‘Without deep reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people’
‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’ (‘Hell is other people’)
The paradoxical nature of otherness, as defined by continental philosophy, is that the other represents that which is wholly divergent from, and as a corollary, constitutive of the self. Despite close affiliation, the encounter of self with the other is often fraught with difficulties. Irretrievably divided, unavoidably connected, self and other clearly engage in complex relations. Whether one sees this relationship (as Einstein does in the above quotation) as providing a profound ontological purpose, or (as the dark punch line in Sartre’s Huis Clos (No Exit) insists) an inescapable metaphysical conundrum, the self is inexorably bound to the other.
For Hegel, the relationship, which is adjudged necessary to achieve self-consciousness, was nonetheless, characterised as a struggle for dominance. However, it is also one of dependence, reminding us that even when the relationship between self and other seems to be one of domination, the fact that there is a relationship at all intimates that domination is not total. The asymmetrical power relations inscribed in the Hegelian master/slave dialectic find a direct analogue in the colonial world. Colonial discourses conceived of the alterity of the non-European subject in terms of terror or deficiency, a figure that provided the threat of both similarity and difference. The colonised land offered a consequence free site for European transgression, an unleashing of an unfamiliar self/other from the bounds of civilisation, a doorway into a heart of darkness.
The act of othering frequently represents a deliberate act of marginalisation or erasure. Engaging otherness is then an attempt to approach the pall of silence that engulfs the rejected subjectivity. Spivak’s subaltern is doubly colonised, subjugated by both colonial and patriarchal discourses; as such subalternity demonstrates that the process of othering is complex, often drawing upon multiple, intersecting discourses. Therefore, identity markers, such as gender, ethnicity, religion, class, nationality, and culture, operate as signs of difference that can individually or collectively initiate exclusion, alienation and marginalisation.
Otherness is an ancient concept, one that is inscribed in many foundational mythical and biblical texts of Western civilization. In Sophocles’ Philoctetes for example, the eponymous protagonist is (due to his Malian heritage) an outsider within the Greek army. When wounded on an expedition, Philoctetes is exiled by the Greeks to the island of Lemnos for ten years until a prophecy revealed that the Trojan War could not be won without Philoctetes’ bow. The crux of the play is the realisation by the Greeks that they cannot hope for success unless they embrace the other.
Likewise, the New Testament establishes the embrace of the other (‘to love one’s neighbour as oneself’) as the cornerstone of Christianity. Yet biblical tracts are replete with their own created others; in the Old Testament, the Philistines for example, provide a cultural mirror to reflect the inherent superiority of the Israelites. Furthermore, the parable of the Good Samaritan adds another layer to the portrayal of otherness – in his charitable acts the Samaritan is able to transcend his religious otherness, suggesting that otherness is socially constructed rather than given.
Contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek poses further challenges to the Christian dictum of universal love of the other. Suggesting that the success of humanitarian causes may lie in the fact that they afford an opportunity to love from a distance, Žižek propounds that to truly love the other means to accept that which is unacceptable or monstrous in the other. Claiming that universal proclamations are nothing more than empty clichés when divorced from personal responsibility, he argues for the necessity of subverting the objectification of the monstrous other. This bridging of the gap between self and other is ultimately impossible until the individual is prepared to recognize the other within.
The contributors to this collection have addressed the topic of alterity from various positionings. To assist straightforward navigation, this journal has been divided into five parts. Part One: Border Crossings deals with the traversal and/or collapsing of traditional national, cultural and artistic boundaries. The challenges presented to established lines of demarcation analysed here, signify a related interrogation of the opposition of self and other. Michael Böss in his article ‘The Otherness of Babylon and Jerusalem: The Bilateral Character of Exile and Otherness in Irish Literature’ conceptualises a sociology of exile, which is explored in the context of twentieth-century Irish literature. Arguing that theories of exile must necessarily be historically situated, he examines how the prescriptive nature of Irish nationalism, itself a product of a postcolonial exilic consciousness, would lead to the creation of internal as well as external exiles. Working to unravel the Gordian knot of exilic identity, Böss attends to the complex character of exile and otherness, which encompasses forms of marginalisation and alienation in addition to geographical displacement.
In ‘Masters and Slaves: Britain’s Cultural Selves in Jon McGregor’s So Many Ways to Begin’ Damien Shortt explores the potential for harmonious relations between cultural selves and others. This article analyses a crisis of identity for the novel’s protagonist, who exists in synechdochic relationship to twenty first-century Britain; as such his attempts to grapple with his past offer a broader societal reconsideration of post-Imperial history. Using Hegelian theories on otherness, and in particular the master-slave dialectic as a theoretical framework, Shortt suggests that the possibility for developmental synthesis exists in rejecting the teleological drive of historical narratives in order to reside in a contingent, and thus unwritten, present.
Vera Alexander ‘Sounds of Otherness: The Representation of Music in Ann Patchett’sBel Canto’ looks to the fictional representation of music in contemporary literature. Alexander contends that fictional representations of musical themes and discourses are frequently characterised by nostalgia and conservatism, with a laudable Western art form here afforded the capability of subjugating political terrorism. Focusing on the intrinsic binary logic of Patchett’s novel, this article expounds upon the relationship of music to literature, of modernity to conservatism, high and popular culture, and of the centre to periphery. Drawing on recent interventions in the fields of postcolonial studies, transnational studies and border discourses, it problematises the inscription of these dyads in this pre-9/11 terrorist plot line.
Following this, Part Two: Photographic Spectrality examines how photographic techniques and images create spectralising effects. Both articles included here draw on Jacques Derrida’s theories of spectrality in order to engage with the otherness of the photographic copy. Carrie O’Connor’s ‘Reconstructing Eve: Spectres and Identities of the Transforming Ideal’ proposes a new reading of French author Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s 1886 novel L’Eve Future. O’Connor argues that reading L’Eve Future with in the light of Derridian theory is useful not only for illuminating neglected aspects of Villiers novel, but also for reinforcing Derrida’s writing on spectrality. The article proposes that Villiers android figure Hadalay offers an interrogation of Platonic and Derridian conceptualisations of the ideal. Hadalay is an embodiment of the Derridian spectre, the spectral android being at once arrivant and revenant, first time and repetition. Replacing the either/or with a both/and perspective forces the reader to recognise that the self and the other co-exist in one being, aspects of an ontological duality.
In the article ‘Others and their Others: Spectrality and Monstrosity in the Photographs of Roger Ballen’, Lewis Johnson also draws on Derrida’s writings, and in particular his writings on the gaze of the spectral other to account for the uncanny monstrosity of Roger Ballen’s photographs of South African subjects. Johnson argues that Ballen’s work opens the viewer to a sense of the otherness of the other, inviting him/her to consider also the absent others with whom those photographed exist and who haunt the photographs. Challenging a communal positioning, Johnson argues that Ballen’s haunted others illustrate that our relation to the other is also a relation to their relatability and relations with others, including our selves.
Part Three, which is entitled Gender and Alterity examines the points of intersection for otherness and gender studies. Ib Johansen’s article ‘Female Others, Female Freaks: from P.T. Barnum’s American Museum toThe Residents Freak Show’ offers a chronological study of the female freak from the spectaculars of the nineteenth-century to contemporary literary and musical representations of freakery. Johansen illustrates how earlier examples of female freaks (such as those on display in P.T. Barnum’s sideshows) tended to set female freakery – itself read to be indicative of physical and moral degeneration – in opposition to the idealised ‘Angel of the House’ of Victorian womanhood. As attitudes evolved and the ideals of patriarchal culture were increasingly challenged, the post-1940s generation increasingly began to see disabled female bodies in relation to medical concerns. However, this article contends that while later examples of freakery offer a more compassionate perspective, they nonetheless foreground the existential costs of freakery to an even greater degree.
This is followed by Henriette Dahan Kalev’s ‘Constituting the Moral Subject: The Self and Other in Gender Theories of Justice’. Dahan Kalev explicates the difficulty engendered due to the fact that traditional or classical theories of justice treat of a universal subject that is inevitably male, an autonomous self that exists independently of the other. As such the female is inevitably housed under the category of other, representing a failure to conceive of the female subject as an agent and autonomous subject. A central question addressed in this article is the possibility of conceiving theories of justice that pivot on a subject that is an ‘other’ rather than a ‘self’. Drawing on the observations of feminist, psychoanalytical and postcolonial theorists, Dahan Kalev advocates an identitarian construction paradigm that foregrounds both bonding and independence as a means to integrate self and other in theories of justice.
The final article in this section by Inger Hunnerup Dalsgaard is entitled ‘Producing and Consuming Passions: Women Workers and Writing Desires in Melville’s New England’. Hunnerup Dalsgaard looks to Herman Melville’s diptych of short stories, ‘The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids’ in order to shed light upon the the realities of factory life for young women in mid-nineteenth century New England. Melville’s stories attempt to highlight the ills of mechanization by suggesting that the creation of the industrialised nation came at the expense of the othered female factory worker who was increasingly commofidied. Outlining the ideologies of puritan versus romantic versions of femininity, the article elucidates the two cultural expectations in terms of motivation and consequence.
In Part Four: Beckettian Alterity and the Plight of Perception both articles explore the anxiety of perception that animates much of Samuel Beckett’s oeuvre. Reading this anxiety as an inability/unwillingness to embrace the other, the flight from apperception ensures perennial isolation. Órla Slattery in the article ‘Alterity and Antipathy: The Plight of Anti-Levinasian man in Beckett’s The Expelled and Other Novellas’ contrasts the Beckettian anti-hero to the Levinasian ethical agent. To account for the pronounced antipathy of self towards the other in Beckett’s prose, the article looks to his cinematic offering, entitled Film. Slattery notes Beckett’s engagement with the Berkeleian esse est percipi principle to dramatise the protagonist’s futile attempt to evade perception, the gaze of the other representing a threat to his solipsistic universe.The article contends that it is the existential anti-hero’s unwillingness to respond positively to the encounter with the other that dooms him to a meaningless existence. Unable to see salvation in the other, the Beckettian anti-hero forfeits the prospect of authentic selfhood.
In ‘Eschewing the Other in Quest of the Wombtomb: Alterity in Beckett’s Film’ Lasse Gammelgaard also looks to Beckett’s Film in order to explore the ontological status of human subjectivity. Drawing on the philosophies of George Berkeley, René Descartes, and Jacques Lacan, Gammelgaard argues that the protagonist of Beckett’s film eschews the other of perception and of self. The article contends that the protagonist’s ‘search of non-being’ may be seen as a manifestation of a death drive, and that that may furthermore be viewed as a longing for life before birth. The Beckettian flight from perception as read here is thus a journey into the ‘wombtomb’.
Finally, Part Five: Monstrous Others addresses the fear that is frequently registered in encounters with the other. The threatening figures of the vampire, the doppelgänger and the golem are evoked in turn to approach the potential monstrosity of otherness. The first article in this section is Marie Lauritzen’s ‘The glowing extremity of life on the edge of itself’: The Vampire Other in Diana Evans’ 26A’. Shifting the critical focus from the author’s status as a black British writer, Lauritzen argues that this dominant critical emphasis on ethnicity has neglected the Gothicism in the novel. Drawing attention to the prominent vampire motif throughout, this article expands upon inherited taxonomies to identify discrete vampiric identities. Reading the novelists use of thresholds in the light of current cyborg theory encourages the consideration of self as plural, or even multiple, a flexible network construct that engages directly with the other, without sacrificing its own dimensions.
Gry Faurholt’s ‘Self as Other: The Doppelgänger’ insists on the necessity of differentiating between categories of the double in order to unveil the latent conservativism of doppelgänger fiction. The article thus aligns the two main types of doppelgänger with two psychoanalytically defined states of being. The doppelgänger that is the identical alter ego of the protagonist corresponds to the mirror stage of development in which the subject must identify with an external image. The doppelgänger that is the ‘dark half’ of the protagonist corresponds with the Oedipal phase in which unacceptable aspects of the personality are deemed ‘other’ and must be rejected. Drawing on Freudian and Lacanian theory to illuminate well-known literary exemplars of the double, Faurholt demonstrates how doppelgänger fiction serves as a cautionary tale to promulgate the necessity of socialisation.
Lastly, Pavlina Radia’s ‘The Golem in the Room: Permutations of Otherness and Transnational memory in Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For and Salman Rushdie’sFury’ explores the figure of the ‘golem in the room’. Highlighting the potentential ‘consuming’ nature of globalisation, Radia argues that transnational memory is commodified, becoming in the process golemic, an idea shaping both novels under examination. The article contends that it is through the ritual of othering that the spectral reality of desire is able to produce a life of golemic proportions. The figure of the golem is used in both to construct an ethical standpoint from which the otherness of the self and the selfness of the other can be observed.
This collection originated in a conference entitled Otherness and the Arts: Global Conference on Interdisciplinary Approaches to Otherness and Alterity in Literature, Film and Culture, which was held in Aarhus University in August 2008. An inter-institutional venture between Aarhus University and Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, the conference brought together academics from various parts of the world to explore this seminal topic of otherness. The conference, which solicited papers from academics working in a variety of areas, aimed to approach the topic of otherness from a wide range of perspectives. Since that time, an ongoing inter-institutional research seminar series has been set in motion, aimed at cementing links between academics from Aarhus University, Mary Immaculate College and Deakin University in Melbourne. The enormous response to that initial call for papers testifies to the fact that otherness is a vital and dynamic topic for contemporary academic debate. It is hoped that this collection can keep these channels of communication open, thus facilitating future encounters between self and other.