The monotonous ursurpation of “the Other”

Here are the first few paragraphs of an article (or review), “Back to the Other Levinas: Reflections prompted by Alain P. Toumayan’s Encountering the Other: The Artwork and the Problem of Difference in Blanchot and Levinas,” by Michael Fagenblat (incidentally, I’ve been enjoying his new book on Levinas in my non-existent spare time):

Since the exultant reception of Levinas work, particularly in the United States, an imposing obstacle to this oeuvre has steadily been erected. It is not Levinas complicated, often unstated philosophical disputations, nor his exhortatory style, nor even the originality of his argument that constitute the most formidable obstructions to his work today. On the contrary, the greatest difficulty today is the ease with which Levinas is arrogated, a facility that risks making him so accessible as to be wholly irrelevant. The ubiquity in contemporary intellectual circles of an ethics of the other leads, from ever diverse paths, directly to Levinas; and it is just this that prevents us from reading him well.

For some time the greatest obstacle to Levinas work has been the glib and vague moralising piled upon it. Most often what we hear about Levinas from those who speak in his name are agitated appeals for a responsibility for the other, appeals which remain not only politically but even ethically unspecified. Those who have sung Levinas praises most heartily tend to belong notionally to the Left. After all, from where could the orphan, the widow, the poor the stranger, the Other appear but from the Left? Tellingly, however, the Levinasian Left is usually rather depoliticized, following Levinas own precarious suspension of the compromises and calcula-tions of politics, expressed in his appeal, Politique après!  The irony here is that Levinas begins his critique of Husserl with a potent critique of the purely theoretical method of the phenomenological reduction but ends up with an ethics that is so impassive, indeed formal, that it risks itself becom-ing pure theory.

Levinas is thus not altogether exculpated from the anaemic realisation of his thought. The ineffectuality results not merely because Levinas never extended his vision of ethics into the field of manifold, often antagonistic relations  that is, into life  but also because he wrote too much, too often and, ironically, too reductively about the enigma of the other.  Reading Levinas later essays, most of which, it is important to recall, he was invited to deliver to generally Christian seminaries in northern continental Europe, one could get the impression that for Levinas there is very little to life beside an obsessive relation with the other that is wholly determined ethically, supplemented perhaps by an almost secret reference to the real authority behind the face, be it God or the impersonal third of illeity. It is of course in this secret reference to the authority behind the face that the true Levinas should be sought, as Derrida already pointed out in 1964, and not in a fetishised relation of responsibility to any particular other person. Thus it is the transcendence of the anonymous and/or the divine that is the real and non-ethical source of (ethical) subjectivity.

I agree with much of the sentiments about the reception of Levinas’s work, however,  I’m not quite sure if we should blame Levinas himself (or his writing style) for the “anaemic realisation of his thought.”  It sounds somewhat reasonable, but I’ll have to think about this some more.

The whole review/article can be found here (though I’d just get a copy of Toumayan’s book if such things interest you).

10 thoughts on “The monotonous ursurpation of “the Other”

  1. It strikes me that the big problem with Levinas is precisely that the responsibility to the other remains “ethically unspecified.” That is if one means by that determined actions. We have the responsibility but no clarity about what we should do, just that we ought do something.

    At least with God as Other in the rabbinical tradition we have the Law and even the Talmud. With a general move towards others as Other we lose even that somewhat.

    To blame readers of Levinas for this seems a bit odd.

    • We have the responsibility but no clarity about what we should do, just that we ought do something.

      Actually society organized help around all those platonized others: the widow, orphan, stranger, outcast, unemployed etc. and made this representable in terms of time, costs, effort and organization label. This ranges from the welfare state to Amnesty International, from hospitals to billionaire philanthropy. There is a limit to the help-sector which is marked by the liberal idea of “self responsibility”.

      This is the prime reason why responsibility in terms of determined actions must remain unspecified: the help-sector is already complex, differentiated and at least partially professionalized. One doesn’t have to go to the church to find a logical address. It can act by convenience and is financially saved by insurances, gifts and tax money.

      What is left to each of us is a little contribution but one which is spontaneous and indeterminate. The subject is important but also residual, something we already know about the subjects of economy from Marxist analysis.

  2. Well put, Kay.

    I see your point, Clark, and that certainly could explain why this business of the Other has been (mis)appropriated, but I think trying to pin down Levinas in this way pretty much misses the thrust of his thought. Quickly, take for instance, Totality and Infinity. TI unravels an ethics that dislodges metaphysics as first philosophy by exposing the inter-subjective origin of transcendence, and really, of reason itself. Later Levinas, esp in Otherwise than Being, thinks through our experience of that assignment of responsibility vis a vis a force or better, alterity that it can’t incorporate in the synthesis of day to day consciousness.

    I think that what Levinas is getting at with the notion of responsibility is something like this: it’s pre-reflective, but at the same time thinkable and “desirable,” possibility of our being for another. That means ethics (or perhaps as Derrida noted, “an ethics of ethics”) is an asymmetrical, but still un-chosen commitment to the other, a sort of promise before/without prescription and calculation. So, no, Levinas isn’t going to tell us what to do any more than Kant is.

    I was just thinking yesterday that Levinas’s late work in texts like Of God who Comes to Mind talks a good deal about holiness, and perhaps this is the best way to understand what Levinas is getting at with “ethics.” Got to run, but thanks Kay and Clark for the comments. Hope this doesn’t sound too “lecturey.”

  3. Somewhere in an epistolary exchange between Buber and Levinas, Buber says: “Not until everyone has been clothed and fed will the true ethical problem become visible.”

    • That’s an interesting exchange in Proper Names. I think Buber sort of misses L’s point, but here’s a nice comment about the Buber/Levinas relationship from Michael Morgan (here):

      Buber thinks that Levinas’s acts of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and caring for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger are already I-It engagements that lack a ground of relationship. Levinas uses these as illustrations of what happens in everyday life when we do in fact respond to the other as we should. In such acts, the face-to-face is disclosed more clearly than in much of our everyday social interaction. But the face-to-face is the transcendental character, as it were, of all human, social relationships. Buber might say that the real motive for feeding the hungry and reaching out to the suffering should be the sense of generosity present in the I-Thou, but Levinas would say that insofar as these are acts of generosity at all, they must be grounded in the very fact of our being responsible to and for the other who faces me, who confronts me with their hunger, their need, their existence. Moreover, for Buber such generosity has no content other than the giving and receiving of one’s self. In fact, however, to Levinas giving is giving something to someone who needs it, and receiving is receiving what has been given in response to one’s claim or petition. There is a genuine disagreement here. For Buber, at the deepest level we are beings capable of unrestricted generosity; for Levinas, at that level we are beings called to be responsible to and for others. The issue is: which is more fundamental?

      I have to think some more about this, but I’m inclined to go with Levinas (social is already ethical).

  4. I’ve recently witnessed some very interesting conversations between “Levinasians” regarding the situation of Israel. I should say that these conversations have become extremely ugly at times, often in a very disturbing way (and often in public, or at least on Facebook walls). It’s actually fascinating to watch these performances of the breakdown of Levinasian ethics, but what’s more interesting is that these “breakdowns” happen primarily in conversations concerning the political. Scholars who characterize themselves as either Left or Right seem to find everything they need in Levinas to support their competing arguments. In one specific argument, one scholar, when he realized that “the Left” did not have a monopoly on Levinas, heatedly exclaimed: “If this is where Levinas takes us then we should abandon him.” Such a mess. It seems to me that in cases like this, everything explodes when scholars struggle to apply politically what Fagenblat calls “an ethics that is so impassive…pure theory.”

    • Good grief. Much of this confusion arises from the fundamental distinction Levinas makes between politics, as the realm of justice, and ethics, as the realm of the face to face encounter. Notwithstanding, Levinas’s importance with respect to questions of politics and the political lies in this re-assessment of the relation between ethics and politics and the introduction of the third as the introduction of justice.

      It seems to me that in cases like this, everything explodes when scholars struggle to apply politically what Fagenblat calls “an ethics that is so impassive…pure theory.”

      This is going to sound reactionary, but I think there’s a sense in which we can’t simply “apply” Levinas to one thing or another. Only because I’ve been thinking about this today while re-reading Nine Talmudic Readings, the concern for the poor, the widow, and the orphan, which is- as I understand it– the forceful and propelling inclination towards justice. Aside from this obvious biblical reference, Judaism also enters this equation, for as Levinas comments, “to accept the Torah is to accept the norms of a universal justice.” For Levinas, the Jewish people, called as the chosen people, represent something that is universal. The particularity of the Jews comes from their unique experiences throughout the last six thousand years, which reveals something universal. I’ll just let Levinas speak for himself:, this is from “Beyond Memory:”

      Judaism and humanity as a whole (when thinking of Judaism, one must always catch sight of humanity as a whole in it, just as it is appropriate to
      anticipate in Abram Abraham, the father of many nations) open themselves to a future more—or otherwise—significant than slavery and emancipation from slavery.

      Perhaps L’s “Jewish” writings are a way to broach the relation between ethics/justice/politics. Unfortunately, Levinas has made some rather chilling comments about the situation of Israel and Palestinians that tends to add fuel to the fire, left and right.

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