I looked and looked and changed
unknowingly by looking
— David Whyte, The Thicket
Each moment is like this—before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen.
— Claudia Rankine, Citizen
I asked for a story and you gave me my story.
— Henrik Nordbrandt, Near Lefkas
Wherever I go, there I am. It is the subjectivity conundrum. We can never disengage ourselves entirely from where we find ourselves or what we see. Just as the mapmakers of yesteryear invested their own preferences, prejudices and ideologies into what they drew, so we too carry our own baggage with us. We recognise the necessity of empathic practices but experience also their limitations.
Consider this minor thought experiment. A group of people sit at a circular table. At its centre is a vase of flowers, varied in shape, height and hue. The occupants of each chair have a different perspective of the vase and its contents in comparison with the other people at the table. If requested to do so, each person can describe vocally, in writing or images what they see for the benefit of the others. Every ten minutes, they also stand up and move, in a clockwise direction, to the next chair before resuming their contemplation of the floral display. This continues until everyone has returned to their original chair.
In some respects, each person is reframing, assimilating the descriptions provided by the others, as well as what their own eyes tell them. To change chairs is to move, however temporarily, into a new point of view. To look at and assess things differently. To broaden personal horizons, accumulating new knowledge and data. But is this genuinely a case of looking with the eyes of another, of filling someone else’s shoes? Again, we bump up against the conundrum of subjectivity.
[Picture credit: Wall with Green Door, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1953]
While exposure to a diversity of perspectives is essential to any attempt to understand how other people see and interpret the world around them, it is impossible to divest ourselves of all our own accumulated knowledge, experience, culture and filters. To assess someone else’s description or to sit in another’s chair, does not alter the fact that we are still using our own eyes, not theirs. That only happens in films like Being John Malkovich.
In that case, men and women enter a portal into John Malkovich’s mind, retaining their own subjectivity, but using his eyes and body as vehicles with which they interact with the world. In my own reality, I can respond viscerally to the poetry of, say, Claudia Rankine or Sarah Kay. But as a white, middle-aged, middle-class, British male I can make no pretence to see the world with their eyes. My interpretation of the words they have written might diverge in significant ways from the meaning they conveyed in the writing of them.
This is one of the wonders of our cultural artefacts: meaning is co-created by the artist and the reader, viewer or listener. There is an empathic connection, for sure, but in the sense that two worldviews have mingled rather than one has entirely overridden another. We do not step into the artist’s shoes. But, when open-minded, we do allow their ideas to infect our own thinking, to challenge and expand it.
In engaging with a novel, a film, a painting or a song, we enable a complicit entanglement. In participating in a conversation, in person or online, we exchange ideas continuously, and in so doing experience mental movement and flux. In travelling ourselves, or opening our borders to others, we willingly expose ourselves to a cultural kaleidoscope. We watch, listen and absorb, filtering and assimilating, sharing and receiving.
Through curiosity, we maintain an interest in the diversity of people, their mindsets, perspectives and ideas. It is essential, though, to recognise the limitations of our own subjectivity and the dangers of imposing our vision upon others.
To simply project our own ‘expertise’ is myopic in the extreme. Worse still, to close ourselves off, to build walls, to declare the undesirability of the other, is to proclaim the beginning of the end. If you are the only person sat at the table, never leaving your chair and with no others to supply alternative points of view, how do you attain the big picture? How do you broaden your knowledge horizons? Meanwhile, the flowers wilt.
The only power we have is to project.
— Ian McEwan, Nutshell
She had no patience for the illusion that you could know someone because you knew her novels.
— Idra Novey, Ways to Disappear
This is what I did in any new environment. I tried to inject meaning, make the place coherent or at least locate myself within the place, to confirm an uneasy presence.
— Don DeLillo, Zero K