In memory of John Shotter [Marcelo Pakman and Pietro Barbetta]

In memory of John Shotter [Marcelo Pakman and Pietro Barbetta]

John Shotter died yesterday in England.

A large framed, tender man, he grew up in a household with only one book and came to make ofbooks his favorite dwelling.
He knew hard physical jobs and tried directing theater before becoming an academic in the areas of psychology and communication. He fiercely struggled with ideas to express always something else about his rhetoric-responsive approach to human communication, the “knowledge from within” lived situations, and dialogism, a thread that guided his otherwise numerous interests all along. A scholar of Bakhtin, Vygotsky and Wittgenstein, he had no patience for the appropriation of ideas by trademarks and in his infatigable prolific writing managed to influence many fields, family therapy one his favorites among them. Over the last 25 years we knew each other our paths remain parallel and first in New Hampshire at his house by the lake, in midway points between our places in New England and later in England, we met enthusiastically to discuss in our different ways of signaling a common territory, as he liked to say. We continued met meeting in seminars, roundtables and workshops we gave together in Italy, Spain, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and México, always an excuse for a broader encounter to spin ideas about the worldly and the unworldly, eluding carefully a small talk he rejected preferring instead Scottish whiskey for the breaks that never really happened. A unique human being of a subtle spirit, a lion of thought behind his timid appearance. I, as many others, will miss him greatly.
Marcelo Pakman

La scomparsa di John Shotter

Abbiamo perso John Shotter, uno dei più lucidi pensatori nel campo sistemico-relazionale: filosofo, psicologo sociale, tra i suoi libri ricordiamo Cultural Politics od Everyday Life e Conversational Realities. Dopo avere aderito al movimento del costruzionismo sociale, Shotter si è allontanato da questo modello teorico spostando la sua attenzione dal linguistic turn – la svolta linguistica in filosofia – al corporeal turn, sviluppando un nuovo modo di pensare, con riferimento alle teorie letterarie e in particolare al concetto di “polifonia”, espresso dal pensatore russo Michail Bachtin. All’inizio degli anni Novanta fu chiamato a insegnare all’Università del New Hampshire, negli Stati Uniti, dove si sarebbe dovuto sviluppare un programma di dottorato intorno al suo pensiero, ci rimase per oltre dieci anni, poi si ritirò rientrando a Londra. Ho avuto modo di incontrarlo in differenti occasioni, la conversazione con lui era sempre intorno a teorie filosofiche e antropologiche, oltre a Bachitn, uno dei suoi punti di riferimento era Wittgenstein.
Lo ricordo in un brillante colloquio a Philadelphia nel 1993, al Congresso dell’American Society for Cybernetics, insieme con John Lannaman, Humberto Maturana e il compianto Ernst von Gasersfeldt. Lo ricordo anche, diversi anni dopo, all’Università di Bergamo durante un Convegno organizzato da me, insieme a Marcelo Pakman. Infine mi piace ricordare alcune giornate in cui fui suo ospite, con mio figlio, presso casa sua, in un bosco del New Hampshire, presso un piccolo lago. John era un tipo schivo, ma molto loquace, arrivava subito al punto e diceva quel che pensava fino in fondo, come si addice a un eretico. Cosa rara, preziosa, che non sempre giova, ma che ha suscitato fin da subito la mia personale ammirazione.
Pietro Barbetta

There are no words more meaningful about John Shotter’s being in this world as a scholar and a human being, about the ways in which he spoke and wrote with such passion, earnestness and a bit of wry humor about things that are mostly unsayable about communication than his own. This is a passage from one of my favorite pieces of his, on Wittgenstein and what is not hidden:

In setting them out, rather than attending to language considered in terms of previously existing patterns or systems, formed from ‘already spoken words’, I have focused upon the formative uses to which ‘words in their speaking’ can be put. My concern has been with the nature of the relationships and relational situations thus created between those in communicative contact with each other in their speakings. Such a focus attends precisely to the political influences at work in deciding the form of connections and contacts made, the possibilities and tendencies they open up, and those they close down. Within systems of already spoken words (in what one might call already-decided- forms-of-talk), those tense moments of uncertainty and instability, when the constructing of those possibilities is decided, is ignored. We study only what has been done, the implications in the system of possibilities already decided – and we can do that as isolated individuals. But we were excluded from the originary interplay of voices that decided the system; if we are not content to live out, or ‘work out’, its possibilities, we find ourselves powerless to do other than complain. Thus, if we want actively to enter into the constructing of our own forms of life, then we must both: i) locate those sites, those moments when, in the interplay of voices, our voice can count; and, ii) increase our grasp of what what-we-do does (with apologies to Foucault, 1982, p.187). And my concern here today, has been with the ways of talking, the practical means appropriate to a more dialogical way for us, still as professional academics, of conducting our affairs that is not so exclusive of all the others around us.

Throughout his life as an academic, John Shotter’s conversations about conversation transcended the violence (as he called it) of the monologues and theories of academia.  I will continue to hear his words when I think, write and teach. 

Mariaelena Bartesaghi, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Communication
University of South Florida
CIS 1040, 4202 E. Fowler Ave
Tampa, FL 33620

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