February 2008


chunk o’ Levinas; my sketch here is intended to lead into the description of suffering he offers, to demonstrate the challenge his ethics-as-first-philosophy approach poses to existing philosophies, with their implicit focus on ontology (and the priority of the individual essence), to explore the question of rationality in relation to the other, and finally to sketch the distinction between ethics and politics.

…As I have demonstrated through the preceding discussion, the experience of suffering is thoroughly bound up with subjectivity. Implicit in all of the previous consideration of suffering is the long-standing model of Western subjectivity (although a number of the subject’s attributes have already been discussed). This liberal, humanist subject arises naturally, is autonomous, sovereign, individual and self-present, capable of rationality and has an unchanging essence (often conceived of as a concealed interiority, truth or “true self”) which is inserted like a hand into the glove of the body. It is this model of the subject that hovers behind van Hooft and Frank’s considerations of suffering, and perhaps even Cassell’s. Yet the theoretical framework of Levinas challenges this implicit narrative, and along with it a philosophical tradition that has focussed on the primacy of being (or in some cases, Being) and the subject’s consciousness as a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit point of origin. Ethics, if even considered, comes well after the enumeration of the nature of being itself.

Levinas’ version of ethics differs from other forms: he puts ethics before ontology, claiming that ‘being must be understood on the basis of being’s other.’ (Levinas 1998, 16) Thus the relation with the other is what brings time, being, knowledge and the subject into being. This is a complex challenge to existing philosophies, whose obsession with ontologies, epistemologies and metaphysics (and only then, maybe, questions of ethics) become increasingly clear in contrast to Levinas’ discussion. In positioning ethics a ‘first philosophy’ (Levinas 1989, 76) the ‘face-to-face’ (Levinas 1998, 160) relation with the other as the very condition upon which the subject can be, even as that being is placed perpetually in question. The ‘face’ refers to ‘[t]he way that the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me… This mode does not consist in figuring as a theme under my gaze, in spreading itself forth as a set of qualities forming an image.’ (Levinas TI, 50) The face calls the subject, as Levinas describes in detail:

But, in its expression, in its mortality, the face before me summons me, calls for me, begs for me, as if the invisible death that must be faced by the Other, pure otherness, separated, in some way, from any whole, were my business. It is as if that invisible death, ignored by the Other, whom already it concerns by the nakedness of its face, were already “regarding” me prior to confronting me, and becoming the death that stares me in the face. The other man’s [sic] death calls me into question, as if, by my possible future indifference, I had become the accomplice of the death to which the other, who cannot see it, is exposed; and as if, even before vowing myself to him [sic], I had to answer for this death of the other, and to accompany the Other into his [sic] mortal solitude. The other becomes my neighbour precisely through the way the face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question…. as if I had to answer for the other’s death even before being. (Levinas 1989, 83)

The subject ‘comes not into the world but into question,’ (Levinas 1989, 81) a phrase carefully worded: the call engenders a response, in which the subject is already questioning his/her existence (as it takes from the other, beginning with its ‘place in the sun,’ as Levinas repeatedly cites Pascal):

My being-in-the-world or my “place in the sun,” my being at home, have these not also been the usurpation of spaces belonging to the other man, whom I have already oppressed or starve, or driven out into a third world: are they not acts of repulsing, excluding, exiling, stripping, killing? (Levinas 1989, 82)

This response is, precisely, subjectivity. It is the inarticulate cry of the other expressed in the nakedness of the face that brings the subject into responsibility, and thus into being, but as a subject rather unfamiliar when set against the “common sense” of a liberal humanist individual:

To posit subjectivity in this responsibility is to catch sight of a passivity in it that is never passive enough, that of being consumed for the other. The very light of subjectivity shines and illuminates out of this ardour, although the ashes of this consummation are not able to fashion the kernel of a being existing in and for itself, and the I does not oppose to the other any form that protects itself or provides it with a measure… What do these metaphors mean, if not an I torn from the concept of the ego and from the content of obligations for which the concept rigorously supplies measure and rules, and thus left to an unmeasured responsibility, because it increases in the measure – or in the immeasurableness – that a response in made, increasing gloriously. This is the I that is not designated, but which say “here I am.” (1989, 181-2)

It is in response to the other that ‘[a]ll my inwardness is invested in the form of a despite-me, for-another… it is the very fact of finding oneself while losing oneself. (Levinas 1998, 11) The cry is, as Levinas puts it, ‘pre-originary,’ (Levinas 1998, 188) or ‘an-archic’ (Levinas 1998, 11): the moment of cry and response occurs not in time, but is precisely what brings time into being. As such, the relation with the other is not a developmental moment, but the condition for the possibility of each and every moment of the subject’s existence: in some sense, it both never occurs and it has always just occurred in time ‘immemorial.’ (Levinas 1998, 11)

The other is always a stranger, always exceeding my capacity to know them: ‘The Other as Other is not only an alter ego: the other is what I myself am not… because of the other’s very alterity.’ (Levinas, 1989, 48): not simply unknown but unknowable. I am responsible for the other, then, but that other is always and endlessly other, always beyond my ability to fully comprehend (or in Levinas’ language, thematise). This absolute otherness is not an object, not a thing, and always beyond comprehension, is known as alterity. ‘Alterity figures in it [the face] outside any qualification for the ontological order and outside any attribute.’ (Levinas 1998, 16) Indeed, ‘[t]he Other alone eludes thematization.’ (Levinas 1969, 86) However, this capacity to elude thematization-knowability-does not prevent the subject’s attempt to ‘kill’ the other, an attempt incited precisely by its unknowability: ‘[i]deal priority… wipes out all otherness by murder or by all-encompassing and totalizing thought. ‘(Levinas 1989, 85) As Levinas points out, this violence is problematic because ‘[t]he neutralization of the other who becomes a theme or object – appearing, that is, taking its place in the light – is precisely his [sic] reduction to the same.’ (Levinas 1969, 43) This killing is particularly problematic because it is alterity that gives me myself, precisely because :

The Other, whose exceptional presence is inscribed in the ethical impossibility of killing him in which I stand, marks the end of powers. If I can no longer have power over him it is because he [sic] overflows absolutely every idea I can have of him [sic]. (Levinas 1969, 87)

In this respect, the other is precisely that which delimits the subject’s conquest of the world; the other delimits the subject, circumscribes it, and thereby it is as responsible, as a responsible subject. The attempt to destroy the alterity that I am responsible for is thus particularly problematic: ‘[t]he thematisation of a face undoes the face and undoes the [ethical] approach.’ (Levinas 1998, 94)

It is for this reason that this ethics (as first philosophy) poses such a challenge: it queries ‘modern man [sic] persistin[ing] in his being as a sovereign who is merely concerned to maintain the powers of his sovereignty,’ and whose interaction with others can only be one of ‘knowledge… [of] that other which is an object,’ (Levinas 1989, 78) Not only does it challenge the implicit progress narrative that shapes other forms of philosophy (usually along the lines of being-knowledge-ethics), he reconfigures the for-itself/in-itself construction of subjectivity and objectivity in earlier philosophy as the more complex structure ‘of the one-for-the-other.’ (Levinas 1998, 158) Knowledge becomes ethically a source of violence against the other, a violent rejection of the otherness that makes me who I am:

The function of language would amount to suppressing “the other,” who breaks this coherence and is hence essentially irrational. A curious result: language would consist in suppressing the other, in making the other agree with the same. (Levinas 1969, 73)

It is here that Levinas’ ethics shows its real content, because my responsibility to the other is to the other as other, not merely as my own (or some universal) conception of the other, which would always do violence to that otherness in attempting to grasp it. As such, then, knowledge is very far from the grounds for ethics, as Frank would have us suppose; indeed, it does violence to not only the ethical relation, but to the other, and in some sense to myself. In requiring that the other justify the reason for an ethical intervention through rational dialogue, Frank makes ethics a matter of ‘making the other agree with the same,’ even in the simple requirement of rationality.

It should be noted here that for all that Levinas puts ethics first, he may not be entirely disapproving of Frank’s proposal. Ethics remains between subject and other; but when “the third” enters into the picture, s/he provokes a severe troubling of the ethical burden. This is not simply because the subject is abruptly responsible for two others, but because I am responsible for the other’s responsibilities.

The other stands in a relationship with the third party, for whom I cannot entirely answer, even if I alone answer, before any question, for my neighbour. The other and the third party, my neighbours, contemporaries of one another, put distance between me and the other [the ethical relation] and the third party… The third party introduces a contradiction… It is of itself the limit of responsibility and the birth of the question: What do I have to do with justice? A question of consciousness. Justice is necessary, that is, comparison, coexistence, contemporaneousness, assembling, order, thematization, the visibility of faces, and thus intentionality and the intellect, and in intentionality and the intellect, the intelligibility of a system, and thence also a copresence on an equal footing as before a court of justice… (Levinas 1998, 157)

It is at this point, Levinas argues, that politics comes into being, as a means for ‘comparison of the incomparable… the latent birth of representation, logos, consciousness, work, the neutral notion being.’ (Levinas 1998, 158) Politics, then, is driven not by ethical responsibility, and indeed, fundamentally contradicts it; it is driven by questions of justice, or more precisely, by questions of what to do when the ethical relationship is made to extend beyond two. If alterity is always unknowable and unthematisable, and violence is done to it in thematising it, then justice is always to some extent violent:

All the others that obsess me in the other do not affect me as examples of the same genus united with my neighbour by resemblance or common nature, individuations of the human race, or chips off the same block… The others concern me from the first. Here fraternity precedes the commonness of a genus. My relationship with the other as neighbour gives meaning to my relations with all the others… The one for the other of proximity is not a deforming abstraction. In it justice is shown from the first, it is thus born from the signifiyingness of signification, the one-for-the-other, signification…Justice is impossible without the one that renders it finding himself in proximity. His function is not limited to the ‘function of judgement,’ the subsuming of particular cases under a general rule… Justice, society, the State and its isntiutions, exchanges and work are comprehensible out of proximity. This means that nothing is outside of the control of the responsibility of the one for the other. It is important to recover all these forms beginning with proximity… (Levinas 1998, 159)

In many respects, it may be a fairer characterisation of Frank’s suggestion of Socratic dialogue-that it seeks justice, rather than ethics-and it certainly appears to jibe more easily with his concerns about suffering. However, as Levinas is careful to recall, ethics retains priority, and as such acts as a kind of “corrective” to the space of politics, and to the alleged justice it can engender. Given that Frank positions his rational, dialogical decision-making as a tool of justice, the question remains: can his model allow us to respond to suffering? Yet as we have already seen, he is unwilling to allow that the woman with ugly toes might really be suffering, and justifies this through such a logical approach. If his tools of justice can be deployed to such ends, the question remains: what is suffering, and what kinds of ethical requirements does it make of us? Can Frank’s justice be ethical, or has it, according to Levinas, lost its way?

Main References:

Levinas 1998 Otherwise than Being

Levinas 1989 The Levinas Reader

Levinas 1969 Totality and Infinity

Advertisements

A chunk of thesis, from about half way through the first chapter, soon to be followed by a chunk of Levinas-in-thesis… for your interest (or not!):

What does the reduction of suffering to disease allow in the cultural negotiation with it? What power relations are concealed in this reduction of suffering to the natural? How is ‘intactness’ produced as the nature of subjectivity such that particular experiences are experienced naturally as threat? In other words, what ‘material subjection’ is concealed in constitution of subjects who suffer, and in the reduction of suffering to the natural, neutral response to a wrong? What might it mean to, instead, to think suffering itself not simply as a natural response to either disease or oppression (as therefore naturally bad things), but rather as a technique of power?

To begin to explore these questions, we need to examine what kind of political significance suffering has. Given that I have, thus far, been engaging with suffering as it is understood in a medical setting, I now turn to Arthur Frank’s consideration of the medical treatment of suffering in the context of a capitalist, consumerist culture in his article, ‘Emily’s Scars: Surgical Shapings, Technoluxe and Bioethics.’ (2004) He is concerned less with what suffering itself is and how it is caused, and more with the status of demands for ‘cure’ articulated through suffering. As a result, he often problematically blurs the lines between pain and suffering; or rather more specifically, attempts to circumscribe his use of the word “suffering” to those experiences marked as, in some way, legitimate.

Frank observes that the ethical imperative to relieve suffering (or as he frames it, ‘”to alleviate pain,”‘) has historically formed medicine’s ‘original and still pre-dominant purpose.’ (Frank 2004, 22) It is this purpose that has functioned to legitimise (to varying degrees) a range of interventions, including the surgical ones Frank focuses on in this article-limb-lengthening surgery, cranio-facial reconstructive surgery, intersex “corrective” surgery and of course cosmetic surgeries. Using philosopher Alisdair McIntyre’s theory about the eighteenth century invention of the notion of selfhood, he observes that the marriage between this strong sense of a self which ought (morally speaking) to be fulfilled and the consumerism of current culture has a very specific effect. This has resulted in surgical methods being used for what Vogue magazine calls ‘”technoluxe,”‘ (cited in Frank 2004, 21); that is, medical expertise has become, he suggests, a commodity, consumed towards the fulfilment of self, a practice particularly evident in what is usually referred to as cosmetic surgery. This is far from a new complaint against cosmetic surgery: Sander Gilman demonstrates that the concern about authenticity, passing and the “unnatural” achievement of status otherwise unattainable (such as the position of Gentile through the modification of the “Jewish nose” (Gilman 1999, 124-137) or the “reproduction” of a foreskin (Gilman 1999, 137-144) has long troubled the industry. (Gilman 1999, 3-36) Indeed, the questionable position of cosmetic surgery has historically led much of the medical profession to distance themselves from the practice. But Frank’s concern is specific: it is not a concern, at least at first glance, about the authenticity, but rather that ‘technoluxe medicine distorts the allocation of medical services and distracts medicine from its original… purpose,’ (Frank 2004, 22) which is, of course, the relief of suffering. Cosmetic surgery, in other words, distracts medicine from its proper business.

He struggles, however, to make this argument, precisely because suffering is so often claimed in relation to cosmetic surgery. (see also Davis 1995 for a qualitative analysis and discussion of suffering in cosmetic surgery.) Frank interrogates an example of such suffering which is specifically drawn from the same Vogue article from which he draws the rather laden term ‘technoluxe.’ A woman had surgery performed on her feet, because she ‘”grew tired of burying [her] toes in the sand when [she] went to the beach. It was humiliating.”‘ (Frank 2004, 21) This humiliation (probably, to be fair, only one aspect of the experience that led her to have surgery performed on her feet) is not simply observed by Frank, but assessed:

Pain is not what it used to be, and here I return to the moral justification of the satisfied medical consumer who says going to the beach pre-treatment was “humiliating.” I react to this statement as an inflation in the language of pain: if having unfashionable toes counts as humiliating, in what words can we describe the lives of people living with massive facial deformities? (Frank 2004, 22)

This is a fascinating stand for Frank to take, as we shall see. The implicit understanding of language here is essentially equivalent to the Wittgensteinian notion we saw Edwards utilise: “humiliation” here is considered to be a term separate to the experience itself, which operates to pick it-a specific, known and knowable experience-out of the mass of other experience. Frank thus represents this woman’s claim to pain as being somewhat bogus; she has merely identified her experience wrongly, or failed to understand the language-game as it ought to be understood (a position I do not think that Wittgenstein would have much sympathy with).

He goes so far as to compare her suffering with that of someone with a form of suffering whose recognition has long been legitimised: that of a person with massive facial deformities. Part of Frank’s difficulty with accepting this woman’s pain to be real is that he sees terms such as “pain,” and “suffering,” and “humiliation” as referring to a single experience. He cannot recognise this woman as suffering, for to do so would be to claim that it is equivalent to other forms of suffering, such as someone with massive cranio-facial deformities. This equation may well be deeply troubling. However, it also adopts the medical framework Cassell critiques, in which a particular experience is reduced to its ‘truth’: there can be, it supposes, only one true experience of suffering, one in which all bodies partake, regardless of their differences. In this respect, he assesses her experience against what he has already identified as “real suffering.” In so doing, he seems to fall into precisely the trap he warns against:

Research places whatever cannot be operationalized, objectified, and rewritten within the stylistics of universality among “all the things [that] do not fit”. Whatever cannot be reinscribed as an instance of some extralocal category must be rejected and censored. (Frank 2001, 359)

Thus the problem lies not in the experience of suffering itself, but medicine’s (and ‘research’s’ as Frank identifies above) unwillingness and inability to respond to the specificity of different experiences of suffering. As we have already seen with Cassell, suffering is always different because subjects are differently consituted. It is important to acknowledge this difference, not simply in order to be ethical, but because it also shifts the focus back onto the cultural elements that contribute to different kinds of suffering. Frank’s response to this, however, is not to challenge medicine’s conception, but rather to eliminate certain claims to suffering. If we simply deny some forms, cultural constructions which play into the production of suffering go uninterrogated.
Yet perhaps this is not entirely fair: he does acknowledge that the woman’s experience is significant, just not as suffering. Rather, the woman’s claim to humiliation becomes not an expression of her suffering but simply an articulation of a social problem, ‘as troubling as I find the usage of humiliating in this instance, it is important to hear the very real problem that this woman is working to express.’ (Frank 2004, 22) On the one hand, this gives the woman’s claim some weight, but on the other, it strips her claim of its ethical imperative, the imperative which Frank has already suggested directs medicine. In the end, according to Frank, the problem that this woman is articulating is actually that suffering, within a Western capitalist culture, has been made into a kind of currency, such that many will (implicitly inauthentically) inflate their experience such that it becomes an exchange value which legitimises the use of medical resources on ‘technoluxe.’

Yet this is a dangerous claim to make, given, as we have seen, suffering is contextually defined. The problem the woman with ugly feet is working to express does not have to do with what kind of experience is regarded as legitimate for surgery by the medical profession: it is, rather, her suffering. It is this woman’s experience that needs to be heard, not merely the way or the fact that she expresses it. More than this, a subject’s experience of suffering does not occur in isolation from the culture in which he or she occurs. Suffering is not linearly felt, known and named in that order, as Frank seems to assume, but operates in the inescapable context of a subjectivity constructed in the entangling of representation and experience, of culture and embodiment. The construction of subjectivity here is not the creation of an ‘ideology’ overlaying a “true, free self,” for which Foucault critiques Marxism (although Frank may well agree with this). Rather, suffering is constructed, where construction takes the dual meaning of the building of a subject, and also the construal of them: suffering is not safely ensconced in a prior ‘taken-for-granted ontology,’ and as such, this construction is not something the subject can shake off. It is part of what makes them a subject in the first place. The point is, in the end, that because subjects are discursively constructed, the use of the words “pain” or “suffering” in the context of technoluxe surgeries ought not to be reduced or dismissed as merely an ‘inflation in the language of pain’ but as an inflation in suffering itself.

Alongside this, we need to consider the question of ethics, as Frank reveals. In the end – and despite his problematic dismissal of “inflated” pain – he claims that,

trying to compare forms of suffering – comparing the woman humiliated by her toes with a young person deformed by a facial hemangioma – is not useful. The attraction of such a comparison is that it promises apparently clear-cut medical guidelines for practice. Unfortunately, practice will have to confront a reality that is not clearly divisible into categories. The issue may be better thought of not in terms of what suffering we allow as legitimately in need of fixing, but rather, what form of decision-making we respect. (Frank 2004, 26)

In shifting the focus from suffering to forms of decision-making, Frank is attempting to introduce the ethical element into guidelines about who ought to be permitted to undergo surgery. His concern with ethics is admirable, and well-grounded: ‘the personal is communal,’ (Frank 2004, 26) he argues, and since norms about bodies are created communally, the personal choice to undergo surgery must be understood to contribute to those norms. He echoes Canguilhem here, who argues that ‘[t]he normal is then at once the extension and the exhibition of the norm. It increases the rule at the same time that it points it out.’ (Canguilhem 1991, 239) It is worth recalling, however, that his primary concern is the distribution of medical resources.
Frank suggests that by focusing on decision-making in a communal context-a Socratic, dialogical model is his favoured method-individuals may come to understand ‘how their particular trouble relates to others’ troubles, and how their proposed solutions might cause others more trouble.'(Frank 2004, 26) Frank’s turn to decision-making in place of suffering in order to assess which claims to surgery are to be legitimate is understandable but problematic: effectively, it is the attempt to shift from the subjective space of suffering to the supposedly objective (or objectively assessable) space of dialogue and decision-making. This assumes a number of things, but perhaps most problematically, it presumes that the decision about whether to have surgery can be understood purely and simply as a rational one. Yet if this were the case, given that all the surgeries he discusses are normalising and thus as the creation of the normal confirm the norms which in turn create problems for others, the rational, ethical (if selfless) response to them would probably be never to have surgery. However, I do not think that Frank sees this as ideal; rather, he does seem to perceive some surgeries as legitimate. The confirmation of some norms is, it would seem, rationally justifiable; it is norms related to the appearance of feet that are a particular problem.

The problem is rationality: here we return to the question of what can figure as truth. He has already demonstrated that, rationally speaking, the woman with ugly toes cannot truly be understood as suffering, but he fails to ask why. The attempt to shift the focus from suffering to the rational process of decision-making is problematic because it assumes that rationality gives us some way of transcending that experience, or rendering it irrelevant – a reiteration of the liberal humanist mind/body split and perhaps more significantly, existing systems of discursive truth. It assumes we respect and respond to rationality, because it exists beyond the influence of cultural norms, and permits an “outside” perspective from which to adjudicate. This is a deeply problematic stance, and fails to take into account the normative function of marking particular discourses as “rational,” a label which has all too readily been attributed to the systems developed out of the ways that white men have thought, historically. (Lloyd 1984) It also once again denies the importance of the body in the way that we exist-always as embodied subjects. The very norms he is concerned that surgery further legitimates do not simply float about outside subjects, but are part and parcel of the subject’s embodied construction within our culture. Knowing the ethical, rational response cannot unbind the subject from that culture. The choice to not have surgery does not mean that the subject’s experience of themselves (as suffering) is altered. To presume that this is, or could be, or even should be the case is once again to suppose that the mind can transcend the body, that the two are separable.

Returning to the woman who suffered because of her ugly feet, another more disturbing problem arises: it is difficult to see the ethics of Frank’s argument that we should move away from responding to suffering to responding to someone’s capacity for rationality. In the rational, dialogical assessment of forms of decision-making, suffering may be rendered irrelevant, precisely because it is subjective, and possibly irrational. This does not, however, make the suffering not true: the individual still experiences it. Yet this is precisely the problem: whilst the rational, dialogical debate is always public, suffering is made to be only ever individual. In this respect, responsibility for suffering is (rationally) made solely the responsibility of the individual who experiences it.

However, if subjects are culturally constructed, an individual’s suffering is an articulation of broader – and communal – constructions of normalcy, abnormalcy, deviancy and suffering. The experience of the woman with “ugly” feet may be read to reveal the increasing intolerance of corporeal difference, for example, if her suffering is taken to be actually experienced rather than merely mis-named. Thus the individualising on the grounds of suffering leaves uninterrogated the way that the experience of suffering functions to dovetail with occurrences of “deviancy;” that is, it ignores the way that suffering tends to function to enforce normalcy in subjects. The danger of individualising the experience of the woman with “ugly” feet is that it fails to place responsibility where it belongs – with the communal. As van Hooft puts it, ‘If neither the gods, the cosmos, providence, nor a faith in human progress rob suffering of its tragedy, then we are left just with the brute fact that we and others suffer. And in this there is community.’ (van Hooft 1998, 20) Here, we can recognise the biggest problem with Frank’s proposed ethics. It risks rendering the ethical imperative of responding to suffering irrelevant except that which it is rationally explicated, and thus leaves us with the question: why is it ethically necessary to respond to the suffering other, and how does that imperative come about? Is it ever going to be possible to develop a rational ethical framework that does justice to that imperative?

References available on request (what, I’m feeling lazy… oh, alright). The main ones are:

Canguilhem 1991 The Normal and the Pathological Zone Books

Frank 2004 ‘Emily’s Scars: Surgical Shapings, Technoluxe and Bioethics’ Hastings Center Report 34(2), pp. 18-29

Gilman 1999 Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery Princeton Uni Press

van Hooft 1998 ‘The Meanings of Suffering Hastings Center Report’ 28(5), pp. 13-19

If you want any others, let me know

Marking five years…

These will never be enough, but…

the spray of post-it notes sticking out of books he lent me; lightning-fast dance of references, gathering knowledge; a head—shaved, curly—bent over a book; the ecstatic, overlapping discusison of films, art, novels, theory, people; the putting up of—and putting a hole in—a tent; struggling, hands held, through sand; arguments about who took whose hand and started it all; writing excellent, completely illogical philosophy whilst utterly drunk; relationship and non-relationship.

We have all been marked by G— in some way—touched, impressed, etched. I speak today because G— loved me, and I love him. His marking of me has been incredible. He is etched into every part of me and my life. He is the background to my every thought and act. He has marked me—body, mind, heart, blood. We shared so much, and he gave me so much of this world, so much joy. His life made me ever more open to the world and all its infinite possibilities, infinite, infinite riches. Beyond surface, beyond depth, beyond anything I can ever say he touched me. He loved me—as I did him—into being. So when I say that G— was—and is— mine, I don’t mean I possess him. I mean that he is etched into me. He has marked me, carved me—all of me. I carry him with me forever, forever beloved scars too much a part of me to ever lose.

I read something different at the funeral, aloud, to and for others; this was for us, with rose red:

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                                    i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keep the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Or as you yourself put it, with characteristic passion and sparseness,

Words are all I have
And they are insufficient
Lacking you, and tears.

The face in which the other—the absolutely other—presents himself [sic] does not negate the same, does not do violence to it as do opinion or authority or the thaumaturgic supernatural. It remains commensurate with him who welcomes; it remains terrestrial. This presentation is preeminently nonviolence, for instead of offending my freedom it calls it to responsibility and founds it. As nonviolence it nonetheless maintains the plurality of the same and other. It is peace.

Levinas, Totality and Infinity 203

Young master Nate hath tagged (that’s tagg-ed) myself for this meme:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Given that I seem to be unable to finish a post at the mo (there’s one lingering about The Apology (as it seems to be thought in the Australian blogosphere) and another responding to the lovely Ms. Pepperell’s tag about teaching which I left to the wayside because of the crazy insanity that seemed to circulate rather moralistically around that meme (which amused me given that ‘meme’ is ‘same’ in French, and that seemed to be what was required)), I figure this is a good thing to do! To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure which is the nearest book. I got out my tape measure, but is the top of a pile closer or further away? Because we could have wound up with The Meaning of the Other in Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity, or Bodies of Women, or The Normal and the Pathological. Or possibly even The Gift of Death, Difference and Repetition… or Jane Eyre (my attempt to make myself read A Classic, which is about half-way through the experiment. They just hooked up. It’s about bloody time. The woman is worse than me: ‘oh, it must mean nothing that he took my hands, gazed soulfully into my eyes and got all awkward over calling me ‘my love,’ and left the ‘love’ bit off, or that he dressed up as a gypsy fortuneteller and told me I could have the love I wanted and blablahblah. Means Nothing.’ There’s something horribly stark about seeing self-deprecation rendered in black and white. I want to shake her; and so I wonder if people want to shake me! ;-)) Or possibly Merleau-Ponty and Derrida: On Seeing and Writing. But instead, I think what wins out is Otherwise than Being because it rests atop a pile with various writing implements marking pages that seemed relevant at the time. Ah, Levinas, Levinas, Levinas, what am I to do with you?

Find page 123, apparently, and the fifth sentence… and just my luck, he’s getting all divine on us:

 From the Good to me, there is assignation: a relation that survives the ‘death of God.’ The death of God perhaps signifies only the possibility to reduce every value arousing an impulse to an impulse arousing a value. The fact that in its goodness the Good declines the desire it arouses while inclining it toward responsibility for the neighbour preserves difference in the non-indifference of the Good, which chooses me before I welcome it.

I could attempt to explain, but this requires much translation work (and translation is probably always problematic here). My attempt, though? The Good here indicates exteriority, in some sense—the other qua other. This is alterity, irreducible, not a concept, not conceptualisable (thematisable), unable to be brought within the scope of the subject’s knowingness. And the point, I suppose, is that even if you take the death of God as those weird nihilists do—that is, as the abrupt removal of an anchor that gave the world meaning and ethics leaving the world floating free (rather than, as I would argue, that requiring a re-thinking of the whole anchoring phenomenon)—you simply cannot remove alterity (or exteriority more generally, alterity seeming to attach primarily (though not always) to people-ish others). This is precisely because alterity is  otherwise than being, constituted as exteriority (though never as binarily opposed to) to a world that we know, that is, the world of being. Thus even if you think God’s dead, you cannot do away with radical otherness because you cannot do away with being.

The ‘desire’ that he talks about here I think is the ambiguous desire aroused by the ‘height and destitution’ of the face (understood, loosely, as expressing the unique mortality of this other): the desire to kill the other. Killing here includes the reduction of alterity to (well, on my Irigaray-informed reading) the specular other (the other who reflects me back to myself but does not exceed my knowingness). This killing occurs in thematisation but extends all the way up to a point-blank shooting. In other words, I am drawn on to know the other absolutely, to destroy him/her as other. But the face also expresses the impossibility of such a killing (in my more silly moments, I imagine a ‘nya nya nya nya nya’ and a poked-out tongue), and as such is the injunction ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (aka Levinas goes Old Testament). This is the responsibility prior to which I am not—I am called by the other to responsibility, and as such I am brought into being as responsible, as a response to the other. In this respect, I am chosen before I welcome it, before there is an I that could perform such an act.

Phew. See, no wonder people struggle to read Levinas. Every sentence is dumb and dense. 😛 And now, for my five taggees:

Januaries of Scribblings with Green Chalk, Mike John Duff of Le Gai Savoir, Az of Going Somewhere…?, Had Enough of Fuck Politeness! and Dylan Trigg of Side Effects.

Being that I am lazy (or, come to think of it, busy writing up) I haven’t checked whether these individuals have already performed this three-ring trick, so if so, kids, please, feel free to ignore me. Or to do it again :-).

wlettrine3.jpgELL, my supervisor has asked me to write an abstract of my thesis. Which makes me kinda breathless and not in a good way… but I thought I’d try writing some of it out here to see if anyone had any thoughts for lack of clarity, or similar, and because you know, I expect the world to be fascinated by my horribly dense work. Ah yes 😉 Actually, this isn’t going to be the final abstract, which apparently needs to be 300 words long. But it’s an attempt to lay out the argument of the thesis so that my supervisor can (ahem) find me examiners… Apologies for the weighty formal language—you can tell it means I’m anxious!

This thesis takes as its first provocation the centrality of the concept and the term ‘suffering’ in contemporary discourse, and most particularly in relation to technologies that are used to change the appearance or function of the body. Suffering has, in many ways, become a defining part of contemporary life. Political positions are regularly parsed in terms of their potential to reduce suffering, and it is used regularly to prompt ‘proper’ ethical engagement with difficulties faced by a particular group or individual. Liberalism deploys the term ‘harm’ to get at some sense of suffering that is to be avoided, whilst ‘exploitation’ is a favoured term of Marxists. When racism, sexism, homophobia or other kinds of exclusions are marked as problematic, it is often articulated through reference to the suffering caused. Indeed, one could be excused for thinking that injustice simply is equivalent to suffering, for this equation is regularly made, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, such that these two are intriguingly constructed together: suffering is taken to indicate an injustice, and injustice is to be avoided because it causes suffering. In the contemporary Western context, however, and there is a regime of power/knowledge deeply concerned with suffering, in ways that are, supposedly, not primarily about politics, or injustice, or even ethics (though this last is more swiftly brought into play in its defence). This regime is medicine.

The first chapter, then, unpicks the medical engagement with suffering. Medicine regularly takes its treatment of suffering as a justification of its existence and operation. Yet I argue that it also regularly naturalises suffering, equating it simply with pathology: if one is suffering, it is because there is something wrong with one’s body, a wrongness over which medicine claims expertise and control. I suggest that this naturalisation has numerous problematic effects. First, as Eric Cassell demonstrates, it means that clinical engagement with the suffering body tends to actually miss suffering altogether in reducing it to pathology, and thus never actually treats it. Second, the reduction to pathology means that medicine often cannot engage with the specificity of the suffering subject, and with the way that their suffering is unique. I argue that this uniqueness arises not from some essence, but rather from the unique situation of each subject. Third, the naturalisation of suffering precludes the space of denaturalisation, thereby concealing the role that suffering plays in the production and reproduction of normalisation. As such, it conceals the function of suffering in normalisation (by which I mean to include the depiction of ‘deviance’ as a source of suffering), and particularly its role in the construction of (normalised) embodied subjects in contemporary culture.

In the second chapter, then, I turn to Merleau-Ponty, whose phenomenological concerns have been taken up by feminists, critical race theorists and critical disability scholars. Their reconfiguration of Merleau-Ponty helps us get at the production of embodied subjects in and through their context, and more particularly, through their adoption and adaptation of the styles of being in the world with which they are surrounded. Merleau-Ponty argues that it is through syncretic sociability—the intercorporeal intertwining of the subject’s embodiment and the embodiment of others—that the subject is produced. Through the work of Gail Weiss and Linda Alcoff, I argue the particular styles of being in the world carry tacit body knowledges given to them by the discursive, institutional, capitalist and embodied world around them. These tacit adoptions (and adaptations) of existing styles of being, I argue, produce, through sedimentation, what Rosalyn Diprose calls ‘bodily tolerances.’ In effect, the habituation of particular styles of being in the world produces bodily tolerances which, if transgressed, may result in the subject experiencing suffering.

The third chapter argues that normalcy has become a, or perhaps the, dominant logic embodied in this way. In this way, the subject comes to experience their ‘normalcy’ as their ‘essence’ or inner ‘truth’, and the body’s recalcitrance in ‘matching,’ or more accurately projecting this truth can thus become a source of suffering. I examine this dynamic in some detail, particularly demonstrating the effect that the possibility of normalisation (through surgery or through pharmaceutical use, for example) has on the constitution of an intolerance to the ab/normal, both a subject’s own abnormalcy and the abnormalcy of those thereby marked as other. I focus on the way that a world constructed in and through normalcy, as critical disability studies especially demonstrates, tends to reiterate and confirm the experience of marked corporeal difference as a source of suffering. The naturalness of the body marked as normal is thereby protected from critique. In this respect, then, I turn to a more thorough-going and reflexive question: what role does the concept of the norm play in the construction of embodiment, according to Merleau-Ponty? I argue that even when his work has been taken up with a cautionary eye for the constitution of difference, the notion of ‘sedimentation’ as a core structure of embodiment (even as the ‘content’ that is sedimented is acknowledged to vary and thus produce difference) thereby naturalises a particular construction of embodiment (and time). As a result, the role that the norm plays in the concept of ‘sedimentation’ is not interrogated. I argue that embodiment in the contemporary context may, to a large degree, be produced through sedimentation, but that acknowledging the contextual specificity of this production is significant because it allows recognition of when and how this it is challenged (a point that will be raised again in more detail in chapter 5).

The fourth chapter explores the political significance of corporeal difference and the technologies related to their normalisation (or otherwise). It deploys Diprose’s concept of corporeal generosity, a critical appropriation of Derrida’s ‘gift,’ to demonstrate the asymmetries of ‘memorialisng’ and ‘forgetting’ of the gifts of others functions to reproduce privilege and disadvantage. It is through the generosity of various others that the embodied subject is formed, yet in the context of contemporary bodi I argue that in contemporary body projects, the body is constructed as a site of memorialising and forgetting. The embodied subject may be a produced as a palimpsest of gifts, yet only some of these are memorialised in their flesh. I argue that modifications of the body and embodiment gain their significance in this context, such that the normalisation of bodies marked as abnormal is a memorialising of the gifts of normal others—gifts which already work to inform the subject’s style of being in the world. Memorialising is thus always bound up with forgetting, such that the normalisation of the subject forgets, viscerally, the generosity of othered others. What becomes clear in such an analysis is the extent to which the embodiment of the individual subject is shaped and in turn shapes the political constitution of and engagement with corporeal generosity.

In the fifth chapter, I build on this analysis with a greater focus on what Derrida calls the impossibility of the gift, and the ethical (in contrast, though not necessarily opposition) to the political. The forgotten gift may be unrecognised, and thus not permitted to be part of the political domain, but it also escapes its ‘destruction,’ and more to the point, I argue that even in being forgotten, it still matters. Alcoff’s rearticulation of Merleau-Ponty’s theory of embodiment, which suggests that there is a tacit level at which the gift may be acknowledged, or more precisely, testified to without being subject to the cognitive processes required for recognition. Styles of being in the world which are shaped by the tacit acknowledgement that they do not occur without others, are thus open to a similarly tacit acknowledgement of the gift of others in a way that permits their alteration. Indeed, such bodies are not bound by the sedimentation of the personal history of their being in the world; rather the other’s gift affects troubles the sedimentation and offers a responsible comportment a way to respond to the other as other. In this way, we can see that the modification of ‘wrong’ bodies through particular technologies as a resolution to suffering is fundamentally bound up with the irresponsibility of dominant modes of comportment. The ethics of bodily change thus demonstrate two (always intertwined) forms: modifications seek to memorialise the subject’s self-presence, and thematise the corporeality of the other; alterations, on the other hand, are changes made to bodily being in responding to the other qua other. Thus it becomes clear that the ethics of a particular change lies not naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of change), or in the challenge to naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of the already-existing), as so many ethical frameworks of body modification have supposed; but rather in responsibility. Further, the ethical, responsible style of being in the world with others, sketched here, has political import; this lies not least in that corporeal generosity allows for ethics to be given corporeally, such that it resonates and amplifies through the incarnatory context and challenges the normative, sedimentary and normalised comportments through which power maintains the sovereign, self-present individual.

Apologies for the tail end of that one; it’s 3 am and at this time yesterday, I was drunk. Any suggestions for examiners gratefully received (we’re trying to formulate a list at the moment). I’m also trying to work out a title for this little baby; apparently I need to officially rename it well before I submit, which means I’m running out of time (for everything, really). I’m thinking perhaps Suffering Difference with the usual colon and explanatory phrase/list of three keywords to follow. Any thoughts much appreciated. I’d run a competition to win an island holiday or something for the title I wind up using, but I’m so pov I can’t even make it (sob!) to TransSomatechnics. So my undying gratitude is about the most I can afford, but hey, it’s something, right? ;-P

klettrine.jpgAFKA: inscribing bodies

It’s a peculiar apparatus,” said the Officer to the Traveller, gazing with a certain admiration at the device, with which he was, of course, thoroughly familiar. It appeared that the Traveller had responded to the invitation of the Commandant only out of politeness, when he had been asked to attend the execution of a soldier condemned for disobeying and insulting his superior. Of course, interest in the execution was not very high even in the penal colony itself. At least, here in the small, deep, sandy valley, closed in on all sides by barren slopes, apart from the Officer and the Traveller there were present only the Condemned, a vacant-looking man with a broad mouth and dilapidated hair and face, and the Soldier, who held the heavy chain to which were connected the small chains which bound the Condemned Man by his feet and wrist bones, as well as by his neck, and which were also linked to each other by connecting chains. The Condemned Man, incidentally, had an expression of such dog-like resignation that it looked as if one could set him free to roam around the slopes and would only have to whistle at the start of the execution for him to return.

The Traveller had little interest in the apparatus and walked back and forth behind the Condemned Man, almost visibly indifferent, while the Officer took care of the final preparations. Sometimes he crawled under the apparatus, which was built deep into the earth, and sometimes he climbed up a ladder to inspect the upper parts. These were really jobs which could have been left to a mechanic, but the Officer carried them out with great enthusiasm, maybe because he was particularly fond of this apparatus or maybe because there was some other reason why one could not trust the work to anyone else. “It’s all ready now!” he finally cried and climbed back down the ladder. He was unusually tired, breathing with his mouth wide open, and he had pushed two fine lady’s handkerchiefs under the collar of his uniform.

“These uniforms are really too heavy for the tropics,” the Traveller said, instead of asking some questions about the apparatus, as the Officer had expected. “That’s true,” said the Officer. He washed the oil and grease from his dirty hands in a bucket of water standing ready, “but they mean home, and we don’t want to lose our homeland.” “Now, have a look at this apparatus,” he added immediately, drying his hands with a towel and pointing to the device. “Up to this point I had to do some work by hand, but from now on the apparatus should work entirely on its own.” The Traveller nodded and followed the Officer. The latter tried to protect himself against all eventualities by saying, “Of course, breakdowns do happen. I really hope none will occur today, but we must be prepared for it. The apparatus is supposed to keep going for twelve hours without interruption. But if any breakdowns do occur, they’ll only be very minor, and we’ll deal with them right away.”

“Don’t you want to sit down?” he asked finally, as he pulled out a chair from a pile of cane chairs and offered it to the Traveller. The latter could not refuse. He sat on the edge of the pit, into which he cast a fleeting glance. It was not very deep. On one side of the hole the piled earth was heaped up into a wall; on the other side stood the apparatus. “I don’t know,” the Officer said, “whether the Commandant has already explained the apparatus to you.” The Traveller made an vague gesture with his hand. That was good enough for the Officer, for now he could explain the apparatus himself.

“This apparatus,” he said, grasping a connecting rod and leaning against it, “is our previous Commandant’s invention. I also worked with him on the very first tests and took part in all the work right up to its completion. However, the credit for the invention belongs to him alone. Have you heard of our previous Commandant? No? Well, I’m not claiming too much when I say that the organization of the entire penal colony is his work. We, his friends, already knew at the time of his death that the administration of the colony was so self-contained that even if his successor had a thousand new plans in mind, he would not be able to alter anything of the old plan, at least not for several years. And our prediction has held. The New Commandant has had to recognize that. It’s a shame that you didn’t know the previous Commandant!”

“However,” the Officer said, interrupting himself, “I’m chattering, and his apparatus stands here in front of us. As you see, it consists of three parts. With the passage of time certain popular names have been developed for each of these parts. The one underneath is called the Bed, the upper one is called the Inscriber, and here in the middle, this moving part is called the Harrow.” “The Harrow?” the Traveller asked. He had not been listening with full attention. The sun was excessively strong, trapped in the shadowless valley, and one could hardly collect one’s thoughts. So the Officer appeared to him all the more admirable in his tight tunic weighed down with epaulettes and festooned with braid, ready to go on parade, as he explained the matter so eagerly and, while he was talking, adjusted screws here and there with a screwdriver.

The Soldier appeared to be in a state similar to the Traveller. He had wound the Condemned Man’s chain around both his wrists and was supporting himself with his hand on his weapon, letting his head hang backward, not bothering about anything. The Traveller was not surprised at that, for the Officer spoke French, and clearly neither the Soldier nor the Condemned Man understood the language. So it was all the more striking that the Condemned Man, in spite of that, did what he could to follow the Officer’s explanation. With a sort of sleepy persistence he kept directing his gaze to the place where the Officer had just pointed, and when a question from the Traveller interrupted the Officer, the Condemned Man looked at the Traveller, too, just as the Officer was doing.

“Yes, the Harrow,” said the Officer. “The name fits. The needles are arranged as in a harrow, and the whole thing is driven like a harrow, although it stays in one place and is, in principle, much more artistic. You’ll understand in a moment. The condemned is laid out here on the Bed. First, I’ll describe the apparatus and only then let the procedure go to work. That way you’ll be able to follow it better. Also a sprocket in the Inscriber is excessively worn. It really squeaks. When it’s in motion one can hardly make oneself understood. Unfortunately replacement parts are difficult to come by in this place. So, here is the Bed, as I said. The whole thing is completely covered with a layer of cotton wool, the purpose of which you’ll find out in a moment. The condemned man is laid out on his stomach on the cotton wool-naked, of course. There are straps for the hands here, for the feet here, and for the throat here, to tie him in securely. At the head of the Bed here, where the man, as I have mentioned, first lies face down, is this small protruding lump of felt, which can easily be adjusted so that it presses right into the man’s mouth. Its purpose is to prevent him screaming and biting his tongue to pieces. Of course, the man has to let the felt in his mouth-otherwise the straps around his throat would break his neck.” “That’s cotton wool?” asked the Traveller and bent down. “Yes, it is,” said the Officer smiling, “feel it for yourself.”

He took the Traveller’s hand and led him over to the Bed. “It’s a specially prepared cotton wool. That’s why it looks so unrecognizable. I’ll get around to mentioning its purpose in a moment.” The Traveller was already being won over a little to the apparatus. With his hand over his eyes to protect them from the sun, he looked up at the height of the apparatus. It was a massive construction. The Bed and the Inscriber were the same size and looked like two dark chests. The Inscriber was set about two metres above the Bed, and the two were joined together at the corners by four brass rods, which almost reflected the sun. The Harrow hung between the chests on a band of steel.

The Officer had hardly noticed the earlier indifference of the Traveller, but he did have a sense now of how the latter’s interest was being aroused for the first time. So he paused in his explanation in order to allow the Traveller time to observe the apparatus undisturbed. The Condemned Man imitated the Traveller, but since he could not put his hand over his eyes, he blinked upward with his eyes uncovered.

“So now the man is lying down,” said the Traveller. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs.

“Yes,” said the Officer, pushing his cap back a little and running his hand over his hot face. “Now, listen. Both the Bed and the Inscriber have their own electric batteries. The Bed needs them for itself, and the Inscriber for the Harrow. As soon as the man is strapped in securely, the Bed is set in motion. It quivers with tiny, very rapid oscillations from side to side and up and down simultaneously. You will have seen similar devices in mental hospitals. Only with our Bed all movements are precisely calibrated, for they must be meticulously coordinated with the movements of the Harrow. But it’s the Harrow which has the job of actually carrying out the sentence.”

“What is the sentence?” the Traveller asked. “You don’t even know that?” asked the Officer in astonishment and bit his lip. “Forgive me if my explanations are perhaps confused. I really do beg your pardon. Previously it was the Commandant’s habit to provide such explanations. But the New Commandant has excused himself from this honourable duty. The fact that with such an eminent visitor”-the Traveller tried to deflect the honour with both hands, but the Officer insisted on the expression-“that with such an eminent visitor he didn’t even once make him aware of the form of our sentencing is yet again something new, which . . . .” He had a curse on his lips, but controlled himself and said merely: “I was not informed about it. It’s not my fault. In any case, I am certainly the person best able to explain our style of sentencing, for here I am carrying”-he patted his breast pocket-“the relevant diagrams drawn by the previous Commandant.”

“Diagrams made by the Commandant himself?” asked the Traveller. “Then was he in his own person a combination of everything? Was he soldier, judge, engineer, chemist, and draftsman?”

“He was indeed,” said the Officer, nodding his head with a fixed and thoughtful expression. Then he looked at his hands, examining them. They didn’t seem to him clean enough to handle the diagrams. So he went to the bucket and washed them again. Then he pulled out a small leather folder and said, “Our sentence does not sound severe. The law which a condemned man has violated is inscribed on his body with the Harrow. This Condemned Man, for example,” and the Officer pointed to the man, “will have inscribed on his body, ‘Honour your superiors.'”

The Traveller had a quick look at the man. When the Officer was pointing at him, the man kept his head down and appeared to be directing all his energy into listening in order to learn something. But the movements of his thick pouting lips showed clearly that he was incapable of understanding anything. The Traveller wanted to raise various questions, but after looking at the Condemned Man he merely asked, “Does he know his sentence?” “No,” said the Officer. He wished to get on with his explanation right away, but the Traveller interrupted him: “He doesn’t know his own sentence?” “No,” said the Officer once more. He then paused for a moment, as if he was asking the Traveller for a more detailed reason for his question, and said, “It would be useless to give him that information. He experiences it on his own body.” The Traveller really wanted to keep quiet at this point, but he felt how the Condemned Man was gazing at him-he seemed to be asking whether he could approve of the process the Officer had described. So the Traveller, who had up to this point been leaning back, bent forward again and kept up his questions, “But does he nonetheless have some general idea that he’s been condemned?” “Not that either,” said the Officer, and he smiled at the Traveller, as if he was still waiting for some strange revelations from him. “No?” said the Traveller, wiping his forehead, “Then does the man also not yet know how his defence was received?” “He has had no opportunity to defend himself,” said the Officer and looked away, as if he was talking to himself and wished not to embarrass the Traveller with an explanation of matters so self-evident to him. “But he must have had a chance to defend himself,” said the Traveller and stood up from his chair.

The Officer recognized that he was in danger of having his explanation of the apparatus held up for a long time. So he went to the Traveller, took him by the arm, pointed with his hand at the Condemned Man, who stood there stiffly now that the attention was so clearly directed at him-the Soldier was also pulling on his chain-and said, “The matter stands like this. Here in the penal colony I have been appointed judge. In spite of my youth. For I stood at the side of our Old Commandant in all matters of punishment, and I also know the most about the apparatus. The basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always beyond a doubt. Other courts could not follow this principle, for they are made up of many heads and, in addition, have even higher courts above them. But that is not the case here, or at least it was not that way with the previous Commandant. It’s true the New Commandant has already shown a desire to get mixed up in my court, but I’ve succeeded so far in fending him off. And I’ll continue to be successful. You want this case explained. It’s simple-just like all of them. This morning a captain laid a charge that this man, who is assigned to him as a servant and who sleeps before his door, had been sleeping on duty. For his task is to stand up every time the clock strikes the hour and salute in front of the captain’s door. That’s certainly not a difficult duty-and it’s necessary, since he is supposed to remain fresh both for guarding and for service. Yesterday night the captain wanted to check whether his servant was fulfilling his duty. He opened the door on the stroke of two and found him curled up asleep. He got his horsewhip and hit him across the face. Now, instead of standing up and begging for forgiveness, the man grabbed his master by the legs, shook him, and cried out, ‘Throw away that whip or I’ll eat you up.’ Those are the facts. The captain came to me an hour ago. I wrote up his statement and right after that the sentence. Then I had the man chained up. It was all very simple. If I had first summoned the man and interrogated him, the result would have been confusion. He would have lied, and if I had been successful in refuting his lies, he would have replaced them with new lies, and so forth. But now I have him, and I won’t release him again. Now, does that clarify everything? But time is passing. We should be starting the execution, and I haven’t finished explaining the apparatus yet.”

He urged the Traveller to sit down in his chair, moved to the apparatus again, and started, “As you see, the shape of the Harrow corresponds to the shape of a man. This is the harrow for the upper body, and here are the harrows for the legs. This small cutter is the only one designated for the head. Is that clear to you?” He leaned forward to the Traveller in a friendly way, ready to give the most comprehensive explanation.

The Traveller looked at the Harrow with a wrinkled frown. The information about the judicial procedures had not satisfied him. However, he had to tell himself that here it was a matter of a penal colony, that in this place special regulations were necessary, and that one had to give precedence to military measures right down to the last detail. Beyond that, however, he had some hopes in the New Commandant, who obviously, although slowly, was intending to introduce a new procedure which the limited understanding of this Officer could not cope with.

Following this train of thought, the Traveller asked, “Will the Commandant be present at the execution?” “That is not certain,” said the Officer, embarrassingly affected by the sudden question, and his friendly expression made a grimace. “That’s why we need to hurry up. As much as I regret the fact, I’ll have to make my explanation even shorter. But tomorrow, once the apparatus is clean again-the fact that it gets so very dirty is its only fault-I could add a detailed explanation. So now, only the most important things. When the man is lying on the Bed and it starts quivering, the Harrow sinks onto the body. It positions itself automatically in such a way that it touches the body only lightly with the needle tips. Once the machine is set in this position, this steel cable tightens up into a rod. And now the performance begins. Someone who is not an initiate sees no external difference among the punishments. The Harrow seems to do its work uniformly. As it quivers, it sticks the tips of its needles into the body, which is also vibrating from the movement of the bed. Now, to enable someone to check on how the sentence is being carried out, the Harrow is made of glass. That gave rise to certain technical difficulties with fastening the needles securely, but after several attempts we were successful. We didn’t spare any efforts. And now, as the inscription is made on the body, everyone can see through the glass. Don’t you want to come closer and see the needles for yourself.”

The Traveller stood slowly, moved up, and bent over the Harrow. “You see,” the Officer said, “two sorts of needles in a multiple arrangement. Each long needle has a short one next to it. The long one inscribes, and the short one squirts water out to wash away the blood and keep the inscription always clear. The bloody water is then channeled here in small grooves and finally flows into these main gutters, and the outlet pipe takes it to the pit.” The Officer pointed with his finger to the exact path which the bloody water had to take. As he began to demonstrate with both hands at the mouth of the outlet pipe, in order to make his account as clear as possible, the Traveller raised his head and, feeling behind him with his hand, wanted to return to his chair. Then he saw to his horror that the Condemned Man had also, like him, accepted the Officer’s invitation to inspect the arrangement of the Harrow up close. He had pulled the sleeping Soldier holding the chain a little forward and was also bending over the glass. One could see how with a confused gaze he also was looking for what the two gentlemen had just observed, but how he didn’t succeed because he lacked the explanation. He leaned forward this way and that. He kept running his eyes over the glass again and again. The Traveller wanted to push him back, for what he was doing was probably punishable. But the Officer held the Traveller firmly with one hand, and with the other he took a lump of earth from the wall and threw it at the Soldier. The latter opened his eyes with a start, saw what the Condemned Man had dared to do, let his weapon fall, braced his heels in the earth, and pulled the Condemned Man back, so that he immediately collapsed. The Soldier looked down at him, as he writhed around, making his chain clink. “Stand him up,” cried the Officer, for he noticed that the Condemned Man was distracting the Traveller too much. The latter was even leaning out away from the Harrow, without paying any attention to it, wanting to find out what was happening to the Condemned Man. “Handle him carefully,” the Officer yelled again. He ran around the apparatus, personally grabbed the Condemned Man under the armpits and, with the help of the Soldier, stood the man, whose feet kept slipping, upright.

“Now I know all about it,” said the Traveller, as the Officer turned back to him again. “Except the most important thing,” said the latter, grabbing the Traveller by the arm and pointing up high. “There in the Inscriber is the mechanism which determines the movement of the Harrow, and this mechanism is arranged according to the diagram on which the sentence is set down. I still use the diagrams of the previous Commandant. Here they are.” He pulled some pages out of the leather folder. “Unfortunately I can’t hand them to you. They are the most cherished thing I possess. Sit down, and I’ll show you them from this distance. Then you’ll be able to see it all well.” He showed the first sheet. The Traveller would have been happy to say something appreciative, but all he saw was a labyrinthine series of lines, criss-crossing each other in all sort of ways. These covered the paper so thickly that only with difficulty could one make out the white spaces in between. “Read it,” said the Officer. “I can’t,” said the Traveller. “But it’s clear,” said the Officer.” “It’s very elaborate,” said the Traveller evasively, “but I can’t decipher it.”

“Yes,” said the Officer, smiling and putting the folder back again, “it’s not calligraphy for school children. One has to read it a long time. You too will finally understand it clearly. Of course, it has to be a script that isn’t simple. You see, it’s not supposed to kill right away, but on average over a period of twelve hours. The turning point is set for the sixth hour. There must also be many, many embellishments surrounding the basic script. The essential script moves around the body only in a narrow belt. The rest of the body is reserved for decoration. Can you now appreciate the work of the Harrow and the whole apparatus? Just look at it!” He jumped up the ladder, turned a wheel, and called down, “Watch out-move to the side!” Everything started moving. If the wheel had not squeaked, it would have been marvelous. The Officer threatened the wheel with his fist, as if he was surprised by the disturbance it created. Then he spread his arms, apologizing to the Traveller, and quickly clambered down, in order to observe the operation of the apparatus from below.

Something was still not working properly, something only he noticed. He clambered up again and reached with both hands into the inside of the Inscriber. Then, in order to descend more quickly, instead of using the ladder, he slid down on one of the poles and, to make himself understandable through the noise, strained his voice to the limit as he yelled in the Traveller’s ear, “Do you understand the process? The Harrow is starting to write. When it’s finished with the first part of the script on the man’s back, the layer of cotton wool rolls and turns the body slowly onto its side to give the Harrow a new area. Meanwhile those parts lacerated by the inscription are lying on the cotton wool which, because it has been specially treated, immediately stops the bleeding and prepares the script for a further deepening. Here, as the body continues to rotate, prongs on the edge of the Harrow then pull the cotton wool from the wounds, throw it into the pit, and the Harrow goes to work again. In this way it keeps making the inscription deeper for twelve hours. For the first six hours the condemned man goes on living almost as before. He suffers nothing but pain. After two hours, the felt is removed, for at that point the man has no more energy for screaming. Here at the head of the Bed warm rice pudding is put in this electrically heated bowl. From this the man, if he feels like it, can help himself to what he can lap up with his tongue. No one passes up this opportunity. I don’t know of a single one, and I have had a lot of experience. He first loses his pleasure in eating around the sixth hour. I usually kneel down at this point and observe the phenomenon. The man rarely swallows the last bit. He turns it around in his mouth and spits it into the pit. When he does that, I have to lean aside or else he’ll get me in the face. But how quiet the man becomes around the sixth hour! The most stupid of them begin to understand. It starts around the eyes and spreads out from there. A look that could tempt one to lie down under the Harrow. Nothing else happens. The man simply begins to decipher the inscription. He purses his lips, as if he is listening. You’ve seen that it’s not easy to figure out the inscription with your eyes, but our man deciphers it with his wounds. True, it takes a lot of work. It requires six hours to complete. But then the Harrow spits him right out and throws him into the pit, where he splashes down into the bloody water and cotton wool. Then the judgment is over, and we, the Soldier and I, quickly bury him.”

The Traveller had leaned his ear towards the Officer and, with his hands in his coat pockets, was observing the machine at work. The Condemned Man was also watching, but without understanding. He bent forward a little and followed the moving needles, as the Soldier, after a signal from the Officer, cut through his shirt and trousers with a knife from the back, so that they fell off the Condemned Man. He wanted to grab the falling garments to cover his bare flesh, but the Soldier held him up and shook the last rags from him. The Officer turned the machine off, and in the silence which then ensued the Condemned Man was laid out under the Harrow. The chains were taken off and the straps fastened in their place. For the Condemned Man it seemed at first glance to signify almost a relief. And now the Harrow sunk down a stage lower, for the Condemned was a thin man. As the needle tips touched him, a shudder went over his skin. While the Soldier was busy with the right hand, the Condemned Man stretched out his left, with no sense of its direction. But it was pointing to where the Traveller was standing. The Officer kept looking at the Traveller from the side, without taking his eyes off him, as if he was trying to read from his face the impression he was getting of the execution, which he had now explained to him, at least superficially.

The strap meant to hold the wrist ripped off. The Soldier probably had pulled on it too hard. The Soldier showed the Officer the torn-off piece of strap, wanting him to help. So the Officer went over to him and said, with his face turned towards the Traveller, “The machine is very complicated. Now and then something has to tear or break. One shouldn’t let that detract from one’s overall opinion. Anyway, we have an immediate replacement for the strap. I’ll use a chain-even though that will affect the sensitivity of the movements for the right arm.” And while he put the chain in place, he kept talking, “Our resources for maintaining the machine are very limited at the moment. Under the previous Commandant, I had free access to a cash box specially set aside for this purpose. There was a store room here in which all possible replacement parts were kept. I admit I made almost extravagant use of it. I mean earlier, not now, as the New Commandant claims. For him everything serves only as a pretext to fight against the old arrangements. Now he keeps the cash box for machinery under his own control, and if I ask him for a new strap, he demands the torn one as a piece of evidence, the new one doesn’t arrive for ten days, and it’s an inferior brand, of not much use to me. But how I am supposed to get the machine to work in the meantime without a strap-no one’s concerned about that.”

The Traveller was thinking: it is always questionable to intervene decisively in strange circumstances. He was neither a citizen of the penal colony nor a citizen of the state to which it belonged. If he wanted to condemn the execution or even hinder it, people could say to him: You are a foreigner-keep quiet. He would have nothing in response to that, but could only add that he did not understand what he was doing on this occasion, for the purpose of his traveling was merely to observe and not to alter other people’s judicial systems in any way. True, at this point the way things were turning out it was very tempting. The injustice of the process and the inhumanity of the execution were beyond doubt. No one could assume that the Traveller was acting out of any sense of his own self-interest, for the Condemned Man was a stranger to him, not a countryman and not someone who invited sympathy in any way. The Traveller himself had letters of reference from high officials and had been welcomed here with great courtesy. The fact that he had been invited to this execution even seemed to indicate that people were asking for his judgment of this trial. This was all the more likely since the Commandant, as he had now heard only too clearly, was no supporter of this process and maintained an almost hostile relationship with the Officer.

Then the Traveller heard a cry of rage from the Officer. He had just shoved the stub of felt in the Condemned Man’s mouth, not without difficulty, when the Condemned Man, overcome by an irresistible nausea, shut his eyes and threw up. The Officer quickly yanked him up off the stump and wanted to turn his head aside toward the pit. But it was too late. The vomit was already flowing down onto the machine. “This is all the Commandant’s fault!” cried the Officer and mindlessly rattled the brass rods at the front. “My machine’s as filthy as a pigsty.” With trembling hands he showed the Traveller what had happened. “Haven’t I spent hours trying to make the Commandant understand that a day before the execution there should be no more food served. But the new lenient administration has a different opinion. Before the man is led away, the Commandant’s women cram sugary things down his throat. His whole life he’s fed himself on stinking fish, and now he has to eat sweets! But that would be all right-I’d have no objections-but why don’t they get a new felt, the way I’ve been asking him for three months now? How can anyone take this felt into his mouth without feeling disgusted-something that a hundred man have sucked and bitten on it as they were dying?”

The Condemned Man had laid his head down and appeared peaceful. The Soldier was busy cleaning up the machine with the Condemned Man’s shirt. The Officer went up to the Traveller, who, feeling some premonition, took a step backwards. But the Officer grasped him by the hand and pulled him aside. “I want to speak a few words to you in confidence,” he said. “May I do that?” “Of course,” said the Traveller and listened with his eyes lowered.

“This process and execution, which you now have an opportunity to admire, have no more open supporters in our colony. I am its only defender, just as I am the single advocate for the legacy of the Old Commandant. I can no longer think about a more extensive organization of the process-I’m using all my powers to maintain what there is at present. When the Old Commandant was alive, the colony was full of his supporters. I have something of the Old Commandant’s persuasiveness, but I completely lack his power, and as a result the supporters have gone into hiding. There are still a lot of them, but no one admits to it. If you go into a tea house today-that is to say, on a day of execution-and keep your ears open, perhaps you’ll hear nothing but ambiguous remarks. They are all supporters, but under the present Commandant, considering his present views, they are totally useless to me. And now I’m asking you: Should such a life’s work,” he pointed to the machine, “come to nothing because of this Commandant and the women influencing him? Should people let that happen? Even if one is a foreigner and on our island only for a couple of days? But there’s no time to lose. People are already preparing something against my judicial proceedings. Discussions are already taking place in the Commandant’s headquarters, to which I am not invited. Even your visit today seems to me typical of the whole situation. People are cowards and send you out-a foreigner. You should have seen the executions in earlier days! The entire valley was overflowing with people, even a day before the execution. They all came merely to watch. Early in the morning the Commandant appeared with his women. Fanfares woke up the entire campsite. I delivered the news that everything was ready. The whole society-and every high official had to attend-arranged itself around the machine. This pile of cane chairs is a sorry left over from that time. The machine was freshly cleaned and glowed. For almost every execution I had new replacement parts. In front of hundreds of eyes-all the spectators stood on tip toe right up to the hills there-the condemned man was laid down under the Harrow by the Commandant himself. What nowadays has to be done by a common soldier was then my work as the senior judge, and it was an honour for me. And then the execution began! No discordant note disturbed the work of the machine. Many people did not look any more at all, but lay down with closed eyes in the sand. They all knew: now justice was being carried out. In the silence people heard nothing but the groans of the condemned man, muffled by the felt. These days the machine no longer manages to squeeze a strong groan out of the condemned man-something the felt is not capable of smothering. But back then the needles which made the inscription dripped a caustic liquid which we are not permitted to use any more today. Well, then came the sixth hour. It was impossible to grant all the requests people made to be allowed to watch from up close. The Commandant, in his wisdom, arranged that the children should be taken care of before all the rest. Naturally, I was always allowed to stand close by, because of my official position. Often I crouched down there with two small children in my arms, on my right and left. How we all took in the expression of transfiguration on the martyred face! How we held our cheeks in the glow of this justice, finally attained and already passing away! What times we had, my friend!”

… and of course there’s more…

Next Page »