Based on a brief autoethnographic account of my interactions with persons whose responsiveness is questionable, this essay offers a critical reflection on the challenges of trying to dialogue with those who are not interlocutors in the strict sense of the term and thus provides further insight into the mysterious nature of dialogic communication.
Willem? (I touch Jennie's warm belly with my hand to feel our baby's movements inside)
(Willem does not move)
Willem?! (I keep my hand on Jennie's belly as she lightly taps her tummy with her hand)
(after a while, Willem produces a little kick)
(Jennie and I smile)
Mom, are you there? (I take my mother-in-law's soft hand and look at her face)
(Mom lies in her hospital bed, eyes closed)
Mom, it's Boris. Can you hear me? (I lightly squeeze Mom's hand, move my head closer to her ear, and imagine her gentle voice)
(Mom lies still, frowns a little, but does not speak)
Mom, Jennie and I miss you and love you very much. (I look at Mom and try to detect any change)
(Mom slightly opens her eyes very briefly and then closes them again)
(I continue to hold Mom's hand as she lets out a long sigh)
Dad, are you still here? (I touch my father's cold hand while sitting next to him)
(Dad lies flat on a large wooden table in front of me, lifeless)
Dad, I can still feel you. I wish we'd had more time to talk and say goodbye… (I start to cry and hold my dad's hand with both hands)
(Dad lies unmoving)
(as I try to recall my father's voice, I suddenly recognize his familiar scent and calm down)
Never before had dialogue appeared more vital to me than when I tried to communicate with my unborn son, my comatose mother-in-law, and my father, after he had just passed away. Human existence, philosophers like Martin Buber, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Emmanuel Levinas have suggested, is inherently dialogic. “Human existence” calls us: “Where art thou?” And we “have an obligation to respond: Here I am!” “It is,” as Michael Hyde asserts, “a matter of acknowledgement,”
of keeping a conversation going with the things of this world and with others, and thus of trying to be true to something essential about the human condition, something that we, in fact, did not create but that we nevertheless must take charge of in our everyday lives: the ontological structure of openness that holds us in its caress and that defines the dialogical nature of our Being.1
The “mutuality and jointness”2 that defines the fabric of our existence, the interdependence between our sense of self and others, is, in other words, supposed to be created and sustained in dialogue. But what if this mutuality and jointness cannot be acknowledged? What if we cannot know whether the other is actively, consciously participating in its co-accomplishment?
My aim here is not to contest the importance or benefits of talking to fetuses, comatose patients, and even the dead.3 Rather, by drawing on my own experiences of interacting with persons whose consciousness is debatable, I will offer a critical reflection on the profound challenges of trying to dialogue with those who are not interlocutors in the strict sense of the term and thus provide further insight into “the mysterious nature of [dialogic communication].”4 The word “interlocutor” signifies “one who takes part in dialogue or conversation” or, more literally, a “between-speaker” (from interloqui, “to speak between; interrupt”). Correspondingly, dialogue is believed to require “active involvement with responsive others,”5 with responsive between-speakers. Yet what about those situations in which the other's responsiveness is absent, or questionable, at best, and we struggle to repair this “out-of-jointness”?6
As flesh-and-blood, “empirical” authors, Umberto Eco notes, we engage in imaginary dialogues with “model” or “implied” readers when we're writing.7 As empirical readers, we, in turn, dialogue with model authors. The autoethnographic vignettes at the start of this essay show how Eco's idea of imaginary dialogue resembles my attempts to dialogue with our unborn son (Willem), my comatose mother-in-law (Mei-jen/Mom), and my deceased father (Hub/Dad), but they also show how quickly the empirical–model distinction blurs in the actual experience of interacting with these “silent” interlocutors. That is, when dialoguing with the unborn, the unconscious, and the dead, our model interlocutors are “empirical” in the sense that they are actual people. But they are also imagined, because they are not responsive in ways that give us a true sense of dialogue and thus require a great deal of sensemaking on our part.
In the case of the comatose and the deceased, this sensemaking is partly nostalgic, retrospective (“backward-looking”), or spectral8 in that we use past moments of dialogic communication to try and repair our “disjointedness,” to try and conjure up our sense of mutualitity and jointness. When attempting to dialogue with Mom, for example, I always imagine her sweet, gentle voice and the care with which she uttered her words, because she did not like to waste them or put herself in the foreground. Dad, on the other hand, was a man of many words who was unconcerned about sharing the sound of his own voice. When I sat with him after he had just passed away, I could still hear his voice and tried to hold on to the sound as long as possible to sustain our connection and togetherness. Even now, I can still sense the comforting thickness and warmth of his voice, though the sound is unassociated with actual words. Hence, it seems that as soon as a person loses consciousness or passes on, we scramble to collect and retain as much tangible voice-data as possible, so we can make sense of the void or disjointedness in our existence caused by this profound “interruption,”9 reenact our dialogic being-together, and, in a sense, reanimate or reincarnate the person we love again and again, even if she is but a specter.
With an unborn fetus, our sensemaking is mostly hopeful, welcoming, and forward-looking, prospective—though still out-of-joint and spectral: Jennie and I dialogue with our son by conjuring up his future voice in our imagination based on his reactions to our voices. In this case, we imagine his words but cannot know the sounds with which they will be uttered. And because Willem's movements often do not directly follow the words we utter, we cannot be certain whether Willem's reacting to our verbal stimuli or simply acting. Most times, in fact, it seems as if he's the one who's initiating our dialogue; it appears as if we're reacting to his movements, he's making us speak.
The vignettes also illustrate how our sensemaking is fed by “real-time” (“non-imagined”?) stimuli, especially visual and tactile but also olfactory ones. Dad's cold but comfortable hands; his familiar scent, mixed with those of my parental home in the Netherlands. Mom's elegant warm hands, which I had never felt this well before; her scent, overpowered by those of the Taipei hospital in which she has been residing for almost three years now. Jennie's soft, sweet-smelling tummy, which is keeping our baby safe and warm, and which is the lively surface on which we communicate with each other, as if by transduction—Willem by kicking against one side of this surface and we by tapping on it.
Since nonverbal signs seem so vital for creating a sense of dialogue, it's surprising that dialogue research privileges the verbal, the spoken.10 Dialogue, it seems, requires words as much as the touching of hands, the unexpected power of scent, or stillness. That's why dialoguing with “unresponsive” (or “non-responsive”11) interlocutors requires so much effort: If the usual signs we equate with being alive are absent, all we have to work with is the other's wordlessness, twitching of the eye or frowning, body temperature, erraticism, or stiffness. Hence, we may overlook non-verbality in our interactions with “responsive” others, but dialoguing with the fetal, comatose, and departed confronts us in very real ways with our reliance on the nonverbal in everyday communication. When dialoguing with these silent between-speakers, nonverbal signs become essential, because they allow us to fill in the gaps left by what's not said; they're signs of life, and it doesn't matter whether they're real or imagined.
In my attempts to sustain a sense of dialogue with those whose responsiveness is questionable, the echo of my own voice often startles me—more so than when dialoguing with those who have already been born, are conscious and still alive. Especially when dialoguing with the unborn, the unconscious, and the dead, the “other” is constituted through the conflation of a “literal” other and “oneself as another.”12 Whenever these partly imaginary, partly real interactions start to feel too monologic (when the echo of my own voice becomes deafening and it feels as if I'm “only talking to myself,” so to speak), I increasingly feel caught in my own “ego tunnel”13 and I realize how essential sustaining a sense of dialogicity is for my ongoing “self-production.”14 I see that my survival as a human being depends on others; that I would perish without their presence, even if they're mute or seemingly immutable; even if they don't acknowledge our mutuality and jointness in ways I've come to expect.
This reminds me of what Pi says at the end of Ang Lee's movie adaptation of Life of Pi, Yann Martel's astonishing story.15 Having survived a disaster at sea during which he loses his parents and brother, Pi Patel ends up alone on a raft with a Bengal tiger named “Richard Parker.” After many an adventure together, they reach the shores of Mexico and Richard Parker walks off into the jungle without looking back. Recounting the story many years later, Pi says:
How sustaining a sense of dialogue keeps us alive has been depicted in other films—Tom Hanks's character's attempts to dialogue with a volleyball called “Wilson” after being marooned on a deserted island come to mind.17 What Life of Pi exemplifies beautifully, however, is the importance of acknowledging and answering to the other. “It is my inescapable and incontrovertible answerability to the other that makes me an individual ‘I,’” as Levinas states, and “I can never escape the fact that the other has demanded a response from me before I affirm my freedom not to respond to his demand.”18
What perhaps distinguishes us from Bengal tigers (or volleyballs, for that matter) is our moral sense of having to respond to the other, even if the other cannot respond back; of answering the other in spite of her inability to answer us. We are indeed “beings-for-others,” “caught up in their caress,”19 which explains why trying to dialogue with interlocutors who do not respond to us in ways we've come to expect creates an immense sense of longing, a desire to fill (or bridge) the void left behind by those who become unresponsive due to illness or old age, but also the void that brims with anticipation in the case of a soon-to-be-born child.
The caress about which Levinas and Hyde speak helps us understand and appreciate our inextricable link with others. Otherness moves us out of ourselves, “out of [our] preoccupations with [our] personal wants and priorities and toward what before anything else in this world really makes a difference.”20 “This difference (otherness),” Hyde explains, “marks the relationship between individual human beings whose ‘self-development’ as social creatures is called into being by the presence of others.”21 In other words, because “the ‘I’ is derivative of the Other” and “finds identity in response to the Other,”22 “I” cannot be an “I” by itself. Hence, even if the other cannot respond because she has not yet been born, remains in a comatose state, or has given up the ghost, this other cannot be annihilated, since killing the other would entail killing one's self.23 All we can do, therefore, is to reincarnate (or preincarnate in the case of an unborn child) her in dialogue, and thus also incarnate ourselves.
The act of reanimating (or preanimating) the unborn, unconscious, and dead nevertheless raises some thorny ethical questions. If dialogue implies being “profoundly open to hearing others' positions without needing to oppose or assimilate them,”24 can we speak of genuine dialogue when we “force” these unusual interlocutors into dialogue? Are we assimilating them to our existential need for dialogicity? Are we violating their corporeal rights if, unannounced, we take their hands or speak with (and for) them without asking for their consent?
These questions remind us that engaging in dialogue requires tremendous responsibility,25 that is, an answerability or ability to account for our actions each time we utter a word, reach out to touch the person in front of us, or try to interpret her behavior. This responsibility is never given—and it cannot be deferred to documents, such as living wills or euthanasia declarations.26 Engaging in dialogue demands a situational responsibility, or “relational responsibility,”27 that needs to be taken, enacted, or acted out again and again—“for another next first time,” as Harold Garfinkel would say28—in every inter-act. Dialogue, in other words, responsibilizes me and makes me aware of what a privilege it is to be engaged by an other. In turn, each time I dialogue with Willem, Mom, or Dad, I feel obliged to express this responsibility by touching them with a great sense of respect and appreciation, by speaking with (and for) them with a great sense of care for their well-being, and by refraining from using words or producing sounds to respect their silent communication.
Moreover, these questions show us how delicate an affair dialogue is, and how much we take the other's consciousness and responsiveness for granted, even in our daily interactions with the living (at home, at the office, etc.). While I have always been interested in the nature of consciousness as a philosophical question, never before had I realized how much my existence depends on a kind of “inter/between-consciousness” that is established through the mystery of dialogue, and how I can never really accomplish this betweenness without the other (even if this other is partly “myself as an other”), than when I started dialoguing with someone who is yet to be born, in a comatose state, or deceased.
So writing this text became a way to express my gratitude to these voiceless interlocutors, yet also to you, my model reader. Dialoguing with you allowed me to acknowledge and recognize the silent interlocutors with whom I've been attempting to communicate, to keep them alive or bring them back to life by giving them a textual voice and body, animated through your reading. They (and you), however, are also keeping me alive, since my life is, as Jorge Luis Borges writes, but “an escape.” “I will,” as he points out, “lose everything, and everything will belong to oblivion, or to the other”29—perhaps to my wife and my son, to you. Yet as mute interlocutors, you do more than merely keep me alive; your gift to me is, to use the words of the beggar in Borges's “Blue Tigers,” far more “awesome,” as your silent presence allows me to keep my sanity, my “days and nights… wisdom, habits, the world.”30