I’m not so much referring to ‘The Others’ as fabricated on addictive, HBO’s Lost – though the example is prevalent to the upcoming discussion – but more to the academic construction of ‘The Other’ as a continental philosophical concept. The term ‘Other’ has been banded about like a child’s yoyo throughout decades of discourse spanning literature, art-history, philosophy, politics, economics, geography—you name it. I have, however, always had a bit of a problem with its usage, and I think it’s facing a pronounced etymological crisis today (though I’ll get to just why later on.)
Just to briefly explain its coinage and usage over the past century:
Sometimes denoted as ‘The Continental Other,’ the concept in its quintessence is the opposition of The Same,’—’The Same’ being that which is regular, and within normative categories of human understanding. The concept became particularly fashionable – I love it when academic theory becomes fashionable – through the writings of postmodern cultural philosopher Edward Said, though it was originally conceived by Emmanuel Lévinas, and frequently adopted as a philosophical mechanism for which to describe social groups sitting outside stable societal categories (whether politically, sexually, ethnographically etc…) More abstractly, ‘The Other’ generally refers to an object of knowledge that cannot be logically grasped, therefore beyond the constructed zone of socio-linguistic signification.
—Boring summary over.
To any undergraduate humanities student struggling to interestingly evaluate the complex intricacies involved in a work of art/literary text/historical moment, dropping in the term ‘Other’ always seems to tick the academic box—and it crops up all over the place. ‘Surrealism is first and foremost a celebration of The Other‘; ‘post-’68 was really a movement propelled by society’s Other’; ‘the text is mystically haunted by the presence of an Other.’ It’s incredibly wishy-washy. But what does it all really mean? Who the fuck is this so-called Other?! I mean, the term is sort of applicable to anyone.
I think this is definitely the case ever since the emergence of post-structuralist queer theory. Developed by feminist theorists such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, and Adrienne Rich, and propelled into academic celebrity-hood in the 1990’s, Queer theory operates on the now almost mundane notion that binaries are incredibly unstable and basically fictitious; sexuality exists on a spectrum, political parties can’t be adequately understood as simply Right or Left etc… Oppositions are a total myth helping maintain a falsified stable image of what is actually a world underscored by chaos and boundless multiplicity; this is how my currently favourite philosophers Deleuze and Guattari – or D & G as they’re fashionably abbreviated – characterize society: one based on an unfolding, infinite spectrum of flux. Essentially, binaries are riddled with contradictions – being that they are human constructions – so this juxtaposition of certain types being ‘Other’ to categorically stable societal archetypes is exposed to be a load of rubbish.
I kind of think that everyone is sort of an ‘Other’—the thing that makes us all ‘the Same’ is that we are each and everyone of us basically an ‘Other.’ How does this manifest itself? Well, it being the case that each of us are completely encased in your own bodies, able only to access the external world (and everyone else in it) through our very own subjective first-hand senses, we’ll never really ever be able to know exactly what anyone else is ever really feeling, thinking, seeing, perceiving. It’s kind of depressing and makes me feel quite lonely to be honest. We are each of us ‘Other’ to the entirety of the external world. Your teenage moments of ‘Why doesn’t anyone understand me?!’ were never completely
unfounded, as no one actually does. For scholar Michael Richardson, researching the philosophy of love and other such fun things, it is only in moments of shared orgasm between two human beings that the phenomenological prison-houses of our bodies can be breached (dissolving the inevitability of our always feeling Other.)
Digital media has, of course, had irrevocable consequences concerning issues of ‘The Other.’ We sit at our computers, isolated from the external world, glued to the magnetic electrons of our screens instead, with the illusion that we are actively connected to everyone around us (notions propelled by the nonsense slogans Facebook and Twitter brew up.) Isn’t it the most heightening moment of being ‘Other’ when we go online, browsing down pages of Facebook, being reminded of the parties we were NOT at and the events/groups we’re just not invited to join? There’s a pretence that you’re connected to the whole world, with all your friends in one place, but being that you’re daily intake of what’s happening around you usually takes place home alone on a Friday night, the dizzying sensation of being ‘Other’ can, now more than ever, reach upsettingly insecure plateaus. Again, everyone becomes a sort of ‘Other’ due to the acceleration of digital media, and the term’s previously stable definition as connoting a small group of people outside of the societal norm is totally debunked.
And who has recognized this undeniable fact more aptly than none other but the Gaga Lady, Lady Gaga. Capitalizing on the fact that basically every single human being on the planet feels inherently isolated and ostracized by the world, overwhelmed with their weird ‘Otherness,’ and the feeling that they are inherently misunderstood, Gaga has built a community of ‘Others’ with her call for a pop-culture inspired utopia. Proclaiming that each of her Little Monsters are irreplaceably unique, she has ingeniously fabricated an online and offline community where her fans are connected by the idea that they are each somewhat ‘Other’ to the rest of the world.
Let’s now take a minute to appreciate that Lady Gaga is the most followed person on Twitter, her follower count soaring above 33 million. She is, by some methods, the most popular person in the entire world, but still manages to give off the impression that following her pop religion – her fan-base certainly feels cultic – is somehow countercultural, somewhat ‘Other.’ Through essentially taking a dump on the notion that ‘The Other’ is dedicated to cast-off/small communities, Gaga has exposed the latent Otherness in a ridiculous number of people to become paradoxically the most famous person in the world. The ‘Other’ becomes ‘The Same.’ ‘The Other’ essentially becomes the norm.
And she fucking knows it. When playing to 55,000 ‘unique’ and ‘individual’ fans at the Born This Way Ball this summer at Twickenham stadium – each one raising their ‘paw’ to form a quasi-fascist sea of glitter – she laughed to herself:
‘At first no-one would sign me, because they though I would be too weird, too different, too niche. [Pause.] Well this is one big fucking niche.’