The Friday before last (21st Oct 2018) I went to a GIDEST seminar with Siri Hustvedt. I discovered Hustvedt’s work through her husband, Paul Auster, 24 years ago. On seeing and listening to Hustvedt, the significance of Auster’s work on my life suddenly hit me. Zac Baker, a dear old friend of mine, gave me Mr. Vertigo at a very dark point in my life. In my first year at University, my best friend died. I couldn’t sleep and I was spiralling into a black hole. The book saved me. It changed my relationship to reading and opened a new world to me. A world, where words… stories… books… fiction could be a place to escape to. A world where I could process my feelings and thoughts. All these years later, I’m sat at a table across from Siri, with a feeling of excitement and intellectual giddiness.
Siri Hustvedt is an amazing woman; a creative thinker who possesses razor sharp intelligence, her ideas are expressed with a poetic clarity, which is unusual for someone who draws on such a diverse set of references. She manages to move smoothly across disciplinary boundaries, without care for their formal and superficial barriers. She has the feeling of a person from a different era; driven by curiosity and a desire to understand the world around her, somehow avoiding the politics and trappings of the modern ‘public intellectual’.
We were given three pieces of her work to read before the seminar; an excerpt from The Blazing World, and the chapters; Becoming Others and My Louise Bourgeois from A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind. All three pieces were fascinating; I particularly liked Becoming Others where Hustvedt examines her mirror touch synesthesia.
The most fascinating aspect of mirror-touch synesthesia maybe precisely that it lies at, indeed appears to cross, the border between self and other, but does so in a way that forces us to examine the limen itself and what it means for empathic and imaginative experience.
Hustvedt goes on to make links between phenomenology, psychology and neurobiology through Merleau-Ponty’s intercorporeality, Winnicott’s transitional objects and Gallese’s we-space. It was the ‘we-space’ (Gallese, 2001), the space of relational agency, that fascinated me. In my talk at Critical by Design earlier this year, I spoke about my Fathers dementia and how fiction became an intersubjective tool of translation and mediation for his madness. I spoke about how stories became a way for us to engage, care and comfort him during his distress. Reading Hustvedt, it made me think of the semi-fictional reality that we co-created with my dad as a ‘space of the imagination’. A space to make empathy possible.
Much has been written about design and empathy (the original phrase was developed by Dorothy Leonard-Barton and Jeffrey Rayport, Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design, in 1997) and how, as designers, we need to develop empathetic techniques to understand our users. User Centred Design has become a common approach and method for designers to consider people in a systematic manner throughout a design process. However, I’ve always found the use of personas problematic in their representational limitations. Often, the fictional characterisations are thin and generic characterisations of human complexities and identities. My question to Hustvedt centred around how the intersubjective space, the we-space of imaginative potential, could be tapped, enriched and furnished with complexity. Ultimately, creating fictions – our projections of ourselves into the we-space – to enable alternative spaces of potential without the horrors of cultural assimilation and colonisation. This starts to sound a lot like Anne Galloway‘s Fantastic Ethnography, in particular her reflections on the brilliant Ursula K. Le Guin‘s challenge for us to go beyond-realism.
Ultimately, my question fell a little flat. Not due to Hustvedt’s lack of engagement in the idea or her generous attempt to understand what the hell I was saying, but more due to her understanding of the word / discipline DESIGN. The disciplinary elephant in the room… I’m sure many of you have been there; the conversation is going well, non-designers are speaking to you as smart, intelligent humans, then you drop the D-bomb and it all goes wrong. Suddenly the world collapses as the person you’re speaking to suddenly can’t think of anything but throw-cushions, fancy bathroom taps, ‘designer’ handbags, ‘problem solving’ and Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen (thanks Jimmy!).
The GIDEST seminars are set up to create a space of interdisciplinary discourse, but as those who have tried this know it’s a difficult space to engage in (especially for design); language barriers, disciplinary biases and divergent interests slow the discussions down and often lead to unproductive conversations. For design, it’s a deeper problem, we have a pretty terrible rep. So much of the work we (designers / educators) need to do, is to translate and reposition how design is seen – in both the ‘academy’ and general public.
Gallese,V. ‘The ‘shared manifold’ hypothesis. From mirror neurons to empathy’. Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 8, Numbers 5-7, 1 May 2001, pp. 33-50(18)