Sunday, November 05, 2006

I See Me Through You: The Other

What is The Other?

A concept used by G. W. F. Hegel argues that 'human consciousness is incapable of perceiving itself without recognition by others' (Cavallaro, p.120). Using a parable of Master and Slave, Hegel states they are both self defining in a mutual way where a Master's self awareness depends on the existence of the slave to acquire recognition; similarly the slave attains self recognition by being forced to labour unconditionally in order to fulfil his master's desires and needs, transferring himself and the natural world on which his labour effects.

Madan Sarup also adds that 'work is the primary means through which the enslaved subject may transcend his situation: it is because work is an auto-creative act that it can raise him from slavery to freedom' (Cavallaro, p.120).

Phenomenology, Existentialism and Jean Paul Sartre.

Taking the Phenomenological and Existentialist view, the Other is the factor that helps the individual to build up an image of oneself. In fact the Other 'is the person or group that confers meaning upon the subject by either helping it or forcing it to adopt a particular world view and to define its position therein' (Cavallaro, p.121).

Specifically, the concept of the Other is used to view perception and knowledge away from just merely the perspective of the individual, bringing us to another further concepts: solipsism. Solipsism accordingly holds the view of nothing exists except me, my thoughts and feelings. Solipsism thus contrasts to what phenomenology and existentialism proposes.

Proposed by phenomenology and existentialism is a world of inter-subjectivity where any one individual's interpretations of reality fuse and interact with countless other people's, and thus are always open to redefinition. This is confirmed by Jean Paul Sartre who believes that 'our sense of self depends on our being the object of another's gaze' (Cavallaro, p.121). Whereby our existence is an effect of some Other individual's recognition of us, but apparently according to Sartre, what actually deprives us of any sense of autonomy is the Other's gaze in itself.

Psychoanalysis and Jacques Lacan

In the field of psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan argues that it is in fact our existence as subjects, 'is a function of our relationship with the Other' (Cavallaro, p.121). This is further emphasised in the following three points:

· The Other is everything that individuals must learn to separate themselves from in order to develop into adult individuals (for example, one's parents)
· The Other is a fictional image of oneself which one tends to identify yet must understand that it is actually separate from the physical body (for example, a mirror image)
· The Other is the domain of language, laws, regulations and constitutions which one is required to live as socialised individuals

According to Julia Kristeva, the concept of 'difference' should be understood as an internal condition, rather than a matter of external attributes such as gender or skin colour.

Indeed, the Other is within us.

It is advocated that when a culture, society or community marginalises certain individuals as Other, what is being done here is actually an attempt to 'exclude or repress a part of itself which it finds difficult to understand, let alone accept' (Cavallaro, p.129). It is true to say that no culture is ever unified, and hence an individual's identity with the conscious and unconscious constantly competing with one another within its fabric, both divulge and create a sense of vulnerability and impermanence. To combat these ensued senses of insecurity, society henceforth reacts by creating divisions between the parts of themselves that it wishes to retain, and those which they abhor to as the Other. Thus, it should be a reminder that when one discriminates against, or abuses another what is actually being rejected is a part of the individual's own self: 'a society's treatment of strangers mirrors the individual's attitude to his/her unconscious fears and desires' (Cavallaro, p.129).

Western Philosophy and Marginalisation

Philosophically, the Other is related to the theory of knowledge called the 'other minds' which is concerned with three factors:

· Whether we can know that other beings have thoughts and feelings, and how we can know it
· Whether other beings have mental lives that resembled our own
· Whether we can interpret other being's physical, cultural or linguistic behaviour as a reliable reflection of how they feel and think

Questions as those are important as assumptions and prejudices associated with others are created from an inability to know how they function. For, as they say we are usually afraid of that which we don't understand. Advocating this point, Emmanuel Levinas quotes that 'Western philosophy has insistently repressed the other by striving to give it a definite place' (Cavallaro, p.122). Concurrently though because the Other rises above any structure, any attempt to domesticating or categorizing it, in effect actually ends up colonising it instead.

Traditionally that is what happened, because other people's conduct struck them as unfamiliar, they were automatically classed as incompatible and this assumption drew a conclusion whereby the Other's thoughts and feelings were not just different, but also 'crude and inferior'.

Yet since the commencement of post-structuralism this marginalisation of the Other has increased in popularity, specifically women, gays, people of colour and the disabled. These groups for example, have incessantly been a deviation from white society and heterosexual society.

In the case of women as the Other, women is seen as 'everything which man is not supposed to be, and man as everything which woman is not able to be' (Cavallaro, p.123). Whereas throughout history classifying the disabled as the Other, as Leo Barton believes, is tied to the 'body perfect' myth, and relatedly ignoring the disabled people's 'social productivity' is in turn an effect of this. Yet, although medically, disability is considered a form of biological or psychological inferiority, interpretations of disability more often than not conjure abuse, oppression, disempowerment and discrimination towards the disabled, and any Other.

Throughout history, the disabled have pretty much always been regarded as the Other. The Greeks damned disability, the Romans encouraged infanticide of frail babies, and even treated disability as a form of entertainment through staged fights between female and male slave dwarves. In the Middle Ages, disabled bodies were regarded as the works of Satan, and Tudor and Stuart England regarded physical impairment as a show of spectacle. Nevertheless though, with the 'body perfect' myth still alive and kicking, it is no surprise that disability is still adorned by myth and fantasises even until today.

Imperialism, Nationalism, Race and Violence

According to Cavallaro, imperialism 'is a state's forceful extension of its powers through the conquest and exploitation of other territories' (p.124). These extension of powers usually take on a guise of agents of civilisation gifted with racial and cultural superiority. V. I. U. Lenin says 'imperialism results from monopoly capitalist's determination to maximise their profits by exploiting foreign regions: using their raw materials, strengthening existing markets through the introduction of new goods made from such materials, and augmenting their investment opportunities' (Cavallaro, p.124-125). Hence, although economy plays a big role in modern imperialism, issues of nationalism and race must be mentioned too.

Nationalism is the promotion of a nation's territorial and ideological supremacy. It is thrust upon the notion that certain groups of people are held together by a common race, history and language associated with a particular territory. Territory here means a cultural and political organisation; not just a geographical area, which is both 'physical and conceptual, a region whose boundaries must be guarded against alien intrusions, and an ideology to be exalted and divulged' (Cavallaro, p.125). Race is the categorization of people on the basis of 'racially distinctive' features, such as the colour of their skin.

These two factors have contributed significantly to the creation of national and territorial identities, and the advancement of ideologies through both imperial and colonial power. In order to establish one superior nation's ideology over another, there has to be an Other that is marginalised as inferior. This sense of contrast between inferiority and superiority cannot be established until the self and Other are too, established. Racial differences have been the greatest scapegoats in this ploy: the more remote and primitive a colonised population appears to be, the more justifiable the oppression and exploitation.

Although decolonisation (the process whereby a once dependent nation has achieved state sovereignty) has more or less been achieved across the world, newer modifications have become apparent through direct, or indirect, control of Third World economies, and foreign governments. These new and improved recipes for colonisation have now evolved, changed their names slightly and are now known as: neo-colonisation and neo-imperialisation.

Violence is a very essential component of colonialism and racism: it is a quick and easy device of oppression towards the Other. Cleverly articulated, violence committed by the oppressor is set aside, whereas violence committed by the oppressed is made publicly renowned and coloured to the public as terrorism, sadism and crime. Franz Fanon in examining the repercussions of racism and colonialism of black people argues that 'the promotion of justice and…the psychological liberation of the oppressed requires recourse to violence' (Cavallaro, p.126). Although he does not encourage violence for the sake of violence, he concludes that violence is endemic: the coloniser uses violence against the colonised who will use it against one another in despair and frustration; but it is only by channelling violence at the oppressor will the 'wretched of the Earth' change their circumstances.


Edward Said contends that Orientalism is defined as the phenomenon where the East has been reconstructed by the West since the Renaissance. Accordingly, Orientalism's objective is to 'validate Western values, political and economic systems and structures of domination, by posting as Other anyone or anything apparently at odds with Western institutions' (Cavallaro, p.126). Said also adds that the West has more often than not tried to make sense of the unfamiliar and mysterious East by comparing it to textual bodies and narratives that are not more than merely 'mythical presuppositions' (p.127).

Art Exclusion and Post-modernism

Less than violent oppression has been witnessed by the exclusion of non-Western artists, for until recently art history and aesthetic appreciation has been dominated by a Eurocentric outlook that has excluded the Other as primitive, savage and naïve even.

Traditionally, Western definitions of art also tended to group all non-Western works into one single group, collected and put in cabinets even. Hence the popularity of museological practices and methodologies whose primary objective was to present non-Western cultures and artefacts as alien, relying on stereotypes of race and society to make them 'intelligible to a Western public' (Cavallaro, p.128).

Although the advent of post-modernism and globalisation have enabled the crossing over of cultures through the more flattened space and time realm, in the process some traditional Western and non-Western distinctions have become disintegrated. Many non-Western cultures across the planet have even started to show signs of post-modernism, yet there is still a concern with crisis and social disintegration because of the different historical, political and environmental factors experienced by that culture.

I Feel Lost…Help!

Ending this acquaintance with the Other, Julia Kristeva sheds some light as to how to deal with the Other. She argues that instead of trying to make sense of the Other, individuals should learn to respect what they cannot know or understand. As all to often than not, fear of the Other usually ends up generating blind hatred and other sentiments such as fascism, racism, genocide, and an obsession with national identities, languages and territories. Not forgetting that incorporating and integrating the Other into dominant cultural structures cab lead to them being denied their exclusive differences, and hence their right to be different. She also adds that by accepting the unknown in ourselves, enables us to learn and accept the unknown in others.

So simply put, embrace the unknown, have no fear and respect the Other!

1 comment:

laurogov said...

wow sarah, great blog!!! very educational. i am using it to study. you making great poits about all the issues we are looking at! good work!!