By accepting your otherness,
I also accept your infinite separation.

You will act and speak of things
beyond my world-view.

You will be, and are,
more than I can ever conceive.

My acceptance throws off
the chains and shackles of limits,

as I watch you soar and glide,
when I only allowed you to walk.

To look that bit deeper at how ethics actually works, we need to view the matter from a different perspective. The problem Silvia Benso helps Emmanuel Levinas to overcome, starts when we consider someone in a solipsistic mode of being. A ‘solitary individual’ in a state of self-absorption, who appears to operate within their own mirror-lined globe, as conceived by F. Mai Owens[1] will be our baseline. Can it be conceived, even within Levinas’ strict system, that a human face can be presented to this ‘solitary individual’ and that, because of the way that individual questions the mode of being of things, a Levinasian ‘face’ might not actually appear? (A Levinasian ‘face’ is a ‘subject’ in their own right who exerts their presence upon us in such a way that we are totally compelled to feel responsibility for them).[2] Instead, an ‘object’ could appear which has eyes, a nose, rouged checks and a red lipstick smile.

For explicit clarity, it’s important to understand that the force which Levinas wished to bestow upon the notion of the ‘face,’ as that before which we encounter an unavoidable responsibility, is not diminished by the example of the ‘solitary individual’ because the Levinasian ‘face’ has as yet not appeared. And, the reason it has not appeared is because the ‘solitary individual’ objectifies what they see and effectively blocks the Levinasian ‘face’. A Levinasian ‘face’ within that encounter does not yet exist. Instead, an object does and will continue to do so until something shifts in the questioning of the mode of being of things within the subject, the ‘solitary individual’ themselves. At this point, ethics stalls, if by being ethical we understand action to be based on needs that aren’t one’s own.

The ‘solitary individual’ doesn’t just arrest themselves at the point of ethics, they also block any form of otherness from occurring. Because they only see the world as they have created it, and nothing in such a world can be wholly other to them, there is no alterity, no otherness, for the ‘solitary individual’.  

To surpass the self-induced double-block of ethics and otherness, the ‘solitary individual’ has to alter their questioning of the mode of being of things. This necessitates the introduction of ways in which they can be open. Silvia Benso’s work on touch, tenderness, attention and festival[3], by presenting positive modes of questioning being and acting in the world, activates this adjustment. A lighter side is developed that articulates a wakefulness filled with potential, where things become animated, vibrant, and present to us.

If the totalising gaze – the mirror lined perspective – is relinquished, by adopting the open approaches of touch, tenderness, attention and festival, then the ‘solitary individual’ can become ethical. If this happens it is because a volte face occurs in their questioning the mode of being of things in the world – they become open. No longer are they reflecting and projecting themselves onto things they encounter and subsuming them into a pre-existing pattern of knowledge and understanding. Instead, they are allowing the things to speak with their own voice. The openness of touch, tenderness, attention and festival receives the other without claiming to know or own the other. The previous world-view operated by the individual gets retired as they engage and participate with the other without the need to dominate or assimilate the other. This is the stance of the now ‘ethical individual’. In our openness, as described by Benso, we become ethical.

By accepting and allowing the otherness of things around us in our world, through the cultivation of openness, we actively demonstrate an ethical bearing. Two new realisations come at this juncture. The first is that otherness and ethics come hand in hand together. The second is that we play an active role because without our active openness there is no otherness nor any ethics.[4]

[1] 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.

[2] ‘Subject’ and ‘Object’ are incorrect terms for strict Levinasian thinking. However, they useful as shorthand quick identifiers for different relational modes.

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

[4] Arguably, what we are seeing from Benso is a contrary position to strict Levinasian thought, but ultimately one that seeks to strengthen his work by overcoming an inherent impasse in his work. The merit of her contrary position, though, rests in the obvious wisdom she brings forth.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

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

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