Talk defines our culture and our daily lives (an average person talks from six to twelve hours per day). In the next several posts I’m going to explore the nature and function of talking and ask some key questions about the role of productive talk in creating a more vibrant arts ecology. As I argue in Audience Engagement and the Role of Arts Talk in the Digital Era, productive talk (whether it is produced vocally or digitally, live or metalive) is a key ingredient in creating a more hospitable culture for the serious arts. Today’s post is devoted to a discussion of the biocultural roots of talking.
People like to talk. We talk all day long, in person, through a wire, digitally, in groups, alone, online. Most people like to talk out of the urge to share their feelings, ideas, and reactions to something they’ve recently undergone; talking is a way of processing experience. It is also a mechanism for formulating an opinion about that experience; talking facilitates the human need (and desire) to make meaning.
Where does the need to talk come from? According to psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Merlin Donald, a biocultural explanation of language acquisition asserts that language proceeds from outside to inside: “The evolutionary origins of language are tied to the early emergence of knowledge networks, feeling networks, and memory networks, all of which form the cognitive heart of culture.”
For Donald, symbolic thought (metaphor) and language are inherently network phenomenon, with modern culture running “on languages and symbols, the way our economies run on money or computers on Boolean algebra.” Language cannot, however, explain thought (as Donald points out, primates “can obviously think, but they have no natural language”), but language can “improve the quality of thought.” In other words, we can make meaning with improved capacity when we develop and use a shared system of language.
Evolutionarily speaking, human beings talk in order to get what they want. Even seemingly aimless social talk has a purpose: to engage with other people. “How are you?” is not a meaningless gesture even though we seldom stop to hear the answer—it is talk deployed as a way to acknowledge another’s presence. Talking is also a way of processing experience. As linguist Ronald Wardhaugh notes, “In a very real way language helps us to work out what we are feeling, what we are doing, how we are doing it, and how we must seem to be doing whatever we are doing . . . We not only observe others and their language and behavior; we also observe ourselves: our own acting, doing, behaving, and talking.”
The English word talk operates as both a noun and a verb, derived from “tale” and “tell,” respectively, and signaling casual and topical conversation often associated with a public context. The Oxford Universal Dictionary defines talk as “the familiar speech of ordinary intercourse” and “to speak in a familiar language” and also “to speak trivially” and “to indulge in idle or censorious gossip.” In contemporary American culture, we continue to use talk in both of these connotations—“let’s sit down and have a good talk” and “that’s just talk” are common usages.
Why do I use the word talk in defining the Arts Talk model? Why not dialogue or discussion? By employing “talk” I am purposefully signaling an attitude (and an attendant methodology) based on open access and cultural availability. Arts Talk should be as common and as democratic as sports talk, for example. Our societal goal should be to construct an interpretive culture about arts-going that feels familiar and ordinary and whose boundaries are permeable and expansive.
But my formulation of the Arts Talk construct is also intended to go well beyond the casual, as I’ll explore in my next post.