The Group and The Task

Watching The Task (2017; streaming on Criterion Channel, or you can watch it here) is like being thrown into the group that is being filmed, but without any idea of the purpose or goal (which is intentional, since we only see the last three of four sessions). We see a room with chairs, arranged seemingly haphazardly (perhaps in a spiral toward the center?), several cameras on the margins of the room, and microphones arranged above the chairs. Two or three people appear, and then the rest of the room fills with people of various demographics. They sit down and start talking, while the viewer is left to put scattered pieces together, in order to come to some kind of picture of what the people are talking about. They have obviously been gathered together, and it is slowly revealed that this is only one of many “conferences,” with other, unfilmed small groups, and several “consultants,” who are present in order to…provoke? Keep the conversation on track? Unsettle the participants? It is not clear. 

The first part of this movie reminds me of the John Updike short story called “Minutes of the Last Meeting” (you can find it in this collection), which starts with the words, “The Chairman of the Committee again expressed his desire to resign.” There are Founders, a Director, and various members, and they follow bylaws, which do not allow for the Committee to be disbanded, or for the Chairman to resign. They talk about this or that amorphous“purpose” of the Committee and “Mrs. Hepple said that she didn’t see that [the form for the bylaws was a standard, office-supply form] made any difference, that here we all are and that is the main point.” “Mr. Lengbehn…said that though none of the projects described had apparently come to fruition he nevertheless did not feel that the members of the Committee including himself should entertain the fear that their efforts were in vain. That on the contrary they had created much talk and interest in the wider community and that just the fact that they continued to attract to membership such distinguished and personable citizens as those present negated any idea of failure.”

Though they do not know why they are there, they talk and plan and propose, and the existence of the Committee (which remains unnamed because the Director—who disappeared after the first meeting—did not want his Committee to appear as a rival to any other group in the community) is assumed: because it exists, its existence is valuable.

In The Task (which, like the Committee, remains unnamed, except that the participants are to examine their own behavior in the here and now), several times people say things to the effect that they do not know what’s going on, or what they’re doing there. As in “Minutes…,” they are essentially ignored. Instead, what takes place is a diffuse and often confusing conversation that seems to emerge from within each individual’s own mind.

I did not know, going in, that the group we are watching has been formed as part of the Tavistock method of group therapy. Individuals always function as members of groups, which determine their assumptions, actions, and opinions. Looking at a description of the Tavistock method, it is easy to see that the language used by many of the participants has its own context and definitions that are not always easily accessible by someone unfamiliar with this method of studying group dynamics (as I was unfamiliar with it). This film was made at a conference in Chicago, and according to the above linked paper, in the United States groups focus on “personal growth and the study of interpersonal dynamics.”

Sometimes in the group people respond to other people, but much of the time it is difficult to see how one person’s response or comment has anything to do with what the other person said. It struck me as an almost perfect encapsulation of what a Twitter conversation would look like in real life. There are, as on Twitter, conversations that seem to have been going on for a long time, into which a newcomer will jump. And there are people who use terms that seem to hold intense, emotional meaning, but which do not seem to have any context—or even content—related to the other people in the room.

I have a favorite concept that explains not only most Twitter interactions, but most real-life interactions where people become angry with each other, though an outside observer (like the viewer of The Task) might wonder about the underlying cause of the emotion. The concept is the “suppressed binary opposite.” I do not remember where I first heard the term. I suspect it was from one of my professors at the seminary. But it continues to be an endlessly useful heuristic device. It means that every person, whenever they speak, has some contrary point (“binary opposite”) in mind, to which they are actually responding. But instead of naming that opposite thing, or identifying the target of one’s argument, it is left unstated (“suppressed”).

This, I think, accounts for most instances of “speaking past each other.” We assume we know what the other person is saying, and we respond to that imagined understanding, but often we have not really listened. Instead, we respond to the suppressed (unstated) version of what we think the other person is saying. More than any other example, The Task shows what happens when each person’s SBO is subterranean rather than known and recognized.

The Task starts with a conversation about some people who have not returned to the group, and the group dissolves when many of the people decide to leave because they believe the integrity of their “work” has been compromised by the presence of the director of the film, Leigh Ledare, who unexpectedly moves from his observation point against the wall to a central chair, without saying anything. There is discussion of whether they have agreed to such an “intrusion,” and then, as many of the members leave, the film abruptly ends.

As a film, it exercises a strange effect on the viewer, as I was both intrigued and frustrated. I became involved in this group, though I was not actively participating. I had my own responses to what people said, and my own frustration with the ambiguous and abstract language of some of the people. Is that a function of what the people were actually saying, or is it a function of the film? The most intriguing part for me of watching The Task was the discussion of the presence of the film crew in terms of what people might say or not say, whether some or all of the participants are “performing,” or whether people always perform whenever they say anything in a group.

It is, beyond the particular group dynamic “method” being employed, a fascinating experiment in human interaction, which is uncomfortably close to how many people (mis)understand each other, even when they are speaking the same language. I have seen it in the Church, when people have different, unstated goals, and so the means they want to employ toward their various ends easily become points of vicious contention. The Task is a reminder that without shared assumptions and goals, communication easily goes off the rails. What is the “task” at hand for the groups of which we are a part? And it is also a reminder that the fact anyone manages to communicate with anyone else at all is close to a miracle.