Note 4: On The Creation of the Other. 3/18/99

Derek Attridge, in a recent paper in PMLA 114: (January 1999), 20-31, entitled "Innovation, Literature, Ethics: Relating to the Other," has argued that connecting to the other involves or engages "agency and activity: to be truly creative is to wrest from the familiar the hitherto unthought, to bring into existence by skillful and imaginative intellectual labor an entity that is absolutely different from what is already in being" (21). Attridge does concede the fact that some of the ideas he labors to bring into existence do "seem to be 'out there' rather than simply nonexistent," as most poststructuralists argue in the sense that language must exist before ideas are possible, but he does insist that many of his ideas seem to spring from places other than those associated with "existing, conscious, mental materials" that he already possesses. He also notes that he does not mean to suggest that there is a "mystical . . . exterior agent" responsible for his unrealized mental content. On the basis of his experience of the "out thereness" of certain half-formulated concepts, he argues that some part of his own sense of self can be said to come into existence on the strength of his having created the other as a new text, a new articulation of half-conceived ideas. Put in his own words, Attridge says that

"The coming into being of the wholly new requires some relinquishment of intellectual control, and the other is a possible name for that to which control is ceded. Furthermore, if the settled patterns of my mental world have been so freed up that the truly other finds a welcome, my subjectivity will have been altered in some degree, and thus . . . the self too can be said to be a creation of the other." (21)

Several problems arise from a view of the other that stresses its nature as a "wholly new" created thing or entity. In the first place, to a person who has lived most of his/her life as the embodiment of everything Eurocentric discourse has traditionally referred to as the other, Attridge's tendency to objectify my own sense of being in the world by equating my existence with that of just another text or idea made available for European scrutiny, even when he claims the highest moral or ethical intent of "reading" me with "responsibility," is an insult so egregious to my integrity as a human being that no amount of moralistic bullshit falling on my ear out of his mouth will ever convince me that he intends anything except the deepest and most lasting harm imaginable. I am not something created by Eurocentric agency. I am not something "wholly new." In fact, my existence as a thinking, living human entity, with a fully formed intellectual and philosophical relationship to the natural universe, is certainly as old, if not considerably older than, anything someone named Attridge can possibly conceive or lay claim to as his own.

Attridge specifies what he means by responsibility for the other when he says that

"What I am concerned with here is responsibility for the other, which is significantly different from responsibility to the other. . . . Responsibility for the other involves assuming the other's needs, being willing to be called to account for the other, surrendering one's goals and desires in deference to the other's" (27, emphasis Attridge's).

What is most troubling about this statement is the long history of Eurocentric exploitation of the other in the service of European greed for the material possessions that have been ruthlessly extracted from tribal lands whenever and wherever they have fallen into European hands. The only thing I can say about this patronistic bullshit, from a native American point of view, is to emphasize the fact that I do not want to have any European take responsibility for my needs. That has always been the problem with Eurocentric perceptions of the other: the belief that we are not capable of doing for ourselves what is best for us. What Europeans really mean when they say things like this is that we are supposed to bend our backs and assume the burden of doing what they have always tried to force us to do for them. The idea that any European will ever surrender his/her "goals and desires in deference" to ours is both ludicrous and unbelievable. Can this idiot actually believe that after 500 years of oppression and exploitation at the hands of Europeans that native people anywhere are going to welcome yet again the patronistic verbiage about Europeans taking responsibility for their acts of genocide against us? Put simply: when Attridge brings himself literally to the dock to be tried for crimes against humanity and willingly submits to 500 years of forced labor in a concentration camp, like the ones his ancestors created for native Americans all over north America (reservations), then I for one will take his statement to heart and will concede that he really is "willing to be called to account for the other." Until he does that, however, I will simply wait out his passage through the troubled world of his own bad dreams and worst nightmares.

Another statement Attridge makes in connection with this same line of reasoning is that

"In the scenario of the inventive act with which I began this essay--the creation of a new text--the other is not a person; inevitably, we begin to wrench words a little when we talk of responsibility for this other. But this form of expression is one way of indicating the strange compulsion involved in creative behavior, a compulsion that is manifest in a minor way as I grope for sentences to articulate ideas that do not have any substantial existence before the sentences come to me and is much more consequential in major acts of inventiveness, verbal or otherwise. It is a compulsion that leads to risk, a crucial concept in any consideration of creativity. Since by definition there can be no certainty in opening oneself to the other, every such opening is a gamble. I trust the other before I know what the other will bring. . . . I affirm, cherish, sustain the other, not in spite of but because of its otherness, which is precisely what makes the other valuable to me, and without any guarantees I undertake to realize this otherness as fully as possible" (27).

The fact that Attridge concedes his discussion may tend to "wrench words a little" when he reduces the other to a purely material and objective condition, to a mere text, as he calls us, does not excuse, or even effectively conceal, the harshly brutal reality that Europeans have always perceived the other as a mere objective fact, mostly of an obstructionist character, brought to their attention through, and solely because of, their imperialistic expansionism into parts of the world where the dominant color of human beings is non-white. This condition of color has always indicted to them that the entities they encounter outside the limits of their own cultural environment are essentially and necessarily inferior to Eurocentric standards and norms of existence. That is why it is so easy, if not natural, for Attridge to make his claim that the other is a text. He accomplishes that violence against humanity with effortless grace, thoughtlessly, as it were, because this transposition of person into object has always been inscribed on the heart of people given to logocentric ranting since their heathen ancestors were forcibly converted to Christian dogma and delusionalism at the beginning of the first millennium.

As noted elsewhere in this document, the concepts of hierarchy and creationism (especially when the latter is language based) ride fist-in-glove through every corner of the world where people of color have been exploited by Eurocentric greed. If you do not understand what I am saying here look at the final two statements of this passage. Attridge affirms that the other is "valuable" to him precisely because "it" is the other--that is, precisely because "it" is not his own but someone else's. And from that assertion he claims to "cherish" and "sustain" the other. But why do that at all if your objective is other than exploitation driven by greed for that which is not already your own? He says this explicitly: "without any gaurantees I undertake to realize this otherness as fully as possible." Sure, you can argue that this statement is benign, even in some way ethically or morally laudable, which is the general subject of the essay in question, as long as you are clearly certain that the only thing Attridge is talking about is a text. But, and on the other hand, if you suffer from being the object of Eurocentric "cherishing" for going on five hundred years, like any native American does, his statement is anything but harmless and benign.

One last sentence before I go. Attridge claims that he is willing to take risks when he approaches the other, that every encounter with the other is a "gamble," that he is willing to "trust the other before I know what the other will bring." In the neighborhood where I live, he would last about two hours before someone with a darker skin than his owned everything he carries with him in his pockets. Attridge, of course, gives himself and all other Europeans a comfortable way out of the commitment he pretends to make when he notes that "[t]he other that is brought into being may turn out to be a monstrosity" (28). In the native America of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that is exactly what the European discovery of the other created--a truly monstrous confrontation between what had always already been here and what the Europeans brought with them when they ventured out of their own homelands and began the systematic, ruthless, amoral destruction of everything their endless greed told them was rightfully theirs by virtue of the fact that someone else already stood in possession of it. What amazes me the most is that someone can still make the same arguments 500 years after the genocide began.

To return to the Index click X in the upper right-hand corner of the page.

To view Myth of Eden Index click here.