Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Blind Sailor and Mr. Buckley: Forced Speech and Theories of Dialogue

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Blind Sailor and Mr. Buckley: Forced Speech and Theories of Dialogue

Article excerpt

Twentieth-century writings on dialogue - by Buber, Habermas and Foucault, among many others - with some exceptions tend to fall into two groups: those that idealize dialogue as mutual action including but somehow transcending ordinary discourse and dialectics, and that which see dialogue as essentially examinatory and inquisitorial. The drama - and so the appeal - of the many various dialogical models is partly that, taken together, they provide strong but contrary pictures of what "dialogue" is. In our contemporary stichomythia about dialogue itself, one side needs to see dialogue as the sublimely intimate, highest form of speech-relations, and the other has an equally strong need to construct a negative model of dialogue form as a mask over hidden coercive or ideological agendas. Is there room for a psychoanalytic approach, one which would try, not to show some dialectical or discursive middle ground, but to explain the appeal of this intensely divided consciousness itself?

To do that, this essay will argue, we have to look at the dialogue-plot of Sophocles's Oedipus Tyrannos: that drama's implicit model of dialogue as forced speech leading to a kind of truth that rebounds on or even destroys the forcer provides part of the unaddressed cultural background which informs the construction of modern theoretical models and pictures of dialogue.

To start with, I want to recall a minor and forgotten moment of televised dialogue in the United States. On 17 August 1987 on Nightline, William Buckley and a blind sailor replayed, in effect, a famous scene from Sophocles's play. In a newspaper column that provoked the debate, Buckley had written that the blind man's publicized project - to sail the ocean solo, computerized assists aboard - was illusory and a cartoon of meaningful action by the blind. In the debate with the sailor on television, Buckley proceeded to affirm, austerely, and in the vaguely banal contemporary tones of Nietzschean compassion-in-bluntness, that blind people can not, by nature, really experience sailing any more than someone with no taste buds - Buckley's own analogy - can savor haute cuisine. According to Buckley, the project was only a "metaphor," a symbolic action meant to show that blind people can do anything. It was too technologically mediated to be real sailing. Further, he said, other "realer" projects deserved the blind "community's" attention, not this sentimental, over-compensating gesture.

The blind sailor - Buckley meanwhile bowing his head with an air of humbly compassionate contempt for the other man's rage - countered that although he might be blind physically, it was Buckley who was really, that is, cognitively and ethically, blind. It was blind to tell handicapped persons what they could "really" do or enjoy physically. Caveat preemptor. Far from being metaphorical, his own real acts, the sailor insisted, had brought out Buckley's irreality: physically blind, he had already in fact sailed, like it or not.

It came down, partly, to a debate about metaphor. Each one said the other was guilty of a displacement from sailing, denying what sailing plainly "is," so as to use it for secondary symbolic ends. It was also partly the old problem of dialogue, that each one's interpretation of things seems to himself shrewd, ironic and analytically alert, while others are guilty of metaphoricity, ideology, hypostasis and, nowadays, essentializing.

The dialogue went nowhere. In the lonely and repetitious duet, Buckley continued to say that the other man had not really sailed in a recent voyage, would not be sailing in his new ambitious project (in fact, due to storms, the sailor later gave up in the midst of the new project), and was building the unreal. The other man, less articulate, also of course would not budge: Buckley was the blind one, making too much of some image of "sailing," and refusing to see what it plainly and simply is.

Buckley's argument had the double, mystical-materialist edge that it often has: on the one hand, a quasi-earthy defense of sensory perception and natural reality - is it "sailing" without seeing the ocean and sky and responding? …

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