Lectures on Conversation: Vols I-II 
by Harvey Sacks, edited by Gail Jefferson.
Blackwell, 1520 pp., £35, January 1995, 1 55786 705 4
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An unfortunate student who had been attempting to attract Harvey Sacks’s attention:

HS: Are you asking a question, or are you bidding or what?

Q: Well I was just wondering if we are ever going to get round to the topics of conversation.

HS: That’s an amazing question … What do you have in mind?

Q: I just feel we should get some content. I feel very frustrated about it … I expected at least that you’re going to analyse conversations, or have something a little more interesting …

HS: … as weird as it may be, there’s an area called the Analysis of Conversation. It’s done in various parts of the world and I invented it. So that if I tell you that what we’re doing is studying conversation then there is nowhere to turn … There is no way that conversation is being studied systematically except my way. And that is what defines, in social science now, what talking about conversation would mean … Where I end is where knowledge on these things ends.

These two volumes consist of transcripts of university lectures delivered between 1964 and 1973 by Harvey Sacks, who died, prematurely, shortly thereafter. There are also introductory essays by Emanuel Schegloff, a colleague and occasional collaborator. It is easy to see why Schegloff and others were so taken with Sacks and why they should want to secure a wider audience for his work. However, the attempt to show that he was laying the foundations for ‘a striking new vision of how to study sociality’ is unconvincing.

The protesting student was reacting to a lecture on the topic of ‘adjacency pairs’ – utterances which succeed each other in such a way that the first is normally incomplete without the second. A common pair is a question and answer: for example, ‘What did you say?’ is the first part of a pair normally followed by a repetition of what was said. On these and related issues, such as ‘next speaker selection’, ‘turn-taking’, ‘collaboratively built sentences’ and so on, what Sacks claims for himself is not extravagant. And when Sacks addresses the topics Schegloff has in mind when he describes the provenance of these lectures as ‘interaction and the social fates played out in it’ – topics which the protesting student was anticipating and was disappointed not to find addressed – Sacks’s claim that knowledge ended where he ended compels us to ask what kind of knowledge this could be.

Sacks himself makes a distinction between his more severely ‘technical’ discussions and his ‘more readily accessible’ ones. But the difference is more profound than just their relative accessibility. Take his rationale for what he describes as the ‘overall structure of organisation of conversation’: it deals with ‘beginnings and endings and how beginnings work to get to something else and how from something else endings are gotten to’. Much of what Sacks does can plausibly be described in such terms but we are left to wonder how ‘technical’ enquiry into ‘the organisation of conversation’ is related to the more substantive issue of ‘interaction and the social fates played out in it’.

There appears to be a diversity within ‘conversation analysis’ which makes it doubtful that it constitutes a coherent enterprise. Often, it is not the rules of sequence which engage Sacks but the subject of the conversation and what it moves him to reflect on. At one point he observes: ‘We can read the world out of conversations as well as we can read it out of anything else we are doing.’ Sacks seems to find in conversation what Dr Johnson found at Charing Cross: ‘the full tide of human existence’. A good rule of thumb for detecting his departures from pure analysis is that his observations become particularly arresting. Consider what Sacks describes as ‘an awfully neat scene’ – a conversation in which a recently widowed man in his sixties, Max, is repeatedly invited to eat some herring, which he just as repeatedly declines:

for 35 years someone had been telling him what to eat and when to eat, and now that he doesn’t have his wife to tell him what to eat he’ll damn well eat what he wants. But as soon as he happens to be in that position somebody else figures ‘he’s all by himself, somebody has to watch out for him’ … What for them is that Max has no one to take care of him is for Max a situation in which he can do what he wants.

Schegloff points out that it doesn’t really matter whether Sacks’s comments on Max and his in-laws are biographically accurate since he is so ‘compellingly on target for the sorts of interactional processes which can constitute the lived interactional reality for many persons’. But aren’t the great novelists and dramatists just as ‘compellingly on target’ in this sense?

Schegloff notes that Sacks’s analysis of the rejected herring story ‘presents both ends of a range of types of analysis which often appeal differentially to readers of conversation analytic work’. But this duality of appeal is not just a function of temperamental differences between readers but of profound epistemological differences between the ‘analyses’ offered. Consider this extract from a call to a suicide prevention centre: ‘How do you make people love you? How do you do it? I wish I knew. I see people doing it all around me and I try to imitate them and I don’t know how to do it … You don’t do it by loving them – you don’t do it by being understanding … I really don’t know how you make people love you. I just don’t know.’ Doesn’t the interest of this transcend analysis of the ‘adjacent pairs-sequential ordering-speaker selection’ kind? Wouldn’t our response to it be essentially unaffected if it were a diary entry? Suppose we retain its linguistic form and imagine a different content, so that the speaker is now a tennis tyro despondent over her lack of progress. ‘How do you return a ball of that speed and power? How do you do it? I see people around me doing it all the time and I try to imitate them.’ The linguistic features common to these two specimens may be a proper object of conversation analysis, as an example of the question form used rhetorically to disguise a complaint, so that an answer would be regarded as an interruption. But can what distinguishes them – making people love you – be comparably addressed?

Sacks raises the question whether the recipient of an account of ‘a gosh-awful wreck’ by someone who witnessed it is entitled to feel as the witness did, and concludes that ‘entitlement to experience is differentially available.’ We are told that there are restrictions on telling as well as on feeling. But what kind of fact is it that though you might ring friends in the middle of the night to tell them you had been involved in a serious accident, you would not call them just to say that you had received an excessively high electricity bill and suspected there must be an error.

The reasons people have for making a telephone call form a subclass, Sacks tells us, of the topic of ‘tellability’. What kind of enquiry into such ‘tellability’ could there be? The boasts of the positivists for their projected science of social life were at least clear. A human action was assimilated to an eclipse and the promise was that we would one day be able to account for the one, as celestial mechanics enabled us to account for the other. Though Schegloff would deride the boast, it is left unclear what kind of ‘scientific’ knowledge of ‘entitlement to experience’, ‘tellability of a story’ and kindred matters the consummation of the Sacks/Schegloff project would bring us.

There is an Irwin Shaw short story which involves the kind of verbal interaction that engages Sacks’s interest. It is about a young man who, sitting in his apartment at some irksome task, hears the sounds of neighbourhood boys playing baseball and impulsively fetches his glove and joins them, but – Shaw ends the story – ‘the kids called him “Mister” which they hadn’t the year before when he was only 22.’ How is this dramatisation of ‘interactional reality’ related to Sacks’s dealing with similar matters? Sacks may tell us more about the influence of age and the awareness of ageing on the manner in which we speak and are spoken to, but what is the nature of this ‘more’? It is in their attempts to characterise the sense in which scientific enquiry would take us beyond vernacular understanding that both Sacks and Schegloff leave us baffled.

In a lecture on ‘the motive power of a story’ (by which he means stories that are transmitted orally) Sacks discusses the following episode. In the course of a conversation a 40-year-old man called Tony, who has ‘a nondescript job’ at an insurance company, tells a story to a younger colleague who is quitting to go back to school. It concerns a conversation Tony had had years earlier, when he was a manager-trainee, with ‘a guy he met in “Jersey” ’ who was an insurance salesman but had once been at ‘acting school’ with Kirk Douglas. When asked ‘How come you didn’t make it?’ the insurance salesman replied that he had married and had ‘a coupla kids’, whereas ‘Kirk stuck it out.’ Sacks asks why Tony mentions that he was at the time a manager-trainee and comments: ‘The story Tony was told, was told when he had prospects, and it is the story of someone who at an earlier time had prospects that at the time of the telling had failed. Tony is now telling the story at a time of his life when his prospects are no longer there and he is telling it to someone at a time in their life when they specifically have prospects … a nice relationship to the story he now tells.’

Sacks suggests that one of the reasons for the story’s original tellability is that since the teller’s prospects failed so may Tony’s (as in fact they did), and he ought, therefore, to consider buying more insurance. Perhaps – but might not the insurance salesman’s story have had the same rationale as Tony’s? Could not both be trying to introduce some psychic distance between themselves, their listeners, and the contingencies of success and failure? Might not the salesman have been seeking to transmit to Tony, not an urge to buy insurance, but the consolatory power of the commonplace – ‘An ordinary sorrow of man’s life’?

The talk into which Tony’s story was introduced had been about the conditions under which people should do things other than what makes them happy, with the implication that familial obligation is one of these conditions; and so Sacks suggests that another motive for the Kirk Douglas story is that it ‘justifies acceptance of things not having come to what it looked like at one time they might’. But the failed actor’s reply to Tony’s question why he hadn’t ‘made it’ while Kirk Douglas had – ‘Kirk stuck it out’ – seems less an expression of acceptance than of regret, rather in the same vein as the failed boxer’s celebrated ‘I coulda been a contender’ in On the Waterfront. Do we need research to tell us that these are among the motives for which people tell this kind of story?

Sacks asks of stories such as these, ‘What keeps them alive?’, ‘What keeps them being retold?’ and in attempting to account for the motives which lead people to tell stories that are only tellable after a long interval, introduces the notion of ‘custodianship’: ‘Old people are routinely telling you stories that they were told when they were young by someone old.’ One function of telling stories that can only be retold after a long interval may be the hope of ensuring a continuity between the world one was acculturated to and that of succeeding generations. It is the very obliviscence of the stories that gives them their point. I remember being told by someone of an earlier generation why Dick Tracy became a cop and myself passing this on a few decades later, along with an explanation of how Superman managed to fail his draft board physical. Were we discharging the obligations of ‘custodianship’ or did our tellings have other motives?

What is interesting about speculation as to the motives and conditions of ‘tellability’ is the extent to which we can go on augmenting them out of our own resources, without the benefit of theory or research. Schegloff anticipates this kind of objection when he acknowledges the ‘vulnerability to lapsing back into a mundane, vernacular, commonsense understanding’ of the accounts given by Sacks, in spite of the fact that they are ‘intended to carry heavy and complex theoretic/analytic loads’. The problem of meeting the objection that what is being passed off as embryonic social science is at most jumped-up Lebensweisheit is not confined to Sacks.

This is how Gustave Icheiser, a sociologist of a previous generation, attempted to resolve the problem: ‘The contention that certain facts are quite obvious must be considered as a device for blocking the analysis of basic phenomena and preventing the incorporation of those phenomena into a theory of human relations … The illusory impression that we are saying only something which everybody “knew all along” is … simply the consequence of taking implicit awareness for explicit knowledge.’ But Icheiser is no more successful at making the crucial distinction between vernacular and scientific understanding perspicuous than Schegloff. Of course, all these doubts may be unjustified and were they allowed scope might impede quite momentous epistemic consummations. They may themselves demand diagnosis in terms of superseded, over-positivistic conceptions of what constitutes scientific knowledge. But they are not unnatural and may be well-founded.

In connection with his notion of ‘entitlement to experience’ Sacks notes that persons may be ‘nominal members of a category, but feel that the set of inferences that are properly made about that category are not properly made about them … “I am not one of the things that given my categorical membership I should be.” ’ Or as Sacks also vernacularly puts it: ‘I am a phoney.’ In one of his novels Hugh Kingsmill gives an account of a meeting between two ageing men who had been school chums and had not seen each other since: ‘ “We’re getting on,” said Knight. William nodded and they both looked grave and rather responsible, yet each had a vague feeling that he was pretending to be elderly, and was not the genuine article the old men of his early years had been.’

Is the difference between Sacks and Kingsmill really that between mere folk wisdom and science? It is characteristic of Sacks (as of Erving Goffman, whose influence he acknowledges) to take an aperçu, like Kingsmill’s, of the felt gap between our intimate selves and our social identities and to extend it in such a way that we lose the contrast that gave it its point. Sacks regularly employs an idiom which may be symptomatic of this. When describing activities normally designated by a simple participle, instead of speaking of ‘questioning’, ‘answering’, ‘insulting’ etc, Sacks speaks of their ‘doing a claim’, ‘doing refusals’, ‘doing answers’, ‘doing insults’, ‘doing a challenge’ and even ‘doing laughter’. (Is laughter ‘done’ except at auditions?) In Sacks’s world people don’t just ask, ‘What?’, they ‘do’ ‘What?’

The cumulative effect – though perhaps liberating in small doses – is to introduce an alienating reflexivity into our conception of ourselves and our ordinary social activities. This emerges more explicitly in a lecture on ‘doing “being ordinary” ’ where, among much which is unexceptionable, Sacks recommends that we stop thinking of persons as ‘ordinary’ but instead think of them ‘as somebody having as their job, as their constant preoccupation, doing “being ordinary”. It’s not that somebody is ordinary … It is that that’s what their business is … a job that they do on themselves.’ Are the ‘they’ who do this job on themselves not ordinary then? The unconstruability of Sacks’s counsel is reminiscent of that of the Duchess in Alice: ‘Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.’

There is another feature of these lectures which contributes to their distinctive atmosphere – the dramatis personae of many of Sacks’s set-pieces. These involve people who are contemplating suicide and wonder ‘whether anyone cares’; people whose vocational hopes have faded; troubled adolescents struggling for recognition and respect; a woman who recognises that she is ageing and therefore conspicuous when socialising with the young; a bomber pilot trying to avert any damaging characterological inferences from the fact that he has killed and maimed hundreds; someone agonising over her failure to make herself loved; someone who has to deal regularly with expressions of despair but doesn’t know what to say; a recently bereaved widower who has to cope not just with the loss of his wife but the survival of his in-laws.

Do these people’s utterances really figure here because of the elegance with which they illustrate ‘the sequential organisation of talk’? It can be urged on Sacks’s behalf that his reminders of the vicissitudes of sociality need not depend for their value on whether they lead to the establishment of ‘a discipline with satisfactory pay-offs and sustainable continuity’. Perhaps we should leave open the possibility that illustrations of the precariousness and tedium of interactional existence owe their presence in an ostensibly discipline-founding discourse to our need to be addressed on the nature of social life, both for reassurance that what is there for us is there for others and for the solace that this sense of fellowship in the struggle for reputability brings. A touch of role-playing makes the whole world kin.

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