Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Strangeness of the Stranger

In another of her stories, Nine Lives, Ursula K. Le Guin writes: “It is hard to meet a stranger. Even the greatest extravert meeting even the meekest stranger knows a certain dread, though he may not know he knows it. Will he make a fool of me wreck my image of myself invade me destroy me change me? Will he be different from me? Yes, that he will. There’s the terrible thing: the strangeness of the stranger.”

The stranger is a terrifying creature. And every real person is a stranger to us and will always remain a stranger no matter how close we get to them. That’s because they will never be us. They will always be different. In that sense every other is a stranger. The fact that they are different from us makes them dangerous. They refuse to be a mere reflection of our soul (our fantasies and desires, the way we look at the world and think and feel about things). They permanently threaten us with the possibility of an imposed abrupt change. That is why we fear the other.

However, we also fear being alone, being with ourselves. We seek the company of others despite the threat that they pose. We may be psychologically disposed that way simply to safeguard the survival of the species. We need others to reproduce and to protect ourselves against a hostile environment. Our kind is, out of necessity, a collaborative one. We may also fear the stranger in ourselves, the realisation that we have no clear understanding of who and what we are, what defines us, what we are capable of and what not. Being alone with ourselves forces us, in the absence of an other who demands our attention, to revert our inquiring gaze to our own being, which can be quite a disturbing experience. If we look too deeply into the mirror, our reflection dissolves until there is nothing left but a gaping absence. So we are driven to the other, and most of us choose to risk the encounter and face the danger that comes with it. Some, however, decide they’d rather be alone than waste their energy, their affection and trust, on a person that will always remain a stranger, and almost certainly will reveal their strangeness some day, leaving us just as alone as we used to be before we attached our lives to theirs. But it’s never an easy decision. We are constantly being torn between the Scylla of a forever unchallenged life that is immune to hurtful surprises, but also very lonely, and the Charybdis of a life spent in the company of others, which permanently challenges our identity and allows for no complacency.

Automatic sweethearts, from Pygmalion’s living statue to the post-singulitarian lovebots and sexbots that transhumanists dream of, provide a perfect solution to this dilemma. They give us an other who is not a stranger, one who possesses no other voice or soul than the one we lend to it. Attaching oneself to it is entirely risk-free because it is not really an other, but our own self posing as an other. We duplicate ourselves, objectify ourselves in an apparent other, which is ideal because it allows us to only ever confront ourselves without ever having to confront ourselves. The other no longer poses a threat because it is not really an other at all, and the self becomes bearable because it is hidden under the mask (the persona) of the other.

Yet this is a perfect solution only if we assume that the risk of a real encounter with a real other, that is, an encounter with the stranger, is not worth taking, that there is nothing to be gained by it. But is that really so? If the identity of the self is endangered each time it opens up to the stranger, if the stranger brings change and makes our life unpredictable and precarious, if the stranger makes our self fluid, shouldn’t we be grateful to them for the opportunity they give us? Shouldn’t we welcome the possibility of change?

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