The We-Relationship

Schutz, Alfred. (1967). The Phenomenology of the Social World. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology & Existential Philosophy. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

The We-relationship occurs when two participants are aware of each other and interact for whatever brief a period of time. If I am standing next to you at a concert, for example, I can see you and be aware of your physical presence. While I cannot know your subjective experience or exactly what you are thinking about the performance we are witnessing, I do know that we are in the same environment, experiencing the same input. In this way, we can both say that “we” have seen that concert.

To explain how experiences of the Thou (see my last post on The Face-to-Face Situation and the Thou-Orientation) are rooted in the We-relationship, Schutz discusses the two senses of understanding what another person is saying in a conversation. “First of all I grasp the “objective meaning” of your words, the meaning which they would have had, had they been spoken by you or anyone else. But second, of course, there is the subjective meaning, namely, what is going on in your mind while you speak” (166). This situation is existent in all interactions one has with another in which concern for the subjective meaning is involved, regardless of the medium through which they are conversing. Therefore, all such interactions take place in the We-relationship.

The way that I can begin to understand the subjective meaning of another is to begin with the meaning of the spoken words and to that add an understanding of his or her bodily movement and gesture and then to inquire (in my own mind) why those particular words are being used.

For I get to your subjective meaning in the first place only by starting out with your spoken words as a given and then by asking how you came to use those words. … The We-relationship is spatial as well as temporal. It embraces the body of the other person as well as his consciousness. And because I grasp what is going on in his mind only through the medium of his perceived body movements, this Act of grasping is for me a lived experience that transcends my own stream of consciousness. (166-7).

Schutz elaborates on this idea of transcending one’s own stream of consciousness noting that it is really a shared stream of consciousness while two individuals are interacting. In order to reflect on the other person’s subjective meaning, I have to freeze my subjective experience.

If we are to bring the We-relationship into the focus of our attention, we must stop focusing on each other. But that means stepping out of the face-to-face relationship, because only in the latter do we live in the We. … [T]he greater my awareness of the We-relationship, the less is my involvement in it, and the less I am genuinely related to my partner. The more I reflect, the more my partner becomes transformed into a mere object of thought. (167).

To bring all of this into the consideration of the OVC, just like a FtF interaction, I am first aware of the objective meaning of the on-screen speaker’s words and must go through the same processes of reflection on the meaning of words and gestures to begin to gain an understanding of the subjective meaning. The largest difference is a temporal one; in order to reflect upon the meaning of a statement, I am not forced to remove myself (consciously) from the conversation in such a way as to miss subsequent statements. Rather, I can pause and rewind a statement to reflect on or re-experience it and potentially gain a fuller understanding of the entire group of statements. In such a video, I can then respond with a video recording, which the other participant experiences (assuming the video is actually watched, which raises other issues of assurance) and goes through the same reflection process. “The pure We-relationship involves our awareness of each other’s presence and also the knowledge of each that the other is aware of him” (168).

In the OVC setting, this mutual awareness does not occur in the same way as it does in the FtF setting. In this way, it cannot be considered a “pure We-relationship.” However, there is a certain level of mutual awareness that occurs. As I’ve discussed in other posts recently, I have a certain level of awareness of the on-screen speaker in that I receive all of the modal communication that I do in a FtF setting (voice intonation/volume, body gesture/appearance, etc.), as does he or she when experiencing any response video that I post. However, any level of mutual awareness comes only with each response, and the loop is never fully closed. Whichever participant last posts a response video is never quite sure if the other participant experienced and reflected on the post unless, of course, there is some other form of follow-up discussion through other means.

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