October 2, 2008

Otherness Abounds

A former professor of mine is writing a book and he’s on the last chapter. As many writers have, he’s planning to conclude it with something about the concept of “the Other,” as the 20th century French Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas figured it.

He’s smart enough not to bother reading the books himself. So, a few days ago, he asked me to put together some notes explaining this concept. Now normally, I’d find a reason to ignore him, but I’ve actually decided to do it this time. I’m not really doing much else right now–it’s the middle of the night and I can’t sleep– and anyway, I seem to be under some sort of indenture, as far as he’s concerned. I’m not lying. He blames me, his erstwhile apprentice, for corrupting his highway Qi from afar and causing him to crash his (rice-patty) Toyota into a brick wall. Then again, all this was coming from a guy who calls himself ‘his majesty,’ curses at newsprint he can’t read, and on most issues holds the same relative measure of clarity as a Jackson Pollock painting.

Whatever, I’m going to give it a shot:

The Other
As long as you haven’t yet decided that the human brain is meant for little more than shuttling back and forth between LOLcats and Perez Hilton (both of which I envy for their maddeningly high numbers of cursor feel ups) you’ve probably, at some point, come across the term “the Other.”

If not, don’t worry. Just keep reading.

The term Other is as old as any, but philosophically, its current usage really starts with two guys: Jacques Lacan, who was really into Freud for some reason (I’m not going to bother with him), and Emmanuel Levinas, who was really into calling Heidegger a Nazi. By all accounts, except those of Nazis, Levinas was right about Heidegger. Let’s face it, Heidegger might be a titan of post-modern thought, but he held youth membership card number 312589. Sieg Heil. No real questions there.

Wait. Let’s pause. Because this is where the idea of the Other kind of takes off. Heidegger, like any good philosophical fascist, thought that the object of being, history and the art of creation is man working toward this great unity of spirit– as long as the ‘undesirables’ are let out of it. (Okay, I’m butchering Heidegger, and he didn’t really write that last part, but this is the gist of it, and I tend to agree with Levinas that the man was an ideological brownshirt.)

So Levinas, being a Jew, thought this was a bunch of horseshit and he came up with a philosophy that rejected any movement that seeks the overwhelming unity of man because, after all, totalitarian unification looks a lot like the project of the Third Reich. Rather, Levinas developed this pretty ingenious thought that idolizes the spectrum of difference, gay straight; black, white; woman, man…what have you. But he couldn’t really be too successful with just that. It’s a bit underwrought, and it’s not terribly convincing. So he came up with idea that’s infinitely more cryptic and infinitely more brilliant and convincing because nobody could quite understand it!

He basically wrote this, in Ethics and Infinity (I won’t be quoting the French today because that’s just pretentious): Whether God exists or not, we need to have a new focus of religiosity, The Other. The Other is the first, the last, the absolutely, infinitely, all-encompassing object of our lives.

Now, what is the Other? Well, actually, just what you probably suspected. Other people, for the most part, as long as they’re different from you. And since all people are different, all people are Others! Fancy that. Levinas implores people to surrender themselves completely to the pursuit of discovering the Other. He uses some funky terms like “dip into the face of the other” and “experience the infinity of the gaze,” or whatever, but he really just means get to know people who you wouldn’t otherwise care about, and appreciate the fact that your life depends upon them–so treat them with the furthest extended version of your goodness that you can possibly imagine.

And now this is where things get complicated, because if we’re meant to spend a lifetime delving into all the subtle facets of every person we experience–Levinas contends that this is the only path to ethics– we’re going to be facing a pretty screwed-up and stagnant world, however peaceful it may be for all of its paralysis. It’s like close talking to everyone, and trying to delve into their souls all the time, with no hope for privacy. In Levinas’ perfect world, creepiness would abound, and I doubt anyone would feel compelled to connect.

So, using “Other” the way Levinas does is sometimes a process of being scarily involved in others. Understandably, this is where post-modern thinkers, then pseudo-intellectual windbags, then common disseminators of popular ideas degraded the meaning of the term Other to mean, simply, different and strange.

I like using Nicholas D. Kristof as an example, and his article The Push to ‘Otherize’ Obama. Writing that the McCain campaign’s effort to question Obama’s fitness for candidacy on a variety of false pretenses is an attestation to the “campaign to ‘otherize’ Mr. Obama,” Kristof adds, “Nobody needs to point out that he is black, but there’s a persistent effort to exaggerate other differences, to de-Americanize him.”

But so as not to confuse this surface meaning of the term “Other” with its deeper meaning according to Levinas, we really can just think about what it might be like to replace Other the way Kristof uses it with Other, in the way Levinas uses it.

Kristof means that Obama has become a target for a myth that he is somehow not American and different from most Americans, which is absurd, but whatever. That’s what it means to treat Barack Obama, or anyone, really–Muslims, Chinese, Jews, Blacks, Mexicans as others– for white, English speaking Americans, as an Other.

But things would look somewhat different if treating these others meant treating them as Levinas’ Others: Instead of dismissing Obama as different, a xenophobic constituency of white, middle-class religious fundamentalists, by and large, would be forced to engage and grapple with, and finally reconcile the difference between themselves and the Democratic candidate. Or, if Obama is too politically-charged a subject here, he can be easily substituted for any of the minority groups that are increasingly unwelcome in the U.S. Just pick one I already listed above. All are unwelcome.

Treating others like levinas’ Others might do something novel. It might actually lead to something people rarely do, actually take interest in one another’s differences.

Okay. Fine. I’ve strayed off topic, but I think I explained the concept well enough. Actually, if you truly made it down hear without skimming, message me. I’ll send you a cookie.

This summary was initially posted at http://sugarmob.com/

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