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Answerability: Definition

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Created: February 6, 2004
Latest Update: May 16, 2004

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Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, February 2004.
"Fair use" encouraged.

We are using the term answerability as we have understood it from Greg Nielsen's discussion of Bakhtin's work in Norms of Answerability.

Greg Nielsen explains that Bakhtin approaches the solution of how we shall live together by asking a very different question from that asked by Habermas. Habermas relies on rationality and representatives selected to rationally discuss the conflicts and varying interest that drive governance of our societies or nation-states, to the extent that they continue to exist.

By nation-state we mean a sovereign state held together by national borders that it defends against all who would violate those borders. Throughout history such sovereign states have been largely determined by who had the most lethal weapons and could thus secure their borders. And that military power usually depended on economic success, so that those weapons could be purchased. By way of example I suggest that you look at the present proliferation of nuclear weapons, as they are sold, for money, economic power symbol, by Pakistan's leading scientist, to Libya and Iran. (Check current newspapers for sources. Period of first week in February 2004.)

Now Habermas is of the age of nation-states, and it has been the focus of his life to understand the human devastation of the Nazi period and determine that it shall never again happen in Germany. But Habermas theorizes from the government down. A kind of macro approach in which there are important citizens who control the government's actions rationally. Now, one of the things that recent books have been pointing out (The Willing Executioners) is that such a macro focus often disregards an important part of hate and greed as they make the world go round.

Most of us have little to say and little control over the governance of our local neighborhoods, cities, states, let alone nation-states. And so most of us begin to feel alienated and hopeless, as though the best we can do is to accept the best we can get. Periodically some oppressed groups become sufficiently disillusioned to fight a long and painful battle (like that of apartheid in South Africa) and change the nation-state in which we live. Yet, that still doesn't wipe away the exploitation and hate and greed of the past, especially not as those who now taste a little more power exploit that power for their own benefit.

For all these reasons I found myself telling my students that I thought Habermas just might be wrong about rationality and the rule of law. The law reflects those who enact it for their own protection of power, and so has the seeds of many of the same nation-state problems we face in other systems. And so I was intrigued by Greg Nielsen's Norms of Answerability. Perhaps I could find a different way of understanding the dilemma of micro and macro balance.

Bakhtin's concept of answerability. Nielsen explains Bakhtin's basic question as being: How shall I say anything when the Other can answer. That's very different from Habermas' broader question of how we shall dialog that we may govern legitimately and justly. Bakhtin sees every interactiion as composing the interrelationship between Person and Other, so that whatever I say, Other will alter the effect of what I have said, and what I have said will alter what Other may say, and our interaction alters the community, which is socially constructed of all these interactions, temporally and spatially.

Answerability, as I am using it in the Naked Space, is a gift we each have to react, to have feelings, ideas, and to express those feelings and ideas through words and actions. But it's not an epiphany. It doesn't just happen. And our ability to skillfully use it to express our ideas and feelings is a learned ability. That learning is affected by our culture, and by each other.

To listen in good faith to the Other is not necessarily to agree with the Other, but to make a good faith effort to understand how the Other came to his/her validity claim, and to help him/her express that claim effectively to the community, to the benefit of the whole community.