Tuesday, August 28, 2007

III Sexuality, Otherness and the Truth of the Self

Difference, Otherness, Commonality

Difference, otherness, commonality. Difference first. Some of this may seem terribly obvious, but bear with me. A man’s body is different from a woman’s body. We call this gender difference. Please note the word ‘difference’. The notion of difference entails something we can know. I can know how a man’s body is different from my own, even though what that man experiences in having such a different body will always remain a mystery to me. It is something I can never experience, any more than I can know anyone’s experience, woman or man. So the difference of his body is knowable, but his experience of his body is unknowable, just as another woman’s experience of her body is unknowable, even though there are superficial common experiences. Each of us is a unique creation and uniquely experiences the world and our bodies in the world.

Otherness. Otherness is what is unknowable. People frequently confuse these two words, thinking that difference and otherness are the same. They aren’t. Just because someone is different from me doesn’t mean that my meeting of their differentness is an experience of Otherness, because there is much that can be known. For example, the morphological difference between my body and a man’s or another woman’s can be known. All I have to do is look and touch. Thus gender difference in a physical sense is not otherness. And the same applies to much in cultural difference, racial difference, and so forth.

There is something else we need to remind our selves about difference and otherness, and that is the way that these two notions focus the mind. Both words appear to make a distinction between me and not me. But difference, which can be known, tends to be only reflexive, that is to say, figuring out what is different requires me to catalogue the physical ways in which a male is different from a female, or how I am different from a man or another woman, so that I am always looking only in a single perceptual loop between the self which I am comparing to my self, cataloguing the results that can be known.

Otherness, on the other hand, unknowability, what it is impossible ever to know, is something else again. Otherness is not an object; it is the experience of opening to an infinite vastness that requires us to relinquish conceptual control, and it is this letting go that makes Otherness sometimes frightening. It requires us to look away from our selves into a silence where there are no objects and language fails, and where we receive new information that may remain beyond conceptualization.

Otherness, then, refers to what is ineffable. And because it is unknowable, Otherness is both alarming and enticing. It is alarming because it requires us to let go of mental objects, the ideas we cling to that give us a sense of security, however illusory, but, let us also remember, ideas that equally entrap us. Yet Otherness is the irresistible attractor that leads us away from our looping preoccupation with our selves and difference and enables us to enter relationality, which includes Otherness, or, to use the theological term, perichoresis. Longing is the trace of the ineffable.

Otherness, the ineffable, is part of what attracts us to one another. Otherness draws our intentionality in prayer. It is Otherness that makes us ‘half in love with easeful death’, that transfigures our self-destructiveness into the jouissance, the efflorescence, the crowning fulfillment, the glory of our humanity as the image of God. This Otherness under its guise as Silence is the tantalizing factor in a text that causes us to say, ‘I know there’s something more here, but I can’t put my finger on it,’ which indicates that the text somehow has delivered us to the threshold of absolute Silence, which is one of the words by which Christian tradition has often named Otherness, that is to say, God, a word that has become somewhat problematic these days.

I’m sure most of you know the old saying, ‘God is a circle whose centre is every where and whose circumference no where.’ These words, I believe, are more than just a snappy saying for reasons that I hope will come clear. But for the moment, let’s just note that the centre that is every where is another way of talking about Otherness: the centre appears to be the point of total concentration but is revealed to recurve back on itself so that it is every where, so that the circumference is revealed to be illusion and thus no where.

2 Comments:

Anonymous John-Julian, OJN said...

Rather makes one think of Julian of Norwich:

"And after this, I saw God in a point (that is to say in my mind) by which vision I understood that He is in all things." (Ch. 11)

2:51 am, September 04, 2007  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

The saying dates back to the pre-Socratics and was a commonplace in Julian's day.

5:40 am, September 04, 2007  

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