Alterity, as a specific condition, cannot be said to exist. The Other, the mythical figure of “what one is not”, is not exactly a rigid category. To say what I myself am, I must look (first?) to what I am not. In defining myself, I demarcate my own boundaries, inscribing borders around that which is “not-me”, constituting the Other and thereby constituting myself in relation to what is my antithesis. I am tall because I am not short, I am white because I am not black (though “non-white” proves more troublesome), I am a man because I am not a woman. But by inscribing borders around the “not-me”, I also mark decisively what is neither me, nor the other, but beyond language and imagination (or at least beyond consideration in the matter at hand). To perhaps be more clear, there is the problem that in constituting my opposite, I map too directly my experience onto that of the other, assuming a strict(er) yes-no binarism of characteristics, separating the Other from the Not-Me by defining borders which are excessively self-reflexive.
Though these two very different conceptions of otherness—the defined, carefully circumscribed and bounded Other and the messier, infinite Not-Me—are found (often confused) throughout discussions of alterity (the postcolonial Other of Said and Spivak, the political other of ACT-UP in New York, the unknown Other of development discourse, etc.), I choose here to focus on the discursive space between Beauvoir’s (more conservative) definition of the Other and Irigaray’s radical rejection of the Other as so much of the same, opting for a more radical notion of unbounded identity-space, the Not-Me, which is not automatically reflective of the subject (which is assumed, by both authors, to be the male). In taking these two authors as examples of types of alterity, I will obviously concentrate on the construction of woman as the marked Other or Not-Me, and the discursive space between these different constructions, leading to a discussion of the work done by this undefined discursive space in the construction of women as “at risk” (or not) in the American AIDS epidemic, as well as a brief look at the exportation of this discursive baggage abroad, especially to Africa since the early 1990’s (since Western Europe and North America entered a post-crisis period in their (responses to their) AIDS epidemics). The first two sections will necessarily consist of a close reading of Beauvoir’s and Irigaray’s works, especially The Second Sex and This Sex Which Is Not One, while employing a critical understanding of gener as made explicit by Butler in the opening chapters of Gender Troubles and other works in that field. After these, there will a look at the use of the Other and the Not-Me understandings of alterity in responses to the AIDS epidemics in the
“A matter of form”
Beauvoir, in opening The Second Sex, finds that she cannot write of women without writing of their eternal referent, men. After a brief discussion of the problems of defining women essentially, Beauvoir touches on the most problematic point of her treatise: the need for its explanation.
A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: ‘I am a woman’; on this truth must be based all further discussion. A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man. The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers (1949: 15).
In stating her case from an initial point of specificity, Beauvoir (and the reader) is immediately aware of the reference which is made by the term woman: that which is not man. In marking its referent, the signifier “woman” always-already inscribes itself as an Other, just as it always-already implies the category of “man”. As such, these two terms can be seen as reflective, the one constituting the lack of the other and vice-versa (though this construction would seem to imply an equality of signification, that is certainly and emphatically not the case). The category “woman” is defined as a marked subset of humanity, inscribing all those to whom the category “man” (seen as the natural, ideal, or unmarked) does not apply with a marker of their difference: this person is not male because of this difference, this person must then be female. Beauvoir compares this to the definition of the oblique based on a concept of the absolute vertical (1949: 15), though later she expands this: the absolute vertical is also defined by the lack of obliqueness. “Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself” and “the subject can only be posed in being opposed—he sets himself up as the essential, as opposed to the other, the inessential, the object” (1949: 17). The two terms, the One and the Other, become inextricably linked, impossible to exist individually and ultimately reflections of each other: equally opposite if not equal and opposite.
Beauvoir’s woman is also inextricably linked to man:
The bond that unites her to her oppressors is not comparable to any other…The couple is a fundamental unity with its two halves riveted together, and the cleavage of society along the line of sex is impossible. Here is to be found the basic trait of woman: she is the Other in a totality of which the two components are necessary to one another (1949: 19-20).
Thus in constructing their highly relative identities, the One and the Other, these identities become indivisible, each existing to reflect and define the other while being completely dependent on each other, materially and existentially. Beauvoir constructs her marked Other (or occasionally, Object) as a definite foil which throws light and definition onto the characteristics of the Subject (man), that that construction may remain defined without being marked by its specificity: man is the universal, the “judge and party to the case” (1949: 27). Butler calls this the “closed circuit of signifier and signified” (1990: 15), in which the signifier “woman” refers directly to woman but also implies the masculine. To borrow the vocabulary of Irigaray (with more to come in the next section), the thoroughly patriarchal (or phallogocentric) language used to signify the feminine always-already implies and necessitates the masculine, locking the two (masculine/feminine) into a necessary and unavoidable binary, with each being defined by its reflection of the O/other. Beauvoir essentially limits her definition of the other to that which is useful for the production of a coherent identity, an Other which only exists with the One and vice versa.
Multiplying sex, exploding the Other
Irigaray categorically rejects this notion of the Other (as being untrue, as being unhelpful, as being un-whole). Through her analysis, the notion of the Other being always-already constituted as part of the One (to re-borrow Beauvoir’s terminology) is posed as extremely limiting. In examining the (sexual) relations between man and woman, Irigaray rejects the notion of woman’s Otherness being restricted to that which is analogous (and directly applicable) to the man:
the clitoris is conceived as a little penis…, and the vagina is valued for the ‘lodging” it offers the male organ…In these terms, woman’s erogenous zones never amount to anything but a clitoris-sex that is not comparable to the noble phallic organ, or a whole-envelope that serves to sheathe and massage the penis in intercourse… (1977: 23).
Interpreted metaphorically, Irigaray rails against the masculine appropriation of the female body/the feminine, or even the dictation of what should be under consideration for inclusion in this category. She maintains that woman (as the Other) is not fully represented, nor can she ever be, in such a pervasively phallogocentric symbolic economy: woman, consisting of only what is symbolically useful for the definition of man, can only ever be(come) a reflection (and thus an appropriation) of the masculine (Butler 1990: 16).
What Irigaray believes is the true femininity is an indefinable infinity of identity, an “epanding universe to which no limits could be fixed and would not be incoherence nonetheless” (1977: 31). This ideal of unbounded identity, which is such anathema to the Other, becomes Irigaray’s construction of the Not-Me: everything which is external to the Subject becomes possible, and thus the Subject (the One) is defined by these infinite relations, becoming the infinitely situated subject. The Not-Me, then, is analogous in its effects to Weeks’s “radical pluralism” (quoted in Bersani 1987: 218) and Butler’s “deconstruction of identity” (1990: 189), in that by destabilizing the essential core of subjecthood, by refusing the Subject its concrete reference, it presents the possibility of a liberation from a rigid “identity politics” which, by necessarily perpetuating the categories of difference around “identity groups”, can only go so far in advancing an equal (because separate can never be equal) multicultural (or –sexual or –ethnic or –national) society.
Stepping back towards Irigaray’s text, I emphasize that this is not her explicit aim, but rather her ideal extrapolated by later (poststructural) theorists. Irigaray, unlike
“Foucault in the Streets”? Not Quite
Though Beauvoir and Irigaray disagree on the nature (or implications) of feminine alterity, both writers assume the need for a dramatic re-equalizing of a society, through the assertion of women’s One-ness (or Subject-hood) alongside that of men’s, thus eliminating the unequal binary of sexual division. They in turn lament the lack of a coherent feminine political identity, citing instead women’s primary allegiance to class, race or religion above gender (Beauvoir 1949: 19-21; Irigaray 1977: 32), foreshadowing (at least in the case of Beauvoir writing at the end of World War II, though less Irigaray) the rise of identity politics, particularly the feminist movement, and particularly (for the sake of this essay and this segue) feminist and other subaltern (gay, especially) mobilizations around AIDS. Relying heavily on the accounts of Treichler (1999) and Stoller (1998), along with others (Bordowitz 2004; Crimp 1987; etc.), I will attempt to interrogate critically the formation of identity around genders and sexualities in response to the AIDS crisis, and their expression (or lack thereof) in the policies of both the state and of AIDS service organizations themselves.
From the first institutional reports on AIDS, seemingly due to an accident of history, women were excluded from the “risk groups”: AIDS as a clinical manifestation was simply first noticed in the male homosexual population, and was certainly most strongly expressed in that population in the first years of the epidemic. Early accounts, and even contemporary accounts (stemming mainly from Africa as North America is now seen as “post-crisis” and thus beyond research) generally position women in an inferior role, being mentioned only in the context of their relationship to men: partners of IV drug users, partners of bisexual men, mothers of infected infants, prostitutes (Farmer 1996; Stoller 1998; Treichler 1999). Treichler notes that even though women were supposedly “represented” on the earliest versions of the AIDS research agenda, they were “summarily bounced” from the list when their contact with men was not conclusively shown to be the mode of their infection (Treichler 1999: 53). Later, as it became apparent that male-to-female and female-to-male transmission was taking place (or more generally, that women were indeed being infected with HIV), circuitous theories were circulated as to why these women were not “normal” and thus were not “women”: they abused drugs, they received fertility treatments, they were from the Third World (Treichler 1999: 61-5). Women as an unmarked category continued their noted absence in the increasingly complex risk categories of the CDC reports.
were explicitly justified by arguing that HIV incidence in women provided a general index to the heterosexual spread of the virus and that the purpose of identifying women at risk and preventing ‘primary’ infection in them was to prevent cases of AIDS/HIV in their partners and children. Again, there was no intrinsic concern for women as women (Treichler 1999: 63).
In an interesting parallel to Irigaray’s Not-Me construction, women simply do not exist as such in the early years of the epidemic (and it is arguable about whether or not they exist today). They reflect men’s actions (by being defined by who fucked them or by being made pregnant), or else serve as markers of what can and can not be accepted into the norm (yes: heterosexuality; no: drug use, prostitution, association with non-heterosexual men, poverty; the jury’s still out: lesbianism). Either way, women provide the boundary, defining the Subject by being defined as the Other. Women who (and the parts of women’s lives which) simply have nothing to do with masculine agency are made to disappear, allowing them to serve as transparent boxes in which HIV is put in and pulled out with no interference from the box itself.
Reactions to this framing of the disease by the biomedical “experts” varied greatly, but generally women were sidelined in the activist response. ACT-UP, the most well-known of the activist groups, was essentially an outgrowth (or a response to the lack of effect) of Gay Men’s Health Crisis of New York City. Though not explicitly defined around a “gay” movement, the majority of members and “actions” were directly associated with a gay, middle-class, white male lifestyle. Women and racial minorities (not to mention drug users, and the poor) were poorly represented in advocacy efforts, being relegated to the marginal, the marked, the “special cases”. Interestingly, a movement which has explicitly mobilized around a minority identity in turn defines itself by its difference, not only from the norm, but also from other minority identities: “In these ACT-UP materials [produced for “actions”], we receive a complementary message that African Americans, Latinos, women, and the poor have less intrinsic value, as seen by the quality and quantity of materials and campaigns devoted to their concerns” (Stoller 1998: 131). Rather than the monolithic Other against which man is defined, woman had become another other in a list of others against which ACT-UP defined its agenda.
Identity politics, unfortunately it seems, must always presuppose an identity. A gay movement must necessarily exclude the non-gay, a black movement must exclude the non-black, and even a women’s movement must exclude the non-women (and those for whom the identity of “gay”, “black” or “woman”, respectively, is not the primary site of allegiance), to say nothing of movements and ideologies based explicitly on the exclusion of Others (anti-Semitism, racism, sexism). In constituting, or even theorizing, a coherent identity we must assume that there exist those who do not share that identity, or else that identity loses its significance. With the assumption of the existence of Others, we seek to discover, describe and categorize their difference, their Otherness, but in so doing so we fail to fully represent them, using only the traits that mirror our own, excluding those which are of no “use” to us. The subaltern identities created by both the Norm and the reactions to it create valuable sites for the mobilization of resistance, but they are doomed by their very natures to perpetuate the discursive practices privileging certain differences over others, setting groups apart and necessarily creating power dynamics. While the “radical pluralism” envisioned by Weeks and others seems unlikely to come about (either of its own accord or through the actions of wo/men), it serves as a useful goal and furthermore can help to illustrate the mechanisms through which inequalities are perpetuated in society. Assuming the continued existence of “identity groups” as such, it must be recognized that these groups themselves are dependent upon and perpetuate the politics of difference in order to mark them. Social change (towards equality, but also away from it) can come about through the articulation of subaltern demands around these identity categories, but it is the construction of these categories which in and of itself ensures continued inequality.
 Some terminology: throughout the remainder of this essay, “Other” will refer to the bounded notion of alterity as described above, while “Not-Me” will refer to the more infinite notion, encompassing all that is external to the self. “Alterity” (and the associated adjective, “subaltern”) will be used to describe the condition more generally, to the avoid confusion that might occur when using the term “otherness”.
 An interesting and very literal demonstration of this is the “dipping” hypothesis explaining the infection of American military personnel in
Beauvoir, Simone de (1949). The Second Sex. London: Vintage.
Bersani, Leo (1987). "Is the Rectum a Grave?" October 43(Winter): 197-222.
Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.
Farmer, Paul, M. Connors and J. Simmons, Ed. (1996). Women, poverty and AIDS: sex, drugs and structural violence. Monroe: Common Courage Press.
Irigaray, Luce (1977). This Sex Which Is Not One. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Stoller, Nancy E. (1998). Lessons From the Damned: Queers, Whores, and Junkies Respond to AIDS. New York: Routledge.
Treichler, Paula A. (1999). How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS. Durham: Duke University Press.