The Study of the Cultural Through Personal
3.1 A brief glimpse into my earlier practice
In my 2007 video work Default/Defo, I recorded the voices of my relatives while searching for different accents in their way of speaking. I was looking for traces of the place they grew up in and the way they inhabit a default language in their accents and how their specific ways of voicing the words alter the sound of a language. The title of the piece comes from the idea of considering a “default” language and the accent as defo (the Turkish word for “flaw”) which someone leaves on that language. In the video, my image appears on the screen, dubbing the speech of my relatives. The audience saw my image, while they heard the voices of my close family from the speakers. I was speaking over their voices in my own accent, at my own pace and with my own idiosyncrasies. My voice was heard from the earphones provided. Thus, at first sight the audience saw my image and the sound of others and once they put the earphones on they would hear me dubbing. All these familiar voices gathered, all the traces and places met on the image of myself, producing “a form of self- portraiture ... in which the self is bound up with its familial other” (Renov, 2004, p.xiii).
This work marked a shift in the way I work. Around the time I was working on this piece, I started documenting what was happening around me with a video camera, sound recorder and photo camera, I was using pictures from my family albums, as well as photographs I found in second-hand book shops. Although my work did not necessarily rely on documentary language; collecting, documenting and recording had become an important part of my practice at the time.
It was the first time my image had appeared in my work and it was also the first time my close others had made an appearance in my work. Until then, I had refrained from appearing in my own work and avoided any personal reference due to my reservations about the traumatic, confessional presence of the artist’s self, which I thought would create a certain sense of subjectivity at the site of encounter. In his critique of the testimonial, “traumatic, confessional” accounts appearing in the ethnographically informed art works, Hal Foster raises his concerns about such a sense of subject (1996, p.180). Foster is very much concerned with the sense of authority and authenticity that the self imposes on the field of inquiry and on the field of cultural production. We see his doubts being amplified further when his criticism is directed at the figure of the ethnographer, a figure who writes about the subjects s/he is studying from a distant, detached, privileged position in which the other is objectified.
In the works where I introduced myself into the scene of my art practice, a concern with the representation of the self emerged. While “self entails other; the other refracts self” (Renov, 2004, p.xiii), I was wondering about how much does my story belong to me and how much to the other, how much am I allowed to tell, if my story touches the others’? The concepts of mahrem4 and personal distance were at the centre of my earlier work. In that delicate area between self and other, between a first person singular and what this singularity is entangled in, I was concerned about where the lines of my story finish and others’ stories start.
In the video detefabulanarratur (it is your story that is being told) from 2008, there was a reference to this dilemma that which was present in the title of the work as well. In this video piece I introduced myself in a rather peculiar language that adopted the structure of Turkish and vocabulary of Kurdish. The text I was performing in the video read as “My name is Esra, I am 26 years old ...” and followed the usual language in the first few pages of a foreign language book, which teaches you how to introduce yourself to others, to give personal details about your name, age, where you are from etc.
Having Kurdish family connections, yet not knowing any Kurdish, I looked up each word to be used in writing this text in a Kurdish dictionary. On the screen, a close up image of my mouth performing the text appears’ while English subtitles run underneath the blurred image. The framing gives a sense of confessional narrative to the scene, providing only an unidentifiable part of the whole image.
The text I read makes no sense either in Kurdish or Turkish, although it was based on an idiosyncratic translation project between the two languages. My performance of this text demonstrates a failed exchange; a failed encounter between the two languages. Only the subtitles in English, in that “universal” foreign language, gave some clue about what I was saying. It was only through this distant language, that my story was disclosed.
In a way, I performed an impossible encounter in this illegible self-representation by leaving the audience on the outskirts of communication. My story was delayed in the complicated exchange between a language that gave the structure to the story and the words another of another language fleshing out this structure and then a foreign language that subtitles this “made up” language.
When I showed this piece during a studio critique while I was doing my postgraduate course in Turkey, it was criticised on the basis of its self-orientalism by my studio mates. Contemporary art in Turkey from the 1990s onwards witnessed an increase in the number of artists dealing with the sensitive issue of Turkish identity from highly critical standpoints. These works by artists of mainly Kurdish descent received attention in Western art markets and was widely circulated, which generated a sense of suspicion in the contemporary art scene in Turkey. Artists dealing with this delicate area were blamed for serving the agendas of Western art institutions’ still orientalist interest in the suppressed and marginalised identities. Artists were blamed for working with this mindset “in order to find a place for him/herself in the art scene” of the West (Fisher, 2004, p.236). The accusations of self-orientalism came out of these conditions.
This criticism seemed to be turning into self-censorship at times. The oversensitivity towards self-orientalism can result in disregarding any possible dialogue the work may wish to trigger. Commodification of differences is a possible risk, yet, the sensitivity around Orientalism (see Said, 1979) seemed to turn into an intolerance, condemning every gesture too readily as self-orientalism. Critical engagement needed to be supported, I believed, rather than leaving these questions unexplored because of their risky nature.
How was I supposed to position myself within this problematic site? Having found myself stuck between self-orientalism, self-representation and self-censorship, I wondered how I could position myself. While my personal story converges with the stories of others, what are the responsibilities of telling one’s personal story?
There are no straightforward answers to these questions. The ground between the self and other is a conflicted site which should be worked on continuously. It is this problematic relationship, the dynamics present at the encounter which began to shape my practice later on. In an attempt to unpack this dilemma which I face in my art practice, in this chapter I examine this problematic position of the self by studying the self as a source of knowledge, a tool of inquiry and a medium of expression. I discuss the reflexive turn in the research context, the idea of situated knowledge and self-knowledge as related ideas and focus on autoethnography in particular, which welcomes the once unreliable and undesirable presence of the self in the research context. I will then elaborate on the implications of such an approach, the possibilities and problems it poses for my practice.
3.2 Self, as the medium of inquiry
Anthropologist Judith Okely asks rhetorically whether there could be any “better medium” than the human being to study a fellow human being:
In the study of human being by another human being (and what better medium is there?), the specificity and individuality of the observer are ever present and must therefore be acknowledged, explored and put to creative use (1996, p.28).
For Okely, this insight comes from working as an ethnographer in the field, which relies on observations, and her very presence for the understanding of other human beings and their culture. She recognises that the dynamics of the encounter and what is made of the field by the observer is determined by the “specificity and individuality of the observer” (Okely, 1996, p.28).
A medium suggests (if we are to borrow a definition from the realm of art) a language which has its own grammar, structure, its own conventions and history. The material, and its physical limits, as well as the history of the medium determine the possibilities of the medium. As a channel of communication, it determines what is being communicated and expressed. The idea of the researcher`s self, as the medium through which we understand others, means accepting the limits of this medium which is conditioned by the historical and cultural background of the self (i.e. ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, education, occupation and personality). The connections between things, events and actors are measured by this medium, the experience of the field is tainted by the specificity of the researcher’s self.
Fieldwork experience relies on the researcher’s self to such an extent “that it is impossible to reflect upon it fully by extracting that self” Okely elaborates (1992, p.8). At the site of the encounter, there is not an all-analytical, objective researcher dissecting the human condition into an understanding. Observing, participating, attending to; these basic methods of fieldwork require the full and active presence of the researcher, not just their purely intellectual capacities. Research relies on “all of the anthropologist’s resources; intellectual, physical, emotional, political, intuitive” that are formed by “past embodied knowledge” (Okely, 1992, p.8). These factors affect how the fieldworker engages with the field, how s/he observes, what catches her attention, how she communicates with others and how she participates in daily routines, and hence the whole fieldwork experience, which forms the currency of ethnographic research. The encounter with the other is filtered through the researcher’s attitude towards the world. As Clifford Geertz also suggests: “sometimes we come from our own society, sometimes not, but wherever we are, we are situated” (in Marcus, 2008, p.26) and this situatedness affects our observations.
3.3 Reflexivity: the introduction of the researcher’s self into the field
The recognition of the human factor, the effect of the researcher’s self on the research and on knowledge production, was not confined to the discipline of ethnography. This acknowledgement was widely accepted across other social disciplines, resulting in a reflexive turn in knowledge production. Reflexivity openly questions the existence of a detached and objective observer and advocates an attitude that acknowledges the marks of the researcher on the research work produced (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2009; Davies, 1998; Etherington, 2004; Hertz, 1997).
As Kim Etherington argues reflexivity “challenges us to be more fully conscious of our own ideology, culture, and politics and that of our participants and our audience” (2004, p.36). Etherington goes on to say that by unearthing the research process reflexively, the “dynamic process of interaction within and between ourselves and our participants and the data that inform decisions, actions and interpretations at all stages of research” is made visible (ibid. 2004, p.36). Rosanna Hertz also suggests that reflexivity requires “constant (and intensive) scrutiny of ‘what I know’ and ‘how I know it’” (1997, pp.vii–viii). This is a relentless analysis, affecting the form of research substantially.
The reflexive researcher is aware that the outcome of research is an interpretation and translation of the field, s/he does not “simply report ‘facts’ or ‘truths’”(Hertz, 1997, pp.vii–viii). Such an approach to inquiry targets “value-free scientism” Charlotte Aull Davies suggests (1998, p.178). By showing how the researcher’s self is intermingled with the research in a series of complex relationships, the belief in an objective, detached observer and the “creation of true, objective knowledge, following a scientific method” (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2009, p.3) is called into question.
Nevertheless, Gillian Rose warns that to consider reflexivity as a means to make the research process fully transparent would be a fallacy (1997, p.311). Against the claims of “transparency” that finds a voice in Kim Etherington’s words: “Reflexivity in research conversations and writing creates transparency” (2004, p.37), Rose asserts that the dynamics governing the research cannot be totally captured. The world is not a static object waiting for the analytical mind of the neutral researcher to dissect it, nor could the researcher know her conditionings and intentions determining her decisions fully.
Rose argues that we should take into account the limits of the “knowing subject” and the fact that our research subjects, as well as our very own selves will always escape us. Such an attitude is accepting of a more partial, non-finalising, non-over generalising account, “avoiding the false neutrality and universality of so much academic knowledge” (Rose, 1997, p.306). As subjects, we cannot know fully the dynamics shaping us and our relationships with others. Thus the gaps and failures must be stated, they must be embraced Rose argues.
3.3.1 Self-knowledge as a resource for cultural inquiry
As the researcher’s presence with all its fallacies has begun to be recognised increasingly in research, personal stories and knowledge have also been considered a possible means of studying culture. Self-knowledge becomes “a central source of data … becoming another acceptable scholarly basis for understanding social life and human behaviour” for social research Rosanna Hertz suggests (1997, pp.ix–xii). The personal emerges as the base for the theoretical, Nancy Miller argues, a valid “cultural material”, in the inquiry into the social (1997, p.21).
This idea of “personal as theoretical” resonates with the feminist coda of “the personal is political” that was embraced in the art of 70s, when artists from the margins of society took the lead on the stage of cultural production. This is when the presence of these marginalised selves becomes a “crucial medium for resistance and counter discourse” as Renov describes it, casting “doubt on the coherence and power of an exclusive historiography” (2004, p.vi). In a similar move, the discipline of anthropology has opened itself up to “different histories” as a challenge to the idea that there is “a single ethnographic reality, only waiting for anthropology to describe it” (MacDougal in Russell, 1999, p.12). The once erratic personal source is now regarded as the source for knowledge, at a moment when the limits of research have expanded a great deal thanks to post-colonial and feminist epistemologies.
This new epistemology, “detailing concrete experience and multiple perspectives that include participant’s voices and interpretations” is dramatically different from an approach that privileges “theory generation, typicality, and generalization” Carolyn Ellis argues (2004, p.29). Singular voices can disrupt the conventional course of knowledge production in conventional ethnography, which Catherine Russell describes as a process “by which individuals are abstracted into general social patterns; individual subjects become representative of cultural practices and even ‘human’ principles” (1999, p.5). The voices embracing a reflexive attitude can offer “experimental representations” as Rosanna Hertz suggests and “allow the author to push the boundaries of prescribed ways of conducting social science” (1997, p.xii).
Autoethnography as a reflexive approach recognises the self as a medium as well as a source of inquiry, and relies largely on the researcher’s self-knowledge in the study of the field. In autoethnography, the subject and object of study are intermingled, their boundaries are blurred; “the subject and object of research collapse into the body/thoughts/feelings of the (auto)ethnographer located in his or her particular space and time” (Gannon, 2006, p.475). The autoethnographer is situated in an in- between zone by being a researcher and researched, the subject and object of inquiry simultaneously. She is the medium, standing between these two states (the word “medium” suggests an intermediary position, thus the medium speaks from this intermediate position), trespassing on the boundaries of self and other constantly, making negotiating between the two her relentless occupation.
The subject of autoethnography, as the term itself suggests is the ethnography of one’s self. As Nicholas Holt says, these are “personal accounts where authors draw on their own experiences to extend understanding of a particular discipline or culture” (2003, p.2). Such study seeks to reach beyond an isolated self and aims to achieve more than “a disclosure of the truths of an inner-self” (Gannon, 2006, p.480). As an ethnography of a kind, autoethnography “has to focus on what we have in common with others” Wolff-Michael Roth argues (2009, p.4). Thus, autoethnography departs from the personal concerns and aspires to reach to the knowledge of the other based on their shared ground.
Thus in autoethnography, the field of inquiry oscillates between personal and public, cultural and individual selves. Ellis and Bochner argue that this back and forth movement between cultural and personal, zooming in on the individual subject and zooming out to the bigger picture, “refract and resist cultural interpretations”, and abstract generalisations (in Alsop, 2002). An autoethnographic approach studies the details. In comparison to the view from a distance, where these details are sacrificed for a more generalised, abstract, coherent approach, autoethnography aspires to capture the particularities, multiplicities and conflicts in the field.
Autoethnographic inquiry relies on the intricate position of the self in-between. The “tensions, resonances, transformations, resistances, and complicities” (Haraway, 1991, p.195) that occur in the relationship between the “self” and the “other” become the currency of research in this approach. Since we are “constructed and stitched together imperfectly” (Haraway, 1991, p.192) this interdependent self could give us insights about the wider framework it is entangled with. The study of the self becomes a means to inquire into the relationships that construct this self.
3.4 The self entangled with the other In my research process I turn my focus on these stitches between me and the unfamiliar other. At the encounter I grasp the limits of my habitual knowledge conditioned by my personal history, culture and background. Charlotte Aull Davies argues that “the ways in which cultural realities are constructed” become more visible at the encounter (1998, p.180). She further states that the “autobiographical exploration of fieldwork” may provide the clues to explore the “cultural realities” determining the dynamics of the encounter (ibid.).
In my clumsy dialogue with the “local rhythm” of the others, the “unconscious” rhythm of my habitus becomes unsettled. Okely suggests that autobiographical details are able to convey the cross-cultural work at the encounter (1992, p.2). In Anthropology and Autobiography: Participatory Experience and Embodied Knowledge, she advocates for the autobiographical accounts of fieldwork being made more visible. Such a study would not only uncover the motivations and conditioning of the researcher determining the research, but would also reveal what happens at the encounter with the other. “The autobiography of the fieldworker anthropologist” she suggests, “is neither in a cultural vacuum, nor confined to the anthropologist’s own culture, but is instead placed in a cross-cultural encounter” (1992, p.2).
Alfred Schutz, remarks that “In the process of learning how to participate in the host society, the newcomer gradually acquires an inside knowledge of it, which supplants his or her previous ‘external knowledge’” about the culture she has entered (Schutz in Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983, p.9). The newcomer, “blind and deaf” (Ataman, 2009) to the new culture she has just entered, slowly develops some sense of it over time. A sense that not only relies on intellectual capacities but that finds its way “through all the senses, through movement, through their bodies and whole being in a total practice”, as Okely describes the presence of the fieldworker in the field (Okely, 1992, p.16)
Thus, an embodied practice calling for all the faculties of the subject is at work, as anthropologist Nigel Rapport contends. This extracurricular practice in the field produces “local belonging”; through a sort of “crash course in what it was pertinent to say, to whom, when” which enables him to be accepted by the locals (Rapport, 1997, p.98). He suggests that what ethnography produces is not only pure “academic abstraction”, work in the field also produces an “embodied local practice” with direct influence on the researching subject (Rapport, 1997, p.98). Immersed in the lives of others, responding to the rhythms of day-to-day experience, through living in that culture and following its daily rhythms, the subject in the field of others comes to embody these practices.
The practices of participation – which are some of the crucial modes of working in the field using the participant-observation method – learning the local codes and the acquisition of “inside knowledge” leave cracks in the continuity of the self, slowly undoing old habits and replacing them with new ones. Engaging in dialogue with others, through following the natural grain of the new setting and its material and immaterial practices, I come to learn the appropriate ways of responding to a world that is unfamiliar to me. There are many conformations, negotiations, a lot of giving up on what one knows and one’s values, at this crossroads.
I want to be fluent in the culture I currently dwell in. If not naive enough or willing enough to go native, I want to develop an understanding of this new dwelling of mine, gain some fluency, so that not every single everyday task feels like a struggle.
Unlike an anthropologist who is in the field on a perhaps more profound mission, to understand humankind; my newcomer’s aim is to feel less strange, less clumsy, to get by in daily life, first and foremost. Overwhelmed with the impossibility of figuring out the complex narrative of this strange place I am trying to dwell in, my aim is about feeling and following the texture of this new setting and its everyday rules.
My primary responses are still geared towards the daily rhythms of “back home”. Sometimes, out of habit I still follow the routines and rituals of that now-distant place with a knee-jerk reaction. The confrontation with the strange, unaccustomed ways of the new creates a self-doubt. Dwelling in here means aligning with - what Okely calls - the “unconscious rhythm” of this new locality (1992, p.17). As she says, experience in the field of others means acquiring “a different bodily memory ... as an adult in another culture”, which means the obligation “to change or superimpose new experience upon past embodied knowledge and come to terms with a changing self embodied in new contexts” (Okely, 1992, p.16).
3.5 Artist as autoethnographer?
The exploration of my experience of settling down in this unfamiliar culture and the changes it creates on my horizon is what I am concerned with in my practice. To this end, I focus on the practices shaping my immediate environment; the field of mundane, everyday practices “where we make our worlds and where our worlds make us” (Pink, 2012, p.5). Since within this evasive site of experience I reveal and manifest myself. In contrast to my earlier work, discussed previously in this chapter, in the works I have done throughout this Phd my image and voice slowly disappear from the scene to be replaced by a focus on the practices that surround and shape this self. While I observe the changing everyday practices challenging the accustomed ways I respond to things, the intangible forces ingrained in the everyday practices become my focus in my art practice. Sarah Pink emphasises that the study of individual practices can give us an insight into the wider field which the individual inhabits. It is through paying attention to “the relationship between the detail of everyday activities (the enacting of practice) and a wider society” that a feeling for the texture interweaving the field with every individual knot can be captured:
As recent anthropological research demonstrates, attention to the detail of how individuals learn, engage in, experience and know through practices enables us to better understand the implications of the specificities of the performance of practice for wider social issues (Pink, 2012, p.21).
The focus on detail and the careful study of everyday practices resonates with the autoethnographic sensitivity of looking at its subjects in close up. An exploration of “individual performances ... how and why individuals modify and re-create practices as they perform them” (Pink, 2012, p.21) constitutes the concern and focus of such an approach. The study of “individual performances” manifests “everyday tactics” that produce “unforeseeable sentences, partly unreadable paths across a space” within the dominant forces at work in the realm of the everyday (de Certau, 1984, p.xviii). De Certau’s understanding of everyday tactics suggests the malleability of the prevalent language and the “space of others”. These “unforeseeable sentences”, the different means of uttering the dominant language form new “trajectories”. The study of these individual practices is crucial, because “the consciousness and interpretations of agents are an essential component of the full reality, of the social world” (Wacquant, 1992, p.9) and because individuals transform the map with their idiosyncratic performances on a daily basis.
So, where is my work located? How do I handle this slippery material of the everyday, the practices ingrained in my daily life? As Stephen Johnstone argues, working with the complex material of the everyday requires “an interdisciplinary openness, a willingness to blur creatively the traditional research methods and protocols of disciplines such as philosophy, anthropology and sociology” (2008, p.15). The study of the evasive site of the everyday escapes any possible systematic approach, it demands interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary strategies; in short it demands an inquiry troubling the disciplinary boundaries of research.
“So what then, where is the work located?” asks Irit Rogoff herself, questioning her position in the interdisciplinary field she is occupied with (2006). This crucial question appears in her article “What is a Theorist?”, where Rogoff discusses the converging paths of the artist and theorist. The role of the artist cannot be contemplated without an exploration of what a theorist is, she suggests; “these existences and practices” are deeply connected, “the old boundaries between making and theorising, historicising and displaying, criticising and affirming” has long gone (2006). Rogoff supports her argument by elaborating on the task of theorist first; it is to be “undone by theory” (2006). Through “critical analysis” the theorist first dissolves the field of study, the ground that a particular problem, issue raises upon. “Analysis”, as the etymological roots of the word also support, is an act of dissolving (Online Etymology Dictionary). Yet the work of theorist does not stop there. The next step is to “go beyond critical analysis into the possible imagining of an alternative formulation” (Rogof, 2006). It is at this point that Rogoff locates the critical work of the artistic practice. She argues that the “actual cultural making” of the artist build itself upon that “‘disrupted-through-analysis’ cultural phenomenon” that theorist has left us with (Rogof, 2006). The artistic imagination suggests “possible imagining of an alternative formulation” (ibid.) that raise upon this dissolved ground. Rogoff’s exploration on the intersecting paths of artist and theorist demands us to reconsider the work of ethnographer and artist, the possibilities the encounter between their distinctive approaches to the study of culture could offer. By unpacking and then re-formulating the primary work that ethnography is engaged with, anthropologist Tim Ingold addresses this issue. By reminding us of other meanings of “graphy”, Ingold challenges the very definition ethnography, which translates as “writing people, culture”. Ingold elaborates on the gesture of drawing instead; another kind of “graphy” which suggests a mode of observation working in synchrony with the moment. In this approach we do not first observe, and then go on to describe, a world that has already been made – that has already settled into final forms of which we can give a full and objective account. Rather, we join with things in the very processes of their formation and dissolution [italics my own] (2011, p.2).
In this paragraph Ingold not simply understands the practice of “drawing” as a method of observation used by the visual artist, but he actually describes a specific practice of attending to the world that follows the lines of the world. With this insight he draws the distinctive perceptions of art and ethnography to each other and redefines ethnography. The movement inherent in such an understanding of “graphy” (“formation and dissolution”) seems to display parallels with the journey of the theorist/artist, as it is described by Irit Rogoff, which proceeds through dissolving the ground one stands on to gather this dissolved ground back again with the artistic work that expands our world with the vigour of its imagination.
3.6 The self untangled: against representative claims
Rogoff argues that it is essential to “unfit ourselves” and challenge the “subject fixing and method valorising” attitudes in an inquiry that troubles the disciplinary boundaries and works on its field through “making and theorising” (2006). This idea of “unfit[ting] ourselves” take on a new significance within an autoethnographic approach, which depends on the self as material and medium of inquiry. The study of the field through the “unreliable”, unfinalised and incoherent material of the self will be “knowingly but defiantly open to a critique of being non- representative” (Okely, 1992, p.12). Yet there is a tendency to perceive autoethnographic accounts as more authentic, since autoethnographers seem to provide an insider’s knowledge about the field they come from. Mary Louise Pratt’s conceptualisation of autoethnography is an example of this line of thought (Pratt, 1991). Pratt considers autoethnography more like counter-ethnography, conducted by insiders as a reaction to the colonial gaze that previously studied them. For Pratt, an autoethnography is “a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them” under the colonial gaze (ibid., 1991, p.2). Such an approach incarcerates autoethnographer into a representative duty and misleadingly believes that an autoethnographic account provides authentic truth. This attitude may have played a crucial role within the debates of identity politics, but it is important to note its fallacies.
In a sense, such a representative role might produce a “symbolic house arrest”, in the words of Nicholas Bourriaud, where “everyone is located, registered, nailed to a locus of enunciation, locked into the tradition in which he or she was born” (Bourriaud, 2009c, p.34). Speaking from within the contemporary art context, Bourriaud criticises the tendency to approach an artwork through the “condition”, “status”, or “origin” of the producing artist, “his or her cultural, ethnic, or geographic roots” (2009c, p.34).
When one’s background becomes a haunted image cast over whatever one produces, it might curtail the particularities of individual voice. How much does the adjective “Turkish” define what I do in this research and in my practice? Does such a framework not limit my ability to shift between many identities, many positions, many other genealogies and the stories I can follow? Can we imagine fluent, mobile identities while we are stuck with such adjectives?
I am struggling to adjust the tone and the place I am speaking (from? as? to? towards? with?). Gayatri Spivak, the author of the influential essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” where she questions the possibility of the subaltern having a voice of their own, raises a question about the possibility of speaking in the singular:
I … found myself constructing Gayatri Spivaks who “represented” various historical and geographical cases. How to distinguish this from a request to speak of the singularity of one’s life? (in Smith and Watson, 2010).
Spivak acknowledges that the choice to “speak in the name of” is a crucial move for “political mobilisation” today, however, she also points out that this position may lead to a “distancing from oneself”:
The moment I have to think of the ways in which I will speak as an Indian, or as a feminist, the ways in which I will speak as a woman, what I am doing is trying to generalize myself, make myself a representative, trying to distance myself from some kind of inchoate speaking as such (in Guneva,1990, p.60).
Spivak’s account gives an insight into the ticklish position of a subject who is put in the position of speaking in the name of a larger community. She refuses to be considered as a spokesperson, to be the voice of the under-represented, unmarked, subaltern. Spivak goes on to say that, “there are many subject positions, which one must inhabit; one is not just one thing” (1990, p.60).
These singular voices do not claim to offer us the “correct” version of the story, but instead they suggest an “opening of multiple perspectives” Catherine Russell argues (1999, p.11). The aim is to show the particularity, multiplicity of the field instead of providing a more truthful account. “The aim of situating academic knowledge is to produce non-overgeneralising knowledges that learn from other kinds of knowledges” Gillian Rose adds (1997, p.316).
Moreover, to expect an authentic truth from such an inquiry would imply a “fetishised perfect subject of oppositional history, sometimes appearing in feminist theory as the essentialised Third World Woman” (Haraway, 1991, p.193). In this lines, Miwon Kwon, as an art critic tired of being expected to speak as a Korean, about Korea and on Korean things expresses her concerns about the exoticising attitude inherent in this attitude: I was equally conscious of the fact that as much as the struggle of minority groups opened up critical spaces to challenge the hierarchical and exclusionary social and institutional norms, the foregrounding of cultural difference or national or racial identity could also serve as a new kind of realism, novelty, and exoticism that were used by the same dominant culture for its entertainment and renewal (Kwon, 2011, pp.200–1).
The dilemma that artists or other cultural actors are left with is to find a language that can overcome this “symbolic house arrest”. In a similar way to Kwon, novelist Elif Şafak expresses her trouble with being expected to “write informative, poignant, and characteristic stories” about her culture, “unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women”, because she happens to be a “woman writer from the Muslim world” (ibid., 2011). And what happens when she writes it (given that she did actually write about “unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women” in her novel Honour)?
Being in-between, insisting on staying in-between needs more room, fewer adjectives, fewer definitions and more flexible positions (if not a total abandoning of them). Or maybe, given their insistence on persisting, a provocative reworking, reconfiguring of these frameworks. “There is nothing more difficult than this back and forth between ways of living, speaking, thinking and feeling” Christiane Kraft Alsop says, “there is nothing more risky than switching between various identities and practices of estrangement”(2002).
In this chapter, I have explored the intermediary position that autoethnographic inquiry occupies between “self” and “other”, “cultural” and “personal” and the possibilities this approach may offer for my inquiry on the in-between character of my dwelling. In the following chapters I mainly focus on my art practice, the process of my research located across the practices of art and ethnography.