As half of a signifying binary, the “Other” is a term with a rich and lengthy philosophical history dating at least from Plato’s Sophist, in which the Stranger participates in a dialogue on the ontological problems of being and non-being, of the One and the Other.1 In the twentieth century, this Platonic mix of ontology with alterity informs the work of Emmanuel Levinas, who is countered by Simone de Beauvoir, who influences feminist philosophers, who influence theorists of political, racial, and sexual identity—forming a great chain of inquiry into being.2 Additional philosophical perspectives on Otherness abound, and Hegel (via Kojève), Heidegger, and Sartre all present important statements on alterity. In this century, Jacques Lacan’s place in the history of alterity is unique, however, because Lacan insists on a decentering of Otherness that parallels his much-discussed decentering of the Subject. Specifically, Lacan explores an intrapsychic Otherness different from the Other of interpersonal theories of identity and distinct from the philosophical problem of Other Minds—a problem grounded in solipsism rather than narcissism.
Unlike his contemporaries, Lacan postulates a gap between an Other and an other that echoes a gap between the Subject and the ego. These twin decenterings imply Lacan’s symbolic and imaginary registers, since the “decentering of the Subject” is another way of saying that the Subject and the ego inhabit disjunct registers. Likewise, the disjunction between the symbolic linguistic Other and the imaginary mirroring other signifies a decentering of the former from the latter. Taken together, these two decenterings articulate a post-humanist subjectivity at odds with contemporary constructions of the “Other” as a person, particularly a person who is marginal or subversive in some way. This conceptual disjunction between theories of a humanized Other and Lacan’s radically alterior Otherness suggests a gap between the two approaches. Ironically, though, discussions that humanize the Other frequently cite Lacan, so it seems valuable to ask why.
Lacan’s rhetoric in and of itself invites his readers to overlook his decentering of the Other. Sometimes Lacan refers to the symbolic Other as the big Other and the imaginary other as the little other, but for the most part Lacan simply uses capitalization to distinguish the Other from the other. Though no reader would misread “Subject” for “ego,” the much subtler rhetorical distinction between “Other” and “other” can easily be missed—especially if readers don’t supplement the explicit discourse of alterity with the implicit discourse of the registers. Since Lacan discusses the Other topically without any explicit reference to the registers, his readers are often called upon to supply the implicit theoretical context. Envision the fate of the casual reader of Lacan who, interested in British literature, picks up Seminar VII on ethics to read “Courtly Love as Anamorphosis.” This reader sees: “In many cases, it seems that a function like that of a blessing or salutation is for the courtly lover the supreme gift, the sign of the Other as such, and nothing more” (152). Lacking the implied but unspecified discursive context of the registers, this reader can easily take Lacan’s “sign of the Other” to be a token received from an “Other” person. Only familiarity with Lacan’s theory of the registers allows his reader to grasp the intrapsychic “sign of the Other” as a decentering connection with the signifier in the unconscious that the courtly lover mis/takes for transcendence. Similarly, when Lacan writes in Seminar II that “the obsessional is always an other” he is talking about the obsessional’s ego-involvement, not the obsessional’s loss of identity. Again, Lacan’s point assumes the registers, allying the obsessional with the rhetorically explicit “other” and alienating the obsessional from the discursively implicit “Other.” Lacking the framework of the theory of the registers, a reader would be hard pressed to unravel either of these Lacanian invocations of alterity.
The currency of the idea of the Other in theory generally makes the reading of the decentered Other in Lacan even more difficult. The contemporary idea of the Other rooted in area studies inscribes itself in theories of race, class, and gender and reinscribes...