Joint Attention and Conversational Cooperation
Insights from the Fire and the Conch
Posted May 28, 2018
Our previous article referred to an essential “fire” that conversational norms seek to protect, and we we will now unpack this idea and its relation to language further below. We noted two interconnected properties of this fire: trust and truth. While we have specific links to joint attention and epistemic luck in mind, these themes have been artfully explored in William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies (1954) in ways that will nicely identify some of the issues that will interest us here.
Golding weaves together themes of chaos, order, and human nature in an insightful and haunting story that recalls images of life in a state of nature. A central symbol of the story is the conch shell, which is baptized as a rule-bearing prop to regulate meetings amongst the lost boys. Golding here emphasizes the essential role linguistic cooperation plays in preserving social order, and what happens when the subtle bond of linguistic trust is lost. Importantly, cooperation on the island is first gained and first lost with the baptism and subsequent shattering of the conch shell. In ironical fashion one of the boys says:
“We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages. We’re English, and the English are best at everything. So we’ve got to do the right things.” - Jack
The first and most important project the boys commit to using the power of the conch is to create and maintain a fire to secure a rescue from the island.
“There’s another thing. We can help them to find us. If a ship comes near the island they may not notice us. We must make smoke on top of the mountain. We must make a fire.” -Ralph
Despite the fundamental importance of the fire, we miss much of Golding’s message unless we see that any hope for rescue on the island is both born and lost with the baptism and later shattering of the conch shell. Maintaining the fire is ultimately more important for the boys than honoring the linguistic norm of the conch per se, but Golding is clear that a well-functioning conch convention is necessary for the boys to achieve their ultimate goal, so the conch is quite close to the fire itself. Golding clearly shows that norms governing linguistic activity are not to be dismissed as mere etiquette.
Lord of the Flies begins with a plane crash on a deserted island carrying adults and a number of their male children, unfortunately killing all the adults and leaving the boys to see to their own provision. Most important, the boys must arrange their own rescue from the island without the benefit of any existing authority structure. If the boys do not create their own social order, they fall to chaos, and most likely an undignified and early death. Most interesting for our purposes, rules specifying important forms of linguistic propriety are the beginnings of the needed order. Early on, Jack finds a conch shell that washes up on shore and finds that he can make a loud noise by blowing the conch, bringing a number of other curious boys to the scene. On the spot, the boys decide to have a first assembly and collectively designate the conch shell as a conversational license to speak at subsequent assemblies. Whoever has the conch can speak at assemblies. With just this much order in place, the boys can now plan and plot their escape from chaos. The assembly brings the selection of a leader and an agreement that subsequent assemblies will plan to create and maintain a fire to abet their rescue from chaos and death.
While the conch clearly functions as a conversational norm on the island, it is a far cry from a full set of rules specifying conversational propriety, or even the general “conversational maxims” noted by Paul Grice and explored further below (and in our next article). There is, however, a dialectical point to the sparseness of the conch norm. The basic form of linguistic cooperation required by the conch points to something fundamental in human social life. Golding emphasizes the unique importance of linguistic cooperation and joint attention as such, not the details that become entrenched with matured linguistic conventions over time. Conch-consciousness and the forms of cooperation it supports are a floor on which any further success depends for the boys on the island.
The order created by the conch aims to keep chaos at bay, but the reliable cooperation of “parties to the conch” must maintain the fire once it starts. The fire-maintaining forms of cooperation sustained by the conch point to important forms of joint attention in contemporary psychology and linguistics, in particular in the work of Grice and the field of Pragmatics. There is a common point in both and this is where we find a common interest with Golding; conversational cooperation reduces our reliance on luck. Golding does not provide the psychological details, but we aim to do so. He does offer a stark reminder of the deep moral and social significance of maintaining and integrating reliable routines of conversational attention. Like the conch, these reliable forms of conversational attention keep us from a kind of chaos we had better avoid.
The life of the conch is short. Before long, Jack Merridew has convinced a number of boys to deny the authority of the conch and to form a rival clan. Only Piggy continues to insist on respecting the authority of the conch and he soon meets his end in a 30 foot fall from a cliff. The conch is shattered by Jack’s crew, the island descends into savagery, the fire dwindles away, and chants to “kill the pig, cut her throat, spill her blood” overtake the more dignified conch assemblies they once enjoyed. In an amazing turn of luck, a Naval ship passes by, notices the boys, and they are rescued in the end.
Our concern is not with the symbol of authority Golding gives us in the Naval rescue, but that the boys’ rescue from chaos depended on luck. It stands to reason that when we succeed in maintaining conversational norms, as the boys were unable to do, we typically do better than what luck alone would return. Had it been that the boys were rescued because the fire they actually maintained was spotted, their rescue would be a non-lucky success. This is the kind of success humans generally aim for, and one reason we bother to take aim at all. Robust conversational norms make us less reliant on luck in many life endeavors, and to that extent we are better off than the boys on the island once the conch is shattered.
Moving our attention off the island, social norms, conventions, private sanctions, and enforceable laws are all familiar ways in which we define and enforce conversational norms. The field of Pragmatics in linguistics studies this important facet of language, rather than syntax, grammar, or semantics. Paul Grice developed a detailed “logic of conversation” to explain the basic structure of linguistic communication, including a broad Cooperative Principle, specific “conversational maxims”, and a new semantic category called “implicature”. We will continue to focus on Grice and recent work in linguistics and epistemology in the next series of articles, but we see a useful and familiar image of our going concern in Golding’s story, specifically in the symbol of the conch and its relation to the fire. Looking forward, we argue that the forms of attention that enable broad conformity to Gricean conversational maxims are luck reducing, they allow us to do better than what luck brings our way by focusing our energy to mutually beneficial actions, and to avoid the kind of future the boys on the island would have faced, good luck notwithstanding.
If we can identify a reliable luck-reducing toolbox of attentional routines in pragmatics, this should illuminate the proper understanding of luck for use in contemporary debates in ethics and epistemology.
- Abrol Fairweather, Carlos Montemayor, and Harry H. Haladjian
Authors' Note (AF): The interpretation of the conch above was inspired in part by the legendary teacher Rose Gilbert. Our thanks to her great work and lasting impact. Read more in the LA Daily News and in the Hollywood Reporter describing how Gilbert inspired J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars character 'Maz'.
Golding, William, and Edmund L. Epstein. Lord of the Flies: A Novel. New York: Perigee, 1954.