ESR 3 Blog October 2021: Maria Mkrtycheva

It’s been a month since I arrived in Stockholm for the secondment at Tensta Konsthall. It is located in a quite multicultural neighbourhood; and one of my first encounters with the local community happened at the Language Cafe, a derivative from the project Silent University by artist Ahmet Öğüt.

Silent University was conceived as knowledge-exchange platform for academic professionals, who have been “silenced”[1] due to the political and social obstacles of relocation: legal status, language barrier, and different terms of the legitimation of knowledge. The project was housed at Tensta Konsthall in 2013 and since then has been taken over by a lecturer Fahyma Alnablsi. With her effort the project has been sustained as a regular event throughout this period, and has now been developed into a meeting group that is inclusive of members regardless of their academic background. Twice a week, members gather together in order to learn Swedish and communicate – and it is precisely the way of communication that struck me.

I found myself in a group of people with extremely diverse origins and backgrounds. Many did not speak any Swedish – just like me, some – no English, no Arabic, no Turkish or no Somalian.  Our shared language, if put into text, could have easily become a chapter of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce, but somehow the communication across these differences between us happened, through our willingness to acknowledge these differences instead of searching for the commonalities.

The vulgar strategy to understand the other is to put yourself in their position. This understanding is needed in order to reach reciprocity – a mutual and bidirectional relationship that is voluntary, respectful, moral and inclusive. Reciprocity is a tool of deliberative democracy that “contributes to our understanding of how democratic citizens and their representatives can make justifiable decisions for their society in the face of the fundamental disagreements that are inevitable in diverse societies”[2]. Reciprocal interlocutorship suggests that the subjectivities and perspectives of self and other are symmetrical and thus reversible. This symmetry may seem like a key to recognition and social cooperation, however it deprives the communicating parties of their embodied and unique character.

What I experienced at the Language Cafe at Tensta Konsthall is more about the reciprocity that is asymmetrical. As Iris Marion Young points out, although mutual acknowledgement is the meaning of moral equality, it is asymmetry between self and other that also needs to be recognized:  “… while people may be in touch and their communication may construct relationships of similarity and solidarity between them, their positions are nevertheless irreducible and irreversible. In the moment of recognition other people’s concrete positions are asymmetrical”[3]. I believe that this position is crucial for communication not only between individuals, but also between cultural institutions and their audience, which allows us to recognize more clearly the intersected and fractured identities of the members of public than possible through generic concepts like conviviality.

[1] Florian Malzacher, Ahmet Öğüt, Pelin Tan (eds.), The Silent University. Towards a Transversal Pedagogy, 2016

[2] Amy Gutmann and Dennis F. Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy?, 2004

[3] Iris Marion Young, Intersecting Voices, 1997

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