Before Empire: England, Alterity, and the Mediterranean Context
When cultural historians describe the relationship between England and other communities that existed outside England, they habitually refer to that foreign presence as “the Other.” When employed in this sense, the term “Other” implies a radical, cognitive difference between the domestic and the foreign. In early modern studies, English identity is compared and contrasted to the Irish Other, the Spanish Other, the Islamic Other, the Amerindian Other, and so on. This use of the singular noun “other” to signify the status of a foreign entity beyond the pale of the homeland relies upon an analogy between individual consciousness and collective identity. The foundational psychoanalytic distinction between self (or ego) and other (or alter) becomes a model for our account of English culture’s understanding of what is beyond its borders, outside its language and habitus. But already a problem arises: for the individual, alterity is everyone and everything but the self, but when we talk about an entire culture’s “identity,” we must speak using plural terms like “us” or “them.” Perhaps the psychological mechanisms and processes that operate when one person perceives the world outside the self may be productively compared to the way that one society represents or apprehends another, but a strictly dualistic psycho-cultural phenomenology will inevitably fail to fit the form of “culture.”
KeywordsCultural Identity English Subject British Empire Postcolonial Theory Liminal Space
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