Tautology of Self and Other
Harum in extrema margine ·P· Graecum, in supreme vero ·q·, legebatur intextum. Atque inter utrasque litteras in scalarum modum gradus quidam insigniti videbantur quibus ab inferiore
ad superius elementum esset ascensus.
Boethius, Philosophiae Consolationis, I.1b.18-22
Professor Wai-Leung Kwok
Otherness has been one of
the central subjects—puns intended—of philosophy for time immemorial. It
is inextricably tied to literature and literary theory, for how can we read unless there is an Other to write? Yet, to beg my own question, how can we read an Other, but through ourselves? This seemingly impossible contradiction has been investigated in recent years by two of our foremost critical
theorists: Edward Said and Harold Bloom. Both take the position that the self
is defined by the Other and vice versa, but in very different ways.
Bloom sees the Self/Other dichotomy within the realm of poetic influence. For
him the true source of poetry is in an anxiety of influence; a xenophobia of precursors and ephebes—depending upon the
subject—which amounts to the western cannon. Ephebes seek self-sufficiency,
priority, originality; "for what great maker desires the realization that he has failed to create himself?" Ironically through avoiding the precursor the ephebe defines Self
negatively as that which is not the Other (or precursor). Bloom writes that "to
search for where you already are is the most benighted of quests, and the most fated.
Each strong poet's muse, his Sophia, leaps as far out and down as can be, in a solipsistic passion of quest." Leaping out leads all of Sophia's lovers into confrontation with the Other who
ultimately defines them, leading to Bloom's "revisionary ratios."
Clinamen is the swerving away of the ephebe from the precursor, granting credit to a point, but then correcting
and continuing on. Tessera—possibly the ratios’ most obvious
example of the Self being defined in terms of the Other—throws the later poet into sharp relief against the former poem. Here the new becomes the completion of the old, but this is not enough. The ephebe now undergoes the humbling Kenosis, seeming to humble the Self, but actually humbling
the Other so that "the precursor is emptied out also." Failing to rid the Self
of the Other the ephebe then finds a personal counter-sublime through Daemonization.
Whereas so far the ephebe has defined Self through the Other's terms, here, for the first time, the poet seeks to define
Self to the exclusion of the Other by generalizing away any uniqueness embedded in the precursor. Thus the very similarities between precursor and ephebe now serve to show that the ephebe has surpassed
the precursor in every aspect that they share. After milking their connections
to the precursor in Daemonization the ephebe seeks separation through Askesis, purging self and other, removing
both from each other. Overburdened by the near solipsism of Askesis the
ephebe seeks, through Apophrades, at last to domineer the precursor across the bounds of time itself--forcing the precursor's
poem to appear as a work or even copy of the ephebe's.
In Bloom all poetry is an effort to recognize and subsequently separate one's Self from the Other. This fruitless effort causes criticism to become "the discourse of the deep tautology...the art of knowing
the hidden roads that go from poem to poem." Poetry both unites—ink to paper, words to things, readers to writers—and
divides—black from white, signifier from signified, ephebe from precursor—in the end calling attention to its
own act of division. For, though the theory of poetry is always involved in "intricate
evasions of as," Stevens points out in the same section that the "real and unreal are two in one." The simile unites and divides. "As" connects one thought with anOther, but simultaneously separates the
two by showing that one is only like the Other, without actually being it.
Said likewise sees that the
Self is always defined by the Other. Taking Western Orientalism as his example,
Said shows England to be defined by its own subjugation of Egypt. Parroting Balfour
he states that "for the Egyptians, Egypt is what England has occupied and now governs." By showing that England—in the person of Balfour—defines itself
through its domination of the Other, Said shows its dependence upon the Other. This
subjugation and subsequent dependence is the result of a "textual attitude" toward the Other.
The textual attitude in turn is the result of two causes: confrontation with the unknown and threatening, and apparent
success in one's treatment of the Other. In the first, a text (or metanarrative) “acquires greater authority, and
use, even than the actuality it describes.” In the second this text again accrues authority, now predicated upon its prior
Not only did England domineer the Orient through its definitions of Orientalism, but "the vision and material reality
propped each other up, kept each other going." Both Said and Bloom have recognized the cyclicity of Self-Other relationships
and the tautologies that such cyclicity inherently propagates. For Bloom the
cyclicity is when "the wheel has come full circle," in the seeming repetition of the revisionary ratios. His tautology is found
not in the fact that "the meaning of a poem can only be another poem," but in the criticism of these poems, "the solipsist who knows that what he means is right, and yet that what he says is wrong." Said's tautology is, as we have seen, in the self-propping of vision and material reality, and his cyclicity is in that each
not only props, but perpetuates the Other.
This cycle depends upon the
essentialism of the Other. Said quotes Malek as describing the Oriental, “as
an object of study, stamped with an otherness…a constitutive otherness, of an essentialist characteristic.” Yet if we see this Otherness as constructed rather than essential it disappears. Perhaps this is why Irigaray is so careful not to completely align herself with this
point of view. Irigaray does not desire the realization that the Other is merely
Self misperceived, but rather wishes to enforce the Otherness of the Other, reminding us of its subjectivity. For, in western tradition, “the other is always seen as the other of the same, the other of the subject
itself, rather than un autre sujet.” “A subject which is other,” as the translator notes, is the central
idea of Irigaray’s text. When we let the subject become object, a textual
attitude appears. We attempt to define the Other in terms of our Self, “either
more or less than I…Truly there is no other in all this, only more of the same.” When “the other is not defined according to its actual reality,” our preconceptions of the Other reconfirm themselves each time we reinstate them in the place of this “actual reality.” Said similarly declares that, “the present crisis dramatizes the disparity between
texts and reality.”
Irigaray finds the key in “a taste for intersubjectivity” in which we are “careful to treat the other
as other.” Said comes to a similar conclusion after adding a few more levels to what might
appear a simplistic answer. For Said the relationship of Self to Other is entangled
in the intricate interplay of knowledge and power. “Knowledge means rising
above immediacy, beyond Self, into the foreign and distant…To have such knowledge of a thing is to dominate it, to have
authority over it.” Elsewhere he more fully develops this interplay:
of the Other have always been connected to political actualities of one sort or another, just as the truth of lived communal
(or personal) experience has often been totally sublimated in official narratives, institutions, and ideologies.
This connection is covered up, or “sublimated” in Said’s words, by the
metanarratives of culture.
Culture works very effectively
to make invisible and even ‘impossible’ the actual affiliations that exist between the world of ideas and
scholarship, on the one hand, and the world of brute politics, corporate and state power, and military force on the other.
Once again we see the supposed diametric poles of knowledge and power. Said’s point is that there is no real opposition between these poles.
Their connections are what is real, for as the cliché reminds us, knowledge is power.
If Said’s argument reminds us of dialectics, I think we may have disappointed him and Irigaray both. Said does not wish to reach a simulated balance between two opposites, but to show us their inherent interconnectivity. Said wishes for discourse, for dialogue over dialectic. Etymologically almost identical—coming from the same Greek roots, dia (through, between, asunder) and legein (to speak)—these
two have been used and abused through the centuries both to promote and demolish harmony.
A dialectic calls to mind a unity of opposites, whereas a dialogue is between two separate characters. A dialectic therefore is not between two Others, but—by Irigaray’s definition—more
of the same, in that they can be compared as opposites. A dialogue, however,
reinforces both the Otherness and the subjectivity of the participants. Yet as
Bloom reminds, a discourse may also be a tautology; but a tautology in which we are all encased.
then leads Said to his conclusion, not the way out of the tautology, but the way to live within it, to point it out, so that
others may enjoy the synthome. “To move from interpretation to its politics
is in large measure to go from undoing to doing.” This undoing is the ability, now that we have seen political reality for what
it is—the intertwining of knowledge and power made invisible by culture—, to show it to others. To “use the visual faculty…to restore the nonsequential energy of lived historical memory and
subjectivity as fundamental components of meaning in representation.” Irigaray has explained for us the necessity of subjectivity and Said uses nonsequential
energy to force us into the next phase: doing. Doing means, “opening culture to experiences of the Other which have remained ‘outside’…the
norms manufactured by ‘insiders.’” Once we have recovered this misrepresented history we must connect these “more
vigilant forms of interpretation to an ongoing political and social praxis.” We must go from theory to practice quibus ab inferiore as superius elementum
esset ascensus. For when one tautology is removed another must take its place—nature
abhorring a vacuum after all—and in the place of a dialectic we receive a dialogue between Self and Other, recognizing
it not as our opposite, an object to be judged, but as un autre sujet.