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Susanne Gannon

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About the author

Susanne Gannon is a Senior Lecturer in education at the University of Western Sydney and a member of the Narrative Discourse and Pedagogy research group. One strand of her research explores affective, aesthetic and performative elements of writing practices in social sciences, the arts and education.
Email: [email protected]

Publication details

Volume 17, November 2007

Writing into the Space of the 'Other'

Poststructural epistemologies entail the destabilizing of subjectivities in research. This paper demonstrates how fictional, collective and other performative textual practices might be taken up to write the 'others' of our research, including ourselves, other/wise in academia. Theorising writing through the work of Adriana Cavarero, Judith Butler and others, the author details three projects through which she attempted to write her way beyond the limitations of her self and of usual constructions of research validity and reflexivity. Rigorous imagining was used to provoke the dissolution of subjectivities, to unsettle and estrange and to open new questions about the nature of ethical textual representation in research.

In this paper I want to trace how I have sought to write in ways that expand what it is possible to see, hear, taste and understand about life and how it might be lived. I want to look at writing within a poststructural and feminist research paradigm and to understand the undertow of realism and how it drags me in and under as a writer, as a reader and as a researcher. I’m curious about how what has been called by Rosi Braidotti a certain “hermeneutics of suspicion” (2002, 68), sometimes invoked by poststructuralism, postmodernism and feminism, operates to close off possibilities that I want to keep open. I’m interested in particular in how writing might be configured as an ethical practice.

The question of the Other that I have so blithely taken up in my title remains open. Who is this Other to whom I make reference? Where are we together in the text? This is of course a key contemporary dilemma for social science: how to avoid coercive representation, exploitation, colonization in both research and writing practices. Multivocal, layered representations of data, which write the author in, performance ethnographies and autoethnographies figure amongst the responses to this dilemma (Gannon, 2004, 2005, 2006). Yet I want to suggest in this paper that remaining within the deceptively safe embrace of our own lived experience has its limitations. It is, after all, at least in part a failure of the imagination that enables human rights abuses in all parts of the globe. The problem of the Other is pivotal to contemporary philosophy. Questions of identity, subjectivity and otherness have been contentious across all domains of contemporary social theory and are often invoked to differentiate between humanist/ modernist versions of human subjects as individualized and separate, and postmodern/ poststructural versions of subjects as discursively constituted within webs of social relations. Elizabeth St. Pierre, for example, describes the Cartesian dualism of body and mind as realized through “the master binary of self/Other” (2000, 494). Feminist philosophers Adriana Cavarero (2000) and Judith Butler (2004), most notably, turn to the scene of the Other in their recent work, theorizing an ethics of engagement and response-ability that also has implications for how we think about the texts we produce. In this paper I take up some of their work to explore my own experiments in writing.

In this paper, I do not (and cannot) offer a program, strategies, codes or plans. Rather, I speak of a few small projects of my own and how I’ve used them to try to imagine otherwise. I’ve borrowed the concept of “rigorous imagining” from St Pierre (1997). She uses it to ponder the impossibility and the necessity of the space of “unimaginable unthought”, of “uncoded” or “smooth space,” of a Deleuzean sort of “deterritorialisation” (371). The work I talk about here slides through social science, philosophy and fiction as I try to imagine other/wise and beyond the limitations of my self.

Laurel Richardson, in the new edition of the famous Handbook of Qualitative Inquiry (Denzin and Lincoln, 2006) argues that we will be more present, honest and engaged in research if we begin writing from our selves. I suggest otherwise in this paper. I argue that it is writing into the imaginative space of the Other that might make us more present in the world and more engaged. When I write myself from myself I am limited by my gender, my sexuality, my ethnicity, my nationality, and all the elements of my particular peculiar history. From some angles, this seems alarmingly consistent with the individualized imagination of neoliberal corporatism. In attempting to write into the space of the Other, I work at imagining the range of possible fictions that might open if I were more than just the me here writing this to you.

The rigorous exercise of the imagination opens up the possibility of tentatively accessing subject positions that do not match our own embodied experience, creating other possibilities and discursive positionings that provide momentary but powerful fictions of how the world is and how it might become. Traces of these fictions stay with us, enrich our positions, give us some grounds for action, perhaps even some grounds for hope. Such hope might emerge as an impetus for political change, as a troubling of binaries that construct us/ them, me/ you, as an expansion of the imaginary, or as a disruption of the power structures that order processes of subjectification. The rhetorical staging of fiction brings in the unthinkable via emotions, bodies and senses that are harder to grasp in more conventionally academic rhetoric and craft. Writing is a relational act. Readers, writers and characters engage and interact, fall in and out of love with one another. Playwright and literary theorist Hélène Cixous talks of “the infinite domain of the human subject” (1994, xvii) where writing is "the passageway, the entrance, the exit, the dwelling place of the Other in me - the other that I am and am not, that I don’t know how to be, but that I feel passing, that makes me live- that tears me apart, disturbs me, changes me" (1986, 85-86). Writing changes me, she says.

Adriana Cavarero (2000) suggests that it is storytelling in particular that changes us; the desire for narrative, specifically the desire to be narrated by another, is what brings us into being, what creates us as human subjects. Judith Butler, influenced somewhat by Cavarero in her recent work, Precarious Life (2004), argues that our humanity and our intelligibility as human subjects are reciprocal, reliant on the recognition of ourselves by an Other. Both Cavarero and Butler take up a relational view of human subjectification. Both have written explicitly about the Other and his/her relation to the subject. The individualist doctrines of enlightenment/ modernist philosophy and psychology recognise human subjects as having the quality of interiority. In contrast, from their feminist and poststructural perspectives, Cavarero (2000) and Butler (2004) make relationality the very condition of subjectification. The ontological status of the who, says Cavarero, is wholly external: “exposed, relational, altruistic” (2000, 89). She elaborates that we become individual subjects not because we are free of others, singular, unique and capable of self analysis and reflexivity, but because our recognition of ourselves as unique is realised through and thus contingent on relations with others. Thus the human subject, and the processes of subjectification as a speaking and writing subject, are marked by exteriority, by an orientation towards those outside ourselves. Both claim an interest in materiality, in corporeality. Butler invokes the figure of “the face” and the notion of an “address” that calls one into an ethical relation, a relation of responsibility towards the Other (2004, 90-91). Cavarero brings the body – and love - to the scene of the story where “the beat of body language and the language of storytelling” together form “a secret rhythm” (2000, 109).

Roland Barthes predicted long ago that literature and science would collapse into one another, that the only difference between them is that “literature has not said what it knows” like Science, but “it has written it” (1989, 10). Cavarero, looking back to Plato, reminds us that poetry and philosophy have been at war since their beginnings. Poetry, Cavarero says, including narrative and storytelling in its scope, is the “art that appeals to the passions… that stages human fragility, inducing the spectators to participate in it and share in its emotions” (2000, 95). Philosophy, in contrast, is a “realm of pure thought” where human plurality, singularity and materiality are superfluous (96). Philosophy is the “art of definition” (73). Similarly, through its own technologies of truth-telling, sociology is interested in the “what” of human subjects – in “the qualities, the character, the roles, the outlooks” (73) that can be generalised, in the “representation of the universal” (50). In contrast, literature – narrative in particular - is interested in the “who” of human subjects, in the life story that persists through time, that offers a “unique unity” (72), a story that can be told by another. Theoretically, Cavarero suggests that this is a key distinction. Problems with the slippery concept of identity emerge, she suggests, from confusion of the “what” – that is, the generalisable, multiple and infinitely mutable qualities of human subjects - with the “who” – that is, the one who is born at a particular time and place and dies at a particular time and place, and who is continually exposed and exhibiting a particular self, a self “that cannot be transcended” (73). Her project is, in part, though without abandoning the insights of poststructuralism, to recover the uniqueness of the human subject, and of her story. Storytelling, she says, like love, addresses the “uniqueness of the who [who] always has a face, a voice, a gaze, a body, and a sex” (109), a “who” who is “concrete and insubstitutable” (73).

The Breast Project

The first of the writing experiments that I refer to in this paper is a theatre script called The Breast Project.1 I wrote the script from data gathered in a series of collective biography workshops that I co-convened with Babette Müller-Rockstroh in a postgraduate Women’s Studies course in Germany in 2000.2 Women told and wrote stories of adolescence, maternity and mortality and we analysed this data within sociological and philosophical frames (Gannon and Müller-Rockstroh, 2004a, 2004b, 2005). However, these stories of women’s embodied experiences – as women kept telling me more stories, emailing me, sending me news clippings – became what Cixous (1998, 44) calls “texts that get away, that escape… that can’t be finished.” I called this project “borderwork” as I crossed back and forth between scientific and literary writing, and between academic and public audiences (Gannon, 2004). I moved, with the data, into a community playwriting project which culminated in a professional season of the play in a theatre during November 2004. Initially, I wanted to write a radical and multivocal theatrical text, one that would encapsulate the diversity of women’s voices and experiences of being breasted and that would demonstrate what I knew of experimental and postmodern writing. I wrote my play within a community context with input at different stages from dramaturges, actors, and audiences at rehearsed readings of the script in development. What I found at every turn was a longing for character, for cohesion, for the possibility of empathy and imaginative emotional engagement. The what of women’s collective embodied experience that I had documented, generalised about and discursively interrogated within sociological and philosophical frames in various published papers allowed for clever parody and postmodern pastiche but would not invite the audience in until a story with distinct and credible characters was written in and through the data. The cacophony of voices became part of the backstory and the play began to work theatrically with the emergence of Sabine, Anna and Judith – schoolgirls reunited as adults - each of them dealing with issues connected with the theme, each of them unique and singular, “concrete and insubstitutable” in Cavarero’s terms (2000, 73), each of them a who rather than a generalisable what of womanhood. Each of them invented but each informed by my research, by the women I have known and by the woman that I am.

Theatre, I have argued elsewhere, is the ideal venue for poststructuralist textual work, demanding, as it does, “volatile, embodied, polyvocalic” texts (Gannon, 2004, 75). The Breast Project in particular, through its development in a collaborative community context as well as its final production on a stage invited its various audiences in the three week season into a “transient, relational and embodied engagement” (75) with the text and with its singular characters. Cixous argues that theatre is the place for the ‘Other’—the audiences, the characters—rather than for the author (1994, 141). Success in writing for theatre is contingent on the disappearance of the author. However, rather than the postmodern textual posturing that I desired initially, it was the local and the particular stories of Sabine, Judith, and Anna that carried the emotional weight of the play, that engaged the audience in the arena of love, fear and chaos that is the theatre.

Theatricality was defined initially by the context within which the play was developed.3 The project took place in a regional centre in Australia, where the existence of professional theatre is always tenuous and getting people into seats is the only proof of success. The community development model of playwrighting aimed to get new work onto the stage for local and wider audiences. Much of the dramaturgical input focused on this objective. The experienced dramaturge with whom I worked on the final drafts of the script – Sue Rider - also directed the play when it reached the stage. The ages of the characters were dropped to make them more appealing and to match the ages of the available cast. The realist undertow emerged particularly through the later dramaturgical process where the character, motivation, secrets, subtexts, and backstories of Sabine, Anna and Judith formed the backbone of the play. Revision of the text with the dramaturge almost always focused on psychological explanations for characters’ actions and words, whilst my intent remained ensuring that what these women embodied was consistent with my research, my data and my politics, and that it respected the women with whom I began talking about breasts. Audience accessibility was evidenced in the positive responses to the play. Like me, they were dragged in to a world that seemed real enough for them to care.

Reviewers of the play called it “a touching story of love and loss that explores what it means to be a woman… at once very funny and very sad. …an intensely emotional production” (Carter, 2004), a script that developed into a “multi-layered, passionate story of feminine love and caring” with “enough layering to keep the characters and plot interesting, the denouement unexpected and the audience focused” (Lahney, 2004). Emailed responses called it “absolutely rivetting theatre” and “a wonderful, engaging, uplifting, inspiring performance…we felt more like participants than spectators”. In Butler’s terms, theatre is a venue where the face and address of the Other – embodied in the characters on the stage – calls the audience into a relation that entails response-ability, and that shifts thought through the body and the emotions, at least for that moment. When theatre brings the audience into an emotional relationship with an Other whom they might not know otherwise, perhaps the lesbian in this play, or the refugee in another (Gannon and Saltmarsh, 2006), traces of that shift in thought linger in the lived experience of the subject.

Cavarero warns that what she calls an “ethics of relation does not support empathy, identification, or confusions” (2000, 92). We do not “dissolve …into a common identity” (92) when we hear the story of another. Rather, she says, in the scene of the story “your uniqueness is exposed to my gaze” (92). The Other, that “unique entity” (72), is not made solid in her uniqueness, not turned to stone by my gaze but rather her uniqueness lies in recognition that every human subject has a trajectory in time and space, through which she will experience a multitude of possibilities and changes that open through relations with others.

The Tumbler

The second of my writing tales happened at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana when I read a story I called 'The Tumbler', in a session on performance texts at the Crossroads Cultural Studies Conference in 2004.4 It was written from the point of view of a woman who could not – not yet – escape a violent relationship. I was surprised at the turn the session took when I followed the story with an exegesis that began “How can I tell this woman’s story? What right do I have to enter a space that is not mine? What are the politics, the ethics, of imagining a life and giving voice to a character who does not exist?” (Gannon, 2005, 625). Some in the audience were disappointed that the story was not mine though the pitch of the paper was advertised in the subtitle “Writing an/other through fiction and performance ethnography.”

Cavarero says that “Whether true or invented, stories are always stories of someone whose uniqueness is put into the words of the tale” (2000, 141). The woman I called The Tumbler spoke for herself, had her own voice different from mine, her life different from mine, but not so different from many and from the imaginary lives that any of us might live. For four years I was on the management committee of a rape crisis centre where we met – women lawyers, doctors, teachers, cops, accountants – once a month at night with the crisis workers, to go through monthly reports, develop policy, sign off and make decisions, balance budgets. Although the face to face work of the crisis workers, the court and emergency medical support that they provided, preserved the unique stories of the women clients, these women came to the management committee meetings anonymised, generalised, victimised, labeled in the stats by age bracket, ethnicity, recency of their violation, relationship with their violator. Social policies and bureaucracies work – like sociology, like philosophy – to erase the particularities of the subject, even when she is as corporeally realised as she is – as hundreds and thousands of women are – when she presents at a rape crisis centre. Imagining The Tumbler gave me a way to think through statistics and to think past commonsense logics like “Why doesn’t she just leave?” that I have heard over and over again in different places and contexts and from different people. Imagining The Tumbler, thinking and feeling my way in to the detail of a life that isn’t mine, puts flesh on my research into gendered and sexual violence, creates a who, creates a you. This you that I enter into imaginatively is no longer a generalisable Other but a “you that is truly an other in her uniqueness and distinction” (Cavarero, 2000, 92). Imagining a voice for a woman who has no voice makes her more particular and her choices more nuanced and complex than feminist theory generally allows her to be (Gannon and Davies, 2006).

Writing into the space of the Other can be a strategy for shifting thought, for bringing the unthought into thought. In this, narrative may do what no other genre can. Paul Ricouer describes fiction as “thought experiments [that] we conduct in the great laboratory of the imaginary” (1992, 164). Social change relies, at least in part, on shifting thought and on imagining other possibilities and other points of view. The research ethics that I sketch here involves a relationship that circulates beyond the binary of self/Other into a space of self/text/Other. It foregrounds the often overlooked role that text and genre play in the construction and deconstruction of knowledge and what might be knowable in research.

I do not claim in this paper that I have engineered social change with these little writing and thought experiments. The Breast Project was seen by a couple of thousand people in one regional city in Australia, each of whom might have had their own small shifts in thought in response to the address from those others – the “concrete and insubstitutable” others (Cavarero, 2000, 73) – that they encountered on the stage. The voice of 'The Tumbler' was heard in a few rooms in a few places – at the Crossroads conference, in a warm tent by the Brisbane River at a Writers Festival, in a hall elsewhere on International Women’s Day. These venues may or may not have held more people than have read my more sociological articles – the articles concerned with the generalisable what of women’s lives. But this paper is not intended to be solely about performance texts. In the final section I return to the process of writing itself, to fiction, its effects and its ethics.

La Rubia

The final piece I will mention is a short story I wrote during a writing workshop on Young Adult fiction.[5] The facilitator asked participants to imagine ourselves into a place we knew well, walking down the street. Then to switch into the point of view of another person there, looking at ourselves through another’s eyes. This became the story 'La Rubia' where I wrote my way into and through a young male voice. It began:

La Rubia marches down my street like she owns the place, like she does every afternoon. Her blue eyes stare straight ahead, her little white hand grips her bag as if someone will snatch it, someone like me. The men drinking at the corner whistle like they do at all the estranjeras from that hostel. They like them young. "Hola, chica!" "Guapa!" "Querida!" "Bruja!" She tosses her head, steps out, onto the road, away from the gobs of shiny spit on the concrete, away from the noisy kisses they make behind her back. They turn again to their beers, laughing. She doesn't see me, doesn't know that I've been waiting for her.

For over ten years I had tried to write about the short time I had spent in Cartagena, Colombia. I’d tried to write journalism, I’d tried to write fiction, I’d read what I could find about the street children of Colombia, some of whom I’d spent a little time with, and the conditions that had brought them to the Caribbean Coast. My exercise in imagination, in entering the space of another – an Other inside my head as it is certain that this voice, this very English voice, is not the voice of a homeless Colombian teenager – worked me into a character who is marked by complex human particularity rather than the abstracted categories – the what of the human with which the social sciences are concerned. The 'who' who speaks this text is compassionate, hopeful and clever despite and perhaps even because of his present conditions, a character who is as different from me as possible in his sex, class, ethnicity, nationality and quotidian existence. Cavarero’s work (2000, 69) suggests that while postmodernism has tended to “[find] suspicious – in principle – the uniqueness” of human subjects, the refiguring of human subjectivity as inherently relational demands that particularity and uniqueness of the Other that narrative enables. Though Butler does not extol the virtues of narrative, her work on human intelligibility suggest that encounters with Others in their particularity dislodge us each from our sedimented subject positions as they "solicit a becoming… instigate a transformation… petition the future" (Butler, 2004, 44). My argument in this paper has been that these encounters might be produced in texts as well as in person. Recognition of the Other entails recognition of our mutual particularity and vulnerability, recognition that the Other is enfolded within us and we are enfolded within each of them and that rigorous imagining and writing can take us into those folds.


In the new Handbook of Feminist Research (2006b), Laurel Richardson writes what she calls a reading herself into her mother, but it is a writing, a rewriting, a re-imagining of that Other in another place and time and of herself of course, as she writes what she calls an “outrageous project…a failed project. Doomed from the start” (2006b, 465). Such an act is doomed only when the author sees herself as superimposing her world, her feelings and her point of view onto another. It is doomed only when we keep intact a view of ourselves and our Others as discrete, bounded humanist subjects. In this paper I privilege the writing of narrative as a means of thinking beyond our selves, and towards another fictive other, as a relational strategy, as an act of rigorous imagining that might begin to open thought. Always partial, always situated, perhaps even always doomed but also, more than ever, absolutely necessary.


An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the 2nd International Qualitative Inquiry Conference, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in May 2006.

1. The final script of the play is available through the Australian National Script Centre at https://www.ozscript.org/

2. The Body Project strand of the International Women's University was hosted by the University of Hanover and brought approximately 130 early career researchers from every continent together with outstanding international scholars for a three months summer semester. The six strands of the project involved over 900 women scholars. More information can be found at https://www.vifu.de/new/

3. The community playwright project began in 2001 as "Enter Stage Write" developed by Just Us Theatre Ensemble in Cairns, Queensland, Australia. Information on the current version of this initiative can be found at https://www.jute.com.au/ESW/index.html

4. The initial version of the text was performed by the author at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2002 and was subsequently performed by a friend as part of an International Women's Day event in Noosa Heads, Queensland in 2003.

5. The author teaches Secondary English Method, including writing pedagogy and adolescent fiction, within the graduate entry Master of Teaching for pre-service teachers. The story won the National Abe Amaterstein Short Story competition in 2005 and is forthcoming in the journal LiNQ: Literature in North Queensland.


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