Claiming Common Ground in Speech and Performance

By Sarah Banting

Could you tell me how to get to the art gallery?

Think of what goes on when we speak to one another about the landmarks of our everyday lives. In these exchanges, we make claims about our relationships to places near and far. The way we speak about places indicates how nearby we think they are, how well we feel we know them, and how exclusive that knowledge is to us.

When I was coming back from Safeway yesterday, I stopped by the flower lady’s house for some roses. You know the flower lady, on 8th Avenue, there?[1]

And because our speech is social—spoken interpersonally and cued to an immediate social context—the way we speak about particular places to one another indicates not just our own relationships with those places, but how much we perceive others’ relationships with them to overlap with ours. Our utterances are calibrated not to the speaker alone, but to the proximities and differences between speaker and audience. However subtly or subtextually, my words to you will suggest something about whether I think we share access and proximity to, or a particular perspective on, the place at hand.[2]>

For example, when you ask me for directions to the art gallery, a number of things happen. You demonstrate to me that you think that an art gallery exists, within reasonable direction-giving distance. It’s not too far away. (Imagine stopping someone in Kamloops to ask for directions to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Only Google Maps takes kindly to that sort of demanding request.) You also make something rather subtler happen. You demonstrate to me that you assume that I know the art gallery. It’s a landmark in my daily life, you presume, or at least a feature on my cognitive map. I know this area well—better than you. I am an insider, you are saying. You are not.

But then, perhaps finally, you are asserting something else as well. Indeed, you are managing all of this with the social dexterity implicit in saying, in this circumstance, simply, the art gallery. Definite article (the). Common noun (art gallery). Circumstance (one stranger approaching another on a city street). You see the two of us as members of a certain circle. Together, we are among those who know that there is an art gallery nearby, that there is really only one to speak of, and that we recognize this knowledge in each other. Your question humbles you by indicating that you lack directions I possess, but it demonstrates that you see us as sharing a certain set of understandings, spatial orientations, cultural dispositions. Scholars such as Herbert H. Clark use the term “common ground” to mean the set of assumptions that two people believe they share with one another. I’m pointing us to the circumstance where speech indicates, literally, common ground. How do we choose whom to ask for directions? It would be worth knowing how often people ask the homeless.

When philosophers and sociologists of language study all that goes on in exchanges like Could you tell me how to get to the art gallery?, a picture emerges of such exchanges that I think may be valuable for thinking about the commons. These exchanges are moments when people guess at, make claims about, and negotiate the territories that they do or don’t have shared access to. They are moments of sharp attention to one another, where we weigh not only our estimates of the other’s knowledge of the world and its overlap with our own, but also the limits of
our ability to make these estimates.

Does she mean the art gallery I’m thinking of?

It is precisely when our utterances fail or prompt unexpected responses that we glimpse our separateness from the other, language scholar Janet Giltrow has argued.[3] Alternatively, when an utterance seems to spark recognition and an awareness that we share a certain amount knowledge of a particular territory (yes, I know the place you mean!), new spatialized social relations emerge. These relations are multidimensional—they involve, at minimum, you, me, and the place we are talking about. They are flexible, finely calibrated to degrees of overlap, proximity, and difference, and easily reworked and extended to include others. Or exclude them.

These exchanges are performances. They construct, alter, or maintain our sense of our relationship to place as being relative to others’ relationship to the same places. Such performances are not innocent. Depending on the circumstances, my tone, and my choice of words, I might demonstrate the assumptions I am making in an attempt, for instance, to persuade you of our solidarity, to flatter you by honouring your greater access to valuable local knowledge, or to humiliate you.[4]

Naturally, darling, you know the view from the Bow River Terrace at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Well then, you know—this other view was just like that.

Common ground and property

I’d like to suggest that the sort of commons such exchanges perform and manipulate is one that offers a different model of shareable access to territory than does the idea and institution of property.

When I say property, I’m thinking of the mainstream, neoliberal, Western, ownership model of property (drawing on a critique of this model by geographer Nicholas K. Blomley). I’ve paid money or signed a contract, and now my property is mine. I have a right to decide how I use it and to determine your access to and use of it. Yes, you’re very welcome to enter, for now, I might say. But don’t step on the grass.

Access to speaking about a place, however, is not so restricted or restrictable. You might own your house, but I can certainly talk about it with my friends. My friends could go on to speak about it to their friends, if they cared to, and they could even conjure some borrowed authority sight unseen: Apparently there’s a flower lady on west 8th Avenue. Her roses are voluptuous and cheap. While ownership of property in mainstream models seems like an all-or-nothing proposition, a digital on-off switch—mine or yours, not both—knowledge of a place may distributed along an analogue and extendable gradient: first-hand, second-hand, third-hand… Certainly, ownership and access to a certain place affect our ability to speak about it. If you are not permitted to enter that inner sanctum, if you do not have the money to travel to this natural wonder, or book that fabulous hotel terrace for your wedding, if you don’t have the right connections to get in the door of this speakeasy, well, you won’t be able to speak about that place from embodied experience or with a particular kind of in-the-know authority. In-the-know. But the realm of guessed-at, second-hand, window-glimpse knowing of is wide, and lots of valuable exchanges are available within it.

I know of one place where they have real live bikini models
in a glass box, right in the middle of the foyer. I’ve never been there myself, but…[5]

Knowing of places affords us a kind of proximity and access to them. I might even say it gives us a kind of purchase on them: a share in them, however meager, that may be traded to our social benefit.

Blomley argues that if we look at how people actually use places, property isn’t so simply a matter of I own/you don’t or I can/you can’t. In his book Unsettling the City: Urban Land and the Politics of Property, he studies examples from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside of how people use land and places, noticing that non-owners can accrue informal but acknowledged rights to abandoned buildings, hotel rooms, and empty lots, for instance, by making public claims to ongoing and thorough use of and identification with those places. If every morning I spy you sleeping illegally under the hedge outside my apartment—my apartment, I feel, even though I only rent it—I might consider that you have a special relationship to the hollow under the hedge. Another sleeper would not be so appropriate in your place. And if the landlord eventually ousts you, I might look at the spot you have through long use carefully shaped for yourself and feel, among other more selfish feelings, a sense of her injustice to you. As Blomley puts it, property may not be so settled a matter as the ownership model suggests (xv-xvi).[6]

Attending to how we know of and talk about places, then, might complement unsettled models of property such as those offered by Blomley,[7] offering us a picture of the moments in which people perform and negotiate degrees of proximity, access, and proprietary feeling that are not entirely circumscribed by contractual ownership or financial exclusivity. Talk is cheap, they say. Talk is also richly resourceful. There is space, in many conversations, for exaggeration, tall tales, and imaginative projection. We might have a good laugh, listening to a friend tell us all about his recent, entirely fictional, “Fairmont Gold experience” (what does that mean, really?) in the Banff Springs Hotel.

Good evening, folks, and welcome to the Downtown Eastside.

Theatre can make things happen more powerfully than exchanges in conversation between strangers or friends. Even in a conventional theatre auditorium, the performers and designers have ways of offering their audience access and proximity to a place that summon all the referential power and dexterity of speech and add to it the evocative, creative potential of imagery and imaginative performance. And theatre tends to give the performers a platform and some social power, which are useful for constructing new social arrangements.

Let me offer an example. One evening a few years ago I left my student rental apartment in upper-middle-class Kitsilano, took transit eastward across Vancouver, and arrived finally at an ageing service club hall. The hall was in Strathcona, an old and diverse inner-city neighbourhood with cheery gardens, friendly people, a majority low-income population, and an embedded urban area widely reported in the media as stricken with drug-use, illness, and poverty.[8] (Notice how my way of writing this demonstrates that I assume you don’t know these places? I don’t think you do.) The play I was crossing the city to see was an original piece of musical theatre called Bruce—The Musical. It promised to tell the life story of Bruce Eriksen, a longtime community activist who lived in the Downtown Eastside, that urban area embedded in Strathcona I mentioned, and who devoted himself to the quality of life of people living there. Bruce had fought to prevent low-income local residents from being exploited by bartenders, rental landlords, and the city; with his team of fellow activists in the 1980s he had won for the neighbourhood an official community centre that remains in active use today.[9]

What I want to focus on is how that play spoke to its audience about the Downtown Eastside and what it made happen by way of doing so. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, this play valuably convened a meeting of—it seemed to assert—two different audiences. One had crossed town, like me, and was being extended a warm welcome. Good evening, folks, and welcome to the Downtown Eastside. This audience’s relationship to the place was carefully mediated and controlled by the play: the performers were local authorities who could place us where they wanted in relation to the neighbourhood they were producing onstage. They wanted us in the middle of it, it turns out, comfortable and interacting, but aware of our social position outside its most central social niche. That central social niche was occupied by the other part of the audience, the people in the room who identified with the neighbourhood and its struggles, who were insiders, who received its jokes as specially made for them. Meanwhile, there we were all together inside an auditorium on a November night, close to but not quite at the heart of the actual Eastside. My sense of relationship to the neighbourhood was being mediated by my habitual sense of proximity to and removal from the setting of a stage play. Just think what a complicated spatial and social arrangement this was!

My position as outsider-who’d-been-welcomed-in was made especially vivid in one particular theatrical moment. Onstage, Marty, a likeable character, was protesting a city council alderman’s ignorant assertion that the Downtown Eastside did not need a community centre. Go back to Dunbar! he roared at the alderman, resigning him in frustration to a westside neighbourhood not far from my apartment in Kitsilano. Made in this theatrical moment, in front of the particular crowd in that hall, Marty’s move to cast out the council alderman symbolically ejected unsympathetic aldermen from a commons of neighbourly feeling (whereas, in the activist historical moment being re-enacted, city counselors effectively controlled the use of neighbourhood property and were tempted to withhold public funding from the proposed community centre). Marty’s move revised the terms of “purchase” on the neighbourhood, by suggesting that physical distance from the Downtown Eastside was appropriate (and indeed practically un-crossable) for someone who couldn’t empathize with the neighbourhood’s need for a community centre. It also suggested, by implication, that there was a place in the Downtown Eastside for those westsiders among us who could empathize: empathy counted as a kind of investment in and warranted proximity to the place.

Go back to Dunbar!

I heard this line spoken with a certain self-conscious awareness of my marginality in the room. But many of those around me laughed in delight at the line, cheering Marty on: those who laughed knew themselves to be at the heart of a located community being reproduced and strengthened in that auditorium. There may even have been a demonstrative quality to some of the laughter. You hear? It was saying. We live here. Among other things, the play and the audience’s response was invoking a kind of loosely bounded, communal, affective proprietorship—this is our neighbourhood, and we feel our relative position at its heart—but also inviting outsiders into a marginal but valued position within the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, it was extending to audience-members like me a rich second-hand knowledge of the place, paired with a first-hand experience of being amidst a hall-full of happy theatre-goers there. It was strange to walk out into the city again from that brightly-lit room.

What I think is valuable for our understanding of the commons, then, is the flexibility, multiplicity, and precise definition of the relationships to place that speech can perform in casual conversation or in the theatre. Asking directions to the art gallery positions you as a local outsider, relative to me, but a knowing one: someone in the club of class- and taste-based knowledge. Your phrasing asks me to acknowledge you as sharing with me some precise degree of purchase on the art gallery—some ability to access it by initiating conversation about it.

Similarly, speaking about the landmarks and histories of the Downtown Eastside onstage, to a mixed and appreciative audience, allowed the producers and performers of Bruce—The Musical to divide their audience subtly but acutely into several groups, positioning them in relation to one another and in differentiated relations to the neighbourhood at hand. It is here that I see a parallel between my argument about speech and performance and Blomley’s about property: the relations and varieties of access and proprietorship are more malleable than might seem obvious. And it is not just that discourses of relationship to place are more various than the distinctions of property ownership. Moments of exchange of the kind I am sketching are patterned by wider discourses, but they are also discrete events where things happen between you and me. They are performed repeatedly, and with a difference, every day. They are enmeshed in located and momentary contexts. I think they afford us quite a radical power to suggest new social relations and to position each other, suddenly, in new multi-dimensional relations to place.

The sociality of these relations is important. Earlier I referred to an analogue and extendable gradient of knowledge of. Now that I’ve told you about the flower lady on west 8th Avenue, you know enough about her to speak of her—though likely you will do so in terms that suggest your relatively distant access to her. Apparently there’s a flower lady… Your speech may also point to the intermediary that passed on this knowledge to you. I heard someone mention a flower lady… As theorists such as M. M. Bakhtin and Giltrow have noted, these traces of others’ speech in our own gesture to the trajectories of knowledge; they also indicate the sociality of the relations of access. We perform our access to certain grounds by way of exchanges with other people. In other words, social exchanges, rather than contracts or the exchange of capital, are the means of producing relations to a commons of the sort I’m discussing. Since these performances happen between people, and in fleeting moments of chance encounter as often as in the habitual conversations of long acquaintance or the substantial durations of theatre performance, they are vulnerable. They may be doubted or countered. How do you know? Who told you that about Strathcona? Have you even been there? They might just as likely be accepted and carried forward. You don’t say! Well, I never! Pedro, did you hear what she said? What speech act theorists have called the “felicity” of performances such as a claim to access—that is, the security and success of such claims’ reception by the people who witness them—depends, among other things, on the strength of our performances, their precise calibration to the present context, and the multiple measures of our social weight, in the eyes of those paying attention.

Perhaps of primary importance here is the space afforded for imaginative reworking of relations in such exchanges. The producers and performers of Bruce—The Musical imagined themselves as neighbourhood authorities with the knowledge and capacity to re-mediate audiences’ relationships to each other and the Downtown Eastside. I had the opportunity to imagine myself a neighbourhood insider, too; I might have chosen to laugh knowingly at Marty’s speech. (Would people around me have accepted my performance?) Imaginative access to prohibited, exclusively owned, or otherwise inaccessible spaces does not assuage the injustices of certain real exclusions, I admit. But it may set up non-contractual, shareable kinds of investment such as imagination, empathy or knowingness as currencies of access and proprietorship. And it does give us, between ourselves, some room to maneuver.

Catch you later, then. Maybe I’ll see you at Vistas.

Works Cited

Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Ed. J. O. Urmson. New York: Oxford
UP, 1962. Print.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson
and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1992. Print.

Blomley, Nicholas. Unsettling the City. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004. Print.

City of Vancouver. “CommunityWEBpages: Strathcona.” communityWEBpages. City
of Vancouver, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2011.

Clark, Herbert H. Arenas of Language Use. Chicago:  U of Chicago P, 1992.

Clark, Herbert H. and Thomas B. Carlson. “Hearers and Speech Acts.” Arenas of
Language Use. Ed. Herbert H. Clark. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. 205-47.

Clark, Herbert H. and Catherine R. Marshall. “Definite Reference and Mutual
Knowledge.” Arenas of Language Use. Ed. Herbert H. Clark. Chicago: U of
Chicago, 1992. 9-59. Print.

Gibson, William. Spook Country. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007. Print.
Giltrow, Janet. “Democratic Intention and Dialogic Intelligence in Cuckold.” The
Shifting Worlds of Kiran Nagarkar’s Fiction. Ed. Yasmeen Lukmani. New Delhi:
Indialog Publications Pvt. Ltd., 2004. 38-80. Print.

—. “Ironies of Politeness in Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac.” Ambiguous Discourse:
Feminist Narratology and British Women Writers. Ed. Kathy Mezei. Chapel
Hill, NC:  U of North Carolina P, 1996. 215-37. Print.

Giltrow, Janet and David Stouck. “The Mischief of Language in Swamp Angel.”

Swamp Angel. By Ethel Wilson. Ed. Li-Ping Geng, ed. Ottawa: The Tecumseh Press,
2005. 217-39. Print.

Hern, Matt. Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future.
Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2010. Print.

Prince, Ellen F. “Toward a Taxonomy of Given-New Information.” Radical
Pragmatics. Ed. Peter Cole. New York: Academic Press, 1981. 223-255. Print.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance: Communication and Cognition. 2nd ed. Cambridge, M


[1]Until recently, there really was a flower lady living on residential west 8th Avenue, in Vancouver. A stooped, elderly woman who spoke little English, she cut bouquets from her flourishing garden and set them out for sale in old bottles at the foot of her driveway. Her business was a feature of the neighbourhood, for those of us who frequent the area, but not, I believe, a widely-known landmark. Hence a passing reference to her house—though perhaps it may seem obscure, to you—helps me make my point about the indices of knowledge and exclusivity built into speech. I speak about someone known to few of us, and my manner of speaking indicates my sense of casual familiarity with her.

[2]In the discussion that follows, when I speak about how our utterances are calibrated to our relationships with our audiences and how shared knowledge is marked in language, I have am drawing on the work of Herbert H. Clark (with Catherine R. Marshall and Thomas B. Carlson), Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, Ellen F. Prince, M. M. Bakhtin, and J. L. Austin. My work here is an extension of my 2010 doctoral dissertation, “Common Ground and the City: Assumed Community in Vancouver Fiction and Theatre.”

[3]In both her published work and her teaching, Janet Giltrow has explored how utterance style and uptake reflect our experiences of the other.

[4]My thoughts on the cruelty or politeness that might be served up through demonstrating assumptions of common ground draw on ideas developed by Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson and by Janet Giltrow.

[5]Speaking of second-hand knowing and the gradations of authoritative knowledge, it was in a novel by William Gibson that first I heard of women wearing bikinis in a hotel lobby display.

[6]While the influence of Blomley’s discussion about the unsettledness of property in Vancouver is evident in my work here, it is less obvious that I am also inspired by Matt Hern’s thoughts about how citizens of the same city might reclaim common spaces in their neighbourhoods.

[7]Blomley offers examples of practices, from squatting and renting to the construction of community gardens (19) and “locals-only” surfing commons (18), that illuminate how “unsettled” property actually is. “It may be, he proposes, “that property is more definitionally, politically, and empirically heterogeneous than the ownership model supposes. For if we look more closely, we can find a striking diversity of relationships between people and land that appear propertylike, even if they do not fit within the prevailing definitions of property. Although many of these relationships are collective, it also appears that private property itself may be a good deal more complicated. Property claims can also overlap; thus it is, for example, that supposedly private or state property can be claimed in the name of a community. I want to take these appropriations seriously. Perhaps because of these multiple claims, property emerges as a site for conflict. State-sanctioned property claims are challenged; alternative claims to land are articulated that are neither public nor private, but something in between. If property appears settled, perhaps this is more a ‘reality effect’ of the ownership model, than an accurate mapping of property in the world” (xv-xvi).

[8]The information here about income distribution in Strathcona is gathered from the City of Vancouver’s “Community Web Page” for the neighbourhood; numbers there are based on the 2006 census.

[9]Bob Sarti’s play Bruce—The Musical was produced by Theatre in the Raw and directed by Jay Hamburger at the Russian Hall. My discussion of Bruce—The Musical here recalls my earlier article, published in cultural diversity and the stage. 7.3 (2010): 16-23.