“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
- Levinas, E., Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, 85.
- Finkielkraut, A., The Wisdom of Love, 12
- Levinas, E. and Kearney, R., ‘Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas’ included in Face to Face With Levinas, 23.
- Levinas, E., Otherwise Than Being, 9
- Ibid., 10.
- Peperzak, A., Beyond: The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas , 67
- Levinas, E., Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, 89.
- Levinas, E., ‘Ethics as First Philosophy’ included in The Continental Philosophy Reader, 133.
- Bernasconi, R., ‘Levinas and Derrida: The Question of the Closure of Metaphysics’ included in Face to Face With Levinas, 188.
- Alford, C. F., Levinas, the Frankfurt School and Psychoanalysis, 18.
- Owens, F. M., Encountering the Other: Levinas, Kapoor, Time and the Other, Masters thesis, Department of Art History and Theory, University of Essex, 1999, 9.