Monday, October 9, 2017

Whose Responsibility is Communication?

My two previous posts were concerned with getting feedback and dealing with feedback, and this is following up on those ideas. I’m still thinking from the perspective of the writer concerned with the response, and particularly thinking about dealing with difficult feedback—complaints about the quality of work. I’m also thinking about a conversation I had with a friend about the purpose of music and of performing music.  The question in conversation was about the relationship between [author/performer/presenter] and audience, and where responsibility lies.

What burden lies on the performer to reach the audience? And is there any burden on the audience? In the previous post, I was writing about some comments that were difficult, and a lot of my response lies in my sense that the comments don’t reflect a sufficient attempt to understand the writer’s point of view.  But that idea requires believing that the reader has some responsibility in his or her approach to the work.

Different relationships between author/performer and audience bear different burdens of responsibility.  A professor definitely has different responsibility to the author of a dissertation than a bar patron does to no-cover charge musician. But still the question of where responsibility lies is one to consider, especially in the context of receiving feedback.

The bar patron hearing a no-cover musician bears little or no responsibility to the performer.  Certainly there is some normal standard of decorum—the bar patron can’t start yelling and trying to drown out the musician—but the bar patron certainly has the right to ignore the musician and to laugh out loud in conversation with a friend, even if that does interfere with the musician’s  performance.  If the audience for the musician has to pay for admission, then the expectations shift: having an audience paying to listen to music creates a greater responsibility for members of the audience. Of course, asking patrons to pay also means that they have a greater interest in fulfilling that general responsibility of listening. As anyone who has attended an expensive arena concert knows, there always seem to be plenty of people in the audience who have bought tickets whose primary interest is in the social event, not the concert itself, and thus talk through the music, but when people have paid for the music, this kind of behavior is less polite than identical behavior in a no-cover charge bar—it’s a matter of degree.

This was the conversation that I was having with my friend, who was talking about the difference in the behavior of audiences who paid vs. audiences at a free event.  That focuses on audience behavior.  The flip side is to wonder about the desires and purposes of the author or the performer. How the author/performer views the audience’s responses depends on what the author wants from the audience.

For my friend, the heart of the matter was in the music: the musician, he believed, should not compromise the integrity of the music, and it was important to have people who were coming to respect the music.  For me, the audience matters, too: if the music is really only about the music, then what’s the need for an audience? Once you bring the audience into the picture, the music in itself is not the only concern.  

To what extent is it a sell-out to shape the performance to meet the audience?

And to what extent is purity lost, if it reaches no audience?

Writers need audiences, and that means convincing audiences that the reading is worth the effort. If you have the choice to just write whatever you want and can then hope that someone will pick it up, that’s great—it will serve you well, if, like many writers, you have to submit it to many publishers before you find one that will take the work. On the other hand, if your audience is fixed—if you know that it’s a certain person—is it a sell-out to change what you do so that your audience will accept the work?

For writing more than for music, there is an underlying story or idea that could be transmitted in many different ways. To me, it’s that story that matters, and the form in which it is delivered is not fixed by the underlying purpose.

The Tao Te Ching opens by saying that the Tao that can be spoken (written) is not the absolute Tao.  But the book still continues to tell of the Tao. I think that writers need to think in those terms: the story that you tell is not the absolute version of the story, but you need to tell a story, anyway. Research (and therefore writing about research) delves into realms of uncertainty—but that can’t stop scholars, or the entire scholarly community would collapse. Research writing does its best to assert confidence, while still acknowledging the myriad limitations that any works of research faces.

Wittgenstein concluded his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus with the statement that if one cannot speak accurately, one should remain silent (I’m paraphrasing slightly), and he never published another significant work in his life—his Philosophical Investigations was published posthumously from his notebooks.  Modeling your work as a scholar on the pattern of Wittgenstein—refusing to say anything unless it’s exactly right and certain—is not a path to scholarly success. 

If you are a writer, it’s useful to think about the gap between the ideas that you espouse and want to share and the many different ways in which those ideas can be expressed so as to reach different audiences. Reaching the audience is the writer’s responsibility. Although the reader may bear some burden of responsibility, it’s usually beneficial to simply accept the burden of reaching the audience: what does my reader want?  

(As a practical aside, understanding how to identify and write for an audience is extremely useful in getting published, because publishers want to sell books, and that means they want to know who you think your book will sell to.)

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