By art alone we are able to get outside ourselves, to know what another sees of this universe which for him is not ours, the landscapes of which would remain as unknown to us as those of the moon.
– Marcel Proust, Time Regained
We can never escape ourselves; we can never know the other and perceive their universe from their point of view – except, according to Proust, through art. Through the imaginative power of literature, we can encounter the thoughts and emotions of another. Through the immersive nature of absorbed reading, we can put ourselves into the place of an other, whose environing and inner realities are capable of being experienced with a keen liveliness and palpable presence. And through the sensitive critical inquiry of narratives explored through the other’s eyes, as presented by the collection of articles in this issue, we may heed to the ways in which such seeing, sensing, and vividly living the lunar landscapes of literary others enhance an empathetic understanding of otherness.
This Proustian conviction, however, meets opposition when taking into account the influential body of scholarship that has gravitated towards a notion of otherness as radically Other, unthinkable, unrepresentable, and resisting conceptualization. This body’s strong force of attraction has been exerted by thinkers such as Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, who, stressing the irreducibility of absolute otherness, exhort that the moment Otherness is articulated in positive terms it is drawn into the orbit of the self-same whereby its alterity is eclipsed (Levinas 1969, 121). Their caution is not unrelated to the debates on, for example, the limitations of an epistemological purview bounded by socio-culturally specific circumstances, the longstanding philosophical bugaboo of other minds consequent upon the impossibility of experiencing another’s experience – and this epistemic limit in accessing the minds, motives, and sensations of others, to rehearse a Freudian truism, includes our own as well. In this light, the claim of the unparalleled ability of fiction to voice, imaginatively enter, and vicariously live the affective, experiential, and mental lives of others is a false promise; disillusioned, we may question whether representation, let alone knowledge, of the other is possible, and whether such an endeavor is even ethical.
Especially owing to Levinas’s ethical appreciation of otherness (1969) and Derrida’s re-reading of Levinasian ethics of hospitality (1999; 2000; 2001), otherness has been earmarked a cardinal ethical category. For Levinas and Derrida, the hospitality towards the other is unconditional, the ethical obligation infinite; and to prevent converting and vitiating the other, defined by and for itself, into an other-than-self, they contend that otherness must always be recognized as Altogether-Other. On these grounds, then, ethically relating to the other and the literary attempt to narrate, recognize, and understand the other are mutually exclusive courses of action since in the process of describing and grasping otherness, one is also producing it, reshaping it to reflect one’s own image. Tracing the conditions for the rise of human rights in the late eighteenth century, the cultural historian Lynn Hunt points to literature, reading novels in particular, as a formative force on account of its ability to produce “imagined empathy,” that is, to imagine that “someone else is like you” and that “their inner experiences are like one’s own” (2007, 32, 39). Yet this faculty fostered by literature, following a Levinasian line of thought, would constitute an unethical act to the extent that such an empathic understanding presumes that the other is knowable, is like me, and subsumes the other to one’s own horizon of understanding: If grasped, the other would not be Other (1987, 90); and in sympathy “through which we put ourselves in the other’s place,” he warns, difference is annulled whereby the Other is merely known “as another (my)self, as the alter ego” (ibid., 75, 83).
Against these critical efforts insisting on the absolute difference of otherness, its unethical and impossible representations, the contributions of this issue, in contrast, emphasize the political urgency, ethical imperatives, and new insights to be gained by doing precisely the opposite, but of course not without attendant dilemmas. Granted, the vigilance of subjectivist and constructivist stances is vital in order to detect the dangerous reductions and imperial assimilations of the other to the self; yet the unfortunate effect of this discursive turn in literary criticism is a paralyzing hermeneutic anxiety and deadlock: The critic is ever cautious yet inescapably guilty of violating the fragile singularity of the other, and ever conscious of the impasse of being restricted to, yet dependent on, contextually specific systems of understanding and reductive closures that are necessary to render possible any kind of meaning production, to render the literary other coherent even though this coherence is an imposed construct.
In contrast, the collection of articles in this issue offers a refreshing antidote to the disabling inertia generated by the fear of reading the same into and thus infringing and distorting the other’s reality. Recognizing the fact of finite human understanding does not entail that we are blocked from any knowledge whatsoever or from partial and provisional understandings of the other; epistemic access is limited not prohibited. Yet precisely on account of the limited access to other minds, imagination becomes a precondition for empathy. This is what renders literature pertinent to studies on otherness: a quintessentially imaginative activity, literature and its unlimited range of characters accommodate a means to envision not only fictional others but also “what another sees of this universe which for him is not ours,” to momentarily plunge into other contexts removed spatially, temporally, and culturally from ours. Instead of seeing a single world, that of our own, Proust contends that it is by virtue of art, “we see it multiplied,” worlds “differing more widely from each other than those which roll round the infinite” (1949, 247).
This inextricable link between fictional characters and their worlds is taken up by Anna Jones Abramson’s “Authors and Others,” which considers the ways literature invites empathy not only by reading but writing it: the creation of a character involves not only the creation of their world but also the author’s transport to the space of the other’s experience. By putting Levinas as well as the scholarly accounts on otherness by Mikhail Bakhtin, Geoffrey Harpham, and Judith Butler, among others, into dialogue with J.M. Coetzee’s self-conscious novel Elizabeth Costello, Abramson’s article alternately queries, challenges, and elaborates upon the premises of aforesaid theories in an endeavor that reinvigorates the theoretical debates on the role of otherness in ethics. More specifically, by way of Elizabeth Costello’s self-reflexive contemplation on the relationship between an author and her literary character/s, Abramson considers this relationship as a productive prism by which to explore the precarious ethical encounter between self and other – not in terms of hospitality – but through an inverse ethical movement into foreign spaces, where the other is met on their own territory. Analyzing how authorship is consistently framed in spatial, sensuous, and kinetic terms, Abramson argues that authoring a character requires not merely imagining but radically inhabiting another being, who, moreover, does not simply issue from the self but is anchored in another world. While this notion of inhabiting an other and the affect-charged space of their experience constitutes an exemplary ethical model, Abramson cautions that Coetzee’s text, given its ethical equivocacy, precludes any moral prescriptions. Additionally discerning the ethical perils entailed by imaginatively inhabiting the minds and worlds of others, Abramson concludes with a discussion of the ethical contradictions implied by the act of inhabiting and their significance in Elizabeth Costello.
Several of the aforementioned subjectivist and constructivist accounts are also based on assumptions that can be challenged: namely the categorical dichotomy between sameness and difference, self and other, knowledge and ignorance, epistemology and ontology; assumptions which include the notion that the self and representation are exclusively informed by a self-same logos admitting no residues of otherness – which basic psychoanalytic tenets have long contested – and that such representation is incapable of integrating new and different perspectives, and thus implies a solipsistic entrapment in linguistic narcissism, in which, invariably mediated, the other’s unadulterated voice is garbled and misheard. On the other hand, as Bakhtin (1981) illustriously argues, literature does not mediate the voice of the same: the literary text presents not one unified voice, static and smoothly coherent; rather, the porous body of the literary text is inhabited by multiple voices consisting of characters, narrators, authors, heterogeneous contextual and intertextual echoes: a cacophonic chorus embodying a heteroglossic friction of interests. Challenging the simplistic binary of sameness and difference, Sten Pulz Moslund similarly contends that while representation undoubtedly “cannot re-present pure Otherness or Difference,” neither can it entirely expel difference or “repeat the Same again … without any alteration.” Consequently, “[t]here will always be a degree of change, newness and difference in any act of representation” (2011, 191-2).
Related objections reverberate in the critical turn in recent years towards new materialist and post-linguistic thinking which questions the philosophical tradition of conventionally treating ontology and epistemology as distinct concerns; and this reappraisal is consequential for an understanding of otherness inasmuch as their alleged incommensurability, or the primacy of epistemology and its limits, has formed the foundation for mainstream approaches to otherness. Thinkers such as Karen Barad, Slavoj Žižek, and Julia Kristeva before them, theorize in different ways the entwined relations between meaning and matter, word and world, in their respective notions of “agential realism,” the Real, and the semiotic. Here, however, it is important to stress that the subjectivist’s recognition of the gulf between the other in itself and its mediated manifestation for us is not to say in turn that s/he considers the other’s reality as reducible to and having no effects on discourse. In other words, what is at stake according to subjectivist thinkers in representations of the other pertains to epistemology not ontology. Wary of specifying content to anything “outside” discourse, textual idealist variants of poststructuralism warn that non-discursive entities or matter are not objects given in advance prior to their discursive articulations but are the concealed extensions and effects, rather than the hidden cause, of culture and discursive practices from which they, moreover, receive their pre-cultural ascription. Yet such discourse theory, according to Žižek, neglects the unsymbolizable beyond discourse, that is, the category of the Real, which must be taken into account when considering that what is excluded forms a constitutive outside shaping the very limits, contours, and thus coordinates of a given discursive framework. The subject is not irreversibly and entirely overwritten by the social and cultural nor is language the sole constitutive element of the social field. Implicitly questioning the homogenous consistency and globalizing reach of a self-same logos that purportedly precludes otherness, Kristeva, similarly, disputes a conception of language as “a strictly ‘formal’ object,” in other words, a static, closed differential sign system which “defers any interrogation of its … ‘externality;’” instead defining it as a dynamic signifying process on account of the lingering presence of this very “externality” in the shape of the semiotic which continually erodes and remakes this process (1986, 90). Barad cautions that in prioritizing discursive over extra-discursive concerns, failing to theorize their relationship, and solely attentive to the limits of discourse, textual idealists inadvertently reinscribe the very nature-culture dualism they sought to deconstruct (2007, 35, 64, 192). Deeming the extreme positions of a relativist poststructuralism and objectivist positivism as untenable seeing that they exclusively consider “either the discursive or material nature of practices” (31; original emphasis), Barad instead proposes “agential realism” as an alternative, an “onto-epistemological” framework theorizing material-discursive practices (146ff.), in which “[n]either discursive practices nor material phenomena are ontologically or epistemologically prior,” nor are they “reducible to the other” (152). Likewise emphasizing the inseparability and intricate mutual entailment between discursivity and its outside, Žižek counters the conventional reading of Lacan as the “philosopher of language,” who endorses “all the false poetry of ‘castration’, of some primordial act of sacrifice and renunciation, of jouissance as impossible;” instead, as the Lacanian notions of the lamella and surplus-enjoyment affirm, it is impossible to eliminate its tenacious excess and effects (1996, 93). Yet the Real, Žižek warns, should not be understood as some underlying ultimate referent behind or beneath a discursive veil, but rather as the residue and deficit internal to yet at the same time irreducible to symbolization (2007, 135-37).
Analogously, we cannot know otherness in its raw, pristine form, but not because its alterity is anchored in some unchanging fixity whose elusive essence forever eludes us, nor on account of the inaccuracy of representation owing to the arbitrariness of the sign and endlessly deferred signified of a self-enclosed signifying system. Both these accounts, moreover, presuppose a firm division between representation and objects of representation. Rather, otherness cannot be known in absolute pristine terms to the extent that there is no such pregiven, eternal objective reality of otherness existing a priori and independent from its discursive articulations and localized material conditions. In contrast to a realist approach that presumes otherness to be an autonomous entity demarcated by determinate boundaries passively pending to be represented, albeit imperfectly (cf. Barad 2007, 55), a textual idealist account highlights the historically specific contingency of otherness understanding it as relational positioning or a cultural construct determined by the arbitrary structure of relations in a given discursive system. Yet the latter approach, as Žižek and Butler remarks, fails to consider the impact of the constitutive outside and the productive aspect of discursive practices, that is, how repeated regulatory practices performatively generate the effects of fixity and discrete boundaries, whose congealed residue comes to be known as substance (Butler 1993, 9). In a post-linguistic account of the entanglement and mutual conditioning of discourse and residues not culturally produced, the distinction between absolute Otherness and otherness colonized by the sign of self-same is nonviable. Neither a bounded self-contained entity nor solely an ideational or social construct, otherness, following a Baradian line of thought, is amorphous, processual, entwined with and reshaped by contextual variations and thus necessarily a heterogeneous, open category. Phenomena, Barad writes, are “the ontological inseparability of agentially intra-acting components;” and intra-action, as opposed to interaction, Barad continues, “recognizes that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through their intra-action” (2007, 33; original emphasis). In the phenomenal flux, perpetual becoming, and meetings of multiplicities, events, and actions, the provisional differential bounds of selves and others, correspondingly, are the result of and continually reconfigured by the intra-actions of entangled discursive and material practices.
In the remaining articles presented here, otherness is not seen as a monolithic, homogenous category. Together, they illustrate how the forms and processes of otherness unevenly emerge and are enmeshed in contextually contingent dense intersections of social and material relations. Each consists of a situational analysis examining how a particular configuration of otherness is constituted not by its simple binary opposition to the same but by specific complex constellations whose boundaries marking difference alternately congeal, liquefy, and blend together in a variety of ways. Accordingly, it becomes impossible to isolate an othered component as such, rather, otherness is conceptualized as a provisional nodal point consisting of numerous and dynamic interfaces that cut diagonally across various imbricating and unstable identity parameters, such as ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class, which are not considered in isolation from each other. This renders the othering processes, and modes of resistance correspondingly, a more intricate phenomenon more difficult to dissect and analyze given the recognition that these various forms of othering and discrimination do not merely monolithically reinforce or “double” oppression, so to speak, but that these oppressive measures along with their opposition interact in manifold ways, taking on very specific forms in specific cases.
Straddling social and literary studies, “The Internal Other” by Mélanie Grué examines the ambiguous white trash position in Dorothy Allison’s literary work and the ways in which her fiction neighbors critical whiteness studies by interrogating the homogenous conception of normative whiteness. Given that the white body has been conceptually coded as the template of normalcy and universality, a distinctive feature of white cultural identity has been its very indistinctness and invisibility; and thus, as an “unmarked” race, the complexity of this identity category has only received fleeting academic attention in the past. In contrast, Grué illustrates how Allison reveals the social domain of whiteness to be internally inconsistent, volatile, and frayed by heterogeneous disunity as a result of white trash individuals “marked” with intermingling social and racial data. Forming an unstable sub-group neither same nor other, white trash, Grué argues, forms a threatening otherness internal to and disrupting the clear-cut demarcations of white identity governed by middle class interests. Drawing on the thought of Kristeva, Grué maintains that the category indeterminism of white trash renders it exemplary of the abject. Ineffectually aiming to harness the threat of contamination posed by white trash, they are reserved a confined space in which their regional specificities and behavioral features are racialized, vulgarized, stereotyped, and pigeonholed.
Demarcations of whiteness are also destabilized by transcultural and migration contexts; for example, with the influx of Jewish immigrants to the U.S., Nevena Stojanovic notes, distinctions between Jewishness and Anglo-Saxon whiteness were drawn to emphasize difference over sameness. These very stereotypes of othered interstitial identities, however, may be appropriated: Stojanovic’s “Like Eliza Rachel Félix” explores the ways Louisa May Alcott’s potboiler Behind a Mask accentuates the performance of liminal otherness as possessing the potential to challenge and reshape the established social order. Reading the savvy ploys of Alcott’s protagonist, the governess Jean Muir, in light of Daphne Brooks’s notion of “eccentric” and “off-center performances” as well as Michel de Certeau’s “tactics,” Stojanovic argues that Jean applies her clever skills as an actress not only to the tableaux vivants she stages to entertain her wealthy employers but that these extend to “off-stage” everyday performances. In both these on- and off-stage performances, moreover, the instability of class, gender, and ethnicity, as they pertain to the liminal figures of the governess and Jew especially, are tactically finessed to aid her social ascent and destabilize the cultural center dominated by the English aristocracy and patriarchal interests. Seeing that Jean is likely modeled on the French Jewish actress (Eliza) Rachel Félix, the latter is a key figure, Stojanovic contends, by which to understand Alcott’s ambivalence towards the growing Jewish presence on American soil: ascribing Jean with Rachel’s personal characteristics and stereotypical Jewish traits, Alcott’s portrayal of Jewishness, Stojanovic asserts, is “allo-Semitic,” anti- and philo-Semitic at once, thus embodying an intriguing dynamic in which Jewish difference is celebrated and objectified in intricate ways in the ultimate pursuit of furthering a feminist agenda.
Likewise attentive to how the discursive span of otherness channels a multitude of warring and contradictory ideological inflections, “Of Monsters and Men” by Donna Mitchell examines the repercussions of unconventional gender-bending bodies and ambiguous sexualities for family dynamics, which assumes a supernatural monstrous guise when refracted through Gothic fiction. Especially focusing on the role of absent mothers and unnatural children in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Mitchell argues that the integrity of gender and familial identities within these Gothic realms is relentlessly breached as evident by the replacement of “natural” mothers with deficient male substitutes and children with monstrous creations. Just as these gender and familial identities are doubled, usurped, perverted, and revealed to be unstable categories, the volatile fears and desires they elicit correspondingly become menacingly indistinguishable. As such, these ambivalent emotions together with the imbricating, contradictory effects of an unnatural parent-child relation are entangled: a postnatal antipathy for the newborn is inextricable from the monstrous child’s resentment of its creator; this, in turn, is linked to the bereavement of cherished mothers and children who, subsequently resurrected and immortalized, become objects of horror; and a woman’s inability to fulfill her maternal potential is ambiguously censured, entails fatal repercussions, yet ensues from male desire. At once strangely subversive and conservative, these Gothic portraits of unnatural families challenge the conception of the traditional family based upon the essentialist model of the procreative couple, yet the destructive outcome consequent upon eliminating potential “natural” mothers implicitly dictates motherhood as woman’s primary function. Ultimately, Mitchell contends, these stories articulate the challenges of motherhood, female agency, and the child’s struggle for autonomy within domestic spheres dominated by male supremacy.
Focusing on Guillermo Reyes’s memoir Madre and I, Ed Chamberlain’s “Spectacles of Otherness, Space, and Sexuality” also explores the imbricating forms of othering which Reyes experiences as a queer Chilean migrant living in the U.S and as a result of his illegitimacy and unknown racial ancestry. The discriminatory practices and shame recounted in Reyes’s narrative, Chamberlain contends, are largely effected through spectacle and the spectacular. Objects of public and his own anxious scrutiny, Reyes’s ethnicity, hirsute body, and sexuality is framed by spectacle giving rise to social and psychic costs for well-being. Yet while spectacle functions as a primary vehicle for othering, this very spectacle can, in turn, be reclaimed and appropriated for own ends. Seeing that, as Suzanne Keen (2006) observes, the empathy induced by reading fiction is conditioned by a number of narrative techniques that may enhance or impede it, the empathy for fictional others hardly translates into an empathy for those others encountered in everyday life. Neither is fictional empathy automatically a moral good, as Joshua Landy points out, offering an indiscriminate imaginative identification with Nabokov’s Humbert in Lolita as an example; nor is it a given that empathy leads to subsequent compassion or stirs us to action (2010, 224). Yet empathetic literary representation and Reyes’s story of personal pain, felt experience of discrimination, and hope, Chamberlain avers, nevertheless engender a path that aids an appreciation of different social realities, the challenges of coming out, and the struggles that queer migrants face, and thus constitutes a tacit form for political activism.
Just as there are limits to fictional empathy, literary texts, reflexive of the values, biases, and tensions of the social body, also register the failures of imagination in the promotion of a select worldview that presents certain privileged cultural preferences and standards as universal, oppressive conditions as just, perpetuates stereotypes, thus hardening rather than deliquescing the lines between selves and others. As a medium of power, agency, and authority, narrative can both serve to legitimize hegemonic interests and function as a vehicle for social justice and protest. Acutely aware of this elasticity of narrative power, Martin Woodside’s “Composing and Performing the Self” examines its instrumental value in relation to hybrid identities in M.T. Anderson’s young adult novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, which chronicles the life of Octavian, a highly educated African American slave born and raised in Boston, and subject to an educational experiment intended to determine whether Africans possess equal intellectual abilities as Europeans. Indebted to a conceptual framework chiefly provided by Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic, Woodside’s study traces the obstacles to and intricate processes of self-authorship that Anderson’s young protagonist must navigate to attain meaningful self-actualization: given that Octavian occupies a subaltern position and Western institutional forces shape his selfhood, he endures a fraught double-consciousness characteristic of the experience of African diaspora in the West, who must negotiate the plight of being simultaneously internal and external to the socio-cultural making of Western modernity. Despite or possibly on account of this doubled consciousness, Octavian, Woodside maintains, succeeds in maneuvering competing tools for self-fashioning: rhetorically adept, he strategically reclaims the written word in an oppositional narrative to compose the self yet this medium is recognized as a compromised form tainted by an imperial legacy. While music and performance is seen as promising a more effective means for resistance and realizing self-conscious maturity, Woodside lastly considers whether such an opposition between music and word, speech and song, is tenable.
Elizabeth Lowry’s “Close Encounters and the Culture Industry” also probes how various configurations of otherness emerge from and are intricately conditioned by the dark side internal to the progressive ideals of modernity and the Enlightenment. Drawing on the scholarship on the genre patterns and rhetorical tropes of twentieth-century alien abduction and contactee narratives, Lowry reads these close-encounter narratives and their characteristic differences within the theoretical framework provided by Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. The discrepant genre tendencies of abductee and contactee narratives, Lowry maintains, reflect a crucial difference in their tacit worldviews governed by dissimilar socio-cultural values, which in turn condition the distinct ways in which abductees and contactees are othered, the latter meeting less adversity than the former. Employing Horkheimer and Adorno’s critical terms “myth” and “epic” as analytical tools by which to understand these narratives, Lowry argues that the scientifically oriented abductee discourse, much like epic, adopts the principles of Enlightenment thinking based on the ideas of progress, mastery over nature, verification, and positivism, and seeks to differentiate itself from and invalidate the contactee account, which, in contrast, is shaped by a fantastical mode roughly corresponding to mythical thinking. Focusing especially on the ideological implications of the abductee narrative, Lowry contends that precisely because this narrative, eager for social and scientific legitimation, accepts the premises and practices that exclude it, the abductee’s experience of marginalization and disempowerment is aggravated. Reverberating with the tenor of Horkheimer and Adorno’s scathing indictment of the Enlightenment bedrock of modern Western society servicing hegemonic forms of social control and economic subordination, extraterrestrial contact narratives, Lowry suggests, bespeak of the ache inflicted by as well as the struggle against the dehumanizing and alienating aspects of modernity’s administered life, instrumental rationalism, and culture industry, in whose indifferent grip individuals are rendered passive, powerless, and deprived of agency.
A shared theme of this issue is seeing and feeling from the other’s perspective, a practice which may cultivate an understanding of how others are also selves. Contrary to Levinas’s claim, empathetically living the other through literature, or “inhabiting” to use Abramson’s words, need not necessarily collapse difference. On the one hand, imagining oneself into the experiential lives of others may involve a self seeking its mirror image in the other, presupposing and projecting a sameness in mental and emotional states, claiming a common ground that is in fact under the jurisdiction of the self. On the other hand, this does not necessarily exclude the fact that empathy can at the same time be other-oriented: empathy does not only involve imagining how the other is like us, but availing oneself of such imagining precisely as a means to imaginatively reach how it is to be like the other, that is, the self may be sought in the other ultimately in the interest of reconciling and fine-tuning a comparative sentiment in an effort to appreciate, move toward, and meet the other. Given that one is only ever admitted to one’s own experience, in empathy, the self may identify with the experiential reality of the other through and by drawing on their own reservoir of accumulated life experiences not to assimilate but to approach the other. Although each individual life history is contextually specific, unique, and thus would, on the face of it, inhibit identically feeling what the other feels, one does need “to feel the other’s feeling,” Arne Johan Vetlesen argues, to grasp “how the other experiences the situation he or she is in” (1994, 8). Neither does empathy presuppose nor demand that the other be identical to myself. Empathy, as opposed to identification, Vetlesen maintains, recognizes “the otherness of two persons, of their difference and distinctness as something to be maintained rather than annulled” (ibid., 204).
However, as Luce Irigaray cautions, while the strangeness of the other must be respected, the difference between two must not be absolute. Unlike Levinas, who understands the infinite alterity of the Other as necessitating a non-relation (1996, 16), a radical gulf segregating self from other, Irigaray questions whether we can meet the other when s/he is exiled into an inaccessible realm. Neither does she find the notion of hospitality adequate in an ethical encounter with the other to the extent that the guestroom is often figured as its principal spatial trope. Probationally welcomed and sequestered to an enclosed guestroom, an asylum, or ghetto, the other does not co-exist with us (2011, 112). Instead, she stresses the need to move beyond indoor bounds, to conceive an alternative space to meet the other: at a cross-road where there is “no longer anything of one’s own” and “nothing yet in common,” and where “the world which is proper to each one” is also not demolished (ibid.). Rather than requiring distance and incommensurability, an ethical relation to the other, Abramson likewise notes, may be figured by the notion of a shared space in which difference is not effaced but preserved. Irigaray deems the mutual contact implied in “meeting” promising since it defies both unity and separation, an interface akin to bodily touch where two meet not in a loss of distinction but a joining in difference. Yet when leaving our home to meet the other, she warns, we must remain faithful to ourselves and not forget our dwelling: “To return home to ourselves is necessary” (115) in order to escape fusion and remain two. The “essence of empathy,” correspondingly, as Vetlesen writes, “lies in one subject’s retaining rather than abandoning his or her own standpoint and identity in the course of his or her own endeavor to recognize the other as other” (1994, 204; original emphasis). Accordingly, an empathetic move towards the other must sustain a tension between sameness and difference.
When returning home, however, one might not be the same as before one embarked on the imaginative literary journey in sharing the experiential lives of others since it entails a risk: not simply that the other is rendered same, but the becoming-other of the same in the act of reading and momentary identification, a risk that the reader is touched, affected, and emerges transformed. “Meeting with the other,” Irigaray writes, does not only call for a “fidelity to a past and openness to a future, but also a participation of the body, of feelings and of mind.” How we relate to the other, then, is not merely a matter of knowing, but a matter of feeling with, and a matter of matter. Or rather, in a post-linguistic gesture, the intimacy involved in “[t]ouching or being touched” when meeting the other “cannot be approached with the hand or understood with a concept”: In this touch, the other should neither be reduced to “a mere body” nor be perceived “only as a cultural vehicle;” instead, we must “meet and share with our whole being, our embodied being” (2011, 117-118). Seeing that empathy concerns feeling with others, feeling what we believe to be the emotions of others, and thus includes modalities other than the epistemological, the poverty of knowledge on account of the other’s untranslatable nature does not entail the diminishment of the richness of affect and sensuous experience. Literature, comparatively, is not only a medium of words, but a medium for affect and sensation. Although “[y]ou cannot read affects, you can only experience them,” as Simon O’Sullivan says (2001, 126), you can read and be affected. Challenging what he views as the hermeneutic regime governing the humanities and arts, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht in his polemic Production of Presence summons a bodily and presence-based engagement with the arts, in which we pursue not the meaning/s of an art work but how it affects, touches, and moves us. Mikel Dufrenne points out that although the things and states a word refers to are obviously not materially present, and while the felt immediacy the word is capable of conjuring is not comparable to the sensuous qualities of things, it can nevertheless summon an affective presence (1973, 137). Consequently, when literature is also considered as something other than representation, then affectively living the experiential lives of literary others is not a false promise.
“My own eyes are not enough for me,” C.S. Lewis writes towards the close of An Experiment in Criticism, “I will see through those of others.” In this respect, literature is essential inasmuch as “[l]iterary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality” because, as he explains, “in reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself … I see with myriad eyes, but it is still I who see” (1961, 140-141). To this multeity of myriad eyes, literary criticism adds an extra pair of eyes revealing, filtering, shaping, or bringing into existence subtleties and nuances of the literary spectra which would otherwise possibly remain unseen or not exist. While it is impossible to fully relocate the angle from which one views, reading literary criticism, seeing with the critic’s eyes, is to absorb new angles, other perspectives, and expand one’s range of view, which may help hone the ethical sensitivity enriched by literary imagination. These additional telescopic eyes together with the multiplied affect-charged worlds of literature, consequently, do not distance us but brings us closer to living literary others.
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