“Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.”
– Paul Grice
I recently met a group of musicians in the lounge of a recording studio. One of them introduced himself to me as “Baby Jesus.” Later, I heard someone call him “Trevor.” If you ask for someone’s name and they give you their nickname, have they lied? It might be argued that the answer to this question depends on context…or on the speaker’s purposes in creatively contextualizing. When a guy introduces himself as “Trevor,” the conversation generally goes a certain way. When you meet a guy who calls himself “Baby Jesus,” what are you supposed to expect? What is being done with words? Conversation puts the fun in fungible, and we are often amused enough to give our conversation partners a long leash.
In my book, Baby Jesus had violated none of Grice’s Maxims, but more interesting philosophical issues are at stake. What kind of conversation are we in? The “purpose or direction of the talk exchange” is often anything but well-defined beforehand. At any rate, we’re frequently in the position to repurpose and redirect the talk exchange. Life is a journey, and journeys are at stake wherever people talk.
Whenever people talk, topics turn instinctively to economics, politics, or religion. Sometimes it’s possible to discuss economics in polite company. Just as one may discover birds of a feather who chirp together throughout the world, people of similar economic class and ambition often accept the same economy in conversation. West Hollywood socialites discuss shoe-shopping budgets. Friends link in. Employees bitch about bosses. Grice is addressing just such herds–the herds of the accepted who graze in the pastures of accepted and acceptable exchanges.
Just as conversation is not always merely a “conduit” for exchanging information (ala Reddy), economic agents are constantly meta-exchanging–i.e. exchanging about the nature of exchange. From the forest: forces like the Securities Exchange Commission, the Federal Reserve, IMF, Wall Street and Main Street—negotiate values and rules for international trade, wages, taxes, tariffs, inflation and interest rates. From the trees: individuals find deductions on tax returns, reword resumes, barter, negotiate prices for services, recycle or repair things, shop at Walmart, watch television, and re-organize their desires. Life is a story, and the next episode is at stake whenever economic agents act and interact.
Just as learning is always meta-learning, conversation is always meta-conversation. Among conversationalists even slightly unsheepish, the meaning and direction of rules like Quantity, Quality, Relevance and Manner, are constantly negotiated. Topics are promoted or retracted. And at every stage, the existential stasis, directions, and goals of conversation are up for grabs.
It’s always interested me how and when ideas strike us–how and where our ever-curious brains mash-up the logic of free-floating imaginative and conversational concepts into delightful, concrete blends. Like many among us, I’ve read Grice. I’ve pondered names, liar paradoxes, and paradoxes of reflexive attribution. Then I walk into a Hollywood recording studio lounge and meet a guy with a strange nickname. For the inspiration, I guess all that’s left to say is: Thanks, Baby Jesus.