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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Dialogic Consciousness

From conversations to theory and art.

In conversation, we can hold thoughts and reflect on problems sometimes for hours on end. This is of course why so often, even if we're trying figure something out by ourselves, we imagine arguing with or explaining it to someone else. Human thought is inherently dialogic. Ancient philosophers tended to be keenly aware of this: that's why, whether they were in China, India or Greece, they tended to write their books in the form of dialogues. Humans were only fully self-conscious when arguing with one another, trying to sway each other's views, or working out a common problem. True individual self consciousness, meanwhile, was imagined as something that a few wise sages could perhaps achieve through long study, exercise, discipline and meditation.

--David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything

As I write this blog I am on my way home from a collaborative art workshop to attend a meeting on a collaborative script project. Eventually I will collaboratively review the book from which the epigraph for this essay is taken, a book that was collaboratively written.

The friend and comrade with whom I will write this review, like myself, is especially indebted to the great collaborative duo Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. We are ardent defenders of Engels pivotal role in that relationship, and critics of those who wish to downplay his importance to Marxism.

Suffice to say, and indeed as I have said in the past on this very blog, collaboration is something I greatly value. It is fast becoming a preferred way to work. And it chimes with Graeber and Wengrow's key insight above, that consciousness is inherently dialogic.

When thought attempts to be otherwise, without the spiritual sage rigour suggested, it can even go highly awry. Particularly when it takes on a subject too vast for one mind, such as social existence and political organization. It has long been my theory that this is precisely what happens with conspiracy theory. Atomized people, with the innate human drive to know, resorting to prejudice and a game of connect the dots.

Moreover, I have noticed more and more that an inspiration for my blogs comes from one of three sources. Thinking through ideas on Twitter; discussing ideas with my fellow Marxist friend on Discord; or doing the same with my partner. And my Marxist collaborator does much the same, too.

I am presently working on something with someone else, examining how gender dysphoria impacts cis people. An idea I had from a conversation with yet another person. If it works, I will then consider radically opening up the project, soliciting perspectives from a great number of different people.

Dialogue, which all collaboration is comprised of, is vital. When I wrote my doctorate in utopian studies, I called the genre a conversation between texts. Like William Morris's News from Nowhere in relation to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, most utopias were written in reply to other utopias. I would argue that today utopia's death is greatly exaggerated. Iain M. Banks Culture series, Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country, much of Kim Stanley Robinson's output, Marshall Brain's Manna, Lauren Groff's Arcadia, Nisi Shawl's Everfair, and Cory Doctorow's Walkaway are all relatively contemporary utopias. but not of them a dialogic in the way Morris's text was, emblematic of the genre at the time.

There are exceptions. Most notably the (again, collaboratively written White Mars: A 21st Century Utopia by Brian Aldiss and Roger Penrose, which is a reply to Robinson's Mars Trilogy. But these are rare. Unless you count books that nostalgically revive long past utopian forms, such as Alan Jaccobs's Eutopia: The Gnostic Land of Prester John or Robert Llewellyn's trilogy News From Gardenia, News from the Squares, and News from the Clouds. In short, utopia endures, but in a less dialogic form.

It is hard to prove this point, but I believe we live in a less dialogic culture overall. Perhaps as a feature of living in a more alienated one. And if Graeber and Wengrow are correct, as I believe they are, and I am right about the origins of conspiratorial thinking, this should concern is gravely. But it is also something we should operate against, by embracing dialogue in all its forms, and especially in creative, fruitful, collaboration.


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