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Book review

Author - Catherine Spencer


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Strangers, gods and monsters: interpreting otherness, Richard Kearney, London: Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0415272580

Strangers, gods and monsters: interpreting otherness, Richard Kearney, London: Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0415272580

Richard Kearney’s latest publication, Strangers, gods and monsters, is a fascinating and accessible read. It explores how strangers, gods and monsters, in constituting a ‘central part of our cultural unconscious’, shape human identity and define the contours of the world we live in today. Kearney’s exploration of otherness revolves around his examination of strangers, gods and monsters as experiences of ‘extremity’ and ‘ultimacy’ that subvert established categories and constantly exhort us to think again. These figures occupy ‘the phantasmal boundaries where maps run out’, our no-man’s lands, our frontiers and our boundaries. Kearney considers such figures to be tokens of the fractures within the human psyche that nevertheless remind us that human existence hovers in and around the boundaries of sameness and otherness, real and imaginary, known and unknown. In our contemporary world where crises of identity and legitimation seem to dominate, Kearney’s philosophical exploration of otherness is undertaken in order to better understand ourselves and indeed so that we may respond more effectively to the stranger within us.

Kearney proposes a hermeneutic model of narrative that says something about the ‘unsayable’ and imagines the ‘unimaginable’. Without such an approach to what might otherwise be considered irreconcilable and opposing extremes, otherness would remain ‘unrecognisable’ and ‘inaccessible’ and hence beyond the scope of human comprehension or action. Such a hermeneutic approach allows for a deeper understanding of otherness so that, Kearney argues, we become more discerning of those aliens and strangers that need our care and attention (despite their apparent monstrosity) and those ‘others’ that are in fact intent on destruction.

Kearney’s exploration of otherness looks, for example, at myths of sacrifice deployed in most human cultures to hold strangers responsible for the ills of society, to scapegoat them and to isolate and eliminate them. He then traces the imprint of such mythology in art, literature and iconography down through the ages. The scapegoat function, however, is as pervasive in contemporary popular culture, and Kearney’s exposition of it in the Alien film series and in the figure of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now Redux is extremely engaging. Concluding that strangers often lurk within the depths of our own selves, Kearney suggests that the key is not always to kill them but to learn to live with them, and in that way to differentiate between those ‘others’ that need to be welcomed and those that need to be struggled with.

Throughout much Western thought, notions of good have been equated with notions of self-identity and sameness. Evil has thus often been linked to notions of exteriority, otherness and estrangement that are capable of contaminating, infecting and undermining the purity and alleged completeness of self-identity. Identity is thus frequently constructed in relation to some notion of alterity or otherness. Hall (1996: 4) argues along similar lines in suggesting that although the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ have the potential to undermine each other, it is more useful to think of them not as dichotomous oppositions but as mutually constitutive. It is, in other words, often only through its relation with the ‘Other’ and with what it is not, that the ‘constructed form of closure’ that identity implies can be achieved.

By incorporating qualified notions of ‘hospitality’ (Derrida, 1997) and a hermeneutics of memory (Ricoeur, 2000) Kearney advances a way of ‘de-pathologising the alien’ or ‘de-alienating the other’ so that it never becomes too estranged or exiled. The ‘other’ is thus neither too far nor too close, too familiar nor too foreign. This ‘ethical contact’ that constantly strives to make the alien that little less alien implies that our interpretation and capacity to judge the alien might be improved upon.

Kearney advocates a threefold approach to the evil or monstrous ‘other’ that involves ‘practical understanding, working through and pardon’ as steps in a cathartic process that averts us being completely disempowered and paralysed by evil. In reflecting on the ‘terror’ of 11 September 2001, for example, Kearney endorses the view that dualist theses that divide the world into East and West, good and bad, pure and impure are unhelpful, and that overly rigid ‘us’/‘them’ dichotomies mask the diversity and difference within the ‘us’ and the ‘them’. Neither, incidentally, enhances our attempts to comprehend, work though and indeed pardon or forgive such terrors.

The interpretations of and responses to the stranger, alien and monster proposed by Kearney in this volume are supported by his readings of a wide range of contemporary contributions from anthropology, pyschoanalysis, phenomenology and hermeneutics. Kearney’s skilful weaving of this literature into his illustration of how figures of otherness serve to refine and define our concept of ourselves combines with the powerful and evocative way in which he poses questions and proposes how we might respond to the alien, strange and monstrous ‘other’ to make this an extremely enjoyable and timely read.