by Emma Gray
Alterity, or the otherness of the other, is a phenomenological term introduced by philosopher and ethicist Emmanuel Levinas (Buchanan). Alterity refers to both the quality of strangeness in the other and the fact that the other is essentially strange. In other words, one cannot rely upon their prior knowledge or their prior experiences to prepare themself to meet the other (Buchanon). According to Levinas, the other lies above the self at a height that the self can never reach; in other words, the other is entirely, irrevocably separate from the self (Türkkan). Human beings are motivated, argued Levinas, by the constant and unfulfillable desire to encounter the other (Türkkan). Further, in Levinas’s theory, God is the only one capable of satisfying this requirement and thus God is the only being with inherent alterity (Buchanon).
Psychoanalytic theorists have also grappled with the concept of the other. For instance, Jacques Lacan distinguished between the other, who is or appears to be the self, and the Other, which refers to the unconscious or the symbolic order. The other is discovered by one’s childhood self during the mirror stage, which occurs when the child looks into a mirror and realizes that they exist as an individual. One’s awareness of their reflection precedes the development of an identity, upon which the ego is based. The Other is the unconscious, which utilizes the Law, or morality, in order to control one’s behaviors in the symbolic order of the world. The self exists in the gaze of the Other, and thus the self’s primary desire is to be known in the eyes of the Other (Türkkan).
In postcolonial theory, particularly in the work of Frantz Fanon, Albert Memmi, and Edward Said, the other refers to those who have been colonized and marginalized by imperialism (Türkkan). The colonized peoples are identified only by their degraded position in the hierarchical social order, and thus they can only form identities of themselves as others, not as inherent beings. They can also only understand the world in terms of their otherness. Alterity in postcolonial theory refers to the dismantling of the binary opposition of the self and the other, or the argument that both the self and the other exist in close relation to one another. According to this notion, the colonizer, much like the colonized, bases their identity on the belief that they are irrevocably different from the colonized peoples (Türkkan).
Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, 1963. Print.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage As Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, Translated by Bruce Fink, W. W. Norton & Co., 2007, Chapter 5.
Lévinas, Emmanuel. Alterity and Transcendence. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Print.
Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967. Print.
Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1994. Print.
Taussig, Michael T. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.
Buchanan, Ian. “alterity.” A Dictionary of Critical Theory. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Türkkan, Sevinç. "Other/Alterity." The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory. Ed. Michael Ryan, Wiley, 1st edition, 2011. Credo Reference, http://libproxy.union.edu/login?auth=shibboleth&url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/wileylitcul/other_alterity/0?institutionId=5120.