“What is proper to a culture is to not be identical to itself..”

In today’s Irish Times, Paul Gillespie delves into the background of the “through-otherness” referenced in Martin McGuinness’s speech on Tuesday. He cites the poet WR Rodgers as Heaney’s earlier source of the phrase before identifying a remark by the late Jacques Derrida on culture to frame the challenge faced by any “airtight, impermeable, homogenous, self-identical identity” – “What is proper to a culture is to not be identical to itself..” [subs req] Whether the consociational assembly will help or hinder any move in that direction is left as an open question..From the Irish Times [subs req]

Heaney draws the phrase from a poem by WR Rodgers called Armagh that begins: “There is a through-otherness about Armagh/ Of tower and steeple,/ Up on the hill are the arguing graves of the kings/ And below are the people.”

Rodgers’s father was of indigenous Irish stock and his mother of Scottish planter ancestry. He was working as a BBC producer in London when the poem was published in 1951, but had previously been a Presbyterian minister in Loughgall. He made the shift after John Hewitt lent him some contemporary poetry.

Heaney recalls that when a former parishioner asked why he had abandoned the ministry in which he had been so talented, Rodgers is supposed to have replied: “Ah well, too many books spoil the cloth”.

In his lecture at the University of Aberdeen in 2001, entitled Through-Other Places, Through-Other Times: The Irish Poet and Britain , Heaney suggests that in Rodgers’s life, “there is something analogous to the triple heritage of Irish, Scottish and English traditions that compound and complicate the cultural and political life of contemporary Ulster”. But for Rodgers, it “wasn’t a question of the otherness of any part of his inheritance, more a recognition of the through-otherness of all of them”.

And on Derrida

In his study of Seamus Heaney’s work, Eugene O’Brien examines the intellectual background to his thinking about identity. Otherness has been central to the thought of French philosophers Emmanuel Lévinas and Jacques Derrida in the 20th century, and these influence Heaney’s criticism and poetry.

Derrida famously remarked in his 1992 essay on Europe that: ” What is proper to a culture is to not be identical to itself . . . There is no culture or cultural identity without this difference with itself .” He goes on to say that “a culture never has a single origin. Monogenealogy would always be a mystification in the history of culture.”

In a later work he distinguishes between “an airtight, impermeable, homogenous, self-identical identity”, as against a “porous and heterogeneous identity that differs with itself”.

From McGuinness to Derrida is a long journey; but it is fair to ask Sinn Féin and the DUP whether they can make the transition from their politically rooted monogenealogy to a through-otherness in which their respective heterogeneities would be more mutually recognised.

It’s also worthwhile pointing out that there is another through-otherness to be acknowlegded.. and it’s one that John Hewitt, and others, clearly identified.

“Firstly, I am an Ulsterman steeped in the traditions of this place. Secondly, I am Irish, of this Ireland. Thirdly, I am British, and finally, in a more diffuse way, I am European. It may make it easier for you to understand if you remove one of those elements but if you do you are no longer describing who I am.”

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  • Liam

    This has been coming around and going around and i’ve been enjoying it.In any situation where identity is of supreme importance and ultimit
    ately the defintition of who or what I am there comes the enevitable Shift Shake lets put it to levels and create subsets.The most enlightened people of our time will tell you that anyway they are citizens of the world and so what.These are the people that were the most surprised and more tellingly the more moved by the image of Gerry Adams and Ian paisley side by side.
    To verge towrads McWilliams for a moment,and i’m sure we wouldn’t mind,this is the Cosmoplotion,and yet I would have to say that entertaining the idea of being just a citizen of the world is an excuse for saying that one is joyce’s stephen ie.my home town,my city,my country,the world.etc.etc.
    This is but a riposte to the idea that we have to be defined and a very poor riposte.
    That I have to be A,b,c,d and if you take away any letter then I am not he alphbeth that I am seems to me very ridiculous.
    People may feel affilliations and affinitys but it’s like saying that this is not he end of history therfore i am all of history.Bullshit.
    If one understands that identity can be forged on more than traditional definitions then one knows that defintions can be upsurpded and can disapear.Let the rest of the world define who you are.Irishness is the closest defintion of shift in identity maybe fter only the jewish that captures the reality of time,change ,and that everything can change.
    Personally,I’m enjoying ths DUP being the representitives of unionism because unlike the UUP thay’re full of off the wall that for them is on the wall ,and that to me is as Irish as myself,and more Irish than Sinn fein or SDLP
    good days…………..

  • cyllabub

    The concept of “otherness” can be found throughout literature; (Naipaul, Rushdie,Neruda and Achebe), linguistics; (Bakhtin), translation theory (Benjamin); psychology (Winnicott), as well as in later developments in sociology; (Hall), anthropology; (Canclini, Hannerz).

    We also find it explored in the works of Hegel, Lacan, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Levinas, Charles Taylor, Fanon, Said, Bhabha, Spivak, Fabian, Taussig, Suleri, Jan Mohammed, and Sinha.

    According to Hegel, the relationship between self and otherness is the fundamental defining characteristic of human awareness and activity, being rooted as it is in the emotion of desire for objects as well as in the estrangement from those objects, which is part of the primordial human experience of the world.

    The otherness that consciousness experiences as a barrier to its goal is the external reality of the natural and social world, which prevents individual consciousness from becoming free and independent.

    However, that otherness cannot be abolished or destroyed, without destroying oneself, and so ideally there must be reconciliation between self and other such that consciousness can “universalize” itself through the other.

    In the relation of dominance and subservience between two consciousnesses, say lord and bondsman, the basic problem for consciousness is the overcoming of its otherness, or put positively, the achieving of integration with itself.

    The relation between lord and bondsman leads to a sort of provisional, incomplete resolution of the struggle for recognition between distinct consciousnesses.

    The dialectic of self-determination is, for Hegel, inherent in the very structure of freedom, and is the defining feature of Spirit (Geist).

    The full actualization of Spirit in the human community requires the progressive development of individuality which effectively begins with the realization in self-consciousness of the “truth of self-certainty” and culminates in the shape of a shared common life in an integrated community of love and Reason, based upon the realization of truths of incarnation, death, resurrection, and forgiveness as grasped in speculative Religion.

    What we are seeing before our eyes is Ulster’s Hegelian awakening…

  • T.Ruth

    Throughother-when I was young meant untidy-in a mess.If your bedroom was throughother your mother told you to clean it up.

  • Bill

    The concept of “otherness” can be found throughout literature; (Naipaul, Rushdie,Neruda and Achebe), linguistics; (Bakhtin), translation theory (Benjamin); psychology (Winnicott), as well as in later developments in sociology; (Hall), anthropology; (Canclini, Hannerz).

    Or on Sky One tonight at 10.

    What will Locke get up to?

  • merrie

    >> What will Locke get up to?<