Conversations are inherently unstable. Even old-fashioned correspondences via the post office. John writes Mark a letter. John has given Mark a gift. Mark now owes John a letter. Being a decent fellow, Mark writes and posts a return letter.
Now they’re even, don’t you think? Each has given the other something. The slate is clear.
But wait. Mark has asked a question. "How are you?" Or he has indicated an interest in John’s work or hobby or family.
So while the material exchange is even – each has sent and received a letter – there is now an outstanding query. Mark, anyway, feels the expectation of a response from John. He awaits it.
If John is attentive (and wants to continue the relationship), he understands the expectation, feels the tug of its obligation.
In this way, the exchange is unstable, demanding another volley, another note. The same is true, it seems, of ordinary conversations, phone calls, emails, or texts.
Hence, the salutation, “Later,” as in “We’ll pick this up again later.”
The fact of instability could be discouraging.
On the other hand, it also keeps relationships going. Just think of what would happen if John and Mark were ever even, fully square. They’d feel no need again to write, to talk, to visit.
I wonder whether this perpetual incompleteness of exchange has anything to do with the Freudian separation-attachment problem.
We all begin life attached to our mothers; indeed, in the beginning we are our mothers.
But to be the persons we are we must have separated from her, not only left her body but left her sphere, grown up, matured, fledged.
Then again, as separate beings we must retain some attachment to others, some connections. But the connections cannot be complete. For if they were, we’d lose ourselves, we’d dissolve into the other. We’d cease to be.
In this way, the separation-attachment problem, like the perpetual incompleteness of exchange, propels human experience, gets us out of bed in the morning, moves us out the door into the day.
And it gets us to return to home at the end of it.
We are thus caught in a negative-feedback system, constantly oscillating somewhere between the poles. And isn't that like the exchange between John and Mark? The two flirt with resolution but never achieve it. Perfect resolution would end the relationship. If there is a relationship, it must go on.
Completing a cycle of exchange is a sort of separation: if it is even, we are done. But like an actual separation from our caregiving mothers, such a break produces anxiety. That moves us to return. So we add a message, offer another gesture, keep the connection alive.
Each message is a return to attachment, each answer a bid for separation.
And each sortie is both. John sends a note in the interests of connecting but also of liberating himself from the obligation, which amounts to attachment. He responds to Mark for the same reason. Each missive is an effort to connect and distance at the same time.
In inventing our own humanity – by which I mean the requirement as a species of cultural information to complete us, the necessity of prolonged childhood, the need for others in our lives even as we need to be independent of them – humans have crafted a sort of paradox, built into our sociality a basic contradiction.
The tendency in rational thought is to regard contradiction as a problem, a flaw. In this case, however, the flaw is perfection itself, at least in terms of our humanity, for it enables our being.