De Zengotita notes the paradox of modernity/postmodernity’s affirmation of the Other: “instead of treating the Other as an alien something – threatening in some cases, alluring in others, but in all cases an object, whether of conquest, exploitation, proselytizing, study, or tourism – instead of that, you recognize in the other an autonomy and agency equal to your own and place yourself in a reciprocal relationship of dialogue with the Other, etc. This is the most visible, the postive, aspect of the otherness trope. The cardinal rule is to acknowledge the Other as other; that is, as categorically different from you. But that’s a good thing; difference is good.”

Problem is, “Modernity’s encounters with traditional Others, no matter how dialogical, seem bound to change them more than they change us. . . . in the aggregate, over the course of time, the primary direction of influence is clear – and determined, of course, by overwhelming imbalances in various power relationships.” One illustration: “it’s getting harder and harder to find anything that might qualify as exotic, because everywhere it has been encountered it has also been subjected to mechanisms of mediation too numerous to itemize.”

Think of that photospread of primitive tribes in National Geographic or the Discovery Channel’s excursions to the edges of civilization. That makes them part of our world just as surely, though more subtly, than colonialist conquest.

As he says in summary, “the truth is that – when it doesn’t simply result in devastation – the encounter with the Other tends to make the Other less, well, other.”

posted by Peter J. Leithart on Wednesday, December 13, 2006 at 11:28 AM