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Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post- Coloniality

Sara Ahmed
Routledge: London
2000
0415201853 (pb)
16.99 (pb)
xii + 212

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Front Cover
In Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality, Sara Ahmed turns a sharp critical eye to such topical themes as 'strangers', otherness, and difference, and in the process makes an original and insightful contribution to postcolonial, cultural and feminist theory. Her central task is to deconstruct the fetishisation of 'strangers' that serves to bolster Western agency and identity- construction at the expense of strangers, who are thereby rendered as static, lacking in agency, and as pre-existing objects (rather than subjects) of knowledge. Rather than accepting such an ontology of strangers, that presumes that they simply have 'being' and are ontologically prior to the social relations that construct them, Ahmed proposes that 'we can only avoid stranger fetishism . . . by examining the social relationships that are concealed by this very fetishism . . . [W]e need to consider how the stranger is an effect of processes of inclusion and exclusion' (6).

The notion that the Self constructs itself by means of elaborating an objectified other has been a staple of social theory since Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex and Edward Said's Orientalism, however Ahmed augments this conceptual approach in two significant ways. The first is through her deployment of Marx's notion of commodity fetishism, which motivates her to attempt to 'demonstrate the links between representation and broader relationships of production' (61). Thus her lens is focussed not only on questions of representation in the construction of strangers, but also on economic issues, historicity and power asymmetry. In other words, her work provides a broad and useful context for a consideration of stranger fetishism that gives her argument an incisive and appealing political edge. Secondly, Ahmed gives repeated examples of ways in which a generalised notion of the stranger or other is inadequate to account for the mechanisms that produce and reproduce Western selves, communities and nation-states. In her words, ontologies of the stranger which enable the construction of the self or the community require the ability to 'differentiate between some others and stranger others' (16). She provides numerous examples of multi-tiered 'strangering' in elaborating this concept, for instance, Neighbourhood Watch schemes in Britain, and policy documents relating to multiculturalism in Australia, and thereby succeeds in evoking the complex economies of strangering that go beyond dialogical processes of othering.

Ahmed not only traverses a wide range in her coverage of political contexts, her theoretical reach is impressively broad as well. She takes on theories of embodiment, postcolonialism, ethnography, global feminism and ethical philosophy, to name a few. With the exception of the latter, her skill in both critiquing and deploying various theorists to further her central aim is evident, and lends additional authority to her overall discussion. And indeed, the problem I encountered with the ethical philosophers was not one of lack of competence on Ahmed's part, but more one of querying her purpose, and whether this topic merited an entire chapter of its own. Given that her concluding chapter deals with global feminism, a project with which she clearly identifies, and which contains normative and ethical aspects of its own, it was unclear to me why such an extensive foray into what seemed at times to be debates internal to the discipline was necessary (for instance, I found it difficult to see how her discussion of Derrida's critique of Levinas' critique of Heidegger was essential to this topic).

Finally, I found that her most 'visionary' chapter (on global feminism) lacked some of the rigour of earlier chapters that more strongly featured her impressive critical edge. Ahmed's strong emphasis on political context, and hence on power asymmetry and its inherent antagonisms, seems to get lost somewhat in the closing pages of the book. The chapter starts out well; she rehearses crucial instances of strangering that have dangerously divided global feminism, and makes clear links between these practices and the strangering she identifies in other contexts. Yet when envisioning practices of 'encounter' that might avoid the strangering of the other, that critical awareness appears to dim somewhat. '[A] politics of encountering gets closer in order to allow the differences between us, as differences that involve power and antagonism, to make a difference to the very encounter itself. The differences between us necessitate the dialogue, rather than disallow it' (180). Power and antagonism receive lip service here, yet the immediate shift into dialogue somehow seems too easy. Given that encounters, as she discusses earlier, bring with them histories of pain, scars, trauma, how will such dialogue actually take place? What challenges will it encounter? Definitive answers are not required, yet more explicit acknowledgement of the deeply fraught nature of such encounters would lend weight to these closing comments.

Overall, however, Ahmed's book is thoughtful, thought-provoking and well worth reading.

Julie Wuthnow
University of Canterbury, NZ

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