Alterity, defined by the OED as “The state of being other or different; diversity, ‘otherness’,” defies a simple definition because it contains concepts like difference and otherness within itself. Difference and otherness must be unpacked to begin understanding alterity and the cluster of meanings associated with otherness. The OED definitions for difference and otherness emphasize the conditions or qualities of separateness, dissimilarity and distinction, especially from an expected norm. With an expectation for norms, sameness or mimesis seemingly opposes alterity or otherness through imitation or copy, yet such an opposition is not necessarily the case. Noting alterity’s main usages in philosophy and sociology distinguishes nuances of the term applicable to media theory, which demonstrates various contexts in which theorizing about alterity produces difference and complicates the relationship between the self and the other.
To frame alterity in terms of media theory, I offer three categories of alterity as a metaphor in terms of the screen in which otherness is mediated. The three categories include the other seen through a screen, the other seen as a screen, and the other as a medium for exchange. In the first category, the other seen through a screen, the screen signifies a boundary which represents a space of exclusion or limitation between the self and the other, for example, or individuals and their unconscious. The second category, the other as a screen, refers to the screen as a surface for projection. The other as a screen becomes a trace where the image or stereotype of the other is perceived, and projection tends to obscure the other’s identity with a dynamic relationship between fact and fantasy. The third category, the other as a medium for exchange, departs from the metaphor of the screen to show how the other herself functions like a medium. Overall, these categories provide a means of situating alterity in its various contexts in selected theories in terms of media theory; they are not meant to propose three mutually exclusive categories into which otherness may be strictly classified.
Since Descartes, the relationship between self and other describes an opposition within the individual’s consciousness which leads to questions of skepticism about the other such as whether one can know other minds or how “I,” the subject, can know the other. In this philosophy, the experience and recognition of the other can be explained in terms of the other seen through a screen. The problem begins with knowing oneself, and once the skeptic accepts his own existence, the relationship between self and other quickly becomes increasingly complex. When the self refers to the individual, one must wonder to what extent a person can actually know one’s own mind. Thus, the screen becomes a boundary or limit between individuals and their ability to know the other, insofar as the self refers to “I” and everything else is other or “not-I.”
However, Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage depicts an example of alterity in early childhood development that transforms the screen into a surface of reflection. The mirror stage imagines a scene when infants first see their reflected image in a mirror. Lacan names the original image or reflection the “ego ideal,” which becomes the child’s imaginary, inaccessible conception of self that imbues a lack in the subject as he or she futilely seeks to reconnect with the ego ideal (see mirror, symbolic, imaginary, real). In Lacanian terms, the formation of the subject necessitates a splitting of the self into “self” and “other.” The mirror stage stresses a narcissistic relationship of the subject to his image counterpart, the ego ideal. In this way, the unconscious provides an example of being one’s own other in the tension between the subject and the ego, another who is me (Lacan 2-3). From this story of childhood development, the internal struggle for the ego ideal disturbs any simple conception of alterity defined solely by difference or diversity located in interpersonal relationships or the “I” and everything else, identified as “not-I.”
Besides being involved in ideas about individual identity formation, alterity enables the classification of groups of individuals into categories like class, gender, race, sexuality, and ethnicity to mark differences and similarities among people. In terms of society, the category of the other as a screen provides a useful conception for extending the binary opposition between person-to-person relationships of the self and other from my earlier interpretation of Descartes to larger social groupings, although projection exists on the individual level too. The sociological conception of alterity may often entail a negative connotation embedded in terms like “cultural alterity” because of practices like stereotyping that allow people to use social markers to construct identity. Consequently, social identification, stereotyping, or racism forms a sort of lens that projects an imagined conception onto the screen of the other. In one view, a sociologist or ethnographer might observe cultural alterity embodying a human tendency to notice sameness and difference, and groups or societies form in ways that organize around principles of inclusion and exclusion.
Inclusion and exclusion arise in the relationship between the colonizers and colonized, for example, in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon gives an account of the colonial environment inherently engendering inferiority complexes for the colonized because “[t]he black is a black man; that is, as the result of a series of aberrations of affect, he is rooted at the core of a universe from which he must be extricated” (Fanon 8). Fanon describes his mission in his book to be “the liberation of the man of color from himself” because as a result of the prejudice and stereotyping arising from cultural differences, the excluded hopelessly seeks and desires to prove his humanity, his sameness, to the included and find solidarity with the white man. The OED’s definition of otherness describes difference from an expected norm, but the notion of a norm necessitates an inequality of power where those in power, like in the example of colonialism, create the normative standards leading to the exclusion and often victimization of the other. In the example of Fanon, the other as a screen must emphasize that power disparities can change the other into a blank screen. The blank screen creates a space for the other, the colonized, to function as a surface upon which the subject, the colonizers, can project their senses and definitions of the other, and against which they can define themselves. In other words, instead of permitting transmission and discourse, the other seen through projection onto a screen enables the proliferation of prejudice, stereotypes, and inferiority. The unequal power relationship mitigates similarities between the groups; consequently, the “blankness” of the screen comes at the expense of the other’s identity, on which the normative standards project a new identity and terms for understanding the self. However, Simone de Beauvoir’s discussion of marriage in The Second Sex provides a primary example for the category of the other as a medium of exchange, which creates another point of comparison for a sociological examination of alterity.
In The Second Sex, Beauvoir argues that marriage does not exemplify a reciprocal relation between men and women; instead, she writes that it has historically been the case for women not to be considered human subjects by men but as absolute others (71). Beauvoir emphasizes the exclusion of women in male relations stating, “Society has always been male; political power has always been in the hands of men… For the male it is always another male who is the fellow being, the other who is also the same, with whom reciprocal relations are established” (Beauvoir 70). Consequently, Beauvoir provides an example of women that tries to demonstrate society’s disregard and denial of women as “a separate group set up on its own account over against the male grouping” (71). Beauvoir cites the reciprocal bond of marriage “not as a bond between men and women, but between men and men by means of women” (71). Marriage, in this sense, relegates the role of women, the other, to be a medium of exchange.
In a more general comparison, women in Beauvoir’s text and slavery provide examples of the other as a medium of exchange. The denial of a marked group’s humanity is not specific solely to women; it can be traced historically to other scenes of large power disparities. With the example of slavery, slaves are not treated as humans or others with which one would ordinarily mark sameness and difference in terms of a reciprocal human relationship; instead, they are actually commodified in terms of exchange-value to be bought and sold in a way that women are not in that specific example from Beauvoir. Still, the role of women and slaves are similar in these given contexts because they cannot claim to be regarded even as “lesser humans,” considering society regards them not as full, rational human subjects but as non-human or sub-human like property. So far in this paper, there has been an underlying opposition in cultural alterity where mimesis simply perpetuates sameness whereas alterity, in a sense, produces difference.
In contrast to the idea that sameness and difference are inimical, Michael Taussig establishes a fundamentally different dynamic in Mimesis and Alterity where he tries to set up a dialectic relationship between mimesis and alterity,
- …mimesis plays this trick of dancing between the very same and the very different. An impossible but necessary, indeed an everyday affair, mimesis registers both sameness and difference, of being like, and of being Other. Creating stability from this instability is no small task, yet all identity formation is engaged in this habitually bracing activity in which the issue is not so much staying the same, but maintaining sameness through alterity (Taussig 129).
For Taussig, mimesis does not simply continue to produce copies solely to reproduce sameness. Rather, he offers examples of how mimesis and alterity are constructive concepts. Mimesis is defined by “the faculty to copy, imitate, make models, explore difference, yield into and become Other” (xiii), and the human behavior he observes in his study of the Cuna Indians demonstrates how the reproduction of sameness allows the people to maintain difference. Taussig tells the story of a people remaining “resolutely ‘themselves’, resolutely alter vis à vis old Europe as well as its black slaves…the Cuna have been able to ‘stay the same’ in a world of forceful change” (129). I take his point to imply that the mimetic faculty in humans enables people to adapt to their environment through imitation, which differentiates them from what they once were, while still maintaining their identity. He writes that anthropologist David Stout intimates “an arresting idea…that the cultural politics of alterity should be seen as composed not simply of one-on-one, for instance Americans and Cunas, but as a hierarchy of alterities within a colonial mosaic of attractions and repulsions, in which some alters exert positive, and others negative, charges” (144). Thus, the general notion of alterity politics must account for a shift away from the inherently negative connotations of cultural alterity with Taussig’s theory on mimesis and alterity supported by the Cunas. Despite Western imperialism, a group of people have proven capable of challenging the other’s ability to remake the Cuna identity in their own image, like in the Fanon example of projection. Even if the tribe is an exceptional example, the Cunas provide a counter-example on the issue of alterity politics. By redefining the opposition between mimesis and alterity, Taussig presents what some might call a more optimistic view of cultural alterity in contrast to Fanon and Beauvoir. Over time, however, technological advances have begun to mediate and alter human interaction on a level that suggests an increasing complexity in interpersonal relationships and alterity politics in the future.
In Jean Baudrillard’s “The Ecstasy of Communication,” he describes a world that has become hyperreal, in which there is an inundation of information and overexposure, hence the ecstasy. Baudrillard notes a historical shift as a result of technology, specifically television, by comparing the subject to a pure screen that absorbs information from a network. Baudrillard’s use of the word screen suggests a television or a computer screen becomes a person’s interface with the world. As a result, it is unclear how to situate Baudrillard among the three categories once interpersonal relationships have fundamentally altered so that communication and interaction is no longer face-to-face. He claims that the scene of the spectacle will fade and foresees the collapse of the public and private spheres, exterior and interior, “effaced in a sort of obscenity where the most intimate processes of our lives become the virtual feeding ground of the media” (Baudrillard 7). If social interaction as we know it indeed will fade, then relations between people seem more obscured than before when people relate to each other in the context of television media. For example, Baudrillard claims the abundance of advertisement and images on TV eliminate distance between the self and the other. A person watches television and imagines a privileged communication with the immediacy of a response seemingly directed toward him- or herself. However, the claim seems to be that this ecstasy of communication produces alienation in people; the reproduction of images on TV results in an unauthentic communication once people can simply talk about last night’s show rather than engage with the other in a meaningful way, although what counts as meaningful is highly subjective. The relationship of the self and the other transforms, and the previous analogies of the other as screen, the other seen through the screen, and the other itself as a medium must make room for the other transmitted through the media. The Internet blurs the authenticity of social interaction and the boundaries between the self and other as well as interior and exterior.
While I am merely presenting Baudrillard’s assertions here and not arguing against them, the speculation for a new theory remains plausible that can hope to qualify a “new” nature of social interaction on the Internet and virtual communities as a space for authentic interaction between the self and the other. Given the various theorists formulations presented here, the mediation of alterity or otherness in the world provides a space for thinking about the complexities of self and other and the formation of identity.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. Trans. Bernard and Caroline Schutze. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage As Formative of the Function of the I As Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” In Écrits: A Selection. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977.
Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity. New York: Routeledge, 1993.