30. Lévy-Bruhl and Difference


The perceptual enquiring gaze of the disinterested observer remarking upon their object of study in order to ‘establish’ and pursue ‘new knowledge,’ becomes questionable as the sole method for encountering the world.

In this post we are going to look at some early Clyfford Still paintings and take an anthropological journey that looks at the problem with ‘our’ way of perceiving the world. The problem is that we notice and look for differences. For example, ‘we’ love it when we see a gorgeous painting of some flowers on a plinth with some dark foliage representing trees in the background. Everything is so clear. We can separate out from the background each the figures. The differences we perceive between the space and the figures allow us to comprehend the work and not feel anxious. Well, let’s challenge that complacency with a few leather glove slaps to the face.

Jan Van Huysum 1754 Bouquet_of_Flowers_in_an_Urn2.fw
Jan Van Huysum, Bouquet of Flowers in an Urn, 1754

The conversion from conventional representational art to ‘totally abstract’ work, as with all Clyfford Still’s developments, was one that evolved slowly through time with changes and risks being taking at a thoughtful and considered pace. Arguably, though, such a survey of Still’s work is at odds with his own, retrospectively added, sense of progression into abstraction, as can be seen by his declaration to Ti-Grace Sharpless in 1963:

“By 1941, space and the figure in my canvases had been resolved into a total physic entity, freeing me from the limitations of each, yet fusing into an instrument bounded only by the limits of my energy and intuition. My feeling of freedom was now absolute and infinitely exhilarating.”1

Certainly work from the late 1940s could be said to accord to Still’s determination of a resolution occurring between “space and figure,” where figuration, motif, or symbol, had been absorbed in an all-over unity. However, to claim that this development had been achieved by 1941, is a touch dubious. As well as noting the biographical information that Still “did not paint a great deal from the fall of 1941 to the summer of 1943” because he was involved in the war industry on the West Coast, Irving Sandler wrote that it was only by 1947 that Still “had eliminated all the literal associations retained in his previous canvases.”2 The stability of 1941, as Still’s date for his resolution, if he is to be believed therefore seems a trifle rocky. Scepticism aside, let’s look at one of the works that Still made such claims about:1941-2-C (PH-154).

1941-2 C.fw
1941-2-C (PH-154)

This work, David Anfam believes can be related to Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead.

Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead.

For Anfam, the work has “precedents in Romanticism where the details of landscape convey human meanings”3 and is technically closer to works from 1946 than 1941-2. Perhaps the real candidate for Still’s resolution of “space and figure”, though, comes with 1942 (PH-613), a work until recently only really known in black and white reproduction from the Metropolitan catalogue of 1979.

1942 (PH-613).fw
1942 (PH-613)

With a dark appearance and a vertical ‘zip,’ anticipating Barnett Newman’s obsession, in tonal opposition to the rest of the canvas, this work appears as a real option to assist Still’s claim. Anfam, though, questions the authenticity of Still’s chronology stating that it “appears unusually advanced for its date.”4

The argument of when Still resolved “space and figure,” however, is minor in comparison to the fact that he did appear to find such a resolution, with Anfam, virtually in accord with Sandler, stating that around the close of the 1940s such a development took place. Indeed, later in his thesis, Anfam describes the work of this period in the following terms:

“Although there are ostensibly distinct areas which puncture his overall fields they tend to register as pure colour (or occasionally luminosity) rather than as 3-D motifs. Indeed, there is no normal illusion of any space of which they could be a part. Instead a colour field prevails and it is felt as a total entity in itself.”5

1947-S PH-371.fw
1947-S PH-371

Still’s achievement of a two-dimensional surface, by his resolution of “space and figure”, demanded a different way of viewing a painting, as he himself remarked: “I am interested in creating or postulating new hypotheses in experience or sensibility.”6 Still also realized that he was generating an aesthetic challenge that disrupted both the conventional forms of representational art and the recent contemporaneous innovations of the twentieth century:

“I felt it necessary to evolve entirely new concepts (of form and space and painting) and postulate them in an instrument that could continue to shake itself free from the dialectical perversions. The dominant ones, cubism and expressionism, only reflected the attitudes or spiritual debasement of the individual.”7

Anfam, by way of explanation, describes this “instrument” as something with which Still hoped to “prize open the inwardness of understanding.”8 Still himself elaborated on its meaning in both his 1959 and 1966 statements for the Albright Art Gallery and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery catalogues. In 1959, the “instrument” was described as an “aid” that could cut “through all cultural opiates, past and present” by transcending “the powers of conventional technics and symbols” to avoid being “trapped in the banal concepts of space and time.”9 In 1966 the “instrument” was contrasted to the “manifestos and gestures of the Cubists, the Fauves, the Dadaists, Surrealists, Futurists… [and] Expressionists,” who were all consigned to a state of ignominy due to their absorption into the very culture that they “often presumed to mock.”10 For Still, they were all but devices that had “failed to emancipate,” and for his own art “neither verbalizings nor aesthetic accretions would suffice.”11   In order to grasp the radical innovation that Still believed his “instrument” promised in relation to art of the past, Donald Kuspit offers an alternative analysis of Still’s resolution of “space and figure.”

1949-H PH-250.fw
1949-H PH-250

According to Kuspit, Still undermined “the way figure and field traditionally relate, where figure dominates – stands out from and is set off by – field. In Still field dominates and absorbs figuration… It unsettles the spectator’s expectations, ‘refuting’ his familiar way of knowing the picture – of making the painting a picture, a world.”12 The refutation of the “spectator’s expectations” by not providing a mimetic, or perhaps symbolic, world not only ruptured previous notions of what a painting should be, but it also attacked fundamental epistemology. Kuspit continued:

“The monism of Still’s field is not only provocative in itself, but because it sabotages our innate tendency, as Jaspers puts it, to know by duality, by contrast… The field’s monistic unity, its demand that it be perceived as a whole which is more than the sum of its parts (for these cannot be clearly differentiated), undermines the ‘dialectical perversion’ of our usual way of knowing (in the image, the tendency to divide it into figure and ground or space). Unity – the unity of the field – is all for Still, and it is experienced as liberating.”13

1948- C Still.fw
1948- C

Still’s work then, as Kuspit relates to it, forces us to reconsider how we engage with art, and by epistemic extension the world, because it refutes the “dialectical perversion” inherent in our attempts to see what is before us. Distinguishing figure from ground became near impossible in Still’s more abstract work after the late 1940s, and previous artistic ways of seeing and enquiring were rendered insufficient because acceptance of their value as tools for understanding could be placed in question.

The conceit of prioritising difference as a method for gaining knowledge was illuminated as incomplete and selective. Instead, in Still’s work, unity was granted a precedence that had the power to both unsettle and liberate the spectator. In a similar vein, E. C. Goosen described the effect of Still’s work as one that “intended to strip the spectator of his culture, leaving him naked as a coelacanthus, to experience for the first time in some time the pre-conceptual state of being confronted with the primordial image as it was first delivered from the pea-soup of chaos.”14 (Incidentally, in case you might be in doubt as to Still’s position in art circles, in 2013 the following work, from his last years, fetched over $20,000,000 at auction – money being an unfortunately all too ‘useful’ measure of value).

PH 21.fw

Returning to Kuspit, the “primordial” continues because “the spectator, by studying the formlessness of Still’s paintings, can rediscover his own singularity, and with it the original and primitive coordination of his consciousness with its object.”15 Hence, according to Kuspit, the rediscovery of one’s “primitive coordination” of consciousness is on offer, as it were, via Still’s work and it could assist the spectator in rediscovering their “own singularity, and with it the original and primitive coordination of [their] consciousness with its object.”

In How Natives Think, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl presented a similar line of thought, but from an anthropological perspective, which as it progressed, revealed problems with its own methods and also the consequences of epistemological revelations such as Kuspit’s. However, let us not be dissuaded from taking a peek at his thoughts.


In his 1910 text, Lévy-Bruhl set out a fundamental difference between what he referred to as ‘primitive thinking’ and ‘ours.’ (I shall be using a lot of inverted commas to show that Lévy-Bruhl’s terms are anachronistic). For him, the participation of the ‘primitive’ in their surroundings exemplified a mystical force that unites everything. And this is a force that ‘we’ no longer, or simply never did, acknowledge. Instead, when we regard the world, ‘we’, as ‘civilised’ people, do something different to that ascribed to the ‘primitive’. Starting with the ‘primitive’, Lévy-Bruhl wrote:

“Since everything that exists possesses mystic properties, and these properties, from their very nature, are much more important than the attributes of which our senses inform us, the difference between animate and inanimate things is not of the same interest to the primitive mentality as it is to our own.”16

Animate and Inanimate.fw

Instead of regarding the world as governed by a mystical force, ‘we’ concern ourselves with differences, for example, between animate and inanimate, according to Lévy-Bruhl. Therefore, in comparison to ‘primitives,’ it appears that that which ‘we’ occupy ourselves with “either escapes their attention or is a matter of indifference to them.”17 ‘We’ are doing something different and that difference, which I am demonstrating right now by noting its presence, is that ‘we’ notice, and are fixated by, difference.


Lévy-Bruhl continued by attributing this distinction to the ‘primitive’ reliance upon ‘prelogical’ modes of thought as opposed to the logical ones that ‘we’ utilise: “By designating it ‘prelogical’ I merely wish to state that it does not bind itself down, as our thought does, to avoiding contradiction. It obeys the law of participation first and foremost.”18 The ‘law of participation’ fellow anthropologist, E. E. Evans-Pritchard clarified:

“That persons and things in primitive thought form part of one another to the point even of identity. A man participates in his social group, in his name, in his totem, in his shadow, to give a few examples, in such a way that his mentality may be said to be formed by these ‘mystical’ links.”19

Totem mystic.fw

The distinction between the ‘law of participation’ and what he later termed the ‘law of contradiction,’ provided the argumentative thrust of Lévy-Bruhl’s analysis in How Natives Think and The ‘Soul’ of the Primitive. However, as C. Scott Littleton wrote, Lévy-Bruhl later “capitulated to his critics and all but abandoned the theory of ‘prelogical mentality’,”20 as can be seen in his posthumously published papers The Notebooks on Primitive Mentality. The critical problem was the strength of the distinction that was thought apparent in Lévy-Bruhl’s ideas. Many anthropologists, such as Malinowski, Radin, Goldenweiser, and Lowie, believed Lévy-Bruhl had gone too far in separating what he called ‘primitive thought’ from ‘ours.’ Littleton sought to correct this belief by providing a more thorough re-reading of Lévy-Bruhl, even though Lucien himself acceded to the criticism. The significance of such a distinction, for our purposes however, lies not in its received strength but in the demonstration of an alternative mode of thinking.

If we allow Lévy-Bruhl his early voice and begin with How Natives Think, we discover just such a demonstration: “What strikes us first of all is that prelogical mentality is little given to analysis.”21 In The Notebooks on Primitive Mentality, the idea is elaborated, as always in comparison to the ‘primitive,’ to illuminate what it is that ‘we’ do when ‘we’ think:


“The difference between the role of concepts in the primitive mentality and their role in the structure of our world view (Weltanschauung) is striking. For us, these concepts express relations, combinations ruled by constant and necessary laws, and, if it is a matter of living things, animals or plants, forms no less regular and constant: concepts based on the comparison of things, the analysis and subordination of their characteristics, classifications equivalent to definitions… concepts have not become for them, as they have for us, the precision instruments of a discursive thought, a logical material invaluable for recording established knowledge and for use in acquiring new knowledge.”22

‘We’ analyse, compare, distinguish, and classify, our world in order to establish and acquire new knowledge and, as such, encounter our environment in a vastly different way to Lévy-Bruhl’s notion of the ‘primitive.’ Just as the anthropologist started his quest by wanting to know how the ‘native’ thought, so too do ‘we’ proceed by asking “How?” Therefore, as Lévy-Bruhl correctly assessed, at the end of How Natives Think, his investigation into ‘primitive mentality’ throws light upon our own mental activity. It leads us to recognise that the rational unity of the thinking being, which is taken for granted by most philosophers, is a desideratum, not a fact. As if to illustrate this point, when discussing his notion of ‘appurtenances’ in The Notebooks on Primitive Mentality,such as those found in the footprint of an enemy, or clothing that has soaked one’s sweat, or a friend’s house, Lévy-Bruhl mentioned a contrast between perception and feeling:


“Participations between objects or individuals and their appurtenances… are not based on perceived relationships… but rather on the feeling of the true presence of the individual or object, directly suggested by the presence of the appurtenance. And this feeling has no need of legitimation other than the very fact that it is felt.”23

The ‘primitive mentality,’ for Lévy-Bruhl, by emphasising the ‘feeling’ that one gets from an object, in this case an appurtenance, as opposed to the perceptions that ‘we’ register from the same object, makes clear that ‘our’ manner of relating to the world is not something that should remain unquestioned. The perceptual enquiring gaze of the disinterested observer remarking upon their object of study in order to ‘establish’ and pursue ‘new knowledge,’ becomes questionable as the sole method for encountering the world. The reliance upon ‘our’ ability to distinguish and differentiate, in contrast to the notionally ‘primitive’ approach that prioritises unification through mystical forces, finds itself under the microscope thanks to Lévy-Bruhl, and as such, open to debate.


Hence, when Still merged the figure with the ground not only could he be seen as depicting and creating power through unity, but also there is an argument to suggest that he was advocating a position that wanted to ask questions of ‘our’ civilised methods of encountering the world. By making it difficult or impossible to identify or differentiate distinct objects, symbols, motifs, or regions within his mature art Still, it could be suggested, abolished or nullified our ability as spectators to crystallise the image before us. As a result we, as spectators, are taken aback and find that our analytic knowledge-seeking approach that strives to ‘understand’ the work, is rendered futile by the apparent lack of perceptual or discernible content. Therefore, following the logic of the argument, the work is rejected or else it is held in our gaze, a gaze devoid of ‘understanding.’ By merging the figure with the ground, as suggested earlier by Kuspit, Still effectively eliminated difference and our ability to comprehend and address the work, as if forcing us to accept the futility of trying to ‘understand’ the work so that we may increase our worldly knowledge. An encounter with a work by Still, therefore, becomes something other.

Consequently, the disruption of epistemology, as first seen by Kupsit, and followed through in our particular reading of Lévy-Bruhl, which focused on the importance given to the concept of difference in ‘modern’ understanding, leads us to a problem: What are we as spectators to do with Still’s works if we are not meant to ‘understand’ them?

A similar question, of course, is what are we as spectators to do with other people if we are not meant to understand them? Well, for starters, we are not spectators, but you knew that, right? Secondly, of course, other people don’t exist purely for us to understand them, they are individuals in their own right!


We have travelled quite rapidly here. Let’s us next return to Levinas and maybe proceed at a more measured pace so that our heady thoughts of Still and Lévy-Bruhl might settle gently, once Emmanuel has had his say…

In this post, I am indebted to Dr. Stephen Polcari as well as Dr. David Anfam for stirring (in a productive way) my thoughts on the matters I have discussed.


  1. Sharpless, T-G. Clyfford Still October 18 – November 29, 1963, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2.
  2. Sandler, I. The Triumph of American Painting: A History of Abstract Expressionism, Harper and Row, New York, 1970, 163.
  3. Anfam, D. Clyfford Still, PhD thesis. Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1984, 81.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 165.
  6. Still, C. letter to Betty Parsons, 9th July 1950, Betty Parsons Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  7. Sharpless, T-G. Clyfford Still October 18 – November 29, 1963, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2.
  8. Anfam, D. Clyfford Still, PhD diss. Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1984, 231.
  9. Still, C. letter to Gordon Smith, 1st January 1959, included in Paintings by Clyfford Still, Buffalo, New York, Albright Art Gallery, 1959, 2.
  10. Still, C. ‘A statement by the Artist,’ included in Clyfford Still: Thirty-Three Paintings in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1966, 16.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Kuspit, D. ‘Clyfford Still: The Ethics of Art,’ Artforum, May 1977, vol. 15, 37.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Goosen, E. C. ‘Painting as Confrontation: Clyfford Still’ Art International, vol. 4, no. 1, 1960, reproduced by Patrick McCaughey in ‘Clyfford Still and the Gothic Imagination,’ Artforum, April 1970, vol. 8, 57.
  15. Kuspit, D. ‘Clyfford Still: The Ethics of Art,’ Artforum, May 1977, vol. 15, 34.
  16. Lévy-Bruhl, L. How Natives Think. Translated by Lilian A. Clare, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1985, 40.
  17. Ibid., 38.
  18. Ibid., 78.
  19. Evans-Pritchard, E. E. ‘Foreword’ included in Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, The ‘Soul’ of The Primitive. Translated by Lilian A. Clare, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London, 1965, 5-6.
  20. Littleton, C. S. ‘Introduction’ included in Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, How Natives Think. Translated by Lilian A. Clare, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1985, xi.
  21. Lévy-Bruhl, L. How Natives Think. Translated by Lilian A. Clare, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1985, 107.
  22. Lévy-Bruhl, L. The Notebooks on Primitive Mentality. Translated by Peter Rivière, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1975, 129-130 and 171.
  23. Ibid., 157.

29. The Face – Part 2


The moment of recognition is so important because it is completely tied into the existence of others as independent entities from our own mind. At that moment we understand that the other is ‘an other,’ and not an automaton or bizarre figment of our imagination, or the product an evil genius. The other person is there before us observing us and interacting with us, and they are exactly like us. They are human. That moment of recognition, therefore, unveils humanity to itself. It is in that moment that we know we are not alone.

When we look another person in the eye we don’t just see the colour of the eyes, because, as Levinas implied, we have the opportunity to enter into a ‘social’ relationship with that person. By ‘social,’ and I’m going to give my own thoughts on this, Levinas did not mean the same social as can be dismissed in the phrase ‘have a chat.’ Instead, the Levinasian version of ‘social’ is the type of engagement that has the capacity to recognise when an encounter with another person is taking place. The upshot being the sharing of a unique moment in time and place by two equals who were able to put aside their cold lifeless journeys for that moment and be there with that other person.


Engaged, listening, responsive, interested and respectful are all attributes of someone in a Levinasian ‘social’ encounter. When we ‘socialise’ in this manner, we emanate a sense of togetherness and equality. An example might be when I walk my dog around a lake and I notice another dog owner but at the moment our dogs start barking at the ducks we look up to see the other looking at us. I have to add though, that this is not a sexually charged moment, nor one that betrays the sanctity of marriage. This precise ‘moment’ is the one that comes first; it comes before all the other baggage of primitive urges, environmental conditioning, and social niceties that we drag along with us, as we stagger under their weight through life. Before all of these, we meet first as humans, as equals, and as others with the power to melt cold lonely existences in an instance. This only happens however, when we look into rather than at the other’s eyes.

The poets describe eyes as windows to the soul, but maybe instead they allow our ‘soul’ to encounter other ‘souls.’ The metaphysical connotation of this term is, of course, redundant for me. I only use it for the expressive depth it can summon: this being vital for the conveyance of the next point, if it is going to have any meaningful significance.

Eye windows.fw

That I can have a conversation with another person and follow my train of thought, in a cold matter of fact way, until the moment they look into my eyes, is a unique, powerful, and secular revelation. At that moment, it is as if I’m being called into account for what I’m saying. Their eyes appear to enquire whether I really believe what I’m saying and whether I’m sincere about the subject of my conversation. At that moment I appear to transcend my own self, with it’s all familiar territories and mundane landscaping, to instantly and effortlessly float across water, hover over foreign soil, and then deeply observe not only my own home land, but also a different ‘culture’ and way of being. A new perspective is given to me about myself through this encounter. Is this not one ‘soul’ meeting another?

When their eyes look at me I have to exit my self-created ‘cultural’ environs and acknowledge that there is, indeed, someone else with their own feelings, thoughts, and life, independent of my stumbling into them. They are their own person and they might not actually fall into line and agree with what I’m saying. They could challenge my words and accuse me of lying, misjudgement, simplistic error, or talking rubbish. If my co-conversation engager didn’t look into my eyes, I would give myself licence to prattle on and on and deliver a mini lecture. Their opening unto mine, acts as if to check that I’m not abusing them by my statements and to ensure that I censor myself in their presence, because there now becomes an imperative to respect them as another person. Their eyes demand that I give them the same deference that I want when looking at someone else. A check to our joint humanity occurs, by this opening unto each other, before our social, in the traditional sense, customs, rules, and laws can be applied and intervene. Eyes though are fragile things; they are physically delicate and need protecting from harm. However, the harm that I find most disturbing is not á la Luis Bruñel’s Un Chien Andalou, where he graphically presents an eye being sliced open with a scalpel. The harm I find most disturbing is when eyes are simply dismissed.


Such dismissal, we have seen in various examples, from avoidance to objectification through to stereotyping and cold-hearted ignorance etc. It really does amaze me that such a powerful part of our lives is so little understood and overridden at every turn with no remorse, outrage, castigation, or reprimand. In Scandinavian countries drivers are taught the rules of the road, but also to be respectful of others and to always allow them entry from a slip road if it can be achieved safely. I believe that they can also be punished for ‘selfish’ driving if they don’t behave in a respectful way towards each other. In non-Scandinavian countries, we appear to go to war against everyone else when we drive and certainly ignore anyone waiting to join our road because we have a ‘right of way’ privilege. My point being, that Scandinavian driving requires respect for others beyond the normal rules of the road. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if we all could apply just such a going above and beyond legislation to daily interaction when we look at someone else?

Looking into my eyes you call me into question as to my words and deeds. An exchange occurs, whereby I recognise that you are the same as I: a thinking and feeling thing, who I could upset, lie to, or make laugh. There comes a sense of mutual awareness of what is taking place at that precise moment. If, we are both at a lecture and the lecturer makes a joke, and we happen to look across the room at each other, there is a sense of moment sharing that is palpably visceral. If I say something, that you know is obviously a false statement of events to a third person, just at the time of you catching my gaze I will feel remorse, shame, or that you have judged me. Maybe my falsity was just. If so, I would feel compelled to explain to you why that was the case at the earliest convenience, because you have seen me in a light that I find at odds with whom I believe myself to be. The urge to explain is predicated, of course, upon my experience of you as an equal.


Sartre gave a wonderful vignette to help illustrate this sense of equality and realisation of the other as a person in their own right: A man stoops at a keyhole, looking into a room from without, when another man walks down the corridor and catches him in the act. The first man looks up and sees his observer and feels shame deep in his being. For Sartre, this moment convinces him that we do feel the presence of others and that we are not alone in the world making our merry frozen way through life. For me, the vignette helps to demonstrate that other people do matter to us and that when looked upon we can be called into question. This is because something incredibly powerful occurs to wipe out all but the most determined of solipsistic thoughts. Of course, the first man could look up at his observer, dust himself down and walk off without a word, thought, or sense of shame. By doing so though, wouldn’t we recognise such behaviour as amoral and maybe even claim to have witnessed a ‘damaged’ personality? The ability to feel nothing when caught like that is rare and quite scary, because it is as if we are of no concern to the man. Our existence is inconsequential at best and at worst threatened by the potential violence of someone with no moral code; it feels as if he could stab us in the heart and walk off just as nonchalantly. This is quite uncommon though, and usually confined to those at the outer limits of humanity who, for whatever reason, do not function as we believe humans ought to. However uncommon they might be, though, from autism to sociopath there is a wide range of opportunity available for the evasion of others.


Dismissing the other’s importance, impact, or relevance in this situation is actually of major concern. We can dismiss an overly ornate piece of Rococo furniture, fail to see the impact of a city’s once tallest building, or ignore a piece of evidence in a criminal investigation as irrelevant. However, these are all objects, without emotions, thoughts, or desires. To dismiss a person whom we have just interacted with is morally bankrupt. In such an act, we cast ourselves as superior to the other and deem their thoughts to be inferior. We create subsets of humanity, where some are worthy and some not: shades of racist ideology swamp us at these moments, not in terms of colour but most certainly regarding the end result. To be honest, who are we to rank the worth of another human in relation to ourselves? Do I listen to myself first and foremost, then going down the scale, my family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, people who live in my town, then county, then country? Obviously, this is a completely untenable position to maintain, because those whom I originally undervalued, because they lived abroad, could eventually become my neighbours, friends, or even related to me. What happens then? Do I re-align each person and grant them entry up to the next level of worth that I bestow upon them? If that is so then I will have to constantly re-evaluate all those around me and carefully check their prior categorisation within my system. As well as being an abhorrent stance to adopt, it would be administrative nightmare.

Instead of manufacturing levels, subsets, and deciding who belongs where, there is a more fundamental and basic principle by which we all guide our lives: whether the other person is human or not. At this point normally within any philosophical discussion there has to be the inevitable interlude, where we lose our train of thought by wondering who are the possible exceptions to this large generic. Discussions ensue about foetuses and those in vegetative states and what criteria make us human: the capacity to think, have emotions etc. But let us not digress into this overwrought and overworked territory. If you don’t know who is human by now then my thoughts really aren’t for you. Please go and Google utilitarianism, Kantian morality, or virtue ethics, because these topics provide no end of ‘interest’ and ‘fun’ in that whole arena of who is human or not.

Humans 1.fw

Of course to substantiate such an outburst the onus would normally be upon me to justify myself and argue against each ethical doctrine to demonstrate why I believe such things. I’ll give my apologies now. This is not going to happen for two reasons: One, I don’t want to contribute anymore to that particular set of arguments, enough has been written, and two, I don’t see why the themes that I believe in have to create elbow room for the old chestnuts to be discussed. An idea can surely be had that doesn’t have to respond to all previous ideas staggering, lurching, or even loitering around the subject. Did those who discovered the earth was a globe, first have to stop, address and argue directly against the beliefs of those who thought the earth was flat? I believe not.

So, accepting my philosophical arrogance on this issue, we can get back to the plot and the finer point that we do actually know who is human or not. One of the ways that we know is by the very subject we are currently peering into: the moment of recognition. Again, here is where more traditional forms of philosophy would want to refuse further passage and chastise my form of argument by insisting that it is circular. How can I attempt to explain the moment of recognition by allowing my argument to base one of its clauses – that we are all humans – on the predicate that we ‘know’ this because of the moment of recognition, which is the starting point of the circle? Ah, logic, thank you for unravelling my fallacious and erroneous thought, and saving us from wasting time with problems and questions that you can pierce right through and categorise so neatly as either true or false. In this case, your brilliance has shone a merciful light upon my argument and shown that it is worthless because of its circularity, and that we must surely dismiss any further discussion of it immediately. Don’t you just love logic? It is so pure, proud, and decisive. No wonder certain sections of philosophy have been stuck in its treacle for so long on issues such as whether other people exist. If logic gets a sniff of an argument that doesn’t conform to its strict protocols then into the dustbin of history it goes, taking anything connected with it.


Therefore, because logic has seen through my shady ruse and discovered circularity in my thinking, we must accept its golden rule and dismiss my ‘erroneous’ thought on this matter. Or maybe, for once, we can say “hold on” and ask for a little benefit of doubt before someone shouts “fallacious argument” at the top of their lungs. Let us collectively rein in that urge, that lurks perniciously within us all, and re-examine what has been said and why. It seems, that I’m arguing for us to understand and recognise the importance of the moment of recognition and in order to do this we need to accept, surpassing years of philosophical mire on the issue of intersubjectivism, that there are indeed other humans as a blunt fact and that one of the ways of accepting this ‘fact’ is the existence of the moment of recognition. A beautiful circle, non?


Now, stay with me on this because there are many who, if they have got even this far, will not like what comes next.

The moment of recognition is so important because it is completely tied into the existence of others as independent entities from our own mind. At that moment we understand that the other is ‘an other,’ and not an automaton or bizarre figment of our imagination, or the product an evil genius. The other person is there before us observing us and interacting with us, and they are exactly like us. They are human. That moment of recognition, therefore, unveils humanity to itself. It is in that moment that we know we are not alone. We know that there are others who like us desire, dream, and hope for all the same things we do. Convinced? No? Well, rather than taking Descartes and his followers as philosophical seers and preachers of the truth, bring them into your life right here and now, see them as friends, and set them a challenge: Can anyone look into the eyes of another person and doubt their ‘human-ness’, doubt their existence as being a separate entity from oneself? Take up the challenge yourself, and feel your humanity ooze from beneath your feet as you look into another’s eyes, futilely attempting to doubt that they are there, real, or human. In the face of this acid test, Cartesian thinking fails every time because as we dismiss the other, in whatever way we feel we can, our own humanity ebbs away from us and we feel bereft and ‘soul-less’ ourselves. This is of course assuming that the spectrum of autism and sociopathic tendencies hasn’t already claimed us for its own.


28. Newman and the Mirror-Lined World


“When you see a person for the first time, you have an immediate impact. You don’t have to really start looking at details. It’s a total reaction in which the entire personality of a person and your own personality make contact. To my mind that’s almost a metaphysical event. If you have to stand there examining the eyelashes and all that sort of thing, it becomes a cosmetic situation in which you remove yourself from the experience.”1
Barnett Newman

In the last post we saw how important Levinas thought it was to be able to get beyond ourselves to see the other person. The difficulty, though, as he knew, is that many of us are all too caught up in ourselves. The narcissistic allure of the real and metaphorical mirror is too much for some. Most of us keep this semi-under wraps and try not to let the beast out on the prowl that often. One man who didn’t was the artist Barnett Newman, who unfortunately wove himself into the fabric of post-war US art that became know as Abstract Expressionism.

Newman came late to painting via a philosophical education and life-style that included being a substitute art appreciation teacher, a mayoral candidate for New York City, a theatre manager, an amateur botanist, an elected member of the American Ornithologists Union, and a writer amongst other activities. After a brief spell of work protesting against geometry with such paintings as Euclidian Abyss and Death of Euclid, he came to create the work that would inaugurate the rest of his artistic production and give fulfilment to his life.

1946-47 Euclidean Abyss.fw
Euclidean Abyss, 1946-47
1947 Death of Euclid.fw
Death of Euclid, 1947

On the 29th of January 1948, on the occasion of his forty-third birthday Newman painted Onement I and then “lived with that painting for almost a year trying to understand it,”2 so he told David Sylvester in 1965.

1948 Onement I.fw
Onement 1, 1948

From this creative moment something was borne out of Newman’s hand that would occupy him artistically for the rest of his life:

“I realised that I’d made a statement which was affecting me and which was, I suppose, the beginning of my present life, because from then on I had to give up any relation to nature, as seen. That doesn’t mean that I think my things are mathematical or removed from life. By ‘nature’ I mean something very specific. I think that some abstractions – for example, Kandinsky’s – are really nature paintings. The triangles and the spheres or circles could be bottles. They could be trees, or buildings. I think that in Euclidean Abyss and Onement I removed myself from nature. But I did not remove myself from life. And I think I got myself involved in what I began to realise was the true thing in relation to life for me, which in a sense was my life; it became more personal.”3

Clearly, Newman noted his turn away from illusionist art and any potential symbolism, such as he attributed to Kandinsky, into a new realm of abstraction, but it is in how he described this turn, which interests me. There was a deep personal identification with the work he produced: “I’d made a statement which was affecting me and which was… the beginning of my present life.” Onement 1, from what Newman said about it, appeared to overturn the traditional relationship of a work and its author to such an extreme extent that Newman felt himself to be the one created. At this moment of realisation, then, a vital relationship is built up between the painter and the painting, whereby the former has in some sense painted himself. This notion of self-creation is borne out, if you pardon the pun, by the fact that Newman painted Onement I on his birthday; the significance of which was certainly not overlooked by the artist. The validity of this ‘birth’ moment has been questioned, but ultimately the importance of its truth claim lies in the artist’s perception of it; to him it happened on his birthday. From this date on Newman was to start his life anew exploring the repercussions of what he had found in Onement I. Jeremy Lewison equates the period directly after its completion as that which resembles the Lacanian mirror stage in child development: “the ‘mirror stage’.”4 This Lacanian stage occurs between six and eighteen months in the life of a child and “is the period when the infant begins to recognise himself in the mirror.”5 In a certain sense, Newman was recognising himself in his mirror, Onement I, and this ‘mirror’ would be forever recreated by Newman, painting after painting. An oeuvre of self-fascination had begun.

“Just as I affect the canvas, so does the canvas affect me”6 was the way Newman expressed his personal identification with the work. And such was the identification that it also allowed the privilege of defying set relationship parameters by having multiple incarnations. So that each of Newman’s works post Onement I could perform the role of his ‘mirror’, affecting, reflecting, and even being Newman’s silent self. Indeed, the last quote, concerning the affect of the canvas, was written by Newman about his Stations of the Cross Series: Fourteen works from 1958 – 1966.

1958 First Station.fw
First Station, 1958
1965 Twelfth Station.fw
Twelfth Station, 1965

Such was the impact that Onement I had on Newman’s idea of self that at the end of his year trying to understand the painting he wrote, speaking on behalf American artists:

“We are freeing ourselves of the impediment of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making Cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making [them] out of ourselves, out of our own feelings.”7

Newman’s art, as seen by him then, was in some way himself. The work on canvas was a manifestation of the very being of the artist; it was Barnett Newman, a member of the human species, in paint. For Newman this was true of all his works from that moment on. Lewison takes this idea further when suggesting the possibility of particular paintings relating to individual events in Newman’s life:

“[W]ithout attempting to psychoanalyse Newman through the limited biographical information we have – within Newman’s life there were very specific moments that might be interpreted as the cause of traumatic experience and which, I propose, he unconsciously abreacted through the process of painting. The first was the creation of Onement I, the recognition of the self as other… The second was the death of his father, after which he painted Abraham (1949); the third was his heart attack which engendered Outcry (1958) and The Stations of the Cross; the fourth was the death of his brother George, memorialised in Shining Forth (to George) (1961); and the fifth was the death of his mother, commemorated in Anna’s Light (1968).”8

1949 Abraham.fw
Abraham, 1949
1958 Outcry.fw
Outcry, 1958
1961 Shining Forth (to George).fw
Shining Forth (to George), 1961
1968 Anna's Light.fw
Anna’s Light, 1968

That these paintings relate to known events in Newman’s life, and indeed three are named after close family members who died, one has to ask the question whether Newman also painted personal episodes of his self-hood that were not traumatic, because he declared on numerous occasions his painting to be of his self. The answer to be conclusive would involve a far deeper investigation than space will allow us here, but as a reasonable question to ask I believe it still stands even if one acknowledges that Newman did not actually name any of his post Onement I (inclusive) works until 1957-58. The painting of Abraham might not have been named until later, but who could deny that Newman painted it the time because of the death of his father.

Lewison sums up his essay on Newman by connecting the issue of ‘self’ with that of Newman’s signature on the canvas:

“The painter stands before the canvas and projects his thoughts and feelings onto it such that it becomes an extension or reflection of him… [Newman] stood before them and sensed his own presence while contemplating his ‘other’. The emphatic signatures on the front face of many paintings merely confirm such a reading. He could have signed them on the back like Rothko and Still, but he made a conscious decision to sign the front.”9

Newman's signature on Third Station, 1960
Newman’s signature on Third Station, 1960

In 1950, for his first solo exhibition, Newman was photographed by Aaron Siskind. One shot shows him looking at Be I from a distance of ten feet; and the other cleverly uses double exposure to produce the vertical upright of a door superimposed on top of Newman as he stands at the entrance to the exhibition room.

Barnett Newman at the Betty Parsons Gallery looking at Be 1,.fw
Newman looking at Be I
Barnett Newman at Betty Parsons gallery photo by Aaron Siski.fw
Newman at Betty Parsons gallery

The next year Hans Namuth takes three photos of Newman’s second solo exhibition with the artist included. In one he and Betty Parsons stand on either side of The Wild, in the second his body is only half seen from behind a door way, and in the third he is superimposed twice on top of Vir Heroicus Sublimus each time with a ‘zip’ slicing through his body.

Barnett Newman and Betty Parsons with The Wild photo by Hans.fw
Newman and Betty Parsons with The Wild
Barnett Newman at Betty Parsons gallery photo by Hans Namuth.fw
Newman at Betty Parsons gallery
Barnett Newman photographed by Hans Namuth, 1951..fw
Newman superimposed on Vir Heroicus Sublimus

Finally in 1958, he and an unidentified woman stand in front of Cathedra, approximately eighteen inches from the canvas.

Barnett Newman and unidentified woman with Cathedra photo by.fw
Newman and unidentified woman with Cathedra

In the last five of these photographs Newman was conspicuously at pains to position himself in such a way as to either demonstrate the equivalence he saw between the ‘zip’ and himself or in the last two cases to physically exert his presence in the work. In all five of these photos the artist is trying to make us see his presence within his art. The double exposure over Vir Heroicus Sublimus even seems to joke with his dual appearance and is potentially suggesting that the work itself is a ‘double’ of him. With this in mind the photo of him and Betty Parsons either side of The Wild becomes a shot of the gallery owner with two Newmans.

The last photo for us to consider is actually a series taken by Ugo Mulas in 1965 of Newman standing in front of a primed canvas.

Barnett Newman photographed by Ugo Mulas, 1965.fw
Newman photographed by Ugo Mulas

There are actually fifteen shots showing Newman waving his hands about him in all manner of gestures, presumably as he held forth vocally. Ann Temkin suggests that:

“In Mulas’s photographs Newman ‘speaks’ his paintings, reconciling the paradox of a mute painting that he claimed presents his ‘self’ with his life as a voluble, opinionated man who to an extraordinary degree lived for language.”10

Personally, I see the photos as yet another opportunity taken by Newman to graphically illustrate the content of his work, his physical presence acting as a signifier, and replacement, for his usual presence articulated in paint.

Combined together, themes such as Newman’s desire to show his presence photographically, the role of the signature as another method of presenting his presence, the painting of personal events in his life, the declared painting of the ‘self’, and the idea of the artist being created – birthday and all – reveal what is surely an immense personal involvement with his art by the artist. Although all these themes, individually, could be suggestive of alternative thinking, when placed together there appears a body of evidence that is virtually irrefutable and points solely towards Newman as an artist with a specific purpose: a self-revelation that left no room for any other person – a self-obsession.

In his interview with David Sylvester, Newman tackled the issue of the viewer’s engagement by optimistically expressing what he believed the viewer could gain from his work:

“I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality, and at the same time of his connection to others, who are also separate.”11

In this hope Newman expected the painting to potentially act as a catalyst for the existential self-realisation of the viewer unlocking an awareness of self that has until now lain dormant. As well as the existential benefits for the viewer Newman also suggested the environmental:

“One thing that I am involved in about painting is that the painting should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself. In that sense he relates to me when I made the painting because in that sense I was there.”12

Newman, therefore wanted to provide a ‘sense of place’ for the viewer in which they could both feel their own presence and Newman’s. From the viewer’s perspective, then, Newman saw his work as an environment to encounter the self, the artist, and one’s existential situation. Ultimately, Newman believed the viewer could realise their humanity in front of his work. Indeed Newman himself implored us to go beyond standard criticism: “You don’t have to stand and scrutinize how the canvas moves in and out and so on.”13 Instead, according to Newman, one should enter into something akin to a personal relationship with the work, and to this end he provided a precise analogy of what shape this relationship should take in interview with Emile de Antonio in 1970:

“When you see a person for the first time, you have an immediate impact. You don’t have to really start looking at details. It’s a total reaction in which the entire personality of a person and your own personality make contact. To my mind that’s almost a metaphysical event. If you have to stand there examining the eyelashes and all that sort of thing, it becomes a cosmetic situation in which you remove yourself from the experience.”14

If only Newman hadn’t so completely totalised his artworks after Onement I, so that they read like an autobiography, then maybe one could believe him and possibly see something other than ‘Barnett Newman’ in his works. The impact that he so desired from his viewers is right, although when he substituted the “cosmetic situation” with a ‘biographical narrative’ he demolished all hope of such an impact. When one looks at a painting by Barnett Newman all one really sees is Barnett Newman, every other possibility is subsumed beneath the waves and torrents of Newman, Newman, Newman.

In the final analysis Newman was a painter who had a particular agenda. His thought and paintings were united together in bringing about the resolution of that agenda. With the production of Onement I, Newman not only found a work that could be continually re-worked, but he also found the means of expression that could embody all the necessary qualities that he wanted a work of art to have. He had found his muse: the Galatea to his Pygmalion who would come alive in the hands of the artist and encapsulate all that he held dear. Because Newman’s art was ultimately a holistic enterprise, all the differing aspects of his work combined together to produce something of great significance to the artist. From his own undeniable presence in terms of self-revelation, to his control over his materials; from his insistence upon the primacy of the mind to his continual concern with surrounding artists; from his views on art objects to the removal of entertainment value; from his desire for his work to be an existential catalyst to his creation of a ‘place,’ Newman’s art was a study in the coherence of thought and paint: the merging of the rational with the visual. All aspects were part of a greater whole, with the only problem being that such an undertaking was so utterly full of the artist himself that no room was left for anyone to discover anything else.

When Barnett Newman looked at his work he saw Barnett Newman just as surely as if he lived inside a mirror-lined bubble or world. The disappointment, of course, is that everyone else looking in at his works also only sees Barnett Newman. No otherness is present and hence no ethical light can be found in such a flat two-dimensional series of works. But, hey, there were other Abstract Expressionist painters who didn’t blot out otherness by their shadows. We’ll get to them in due course, but next we need to get back Levinas’ Face.


  1. Newman, B. ‘Interview with Emile de Antonio’ included in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. Edited by John P. O’Neil, University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1990, 306.
  2. Sylvester, D. Interviews with American Artists, Plimlico, 2002, 37.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Lewison, J. Looking at Barnett Newman, August Projects, 2002, 14.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Newman, B. ‘The Fourteen Stations of the Cross, 1958 – 1966’ included in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. Edited by John P. O’Neil, University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1990, 189.
  7. Newman, B. ‘The Sublime is Now’ included in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. Edited by John P. O’Neil, University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1990, 173.
  8. Lewison, J. Looking at Barnett Newman, August Projects, 2002, 24.
  9. Ibid., 40.
  10. Temkin, A. ‘Barnett Newman on Exhibition’ included in Barnett Newman. Edited by Ann Temkin, Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Tate publishing, 2002, 46.
  11. Sylvester, D. Interviews with American Artists, Plimlico, 2002, 40.
  12. Ibid., 39.
  13. Shiff, R. ‘Whiteout: The Not-Influence Newman Effect’ included in Barnett Newman. Edited by Ann Temkin, Philadelphia Museum of Art in association with Tate publishing, 2002, 97.
  14. Newman, B. ‘Interview with Emile de Antonio’ included in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews. Edited by John P. O’Neil, University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1990, 306.

27. Everything Must Be Known


“Everything must be known, understood, synthesized, analysed, utilized: if something cannot be grasped by the rationalistic mind, then it is either extraneous or portentous… Western rationality… strips individual persons of all the facets of their unique existences, reducing them to a faceless horde living side-by-side in anonymity.”1
B. C. Hutchins

According to Emmanuel Levinas, a loss or death takes place if we freeze over when encountering another person and move on as if there never were such an encounter. We ‘kill’ in this cold-hearted manner when we employ the speedy, ‘I haven’t got time for this,’ assessment, as our chill sweeps past them. Occasionally, a tiny seed of understanding is mustered and taken away, but usually this is instantly lost if something more ‘interesting’ grabs our attention, such as a car number plate with a name on it. We are fickle, rudderless and self-occupied creatures in the main. But why do we frustrate the potential connections with other people by chilling ourselves so much? Why do we want to walk away unmoved and unchanged by potential interactions when we might actually benefit, grow or learn from them?


Let us give some more time to Levinas and hopefully not blast him with our freeze-ray, as we remind ourselves that some thoughts deserve more attention than a lot of those we already have stagnantly churning around our minds.

For Levinas, to ignore the call of another’s face demonstrates the highest level of unethical behaviour, to which he ascribed the damning classification ‘murder’. This was because he categorically insisted, “The first word of the face is ‘Thou shalt not kill’.”2 The extreme proclamation, by Levinas, might appear excessive to us, but let us not fixate upon his seemingly provocative stance and uselessly waste energy when we could, instead, actually try to see why he was so apparently disproportionate in his categorisation. Surely, that’s more fun and productive than stating “Oo, er, wait a minute, Emmanuel. That’s a bit stiff, isn’t it?” So, let us dwell and tarry with Levinas awhile.


When we encounter another person, even in our mode of icy self-assurance, we retain knowledge of the encounter and memories of the person, we don’t erase them from all existence. The residue of the encounter remains within us as part of our life journey. The subtler point Levinas makes, with his provocative description of our potential for ‘murder’, is not that we close our eyes, or that we pretend not to have seen the other, or even that somehow we destroy our memory of them, but that rather we do something far more horrific: we dismiss them as being able to be persons in themselves. We effectively make the other person into an object, the equivalent of a pencil or a pair of calico curtains, etc. The person who stood before us and with whom we interacted becomes caught up in our blast chiller and has their self stripped down to mere physicality. They become mere flesh, clothes and bad breathe before our eyes. The essence of the other never stands a chance as our frost permeates, encases, and petrifies everything in its artic grip. It is in this way that I understand ‘murder’ as proclaimed by Levinas.

That person who stood before us at the cash register, so that we could purchase our weekly supply of food items and said “Hello, how are you?” to which we replied “Fine, thanks,” never had a chance of saying or doing anything that could interrupt our view of them as a ‘cashier’ or ‘somebody who works in a supermarket.’ The Jack Russell owner, with his tweed jacket and green wellies who looked up and said “Hi”, with a slight upwards tilt of the chin, as he walked passed us when we got out of the car possessed no interest for us. Their memory fades into a generic type, just as the telegraph pole that was briefly next to them is remembered as being exactly like every other telephone pole, if it remains at all.

Telephone poles.fw

We cast into job roles, stereotypes and psychological personality types, those whom we meet day to day so that they become reduced to objects within our thoughts. Everything that is unique, peculiar or different, that makes them who they are to themselves, is dismissed in a split second by our sub-zero nonchalance. Dreams, hopes, ambitions, fears, regrets and shame are all ridden over and trampled roughshod by our blank and empty gaze. This is what Levinas means by ‘murder,’ because isn’t it murderous to ignore the other’s humanity? Aren’t we guilty when we don’t see someone as an individual, as a thinking, breathing, totally distinct person like us? To reduce a person to their physicality alone is to eviscerate their essence, the life that courses through their arteries and brain which gives personality, yields hopes, dreams and aspirations. When reduced to mere physicality we all become mere cadavers, or better yet zombies because zombies move. But who wants to be a zombie with no thoughts of their own and, more pertinently, who wants to be treated as a zombie? Murder is the absolute, it is the end point; it takes life and snuffs it out without a second thought or hesitation. In our frost coated life, where only our thoughts and memories are allowed a voice, there is only one who survives the killing spree, only one who can challenge our direction and be heard where all others fall mute to the ground. That sole spirit alone has our ear. The identity of that one is, of course, our self: a lonely, empty, and wretched person.


Here is another, maybe not so subtle, point. Who wants to inhabit a world of zombies and be the only one left alive? Surely, that person is wretched because aren’t they even more tormented than those they have reduced to zombiehood. That lone individual has to walk amongst the living dead consciously aware of the purgatory they have created whilst the zombies are obviously oblivious because they have no consciousness as far as the individual is concerned. No more will conversations and new thoughts emerge from without. Instead, the best that the individual can look forward to is conversing with themselves and beginning the slow descent into madness. Ah, Levinas, merci beaucoup, for warning us of our fate if we ignore your wisdom.

If we leave the precise threats of zombies and madness aside, strangely intriguing though they are, we can focus upon the difference that Levinas was trying to establish between the ontologically bound solitary individual and the ethically responsible one. Between these two positions lies a canyon, which only the ‘face’ can bridge.


On one side, there is a person, let’s call him Immanuel, with a compulsive desire to engulf everything in understanding, which thereby reduces everything into components within a totalised system, and on the other there is a person at ease in the knowledge that not everything can be understood or totalised because something things will always remain enigmatic, let’s call him Emmanuel. Both Immanuel and Emmanuel allow for meaning to be found, but only Immanuel can articulate it.

The problem for Levinas, as B. C. Hutchins describes, is the hegemony of those siding with Immanuel:

[Levinas] contends that Western philosophy, and indeed Western civilization itself, exhibits an often horrific propensity to reduce everything fortuitous, foreign and enigmatic to conditions of intelligibility… Everything must be known, understood, synthesized, analysed, utilized: if something cannot be grasped by the rationalistic mind, then it is either extraneous or portentous… Western rationality… strips individual persons of all the facets of their unique existences, reducing them to a faceless horde living side-by-side in anonymity.”3


A particular “horrific propensity” of Western civilisation for Levinas is the craving for intelligibility through vision. According to Levinas, vision “ultimately reduces all spiritual life.”4 It shines an overpowering light onto the world that blinds us to all that is there but cannot be seen:

“It is concerned with ideas, it is light, it looks for clarity and evidence. It culminates in an unveiling and in the phenomenon. Everything is immanent to it… Vision is a relation with a being such that the being attained through it precisely appears as the world.”5

The world that vision unveils is our world, a personal world of phenomena that we understand and, through that understanding, have power over. But, it is a solitary world. It is as we saw a few posts ago, courtesy of F. Mai Owens, as if we are inside a “globe lined with a mirrored surface”6 because everything we see and understand is reducible to ourselves, to our knowledge, anything else is not seen and therefore not allowed into our world.


Michael Gardiner looks (pardon the ironic slip into our prevalent hegemony) at this matter more deeply:

“Emmanuel Levinas suggests that ‘there is a dominance in the look, a technical dominance.’ In so far as the organization of visuality in the modern era is subordinated to a project of mastery, as defined by the intentional, knowing subject, vision is inherently destructive of ‘otherness’.”7

Hence, because the “project of mastery,” which utilises vision to defeat “otherness”, assists in the determination of our sense of self in the “modern era,” as “intentional” and “knowing’ subjects,” we, not surprisingly, feel very ill at ease before that which contains “otherness” and defies “mastery” by its continued presence. Thus, the inability to ‘master’ a new work of art presented to us threatens our self-hood, and allowing that threat to exist is a challenging task.


One could argue that evolution has concerned itself in the case of homo sapiens with the project of mastery. The drive to become masters of all we encounter has obvious beneficial qualities. The more we understand the easier it is to survive, n’est pas? And here lies the axis point. The need to survive as a primary goal or “project of mastery” does not contain within it the allowance of “otherness” or being ethical. When our fore-fathers and fore-mothers faced starvation thousands of years ago there probably was not much consideration given to whether there should share their discovery of a fresh food source with the neighbouring foraging tribe. In that situation one can expect that the ‘other’ tribe would have been considered a threat to be treated as an enemy if push came to shove. Ethics, one could probably predict, would have remained outside the sphere of behavioural influence.

However, as they say, that was then and this is now. Although, we might have evolved from hunters, gatherers and foragers for whom it was vital to understand and conquer our surroundings, this still being very much the case for all of us to this day, we are also able, perhaps where they were not, to also act differently. We have also evolved to be social creatures that can think about the needs of others just as much as our own. The fight for survival no longer has to be a permanent preoccupation; we have abilities beyond our fore-parents. We can gaze into the eyes of any human, no matter what ‘tribe’ they come from, no matter what colour their skin and we can see their humanity and that they are to be treated with respect.

Tribal Tattoo.fw

The all-consuming need to understand can be placed on hold when we come face to face with another person, an ‘other’, regarding whom we might not understand or be able to categorise. We can regard the other person ethically even before we attempt to classify them, we can see the person, the human being who is just like us, ahead of knowing anything about them. Our evolved species has journeyed into the realm of the social to embark upon our next great adventure: becoming civilised. Lurches, staggers and dents have been attempted sometimes with tremendous success, but often with cataclysmic failures. The issue at stake for Levinas, in this regard is that we, as individuals, help on a day-to-day level to further civilisation by small acts of respect for our fellow humans. Within our toil and bumbling on this planet, he felt that we should at least be ethical towards one another as opposed to being fascinated and enthralled by our own selves and the meagre knowledge we have managed to grasp.


So, be heartened, all is not gloom and pessimism, because we are not all fated to commit chilling acts of murder day after day. Instead, as Levinas was at pains to demonstrate, there is deep, glacier penetrating, heat in the form of the ‘recognition’ moment to be found within each of us. So let us stamp our boots, rub our hands together, and re-kindle those warming coffee-with-a-cinnamon-roll tinged thoughts, so briefly swept through before, and see just how Levinas expects us to radiate. But only after I have introduced you to a wolf in sheep’s clothing who went by the name of Barnett Newman.


  1. Hutchins, B. C. Levinas: A Guide for the Perplexed, Continuum, London, 2004, 14.
  2. Levinas, E. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Translated by Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998. 89.
  3. Hutchins, B. C. Levinas: A Guide for the Perplexed, Continuum, London, 2004, 14.
  4. Levinas, E. ‘The Transcendence of Words,’ reproduced in The Levinas Reader. Edited by Seán Hand, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, 147.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Owens, F. M. ‘Encountering the Other: Levinas, Kapoor, Time and the Other.’ MA. Thesis, Department of Art History and Theory, University of Essex, 1998, 9.
  7. Gardiner, M. ‘Bakhtin and the Metaphorics of Perception’ included in Interpreting Visual Culture: Explorations in the Hermeneutics of Vision. Edited by Ian Heywood and Barry Sandywell, Routledge, 2001, 57.

26. Still’s Tirade


“When I die, people will say – they are saying it already – that I acted ruthlessly and amorally, with ingratitude to those toward whom I should be grateful. And they will be correct. At the same time, I can think of no other way for a serious artist to achieve his ends than by doing what I did.”1
Clyfford Still

In the last post, Levinas showed us how to regard the face of another person and that within that face lay sufficient power to interrupt our “ideal priority,”2 our fundamental selfishness. For Levinas, such selfishness “wipes out all otherness by murder or by all-encompassing and totalizing thought.”3 However, when an ‘interruption’, such as produced by the presence of a face, takes place there is a “laying down by the ego of its sovereignty”4 which enables the space for ethics. The face causes us, if we agree with Levinas, to see differently. Instead of being in an aesthetic, phenomenological or ontological viewing position we find ourselves in an ethical one. The challenge, of course, being can we allow this to happen? Can we allow ourselves to see differently? Can we allow ourselves to regard the face without noticing the colour of the eyes and movement of the mouth? Can we see the person and not the physical object?

Can you see the real me.fw

An artist pre-occupied with the task of getting us to see differently was Clyfford Still. Born in 1904 in North Dakota, Still grew up in Washington state and Albert, Canada. By his mid-thirties he had worked his way past the symbolism of surrealism and had started to paint works that demonstrated a clear line of artistic progression to his mature, classically abstract, works that contain no recognisable sign or symbol and are even devoid of a title beyond the year they were painted combined with a basic alphabetic system to distinguish them from other paintings produced in the same year. Arguably, Still led the way for the abstract expressionism of his colleagues Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and others just before removing himself from the popular gaze when such painters started to achieve their fame and notoriety. Still, consequently, is not as well known as his contemporaries. However, at Sothebys, New York, in 2011 the sale of four of his works raised $114 million for a Denver museum in his name to have a hefty endowment. One of the works, 1949-A No.1 made $61.7 million by itself. Still, though, was some thirty years deceased by this point.

1949-A-No. 1.fw
1949-A-No. 1

Whilst he was alive, fame and money were not driving forces for Still, his fire burned bright from within and needed not the attention of a fickle art market. Although, he put it a lot more eloquently and forcibly:

“That pigment on canvas has a way of initiating conventional reactions for most people needs no reminder. Behind these reactions is a body of history matured into dogma, authority, and tradition. The totalitarian hegemony of this tradition I despise, its presumptions I reject. Its security is an illusion, banal, and without courage. Its substance is but dust and filing cabinets. The homage paid to it is a celebration of death. We all bear the burden of this tradition on our backs but I cannot hold it a privilege to be a pallbearer of my spirit in its name.”5

Dusty files.fw

Inside the exterior arrogance of this man who led life in a very confrontational manner and actively bit the hand that attempted to nourish him, there was a disciplined artist who maintained a rock solid seriousness in regard to his life’s work. So much so, that twenty-four years after he announced his revulsion with traditional art history and criticism he stood proud and firm again without wavering a jot:

“When I die, people will say – they are saying it already – that I acted ruthlessly and amorally, with ingratitude to those toward whom I should be grateful. And they will be correct. At the same time, I can think of no other way for a serious artist to achieve his ends than by doing what I did.”6

The seriousness which Still applied to his life’s work means that it coheres and does not fragment under pressure when tested from certain directions. His earnestness saw to it that his work was consistent, with purpose, and never accidental. It also meant that he had to think through all relevant aspects to it. One such aspect was that he decided to remove titles, descriptions and, with his mature work, all forms of meaning. Consequently, on 3rd March 1947, Still wrote to his then dealer, Betty Parsons, declaring “his crucial decision to eliminate titles and extraneous statements from any exhibitions of his work.”7 Interestingly, eighteen months before, near Thanksgiving in 1945, Still met André Breton in Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery who, as well as refusing to speak English, expressed an interest in one of Still’s black canvases (quite possibly 1944-N No.2) and that he wanted to see more of Still’s works.

1944-N No. 2.fw
1944-N No.2

What happens next is an extraordinary moment in art’s history, if one bears in mind that, alongside Marcel Duchamp, Breton was one of the most famous and important figures in the art-world at the time. A bridge to the ‘old’ bastion of art in Europe, as personified by Duchamp and Breton, came in the guise of Peggy Guggenheim who straddled both European and American avant gardes. For her, surrealism and American abstractionism were of a piece as modern art movements and exemplars. The interesting fragment of this potted art history is that she brought together the undisputed king of Surrealism and the untameable, yet not wild, enfant terrible of American art, Clyfford Still. The meeting being recorded in Still’s diary as follows:

“A date was set and he [Breton] came one evening about nine-thirty with Peggy. He indicted that he felt at a loss when he discovered that I had no titles on my pictures to give him a key to their meanings… I was not of the surrealist persuasion in either theory or practice, especially in its dialectical apologia and its political correlatives.”8

By not having titles and hence no easily accessible meaning Still rather foxed Breton. This, of course, really confirmed Still’s artistic leanings because it placed his work completely outside the governance of surrealist ideals. In his notes relating to this meeting, given by his wife Patricia in Clyfford Still 1904-1980: The Buffalo and San Francisco Collections, we get a further nuanced account of Still’s thoughts regarding Breton:

“Peggy Guggenheim apologized for not being a good interpreter for Breton… ‘He is an intellectual and I am not,’ she said. Her apology and his confusion seemed to express the point so well. The intellectual was confused; the one who could see the pictures was not. Without a dialectic and a set of verbs Breton was lost.”9

Andre Breton lost.fw

Two years later, for his next solo exhibition with Parsons, Still re-iterated his sentiment regarding the omission of titles in order that there should exist “no allusions to interfere with or assist the spectator.”10 In 1963, too, the same sentiment continues to be present within Still’s thinking but with a wider field of influence, as Ti-Grace Sharpless records in regard to Still’s one man exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia: “I have no brief for signs or symbols or literary allusions in painting. They are just crutches for illustrators and politicians desperate for an audience.”11 The explicit reference to titles has now transformed into a broader conception of Still’s artistic project as a whole, as Donald Kuspit demonstrates in Clyfford Still: The Ethics of Art by showing how the desire for freedom could be the impetus for Still’s decisions:

“Any focusing device for form, any cue to content, are anathema for Still, for they close one into a finite world of limited implications which altogether precludes even the possibility of the idea of freedom. There must be a lurking infinity about the image, an indefiniteness – incompleteness – which lures us to the idea of freedom.”12

1947-R No. 2.fw
1947-R No. 2

Kuspit continues his explication by stating how Still might have conceived the position he hoped to have created for his spectator: “His Consciousness will not search for crutches to make sense of the works, which will stand forth as a pure revelation of paint.”13 Following Kuspit’s thoughts on freedom, one can say that by removing all textual elements to his work Still pushed the boundary of his pursuit of freedom, even further, to go beyond himself and envelop the viewer.

Now, this is all of note for us as we try to understand Levinas’ thoughts on the face, because in a very similar manner Still wanted to remove the barriers and obstacles between the spectator and his work just as much a Levinas wanted to remove the same from the interaction between two people regarding each other. For both Levinas and Still, the inconsequential elements needed to be surpassed in order that a direct relationship with the other can take place and not be contaminated by falsities, diversions and trappings of conventional thinking and approaches. The ‘freedom’ that Kuspit overlays onto Still’s work and his hope that the spectator also adopts such a stance is parallel by Levinas’ thoughts of the existence of a ‘mode of responsibility’ that occurs with the presence of a face. These are parallel entities because in all likelihood they shall never meet and coalesce however they most certainly travel across the same terrain and can admire each other’s progress. But, lets us get back to Still as he, ironically, has more to say:


“I deplore most the overemphasis on words. Not the poet’s words, but words that explain, reason, debate, deduce, make ‘fact’. Words have become omnipotent because so facile a tool have they become for the utilitarian and the practical… Utility is confounded with value. Verbiage becomes a substitute for comprehension. And everything leads to words and words become a substitute for everything. From the state of the weather to an interpretation of the picture… a substitute for thinking, a substitute for seeing, a substitute even for listening and smelling and copulating, words do a remarkable job of miscreating and aborting experience and understanding… They lend themselves so readily to the fool and his plausibility. They reinforce his acceptance of the obvious, the superficial and what he calls the real. And the world is engulfed in the reasonable and the logical, and the sane and pseudo-scientific.”14


Within this tirade against the sign, Still formulated not only a clearly defined position as to why he omitted titles from his works, but also “a philosophical justification for [his] hostility towards art historical criticism”15 as David Anfam states in his thesis on Still. In a later essay, Clyfford Still’s Art: Between the Quick and the Dead, Anfam verifies this claim of hostility by reminding us that “Still strove to prohibit any commentary on [his] art, repudiating such critics as Alfred Barr, Clement Greenberg, and James Thrall Soby.”16 These art historians might even be those to which Thomas Albright directs when he suggested, seemingly on Still’s behalf, that “they rather surround art with interpretation, analysis and a host of other elaborations which have become part of a gigantic verbal superstructure designed to make art more comfortable – and profitable.”17 Still’s diatribe against the “overemphasis on words” and the implication concerning art historians appears, then, within the framework of a negative dialectic just as his distaste for titles before it. However, it is possible to focus on the broader conception Still had for his art, as Albright knew:

“Still’s notorious ‘demands,’ his legendary aloofness and attacks on critical exegises of his work – even the most favourable – are really nothing more nor less than an attempt to assert that the ‘art world’ must revolve around art and artist, rather than the other way around, and to reaffirm the primacy of the visual experience over the verbal.”18


If one finds Albright’s rather neat encapsulation of Still’s artistic endeavours a little lacking in depth, despite its pleasant ring and positive intention, we can turn once more to Kuspit.

In terms of unearthing of Still’s constructive purpose, Kuspit gives an incisive estimation of what lay beneath Still’s seemingly aggressive personae:

“Art no longer confirms and helps convince us of what is already given, whether it be nature or a religion – it is no longer an act of imitation – but suspends our relations with it so that we can determine its meaning and freely decide our commitment to it… Still means his paintings to be invitations to, and emblems of, an open horizon rather than signs of a closed consciousness, possessed by clichés of communication and affirming dogma, authority, tradition. Art is to rescue our freedom, not police our limits… Still means to make this freedom an active value rather than a theoretical goal.”19


According to Kuspit, then, the suspension of our relations with art, by the removal of text and context, enables the viewer to be in a position of freedom within which to explore and experience, in an unrestricted manner, the outcomes of Still’s “invitations to, and emblems of, an open horizon” as presented before them without being constrained by the four walls of dogma, authority, tradition, and words. Still, therefore, paints an inviting contemplative space where a viewer can release themselves from the burden of their history, culture, and even language, to sneak a glimpse perhaps, of something deeper, something fleeting and untouchable, but yet very much needed if we are to live beyond the level of mere conformity and the mundane.

1957 PH-971
1957 PH-971

One cannot but help think that Levinas would have approved if he ever considered Still’s works or thoughts.


  1. Albright, T. ‘A Conversation with Clyfford Still’, Art News, March 1976, vol. 75, no. 3: 34.
  2. Levinas, E. ‘Ethics as First Philosophy,’ reproduced in The Continental Philosophy Reader. Edited by Richard Kearney and Mara Rainwater, Routledge, London, 1996.  133.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Still, C. ‘Statement’, from a letter dated February 5, 1952 included in 15 Americans, Edited by Dorothy Miller, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1952, 21.
  6. Albright, T. ‘A Conversation with Clyfford Still’, Art News, March 1976, vol. 75, no. 3: 34.
  7. Anfam, D. Clyfford Still, PhD thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1984, 118.
  8. O’Neill, J. P. (ed.) Clyfford Still, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979, 22.
  9. Still, P. ‘Clyfford Still: Biography’ included in Clyfford Still 1904-1980: The Buffalo and San Francisco Collections. Edited by Thomas Kellein, Munich: Prestel, 1992, 151.
  10. Anfam, D. Clyfford Still, PhD thesis, Courtauld Institute of art, University of London, 1984, containing an excerpt from a letter to Parsons from Still dated December 29, 1949, 184-185.
  11. Sharpless, T-G. Clyfford Still October 18 – November 29, 1963, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2.
  12. Kuspit, D. B. ‘Clyfford Still: The Ethics of Art.’ Artforum, May 1977, vol. 15: 32.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Still, P.’ Clyfford Still: Biography’ included in Clyfford Still 1904-1980: The Buffalo and San Francisco Collections. Edited by Thomas Kellein, Munich: Prestel, 1992, 150-151.
  15. Anfam, D. Clyfford Still, PhD thesis, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London, 1984, 231.
  16. Anfam, D. ‘Clyfford Still’s Art: Between the Quick and the Dead’ included in Clyfford Still: Paintings 1944-1960. Edited by James T. DemetrionHirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution in association with Yale University Press, 2001, 18.
  17. Albright, T. ‘A Conversation with Clyfford Still’, Art News, March 1976, vol. 75, no. 3: 30.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Kuspit, D. B. ‘Clyfford Still: The Ethics of Art’, included in Artforum, May 1977, vol. 15: 35.

25. The Face – Part 1


So, the dawn of responsibility for the other really does become an awakening, with the revelation of a new exterior world, as we move in line with Tennyson, to tread upon the stepping-stones of our dead selves to higher things such as ethics as conceived by Levinas.

In our first post on Levinas we saw that he set himself against what he understood as the totalising forces of ontology and phenomenology, as dispensed by his philosophical predecessors. Instead, Levinas was interested in the otherness of the il y a and how that otherness brings forth an encounter which is actually ethical if one understands that the other is indeed an Other and not a possible false conception emerging from our own subject-hood. The Other stands before us as if to say ‘Behold me, fore I am here!’ and any notion we once had of ourselves crumbles to the ground in the wake of the Other’s presence. This is because our notion of self that believes it understands the world and can place everything within a neat intellectual bracket, if so required, encounters that which cannot be contained or totalised. The Other defies such categorisation and resists understanding. Such an unforeseen contradiction to our self-belief and understanding sends shockwaves inward, throughout our once robust self, that shatters as it dispossess us of all our previous understanding regarding what makes us us so that we collapse, disintegrating into dust.


However, as Tennyson indicated, there might be hope if we can only rise on the stepping-stones of our dead selves to higher things. A comprehension of what Levinas means by ethics being one such higher thing. To begin our climb, though, we have to start looking with Levinasian eyes at the face of the Other.

Helpfully, in a dialogue with Philippe Nemo (apparently, no relation to the Nautilus captain), Levinas gave an example of how his interests and focus were beyond phenomenological thought when Nemo rather strangely asked him to explain what he meant by his phenomenology of the face:

“I do not know if one can speak of a ‘phenomenology’ of the face, since phenomenology describes what appears. So, too, I wonder if one can speak of a look turned toward the face, for the look is knowledge, perception. I think rather that access to the face is straightaway ethical. You turn yourself towards the Other as towards an object when you see a nose, a forehead, a chin, and you describe them. The best way of encountering the Other is not even to notice the colour of his eyes! When one observes the colour of his eyes one is not in a social relationship with the other.”1


My understanding of Levinas, from this quote, is that he was interested in the potential for an encounter with significance when one regards an Other, and that this could occur if one does not ruin that potential by starting to ‘look’ at the Other person’s features and thereby reducing them to an object. In conversation, how often do we protect ourselves by observing the physical features of those we are in dialogue with rather than focusing on what they are saying? Levinas’ eye colour example, as he himself knew, is only the starting point of such evasion. There are an infinite number of physical details one can distract oneself with when conducting an examination of the other person’s appearance. Treating them in this way, as an object for investigation, helps us feel in control if we feel in danger of being adjusted, manoeuvred, or derailed by the other influencing us too much by their presence or conversation. So, just like complete avoidance, placing the other under a microscope also allows for an uncomplicated, but ultimately empty, life.

Microscope plus man.fw

Levinas’ physical illustration is beautiful in its profound obviousness, once understood. However, deeper than the physical objectification of the other comes the subtler and more pervasive psychological objectification and then, also, the more unsophisticated stance of looking as though we are responsive to the dialogue when in fact we our resolutely strengthening our own ideas without actually listening to the other.

Beginning with the psychological objectification, how often do we find ourselves listening to the other only to feed our own assessment of that person and what we believe categorises them? Our internal thought process conducts commentaries, when in conversation, in-between ‘listening’ to the other: ‘Ah, well, Rebecca would say that because she never lets go of her feminist position.’ Or ‘Charlie is such a passive aggressive, look he’s doing it again’ etc. The end result, of such ‘superior’ psychological insight though is the same as the unsophisticated stance, which we have all done and have had done to us: not listening. Whilst conducting our assessment of the other, as they converse with us, we are in fact guilty of the same sin as those ignorant minded folk who appear at every opportunity not to listen to what is being said to them. Both methodologies, from the ‘superior’ to the more base and unsophisticated, are snapshots of the same spectrum which exists to keep the temperature of our inner selves at a cool low, hovering around the freezing point, which also signifies a life lost to pointless self-certainty and social alienation.


The face was not visual for Levinas and as Alain Finkielkraut states “the face is the single prey that the image-hungry hunter can never catch. The eye always returns empty-handed from the face of the Other.”2 Consequently, the ‘face,’ then, is neither an experience nor an event, as a friendly Levinasian chap called Paul Davies makes clear in The Face and the Caress. Nor, as we have seen, is it a phenomenon. The choices regarding the ‘face’ run rather low, then, if it is not an experience, an event nor even a phenomenon: aesthetics, ontology and phenomenology are all equally dismissed. Fortunately, Levinas saves us from shuffling around with our heads bowed, hands thrust into trouser pockets, at the brink of saying “I don’t know what the ‘face’ is, then”, because the answer is an ethical encounter:

“The face is the most basic mode of responsibility.”3


This, to Levinas, was the absolute bedrock of his philosophy. So that, for example, rather than an ontological relation arising when one is in the presence of a face, an ethical relation occurs. This means that instead of just being there with the Other, as if I were there with a chair, I am now there for the Other, I am there and responsible for the Other.

Four points arise from this responsibility:

The first Levinas made within Chapter One of Otherwise Than Being, in order to distinguish himself from Heidegger, and it concerns the dynamism of the ethical relation which was opposed to an ontological relation whereby “everything is crystallized or sclerosized into substance.”4 The message being quite clear that an ontological viewpoint preserves, in the sense of petrify, that upon which it gazes, whereas an ethical stance does not, because it actually allows the flow of life to continue.

Petrify alt.fw

The second point, also made in Chapter One of Otherwise Than Being, is that responsibility comes from without:

“The responsibility for the other cannot have begun in my commitment, in my decision. The unlimited responsibility in which I find myself comes from the hither side of my freedom, from a ‘prior to every memory,’ an ‘ulterior to every accomplishment,’ from the non-present par excellence, the non-original, the anarchical, prior to or beyond essence.”5

The responsibility I have for the other does not begin with a decision within me to be responsible. Responsibility comes from before me, before ontology, and therefore cannot be conditioned by ontological considerations such as my personal freedom, as we saw earlier.

This is quite ground-breaking, of course, to say that responsibility comes to us from an external source because we have been taught that responsibility is something we ought to cultivate if we want to be decent human beings. By which, we are taught that we can control our responsibility in given situations. I guess Levinas found leaving the decision of applying responsibility up to us far too risky and fraught with danger. The risk being that we might not bother acting in a responsible manner toward the Other. We might just shrug and walk away when they need us. But isn’t that Levinas’ point? If we were to walk away from someone who needs us then don’t we exhibit and feel something inhuman about ourselves. Isn’t that what a sociopath is? Someone who can walk away nonchalantly when a fellow human’s suffering could be alleviated by a simple action? The issue being for Levinas that, in the main, we are not sociopaths and we do behave with responsibility towards each other. However, for him it is important that this is not grounded in some sense of taught virtuous behaviour but rather it is an unavoidable command that comes to us as something beyond ourselves and so it can’t be affected by any personal whim. Instead, it is just there. Not as a brute fact or like the il y a but rather as the defining aspect when we see the face of the Other. It is inescapable.


The third point, again made in the same chapter of Otherwise Than Being, is how I am responsible. According to Levinas, I am responsible for “the faults and misfortunes of others” because that responsibility “answers for the freedom of another.”6 Now, I recognise that this is a little hard to grasp. What is going on here is that the freedom of the Other can lead them to various outcomes, all of which I am responsible for. Pretty strong stuff! Again, I guess that Levinas was looking to head-off problems, this time with other people’s freedom and actions potentially curtailing our responsibility. For example, Sergi is free to spend his earnings on an almighty booze-up with the chaps from the office rather than paying for his son’s medical treatment. However, again, we cannot just shrug and walk away. In Levinas’ view we are responsible for Sergi’s freedom and need to understand that we have responsibility for Sergi. If we don’t recognise that responsibility then, rather than being a sociopath, we would become the shifty rubbernecking sidler who slinks around observing the behaviour of others stating “not my problem, mate” if confronted. We would see the problem and understand it as a problem but yet refuse to get involved. As Adriaan Peperzak understood in Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, the freedom of the other is my responsibility in terms of what they do and what is done to them and this is an “infinite responsibility”, which a “total refusal of… would express itself through murder” and a “total acceptance would coincide with perfect love.”7

Murder or Love.fw

Incidentally, the theme of murder appeared to work as an imperative for Levinas. In conversation with Philippe Nemo he stated: “The first word of the face is the ‘Thou shalt not kill’. It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face, as if a master spoke to me.”8 Levinas found in the ‘face’ of the other a first premise to his ethical theory, a negative imperative: Don’t murder.

The fourth point of our responsibility to the ‘face’ is shown by how Levinas re-constructed our notion of the self, which he denoted as the ‘Same.’ It is through the ‘face’ of the Other that we encounter our responsibility and also now ourselves via what Levinas called a “suspension” of the ego’s “ideal priority.” This “ideal priority” being the ontological bearing,

“which wipes out all otherness by murder or by all-encompassing and totalizing thought; or war and politics which pass themselves off as the relation of the Same to the Other (l’Autre). It is in the laying down by the ego of its sovereignty (in its ‘hateful’ modality), that we find ethics and also probably the very spirituality of the soul.”9

Robert Bernasconi, in Levinas and Derrida: The Question of the Closure of Metaphysics, encapsulates this transition from an ontological bearing to an ethical demeanour, with the introduction of the ‘face,’ as an unearthing of ourselves because “we discover our arbitrary, violent, murderous freedom in shame before the gaze of the other.”10 The unearthing uncovers the guilt of one who has regarded the other as an object only to be caught in their gaze, a gaze that startles because they feel as if the other has looked inside their mind and seen the anger and filth that lurks within.

Guilt, Anger and Filth.fw

One’s ‘murderous will’, of course, was Levinas’ polemic against ontology. It is a poetic way of describing the priority that one’s will dictates when considering other beings. So, in this case, the murder is not enacted with knives, guns, or poison, but with one’s capacity to thematize the world around into comprehensible knowledge, which ensures the continuity of my understanding by not allowing any interruptions: the preservation of the ego’s sovereignty being the paramount concern. The ‘face’ is, of course, the ultimate interruption, and one that saves us from ourselves by making us ethical and actually human.

For Levinas, then, the self comes to its ethical stage of responsibility not from, due to, or because of its freedom, but because that freedom was interrupted. Interrupted by the other. This means that the self only completes itself, by entering the ethical stage and attaining self-consciousness, because of the other. On its own, as C. Fred Alford explains in Levinas, the Frankfurt School and Psychoanalysis, the self is “not much different from a contented cow” that drinks up “the milk of the world.”11 In her master’s thesis, at Essex University, F. Mai Owens describes this ‘original’ condition, which is “prior to any interaction with the world exterior to its self,” as “solitary” and “mired in its self much as I imagine a person caught inside a globe lined with a mirrored surface.”12 So, the dawn of responsibility for the other really does become an awakening, with the revelation of a new exterior world, as we move in line with Tennyson, to tread upon the stepping-stones of our dead selves to higher things such as ethics as conceived by Levinas.

Stepping Stones.fw


  1. Levinas, E. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Translated by Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998, 85.
  2. Finkielkraut, A. The Wisdom of Love. Translated by Kevin O’Neill and David Suchoff, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1997, 12.
  3. Levinas, E. and Kearney, R. ‘Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas’ included in Face to Face with Levinas, Edited by Richard A. Cohen, State University of New York Press, 1986, 23.
  4. Levinas, E. Otherwise Than Being: Or Beyond Essence. Translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1999, 9.
  5. Ibid., 10.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Peperzak, A. T. Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Illinois, 1999, 67.
  8. Levinas, E. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Translated by Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998, 89.
  9. Levinas, E. ‘Ethics as First Philosophy,’ reproduced in The Continental Philosophy Reader. Edited by Richard Kearney and Mara Rainwater, Routledge, London, 1996, 133.
  10. Bernasconi, R. ‘Levinas and Derrida: The Question of the Closure of Metaphysics’ included in Face to Face with Levinas. Edited by R. A. Cohen, State University of New York Press, 1986, 188.
  11. Alford, C. F. Levinas, the Frankfurt School and Psychoanalysis. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 2002, 18.
  12. Owens, F. M. Encountering the Other: Levinas, Kapoor, Time and the Other, Masters thesis, Department of Art History and Theory, University of Essex, 1998, 9.

24. Kafka’s Burrow



“There is always a moment when, in the night, the beast hears the other beast. This is the other night. And this is in no way terrifying; it says nothing extraordinary, it has nothing in common with ghosts and trances. It is only muffled whispering, a noise one can hardly distinguish from silence, the seeping sands of silence.”1
Maurice Blanchot

Quite possibly, ever since Francisco Goya created his 1797-99 Los Caprichos, with one in particular, No. 43, the Western world has been aware that it should try and concentrate a little harder and not be so skittish. The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters is one of the Enlightenments favourite tunes because it so completely sets out the stall of reason versus superstition and that the former is clearly to be preferred.

The Sleep of Reason.fw

As with Freud before him, writing on the uncanny, Maurice Blanchot realised that the Enlightenment’s call to arms could never be all pervading. When Freud described the uncanny as belonging to “the realm of the frightening, of what evokes fear and dread,”2 with its legitimacy in repressed childhood complexes or re-surfacing primitive beliefs, Blanchot enigmatically postulated, “what appears in the night is the night that appears.”3 The emerging superhighway of the enlightenment, therefore, got halted or at least traffic calmed by the presence of the uncanny and Blanchot’s thoughts on the night. To be more precise, Blanchot described it as “the other night,”4 by which he meant not the welcoming night of the sleeper but the impure night of insomnia. Of the first night, the welcoming kind, Blanchot wrote:

“Night is what day must finally dissolve: day works at its empire; it is its own conquest and elaboration; it tends toward the unlimited… the triumph of enlightenment which simply banishes darkness… night is what day wants not just to dissolve, but to appropriate.”5

Day and Night.fw

But then of the other night:

“The other night, is the first night which we can penetrate, which we enter – granted, with anguish, and yet here anguish secludes us and becomes a shelter.”6

For Blanchot, the first night was the night that enlightenment worked so hard, as he said, to “appropriate” by shining its light of reason into all the dark corners and alleyways so that we may see, understand and thereby no longer be afraid. The first night is a night that can be conquered, subdued and disciplined. By contrast, the othernight is the forever-wild primitive that will never be subjugated. This other night does come upon us, as horror movies would make us believe, with shock, surprise and suddenness, out of the blue in an instant. Because, as Blanchot realised, all the horror movie tropes can easily be rendered harmless when the cold light of day is cast upon them: vampires, ghouls, wild beasts and horrifying monsters all become neutered/comic versions of their selves when the taming light of the day shines to reveal the hoax, mistake or over inflation of the imagination. Instead, the other night can never be caught, understood or domesticated because it oozes slowly but steadfastly into our consciousness in such a way as to push out all our internalised enlightened endeavours and we, ourselves, revert back to former stages in evolutions journey. The rational confidence and intellectual gifts of the daytime, that might well brush off the theatrical whims of the first night, evaporate and disappear when the other night comes out to play to leave a base animalistic husk:

“There is always a moment when, in the night, the beast hears the other beast. This is the other night. And this is in no way terrifying; it says nothing extraordinary, it has nothing in common with ghosts and trances. It is only muffled whispering, a noise one can hardly distinguish from silence, the seeping sands of silence.”7

The Other Night.fw

Blanchot’s muse and perhaps inspiration is Franz Kafka’s The Burrow where the literal sense of the story is with the introspective protagonist, an anthropomorphic mole and his adventures in his burrow. Blanchot’s description of the other night is one that directly relates to mole in The Burrow, which we shall examine in a moment. However, one of Balnchot’s concerns with the work is its status, in some people’s minds, an unfinished piece of prose.

How the tale of the story goes is that Kafka wrote an ending whereby the mole had a physical battle with the ‘beast’ that he had started to hear. For Blanchot, such an ending doesn’t wash because he finds the given ending a perfect encapsulation of the situation faced by the mole and quotes the last sentence as verification of his position: “But all remained unchanged,”8 as translated by Kafka’s English translators, or “Everything continued without any change”9 presumably in its flow from Kafka’s original German, through a French translation unto Blanchot, and then later into English. The difference of translation aside, the issue for Blanchot was that here exists a clear statement from Kafka that the situation was one that was not resolved. The mole was to perceive the other ever more. Shades of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven with its ominous and haunting utterance ‘Nevermore’ from the poem’s eponymous character resound in our minds as we process the purgatory that both Kafka and Poe employed for their protagonists.

The Raven.fw

If one is interested, the opinion that Kafka wrote more of The Burrow has its apocryphal nature due to the tale told by Dora Diamant, Kafka’s last lover, where she, as per Kafka’s wishes, burned all his unpublished writings whilst he was on his deathbed. That she didn’t burn everything because some works ended up being confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933, I don’t think diminishes Blanchot’s view regarding The Burrow having the ending that is given to posterity and his argument. This is because, whatever actually happened to the papers, the evidence suggests that Kafka wanted his published works to not get diluted by publication of unfinished writings or, one can presume, additions or edits to previous works. This argument would perfectly support Blanchot’s needs however, there is a slight problem. Kafka died in 1924 and his editor Max Brod, with Heinz Politizer or Hans Joachim Schöps (sources vary), published The Burrow along with several other short stories in 1931 within the posthumous The Great Wall of China.The problem being we don’t know when and how Kafka gave these works to Brod.

Anyway, let’s throw Blanchot a bone because his thoughts don’t rest whole-heartedly upon the final sentence of The Burrow but rather upon the journey that the mole undergoes. So, to The Burrow.

The Mole.fw

Kafka starts the short story with a declaration on the part of the narrator and only player within the whole: “I have completed the construction of my burrow and it seems to be successful.”10 To begin with the narrator, a mole, is entirely satisfied with their achievement:

“The fragrance of the woods floats in; the place feels both warm and cool. Sometimes I lie down and roll about in the passage with pure joy. When autumn sets in, to possess a burrow like mine, and a roof over your head, is great good fortune for anyone getting on in years… every now and then I start up out of profound sleep and listen, listen into the stillness which reigns here unchanged day and night, smile contentedly, and then sink with loosened limbs into still profounder sleep.”11

Soon, we learn of the mole’s fear though that the burrow might be invaded by an ‘enemy’ as the mole describes the troublesome connection with the outside word that the entrance has: “enemies are numerous and their allies and accomplices still more numerous, but they fight one another, and while thus employed rush past my burrow without noticing it.”12 The mole, we begin to understand, is obsessed with the sanctity of their home, “I can only trust myself and my burrow.”13 However, there is a knowing quality to the mole that understands there can never absolute freedom from worry: “the burrow does provide a considerable degree of security, but by no means enough, for is one ever free from anxieties inside it?”14

The tunnels.fw

On a surface level foraging errand we learn that the mole is torn between returning to the safety of the burrow and giving the entrance away to his ‘enemies’ so that they might follow. So much so does this fear play upon the mole that it is only after a considerable time on the surface that the decision is made:

“Too exhausted to be any longer capable of thought, my head hanging, my legs trembling with fatigue, half asleep, feeling my way rather than walking, I approach the entrance, slowly raise the moss covering, slowly descend.”15

Having made it back to the burrow the mole attempts a survey of the various passages and rooms only to fall soundly asleep, with their next waking episode initiating the turning point of the story:


“I must have slept for a long time. I was only wakened when I had reached the last light sleep which dissolves of itself, and it must have been very light, for it was an almost inaudible whistling noise that wakened me. I recognized what it was immediately; the small fry, whom I had allowed far too much latitude, had burrowed a new channel somewhere during my absence.”16

The “small fry”, about which we are left to make our own conclusions, are not to be seen as the propagators of the whistling noise that has invaded the mole’s burrow for long. However, in the meantime the mole sets to action:

“First I shall have to listen at the walls of my passages and locate the place of disturbance by experimental excavations, and only then will I be able to get rid of the noise… I must have silence in my passages.”17

After conducting various searches in vain, the mole starts to doubt that the cause of the whistling is from the “small fry” which by now should have been discovered. Lost as to an explanation, the mole admits “it is this very uniformity of the noise everywhere that disturbs me most”18 and starts to postulate other possible sources:

“But perhaps — this idea now insinuates itself — I am concerned here with some animal unknown to me… Yet it cannot be a single animal, it must be a whole swarm that has suddenly fallen upon my domain, a huge swarm of little creatures… Yet if these creatures are strangers, why is it that I never see any of them? I have already dug a host of trenches, hoping to catch one of them, but I can find not a single one.”19


The mole’s obsession by now has metamorphosed from one concerned with the sanctity of their burrow to one that cannot rest until the source of the whistling is quite literally unearthed. Plans are hatched and walls dug into in hopeless attempts to divine the origin of the noise. A trench is instigated that should lead straight to the source if continued sufficiently. Partway through the exhausting construction, the mole stops to check and listens to see if there is any variance in the whistling. Amazed, the mole believes it has stopped and that his burrow can return normality. A false hope has arisen, though:

“I remember, for I and everything in me has awakened to new life, that I have eaten nothing for a long time, I snatch something or other from among my store of food half-buried under the debris and hurriedly begin to swallow it while I hurry back to the place where I made my incredible discovery, I only want to assure myself about it incidentally, perfunctorily, while I am eating; I listen, but the most perfunctory listening shows at once that I was shamefully deceived: away there in the distance the whistling still remains unshaken. And I spit out my food, and would like to trample it underfoot.”20

The penultimate twist given by Kafka for his poor mole is that the whistling nemesis is a solitary individual, a single threat; a unique subject:

“My imagination will not rest, and I have actually come to believe — it is useless to deny it to myself — that the whistling is made by some beast, and moreover not by a great many small ones, but by a single big one.”21

Scary eyes.fw

Then, after the gruelling trials and inner turmoil we come to the end, the Blanchot end, where the other night has been set interminably in motion… “all remained unchanged.” The mole is left to forever search and be tormented by an unknown other. Which, of course, is perfect for Blanchot because if the other became determined then it would lose all presence, hold and necessary mystery. Any battle against a realised foe would destroy the otherness and create a banality; either a happy or tragic ending as the mole won or lost the conflict. Having the ending play out in a battle, would, as Blanchot knew, shine the light of enlightenment where we the audience are led to an understanding in a neatly resolved vignette that restores the order we like to feel exists in the world. Comfort and calm would prevail once more and we could go easily to our beds having been entertained by a nice little story.

Bedtime story.fw

Instead, Kafka gives us Blanchot’s ending that disrupts order, spits at the enlightenment and makes us uneasy as we start to think about the little mole and then make the allegorical leap that Kafka, of course, knew lay lurking within his prose. The mole’s struggles are our own because we, too, live our lives listening for the other at our door desiring to take away all that we have strived to build.

The other at the door.fw

Blanchot and Kafka’s ‘other’ is bleak, merciless and sends shudders down our spines because we can’t even begin to explain it, let alone control it. Our self-belief and autonomy is shaken in the face of the other. We have no choice but to become humbled if we feel any empathy with the mole. This is because the ‘other’ as a possible reality is something we can palpably feel if not necessary explain. So, rather than rejecting as impossible, the sense of the non-existent other, as certain enlightened schools of philosophy would have us believe, maybe we should own up to our feelings and admit that there feels like something is there beyond the reach of our understanding.

The possibility of the other, though, as well as being a source of fear and humility can also be the source of that which is enriching and rewarding because where Blanchot gives us back the power of the dark, his friend and colleague, Levinas, gives us a new light to view the world. A word of caution is required here because this is not a light that shines from above, a religious light, nor is it an inner light that emanates from us onto things, a la the enlightenment, but rather it is a light that softly and delicately trickles onto us from those that we all too easily call ‘others’.

Photo by Andrew Firth.fw
Photo by Andrew Firth


  1. Blanchot, M. The Space of Literature. Translated by Ann Smock, University of Nebraska Press, 1982, 168.
  2. Freud, S. ‘The Uncanny,’ included in Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny. Translated by David McLintock, Penguin Books, 2003, 123.
  3. Blanchot, M. The Space of Literature. Translated by Ann Smock, University of Nebraska Press, 1982, 163.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 167.
  6. Ibid., 168.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Kafka, F. ‘The Burrow’. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, included in Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories, Shocken Books, 1971, 386.
  9. Blanchot, M., The Space of Literature, 168.
  10. Kafka, F. ‘The Burrow’. Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir, included in Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories, Shocken Books, 1971, 354.
  11. Ibid., 356.
  12. Ibid., 363.
  13. Ibid., 366.
  14. Ibid., 367.
  15. Ibid., 369.
  16. Ibid., 371.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 375.
  20. Ibid., 378.
  21. Ibid., 380.

23. Is There Anybody There?


“The ethical relation – the encounter with the other – is a movement towards the stranger, that is, towards the non-identical, rather than a movement of recognition in which I take the other into my world, gathering up the other as a component of my self-possession or as part of my domestication or familiarization of my world.”1
Gerald Bruns

Let’s start with a death. Well, not exactly, but you’ll see what I mean.

In 1994, the elderly Maurice Blanchot published an intriguing text: L’Instant de Ma Mort (The Instant of My Death) in which he tells the story of a young man brought before a firing squad during World War II only to find himself suddenly released from imminent death right at the last. The story could be autobiographical and might relate to Blanchot’s own possible last minute escape from a Nazi firing squad.

Firing Squad.fw

However, placing the autobiographical question to one side in the ‘we shall never know’ pile, we find that we are left with Blanchot clearly demonstrating an interest in death within his text. And in Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy, our old chum Gerald Bruns explains an aspect of that interest:

“We can’t take our eyes off of a corpse, neither can we grasp it, because it is both there and not there in a neutral zone outside of being: existence without being.”2

It appears, then, that for Blanchot, death in the form of a corpse, as well as fascinating us, occupies a strange nether world, a form of purgatory that holds power over us and yet cannot, itself, be grasped. Our fascination with the corpse exudes an uncanny force over us. The form in front of us that once was so full of life, so full of being, strikes us as unworldly to the extent that we gaze blankly at this strange non-object, non-subject.


Twisting Bruns slightly, in that he moved his interpretation of Blanchot onto art (although his words still hold true for our cadaver), we can see a new language emerging which is not unlike Gadamer’s and yet introduces a new dimension, the poetic:

“Fascination is not a cognitive relation; it deprives us of our concepts and so leaves us powerless to grasp what we see. It is our seeing that is grasped and held; neutralized. Fascination induces an essential solitude; it is ‘solitude’s gaze’.”3

When describing fascination leading to ‘solitude’s gaze,’ Bruns introduces a vital component of Blanchot’s thought which at first might appear quite strange: “To enter into this gaze is to enter into the neutral, impersonal space of the il y a.”4 So far, if you haven’t come across il y a before, it might seem a little bit too poetic in terms of being a vital component of thought, but then again the translation of ‘there is’ or ‘there are’ doesn’t really do it justice. So, bring on more poetics, I say, and let us bathe in the moonlight, surrounded by gestures, glimpses and ghouls. Well maybe not ghouls, but certainly not goats, giblets or gastronomes, all of which are far too prosaic for the likes of Blanchot. Instead, as Bruns leads us forward we get a beautifully haunting description of il y a as “the interminable, incessant night of insomnia, a night of pure vigilance without anticipation or release, a night that persists through the day.”5


This haunting “impersonal space” of the il y a, as well as being Blanchot’s muse, is also forever related to the thoughts and writings of Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher greatly interested in aesthetic experience. And for us, it actually makes more sense to investigate the il y a through Levinas’ writings, which attempt to present a holistic account of the impact felt by its presence, rather than through Blanchot’s more allusive, literary and possibly slightly morbid work. Poetics has its place, but only up to a point.

So, Levinas, then, what does he bring to the party that promises to be more useful than a dead body and poetics?

Rather than seeking to further the phenomenological pursuits of his predecessors and contemporaries, what Levinas sought was beyond phenomenology and led to the postulation of the il y a which, as Blanchot signified, was existence without being: a presence.


For those new to phenomenology, it is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. While we are about it we might as well do ontology as well. Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality. Hold on to these, they are useful in terms of defining what Levinas wasn’t interested in.

Briefly, so we can get a general sense of the direction we are headed, Levinas determined to replace “Heideggerian fundamental ontology with a fundamental ethics,”6 according to Bruns. The basic outcome of which is that humans rather than Heideggerian notions of Being are prioritised and one is no longer merely one cog in that machine.

Now, without going too far into specifics, but hopefully just enough to get the mental juices flowing in the right directions there are some really cool parts to Levinas’ philosophy. For example, Levinasian ethics allows space, as Silvia Benso describes, “where a meaningful intersubjective relation with the other can happen” to the extent that, unlike a philosophy based on fundamental ontology, the other can “be the source of its own signification.”7 To put this in a different outfit, Levinasian ethics addresses the problem of intersubjectivity by dissolving it.


The problem of intersubjectivity being that philosophical dead-end trap first thought of by René Descartes in the 17th century and then taken up by a whole raft of philosophers, of whom I’d love to say they should have known better, but that would probably be too harsh.

In a nutshell, the problem of intersubjectivity is how can I really know that you, my friend and loyal companion sitting opposite as we travel in cattle class from London to Edinburgh, are not just a figment of my imagination and are in fact your own person, your own subject. The issue being that from a position where one starts, as Descartes did, with oneself as the subject of all one’s experiences and thoughts, one can never actually prove that the whole bleedin’ world isn’t a phantom caused by eating too much cheese… Well, something like that, but possibly with more emphasis on mental activity within the subject and that sort of thing rather than cheese. Oh, ok, if you really want the proper terminology. Traditional phenomenological theory derives an alter ego from one’s prior knowledge and as such this alter ego, or other, is derived from the originating subject and not independently from itself or by itself. Everything in traditional phenomenology, which started with Descartes and went right up to Edmund Husserl (incidentally, Husserl was Levinas’ lecturer and a fine philosopher in his own right), starts and stays with the subject and can’t really get beyond that invention.

Trapped mind.fw

Now, Levinas, instead, saw the ‘other’ not as an alter ego derived from studying oneself, but as a person to be regarded as being the “source of its own signification”: an alterity. Odd word, alterity, it doesn’t come up much in day-to-day chitchat. It roughly means otherness or if we consult an online dictionary it is described as “the quality or state of being radically alien to the conscious self or a particular cultural orientation.”8 In a beautiful piece of philosophic irony, Alphonso Lingis, in his ‘Translator’s Introduction’ to Levinas’ Otherwise Than Being describes ‘alterity’ as that which “comes to me from without, and comes by exceeding my capacities – like the idea of infinity in Descartes, which is put into me, which I could not have accounted for out of myself.”9 Descartes, it appears, can still shine a light even from within the great blight shadow he cast over philosophic enquiry. The important point to grasp, of course, is that Descartes in annoying and Levinas is great. See easy. Oh, ok, correct terminology time again. Levinas dissolves the problem of intersubjectivity by regarding the other, and also oneself, in a very different manner to those who taught him. Levinas sees the other from an ethical stance as opposed to a phenomenological or ontologically driven one.

Nice chap.fw

However, for us to comprehend the full impact of an alterity being the “source of its own signification” we need to start from the beginning with Levinas’ thoughts on the il y a.

In order to understand Levinas and his association with the il y a, it is first necessary to understand, with a little more depth, how his thought relates to traditional philosophical thinking. In his foreword to Existence and Existents, Robert Bernasconi suggests a starting point in Heideggerian terms: “Levinas wanted to show that there is existence without existents,”10 which means Being without beings, something Heidegger would have never conceded. So, for Levinas to achieve this rather impossible looking task, he needed to demonstrate that Being, or existence, was present when beings, or existents, were absent, a task that Heidegger would have probably haughtily laughed at if Levinas were to proceed from a ontologically and phenomenologically point of view. Levinas, though, chose a different track.

In the knowledge that he would then have to convince those trained in these disciplines to accept his philosophical revolution, Levinas realised he needed a different starting point. The solution he came up with, consistent with his whole project, didn’t set out to argue proofs with evidence of his ideas, but rather he posed an alternative mode of thinking that appealed to a different aspect within ourselves. He took as his start the peculiar phenomenon of darkness:

Dark Forest.fw

“When the forms of things are dissolved in the night, the darkness of the night, which is neither an object nor the quality of an object, invades like a presence. In the night, where we are riveted to it, we are not dealing with anything. But this nothing is not that of pure nothingness. There is no longer this or that; there is not ‘something.’ But this universal absence is in its turn a presence, an absolutely unavoidable presence… There is is an impersonal form, like in it rains, or it is warm. Its anonymity is essential.”11

Instead of thinking that when darkness takes beings from us and we are left with nothing, Levinas insisted that we are left with “an absolutely unavoidable presence.” This is his Being without beings, his existence without existents. Such “presence”, Levinas determined as the there is – il y a.

For Levinas, to push his philosophy forward until it reached an ethical realisation, though, he had to escape the il y a and go beyond what his friend, Blanchot, was content to remain with, which ultimately was an uncertainty, a neutrality, and a state of ambiguity. Blanchot, remember was poetic and liked the mysterious staying just as it was, mysterious. Instead, Levinas needed to resolve the ambiguity and put flesh on it in order to realise his ethical project. With such resolution, however, came the movement whereby “the neutral is determined,”12 and a critical juncture formed between Blanchot and Levinas. A juncture that came to be because, according to Jacques Derrida, “within the expectation of expectation… Levinas has begun to hear a response.”13


Both Blanchot and Levinas hear a cry from the wilderness and dark of night as they sit in their log cabin drinking cocoa and toasting marshmallows by the fire. Blanchot continues to rock in his rustic and charmingly provincial rocking chair nodding and making genial soft moans to indicate that he has head the cry. Levinas, though, is out of his non-rocking chair, grabbing his coat and heading for the door to see if the owner of the cry needs help because he hears the call of another human where his friend only hears the sound of the night.


Now, for clarity going forwards, we shall have to give the word ‘other’ a capital letter because as Blanchot believes, and stakes his money on, it doesn’t necessarily mean another person, which would simply be an ‘other’. Instead, the ‘Other’, as Bruns has stated, is always “another human being”14 when starting from Levinas’ position which, as we know, is determined to steer clear of traditional philosophical thinking. However, the Other is also, as we’ve seen, an alterity. According to David Jopling such an alterity means that the Other “is not primarily an object (or subject) to be understood, rendered transparent, or totalised.”15

Ok, so this is new and quite important within Levinas’ philosophy. Briefly, when one totalises something one is essentially sucking all independence out of it by creating a narrative that becomes all too encompassing. A literary example is Sartre’s biography of Jean Genet, Saint Genet, which apparently so totalized Genet that he felt unable to write anything himself for the next five years. One can also totalise though just by examining something in one’s life, such as an eggcup, i.e., a thing, an object. When an object is totalised, though, there is no real problem because an eggcup doesn’t mind if someone describes it in detail and professes to have captured its every facet. The problem occurs, as with Sartre’s biography, when one person starts to assess and believe they grasped another. No one likes to hear that another person has understood everything there is to know about them. It’s just not decent and it’s bloody irritating.


So, the Other, we are beginning to understand, should not to be approached from an ontological or phenomenological position of enquiry, which leads to totalising outcomes, because the Other, in its otherness, is actually beyond our understanding in these forms. If we can resist the urge to think ontologically or phenomenologically, then, we get to a point of radical separation. The Other becomes separated from the rest of the world that we have constructed around us, in that we “cannot place the other in our own light, and incorporate the other into our own story,”16 as yet another Levinasian, Steven Gans, recognises. If we do incorporate the other then we destroy “the possibility of meeting in the genuine sense.”17 Hence, if we want to have a “genuine” meeting, then we must respect the alterity of the Other.

Once again Bruns can aid our understanding:

“The ethical relation – the encounter with the other – is a movement towards the stranger, that is, towards the non-identical, rather than a movement of recognition in which I take the other into my world, gathering up the other as a component of my self-possession or as part of my domestication or familiarization of my world. Indeed, it is not too much to say that for Levinas the dispossession of the self is a condition of the ethical as such.”18


The idea of a dispossessed self being a condition of the ethical, therefore transposes onto the notion of respect for the Other’s alterity, and also allows a glimpse into how Levinas believed a self could be constructed outside of ontological and phenomenological thinking. Such a dispossession of the self occurs at the appearance of the Other and is always in what Levinas termed the ‘Face.’ However, we must wait until next time for the ‘Face’ and what Levinas means by it.


  1. Bruns, G. ‘On the Coherence of Hermeneutics and Ethics: An Essay on Gadamer and Levinas,’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions: Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics. Edited by Bruce Krajewski, University of California Press, 2004, 35-36.
  2. Bruns, G. Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2005, 66.
  3. Ibid., 60.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 59.
  6. Bruns, G. ‘On the Coherence of Hermeneutics and Ethics: An Essay on Gadamer and Levinas,’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions: Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics. Edited by Bruce Krajewski, University of California Press, 2004, 32.
  7. Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, xxvii.
  8. Merriam-Webster, [viewed on 20 Jan 2018]. Available from: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/alterity
  9. Lingis, A. ‘Translator’s Introduction,’ included in Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being, Or Beyond Essence, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1999, xxiii.
  10. Bernasconi, R. ‘Foreword’ included in Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2001, xi.
  11. Levinas, E. Existence and Existents. Translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 2001, 52-53.
  12. Derrida, J. ‘Violence and Metaphysics,’ reproduced in Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass, Routledge, London, 2002, 128.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Bruns, G. ‘The concept of art and poetry in Emmanuel Levinas’ writings’ included in The Cambridge Companion to Levinas. Edited by Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi, Cambridge University Press, 2003, 226-227.
  15. Jopling, D. ‘Levinas, Sartre, and Understanding the Other.The Journal of British Society for Phenomenology, October 1993, vol. 24, no. 3, 226.
  16. Gans, S. ‘Levinas and Pontalis: Meeting the Other as in a Dream’ included in The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other. Edited by Robert Bernasconi and David Wood, Routledge, 1988, 86.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Bruns, G. ‘On the Coherence of Hermeneutics and Ethics: An Essay on Gadamer and Levinas,’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions: Reconsidering Philosophical Hermeneutics. Edited by Bruce Krajewski, University of California Press, 2004, 35-36.

22. Let There Be Rock


Click, click, then bass drums, bass and guitars erupt into a full-blown urgent demand that leaves no doubt as to their intent or room for ignoring their presence. The start of Let There Be Rock is one of the most instantaneous in any genre of music. It is a roller coaster with no slow uphill climb to prepare you for what is about to happen. Wherever you are, you are immediately catapulted into seemingly rhythmic gunfire.

Originally I thought I would write something for this post on atonal music and for a while I thought I would go for John Cage’s 4’33’’. For those as fresh to atonal music as I was a few weeks ago it is pronounced ‘Four minutes, thirty-three seconds’ and that is the length of the performance. Its distinguishing feature is that all the instruments are instructed by the composer not to play at all. It is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of total silence. The difficulty I had with this piece though was that I had not personally ever got to the point of committing to a relationship with it, as rewarding as it might be. Because of this lack of relationship I realised that I had to choose a work that I have committed to absolutely. Waterfall by Arshile Gorky was one such possibility because I always looked forward to catching up with my old ‘friend’ when visiting Tate Modern. The green especially always lifts me up and makes me feel refreshed.


Instead, though, there is a much better, if less erudite, example that I want to share with you. In the not so dark recesses of my youth I had a penchant for loud thumping rock music, as performed by the likes of Motörhead, Iron Maiden, Rainbow, Deep Purple and most of all AC/DC or as antipodeans like to call them, ‘Acker-Dacker’. Their rhythm seemed to resonate with my own hyperactive nature. There was a solid and infectious pulse to all their songs that pulled at something very primitive within me. At the same time their consistency of chord progression and melodic structure, which was worlds away from trying to be the next new vogue, channelled a teenage sense of defiance to the norms of society and the screaming yelps of the fashionable. (Interestingly, their consistency is very nearly being heralded as a major achievement when it used to be regarded as utterly unimaginative). At the time, theirs was a decidedly unpopular path and that suited me perfectly.

Angus and Malcolm.fw

However, at the age the sixteen a problem arose and a choice needed to be made. The problem was that, apparently, there are such things as lyrics and these are quite important to most teenagers. Although, I have to say at the time I was somewhat oblivious to the whole concept. So when Bon Scott sang Problem Child I quite possibly wasn’t aware of the intellectual vacuum within with he crafted his particular trade and thought that his vocal noises were really just another kind of instrument. The question of his highbrow lyrical status just wasn’t an issue. Nonetheless, once the matter was pointed out to me that lines such as:

“Cop this.
I’m hot and when I’m not,
I’m cold as ice.
Ya get out my way.
Just step aside,
Or pay the price.”1

Bon Scott.fw

were not really as productive as they might be, I had to agree, especially when I listened to my friends suggested alternatives, such as Elvis Costello‘s version of Jerry Chesnut’s Good Year For The Roses:

“I can hardly bear the sight of lipstick,
On the cigarettes there in the ashtray,
Lyin’ cold the way you left ’em,
But at least your lips caressed them while you packed.
Or the lip-print on a half-filled cup of coffee,
That you poured and didn’t drink,
But at least you thought you wanted it,
That’s so much more than I can say for me.”2

Good Year For The Roses.fw

So, the choice I had to make was whether I would broaden my horizons and look beyond AC/DC for lyrical sustenance, not that that was why I liked them, but my friends obviously had a point. If I wanted to foster and nurture my intellectual capacity outside the classroom with the teenagers go-to educational medium of choice – some form of popular music – then I could probably do better than AC/DC and my friends seem to know a good few bands that could help. Elvis Costello was beefed up with side orders of The Clash, The Who and The Small Faces, all of whom fulfilled the lyrical quotient and also, importantly, had loud guitars and one of them even had Keith Moon!

Keith Moon.fw

For the next twenty years the AC/DC albums were packed up into the loft as my record collection grew without them, but with such diverse ‘new’ talent as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix, among other 1960s icons. Preceding the 1960s, I listened to blues from Robert Johnson, Leadbelly and Howling Wolf. As for post-1970s, Madness, The Specials and Dexy’s Midnight Runners made a welcome return from my pre-AC/DC days. It would take a long while, though, for any contemporary era to stake its claim in my collection. However, Nirvana managed to break the deadlock to remind me and everyone else just how amazing guitar, bass and drums could be after what felt like an eternity of keyboard-flavoured dross. Then in the late 1990s The White Stripes seemed to rekindle something from the wreckage following the explosion of The Pixies. My friends’ intervention, it seemed, had worked and I had developed a thirst for new horizons.

The White Stripes.fw

However, something felt like it was missing and was calling me from the loft.

As much as I relished and still do delight in listening to my musical discoveries, theirs is a thrill, which only really occurred from a small number of artists and songs, that never got close to the one that AC/DC used to give. For twenty years I tried consciously to broaden my interests and lay-off the base and unfortunately, at times, crass output from the brothers Young and their compadres Scott and Johnson. However, something seemed to be missing in Hendrix et al that was so plentiful in the space carved out by AC/DC. Malcolm’s chopping staccato riffs, Bon’s leering bawl, Cliff and Phil’s driving tempo and rhythm, and Angus’ running across the whole so flawlessly gave/gives me such energy that I felt/feel almost entranced, or even possessed, by their ‘High Voltage Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

Bon and Angus.fw

Uneasily at first, like a guilty addict that slips off the wagon, I began to surreptitiously listen to an album from the loft. Although, they weren’t actually from the loft, because albums had been superseded, instead I bought a CD or two. Slowly, slowly, as if trying to convince myself that I was in control of a long passed craving and was only listening to these old songs out of curiosity, I started to go back into the world of AC/DC. I soon discovered that there were a few songs and albums that I just couldn’t get on board with, due to the lyrics being stuffed with asinine innuendo or the music being second rate in my opinion. However, after a while, little by little, I admitted to myself that I had brought AC/DC completely back into my life once more and found myself with a playlist of sixty-six tracks covering around fifty-seven songs (due to nine being reproduced on a live album). Forty-four were from the Bon Scott era and thirteen from the Brian Johnson years. In those six first years with Bon, from 1974 – 1979, the band created a template of sheer excitement that continued onwards to a large extent in the first three years with Brian but then waned away for me. However, having fifty-seven songs in any bands roll call, that can be said to send adrenaline coursing through someone’s veins, is surely an enormous achievement.

Angus Young.fw

As well as recapturing my lost connection to these musical energy injections, tentatively at first, I began to realise that something else was occurring. As the guilt subsided a new feeling replaced it. I recognised that I was coming to terms with my affinity for the music of AC/DC and that I wasn’t embarrassed or disappointed with myself anymore. Instead, I started to feel that I was being honest with myself and that their music meant a great deal to me, which was actually far more important than any snobbish attitudes that I had built up, possibly reluctantly, over the past twenty or thirty years. To find an artist, musician, performer or poet with whom one feels that they shine a light into one’s self is an incredibly important connection. However, to rediscover such a connection after a considerable period of time has lapsed demonstrates that there must be a personal value to that connection that has the hallmarks of a relationship. I now know that there is certainly something like a relationship that exists between certain AC/DC songs and me. If I were to go deaf and never hear those songs again it would feel like a loss of a relationship with a dear friend, because just like our friends can nourish and enrich our lives so too has AC/DC nourished and enriched my life.

As I write these words, I recognise the difficulty that many of you will have in relating to my views on AC/DC because they sound so uncultivated, boring, repetitive and loud. Two thoughts spring to mind, though. The first is easy. I accept that one person’s AC/DC is another person’s Robert Plant, Ultravox or Boy George and so should you. Everything I say about AC/DC, I hope, is transferrable to you with your favourite artist or band. So, please replace AC/DC with Rita Ora, Iggy Azalea or Jason Derulo, as you see fit. The second thought is that maybe I need to explain just what happens when I listen to an AC/DC song.

Rita Ora.fw

Out of the fifty-seven tracks there are several that ignite a unique thrill within me. High Voltage and Problem Child from the off grip my attention as much as sharp slap about the face, Girls Got Rhythm and Get It Hot find their groove from the outset and bounce through the verse chorus structure with bold and beautiful thumps, riffs and hollers. The choice narrows to a top four of once-heard-never-forgotten songs that I shall hear and keep in my blood until, as they say in rock ‘n’ roll speak, the day I die.

Shoot To Thrill has all hallmarks of a well-crafted AC/DC composition, with staccato riffs, screaming lyrics (which are best not intellectually engaged with), and a solid groove courtesy of Phil on drums and Cliff on Bass. Then after a couple verses and choruses and Angus’ instantly recognisable lead work, the instruments par back to leave just Phil’s toms and Angus’ bright distinct rhythmic midrange pattern. A few bars later Malcolm joins in with a perfectly timed five note run into dynamic power chords that release the rest of the band to join in and progressively get louder and louder. Angus and Brian alternate in working up the scale to reach a plateau of sound that feels euphoric after the build-up which has been carefully laid out and crafted beforehand. It really is something quite special in their canon.

AC-DC Cannon.fw

If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It) similarly has the AC/DC pedigree of getting off to an impressive start with a solid riff and punchy delivery from Bon before giving two choruses in under two and a half minutes to release Angus’s florid lead-work and then some majestic drumming from Phil that demonstrates how the band work together to perform a song with everyone contributing to whole rather than getting lost in their own egos. Riff Raff erupts from Angus’ roughly cut lead to Cliff and Malcolm’s escalating rhythm to a held power chord that provides a stage for Angus and Malcolm to perform a heart-racing double guitar riff. The whole song is a virtuoso performance piece that shows just how unique and in sync the brothers are with each other but also with the rest of the band. Perfect timing happens with every crash and smash of Phil’s cymbals and drums and all three string-players. As with Shoot To Thrill, after the second chorus, space is cleared for a crescendo to emerge. Malcolm holds a power chord whilst Cliff, an unsung hero, as all bass players are, keeps the groove rumbling so that Bon and Angus can work up the excitement to the last chorus.

Let There Be Rock.fw

The work that I really want to focus on though, because it never fails to seize me immediately is the eponymous track on their 1977 album Let There Be Rock. Along with Whole Lotta Rosie, which had Angus’ final solo recorded in Albert Studios replete with smoking speakers as the producers shouted “keep playing,”3 Let There Be Rock is an AC/DC standard bearer that showcases all that is best, unique and utterly irreplaceable in their music. Other songs such as Led Zeppelin’s Rock And Roll might come close with Bonham and Jones’ obvious enthusiasm for the song coming across. But there is something in Plant and Page’s performance’s that strikes me as half-hearted and not fully committed. They play because they can, they are consummate musicians and can turn their hand to most genres, key and time signatures. Where Led Zeppelin might be masters of all they want to be AC/DC will never be seen in such illustrious light. However, AC/DC are masters of themselves and their style. From the off they have known where their expertise lies and have stuck with it without feeling the need to conquer new territories. Let There Be Rock strikes this note of authenticity for me and is the vanguard of what they have to offer anyone who listens to them. It is simple, rhythmic and primitive music but so beautifully paired down and honed that one can leave everything else behind and dive into the raucous sound and pounding beat to be carried away every time from ones daily grind into something that excites and electrifies one’s senses, bringing a sense of strength and vitality, akin to adrenaline when ready to take flight or fight.

Let There Be Rock Album.fw

Click, click, then bass drums, bass and guitars erupt into a full-blown urgent demand that leaves no doubt as to their intent or room for ignoring their presence. The start of Let There Be Rock is one of the most instantaneous in any genre of music. It is a roller coaster with no slow uphill climb to prepare you for what is about to happen. Wherever you are, you are immediately catapulted into seemingly rhythmic gunfire. With no apparent melody, only fast solid pounding, the first twenty seconds manages to repeat it’s four bar pattern sonic fireworks four times before the guitars drop out completely to reveal Bon Scott’s pseudo-biblical chant about the birth of rock layered on the top of precision drum and bass timings that continue the pace and march they first took with the guitars. For a band apparently so dominated by guitars there are forty seconds without a single note or chord struck by Malcolm or Angus. However, such a large proportion of guitar silence works to build anticipation for when they come back in after their explosive first entrance. Malcolm emerges first with a rhythmic two-chord strike pattern followed by Angus hammer sliding notes into a firmly picked out lead arrangement that respects the twelve bar blues structure to end with a couple of held high notes before the stomp of the entrance bars get repeated and Bon gets to deliver the second verse and chorus. By this point the groove of the band is unquestioned and Angus plays a bouncing counter-rhythm into the high notes once more to enable the now understood eruption sequence followed by the third verse and chorus. From here on in Angus works threads around his brother’s riffs and the bands rhythm until Malcolm smooths the riffs into strums producing a wall of sound to release the finale of ever escalating notes from Angus that culminate in a characteristic plateau of energy that gets pared down in a series of unison strikes from cymbals, and guitars to announce coming of the end. A final high-end flourish, rumble and thrash breaks to leave a slide from Angus and then a double strike completes the experience just undergone. Calling it a song or track at this point feels like such an inaccurate understatement.

Live at River Plate 2009 alt.fw

For me, Let There Be Rock sets off an irrepressible force of nature within my body that makes me feel alive like almost no other feeling one can experience. It nourishes and lifts just as a friend can do when excited by something you have to say to them as they eagerly wait upon your every word. Or, to be more physical it gives similar euphoric sensations as can be achieved through exercise, so I am now told but also dimly remember. To know that I can always get this lift from AC/DC is something that I now understand I can commit to without shame because it beats throughout my being and blows out cobwebs as it energises and awakes me from my daily stupor.

It appears, then, that I have re-learned to trust AC/DC and by so doing have recaptured something of myself in the process. I guess this makes me a Gadamerian and an unusual Cavellian – there can’t be many who have worked through “the burden of modernism”4 to find themselves embracing AC/DC, I suspect!

Flight Case.fw


  1. AC/DC, Problem Child, Young, Young & Scott, Let There Be Rock, Albert Productions, 1977.
  2. Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Good Year For The Roses, Jerry Chesnut, Almost Blue, F-Beat, 1981.
  3. Brown, J. AC/DC: In the Studio, John Blake, 2013, 32.
  4. Cavell, S. ‘Music Discomposed’ included in Must we mean what we say?, Cambridge University Press, 1976, 187.

21. Committing to a Relationship


To stand, or sit, aloof and watch the world pass by constantly without ever reaching out our hand to try and connect leaves us in an unworldly position. It is the ghost of our selves that stands still in the midst of the tumult and watches, detached in eye and detached in body, as the struggles and joys of our fellow passengers float across the protective screen we have blown up around ourselves.

Let’s kick off with a quick flash-back to a previous post.

If you remember Gadamer’s thoughts on the Kierkegaardian model of contemporaneity, concerning Christ’s redemptive act, and the sway it holds over us with its sheer presence in our lives, you’ll find Gerald Bruns’ recapitulation sharp, precise and to the point. If you don’t remember or haven’t discovered that post you might want to check out No. 17. But let us not meander unnecessarily any further, here is Bruns’ summary:

“In Gadamer’s aesthetics the event of the work of art is not a museum event in which we simply gape at the thing, or regard it knowingly from a disinterested standpoint; it is an event in which the work claims a place in the world we inhabit – indeed, it is right to say that the work claims a piece of us and insists on belonging to our lives.”1

Painting Coming Alive.fw

This “claim” or insistence on being part of our lives, Bruns is quick to address, which is especially useful at this confusing time. Confusing, as you might recall, because we have been transported across a sea of ideas to alight in an exotic land that we didn’t seem originally set our compass for. The confusion being that we thought we were going to learn about the ethics of being with others and instead Gadamer seems to have taught us about art. Bruns’ insight, which blows away the mists of confusion, comes because he can see that such a “claim” does not just emanate from the work towards the spectator. Instead, the consummation of one’s understanding of Gadamer’s oeuvre happens when one realises that the real moment of fruition comes from reciprocation, i.e. when the spectator accepts the “claim”. Which, when it occurs, means that the spectator enters into a relationship with the work: a relationship being a two-way street with both parties giving to each other.


As Bruns goes on to state:

“The work is not simply a cultural product available for consumption in the marketplace of the art world that one can pick up or not as one chooses. Nor is it simply a philosophical problem of aesthetics that one can work out through conceptualisation and theory.”2

The claim of the artwork involves us, and addresses us, so that we become engaged at a level beyond the aesthetic or philosophically detached. The claim of the work, Bruns tries to explain, is personal to the extent that it addresses us “as a Thou, that is, as an Other whose approach to us is transcendent in the way that Emmanuel Levinas uses the term.”3

Perhaps it would be best to make intelligible Bruns’ explanation, which appears to drift towards metaphysical concepts. The easiest way to unpack Bruns’ use of “transcendent”, as employed by Levinas, is for us to know that Levinas was completely absorbed by the need to get beyond the self. The self, for Levinas, had taken up too much territory in philosophy and it was something he determined we should put in its proper place. If we give Levinas some latitude here and room to manoeuvre, we can hopefully begin to understand that his use of “transcendent” denoted that which exists beyond the self and also that which can be said to be whether we exist or not. The point being that any such thing which is termed “transcendent” cannot be traced back, in any manner, to our self as its creator. The work of art or person, with which we are trying to have a relationship, is completely unreliant upon our existence for its own existence – this is what Levinas, and in turn Bruns, meant by transcendence. Consequently, we should now be able to understand the term “transcendent” as that which refers to something other than ourselves: an ‘Other’, to give it its correct philosophical grammar. So, if we are following Bruns and Levinas attentively, we should also be able to see that we are coming to an understanding of Gadamer’s work that reveals our true quest to be one that seeks a personal relationship.


Now, at this stage, it is possibly prudent to stay with art rather than jump too far into Levinas’ intriguing promise of other people. Trust me, we will go there, but not before we have finished learning from Gadamer. Levinas is next, so just be patient a little while longer and it will all make sense.

So, a personal relationship with an artwork is to be sought. Ok, what does that look like and where can I buy one, right? Well, let’s follow Bruns and see if he can show us.

In Music Discomposed, Stanley Cavell set himself the task of grappling with the problem of avant-garde composition in the 1960s where, according to Bruns, “what young composers are trying to compose proves unintelligible not only to audiences but also to one’s fellow composers, so that no one can say who legitimately belongs to the music world and who does not.”4 Cavell named this problem “the burden of modernism”5 and stated that if there is uncertainty within the music world as to who is composer or not, then it should not be considered remarkable “that we outsiders do not know”6 either. The rationale for such a realisation being that if all criteria for judging whether something counts as music, let alone good or otherwise, has been stripped away in the process of composition, then one can no longer judge.

Music Confused alt2.fw

Continuing on from this critical impasse, if one is not Cavell, could appear impossible because the road seems to vanish along with the traditional elements of composition. Cavell, however, understood that if all criteria, in terms of reason and aesthetics, are removed then the one who is left willing to listen to these compositions must listen not with an aesthetic ear but with an ethical one.

The spectator can no longer rely upon aesthetics, because these values have been ripped asunder, and they must now turn to that most uncertain of governing principles: trust. This shift happens, as Cavell stated, because

“The possibility of fraudulence, and the experience of fraudulence, is endemic [to] the experience of contemporary music [so] that it’s full impact, even its immediate relevance, depends upon a willingness to trust the object, knowing that time spent with its difficulties may be betrayed.”7

Rutles not the Beatles.fw

Consequently, by only having recourse to trust, in that that the art work might be rewarding and maybe truthful, the spectator has to assume responsibility for their own experience and enter into the relationship as a genuine participant. No longer will the experience be given by the artwork alone, and no longer will the spectator be able to hover above the work observing its aesthetic charms. The “burden of modernism” grounds the spectator in an ethical relationship with the work where intimacy, and not critical authority, is the only potential avenue to achieving understanding. Of course, the relationship when based on trust and intimacy, rather than critical observation or aesthetic consciousness, turns upon our treating the art work, as Cavell wrote, “in ways normally reserved for treating persons.”8 The import of this realisation rests upon the word ‘treating’ because, as Bruns reminds us, “the work is not a person or any sort of subjective communication. The point is rather how we are with the work.”9 If we treat the work in ways ‘normally reserved’ for other persons then it is our attitude, our intention, our responsibility as spectators that has altered, not the work of art itself, because we own how we treat it.

The Beatles.fw

Does such a departure from our presumed destination now make sense? Have we not learned something vital by the example of art in how we need to approach other people? The over-riding lesson of Gadamer’s aesthetic manoeuvres is to steer us away from the disinterested, self-involved or critical individuals of old and make us realise that we are the owners of our own experiences and that artworks or other people are not there to serve our pleasures by being observed from a ‘god’s eye’ position, they are there to be engaged with, given to, and respected. We need to give our time, effort, and trust: a quite considerable requirement, which borders upon necessity if we want to have any genuinely new experiences. Just as the artist invested in their work, so we as the audience need equally to invest. And, this of course applies directly to our encounters with other people, because an investment is needed to acknowledge their existence, worth, and value to us. Just because there are over seven billion people on the planet (with nine years left until we reach eight billion!), doesn’t mean that we should adopt an arrogant attitude of ‘who cares’ regarding the man in the street asking us for spare change. That man’s relevance and personal impact can only be restricted by our self-involved and pre-occupied ignorance.

We need to learn how to play with one another, not as toys, but as Gadamer outlined by eliminating the attitude that experiences should be something we have and opening ourselves up to experiences as something we undergo. Openness to the other, whether it is to art or to another person, is our goal because we now know that openness will yield growth by enhancing the wealth of our experiences. However, achieving openness is also our challenge because there are so many obstacles to overcome, from memory and desire, as highlighted by Wilfred Bion, to the limits we place on our personal horizons and the trust issues we face daily regarding new people, artworks and opportunities as shown by Gadamer. We have to make the effort, though, because the individual and social consequences of not doing so bring us to the brink of moral bankruptcy and oblivion.


To stand, or sit, aloof and watch the world pass by constantly without ever reaching out our hand to try and connect leaves us in an unworldly position. It is the ghost of our selves that stands still in the midst of the tumult and watches, detached in eye and detached in body, as the struggles and joys of our fellow passengers float across the protective screen we have blown up around ourselves.

Definitions of being human start with discussions around being members of the primate genus Homo, the species Homo Sapiens, and that we can be distinguished from other apes by walking upright, having a large brain and the capacity for speech. Tool use, socialising and the formation of language and symbol swiftly follow when we consider how we humans can be defined. And, then there is the relatively short period of time, from an evolutionary point of view, that we have inhabited the earth; two hundred thousand years, with the last twelve thousand being particularly intense as we developed rudimentary agriculture, cave drawings, horse hunting, textiles and gourd containers for liquids and food. Our journey through those twelve thousand years, as we know, is a long list of exponential advancement in all fields of human endeavour from transport to communications, architecture to philosophy. The list is infinite. However, are we better then our ancient ancestors? Are we better at spending time with each other and absorbing lessons from each other? Or, do we often stand aloof in a self-protective bubble that just wants to act as demi-god observing disinterestedly?

Person in Bubble.fw

We undoubtedly know far more than our ancestors did those twelve thousand years past, but one thing they automatically did that we are most certainly struggling with today is the ability to connect with each other, our environment and the things we encounter on a daily basis. There is a distinct loss of innocence, humility and curiosity, as we keep hidden behind our façades of disinterested or critical self-serving, but more importantly self-limiting, knowledge bases. We think we know what needs to be known and what we want. The small amount of learning that we have crammed into our miniscule life-spans we believe is sufficient, nay immense, to the extent that we suffer from the delusion of believing that we are masters of our surroundings and in control of any new piece of information that can set up home in our minds. Such arrogance and ignorance, though, is not how genuine learning and growth works. It is how one can stagnant and absorb all the trite outpourings from a billion posts on Facebook and the key messages that politicians and advertisers want us to imbibe.

Instead, real learning and growth happens when we commit to having a relationship with an author, with an artwork, with another human being, even if that physical relationship is only a few seconds long because if we enter into it with commitment it can stay with us for years. We need to stop being aloof and watching disinterestedly or critically. We need to jump in with both feet and trust, as Cavell states, to that or whom which we stand before and by so doing we can discover some of our almost lost humanity. One of the most defining aspects of being human, surely, is the ability and desire to form relationships.

It is in the giving of time and thought to something beyond ourselves which Gadamer knew could give us back ourselves, because each artwork or person carries with them the possibility to carve out space within us for new thoughts and feelings to emerge. This is because we are never finite or finished, as human individuals. Ours is a life to be continually shaped by experiences undergone. Otherwise ours is the pure and banal existence of a once beautiful but now quite deceased oak tree that continues to stand and loom across the same field it’s life once protected. We need to relate to the world around us and each other so that we can actually live, rather than existing as an ethereal spirit that occupies space but is, to all intents and purposes, hollow, pointless and dead.

Dead Oak Tree.fw


  1. Bruns, G. ‘The Hermeneutical Anarchist: Phronesis, Rhetoric, and the Experience of Art’ included in Gadamer’s Century: Essays in Honour of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Edited by Jeff Malpas, Ulrich Arnswald, and Jens Kertscher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2002, 65.
  2. Ibid., 68.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid. 69.
  5. Cavell, S. ‘Music Discomposed’ included in Must we mean what we say?, Cambridge University Press, 1976, 187.
  6. Ibid. 188.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 189.
  9. Bruns, G. ‘The Hermeneutical Anarchist: Phronesis, Rhetoric, and the Experience of Art’ included in Gadamer’s Century: Essays in Honour of Hans-Georg Gadamer. Edited by Jeff Malpas, Ulrich Arnswald, and Jens Kertscher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2002, 70.

20. In Camera


Those with closed minds who don’t want to examine their lives in order that they might grow are in everything, but rigor mortis, dead.

So far when attempting to illustrate Gadamer’s ideas I have provided positive examples of what I believe him to mean. In this post, however, I’m going to do the opposite and provide a negative example. The literary example I have chosen exhibits the exact opposite of openness and it also demonstrates what happens when anticipation of meaning and one’s self-involved anxieties ride rough-shod over our lives. Although, in this case, ‘lives’ is not quite le mot juste.

In 1944, a year after he published his magnum opus Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a play titled Huis Clos, which gets translated as either No Exit or In Camera, where In Camera refers to discussions that take place behind closed doors. The play depicts three new arrivals as they begin their stint in Hell. Joseph Garcin, a Rio journalist who ran a pacifist newspaper, arrives first, with the room’s valet, into the second empire inspired decor drawing room. The bourgeois infused room has the bare minimum of furniture, a mantelpiece with a heavy bronze ornament and a paper-knife on top, and three sofas of different colours. The only other items mentioned are the door, a bell-push and the absence of any looking glasses or mirrors.


Inez Serrano is the next to be brought to the room and she quickly displays a tetchy character that is quick to dismiss Garcin’s enquiry as to her name and also his request that they be “extremely courteous to each other” by stating tersely “I’m not polite.”1 She even describes his mouth as grotesque. Estelle Rigault is the last to be brought to the room. She is bundle of opinions regarding the “hideous”2 sofas that clash with her clothes. Inez interrupts Garcin’s attempt to introduce himself to Estelle by stepping in front of him and announcing her name and that she believes Estelle to be “very pretty” and that it is pity that they don’t have “some flowers to welcome”3 Estelle with.

Even at this early stage in the plays development the above vignettes already illustrate some of the difficulties that the three individuals will never surmount. Garcin’s yearning for courtesy sets the tone for his continually frustrated desire that some kind of peace might be achieved in his afterlife. Inez’s instant dislike/disgust with him acts to continually provoke her into chivvying him at every turn. Whilst Estelle, as the vapid love object with her narcissistic obsession, serves as the axis that the other two pivot around as they snip back and forwards in their poisonous triangle. At this stage, though, our awareness of Garcin’s character is missing the vital component that has infected his whole being and now serves to colour completely his whole aspect: the fact that he believes himself to be a coward.


The complexities of each of the characters are brought out in front of the others as the play progresses and as they relate their own personal journeys and reasons as to why they have ended up in Hell as opposed to any other alternative. Interestingly, Sartre never bothers to even mention the obvious alternative. The unveiling only really starts to take shape, though, once Inez has pronounced “each of us will act as torturer of the two others”4 and their collective attempt to bide their time in silence is obliterated by Inez’s three verse burst of a gallows song followed by Estelle’s pent up need to see herself resulting in her asking Garcin for a mirror. Garcin’s need for peace then pops the lid on Pandora’s box when he counters Inez’s resolute assertion that they each know each other already by stating:

“You’re wrong. So long as each of us hasn’t made a clean breast of it – why they’ve damned him or her – we know nothing. Nothing that counts. You, young lady, you shall begin. Why? Tell us why. If you are frank, if we bring our spectres into the open, it may save us from disaster. So – out with it! Why?”5

From that moment, the reasons for their incarceration unfold. Garcin, the deserter, neglected his wife utterly, whilst he obsessed over his pacifism being a cover for his cowardice. Inez’s self professed cruelty caused her cousin to kill himself as she won over his wife, Florence, to become her lover. Estelle killed her illegitimate baby, causing her lover to blow his brains out, so that her appearances and lifestyle could be kept up with her husband. Then with all their secrets revealed Inez, as is her character, caustically turns to Garcin, “Well, Mr Garcin, now you have us in the nude all right. Do you understand things any better for that?”6 Garcin, in his stead timidly responds “Yes, perhaps a little better. And now suppose we start trying to help each other?”7 To which Inez, never to let her character down, spits “I don’t need help”8 and the dye is cast because as she later points out:

Inez shoutig at Garcin.fw

“Human feeling. That’s beyond my range. I’m rotten to the core… It’s no use. I’m all dried up. I can’t give and I can’t receive. How could I help you? A dead twig, ready for the burning.”9

Their situation from that moment has attained its plateau from where there will be no change. Each knows the other’s darkest secrets and with Inez’s brutal honesty in the room there can be no hiding for Garcin and his cowardice or relief for Estelle in her desire to see herself. The tortures that each feared can now begin. Even the desperate attempt that Estelle and Garcin make to become lovers fails miserably when Inez reveals Estelle’s complete disinterest in Garcin’s fixation that he needs her faith in him to relieve the burden of his cowardice. If just one person could have faith in him, he might overcome his nightmare, is the line of thinking that he sets up for himself, with Estelle blithely agreeing, when Inez shoots down the love-fest with a spurt of shrill laughter and the damning insight of her manipulative understanding: “But she doesn’t mean a word of what she says. How can you be such a simpleton? ‘Estelle, am I a coward?’ As if she cared a damn either way.”10 Estelle’s response to Garcin then just fuels the ignition Inez holds aloft: “Anyhow, I’d love you just the same, even if you were a coward. Isn’t that enough?”11 Garcin, feeling cornered, erupts “You disgust me, both of you”12 as he walks towards the door in a futile attempt to exit the room.

Photo by Roger Viollet

So, with the torture in full swing we can begin to examine just how Sartre’s play operates as a dark mirror to Gadamer’s thoughts on communication. The start, arguably, takes place with Inez proclaiming that her life was “in perfect order” and that “it tidied itself up nicely of its own accord,”13 just before the failure of their pact to remain forever silent. By stating such, Inez declares her intent to refuse introspection and the possibility of any potential insight coming from within or without: hers is a signed off and published story never to be tampered with or adjusted. Her mandate that her life should have a tied ribbon and wax seal and placed across it bleeds into their afterlife as she attempts to avert Garcin’s urge for them each to tell all about their lives. When he asserts, “I want to know whom I have to deal with”, she reposts “You know already. There’s nothing more to learn.”14

The issue of proclaimed knowledge, Gadamer’s “anticipation of meaning,”15 gushes out further as each of the three characters try to come to terms with what their revelations have put into play. For Inez there is nothing new that anyone can tell her that she didn’t already know: “Yes, I know everything… I assure you I know everything and I can’t feel sorry even for myself… I’m in a trap myself, up to the neck, and there’s nothing to be done about it.”16 Hers is a fate that has been sealed and she alone can see the utter futility of anyone trying to change that fate as far as she is concerned. Her knowledge gives her certainty and closure on her life. For Garcin, though, their shared revelations and knowledge of each give hope “Look at me, we’re naked, naked right through and I can see into your heart… I’m dried up too. But for you I can still feel pity.”17 Estelle, is different and views the sharing of knowledge through the eyes of the others. As always she views herself from without as she is seen or thinks she is seen: “You know too much about me, you know I’m rotten through and through.”18


For each, their own personal understanding of the knowledge they have tried to communicate becomes a fixed insight that they individually possess and yet cannot get across meaningfully, or otherwise, to the others. Their proclaimed knowledge and understanding has become an impenetrable barrier that the others are unable to pierce. Their thoughts have become turgid and stuck. They are each locked within their solitary and disparate cycles of thinking that spin ever onwards in their own spheres never yielding to each other or altering their axis. The eternal churn has begun as they chew ever onwards no longer able to listen as they each bear the invisible mark on their minds stamped ‘Nothing new shall enter here’ or, dare I say, ‘To thine own self be true.’

We have to remember, of course, that Inez, Garcin and Estelle are painted as deceased characters by Sartre and therefore not capable of allowing their dead minds to be flexed and tinkered with by other people (assuming, of course, that we suspend our disbelief regarding Sartre the atheist writing about an afterlife). People who are dead aren’t able to have new experiences or think new thoughts, their brains are frozen forever with the last thought they had as they exhaled their last breath. And however difficult it is for Sartre, as an atheist to get his views across, what he does achieve is a counter position to all that Gadamer was trying to show and that we should encourage in ourselves: an openness of mind towards each other.

Frozen brain alt .fw

Fortunately, we are not dead, but here is the question. If we don’t allow ourselves to be open to each other are we as good as dead? Sticking to our original thoughts when conversing with others is a sign of a strong and resolute mind. However, it can also be the sign of a mind that has ceased to develop and grow. As we know there can be many reasons why an “anticipation of meaning” might override someone else’s viewpoints, such as nervousness, stress, fight or flight symptoms and also sexual, or other, desires. The task for Gadamer is for us to allow something to be said to us and for us to tarry with those words from the other just as he also encourages us to tarry with works of art, because if we listen we might be able to go beyond ourselves and allow ourselves to grow experientially. Growth, of course, cannot take place in a dying or dead mind. The hamster’s wheel of one’s stagnant thoughts does not allow growth as Inez, Estelle and Garcin are forced to come to terms with in their shared doom.

So, by examining the opposite of Gadamer’s recommendation as carefully crafted and depicted by Sartre in his claustrophobic atmosphere of Huis Clos, we can see all too clearly the literal dead-end that we might turn into if arrogance and bloody-mindedness are allowed seats at the table of evolutionary aids to survival. Just as we need to calm our instincts when they are not required we should also acknowledge that our own self-confidence can also be an obstacle to overcome if we are pursuing Gadamer’s lead and heading towards some form of personal growth and widening of our experience and understanding of ourselves. As Socrates stated, when facing his own likely death at the hands of his accusers and jury, the unexamined life is not worth living. An eventuality which, for Socrates, came all to swiftly due to his wisdom being at odds with the majority of the jury whom it seems did not want to examine their lives and were quite content in their little hamster wheels. As Inez shouts at the end of the play “Dead, dead, dead! Knives, poison, ropes – all useless.”19 Those with closed minds who don’t want to examine their lives in order that they might grow are in everything, but rigor mortis, dead.


But let’s not get too despondent because there is still hope for us if we listen to Gadamer and get wise to his wisdom.


  1. Sartre, J-P. ‘In Camera’, translated by Stuart Gilbert, included within In Camera and Other Plays, Penguin, 1946, 187.
  2. Ibid., 188.
  3. Ibid., 189.
  4. Ibid., 195.
  5. Ibid., 201.
  6. Ibid., 206.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., 207.
  10. Ibid., 217.
  11. Ibid., 218.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 190.
  14. Ibid., 201.
  15. Gadamer, H-G. ‘Aesthetics and Hermeneutics’ reproduced in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics. Translated by David E. Linge, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1977, 101.
  16. Sartre, J-P. ‘In Camera’, translated by Stuart Gilbert, included within In Camera and Other Plays, Penguin, 1946, 208.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid., 209.
  19. Ibid., 223.