You are on page 1of 11

Words,” Ursula K.

Le Guin wrote in her abiding meditation on the magic of real human
communication, “transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth
and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” But
what happens in a cultural ecosystem where the hearer has gone extinct and the speaker
gone rampant? Where do transformation and understanding go?
What made, for instance, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s superb 1970 dialogue
about race and identity so powerful and so enduringly insightful is precisely the fact that
it was a dialogue — not the ping-pong of opinions and co-reactivity that passes for
dialogue today, but a commitment to mutual contemplation of viewpoints and considered
response. That commitment is the reason why they were able to address questions we
continue to confront with tenfold more depth and nuance than we are capable of today.
And the dearth of this commitment in our present culture is the reason why we continue
to find ourselves sundered by confrontation and paralyzed by the divisiveness of “us vs.
them” narratives. “To bother to engage with problematic culture, and problematic
people within that culture, is an act of love,” wrote the poet Elizabeth Alexander
in contemplating power and possibility. Krista Tippett calls such engagement generous
listening. And yet so much of our communication today is defined by a rather
ungenerous unwillingness to listen coupled with a compulsion to speak.
The most perennially insightful and helpful remedy for this warping of communication
I’ve ever encountered comes from the legendary physicist David Bohm (December 20,
1917–October 27, 1992) in On Dialogue (public library) — a slim, potent collection of
Bohm’s essays and lectures from the 1970s and 1980s, exploring the alchemy of human
communication, what is keeping us from listening to one another, and how we can
transcend those barriers to mutual understanding.
Decades before the social web as we know it and long before Rebecca Solnit came to
lament how our modern noncommunication is changing our experience of solitude and
communion, Bohm cautions:
In spite of this worldwide system of linkages, there is, at this very moment, a general feeling that
communication is breaking down everywhere, on an unparalleled scale… What appears [in the
media] is generally at best a collection of trivial and almost unrelated fragments, while at worst, it
can often be a really harmful source of confusion and misinformation.

He terms this “the problem of communication” and writes:
Different groups … are not actually able to listen to each other. As a result, the very attempt to
improve communication leads frequently to yet more confusion, and the consequent sense of
frustration inclines people ever further toward aggression and violence, rather than toward mutual
understanding and trust.
Art by Ralph Steadman from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Suggesting that the difficulty might arise from our “crude and insensitive manner of
thinking about communication and talking about it,” Bohm sets out to restore the
necessary subtlety by reclaiming the true meaning of communication and its supreme
mastery, dialogue:
“Communication” … is based on the Latin commun and the suffix “ie” which is similar to “fie,” in
that it means “to make or to do.” So one meaning of “to communicate” is “to make something
common,” i.e., to convey information or knowledge from one person to another in as accurate a
way as possible.
Nevertheless, this meaning does not cover all that is signified by communication. For example,
consider a dialogue. In such a dialogue, when one person says something, the other person does
not in general respond with exactly the same meaning as that seen by the first person. Rather,
the meanings are only similar and not identical. Thus, when the second person replies, the first
person sees a difference between what he meant to say and what the other person understood.
On considering this difference, he may then be able to see something new, which is relevant both
to his own views and to those of the other person. And so it can go back and forth, with the
continual emergence of a new content that is common to both participants. Thus, in a dialogue,
each person does not attempt to make common certain ideas or items of information that are
already known to him. Rather, it may be said that the two people are making something in
common, i.e., creating something new together.
But of course such communication can lead to the creation of something new only if people are
able freely to listen to each other, without prejudice, and without trying to influence each other.
Each has to be interested primarily in truth and coherence, so that he is ready to drop his old
ideas and intentions, and be ready to go on to something different, when this is called for.

Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block

Such communication in the service of creating something new, Bohm argues, takes place
not only between people but within people. He illustrates this with an example that calls
to mind Alan Lightman’s beautiful reflection on the creative sympathies of art and
science, and writes:
Consider, for example, the work of an artist. Can it properly be said that the artist is expressing
himself, i.e., literally “pushing outward” something that is already formed inside of him? Such a
description is not in fact generally accurate or adequate. Rather, what usually happens is that the
first thing the artist does is only similar in certain ways to what he may have in mind. As in a
conversation between two people, he sees the similarity and the difference, and from this
perception something further emerges in his next action. Thus, something new is continually
created that is common to the artist and the material on which he is working.
The scientist is engaged in a similar “dialogue” with nature (as well as with his fellow
human beings). Thus, when a scientist has an idea, this is tested by observation. When it is found
(as generally happens) that what is observed is only similar to what he had in mind and not
identical, then from a consideration of the similarities and the differences he gets a new idea
which is in turn tested. And so it goes, with the continual emergence of something new that is
common to the thought of scientists and what is observed in nature.
In a sentiment that affirms the importance of the uncomfortable luxury of changing one’s
mind, Bohm adds:
It is clear that if we are to live in harmony with ourselves and with nature, we need to be able to
communicate freely in a creative movement in which no one permanently holds to or otherwise
defends his own ideas.

He observes that these ideas are rooted in assumptions we hold about various
aspects of life — from politics to economics to religion — and those assumptions are what
we call our “opinions.” Four centuries after Galileo admonished against the folly of
believing one’s preconceptions, Bohm argues that this tendency to cling to our existing
opinions is a kind of self-protective “block” we use as a hedge against our fear of
uncertainty. But in blocking uncertainty, we also block our ability to listen. Fertile
dialogue, he points out, requires that we first become aware of our own “blocks,” then be
willing to surmount them. He writes:
When we come together to talk, or otherwise to act in common, can each one of us be aware of
the subtle fear and pleasure sensations that “block” his ability to listen freely? Without this
awareness, the injunction to listen to the whole of what is said will have little meaning. But if each
one of us can give full attention to what is actually “blocking” communication while he is also
attending properly to the content of what is communicated, then we may be able to create
something new between us, something of very great significance for bringing to an end the at
present insoluble problems of the individual and of society.

In a passage of swelling timeliness today, Bohm considers the crucial
difference between dialogue and discussion:
“Dialogue” comes from the Greek word dialogos. Logos means “the word,” or in our case we
would think of the “meaning of the word.” And dia means “through” — it doesn’t mean “two.” A
dialogue can be among any number of people, not just two. Even one person can have a sense
of dialogue within himself, if the spirit of the dialogue is present. The picture or image that this
derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us.
This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which may emerge some
new understanding. It’s something new, which may not have been in the starting point at all. It’s
something creative. And this shared meaning is the “glue” or “cement” that holds people and
societies together.
Contrast this with the word “discussion,” which has the same root as “percussion” and
“concussion.” It really means to break things up. It emphasizes the idea of analysis, where there
may be many points of view, and where everybody is presenting a different one — analyzing and
breaking up. That obviously has its value, but it is limited, and it will not get us very far beyond our
various points of view. Discussion is almost like a ping-pong game, where people are batting the
ideas back and forth and the object of the game is to win or to get points for yourself…
In a dialogue, however, nobody is trying to win. Everybody wins if anybody wins. There is a
different sort of spirit to it. In a dialogue, there is no attempt to gain points, or to make your
particular view prevail. Rather, whenever any mistake is discovered on the part of anybody,
everybody gains. It’s a situation called win-win, whereas the other game is win-lose — if I win,
you lose. But a dialogue is something more of a common participation, in which we are not
playing a game against each other, but with each other. In a dialogue, everybody wins.

Art by Salvador Dalí from a rare 1969 edition of Alice in Wonderland

True dialogue, Bohm argues, not only leads us to question the very assumptions upon
which our opinions are built but invites a continual act of self-revision at the level of the
thought process itself — the process of which our opinions are a product. This self-
revision takes place both on the individual level and on the collective level. He considers
the difficulty of rethinking thought itself:
You cannot defend something without first thinking the defense. There are those thoughts which
might question the thing you want to defend, and you’ve got to push them aside. That may readily
involve self-deception — you will simply push aside a lot of things you would rather not accept by
saying they are wrong, by distorting the issue, and so on. Thought defends its basic assumptions
against evidence that they may be wrong.

Noting that we engage in two kinds of thought, individual and collective, Bohm
points out that most of our individual assumptions are the product of our cultural
conditioning and our “collective background.” He writes:
Language is collective. Most of our basic assumptions come from our society, including all our
assumptions about how society works, about what sort of person we are supposed to be, and
about relationships, institutions, and so on. Therefore we need to pay attention to thought both
individually and collectively.

Writing in the same era in which evolutionary biologist Richard
Dawkins coined the term “meme,” Bohm adds:
Assumptions or opinions are like computer programs in people’s minds. Those programs take
over against the best of intentions — they produce their own intentions.

Those intentions operate on what Bohm calls the “tacit level” — not the level of
our conscious awareness but someplace deeper, more intuitive, and almost automatic, of
which we only have a vague conscious sense. He explains:
“Tacit” means that which is unspoken, which cannot be described — like the knowledge required
to ride a bicycle. It is the actual knowledge, and it may be coherent or not. I am proposing that
thought is actually a subtle tacit process. The concrete process of thinking is very tacit. The
meaning is basically tacit. And what we can say explicitly is only a very small part of it. I think we
all realize that we do almost everything by this sort of tacit knowledge. Thought is emerging from
the tacit ground, and any fundamental change in thought will come from the tacit ground. So if we
are communicating at the tacit level, then maybe thought is changing.
The tacit process is common. It is shared. The sharing is not merely the explicit
communication and the body language and all that, which are part of it, but there is also a deeper
tacit process which is common. I think the whole human race knew this for a million years; and
then in five thousand years of civilization we have lost it, because our societies got too big to
carry it out. But now we have to get started again, because it has become urgent that we
communicate. We have to share our consciousness and to be able to think together, in order to
do intelligently whatever is necessary. If we begin to confront what’s going on in a dialogue group,
we sort of have the nucleus of what’s going on in all society.

But Bohm’s most crucial point — which is also the point most disquieting to our present
customs of communication — is that true dialogue must be aimed not at some immediate
or practical solution but at the higher-order objective of meaning. A quarter century
before physicist Sean Carroll made his beautiful case for “poetic naturalism” as our
supreme source of meaning in a universe otherwise devoid of purpose, Bohm writes:
It is not an arbitrary imposition to state that we have no fixed purpose — no absolute purpose,
anyway. We may set up relative purposes for investigation, but we are not wedded to a particular
purpose, and are not saying that the whole group must conform to that purpose indefinitely. All of
us might want the human race to survive, but even that is not our purpose. Our purpose is really
to communicate coherently in truth, if you want to call that a purpose.
It is necessary to share meaning. A society is a link of relationships among people and
institutions, so that we can live together. But it only works if we have a culture — which implies
that we share meaning; i.e., significance, purpose, and value. Otherwise it falls apart. Our society
is incoherent, and doesn’t do that very well; it hasn’t for a long time, if it ever did. The different
assumptions that people have are tacitly affecting the whole meaning of what we are doing.

Echoing his magnificent conversation with philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti about
intelligence and love, Bohm adds:
Love will go away if we can’t communicate and share meaning… However, if we can really
communicate, then we will have fellowship, participation, friendship, and love, growing and
growing. That would be the way…
And perhaps in dialogue, when we have this very high energy of coherence, it might
bring us beyond just being a group that could solve social problems. Possibly it could make a
new change in the individual and a change in the relation to the cosmic. Such an energy has
been called “communion.” It is a kind of participation. The early Christians had a Greek
word, koinonia, the root of which means “to participate” — the idea of partaking of the whole and
taking part in it; not merely the whole group, but the whole.

On Dialogue remains an illuminating and acutely timely read. Complement it with
Einstein on widening our circles of compassion and Carl Sagan on moving beyond “us vs.
them,” then revisit Bohm on how our beliefs shape our reality.
An Artist’s Life Manifesto: Marina Abramović’s Rules
of Life, Solitude, and Silence
“The Artist is no other than he who
unlearns what he has learned, in order
to know himself,” E.E. Cummings wrote
in his spectacular meditation on what it
really means to be an artist. But if “all art
is based upon nonconformity,” as the
great artist Ben Shahn asserted, and if
unlearning our cultural conditioning is
essential to creative work, why do we
have such a voracious appetite for the
writings, daily routines, and manifestos of
celebrated artists?
That tension between guidance and
rebellion is what Marina
Abramović (b. November 30, 1946)
plays with in a piece titled “An Artist’s
Life Manifesto,” which opens the twelfth
chapter of Walk Through
Walls (public library) — the magnificent
memoir that gave us Abramović on art, fear, and taking risks.
The manifesto is divided into three parts — an old-fashioned list of rules of personal
conduct, the kind which artists like Eugène Delacroix and André Gide kept in their
diaries in the nineteenth century; a portion devoted to the artist’s relationship with
silence, that ennobler of speech and fertilizer of the imagination; and a section dedicated
to the relationship with solitude, that seedbed of self-discovery and supreme fuel for
creative work.
To be sure, the manifesto itself bears the characteristic fusion of sincerity and subversion
that marks Abramović’s work — although the tenets are rooted in the earnestness of her
own experience, it is an undeniable contradiction for an artist who has spent half a
century defying the dogmas of art by inventing new forms to prescribe a set of dicta for
artists to follow. Out of that deliberate contradiction arises a testament to philosopher
Jacob Needleman’s abiding assertion: “There is always something more than two
opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the
Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present. Photograph by Marco Anelli.

Abramović writes:
An artist should not lie to himself or others
An artist should not steal ideas from other artists
An artist should not compromise for himself or in regards to the art market
An artist should not kill other human beings
An artist should not make himself into an idol…
An artist should avoid falling in love with another artist
An artist has to understand silence
An artist has to create a space for silence to enter his work
Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean
An artist must make time for the long periods of solitude
Solitude is extremely important
Away from home,
Away from the studio,
Away from family,
Away from friends
An artist should stay for long periods of time at waterfalls
An artist should stay for long periods of time at exploding volcanoes
An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at fast-running rivers
An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the horizon where the ocean and sky meet
An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky

During our recent public conversation in San Francisco, Abramović shared three more
life-rules she borrowed from her dear friends Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson:
1. Have a good bullshit detector.
2. Fear nothing and no one.
3. Be tender.