Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

What is Otherness?

Over on OF Blog of the Fallen, Larry asks a "simple question": could you please define what the term "otherness" means to you and to the world around you?

On a basic level, "otherness" to me is just the quality of being other, not part of oneself, not part of a group one is a member of, or simply not that -- or not part of that -- which is the subject of attention. It is what is foreign, alien, alterior, alternative to a particular X... it's not-X.

On a deeper level, however, the necessary act of definition-by-exclusion as "other" creates a relationship to an agent, constitutes an action by an agent on that "other", such that "otherness" entails having been actively distinguished and segregated out (from self, group or subject) on the basis of one or more points of difference (perhaps arbitrary, perhaps common to "other others"). Hence the verb-form of "othering" as an act of discrimination. The "other" here is not just alien but alienated, excluded from X, quite possibly with the aim of consolidating X as a stable system.

Digging deeper still, emergent consistencies between arbitrary acts of definition-by-exclusion serve to establish boundaries of normativity (of self, group, subject) by which less common but nevertheless natural things (types of behaviour, people, whatever) are deemed essentially non-normative -- abnormal, unusual. As these boundaries become nomological systems the "other" acquires a quality -- in psychological terms -- of being considered essentially unnatural. Beings or events which infringe (or which we suspect of infringing) the laws of normality acquire a quality of strangeness I'd relate to Todorov's fantastique and Freud's uncanny. "Otherness" in that respect may be a projected quality of transgression.

Since ultimately all things we can practically identify as "other" must be as much part of the big system of the cosmos as us (else, we can't practically identify them), the act of definition-by-exclusion is, I think, comparable to Kristeva's idea of abjection. It can be seen as a rejection of that which is or was at one time, in some deeper sense, part of us. (Hence the "familiar" part of Freud's foreign-yet-familiar uncanny. Hence the figuration of the "other" in the form of doppelganger or shadow.)

Ultimately, "otherness" means, for me, the abject. In terms of "a quality of life that sometimes authors attempt to express in fiction", as in "writing the other", it's the experience of abjection as a social process I'd be trying to represent, what it is to suffer the effects of that definition-by-exclusion. In one of its most extreme examples you can see that in the Mandingo trope, the way black men have been rendered abject, subject to a very specific form of discrimination which treats them as symbols, spectres loaded with all the brutality of "base passion" considered expunged by civilisation.

"Otherness" is having to live with that.


Blogger anna tambour said...

Abject? 'Otherness' is a glass with the waterline half-way down or up.

Ferris Gilli wrote a piece of faction, Four O'Clocks that relates to your "Mandingo trope" but there's another part of the picture that she wrote in Don't Turn Loose.

Today pretty much everyone in the world can see people who are obviously richer, happier, more beautiful, safer, and everything elser. People who can't do anything to change it, are ashamed for the country that they live in, and feel 'other' because they view as default, the countries that are 'uncorrupt', democratic, clean, filled with people who have great hair and always smell good. Now that "friends" are listed and countable, the web invites people to know that they don't have enough friends, that if they launch a blog and no one comes, that no one appreciates them. That they are alone, the quintessential Other. There is a great temptation to think only in terms of being an Other. We are barraged by 'experts' telling us in primetime, that the Goal of Life is, in essence, to be self-obsessed - that the Purpose of life is to be Happy. Fuck curiosity, interest in the world at large. Treat as leprous anyone who doesn't make you happy as in get you Famous. Don't waste your time on anything that upsets a concentration on the ultimate Search for Being Loved and that means Fame — Being an X Superlative.

People waste their lives scrabbling toward mirages of their Fame, and feel Other when they don't get there. "I've waited too long" a 35-year old recently wrote to me. The virtual path is bloody from the knees of those crawling to the Shrine of the Self as Successful. These people spend inordinate amounts of their lives comparing themselves to those who have "made it". Crawling crawling on a path that reeks of maggots squirming in bloodpools while the marvel-filled world off the path might as well be Tartarus, so much is it enjoyed.

Then there are others who are Other in a different way. They know that because of where they live and who they are, they can only look at this scrabbling world . Some of them feel guilty trying to escape where they are, swallowing guilt to want to leave their families, their birthplace, to get to a place that they half scorn and the heavier half: yearn for. Others who know there is no chance of escape, in dignity usually unnoticed by the privileged, watch the privileged world kvetch over its problems.

I'm glad we're all 'other' in different ways. Otherwise, we should try to be coral, another unachievable goal, but if we ever got there, we'd know we achieved a beauty beyond human.

6:06 am  
Blogger anna tambour said...

Erm, sorry for all that. Instead of suppurating all over your page, I should have found this passage that your post made me think of.

Dreams aren't real? I say they walk among us, whispering in our ears all their sweet promises and threats, carried in our heads, mindworms, maggots eating at our dead souls. Dreams, memes, gods and monsters, creatures of the id. If they aren't real then what the hell am I?
— You're a very disturbed young man, Jack. You're ill.
— I'm awake!
- VELLUM, "Narcissus Has Woken"

7:43 am  
Anonymous Kee said...

Well, as far as 'othering' goes, I will join ranks with those social psychologist claiming it's a natural cognitive function of the human mind, necessary for us to be able to create a sense of self. But does that mean that necessary other must always be an enemy, a stranger, something unclean and dangerous?

As you allude to, for us to create 'the other' (or define someone as other, if you will) there must be some kind of recognition as well. I am not a stone - but the stone hardly functions as my 'other' in the sense that it defines me. By the very act of othering, it seems, we confirm some kind of likeness, which might open for an ethical approach towards 'the other'.

Maybe. I am not entirerly sure where I am going with this. *shrugs*

3:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ho? my blog isn't linking to this post. very strange.
well it's linking to your blog, does that mean i appear under all of your posts? not that i would argue with that...

5:15 pm  

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