Other, Self, and the Fictitious Identity

Humani Victus Instrumenta,
       or The Instruments of Human Sustenance.  Also the heading image for the wikipedia series on Cyborgs

One of the things that fascinates me the most within the realm of Fantasy and Sci-fi is the presentation of morality systems with the concept of the “other.” Much has been written about otherness, and what I’m writing here is in no way going to be a comprehensive review of this very broad, heavily debated topic, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I want to share some of my thoughts.

Conceptually, the Other is simply that which is not the Self. In the broadest terms this is everything that surrounds us without being us. I am Me, and you are You. In this way, almost everything can be an other. Of course, while most people see themselves as individuals, we also see ourselves as part of communities, nationalities, and cultures. In this way the “We” can be the self as well as the “I.” The average person doesn’t go about their day thinking of every person, animal, and object they encounter as an object of Otherness. A person builds their identity out of the people they are surrounded by, by the ideologies they accept, and by objects that comfort them. These things build up a sense of the self, but not all things can be justified to fit in the world of the “self,” things will have opposites and oppositions – these necessitate the birth of the Other. The Other is often categorized as the mysterious, the dangerous, and the misguided

Occasionally the Other can be something desirable – or at least it can be fetishized – but in these cases the Other is usually tied somehow to the existence of the Self, if often in the broadest terms. Consider that God (in the Christian sense) is usually portrayed as being all-powerful and beyond human comprehension, nonetheless we are all shaped in God’s image and we can all strive to feel the love of God. God, then, could be called a Utopian Other – the Other of the perfect which we do not have but desire. It is an Other that is present in every human, and therefore it doesn’t seem to be an other at all. Naturally we never consider the thought that “The creator wanted to look away form himself; so he created the world.” (The Portable Nietzsche,Thus Spoke Zarathustra: First Part, 143), just as we create the Other to distance ourselves from our sins.

All presentations of Self and Other form problematic dichotomies: Me vs. You, Us vs. Them, God vs. Devil, Good vs. Evil. If the Other is undesirable, then the self is good. Ironically, the Other is almost certainly another Self, and if both Selves see only Others, then the dichotomy will be strengthened by mutual suspicion and fear:

All sins are hoisted by the Other, a role that requires reappointment periodically. They are the dystopia so we must be the utopia. It can be a mutually beneficial relationship for those it benefits.” (Imaginary Cities, 444)

The consequences are reminiscent of the ever-warring factions of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia in 1984, whose mutual hatred only furthers their alikeness.

Fantasy and Science Fiction, being the playgrounds of speculation, have a long history of utilizing the Self-Other dichotomy. Some works have supported it, some have subverted it, some have simply sought to question it.

Fantasy has, more often than not, utilized the other as the villain. Consider the classic Tolkien creation of the Orc. Orcs are inherently ugly, cruel, ignorant, and hateful. They are creatures that suffer, that can create no beauty, and are inherently “savage.” The Black Speech (not explicitly an Orcish language, but one with ties to the Orcs) is supposed to be harsh and unpleasant and is even described as accursed. The Orcs represent a specific idea of evil. Tolkien, ever the scholar, based his concepts of the Orcs off of other mythologies and folklore – in particular the various types of Goblins that exist – but this only further identifies the Orcs as a representation of a very real Otherness that is present in Western culture. It is interesting to note that the Orcish prototype of Grendel from Beowulf is described as a child of Cain, a Biblical character that has come to represent the internalized Other of the Freudian Id and Jungian Shadow. (It is also an interesting coincidence that the Biblical “curse” of “mark” of Cain has been utilized as a tool of racial subjugation through the assumption that the mark was black skin, suggesting to White slave owners that people of Color had been cursed by God for the acts of the archetypal murderer Cain). The fact that the Orc has survived in the Western psyche through many different iterations only furthers the implications of what they represent. This isn’t to say that such assumptions haven’t been turned on their heads – orcs in World of Warcraft, D&D, and the Supermutants of New Vegas have been portrayed as intelligent, wise, and cultured to different degrees, but there’s usually still a bitter taste of “barbarianism” attached to their portrayal.

In the RPG system of Burning Wheel, a system that prides itself for its mechanical implementation of roleplaying, the Orcs are described thusly:

Twisted, tortured, and fulgent with hate, these cousins of the Elves exist in a culture that is a cruel mockery of civilization – one of fear and brutality, a society of the whip.” (The Burning Wheel Gold Edition, 235)

Things are further complicated by the implementation of the Hatred mechanic where

If an Orc’s Hatred should ever reach exponent 10, he snaps. He either commits suicide (in an orgy of bloodletting) or retreats into catatonia.” (The Burning Wheel Gold Edition, 241)

While there’s an implication of harmful cultural practices that effect the Orcish worldview, there’s an even greater suggestion that Orcs are “bad” by nature. Even though the book tries to make Orcs more sympathetic by pointing out

These Orcs are not mindless, savage brutes hell-bent on flexing their muscles while screaming gibberish. Burning Wheel Orcs are a little more complex. First, they are cowards. Ninety percent of the Orcs created in these life paths are going to have an incredibly high hesitation, which means they flinch from pain and run from danger… Second, these Orcs have a culture firmly embedded in their life paths. Every time you make an Orc, you are birthing the product of a brutal, callous society, beholden to hatred and focused on unreasoning revenge…

and also suggests that it is entirely possible to portray orcs differently

I’ve seen some inspiring examples where Orcs are part of a tapestry of civilized cultures in a game world, no better or worse off than any of their brethren. If that’s your desire simply shake the Tolkien out of your head and think “wiry, smart, tough bastards,” and you should be fine…

there’s still the suggestion of a primal evil in the fact that players are still recommended to

Keep the Hatred, though. It’s just too fun not to play with.” (The Burning Wheel Gold Edition, 250)

If the goal is to play a complex character, why is Hatred necessary to play an Orc? Even if Hatred does add a personal conflict, it still carries strange implications to the nature of Orcs as creatures and the portrayal of morality within the game’s rules.

Games that use morality as part of their rule set are inherently problematic because they will almost always utilize the Self/Other problem. The most prominent example is, perhaps, the Light Side/Dark Side meter of the Knights of the Old Republic. Games like Fallout (and KOTOR II) have made an effort to question these mechanics, but there’s still the implication of a true “good” and true “evil” within the game worlds. The morality/ethics graph of Dungeons & Dragons also makes clear presumptions about the existence of good and evil as tangible substances within the game world, but at least D&D is broad enough and flexible enough to allow (and sometimes encourage) these rules be changed and subverted.

Science Fiction has generally had a better reputation regarding the Other, perhaps because Sci-Fi is based on the possibilities of the Future where Fantasy is so often built of the systems and assumptions of the past:

Science fiction often smooths the introduction of new technologies by exploring their meaning, ethics, sanguine visions, and dystopian possibilities in advance of their existence.” (Polystate)

In Science Fiction the Other is just as often a threat as it is a savior – the Creature from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (considered by many to be the first science fiction novel) is at once the unrecognizable Other, and the reflection of the human. For every story of alien invasion (War of the Worlds, Independence Day) there is one of alien redemption (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Stranger in a Strange Land), and, of course, there are those where humans become more than human (Lilith’s Brood, Dune, Altered Carbon). In futures like Mass Effect we are presented with various aliens that represent possibilities for a better humanity, as well as creatures that represent the completely (often malevolent) “non-human.” Even in the posthuman game Eclipse Phase – a game which actively eschews embodiment of gender, race, and species in favor of an identity of fluid consciousness – there exists a “big bad” in the form of the antagonistic TITAN AIs. Of course, while the Universe must, by necessity, contain elements that human consciousness cannot comprehend, it seems odd that they are always antagonistic, repulsive, and capable of destroying humanity. These incomprehensible beasties of cosmic destruction, whether a rogue AI or some kind of slumbering God, usually draw inspiration from the work of H.P. Lovecraft. But so many are quick to overlook the discriminatory implications that Lovecraft’s creations carry:

the fears that generated Lovecraft’s stories and opinions were precisely those of the white, middle ‐ class, heterosexual, Protestant – descended males who were most threatened by the shifting power relationships and values of the modern world.” (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, xiii)

The TITANS of Eclipse Phase may be based on the more rational fear of scientific advancement, but we shouldn’t forget that the fear of the Other is a fear of ourselves, and that fear itself can be more dangerous than the Other.

One of the problems that we face in the modern world is that societies will increasingly diversify. While this is, on the whole, a good thing, the more we encounter differences the more we will feel threatened in the present. The abundance of personal choice – choice of ownership, choice of religion, choice of identity – further advances diversity, and also provokes the feelings of fear that change brings. As unpleasant as it is for the left to admit, when a society is full of people who are alike”internal costs of organization may be substantively reduced,” (Polystate) which means less internal strife, even if homogeneity slows down political and technological progress. The apparent success of tribalism isn’t necessarily that they are more spiritual or have a more complete worldview, it’s that tribes live as primarily homogeneous units, and opposing tribes are a convenient “other” to project problems onto.

Living in a society where choice  (that is, personal liberty) is not just a necessity, but a goal, it becomes problematic when the number of “Selves” and “Others” expands with the inclusion of every new choice. Often times the solution is presented as a “synthesis.” The idea of the inclusive community, the bringing together of the Self and Other into and Us. This idea, while appealing, isn’t really so much of a solution as an inevitability. If oppositions exist, and they always do, they will eventually destroy themselves by combining. This creates a new “self” but it creates new “others” as well. Perhaps, instead of looking at the broad, various Selves and Others that exists in all communities, we should look at ourselves.

People are made of choices. We grow up through the actions we perform, the experiences those create, and the consequences that follow. One of the major problems – at least in the American psyche – is that our actions are ours alone, that we have conscious control over our identities. This isn’t really the case. We make choices, yes, and these choices build us, but there are infinite outside influences that control the choices that are presented to us. We need to shed the skin of choice to look into who we really are. Is being Patrick  determined by the mere choices and experiences of my life? I don’t think so. Patrick  isn’t a gender, Patrick  isn’t an age, Patrick  isn’t an action. As Donna Haraway wrote in her Feminist Cyborg Manifesto:

Consciousness of exclusion through naming is acute. Identities seem contradictory, partial, and strategic. With the hard-won recognition of their social and historical constitution, gender, race, and class cannot provide the basis for belief in ‘essential’ unity. There is nothing about teeing ‘female’ that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices.

Gender isn’t the only false identity. The only identity you can have is yourself. We must erase the superficiality we bind to ourselves to see the innocent, true “being” beneath. We must become children again:

Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled of creation, my brothers, a sacred ‘Yes.’” (Thus Spoke Zarathustra: First Part, 139)

We are the culmination of all things around us, but we are not defined by each of these elements, none of them exist in a vacuum. When the individual examines all of the Otherness that surrounds them, they should learn to see that it is everything. We are all Others because we are all selves. We carry our own sins and choices within us, we isolate and connect ourselves. We are aliens and humans and cyborgs and orcs. We are identities, monstrous identities, alone as ourselves.


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