The Eye of the Other

~ A fascinating concept to me is that of the “Other”; philosophically and psychologically speaking it describes the other human beings around us, constituted by the factor that they are not *you* and you cannot identify with them in the same way that you identify with yourself. Seems obvious. And yet, Others must exist for your own Self to; always, we define ourselves by our environment and the beings within it.

The concept of the Self requires the existence of the constitutive Other as the counterpart entity required for defining the Self

Hegel and Freud, Sartre and Beauvoir, Lacan and Levinas layer further understanding upon the conceptual Other and its effects as defined in philosophy, psychology and sociology. Terms like intersubjectivity (people’s mutual awareness of agreement or disagreement, or of understanding or misunderstanding each other), abjection (breakdown in the distinction between what is Self and what is Other), and alterity (term meaning “otherness”, that is, the “other of two”) arise when you read, among many other interconnected definitions and concepts. In fact, language itself – the key to our very consciousness – may entirely be the product of Other-influence upon us. 

In arguing that speech originates in neither the ego nor in the subject but rather in the other, Lacan stresses that speech and language are beyond the subject’s conscious control. They come from another place, outside of consciousness — “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other.”

~ Jacques Lacan
The Eyes ~ Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, 1937

My concern, both as a philosopher and a person, is the effect of the Other upon me. Or the effect of a lack of Other(s) upon me. I have been thinking about how the feeling of people’s attention upon you necessarily changes your behavior, if not your thoughts as well. It is interesting to me how easily, naturally such changes come into place.

If someone asks you a question, you immediately start thinking of your potential answer.

If someone else smiles at you, you feel the instinctive pull to reciprocate it.

If someone needs help, you start moving toward them before you know why.

Biologically speaking, we are in tune to our environment for survival reasons. But even in the lower stakes of modernity, in conversation or relations of romance or work, our responsiveness to the people around us is staggering. When we find their eyes, we can find ourselves. I honestly find it beautiful.

But what happens to someone without the eyes of Others consistently upon them? As in questions of morality and ethics, what of considerations for who you become when nobody is looking? Can any of us survive without the attention — the love — of Others?

To my eye, the gaze of Others upon us makes us more self-conscious, but also more self-aware. Others watching our actions in the world make us more nervous, but also more diligent. Your friends and enemies both change your mood. Others, Big (authority, laws, institutions) and Little (the reflection of our ego in the world), help shape us into who we are.

Our own consciousness is constantly shifting due to the shifts in consciousness happening around us, to us.

Can we know who we truly are — can we individuate — without the eyes of others to guide us? Can those closest to us fully individuate without our presence unto them?

~

I recently re-played through Mass Effect 2, one of the greatest sci-fi RPGs of all time in my honest opinion (and for many others). In one scene, while in conscientious conversation with one your crewmates {one of the best aspects of the game, just shooting the shit with your various human and alien comrades in between missions), your player character — Commander Shepard — tells Thane, a drell assassin with a photographic memory, who is an extreme loner, the following:

“The rest of us lose as much as you do when you hold yourself apart.”

Shepard — you — are trying to tell Thane that he doesn’t have to be alone. But not only that, the message lands hard upon Thane’s psyche {and my own} as it conveys deeper truths: solitude can be selfish, and it can be harmful to more than just the one alone.

How much does the community lose when someone is no longer a part of it? If that decision is in your hands — to be apart from the others, or together alongside them — then you must consider the totality of your action to Others beyond just your Self.

~

I will end this reflection on Others with a quotation from an article I read recently on Aeon, by Ruth Feldman, called “The Biology of Love: Humans teeter on a knife’s edge. The same deep chemistry that fosters bonding can, in a heartbeat, pivot to fear and hate

It really drives home a pervading truth regarding Others, social interaction and potential social tranquility, and the power of faces to our understanding of our world, morally speaking:

“Is there a solution to the human condition? Given that human love is layered over blind forces that react automatically to the slightest sign of danger, is there any chance for redemption, or are we bound to endless cycles of aggression and destruction?

“While any random look at human history tells a grim story and gives ample evidence for a hopeless view, I see three types of solutions based on the work of three great thinkers. I call them ‘face’ (the Levinas solution), ‘light’ (the Freud solution), and ‘humour’ (the Kundera solution). Each witnessed fear and cruelty under pressure, and the immense destruction brought by war. Each in his own way tries to free us from the natural way that our brain interprets the world.

“The first of these, the ‘Levinas solution’, is based on the work of the 20th-century French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and his recognition of ‘the face’. How can one create an account of the world that describes what ‘is’ (ontology) without resorting to unchanged, abstract, or metaphysical ideas (the work of Parmenides, Plato, and Descartes come to mind)? How can one ground existence in the daily experience of the self-within-the world (as Martin Heidegger does) without placing the self as the cornerstone of all that is knowable? Levinas suggests that the ‘Other’, as presented through the Other’s face, defines unknown territory that cannot be immediately incorporated into the self. That Other, that face, argues Levinas, substantiates the self and, upon seeing the Other’s face, the only possible response is: ‘Here I am,’ fully committed to that person’s wellbeing and safety or, in Levinas’s words: ‘To see a face is already to hear: “thou shalt not kill”.’ Only then can true knowledge — that is, knowledge that can reach the stars, as Levinas says in Totality and Infinity (1961) — be acquired.

“I spent countless hours microcoding videos of parent-infant face-to-face interactions, gradually coming to understand that only upon the parent’s attuned face, careful echo and radiant smile can the infant build a bridge to a reality that is often harsh, painful and oblivious. ‘At first was the gaze,’ says the Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos; humans need a loving gaze to start on their life’s road. Looking at your enemy’s face, we hypothesised, makes it impossible to wish him harm.”

“The face, as Levinas maintains, indeed compels us, even neurally, to save the Other from pain.”