VERYTIME I see that kind of construction (as in the title above), it makes me think about people suffering other people – in fact, for some reason the horribly arrogant (well, it always seemed so to me, but tis probably just old translation) “suffer the little children to come unto me” line always pops into my head.
But actually that’s got nothing to do with the topic of this post.
Having introduced (kinda) my interest in suffering, I’m now, with no connecting remarks whatsoever, going to sketch Levinas on suffering. Now my Levinas knowledge is minimal and specific, so don’t trust me to cover all of his ethics which anyway is too complicated for a single post. But it does pose a significant challenge to the kind of ethics which always seems to be attached to bio-ethics. Because instead of relying on norms or rights or whatever else, Levinasian ethics is far more flexible. And this flexibility is part of the ethical work his theory does.
So the above was likely almost incomprehensible. To explain: for Levinas, ethics is first philosophy. He’s not just suggesting that his particular brand of ethics is more important than anyone else’s; rather, this ethics has to do with how the subject can even exist. (This is premised on a translation of ethos as dwelling as well as its usual sense of character. I’ll just point here towards Rosalyn Diprose who marks that such a dwelling requires some sense of embodiment. More on that point later). There is what he calls a ‘pre-originary’ moment, the moment in which the other (and I can’t keep track of big and little Os so I’ll leave them be for the moment, however scandalous that might be) calls to the subject. It is only in response to this call that the subject is (comes into being might be a helpful way to think of it because it shows that ontology et al only comes after ethics (first philosophy an’ all)). This means that the subject is, fundamentally, responsible, response-able to the other. The subject only is insofar as s/he responds to the other; this responsibility is the condition of subjectivity. In this way, Levinas makes ethics the ground of all – before being, before knowledge, before anything, is the relation with the other. The other comes first. This point shapes the entirety of perspective on ethics.
Now the other is radically different. Levinas has a name for the ‘thing’ (it’s not a thing) that ‘guarantees’ this radical difference: it’s called alterity. Alterity is often used fuzzily to just mean ‘difference-only-I’m-clever’ (ooh, pointy!) but it’s an intriguing kind of concept. Because it’s a non-concept. It marks that which cannot be defined, which cannot be known, cannot be thematised. In any attempt to think the other, then, alterity remains elusive and beyond our grasp; not a thing, not a concept, not being; radically other to the realm of the (occasionally) rational subject. As I understand it, this alterity works in something like the way that otherness works in other poststructuralists, representing finitude, death and the limits of the subject. Alterity makes the other different to the subject, such that the subject can be in the first place. I wrote this at the beginning of my honours thesis – in italics so I could pretend someone else wrote the pretty poetics: It is through the other that I have meaning, that meaning even comes to be for me. Alterity is the condition of me, that which is refused renders me possible, all the while makes me impossible. It beckons, threatens, calls me to being, calls me on to becoming, always and endlessly the possibility of the loss of being. The touch of all I cannot grasp, the slipperiness that dwells with all I do, which I press away, refuse to touch in order to be able to think, to exist, to act. Yet my refusal to touch must mean it always touches me. Do I still agree with that? I’m not sure, but I still like it!
As such, of course, the relation and distinction (I always get an Irigarayan itch at this point) between subject and other – the ethical – becomes the ground for the possibility of all else: thought, rationality, meaning, community, politics and the list goes on. Not only this, but the other remains excessive – alteritous – to all of this, to any of it. Thus violence, for Levinas, begins at the point at which we think to know the other, because in so doing, we reduce the other to the Same. And this perpetual reduction to the Same which is almost characteristic of subjectivity, thought and rationality… it is ethical violence because it denies that which allows the subject to be: the alterity of the other. Again, I think of Irigaray’s writing about “those who listen with a pre-made grid” who can never hear what woman says… The point of all this work is that what is ethical is that which responds specifically to the otherness of the other. This is why (as I argued in a paper on R v Brown in Montreal last year) that which we might think is ‘right’ might be unethical, and that which we might think is ‘wrong’ may be ethical. It depends, entirely, on the other.
Okay. The set-up’s done. So now we come to suffering. For Levinas (at least in “Useless Suffering” from Entre Nous) suffering is an extraordinary experience, in the sense that it threatens the ethical relation in a fundamental way. Suffering is “more passive than passivity,” it is “extreme passivity, helplessness, abandonment and solitude.” It is what opposes the “assemblage of data into a meaningful whole.” Suffering is the place where my world – the way it is meaningful for me – breaks apart. Suffering is fundamentally meaningless, “useless: for nothing,” in a way that nothing else is. It is ineffable, unknowable, and this breaks apart my subjectivity as it attempts to grapple with it. It does this because suffering is fundamentally, ethically isolating, breaking down the “interhuman” relation that makes it possible for meaning, for the world, for me to exist.
Just a couple of final points (I’ll save the response to suffering for later) about this description. First, Levinas argues convincingly that the attempt to give suffering meaning is wrong, deeply, ethically wrong. The ‘meanings’ that are given to suffering – the tempering of a character, or the way that suffering draws attention to injustice, say – is an evil (Levinas is not one to mince words.) To do so ignores “the bad and gratuitous meaninglessness of pain… beneath the reasonable forms espoused by the social ‘uses’ of suffering.” It is an attempt to make suffering comprehensible, but in doing so it reduces the other’s experience of that suffering as entirely useless, meaningless. This is ethically violent because the other’s suffering is as unknowable as they are, and the pretence at knowing, the pretence that suffering could ever have meaning tries to make the suffering something other than what it is: an evil… as Publius reminded us not so long ago.