Thursday, July 21, 2011

Our Leading Technician of Otherness by Terry Eagleton

Like the rough ground of language itself, cultures ‘work’ exactly because they are porous, fuzzy-edged, indeterminate, intrinsically inconsistent, never quite identical with themselves, their boundaries continually modulating into horizons. They are sometimes, to be sure, mutually opaque: but when they can be mutually intelligible it is not by virtue of some shared metalanguage into which both can be translated, any more than English can be translated into Serbo-Croat only by dint of some third discourse which encompasses them both. If the ‘other’ finally lies beyond my comprehension, it is not because of cultural difference but because he is finally unintelligible to himself as well.

The case is put most suggestively by Slavoj Zizek, one of our leading technicians of otherness. What makes communication between different cultures possible, so Zizek argues, is the fact that the limit which prevents our full access to the Other is ontological, not merely epistemological. This sounds like making matters worse rather than better; but Zizek’s point is that what makes the Other difficult of access is the fact that he or she is never complete in the first place, never wholly determined by a context but always to some extent ‘open’ and ‘floating’. It would be like failing to grasp the meaning of a foreign word because of its inherent ambiguity, not because of our linguistic incompetence. Every culture, then, has an internal blindspot where it fails to grasp or be at one with itself, and to discern this, in Zizek’s view, is to understand that culture most fully.

It is at the point where the Other is dislocated in itself, not wholly bound by its context, that we can encounter it most deeply, since this self-opaqueness is also true of ourselves. I understand the Other when I become aware that what troubles me about it, its enigmatic nature, is a problem for it too. As Zizek puts it: “ The dimension of the Universal thus emerges when the two lacks – mine and that of the Other- overlap… What we and the inaccessible Other share is the empty signifier that stands for the X which eludes both positions.”*

The universal is that breach or fissure in my identity which opens it up from the inside to the Other, preventing me from fully identifying with any particular context. But this is our way of belonging to a context, not a way of lacking one. It belongs to the human situation to be ‘out of joint’ with any specific situation. And the violent disruption which follows from this connecting to the universal to a particular content is what we know as the human subject.

Human beings move at the conjuncture of the concrete and the universal, body and symbolic medium; but this is not a place where anyone can feel blissfully at home!

*Slavoj Zizek; The Abyss of Freedom/ Ages of the World (Ann Arbor, 1997) pp. 50 and 51
Terry Eagleton; The Idea of Culture; Blackwell Manifestos 2000

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