Tenderness is
the welcome that waits.

but also active.

but never servile.

Always in the present,
always selfless.

Tenderness gives
a direct and instant connection.

For Silvia Benso, attention “becomes an essential component of the human side of the ethics of things.”[1] For her, attention is rooted in ad-tending, the moving toward; the concentrating upon an object which at the same time is active and also passive:

“Tenaciously and persistently, attention tends toward something. And yet, in such a fervour of activity, attention can be successful, can avoid falling into invasiveness only if it lets itself be directed by that toward which it tends.”[2]

What I think Benso means is that a form of passivity is required which can guide the activity of attention to ensure we attend with both patience and humility. This is, of course, in stark contrast to the totalising vision that blinds the objects of its enquiry so that no shadow can remain under its blazing light. There is no patience nor humility there. Benso is quick to assert, though, that such passive attention does not mean that “servility.”[3] Instead, there is,

“the dignity of a deference that wishes to welcome and assert differences and otherness… What is deferred in this movement of humility is, primarily the power of a will that wants to modify, rather than being modified by things.”[4]

This idea should not be easily passed over. What is deferred is the “will that wants to modify”. One needs to be humble before things if an ethical encounter is to occur. One also needs to be secure in oneself if any kind of modification is to arise in oneself via that encounter. An insecure bullish assertion “of a will that wants to modify” will never achieve an ethical encounter or, by relation, a modification in themselves, because nothing can penetrate the exterior crust of such a wilful subject. Even if on the inside there is a curious infant yearning for comfort.

The pendulum of active and passive, though, must not swing too far toward the passive because the danger of “servility”, as Benso prompts, is equally present. If one is servile then it will not be a modification that takes place but rather an infatuation with overtones of obsequiousness and pandering that reduce the subject to the mental equivalent of one of Elvis’ ‘Yes-men,’ at best a mirror and at worst a narcissist’s enabler.

Benso continues her pursuit of attention by turning to tenderness, as “attentive touch.”[5] She reveals this is inspired by, and indebted to, Emmanuel Levinas’ use of the concept in connection with the feminine in Totality and Infinity.[6] Taking the theme of balance between activity and passivity further, she writes:

“Whereas force, power, and strength impose, and weakness succumbs, tenderness welcomes… tenderness is not a quietism serving nihilism, but rather an affirmation of life, in its very power of differentiation.”[7]

Tenderness is the welcome that waits “for the other to make the first move,” and then “caresses by a light touch.”[8] It is also “a way of being”, “a metaphysical horizon”, “a sentiment but not a psychological feeling” and is “aroused by the appeal of things.”[9]Because of these “feminine”[10]qualities, tenderness makes for an ethical encounter when placed in direct proximity with a thing. Tenderness becomes an attitude, through which a new mode of being can arise, that could otherwise turn everything to stone in its Medusa-like stare. Benso’s thoughts on tenderness consequently aim towards “a way of being” that deals solely in the here and now:

“Analogous to attention, tenderness is always tending to the particular thing which inspires it with the movement of its presencing. Therefore, tenderness is always in the present, occupied by the temporality of the instant in which it unfolds itself.”[11]

Tenderness gives a direct, and instant, connection to a thing that allows for a two-way encounter, an ethical encounter, to take place.

[1] Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 164.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 165.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 166.

[6] See Ibid., 227, fn. 10.

[7] Ibid., xxxvii.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 166-167.

[10] See Ibid., 227, fn. 10.

[11] Ibid., 169.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

CEO of Conway Hall Ethical Society and author of 'Ethics Starts With You'.

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