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Responsivity and (some) other approaches to alterity

Bernhard Leistle

Carleton University, Canada

Anthropological Theory 2016, Vol. 16(1) 48–74 ! The Author(s) 2016 Reprints and permissions: DOI: 10.1177/1463499616628761

DOI: 10.1177/1463499616628761 Abstract Building on recent efforts in this direction, this

Abstract Building on recent efforts in this direction, this essay provides arguments in support of the concept of responsivity, developed by the philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels, and its importance in anthropological theorizing. Responsivity is a way of thinking about rela- tions between self and Other, structure and agency, universality and particularity that escapes the dichotomy which usually characterizes such conceptual pairings. By defining ‘responding’ as a relationship to the Other as other, and by defining ‘the Other’ as what we respond to, Waldenfels’ concept enables anthropologists to theoretically overcome the contradiction between radical and empirical alterity. This potential is illustrated in a discussion of the responsive aspects of other approaches to empirical otherness: the sociology of the stranger, psychoanalysis and semiotics. Through comparisons that stress points of contact and compatibility, the notion of responsivity is thrown into sharper relief. At the same time, familiar anthropological approaches to alterity are re- presented in a changed light.

Keywords alterity, otherness, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, sociology of the stranger, semiotics, Waldenfels


‘Response’ or ‘responding’ are certainly common enough terms, familiar through use in everyday language as synonymous for answer or reply. Less so ‘responsivity’, or ‘responsiveness’, which have a ring of technicality to them. As a definition for the adjective ‘responsive’, from which these two words are derived, we find in Webster’s dictionary: ‘reacting in a desired or positive way’, ‘quick to react or

Corresponding author:

Bernhard Leistle, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, ON, K1S 5B6, Canada. Email:



respond’. Response is here identified with reaction, implying a causal relation to a stimulus. In this sense, the term has gained a certain currency in the scientific study of behavior, as can be seen from the following entry in a dictionary of behavioral science:

1. An answer, especially a formal answer, such as to a question on a test or a questionnaire.

2. Any process in the body, muscular, glandular, and so on, which results from stimulation.

3. A psychic process which results from previous psychic processes, sensory or imaginal.

4. Any over or covert behavior; the class or the organisms executing processes. (Wolman, 1989)

Two things seem noteworthy here: the extension of the meaning of response to all forms of behavior – physiological, sensory and psychological – in definitions 1, 2 and 3, and the identification of behavior with responding in definition 4. Without putting too much stress on it, we can derive from this dictionary entry important characteristics of the concept of responsivity developed by the German philosopher Bernhard Waldenfels. 1 In our everyday understanding, reflected in the first three definitions, we regard response as a secondary phenomenon, as something executed or occurring in the aftermath of something else, and in this sense temporally, or at

least logically subordinated to it: the answer follows the question, answering it; the reaction is caused by the stimulus, which preceded it. The fourth definition introduces a new dimension: when every form of behavior

is a response, then does this not apply to questioning behavior as well? And if a

question is itself a response to yet another question, who or what asks that ques- tion? Are we being continuously questioned, called, summoned, and is our own experience essentially a process of responding to a demand which escapes us? Questions such as these are tackled in Bernhard Waldenfels’ philosophy, which

is essentially a rethinking of the phenomenological and hermeneutical tradition

from the vantage point of responding. Just as in our everyday usage, philosophy traditionally gives priority to the question over the answer. 2 Knowledge is pro-

duced through answering questions, and the questions ask about what we don’t

know. Thus, everything appears to rely on the question; the answer just seems to fill

a void, or compensate for a lack, which is already inscribed in the question.

Therefore, if philosophy can define the nature of questioning, it will automatically gain a correct understanding of answering. Waldenfels engages thoroughly with this line of reasoning and proposes to start from answering or responding as a

primary phenomenon. 3 Before the human being can ask any questions, it answers

to a name; before it speaks, it is talked to; before it perceives, the world appeals to

the senses and the body. Recently, it has been claimed that the notion of a fundamental responsivity bears the potential of overcoming some classical obstacles in anthropological


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theorizing: the dichotomies between subject and object, structure and agency, real- ism and constructivism (Leistle, 2014, 2015; Schwarz Wentzer, 2014). While the thinking of Waldenfels has not yet made its way into the center of anthropological discourse, there are indications that its arrival is imminent (Leistle, forthcoming). Through the growing influence of the work of Emmanuel Levinas (1969, 1981), the concept of responsibility has recently gained substantial ground in anthropology (Evens, 2008; Lambek, 2010). Levinas situates the origin of all meaning in an ethical call manifested in the face of the Other. Through the face, the Other pleads to the self not to kill her or him, thereby confronting the self with a resist- ance which it cannot overcome. 4 The self becomes a self in the sense of a perceiving, acting, and thinking subject only through responding to this call that it cannot evade, by taking over a limitless ethical responsibility for the Other. The common term ‘responsibility’ is thus related back to its etymological origin. Beyond this general trend, the term ‘response’, implying in a sense the concept of responsivity, appears conspicuously in anthropological literature, and across topical and theoretical orientations. For example, in his ethnography of contemporary religiosity in urban Morocco, Emilio Spadola describes the emergence of the reli- gious subject in terms of a selective response to competing ‘calls of Islam’. These calls can be mass-mediated, or, as in the following passage referring to a young woman by the name of Zuhur, they can be expressed in the medium of ritual possession:

Well before Zuhur was summoned to trance, so too was her grandmother. She specu- lated that her own possession by the jinns derived precisely from that lineage – as a debt unpaid and now inherited. Those accumulated debts reiterate the sense that the ritual of trance is the response to a prior command, thus an act of responsibility, rather than an original act in itself. Even though Zuhur was responding to the jinns’ call, that call, as command, was bound up with people who preceded her and indeed who placed her in the position of suffering the call itself. (Spadola, 2014: 86)

Another example of using responding in the sense of responsivity is provided by Karin Sykes in her contribution to a debate on whether ‘ontology is just another word for culture’ (Venkatesan, 2010). In arguing against this proposition, Sykes defines cultural phenomena as responses or answers to ontological questions, such as ‘what is a person?’, or ‘what is a beautiful object?’. Referring to the malanggan sculptures, carved by New Irelanders on occasion of burials and then burned immediately after, Sykes writes:

I argue that anthropologists, in their attempts to understand culture as a creative process, will never grasp anything of importance (such as how people find lives mean- ingful), if they do not confront the fact that ontological questions are the subject of anthropology and the answers are its objects of study.

We cannot study most people’s questions, but we can study how they answer them as the object of our study, and thereby know their questions and our questions better.



A malanggan is [a] proper object for anthropological study. It is a carving, which, in

the process of making it, answers the ontological question, ‘What is a life?’, and

thereby provokes rigorous careful deployment of our disciplinary work. (Venkatesan, 2010: 169)

The concept of responding, in the sense of giving an answer to questions humans ask about their being-in-the-world – a capacity which defines them as human, according to Heidegger (2010) – here acquires a central position in the theory of culture. This also applies to anthropological practice, for Sykes goes on to char- acterize the anthropologist’s interpretation of the malanggan as a response of the second order:

In the process of understanding culture as a creative response to the question, ‘What is

a lived life of another person?’, or better yet, ‘What is the value of a beautiful

memory?’, the anthropologist invents a cultural, interpretive response. (Venkatesan, 2010: 171)

Efforts such as these are interesting, since they proceed from correct intuition, but they suffer generally from a lack of conceptual reflection, leading to a use of terms like question and answer, call and response, in their colloquial sense. The present essay intends to provide further arguments for the usefulness of Waldenfels’ con- cept of responsivity in anthropological theory and practice. This is to be accom- plished through connecting his concept with empirical approaches to alterity that are more familiar to anthropologists, namely the sociology of the stranger, psy- choanalysis and semiotics. 5 Stressing responsive aspects of these approaches will not only demonstrate their compatibility with Waldenfels’ phenomenology, but also further clarify the concept of responsivity itself.

Responsivity as relation to the other

In Waldenfels’ phenomenology, the concept of responsivity and the notion of a radical otherness or alienness (Fremdheit) cannot be separated from each other. Indeed, responsivity and otherness are defined correlatively: Responding is relating to the Other as other, and conversely the Other is what we respond to. Before exploring these propositions in detail, a short detour seems appropriate to provide some contextual information about philosophical debates in which Waldenfels’ work engages, and to clarify my own use of the terms ‘Other’, ‘other’ and ‘alien’. In recent decades, the so-called ‘question of the Other’ has provided one of the major discursive arenas in continental philosophy, in particular phenomenology (see, for example, Dallery and Scott, 1989; Quellet and Harel, 2007; Kearney and Semonovitch, 2011). Fueled by political developments in the postcolonial world, the question of how to talk about others without denying their right to self-presentation has acquired a pressing urgency. Philosophically, this translated into the problem of the otherness of the Other: if, as phenomenology


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has shown since Husserl, everything I experience is endowed with a subjective sense, simply by virtue of entering my consciousness, how can I have a relationship to an Other that is not appropriation? How can there be an experience of the Other in which the Other retains its otherness, in which it appears as itself, the Other as other? In trying to answer this question, philosophers like Levinas, Derrida, Baudrillard, or Waldenfels produced new conceptions of alterity, conceptions that were ‘radical’ in the sense that they tried to get to the ground of the phenom- enon of otherness. To signify its conceptual and abstract character, ‘Other’ is usually capitalized in these discussions. The singular term ‘the Other’ is an attempt to preserve an open- ness to alterity, to express a relation to otherness prior to its differentiation into concrete ‘others’ – persons, objects, facts or events – that are endowed with par- ticular significations. To speak of the Other is the attempt to address a thing before it is experienced as something. In what follows, I have adopted this usage, distin- guishing between ‘the Other’ in a radical sense, and concrete, empirical ‘others’. Another possible way to express the otherness of the Other is by using the terms ‘alien’ and ‘alienness’, as translations of the German fremd and Fremdheit. In the present paper, ‘alien’ is not intended to carry the negative connotations with which it is often associated in English, but to designate something that eludes experience, that shows itself in a movement of withdrawal from orders of sense and meaning. These characteristics of elusiveness and withdrawal are highlighted by the German fremd. Waldenfels arrives at the definitions cited above via a thorough re-reading and re-working of key phenomenological concepts. In phenomenology, a thing appears in experience not as itself, but as taken by a consciousness in a certain sense. Thus, phenomenological consciousness is portrayed as actively and constitutively involved in the appearance of experiential reality. On the other hand, this means that consciousness can never be ‘empty’ or ‘pure’; inevitably it is linked to its object, to what it is ‘consciousness of’. This is, in a nutshell, the phenomenological concept of intentionality: something appears as something in consciousness. The conjunctive ‘as’ here marks a hiatus between external world and experience which Waldenfels refers to as ‘significative difference’ (Waldenfels, 2011: 21–3). Things appearing in consciousness are not the ‘things themselves’, but present themselves in essential correlations with acts and perspectives of consciousness. There is, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, no object in-itself, but only an in-itself-for-us (Merleau- Ponty, 2012: 74, 336). Underlying the significative difference, which he regards as irreducible, Waldenfels posits another, a responsive difference:

The transgression of the sphere of an intentional or rule-governed sense takes place in a responding to an alien demand that does not have sense and does not follow rules, but which interrupts the familiar formations of sense and rules, thus provoking the creation of new ones. What I say in response owes its meaning to the challenge to which I respond. The alien which appears to us as the call of the alien or the outlook from the alien loses its alienness if the responsive difference between that to which we



respond and that to which we answer is replaced by an intentional or rule-guided sense process. (Waldenfels, 2011: 36)

Responding occurs in relation to a demand characterized as alien due to the fact that no response can ever encompass it. The demand remains that to which we respond; it can never be equated with how we respond. Demand and response thus acquire a dual aspect: The demand splits into a claim by and a call from the Other; responding bifurcates into an answer and a response in the accurate sense of the term. In its aspect as claim, the demand articulates a request, for example for a bit of information (‘What time is it?’). This claim is satisfied (or rejected) by a concrete responsive behavior, e.g. the answer we give to a question (‘It’s three o’clock’, ‘I don’t have a watch’, etc.). The pair of claim/request and answer, then, is part of the order of sense, defining a situation as a particular type (‘a person asks me for the time’). Underneath this ordered exchange, however, there remains the fact that the Other has called me and that I respond to this call in a sphere that is ultimately not regulated by communicative rules. Rather, my answer to the claim of the Other rests on my response to the call. In its preoccupation with intentionality, phenomenology is concerned with the study of orders of experience. But according to Waldenfels, all orders are incom- plete and partial, since their validity is contingent on the adoption of a perspective which they cannot encompass. Every order has its blind spot, the point from which it is claimed as order (Waldenfels, 1996). Due to this structural limitation, the phenomenon of order is pluralized: there can be no all-encompassing totality any- more, only particular orders that are claimed by someone, and which include some things and some people, while excluding others. Seen from inside any given order, this means that things can be otherwise, that alternative realities exist as a possi- bility, in the form of what is excluded from the order as extra-ordinary. The extra- ordinary, as that which withdraws from the order through a simultaneous process of inclusion and exclusion, opens a sphere of genuine otherness, or alienness, that cannot be closed off or covered over. From this sphere emanate demands to which the order in question must respond; this process of responding takes place on every level on which ordering takes place, that is: in every domain of human existence. Waldenfels distinguishes three basic levels of ordering interlaced with each other in existence: the order of selfhood, the order of social collectivity, and the order of reason (Waldenfels, 2007: 14–15). It is crucially important to understand that, although order is a ubiquitous phenomenon, because without it there can be no sense or meaning, no order can generate itself. The origin of order lies outside of it, that is: in the sphere of the alien. To express this in positive, dynamic terms: every order arises from a response to alien demands. An obvious example for this responsivity of order is the devel- opment of the personal self in the child’s relations to its parents or other caregivers. Even the token of personal identity, my first name, is given to me by others, and I gain my first sense of self through learning to respond when they call me by it. In a similar way, social and cultural orders are not pre-given but emerge as shared


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responses to collective demands: an entity such as ‘Europe’, whatever reality one might assign it, does not pre-exist itself, but arose (and continues to arise, as Edward Said’s investigations into ‘orientalism’ have shown) by demarcation from what is ‘Non-Europe’. Ultimately, however, it emerged in responding to a demand preceding this distinction. A ‘pre-European order’ was confronted with alien demands and the response to these demands resulted in the birth of a new order ‘Europe’. Neither individuals nor cultures can take possession of the moment of their birth, or of their death, for that matter. As to the order of reason, the studies of Michel Foucault (1995, 2003, 2006) and others in his wake have shown how the contingency of orders applies even to such notions as rationality and scientific thought. Waldenfels has worked out several basic structural characteristics of responsiv- ity, which he sometimes refers to as ‘aspects of a response-logic’ (Waldenfels, 2011:

39–42, 2007: 28ff., 1994: 320–336): singularity, inevitability, and asymmetry. Singularity refers to the in-between character of events which prompt us to respond. Such events which, strictly speaking, happen continuously but mostly go unnoticed do not follow a pre-established set of rules or a pre-determined course; rather, they produce their own logic in the process of unfolding, giving rise to new orders. But in the moment in which they happen, events do not obey any existing order, nor can they be incorporated into the order emerging through them. They are singular in the sense that they cannot be compared to other events through referring to a common principle or law. A good example of this singularity and openness are historical upheavals, like the French Revolution, which, as events, can neither be reduced to effects of what preceded them nor to causes of what they initiated. In their unfolding, they can only be approached as open situ- ations in which actors respond to a call they experience as a historical necessity but that cannot be objectified; a call, that is, coming from a sphere beyond any order, an alien demand. Insofar as it must elicit a response, this demand is unavoidable. When one is called by the Other, one cannot not respond. Even refusal to answer, the silence of neglect, becomes a response, and a particularly strong one at that. This is true for everyday communication, as well as for extra-ordinary situations in which a ‘call of history’ places demands on the individual. Often this historical call intertwines with the ethical demand of the Other, so forcefully described by Levinas: in revolution- ary situations like the Nazi tyranny remaining silent cannot be construed as a form of neutrality. The inevitability of responsivity forces one to choose sides so that inertness, refusal or paralysis present themselves as forms of responsive behavior. Responding is thus characterized by an inevitable yet necessarily asymmetrical relation to the Other. As a demand we respond to, the Other remains truly other, an alien which eludes any answer we might give. Our response always comes too late to catch up with what prompted it; it is deferred in relation to the call it responds to. The event in which something happens to us, for example a traffic accident, always has already happened when we answer to it, as victims or as witnesses. From a responsive perspective, experience becomes a form of pathos,



a suffering, but not to be identified with pain. The temporality of responding is

characterized by an original deferment, a gap between demand and response that Waldenfels refers to as diastasis: ‘The antecedent pathos and the deferred response have to be thought of together, but only across a gap which cannot be closed and thus requires a creative response. Happenings not only lead us to think, they also force us to think’ (Waldenfels, 2011: 31). Expressed in spatial metaphors, we can say that responding describes a movement that begins elsewhere. The demand of the Other comes from a place where I am not and cannot be. It is in the sense outlined above that the Other can be defined as what we respond to. A radical otherness is not conceivable if self and Other belong to one spatio-temporal continuum, if they become part of a communicative order, or are subjected to the laws of intentionality. The concept of responsivity, while linking self and Other, owness and alienness with each other, breaks the bonds by which the Other is captured and held captive. Responding situates the Other in an alien sphere where the self cannot go. This is not due to some insurmountable positive power of the Other, but because the Other appears in experience as a demand that compels one to respond, and is always already gone when the response

occurs. This original absence is what the preposition to in the phrase ‘what we respond to’ expresses. While it thus enables the conception of radical otherness, responsivity is, on the other hand, a necessary component of human existence due to the essential partiality and contingency of every conceivable order, whether experiential, discursive or epistemological. The impossibility of an all-encompass- ing, total order, and the consequent pluralization of orders, suspends human life in an open-ended exchange of demand and response which is always already underway. To be human is to be responsive from the moment of one’s birth to one’s death. The human being is thus presented as characterized by an in-between state, or, to put it in terms with considerable anthropological resonance, as a liminal being (Waldenfels, 2011). This becomes particularly obvious in the domains of volition and agency where responsivity leads beyond the traditional opposition between determination and exertion of ‘free will’. To be responsive means that one’s thoughts and actions begin not with or in oneself, but elsewhere as responses. But since a true ‘elsewhere’, a genuinely Other, implies that there can be no common measure between demand and response, it is impossible that the response

is already inscribed into the demand. This leads Waldenfels to the formulation of

what he calls the ‘paradox of creative response’:

The response is creative despite its being a response. The call does not belong to the order which integrates or subjects the response. Rather, the call only becomes a call in the response which it causes and precedes. Thus responding runs over a small ridge which separates bondage and compliance from arbitrariness and willfulness. The one who waits for ready-made responses does not have anything to say because everything has already been said. In turn, the one who speaks without responding does not have anything to say either because there is nothing for him to say. We invent what we


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respond, but not what we respond to and what gives weight to our speaking and acting. (Waldenfels, 2011: 42)

Other approaches to alterity

Waldenfels’ conception of responsivity touches on many aspects of anthropological research and intersects with a great number of theoretical approaches (Schwarz Wentzer, 2014). For the present essay, I have selected three of these possible points of contact, each roughly corresponding to one of the ordering levels mentioned above (individual, society, reason). Although none of them has originated within anthropology, all the selected approaches have informed the understanding of alterity in anthropology in various ways, and it is therefore interesting to see how they can be re-read from a responsive perspective. In no way do I intend the following to be exhaustive; I do not claim to present a satisfying overview of any treated approach, nor do I suggest that they cover the topic of the Other in anthropology (for a more detailed treatment see Leistle, forthcoming). Rather, my concern is to demonstrate the compatibility of the concept of responsivity with existing approaches to empirical otherness, and to illuminate one through the other.

Sociology of the stranger

In social reality, the Other appears most prominently in the figure of the foreigner, or, more generally, the stranger. One of the foundational texts of what can be called a sociology of the stranger is Georg Simmel’s famous little essay appended as an excursus to his magisterial Sociology (Simmel, 1950). In this essay, Simmel describes the stranger as a type of social relationship characterized by certain structural properties. His interest is directed not at the passer-by or the tourist but at the stranger in the critical sense of one ‘who comes today and stays tomor- row’ (Simmel, 1950: 402). As such, the stranger becomes a member of society, but one in which presence and absence, closeness and distance, are mixed in peculiar ways:

The unity of nearness and remoteness involved in every human relation is organized, in the phenomenon of the stranger, in a way which may be most briefly formulated by the saying that in the relationship to him, distance means that he, who is close by, is far, and strangeness means that he, who also is far, is actually near. For, to be a stranger is naturally a very positive relation; it is a specific form of interaction. The inhabitants of Sirius are not really strangers to us, at least not in any sociologically relevant sense: they do not exist for us at all; they are beyond far and near. The stranger, like the poor and like sundry ‘inner enemies,’ is an element of the group itself. His position as a full-fledged member involves both being outside it and con- fronting it. (Simmel, 1950: 402–3)



From a perspective of responsivity the social type of the stranger can be understood as a kind of hinge between the radical and the empirical Other. In the sociological phenomenon of the stranger, society as an order is confronted with a person or a group of persons that, while part of society, is also alien to it. ‘Interactions’ with the stranger and his treatment at the hands of other group members can be interpreted in terms of responses to this challenge. In this way, the stranger becomes known and in a certain sense familiar, for example, in the widespread role of ‘trader’, but also as ‘immigrant’, ‘mediator’ or ‘shaman’. However, he or she also retains irre- movable traces of otherness. These can be detected in the stranger’s fundamental ambiguity: near and distant, distant when near, present and absent, inside and outside of the group, a member of it and yet objective and to a certain degree indifferent toward it. To provide clarification of this strange ambiguity, Waldenfels’ concept of a responsive difference can be invoked. Insofar as the stranger is assigned a function and a role, he or she becomes part of a social order of meaning. This naming and assigning has to be understood as the concrete, empirically observable answer to the practical problem posed by the stranger to society: somebody comes today and stays tomorrow, as Simmel puts it. But intertwined with the answer to this problem is a continued relation of call and response. Although an answer has been given, the otherness of the stranger has not been, can never be completely banned and abol- ished. In the figure of the stranger, an alien demand keeps challenging and disturb- ing the order, provoking it to respond creatively, that is, in ways that affect the order itself. 6 In his short text, Simmel characterizes the social relationship to the stranger with a fine phenomenological intuition, opening up interesting perspectives for anthro- pology. For in so far as societies are necessarily in contact with each other, and perhaps have always been, the stranger is a ubiquitous phenomenon. How different societies typify their specific strangers, what categories they apply to make sense of them, how these categories relate to concrete social interactions with strangers – these and other questions could provide guidelines for anthropological inquiries into responsivity. Moreover, a body of classical sociological research and a wealth of ethnographic materials 7 could be examined with a fresh eye. This is even true for the role of the anthropologist, famously referred to as a ‘professional stranger’ (Agar, 1980). What would it mean concretely to approach the social phenomenon of the stranger from a perspective of responsivity? On the one hand, anthropology would have to continue doing what it has done traditionally: provide ‘thick descrip- tions’ to determine as accurately as possible the value of a certain sign or practice within a semiotic context. This is because responding necessarily takes place in relation to orders of cultural meaning out of which the responsive movement must emerge and into which it must fall back. On the other hand, however, anthro- pology would have to search for ways in which to preserve genuinely responsive aspects of the relationship to the Other. In other words, ethnographic description and interpretation would have to develop a sensibility for how responding is


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fundamentally creative through its capacity to break through existing structures of practice and meaning. Elsewhere I have argued that one path towards such sens- ibility consists in a heightened awareness of the event-character of events (Leistle, 2015). Another particularly rich source of inspiration in this direction are the many discussions about style and representation in anthropology. Responding to the Other in its otherness cannot be made thematic, addressed directly. It has to be presented indirectly, in ‘hybrid forms of speech’ (Waldenfels, 1999: 152ff.); debates around the ‘crisis of representation’ continue to be relevant in this regard (see, for example, Clifford and Marcus, 1986). While Simmel approached the problem of the stranger from the side of society, the phenomenologist Alfred Schu¨tz took the reverse perspective. In his study ‘The Stranger: An Essay in Social Psychology’, Schu¨tz concerned himself with the situ- ation of the stranger who intends to live, whether voluntarily or through force of circumstance, 8 in a society different from the one in which he was raised. Thus, for Schu¨tz, the stranger’s situation is essentially characterized by his confrontation with another life-world, a way of acting, perceiving and communicating alien to him. 9 The phenomenological concept of the life-world refers to what is taken for granted by the experiencing subject when living in what Husserl has called the ‘natural attitude’. In his understanding of a phenomenological sociology, Schu¨tz has borrowed this concept and enriched it considerably (see Schu¨tz and Luckmann, 1973). The subject 10 experiences the life-world as spatially, temporally, and socially structured; through a set of shared taken-for-granted assumptions like the reci- procity of perspectives (‘you would see the world like I do if you would be standing in my place’) or the congruence of systems of relevance (‘your interests in the present social situation conform to the same rules and regulations as mine’), these structures can serve as orientating devices and enable communication between ego and other subjects. The subject experiences the life-world following the pragmatic motive (Schu¨tz and Luckmann, 1973: 6): it is predominantly oriented towards acting in the world and achieving objectives in accordance with its prag- matic interests. Knowledge of the life-world is therefore not based on theoretical concerns but contains typical solutions for typical problems encountered by actors. The subject possesses a ‘stock of knowledge’ of the life-world in which practical solutions to problems are organized, often in a rather incoherent manner, accord- ing to different degrees of relevance (Schu¨tz and Luckmann, 1973: 99ff.). When the subject leaves the life-world in which it was socialized and becomes a stranger in another life-world, its stock of knowledge will prove insufficient to solve the problems it confronts in an acceptable, that is, intersubjectively shared, manner. The immigrant-stranger becomes unable to act ‘naturally’ as he or she can take nothing for granted, except perhaps the general humanity of the other. 11 He or she is forced to interpret what lies in the ‘nature of things’ for members of the host culture. A massive crisis of understanding thus motivates the features most frequently associated with the stranger: objectivity and doubtful loyalty. As to the first characteristic, Schu¨tz assigns to the experience of strangeness an insight into the limitations of the life-world itself: the stranger has learned from ‘bitter



experience’ (Schu¨tz, 1963: 104) that his own taken-for-granted assumptions can be proven invalid under certain circumstances, and therefore sees faultlines in the host life-world with a clarity denied to its members. Schu¨tz regards as not without basis the suspicion of lack of loyalty to which the stranger is often subjected, but differ- entiates as follows:

Very frequently the reproach of doubtful loyalty originates in the astonishment of the members of the in-group that the stranger doesn’t accept the total of its cultural pattern as the natural and appropriate way of life and as the best of all possible solutions to any problem. The stranger is called ungrateful since he refuses to acknow- ledge that the cultural pattern offered to him grants him shelter and protection. But these people do not understand that the stranger in the state of transition does not consider this pattern as a protecting shelter at all but as a labyrinth in which he has lost all sense of his bearings. (Schu¨tz, 1963: 104–5)

Such statements remain relevant in contemporary contexts of migration, trans- nationalism and globalization; perhaps their relevance has even increased, indicat- ing that it might be time for a re-discovery of Schu¨tz’s work in anthropology. 12 With respect to the stranger, Schu¨tz introduces a set of conceptual tools, which allows for a detailed description of responsive processes both from the viewpoints of culture and of self. The immigrant-stranger comes to be seen as a person who has lost the ability to answer to the demands of a situation because his or her responsive repertoire has become obsolete. Since the constitution of an order of selfhood depends on our capacity to respond in socially acceptable ways, this inability is structurally connected with a crisis of the self. From the perspective of the socio-cultural order, the life-world that confronts the stranger, the stranger presents a challenge through his or her inability to ‘comprehend’, often interpreted as unwillingness. Insofar as he or she is ‘strange’, the stranger remains alien to the social and cultural order of which he or she is at the same time part. The stranger is what the order responds to, and the order realizes itself in the answer given. From the perspective of responsivity, the ways in which a society deals with its strangers, whether by an assimilationist neglect of difference or by a multicultural emphasis on difference, come to be understood not only as ways of relating to others but also as modes of self-fashioning. ‘Assimilation’, ‘multiculturalism’, ‘discrimination’, etc., in any combination, must be regarded as forms or styles of responding to the Other by which society creates itself but which, at the same time, fall short of their shared goal: to fully integrate the Other into the order. As what society responds to, the demands of the Other remain outside of the order they provoke.


Otherness doesn’t appear only in social relations to others, for which the stranger- relation is only a particular example; it also characterizes relations to oneself. Radical alterity, as conceived by Waldenfels and others (e.g. Derrida and


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Levinas), challenges the very idea of selfhood as an autonomous sphere. The Other permeates the self to the core. In our discussion of conflicts experienced by the stranger in his approach to a new life-world, we have already indicated how the inability to respond to the Other affects the constitution of a personal self. The crisis of sense experienced by the stranger and in confrontation with him always is also a psychological crisis. The intrusion of the Other into the individual self has, however, become the specialty of another intellectual project: psycho- analysis. It can be said with some justification that the main discovery of Freud consisted in the realization that the ‘ego is not master in its own house’ (Freud, 1955a: 143). Rather than being in control of affect, thought and behavior, the psychoanalytic self was seen to be influenced by unconscious drives and desires, many of which were unacceptable to the conscious ego of the person, and conse- quently repressed. The particular text of Freud most often cited in connection with the problem of

alterity is his 1919 essay, ‘The ‘‘Uncanny’’’ (see, for example, Csordas, 2004: 168–9; Kristeva, 1991: 182–92; Waldenfels, 1997: 44). Here, Freud first defines his goal as

a psychoanalytic study of motifs of the uncanny in literature, in particular in the

works of the German romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann. His investigation of the meaning of the German word unheimlich (‘uncanny’), however, already indicates a more encompassing perspective. Un-heimlich is grammatically a negation of heim- lich, an adjective with highly ambiguous semantics: on the one hand, heimlich is connected with what is ‘homely’ (from the noun Heim, ‘home’), that is, long known, intimate and familiar. On the other hand, it refers to the sphere of the hidden, the secret, the clandestine (to do something heimlich is to do it without others noticing). Freud concludes: ‘Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of Heimlich’ (Freud, 1955b: 226). One semantic strand of heimlich already carries the notion of the uncanny within it. When we experience something as uncanny we are frightened

precisely by what is close to us, what we are familiar with: ‘the uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’ (Freud, 1955b: 220). In other words, in experiencing the uncanny we feel that what

is our own doesn’t completely belong to us, that our very self is always also other. 13

Or, as Julia Kristeva (1991: 188) puts it, uncanniness is a ‘destructuration of the self’.

In her book Strangers to Ourselves, Kristeva credits Freud with the discovery of

a radical otherness in one’s own self. Focusing on the experience of the foreigner, in both the subjective and objective sense, Kristeva connects the notion of the uncanny with the sociological stranger, in particular, with the phenomenon of


In the fascinated rejection that the foreigner arouses in us, there is a share of uncanny strangeness in the sense of the depersonalization that Freud discovered in it, and which takes up our infantile desires and fears of the other – the other of death, the



other of woman, the other of uncontrollable drive. The foreigner is within us. And when we flee or struggle against the foreigner, we are fighting our unconscious – that ‘improper’ facet of our impossible ‘own and proper’. (Kristeva, 1991: 191)

Waldenfels (1997: 40–42) criticizes Kristeva’s solution to the dilemma of the Other which is summarized in her slogan: ‘The foreigner is within me, hence we are all foreigners. If I am a foreigner, there are no foreigners’ (Kristeva, 1991: 192). For him the intertwining of ownness and alienness is an irreducible fact: inclusion in an order of self-world-experience and exclusion from it are two aspects of one and the same movement. Also problematic is Kristeva’s characterization of the relationship to the alien as negative and ultimately leading to rejection, fascination notwith- standing. In a responsive phenomenology, relation to the alien must be situated on a level prior to the split between positive and negative evaluation. ‘Rejection’ and ‘fascination’, ‘love’ and ‘hate’ are already responses to the alien, defining it in one or the other way. Any intrinsic value assigned to the Other must necessarily miss it in its otherness. But without having to agree on particulars, we can acknowledge that psycho- analysis provides a conceptual language to address the self in its capacity as respon- sive process. Emotions, affects, anxieties, feelings of uncanniness – psychoanalytically, these are not the reactions of a closed off entity to external stimuli but responses produced by a self interacting with a world. The world has the power to overwhelm the self in trauma and pathos, and the self struggles to find responses that give rise to a viable order, an emotional economy, if one wants to put it this way. Freud himself came very close to a responsive conception of psychic life, when he interpreted delusional symptoms like those exhibited by Schreber not as signs of disease but as attempts at healing, that is, as responses to suffering (Freud, 1958: 70–71). As was said with reference to the stranger, the ethnographic record, particularly studies in psychological and psychoanalytical anthropology, can be revisited from a perspective of responsivity. The question then becomes how the selves of cultural others respond to the demands of the alien, and in what ways their responses and their styles of responding are different from, or similar to, our own. The example I would like to present here, however, focuses on the relationship between the anthropologist and the Other, George Devereux’s From Anxiety to Method in the Behavioral Sciences. 14 Devereux’s general thesis is that anthropologists and other behavioral scientists under certain circumstances respond to anxiety-arousing research experiences with counter-transference, that is, the transference of their own psychic conflicts onto the behavior encountered in research subjects. Devereux regards this as a major problem affecting claims of validity and demands scientific reflection, not only on the behavior of others but on the relation between the researcher and those others. Through a great number of case studies and vignettes of varying lengths, Devereux is able to show that anthropologists (as well as psychiatrists and psychoanalysts) respond to emotionally problematic experiences through a variety of defenses. Some can be called ‘professional


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defenses’, defined as ‘certain frames of reference, methods and procedures’ at the disposal of the scientist ‘which – incidentally – also happen to reduce the anxiety aroused by his data and therefore enable him to function efficiently’ (Devereux, 1967: 83). From a perspective of responsivity, these professional defenses can be regarded as a responsive repertoire whose competent performance in relevant contexts enables the scientist to produce a viable professional self. Forms of such profes- sional responses are the ‘mechanism of isolation’, by which, for example, the psychoanalyst separates transferences of patients from his or her own person; or what Devereux (1967: 84) calls ‘the professional stance and activity defense’, the assurance derived from culturally sanctioned definitions of one’s self (‘I am an anthropologist’) and one’s situation (‘This is fieldwork’). ‘Vicarious pre- experience’ (Devereux, 1967: 84) prepares practitioners of a profession for trau- matic experience and allows them to postpone anxiety-responses until after the event has passed. Of particular relevance for anthropologists is the methodo- logical position of ‘cultural relativism’, which can serve as a powerful psycho- logical defense against anxiety, but can also become the vehicle of massive counter-transference:

Case 44: A psychologically sophisticated anthropologist told me that he had witnessed the burial of a live person who had ‘lost his soul’ and was therefore considered tech- nically dead. When I asked him why he did not try to stop it, he haughtily replied: ‘As an anthropologist I am not supposed to undermine native customs, but to study them.’ (Devereux, 1967: 87)

Devereux then goes on to comment:

seeks to reduce anxiety, by viewing cultural data in a human

vacuum. Though scientifically sterile, this subterfuge is effective, since one reacts with

less anxiety to the female mantis’ coital cannibalization of the male mantis (with whom one cannot identify) than one would to a similar human custom. Similarly, we can artificially reduce our anxieties by viewing the torturing of prisoners simply as ‘custom’, thereby denying that these practices have any bearing on flesh and blood beings, with whom we would have to identify ourselves. (Devereux, 1967: 87)

Cultural relativism

I would venture to claim that there is no anthropologist who has not at least once employed this professional defense to ward off anxiety and to deal with ethical or psychological conflict in fieldwork. The evocation of the professional stance, or of cultural relativism as methodological paradigm, is an example of a response on the part of the anthropologist that is motivated psychologically but makes use of prefigured answers provided by a cultural order, in this case the professional cul- ture of anthropology. At this point we can ask ourselves whether the perspective of responsivity enables us to adopt a critical attitude and to differentiate between ‘good’ and



‘bad’ responses. Since responding to the Other takes place in the interstices between orders, and since its creativity rests on its in-between character, this criterion can be applied for purposes of evaluation. Creative responses do not fall into the domains of any order and are in this sense ‘excessive’ but at the same time manage to use their situation in relation to orders to achieve transformative effects, i.e. produce new orders. This characterization doesn’t imply a moral evaluation; rather, it defines creativity from a structural viewpoint. The question therefore is not any- more whether a response is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but whether it is ‘progressive’ or ‘con- servative’. Answering according to a pre-existing responsive repertoire may be an accomplishment of great importance for human evolution, which allows preserva- tion of the achieved and frees cognitive capacities for other tasks (Bateson, 1972:

141–3; Wulf, 2013: 51–2), but becomes an impediment in confrontation with the unexpected and new. In such situations, and anthropological fieldwork can serve as a fine example, creative responding is called for, not falling back into pre-established orders of meaning in a quasi-automatic manner. 15


When loosely defined as the systematic study of the formal and pragmatic proper- ties of signs, semiotics seems exclusively concerned with what can be named, depicted, symbolized. The semiotic Other must always be the signified other – associated with a signifier which serves as a token for it, therefore part of a sign- relation. Beyond such a sign-relation there is only the unsayable, which becomes synonymous with the non-existent. In other words, a radical Other, always already elsewhere and past because we respond to it, seems to be a concept alien to semiotics. Such a statement, however, needs to be qualified in at least two respects: for an anthropology grounded in a notion of responsivity, semiotics and other approaches concerned with communication, like hermeneutics, are indispensable research tools. To regard selfhood and ownness, and with them any kind of objectification resulting from an underlying process of responding to the Other, means that signs are ultimately to be understood as answers. And we as anthropologists are con- cerned with signs in the sense of answers in empirical research. 16 To put it differ- ently: even if signification would rule out radical otherness, all empirical otherness still has to take the form of signs. The second qualification relates to the philosophical implications of a semiotic perspective on human existence. What does it mean if we posit that as human beings we have no access to the world except through the use of signs, that in this sense nothing exists beyond the semiotic? One of the founders of semiotics, the American philosopher and logician Charles Sanders Peirce, articulated this panse- miotic view of the universe explicitly, stating: ‘The entire universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs’ (Peirce, Collected Papers, Vol. 5, Paragraph 448, fn; cf. No¨th, 1990: 41). As to the place of the human being in this universe, Peirce even went so far as to conclude that ‘the fact that every thought is a


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sign, taken in conjunction with the fact that life is a train of thought, proves that man is a sign’ (Peirce, Collected Papers, Vol. 5; cf. No¨th, 1990: 41). But if it is true, as Peirce implied, that mind, self and even man himself are sign- processes, don’t we have to acknowledge once more, as in the case of psychoanaly- sis, that the Other intrudes upon the very abode of ownness, this time in the form of semiotic structures of sign-composition and sign-use? Peirce famously distinguished between icon, index and symbol as different types of relations between the signifier and the referent. While icon and index both preserved a direct connection to what was being represented (similarity in case of the icon, physical contact or contiguity in case of the index), the sign-type of symbol was based on conventional agree- ments and, thus, ultimately arbitrary. The arbitrariness of signs was further empha- sized by the semiotician and linguist Ferdinand De Saussure (1966) for language, where the symbolic is the predominant type of signification. But if signs, or more precisely the relation between signifier and signified, are regarded as fundamentally arbitrary, this means that signified reality can always also be otherwise, since other conventions would give rise to a different reality. Any actually existing worldview would carry around with it the shadow of unrealized possibilities. In other words: a sphere of unreality would always accompany what we claim to be real, manifesting as an ultimate uncertainty about whether the signs and signifying structures we use to make sense of the world are indeed ‘true’ or even the best possible. The appear- ance of this uncertainty of experience can engender anxieties mounting up to a ‘horror vacui’, the fear of falling into an existential void. If this is indeed the case, then semiotics, too, is confronted with the problem of radical otherness and, thus, not at all opposed to responsivity. 17 Empirical and radical alterity merge in a famous study that adopts a semiotic perspective towards the European discovery and colonization of America, Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America. The book’s subtitle seems auspicious for our theme: The Question of the Other. Indeed Todorov frames his study of relations between Spanish conquistadores and colonizers and the Aztecs in terms of an encounter with otherness. His guiding question is how the Spaniards under Columbus and, particularly, under Cortes were able to subdue, with a compara- tively small contingent of armed men, a population which greatly outnumbered them and whose civilization was, in many respects, comparable to that of the Spaniards. He gives a semiotic answer to this question: the Spaniards were able to defeat the Aztecs not because of superiority in military technology, greater bru- tality, or immunological differences, 18 but because of an advantage in the field of communication. More than the Aztecs, the Spaniards made use of what Todorov calls the ‘interhuman aspects of communication’, the fact that sign-use is also an action that has an effect on the addressee. Hand in hand with this went the Spaniards’ realization that signification, at least of the symbolic type, is grounded in conventional agreement and in this sense arbitrary. Taken together, these two insights amounted to acknowledgement of the importance of communicating with others in order to gain information about them. They also led to an attitude in which signs could be used for instrumental and manipulative purposes, as for example



when Cortes intentionally and successfully posed as the God Quezalcoatl, whose return was prophesized in an Aztec myth (Todorov, 1999: 116–19). In contrast to the Spanish ability to improvise, to respond effectively to unpre- cedented situations and problems, stood the inability of the Aztecs to make sense of the invaders and to transform their understanding into action. This paralysis was personified in the reigning Aztec ruler, Montezuma, who let himself be taken cap- tive by Cortes and seemed to oscillate between admiration and contempt for his captors (see, for example, Todorov, 1999: 70–72). Montezuma’s indecisive behav- ior, Todorov insists, was not merely a personal idiosyncrasy, but was motivated by the Aztec’s cultural perspective, their view of the world. Drawing on contemporary accounts written by both Spanish and indigenous authors, 19 Todorov presents Aztec culture and society as organized around the key-concept of ‘order’ (Todorov, 1999: 66). Everything and every person had its place in a strict social hierarchy; ways of speaking with each other and about things were strongly ritua- lized; events were predetermined by oracles and prophesies. Within such a cosmo- logical order a radically different cultural perspective was inconceivable. As an example of the Aztec conception of the Other, Todorov cites the Totonacs, whom Aztecs thought of as speaking a ‘barbaric’, unintelligible language and leading an uncivilized life. In general, the Aztecs distinguished two types of strange people: those whom their Gods accepted as sacrifices and those whom they found unacceptable:

Now, the otherness of the Spaniards is much more

them into the category of the Totonacs – whose alterity is not at all radical – the Aztecs, faced with the Spaniards, renounce their entire system of human otherness and find themselves obliged to resort to the only other device available: the exchange with the gods. (Todorov, 1999: 76)

Unable to integrate

In other words, the Aztecs’ inability to assess the motives of the strange newcomers correctly and respond to them effectively was due to a cultural perspective that determined their thinking and behavior. Unlike the Spaniards’ actions that, as improvisations, moved beyond the known and familiar into new territories, the Aztecs’ responses remained within the confines of their cosmos; they lacked the creativity called for by a completely unprecedented situation. As presented by Todorov, we might call the Aztec response ‘conservative’ in the above sense. Yet, it would be wrong to suppress the subtlety of Todorov’s argument which, in a simplified form, can be regarded as ethically problematic. He doesn’t simply claim that the Spaniards were ‘more creative’ than the Aztecs; rather, he says that the cultural perspective from which the Europeans were acting provided more margin for the emergent idea of an extreme cultural difference. The openness of Renaissance culture to the Other (a culture which Todorov calls ‘allo-centric’, since its religious center was perceived as lying elsewhere, in Jerusalem) and their previous experience with cultural alterity through confrontation with Muslim civ- ilization allowed the Spaniards to perform more effectively in the situation of the


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conquest. On the other hand, Todorov makes a serious effort to avoid representing Aztec responses in terms of failure. Their emphasis on order, ritual and religion is itself to be understood as a positive expression of the second fundamental aspect of communication, which is communication not as interhuman exchange but as a contact between man and world. In communicating with each other, human beings always also communicate with nature, with God, with the Universe; they become part of an order whose origin lies beyond their doings. To selectively emphasize interhuman aspects of communication may have given the Spaniards the edge over the Aztecs in the conquest of America, but it comes at the price of destroying the capacity ‘to feel in harmony with the world, to belong to a pre- established order’. The effect of the victory is ‘to repress man’s communication with the world, to produce the illusion that all communication is interhuman commu- nication; the silence of the gods weighs upon the camp of the Europeans as much as on that of the Indians’ (Todorov, 1999: 97). However, here my concern is to point out as clearly as possible the convergences and frictions between a semiotic perspective on otherness and one grounded in the notion of responsivity. For this purpose it is useful to quote Todorov’s abstract formulation of the problem:

The touchstone of alterity is not the present and immediate second person singular but

Language exists only by means of the

other, not only because one always addresses someone but also insofar as it permits evoking the absent third person; unlike animals, men know citation. But the very existence of this other is measured by the space the symbolic system reserves for him:

such space is not the same, to evoke only one massive and by now familiar example, before and after the advent of writing (in the narrow sense). So that any investigation of alterity is necessarily semiotic, and reciprocally, semiotics cannot be conceived outside the relation to the other. (Todorov, 1999: 157, emphasis added)

the absent or distant third person

The Other is defined as a value in a system; in this view, a radical Other in the sense of what we respond to is, indeed, not possible. This is why the fateful encounter between Spaniards and Aztecs has to be reduced, on the theoretical and analytical plane, to a clash of signifying orders, with the more efficient or more aggressive order emerging as winner. Ultimately, it is the operation of structures, not the actions of individuals, that determines the outcome of historical confrontation. There is no need to completely dismiss this thesis, or the structuralist/post- structuralist perspective that gives rise to it, in the name of responsivity. As has been stated repeatedly, responding to the Other takes place in relation to orders; and signifying orders, or cultural systems of meaning, are particularly important for anthropology which, by definition, is concerned with efforts of understanding, i.e. interpreting the Other. Rather, the concept of responsivity adds something vitally important to this traditional concern, thus promising to solve some of the aporia resulting from it. It allows us to grasp theoretically and analytically that no matter how strong the structural and contextual forces in a situation, in the last



analysis these are incapable of completely determining the behavior of the partici- pants. ‘Determination’ and ‘causality’ are, at least as far as humans are con- cerned, 20 post hoc descriptions of processes which, when ongoing, are indeterminate and open-ended. The conceptual pair of demand and response enables us to move closer to the event as actually happening (even though this remains, of course, an approxima- tion). A ‘fact’ is not simply something given but results from responding to a demand which eludes any answer one might give, and exceeds any order that might emerge, even that of reason. A responsive anthropology would aim to ‘get at’ this excess and find ways of expressing it. This is important for any discipline dealing with human phenomena, but it is critical for anthropology, for which, some would say, working with groups and persons in marginal and subaltern positions is its defining characteristic (Bourgois, 1991). Here, the concept of responding to the Other opens up the possibility of speaking about power, oppression and violence in structural terms, without in the same breath renouncing the individual’s agency, freedom, and dignity. For a discipline like anthropology, this is no minor or trivial achievement. The Conquest of America contains many indications of primordial responsivity in a Waldenfelsian sense, 21 including even the motivation of the project itself. Todorov describes this project as the writing of an exemplary history (as contrasted with a narrative that simply claims to tell the historic truth objectively), a history that attempts to answer a moral question: ‘How to deal with the Other?’ (Todorov, 1999: 3–4, 253–4). Doesn’t this mean that the author himself describes his book in terms of a response to a demand coming from the Other, a demand which has a strong ethical dimension? I believe that Todorov’s dedication, which seems so strange at first, should be read in this sense: ‘I dedicate this book to the memory of a Mayan woman devoured by dogs’.


If there was such a thing as an overarching discipline of anthropology, it would have to have the whole human being as its subject matter: a being endowed with a sense of self that is, however, necessarily realized in social and cultural contexts. In both its personal and its socio-cultural existence, this being relies on faculties that distinguish it from other beings; it is defined by a specific form of ‘reason’, a logos. Understandably, this thematic field came to be divided among a great number of sub-disciplines, different ‘anthropologies’ specializing in specific aspects of being human: psychological anthropology, social and cultural anthropology, and philo- sophical anthropology, amongst others. Another fundamental concern of anthropology is otherness, or alterity (Auge´, 1998; Maranha˜o, 1998). This concern runs through all the various levels of anthro- pology defined as a science of the human being or, perhaps better, of being human. Otherness becomes critical in cultural anthropology where researchers study cul- tural difference by entering into encounters with concrete others. In these


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encounters, the anthropologist’s self and the other’s self engage in a complex interweaving of their personal and cultural experiences. The entanglement of self and Other that occurs in ethnographic fieldwork has the potential to cast doubt on the universality of reason. It can lead to an epistemological crisis in which the rationality the anthropologist applies to the interpretation of the Other appears as only one particular type of reason, the logos of ‘western modernity’. Bernhard Waldenfels’ concept of responsivity and his characterization of the human being as a responsive being enable us to talk about these fundamental anthropological concerns in a unified conceptual language; this alone should secure an anthropologist’s attention. Furthermore, the notion of a constitution of orders and ‘ownness’ in responding to alien demands overcomes the usual prob- lems of dualistic thought. Since the Other we respond to is always already gone, the answer we give (and in which we produce ourselves and the other as someone or something that is named) never reaches what provoked it. The response is never caused by the demand, as, for example, a physiological reaction is caused by an external stimulus. Although they give rise to orders of sense, to sets and systems, responses don’t follow existing rules and regulations. While thus essentially con- nected to structural processes, the response is animated by an irreducible agency of the individual human being. The individual itself, however, needs to be thought of as a continuous process of responding, of including what belongs to it (but never completely so) and of excluding what is alien to it (but keeps disturbing the self through its demands). Ownness and alienness, self and Other, subject and object, structure and agency – within a responsive paradigm all of these and other oppos- itions have to be thought of as primordially intertwined with each other. The challenges of adapting this conception to the needs of anthropological research are obvious. They can only be met through careful and thorough discus- sion. The purpose of the present article was to demonstrate adaptability through linking responsivity with other approaches to alterity which are more familiar to anthropologists. The sociological type of the stranger was presented as someone forced to respond to the demands of an alien socio-cultural order (Schu¨tz) or, conversely, as a person or a group who placed a demand on that order (Simmel). More than existing approaches, I propose that responsivity allows us to account for the dynamics of stranger-relations. In particular, it allows us to better grasp the function of strangers in the constitution of social identity: whatever label we attach to the stranger, whether we refer to him as ‘guest’, ‘immigrant’, or ‘enemy’, inevitably in one movement we conceptualize him as bearer of the label and ourselves in relation to him. But to regard this as a creative response means that there must always remain a sphere of alienness in connection with the stranger from which demands continue to arise. There is no perfect or ultimate social response to the stranger. The psychoanalysis of the uncanny and of anxiety was compatible with a responsive conception of the personal self. Freud’s Ego struggles for order but is continuously in danger of being overwhelmed by the unconscious drives of the Id. Several processes of responding structure the person’s psychic life: on the one hand,



the person responds to the world as a totality; on the other hand, various aspects of the self respond to each other. The psychoanalytical self is thus never completely identical with itself, a non-coincidence reflected in the feeling of uncanniness. The concept of responsivity can enrich anthropological approaches inspired by psychology and psychoanalysis. This potential was exemplified through anthro- pologists’ responses to anxiety experienced in the field. ‘Professional defenses’ in the sense of Georges Devereux were interpreted as answers to a threatening alien. These responses can be called ‘conservative’ in that they are pre-formulated by an existing order, a ‘professional culture of anthropology’, and serve to preserve that order. Finally, the semiotic approach to otherness was considered, both in general and in a violent encounter between cultures, the Spanish conquest of America as pre- sented by Todorov. As with the earlier approaches, the investigation stressed points of contact and compatibility rather than contradictions. Waldenfels’ conception of the Other as what we respond to in no way precludes the importance of signifying structures and orders of meaning, but deepens the semiotic-hermeneutic approach through a sensitivity for the origin of orders in an in-between sphere of dis-order. No matter how abstract and impersonal a constellation might appear, from a responsive perspective it must ultimately be relatable to an unpredictable ‘human’ element. This notion is particularly important for anthropology as a dis- cipline which is often concerned with people who find themselves in the subordinate position of power relations, a discipline in which questions of ethics acquire central importance.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, author- ship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


1. Waldenfels himself relates his use of the terms ‘response’ and ‘responsivity’ back to behaviorism, but to the German adaptation of this broad approach through authors such as Karl Bu¨hler, J.F.F. Buytendijk, Wolfgang Ko¨hler, or Kurt Lewin (Waldenfels, 2007: 28). Following ordinary usage, Waldenfels uses the German word Antwort for various aspects of responsivity that can be distinguished as ‘response’ and ‘answer’ in English. The more abstract notion of a general responsiveness he renders as Responsivita¨t, translatable as ‘responsivity’.

2. With certain modifications this even applies to the hermeneutics of Gadamer, who also assigns priority to the question: ‘It is of the essence of the question to have sense. Now sense involves direction. Hence the sense of the question is the direction in which alone the answer can be given if it is to be meaningful. A question places that which is


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questioned within a particular perspective. The emergence of the question opens up, as it were, the being of the object. Hence the logos that sets out this opened-up being is already an answer. Its sense lies in the sense of the question’ (Gadamer, 1975: 326). For a critical discussion of Gadamer’s hermeneutic from a perspective of responsivity see Waldenfels (1994: 122–36).


See in particular Part I of his Antwortregister.


This is not supposed to mean that the self cannot factually kill the Other. Quite to the contrary, Levinas, who lost his family in the Holocaust and was himself imprisoned in a German POW camp, attributes to the self a desire to kill which is aroused by the Other. The resistance lies in the fact that self, when fulfilling this desire, destroys its object. The Other cannot be possessed, not even by murdering him.


I happily acknowledge that Waldenfels himself provided the inspiration for making these connections. He regularly cites Simmel and Schu¨tz, Freud and Bakhtin, even Todorov in his works.


It should perhaps be stated explicitly that this is not supposed to mean that efforts aimed at ‘integration’ are futile. But one should keep in mind that integration, when it is completely successful, dissolves the phenomenon of the stranger. The completely inte- grated stranger is no stranger anymore but a ‘normal’ member of society and the ambi- guity that defines the status of the stranger has vanished.


For example the studies of the ‘Chicago School’ of sociology, whose members initiated the field of immigration studies and formulated important concepts of the immigrant-stranger as ‘marginal man’ (Park, 1928) and ‘sojourner’ (Siu, 1952, 1987). Both Park and Siu based their conceptions directly on Simmel’s ‘The Stranger’ (Siu, 1987: xxxii). Also valuable for a revitalization of the sociology of the stranger would be Margaret Mary Wood’s monograph The Stranger: A Study in Social Relationship (New York, 1934). As for anthropological sources, they are too numerous to list as any study of contacts between social groups will provide material on the types of strangers involved. A good example for how to make use of the ethnographic record from a perspective emphasizing otherness is Fritz Kramer’s comparative work on art and possession in Africa, The Red Fes (1993). Kramer is able to show how, in a variety of African societies, contacts to actual, concrete strangers, that is to other, African and European peoples interrelate with aesthetic forms and possession prac- tices in non-arbitrary ways. In general, Christoph Wulf (2013: 71) has pointed out that the stranger has been one of the central concerns of research in historical anthropology.


This difference is of course important for the effective outcome of processes of adapta- tion and integration, but it is not relevant with regard to the structural characteristics of the experience of the stranger considered by Schu¨tz.


For Schu¨tz’s influential conception of the everyday life-world as ‘that province of reality which the wide-awake and normal adult simply takes for granted in the attitude of common sense’, see Schu¨tz and Luckmann (1970: 3 ff).


The term is accurate for Schu¨tz and preferable to self since Schu¨tz himself defines the ego in the center of the life-world as reflecting on its own experience, that is as subject in the strict sense.


Simmel, too, describes the relationship to the stranger as founded on a shared human- ness that, somewhat paradoxically, restricts the possibility of intimacy with him: ‘In some cases, perhaps the more general, at least the more unsurmountable, strangeness is



not due to different and ununderstandable matters. It is rather caused by the fact that similarity, harmony and nearness are accompanied by the feeling that they are not really the unique property of this particular relationship: they are something more general, something which potentially prevails between the partners and an indeterminate number of others, and therefore gives the relation, which alone was realized, no inner and exclusive necessity’ (Simmel, 1950: 407).

12. Schu¨tz’s influence on anthropological theorizing outside of phenomenological anthro- pology was mostly indirect. A notable exception is presented by Clifford Geertz’s essay ‘Person, Time and Conduct in Bali’ (Geertz, 1973), in which he uses Schu¨tz’s distinction between predecessor, contemporary and successor for a description of the Balinese conception of time.

13. An example for the uncanny in the writings of E.T.A. Hoffman are the various figures of the ‘double’: a doubling of the self by someone who is uncannily similar to it and whose thoughts are telepathically connected to the self’s; or the identification of the self with another up to point where self and double cannot be separated from each other; a duplication of events which keep recurring again and again (Freud, 1955b: 234). Freud relates both the duplication of the self and the recurrence of events back to infantile experiences and instinctual drives. At an early stage of development, he says, the other self is experienced as a protection since it seems to guarantee the continuing existence of self. Later, however, the double becomes a reminder of one’s own death; it is now frightening since it reminds us that our very life is surrounded by otherness. Recurrent events, like passing the same place again and again when lost, are uncanny because they carry within them a residue of the compulsion to repeat characteristic of instinctual behavior (Freud, 1955b: 238).

14. Although Devereux doesn’t work explicitly with the concept of the uncanny, but with the more encompassing notion of anxiety, what he has to say applies to uncanniness in the stricter sense. After all, uncanniness can be understood as the mode of anxiety that relates to the self’s insecurity regarding its sphere of ownness (‘that class of the frighten- ing which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar’).

15. These interrelations also seem to be at play in Devereux’s distinction between sublima- tory, that is, ‘creative’, and defensive, that is, ‘automatic’ uses of methodology: ‘What matters, therefore, is not whether one uses methodology also as an anxiety-reducing device, but whether one does so knowingly, in a sublimatory manner, or unconsciously, in a defensive manner only’ (Devereux, 1967: 97).

16. See also the remarks by Sykes at the beginning of this essay.

17. Some semioticians have come up directly against the problem of the radical Other. Gregory Bateson, for example, in his famous essay ‘A Theory of Play and Fantasy’, arrives at the realization that any form of change and innovation in communication involves logical paradox (Bateson, 1972: 193). As in Waldenfels’ concept of responding, meaning arises here out of the interstices between orders. Another example for a semi- otic contribution to a radical notion of alterity is the literary theory of the Russian critic, linguist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. The discourse of the novel, says Bakhtin, is organized according to the principle of heteroglossia, the tendency of any living language to differentiate itself into a theoretically infinite number of varieties, dialects, sociolects, professional jargons, etc. (Bakhtin, 1981: 262–3). In the novel, heteroglossia becomes dominant, dissolving the individual voice of the author into a genuine polyphony. The author or speaker becomes a meeting ground of heterogeneous forces: she is not in


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control of what she says – her speech literally comes from elsewhere, the product of responding to the Other in language.

18. Although these factors, and in particular the last one, played a big part in the near annihilation of the Indian population of Latin America within 50 years of the conquest.

19. However, it has to be taken into consideration that the indigenous accounts were mostly written in retrospect, that is, after the Aztec defeat.

20. The concept of responsivity theoretically extends to the non-human realm, including animals as responsive beings. It suggests that the boundary between human and non- human animals cannot be drawn in absolute terms, but must be based on a distinction between different modes of responding. A promising starting point for such an endeavor seems to be the human ability to produce creative responses, thereby transcending pre-existing orders of being and creating new ones. This approach connects well with classical attempts in philosophical anthropology (Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, Arnold Gehlen) to define the human being.

21. Todorov is, for example, very sensitive to differences in responding on both sides of the conflict. On the Aztec side, he contrasts Montezuma’s hesitant behavior, and that of the Aztecs in general, with the determination of other leaders and peoples. For the Spanish – on whose side the historic record is, for obvious reasons, richer – Todorov contrasts the attitudes and behaviors of such different figures as Columbus, Cortes, Las Casas and Sahagun, thereby demonstrating that one and the same cultural perspective can give rise to a great variety of individual responses. Particularly worthy of note is Todorov’s interest in culturally hybrid figures, like Cortes’ famous Indian interpreter and mistress whom the Spanish called La Malinche or Dona Marina (1999: 100–102), or the Dominican Diego Duran (pp. 202ff.), who was raised in Mexico and whose description of the pre-Columbian world was characterized by standing in-between the two cultural worlds (for a reading of the role of La Malinche in openly responsive terms, see the chapter ‘The Go-Between’ in Stephen Greenblatts’ Marvelous Possessions). Finally, Todorov’s discussion of the work of Bernardino de Sahagun (pp. 219ff.) must be men- tioned in terms of polyphony and dialogical representation.


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Bernhard Leistle is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Carleton University, Ottawa. He has conducted extensive fieldwork in Morocco and published on Moroccan rituals of trance and possession. Theoretically, his work lies at the intersection of philosophical phenomenology and cultural anthropology. He is the editor of the forthcoming Anthropology and Alterity. Responding to the Other (Routledge 2016).