Dialogue Index: a Complex System for Politics

An Introductory Essay to “Dialogue Index” – the World Public Forum’s new project

By Vladimir Maliavin and Dmitry Andreev specially for wpfdc.org

Our simple credo: human communication should not repress humans, it must liberate them, i.e. reveal the full potential or, to be more precise, the generic fullness of every person’s being. It must be the meeting of souls, the encounter of minds. The participants of communication do not and should not determine or in any other way preconceive and arrange its conditions; on the contrary, communicativity as an internal limit of communication presets the latter’s conditions and its very meaning. This communicativity is articulated through and by the ritual – the genuine basis of human sociality.


We should begin exploring interactive and communication practices, so to say, from the negative side, that is, by answering the question: what hinders, nullifies, or profanes them? The great variety of specific examples of these negative factors can be reduced to one common source – self-determining rationalization that looks for formal identity inevitably expressed in abstract definitions and conceptual clichés. Such reasoning represents a superficial, momentary focus on things the evaluation of which is predetermined externally (by formal authorities or dogmatic opinion) and is not a subject to revision. This tunicary perception completely rejects the existential depth of experience (personal, collective, national, civilizational - any kind); it is inherent to a subject – individual or shared – that juxtaposes its narcissistic, unchangeable identity to the surrounding world. Such subject is incapable of the genuine, existentially charged understanding; for it, the meaning of any communication is reduced to the act of consumption – physical, psychological, or informative.

The essence of dialogue surpasses opinions and even an exchange of opinions. In the final account to be in dialogue is to search for oneself. Therefore, it is the way with no premises nor guaranteed results. Already in Plato we find a clear understanding that dialogue is bound to leave ultimate truths unsaid for the simple reason that wisdom cannot be expressed in words. The real meaning of dialogue is living authentically in free interaction with others. Although incapable of revealing the compelling truth, dialogue in the final account is the only possibility for attaining real existential insight and it depends on nothing but itself [1]. Hence the cardinal importance of similes and “myth” in the most general sense of the word in Plato’s philosophical rhetoric. Apparently, this is the common feature of all religious and cultural traditions. The Oriental thought in particular highlights the gap between words and “wise silence”. This gap makes vain and fruitless all attempts to establish formal rules of communication even though their goal is to justify and promote some sort of “participatory action” (cf. the theory of “communicative ethic” by J. Habermas). No less limited is the idea of dialogue as the spontaneous multipolar flow of statements and responses (D. Bohm’s [2] concept of dialogue is an instructive example here). The ideal dialogue must provide conditions not only for creative moments but also for turning human creativity into a specific continuity. The living truth is essentially normative, it requires mental concentration and moral effort. It is in fact an exercise in self-cultivation.

Although Platonism is usually considered the core of Western intellectual legacy and, as idealistic philosophy, opposed to the Eastern spiritual traditions, in the perspective of the dialogical truth it has a lot in common with Eastern thought which is based on the presumption of the immanent nature of truth and impossibility of overcoming the gap between experience and reflection. The concept of inexpressible but intimate truth is the condition of revealing the unity of humankind through dialogue. And the subject of dialogue is not an essence or entity nor the procedures of reflective thinking but the relation between the two elusive poles of humane existence: one’s original Self that precedes experience and the limitless potentiality of human existence, the promise of one’s genuine being. The truth of the dialogical process, let us repeat, has no formal foundation. It is the correct orientation of morally responsive – and responsible – mind. This openness towards our existential potential provides the space for a tolerance confirmed and nurtured by dialogue. Yet meaningful dialogue requires internal sincerity, strong will and moral effort.

So the common ground that makes possible the dialogue must be conceived as the gap between different perspectives, a space both alien and intimate to all. The Asian traditions put a special emphasis on the meaningful silence that simultaneously unites and separates those who participate in communication. This matrix of communication is often described in Asian thought as the “great body”, omnipresent but forever absent, even absent to itself. The latter cannot be defined or described but is to be intuitively grasped. It is hidden in the limits and ruptures of experience. The meta-problem of dialogue is precisely the issue of bringing together the objective knowledge and the intuition of interactive (w)holeness realized through dialogue. In a more technical sense, it is the issue of integrating the visions of dialogue proposed respectively by Habermas and Bohm.

The social and cultural correlate of this spiritual and intellectual endeavor can be found in ritual practice understood not just externally – as folk custom or any form of symbolic and publicly recognized action – but as the most universal and reliable means of holding together the above mentioned poles of human existence and thus promoting the integrity of humankind. Ritual is the most human element in human existence, the real basis of human sociality. It is not an expression but a source and a guiding force of society. It is a real medium of dialogue as the most common form of human self-cultivation. By instilling moral and existential significance in ritual practice, we can establish and develop mutual tolerance between various cultural traditions and achieve the unity of humankind precisely through affirming cultural and personal particularities.

The ritual establishes tradition, which makes possible transmitting and perpetuating the deepest truths of human existence. Here the dialogue is constantly revived through the interplay of essentially allusive speech and pathetic silence. Dialogue is a dramatic endeavor. It requires the elusive yet intimate relation between initiated teacher or priest and profane disciple. The tradition of Zen koans is the most radical yet far from being unique example of this ambiguous continuity. The teacher-disciple relationship exemplifies the convergence of two main aspects of existence qua dialogue: rational universality and cultural particularity.

We can see now that the task of genuine dialogue is to reveal human compatibility, which by itself determines the orientation of an individual in society. The most important thing here is not a satisfaction of various needs, but rather a correction of one’s attitude to the world in three ways. First, horizontally – for optimal integration in social canvas so that not to disrupt its harmony and integrity. Second, vertically – for self-assessing in the light of eternal moral and ethical values. Third, by the time axis – in order to match and even embrace the uniqueness of the present moment, hic et nunc, and to turn it into the “ontological present”. Herewith, the individual does not dissolve in his or her environment – an essential trait of consumerism, let us note, – but rather sharpens the understanding of his or her self, which is the basis of human sociality, and the point of contact with the surrounding world – these border zones in need of constant confirmation because there’s an impenetrable boundary in relationships between people. Dialogue asserts the basic ethical attitude: to be together with other living beings through being different.

As we can see now, living in dialogue presupposes the inevitable division between the elites and the general public, schools of spiritual discipline and public space. (It’s quite another matter that the formal criteria for identifying the elite are far from realistic, as well as the definitions of affiliation with the masses defined by the stereotyped parameters.) At the heart of this division is the qualitatively different understanding and attitude towards responsibility: from the basic vital or partial (for the masses) considerations to the encompassing insight – the one that connects actual social and political conjuncture and its current challenges with historical experience and the idea of conformity necessary to strive for (for the elites). When the existential horizon is limited by the momentary, the momentary itself is perceived as inadequate, with strong optical distortions. But this cannot be critical if such narrow level of understanding matches the minimum space of responsibility, predetermined by the need to satisfy basic human needs; large-scale ambitions or, as Laozi said, “excessive desires” normally do not occur in this case. Therefore, the primitive level of the political culture of the majority, the everyday life in its pristine form do not create any threats on its own if the masses go with the tide; on the other hand, the lack of understanding and responsibility is dangerous and such behavioral stereotypes (patterns) are provoked in the society by the manipulative democracy. But it’s even worse when the elites experience such deficit of understanding or responsibility – or both. The elite’s incapacity to fulfill its mission leads to the inculcation of the political surrogate opposite to the manipulative democracy – totalitarian practices of domination and repression.

Ideally, there is no sound reason for a conflict between the elites and the masses. If the elite possesses self-discipline and responsibility, then it rules the world, yielding to its pressure and avoiding niggling control of what’s happening, letting things develop the way they are destined to. Hence, the authority is reduced to some sort of detached monitoring of the events – what political experts call governance by tendencies. A good example is Kutuzov’s non-action equal to strategic initiative versus Napoleon’s confused passivity described in Leo Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace”. This non-action presupposes an exceptionally acute sensitivity and an encompassing vision, a meticulous listening to the pulse of time and decoding the rhythm of its pounding. That is to say, the elite’s wisdom in this perspective is represented by its ability to give way to or rather safeguard those regularities and trends of development that are within its exclusive and extremely competent comprehension. Such knowledge cannot be formalized and thus is a real condition of security. Therefore, the domination of such elites over general public is inconspicuous and creates an impression of self-governance. In this ideal scenario, the elites and the masses don’t really confront each other, occupying different niches. At the same time, they are closely connected though this connection is not necessary verbal or even conscious, but rather existential in kind and manifested in the ritual, i.e. anonymous, practices. In medieval times, the common ground for the elites and the general public was the Church, which also legitimized ritual practices. Evidently, at those times the humanity was the closest to our perfect scenario of interrelation between the elites and the masses – and, consequently, to the ideal notion of a dialogue described above.

If we put aside the search for historical examples of the most successful ways of dia-logical communication and instead focus on determining the ideal environment for it, we can find it in the pure immanence of practice. In other words, it’s an extent of a successful dialogue in which all locating measurements have not only been implemented, but brought proper results – the subject has achieved an equilibrium, even harmony, of its inner world and its visible and invisible dimensions. If we could look at this territory of a successful dialogue with a secret, internal gaze from up close, we would see a community of “enlightened professionals”, masters of their craft, where things happen easily and smoothly, without any hesitation or efforts and where everything is brought down to transpicuous specific practices, which imply acute and matured awareness. The virtuoso artist while doing his job forgets himself, his tools and materials of his labor but cultivates sharp awareness of a live, organic rhythm of activities that he pursues. For him there is no intangible or absolute normativity. In this territory, the eternal contradiction between two incompatible perspectives – mystical vision of heavenly existence and earthly empiricism – ceases to exist.

Nowadays the historical response – almost instinctive reaction – to the abuses of instrumental rationality is the search for a different kind of immanence – the immanence of an informal community beyond societal institutions and society’s transcendental principles. It’s the “undone”(Blanchot, Nancy), constantly “coming” (Agamben), or, better still, opened unto alterity (Esposito) community, utopian as far as it coincides with what is the most common (and hence inexpressible) in experience yet something constantly present in the darkness of pure actuality. Its foundation – essentially non-founding – is the experience of self-differentiation. Here people share between them only what divides them. The empty place of this “community to come” is filled with playfulness and fictitious identities. To a certain degree it has an appearance of the “society of the spectacle” – or, more precisely, the society of universal entertainment of the late, global in its scope capitalism. It is ruled by the “anti-elite” – heroes of marginality and “profane holiness”. The problem is to fill such empty commonality and the space of playful dialogue, actually a pseudo dialogue with existential meaning.

What is the society of the politics of immanence? We discover here a wide open space for political imagination. The pure actuality is forever out of sight, but it is experienced with utmost clarity and provides the inner confidence in one’s own existence. Having no identity, the “great” or “conciliar body” of humankind releases (out of itself and in itself) all images of Being and determines their equal value; in its light all things are equally real and fantastic or, more precisely, the more fantastic, the more real. Instead of searching for the fulcrum that allows to turn the world over, it reveals the absence of foothold that makes possible all transformations of the world. Finally, it becomes the sanction of practical reason, the finesse of genuine mastery that can serve as the foundation of future democracy – a democracy of “the community of masters” (both of their craft and, most importantly, of themselves) who with their virtuoso skills and sharpened moral sensitivity have no need for supervisors. This social vision finally brings together the rulers and the ruled, inner self-cultivation and public politics. In fact, it requires not the external revolution – by definition fruitless – but the inner metanoia: a capacity to discover the fullness of being in the infinite variety of life.
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[1] See: Gonzalez F.J. Dialectic and Dialogue. Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998. P. 252–253.
[2] See: Bohm D. On Dialogue. London, New York: Routledge, 1996. 101 p.