A Report on the Conference

 ‘Dialogue and Difference’

SOAS – University of London
12-14 September 2001
Arvind-Pal Mandair and Cosimo Zene

It seemed even more significant and compelling, after the events of September 11, to start a conference on Dialogue the very next day. While people all over the world were still in shock and asking themselves the meaning of these happenings, while some were rejoicing their achievements and others were planning retaliation, we were struggling to keep ‘dialogue’ alive.

Almost all speakers managed to reach London. Out of five from the USA, only A. Lingis was unable to join us. He later sent his heartfelt paper. We missed also the presence of two Chinese scholars (Wang Mingming and Zhao Tingyang) who were unable to obtain a Visa. In addition to speakers and discussants the conference was attended by around seventy active participants.

It is not easy to sum up the activity of three intense days during which 26 papers were presented and discussed. Great effort was directed to concentrate our attention on two major issues: 1) the awareness that the West – as ‘inventor’ of the concept of dialogue – must necessarily rethink its philosophical bases in the light of the ‘irreducible’ alterity of other cultures and/or subjects ( and thus also taking into account other ways of thinking,  applied to the representation of their meaningful universe). 2) This would promote a critique of the very concept of Occident/the West, always felt as totalising and/or ‘colonising’ vis-à-vis the other cultures with which it coexists. Thus, on the one hand, it is the concept of dialogue which needs to be re-thought, and on the other, the West, as hegemonic idea and culture is put under scrutiny. This ‘re-thinking’, to be precise, did not foresee a renewed narcissistic Occidental strategy which tried to mirror itself in the pond of its own history and cultural development. This was meant to trigger a self-critique not borne out of itself but of the encounter with other cultures and other ways of thinking.

Is there a new way to rethink the concept of dialogue?

Nowadays it has become both difficult and intricate to talk about dialogue, and the first difficulty lies, in fact, in its very etymology (dia-logos, ‘through communication’ or ‘through language’ or ‘through reason’). To speak of ‘dialogue’ today means to take into account the conceptual devices that brought it to life as a ‘theory for searching the truth’. These devices can be retraced both in the complicated discourse on the inevitability of presence of the ‘dia-’ in every dialogical event (i.e. in an atmosphere-presence which does not ‘leave intact’ but, on the contrary, pushes the identity of the speakers into the precincts of Being, thus reducing it to a ‘function’ or ‘manifestation’ of Being itself), and in the fact that language – as logos – contains in itself not just positive potentialities but also destructive elements (language does not only explain, says and transmits … but also it homologues and subjugates every possible discourse and every discussant under the discovery of a presumed truth). Thus, the concept of dialogue is strongly tied to an Occidental history which, although on the one hand has excavated within language to find ways which are ‘purer’, more ‘adequate’, ‘truer’, on the other, has generated counter positions which have appeared as ideological and totalising. It is here that dichotomies and essentialisms are borne: ‘just/wrong’, ‘sense/non-sense’, ‘true/false’, ‘real/illusory’, ‘Being/Nothingness’ … to then reach the more common ‘we/others’, ‘civilised/primitive’ etc. which are at the root of our interpretation of facts and of encounters with cultures ‘others’.

If this has been the historic ‘destiny’ of the concept of dialogue in the West, can there nevertheless subsist other forms of a linguistic relationship with alterity within the limit of a presumed conceptual superiority?

Various papers at the conference discussed this problem presenting different solutions. For example, J. McCumber in his Dialogue as Resistance to Western Metaphysics has isolated in the linguistic relationship with the other the concept of ‘ambiguity’ as a possible way out of that dialogic language which many still identify with a kind of ‘homogenisation’ of minds reached through the transfer of a mental concept from one person to another (in this case, dialogue and language would be enemies of diversity). K. Suga in Impossible dialogues and their Echoes, recalling the thought of Edward Glissant, has analysed dialogical encounter with an alterity which, though leaving open the question of a significant and propositional conclusion, produces and disperses echoes which awaken in the subject a historical and geographical awareness. K. Lee (The Other of Dialogue: On Silencing the Silence of the Other) has instead warned us against a concept of dialogue which must always and solely be described from the point of view of its linguisticality. There is also ‘silence’ which is not the silence of the one who does not know what to say, but the silence ‘that we are’, which cannot and should not be interpreted by the other as a simplistic communicative inadequacy. Tullio Maranhao (The Politics of Translation in the Anthropological Nation of South American Ethnography) has highlighted how in anthropology the concept of translation (which tries to put across terms and cultural expressions from one linguistic system to another) is the only ‘method’ that –given its intrinsic precariousness and congenital  uncertainty  – can transform itself into a philosophy of the other which respects linguistically its cultural and historical specificity.

The ‘Occident’ and its Culture Revisited

A second set of papers, instead, focused on the very concept of ‘Occident/West’ and Occidental culture and its relationship with other cultural identities. More precisely, as N. Sakai’s paper (West: a Dialogical Prescription or Proscription) has underlined, he felt the need to explore the ‘conflict’ between ‘West and the Rest’ in which the imagined configuration of races, culture, nations of the world has always been founded on a presumed superiority of the West. But, does the West exist? Can its culture be considered as a yardstick and parameter of classification for other cultural expressions? Should the West not be treated today as  one of the many partners in the dialogue among cultures? And, what type of dialogue should we propose now that the West has lost the ‘master’s voice’ in contact with other ways of existence?

Starting with an analysis of today’s social and anthropological situation, S. Critchley’s paper (Let’s Stop Talking about Europe) proposes to stop thinking about Europe as though Europe were a nation with territorial, economic and political borders which are well established (and to be contrasted with other inventions such as Asia, America etc). Above all we should stop identifying the people who live in ‘Europe’ as ‘Europeans’ (while in the metropolis – or simply in the world of music – we have witnessed for a long time a fusion of cultural and melodic differences). What Critchley proposes then is twofold: to dethrone the concept of ‘Europe’ and to rethink Europe as a continuous series of ‘europeisations’, of flows of weak identities (since they are not previously defined by any strong concept) which are pushed along by a fluid movement  which reforms or reshapes constantly every temptation to give fixed and immutable definitions. As a consequence, it is superfluous to think of any debate centred on the other. If Europeans do not exist (or Asians, Americans etc.) the ‘other’ thought as different from me, does not exist either, as other from myself, and belonging to a different nation/identity.

A different approach was taken in the papers presented by two Iranians A. Paya (‘Dialogue’ in a ‘Real World’: Quixotic Pursuit or Sine qua non?) and M.R. Behesthi (Intercultural Dialogue and the Crisis of Identity). They explored in depth the possibility of avoiding cultural conflicts and crisis of identity (derived from a present and active ‘cultural globalisation’) through a concept of dialogue that favours tolerance as a new disposition which includes different perspectives and ways of thinking for the common good, thus trying to eliminate old prejudices which support intolerance and violence. Dialogue as tolerance becomes then an index of  peoples’ maturity, a maturity which in its turn is open to a deeper comprehension of cultural inter-connection and enrichment which takes places in the encounter with the other. (This idea was also expressed in the paper presented by C. Venn and H. Hausen; The Differend of Difference: On the conditions for the Dialogical Remaking of Narratives of Belonging. The Case of the Jewish-Arab Dialogue).

Clearly, other voices underlined how dialogue at times becomes difficult when context, society and different interpretations of the real (and of religion) are so divergent between them that they do not allow either a sincere openness to the other or the disclosure of that event which makes possible a mutual enrichment (and change). Equally, it has been said that the greatest danger is found not so much in the failure of a dialogue as, on the contrary, in excluding the idea at the outset and to declare impotent every dialogical effort whilst trying to connect with a distant culture or a religion closed in its mysteries. In this context the West and its culture must accomplish  a double task: firstly to rethink its own dialogical epistemology which takes its moves from the way the partner understands itself and its own history (an effort which is also ethical, in the sense that this is the only way to respect and recognise the alterity of the other  (see H. H. Koegler, Recognition and Difference: The power of Perspective in Interpretive Dialogue). Secondly, dialogue should not be intended as something which should necessarily reach conclusions or mutual declarations (perhaps even to the point of making stronger the methodological apparatus, see P. F. M. Goncalves, Dialogue and Danger). At the root of these two tasks there is the acknowledgement that the West and its culture have a long way to go to ‘purify’ a dialogical scheme which still clandestinely preserves (in a given linguistic metatheory) concepts such as racism (B. Hesse: (Im)plausible Deniability: Liberal-Democratic Disavowal and Post-Colonian Racism) or the danger of a cultural isolation through the forgetfulness of the other who does not speak my language (see B. Sayyid: After Babel. The End of the Age of Europe and the Quest for a Universal Language).

Dialogical…. Conclusions.

This Conference on ‘Dialogue and Difference’ has attempted to re-think both the concept of dialogue and the concept of difference. These are concepts charged with history and richness but also burdened with misunderstandings, allusions and impositions. Our overall evaluation is that, through the addresses presented at the conference, the ever new challenges launched by globalisation, by the cross-encounter of cultures, by the cacophony of meanings and contexts which change at an impressive speed, there has been a desire to demonstrate the will not to surrender to the new challenge to save by whatever means the preciousness and incomparability which derives from the encounter with the other or with a culture.

It thus becomes relevant to reflect upon the new ways and conditions of a respectful dialogical encounter, although this has for centuries been the ‘good intention’ of both philosophy and anthropology. What does not seem to have changed, however, is the attitude of listening and openness which seems now to characterise every discourse on dialogue. Listening and openness should not be understood here as a strategy either to ‘win the argument’ or to improperly exalt a cultural derivative. Rather, it is an openness and listening which can and have produced a reciprocal enrichment of perspectives and of life. Certainly, many questions still remain unanswered, some of them crucial, concerning not so much the value of dialogue per se, but the strength this dialogue can provide in promoting and changing communitarian praxis and attitudes, above all in a world in which nations and states have lost their political independence to the world economy and its laws. Here again the hope of a dialogical ethics resurrects to give voice to those who have been silenced and then devoured by an homologous market. This is a hope which is able to invite every person as an active partner into a dialogue over existence and future, a hope that amplifies and makes heard the reasons of many, if not of all, on the directions the world wants and should take to continue to exist and co-exist with others.

Thus, dialogue as hope, even before being a communicative means. Or, perhaps, just a hope which besides being linguistic awaits patiently, with the patience of reason and ethical calling, to be transformed into a reality whose contours are always fading and fragile.