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How do we attend to those "musical dimensions of experience," as Steven Knoblauch, calls them, in ways that will "further enhance contextual awareness [and] contribute to mutative activity?" (P. 82) By musical experiential dimensions I am referring to those micro moments of the unspoken, the unique rhythm and tone of a person's speech, which contain cues to the emotional climate of speakers in ways that often elude the non-verbal. These are sonorous moments, and all of our exchanges contain them. It's pretty hard to imagine our communications would ever really work if we weren't, at least on some small micro level, attending to them in the other, and the other in ourselves.
Michael Balint speaks of the importance of facilitating "the creation of a mutative emotional climate." (p. 160) Good friends have this rhythm with one another which almost comes naturally to them. But with those we don't know so well, that rhythm can not just break down, it can often never really get off the ground in the first place. If so much depends on hitting the right note in music, how do we find ways of hitting that right note with each other in difficult dialogue in a way that might be mutative and productive, rather than abortive and foreclosed? How do we move things along in dialogue?
First, I should frame why I think this matters and the context I think it would be helpful for us to apply it to. When we are engaged in a conversation with someone, all sorts of things are going on that often elude the conscious register of experience. However, because our interactions are inherently relational, there is an extraordinary opportunity, I think, to grasp a bit of the mutually unspoken micro-moment in ways that allow us room to breathe with one another. Where this is most important, but often severely compromised, is when an exchange becomes heated. As passionate creatures, it is often hard to talk about the things we care about without damaging the communicative line.
Because the fate of a dialogic moment often carries with it immense ethical implications, not just for two individuals messily working through something with one another through heated or derailed conversation, but also for communities that have split ideas about an issue and how best to navigate that issue with one another in ways that safeguard our moral integrity. Once we make a turn towards dehumanization or a reduction of the other, at the expense of "opening the moment," and "detoxifying the field," (P. 34) we've almost guaranteed ourselves that "nothing will come of all this," even if immense opportunities exist within the most heated of exchanges for dialogue that moves us along. Darlene Ehrenberg writes;
"The "intimate edge" is not a given, but an interactive creation. It is always unique to the moment and to the sensibilities of the specific participants in relation to each other and reflects the participants subjective sense of what is most crucial or compelling about their interaction at that moment." (P. 35)
Now this is a highly nuanced and not at all easy thing for most of us to access when we find ourselves embroiled in a heated conversation, but why would we think that we don't have at least some access to co-creating better dialogue with one another even in the fits of a wrong conversational turn? If it's something we care about, then it's something that requires us to be understood. And one of the biggest obstacles to our being understood is whether or not we decide to close or open the moment. But that decision is one that must be co-created. Because individuals cannot sustain an open moment with a closed other and because all of our interactions are an at least two person interaction.
Whether or not we're always aware of it, we each have immense power to alter the direction in which a thing is going. That doesn't mean it will work mutatively every time, but to coast along on the communicative line with someone, especially if the moment matters, if a lot is on the line, then we should attempt to improvise a shockingly new note with the other and see how they receive it, and, hopefully, return it. Can an argument turn into a musical moment?
When we are rooted in trauma, we often have trouble finding ways to make such musical improvisations with one another. Dissociation comes easier to us than does a co-creative attempt to open things up again. I don't think our trauma should be an excuse to not at least try very hard to redirect verbal rivers back into larger bodies of conversational waters. If we are engaged in a community and we feel that something of import is being undermined or under-addressed, one of the worst things we can do is to approach it in a closed way that predetermines the response of the other. We see examples of this all too often in our political climate. Have you ever seen two opposing politicians attempt to "open the moment" with one another and strike a different note? Surely it's happened, but it's a sheer miracle when it does.
Politicians typically approach one another with a predetermined understanding that they are bound to be locked into disagreement with one another. Unsurprisingly, not a lot gets done across party lines. When we organize our relationships along a closed axis of predetermined conversational outcomes, we undermine our very ability to make the things that matter most to us work. If we've the idea that there are those who will never be on "our side," we can list off an endless array of reasons why it's so, but if, at the very top of that list, the misguided notion of "a side" isn't listed, we've locked ourselves into a self-defeating relational pattern that guarantees endless turmoil.
But if we believe we share a common fate then it is incumbent upon us to attempt to attend to the small unspoken moments in dialogue where the center shows signs of no longer holding. Before cables break, we might readjust our stance.
When we have bonded with a group of others who share our own unworked through trauma narratives, and who approach dialogue in a closed, abortive and highly dissociated manner, weather or not we can fully admit it to ourselves, the way in which we conduct ourselves can very often end up mimicking the behavior of perpetrators. If we are abusive or cruel or humiliating when we speak, we are engaged in enactments that, even if caused by the wounds of our past, nonetheless also cause real time harm to others. And if the group dynamic disallows or disincentives self reflection among its members of harmful behavior and dialogue, then it is important that people who can see and identify what is going on, speak to it.
Oftentimes when groups talk about accountability they forget that we must also be accountable to ourselves. If accountability means; you need to be accountable to me, then the "me" who is owed accountability presents itself as a closed system to which accountability is merely owed. But we are relational creatures, hence we must be accountable to each other. So often the fate of ensuring actual, durable and doable accountability hinges on musical dialogue that is both emotionally mutative and honest. This kind of accountability is co-constructed to ensure that people really hear one another when they speak.
If, as Margaret Crastnopol writes, we allow ourselves to be "drafted into an exclusive addictive relationship that substitutes for a more benign, richer set of influences and a more fluid internal growth process," (P. 76) then we will oftentimes bond in community with others in a highly addictive, co-dependent fashion, united around core principles of closed, abortive and often predatory conversational ways of being in community. This sets us up not only for disappoint with the things we care about, it ensures that the things we care about are not fully seen, felt and known by the other, which are all things that must happen in order for the integrity of ourselves and our communities to flourish.
Mutual vulnerability is one way in which we can begin to open up our dialogue with one another. But also, by attending to the subtle music we make when we talk, by improvising a generous or surprising note, we might find that moving things along doesn't have to be nearly as hard and contentious as we often make it out to be.
A sad fact of life, and this is especially true where trauma is involved, is that sometimes we need things to fail. But it isn't sustainable and it isn't doable at the community level. It isn't even doable within a family. It should humble us to know that while a lot escapes our knowing, nothing ever completely does. What we dissociate is known, it's just in another room of our experience. If we can find ways to build mutative and creative dialogic bridges with one another, then we might find that more benign, richer and fluid attachments are available to us both in community and in dialogue.
Real community begins by hearing what we tell one another. When we really listen, our bodies register the hope that comes from both being seen, felt, heard and truly known. We are not fated to missing the moment with one another. If someone must play their new note first, why not let it start with you?
Knoblauch, S. (2000) The Musical Edge of Therapeutic Dialogue. The Analytic Press, Inc
Balint, M. (1968), The Basic Fault. London: Tavistock
Ehrenberg, D. (1992) The Intimate Edge: Extending the Reach of Psychoanalytic Interaction. W.W. Norton & Company Inc.
Crastnopol, M. (2015) Micro-trauma: A Psychoanalytic Understanding of Cumulative Psychic Injury. Routledge