conversation is an engine

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The Moving Horizon of Engagement: The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller on TED

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How to Boil Down Levinas?

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A recent issue of The New Yorker includes an excellent article on TED talks. On his way to explaining why the talks are so popular, Nathan Heller stumbles onto  the differences between our rituals of learning in college and how college is set up to support those rituals, and compares that with the kind of learning people need outside of college—the kind that keeps expanding rather than narrowing. Along the way he mentions in an offhand way how Levinas does not lend himself to a quick recap. One must do much preliminary work to begin to understand Levinas. Philosophy, especially phenomenology and theology are useful backgrounds to begin to understand Levinas. But only as a beginning.

The author of Conversation is an Engine is well familiar with this. As he tries to explain Levinas from time to time, blank stares and hasty retreats to other subjects are typical reactions. The French philosopher and apologist for The Other is famously obscure. And fascinating. But obscure.

Heller’s offhand remark reminds me that the bigger challenges ahead of us as communicators have to do with how we let people in on the details that engage us. Over at Big Picture Leadership there was a discussion recently about what it means to witness. That discussion reminded me of an ongoing conversation a few of us have had about what makes something remarkable, as in, making me remark out loud to another person because it was that important to me. In both cases there has to be an intensely personal connection for it to bubble up through our conscious mind and cross our lips.

If we are intent on rhetoric that draws others in (and I believe it is a most excellent thing to be a passionate booster for what we love and understand), than we are constantly providing low-hanging fruit for newcomers to grab and taste so they too will become enamored by the taste and want more. This is the horizon of engagement. That horizon is growing shorter and getting closer with every Google Search.

More sophisticated discussions will always have their place among practitioners and experts. But we’re quickly moving to the point where we each need to have a ready answer about our work, or firm, and what we believe.

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Image Credit: Martin Morazzo via thisisnthappiness

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