Chris Weedon defines ‘Othering’ as ‘the process of constructing another people as radically different to oneself or one’s own group, usually on the basis of racist and/or ethnocentric discourses’ (Weedon, 2004: p166). In this essay I intend to discuss the notion of ‘Otherness’ and alterity, and I will do this with reference to an number of theorists, including Edward Said, and his works on ‘Orientalism’ and Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Second Sex’. By this I mean that I will talk about ‘Otherness’ in terms of racial difference, more specifically between the east and the west and the way the Orient is represented in western culture, I will also talk about Otherness in terms of gender, and sexual difference, and how women are seen as Other to men. In short I will be discussing how certain groups of people, usually minority groups are defined in relation to another group, referred to as being different from something else, and how the majority define themselves as the norm, in opposition to the Other. I will illustrate these ideas by also using the ideas of Chris Weedon and Judith Butler, as well as Sigmund Freud, among other theorists. I will also talk briefly about representation, including the idea of stereotypes, and identity in more general terms as I think they are key ideas in understanding both Edward Said and Simone de Beauvoir’s work on the Other, as it draws largely on the ways people are represented and also they way that people want to be seen. I intend to focus on issues of gender rather than race, however I believe that Edward Said’s ideas about Orientalism provide a useful aid for understanding ideas regarding gender, and can also be very easily and beneficially applied to the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir and the way she relates the notion of Otherness to gender.
I think that it is first necessary to talk about identity in more general terms, since that is, in fact, the basis of this essay. Mercer talks about identity, saying ‘identity is only an issue when it is crisis, when something assumed to be fixed, coherent and stable is displaced by the experience of doubt and uncertainty…’ (Mercer in Weedon, 2004: p1) by this he means that people only become aware of their identity when it is being questioned. Stuart Hall talks about the notion of identity in great depth and says that it is ‘…a matter of ‘becoming’ as well, as of ‘being’…it is not something that already exists, transcending place, time, history, and culture…identities come from somewhere, have histories, but like everything else which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power…identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within the narratives of the past’ (Hall, 1990: p52). However, as Weeks says, and as I will discuss further throughout this essay, ‘Identity is about belonging, about what you have in common with some people and what differentiates you from others…’ (Weeks, in Weedon, 2004: p1). In saying this, Weeks is referring to the way in which people’s identities are created and defined by what they are not.
Stuart Hall describes representation as an ‘essential part of the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture’ (Hall, 1997a: p15). Hall then goes on to explain that he believes that there are two major ways in which representation can work and be successful, the first is to depict or describe something, to be able to picture it in ones mind, as a result of a description or portrayal, because something bears a likeness to the thing being represented. The second type of representation, according to Hall is that of symbolism, when one thing stands for, or is a symbol for something else, the thing being represented (Hall, 1997a: p16) this occurs when there is no logical connection between the two things, or to use Ferdinand Saussure’s terminology ‘the signifier’ and ‘the signified’ (in Easthope and McGowan (eds) 1992: p6).
I believe that the stereotype is a widely used mechanism within representation, and largely applicable when talking about Otherness, I therefore believe that is important to have an understanding of the term. Dyer describes stereotypes as a form of social construct, and states that they are mainly used as a way of referring to or talking about people that one does not understand or know (1993: p138). According to Weedon a stereotype is a the ‘construction fixed and often negative images of another social group, which is then applied without differentiation to all members of that group’ (2004: p167) meaning that stereotypes are simply generalisations based on a small minority of people and subsequently applied to a larger group. As we progress it will be clear how easily these ideas can be applied to things such as Orientalism or gender issues, Weedon continues using the example that ‘the assumption…that all women are less rational or more emotional than men, [is] based on reductive, stereotypic thinking’ (2004: p167). The fact that it is only occasionally that these generalisations have any basis in the history or past of the people concerned if they are in fact based on anything at all is problematic for a number of reasons, such as the way in which stereotypes are usually negative, as Barker states ‘a stereotype involves the reduction of a persons to a set of exaggerated, usually negative character traits’ (Barker, 20005: p307), Stuart Hall goes on to emphasise this point, and the profound link to the notion of Otherness by saying that ‘stereotyping reduces, essentializes, naturalizes, and fixes difference’ (Hall, 1997b: p258).
Chris Weedon talks briefly about Otherness, and alterity in her book ‘Identity and Culture’ and introduces the idea clearly and succinctly in her introduction, where she says that ‘Since the early modern period in Western Europe, different people and cultures have come into contact…and mixed with each other…this meeting of cultures in its various manifestations, via colonialism, the slave trade, white settlement outside Europe…has involved relations of power, foremost among them attempts to dominate or assimilate others under the various banners of civilisation, christianisation, modernization, progress and development. These processes have involved a profound ‘Othering’ of colonised people as different and less advanced…’ (Weedon, 2004: p3). By this she means that people have, for a long time, associated difference with a kind of weakness or inferiority, and subsequently people have opted to define themselves as being different to an Other, rather than opting to accept, and in turn learn to understand that which is different.
These same ideas, discussed by Weedon can be seen in the work of Edward Said, most prominently in his work, and his ideas regarding Orientalism, Said was an American academic of Palestinian origin, he wrote ‘Orientalism’ in 1978, and ‘Culture and Imperialism’ in 1993, he made significant use of the works of Michel Foucault to construct a critique of colonialism. According to Edward Said himself ‘Orientalism is a school of pretation whose material happens to be the Orient, its civilisation, people and localities’ (Said in Easthope et al, 2005: p56). However he does also say that ‘strictly speaking, Orientalism is a field of learned study. In the Christian west, Orientalism is considered to have commenced its formal existence with the decision of the church council of Vienne in 1312 to establish a series of chairs in ‘Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Syriac at Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Avignon, and Salamanca’’(Said, 1978: p50). Orientalism refers to the binary division between the east and west, the west’s representation of the east and how it views their culture as Other to their own, and the way in which the distinctions between the two cultures become polarised, making the west more western, more familiar, and the east more eastern and subsequently more unfamiliar. As Said states ‘Orientalism aided and was aided by general cultural pressures that tended to make more rigid the sense of difference between the European and Asiatic parts of the world…Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the west, which elided the Orients difference with weakness’ (Said in Easthope et al, 2005: p57). Meaning that because the east was different to the west, the assumption was made that the west was better off, less primitive, and stronger. Said also draws on the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, quoting that ‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms- in short the human sum of relations, which have been enhanced, transposed and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are’ (Nietzsche in Said in Easthope et al, 2005: p56). Said goes on to describe Nietzsche’s ideas as possibly too nihilistic, However he does state that this quote ‘draws attention to the fact that so far as it existed in the west’s awareness, the orient was a word which later accrued to it a wide field of meanings, associations and connotations and that these ideas did not necessarily refer to the real Orient but to the field surrounding the word.’ (Said in Easthope et al, 2005: p56).
I will continue to look at the works of Simone de Beauvoir, as she also discusses the notion of Otherness saying that ‘The category of Other is as primordial as consciousness itself…Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought…no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself’ (de Beauvoir in Easthope et al, 2005: p 52). De Beauvoir then goes further and begins to apply these ideas to gender, and, in the same way that Said talked about the east as Other to the west, she discusses woman as Other to man, stating that ‘she (woman) is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her…he is the subject, the absolute, she is the Other’ (de Beauvoir in Easthope et al, 2005: p 52). She goes on to say that more often than not, when one group appoints themselves as the One, and therefore another group as the Other, and continues to dominate them in one way or another, it is due to numbers and the fact that the appointed ‘Other’ is a minority, and the One is the majority, but goers on to state that ‘women are not a minority, like the American Negroes or the Jews; there are as many women as men on earth’ (de Beauvoir in Easthope et al, 2005: p 53). She continues to discuss this point using an example from Babel, that of the Proletariat, comparing them, stating that neither ever formed a minority, but have both been subjected as ‘Other’ to another group, men and Bourgeoisie. However she also points out that ‘proletarians have not always existed, whereas there have always been women’ (de Beauvoir in Easthope et al, 2005: p 53).
De Beauvoir continues to discuss Otherness in relation to gender, and the way women are seen as Other to men.; I will be looking at her book ‘The Second sex’ which was published in 1953, in which one of the things she states is that ‘a man would never set out to write a book about the peculiar situation of being male’ (de Beauvoir in Easthope et al, 2005: p51). Another thing that she discusses is the way in which one would never feel the need to define someone as a man, that it is assumed, however, it often necessary to specify that somebody is female. She says that ‘if I wish to define myself I must first of all say ‘I am a woman’…a man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex, it goes without saying that he is a man’ (de Beauvoir in Easthope et al, 2005: p 51). Therefore, being a man is the norm, it is women who are irregular, abnormal ‘it is understood that being a man is not peculiarity. A man is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong’ (de Beauvoir in Easthope et al, 2005: p 51). She discusses the way in which men consider themselves to be normal, quoting Aristotle and St Thomas to illustrate her point ‘’the female is female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities’, said Aristotle; ‘we should regard the female nature as afflicted with a natural defectiveness.’ And St Thomas for his part pronounced woman to be an ‘imperfect man’, an ‘incidental’ being’ (de Beauvoir in Easthope et al, 2005: p 51). De Beauvoir also draws on ideas from the bible, and the way in which, in Genesis, it is Eve that is created from Adam, and it is Eve that creates original sin, further emphasising the notion that it is women who are Other to men, rather then men to women, or even having a sense of equality.
Simone de Beauvoir also suggests that women, in fact, subject themselves to being Other, as well as men, and she discusses this as being problematic, she says that ‘if woman seems to be the inessential that never becomes the essential, it is because she herself fails to bring about this change. Proletarians say ‘we’; Negroes also. Regarding themselves as subjects they transform the bourgeois, the whites, into ‘others’. But women do not say ‘we’…men say ‘women’, and women use the same word in referring to themselves’ (de Beauvoir in Easthope et al, 2005: p 53). She goes on to talk about a number of different groups of people, and how they have achieved a revolution, and she argues that ‘the women’s effort has never been anything more than a symbolic agitation. They have gained only what men have been willing to grant; they have taken nothing they have only received’ (de Beauvoir in Easthope et al, 2005: p 53).
In ‘The Second Sex, de Beauvoir discusses psychoanalysis and states that it ‘fails to explain why woman is the Other ’(de Beauvoir, 1988: p81). She refers to Freud and says that he admits that the status of the penis, or phallus is due to the sovereignty of the father, she goes on to explain that Freud has also admitted that ‘he is ignorant regarding the origin of male supremacy’ (de Beauvoir, 1988: p81), she also continues to say that she is disinclined to accept psychoanalysis as a valid set of theories and ideas, giving a number of reasons for her opinion, saying that ‘we do not limit ourselves to regarding sexuality as something given’ (de Beauvoir, 1988: p81), she also points out that ‘the insufficiency of this view is shown in the poverty of the resulting descriptions of the feminine libido…psychoanalysts have never studied it directly, but only in talking the male libido as their point of departure’ (de Beauvoir, 1988: p81). Despite her dismissal of psychoanalysis, however, de Beauvoir dopes say that she dismisses it ‘without rejecting en bloc the contributions of the science, or denying the fertility of some of its insights’ (de Beauvoir, 1988: p81).
Judith Butler also discusses the idea of Otherness, utilising some of de Beauvoir’s ideas, however, she also talks about Irigaray, who goes some way to contesting de Beauvoir’s suggestions, and says that according to him ‘the feminine ‘sex’ is a point of linguistic absence…this absence is not marked as such within the masculine signifying economy- contention that reverses Beauvoir’s argument that the female sex is marked while the male sex is not. For Irigaray the female sex is not a ‘lack’ or an Other that imminently and negatively defines the subject in its masculinity’ (Butler, 1999: p15). Although, as de Beauvoir argues in ‘The Second Sex’, men could not settle the question of women ‘because they would then be acting as both judge and party to the case’ (Butler, 1999: p15). Butler clearly presents the argument between the two notions presented by de Beauvoir and Irigaray and states that ‘on Irigaray’s reading, Beauvoir’s claim that woman ‘is sex’ is reversed to mean that she is not the sex she is designated to be, but, rather the masculine sex encore parading in the mode of Otherness. For Irigaray, that phallogocentric mode of signifying the female sex perpetually reproduces phantasms of its own self-amplifying desire’ (Butler, 1999: p18).
‘History has shown us that men have always kept in their hand all concrete powers; since the earliest days of the patriarchate they have thought best to keep woman in a state of dependence, their codes of law have been set up against her; and thus she has been definitely established as the Other’ (de Beauvoir, 1988: p171). She goes to explain that once a group, such as man, defines themselves as the one, and subsequently another group, women, as Other, the Other become essential to them, meaning that in order for men to be the one, they require women to be Other to themselves, de Beauvoir explains this by saying that ‘once the subjects seeks to assert himself, the Other, who limits and denies him, is none the less a necessity to him: he attains himself only through that reality which he is not, which is something Other to himself’ (de Beauvoir, 1988: p171).
'Most Western discourses of identity 'are predicated upon some unconscious projection of an Other who is not "us". At the collective level of politics, this assumes the guise of an elect "nation" or "people" defining itself over against an alien adversary? (Richard Kearney, Strangers, Gods and Monsters). After looking at the works of both Edward Said and Simone de Beauvoir, a statement like Richard Kearney’s seems quite reasonable. I think Said’s ideas in particular support this statement, as it is specific and refers to ‘western discourse’, we can see from Said’s statements about Orientalism and the West subjecting the east as the Other, as well as from de Beauvoir’s discussion of women facing the same treatment from men, that the idea of somebody defining their own identity based on what they are not, and what is different from themselves is not uncommon, and although I personally believe this statement to be, for the most part, true, and that the process of ‘Othering’ a group of people based on difference and subsequently defines oneself also based on someone else’s difference has in fact been a normal reaction for a long time, I am also inclined to think that it is unfair to come to such a solid conclusion based on such a small amount of evidence and discussion, and therefore have to suggest that maybe this statement is, in fact, slightly generalised, and could even reinforce certain stereotypes. Subsequently, I conclude that this statement can only be considered partly true.
· Barker, Chris (2005) Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice, Oxford: Alden Press ltd
· Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York: Routledge
· De Beauvoir, S. (1988) The Second Sex. London: Picador
· Dyer, Richard. (1993) The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation, London: Routledge
· Easthope, A. and McGowan, K. (eds) (2005) A Critical and Cultural theory Reader, Berkshire: Open University Press
· Hall, S (1990) ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ in Rutherford, J. (ed.) Identity, Community, Culture, Difference p222-37, London, Lawrence and Wishart.
- Hall, Stuart (1997a) ‘The Work of Representation’ In: Hall, S. (ed) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London: Sage
· Hall, Stuart. (1997b) ‘The spectacle of the other’ in Hall (ed) Representation, London: London and Thousand Oaks
· Said, E. (1978) Orientalism, New Zealand: Penguin Books
· Weedon, C. (2004) Identity and Culture: Narratives of Difference and Belonging. Berkshire: Open University Press