Oral talk, he asserts, is distinct from ‘the cruelty of mechanized communication’ that marks the modern world. Note that arguments later directed to television here aim at the newspaper. More recently, the Italian sociologist Franco Ferrarotti has written a book ‘on the social impact of the mass media’ called The End of Conversation. Many others could be summoned to bear witness of the modern silences between people: existentialists, mass-society theorists, or popular song-writers from Joni Mitchell to Thom Yorke.
Both the lament and the hope for media and conversation point to a curious consensus. How to understand this agreement? Why do thinkers normally so contentious about everything else agree on conversation? When everyone agrees it is usually a sign of a hegemony of some sort. Conversation’s definition is elastic and con range from descriptive to normative, from chatter to soulful communion, from the artful dodging of courtly conversation, the bourgeois authenticity of intimacy, to the soul-flights of Platonic or Buberian dialogue and micro-analyses of conversation analysis. The stakes in arguments about this protean concept are always bigger than what is falsely called mere talk, and in what follows I hope to nuance the argument by placing it in the context of two long-term historical trends regarding media and conversation.