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In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


In the first essay I wrote for "Racial Other Mythcomics Month," I said of one Don McGregor Black Panther story:

In the McGregor mythos of the Panther, while the slaying of animals is necessary for survival, the beasts constitute an "other" beside which all human-centered "others" are nominal by comparison. 

This basic ethos-- that the cosmos that revolves around humankind still shows more internal congruity than is possible for humans and any other living creature-- would have been either anathema or an irrelevance to the man who most popularized the phrase of "the other," which now turns up with tedious regularity in hundreds of scholarly papers.  I'm not about to critique even a small part of BEING AND NOTHINGNESS on a blogpost, but as it happens Jean-Paul Sartre delivered a more succinct version of his opinions on his "other" concept, when talking about the famous-- and according to him, generally misunderstood-- quotation of a line from NO EXIT rendered as "Hell is other people."

. . .“hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because. . . when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, . . . we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. . . . But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.

Even if I were not a Jungian, I would find it hard to credence Sartre's statement that "when we try to know ourselves, we use the knowledge of us which other people already have." In my experience few people would count it a great gift, as per Robert Burns, to "know ourselves as others know us." If I am seeking knowledge of myself, I may indeed make some use of "the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves," by which I assume Sartre means one's cultural code of ethics. I will, in addition, seek validation from other human beings in the hope that they will support my findings and/or my path. Yet at the same time there exists, even in children, an individual will that rejects the summary judgments of all those outside it, a will that thunders a Carlyle-esque "NO" to "the Other." The singer Britney recently co-opted the phrase "you don't know what it's like to be me," but the sentiment has existed since the infancy of humanity, and no matter how banal the phrase might sound, it has more to do with the establishment of an individual's identity than some overly dialectical mirroring process. To use the metaphor of the alchemists, the human self is constantly in a process of "breaking down" old patterns and "building up" new ones. The new patterns may turn out to be recapitulations of the old, but that possibility does not invalidate the self as simply being the product of cultural factors-- a point of view Sartre shared with Karl Marx.

 Yet to speak of this rich and variegated process of human interaction in such clumsy and moralistic dialectical terms shows the fundamental poverty of Sartre's intellect. Even Freud, with his image of the human psyche split between a raging id of desire and two spectres of egoistic control, came closer to the mark.

Sartre, like most ideological thinkers, has an agenda in reading human response in this manner. NO EXIT may be the story of a trio of petite-bourgeoisie malcontents who simply can't relate to one another as Sartre thinks that they should. However, when in the above section Sartre speaks of relationships that are "twisted" and "vitiated," he's assuredly thinking not just of individual people but also of cultural constructs that encourage such twisted relationships: colonialism, Mammonism, and all the other usual Marxist suspects. Thus it's not surprising that the term "racial other" has become a routine way of characterizing encounters between disparate cultures, even where they may not technically belong to different races. "Ethnicities" seems to have become a preferred term, since it can take things like the relationship of Europeanized Jews to European-descended WASPS, but I suspect "ethnic other" will not displace the older term any time soon.

More in Part 2.

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