Objects in the Mirror are Closer than you Think: Beyond the Rhetoric of Otherness

Sohini Dasgupta, And I have seen the ocean continuously creating, 2014, Archival print. more here.

Sohini Dasgupta, And I have seen the ocean continuously creating, 2014, Archival print. more here.

Lata Mani

First published on November 9, 2017 as a guest post on Kafila, here.

Political discourse in the contemporary period is by marked an affective intensity. Regardless of the issue an acute depth of feeling is in evidence. Righteousness, betrayal, entitlement, anguish and aggression suffuse arguments across the political spectrum. What seems at stake is not merely the desire to speak but to have the terms of one’s discourse deemed legitimate, to be understood as one understands oneself. The sizzle, crack and snap of rhetoric expresses the heightened temperature. One could credibly interpret it as the sound of an existing order breaking down under multiple pressures. This would however be a partial explanation. The surcharged atmosphere is equally evidence of the ties that bind those passionately disagreeing with each other. And therein lies a clue.

II

The politics of liberation in “societies structured in dominance” (Stuart Hall, 1980) partly entails the effort to distinguish between diversity as a form of natural variation and difference that is socially produced. Put another way, it involves learning to differentiate between difference conceived as “otherness” carrying values assigned to it by the prevailing social order, and difference understood as a kind of specificity that exists in context of an interdependent diversity. Prevailing conceptions of gender, race and caste are examples of socially produced difference, difference as otherness. The diversity of plants, shrubs, trees, grasses are instances of difference conceived as specificity, a benign variation that manifests the play of interdependent diversity.

The two conceptions are not discontinuous. Otherness is most often produced through a negative and hostile evaluation of specificity on the spurious grounds that it diverges from and/or threatens a prevailing norm and must therefore be policed, domesticated or subordinated. A politics of liberation could have refused this distinction. It could have insisted that difference as otherness must in all instances cede ground to difference as specificity, as in the rest of nature. But with the exception of indigenous movements, whose histories require a different mapping, that has not been direction taken. For the most part, political movements have chosen to reclaim otherness, to re-signify its meaning, to challenge the identification of particular characteristics with specific groups, and to broaden the range of cultural, sexual, bodily and identitarian differences to which we must attend if we are to embrace a truly inclusive vision of liberation.

That this became - and still remains - the preferred strategy is not surprising. Post-Enlightenment thinking proposed a sharp divergence between humans and the rest of nature. Humans were held to be superior and other to the natural world of which they were a part. A part, yet apart. Bounded, autonomous entities possessing a singular awareness and agency, self-willed humans stood in stark contrast with the rest of nature which was construed as inert matter uniquely subject to its environment (broadly understood) and a resource for us to do with as we pleased. Extracting humans from our place in nature facilitated nature’s exploitation by humans. That said, difference in the non-human natural world was understood as the effect of irreducibly complex evolutionary processes that were multifaceted, trans-species and interlinked. This enabling notion of difference - as a kind of specificity expressing complex and multiple interdependencies - made diversity in non-human natural world a source of endless aesthetic pleasure and scientific curiosity, not to mention spiritual succor. Might radical politics stand to gain by extending this notion of difference to the human realm?

III

Dominant ideology interprets concepts and social relations in accordance with its own logic. The axes along which it divides and the hierarchies it proposes as legitimate vary depending on context. But most frequently at the heart of such maneuvers to exclude or oppress are gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and where pertinent race, caste and tribe. The history of such contentions and their consequences is a complex one, the subject of extensive scholarship. But one recurrent strategy has been the invention of the lie of otherness via the “truth” of “history,” “science,” “biology” or “religion,” often deployed in some combination.

Regardless of the particularities of a given lie, such “othering” produced a state of estrangement. It rendered concepts, peoples and social relations other than what they were. One does not need to subscribe to a golden age theory of the past to consider what is being said here. To mark out a difference is to intervene. It is a deliberate act and as well an act of deliberation. It suggests something being made, re-made, made up even. In any event it inaugurates a shift whose contemporary forms and reverberations we inherit. And it is these that are challenged in current struggles for justice.

Arguments for equality generally combine pointing to similarity with insisting on difference. Sometimes this involves reclaiming a difference which had been disparaged (black is beautiful) at other times rejection of it (the association of purity with a particular caste or race). And at yet other times, the category is itself made incoherent as with gender post the emergence of the movement for transgender rights. Pressured to accommodate so much diversity gender risks imploding. What kind of difference does gender make? What kinds of genders does difference make? Add to gender non-conformism the proliferations of sexualities and matters become even more complex.

As always contradictory dynamics are simultaneously in play: an expansion and as well a consolidation. Even as the category of gender threatens to become meaningless it gains traction in medical and psychological literature via the idea of gender dysmorphia, the misalignment between one’s sense of one’s gender identity and the gender that would customarily be attributed to one’s physical body. Gender non-conformists are required to ground claims about their true gender identity on conventional notions even as their ways of embodying gender can stretch it beyond recognition. By way of example, a transwoman who has declined hormones and surgery and opted to keep their beard and move in the world in women’s clothing. Law may have created a third gender but the route to reclassification is haunted by the binary, as if transgender were a space holder for gender migrants who can expect to be denied full-citizenship in the gender(s) of their choosing. The binary is dead, long live the binary.

So long as difference is understood as otherness, proliferation and consolidation will feed on each other keeping the norm dynamically intact even while instigating impassioned counter discourse on the uniquely particular and/or exceptional nature of the experience of a given gender, caste, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion or tribe. The two processes are activated in tandem. The violence of othering initiates a hardening of categories and stances. It inclines us to talk at and past each other. Our mutual ignorance (at times incomprehension) become confirming signs of the incommensurablity of our experiences. We confront each other as distressed opponents across the divides of past and present injustice. The ensuing pain and antagonism is seen to vitiate the atmosphere, making dialogue impossible. But there is more to noticed. The emotional pitch also testifies to the intimacy of this stand-off. This aspect begs our attention.

IV

Othering is a strategy of power. It distorts complexity. It denies relationality. It asserts a hierarchy. Complex wholes are fragmented. Entities and processes that have evolved in multiplicitous contexts and interrelationships are deemed radically separable, wholly autonomous. Or else as existing only in the relationship of subordination proposed by the logic of otherness. Certain modes of understanding gender, race and caste may be located here.

Concepts are not the world but an attempt at its description. The world precedes and exceeds them and it cannot be simplified by dint of will. Discourse about the world is thus intrinsically vulnerable to disputation, permanently unsettled. Difference as otherness is at odds with the heterogeneous complexity of the social world. The affective intensity of our debates is a sign of this. It registers a kind of intuitive discomfort with the idea of otherness even as it is being deployed. It is discursive static overlaying the pulse of all that is suppressed, all that can at any time erupt and disrupt the arguments being made.

Difference as specificity within interdependent diversity is a much more capacious and flexible conception, one that offers the added benefit of not carrying the burden of an a priori value judgement. It enables one to analyze social variation in all its multi-constitutedness. In an interdependent universe, everything emerges out of relationality and exists as relationality. Relatedness is a fact of nature and the grounding truth of sociality. To posit difference as otherness is to refuse to integrate this reality, to wittingly or unwittingly collude in its distortion. Any ideology or perspective that segments, separates, divides and hierarchizes individuals, communities or experiences obscures this first principle.

Regardless of what supremacists might falsely claim about gender, caste, race, sexuality or religion, we are a complexly interconnected diversity; mutually and multiply constituted in relation to each other and all that exists, human and non-human. Segregation spatializes some people’s fear of proximity, contamination and pollution. But it does not alter the fundamental truth of mutuality. Which is why such elaborate and violent mechanisms are needed to enforce the lie of hierarchy and separateness. And why the assertion of essential difference is less threatening to supremacists of all stripes than insistence on intersectionality, inextricability and syncretism.

Our lives are composed of myriad intimacies. Yet we experience these as so many estrangements, antagonisms and irrelevances. To speak of equality is to tacitly acknowledge multiplicity and relationality: equality is always with-within-among-between-across. But we are yet to embrace the full implications of this. Which is why we can so easily take recourse to a rhetoric of otherness or position ourselves outside the structures of which we are a part, no matter how differentially we may be located within them.

But there is no outside. There is no other. There is only intimacy. It may be denied, resisted, violated, distorted or celebrated. It may be eclipsed by our indifference, inattention and ignor(e)ance. Still it hides in plain sight. Patiently awaiting language adequate to its truths.

Reference: Stuart Hall (1980) “Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance.” In UNESCO, Sociological Theories Race, and Colonialism, Paris: UNESCO Press, 305-45.