Overarching Method: Dialogical Epistemology

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I wrote this in the early days of my PhD - leading up to Confirmation. It now seems more than a little tortured...

Perhaps the general method of this research is already so obvious it requires no signposting. Perhaps it even feels a little over-determined at times; but then again, perhaps there really is no outside when it comes to dialogue, making it necessarily overdetermined. These days, everything seems dialogic to me. Daily transactions have taken on new and fascinating significance as a direct result of my research. Once an occasional pastime, eavesdropping has become a mild obsession. I listen because I want to hear not only what people are saying but also how they are saying what they are saying. I listen because I want to think through the content and form of their utterances as aesthetic, political, ethical and creative acts of the everyday.

Once, when we were discussing our shared interest in dialogue, Andrew Cheshire asked me, 'Where does the research begin and end?'. My answer at the time remains my answer today: the line between my research and what might crudely be called 'everything else' is necessarily blurred. Increasingly, I find myself relating to the world through my research by dialoguing in ways that, with practice, could coalesce into an aspect of dialogic art. My point here is simply to locate my research in my life practice and vice versa. Perhaps this is what the historical avant-garde were advocating when they championed a merging of art and life. Certainly for Bakhtin, dialogue is the existence of thought itself. 'Human thought becomes genuine thought…only under the conditions of living contact with another alien thought, a thought embodied in someone else’s voice, that is in someone else’s consciousness expressed in discourse. At that point of contact between voice consciousnesses the idea is born and lives.'

To acknowledge the bleed between my practice-based art research and my life practice is, I think, to acknowledge the general method both overarching and underpinning my research as what Asi Sharabi terms 'dialogical epistemology' in his Ph.D. thesis on perspective taking. Sharabi summarizes this succinctly when he writes: 'The knowledge of the world arises out of the dialogical relations between individuals and groups in society and their mutual effects on one another; hence knowledge and meaning are largely communicatively constructed in both interpersonal dialogues and socio-historical practices.'

What does this mean in the case of my own practice-led research? Again, Sharabi’s model, informed by Bakhtinian dialogue, is useful. He identifies the implications of dialogical epistemology for his social-psychological investigation as bound up with interpreting the complex world from the perspective of communication between interlocutors. What, however, differentiates Sharabi’s research from my own is that dialogue is primarily the object of his investigation whereas my work involves both facilitating and studying dialogues from the perspective of an interlocutor, in effect conflating the subject and object of my research--though to be fair, this is also something that Sharabi wrestles with...

If, as Foucault observes, determining what does and does not qualify as “the work” is often difficult, then this differentiation becomes even more difficult in discursive art practice, where the medium for making and talking about the work are one in the same. Ascertaining the relationship between the research and the art thus seems to necessitate taking one of two positions. I could separate the research from the art by locating them in different contexts (different times?), enabling me to say, 'Now I am doing research, now I am making art.' This distinction may provide greater clarity, though to what end remains unclear. Alternatively, and following my practice, I could conduct the research as self-consciously dialogic, in effect acknowledging the research and practice as inseparable. Holding fast to the conviction that dialogic research is more authentic, insofar as it acknowledges research as emergent from a relational matrix composed of complex interactions, I will continue developing my project online on the Critical Practice wiki, inviting collaborators to edit/expand the ideas expressed here. This amounts to is a kind of open research practice aimed at developing methods for acknowledging the utterances of interlocutors—not on the margins as footnotes but in the body of the work itself. Arguably the possibility of realizing this project remains untested and will require significant experimentation. But to forego this effort, to acquiesce and produce research repudiating its dialogic process, seems increasingly inconceivable. It would be tantamount to denying the social construction of knowledge and by extension the dialogic epistemology that underpins my Ph.D. research.

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