IDENTITY AND OTHERNESS

REPRESENTATIONS OF THE „OTHER/S”, AND THEIR IMPACT ON MUTUAL RELATIONSHIPS

Nedret Kuran Burcoglu

Introduction

      „Otherness” has been a complex phenomenon that has attracted the interest of  great many thinkers and scholars of various disciplines who have interpreted and defined it in various ways, explained its implications, as well as its functions. Philosophers, antropologists, psychologists, social psychologists, sociologists, imagologists, experts in feminist, postcolonial, gay and lesbian studies, and poststructuralists have extensively elaborated on various aspects of it.

      The aim of this talk is to elaborate on the impact the representations of the „other/s” have on mutual relationships, i.e. on the relationships between the „represented” and the „receivers of the representations”. However, before coming to this subject, I will mention a few general aspects of the „other” -as defined by some well-known contemporary theoreticians- , and point out its various functions. Finally I would like to make a few critical comments regarding the production and reception of these representations.

Who is the „Other”?

      There are different answers to this question according to the context. The „other” can be defined in socio-political terms, as the „ethnic other”, the „religious other”, the „racial other”, or in genderwise the „other”, meaning „the other sex”, i.e. „the woman”, „the lesbian”,“the gay”, or „the trans-sexual”, or it can have political overtones,  the „other” as „the colonized”, „the national other”, etc. Almost all these concepts are loaded with connotations, and these are mostly „pejorative” in nature, implying „marginality”, „lack”,and „backwardness”, but it can also have positive connotations, meaning the „privileged”, „the preferred one”, that is somebody, or a group of people that could be „envied” which very often reflect the feelings of the „opressed”, the „dominated” and the „marginalized” one vis-a-vis the „other”.

      The French feminist author Simone de Beauvoir uses the term the „other” in her book, entitled The second Sex (publ. In 1948) in the sense of „woman” as opposed to „man”, man being the „subject”, and woman being the „object”, that is the „other”. This is considered to be a synthesis of the Hegelian concept revealed in his book, entitled Phenomenologie des Geistes and existentialism (Melanie Sexton in Makaryk 1994:620).

      American feminist writer Kate Millet interprets the concept of „the other” in her book entitled, Sexual Politics (1969) as instrumental in institutionalising the male norms.

      Still other French feminist authors, like Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous claim that the concept of the woman as the „other” connotes „lack”, „inferiority”, „weakness”, etc. which induced feminist writing, and which in turn, served to the „salvation of women”(ibid.).

      Another definition of the „other” has been made by the French psychoanalyst, poststructuralist Jaqcues Lacan. Like de Beauvoir’s, Lacan’s concept also derives from both Hegel and from existentialist philosophers. His notion of the „other” is a polysemic concept which is not specific for woman but also for man. According to Lacan’s theory of identity, during the formative „mirror stage”, the child learns to perceive itself as a stable form, but it does so only by means of an image which is not truly identical with itself but „other” and „alien”. Its self image is thus structured by a „misidentification”. For Lacan the „other” is basically a locus of forces which enables the emergence of the subject, but at the same time leaves the subject permanently fragmented and in perpetual slavery to desire. Lacan differs from de Beauvoir in that he argues that „otherness” is not an external category but an internal and unchangeable condition of man’s existence. In his terms, when woman becomes man’s „other”, she becomes a correlative for man’s lack and helps affirm him in his selfhood (ibid).

      Frantz Fanon, who is one of the eminent postcolonialist writers defines in his book entitled, Black Skin White Masks and the Wretched of the Earth (1967, 68) the „colonized” as the „other”, i.e. a person who is not capable of asserting his/her „self identity”.

      One of the most famous contemporary literary critics Edward Said elaborates in his book entitled, Orientalism on how the Middle Eastern people have been conceived as the „other”, i.e. as the „inferior”, „backward”, „uneducated, „unskilled”, „uncivilized”, etc. and how this distorted, stereotyped image has been used in the West, with the rationale of justifying „racism” and „colonialism”.

      Imagologists, on the other hand, who study the literary presentation of foreign cultures, countries, peoples, etc. try to see the „other” from an objective, supranational, supraethnic point of view and investigate its coming into exitence. In that respect it only shares with the previously cited theoreticians the fact that the „other” is „different” than the self (otherness), or „alien” to the self (alterity). As Hugo Dyserinck claims in his article, entitled, „The Comparative Study of Literature and the Problem of National and Cultural Identity-An Imagological Vision”, „it offers the opportunity of analysing one culture’s image or idea of another’s, as expressed in its literature, in order to discover thereby both the „hetero-images” and the „auto-images” at work in this „international mechanism and to recognize the full expanse of their importance”.

      After having cited some of the definitions of the „other” by contemporary theoreticians and their approaches to the „other”, I would like to look at some of  the functions, the „other” fullfills in human lives.

What are the functions of the concept of the „other”, or for what purposes can the „image of the other” serve?

      The „image of the other” can fullfill various functions in human life. Most of these can be categorized as „psychological functions”. First of all „the other” is needed for the „identity formation” of a person, as well as a group of people, and a nation. The existence of the „other” helps as a formative force, at the initial stage of the identity formation, as well as at the preservation and/or the transformation processes of the „self identity”, because identity is not a static phenomenon and is subject to change continuously according to special circumstances. At the emergence of new nations, the „other” is needed against which people can get united and consider the „other” as a „common enemy” as the Slovenian theoretician Zizek had also clearly expressed.

      The Turks at some periods of their history had served the Europeans to fullfill this purpose, that is as the „other” for the unification of Europe, as they were considered and shown as „an enemy of Christianity”, as the „anti-Christ, a sensual bastard, who is undermining the integrity of Christianity”(ref.  a series of speeches of Martin Luther: „Vom Kriege wider den Turken” (1529), „Heerpredigt wider den Turken” (1529), „Vermahnung zum Gebet wider den Turken” (1541). That was during a period when the Ottoman Empire was still powerfull. Later on, towards the end of the 19th century, that is at a time when the Empire had stated to decline, the image of the Turk as the „other” symbolized a target to the subjects of the Ottoman Empire against which they should fight and set up their national identities. These are examples for the  functions of „the other”, that have served for the unification of forces and for liberation of the „self identity/self nationality” vis-a-vis „the other”, that is „the collective enemy”, but at the same time for the destruction of the „represented”.

      The „image of the other” in pejorative terms, signifying the „other” as „weak”, „backward”, „uncivilized”, „unable to govern oneself”, can also be used for the purpose of „justification” of one’s „dominance” and „hegemony” over an individual person, or a certain group of people and a state. The actors of violence, agression, discrimination, segregation, racism and colonialism have made vast use of this function of „the image of the other”. Paintings of the Orientalists, hate-speech in press and the media, as well as other speeches, illustrations and essays with provocative implications are examples of such representations of the „other”that are usually full with prejudices and stereotypes. Evil intentions behind these extreme examples of representations may lead to even worse animosities, to xenophobia, ethnic cleansing, genocide and other detrimental results for the mankind. These are the extreme/hazardous impacts of the „image of the other” that must be avoided.

Forms of Representations of the „Other”

      Representations of the „other/s” can be presented and communicated to the public in different forms and through different means. They can be overt or concealed depending on the intention behind the  representation. They can be placed within an informative, artistic or provocative literary, visual or audio-visual text. These may vary from history text books, travel accounts, novels, drama, fairy tales, illustrations, paintings, cartoons, commercials, scientific books, interviews, editorials, translated texts, talk shows, newspaper articles, etc. Through the well-developed media channels of our century they can reach their receivers in a short time and can influenz their perceptions of the „other”.

      It is the aim of Imagology to study the underlying socio-cultural reasons and ideologies that were at work in the formation and transformation processes of these images, and investigate from the point of view/perspective  of which „auto-image” these „hetero-images”, that is the images of the „other/s” have been created, and thus raise the awareness in human beings of how and under which circumstances these images have come into existence.

Positive and Negative Impacts of the Representations of the „Other” on the Receivers:

      Fair and objective representations of the „other/s”which can also be critical about the „other” usually have positive impacts on the receivers as long as they respect the „other’s” values. Prejudiced representations of the „other/s”, on the other hand, generally lead to protests and animosities between their author and the represented and can have uncalculated repercussions. As Samuel Huntington’s article, entitled „The Clash of Civilizations” had, in which the relationships of the Balkan countries and Turkey with the Western countries had been undermined. In this context I can cite many other examples, but this is not the purpose of this talk.

      Instead I would like to come to my final suggestion, namely to see the „other” not as an „enemy” of oneself, but as a „fellow human being”, who contributes to ones self, no matter how bad and evil he could be.

Towards a New Conceptualizing of the „Other”: The „Difference as a Gain” and „Richness”

       Yes, the other is „different” and as the philosopher Emanuel Levinas has stated, nobody has the right to deny the „otherness” of the „other/s”- or if not deny its/their otherness, then at least to appropriate it, subsuming the other/s dialectically within the same of the absolute subject, which leads to its/their destruction (Levinas in Kuran-Burcoglu, Nedret (edit.) 1997. Multiculturalism: Identity and Otherness.Istanbul: Bogazici University Press ), but „try to see the „other” as a means of self-discovery, as a way of looking at „others”, which is also a way of looking at ourselves”, as Peter Firchow put it in the Appendix of his book entitled, The Death of the German Cousin.Variations on a Literary Stereotype, 1890-1920 (Brucknell University Press). „It is also the discovery that only by looking at the „other” can we really see ourselves. Or that by changing the way we look at „others”, we can also change ourselves” (ibid.).

      And I believe that it is hightime for the human-beings, to change their concept of the „other” if they finally want to live in peace, only then they can start to enjoy the „unity in diversity”that are granted to them by the universe.

      Finally I would like to add a few comments:

      In the history there have been cases when national identities had been carried to extremes which resulted in chauvinism and war. In the case of ethnic identities being carried to extremes and prioritized to national identities, on the other hand, there emerges the danger for the nations to fall apart and be destroyed which will only be for the benefit of the external enemies. The solution for conflicts between different ethnic identities goes through a transparent and sincere dialogue with the „ethnic other”, by getting to know the life-style, likes and dislikes, interests, culture and literature, tradition and habits of the „other”, as well as by learning to „trust” and „respect” the „other”. This can be achieved by avoiding the „demonisation of the other”, as one of your professors pointed out yesterday, by preferring „inclusiveness” rather than „exclusiveness”, and by doing things together, such as working in joint projects. The interdisciplinary project „The ‘Other’ in the Higher Education in Curriculum Contents” that has been implemented in this university by the Open Society Institute in Macedonia is a very good example for that which should be pursued and sustained.