Siri Hustvedt | The Idea of the Between

Siri Hustvedt is an American novelist, poet, and essayist – with six novels, two books of essays, and several works of non-fictiont hat has been translated into over thirty languages.. Her books include: international bestsellers What I Loved (2003), for which she is best known, and The Summer Without Men (2011).
Hustvedt’s works repeatedly pose questions about the nature of identity, selfhood and perception. She presents the reader with characters whose minds are inseparable from their bodies and their environments and whose sense of self is situated on the threshold between the conscious and unconscious. Her characters often suffer traumatic events that disrupt the rhythms of their lives and lead to disorientation and a discontinuity of their identities. Hustvedt’s concern with embodied identity manifests itself in her investigation of gender roles and interpersonal relations.

12 responses to “Siri Hustvedt | The Idea of the Between

  1. I was hoping that Hustvedt, a writer of fictions, would talk about “the embodied between” in fictional social interactions. She does spin out a series of fictional scenarios to illustrate her points, but she doesn’t call the audience’s attention to the paradox of deploying imaginary disembodied people to embody embodiment. Tongue in cheek perhaps.

    • I would guess that she would say that we supply the bodies in such relations, on a phenomenological note readers don’t experience fictional characters as flesh and blood so can’t see that as the writer’s task per say, seems its own thing, no?

    • “readers don’t experience fictional characters as flesh and blood…” No, but the writer deploys “realism effects” to make it seem as if the fictional characters were flesh and blood. So, a character engages another character in conversation at a dinner party, smiles, nods, looks over the other character’s head, walks away, etc. This isn’t solely a matter of fiction. If the writer made the same observations about two real people at a real dinner party, the reader’s experience of this interaction would be the same. The only way the reader could tell the difference is if the narrator indicated that the one exchange is imaginary whereas the other happened in real life — and, of course, if you regard the narrator as reliable. Embodied in-between-ness, mediated by textual narrative, becomes indistinguishable from disembodied in-between-ness.

      “we supply the bodies in such relations…” I presume you mean that we supply imaginary bodies for the fictional characters, not that we ourselves embody their actions and interactions. I think that’s right.

      “I would guess that she would say that…” You’re engaging in a kind of fiction writing there, either inferring or projecting. I do it all the time, imagining what some other flesh-and-blood person might think or say or do.

      What about the embodied in-between of an exchange like this one, between two people on a blog thread? I don’t find myself leaning toward or away from the screen, smiling or frowning, as I read your comment, depending on whether I agree or disagree. But maybe I’m wrong about that; maybe if I recorded myself as I was reading your comment I would detect subtle changes in my facial expression, gesture and posture, eye motion. Even so, certainly I would not be reacting to your body language; I’d be reacting to your written language. I have no idea what you look like, so I can’t even imagine your gestures or facial expressions. Our in-between is mediated by text. I can engage textually or not; I can write affably or with hostility. My comment thread engagement is embodied, in eyes and fingers and brain, but the in-between-ness of that embodiment occurs entirely on the screen, in textual form. As you write, “seems its own thing.”

      Sometimes I wonder whether, as curator, you tend to put up recorded talks rather than texts because talks provide images of bodies and recordings of voices, more closely corresponding to human bodily interaction than do texts.

      At the beginning of her talk Siri Hustvedt lowers herself to speak into the mic, says “I’m so tall,” raises the mic. I wondered whether this was a bit of prearranged stage business, set up in order to demonstrate that she is an embodied speaker and not just a brain connected to a voice. I don’t have an iPhone, so I asked my daughter to ask Siri how tall s/he is. “I’m as big as your imagination,” the humanoid voice responded.

    • Last time I commented as Ktismatics, before that I was John Doyle. Does using my real name make me seem more like a real person in this mediated conversation? (Note: it wasn’t an experiment; it was just a mistake — or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.)

      • I think I noted the change in yer tag at some point but really what I attend-to/recognize is the accompanying image, on the other issues I think it really matters if we think we are talking in terms of relations to real people of fictional characters, the “as-if” quality that you note seems vital to me, see her related talk on what is allowed by readers (including the author as 1st reader) in fictional works:

    • I take it that the “as-if quality” means treating fictional characters as if they were flesh and blood, and their fictional encounters as if they were occurring in intersubjective space. Hustvedt uses fictional interactions as a kind of simulation to illustrate how individuals in a social setting interpret, often incorrectly, one another’s attitudes, affects, and behaviors. Let’s presume that her simulations fairly accurately reflect the way real people interact. Those interpretations we make of one another in real life interactions are a kind of fictionalizing, an imagining of why people are doing what they’re doing. Our imaginings may, like Hustvedt’s fictional simulations, correspond at least in part to the interpersonal reality in which we’re engaged. We might imagine several alternatives, then react in accord with the fictional simulation we regard as most likely correlating with the actual situation. I.e., we interact “as if” our simulations of the other are real, or at least as close an approximation as we can manage on the fly.

      It’s certainly possible that all of these imaginative attempts at understanding are a waste of time, that the other person doesn’t really understand why they’re acting and interacting the way they are either. A whole array of motivations and impulses and causes and beliefs and intentions are firing away in the neural net, trying to bubble up to the top. They’re all true; none of them is true. Often as not the interaction itself reshuffles the deck and deals the cards for both players.

      I acknowledge three things on a personal interpersonal level. First, I can’t remember the last time I attended a dinner party at which I spoke with someone I don’t know, so Hustvedt’s fictional scenario doesn’t resonate very vibrantly with me. Second, online interactions like this one do stimulate me to think in ways I wouldn’t ordinarily do on my own. It’s not that the conversation reveals to me what I already thought; it’s that the interpersonal context helps generate thoughts that I wouldn’t otherwise have entertained. In this sense the thread creates a “zone of proximal development.”

      Third, I do try to imagine my blog interlocutors’ motivations in conversations unfolding on blog threads. Given that the interpersonal online space is limited to the words, and occasionally the images, presented on a computer screen, I’ve got a lot less reality to work with than if we were chatting over canapes and champagne at Siri Hustvedt’s dinner party. Also, the conversation goes at a much slower pace: you’d have gone home long ago if we’d have been having this exchange at the Hustvedt soiree. That leaves a lot more degrees of freedom available for fictionalizing, and a lot more time to spin them out.

      • I guess I come at the as-if in terms of phenomenology (of reading not writing) and just as people don’t run out of the way of the horses (anymore) at the movies, fictional figures don’t provide the same kinds of stimulus/feedback that flesh and blood people do.

      • Or you know, maybe I enter a zone of proximal development with myself, not with the real person standing in front of me but with who I imagine that person to be, a projection screen for my own hopes, fears, fantasies. Often what I imagine to be going on in an interaction with another person proves way more interesting than what, as best I can tell, is really going on.

        “fictional figures don’t provide the same kinds of stimulus/feedback that flesh and blood people do.” Well a textual description or movie of a real horse isn’t going to knock you down either.

        • ” maybe I enter a zone of proximal development with myself, not with the real person standing in front of me but with who I imagine that person to be, a projection screen for my own hopes, fears, fantasies.” I think there’s a lot to this and of course when we deal with other actual people we project all kinds of stuff onto them so it’s always messy and imaginal in ways, just differing ways, all of which interest me as an alien/ist.

      • On the other hand, the physical book containing a textual description of a horse or the film reel containing footage of a horse could, if thrown with sufficient velocity and accuracy, knock you down. Is that what constitutes a “real” book or a “real” film — its ability to inflict physical damage on its audience? I’m reminded of John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns.

  2. “The zone of action between people” = Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD) – opening as an ecology of communicative exchange where lively and sensitive bodies co-coordinate with (adapt to) each other. An ontological terrain generated between bodies but more than just bodies.

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