As I was re-reading Stuart Hall's work on representation and identity, I came across this discussion about why does 'difference' matter*. It is a rather theoretical discussion, tracing some of the academic reflections on the role of difference in the ways we make sense of things.
Hall outlines four arguments about difference which have something to say about how we perceive and relate to difference.
1. The linguistic argument (made by Ferdinand de Saussure) that difference is central to making sense of things. We make sense of 'white' by comparing it to 'black', of 'male' by comparing it with 'female' and so on. Yet, this way of thinking emphasizes the opposites - there is a range of grays in between black and white. One may choose to see how black turns gradually into white; or one may choose to see black versus white. I'm talking about colors; but one can easily talk about race, ethnicity, gender in the same way.
2. The dialogic argument (made by Mikhail Bakhtin) that difference is central to understanding and communication, because we communicate and make sense of things in a dialogue with another person. It is by participating in this dialogue and by confronting the different ideas we have that we make sense of things. So, difference is seen here as central to understanding.
3. The anthropological argument (made by DuGay and Hall; Mary Douglas) that each culture gives meaning by classifying things. Classification means emphasizing the difference; better said: when you classify something, there is a principle according to which you decide it is different or similar - so it has to go into this class of things (e.g. chairs) or the other (e.g. dogs). The idea here is that difference is created by those principles of classifications (those things which you highlight as central to defining a chair versus a dog). Though it make look like those principles are 'natural', 'logical' and 'immutable', they are in fact social conventions (heavy to swallow, but i won't go into details here).
4. The psychoanalytical argument (made by Sigmund Freud) that the "Other" - different from Self - is central to how we form our identities. Psychologists and psychoanalysts like to point out how, as children, we come to understand ourselves as different from the others in a painful way (e.g. we throw things on the floor and they don't come up to us and thus we form a sense of the Self as different from the world). Furthermore, for Freud, this process of defining the Self from the Other has - yeah, i know, big surprise - a sexual dimension. The drill is well-known: Oedipian complexes for men and identification with mothers for women etc. etc.
I found these insights really interesting: they do influence the general framework through which we come to think of difference - whether racial, gendered or simply the difference between a chair and a dog...
* Stuart Hall (1997) "The Spectacle of the 'Other'," in Stuart Hall (Ed.) Representations. Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage and The Open University, pp. 223-279
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