Live Speech & Dead Speech in 'Psychotherapy'

Vincent Kenny


This is a draft of a chapter for a book on Gregory Bateson to be published in the year 2000.




'Metalogue: Why do things have outlines?'
1. Being Controlling / Pre-emptive Vs Being Actively Participant
2. Being Predictable & Machine-Like Vs being Spontaneous & Improvisational
3. Being Manipulative V s Being Present and Socially Genuine
__1. Being Controlled & Controlling (Pre-emptive) Vs Being Actively Participant
__2. Being Predictable & Machine-Like Vs Being Spontaneous & Improvisational
__3. Being Manipulative Vs Being Present and Socially Genuine


Dead Speech Networks
Defining the Dead Speech Network -
(1). The First Criterion Of Dead Speech is the Use Of An Imposed Language

(2). The Second Criterion Of Dead Speech Is The Creation Of States Of Abuse (Or - The Impossibility Of Viable Human Satisfactions)
Constituting Nodes in Networks of Conversations
'What Can I Say?'
(3). The Third Criterion Of Dead Speech Is The Organisation Of Power & Obedience
The Organisation of Power in Dead Speech networks


The Centerless Self-Organisation of Self-Healing Conversations





What I want to develop in this chapter is the distinction between two major forms of languaging, one which I call Live Speech and the other Dead Speech in networks of conversations. To define 'Live' Vs 'Dead' Speech I use ideas from Bateson, Illich, Maturana, and others especially to describe the different effects of living in one or another form of conversation over a protracted period of time. Briefly speaking, Dead Speech networks are identified with the imposed deadening consumerist language of reciprocal manipulations among people, while Live Speech is identified with networks of meaning oriented to reciprocal understandings as its prime value. The dilemmas of most therapists are underlined in their being unlikely to be of much use in liberating family networks of conversations from their deadening Dead Speech forms, given their own enmeshment in the same socially shared medium of networks of commodity values. Alternatively, the degree to which therapists are able to co-create novel Live Speech networks with their individual or family 'im-patients', the more possibility there is of them feeling useful.



'Metalogue: Why do things have outlines?'

Daughter: What did you mean by a conversation having an outline? Has this conversation had an outline?
Father: Oh, surely, yes. But we cannot see it yet because the conversation isn't finished. You cannot ever see it while you're in the middle of it. Because if you could see it, you would be predictable - like the machine. And I would be predictable - and the two of us together would be predictable -
Daughter: But I don't understand. You say it is important to be clear about things. And you get angry about people who blur the outlines. And yet we think its better to be unpredictable and not to be like a machine. And you say that we cannot see the outlines of our conversation till it's over. Then it doesn't matter whether we're clear or not. Because we cannot do anything about it then.
Father: Yes, I know - and I don't understand it myself ….But anyway, who wants to do anything about it.

(p. 32 - Bateson, G. -1972 - Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine)

I take this Metalogue from Bateson as my starting point since it contains several ingredients and clues for the understanding of conversations as healthy-making or unhealthy-making environments for those who participate in them. The main ingredients embedded in this quotation are as follows: -

1. Being Controlling / Pre-emptive Vs Being Actively Participant

Daughter: What did you mean by a conversation having an outline? Has this conversation had an outline?
Father: Oh, surely, yes. But we cannot see it yet because the conversation isn't finished. You cannot ever see it while you're in the middle of it. Because if you could see it, you would be predictable - like the machine. And I would be predictable - and the two of us together would be predictable -

Saying that the conversation 'has an outline' is to say that it has the coherence of an organisationally closed system. The conversational processes achieve a 'closure' which involves the specification of a 'boundary' or 'outline' which marks off the contents and context of the conversation from all other identifiable conversations. In doing this the participants are located on the 'inside' of this outline and separated from non-participants in this network of conversations. I want to describe this situation as 'conversational closure'. One of the problems with conversational closure is when it is arrived at too quickly, or too peremptorily, it brings to a (foregone) conclusion the creativity of the participants. Their joint potential for the generation of novel emergence is ended.

The 'outline of the conversation' referred to by Bateson in this quote is a crucial feature (or marker) of the type of conversation that is going on. In an open dynamic engagement between people it is impossible to perceive the outline because it is being generated by the moment-to-moment interactions among the participants. However, in a closed and pre-emptive conversation oriented to intentional control (of people and outcomes), the outline seems all too clear and predictable as a constraining, oppressive and channelling presence which excludes 'personal' contributions

2. Being Predictable & Machine-Like Vs being Spontaneous & Improvisational -

Daughter: But I don't understand. You say it is important to be clear about things. And you get angry about people who blur the outlines. And yet we think its better to be unpredictable and not to be like a machine. And you say that we cannot see the outlines of our conversation till it's over. Then it doesn't matter whether we're clear or not. Because we cannot do anything about it then.

The more oppressive is the presence of a pre-emptive outline to the conversation, the more the conversation is about controlling and predicting people and events. This is frequently seen in conversations for recriminations and attribution of blame. It is the main recurrent conversational form in many businesses. On the other hand, in the absence of a discernible outline and in the presence of the encouragement of active participation we see the emergence of a high level of genuine, spontaneous improvisations by the members of the conversation. This is sometimes seen in organisations which implement 'empowerment' and 'participation' properly.

3. Being Manipulative V s Being Present and Socially Genuine

Father: Yes, I know - and I don't understand it myself ….But anyway, who wants to do anything about it.

This last comment by Bateson expresses one of the most crucial values in his outlook - the value for being present and available in the live conversational interactions with others thus fostering the elaboration of genuine social relatedness, rather than taking up a manipulative, unilateral stance in relation to others in the situation.

These three dimensions just outlined help us to start making a definition of the two forms of conversations which I am calling Live Speech Vs Dead Speech networks.

1. Being Controlling / Preemptive Vs Being Actively Participant

2. Being Predictable / Machine-Like Vs being Spontaneous & Improvisational

3. Being Manipulative Vs Being Present and Socially Genuine

In what follows I will elaborate these dimensions and add a few other explicative constructs.

1. Being Controlled & Controlling (Pre-emptive) Vs Being Actively Participant -

Here the network activities are described either as being able to openly participate (and not be able to, or have to, see where the limits, boundaries, outlines of the conversation are) or else as trying to pre-emptively 'steer' the conversation's directions, limits, boundaries etc with the deliberate intent to arrive at a preconceived destination. This is typical of the manipulative form of conversations in business organisations which abound with Dead Speech networks, reducing the participants to the role of being deadened and alienated parts of the larger machine-conversations going on all around them. The medium in which they exist is a Dead Speech medium - this has the effect of reducing them to comatoseness. The notion of 'freedom of individual expression' is entirely alien to Dead Speech networks. A simple example was the way that the Coca Cola company had speaking rules which prohibited the pronouncing of the word 'Pepsi' by any of their employees. In fact the Vice President of Coca-Cola (Sergio Zyman) was punished by the President of the organisation for drinking Pepsi! One of the outcomes of this type of Dead Speech oppression is that the system is structurally rigid and not very adaptable to changing circumstances.

'In the 1970's Coca Cola was a company in trouble. In 1979, the average age of the board of the company was 70, and only one of its 14 directors was under 50. Robert Woodruff became President of Coca Cola in 1923 and was still at the helm throughout the 1970s. He did not see much reason to change the company. This stoicism was as classic example of success breeding failure, or at least the ingredients of failure. .…By seeking to maintain traditions, culture and stability, this company was in crisis.' (Mills & Murgatroyd, 1991, p. 176).

In the open, relational, healthy network (constructive participation) you cannot see the outlines until the conversation is over. In the unhealthy network everyone usually knows that they have no 'real say' in the matter, or they know exactly what it is that the others expect them to say, and they also know that someone else has already decided 'the way things are and the way things will be'. This has the effect of paralysing and rendering comatose the people enmeshed in such a network.

2. Being Predictable & Machine-Like Vs Being Spontaneous & Improvisational -

Within the Live Speech form each person is called upon to improvise his or her own speech contributions as the conversation unfolds. Since we do not know what is going to happen next, nor even in what directions the conversations may unfold, we must pay attention on a moment-to-moment basis and invent our own contributions as things evolve among all the participants. Under the Dead Speech form the reverse is the case - there is no space allowed for improvisational speech, everything said is already known, decided, and defined, and the speaking roles are allocated in a highly predictable manner. Who will speak, what will be said, how the conversation will unfold etc are all predictable events. This has the effect of alienating and demoralising the people enmeshed in such a network.

3. Being Manipulative V s Being Present and Socially Genuine -

Within the frame of the Live Conversation each person is encouraged to be fully 'present' and attentive, and open to exchanges which are marked by genuine social relatedness. All the participants have a mutual influencing (con-forming, in-forming, de-forming and re-forming) relationship with one another as components of the same conversational network. In contrast, the people in Dead Speech networks are encouraged to be mutually manipulative and extortionist in their treatment of one another as 'trivial machines' to use von Foerster's term. This has the effect of obliterating all other human values from the encounters in such a network - including the values of mutual caring, mutual acceptance, and mutual regard. In effect, what is obliterated is the sense of 'mutuality' enjoyed by humans in networks which allow for genuine social relationships. Without 'mutuality' there is no way for human relationships to co-evolve along the lines of reciprocal genuineness, sincerity, trust and honesty.

The more that the language that is used in our networks are imposed (by powerful interests, by the state etc ) then the more that we are likely to have to reproduce a dead speech network which excludes our co-developments as human beings in reciprocal relatedness. This is most easily seen in the imposed language of consumerism in western culture today, a language which permeates all levels and all institutions of society. This has the effect of dislocating the people enmeshed in such a network from their personal core values.

The three-point criteria of Live Vs Dead Speech outlined above can be read as 3 initial orienting phases for conducting the two different types of conversations. Starting from the first point or phase in each case (that is, the phase 1 of Live Speech being 'Actively Participant' , and phase 1 of Dead Speech being 'Controlling / Pre-emptive'), we can shift along from phase 1 through phase 3 and in doing so we can see the progress of the two forms of conversation. The following tables can be used to make this more clear:

Dead Speech Escalations
Phase 1 Phase 2 Phase 3 Phase 4
Predictable / Machine-like Controlled / Controlling Manipulative

Worst Case =
Extortionist Hostility

Live Speech Escalations -
Phase 1 Phase 2 Phase 3 Phase 4
Spontaneous / Improvisational Actively Participant Genuine Social Relationships Best Case =
Facilitating Group Participativeness

In phase 1 in each case the persons set out with the minimum configuration for a Live or Dead Speech conversation, and they may either remain together in phase 1 or make 'progress' through the other phases, augmenting the levels of Liveness or Deadness that they experience and contribute to both forms of conversations. In other words, 'Live-ness' or 'Dead-ness' increases in the network of conversations as we progress through Phases 1 through 3 and beyond.



As human participants in many different networks, each one of us is clear about which networks we like to be part of, and also, in contrast, those networks of conversations that we prefer to avoid taking part in. Our spontaneous preferences lead us to be clear about those networks which for us are Dead Speech networks (often at work, and often in family of origin where the same roles and scripts repeat ad nauseum), and those other networks which are Live Speech networks (often those friendship circles that we seek out the most, the families of certain friends etc).

If it is not already clear as to why Live Speech networks are preferable to Dead Speech networks I will now elaborate the argument a little more.

Dead Speech Networks

Living in Dead Speech networks for too long at a time is a damaging experience. Everyone who comes to psychotherapy for help - whether individually or in a family group - is someone who is stuck spending too much time in a Dead Speech network - and perhaps living only in networks of Dead Speech, both at home and at work.

At this stage I want to make two points: Firstly, that it is vital for therapists to understand the difference between a Dead Vs Live Speech network and how these may be defined; Secondly, that therapists cannot help most of their clients without understanding the ways in which they themselves as 'therapists' come to constitute another Dead Speech network for their clients in therapy. Therefore, it is important to understand how to generate alternatives to the Dead Speech networks that they and their clients are enmeshed within.

The two most common complaints I hear about from therapists in my supervision are that [a] they do not know what to do next with their family in therapy, and [b] that they themselves feel trapped, bored and disoriented by the therapeutic conversations going on week after week. Both of these feelings which the therapists show are symptoms of anyone who is stuck in a Dead Speech network, namely, feeling powerless to do anything (even if we knew what to do), and feeling bored, disinterested, dismayed and uninvolved by what is going on.

Defining the Dead Speech Network -

(1). The First Criterion Of Dead Speech is the Use Of An Imposed Language

'Dead Speech' is that form of language which is an interpersonal orientation under a language imposed on the participants from without their autonomous system. This can be seen historically in various manifestations of colonialism where a foreign language is powerfully imposed with the intentions of eliminating the natural language of the populace in question. This creates, at minimum, a cultural dislocation and disorientation.

Today it is a phenomenon readily observable in the form of the imposition of the 'global business' enterprise which has colonised most of the lived world, imposing its language of production and consumption. Within this invented and imposed language the values of 'consumerism', 'production', 'user-satisfactions', 'efficiency', etc. get imposed upon the entire range of human experiences and interactions.

The conversational system configured as consumerism already reduces the members of the conversation to a way of construing one another in terms of 'suppliers-clients' for one another's services.

Illich (1980) describes the position like this -

'At the bottom, therefore, I place a commodity-intensive society where needs are increasingly defined in terms of packaged goods and services designed and prescribed by professionals, and produced under their control. This social ideal corresponds to the image of a humanity composed of individuals, each driven by considerations of marginal utility, the image that has developed from Mandeville via Smith and Marx to Keynes, and that Louis Dumont calls homo economicus.'

This view of Illich can be used equally to characterise a family system of conversations organised under the same social principles as those within which they are structurally embedded - familia economica - that is, a family system where its members are configured as individual consumers engaged in the exchange of commodities - 'What have you done for me today?'

On a broader social scale this model of 'homo economicus' was the 'model of management' applied to the health and social services across Europe during the past 15 to 20 years - and it is exactly the model being currently applied to the Italian health system, where the 'USL' has become an 'ASL', that is, where the hospital has become a 'business', where the staff become 'managers'; where the sick population become 'customers' etc. However, as anyone who works in the health service knows, merely changing their job title to being a 'manager / dirigente' and doing nothing to change the context of delivering their service to the 'customers' leaves things only worse off than before. A few thousand years ago this tactic of merely renaming the same old reality was termed 'the rectification of names' by Confucius.

David Smail's book 'The Origins of Unhappiness' contains a chilling account of this process of applying 'modern management' to the British health services during the 1980's. Some extracts follow in which he notes how the vernacular of those working (in hospitals etc) was systematically colonised and destroyed, being replaced by the 'new language of management' -

'Everyone who wasn't made redundant underwent a change of role or a change of rank, everyone was taught the new language of efficiency and effectiveness, quality control, appraisal and time management...'The sublime confidence with which the managerial mediocracy imposed its debased language of 'performance indicators', 'Total Quality', and so on, on people who had all their lives spoken, albeit uncritically, a far more ethically nuanced language left them conceptually completely off balance.'…'The captives of the mediocracy thus struggled (often with surprising good will and docility) to force the previously unarticulated complexity of their experience into the linguistic moulds imposed by the hyped-up banalities of Businessese. To a puzzling extent they seemed unaware that rather than being offered a 'whole new way' of 'developing their management skills', or whatever, they were in fact being robbed of the linguistic tools to express the violence being done to their understanding.'…'…the prescribed mode of mediocratic life was one of the mediation and consumption of euphoria, and anyone who attempted to engage in any other kind of activity, or speak a milder or more considered language, stood in danger of finding him or herself beyond the boundaries of the real world '…

The optimal language of the Dead Speech societies is that of commodity consumers. Each person is sold the fantasy that they are 'separate individuals' with no loyalty to anything other than the incessant consumption of 'goods'. They see one another bound together not by older human values for 'being together' but as linked in a consumers' chain of supplier-client interactions. Each person in the family is read by others in terms of this model - one person supplies the necessary product for the consuming needs of his or her clients. Everything the family does together can be fitted into this model. Smail describes the desperate plight of the family in these terms: -

'These can appear as people emptied out of their humanity, enacting like sleepwalkers fantasies in which they have been soaked ever since they were small children. They are, of course, not empty of humanity at all. They are like everyone else, human bodies subject to all the pains and longings which are common to human bodies. The difficulty is that they have learned no ways of giving expression to and elaborating their embodied humanity other than those constructed and promoted by the commercial interests of Business. '

This is the language which I referred to above in terms of the third Metalogue item called 'Being Manipulative Vs Being Present and Socially Genuine'. It is a way of treating others as 'trivial machines' and as nothing else. Family conversations which open up a question as to 'what you are any good for' are those conversations couched in the language of the 'viable commodity', the 'sellable product', the 'marketable talent'. In fact people do actually have conversations about their 'market value'. The 'crisis of the unemployed' is generated as such not least by this language of finding a 'value' for human beings only in terms of how 'sellable' they are on the jobs market. I wonder if the Roman slaves had this type of preoccupation in ancient times?

From David Smail's writings it is clear that the family system-as-consumerist is well established. Children are now born into a form of family languaging oriented to producing consumers and consuming. The chances of finding the time or the opportunity for developing another alternative language for the family system seems fairly slim. The language of consumerism is all-consuming. It obliterates all other forms of interactional relationship, and excludes the development of a conversational system based on alternative values such as mutual concern, reciprocal caring and comforting. To quote Smail again -

'The ultimate Business logic is, then, to reduce the average member of the consuming class to an addict of the mass market, locked by the nervous system into an optimally cycled process of consumption, rendered immune to unprofitable distractions, dissociated from any form of solidarity which might offer resistance to the function of enjoyment. The vision is no doubt apocalyptic, but it is one the 1980s brought closer to realization.'

So what I am saying here is that the conversational system configured as consumerism already reduces the members to a way of construing one another in terms of 'supplier-client' for one another's services. This is what Maturana calls a 'parasocial' system, because it is based on relationships of mutual usage and abusage, and is not based on the values for being together in mutual co-existence, influence and change.

In a previous paper I noted that -

'The necessary consequence of the Trivial Machine thinking is the irrelevance of the personal individuality of those others who compose the system. At the same time their individual desires, intentions and requirements for being satisfied or realised are also irrelevant.

What type of living system are we describing here? Its central feature is that it renders the other participants as ‘exploited victims’ or at least as ‘passive recipients’. The more a human system acts as if it is unilateral and autocratic the more ‘patient-like’ its members become: The personal properties of the participants are ignored, abused, or actively negated. '

(2). The Second Criterion Of Dead Speech Is The Creation Of States Of Abuse (Or - The Impossibility Of Viable Human Satisfactions )

The Dead Speech network operates as one where people have to constitute the network and nothing else. There is no room left over for any other kind of conversation.

'Within the family network I feel myself to be no-Body, no-Thing, no-One'.

As we saw in the first part above, 'Dead Speech' is that type of speaking and listening which contains many redundancies (taken-for-granteds) and which is therefore highly predictable as to its contents, direction and outcomes. It is the type of conversation where once begun we know where the boundary of the conversation is, and we know how it will unfold to its foregone boring conclusion.

It is the type of conversation which speaks itself through our bodyhood, without us having much 'to say' about it. We are used as an embodied 'node' in a network of conversations to constitute a given 'speaking position' which is interrelated and interconnected with other fixed speaking 'nodes' in a network. The 'importance' of any person is defined only in terms of his or her embodying a node in the network of nodes which compose the family or work system. There is no other 'importance' given.

Constituting Nodes in Networks of Conversations

This is the lived experience of all of us. However, for people who are adjudged to have 'serious personal problems' it is clear that these are people who have (had) to sustain a given node in a network of conversations - usually a family system - which, by its constitution as a node, excludes the possibility that this person's embodiment could be free to constitute alternative nodes in the same network, nor even is the embodiment free to constitute other nodes in different networks. The individual's bodyhood has become super-specialised for just the one task. The personal embodiment has been evolved in its nodal position in what Maturana calls a coontogenic structural drift to the point where fatal adhesions to the node in question have been produced.

Thus I define 'serious personal problems' in terms of being in a state of 'adhesion' with the particular node which 'hosts' our personhood, to the point of being reduced to an allonomous entity (Varela, 1979).

In order to be someone in particular we must be a legitimate participant in a network of conversations. In order to do that we usually have to start out by becoming someone within a family network. In other words, to 'occupy' or 'be positioned in' a specific node position within the whole family network of conversations. As we grow and develop within our family node-network we are usually developing our capacities within other networks outside of that of the family network - for instance in our network of friends at school, in the neighbourhood, in our sports and hobby pursuits, with family friends etc. Adolescence is the time when our constitution of external networks of conversations (e.g. our peer network) brings us into conflict with parents who perceive the incompatibilities of our 'external' activities as threats to the ongoing constitution of the family network. Usually, at this time, the family system enters into a series of transitions which alter or change the family language games to one degree or another.

However, to the degree that we do not engage in these further elaborations of how to constitute conversational systems differently, we are in danger of drifting towards the position of allonomous adhesion - unable to detach ourselves from the one and only network node within which we have found some existence. This is what I mean by a Dead Speech network. The person does not exist apart from their single role as constitutive of a single node of the family network of conversations. Most people who work in industry, in factories, in bureaucracies, etc are in just this position. They are enslaved to the one position offered to them - in fact, they are called 'wage slaves'. There is very little available in the way of 'viable human satisfactions' in having to live invariantly in the given node position.

'What Can I Say?'

When such a person 'presents' (or is 'presented') for psychotherapy it is obvious that he or she can only relate to the therapy context within the terms of reference of being a constitutive node of the family system. Nothing significant can be said, thought or done which lies outside of that crucially sustaining role. This after all is his complaint. 'I am no-Body, no-Thing, no-One, outside of my imprisoning family network; and even within the family network I feel myself to be no-Body, no-Thing, no-One'.

From the therapist's point of view, also he - the therapist - can only relate to the impatient from his own jargonic point of view, or from that of the impatient - if he believes in trying to speak the same language. It is very difficult to see anything emerging other than some form of Dead Speech.

This issue about the impossibility of viable human satisfactions in the family network relates to the second metalogue point above called 'Being Predictable & Machine-Like Vs being Spontaneous & Improvisational'.

As we have now seen, the Dead Speech form pre-empts any ulterior spontaneous participation on the part of the constitutive members beyond that of embodying their given node in a prescribed and predetermined manner. There are no 'personal' elaborations permitted or possible.

The family system can be seen as the means of production and conservation of a fixed discourse. The members are bound together as given nodes in the family network, and are constrained to recite or enunciate in a given manner (even if this seems strange or weird to outsiders).

Sheridan commenting on Foucault's work says this -

'The subject is seen as the living source that animates through his expression the otherwise dead, empty forms of language. …
Discourse must be conceived as a violence we do to things or, at least, as a practice we impose on them, in which the events of discourse find their regularity.' (pp. 127-8)

Presumably, the violence that we do to things also includes violence to ourselves as the victims of such discourse.

The next issue that I deal with involves the first criterion of the Batesonian metalogue above namely, 'Being Controlling Vs Being Actively Participant'.

(3). The Third Criterion Of Dead Speech Is The Organisation Of Power & Obedience -

Within the Dead Speech networks the third ingredient is that of the implementation of power through what Bateson called the application of 'conscious purpose'. He comments -

' that mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream, and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life; and that its virulence springs specifically from the circumstance that life depends upon interlocking circuits of contingency, while consciousness can see only such short arcs of such circuits as human purposes may direct. ….
Unaided consciousness must always tend toward hate; not only because it is good common sense to exterminate the other fellow, but for the more profound reason that, seeing only arcs of circuits, the individual is continually surprised and necessarily angered when his hardheaded policies return to plague the inventor.' (Bateson, Steps, p.146)

This is a system where power is implemented to control the individuals who occupy assigned nodes in the network in such a way that satisfaction is defined as relations of unquestioning obedience to the (reproduction of the) network discourse.

The Organisation of Power in Dead Speech networks

Recall Maturana's view of power relations where he says,

'Power is action through obedience. …We always concede power in order to conserve something, company, things, prestige, appearances, life ….. Obedience always gives rise to emotions of self-depreciation in the person that obeys…. Being obeyed gives rise to the emotion of pride and delusion of ownership of the transcendental right to be obeyed, emotions that unavoidably lead to blindness with respect to the other and to abuse. …. relations of power are not social relations because they always entail the mutual negation of the subordinate and the master as human beings. ….Relations of power are defined by obedience, and, as I said above, obedience does not entail mutual acceptance. On the contrary, obedience entails mutual negation and pertains to a power system as a parasocial system, not to a social system. ' pp.98-99.

Ivan Illich, in tracing the transitional moment when people were robbed of their local vernacular form of speaking (Live Speech forms), identifies the scheming of Nebrija (in the year 1492) to convince Queen Isabella to impose a standardised Spanish language on the populace, and thus bring under state control the 'unbound and ungoverned speech in which people actually live their lives'. In other words, he was suggesting the establishment of a state monopoly over what was heretofore out of control. Illich comments -

'Nebrija clearly showed the way to prevent the free and anarchic development of printing technology, and exactly how to transform it into the evolving national state's instrument of bureaucratic control. ….
Here the first modern language expert advises the Crown on the way to make, out of a people's speech and lives, tools that befit the state and its pursuits. …The new state takes from people the words on which they subsist, and transforms them into the standardized language which henceforth they are compelled to use, each one at the level of education that has been institutionally imputed to him. Henceforth, people will have to rely on the language they receive from above, rather than to develop a tongue in common with one another. The switch from the vernacular to an officially taught mother tongue is perhaps the most significant - and, therefore, least researched - event in the coming of a commodity-intensive society.'

This offers a view of how the state deliberately set out to control and manipulate its people through the imposition of a 'standard language' form and the elimination of the idiosyncratic autonomous powers of the vernacular languages. In other words, it is a description of attempting to install Dead Speech forms and remove Live Speech networks, which by definition tend to be out of control.

The effect of an imposed institutional language (e.g. of being 'living commodities') impedes us in achieving a truly idiosyncratic conversational closure within our family systems of conversations. Or better, the form of closure that can be obtained is likely to be of a self-manipulative kind - one showing the symptoms of dead speech networks.

The following table will help to summarise the main argument in part 1 & 2 of this chapter.

Table summarising the argument of Bateson's Metalogue Issues

  The Three Bateson Metalogue Issues

Issue 1

Control Vs

Issue 2

Machine-Like Vs

Issue 3

Manipulative Vs

Criteria of Dead Speech
States of Abuse
People seen as Robots
Language Form -
of Consumption
of Extortion
of Exploitation
of Manipulation
Phenomena Witnessed Conscious Purpose Oppression Parasocial Relations

Forms of Relationship Implied

Criteria of Live Speech Networks PARTICIPATION
States of Viable
Human Satisfactions

People seen as
spontaneously creative

Language Form -
of Co-Evolution
of Genuine Relations
of Mutual Trust
of Positive Growth
of Co-operation
Phenomena Witnessed Spontaneity & Involvement Personal avowal & Responsibility Reciprocal Influencing
Forms of Relationship Implied Relations among Equals Relations of joint Creativity Relations of Mutuality



The above table outlines the minimal ingredients for generating a conversation that is oriented as a Live Speech Network. We can see that the relationships between the participants are based on interactions among equals, that they involve jointness of creativity and are based on the notion of mutuality. Such a relationship network is the context in which it is easy to bring forth a high degree of spontaneous involvement of the participants who are personally prepared to avow and take responsibility for what they are all doing together, and who are all open (to varying degrees) to their multidirectional flow of interpersonal influencing.

These are networks of conversations marked by a growing culture of participativeness, jointness, co-evolution and mutual trusting. Within which culture we find many important contexts for experiencing meaningful personal and interpersonal satisfactions.

At this point it is necessary to point out the need to get rid of a lot of the old ideological baggage still carted around by 'therapists' of many different persuasions. The first and most obvious baggage to throw away is the language of the 'profession', especially terms such as 'therapist', 'patient', 'client', 'therapy', 'psychotherapy' etc. None of these terms are relevant to those people who find that they need some help with reorganising their life and reconstructing their experiences. All of these terms have to do with older 'professional' or 'clique' games played out by the different interest groupings which currently fall under the title of 'psychotherapist'. As such they fall directly into the domain of commodity-speak and protectionist activities on the part of self-interested psychologists, psychiatrists and others. The terms 'psycho' and 'therapy' are like two ships that pass in the night. There is no 'therapy' that can be 'applied' to anything that is 'psycho'.

What is needed in the context where people believe that they 'need a hand' in order to revise, change or reconstruct their experiences is a domain in which they are free to experiment together in ways that generate novelty for them. The domain in question must be a new network of conversations, and this network must be characterised by those properties which I have now described as a Live Speech network.

So, 'therapists' (let us now call them conversational supervisors or facilitators)- in that they are all also formed by the same imposed social languaging as their 'patients' (let us now call them 'impatients' or 'complainants', since if they do not develop enough 'impatience' with their given node position they will never succeed in changing anything) - to the degree that they (the conversational supervisors) do NOT attempt to evolve alternative language critically different to that of the status quo language with its eviscerating amorality and baseness of values viewing humans only as 'customers', they cannot hope to see things differently from the way that their impatients or complainants see them. These conversational supervisors cannot help very much to extricate their impatients from their self-consuming conversational traps. The supervisors cannot even see these traps, since they are also inside the same traps.

So if 'therapy' (let us now call it 'conversational praxis for change' - or more simply, 'conversations for change') is to be of any use at all, it must be so in the way that it changes the networks of conversations - the languaging - in which persons and their problems are configured as a problem in languaging.

From what we have seen so far, it is clear that the domain of such conversational praxis is one where the conversations are essentially out of control. They are out of control in that within each conversation we are unable to see the outlines of what may be going on as a whole; the participants are actively and spontaneously participative and highly involved; they are prepared to make creative leaps and novel experiments together; they are able to find a new basis for developing mutual trust and co-operation; they find the possibilities for changing their interactional relations together in a new pattern which changes things for everyone involved; they are able to experience with satisfaction their own idiosyncratic sense of meaningfulness in relationships and joint projects; and damaging uses of imposed power, hierarchical position and centralised control give way to relations of mutuality, consensuality and equality.

Perhaps the best image for this form of conversational supervision and praxis is that of the 'swarm' system described by Kevin Kelly (1994).

'A network swarm is all edges and therefore open ended any way you come at it. Indeed, the network is the least structured organization that can be said to have any structure at all. It is capable of infinite rearrangements, and of growing in any direction without altering the basic shape of the thing, which is really no outward shape at all. ….
There are a variety of swarm topologies, but the only organization that holds a genuine plurality of shapes is the grand mesh. In fact, a plurality of truly divergent components can only remain coherent in a network. No other arrangement - chain, pyramid, tree, circle, hub - can contain true diversity working as a whole. This is why the network is nearly synonymous with democracy …' [Kevin Kelly, p.34]

This is also why I like to use the term 'network' for the description 'network of conversations'. It is an image of a swarming unpredictability moving continuously towards new emergent properties.

What is it like to live in one of these flowing nets? The experience is already available to us, since this is how we live. Problems arise for us when we feel obliged to think about our existence in nets as if we were living in the brutal world of control hierarchies - in dictatorships, in relationships of powerlessness to oppressors, in bureaucracies, under 'religious' controls, etc.

The Centerless Self-Organisation of Self-Healing Conversations

The whole point in creating Live Speech networks of conversations is to be able to generate a new psychological space for co-existence together. This type of conversational ecology is characterised by the images of a Swarming, Centerless, Uncontrolled, Dispersed, Directionless, Flowing, Form Of Motion which is at the same time Self-Organizing. It has the qualities of being Open, Improvisational, Participative, Relational, Democratic, Polyphonic, Unpredictable and Generative.

Conversations have to be understood as supra-individual - as third-order systems of organizing forms which give a pattern and directionality to the 'individuals' in social processes together. Thus the idea of two 'individuals' ('therapist' and 'patient') sitting together in a private room engaging in 'psychotherapy' is an idea full of misguided, misleading and just simply nonsensical images.

So change conversations must be of an improvised nature. They must contain the ingredients of dealing with the UnForeseen; of not being able to look ahead (‘vedere lontano’); of not being able to have ‘prevision’ of the dangers; of not being able to act with prudence {controlling, steering}, or with the kind of ‘attention’ that we imagine we are able to professionally guarantee, or the kind of ‘cura’ or ‘caring’ that we believe is central to a ‘therapist-patient’ relationship; nor can we provide any type of ‘divine availability or presence’ {Expert, Godlike, Guruness}; nor can we make available requisite ‘resources’ ,where the client does not have enough.

In other words, none of the usual expectations of 'therapists' and 'patients' regarding the usual fantasised ‘therapeutic relationship’ can be realised, or, even if realised, cannot be useful or efficient as perturbing changes.



Gregory Bateson (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Ballantine Books: New York., p.146

Michel Foucault (1971). L'Ordre du Discours. Gallimard : Paris.

Ivan Illich (1980). Vernacular Values. The CoEvolution Quarterly, Summer, pp.22 - 49.

George Kelly (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. 2 Vols. Norton : New York.

Kevin Kelly (1994). Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines. Fourth Estate: London.

Humberto Maturana (1989 ). H. R. Maturana , speaking in interview with Marianne Krull, "Basic Concepts of the Theory of Autopoietic Systems", Systemic Studies ,Vol. 1, 1989, pp. 79-104.

A.J. Mills & S.J. Murgatroyd (1991). Organizational Rules. OUP.

Alan Sheridan (1980). Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth. London: Tavistock.

David Smail (1993) The Origins of Unhappiness Harper Collins. See Chapter 4 - Case Study: the 1980s

H. von Foerster (1984). Observing Systems. Intersystems Publications, Seaside, CA, 2nd. Edition.

Francisco Varela (1979). Principles of Biological Autonomy . North Holland, New York and Oxford.


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