In the blog this week: The Institute publishes a series of articles on contemporary art and philosophy in conjunction with the Talk Art/Talk Society events. The second blog post is written by Valter Holmström and deals with a reoccurring concept in contemporary art and philosophy, the concept of the Other.
First, three entangled quotes. During an event at the Finnish Institute in London, artist Tellervo Kalleinen defined the red line running through her artworks as “making the Other seem like any one of us”. In a recent interview the British MP Chuka Umunna accused the Tories and UKIP of pursuing a “politics of othering”,and approximately 145 years ago the French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud coined the cryptic phrase “Je est un Autre” in a letter to his teacher – I am an Other.
What does this eclectic collection of quotes mean? The concept of the Other – note the capital O – has gained increased popularity during the last decades, a concept that is steadily creeping into art-talk, cultural critic’s columns and the vocabularies of various public intellectuals. Inevitably, a concept with such a wide use becomes slightly sticky – it attracts a multitude of meanings and as such could do with some unpacking. A return to the philosophical roots of the concept might be in order, to map its conceptual mechanisms.
In its original abstract philosophical sense the concept of the Other is simply a negation, a sort of negative definition: all that which is not “the Same”. And, perhaps more fittingly, that which is not the Self: anything outside self-consciousness. In this sense the Other is often seen as constitutive of the Self, of self-awareness, as the self can only be grasped when an outside to the self is posited – the Other draws a line where the self can emerge as an object of reflection.
In a slightly different but related sense the Other is specifically used to designate other people. And a similar dynamic of definition through opposition is visible here – we become aware of ourselves and define ourselves through contrasting ourselves to other people. This is especially visible in the construction of cultural identities, which work like collective selves. We create cultural identities like “Finnishness” through contrasting it to other nationalities and identities. So the construction of this collective Self, this Sameness, is always dependent on a certain construction of Otherness.
A popular conception, for instance in postcolonial theory, is that some groups of people become defined as specifically Other, to work as a form of inverted mirror for a dominant culture. This is why we often construct a common image of the Other that is unflattering to embellish the image of ourselves. The cultural theorist Edward Said, for instance, examined how the dominant view of the far East – as the mysterious Orient – had been systematically constructed throughout the 19th century in Europe. A contrast to the identity “civilized westerner” was created, in culture, anthropology and art. Something decadent, promiscuously barbaric and backwards to bolster the sense of purity and historical progress that the western civilization was thought to embody – the west desperately needed an Other.
Indeed many groups or communities run the risk of uncritically projecting Otherness in the attempts to create a common identity. When today, after recent elections in Finland and the UK, we see a kind of cultural protectionism emerging in politics, we can also note an increase of generalized Others in the public imagination. Whether it is the image of the immigrant, the EU-bureaucracy, the Greek or the naive internationalists, a convenient set of counterpoints is created to cement national identity. For an identity often gives a sense of stability and security in a world that is often in flux – it works kind of like a coping mechanism.
Otherness will always be present in our experience of the world to some extent, it is part of our very structure of thought and experience. On a cultural level, however, we can see that Otherness is often very unequally or irrationally distributed, and that these constructions often serve ideological purposes – be it national, class-biased or gendered. Often they work to externalize our anxieties into scapegoats, and in the process create glossy illusions of our own communities and identities.
This insight might be why the concept of the Other has crept into artists’ work and the general cultural discourse. Ideally, its use could be turned into a tactic of using art to redistribute Otherness more equally, deconstruct the myths of Sameness that create sharp distinctions between an “us” and a “them”. To repeat Kalleinen’s words, to make the Other seem like any of us, or – as in Umunna’s case – criticize the Othering trends in politics. And lastly, to paraphrase Rimbaud, to see the otherness inherent in ourselves.