Recently, Alana and I were both invited to speak at a symposium on Paul Ricoeur and Hannah Arendt in Oxford. Because Alana would be going right on the heels of giving a paper at another conference (the Nordic Society for Philosophy of Religion, meeting in Stockholm), and because our reading and knowledge of the two writers in question has been quite different (Alana knows more about Arendt than I do, while I have done more work on Ricoeur) we decided to present one co-written paper. We have worked together before—we have co-presented in seminars as postgraduate students and since, we edit one another’s writing, we discuss topics of mutual interest, we have this blog, etc.—but this would be our first officially co-written piece of scholarship. We were not exactly sure what was going to happen.
For our paper, we investigated Ricoeur’s reading and use of Arendt’s work. Both thinkers were interested in narratives and the way that people tell stories about their lives: Ricoeur wrote in several places about the way that Arendt connected narrative to action. Ricoeur also pointed to Arendt’s idea that promising and forgiving help to make the continuation of human action possible, and referred to her discussion of natality (that birth marks ever-new possibility for hopeful human action). At the heart of all the connections between the two of them, though, lay the phenomenon of human plurality. The fact that humanity consists of an incredible diversity of people, with no two persons seeing the world in exactly the same way, and no one expressing themselves precisely like another, leads to the rich variety of human life in the world, including so many different stories, languages, cultures, histories, faith traditions, and more. Multiplicity in viewpoints complicates relationships among human beings; thus human plurality makes politics necessary, as well as translation and interpretation. However, the real potential for conflict that appears with the acknowledgement of diversity is not in itself a bad thing to either Arendt or Ricoeur. Both view human plurality as a source of hope and possibility. For Arendt, the reality of human plurality provides the opportunity to share with others in storytelling, as well as experiencing the joys which can come from being with other people. Ricoeur writes of diversity as creating the potential for hospitality, for attending to the different perspectives of others in a way that may enrich your own, and for building strength into relationship by seeking mutuality—recognising that another person is truly other, not someone to be absorbed or assimilated but who could potentially alter the way you are in the world for the better.
When Alana and I began to write the paper, we thought—or at least I thought—that this would involve a relatively straightforward process: write a block of text and then hand it over to the other person for a while; continue until done, with frequent breaks to discuss what had been written, what might come next, and what should be edited. But before all of that we would sit down together and talk about the shape we wanted the paper to take. However, that is not quite the way that writing the paper turned out. For one thing, time has a way of altering plans. Alana’s preparation for the conference in Sweden meant that we did not have as much time to talk over the Ricoeur/Arendt paper as we might have hoped. We ended up doing the bulk of the actual writing while we were in different countries, something possible thanks to to the internet. More significantly, perhaps, Alana and I write differently. I usually take a great deal of time thinking and jotting down notes about a project, then drafting an outline, then writing the piece from its beginning. Even if the introduction I write is horrible, bloated, or both, I need to write it before getting on to the body of the work—which means that my beginnings always require the most editing. Alana, on the other hand, is not really one for detailed outlines and notes, nor does she have as much of a problem starting in the middle and writing the beginning later. Because of all this, co-authoring the paper started off more slowly and haphazardly than either of us had imagined.
Then, with each of us watching the other’s words appear as if by magic on our screens (thank you, Google Drive) something strange began to happen. The way we were writing the paper began to change so that our blocks of text grew shorter, and what we wrote became responsive to one another’s words. Our questions and comments to one another while chatting about the paper began to be incorporated in the actual text we were composing; even our interjections transformed from being notes that we assumed we would delete to part of what we were going to say in the symposium. In short, our paper turned into an actual dialogue.
This was not just a style or a form for us. It meant that the paper went in directions we never expected it to go. It meant that Alana and I queried one another’s thoughts and assumptions, and made one another look at our topic differently. As her ideas opened my eyes to other angles on the connection of Ricoeur and Arendt, Alana changed my mind (something which worked in the other direction too, I hope). I would be fooling myself if I said that this was easy, because sometimes it was exasperating—how could she have a different view on x than I did, or how could what I wrote about y lead to that conclusion? But as we worked together we came up with something different than what either of us would have produced alone, something new.
And that is the hope which comes from human plurality.
(Writing the paper together was fun, too, in the end. We plan on trying it again sometime.)