The Gaze

With abstract art, a coherent,
rational, visual universal order

is disrupted to leave
fragments or shards of material.

The totalising gaze
of the subject is cast adrift.

Instead, something else
needs to happen.

Art, just as the stranger,
demands an ethical response.

In his mature work, Emmanuel Levinas concluded that art becomes that which cannot be totalised by a subject. Rather than a closed and sealed off world, either in the work or subject, an opening appears when one views a piece of abstract art, an opening that is not reducible to a world, i.e., not reducible to ontology. The abstract image allows the opportunity for us to step outside of the ontological constraints imposed by the work, or ourselves, and discover new non-epistemologically founded meanings. A coherent, rational, visual universal order has been disrupted to leave fragments, or shards, of material which populate the canvas rejecting comprehension, inviting only unworldly experience. The totalising gaze of the subject is cast adrift. Instead, something else needs to happen.

In regard to a different aspect of his thinking, Silvia Benso in The Face of Things, calls into question Levinas’ anthropocentric vision of ethics by arguing for the inclusion of things into the realm of the ‘face.’

“The face of the Other is always the human face. Ethically, that is all that matters. This determination implies that the entire realm of nature, animate and inanimate, is deprived of any notion of otherness… Levinas’s answer is resolute. If animals have a face, it is not an ethical face, but a biological one.”[1]

With the motivation of including things in the realm of the ‘face’, Benso seeks to bring together both Levinas’ and Martin Heidegger’s ideas. And, with wonderfully simple sub-titles she represents Levinas as ‘Love Without Things’ and Heidegger as ‘Things Without Love’, which she then unites to achieve a love of things. A slightly more complex description of this unification is given in her preface:

“Heidegger offers a thematization of things in terms that are amenable to the recognition of their own alterity [Otherness]. Therefore, Heidegger’s thought proves itself capable of resetting in movement Levinas’s philosophy at the point where it had arrested itself: on the threshold of the alterity of things.”[2]

Just as Levinas had rejected traditional philosophy so, too, had Heidegger rejected traditional ideas in ontology: “In a move that turns around the entire tradition in its relation to things, Heidegger grounds the fact of being a human being on the ability to listen, and correspond, to the inner appeal of things.”[3] Heidegger’s move at this point, therefore, was to resist the philosophical urge to categorize, understand or comprehend. We need to allow the thing we observe its own position in the world and not take it into ours, via traditional notions of ourselves as the subject and the thing as an object. For Benso, a logical next step follows: “The possibility for an ethics of things is opened up, although never explicitly thematized by Heidegger, who arrests himself on the threshold of ethics.”[4]

So, in a move that posthumously challenges each of them, Benso presents a synthesis of their ideas. Such a “path of affirmation,”[5] as Benso describes, leads to

“An ethics of things, where ethics cannot be traditional ethics in any of its formulations (utilitarian, deontological, virtue-orientated), and things cannot be traditional things (objects as opposed to a subject). At the intersection between ethics and things, Levinas and Heidegger meet.”[6]

Consequently, Benso’s “path of affirmation” reveals that Heidegger’s desire to preserve things, without possessive distortion, equates to Levinas’ desire to resist the totalising gaze, where everything is scooped up for easy incorporation into one’s understanding. Importantly, though, the subject is still required to do some work in allowing the thing to be as a thing because an ethical encounter cannot occur in conjunction with a totalising vision. For example, to gaze upon Number 1, 1948 by Jackson Pollock and allow it to speak, unfettered by our pre-determined thoughts, is to look into the eyes of the stranger: both demand an ethical response that allows them to be.

[1] Benso, S. The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, SUNY Press, Albany, 2000, 42.

[2] Ibid., xxxv.

[3] Ibid., xxxvi.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 128.

[6] Ibid.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

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

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