Listening to and Learning from the ‘Other’

For a few months now I have been struggling to understand the idea of the ‘Other’, i.e. the capitalised Other. Why is it that so many people write about it and make such a big thing of it?

Having read around it a bit – not a lot, because, from my perspective, it’s hard to find anyone who writes about it with any clarity – I am beginning to wonder if, after all, it is a very simple idea. Basically each and every person who is not me is ‘Other’, which seems obvious, so what is the issue?

As I see it, and from my reading about the French/Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), in whose work a dominant theme was the ‘Other’, there are three significant issues which make the ‘Other’ worthy of being capitalised.

  1. No man is an island, as John Donne said.

We live in relationship with all things and all people. In an interview with Rebel Wisdom Iain McGilchrist says: ‘There is no way in which I exist independently of all of you and all of the planet and of all of the people who came before me, and indeed in a strange way I am part of something that is to come. That is all not in me or in them or in some sort of gaps between us but is in the betweenness’.

This is a significant idea because it means not only that we live in relation to all other people, but that our self cannot come into being without the ‘Other’, or as Gary Goldberg wrote in a comment on a previous post (‘Attending to the Invisible Other’),  ‘Being for the Other precedes Being for oneself’. Our identity depends on being in relation to the ‘Other’.

  1. This raises the second issue, that of responsibility for the ‘Other’.

Levinas was concerned with what it means to understand the world on the basis of the ‘Other’. He stressed that we must recognise our responsibility for others, but this responsibility can strain our sense of self, because if I always see myself in relation to others, then I cannot be separate from others.  This has been interpreted by one author as follows:

‘Whenever I see the face of another person, the fact that this is another human being and that I have a responsibility for them is instantly communicated. I can turn away from this responsibility, but I cannot escape it. This is why reason arises out of the face-to-face relationships we have with other people. It is because we are faced by the needs of other human beings that we must offer justifications for our actions. Even if you do not give your change to a beggar, you find yourself having to justify your choice.’ (DK Philosophy book)

And Young (1995) writes:

I am always and always have been in relation to the Other – meaning the other person. The presence of the Other calls me to service and responsibility. The Other brings myself into being, through my separation from the Other.

The face of the Other, makes it clear that ‘I am not everything – that everything does not belong to me and that my consciousness does not encompass everything’.  Everything also belongs to the Other.

We might ignore, but cannot escape our responsibility for the ‘Other’. But what does this mean in practice? I have just spent a month in India, where it was hard not to recognise the ‘Other’ and consider what my responsibility for the ‘Other’ is. Should I, or should I not give money to this family of beggars I saw on the streets? Would that fulfil my responsibility to them? And why do we tend to focus on ‘Others’ who are extremely different to us, when our immediate neighbour is also ‘Other’? How do I prioritise my responsibility? Should I prioritise responsibility? And what forms should my responsibility take? These are the sorts of questions that consideration of Levinas’ idea of responsibility for the ‘Other’ have raised for me.

  1. This leads to the third issue. How can the ‘Other’ enter into ‘my’ world without simply being reduced to that world?

I interpret this to mean, how do I see myself in relation to others as opposed to over and above others, and how do I maintain and respect difference?

On thinking about this, I realise that we probably try and dominate the ‘Other’, in the sense of hoping for a degree of sameness, more than we think we do. If you have children, think of the number of times you might have wished that your child will be like you, at least in your values. Or if we find ourselves in a different culture, how often do we look for and value ‘sameness’, for example, being able to laugh at the same things? How comfortable do we really feel with difference? How easy do we find it to fully embrace and respect difference, without trying to mould it into sameness?

Another common denial of the ‘Other’s’ difference is when we limit the ‘Other’ to a category, e.g. race, gender, age etc. In this sense the ‘Other’ is dominated and controlled by the same, which is what Levinas was warning against.

I have found myself wondering why Levinas’ thinking about the ‘Other’ and ‘Otherness’ continues to hold people’s attention.  I have come to the conclusion that it is not so much whether or not we recognise that the ‘Other’ exists. In fact I can’t see how anyone could be unaware of the ‘Other’. Every person is a unique individual, different to every other person, so every human encounter is with the ‘Other’. It’s more about how we respond to the ‘Other’. Do we try and dominate the ‘Other’? Do we accept responsibility for the ‘Other’? Do we try to listen and learn from the ‘Other’?

Levinas invites us to listen to the voice of the ‘Other’. This, he believes, is our moral and ethical responsibility.

Bibliography

Michael Barnes  Introduction to Levinas, https://youtu.be/RaPNYQ_qdII

Beavers, A. (1990). Introducing Levinas to undergraduate philosophers. Colloquy Paper, Undergraduate Philosophy Association, 1–8.

Buddeberg, E. (2018). Thinking the other, thinking otherwise: Levinas’ conception of responsibility binnen de muren van een verpleegtehuis voor ouderen. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 43(2), 146–155.

Kader Düşgün, C. (2017). The Self and the Other in the Philosophy of Levinas. Mediterranean Journal of Humanities, 7(2), 243–250.

Nooteboom, B., Levinas, E., Levinas, F., & Bellow, S. (2012). Levinas, 1–8.

The Dorling Kindersley Philosophy Book

Walicki, M. (1996). Levinas for the Beginners, 1–9.

Young, B. (1995). An Introduction to Levinas.

 

Attending to the invisible ‘Other’

Attention is how we relate to the world and what we attend to determines what we see. At this stage in my life I am interested in how I can ensure that what I choose to attend to doesn’t blinker me to the possible implications of attending too closely to a given idea. The balance between focussing and keeping a broad perspective often seems elusive.

I’m not sure how this can be achieved, other than to be aware that there is probably always an alternative perspective and there may be things I am missing. But recently the focus of my attention means that I am noticing that a number of authors seem interested in similar ways of thinking.

Most recently my attention has been drawn to a podcast (via Mariana Funes) in which Chris Richardson interviewed Ulises Mejias, author of Off the Network.  I am already familiar with Mejias’ work having cited him in a paper co-authored and published with Mariana early last year.

In the podcast Mejias tells us that he and his co-author Nick Couldry have written a new book, soon to be published, in which they reflect on how the conversation has shifted since he wrote ‘Off the Network’. At that time, pre-Snowden and Cambridge Analytica, few people were interested in critical studies of the internet. Now there are many articles being published that are critical of the network. Mejias likes the direction things are going but still has some concerns. Whilst noting that attention has shifted from believing that companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon can do no wrong, to thinking that they need tighter controls and regulation, he doesn’t believe that this can be done by throwing more technological innovation and more algorithms (which are becoming increasingly complex) at the problem.

In their new book Mejias and Couldry consider ways in which to unmap the network and un-think these technological determinisms. They question what happens when networks no longer promote agency but instead become templates for organising and structuring society. Mejias believes that a lot of our social biases are being mediated through our social devices and that we don’t even think about this. We carry smart phones and pay our internet bills, but what goes on behind the scenes is opaque and invisible.

It is this idea of what is invisible that interests me. What are the implications of what is invisible for how we live and learn? What are the implications of not being able to see the whole picture? Mejias’ argument is that in this digital age if you are not in the network, you are invisible, you are ‘Other’. This he calls ‘nodocentrism’ – a way of thinking that becomes so dominant that it erases all other ways of thinking, ‘the rendering illegible of everything that is not a node’ (p.10 Off the Network). The network can only see nodes and only recognise other nodes.

Mejias suggests shifting our focus to the spaces between the nodes and between the lines in a network. This space is important. It is not empty, and it can influence the network, although in this interview Mejias didn’t explain how. Does the invisible actually connect the nodes in some way? This reminds me of questions and discussions about the influence of observers (called ‘lurkers’ by some) on the web. What might the influence of the invisible be?

Iain McGilchrist also writes about the spaces between, but in a different context. Mejias’ concern is with nodocentrism and that the invisible ‘Other’ is not ignored but acknowledged. McGilchrist’s concern is with the meaning of our lives and that we underestimate that we are not atomistic. In an interview with Rebel Wisdom he says: ‘There is no way in which I exist independently of all of you and all of the planet and of all of the people who came before me, and indeed in a strange way I am part of something that is to come. That is all not in me or in them or in some sort of gaps between us but is in the betweenness’.

For McGilchrist the spaces between are critical for meaning. He uses two examples to explain this. The first – an electric current. He says: An electric current is manifest between two poles, a positive pole and a negative pole; it’s not in the positive pole, it’s not in the negative pole, it’s not even in the positive pole plus the negative pole, nor is it in the space between the two poles, because that space is nothing. It’s in the whole betweenness of the two poles and what that brings about at a wholly different level.

McGilchrist’ second example is music. In the Rebel Wisdom interview, he says: ‘Music is all betweenness. Take a note A flat, what does it mean? Absolutely nothing. Take another one, a B. It means absolutely nothing. Put 30 000 of these things together and you’ve got Bach’s B minor mass – which means a hell of a lot. So, what happened there? It’s not in the notes so it must be in the spaces between the notes, but the spaces between the notes in a melody are just silence, the spaces between notes in harmony are just silence, the spaces between the beat of the rhythm are not there, so if you put a lot of things that mean nothing together, a lot of spaces that mean nothing together, you find something that means more than anything you can experience in the world. How does that happen? The answer is betweenness.’

So, for McGilchrist and for Mejias, the spaces between, whilst invisible, are redolent with meaning and highly significant to our understanding and knowledge, just as the empty space in atoms, which makes up 99.9% of their structure is significant to our understanding of matter.

Both Mejias and McGilchrist believe in the importance of being willing and able to recognise the invisible ‘Other’ – that the invisible ‘Other’ makes a significant contribution to our lives, knowledge and understanding; without an understanding of the ‘Other’ we cannot see the whole.

McGilchrist believes an understanding of the ‘Other’ to be essential for an understanding of ourselves. In his book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ he writes:

…. the self originates in the interaction with ‘the Other’, not as an entity in atomistic isolation: ‘The sense of self emerges from the activity of the brain in interaction with other selves’ (p.88).

…. An affective relationship with ‘the Other’ over distances of time and space provides the wherewithal to understand ourselves as part of a three-dimensional world – not just three-dimensional in the spatial sense, but with temporal and emotional depth, too …. (p.365)

Mejias’ understanding of the ‘Other’ and feeling invisible comes from his personal experience of being an immigrant. He has said:

‘That experience of being in this country as an immigrant, both inside and outside, having to adopt certain ways of thinking and having to erase other ways of thinking, other parts of me that cannot be rendered in this new context, I think that’s where this idea [of nodocentrism] came from.’

Mejias believes that there are things we can do politically to address this; choices are important; research will have to become more open. It’s something we need to do for ourselves.

McGilchrist believes that we need to access the world beyond words. The world ‘beyond’ ourselves (p.399, The Master and his Emissary). In the Rebel Wisdom interview, he says he thinks we can actually change things, but we each have to take it upon ourselves to be part of the change.

The strong message from both these authors seems to be the need to recognise that we may not be seeing the whole picture, either on or off line and that we should be open to the ‘Other’.

It may be that I am making links between these two authors where they don’t exist, or which don’t resonate with readers of this blog post. Perhaps the focus of my attention is such that I have failed to see the whole picture, which would be ironic. It is difficult to access a world beyond words.

But sometimes words do resonate. To end this post, here is a quote which I saw at the Kochi Biennale (Fort Kochi, Kerala, India) earlier this week, which serendipitously also references the ‘Other’, but in another context.

Virtual hyper-connectivity has paradoxically alienated us from the warm solidarities of community; that place of embrace where we can enjoy our intelligence and beauty with others, where we can ‘love’; a place where we don’t need the ‘other’ as an enemy to feel connected.

Imagine those pushed to the margins of dominant narratives speaking: not as victims, but as futurisms’ cunning and sentient sentinels. And before speaking, listening to the stone and the flowers; to older women and wise men; to the queer community; to critical voices in the mainstream; to the whispers and warnings of nature.

Anita Dube. Curatorial Note. Kochi Biennale 2019