Blind spots on the move.

Isabel Mehl

Isabel Mehl is a writer and art critic, her texts have been published in frieze, PROVENCE and Texte zur Kunst. She is deeply interested in collaboration and dialogue that is at the core of her work – collaborators include among others: art historian Oona Lochner, opera singer Pauline Jacob, writer Masha Tupitsyn, artists Grażyna Roguski and Lotte Meret Effinger, graphic designer Sascia Reibel; Susan Funk and Lotte Warnsholdt.
Since 2016 she is a PhD-candidate at the research training group „Cultures of Critique“ at Leuphana University researching on the function of fiction for art criticism taking the fictional art critic Madame Realism, created by US-American writer
Lynne Tillman in 1986, as a starting point.

untitled (do me better)‘ / Grażyna Roguski, 2019 Photo © Aljoscha Höhborn

“I work within the American English language as a white,
second-generation American woman,
at a particular moment in history,
with my own particular biography.
(Sometimes, like now,
looking at the categories into which I fit,
writing myself like this,
I am, frankly, stultified.)
So I must wrest this language and its forms away from or out of ‚the majority‘
(of which I am a part, in some ways and at some times, to others),
to un-man it, to un-American it, even to un-white it,
to inconvenience the majority language,
to unconventionalize it, even to shame it, in an odd sort of way,
to question privilege, my own, too, of course.”1

Beginning my thoughts about “situatedness”2 with a statement describing another writer’s struggle to situate herself, not myself, seems like a contradiction. But it points to the dilemma: how to situate oneself in a non-essentialist, non-relativist manner.
I want to differentiate between situating and fix-ing and fixating, between reflecting upon
and getting beyond it. I’m not freed of anything if I would tell you in what ways this statement applies to myself and in which ways it doesn’t. It is a statement that I feel speaks to what I want to address. To situate does not mean one must start a presentation or a text by naming one’s privileges, background and biological condition – it can start there but above all the situatedness and the contextualizing has to be inscribed in what comes next.
Currently, there seems to be a misunderstanding not so much on the necessity of situating one’s knowledge – though philosophers especially still seem to work in a strangely distant sphere – but about the consequences of and for one’s knowledge production.
Men interrupting themselves at conferences saying “as a white man I’m not sure I’m still allowed to talk about this” is a total joke. Identity is complex and hence the position from which I (can) speak cannot be grasped in or parsed by an introductory statement.
I must wrest with it, and this first of all means to understand one’s situatedness and its inevitable blind spots as issues and notions and ideas which are constantly on the move. Blind spots, the things we’re (for many different reasons) not aware of, must be paid attention again and again. We have to look out for and be reminded of them – however uncomfortable that might be. To remark on one’s blind spots is not enough. One cannot use it as a formula, a catch-all.

Because of this a flexible framework that allows the mind to move, one that foregrounds experience and not judgement seems beneficial. Hence, to tackle the condition of “situatedness” I want to ask fiction for help.
In fiction characters are constructed and their situatedness is exhibited to help readers understand their actions. When US-American writer Lynne Tillman wrote the words quoted above in 1991 in her essay “Critical Fiction/Critical Self” she argued against essentialism and for an understanding of the complex interplay of various aspects of identity. But what we currently observe in discourse is a return to essentialist debates.3 Yet essentialism can only create differentiated situated islands – what we actually need is a messy pool of subjectivities that interact, struggle and listen to each other. Still, this pool of subjectivities is not free of hierarchies and of course also in fiction the problem of representation is apparent: for centuries men have told stories from all different perspectives, whereas until now women when writing from a perspective of a man, are asked how they could do that.
African American Writers are asked when they will write about something other than race, a question Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison in a TV conversation with Bill Moyers in 1990 brilliantly countered. She asked if he’d pose the same question to James Joyce: “Because you see the person who asks this question doesn’t understand that he or she is also raced. To ask me when I’m gonna stop, or if I can, is to ask a question that in a sense is its own answer.
Yes, I can write about white people, white people can write about black people, anything can happen in art, there are no boundaries there. Having to do it, or having to prove that I can do it, is what is embarrassing, or insulting.”4 Her statement makes it even clearer how misleading essentialism is in the context of situatedness. The situatedness one chooses for one’s protagonists is not limited by one’s own situatedness. But the idea implied by the interviewer that to write about white characters is a higher form of art does construct a hierarchy of situatedness that fiction actually can (and should) dismantle. The question being asked stresses the importance of reflecting one’s own situatedness before asking other’s to skip theirs. Fiction can function as a realm that brings change and creates solidarity across identities complexity. Fiction enables empathy, and it can actively enhance our understanding of how others feel and think.5
In a conversation between writers and thinkers Audre Lorde and James Baldwin from 1984 Lorde insisted on the differences between being a black woman or a black man. Whereas Lorde links the fight against racism with the one against patriarchy, Baldwin doesn’t draw that connection, which indirectly proves her point.6 In closing she argues: “I’m not interested in blame, I’m interested in changing.”7 And one of the possibilities for that change to happen is via fiction by telling other stories, bringing in other characters and create identities that are on the move to actually bring change by interrupting the dominant narrative.

To construct a subject in fiction always encompasses the necessity to situate it in order to give the reader the possibility to locate its thoughts and acts. As this subjectivity necessarily is a fiction it makes the constructedness, the temporality and hence the shifting nature of one’s situatedness feasible. Whereas in one moment the protagonist’s identity as a woman rules the narrative in the next it is her background from the upper class, in yet another moment it is her being emigrated from Turkey what seems central to her identity.
When confronted with essentialisms I often wonder: what is the next level of distinction. These lists could go on forever. And they rarely help. For me it is much more fruitful to activate the mind through the back door – through the imagination. This back door tricks the reader into reflecting their assumptions about the protagonist’s identity while the complexity and situatedness of it unfolds in them instead of being laid bare in front of them for easy consumption. The imagination opens spaces for thinking rather than closing them down in binarisms/dualisms. The activated imagination of the reader/listener enables an understanding of the situatedness of subjectivity but doesn’t offer closure.
As the editor of “Critical Fictions” (1991) in which Tillman’s text appeared, Philomena Mariani explains: “The realities of critical fiction are multiple, chaotic, inclusive, hybridized, undomesticated, unpurified; often polemical, anti-universal. (…) The awareness of the shifting ground of reality and of the need to continually rethink strategies of resistance is the conceptual location of the writer of critical literature. It is to this space that critical fictions draw the reader – to be, finally, stripped of the familiar – compelling a process of self-critique.”8 Situating, with this understanding, functions as a form of critique not only on the writer’s, but also on the reader’s part. The interplay of different aspects of subjectivity is something fiction can demonstrate.
To give an example: In 1986 Tillman created the fictional art critic Madame Realism. In the story “Dynasty Reruns” (1986), Madame Realism visits a show at the National Gallery in Washington featuring art collections from English country houses that she criticizes as flaunting power and wealth. Disappointed Madame Realism leaves the museum.
“When Madame Realism got outside, it was snowing. The White House was surprisingly and deceptively invisible. The young black taxidriver, wearing a Coptic cross earring, explained that D.C. had been designed by mystics and visionaries, and that through their writings he knew that the end of the world was at hand. ‘God makes no accidents,’ he warned.”9
The cabdriver is a man, a black person, a Coptic Christian, and a mystic. Neither he nor Madame Realism can offer a universal, total or abstracted perspective but a situated one. While we are given at least some points of reference in the case of the cab driver, we know close to nothing factual about Madame Realism, we get to know her through what she perceives and encounters. To ground Madame Realism in the imaginary opens the possibility to mirror how we want to imagine her to take her seriously, or not; to engage with or dismiss her thoughts. Do we imagine her black? Old? From what background? It is quite likely that we construct Madame Realism to mirror us in some way.
Thereby our projections onto her tell us mostly about our own situatedness – our references, our imagination, our desires – and its limitations.

To situate means to keep knowledge in the process of its formation, constantly to
re-formulate it, to be in dialogue, not to limit oneself to a preconceived perspective,
but to understand the different aspects playing into one’s situatedness in this precise moment in space and time and, thereby, keeping oneself (and one’s blind spots) on the move. Fiction doesn’t explain the concept of situatedness but it can be used to rethink it,
by activating the imagination of the readers and listeners.10
When thinking about this I remember what Donna Haraway said when I heard her speak in Brussels in 2017: “Some of the best thinking happens in storytelling.”11

An important aspect to have in mind when thinking about situatedness is the continuous attention we need to pay our blind spots. Still, there are knowledges we can never partake
in as social worker and activist Ayşe Güleç pointed out. She added to the discussion on situatedness by pointing to the importance of understanding migrant situated knowledge
as knowledge but not taking it as identitary.
It is a perspective that enables us to shift our point of view and hence possibly our actions
too by challenging the dominant practices of representation.12 Fiction can open doors to experiences we have no access to in the real world. But the effects and affects of the experiences we have in fiction play back onto our perception of reality and hence alter our own understanding of situatedness as something that can never be fully grasped
because it is a drifter.13