The OF Blog: Otherness

Thursday, May 14, 2009


The other. Others. Otherness. There is something about "other" that nags us, tugs at our thoughts, sometimes inciting us to willful ignorance. In many senses, "other" is an indefinite noun or adjective, perhaps the indefinite noun or adjective. It (rarely taking the form of "he" or "she," but the neutered, ill-defined "it") is like a mysterious black box in the room. We place our hopes, our fears, our distrust of the unknown into that magical semantic box that we call "other." What the "other" is depends upon the person doing the defining.

I have been thinking (again) about otherness lately. Quite a few stories, some from anthologies like the most recent issue of Conjunctions, some from books and histories I've read recently. In each of those, there is that "other" which exists. Sometimes it is meant to represent a mirror of sorts, turned upon ourselves (that itself being an interesting counter to "other," that sense of group identity) to reflect the limitations of our own self-awareness.

Humans are probably the most self-aware of all species on this planet. We (again, a claim to group identity based on perceived qualities of sameness) categorize and filter so many things. Does this object "belong" to me? Can I grasp it, understand it, manipulate it? What about the person over there? Is s/he akin to me? Can I communicate with him/her? Is s/he a threat? A potential friend? Can I come to understand him/her?

Those are just some of the questions we filter through hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day, often without conscious realization of what we are doing. We are so trained to do so (much of it likely due to evolutionary developments, but some of it being conditioned by cultural adaptations) that like breathing air rather than water, we never give a conscious thought to it unless it is pointed out. Or until we are faced with objects or entities that are not comprehensible to us. Things or people that are not akin to us. Beings or objects that are not possessed or grasped or manipulated by us. Those are other.

Much of the fiction I've read deals with this mysterious sense of otherness. Whether it be a strange alien (literally, "other" in Latin) force or it be clashes between the various genders (not necessarily limited to two, mind you!), often there is a sense of disorientation that takes place when a person is forced to confront this otherness. Does that person grasp for similarities? Does s/he lash out in fear, hatred, and/or revulsion because the otherness cannot be grasped or manipulated? Or does the flight part of the fight or flight response seize control, leaving us to flee, either literally by physical means or perhaps in a cognitive sense of rejecting the otherness so totally that the otherness becomes a blind spot, consciously out of sight and mind, while the subconscious mind attempts to puzzle it out, to place this otherness into some schema.

Some of the best (and weirdest) fiction that I've read places the other into a position from which it cannot be manipulated or resolved. Sometimes, humans like to engage in the fallacy that they can gain control over a situation or a person/object, when in actuality that is far from the case. It is those stories that present otherness as being outside the benign/threatening dichotomy, those tales that refuse to resolve just what the other is, leaving us with a mystery that forces us to pour our feeble thoughts, fears, and desires into that unknowable black box - those are the stories that are the most unforgettable for me. After all, if otherness is in part a mirror of the Self, who doesn't want to take a peek and see if one's mental self-image matches that of the mirror, even if it might drive us almost as mad as it does to most animals who see their reflections?

What are some of the stories that you recall in which otherness was never something defined, but something that loomed large over the tale?


mark c said...

This made me think of the Delany novel "Stars in their Pockets like Grains of Sand" - the protagonist lives in a society where humans co-exist with six legged aliens. He has some of the aliens in his family group/clan and thinks nothing of having sex with them, or humans, or both at once.

The reader gradually gets their head round this, and stops seeing the aliens as so "other", but meanwhile another group of offworld humans is introduced, who follow a different political philosophy to the hero. They are there on a diplomatic mission and try to be polite, but eventually one of them snaps and accuses the hero of being a disgusting pervert - we simultaneously see the human as other, for beign so differen tot the hero and his friends, and also realise that we have got used to something (sex with the aliens) which is kind of disgusting at a gut level. It's all very cleverly done.

Anonymous said...

Peter Watt's "Blindsight" is a recent example of a novel that presents the other as ultimately unknowable. The utter strangeness of the aliens gives the novel a bleak, pessimistic outlook, and also emphasizes the limitations of human epistemology. However, I think the novel real succees lies in showing that those limitations are to be feared more than any eventual alien invasion.

Add to Technorati Favorites