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Mainstream, VOL L, No 51, December 8, 2012

Politics of Psychoanalysis and Human Rights of the Stranger

Wednesday 12 December 2012, by Sunita Samal



The predominant liberal multi-culturalist model has neglected the very direct encounter with the ‘human rights of the other’. The politics of psychoanalysis as the very core of inter-subjective relations is rooted in an unconscious structural relation to the realm that Lacan refers to as symbolic. What is the relationship of symbolic with human rights? His register of the symbolic is often a difficult concept to unpack. The Lacanian subject can change the destiny of an unconscious desire since every act of speaking involves an act of addressing the other—always implying a search for recognition of the rest. Perhaps the most important is the notion that transitive recognition from the ‘other’ constitutes the ground of inter-subjec-tivity inherently blocked by the functioning of ‘desire’. One of the more cogent descriptions of the symbolic is found in popular culture. When faced with the ethical injuction ‘to love thy neighbour as thyself’, the primary procedure for the multicultural and Judeo-Christian models is to keep at bay the proximity of the neighbour, as the neighbour is inhabited with an uncanny ‘real’ of human rights.

Encounter with the Stranger

HUMAN relationships are based on the tension resulting from the duality of relationships of nearness and distance. The consequence of having only the absolutely general in common has the exact effect of putting special emphasis on that which is not in common. The encounter with the ‘real’ is most often equated with excess of the stuff that penetrates through the pores in the surface, like a science fiction alien who has an excess of existence over representation or this might consist of representation without existence. Since reality occurs only insofar as the real is not fully experienced, so also is the case with human rights. The post-modern multi-culturalist mode of engaging the other is in many ways a resurgence of Herbert Marcuse’s ‘repressive tolerance’ whereby the other is deprived of her/his own cultural identities and forced to enter the totality of the repressive capitalist culture. The distance towards the other is the basis of the politics of Eric Santner and Slavoj Zizec. Lacan develops the neighbour as ‘das Ding’ (the thing), a presymbolic object characterised primarily prior to any represen-tation. The thing remains unfathomable, an excess, outside the moral relationship.

Georg Simmel differentiates the stranger both from the ‘outsider’ who has no specific relation to a group and from the wanderer who comes today and leaves tomorrow. The stranger comes today and stays tomorrow. Has he or she the rights of a stateless person? What he/she needs is recognition. The stranger is a member of the group in which he lives and participates and yet remains distant from the other—called the native member of the group. In comparison with other forms of social distance and differ-ences such as class, gender and even ethnicity, the distant stranger has to do with ‘Origin’ which is a human rights issue. The stranger is perceived as extraneous to the group, even though he is in constant relation to the other group members. His distance is more emphasised than his nearness. The stranger’s distance is the ‘thing’. Representation, according to Lacan, will always develop out of the good of ‘the thing’.

Politics of Psychoanalysis

THE politics of psychoanalysis depicts ‘the thing’ as that which always eludes symbolisation rooted in allegiance to the Freudian universal law of incest and the ‘Oedipus complex’ that structures human desire and the ‘other’ relation-ship. ‘The thing’ comes to impact language in a negative way from the point of human rights, as that which manifests desire for the real. Thus the real is an extra-moral matter, similar to what we find in Kant’s moral system of rights. The Lacanian subject can change the destiny of an unconscious desire to the point of being verbal to the second power since every act of speaking involves an act of addressing the other—always implying a search for recognition of the rest. The subject is placed in a relationship with the enigma of the other through an uncons-cious transmission.

The stranger is perceived as being in the group but not of the group. Simmel briefly touches upon the consequences of occupying such a unique position for the stranger as well as the potential effects of the presence of the stranger on other group members. Most notably he suggests that because of their peculiar position in the group, strangers often carry out special tasks that the other members of the group are neither capable of nor willing to carry out. That may be his or her inherent right. For example, especially in pre-modern societies, most stran-gers were involved in trade activities. Also because of their distance from local factions they might have been employed as arbitrators and even judges. The recent spatialisation of social theory deserves to take advantage of the concept of social distance and the practitioners of the spatial distant studies need to take advantage of the recent scholarship on society and space.

He adds that studying the substratum would require the social morphology of geography as the first among other disciplines that would need to be the inter-disciplinary science of human rights. It is a society in which all distances, physical and psychical, had been abolished, in which there were neither taboo, prejudice, nor reserve of any sort. A society in which the intimacies were absolute would be a society in which there were neither persons nor freedom. A village, city, or nation studied from the standpoint of adaptation, struggle for existence, survival of the fittest. The un-deadness creates an encounter with legitimating or what Freud referred to as death drive, a too-much-ness of pressure and the build-up of an urge to put an end to it. To be thrown up by the enigma, legitimacy is to be seduced by the prospect of an exception to the space of social reality and self-legitimating ground. This too-much-ness of bio-political life is rooted in Freud’s theory that trauma must contain an excess of demand and means to address other’s human rights.

Human Rights and Idea of Integration

WHO is a stranger? A stranger is a manifestation of the unknown. He represents one of the many facets of the mystery and wonder of our exis-tence. When we encounter someone unknown to us, we sense a shared human fate and we recognise a common form—the human body—but we also grapple with the discomfort of what we do not know about this person. The tension upon encountering the other is a force that comes from undiscovered places. No science, reductionist or mystical, can hope to completely understand this force, this well-spring of the unknown. Meetings even between persons who call themselves friends are often filled with a subtle tension that is not resolved until those have gone beyond a ritual of greetings. Greetings assume that we have something—if only a smile, nod or handshake—in common with one which is virtually unknown to us. Do we con-sider the stranger as potentially dangerous or potentially a friend? How well do we have to know a stranger before he or she ceases to be a stranger and becomes a friend. Reflecting on such questions can give us a picture of how we face the unknown individually and collectively.

There is a story by Jane Fisler Hoffman. Someone’s faith was tested when a stranger came to the door of her home at the end of a country road. She looked out at the White man, quite noticeable in her largely Black community. She was sure that he was the convicted murderer and had escaped from the prison several miles away. The woman had a rifle but she chose to open the door. She insisted on praying with him and he wept as he remembered a long gone childhood faith. Eventually the state police surrounded her home. Between the man’s renewed fear and the police’s intensity to capture him, the situation came to a dangerous turn. But she talked to both parties and brought them to a point where the man could safely be taken into custody. As they began to put him in the car, he turned to her and said simply: ‘Thank you for your hospitability, M’am’ and the stranger was gone. This is about deconstruction rather than politics.

It was an encounter with the stranger. The Bible is full of encounters with strangers. The concept of universal brotherhood started from there. An overview of the texts reminds us that at times the stranger is seen by Israel as a threat and there is a tension in the relationship. The stranger and their strange Gods are seen as a danger to the purity of Israel after the exile. At another time the ‘strangers’ are the instruments of God’s anger. But there are minority reports in the encounters with the strangers of Israel. The overriding affirmation of God is to welcome, protect, share interesting identities with the stranger because of the shared experience of having been strangers/aliens themselves.

‘I’ and the Other

THE stranger and the alien are seen as being responsible to the same law, with the same privileges and responsibility, as that extends all the way to the thorn of God. We and the alien shall be alike before the Lord. Jesus identifies himself as the stranger to be welcomed. Jesus first acknowledges his identity as the son of God. The Christ is the reigning sovereign and saviour of the world. It is astounding that in his very moment of glory, Jesus identifies himself with the risky stranger—for strangers were seen as thereby to a religion of purity and a nation opposed by the empire. The Sovereign Jesus says that he was a stranger and we welcome him. The saviour is the stranger, the stranger is the saviour. To welcome one is to welcome the other.

One of the last references to strangers is the Biblical canon giving final encouragement for our encounters with strangers. Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitability to strangers or all the more we may encounter Jesus himself as our Stranger-Saviour. As our nation struggles with the immigration issue and enduring racism, sexism and so on, the nations of the world engage one another across hostile lines. We who follow Jesus, the Stranger-Saviour, have an urgent mission to live the stranger’s life with him.

The stranger comes not only in human form. It can come as a substance particle or a distance galaxy. It can come in the form of places or objects of actions. And we name them once the named objects are no longer strange but become some-how familiar. We find the unknown and stand in the presence of becoming. And this spontaneous becoming of the stranger and those who meet the stranger cannot be ignored or halted.


GEORG SIMMEL was a neo-Kantian. As is well-known, Kant situated knowledge—quasi-analy-tical and synthetic judgements—within the intuitive form of space and time. These two forms are the necessary a priory intuitions without which we cannot perceive and conceive the objects. Space and Time have empirical real-ity, writes Karl Jasper. But the ‘transcendental identity’ echoes of Kant reverberate throughout the sociology of Simmel, who believed he had secured a new concept of sociology. ‘Lack’ introduces the idea of fullness and integration with the lost object. It was always introduced through an act of exclusion. Yet, we find that there is something that does fill in the symbolic in fantasy.

The imposition of fantasy arises precisely when the desire for filling in or cove-ring over ‘lack’ arises. Fantasy becomes crucial to understanding the role of ‘I-other’. Separating ‘form and content’ is a highly contentious issue in social theory, an issue Hegel raised against Kant. But it is like suggesting briefly here that geometric and metamorphic split in the self that Simmel conceived of has not been sufficiently appreciated. It presents a method of interroga-ting the relationship between form and content while at the same time recognising the Hegelian insistence on the unity of form and content which is the modern self. The proportion of nearness and remoteness also finds practical expression in the more abstract nature of relations.

Reflecting on such questions can give us a picture of how we face the unknown individually and collectively by not ignoring human rights. The other is the core that creates an inter-subjective struggle in the realm of symbolic rights in case of the stranger.

(Author: Dr Sunita Samal, a former Research Scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is presently based in Bhubaneswar)


1. Nedim Karakayali (2009), ’Social Distance and Affective Orientations’, Sociological Forum, 24 (3) p. 538-562.
2. Margaret Mary Wood (1934), ‘The Stranger: A Study In Social Relationship’, Columbia University Press.
3. David Frisby (1992b), ’Simmel and Science: Essay; On George Simmel’s Social Theory’, London, Routledge,
4. Sanford L. Forte, ‘Stranger All: Encountering the Unknown in Other”, Friends and Lovers, Summer 1985, Context Institute.
5. Stranger Encounters: The Biblical Example to Welcome, Written by Jane Fisler Hoffman
6. Slavoj Zizek (1998), Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself? No Thanks!, Columbia University Press.
7. Jacques Lacan (1986), The Ethic Of Psychoanalysis, Norton and Company Inc.
8. Sigmund Freud (2007), Collected Works, New York.

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