Strangeness as opportunity: Some thoughts on the hermeneutical potential of an uncomfortable concept

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In a field that has already been extensively investigated, the article focuses on a particular aspect, namely on the nature of the interaction between the self and the other. The leading question is: What is the hermeneutical potential of the other and the stranger in relation to the self? In order to find an answer, the following dimensions are examined: the direction of flow of the interaction, the power relations involved in the process and the appeal or claim of the other on the self.

The first section examines various approaches to the other that have been developed by a number of disciplines: anthropology and ethnology, art and art history, theology, philosophy, communication theory, and pedagogy. A number of common traits are evident: the flow of action is pre-dominantly from the self to the other, meaning that the stranger is the recipient of attention, while the subject is normally not affected; the power relationship is unequal, skewed in favour of the self; the other is rarely perceived in his or her own right but is compared with the self, who serves as norm; the search is for similarities and therefore tends towards recognition of the self in the other; and strangeness is seen as inherently problematic and accompanied by negative connotations. There is consequently a constant attempt to scale down differences and to domesticate the other by various means.

Against this background the hermeneutical potential of strangeness is discussed. To counter conventional approaches to the other where negative associations dominate, it is important to remember that xenos in its original sense contains both negative and positive associations – the stranger is also a guest and friend who should be shown hospitality and treated with respect. Furthermore, in meeting the stranger the self does not remain unaffected. Far from the self dominating the encounter, the stranger challenges the self, makes a certain claim to which the self has to respond.

An alternative approach will therefore aim at reversing the normal power relationship and releasing the potential of change for the self in the encounter with the other. This requires a conscious decision to change the direction of action: from the other to the self and not vice versa. Furthermore, in order to break the binary hold of subject on object, the decentring of the subject is necessary. The self is no longer the centre of the universe, but only one node in a complex web of relationships. This requires the recognition of the “incompleteness” of human existence (Nyamnjoh 2015) which opens up the self for new possibilities. Acceptance of the radical openness of systems (in this case the “system” of human relationships) is the key to releasing the “excess” of potential available to the self in the encounter with the other and with what is strange and alien. Instead of domesticating the stranger and trying to absorb the other into the world of the self, otherness must be allowed to retain its integrity and to do so in all its sharpness. Socialised prejudice and inherited stereotypes are often so ingrained that drastic measures are required to pry them loose from where they have embedded themselves so deeply.

In this way strangeness can act as a catalyst to challenge the self in its self-understanding and its preconceived ideas – for this reason Kristeva is a champion of the disruptive and transformative powers of “semiotic otherness”. But this requires a healthy dose of adventurism to leave the comfort of a known environment and to expose oneself fully to unknown and even unthinkable possibilities.

This approach has the added advantage that it moves beyond the confines of the binary I/Thou opposition. Embracing complexity as the new matrix of human relationships not only more adequately reflects the nature of the network society in which we find ourselves , but also opens a wider range of alternative possibilities. It is in this regard that Kearney pleads for a critical hermeneutic that moves beyond binary exclusions in order to cultivate a more complex understanding of the human condition.

What is proposed here is certainly counter-intuitive. In the “normal” encounter with the other, the flow of action is practically pre-determined in the sense that the other comes into view because there is already a self. Awareness of the other is a (secondary) step following the existing self-awareness of the self. In order to implement this approach in its full consequences, two complementary strategies are needed: liberation and expansion.

Liberation implies, in the first place, release from embedded stereotypes and inherited prejudice. In this regard the immediate presence of the other is of crucial importance. Distance from the other allows stereotypes to remain unchallenged, while the reverse is true in the presence of the other. It is for this reason that Levinas defends the face-to-face encounter so passionately as part of his “hermeneutics of lived experience”.

Liberation from self-centredness is just the first step. It opens the way for the expansion of the self by means of the other. This calls for the acceptance of complexity and the “radical openness of systems” (Chu 2003). It gives free rein to curiosity and lets the spirit of adventure explore the full spectrum of possibilities. The other signifies the range available to the self which far exceeds the reach of a single life or of a single self.

The proposal is not to replace the self by what is strange and unfamiliar, nor to claim that strangeness is by definition good, nor that the own and the self have nothing positive to contribute. But in the normal course of things, the self still assumes the dominant position while the stranger is the object to which attention and action are directed. When this relationship is reversed and the self opens itself to the possibility of change, enrichment and expansion of the self become possible.

The other and strangeness can therefore be understood as opportunities and be appreciated as generators of expansion. But is the “excess” inherent in the other thereby exhausted? There is indeed more to expect – more than recognising ourselves in the other, than opening ourselves to the other, than respecting and welcoming the other, than finding a therapy for strangeness, than understanding ourselves and others better, or developing a grammar for living together – however important these may be. The final destination of liberation and expansion is not understanding, but change. And the natural starting point of this change is the self. To paraphrase the well-known dictum of Marx: the challenge is not merely to understand the other (and the world), but to change the self through the other.

Keywords: enrichment of identity; estrangement; otherness; selfhood; strangeness; strangers; the other; the self; xenophobia

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Vreemdheid as geleentheid. Enkele gedagtes oor die hermeneutiese potensiaal van ’n ongemaklike begrip

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