conversation is an engine

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Posts Tagged ‘Levinas

“ListenTalk: Is Conversation an Act of God?” Get it at Amazon.

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How do ordinary conversations change the course of your life?


Now available at Amazon and other book sellers.

The smallest things you hear and say have the power to alter the trajectory of your life.

But you know this—just look back at a few of the most innocuous conversations you’ve had—the ones that led to a school and a life partner, or to the career you love, or to breaking with some substance.

ListenTalk rereads some old Bible stories for what God expected in conversation with women and men. A few wily philosophers show up in the book to quiz God—and us—about the power and promise of ordinary talk.

Read ListenTalk and  you’ll come to look for and expect big things from even the most ordinary conversations that populate your day. Because ordinary conversations lead to far deeper connections than you’d imagine in your wildest fever dreams.

Feel free to give the book a 5-star review at Amazon.

Take me to Amazon this very instant with this link so I can order this odd but interesting book.


What Good Is a Group?

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The occasional spark. The intentional fire.

I’ve been wondering this lately: what good is a group?

Mrs. Kirkistan and I lead a small group that regularly meets together to read ancient texts. At the moment we’re slowly going through Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It’s riveting stuff.

There comes a time in the life of every small group where people start to bow out. Life gets in the way. Work, sickness, commitments and gradually the small group is, well, really small. Only a few show.Group-04172015

Even so—with only one or two showing up—some magical spark can happen in the course of an ordinary conversation.  We talked about the pointed words Jesus had to say about lust and adultery—old terms we don’t hear much in our culture—experiences so common they seem to be just expected parts of everyday life. In the course of hashing through those words, we talked about seeing people as objects. And suddenly I was making connections with Levinas and Buber and realizing I am also in need of reforming bad thought habits.

These conversational sparks happen at work too. Yesterday I was lamenting to myself the ways large corporations dampen the enthusiasm of otherwise bright, motivated people. In the middle of that thought a client returned a call that we had cut short the day before. He had been thinking through our conversation and had five or six things to add. This client—from a very large corporation—had found a way to take personal ownership of the process and our discussion had a sort of breathless excitement to it.

This is rare.

And cool.

Our seemingly ordinary conversation had unearthed some live wire. And a group of us were doing our best to act on it.

So—all this to say that groups can do things individuals cannot. And sometimes a group conversation can create something brand new.


Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Illegal Inscriber: We Are Brothers

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Warning: NSFL Image (Not Safe for Librarians)

BookNote-04162013Sometimes Ramsey County goes far afield to procure my desired book through their interlibrary loan system. Not so long ago a book about Levinas written by Sean Hand made its way to me all the way from Janesville, Wisconsin. I had not thought of that working community as a hot spot for continental philosophy, but life is full of surprises.

This copy of Levinas’ Totality and Infinity came from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. And somebody there did his thinking on paper. I say “his” because this scrawling looks like it was made with a masculine hand. I would like to buy this thinker a cup of coffee—his processing of the text is spectacular. He outlined sections of Levinas’ thought, he responded with gusto (exclamation points and double/triple underlines) to the sometimes obscure Levinasian sentences. His notations in the margins show him connecting Levinas to Hegel, Nietzsche, Sartre and Descartes. He is surprised when he finds “another way!” He offers a sad face upon realizing “the state is a totality.”

In fact the first 1/3 of the book is full of his incidental reactions and understandings, all scrawled in remarkably clear pencil in the margins. By half way through the book his interest seems to wane. The latter half of the book is free from all pencil inscriptions. Did he fall asleep in the library and miss his deadline? Did he finish his paper based “the same and the other” without ever getting to “exteriority and the face?”

I suspect so.

Even so, I’d like to have a chat with this illegal scribbler. This person has a lively mind, reaching out to make mental connections even as he reached out with graphite to record those firing synapses. Maybe this guy was even considering the poor dolt (this next other) who would pick up the text next—showing a kind of mercy on him.

I think the Ramsey County Librarian would also like to meet this scribbler. She wrote (for the tiny but loopy handwriting on the transfer label looks like a feminine hand to me) —wryly, to my mind: “pencil marks noted.”


Written by kirkistan

April 16, 2013 at 8:21 am

When Did I Learn People Don’t Matter?

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Jesus and Mr. Levinas show a different way


I’m scanning back through my childhood to remember when it was I picked up this notion that people don’t matter. I cannot blame my parents or my early religious communities or the packs of feral boys I ran with. It wasn’t at Riley Elementary School, and certainly not from my first grade teacher Mrs. Buck.

But somewhere along the line I got in my mind that I could turn and walk away from people and relationships. Somewhere I learned a kind of arrogance that made me think I alone knew what was right, had all the answers, knew the best way. This thinking meant I didn’t need to listen, though sometimes I could condescend to pretend interest. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine why I ever thought this way.

Maybe it’s our get-the-checklist-done culture. Maybe it was the arrogance of my 18-year-old self who knew everything without the slightest inkling how wide the world was. And yet that arrogance persists in the odd niche and behind unopened doors in my life.

I’ve taken to dwelling with a dead philosopher whose writing remains quite lively to me. Emmanuel Levinas is not the model of clarity, but even in his glorious obscurity he says things that make me pause. I recently asked [the long dead] Mr. Levinas to comment on that inaugural address Jesus delivered up on the mountaintop. Mr. Levinas, not exactly a Jesus-follower though he respected the Torah, has a lot to say about the intrinsic worth of people and even hints that others have authority over us in the sense that we owe them attention. From the get-go.

I started to find a lot of agreement between Mr. Levinas and Jesus. Mr. Levinas insisted on the priority that the Other holds in our lives. Jesus reframed the Old Testament law by putting treatment of people up near the top of what it means to be right with God. For instance: Jesus talked about forgiving, even loving, as the alternative to getting even. This has huge implications. Not because we have so many enemies, but because we naturally harbor and nourish each slight done to us.

My philosopher friends from the Analytic tradition (most of the philosophers in this country, judging by the academic programs available), get all twitchy when I mention the Continental tradition of philosophy, which is where Mr. Levinas hangs out. Analytics have a lot of suspicion about how Continentals assemble their arguments. And lots of smart people think Mr. Levinas goes too far. But I think not. In fact there is something in Mr. Levinas that brings Jesus’ inaugural speech back in focus for me.

Mr. Levinas is helping me reconsider the notion that Jesus was not speaking hyperbole. That he really wanted his listeners to give priority to others—even those who had hurt them. This is revolutionary stuff and not at all easy. And it must be understood in the larger context of Jesus’ inaugural address and the way he walked it out later.


Giving people priority in our lives is neither a recipe for madness nor sycophancy. In fact it may be at the heart of our humaneness and our mental health.


Image credit: John Kenn via 2headedsnake

Why We Privilege Pleasure—It’s the Snooki in Me

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I know I’m Alive On Black Friday

It used to be that our privileged position was Descartes’ cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am. We think and so we know exist (even if we don’t feel fully alive from day to day). Emmanuel Levinas turned that notion to say that even before we know anything, we have a responsibility to the other around us. He wrote that ethics goes before being. The size and shape of our responsibility to others/the Other will vary by personality, culture and society (my words, not his). But as a basic starting point, responsibility takes precedence over being.

This is a tall order, of course. Especially given the example of the Christ guy, which I’ve been rereading here by that inveterate letter writer. And “example” is the right and wrong word: right in that we can try to be like He did. Wrong in that there is a partaking that goes beyond trying.

But today we’ve upped the ante: I know I exist not because I think, nor because of my responsibility to others. I know I exist because I’m drinking something intoxicating. Or eating something tasty. Or my mind is numb with television shows or the stupefying Fox News.

Or I know I’m alive because I’m buying stuff.

As we approach these two oddly juxtaposed holidays—giving thanks followed by our American orgy of frenzied purchasing—our media will move us quickly from one to the other. Clearly the important thing for us is to land squarely on Friday.

Whatever the source, it is my right as an American to pleasure my brain and taste buds. Life owes me pleasure and I’ll rise early Friday and buy some of that. Because buying creates a set of happy thoughts.

At least until the MasterCard bill arrives.


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Written by kirkistan

November 21, 2012 at 11:09 am

Philosophers don’t pack heat. Right?

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On Preparing for Ignite Minneapolis

outcome not yet determined

The unrelenting movement—every 15 seconds a slide changes—makes speaking at Ignite Minneapolis more a verbal dance than a straight-out talk. I’ve compressed four voluminous thinkers (Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, JL Austin and Wayne Booth) into pairs of 10 second sound bites. If the audience includes philosophers packing heat, I may not make it out alive. Practice, practice, practice. And more practice. And then practice lots, lots more. It’s the only thing that begins to still the nerves.

I remind myself of the dream: to see if anyone will bite on my notion that ordinary conversations can be turned into insight-producing engines. All it takes is four steps to tune our thinking—but I’ll wait until after I present to spill the beans on “How to HACK a Conversation for Insight.” It’s the message I’m excited about presenting. Very, very swiftly.


Image Credit: Zohar Lazar via 2headedsnake

Who Cares What You Think?

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Hearing from your non-target audience is critical to moving forward

I look forward to chatting with a friend and HR executive about how or if her organization encourages dialogue internally. It’s going to be a tricky conversation and I’m not at all sure I can verbally explain what I mean.

What's out there?

Dodgy Questions

I’m working backward from the notion that target audiences and publics are no longer willing to suffer monologues, sermons and sales pitches from companies trying to get their dollars. As I talk with clients and friends, I realize the unwillingness to engage in dialogue with their target audiences actually comes from a deep place of control that leaders want to maintain. Dialogue looks like brazen and reckless openness that offers little or no payback: sort of a personal, self-inflicted Wikileak that will most certainly sink the ship.

In a sense they are right: telling what we know and offering it in exchange for discussion and relationship does seem like giving away the store. But it isn’t exactly that and it will become less like that over time. Dialogue today is more a recognition that the audience that once packed your lecture hall is now making its way to the stage, each with their own microphone and their own index card of questions.

The willingness to engage in dialogue is much, much more than turning on another marketing channel or sprucing up a communication strategy. It is a deep-seated willingness that runs counter to the way many of our businesses are organized.

Talking to the Other

I’ve been tracing the notion of the Other back through Derrida to Levinas and Hegel. I’m trying to understand exactly what is at stake when we open ourselves to true engagement with another person. In particular, engagement with people outside my demographic, outside my target audience, outside my belief set. What are they talking about and how have I excluded them and what have I missed through my exclusions?

I’m eager to know what a company that opens itself in this way looks like: who are they internally? How do they talk with each other in a way that allows them to be open to talking with others?

So—this conversation. Are you interested ?


Written by kirkistan

December 8, 2010 at 10:14 am

My Raw Argument for Conversation

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The Practice of Dialogue Rests on Solid Ground

I’ve become intrigued by trying to boil Listentalk down to the most elemental forms. Intrigued because there is a firm foundation for which I can build things on. Here’s what I know so far:

you really should

  1. There is a performative aspect of language. This performative aspect allows language to actually do something out in the world, to make things happen. It is not just that speaking something makes it true. But there is something closely related that is less about true/false and more about perception/reality: when we speak something, it becomes public, it becomes known, it becomes the story we’re going with—unless immediately debunked by those involved in the hearing and telling. So…stuff happens when we speak it. It becomes true…or at least truish. JL Austin, John Searle and others go on and on about such speech acts. I intend to hear more from them.
  2. We do right by others when we treat them as people. Obvious? Yes and no. Martin Buber suggested we often treat each other as objects rather than as people. He talks about “I-Thou” relationships where we treat the person before us as fully-human, whole people. Beings with many facets, interests, parts of their character. We talk and (especially) listen to them as we respect the dignity of their being human. But too often we treat others with an “I-It” sort of connection. That is, the kind of connection we have with an object too often becomes the model for the way we connect with people. We use a hammer to pound a nail, a George Foreman Grill to press a Panini for lunch. It makes sense to use tools in that way. But we mustn’t treat people as if they were objects. We devalue them. People are people. People are not objects placed on earth for the sole purpose of carrying out my personal (sometimes diabolical) will. There’s much more to say about this (in particular from Emmanuel Levinas), but that is the basic argument.
  3. God created and interacts with people. Lest you think I’m writing some humanistic diatribe, both the performative nature of language and the treatment of people as beings of dignity flow directly from the Old and New Testaments. Look at the role of “Word” from Genesis 1 to John 1 to Revelation 22. Words are performative so often it will make your head spin (If your head is subject to spinning) (You might want a doctor to look at that). Watch how the Eternal One allowed for the possibility that words spoken could be rejected. Even the words of the Creator. Even the Word that was a person as well as God.
  4. We’re at a new time when gatekeepers no longer control the discourse. Social media is part of the deal, but not the whole deal. New attitudes about who is in authority, who we can trust and who we cannot trust are in operation. Technology is opening doors.

Those are “Listentalk’s” four building blocks.

What did I miss?


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