And Ourselves in Others

by Hugh M. Lewis


If we search for Identity, we are bound to encounter difference, and if we look only for difference, we are sure to run into our own identity.


Human reality presents itself caught inextricably somewhere between the internal world of the psychological and the external world of the social, between the constraints of nature and the contexts of culture, between the projects and purposes of the future and the memories and mistakes of the past. The inescapable anthropological predicament of our human reality is the paradoxical liminality of this existential inbetweenness. In all our complexities, we cannot ever clearly separate the inner world of the self from the outside world of the other. And if we attribute great objectiveness to the latter, we also attach great subjective importance to the former. Humankind is defined anthropologically by its world-openness--its volitional freedom from the dictates of natural instincts, and by the possibilities of its own cultural plasticity. In other words, we are by anthropological definition human-made and our culture and the possibilities of its construction are as much an intrinsic part of our nature as our own biological nature are a part of our cultural constructions. We are by our very unfinished nature the creatures of cultural creation, and this has been both our blessing and our curse to the world. Without the primary process of our enculturation, we remain but unfinished creatures of the world--virtual monsters that bear only a superficial resemblance to the other beasts of nature.

Because of this we are also, as a consequence, the creatures of our own existential complexity. Put more simply, we are all unique bundles of things and the relations between these things. It goes without saying that no two people ever share exactly all the same sets of things between themselves, but that everyone shares a few things and relations in common with everyone else, which includes among other things the existential factitiousness of our own humanness and subjectivity. And it is these common connections which normally constitute the ground of relationship between people in the world. We normally seek and find psychosocial identity in the world on the basis of these shared connections between ourselves and others in the world. We might call this process one of symbolic identification, and acknowledge that it constitutes a primary need of our being in the world, one as necessary for our survival as the food we eat or the air we breath, and see in this basic requirement for our survival as much of a functional foundation for our sense of order in the world as any other primary need. It might be referred to as our inherent and vital sociability in the world, which, along with our need and natural capacity for culture, we cannot neglect without dangerous consequences and which has several important anthropological implications.

First, if put in alternative, but equivalent terms, it gives rise to an important anthropological theory. What we call the "Self" or the "anthropological ego" is vitally interdependent and inseparable from what has come to be called the "Other"--so much so that it is better to see these as two sides, the heads and the tails, of the same coin. In other words, it is not so important that we seek to locate the identity and provenience of the other as exclusively in the external social world, but that we recognize that symbolically the other in the external world is but a projection, and a reflection, of the invisible other that is part of our internal world of the self. This internalized other is not normally recognizable in its externalized form because it remains invisible, transparent, and hidden from our conscious awareness. The externalized form of the other becomes then a mere surface apparition, a stereotype, a confected illusion, of what remains symbolically planted within our selves. It involves an internalization of subjectively discrepant realities which entails the inevitably compartmentalization or dichotomization of ego between a fore-grounded or emphasized, positively valued set of things and relations, and a backgrounded or deemphasized, negatively devalued traits. This can normally take the form of the strengths of the "ideal self" versus the "weaknesses of the real self. Psychologically this must involve the repression of those aspects and elements of the self that are seen as threatening to one's ego identity in the world, and which is subconsciously reinforced by the suppression of those social aspects and elements of the other which symbolically represent or reflect those internal aspects. This process of psychosocial projection is an intrinsic component of the process of anthropological identification in the world, and can consist of either unconscious repression or else of deliberate denial or deceit that works as a rational defense mechanism for the maintenance of ego-identity. Either way the consequences are the same, and include both ignorance, in the sense of ignoring that which does not fit, or else of prejudicial evaluation. Labeling, closed-minded belief and behavioral discrimination are the usual means of reinforcing such preconceived world-views.

From the standpoint of processes of psychosocial identification we can see that these are an intrinsic functional component of social integration. The formation and reinforcement of anthropological ego-identity in the world requires psycho-social reference and coordinating correspondence between internalized maps and externalized orientations. We may refer to primary reference as the direct social sources of positively valued otherness in the formation of ego-identity, and to the concomitant, secondary counter-reference as the indirect sources of negatively valued ego-identity in the world. Thus when we speak of the Anthropological other, we must distinguish between the primary reference other and the secondary counter-reference other. This process of symbolization underlies all forms of and expressions of in-group/out-group consciousness, and is correlated with the functional demands and constraints of social integration and organization. The greater the emphasis upon conformity to ideals of in-group uniformity of identity, the greater the internalized hierarchy of relations between people of a group, the greater the need find an externalized antithetical form upon that to project differences, deviance, and the potential for equality of relation. This externalized form of out-groups often take the form of scapegoating or "blaming the victim." The persecution of those who are most vulnerable to persecution and the most helpless to resist such persecution, and, in cases where direct confrontation may be impossible or undesirable, the persecution of an intermediate, third party which is interposed between two potentially conflicting groups.

As an anthropological aside, it is not unreasonable to suggest that this very process of psychosocial identification and inter-group symbolic boundary mediation underlies the very "collectivizing/relativizing" and "incorporating/annihilating" function of anthropological knowledge. This is the anthropological other that the student anthropologist confronts in the field and is expected to come to terms with ethnographically is nothing more or less than the "disembodied" projection of the other self and the repressed other within the anthropological ego, one which must entail the implicit denial of the self of the other as well. Part and parcel to the romance of relativistic difference and the "making the strange familiar" is the internalized repression of otherness" within the self, and its external projection, and rediscovery in the world. It also follows that a reflexive anthropology seeking to come to terms with its own imperialistic functionalism as a mode of representation in a colonially hieratic world must at some point recognize the basic importance of identification between self and other, and its implications for an anthropology free of its own unconscious biases.

Another dimension of the necessary anthropological interdependence between the sense of self and otherness in the world is that the relations of mutuality and interdependency can be either symmetrical, hence reciprocal and mutually symbiotic, or else, as is more usually the case, asymmetrical, unequally exploitative or parasitic, and more "relations of dominance and dependency" than of mutuality. In this regard we can seek critical relationship between the internalized discrepancy and dichotomization of the self between "top-dog" and repressed underdog and the externalized symbolic forms of superior in-group and inferior out-group. When we seek to persecute others in the world, the other we are actually, symbolically persecuting is that otherness which is hidden within the self. It follows also that when we seek to liberate other's in the world, what we are actually, symbolically intending is the liberation of our own otherness within ourselves.

A consequence of this tendency towards asymmetry in psycho-social integration of reality is that we must always contend with and resolve the contradictions posed by the facticity of our own reification in the world. The fallacy of reification can be seen as the consequence of our symbolic faculty in the integration of reality and of our own forgetfulness or ignorance of our symbolizations of the world. It is the misidentification of human constructions in the world as if a necessary and natural part of the world, and of natural elements in the world as if human-made constructions, and it involves both the apotheosization or transformation of a thing, a mere symbol, into an entity which transcends its own thingness in the world, as well as the transformation or reduction of what is living and trancendant, into a mere thing. From the standpoint of selfness and otherness, reification involves turning the human being, and its implied realities, into something either less or greater, or "other" than what it really is. "Otherness" and the anthropological construction of the other in the world can therefore be seen to be the inevitable consequence of the reification of the self in the world.

The role of reification in the symbolic boundary identification separating the anthropological self and other in the world brings back into focus the issue and problematics of the unavoidable "subjectiveness" of our anthropological knowledge. Martin Buber, in his distinction between "I and Thou" (1958) notes the notes the necessary complementariness of two ways of knowing, but also the transcendent understanding and meta-relation which comes from the appreciation and union of identity with the subjectivity of the other, the sudden realization and reading of the separate and independent subjective self of the other as if an "unpetrified text"--as a sense of identity that no longer regards the other as a objective thing, as merely an extension of one's own ego-identity in the world. Eric Fromm reiterated this basic relation in his distinction between the authoritarian conscience and the religious conscience, and so too Abraham Maslow in his distinction between fear-motivated and love-motivated ways of knowing.

Most ethnographies have failed to accomplish this feat of establishing, via the text, a transcendent meta-relation between the anthropological "ego" as observer and the other. Even those few accounts addressing the subjective other only barely accomplish such meta-relation, and never without critical reservations--Kevin Dwyer's Morroccan Dialogues, Paul Radin's Crashing Thunder, Ganath Obeyeskere's Medussa's Hair, Vincent Crapanzano's Tuhami, Oscar Lewis' The Children of Sanchez, Sidney Mintz Worker in the Cane, George Devereux's Reality and Dream (1951), and none of these as fully as possible or uncritically without a veneer of Western-styled objectification and reification or with the sublime power of John Neihardt's poetic Black Elk Speaks (that is also not without authorial voice and bias.) This seems to be a form of relation that is more approachable through autobiography than biography per se--perhaps because it involves as much a journey in self-discovery as it does an exploration of otherness.

Several important points emerge from this consideration of the necessary relations between self and other in the world. First, the complexity of subjective human reality is such that the multiplicity of factors which impinge upon any one person's life, that unique bundle of things and their relations upon which we confer a name and refer to as an individual personality, render that life fundamentally incommensurable in any but a superficial and conditional way to any other person's life. It follows that social measures of identity which take a nomothetic, classificatory or statistical approach to human reality necessarily cross-cuts and undermines the possibility for the kind of biographical, historical, idiographic and longitudinal perspective which is only capable of dealing with human subjectivity, hence otherness, in its own terms. In other words, human reality cannot be conveniently or sufficiently comprehended in spurious objective terms that label, analytically dissect, and categorize the "things and relations" which constitute subjective identity. A corollary of this in understanding of the phenomena of modern evil, is its bureaucratically reinforced impersonalness which constitutes an implicit denial of the subjective value of the other. The capitalist exploiter cannot afford to personally know the existential plight of those whom s/he exploits. The slave owner must necessarily deny the humanness of her/his slave. The upper class must paternalistically regard the lower classes as if unsophisticated and childlike in nature. The true sign of any fascist sycophant is her/his cold dedication to an anonymous, "larger than life" order, and denial of the subjectivity of those whom s/he persecutes.

Secondly, we must again acknowledge the paramount significance which the symbolic legitimization and validation of the subjectivity of both self and other entail for our world. The journey in discovery of the otherness in the world is inseparable from the journey in self-discovery, and only by discovering the other within us can we hope to come to genuinely understand the self in others. Perhaps the most we can hope to find in our anthropological explorations of the human field is a more genuine sense of our own identity.

Finally, only by widening our boundaries for the tolerance and incorporation of human differences in the world, as well as in the possibilities within ourselves, can we hope to create a more peaceful and more human world. Our greatest anthropological challenge is the problem posed by our own subjectivity in the world.




Identity cannot exist without a sense of difference, nor can Difference exist without a sense of identity. We cannot recognize identity without the recognition of difference in the world. Human identity in the world is measured in contrast to differences. Human differences are weighed by one's sense of human identity. Cultural variation in the world constitutes a relational field for the dialectic of Identity and Difference; it is the role of the dialectic of anthropology to embrace and explicate this dialectic.

The concepts of both Self and Other exist in terms of the dialectic of Identity and Difference. The. The identity of the self could not be defined except by contrast to the difference of the other, and, similarly, the difference of the other could not be constituted but by the identity of the self.

Concepts of Identity and Difference, and of Self and Other, are relational concepts of anthropological knowledge. As relational concepts, they are ordinal, continuous variables that lack any fixed referents, though they constitute the ground of the field of reference and inference in human reality. They describe the basic dialectical dimensionality characteristic of anthropological understanding. They confer upon the relational field a differential topography of anthropological saliency.

Identity is never complete or total, difference is never absolute. Self and other cannot exist independently of one another. Self and other merge as a single anthropological relation in the world, one that is nevertheless multifaceted and variably defined.

The illusion of our knowledge and our reason are that the world is fundamentally dichotomized--self is separate from other, identity is the opposite of difference, and this illusion results in our failure to realize the original undichotomized unity of the basic dialectical relation. We rely upon this dichotomization of reality in order to disambiguate an otherwise ambiguous experience of the world. When we speak of finding the other within us, or of recognizing in others ourselves, and when we speak of the Identity of difference and the difference of Identity, we are recognizing and acknowledging this original, a priori unity of the dialectical relation, and are attempting to reconstruct its sense of unity from behind our reason.

We find identity and security with the familiar, and difference and fear in the strange. We tend to find in identity the collective center which gives our life a sense of completeness, balance, focus. We find in difference the threat of relativistic tendencies, chaos, lack of a center of balance. And yet there can be no center without an edge, no left without a right.

If we look for difference in others, then what we discover is the difference within ourselves. We we seek identity in the world, we then discover ourselves in others.


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05