Grasping Alterity. A Cross-Disciplinary Analysis of Otherness.

Grasping Alterity

A Cross-Disciplinary Analysis of Otherness

“Out of doors” – etymologically, this is the literal meaning of the term “foreign” that the English language adopted and adapted from Latin in the Middle English period (first recorded in 1297). In that sense, a country is conceptualised as something like a house that is closed to entities from outside, which are, by definition, foreign. Theoretically, the doors can be open or closed, and the person outside the doors can enter the house in a variety of ways: as a friend, relative, invited guest, business partner, or as an uninvited stranger to whom the inhabitants of the house willingly offer their hospitality. The person “out of doors” might also enter the house secretly, forcing his or her way in through the doors or even the windows. If it is despair or hunger that drove the person to enter in such a way, the inhabitants of the house may pardon the trespass, whereas the intrusion of a burglar or thief will trigger a very different reaction. Hence, there is clearly not one fixed meaning of “foreigner”; neither does the term reflect an objective reality. Instead, “meanings are relativized to scenes,” [1] as Charles Fillmore points out in what has become the dictum of a theory of linguistic meaning known as Frame Semantics. This also explains why certain words have become politically charged. It seems safe to say that people do not understand a term like “migrant” by summoning up the dictionary definition. This is precisely what the proposed project is interested in: What processes are at play that a given epistemic community interprets one and the same term so very differently, as in the case of “migrant” that used to denote a person who moves from one place to another and that has come to be conceived by a significant part of the population as a burden to the social system in public discourse. The aim of this research project is to grasp the elusive concept of the Other through a diachronic study of frames of meaning. In particular, it will examine the frames that have been evoked to conceptualise “foreigners,” “migrants,” “immigrants,” and “refugees.” To this end, it will synthesise theoretical and methodological approaches from several disciplines to achieve a more holistic understanding of the cultural deixis that underpins discursive constructions of otherness.

This study engages in a content analysis of texts, in the broader sense of the term, that is situated at the crossroads of literary criticism, cultural studies, and linguistics. It follows the perspective of critical discourse analysis, which is multidisciplinary in nature, exploring the relationship between discourse and power on the basis of empirical data. Empirically grounded in a British socio-cultural context, this project analyses micro and macro-level discourse structures from the early modern period to the present day by employing big data methods alongside close readings of literary and non-literary texts. The proposed text corpus will comprise canonical and non-canonical literature as well as British periodicals and journals from the seventeenth to the 21st centuries. In addition, photographs and cartoons will supplement these sources to extend the range of discourse data. While this study is interested in the cultural politics of representation, it will not assess discourse through the sole analytical problematic of representation, but rather focus on language use as a social practice constitutive of collective identities, such as “us” and “them.”

Given its diachronic perspective, this project highlights the evolution of the discursive construction of otherness and the diversity of frames evoked at different points in time. In their discourse analytical study of racism, Ruth Wodak and Martin Reisigl have traced the trajectory of the term “race” from one denoting “nobility” to one determined by somatic criteria.[2] The present project will likewise adopt a discourse-historical perspective, transcending purely linguistic dimensions, in combination with postmodern and postcolonial approaches as forwarded in cultural studies by theorists such as Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Homi Bhabha, or Raymond Williams. As socially and politically committed research, this study relies on notions from critical discourse analysis, including Teun A. van Dijk’s concept of mental models, and uses frame theory as defined by Fillmore to explore meanings and dominant cultural values. In John L. Austin’s words, it will look at how language is used “to do things with words.” By choosing a historical perspective to discuss the ways discourse produces, reproduces, and transforms collective identities of Self and Other, this project seeks to provide a better understanding of contemporary societal problems of discrimination and integration. In addition to the methods mentioned above, a sentiment analysis will be included to shed further light on the status quo and the prevalent forms of social cognition regarding migration and the place of the Other in society.

[1] Charles J. Fillmore, “The Case for Case Reopened,” in P. Cole and J. Sadock, eds., Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 8: Grammatical Relations, (New York: Academic Press, 1977), pp. 59-82 (p. 59).

[2] Ruth Wodak and Martin Reisigl, “Discourse and Racism,” in D. Schiffrin, D. Tannen, and H.E. Hamilton, eds., The Handbook of Discourse Analysis (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 372-97 (p. 373).