13 The virtual other: accounting for protodialogue
In 1970 a discovery is made in a tiny film projection room at MIT. Between breastfeeding of her own newborn daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson (1975; 1984) spends hours studying and analysing films and tapes of newborn infants and their mothers. Picking out a series of brief passages in the films and analysing them frame by frame, and also doing acoustic analyses of the infant vocalizations, she demonstrates that infant within a scant month after birth is able to establish a pattern of interaction with the mother in a kind of flowing alternation of gestures and expressions. This pattern she later terms "protoconversation". It allows for description in the metaphor of the dance and has come to be recognized also by other observers of interaction in infancy. Colwyn Trevarthen (1980:319) confirms and illustrates such patterns by filmed sequences that show how expressions are coordinated between mother and infant in the second month, exhibiting precisely timed turn taking and coincidence of expressions. Even in the opening weeks of life the infant and caretaker seem to establish co-ordination and soon come to exhibit cyclical patterns of replication and complement of expressive acts. The newborn seems ready to engage in reciprocal communication which exhibits patterns of turn taking and apparently, even imitation. The latter seems difficult to account for in the input-output terms of two information-processing systems externally linked via their input-output devices. Considering various information processing models, Elizabeth Bates (1979:332) finds none that may account for imitation, and considers it a mystery, for instance, how imitation of tongue protrusion may be accomplished by the infant.
This may seem a mystery only as long as attempts to account for it are locked to a preconception of two interacting information processing systems with input-output linkages, or considered in terms of two monadic organisms, separated by the boundary of their skin, each organizationally closed and only externally coupled in a medium. As I shall attempt to indicate, there need be no mystery, if, instead, the infant and mother (or caretaker), in virtue of an inherent dyadic organization, are seen to be able to constitute one organizationally closed system, capable of generating patterns of reciprocity and protoconversation. The principle to be proposed, which is a dialogic version of the biological systems principle of operational closure (autopoiesis), stripped of its monadic character, will be seen to imply that a dialogic kind of operational closure is to be expected from mother-infant dyads, exhibiting patterns conforming to a protodialogic form.
Postulating the dialogic mind involving virtual alter
Autopoiesis or the operational closure of living systems
The principle of autopoiesis (operational closure) is formulated by Maturana and Varela (1980) in the cellular gestalt of self-formation. In this biological approach to cognition as a self-organizational phenomenon is considered to be "concealed through such magic words as [...] symbolization" (Maturana 1980:56).
In contrast to a physical symbol system, an autopoietic system does not have inputs or outputs; its organization involves processes which are self-productive and non-symbolic, "interlaced in the specific form of a network of production of components which realizing the network that produced them constitute it as a unity" (Maturana and Varela 1980: 80-81). This defines the identity of an individual, A, as distinct from the phenomenology that this entity, once constituted, can generate in its interaction, say, with B, and which depends on the interaction of such unities in the media in which they exist, i.e. through structural couplings.
Accounts in terms of mediated structural couplings appear insufficient, however, when applied to the protoconversational patterns between infants and mothers (or caretakers) studied by Trevarthen (1980; 1986) and others. Such patterns seem to indicate a kind of unmediated coherence. One may try to account for it in terms of a prior medium to which both have access or in which both exist, for example, in virtue of eternal objects, as proposed by Alfred North Whitehead, who allows for presentational immediacy between a preceding and a succeeding self-creative process; or, in terms of a common ground of creation, as suggested by Leibniz, or a common Lifeworld or a consensual domain (Maturana's term). But they stipulate the monadic unity from the outset.
Ego and alter -- virtual and actual
If a dialogic helix is postulated, however, to be already in operation in each of the participants, then, in virtue of this inherent dyadic organization infant and adult may combine with each other in an immediate manner to form another dialogic helix. I submit that such a circular dyadic organization is the primary characteristic of the individual mind, involving the initial participation of the virtual other, in the place of which the actual other may step into the dialogic circle while the identifying form of the dialogical maintains itself.
This allows one to consider the individual, once constituted, and the phenomenology which this individual generates in her interaction in terms of the same dialogic form involving, respectively, her virtual and actual other.
Let Ego and Alter be the names of two participant perspectives such that the Alter perspective complements the Ego perspective. Let a star * mark the complement as virtual, and the absence of such a star mark Alter as actual. Then we may say:
(i) Ego with Alter (A) constitutes an intersubjective unity of understanding
(ii) Ego with Virtual Alter (*A) constitutes a subjective unity of understanding.
If this is assumed, then the subject qua unity of understanding may be considered to have the constitutive dialogic form of intersubjective understanding.
The primary participation of the virtual other is attributed to the domain (i) of the individual, allowing for a dialogic circle, the basic form of which is maintained in the domain (ii) of (pro)dialogue involving an actual other, through the latter's "taking the place" of the virtual other while the unitary form of the dialogical is maintained.
The virtual intersubjective circle in the participant, involving the participation of the virtual other's viewpoint, allows for the actual other to step into the circle without any qualitative shift with respect to forms pertaining to the new phenomenological domain. The virtual other is merely passivated and replaced by the actual other, that is, the complementary perspective of the actual other may be taken by virtue of the complementary perspective of the virtual other. The defining organization of the dialogic circle involving two complementary perspectives may continue without loss of its defining characteristics.
For this to be a (proto)conversational network, it has to allow for the participation of the complementary perspective of the other, be it the actual or virtual other.
Patterns to be expected involving the infant
The above postulate implies that the infant by virtue of its primary dialogic organization, involving the virtual other, should be able to combine with an actual other to form an operationally closed organization that exhibit patterns which the observer will characterize as protoconversational or protodialogical, even at stages prior to the genesis of any linguistic medium for conversation. Such characteristic patterns of conversation include turn-taking and following up gestures by repeating, continuing and completing them. The path of inferences from the postulate is this:
(1) The characteristics of mind, as realized by the individual or by individuals in relation, have the form of the dialogical.
(2) The primary organization of the mind is intersubjective, involving the participation of the actual or virtual other.
(3) In virtue of the primary organization of mind, the mother-infant dyad will exhibit the form of the (proto)dialogical through the closed operation of one organization.
Let the position and ego-perspective of the newborn baby be denoted B, and let A denote the position and perspective of the adult mother or substitute care person. According to the proposed principle, there are circuits in the baby that involve the immediate co-presence of the virtual other, *A, in the complementary format of B with *A, and which, in the presence of an actual other, A, may involve the actual other in the same operational format -- not as externally coupled and re-presented, but as allowing the primary dialogic organization to be realized in a self-organizational concert, now formed by B with A. This enables the baby to constitute with the adult an operationally closed dyad by including the adult, as the baby's actual other, in the space of the baby's virtual other, thereby re-creating the operationally closed format of the baby's inherent dyadic organization.
The principle does not 'forbid' the adult in caring control to bring to bear upon the interaction the culture into which she invites the infant to participate; during her caregiving she will resort to language means and may activate and reflect upon images of herself and the baby. This makes for asymmetric interaction. But if the principle is assumed, then it implies that there is an innate capacity in both the infant and the adult to take part in an immediate dialogic "dance" with actual others.
The neonate has already had months of experience of being in rhythmic synchronization with the medium in which he has existed prior to birth. But this is not an experience that prepares for the praxis of reciprocity in interaction, such as listening and responding with a complementary gesture to the gesture of the other and, perhaps more difficult, responding to a gesture with a similar gesture, such as smiling or raising a hand. The proposed principle implies that acts of complementing and completing the acts of the actual other will come easier to the infant than acts of imitating, that is to say, responding in a complementary manner will be easier than responding in a copying manner. The virtual other is not only an operational prerequisite, but a felt perspective, an unoccupied, yet efficient room that waits occupation, an as yet unrealized otherness that seeks to be realized by the actual other taking his or her internal place in the dialogic circle.
In relation to the culture into which the neonate is born, he is still an 'outsider', to use M.C. Bateson's (1984:172) term, albeit it has been developed over the generations in a manner that allows him gradually to come to understand it through continued interaction with bearers of the culture. But in order that this understanding, and with it, his own embeddedness in culture, can come to develop through socializing interaction, the neonate must somehow be capable of participating in interaction without access to the mediating means to which he will come to have access. The mediating means and the cultural history which the adult brings to bear in her interaction with the neonate, may be seen as necessary conditions for the control that the adult may exercise and for the process whereby the infant gradually comes to acquire the key to the storehouse of linguistic means and cultural history which the adult brings to bear on the interaction. But these are hardly sufficient conditions. The self-organizing processes necessarily involve the neonate as something more than a reactive bundle being controlled and gradually socialized by the adult.
Perhaps it takes a Copernican kind of paradigmatic shift to consider the postnatal organism as combining to form one organizationally closed system with the mother, or, with a substitute care person, rather than being regarded as some separate organism in interaction with another. But this is no dramatic shift of viewpoint, if one pauses to consider, as pointed out by Sinclair (personal communication 1986), that the prenatal child constitutes with the mother an instance of another organizationally closed system, albeit then realized by one body inside another.
Protoconversation by one organization, not two
Turn-taking and coincidence of expressions is to be expected of the mother-infant dyad, while the lack of such occurrences would count as disconfirming instances of the principle. The adult may step into and complete the circuit of the child's brain through occupying the ready-made place of the virtual other. A many-faceted asymmetry is involved. First, the adult may take the leading part. Second, the infant, the caretaker, as well as the dyad they constitute, can be objects of symbolic representations and reflection in the caretaker, but not in the neonate; neither is required nor implied by the postulate.
It allows for the implication that complementary acts and modi indicating reciprocity should come natural to the neonate since the adult can step into a ready made circuit for "dialoguing". It does not require, nor in any way entail, that the neonate as an independent organization is able to imitate the gestures of another independent organization in order to establish such a "dance". What is required, is for this dialogic organization to be able to complete the circuits of its own on-going activities, allowing for a rhythmic pattern of piecemeal activities that repeat, complement and expand on one another.
The apparent immediate readiness of the newborn to engage in reciprocal communication which exhibits patterns of turn taking, complementarity and, even, imitation, indicates the beginning of what Trevarthen (1986) terms intersubjective understanding. He declares that the remarkable precocity of newborns for communication with the emotional and expressive states of other persons, indicates that human cerebral perceptuo-motor systems include a great set that has inherent specialization for engagement with mental processes in other human subjects; the newborn can be said to possess a rudimentary human 'self' and a capacity for intersubjectivity.
Above, this inherent intersubjectivity has been described in terms of a dyadic organization involving a complementary participant, labelled 'virtual Alter' as a part of the rudimentary self-other organization. By virtue of this primary organization, infant and mother, may combine to realize this inherent dialogic organization, by being the actual other to one another. Hence, the patterns of perfect timing, impressive imitations, and reciprocal follow up of gestures are natural patterns of one, albeit asymmetric, dialogic organization, completing its own operationally closed circuits, and not the outcome of two monologic and monadic organizations attempting to be in concert.
When Bates (1979:332) asks for convincing explanations of imitation, and Schaffer (1984: 25; 121) expresses considerable doubts about the presence of the ability of imitation in the neonatal period, this reflects the position of considering the infant and the adult as two independent centres of bodily organization and nervous systems, as, indeed, the very notion of 'imitation' entails. The proposed principle allows for the alternative consideration of the infant and mother (or caretaker) as one organizationally closed system with an inherent dyadic organization, capable of exhibiting patterns conforming to a protodialogic form. Then, what appears to the observer as turn-taking, complementary acts, and, even imitation, by two separate organism, may instead be seen as internally coordinated, complementing and replicating processes by virtue of the organizationally closed system realizing itself through the two bodies distinguished by the observer.
To an observer of two separate information-processing systems with input-output linkages, or of two organisms, each organizationally closed and only externally coupled, turn-taking will appear to be a feat, reciprocal acts a wonder, and imitation a mystery. If, on the other hand, this observer sees such patterns exhibited by one organism, observed to complete and repeat its own gestures in a rhythmic pattern, then the same observer may not be impressed, even though the embodied nervous system may involve, in another domain, the operations of two brain hemispheres, the asymmetry of which may be present already in the human neonate (Springer & Deutsch 1981:141).
I submit, then, that by virtue of the primary dyadic organization of mind the infant and the mother are capable in concert to exhibit patterns produced through the operational closure of one organization. The protoconversational pattern observed by M.C. Bateson and others may be attributed to an operationally closed system constituted by the mother and the infant in a circular and cyclical relation of immediacy. The virtual Alter, *A, in the circuitry of the infant in the primary form of the dialogical, is replaced by the adult qua actual Alter, A, while the primary form of one closed dyadic organization maintains itself. This is an operationally closed system, in which the dyadic organization of mother and infant involves processes that are self-creative and non-symbolic, interlaced in the specific network of processes which, realizing the network that generates them, constitute the systems as an operationally closed dyadic unity.
Thus, protoconversation is here conjectured to come about through the adult's "being invited to step into" the infant's dialogic circle. It actualizes itself in the domain of presentational immediacy where neither is re-presented to the other.
Such immediate protoconversations may contribute to the development of representations of self and of the other, that is to say, be part of the co-genesis of Self and of the generalized and represented Other, and, hence, for the construction of a linguistic consensual domain. The pattern labelled 'imitation' may play an important part in this process. When mothers from birth reflect back to their infants gestures and vocalizations which the infant has produced, and insert their own copy of the infant's production into a sequence of his repeated responses, and then greet with delight the similar response that appears as an imitation, certain productions by the infant will be endowed by communicative significance (Schaffer 1984). From such reflecting patterns, proper replication of linguistically significant productions may be expected to be stimulated, as part of the process of entering through protoconversation the gate to a shared linguistic horizon. This calls for the complementary account in terms of the cultural heritage and linguistic means of representations which the adult brings to bear on the process, considered in the domain of the adult in control of the process.
In line with G.H. Mead (1934) I have elsewhere attributed to conversational participants the capacity to simulate processes in the other as a basis for regulating own processes. The participant forms a meaningful intersubjective conversational dyad by anticipating the actual other's reaction to his act through calling up this reaction in himself while he is in the process of making the act, and he may modify his own reactions to the other's act by reconstructing the intention of the other. Such predictory and postdictory simulations of processes in others are enabled by his models of self and the other, as embedded in the situational frame (cf. Bråten 1973a; 1974; Rommetveit 1974). In this way, however, only intermediate relations can be accounted for in terms of access to symbolic media and background knowledge attributed to the participant(s) by the observer.
Through the complementary interlacing of processes attributed to these different domains, the participant child may be seen as coming to develop such re-presentations and knowledge packets enabling other-recognition and self-recognition and the symbolization and generalization of mediate others (cf. G.H.Mead 1934; Bates 1979). This requires representations, albeit not in the form of an "inner human being" which is seen by the mind's eye. The construction of Ego-Alter schemata involves complementary domains. The child's taking the perspective of actual others is no radical turn-about, involving a gradual "de-centering". According to the proposed principle there is an innate readiness to envelope the actual other in virtue of the primary participation of the virtual other.
Piaget's dictum, "Intelligence organizes its world by organizing itself", adopted in the radical constructivism of von Glasersfeld (1984; 1986), may be reconsidered here to involve the prior form of the dialogical in the felt immediacy of You: In accordance with the proposed principle, the virtual other is already involved in the co-construction and re-construction of the world and others in it. Thus, feeling organizes its field by organizing itself as a realized I-You unity. The primary organizational and constructive unity is assumed to be the unity of I and You, as my virtual or actual other. In Buber's terms:
The innate You is realized in the actual meeting of You.
1 Talk at the Bergen Workshop on Intersubjectivity and Communication (organized with Tordis Dalland Evans) at the Institute of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bergen, 20-26 Sept. 1987, abstracted from the article 'Dialogic mind: the infant and the adult in protoconversation', published in Nature, Cognition and System, I, ed. M.E. Carvallo. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988:187-205.