The OF Blog: A simple question

Monday, May 11, 2009

A simple question

Thinking on this term and its many definitions for a review I want to write in the next few days, but curious to see how others here would define it, so here goes:

In as long as you feel you'd need to answer this, could you please define what the term "otherness" means to you and to the world around you?


ediFanoB said...

This ain't a simple question.
I can't give you a definition. But I like to share my thoughts about "otherness" in order of appearance:

- That's me from the point of view from my environment
- Third Reich
- District 9- Ellen Ripley- Blade RunnerAs you can see I'm influenced by history and movies. Don't know whether it is good or bad. Anyway I'm interested in which book you will review.

SQT said...

"Otherness" would seem to me to encompass something that stands outside the norm. In fiction I would think that could refer to a character that stands apart from his contemporaries as much as something completely foreign to the normal human experience. It's funny though, when I see the word "otherness," I think of "The Others" from the tv show "Lost," which refers to the other group of people on the island who are not part of the group stranded in the plane crash.

Charles said...

It honestly depends on the context. Unless you mean "otherness" to stand alone and not necessarily referring to fiction.

Lsrry said...

Charles, yes, I meant to say just that and forgot in my rush to post in the minute or so I had available while at work. I was thinking of "otherness" as a quality of life that sometimes authors attempt to express in fiction. The real "alien," if I were to use my half-remembered Latin.

Eddie Clark said...

At its most simple, Larry, I think "otherness" is that which is noticed. You notice the fat person. The black person. The buddhist. The transvestite. Perhaps noticed is a bit reductive, but it gets at what I mean. The white, straight, average-looking male is the perspective that is seen as the 'default' for viewing the world. The other is that which isn't the default. And some people or things of course, will be other in one environment and the default in another.

In terms of fiction, I find that writers who turn what is traditionally the default into otherness from the book's perspective. So - blackness in Toni Morrison's 'Paradise', Gender in the Left Hand of Darkenss (or, more obscurely, in N. Lee Wood's brilliant 'Master of None')

Make sense?

So there's my answer.

Unknown said...

I tend to associate any discussion or mention of "otherness" or "other" or "alterity" or any other related versions with the subject of "other," meaning that which has been forcefully placed into a position of inferiority simply by being different. Clearly I'm working in the framework of racism and (post)colonialism (w/ or w/o the post). This is because the other is something I am studying for graduate school (coming up in a few months) and part of a paper I'm writing on the dissection of humanity in science fiction film.

It's not a happy term, for me...if that makes it simpler, because it has a tendency to imply inferiority, even if such inferiority is imaginary or invented (it's a category that simply has a history of be represented by groups who have been largely abused and/or destroyed in human history).

If that's not the context you're going for, you'd probably do best to indicate what kind of usage at the start of the review. That way nobody confuses what you're talking about.

Charles said...

As to not complicate things, anyone not "me," whether it's gender, cultural, or simply my uniqueness.

Nephtis said...

"Otherness" is something strange and unfamiliar that's suddenly made intimate. The natural reaction to seeing or experiencing something strange or alien is to control, define, and distance, so it takes the shock and vulnerability of immediate intimacy to penetrate our defenses. "Otherness" is something that evokes fear. It is not remote, it is up close and enveloping, unsettling, and thus threatening.

MattD said...

On one hand I agree with Charles that, if done well, almost anything "not me" should convey an element of otherness; on the other hand, because of this, I have a reciprocal awareness of my own otherness -- it isn't just an aspect of how I view others, but of how I view myself.

Hal Duncan said...

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.

Unknown said...

Hey Mr. Duncan, I have to disagree a bit with the following statement:

"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."

Unless we're dealing with a far more abstract version of the "other" than I am familiar with, the "other" is a group that does garner attention because of its philosophical and historical history as a category of human differentiation. So, while those who are not "other" may not give equal attention to the "other," attention is still given, and then when one recognizes the "other" and either atones for unfair treatment, or whatever, we resort to the study of the category and its persistence in modern society--despite our supposed "civilized" nature. I'm drawing specifically from (post)colonialism here, but it seems to me that one can't say that the "other" is not the subject of attention, because historically that is far from reality. The "other" simply receives a certain kind of attention, predominately negative (slavery, rejection from the dominant social group, destruction). I suppose you could say that on a more simplistic level (say school kids), the "other" could be one which doesn't garner attention, who is ignored by other kids his or her same age, but that would apply only in a certain situation and not in all situations.

But maybe I didn't quite get what you were saying. Could you clarify if I'm missing something?

Hal Duncan said...

In that opening paragraph I was taking "otherness" in purely street-level common-usage terms, not in terms of the "other" as a political entity, but just in terms of differentiating "this X" (the subject of attention) from "the other X" (the one that's *not* the subject of attention). As in "Do you like this jacket [the one that's being tried on] or the other one [the one that's back hanging in the changing room now]?"

Once you get into the specialised usage of "otherness" in political discourse, absolutely, I agree, we're talking about something that is often the complete centre of attention.

Actually, I kind of prefer the terms "abjection" and "the abject" precisely because they're not overloaded in the way "the other" is, with its street-level usage carrying next to none of the baggage it has in academic discourse.

Unknown said...

That certainly clarifies things. Thanks!

Lsrry said...


I think you anticipated part of what I was considering. Guess since I'm not going to be able to sleep again for a couple of hours, I'll go ahead and write out a draft of the piece I've had in mind now rather than waiting until the weekend like I had originally planned.

Good stuff here, everyone. Each of you touches upon part of what I was considering, but I have a bit more to add. Interesting to see what the reactions will be to it.

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