“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.
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.
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.
- Hutchins, B. C. Levinas: A Guide for the Perplexed, Continuum, London, 2004, 14.
- Levinas, E. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Translated by Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998. 89.
- Hutchins, B. C. Levinas: A Guide for the Perplexed, Continuum, London, 2004, 14.
- Levinas, E. ‘The Transcendence of Words,’ reproduced in The Levinas Reader. Edited by Seán Hand, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, 147.
- 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.
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.