Posted by: Johan Normark | September 13, 2009

The other Otherness

For quite some time now archaeology has been swamped by agency approaches in one way or another. This is the result of a need to know how human agents become socialized beings. A theme in Western thought of how human beings are socialized is that the self relates to the Other. The Other is believed to be needed to form the understanding of the self, of materialities and of other social beings. However, the philosopher Levinas criticizes Western philosophy for making the unknown familiar when the Other is reduced to the Same. The Other must, he argues, be met as something that cannot be conceptualized (Kemp 1992:40). Thus, Levinas claims to study the relation to the Other, but Derrida argues that the philosophy of Levinas actually denies the alterity. If the Other is an absolute Other there cannot be a relationship at all. The word itself is only meaningful if there is a relation (Hägglund 2002:195). Husserl on the other hand claims that the intersubjectivity is dependent on a represented structure where the ego relates to the Other by being an Other for the Other (ibid:202). The Other can therefore never be approached in its Otherness (Eaglestone 2000:101). This means that when we encounter something unfamiliar we immediately turn it into something familiar.

The idea of the Other implies that communication between two people takes place between two Cartesian minds and hence is the target for justifiable critique. However, Žižek (1989) has tried to defend the Cartesian cogito against the “postmodern” decentrings of the subject (Smith 2004:6). To do this he has used the psychoanalyst Lacan who emphasizes how the self is formed and relates to the Other. Lacan calls the perceived or imagined world the imaginary order. The symbolic order is the unconscious and symbolic structure of the world, consisting of practices and norms. It is based on language which is needed before a subject can appropriate self-identity (Thomas 1996:46). The symbolic order is a place where our most private opinions are formed. It is a network of references which makes it possible for us to conceptualize our environment. This is the interpretation constructed by the ego in its relation to the Other. It needs to be (re)produced by the social subjects. We are born into a symbolic order which is affected by how we live and by what our environment looks like. When our subjects are constituted, we internalize a non-complete symbolic order. Thus, we are usually limited to choose what has already been chosen. However, the symbolic internalisation never succeeds properly since there always is a remainder of something irrational left. This is part of the real. The real is what is not understandable as it enters the symbolic. The paradox is that we cannot talk about it before it has been symbolized and ceased to be real. To be able to patch the symbolic order together we need the imaginary. The real is the opposite of the imaginary and the symbolic is a link between the two (Fahlander 2001, 2003; Thomas 1996; Žižek 1989).

The primary socialization is established during childhood. Imitation among children depends on their acquisition of an image of themselves (Grosz 1995:90). The capability for autonomous action seems to emerge when the child understands others to be agents. The infant understands that its body is the locus of action and attributes similar qualities to other bodies (Giddens 1984:58). There are also other socialization processes which continue throughout life, and these processes never form a stable personality.

The “postmodern” critique of Lacan argues that he sees the human existence as a lack of being, a lost original. The subject is determined by the symbolic order of language. It is not stable and we can never understand ourselves. This is an alienation from a true being we have lost but which we desire to reclaim (Hägglund 2002:181, 208). For Lacan, then, the real is what is beyond time and language, a classic return to something stable. To Derrida, this is a metaphysics of presence, a spatio-temporal existence which is contrasted against an absolute being beyond time. This does not mean that our relation to the Other does not exist. It means that the temporal dimension never allows any stable self (Hägglund 2002).

In my dissertation (Normark 2006) I argued that we attribute an Otherness to other agents or “polyagents,” although it was not an absolute Other. We are shaped in relation to other polyagents within a network and this interaction creates a social identity, but it is not completely isolated from the physical body. However, agency is distributed to other media (Gell 1998; Knappett 2006; Normark 2004a). My more recent view is, however, taking me much closer to Ingold’s dwelling perspective where we erase the Other and search for another otherness. We are all already enmeshed or are entangled in an immanent world where we are not separated from others. There are no others from where our own self are formed. I let you know when I have found this other otherness. I am still searching to get beyond the Cartesian trap.



  1. I like the catch “communication between two people takes place between two Cartesian minds and hence is the target for justifiable critique.”


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