Monday, October 16, 2006

"The Other"

Currently a colleague at the City University of New York is giving a course on Islamic architecture in Europe. The premise of the course is that Islam is not (as commonly assumed) The Other. Presumably the reference is to one of the senses of “other” recognized by Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “one considered by members of a dominant group as alien, exotic, threatening, or inferior (as because of different racial sexual, or cultural characteristics.”

The professor giving the course is a good scholar and a truly kind and thoughtful person. I will not cite her name here, as I am concerned with a general tendency, and not critiquing a particular individual. Nonetheless, in view of the tensions that have emerged in the last few years in the Islamic diaspora in Western Europe, efforts to erase this form of perceived otherness may be out of date. They seem idealistic, even Pollyannaish. There may have been a time when RodneyKingism (“can’t we all just get along?”) might have worked, but we seem way past that point now.

Of course scholars in the field cultivated by my colleague can point to several significant factors that indicate continuity rather than division. Both Islamic civilization and Christian civilization arose out of late-Roman society. That was a Mediterranean society, and so were, in the first instance, its two successors. Both honor such figures as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Both are “religions of the book.” Still, unless some healing occurs that we cannot now envision, we are on our way to a full Clash of Civilizations. This is something that hardly anyone wants, but such disasters have occurred in history before.

Let us look a little more closely at that fashionable expression “the Other.” It seems un-English, for one wants to ask “the other what?” That is to say, the word “other” is an adjective, and is normally followed by a noun: other people, other considerations, and so forth.

In fact the origin of the concept seems to be French. It stems specifically from the thinking of Jean-Paul Sartre in the ‘forties and ‘fifties. The existentialist thinker oscillated between two versions. The first commendably held that we must confront and acknowledge our perception of otherness so as to overcome stereotypes and injustice. More pessimistically, though, Sartre sometimes suggested that perception of otherhood is an enduring, and perhaps inescapable part of the process of group-identity formation. “We” define ourselves as distinct from “them.”

Many years before, Arthur Rimbaud exploded the whole concept with his gnomic remark “je est un autre,” by which he meant to say, I think, that there are lodged even within ourselves alien elements, things that we shudder to contemplate. Indeed, as Buddhists sometimes assert, perhaps there is no such thing as the self, but only a loosely formed congeries of island-like elements that are always strange and never add up into a coherent whole. Be that as it may, such alternative views have gained no real leverage in our discourse. Most of those who accept the idea of the Other perceive it as the dialectical opponent of the observing subject. It is “out there.”

By a curious irony the twin of the concept of the Other is the idea of Diversity. If otherness involves stigmatizing and belittling others, then diversity is a healthy recognition of difference—or so we are told. At root, though, these two concepts come down to the same idea. Our common humanity is less important than our differences.

Returning to Islam, a very influential book about Western stereotypes of the Islamic world has been the late Edward Said’s Orientalism, first published almost thirty years ago. The many errors made by Said have now been corrected in a splendid book by Robert Irwin, For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (Penguin, 2006). Yet even Irwin regards Islamic culture as something out there, not to be assimilated to our own norms.

It seems that we may expel the concept of the Other--with a pitchfork if necessary--but it keeps coming back.


Blogger The Gay Species said...

My anally-retentive, Cambridge(UK)-trained, English 1A professor (and dear friend)would be singing your praises. He was always admonishing us to find the noun that jilted our adjective at the altar. He was also persuaded that Addison and Steele were English language's last hurrah, which could lead to some terribly retro conversations. I miss him.

I think you're attribution of Sartre as the one who reified the adjective "OTHER" is correct, but I don't recall his use of "them." My recollection is the singular, "you." But regardless, "them" is now the modus operandi, so it probably does not matter. But, naggingly, I think it does (regardless of Sartre).

Our Selves are carved or chiseled against the Other, most notably our Mother, who is one of the first to deny our insatiable demands, to limit our self-gratification (obviously precognitively), but no less acute in her "opposition" to the our will. I think this dynamic pervades our lives, sometimes attenuated, sometimes stark, as we encounter the Other (individuals in plural cases) not OTHERS (collective). No group has ever chiseled anything in me, although groups are obviously associations we make for various reasons. But when it comes to carving out our individual Selves, the Other (as individual) seems a frequent partner in the sculpturing. It's hard to think of an exception. For good or ill, we are a battering of wills whose only limitation is generated against the will of Another. Conversely, Another can add to our Self by complementing, drawing out, adding, compounding, invovling, insinuating, etc.

The socially "fit" integrate this conflict/complement in generally healthy ways. We don't say the first thing that comes to mind, but censor our thoughts for social "fit." The Other limits are most basic endowment: Speech. Now it's true groups try to do the same, (perhaps strength in numbers), but they've never actually succeeded, except through Authority, and then only by Coercion, and then with Resentment. As Reaction, not as carved, we rebel, but take it not to ourselves as part of our Self, but as Alien and Antagonist. Something Foreign to Ourselves. The OTHERS as a FORCE, not as a sculpting feature that helps mold us, but something that the Self stands Against, and chisels only contempt, resentment, and anger as our Defenses to Oppose, not to Affect.

But perhaps the socially "unfit" confuse the Other (singular) for the Others (plural) as all Forces of Opposition to the Self, to be subverted, contained, limited, or restrained. Rather than allow the individual Other to be Another, some precious person who is a mirror of its own shared humanity, the "unfit" forces him/her into an Opponent by default, assigns a Categorical Other, and only relaxes its Opposition if the Self gets its way or is gratified. It may be a psychological defense against Trespass, having lost a ballast of confidence and equality. But it takes out more than it allows. It's also terribly destructive.

Waxing Sartrean is not my shtick, so forgive my own violations of the paradigmatic idiom. But there remains something to be said for this insight (which Sartre I believe missed entirely), the the Other Individual does help "imprint" us, for or nay, help sculpt and define us, gives us reason to consider the Other, which The Group never does. The Group is always a mental Category (not an existent) that feeds our needs for Identity and Opposition, helps us navigate our disordered world conceptually, if at all, but never touches the Self directly. It can't. It's an abstraction. It's an indeterminate Idea, maleable as it is forced. But many allow the Group to act as Other, as if it were an Existent, as if it could contaminate and/or become a refuge from contaminants.

So there may be enormous difference between the Other as "you" and the Other as "them." If Sartre did not distinguish, he was thoughtlessly careless. If so, words do matter, and maybe we should find the noun with left at the adjectival altar. We just might find human beings and real things. not freightening and scary "thems."

1:25 PM  

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