Alterity is most common in philosophy and anthropology but has been become increasingly more common in social dialogue. The English words “alternative” and “alter ego” come from alterity, which is itself derived from the Latin word “alteritas.” The concept of alterity was explored comprehensively in “Altérité et transcendence” or “Alterity and Transcendence” by Emmanuel Levinas.
Definition of Alterity
The term alterity is used to describe “otherness.” It refers to someone or something that is different in a fundamental way from the norm or convention. Commonly, readers will find this word used in philosophical essays, such as those by thinkers like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Jean Baudrillard.
Alterity and the Other
In literature, it’s connected to the concept of the “other,” something that is opposite of the self or the same, as defined by philosophers like Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Edmund Husserl.
Famously, the term was described, through the use of intersubjectivity, by Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. He spoke on how the world is altered, or appears to be altered, by the appearance of “other.” One’s traditions and conventions are broken, and the “other” can be perceived as a threat to one’s existence. Another famous application of the concept is found within The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 book. She attributed the mistreatment of women to the concept of the other and the male-female dynamic.
Examples of Alterity
I, Too, Sing America by Langston Hughes
In this personal poem, Hughes writes about being “othered” by those who saw him, and other Black men, women, and children, as “less.” He proclaims his identity as an American despite everyone else’s protestations. He feels ostracized but maintains his strength in the face of adversity. Here are a few lines:
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
The speaker expresses hope, despite his current circumstances, that the future is going to change. One day, he and everyone who looks like him, are going to be treated equally. The “othering” that’s taken place throughout history is going to end.
Read more of Langston Hughes’s poems.
The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison
The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison is a short book that explores the concept of othering. It’s a collection of Morrison’s thoughts and experiences with race. It taps into some familiar themes that run throughout her novels, such as identity. She asks why the concept of “other” makes people so afraid and why humanity has to construct a concept of “other” to begin with.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
In Brontë’s well-loved novel, the author explores the idea of alterity and the other through her depiction of Bertha Mason. Bertha is Edward Rochester’s first wife and is an obstacle to Jane’s happiness with Rochester. She’s described as insane, violently so, and is locked in a room in Thornfield Hall. Brontë “others” her by alluding to her creole heritage, her illness, and unhappiness. Rochester married her for her wealth and beauty. He speaks about her in the novel with the following quote:
I thought I loved her. … Her relatives encouraged me; competitors piqued me; she allured me: a marriage was achieved almost before I knew where I was. Oh, I have no respect for myself when I think of that act! … I never loved, I never esteemed, I did not even know her.
Through these lines, he suggests that it was someone else’s fault, anyone but his own, that he married her before he knew her. He was too willing to have his name tied to hers (and her family was anxious to get her off their hands), and he did not take the time to get to know his future wife. Rochester also alludes to the fact that he wasn’t warned about the mental illness that ran in her family. Throughout the novel, she’s described as “savage” and is even compared to a “German vampire.”Brontë suggests that she has dark features, another way of othering her and using alterity to set her apart from the “norm.” She was “discoloured,” had a black face and dark hair.
Explore Charlotte Brontë’s poetry.
The Other by Ted Hughes
‘The Other’ is a love poem that talks about the role Sylvia Plath, Hughes’ wife, played in his life. He describes her as his “other self” and speaks about how her abundance contrasted with his insufficiencies. Her presence changed him, and he took a great deal from her. As the poem progresses, it comes clear that the speaker has some guilt in regard to how he took and took from her. He was possessive until “She had nothing.” In this way, the speaker describes reducing an example of “other” to her minimal qualities. Here are a few lines:
She had too much so with a smile you
Of everything she had you had
Absolutely nothing, so you took some.
At first, just a little.
Read other Ted Hughes poems.
In The Second Sex, Beauvoir uses the term “alterity” to describe and explain the way that women have been othered throughout history. There is a dynamic between male and female that means men are automatically going to try to control that which is different.
One might say, “It’s important to try to avoid alterity when meeting new people,” or “She’s exploring alterity in her new essay on male/female relationships.”
Otherness is the result of one dominant group disregarding and attempting to negate the identity of a minority group. It’s seen through race and gender relationships as well as economic ones.
Othering is a negative because it assumes that one person’s or one group’s identity shouldn’t exist or is inherently less than another person’s or group’s. It marginalizes less-dominant social groups.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was the first to define the term “othering.” It was clearly used in “The Rani of Sirmur’ii” (in 1985) and before that in a review of Derrida.
Related Literary Terms
- Imagery: the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Characterization: a literary device that is used to detail and explains the aspects of a specifically crafted character in a novel, play, or poem.
- Conflict: a plot device used by writers when two opposing sides come up against each other.
- Agon: refers to the conflict between two characters in a literary work. It is used to describe the protagonist and antagonist.
- Juxtaposition: a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another.
- Moral: the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
- Watch: The Dangers of Othering in the Quest to Belong
- Listen: Othering and Belonging
- Watch: Framework of Otherness