The Other, The Big Other, and Othering

Critical theorists are particularly committed to opposing binary oppositions where one side is seen as privileged over or defining itself against an Other (often capitalized), for example, male/female, Occident/Orient, center/margin. Through such binary oppositions, Homi Bhabha explains, “The Other loses its power to signify, to negate, to initiate its historic desire, to establish its own institutional and oppositional discourse” (1994: 31). Often borrowing maneuvers from deconstruction, critical theorists seek instead to unveil and critique the effort to establish a “sovereign Subject” over and against a constitutive Other.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak develops the term into her own concepts of “othering” and “worlding.” In her essay, The Rani of Sirmur, she argues that the turning of foreign lands and people into an Other for the European, colonial master occurs not just in official documents or high culture but also in everyday interactions between colonialists and the indigenous population in India during the nineteenth century. Her point is that “the ‘Colonizing Power’ is far from monolithic—that its class-composition and social positionality are necessarily heterogeneous” (1985: 254). She examines, for example, the letters of a minor functionary, Captain Geoffrey Birch, who through the simple act of traveling across India with a native escort engages “in consolidating the self of Europe by obliging the native to cathect the space of the Other on his home ground. He is worlding their own world, which is far from mere uninscribed earth, anew, by obliging them to domesticate the alien as Master” (253). She borrows the term “worlding” from Martin Heidegger’s essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” where Heidegger suggests that a work of art establishes a world over and against the earth (understood as yet “uninscribed”). Spivak’s point is that, when one is talking about colonial occupation, the European Subject “worlds” or violently recreates the already inscribed or meaningful world of the native subject, thus making him “Other,” and that this act occurs at all levels of society: “What I am trying to insist on here is that the agents of this cartographic transformation in the narrow sense are not only great names like Vincent Van Gogh, but small unimportant folk like Geoffrey Birch, as well as the policymakers. I am also suggesting that the necessary yet contradictory assumption of an uninscribed earth which is the condition of possibility of the worlding of a world generates the force to make the ‘native’ see himself as ‘other’” (253–54). Through the mere act of traveling across the Indian landscape, “the figure of the European on the hills is being reinscribed from stranger to Master, to the sovereign as Subject with a capital S, even as the native shrinks into the consolidating subjected subject in the lower case” (254).

Jacques Lacan gives “other” a different valence in his Psychoanalysis. He argues that at what he terms the mirror stage of psychosexual development (6–18 months) the subject first understands that it is “other” than the mother, from whom the subject did not properly distinguish itself before this stage. For Lacan, the act of recognizing oneself in the mirror marks the primordial recognition of one’s self as “I,” although at a point “before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject” (1977: 2). The next stage—when the subject does fully enter into language and what Lacan terms the symbolic order—then establishes a relation between the subject and what Lacan terms the “big Other” (the entire system of language and convention into which we are born): at that point, the subject is reduced into an empty signifier (“I”) within the field of the “Other,” which Lacan capitalizes to distinguish this function from any single other person.

A few critical theorists have also explored the ethical and moral nature of our relation to the Other, including Mikhail Bakhtin in his early philosophical work translated into English as Art and Answerability (1990), a philosophical disquisition that clearly informs his later concept of dialogism; poststructuralist Jacques Derrida in Politics of Friendship (1997), Of Hospitality (2000), and other late writings; Jürgen Habermas in his theorization of the public sphere of rational debate and his concepts of communicative action and discourse ethics; theorists positing a new principle of cosmopolitanism in the current age of globalization; Alain Badiou’s theorization of love in Being and Event (2005a) and In Praise of Love (2012); Paul Ricoeur’s phenomenological understanding of oneself as another in his book of the same name: “Oneself as Another suggests from the outset that the selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other, that instead one passes into the other” (1992: 3); and Emmanuel Levinas’s understanding of our ineluctable debt to what he terms the “face” of the Other: “It is precisely in this call to my responsibility by the face that summons me, that demands me, that claims me—it is in this questioning that the other is my neighbor” (1998: 146).


Source: Critical Theory The Key Concepts Dino Franco Felluga Routledge, 2015.

Further reading: Badiou 2005a, 2012; Bakhtin 1990; Bhabha 1994; Derrida 1997, 2000; Gilbert and Gubar 1984; Habermas 1987, 1991, 1993, 1999; Lacan 1968, 1977, 1981, 1991; Levinas 1991, 1998, 2003; Ricoeur 1991, 1992; Spivak 1985, 1987, 1988a; Žižek 1989, 1991b.

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