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Otherness and Anotherness

by Barnhill, David L. last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM

How do we think of what is different from us--different social group or the rest of nature? Here are two very different ways of conceiving what is different. Unfortunately, the first option is quite common.

How do people normally conceive of people that are considered different from them (different races, gender, social class, country, etc.)? Unfortunately, people have a strong tendency to devalue those that they consider different from them. Scholars have come to refer to this devaluing perspective by the term "Otherness": we treat those who are different as Others (in a very specific sense of that term). Normally scholars apply the notion of Otherness to people, but the term is also useful in analyzing how people often devalue that natural world. We can specify ten major characteristics of Otherness.


The following are different but interrelated dimensions of the same phenomenon, and may be simply different ways of thinking of the same thing.

1. " Objectified":The Other is treated as "mere object". Inability or refusal to consider the other as a "subject," as part of one's community (of humans, etc.).
* social : Headless women on a billboard; Native Americans as team logo.
* ecological : Animals in factory farms; animals in advertisements (Chik-fil-A); nature as backdrop for selling SUVs.
>> response: insist on the "other" as being a subject in itself and a part of the community

2. Difference and separation: The Other is not like us. Inability or refusal to see similarity, continuity, etc.
* social : Africans and Native Americans not seen as human beings.
* ecological : We are separate from (and above) nature. Culture is not part of nature. Animals are machines that don’t suffer.
>> response: Point out similarity and continuity; see ourselves as animals and see language as wild; see animals as having intelligence and pain.

3. The Same as Us : The Other is just like us. Inability or refusal to see difference and discontinuity.
* social : The melting pot ideal. “The Western Tradition” and “human condition” as a single and undifferentiated; thus white males can speak for all.
* ecological : Not usually applied to nature.
>> response: point out the reality and significance of differences between Other and dominant group (and thus the need to study women and other cultures and give them a voice).

4. Simplified: Inability or refusal to see the differences among members of the "Other" group.
* social : "Oh, (blacks, women, etc.) are all the same."
* ecological : “When you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all” (President Reagan). All wetlands are the same and therefore we can destroy one if we make another.
>> response: Point out internal differences within the Other.

5. Unchanging: Inability or refusal to see changes through time in a group. “We” can change and develop, but “they” can’t.
* social : Native Americans had no history or development.
* ecological : Ecosystems in climax as unchanging.
>> response: Point out historical changes.

6. Passive . The Other is passive and receptive and lacks agency. Only the dominant group has the power to be active and affect things.
* social : Women as passive, needing men to solve problems or help them or create culture.
* ecological : We impact a passive nature that does not react to our control. We affect nature; nature doesn’t affect (e.g., teach or control) us.
>> response: Point out examples of how supposedly passive social groups and nature are active, assertive, and affect the dominant group.

7. Invisibility. Inability or refusal to recognize their actual existence.
* social : Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; no Hispanics in the media; historical model of NC farm with no women; the “ New World ” as “empty” (despite being populated by Native Americans).
* ecological : maps with only roads and state boundaries; the “ New World ” as “empty” (despite being full of rich biological communities).
>> response: Stress the reality, value, achievements, and difference of the Other; insist on its inclusion.

8. No voice (either in the sense of speaking/being heard or in the sense of power).
* social : Lack of people of color or women authors in literary “canon”; lack of vote; white males in Congress, in corporate board rooms, as Hollywood directors.
* ecological : Who speaks for the rights and welfare of animals, plants, and ecosystems?
>> response: Allow other people to speak their experience (e.g., literature, journals) and ideas. Have certain people speak for the Other (but this is dangerous—can involve usurping the voice of the Other)

9. Abstract: The Other is treated in a way that is divorced from to its concrete actuality, individuality, and diversity, and divorced from the reality of the relationship between the Other and the dominant group.
* social : “Women,” “the Third World ,” “consumers”.
* ecological : “Natural resources,” “Nature.”
>> response: Recognize the concrete specificity of people and place

10. Devalued: the other has no value, or there is only instrumental value to "us."
* social : Women, blacks, etc., devalued in a wide variety of ways.
( ecological : Nature has instrumental value only; nature without human labor mixed in is just “raw land” (John Locke).
>> response: Insist on full and intrinsic value


The problem of Otherness is related to another issue, which is particularly important in analyzing concepts of and attitudes toward the natural world. Thoughts about the environment have tended to fall victim to two extremes: (1) the irreconcilable alienation and opposition between humans and nature characteristics of Otherness, and (2) a complete denial of difference in which "us" absorbs“them” so that their distinctness is not recognized. For instance, some have responded to the arrogance of Otherness by asserting that there is no difference between humans and, say, non-human animals. Such a view has been criticized as a blindness to difference and even an imperialistic assimilation of those who really are different into one's cultural domain. Ironically (and confusingly), the term "Other" is applied here in a positive sense: one should not deny those who are different of their Otherness. (This relates directly to point #3 above.)

In response to these difficulties, scholars have articulated the ideal of “Anotherness.” This terms has been developed out of the thought of Mikhail Bakhtin, and applied to ecocriticism by Patrick D. Murphy. The basic point is that there is a third option, in addition to irreconcilable alienation and the denial of difference. Anotherness is a highly useful term in developing how we ought to think of nature and other people. I list ten characteristics of Anotherness, corresponding to the ten aspects of Otherness listed above.

1. Subject. While an Other is mere object, Another retains the status as a subject with its own integrity and with which we interrelate as part of a community in some sense.
* Social : Signs in Civil Rights Movement: “I Am a Man. ”
* Ecological : Nature as “kin” in indigenous societies. Animistic views with nature seen as having its own life. Animals as “subjects of a life” (environmental philosophy).

2. Similarity & continuity. There is no absolute difference as in Otherness. Another is in some way like us even while it is different. There is no absolute separation or essential alienation but rather some kind continuity with Another.
* Social: Strong sense of shared humanity. The racial or gender boundary is permeable.
* Ecological: Animals have certain types of intelligence and emotion. Chinese view that all of nature is made of qi (“chi”). ‘No ontological divide” between humans and nonhuman nature (deep ecology). Humans are not essentially alienated from nature.

3. Distinctness. While there is similarity and continuity, Another retains its own distinctness. It is not reducible to or absorbable in us, as in some cases of Otherness.
* Social: The distinctiveness of the experience of other social groups (e.g., women, minorities, non-Western people) is recognized and valued. A recognition that literature of white males.
* Ecological: Anthropomorphism of nature is rejected, or at least qualified. Nature is not just a cultural construct, but has a quality of life distinct from human life.

4. Complexity. Another is recognized as having internal differences and complexity, rather than being all the same.
* Social : The social group is recognized as including all different kinds of people.
* Ecological : Each ecosystem (e.g., each wetland) is unique. Nature has more complexity than our minds can grasp.

5. Changeableness. Another has complexity and difference over time – it is capable of change – rather than seen as simple over time and thus unchanging.
* Social: Social groups, including “primitives,” undergo change.
* Ecological : Ecosystems and species change, even ecosystems at “climax.”

6. Agency. Another has its own agency. It isn’t passive in the face of our actions, and it isn’t (at least completely) dependent on us for action.
* Social : Members of every social group are capable of their own agency and are not helpless or passive.
* Ecological : Nature can teach us and can change us, and can (to a degree) heal itself.

7. Visibility. The existence of Another is recognized and recognizable, rather than invisible.
* Social : The social group is visible in media, among political representatives, etc.
* Ecological : We no longer see nature as in a roadmap but as in a topographic map with details of vegetation and water flow. Nature is not simply a background.

8. Voice. Another has its own voice, which is given an opportunity to be heard. If it does not have a human voice (in the case of nonhuman nature), somehow its voice is given representation.
* Social : The social group is given a voice in politics, in the arts, in academia, etc.
* Ecological : Somehow we “hear” the voice of animals, plants, and ecosystems. Environmental groups can speak for nature. Shamans can give voice to nature.

9. Concrete and specific. Another is no abstraction but rather a concrete reality.
* Social : We see each person as a unique individual, rather than as a stereotype or simply as a member of a group.
* Ecological : Each animal, plant, and ecosystem is recognized as unique. “Nature” is not a general abstraction (“Nature doesn’t care if we dam the river”) but is an actual field of individual beings.

10. Value . Another has intrinsic value rather than mere instrumental value. There may, however, be some sense of hierarchy of value.
* Social : Every social group and member of the group has intrinsic value.
* Ecological : Nature has intrinsic value.

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by Barnhill, David L. last modified Sep 20, 2010 07:21 PM