being self-aggrandising.

The true distinction, I think, is between performance and engagement. With performance, the aim is to share some of your mind with another. An exchange dominated by performances oiled with pleasantries may have all sorts of virtues, and you may both end up with many of each other’s ideas to chew on.

Mutual well-intentioned performance is fine – you may both benefit from each other, by acquiring new ideas and having your own ones propagated. But, putting my Kantian hat on for a moment, to treat each other as ends rather than as mere means to reciprocal enrichment, you must engage.

With engagement, the purpose is not just to go home after an exchange of views, each enriched; it is to mix up whatever you have in your minds in ways that neither of you had planned or imagined. It is to come together and give each other licence not only to get inside each other’s heads but also to bring your own and each other’s thoughts into a shared space in which you sculpt, combine, reinterpret and create together, internalising both the outcome (if clear outcome there be) and the process itself. Neither of you is trying to determine precisely what the other ends up internalising.

A telling difference is that performance depends at least partly for its success on style and method of delivery, and this is quite proper; but engagement is driven by content. True, an effort to engage may be worded badly and spoken clumsily, but this will only really detract from its reception if the listener is still in performance-audience mode.

It’s interesting (and more than I can get into today) that some people find engagement easier and others find performance easier. Many who are natural performers genuinely believe that they are doing what social interaction is all about – although others regret that they have trouble properly engaging with people. And many who are more given to engagement dearly wish that they were better performers.

(One of Jenkins’s remarks seems to take on a new light in this context: “Conversation became a euphemism for sex.” So which is the worse problem: performance anxiety? Or engagement anxiety?)


Matt M said...

An exchange dominated by performances oiled with pleasantries

Were you born with the ability to write well, or did I simply miss some classes at school? Are there books I should be reading?

Anyway... The performance/engagement distinction can probably be applied to blogs as well, perhaps even more effectively then to conversations: some people do it to show off their knowledge and rhetorical skills, others because they want to draw upon the combined intellect of the blogworld to help them figure out some issue or other.

Tom Freeman said...

(If we keep up the mutual compliments like this, people are going to talk!)

As for the writing, I actually have an infinite number of monkeys chained to keyboards in the cellar, and I just post some of the more coherent stuff. ;-)

I wondered about how the P/E thing would apply to blogging, and it's tough: you don't know who (if anyone) is going to be reading, so inevitably there's a performance aspect. But yes, I operate on the assumption that lots of people out there are actually very interesting, and maybe some of them will join in...

Matt M said...

I actually have an infinite number of monkeys chained to keyboards in the cellar, and I just post some of the more coherent stuff

All I get are rehashed versions of Shakespeare plays from mine.