Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Other

It is the nature of short essays or speeches that they can at best explore the surface of an idea. This is a surprisingly difficult task, since ideas worth exploring usually need to be approached with some rigor. The easy use of the speech form is to promote an idea to listeners or readers who already share a common view - that is one reason speeches are effective forms for political persuasion for rallying true believers. It's much more difficult to create new vantage points or vistas into a new world - a sense of something grander that calls for further exploration.

Yet this is exactly what Ryszard Kapuscinski accomplishes in his series of talks published as The Other. Here, the Polish journalist builds on his experience and most importantly on the reflections on the Lithuanian-Jewish philosopher Emmanual Levinas to reflect on how the encounter with the Other in a broad, cross cultural sense is the defining event - and opportunity - in late (or post) modernity. For Kapuscinski, the Other is the specifically the non-European cultures in which he spent most of his career as a journalist. For another reader it might be someone very much like Kapuscinski himself.

There are three simple points that Kapuscinski raises that bear attention:

1) The era we live in provides a unique, interpersonal opportunity for encounter with the Other - which is to say that we are neither in the area of relative isolation from the Other that dominated much of human history nor are we any longer in the phase of violent domination that marked the period of European colonial expansion. We have a chance to make space for encounter to be consistently about engagement and exchange, rather than conflict.

2) This encounter cannot primarily technical, its must be interpersonal. Technical means are not only anonymous but more conducive to inculcating mass culture rather than creating space for authentic personal engagement. The current period of human history - post industrial, urbanized, technological - is given to mass culture, mass movements, as a rule - this is accelerated by globalization and communications advances. And while it is clear that the early "psychological" literature of the crowd - and I am thinking not only of the trajectory set by Gustave LeBon, but the later and more mature reflections of Ortega y Gasset - were primarily reactionary, nonetheless they point consistently to the fact that the crowd involves not just a loss of identity, but a loss of the individual: it leaves little room for real encounter and exchange.

While the increasing ability to encounter different cultures offers the possibility of real engagement,  at the same time modern mass culture is the number one threat to the Other - in that it subordinates the value of whatever is unique to whatever is both common and most importantly sellable. In visiting Ukraine over the last few years, what fascinated me the most were the things that made the country uniquely Ukrainian. Following a recent trip, I noted the following in a piece by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on a visit to Karapchiv: "The kids here learn English and flirt in low-cut bluejeans. They listen to Rihanna, AC/DC and Taylor Swift. They have crushes on George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, watch “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” and play Grand Theft Auto. The school here has computers and an Internet connection, which kids use to watch YouTube and join Facebook. Many expect to get jobs in Italy or Spain — perhaps even America."

What here makes the Other both unique and beautiful is being obliterated by mass culture. Kristof is, of course, a cheerleader for this tragedy, but the true opportunity Kapuscinski asks us to look for ways to build up and offer support in encounter.

3) Lastly and most importantly, for encounter with the Other to be one of mutual recognition and sharing, the personal encounter must have an ethical basis. Kapuscinski observes that the first half of the last century was dominated by Husserl and Heidegger - in other words by epistemic and ontological models. It is no accident, I think, that the same century was marred by enormities wrought by totalizing ideologies - where ethics is subordinated entirely, ideology can rage out of control. Kapuscinski follows Levinas in response - ultimately seeing the Other as a source of ethical responsibility is an imperative of the first order.

The diversity of human cultures is, as Solzhenitzyn rightly noted, the "wealth of mankind, its collective personalities; the very least of them wears its own special colors and bears within itself a special facet of God's design." And yet is only if we can encounter the Other in terms of mutual respect and self-confidence, in terms of exchange and recognition of value in the Other, that we can actually see the Other as a treasure - one that helps ground who I am as much as reveals the treasure for what it is. And this is our main challenge - the other paths, conflict and exclusion, are paths we cannot afford to tread.

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