By June Tang
28 March, 2021
This piece was developed during June’s writing residency at Carriageworks as part of No Show (12 Feb-7 March). The work continues the fragmented, observational form of June’s newsletter series, responding to the physical and interactive environment of Carriageworks and the residency space.
• • •
[W]hat distance must I maintain between myself and others if we are to construct a community without collision, a sociability without alienation, based on a form of individual freedom that may imply solitude but not isolation?1
No longer shooting underground, nor carried by slaves, messengers or birds, an envelope travels nonetheless.
And when it arrives, it is light, easy to open, and—once its contents are retrieved—easy enough to discard.
Received and unfolded are bills or summaries, confessions or demands, death threats, debts and desires.
Though perhaps sometimes they simply tell of minor happenings, and between the first line and the last—between the poor weather and the new kitten—it asks how we are.
Addressing us and awaiting us, it also addresses itself, as all writing does.
There are two lines or twenty pages, though sometimes those twenty pages are not meant for us.
Other times, our name is there, unsmudged and quite legible—as if it had been written carefully, perhaps even with affection—yet we have the sense, while reading, that it is meant for someone else—someone not like us at all.
The envelope, now empty, fills with greater distance.
It encloses us entirely.
• • •
In Chinese, the character 信 denotes trust, faith, belief. At the same time, standing alone as a noun, it refers to a letter. Enjoined with other characters, it forms—among countless other words—the following: message/news/information (信息), and envelope (信封).
The character 封 means ‘to close, to seal; to bind or to block; to censor’. Or it could be used as the measure word for quantifying letters, or to reference the cover of a book.
In this sense perhaps, an envelope invites a certain fidelity to truth.
A message sealed and unsealed.
A belief opened and closed.
On screen, a correspondent describes the scene: rubble, tanks, unseen checkpoints.
The clip first plays on the five o’clock news, then on the six o’clock, the six-thirty and the seven. It plays twice during the ten o’clock, and in the next few days it will play once, twice more. Simultaneously, it plays online, across numerous channels, and it is possible that the algorithm, corresponding like with like, will keep this clip playing ad infinitum.
After five or six commercials, the scene recedes, and is replaced by the prolonged analysis of a handshake.
Is the address bitter, or does it express renewed hope?
In such a historic moment, one might not even notice that the handshake itself forms a kind of envelope: a dirty diplomatic pocket where anything is speculated and anything exchanged.
• • •
If one definition of correspondence is alignment or agreement, and the other is (more generally) exchange or contact, perhaps collaboration is where this dual meaning can play out in tandem and in tension. Yet what does it mean to co-respond, that is, to respond together, when one meaning is the blind spot of the other?
“I’ve been thinking of an imagined protest,” writes Naomi, “where everyone did not march, but sat down, in silence, with no speeches or placards or signs or phones…”
There are collaborations of love and of corporations. There are artistic, musical and culinary collaborators. There are wartime collaborators. There are no peacetime collaborators, for there is never any peace.
“Silence is collaborative,” A writes to me, at the end of an e-mail, a gentle reassurance that I can always take my time.
Katja Haustein’s notion of tact, as a framework for ethics, draws upon three theorists writing in the 20th century, who each consider tact in a different historical period of crisis.
Tracing the Latin and Greek etymologies of the word, Haustein reveals how its myriad connotations construct “[an] image of dance and game formations”: from touch, tactility and feeling, to beat or pulse, to influence or effect; from quick or sudden, to arrangement, order, status and position.2
“Being tactful between one another,” she writes, “implies the shared negotiation of the right balance between approach and detachment, assonance and dissonance, coincidence and deferral.”3
Haustein distinguishes that “tact, unlike empathy, is often associated with discretion and respect of the space of the other,” and emphasises how “the key problem in modern subjectivity is not, as many would suspect, the increased distance between individuals but, on the contrary, its erasure.”4
While empathy may lead to tact, it is not imperative, for tact is not linked to a presumption of knowing how the other feels, and thus does not aim to establish nearness. In its fundamental “attention towards otherness,” it necessitates not simply sensitivity, but “the accuracy of sensitivity [my emphasis].”5
In search of tact, I decide it’s abstract, only theoretical. I try to imagine scenarios. I wonder if philosophy is useless after all.
I give up, I start again, I look again.
• • •
Leo Tsao’s video installation at Carriageworks, ‘Strategic Choreographies’ (2021), is remarkable in its movement and timing.
In one sequence, two players-cum-dancers pass the basketball between them, weaving it in and out, between and under and around, all without touching. In other sequences, the players’ bodies are knotted together, shifting and sensing as one. Yet, although separate, their movements and formations are always relational; improvised yet angled with care.
There is running, there is jumping, there is shooting, bouncing, positioning.
There is one ball, then many.
No one wins, and no one loses.
Between directness and indirectness, between touching and untouching, between sharpness and suppleness, synchrony and asynchrony is this: the struggle of distinct, individual bodies with/in the body of the collective.
The ball’s impact resonates across the darkened court and along its walls.
The foreigner, the tourist, the outsider. The migrant, the immigrant, the other.
In sociology, familiar strangers are those strangers with whom we regularly share a public space (such as a train platform, or a cafe), and whom we have repeatedly observed and can recognise but do not interact with.
Yet perhaps this term, seen from the outside, bears a reminder of the porousness between the familiar and the strange, that each always contains the other, and that we must be wary too, of submerging the strange with what is familiar.
That we must begin with unknowingness and proceed towards knowing, yet only ever towards. That we must also remember, even—or especially—in our search for more radical forms of community, to never entirely forgo “a preference for individual difference over communal identification.”6
As Simone Weil wrote: “We read, but also we are read by, others. Interferences in these readings. Forcing someone to read himself as we read him (slavery). Forcing others to read us as we read ourselves (conquest).”7
And so, perhaps only between approach and recoil, or between participation and renunciation, can we negotiate the paradox within any human relation—wherein the “retention of strangeness is the only antidote to estrangement.”8
The Latin root hostis (‘host’, ‘guest’ or ‘stranger’) is thought to derive from the Sanskrit root ghas meaning ‘to eat, consume or destroy’. The Latin hospes, meaning ‘stranger’ or later ‘enemy’, is thought to be a compound of hostis and the prefix pa-, becoming ‘he who entertains a stranger, a host’.
From these two Latin roots, we are given hostel, hospital, hostility and hospitality, that is, the relationship between a host and a guest.
In Chinese, the characters 生 and 熟 correspond to the words ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘familiar’, and are used to describe relation with others (生人，熟人). These same characters also respectively mean ‘raw/uncooked/unripe’ and ‘ripe/cooked’.
Tracing the etymology yields no relation to the possible origins of eating, feeding or cooking, and yet I continue to wonder about these parallels with hospitality.
To eat or be eaten.
To feed or be fed.
To consume; to envelop; to destroy.
• • •
The following line, from Julia Kristeva’s Strangers to Ourselves (1988), attempts to imagine the encounter between host and foreigner:
“A mutual recognition, the meeting owes its success to its temporary nature, and it would be torn by conflicts if it were to be extended.”9
The foreigner, invited into the company of others, participates in the hospitality ritual: eating and drinking with pleasure (and perhaps some desperation). This banquet, Kristeva describes, “is the foreigners’ utopia—the cosmopolitanism of a moment, the brotherhood of guests who soothe and forget their differences…It imagines itself eternal in the intoxication of those who are nevertheless aware of its temporary frailty.”10
The foreigner meets these rare events with both longing and cynicism. For genuine hospitality is not a momentarily shared space, nor activity—not even this alluring, primordial meal.11
Yet where then, do we go from here?
I email A and ask him what he thinks of the concept of tact. From across the ocean comes his reply, a retelling of a retelling, which I now pass on to you:
a mother goes to her neighbour and asks for salt.
“but we have salt at home,” says her child when they get inside.
“yes, but this will make it easier for them to ask us for something when they need to.”
Here perhaps, is tact, and within it, the possibility of a hospitality that dignifies distance.
We glimpse this too, in Marguerite Duras’ article, ‘The Algerian’s Flowers’, written in 1957 at the height of the Algerian War.
In it, Duras observes a young Algerian who has stopped tentatively on a street corner in Paris’ 6th arrondissement, away from the main market. He is here to sell flowers, but before he is able to sell a single one, two policemen approach. As he has no permit, they overturn his pushcart. The flowers scatter into the intersection. One lone woman applauds the police: “If the cops always went after them like that, we’d soon be rid of that scum. Bravo!”12
Yet soon, another woman arrives and, observing the officers, the Algerian, and the triumphant woman, “she bends down, picks up some flowers, walks over to the young Algerian, and pays him.” Then, coming one by one, fifteen other women proceed to do the same, all in silence, and after which “[n]ot a single flower [is] left on the ground.”13
Here, as Haustein writes, tactfulness “is defined by what one does not say (Lat. tacere = ‘to be silent’, ‘to conceal’) and yet it presupposes mutual awareness of the unspoken thing.”14
Of course, after all this, the policemen take the young Algerian away. Yet something has, nonetheless, been kept intact.
Ultimately, in their essence, both tact and hospitality can only take place when there is an imbalance or disproportion between those involved, or rather what Derrida terms a dissymmetry, that is the violation of symmetry, rather than its lack thereof.
It is here that both these concepts function as an ethics—no matter how elusive—rather than remaining generalised notions.
In Haustein’s conclusion, she re-emphasises that “[t]act flourishes at times when established codes and conventions disintegrate but have not yet disappeared”—that is, in times of great social and political upheaval.15
Thinking alongside her work, I wonder: are we not, in our own century, in a permanent state of crisis and disintegration? Or is it that tact surfaces in its ethical form only when crisis manifests in our face-to-face relations?
What new forms of tact can, and must we imagine?
And if so, how do we gesture towards it, even as it resists definition, having no precise shape?
In 2015, at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis, photographers-cum-psychiatrists Maroussia Prignot and Valerio Alvarez visited the Jodoigne Reception Centre outside Brussels. From there they developed a close three-year collaboration with the asylum seekers, through workshops grounded in creative interaction and intervention. Against the abrasive, daily realities of the administrative environment, the children and adults, guided by Prignot and Alvarez, were able to direct their own portraits and subsequently alter them, from gluing and tearing to colouring and tracing and writing.
Another workshop saw the children creating portraits using the photocopier—their faces and hands, pressed to the glass, emerge on the backs of administrative papers, a result both intimate and haunting. Dissolving as if into shadows, they appear sometimes to be hiding, sleeping or dreaming.
Through these interactions, the workshops offered the migrants varying ways to construct their own identities and narratives, within but also far beyond the anonymising bureaucratic state. As Brian Treanor notes, “[t]he role of hospitality is to aid the guest in emplotting herself…to write herself into the place, or to write the place into her story [my emphasis].”16
We see the drawn outlines of their figures, and we see the backs of turned bodies, both from afar and up-close: a portrait reversed.
Collected into the book Here, Waiting (2019), the images and drawings offer a kind of tactful, wordless intimacy—one that does not assume, nor publicly exhibit or divulge, any private, detailed knowledge of their lived experience, including any testimonies of trauma or suffering.
This is not to say those stories are unimportant, only that they are not a prerequisite for solidarity, opposition and resistance. The stories and photographs of migrants in our mainstream media, packaged into a source of humanitarian empathy, nonetheless pose no threat to—and in some ways may even uphold—the structures which create such conditions from which one must flee.
In Here, Waiting, their gazes are simply not for us.
The opacity preserved by Prignot and Alvarez’ approach brings me here—though in a different context—to Glissant, who, in postcolonial Martinique theorised the concept of opacity as the unknowable and irreducible.17
Similar to Weil’s notion of reading, Glissant’s opacity demands that the oppressed—who are historically subjected to naming, categorising and ‘understanding’ in the process of domination—have the right to opacity. He calls for accepting and understanding difference beyond the hierarchy of Western thought and its moralising notions of transparency. Against this transparency—the coloniser’s objectifying gaze—he insists instead, on the need for “stubborn shadows” as a mode of radical resistance.
And with the following line, Glissant ends his text:
“We clamour for the right to opacity for everyone.”18
May we clamour for opacity as well as for transparency, each in their own contexts.
May we not mistake these contexts.
And, in the absence of justice, may we shelter the strength that lets us continue our work towards it: these opaque hospitalities, this tactful tenderness.
- Katja Haustein, ‘How to Be Alone with Others: Plessner, Adorno, and Barthes on Tact’, in Modern Language Review, 114.1, (2019), p. 5
- Haustein, p. 2
- pp. 2-3
- p. 2, 4
- p. 21, 4
- p. 21
- Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 134-5
- Haustein, ‘How to Be Alone with Others’, p. 8
- Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 11
- p. 11
- p. 13
- Marguerite Duras, ‘The Algerian’s Flowers’, in Outside: Selected Writings, (New York: Flamingo, 1987), p. 15
- p. 16
- Haustein, ‘How to Be Alone with Others’, p. 3
- p. 21
- Brian Treanor, ‘Putting Hospitality in Its Place’, in Phenomenologies of the Stranger: Between Hostility and Hospitality, Richard Kearney; Sascha Semonovitch (eds.), (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011), p. 65
- Édouard Glissant, ‘For Opacity’, in Poetics of Relation, Betsy Wing (trans.), (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997)
- p. 194