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The Morality of Answerability

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Created: August 30, 2003
Latest Update: August 30, 2003

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Dialogic Answerability in Institutional Hierarchy

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, August 2003.
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This lecture is based on the theoretical work of Greg Nielsen in The Norms of Answerability: Social Theory from Bakhtin to Habermas. We are using his text in Theory 595-01, so you might look there if you want more material.

We discussed dialogic answerability in class last week. "Dialogic answerability" refers to the fact that for every utterance (or act) there is an Other who shares our human qualities and the capability of answering our utterance or act. Nielsen links this to the social theory of Bakhtin and Habermas by reminding us that Habermas' main question is "how shall we live together in such diversity as the world now exhibits?" Habermas' answer is a system of law that respects the right of every citizen to have his/her validity claim heard in good faith. Habermas believes that the recognition of such a system of law will permit us to reach consensus and act in ways that will not harm humans of the present and the future.

According to Nielsen, however, Bakhtin asks a different question, and so finds a different answer. Bakhtin asks "What shall I say, when the Other can answer? and how, then, shall we live?" What a powerful difference! Habermas' approach to difference is that we must reason until we can come to a consensus. Hello! We haven't been able to do that yet, now have we? Far from our system of law guaranteeing the right of each to be heard in the California Recall, John M. Broder, of the The New York Times reports on Saturday, August 30, 2003, on p. A 1, that:

" Six-figure contributions from labor unions are pouring into Gov. Gray Davis's anti-recall committee. Arnold Schwarzenegger jump-started his campaign with a $2 million donation of his own. Peter V. Ueberroth wrote his campaign a check for $1 million and expects to add $2 million more.

"And the state's Indian tribes, flush with cash from casino operations, say they are planning to spend as much as $10 million on the recall campaign, mainly to benefit Lt. Gov. Cruz M. Bustamante, a Democrat, who has long supported their interests.

When it comes to the recall, experts say, California's complex campaign financing controls, a clutter of legislation, voter initiatives and court opinions, appear to be more loophole than law."

Meanwhile, back in California, our schools want textbooks and trained teachers and support.

My choice of the recall example makes clear that I am angry that so many voices go unheard while so much attention is payed to the "accursed share," the excess over what is needed that allows some to indulge in such antics. (George Bataille, The Accursed Share, 1989.)

I think that Bakhtin sees the situation much more clearly than Habermas when he recognizes and respects what the Other might answer. Bakhtin sees the human community as composed of the interrelationships between people, not between people and the law, or between people and reason. Bakhtin describes the process in which Person utters and Other answers as an aesthetic process in which the aesthetic product is the resulting interrelationship between Person and Other. All of these interpersonal relationships add up to form the community. Thus, the community is the aesthetic product of the individuals who make it up, and their interpersonal relationships.

I tried to draw this for you in the painting above. Our traditional hierarchical organizations are all mixed up with their global conflicts, with everyone speaking out and demanding to be heard, with millionaires paying their own money to get what we once thought were constitutional elections, and with other millionaires buying the votes. Dear me. The poor hierarchical chart is askew, and no one knows what to do.

This conception of community puts both Person and Other in the very center of the community itself and its process of becoming. It deals with the process of exclusion, which Habermas must deal with through laws against exclusion (the old organizational hierarchy). Nielsen does a much more complex job of designing a rapprochement of Bakhtin's and Habermas' ideas. But I think this rough description will give you an idea. Read Nielsen if you'd like to know more.

Now, we need to fit this concept of dialogic answerability and the aesthetic process of creating community into Bolman and Deal's Reframing Organizations. In class on Tuesday, I spoke of the contrast between hierarchical traditional organizations and their organizational charts and the answerable community in which aesthetic process shapes the community of interrelationships. I tried to make that go on in the painting by the crazy mixture of the red and black lines, where even the ink runs askew, and the people who have bounded well outside the traditional chart.

The rigor and stability of the old task descriptions of the organizational chart go with the monologic non-answerability of the hierarchical bureaucracy, where the higher you go on the chart, the higher the status, the higher the power to tell others what to do, the more recognizable the authority over others. Dialogic answerability goes with the organizational patterns of technologically sophisticated organizations (the newer rather than the older) in which technology has freed individuals to be creative (or entrepreneurial) on their own. There's no pure kind of organization left. The two forms are interacting in much the same way that Person and Other are interacting, and creating the new organizational product as they go. (I borrowed the designation Person and Other from George C. Homans.)

I'm going to claim that dialogic answerability is moral, and that monologic non-answerability is immoral, unethical, and harmful to all living things. That's our claim, mine and Susan's. Not Bakhtin's, not Nielsen's, not Habermas', not Pia Lara's. Bear in mind that the status and authority is different; you're not required to agree with out claim. Well, actually, in our new world of dialogic answerability you're not required to agree with theirs now, either, are you?

Discussion Questions

  1. What was jeanne trying to describe with the crazy mixture of black and red ink in the painting?

    Consider that we are all being exposed to all emancipatory movements of which Habermas speaks at the same time that we're trying to control organizations for greater efficiency in production and distribution. Consider that these things don't happen to all of us everywhere at the same time.

  2. What kind of organizational pattern prevails at our school? Dialogic answerability or monologic non-answerability?

    Consider agency and structure. How much "agency" do you have in different situations? On what interrelationships does that depend?

    Recall that normative expectations carry affect. Have you ever found yourself angry because you were expecting dialogic answerability when you encountered monologic non-answerability? Do you think the person who so outraged you understood the different structures that were encountering one another? Do you think that person's understanding of the structure affected his/her response to your reaction?

  3. Can you see the relevance here of Bakhtin's question: What do you say when the Other can answer?

    Consider that the Other may not have the same normative expectations you do, if the Other envisions a different structural pattern for the organization.

  4. Field Application: Test the structural pattern at the university to see if it will respond with dialogic answerability or monologic non-naswerability. To do this choose an Other, someone who does not fit the normative expectation of the traditional hierarchy, and needs an exception to some tradition or rule that should not be too difficult for the institution to manage.

    Consider the structural pattern of the university organization. Choose a place where service is provided to students. Choose one of the normal services. Or choose to ask another student for some service. As an example, ask a librarian for help in finding the text for a class. If the text is not available, ask to directions to help as an individual, who for a very good reason can't buy the text until next month, next week, whatever. (I'm assuming that the librarian's normative expectation would be that students will be able to buy their books, and that such concern should not be the librarian's.) Ask sincerely for help. Record the interaction. Not with a tape recorder. That's obtrusive. We will choose the examples in class together, so that we're sure they won't be disruptive of anyone's work. You may work on this project in groups. But you should be careful not to obtrusively demand too much time or effort of anyone in the college, since we are infringing on their good will. We will then analyze the interactions in terms of dialogic answerability and/or monologic non-answerability. Maybe some of you will want to draw or paint the interaction.