Archive for July, 2012

July 23, 2012

Necessity and Alterity

Indeed, it has been a while since I wrote in this blog, owing to the sudden resurgence of things to do, namely, work and graduate studies. I guess the rather “intense” blogging I’ve done back in summer was symptomatic of my boredom.

But what brings me to write again? Let me share with you something I experienced not too long ago.

I’ve been a regular in Starbucks in Katipunan, and, because of the rather inclement weather lately, have always been taking the tricycle ride back home. While I was heading to the trike station, one of the drivers called me and offered to bring me to my place. Having been on the receiving end of two robberies in the past, fear was gnawing my insides: could this be another hold-up? Reluctantly, and clearly, with shock in my face, I went inside the tricycle. None of my fears came true, and indeed, I arrived safe in my place. While paying the driver, I remarked “buti naalala mo ako kuya,” or loosely translated as “I’m surprised that you remember me.”

What he said provided me the impetus to write and reflect on this blog: “parati tayong nagkakasalubong, hindi mo lang alam” (we always cross paths, you just don’t notice it).

Experiences such as the one I narrated above remind me of what philosophers of old and new have tried to articulate despite the limits of our language: the reality of otherness. Indeed, an experience like no other, precisely because the other cannot be subsumed under the categories of the same; the other is always other-ing, held by the irreconcilable gap between self and otherwise-than-the-self. One could not even speak of the other “moving away” oneself since it already implies that the other came from the self.

The strangeness of whoever is other than myself has always struck me as uncanny, most precisely in the sense that Heidegger uses unheimlich – a sense of drawing away from myself. The other distances myself from myself. Certainly it was an experience like no other when the tricycle driver told me that he has always recognized me, and that it was I who didn’t notice. Why didn’t I notice? To be sure, that experience of otherness also raised within me a more troubling and disturbing question: have I really closed myself in the face of the other? The other is like a specter, like a ghost: I’ve always said they can’t be true, until they make themselves manifest, as if in the most corporeal manner, in front of my very eyes. It is this event of manifestation that draws oneself into his or her own otherness: why had he noticed, and I have not? As if the other knew me more than I knew myself. One is reminded of Augustine’s wonder at the utter nearness of God, “even closer to me than I am to myself.”

The experience of the other pulls me away from myself because the other makes his or her alterity manifest in the utter nearness of the event. What do I mean here? That the other is other precisely because I have never even bothered to take notice of what is utterly near. Even if the other was utterly near, I have failed to recognize that other.

Feelings of shame and disgust abound: in all that I do I strive to give focus on the alterity of the other. It is only now that I realize that to give focus to the other is to lose its otherness. For the longest time it was always me speaking on behalf of the other, while forgetting the more originary act of speaking to the other, face to face.

But I guess it will always be the case, for if one could recognize the other immediately, then it could not possibly be an other. What do I mean here? – That the other must necessarily displace, disturb, decenter oneself from oneself. There is no anticipation possible – the alterity of the other is necessarily a surprise. The encounter with the other will always, in the most pathological sense of the word, hurt.

Looking back at the experience, it was quite a surprise indeed. So surprising that it has pushed me to reflect on it. No wonder Levinas always spoke of the other – who knows what he has seen in the Holocaust. If the other has this power to take me away from myself in this most mundane of situations, what more of the experiences that cannot be articulated: the religious experience, bearing witness to extreme suffering, the jouissance of life?

Indeed, it is difficult to speak of the other, let alone speaking to their faces. One can only testify to the event, like a prophet in a strange land, a land obsessed with similarity and order. And here we reach the limits of language: to articulate what cannot be articulated. Except, perhaps, a word of gratitude, for indeed, the voice of gratitude knows no boundaries between self and other, while maintaining the gap between them, like the saturated phenomenon of every utterance of the most mundane address we give to God, amen:

Salamat, kuya Buboy.

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