UCH belated, I’m afraid, (or is it? Blog time is so very odd) but here it is: a sketch of Levinas’ conception of an ethical response to suffering. I’ll keep it brief; the binding-together of Levinas, Merleau-Ponty and Cassell will have to wait, I’m afeared. I’ve used this theory as a critique of medicalisation in the thesis (a bit crudely, so I have to rethink that section), but it also plays a role in the later work I do on various kinds of difference (disability, intersex, ‘ugliness’, trans, shortness, ‘BIID’ (in scary marks coz this is the pathologisation of an identity which has already called itself ‘wannabe’-ness), dwarfism, just to mention a few (did I mention this thing is probably going to have to be sliced and diced before I hand it in?). More on suffering stuff and that later. Admittedly, I screw a bit with the semi-and-questionable distinction between alterity and otherness/difference (corporeal difference for my concerns, but Levinas’ a bit chary of this kind specificity, I think) in Levinas, but that’s something I’m all good with, really, for reasons I’ll go into. (Besides, I gather that Bernasconi, amongst others, thinks that difference/otherness and alterity are already linked in Levinas. My jury’s out but in strong debate.)
So. Last time I demonstrated that in the other (the face of the other, actually, but now we’re just getting technical!) there is (damn that copula) a trace of alterity; that which is absolutely and completely other to me. In fact, Levinas argues that just as the other is fundamentally not me, fundamentally irreducible to me, so too is his/her suffering. The suffering of the other is completely other to me. This means that any attempt to grasp the other’s suffering, to place myself in his/her shoes must inevitably fail. Worse, because this seeks to make the other’s experience comprehensible only through my own, it is unethical: it attempts to reduce, often even efface, the alterity of the other’s suffering. This is what I’m going to call (again all contemporary usage, and based solely on the etymology because of what’s to come), empathy (from em, in, and pathy, feeling/suffering (do you think the Ancient Greeks had a completely different structuration of emotion? I mean, really, using ‘feeling’ and ‘suffering’ interchangeably seems such a peculiar move to us now!) Empathy attempts to deny the difference between self and other, the very same difference that enables the ethical relation and thus the production of the subject (and let’s not forget all that comes after that: all knowledge, meaning, world…) In denying that difference, one denies the other, and the other comes first. Denying another’s suffering (which happens quite a bit, really) denies their alterity and my dependence upon them. Just as bad, I think, is the medical flattening of suffering into pathology, attempting to thematise it. One can’t know the other, nor their suffering; not fully. But that’s an entirely other post.
So what, then, is the ethical response to otherness? This is actually really important, because the response to the suffering other is the origin of sociality. That is, the call of the other to the subject (the pre-originary one) is a call from ‘height and destitution.’ The other’s suffering is that call, and so all possibility of sociality is premised upon it and my relation—my response—to it. How do I respond without thematising?
Levinas’ answer is compassion. Com-passion; suffering-with. (Theoretically this is etymologically equivalent to sympathy, but the ‘sym’ there has too many association with syn-thesis for me to be happy with it, so I’m glad he chose otherwise, even if it’s only because sympathetique (sp? tis regularly shortened to ‘sympa,’ so I hear) mean s’nice’ in French). In suffering because the other suffers, alongside but without seeking to replace their experience with my own, an affective rather than a thematised experience, I offer the possibility of its alleviation. The reason for this is complex, but interesting. Suffering is, as we saw last time, fundamentally isolating. It turns the subject in on his/her self, breaking the ethical relation upon which the subject, meaning, the world is premised. This breakdown, then, is the breakdown of the world. When the other suffers, it is not merely an experience alongside any other, because the very terms by which they are a subject who could experience anything have been breached. There is absolutely no way for the other to make any sense—or anything else—of their suffering. This is what makes it suffering, this utter passivity, passivity beyond passivity (that is, beyond the antithesis of activity).
In suffering-with the suffering other, then, I enact the ethical relation, thereby prising open this closed-down non-subjectivity, creating a space which “opens them to the realm of the interhuman.” In this opening out, the pre-originary relation comes back into ‘being’; and with it meaning, the world, may come to be for them once again. This is ethics, and the ethical response. And according to Levinas, it is my ethos, my dwelling, my way of being; I am only because I am responsible, responsibility; only because I am compassionate, because I am compassion, because I am suffering-with.