In German we say that something is the case by saying “es stimmt”—it’s the same locution as to “tune” a piano, ein Klavier stimmen. It’s on pitch. This is in fact our sensation when we search for a word or action, or go back and correct something that seems false to us. We are bringing our actions into unison with an unseen postulate. People acting or interacting with each other are like boats where somebody has a hand on the tiller. The boat go where they go; we can show after the fact where this was, but we can’t predict more than a certain amount. No outsider can look at the patterns of the boat’s wake and conclude that this was the only possible pattern it could have taken. In any conversation, I could have said a dozen things that would have kept the boat moving in almost the same direction—which is to say, where the variations would have been uninteresting (we needn’t have talked about exactly the things we talked about). And yet at each moment, I could have pushed the boat in another direction, or the other person, who wasn’t part of my program, could have done so, and I would have had to react. If the boat had gone in another direction, that would have opened up a dozen more things for that moment, and a dozen for the moment beyond that, and more beyond that. After the fact the pattern it takes seems fixed, but in fact it wasn’t while it was unfolding.
That most boats keep a straight course most of the time rather than flitting all over is merely something we realize, not something that has to be. Or rather, what is, is. We learn how people are in “most boats” or “most of the time.” We come to learn what the bounds of predictability will be: a child can appear before us suddenly missing a tooth, and we say merely, “I see you lost your tooth.” We have learned that that’s not unusual. Sometimes even we don’t know what to expect. Why is John happy one moment and sad the next? If we know him to be bipolar (manic-depressive, as we once said) we’re not surprised—but outsiders might be. Those unfamiliar with autism might find the demeanor of my autistic daughter strange. I do not.
Sometimes we’re aware of our hand on the tiller, but usually not. And by definition most other people aren’t, most of the time. To the extent they are, it’s because they know the world, have experiences that tell them someone’s story isn’t holding together, someone else is upset, someone has other motives than he says: they’ve paid attention to surfaces. Patterns will form, or not: they help us process what we see. Being alive to surfaces is its own end.
Consider the things in any given moment that are shot at an invisible target that we can nonetheless determine has been hit or not; we can further determine whether we need to try it again. None of this is subjected to analysis, nor is it rendered in the terms of an inflexible notation system such as science is. Typing this sentence, for example: there is no visible target of “what I mean to say,” but I can control the words as I write them, and correct as they come out, or after. And I know when I’ve achieved what I “meant to say”—which doesn’t exist until I pull it from the ether. We can ask for what I “meant to say” in any given instance, the way we can find scientific principles to graph any situation (though it takes a lot of looking) but in this time we are refusing to do the same with countless other things, including the terms we are considering.
Or consider: Suddenly, on day, I have the nagging itch that I suddenly understand something about the points I am making here that I had not understood before. This sense moves me downstairs to the computer where I open my file and find the place I need to be, or as here, just begin typing in a blank spot in fear of losing the idea. This idea leads me to another, it may be, and this to yet another—or perhaps it sputters out after one and needs several days to be kicked into life again. In any case, how do I know what which one feels like, whether to go on, whether there is more to be mined at that particular time, or not? Much the same way as I know how long a handshake is appropriate with whom: that’s what it feels like. Others can’t share our sense of achieving or not achieving the goal, and we lack a step-function like scientific diagram that applies to this.
How can I aim at just the right tone of irony in my voice to respond to something my wife has said to me? How do I know if I’ve achieved it? How can I modulate my tone if I sense it’s coming out too strong? What is “irony” in tone of voice? Perhaps we could come up with a measurement expressed in the blank givens of a mechanical description system (something about sound waves and tilt of the head)—but how can we vary this to explain why more or less irony is required because of the fact that we have already had this discussion three times in the last two days? What if it had been only two? How do we program a machine to take account of that? Perhaps we can, if we realize it’s a factor. But we can never program everything: perhaps we’ve both seen the same movie the day before in which an ironic tone of voice was used: I’m quoting some of that tone or the words, say. Fine: we can play catchup ball and put some variability into the system for “saw same movie yesterday.” How about “saw same movie, but one partner was tired and wasn’t paying attention”? We can never foresee all the things that affect interactions and put them on a grid.