Magazine article Cross Currents

Alterity and Its Cure

Magazine article Cross Currents

Alterity and Its Cure

Article excerpt

Alterity (al tar i te), n. from the Latin alter (1) the state of being other or different. (2) the character of that which is other in the other. (3) the circumstance of "others" who are nominalized and distanced by hierarchical and stereotypical thinking. (4) technical term in post-colonial studies denoting the condition of otherness resulting from imposition of Western culture. (5) a category such that the markers of difference indicate the alterity of the Other is irreducible and infinite.

I am an "Other Baptist." My epiphany came one day when reading a statistical report on theological education. Clearly laid out were numbers for American, National, and Southern Baptists. At the end of the list was a reference I did not quite understand. It read: "Other Baptist." After studying the report, it finally dawned on me that I was an "Other Baptist." Of course I was not alone. From the look of things, there were a growing number of Other Baptists among our denomination. The confusing terminology reflected the increasing number of Baptist students from Southern churches who were enrolling in theological schools not connected with the Southern Baptist Convention. (1) "Other Baptist" is a moniker I wear, but it is not the name I chose. I got "othered," and so did a lot of fellow travelers in the South. (2)

We are experiencing a condition some call "alterity," which resulted from a consciousness of difference. (3) The otherness we suffer is largely a consequence of what simply became known among Baptists in the South as "the controversy." (4) Our otherness gave rise to an awareness of alienation. We used to know who we were and where we fit in. Now we are Other. We feel marginalized, no longer at home, even among the people and sometimes in the churches we have been part of all our lives. The denominational empire under whose aegis we once lived was conquered by an opposing power, and the Southern culture we once inhabited is being replaced by an alien way of life that knows not the holy sacraments of sweet tea or fried chicken. Our place in this history has been revised and in some cases erased.

Finding a way to account for this otherness without simply becoming the negative image of the powers that be proves more problematic than one might suspect. The oppositional rhetoric employed by both sides in the controversy requires the Other and indeed is unintelligible apart from it. The residual discourse of controversy illustrates why the protest of exiled Baptists in the South continues to reflect the dominant order that displaced the old one, and it indicates why it is so difficult to find a way to speak in a language that does not assume the terms of the opposition. (5) As Jonathan Smith has powerfully argued, such politics are based not in an account of radical otherness, which is a matter of absolute difference, but rather on a notion of proximate otherness, which involves differentiation from one's near neighbors who share anthropological similitude with us. So Smith contends that the other is "most problematic when he is TOO-MUCH-LIKE-US, or when he claims to BE-US." Thus he continues, "The problem is not alterity, but similarity--at times, even identity." (6) It is tempting to follow this social and political account of otherness, yet I will suggest that what is needed is an account of alterity in which otherness is not simply the mirror image of the regnant ideology but something radically other. Only from such a standpoint of radical otherness can there be the leverage to subvert the structures of representation and domination. (7)

But is there a way to conceive of alterity that on the one hand neither collapses into an integralism in which an infinite oneness coer-cively overcomes otherness nor on the other dissolves into the pluralistic fetishization of difference in which otherness is relentlessly celebrated? This is an important question that deserves serious reflection. I mention three examples that suggest a strategy of response. …

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