An Introduction to Alterity

My brother gets Boba Fett and I get IG-88. He gets Obi-Wan and I get the Jawa. Darth Vader for him and R2-D2 for me. Chewbacca, my brother; Han Solo, me. We both get Stormtroopers. No one gets Leia, though no one wanted her. The next time my father returns with toys, there’s Luke and IG-88 again, which, unwanted, I get. It’s not fair. I already have IG-88. Now I have two. It’s not fair. This morning I type “IG-88” into a search engine and learn that I am wrong. A decade after my brother’s claim on the better toy lands me resentfully with a double, Bantam Spectra publishes Star Wars: Tales of the Bounty Hunters, an anthology of stories edited by Kevin J. Anderson, which opens with his piece “Therefore I Am: the Tale of IG-88.” Anderson’s expansion of the bounty hunter droid’s brief appearance in the original Star Wars films includes four IG-88s, each identical to the other. My brother’s choice was not a breach of ethics; it was an introduction to alterity. After all, children intuitively enact Lévinas’s notion of otherness whenever intoning the phrase “it takes one to know one.”

The pedagogue in me thrives on binaries, on borders, on lines cleanly bisected, stances spelled out, rhetorical gestures lending themselves to digestible constituent elements—in sum, ease, what is teachable, what one can tear apart, those wonderfully creased folds or pre-perforated lines. But the artist in me courts difficulty, complexity, Keatsian uncertainty, and sides with the value and necessity of what Fanny Howe wonderfully labeled as both a poetics and an ethics: bewilderment. So, for example, as much as I admire the work within the the recent Norton anthology American Hybrid, I can’t help but count myself among those disappointed that it projected a resounding misnomer. When its name hit the poetry circuits, things were abuzz; here, at last, pseudo-canonical recognition for that monstrous amalgam, that liminal genre where the head stands erect with the ethics of the poet, while the heart beats the bloody syntax of prose into the body. We thought this was going to be a collection that unfettered poetry from the constraints of genre, that valued it as an epistemology, as a way of being, of seeing, of doing—the hybridity that would admit “taking one to know one” invariably leads to a breakdown of binaries. But we were wrong. This book was more or less a photograph of Donald Hall and Donald Allen shaking hands. That this makes it a useful teaching tool simultaneously negates its importance for me as an artist.

If my brother and I had gotten multiple Stormtroopers, I don’t think we’d have complained. They unambiguously carried their dangerous anonymity: perhaps they were blind followers of the dark side; perhaps they were Han and Luke in disguise. But those pesky bounty hunters, that gray space—O dear, how to explain a moral compass to a twelve-year-old, never mind a twenty-two-year-old. Listen, to many of my MFA students, something as ephemerally unimportant to me as the so-called New Sincerity is already literary history. “[A]ny two years can make a generation,” Gertrude Stein taught us. We should all know the anxieties, tensions, and arguments of the preceding generations. We should even teach them, digestible binaries as they are, but once we admit those aren’t the droids we’re looking for, well, then we can move beyond them. No replication necessary—Utinni!