Anne-Claire Mulder (Link zur deutschen Version)
In our ABC we, the authors of this booklet, have already presented the key points of our thoughts on the in-between. When I read this text again, I found the text a bit theoretical and difficult to translate the thoughts we presented into everyday practices. So I have tried to make the concept of the in between more practical by situating it in the context of real life dialogues or dialogical meetings , like this conference of ours, in which dialogue is one of the most practiced forms of meeting each other.
In these meetings, in these dialogues as in any dialogue, the participants are searching for images, words, stories, practises of the good life that are shared by many. This search has a tentative character, because it is not self- evident that the participants will find a common ground, or a shared language, or that the participants have a shared understanding of the words and images that they exchange. But while they are participating it becomes clear which of the word, images, stories are shared ones and about which ideas they disagree or differ from each other.
In sum, meeting another and engaging in dialogue with someone else represents a path or method to associate oneself with someone else. And in this process a certain we, a certain togetherness is generated – or re- established.
Now, if it is true that we are looking for a new common ground, a new we, in our meetings it is not so strange that not all dialogical meetings are successful, because it is not easy to do justice to the difference between the one and the other and to look at the same time for this common ground, this shared connection. Many of us know from experience that in the search for a new we, difference is easily effaced.
Ways of generating a we
This has something to do with the word we. we suggests a unity, a collective subject. It joins you and me together.
Let me describe a few possible methods in which a we is generated in group processes:
- This we is constituted through merging. you and I have become one entity. We are ‘joined at the hip’; ‘ when you see the one, you see the other’. We come and go together and our views do not differ.
- The we is generated through adaptation or accommodation. ‘I ‘want to belong so badly with you, that I conform myself to your habits
- The we is has been constituted through usurpation, because you have effaced me, for instance by saying to me that I am the same as you, that we have identical views, and I have not been able to resist this claim
- This we has been generated because you and I have decided to bury our differences – we say to each other that they are not important – and we decide to present ourselves henceforth as a unity.
All these examples of the generation of a we have in common that they deny the differences between us. Sometimes this is done voluntarily in the first few months of being in love, or in the first enthusiasm for a new enterprise. Sometimes it happens under pressure, for instance in the discussion about acculturation. But the effacement of differences happens most often in passing, unnoticed, as the effect of the power of the we. It then can happen that someone discovers that the connection is stifling because it offers no space for difference or dissent, and that she or he wants to break away, to shatter this we, to bring the differences between the individual subjects in the collective subject.
If the we, the collective subject, wants to flourish it is necessary that the differences and dissent between participants of a dialogue need to be consciously recognized and acknowledged. This means that this we must not be ‘a dome’ that is put over us, but that this we is generated in the space between the you and the me. The relation between I, you and we that I have in mind is a horizontal one – not a triangular one. In a triangle the we is often placed at the top, and this suggests that this we is more important than the I and the you.
An in-between space: separating and connecting you and me
Let me further elaborate this image of the horizontal relation between the I and the you by paying attention to the space between the I and the you. In my view, the dialogue between the I and You takes place in this ‘in between’. One can understand this in a very literal or concrete way: the open space in the middle of a circle, the space between chairs – all these spaces are between the participants, they are an in between.
This space between and around the one and the other separates them from each other; it enables them to distinguish themselves from each other, and to be distinguished from each other by an outsider. This means that this in-between safeguards the distinction, the difference between them – or to be more precise we should say that this in-between is the space of the difference between the one and the other.
It is important to underline that this in-between is principally indissoluble. There will always be a space between the one and the other. When you think about the concrete encounter with someone else, you will notice that no matter how close you approach the other – standing nose to nose for instance – there is always this space between you and the other – albeit a millimetre, a membrane, a breath of air. To efface this in-between you would have to take the space of the other, to stand in for her, merge with him.
Another example of the in- between is the placenta that separates as an in between membrane mother and foetus in the womb, thereby clear that their living together, their symbiosis, does not efface their differences. They are not one, but two.
Both examples point towards the irreducible character of the in-between. They clarify that this in between can only be dissolved in the imagination or fantasy or through language, for instance by speaking of the relation between mother and child in the womb as if they are one entity, or to think of the relation with another person as if there is no distinction between the I and the You, as if they are of one mind. Both ways of speaking of the subjects within the we entails an effacement of the figurative space between the participants in the conversation: the space of their differences, their distinctive positions, visions, habits, ways of being.
However, describing the in-between as the space that separates is not the only thing one can say about the in-between. Because the in between is also the space they share between them. As soon as the I and the You meet each other, and start a dialogue they enter figuratively speaking an in between space, which then changes in a shared space. Or to say this differently: what was a common space before their encounter changes by their meeting and exchange into a shared space, a space that connects them to each other, a space where they weave their connections in a play of communication and sharing with the other. A sense of togetherness can be generated in this communication of words, relations, emotions, a sense of mutuality; a fragile creation that can also be seen as the we that is generated in and through the encounter. And this we that is created in the in between can itself be seen as an ‘in between’. It is literally an inter –esse – and reflects the interests of the participants in the dialogue. This creation of the in-between, of the we between the I and the You is therefore a co-creation, something created together; something no one can claim as his or her own creation, own thought, own product, because by such a claim the in between would be effaced.
The passion of wonder generates the interval and the in-between space
How to safeguard this in between me and you?
I cannot give the final answer to this question, but I am convinced that a practice of wonder, of marvelling about the otherness of the other would help.
When someone meets the other she perceives him or her: she sees, hears, smells, him . This means that meeting someone leaves traces of sensory impressions in the body. These impressions can be compared to touch. Perceiving the other means being touched by the other. And this touch evokes a reaction. These reactions differ widely: from modest to exuberant, from rejection to enthusiasm. When someone would analyse all these reaction, she would probably discover that underneath or within these reactions there is always this moment of wonder, of interruption in the approach of the other. This approach is interrupted because the i is amazed by the other, surprised, struck by wonder. All these words together describe what wonder is, or what wondering does: becoming amazed, surprised, alienated too. They also indicate what makes someone wonder about the other: namely that this other is different, strange, surprising.
René Descartes has described the passion of wonder as the first passion. He writes that wonder precedes other passions such as love or hatred, gluttony and avarice. It is moreover the only passion that has no opposite as love and gluttony have. Someone who is surprised by the other does not have a relation to this other yet, has not yet taken up a position in relation to this other, has not decided yet whether it– is beautiful or not, kind or not, tasty or not. He or she only knows that this other is new, surprising, strange, off-putting.
This combination of interruption in the approach of the other and the postponement of a judgement generates the in-between, because the person who is surprised by the other, slows down, takes a pause, wonders what she is seeing, hearing, smelling. This wondering about the sensations evoked by perceiving the other generates the interval; an interval that generates an in-between space in turn, because by slowing down or even halting in the approach of the other, an in-between space is generated.
The interval – the moments generated by the interruption in the flow of the approach – generates time for reflection: reflection upon the question who this other is, what it is about this other or about her words, ideas that has touched you, has moved you so that you are thinking or saying ‘who are you?’ This question invites the other to reveal something of herself, of himself. It can be understood as an invitation to the other to open her or himself to the dialogue, an invitation to cross an imaginary threshold and enter the space between them.
But the question ‘who are you?’ is not only directed at the other; it is also a question that the I can ask herself. ‘Why am I touched by wonder’, ‘what do I think’, ‘Who am I myself?’ All these questions can pass or do pass through the mind of the subject, sometimes she is aware of them, sometimes not. By these questions the I is also opening herself to the dialogue and entering the in-between space.
By these movements – sometimes literal steps in the direction to the other, most often imaginary movements to the other – the in between space becomes an in- between: a space that is not only literally a space between them, but also an inter-esse, a space where they can exchange words, images, stories about their interests, about what they value, what they think divine.
The way to notice that one is touched by wonder: attention to the breath and breathing
Now I have stated that this passion of wonder often only appears for a fleeting moment. This means that most of the time a person does not recognize that she halted for a moment before the otherness of the other or that she was struck by surprise or … Daily life has a tempo that makes it difficult to be attentive to one’s inner movements in each and every encounter. Moreover, most encounters are characterized by habit. This makes it more difficult to wonder about the otherness of the other or to notice that the other sets one wondering who she or he is And this in turn makes it difficult to be aware of or acknowledge the space between the I and You, and to safeguard this in between as a space that protects difference.
This raises the question: how to become attentive to the passion of wonder?
One of the methods would be a practice of making the senses – seeing, hearing, smelling, moving – more sensitive, more perceptive; perceptive not only for the forceful impressions – a loud sound, a stark smell, but also for the more subtle differences in smell, taste, movement etc. The otherness of the other is often located in these subtle differences which are easily overlooked. One registers them but does perceive them. So this method in the literal sense of the word – this way to go about things – is not only about making the senses more sensitive but also by making the subject more attentive, more attuned to her perceptions and experiences. This method asks for a turning inside, a turn to the reactions of the body, to attention to the spaces within the body and those surrounding it.
In this process attention to the breath and to breathing is crucial. For when someone pays attention to her breath and breathing, she takes a step back from the other, from perceiving the other and returns to herself to her own body, to her own space and directs her attention to the perception of herself and the movements of her own body and soul in response to the other.
This brings me to the statement that the passion of wonder is carried by the breath and breathing. For the passion of wonder demands a relation to the other in which the I remains attuned to her or himself, within one’s own space, rooted in her own body. Breathing consciously makes it possible not to loose oneself in the encounter with the other, not to efface the space between them but to safeguard it by carefully crossing the threshold between one’s own space and the shared space.
Attention to one’s own breath as method to safeguard the in between space between the one and the other: it seems easy, almost too easy. But experience has taught me that it only takes a moment before one’s attention has wandered of –away from oneself, drawn to thoughts, screen, conversation – perhaps absorbing the other or being absorbed by the other into the we that is created at that moment.
This means that attention to the breath has to be practiced and learned, so that it becomes part of the practice of being oneself and being in relation at the same time. This practice of breathing would support the dialogue too; it would prevent that one speaks too quickly or pours out a flood of words; it would prevent that one breathes in and through the act of speaking. By remaining close to oneself in the act of breathing it would perhaps become more easy to abide with the other, or to experience the passion of wonder in the encounter of the other, or in participating in the creation of the in-between space as a shared space, a shared breathing space.
Underlying a dialogue is therefore the encounter of my breathing self with your breathing self directed towards a shorter or longer experience of ‘togetherness’, of a sharing and partaking of the air, of the breath in between you and me. In and though this sharing and partaking of air, of communication by words carried by air, a we is created as a co-creation of all the participants. This breathing together in this in between space between me and you, and you and you carries the experience of the we in dialogue, and reveals the fragility of this we. For it depends on a sharing of the same space and of a partaking of the (available) air this shared space When this breathing space is appropriated by the one or the other, this ‘co-creation’, this we breaks down.
This experience of shattered communications illuminates that the encounter of the other has something of crafting a work of art; a craft one does not master easily. This craft of encountering each other lies in keeping open and safeguarding the in-between space and the interval between the partners in the dialogue. For this space safeguards the difference between the one and the other, by which the encounter becomes a dialogue and not a monologue in disguise. This in between enables every breathing subject to continue breathing in peace.