In this fusion of autoethnography and phenomenological description, I explicate my experiences as a door-to-door social welfare advocate for the Maine People's Alliance. Examining my lived experiences of being a stranger in the midst of facing other strangers in their homes, I reflect on the collaborative constitution of strangerdom. I also recount the possibilities of transcendence through dialogic negotiations and attempts at dismantling this threshold of unfamiliarity. I argue that autoethnographic inquiries that include portrayals of unknown others are productively informed by the descriptive richness of phenomenological variations.
What does it mean to be a stranger? Or to be strangers? Can this experience be located in only one body, or must it be relational? Encountering strangers in our daily lives activates a reflexivity of Self in the face of an Other.1 Perhaps this dyadic experience is better described as a negotiation between Other and Other, with neither body initially intelligible as a recognizable Self. Thus, a stranger has no history accessible to me as another stranger, only a material presence that puts my being into question.2 We often think of strangers as “foreigners” or anonymous Others who are not us—those who do not know our stories. They are over there, in the shadows, behind us in line, next to us at stoplights, down the road in other towns, living unknown lives among other strangers. Or, perhaps we do not think of strangers at all and they remain perfect mysteries—that is, until we attempt to transcend this status and move toward discovering some measure of familiarity. The concept of stranger, of being a stranger, exposes the illusion that our social interactions and world relationships are always meaningful, equitably commensurate, recognizable, and stable. But they are not. We were all strangers once and can become so again at any moment.
Being a “stranger” embodies changeable, contingent, and contested meanings, and we all face this visceral condition repeatedly. Shifting contexts thwart attempts to locate a secure definition for this existential phenomenon. Incarnations of strangerdom emerge amidst evolving personal histories and sociocultural norms, which in turn continually (re)shape one's lifeworld and self-understandings. Recognizing the co-constructed nature of these tenuous moments beckons us to transform the alienation of an arcane Other into an ethical experience of “we” or “us.” In other words, being strangers involves the codependence of dialogical selves in an ongoing struggle for familiarity. I am only a stranger to you because you are likewise a stranger to me.
In this autoethnography I explore my experiences as a stranger, focusing on how strangers become constituted through the presence and absence of relational contexts. Drawing on my experiences as a door-to-door voter registration canvasser in Maine, I concentrate on how these fragile interactions can become productively transformed, extended, avoided, or abandoned altogether. As a guiding lens, I ponder how the shared labors of lessening mutual strangerdom through dialogue with (an)Other can fruitfully transcend our perception of separated being.3 In an increasingly alienating and privatized postmodern world, it is troubling how often we forget the affective empowerment of two people forging connections through conversation. Across this work I integrate phenomenological descriptions with the Self-reflexive narrative structure of autoethnography to highlight the necessity of recounting our experiences with Others as dialogically multivocal (and open-ended).
THE MAINE PEOPLE'S ALLIANCE
I was a traveling stranger during the summer of 2014 when I worked as a door-to-door social activist and canvasser for the Maine People's Alliance (MPA), a nonprofit, non-partisan organization founded in 1982. It focuses on “bring[ing] individuals and organizations together to realize shared goals” and “advancing campaigns for economic, environmental, racial, and social justice.”4 I was part of the voter registration campaign through the Maine People's Resource Center (MPRC), an MPA sister organization. We visited low-income areas throughout central and northern Maine, registering people to vote and encouraging their engagement with and participation in improving the dire landscape of Mainer (native Maine resident) social welfare. During my travels I kept a journal of my reflections on some of the hundreds of interactions I had at people's doorsteps. In addition to voter registration, I raised and discussed four important social issues slated to appear on the November 2014 ballot in Maine: 1) healthcare as a human right, 2) increasing the minimum wage to a living wage,5 3) universal access to preschool education,6 and 4) easy access to long-term care for Mainer seniors—especially by providing in-home healthcare to ensure that elderly Mainers are able to age at home with dignity.7 The driving goal at the heart of MPA philosophy is to promote the importance of an affirming and livable life and to ensure that all Mainers are treated with respect.
I worked at MPA Monday through Friday from 2:00 p.m. until 10:00 p.m. My days began at our headquarters in Bangor. There were typically around 12 canvassers in attendance, depending on how many had quit the previous day. There was impressive turnover for an area with such job shortage, but this work is certainly not for everyone. My boss Pete explained the necessity of having “thick skin,” because “people can be just plain cruel.”8 After a brief daily staff meeting and some practice skits in which we took turns embodying the worst possible “knocks” (individual encounters with people at their doors), we would pile into the van or someone's car and set off to our destinations. Usually we traveled about an hour into remote pockets of central or northern Maine, but sometimes our journey was as long as three hours. Once we arrived at our unfamiliar and often rundown town, we were dropped off at our “turfs.” These were highlighted Google Maps printouts featuring approximately five square miles of residential streets, and we were instructed to knock on every single door—no matter what. It was important to knock on all residential doors in order to maintain our state funding as an equal opportunity social welfare service. Our turfs were scattered, and we would not see each other, or a familiar face, until the “last knock” four hours later. We were responsible for carrying anything we might need in our backpacks, and my partner Ian made sure that I was always stocked with plenty of sunscreen, bug spray, water, and mace spray—“just in case.”
As a door-to-door canvasser, I was vividly reminded of what it feels like to be a stranger. Each doorstep became a liminal stage—a threshold of potential for strangers to come together through sharing experiences—a creative space for connection, rejection, and at times, dejection.9 Each knock was followed by the appearance of a stranger, looking back at me as a stranger, too. My social location also plays into my interactions with strangers. As a white, middle-class, cisgendered woman, my “from away” status as a non-Mainer affected my credibility at times. Each residence reset my stranger status and necessitated a freshly disarming impromptu performance. I do not believe that the home dwellers experienced these exchanges in the same manner as I did. When we stand in the doorways of our homes, we typically do not feel strange, or out of place, but rather the opposite—we are in our zone. The dialectical nature of doorways bridges the inside and outside worlds, securing the comforting privacy of domestic life and closing off the strangeness of the outside world. The ways in which strangers embody a realm of unrealized possibilities at these borders make these peculiar interactions simultaneously ripe with potential yet latently ill-fated by uncertainty.
NOTES ON AUTOETHNOGRAPHY AND EXISTENTIAL PHENOMENOLOGY
Autoethnography is a reflection on our lived experience with a focus on Self.10 Through the project of Self-reflexivity, we examine the truths (themes) of our experience by exploring the various intersections of cultural context, relational Others, and our personal vulnerabilities (identity). Autoethnography is frequently discussed as an ethnographic research performance of locating our Self (micro-level) within localized culture, then tracing or connecting these emergent themes with larger societal understandings (macro-level).11 Phenomenology is a philosophy and method focused on the structures and meaningfulness of our conscious, lived experience.12 Examining variations in meaning and perception through detailed descriptions, phenomenology works to uncover the irreducible structural features that uphold any experience-as-such.13 In this work I employ existential phenomenology, which orients meaningful inquiry as always already intersubjective from the start.14 Existentially speaking, one's Self (identity) is uniquely embodied, open to experience, and contingently relational. I return to this discussion later to articulate further how synthesizing these methods can be mutually informative in representations of Self together with Others. For now, I position autoethnography as a method of situated Self-introspection alongside existential phenomenology's descriptive richness and dedication to embracing variations of relationally lived experience.
Reflecting on my experiences at various Mainers' doorsteps, I explore the shaky, temporal constitutions built into these doorway encounters. Across these interactions, I performed various iterations of myself-as-stranger as I reflexively engaged with other emerging strangers-to-me in their own homes. Beginning with Indian Island, I present five short stories from my journal and offer a brief reflection on each experience, hoping both to invoke the mystique of these fleeting connections and to illustrate the productive tensions underlying these homebound thresholds of postmodern strangerdom. I endeavor to build towards an appreciation of the dialectically comingled vulnerabilities and possibilities inherent in these passing engagements. Afterwards, I discuss the importance of an existential phenomenological descriptive praxis when doing autoethnography. The following is a collection of my stories on strangers' doorsteps.
The four of us are driving 15 miles to Old Town. Kyle looks over our turfs in the back seat of my car to determine a strategic drop-off order.
Pulling across the bridge to the island, I immediately notice a faded interstate-style sign:
Nerves and fearful trepidation ignite my face as I consider an Austin Powers u-turn on the narrow old bridge. I press on. The island is lush with overgrown vegetation. Cattails sway along the shores of the Stillwater River, and glowing patches of azaleas splash in colorful flourishes alongside dirt driveways and yards. Properties appear strewn with neglected fixer-upper projects, obscuring the homes tucked away from the road, camouflaged by the overgrowth. I arrive at my turf and park off the side of the road in the woods.
A sparkling silver-haired woman named Barbara occupies the first house on Little Bear Road. She tells me that she isn't from “here, here,” but is a Maine resident and would love to register. Barbara offers me lemonade and a cigarette as she asks about my job. She tells me to write down her phone number in case I get into trouble on the island and she'll come get me. I wonder what type of trouble she has in mind, but I don't ask. Barbara invites me to park in her driveway for the afternoon (because she's “all set for the night”) as well as the use of her bathroom should I need it (“You don't want to use just anyone's bathroom, ya know?”). Moving along, I proceed to have one of my favorite days working this job.
I am surprised that the word “sovereignty” does not come up once. Maybe that's only in the movies. Nobody is angry with me, except me, a little. In this desperately low-income area, no one here seems hung-up on it—other than me. As I decompress my stereotypes (a bit shamefully) throughout my sweep, I admire the humility I am consistently shown as the afternoon fades to evening. Yesterday—my first day—while canvassing a more well-to-do neighborhood, I had six doors slammed in my face, got the bird twice, and was told where to go in no uncertain terms. At dusk, I am walking back towards my car when I notice a young man following me and gaining speed. I decide to sit on a gigantic rock under a prominent (and singular) streetlight near the main intersection. I pretend to rifle through the paperwork on my clipboard and pull out my phone to advertise the idea that I'm talking with someone who knows where I am. He heads straight for me.
No, Jesse isn't; and yes, he wants to. We make small talk as I share how friendly everyone has been to me all afternoon. He tells me that the island is nice, but the community is also experiencing a lot of problems related to an increase in the local supply of heroin (in lieu of pain pills). I learn that heroin is much cheaper and easier to obtain than Oxycontin so many people have switched to it. But the heroin is of poor quality and is taking lives. I sense the grief on Jesse's face.
“There's a huge drug problem here. Heroin is everywhere. The other week I was walking by my neighbor's house, Monica, and I saw her lyin’ on the floor through the front window. I went in ta check on her and she was dead—flat on her face—another overdose. It happens a lot around here. Like I said, at night it gets rough sometimes, but it's mainly hidden during the day. Our people are struggling pretty bad.”
Jesse notices me eyeing a sloppily spray painted no trespassing sign hung crookedly from the front porch behind him.
“That's Theresa's house—she's a really nice lady. Go see her before you go, she'll probably wanna register, too.”
I knock on the softly decaying wood door as a wrinkly, weatherworn woman appears, glaring at me through the screen.
“What do you want?” she asks in a rather slurred and belligerent voice.
“Hi, my name is Shelley and I'm from the Maine People's Resource Center, a non-profit organization focused on social issues here in Maine. I am in your neighborhood today to make sure everyone's voices are heard and am registering people to vote because…”
“You people don't give a shit about Indians, the only time you come around is during this time or when ya need somethin’! Get the hell outta here and leave us alone!”
I scurry back to my car and drive off to collect the other canvassers.
The “warning” sign on the bridge to Indian Island penetrated my delicate resolve, but I know that I have to see this through. It is a truly strange experience, walking up to door after door, uninvited, unexpected. From the first knock on Indian Island, I feel anxiety tug at my tenacity, but these doubts slowly unravel in the mostly sympathetic faces of the Penobscot people. This face-to-face transcendence implicates us both in each of these moments of transformation, and the dignity I am consistently shown still resonates in my being.15 I anticipated feeling guilty about a perceived “privileged” status as non-Indian, but each doorway opens a threshold of grace, rectifying these misconceptions. I realize that the social issues I am endorsing are universal here, and despite Theresa's bitter response, I am part of something meaningful. At Indian Island I gather a higher number of voter registrations, signed voting pledges, and genuinely hopeful support than I do on any other day of the summer.16 Although being a stranger makes conspicuous my being, it also presents a spectrum of possibilities and identifications. My presumption that I project an invasive aura to be taken as enemy or ally is softened by the warm nuances and offerings of dialogue.17 Across these meetings I am neither exactly the same nor entirely different. My interactions with the islanders lead me to think twice before prejudging how future sweeps might go.
“Come on in, it's too hot out there! Let me get my teeth in, put on a shirt, and I'll be right with you!”
I sit on the white plastic lawn furniture in the kitchen and chat with Mr. Fredericks as he pours a tall, iced glass of Bailey's and cream, offering me some.
“It's gotta be full cream, none of that half-and-half crap. That is the key to old age.”
We talk weather and the intense heat spell that has been so oppressive this summer, and about his great-granddaughter Lisa and her impending divorce—until suddenly Mr. Fredericks is jolted in his lawn chair by an idea.
Mr. Fredericks's face curls into a wry smile as we laugh about our shared uncertainties. We continue chatting about the current issues he's having with his healthcare access, until he proudly shows me his new toilet (“It's smarter than the old one. Much less water.”) and signs my voting pledge before leaving me with this parting advice: “Remember, honey, you don't know what people can do.”
Mr. Fredericks is spunky and charming, but he nonetheless reminds me of my “harrowing otherness” as a stranger.18 While this certainly feels alienating, I also know that I cannot broadcast my discomfort to Mr. Fredericks because it would signal my uneasiness, likely triggering Mr. Fredericks to follow suit. Margaret Mary Wood observes that the stranger's face displays the context for continued dialogue since “the condition of being a stranger is determined by the fact that it was the first face-to-face meeting of individuals who have not known one another before.”19 The power of the face to conjure and implicate oneself in a slew of received interpretations is quite remarkable. Because I am the stranger inserting myself into another's domestic space, I am responsible for addressing and shedding this cloaked status. Julia Kristeva discusses the central role that one's face plays in these formative moments:
[T]he foreigner's [i.e., stranger's] face forces us to display the secret manner in which we face the world, stare into all our faces, even the most familial…. [T]he face that is so other bears the mark of a crossed threshold that irremediably imprints itself as peacefulness or anxiety.20
Just as my face is read by Mr. Fredericks, I read his reading mine, as we interactively materialize our shared presence. Perhaps our disparate positions exemplify the ways in which “interanimating dialogues” reflexively materialize our respective identities.21 Seated in his kitchen, face-to-face, we set about undoing my strangeness as he presumably determines whether I will metamorphose through assimilation or rejection.22 After all, my strangeness is not only my own; it can become contagious as it commingles with Mr. Fredericks's expectations for our contact. We are all “always already shaped by the other…. [and] through [this] unraveling transference… I become reconciled with my own otherness-foreignness.”23 This reciprocal junction features a voyage into the shared strangeness of Self and Other since the flagrant dispossession of any concrete understanding calls for “an ethics of respect for the irreconcilable.”24 Indeed, “the space [constituted and shared by strangers] doesn't open like a wonderland in a pop-up storybook, ready made, fully furnished and populated before me. Crossing into it is just the beginning.”25 There is much that Mr. Fredericks and I cannot know about each other and so we strive to discover our commonalities. This shared labor of ameliorating my strangeness in his home makes us both keenly aware of the potential danger of two strangers sitting in a kitchen, since neither of us knows “what people can do.”
“From Away” Is What We Call You
I continually feel deflated by this rebuke. Being “from away” is marked on my body, carried through my speech, and invokes an aura of suspicion from many residents. In these moments, I feel unable to articulate why Mainers must take a stance on these social issues. Faced with my “from away” status, I feel illegitimate, but I also view my mission as larger than mere state lines and geography. Rather than being local and specific, I feel that it relates to national citizenry and foundational democratic values. People in their homes question my origins, my loyalties—but where is my home? What constitutes one's home? I live in Maine. Can one have a temporary home? Perhaps the modern convenience of mobility among various interstices renders my true home unelectable.26 These nomadic expeditions implicate my transience as being adrift and nervous,27 continually unfamiliar, yet steadily refreshed and solidified by my material presence—I am always somewhere. I quickly learn that my conditional happenstance—being “from away”—is something that I must acknowledge and justify before I hope to gain credibility.
Since I am not a Mainer, I repeatedly fail to authentically embody prevailing “cultural and habitual patterns.”28 Consequently, my enduring foreignness necessitates that I amend my “thinking as usual,” and pay careful attention to my habituated understandings of “anonymity, typicality, and chance.”29 However, anonymity is not possible on the other side of someone's door—I cannot claim to be an anonymous Mainer; I am both a stranger (unknown) and Other (non-Mainer). This identity further complicates my mission, often distracting people from the larger collective goal of social justice. Mainers are known for marking and devaluing those “from away,” designating tourists and “Snowbirds” as Other to their lifestyle, economy, and passion for preserving their way of life.30 Embodying my sustained Other status, I labor to reconstitute myself as recognizable and known, open and trustworthy, but this performative and compensatory process of trial and error likely, at times, only makes me seem stranger.
I check again. Yup, that's the only door. Walking up to the stoop of a rundown home along the Piscataquls River, I carefully step around, over, and in-between the nine or so ducks (and their excrement, which is everywhere) excitedly crowding around the door. Knock. Wait… Knock again. I hear movement inside, but it seems to be taking a long time for it to reach the door. A sporadically-toothed, grinning old lady with a peanut butter-looking substance caked all around her mouth motions me in with a gooey smile. As she turns to head back to the cluttered kitchen table, I step in—and so does a determined duck.
After introductions, Miss Marguerite begins to tell me how much the world has changed during her life and asks if I know where her telephone is. I peer around the filthy kitchen and notice that Maggie must be in here quite often. Magazines, newspapers, rotting food, and trash cover every surface. From what I can see of the living room, it looks the same. As I sit at the table, I notice the warped antenna of an old cordless phone poking out from a pile of mail and dirty Kleenexes® strewn about in front of me.
She fumbles with the buttons, but it is clear to me that the battery is dead. I spend the next few minutes looking (with no luck) for a charging station plugged into the wall somewhere. As we talk, Miss Marguerite really wants to register to vote, but we're missing some important information. She cannot remember the spelling of her last name, the year or day of her birth, her address, phone number, or Social Security number. Miss Marguerite appears to be flustered and frustrated.
“I haven't seen my purse in over a month so how the hell would I even have an ID?”
Maggie waddles toward the sink and poops on the floor—followed by a proud “Quack!”
“I'll vote, though. I'm eighty-somethin’ by now. Tessa comes by now and then. She'll tell ya I'm old enough.”
It seems Tessa hasn't been by in a while. Miss Marguerite doesn't know any of the necessary identifying information about herself to register, but she still insists on registering, and so I fill out the voter card for her as she recites her suspicions of who she is. She signs it in the wrong spot while Maggie squats in a resting position on a pile of newspapers in the corner. Miss Marguerite is likely lonely but also perhaps too forgetful to even notice. Amidst a waning life that began before Social Security cards, bridging her identity to the present embodies drifting meanings. “Where is Tessa? Where is everyone (anyone) else?” I think to myself as I continue down the block, tucking the incomplete—perhaps fraudulent—registration card into my backpack. I reflect on the politics of naturalizing a strategic will-to-exclude voters from our system—hypocrisy—as resentment surges.
Of all the people I encounter during my travels, Miss Marguerite is the one who most haunts me, perhaps because I am not received as a stranger and because I sense she is also a stranger—to her own world. If everything feels strange, maybe nothing actually is. Emmanuel Levinas believes that our “first philosophy” must be the ethos of an obligation to the Other. Miss Marguerite's confused yet sympathetic face constitutes a dialogic “transcendent otherness” to me.31 In these shared moments, the ever-present air of mystery forms a threshold for meaningful connection, for the Other “introduces into me what was not in me.”32 I feel comfortable and oddly at home in Miss Marguerite's disheveled kitchen—we are equals, united as the same and Other all at once.33 Despite the pressure to “spend no more than ten minutes at doors” and produce viable voting registrations, I linger with her. I am fascinated by the peace she seems to feel amidst her living chaos. I want to help Miss Marguerite but am not sure how. Levinas writes of our ethical duty, as people, to engage with our Others because it is through these face-to-face epiphanies that we discover our Self.34 I feel hypocritical promoting the necessity of treating our elders with dignity and then leaving Miss Marguerite with so many unanswered questions—for both of us. A few weeks later, I look up Miss Marguerite's phone number and try to call and check on her, but the phone is busy and, most likely, dead again.
Today I'm in the “rough” area of Bangor (or so I'm told). Aging Victorian mansions broken up into too many small apartments line 3rd Street, alluding to the city's former grandeur as the fancy industrious hub of the Maine paper industry. Urban decay, chipped paint, and leaky roofs beckon nature to reclaim these spaces. One particularly decrepit manor has a tree growing in the kitchen and through the ceiling, spreading its limbs above the parlor. It is so hot today, 102 degrees, and I am sweating out my sunscreen, reapplying, hovering in shady patches, and refilling my water bottle from friendly people's hoses (and rarely, I'm even offered a glass of ice water!). I enter a particularly dilapidated apartment building, knocking on the door of the ground floor apartment. I hear giggling inside.
As I open the heavy oak door, marijuana smoke billows into the hallway, engulfing my form as I step into the dark apartment. Thick wool blankets eclipse each window except for the delicate coronas of light sneaking around the edges and cutting through the smoke. Two men with long dreadlocks and a pretty young blond woman are slumped around on mismatched couches and a loveseat. One of them stands with magnificently thick locks tumbling down to his waist, and a dreadlocked beard as well. As we shake hands, I notice that he has a heavily tattooed face featuring a series of black circles in varying sizes across his forehead, and a few smaller ones scattered on each cheek. Some of them change shape as he smiles.
“So, Shelley, you're just in time, man! We were just about to blaze some hash, lucky you!”
I am tempted—today isn't going the greatest—but I politely decline Sy's offer as I am introduced to Daisy and Dave. They invite me to sit with them as Sy explains that they are “anarchist hippies living off the grid, man,” because “the world is hopelessly fucked by the evils of capitalism.” I ask if they vote and am surprised by the nonchalant unison as they breathe out, “Na.”
Dave clears his throat and slowly turns to me, “It's just a bullshit game for the wealthy to pretend like they give a shit what we say. But they don't.”
Daisy sits up, “Yeah, it's hopeless, nobody knows who anybody is anyways. They act like they're one of us but they never are, they ain't real people. They do whatever they want.”
“Well, that's why it is so important to vote! All these knuckleheads are elected after all, and, honestly, a couple of them are even human.”
Sy chuckles and eyes me suspiciously as he asks how much money I make for each registration. I explain that I am not paid by the number of registrations but make minimum wage by the hour. He seems okay with this. I strategically mention that recreational marijuana use may appear on the November ballot and the three are intrigued.
“We already smoke, though. It don't matter what the State says.” Sy then proudly tells me he has never voted and doesn't even have a State ID “That whole fucking system is corrupt, man. Give me one good reason to vote and I'll register with you right now.”
“You ain't gonna convince him,” chimes in Daisy.
I share a young mother's recent story about her four-year-old daughter Lilly being unable to attend preschool because they cannot afford it. Lilly has a learning disability (they think) and her mother cried on the porch as she related how powerless she felt to provide Lilly with all the opportunities that she never had. I explain to Sy, Daisy, and Dave how the November ballot will have a referendum dedicated to this issue and that their voices can actually make a difference in a state like Maine with such a small population.35
Something edifying happens to me that day on 3rd Street. There is always pressure to meet my daily quota, and this fact is never far from my mind. I have not met my goal in recent days and am becoming a bit cynical about the work. I do not understand why anyone would not at least register to vote. On top of this I am frequently berated for a variety of assumptions about both my work and me as a person. Each day, regardless of whether or not I meet my quota, I still walk, interact, listen, defend, question, learn, and physically and mentally endure approximately 50–80 interactions. At times I feel overwhelmingly vulnerable, as if I have fixed a target to my back; it seems some people only speak with me to give me a hard time, having no intentions of registering or signing a voting pledge. But on 3rd Street, I feel differently—it seems that our dialogue means something and creates something.
My time with Sy, Daisy, and Dave reminds me of the power of stories to cut across distanced lives and to exemplify the ethos of our inborn sociality. From this perspective, our “relations of transcendence become thoroughly intersubjective, before there is talk of who the Other is qua individual.”36 This constitutive reflexivity reveals the manner in which we each carve out our being alongside Others, drawing from shared and divergent experiences and the performance of dialogic becoming—of freedom. Martin Buber writes of I–Thou relations and our responsibility to be accountable to our Others. This relational essence flows through experience, calling for us to move outside the objectivity of speech to access the actual being of “real life.”37 From this perspective, the “chief concern” in our relationships with Others is our living, unfolding, shared experience—“the true original unity, the lived relation.”38 These “anarchist hippies’” wallow in the darkness of a rundown 3rd Street apartment, but they have community, hash to share, empathy for strangers, and the presence of mind and heart to reconsider their stances on a society from which they feel estranged.
While politicians are strangers to this 3rd Street anarchist trio, Lilly and her mother are somehow familiar and worthy to them. This mother's story is powerful enough to transform their orientation to voting (government) by seemingly humanizing the plight of actual people—materializing a lived relation. Reminiscent of Levinas's claims of Self–Other transcendence, we find ourselves treading “in all the ambiguity of standing within and without being” that instantiates “the vested freedom of the face-to-face encounter.”39 Like Buber's call for accountability to the Other as a foundational ethos of Self, this openness to strangers illustrates these people's willingness to surrender to Others’ plights and extends their capacity for Self- and Other-consciousness and freedom. These I–Thou relations become a “category of being, readiness, grasping form, mould for the soul; it is the a priori of relation, the inborn Thou.”40 All familiarity and strangeness, all knowing and questioning, curiosity and comfort, breathe life into the world through our relational being. I rely on Others’ mercy, and my anxiety recedes in the face of each hopeful interlocutor. Strangers color possibilities, confront vulnerabilities, shape future me's, and, in some instances, summon my own salvation.
STRANGER AND STRANGER: LEARNING AND LIVED EXPERIENCE
My time with MPA placed me face-to-face with Others in their homes. The stories presented here emerged while living these experiences in shared moments with complete strangers. From the beginning, the ephemeral quality and variation in these encounters struck me as important to document. I often jotted notes and stories in my journal during my sweeps. Writing my reflections was therapeutic, helping me to cope with cruelty, celebrate and preserve kindness, and appreciate unexpected connections and hints of familiarity. My notes took on a narrative structure as I strived to preserve the raw freshness of two unfamiliar people talking about how much responsibility the government and each one of us should have towards caring for our stranger–Others. I wanted to render the unrehearsed tensions of dialogue as they unfolded. I sought to illustrate the significance of standing at the border of a threshold, being and feeling strange—yet often not for long, and never in quite the same way.
As I autoethnographically reflect on my travels, I realize the complex ways my lived experience is layered, abstracted, at a distance, but still close at hand and somehow familiar. Numerous recalled moments when I shared a living presence with a stranger were deeply affecting as dialogic choices were made with varying success. But regardless of the outcome, diverse interactions endure in my mind and in my journal. Three years on, reengaging with this intensely embodied summer's experience reminds me that many people have left lasting impressions on me—and perhaps occasionally I have done the same for them. I carry a significant responsibility to recognize the singularity and specific impact that each of these individuals had on me and my stories.
WHY AUTOETHNOGRAPHY AND EXISTENTIAL PHENOMENOLOGY?
In this work I have presented and performed a departure in autoethnographic theorizing by incorporating an existential phenomenological praxis for describing and reflecting on experience. I presented phenomenologically descriptive stories and then reflected on my experience from an autoethnographic perspective. These two approaches are productively combined when presenting complex narratives of passing interactions with strangers. Autoethnography tends to privilege Self-reflexivity as the starting point of analysis, while phenomenology destabilizes or refuses that privilege by insisting on intersubjective being and social embodiment.41 The concept of “Self” is produced in tandem with the emergence of the concept of “Other.” As such, we are not preeminently a Self; rather, we construct a fluid sense of Self, albeit partial, through our experiences facing Others. Some autoethnographic approaches suggest that we can access a compartmentalized, “authentic” Self and explicate our findings from “here.” However, this emphasis on locating a Self-evident, subjective, experiential framework can prevent researchers from being reflexive about the exact things they are claiming to reflect on. This can further complicate the ability to make concrete or enduring claims about what may or may not have taken place in the world of relational experience. This autoethnographic perspective may assume that writers can somehow bifurcate their world experiences as constituted on two distinct but intersecting planes—local (micro) and cultural (macro).42 At times, this outlook can lend itself to overly-subjectivized accounts of one's lifeworld at the expense of duly contingent relational theorization (reflexivity).43 Existential phenomenology (phenomenology hereafter) helps temper this tendency through the methodological rigor of three synergistic explicatory steps: description, reduction, and interpretation.44
Phenomenology examines one's lived experience first as a detailed description, followed by reflection on the essential features that constitute the experience (reduction), and then a focused interpretation that considers variant understandings of how an experience comes to be understood as X (whatever the experience is/was). Phenomenological theorizing resists the positivism of definitive, causal, or totalizing operations on experience. This reluctance reminds us that our consciousness of meaningfulness in the world is inextricably linked with the socialized construction of our perception. Thus, conceptualizing the Self as an interior space that is Self-manifested and knowable through unchecked introspection is faulty. Phenomenologically, we are as much the Other we often think we know (or even presume that Others know themselves and present themselves accordingly, “on purpose”) as we are a Self. Since we cannot ever fully know Self or Other, phenomenology offers autoethnography a philosophical and methodological framework for thinking through our variant intersubjectivities.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes this existential orientation:
We are caught up in the world and we do not succeed in detaching ourselves from it in order to shift to the consciousness of the world. If we were to do so, we would see that the quality is never directly experienced and that all consciousness is consciousness of something.45
In other words, as experiencer and author, I am conscious that my experience of the Other as the Other lives it in the world is open to me at the same time it surpasses my grasp. This important phenomenological understanding—that one is perpetually immersed in the wholeness of the cultural world—complements autoethnography's aspiration to meaningful reflexivity and, in my opinion, this recognition helps strengthen one's autoethnographic rigor.
Autoethnography assists in rupturing the myth of structuralism's perceived stability of world actors’ “objectivity” by examining the manifold ways in which identity fluidity is produced and sustained through the situated nature of our social lives.46 But simultaneously, autoethnographers should consider that the project of reflexivity is always hindered in at least two significant ways. First, since there is no isolatable, original, or definitive Self, there is likewise no possibility of depicting truly authentic representations of Others. Second, since past experiences are always from the past, they are never presently available for “accurate” inspection or depiction.47 Regarding the first issue of the unknowability of Self and Others, autoethnographers must take great pains in their representations, especially of Others. This necessitates an ethically reflexive awareness of the tensive limits of what we can (and cannot) know or say about other people. Accordingly, my descriptive praxis here centered my experience (as experiencer and author) of myself in dialogical relationships with Others. I labored to resist the temptation to assign unknowable rationales or motives onto the stranger–Others. My Self from the past, in the “present,” and leaning towards the future will never be unfettered from an ethical responsibility to realize the openness of meaning. People's identities are always in flux, at once both autoethnographic and phenomenological—intrapersonal and interpersonal—Self and Other—existentially thrust into the world.
My autoethnographic account exemplifies the tension between living (becoming) and recording (finalizing, however tentatively) my experiences learning with and from other persons. In representing Others who cannot speak in this document, a few related and unaddressed quandaries linger. First, there is the praxis of portraying Others—describing them, voicing them, bringing them to life (again) through my memories and notes, and then leaving them at home, unfinished, yet with some measure of perceived metaphoric closure (as with the door).48 A second issue relates to the level of risk that may or may not have taken place across my interactions with strangers. What is risked in engaging with strangers? Who is at risk? Or perhaps a better phrasing might be: “What, precisely, is it about the self which encourages risk, and what exactly is it which is risked?”49 In the remaining space, I address these two interrelated questions in the phenomenological context of this work—that is, the questions of Self portraying Self and Other, as well as Other and Self—and the quandaries of taking on such risk and determining in retrospect the responsible parties and outcomes.
Portraying Others in the Face of Self
The vignettes presented here arise from my experiences with the Maine People's Alliance. However, I portray these encounters from the abstracted distances not only of time and geography, but also of (never establishing) familiarity. Since I did not and do not know these people, I intend for my depictions to remain as descriptively faithful as I can muster, but also absent of totalizing judgments. Even if a stranger was cruel to me (in my opinion), my own feelings were a subjective construct in that moment that do not necessarily persist (as I write now). Moreover, perhaps I was wrong to feel threatened, or appreciated, or alienated, but I did feel nonetheless, and I surmise my stranger–Others did as well. In phenomenological autoethnography, or autophenomenography, we work to present variations of experience to illustrate that nothing and no one is monolithic.50 My experience of my Self is irreducibly intersubjective but also contextualized in a specific time–space. Across my stories I am a Self for the Other, an Other for Others, and a Self for me. At times neither Self(s) nor Other(s) are singular, evident, or stable, and the outcomes of my encounters are unpredictable for either Self(s) or Other(s). Through performing these in-the-moment exercises, I become Other to my Self. At the same time the Other person transforms into echoes of my Self or retains an Other status.
Accordingly, I intentionally abstain from drawing hard and fast conclusions based on my fleeting interactions. Phenomenological variations appreciate that everyone encounters things differently based on their own lived experiences. These dissimilarities discipline and guide my detailed descriptions. Reflecting phenomenologically compels me to question the nature of my involvement with this phenomenon of strangerdom. Does it remain the same across my interactions? How could these interactions be experienced otherwise? Each doorway was certainly unique and I strive to maintain this essence. Acknowledging that we cannot possibly know what an Other thinks about us must pulse at the heart of autoethnography. These critical variations—how things seem (to me) and how they could be/seem otherwise (to Others)—necessarily play a central role in representation. In other words, when I travel outside of my familiarity, it is my responsibility to allow my Self to be strange, Others to be familiar, and many combinatory variations to be in the realm of the possible. My account is not final. Along with these contingencies of depiction, my co-strangers and I assumed risk dialogically and dialectically. For what could be more strange than an unknown person at your door? (A strange person at your door who doesn't think that they are a stranger.)
Risking the Self
Admittedly, in writing from my perspective, many of my own concerns materialize. In fact, it is fairly difficult to transcend the ethos of this protective Self-coating. Now, in a retrospective analysis—from a distance—the impulse to construct myself as a hero seems foolish. It just did not happen. Merleau-Ponty describes the perceptual tension between our living expectations (naturé) and the live event unfolding amidst them (naturant):
The subject of perception will remain unknown so long as we cannot escape the alternative between created [naturé] and creating [naturant], between sensation as a state of consciousness and as the consciousness of a state, between existence in itself and existence for itself.51
It would be easy and reductive for me to portray my co-strangers as excessively strange—because they were, to me. Likewise, it would be simple for me to construct my Self as obviously familiar—but neither account happened. Part of risking the Self is encountering the unknown, but it also requires not framing experience in the unreflective “stranger is stranger–familiar is familiar” binary.
I actively put Others at risk with each knock on their doors. It was a necessary mode of reflexivity to realize that it was not merely me “out here” and that I was dynamically constructing my stranger–Others “in there” who perhaps had worked steadfastly to make me (as one of numberless strangers) disappear from their worlds. Yet we were both always “out here” and “in there” simultaneously. Intersubjectivity involves the continuously intermingled involvements of feeling inside-out, outside-in, and vulnerable to the experience of being Self to Other and Other to Self. So who was the stranger after all? Both subjectivities. Intersubjectivity. I put myself at risk with my knock on a door; they put themselves at risk by opening it. Sometimes I knocked and no one opened the door; sometimes I did not knock at all and no one opened it. And a few times, I did not even get a chance to knock before the door was flung open on its owner's accord (“Get out of here!” “Come on in!”). In considering the scope of “risk,” as Maurice Natanson discusses it, I am open to the world (risk) but I do not encompass it.52 Thus, being in the world is to risk our Self and our subjectivity, and there is no real being outside of the entanglements of intersubjectivity, only passing encounters with variant possibilities unfolding towards the future.
My work with the Maine People's Alliance taught me several things about Others, but more so about Othering my Self. Across my interactions with Mainers at their doorsteps, I learned to be more reflexive about my own convictions and open to Others’ viewpoints. Strangerdom cuts across indeterminate realms of mystery and is largely characterized by the potential vulnerabilities arising from other persons not already knowing what we “are about.” At the same time, these exercises of explaining our Self to an Other materialize a threshold of dialogic possibilities not present before this particular interaction.53 We become more familiar to ourselves through the interchange of learning how we become familiar to Others. Together we create living stories. When we appreciate our Others as similarly possessing a Self, and our own Self as simultaneously existing as an Other, we realize that this progressive engagement constitutes a foundational relational ethics. Achieving such recognition highlights an intrinsic ethical dimension of personhood as not being solely for oneself but also encompassing an ongoing life with and alongside Others.
In my experience, considering these narratives phenomenologically aspires to descriptive richness that appreciates these moments as open activities of meaning-making. Strangers often are an alienating presence in our lifeworlds, and on occasion their unfamiliarity drives us to close the door on these awkward relations. Yet sometimes the creative possibilities of dialogical transcendence call us to collaborative productions of new connections and Self-understandings. To be a Self is always to exist as an Other, and vice versa. In this humane and mundane way, we are all always already (former) strangers.