The Face

Complete avoidance
or minute observation,

allow for uncomplicated
but ultimately empty lives.
The face of the other
is not an experience or an event.

My features
are not to pass the time with.

With the face of the other
life begins.

In a dialogue with Philippe Nemo, Emmanuel Levinas gave an example of how we should approach the Other:

“I think… 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]

Levinas, then, was interested in the potential for a significant encounter when one regards an Other. And, for him, this cannot occur when we ‘look’ at the Other’s features because such ‘looking’ reduces 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 folks who appear at every opportunity not to listen to what is being said to them. Both methodologies, from the ‘superior’ to the baser and more unsophisticated, are snapshots of the same spectrum, which 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, 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 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]

[1] Levinas, E. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Translated by Richard A. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1998, 85.

[2] Finkielkraut, A. The Wisdom of Love. Translated by Kevin O’Neill and David Suchoff, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 1997, 12.

[3] Levinas, E. and Kearney, R. ‘Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas’ included in Face to Face with Levinas, Edited by Richard A. Cohen, State University of New York Press, 1986, 23.

Published by Dr Jim Walsh

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

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