- The Strangeness of Alterity
The problem of strangeness can be approached from different angles: aesthetic, sociological, psychological, cultural, etc. Strangeness can be found as well in the strangeness of experience: I as stranger to myself, or the strange place I find myself, or the strange people who surround me. These would enable us to uncover the uncanny (Freud, Heidegger), or discuss sociological notions of alienation (Marx) or the aesthetic method of ostranienie (Shklovsky, Brecht), just to mention a few additional accounts of strangeness. The goal of the present essay, however, is not to show various forms and aspects of strangeness, horizontally, as it were, but to address the very meaning of strangeness, intensively or vertically. Even more specifically, the present essay discusses the strange as at once that which comes from the outside and as that which addresses me.
In the first part, I present a general notion of strangeness, mainly concentrating on strangeness as what is peculiar or weird. Some studies by Bernhard Waldenfels will be considered here. In the second part, the problem of strangeness is examined in the context of Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophy, primarily in terms of his notion of personal otherness and the question of the link between strangeness and such [End Page 95] alterity. For the latter point of view, juxtaposing the difference and relatedness of strangeness and Levinasian alterity, we ask the question of if and of how alterity is strange.
First let us clarify what we usually or generally call strange. No doubt different languages uncover slightly different aspects, but in most cases in searching for the strange we bring up similar images: distant, unseen places — something like the lands of Gulliver’s Travels — with their unusual inhabitants and weird customs or distant times, past and future, with their unfamiliar communities and peculiar customs. We may even conjure aliens from undiscovered galaxies or fantastical creatures and monsters — unicorns, nymphs, vampires, dragons — or unusual and peculiar animals — a platypus, albino cave-dwelling fish, elephants. Perhaps unexplained earth phenomena, like Stonehenge, or seemingly paranormal events that are the inspiration for cults and imagination. We may encounter David Lynch’s Elephant Man or Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, or conjure the holy fool, madmen, the third little brother fool Ivan from the European fairytale, or even Prince Myshkin of Dostoyevsky. No doubt all these images do not coincide or cohere. They unveil various different aspects of strangeness: on one hand, we see that strangeness belongs to the realm of the imaginary while, on the other hand, it is part of the world; or, one may say, the latter has existence, or a more stable existence, while the former does not. What gives them a commonality, however, is that in each instance there is some disruption of order, of discourse, a shaking of the established conception of the world and knowledge, going beyond what is familiar, ordinary, and normal. In each case, there is something unusual, weird, peculiar. In each case, there is a putting into question of our aesthetical sensibilities, moral norms or practices, and epistemological knowledge. In other words, using Levinas’s vocabulary, this kind of the strange is a rupture in [End Page 96] the discourse of totality. By “totality” here we understand universalizing order, system, a way of thinking that does not allow otherness, exteriority, anomaly, differences, or, in some sense, strangeness. The univocal discourse of totality, of coherence and consistency without exception, is a discourse of violence because it must suppress even the possibility of ruptures in continuity: the other must be reduced to the same. Totality allows nothing discontinuous: everything must have a place, within, a part, not an exception.
The strange as the weird and peculiar, however, opens such a closed universe to discontinuity, variety, and heteronomy. According to Waldenfels, who has developed a phenomenology of the alien/strange with careful precision, strange as weird and peculiar applies to the order of things, to various forms of life and to forms of experience.1 Strangeness understood as difference in kind, as the peculiar, according to Waldenfels, might appear in various forms: (1) everyday strangeness that belongs to or occurs within...