March 21, 2008
gain, again, I apologise for the lack of updates (and for the long ones when they do come!). But herewith the final section of Chapter 1, plus, as an added bonus, the conclusion. In some sense, Robert, this may to towards answering your questions about Levinas, and about my work. My concern is that, no, I don’t think we do ‘share’ the things that you list in the sense that we could then know the other’s suffering. Hopefully the critique of Frank here will help to make this point clearer. The writing-up, if anyone is interested, is inevitably slower than I would like. If I didn’t have to move house in the middle of all of this, I would probably be doing substantially better than I am! But, nonetheless…
The ethical response, for Levinas, is quite clear: it is com-passion. Compassion may sound deeply problematic: a number of those involved in discussions of best healthcare practice have discussed the similarities and differences between empathy and sympathy (see, for example, Hojat et al 2001). I want to set aside existing discussions of these two for the moment, and instead discuss the distinction we might derive from a Levinasian ethics, between empathy and compassion, based on their etymologies. The word ‘empathy’ comes from the Greek, and is taken from em, which means ‘in’ and pathos, which means ‘suffering’ (or sometimes more loosely ‘feeling’). This evokes, I want to suggest, a subject placing him or herself in the shoes of the suffering other. This is thematising response to the other, which is thus no response at all, because it supposes a form of feeling that involves the subject supposing that he or she knows what the other is experiencing. This suffering-in-the-other, then, involves the subject’s construction of the other as knowable. The response given in such a situation responds, then, not to the radical difference of the other, but rather to the subject’s supposition of what the other is, or, more dangerously still, what the subject supposes the other ought to be.
This is, I want to suggest, precisely the grounds for the limited response that Frank has towards the woman with ugly feet: he can, perhaps, understand the benefits of her surgical modification, but he refuses to sincerely believe her when she claims to be suffering. This claim to know the other is, precisely, the presumptive gesture of unethical empathy. Alterity remains beyond representation, and beyond knowledge; and this, in order to be ethical, is what the subject must respect. Yet although Frank is all too willing to recognise some forms of suffering, which fit within his understanding, others are denied. Worse, the suffering of the woman who believes she has ugly feet is reduced to nothing more than a social indicator, a means to the end of critiquing a particular cultural configuration (technoluxe). For Frank, it is precisely the otherness of this woman’s suffering that is so difficult to understand. This difficulty in understanding is, in some sense, precisely the response the subject must always have to the other, who remains never-fully-graspable. Yet in presuming that there is some underlying commonality between them, or that there ought to be (a position doomed to failure precisely because she is an other) he does violence to her suffering, and indeed, to her. It is not that Frank is intentionally unethical; far from it, it is, indeed, his awareness of broader political concerns which produces this effect. In his haste to find a guideline for who should be given surgery, he effaces the otherness of the other by forcing a thematisation of suffering.
The danger of responding in this way lies partially in the unethical presumption to know the other, and partially in the danger of engaging in theodicy, in all its dramatic secular forms. Levinas offers the following as expressions of theodicy which regularly go unnoticed as such. He argues that suffering is regularly made to carry a variety of meanings:
the meaning of pain that wins merit and hopes for a reward… Is it not meaningful as a means with an end in view, when it makes itself felt in the effort that goes into the preparation of a work, or in the fatigue resulting from it? [Or playing] the role of an alarm signal manifesting itself for the preservation of life against the cunning dangers that threaten it in illness… [Or again,] suffering appears at the very least as the price of reason and spiritual refinement. It is also thought to temper the individual’s character. It is said to be necessary to the teleology of community life, when social discontent awakens useful attention to the health of the collective body. Perhaps there is a social utility in the suffering necessary to the pedagogic function… [S]uffering, undergone as punishment, regenerates the enemies of society and humankind? This political teleology is founded, to be sure, on the value of existence, on the perseverance in being of society and of the individual, on their health, taken as the supreme and ultimate end (Levinas 1998, 95).
What is held in common between these various forms of theodicy is the attempt to make suffering somehow meaningful. Yet every meaning thus offered is the beginning of a justification, Levinas argues, because in making ‘pain henceforth meaningful, [it is] subordinated in one way or another to the metaphysical finality glimpsed by faith or belief in progress’ (Levinas 1998, 96). It is precisely such a subordination that permitted the Holocaust to occur; this was ‘the exasperation of a reason become political and detached from all ethics’ (Levinas 1998, 97). It is theodicy which permitted the subordination of the suffering of Jewish people, homosexuals, people with disabilities and many others, to the sought-after ends of Nazism: a pure race.
It may, indeed, seem laughable or offensive (or even both!) to set the suffering of individuals during the Holocaust alongside the suffering of the woman with ugly feet; in many respects, this is ludicrous, if we suppose that suffering is always and everywhere the same, that the two experiences are always straight-forwardly comparable. Yet suffering is always unique, as Levinas has demonstrated, and the ethical responsibility to the suffering other always absolute. To begin to draw distinctions between “worthy” and “unworthy” suffering is not only to thematise it, but to enter once more into theodicy and the justification of suffering. Levinas argues:
But does not this end of theodicy, which imposes itself in the face of this century’s inordinate trial, at the same time and in a more general way reveal the unjustifiable character of suffering in the other, the outrage it would be for me to justify my neighbour’s suffering?… [T]he justification of the neighbour’s pain is certainly the source of all immorality (Levinas 1998, 99).
What I take Levinas to be indicating here is that entertaining theodicy, in the form of justification for suffering at any point is problematic. The very supposition that suffering can be permissible in any circumstances produces and reproduces suffering as something that can be justified; further, it produces a political setting within which justifications for suffering may be offered. This in turn allows politics and reason to be ‘detached from all ethics,’ rather than being the means by which ethics is sustained and indeed, made possible.
This is the risk of Frank’s positioning of rational, ‘Socratic,’ dialogical ‘form of decision-making we respect’ (Frank 2004, 26) as the sole means by which someone may achieve relief from suffering. Quite aside from the homogenising implication that there is only one form of decision-making which it is possible to respect, the Levinasian question is, what does Frank’s suggestion allow to be justified? The way is opened for two problematic outcomes: on the one hand, such a method may suggest that certain people who claim to be suffering ought not to do so, and thus that their suffering does not deserve the response they seek, clearly contravening the imperative of ethical responsibility that Levinas describes. Second, it does indeed allow a means by which suffering is made justifiable. I have much sympathy with Frank’s concern to ensure the justice of the distribution of medical resources. However, to engage in secular theodicy in order to ensure this justice creates a political imperative which recognises some people not just as undeserving of medical treatment, but as suffering in the first place. In this respect, politics actively undermines ethics.
Frank’s attempt, here, to provide a framework by which the relief of suffering may be assessed retains, I want to suggest, an implicit allegiance with medicine. Indeed, Frank’s rhetorical question is quite telling: ‘if having unfashionable toes counts as humiliation, in what words can we describe the lives of people living with massive facial deformities?’ (Frank 2004, 22) What Frank is relying upon here is the reader’s implicit agreement that suffering must necessarily follow upon massive facial deformity. I will discuss this issue in some detail in chapter three; however, at this stage, I want to point out that Frank is here deploying a hierarchy of bodies, in which the most normal is expected to suffer least, and the most abnormal is expected to suffer most; when such expectations are foiled, this can result in a denial of suffering. This is because the implicit hierarchy of bodies is constituted, then, in relation to the norm; a norm supposed to have been “discovered” through the objective sciences of statistics and medicine. Thus we are returned us to the issue of subjectivity and objectivity: Frank’s ability to claim that the woman’s humiliation over her ugly feet is merely ‘an inflation in the language of pain’ suggests that there is an objective assessment of her body that counters her claim to subjective suffering.
Medicine thus provides the model by which this woman’s suffering may be diminished or even dismissed. Indeed, this reveals that the subjective/objective distinction in medical techniques of diagnosis is bound up with an unethical presumption to know the other’s suffering. In an echo of Canguilhem and Cassell, then, Levinas provides the means for a critique of medicine from medicine’s supposed origins: ‘[The call constitutes an o]riginal opening toward merciful care, the point at which… the anthropological category of the medical, a category that is primordial, irreducible and ethical, imposes itself’ (Levinas 1998, 93). In this respect, medicine’s attempt to treat pathology rather than suffering functions not only against its own legitimating claims, but against its own nature. Medicine, then, plays a key and problematic part in the secular theodicy of allowing only the suffering understood “objectively,” or, more accurately, understood common-sensically, to be recognised. It should be noted, however, that some forms of medicine are more willing to take suffering such as that articulated by the woman with ugly toes seriously; after all, she did have surgery. Yet even such forms of medicine attempt to maintain the subjective/objective distinction; as will be discussed in chapter three, this may even involve the “discovery” of a new pathology in order to ‘justify’ suffering. Maintaining the subjective/objective distinction ensures secular theodicy precisely because there is always a means by which suffering and the response it demands may be refused; for example, as Cassell puts it, ‘if no disease is found, physicians may suggest that the patient is “imagining” the pain, that it is “psychological” (in the sense that it is not real), or that he or she is “faking”‘ (Cassell 2004, 35). (Recollect Frank’s ‘inflation in the language of pain’ as an example of this logic at work in lay discussion, too.)
Frank’s framework, however, owes something more than the hierarchy of bodies to medicine: he presumes that medical “cure” as the sole means by which we can ethically respond to suffering. The ethical response is a necessity, but what Frank presumes without even considering it is that medical cure is the only possible answer. The centrality of medicine to this discussion is remarkable, and indicative, I would suggest, of a far more sinister logic. It takes the individual’s suffering as a starting-point, presuming that the individual who suffers simply does so neutrally, naturally, or precisely because of some ‘ontological perversion’ (Levinas 1998, 95) that must be righted. Here is the danger of medicine’s equivalence of suffering with pathology, and of the attempt to making objectively knowable what is not simply subjective but alterity (and thus ungraspable). It leaves uninterrogated the dovetailing between suffering and abnormalcy, which is implicitly what allows Frank’s (against implicit) distinction between suffering worthy of “cure” and suffering that ought not to seek resolution in the first place-that ought not to exist. In all of this, the extraordinary sway that normalcy has in the forms of ethical and political (not to mention medical!) responses made to suffering remains uncritiqued. This will be discussed in more detail throughout this thesis, but at the moment, I simply want to mark that the various forms of medical treatment Frank considers are all normalising. His focus on the suffering individual echoes the position of science in that he treats them, somewhat paradoxically, given his analysis of Bourdieuian “field” and his awareness of the effect one person’s surgery may have on another, as if they occurred ex nihilio. The situatedness of the subject may in fact play into their experience of suffering escapes attention; a situatedness, I would suggest, which is fundamentally bound up with the politics of normalcy. Frank’s conception of justice, then, may be aware of the effect of one person’s modification of their body on those around them, but does not consider either that their suffering may be part of their construction within a context; nor does he explore the possibility of intervening in, rather than simply reiterating or refusing to reiterate, conceptions of normalcy. It becomes ethically questionable, in such a context, to hold an individual responsible for his or her own suffering.
Empathy, then, creates a dangerous assumption that the other is knowable, and even that she or he is like me, which can wind up in theodicy and the problematic of a political system which permits the justification of suffering. Levinas’ counter to such a position is compassion (derived from the Latin com, or “with” and pati “to suffer”) is a suffering-with, rather than a suffering-in. It is a suffering-for-the-suffering-of-the-other. Levinas describes it thus:
the suffering of suffering, the suffering for the useless suffering of the other, the just suffering in me for the unjustifiable suffering of the other, opens suffering to the ethical perspective of the inter-human. In this perspective there is a radical difference between the suffering in the other, where it is unforgivable to me, solicits me and calls me, and suffering in me, my own experience of suffering, whose constitutional or congenital uselessness can take on a meaning, the only one of which suffering is capable, in becoming a suffering for the suffering… of someone else (Levinas 1998, 94).
In this then, Levinas demonstrates that the ethical response to suffering is suffering. But rather than a suffering which is turned inward and thus causes meaning to drain away, this suffering has a meaning; the pre-originary meaning of being-for-the-other. Compassion is ethical because it does not presume to know the other’s suffering, but responds, affectively, to the call of the other. That is, it must not deny the other’s alterity by attempting to fully know or thematise suffering, particularly by attempting to make it useful. Rather, ‘for pure suffering, which is intrinsically meaningless and condemned to itself with no way out, a beyond appears in the form of the interhuman’ (Levinas 1998, 93); that is, a ‘beyond’ in the relation engendered through the subject’s response. This allows the ethical relation to be opened once more, and thereby sapping suffering of its meaning-destroying power. Indeed, in recommending the form of response to a suffering person, Cassell reiterates Levinas, writing that, ‘the first step in restoring intactness is… to reach out to the suffering person to bring him or her back’ (Cassell 2004, 287). This ‘bringing back’ is the institution of the ethical relation such that the world becomes an assemblage of meaningful, useful data for the other once more. Suffering-with, then, is ‘compassion, not explanation’ (van Hooft 2004, 17): it neither intends nor functions to render the other’s suffering knowable, but simply to suffer alongside the other, in response to him or her, and thereby prise open the isolated passivity of his or her suffering. The subject’s response (arising from responsibility) then, is a suffering-with; to recall, the response to the other is the foundation of their very subjectivity. In compassion, a distance between subject and other is permitted by the ethical non-thematisation of the other such that the ethical relation which allows the other to be other is engendered; in contrast, empathy presumes that this spacing does not exist, and thus closes down the possibility of response, and in turn the possibility of opening the suffering other out to the meaningfulness of the ethical relation is lost.
Suffering, it is clear, holds a deeply contentious place in contemporary society. It demands a response, a response often thought to be provided by medicine and politics. Yet Levinas’ ethics demonstrates that suffering demands a response from the subject before there is any possibility of negotiating, thinking, reasoning our way around, in or out of that responsibility. It is in responsibility that I am brought into the possibility of meaning, even as the other exceeds my capacity to know and to name. In light of this, medicine’s scientific desire to render suffering back up as an objective matter is already unethical, already in denial of the unique experience of the other. Indeed, this gesture echoed by van Hooft and Edwards, in a perfect demonstration of the extent to which medicine has insinuated itself so thoroughly as the best form of response to suffering: to such a point that the bioethical examination of suffering is performed almost entirely in order to supplement medical intervention, presupposed to offer the best cure. Yet as Cassell points out, the refusal to critique the subjective/objective distinction is what produces medicine as unable to negotiate with the complex weave of different elements at play in suffering (as well as in ‘personhood’), such that medicine fails its stated and legitimising goal: the alleviation of suffering.
Yet as my discussion of Arthur Frank has made clear, there is another problematic aspect of assuming that the other’s suffering can be made knowable. This can be the grounds for what Levinas names as a secular form of theodicy, when some forms of suffering are made justifiable, even politically positive. These forms are presumed to somehow escape the ethical imperative of response, because they are subordinated to political ends. Frank’s response to the woman with ugly toes who claims her humiliation was sufficiently painful that it required cure remains ambivalent: he either believes that she suffers but that she ought not, or that she is indulging in an ‘inflation in the language of pain.’ Either constitutes an attempt to set aside her suffering as a form that need not be responded to, and indeed, ought not to be responded to, because the medical cure (which, it is implied, is the only possible response) might detract from other, worthier forms of suffering. This is a politics which, according to Levinas’ formulation, has lost its way: the inevitable violence of comparing the incomparable has given way to a politics which requires that some suffering remain unrecognised or at any rate not cured, in order that some greater purpose-in Frank’s case, the just distribution of medical resources-may be achieved.
The contextual specificity of suffering has been gestured to by this account, but I have also suggested that Frank fails to fully engage with the thoroughly contextual experience of the subject. I have begun to suggest that making sense of this contextually-derived experience, we need to examine the hierarchisation of bodies through the concept of normalcy, and the effects of this on an individual subject. Indeed, whilst medicine supposes itself most often to be treating the body, a thorough engagement with bodily being has been perhaps somewhat paradoxically absent from the discussions of suffering explored in this chapter. Even granted Cassell’s willingness to challenge the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, and its homologue in the dichotomy between mind and body (Cassell 2004, 31), he nonetheless fails to fully engage with embodiment. And whilst I do not think that Levinas intends to invoke a disembodied subject, it is nonetheless clear that suffering poses a distinct problem for consciousness, in his discussion, and specifically for consciousness’ meaning-making capacity. Bodily being remains underconsidered; and specifically, the relation between bodily experience and the context within which the subject occurs has not yet been sufficiently considered. In the next chapter, I will begin the task of elaborating a theory of suffering which engages with the subject as embodied, thereby challenging the Cartesian dualism of mind/body, as well as the dichotomy of self/other. Thus, through a consideration of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, I will explore how and why the embodied subject and his or her experience of suffering is produced in and through being with others, and within a context.
March 17, 2008
ND still more… sorry for lack of updates, people. The writing-up is slow, and I am behind yet again, so once again, you get a chunk o’ theory that at this stage I’m crossing fingers isn’t going to preclude publication. (Robert, if you’re still reading, this section might demonstrate some of the ambiguity of trying to work with Levinas’ approach to ethics and politics in relation to suffering…) Can anyone definitively tell me if I’m risking not getting published by putting this up here? Oh, and send me good writing vibes, won’t you please? 🙂
… we pick up from the last Chapter 1 post…
The word “suffering” occurs a lot in Levinas’ writings. This is, perhaps, unsurprising, given that he writes, at least partially, to negotiate with the memory of the Shoah (also known as the Holocaust). The call of the other, which demands response, is characterised in various ways-through the face, the expression of mortality, height, destitution, to name only a few-but suffering, perhaps, remains the characteristic that subtends all of these. It is the suffering of the other to which the subject responds, prior to will, assessment or knowledge. I cannot be, Levinas argues, but that I respond to the suffering other.
It is the vulnerability of the other, then, that calls to me, and brings me into being. Yet Levinas also, primarily in the “mature” text Otherwise than Being, characterises the experience of the call for the subject as one of suffering. The deprivation of the ego’s self-satisfied enjoyment through the call of the other to query his or her own presumption is, in some sense, a source of suffering. Yet Levinas distinguishes between these two types of suffering, partially because his ethics is never about symmetrical reciprocity:
there is a radical difference between the suffering in the other, where it is unforgivable to me, solicits me and calls me, and suffering in me, my own experience of suffering, whose constitutional or congenital uselessness can take on a meaning, the only one of which suffering is capable, in becoming suffering for the suffering (inexorable though it may be) of someone else (Levinas 1998, 94).
The other’s suffering is purest ‘evil’ (Levinas 1998, 93), in other words, whilst my own suffering can be fundamentally ethical; is, indeed, the very expression of the ethical. This contrast, then, offers us both sides of the story, and as intertwined-the experience of suffering itself, and the response it engenders which is also suffering but of a different modality. Although the centrality of suffering to ethics means that his discussions of suffering are spread throughout his work, it is ‘Useless Suffering’ that constitutes, perhaps, Levinas’ most explicitly discussion of it, and particularly in relation to theodicy, which is a theological term for the justification of belief in God in the face of suffering. As we shall see, this is of surprising relevance to a discussion of the role played by suffering in contemporary discourse, most particularly because it queries the privileged status of the “cure” as the superlative response.
Levinas describes the phenomenology of suffering in terms of how it functions within a consciousness accustomed to grasping the world, accustomed to perceiving, knowing and thus having the world be meaningful: to this consciousness, suffering is fundamentally contradictory.
Suffering is, of course, a datum in consciousness, a certain “psychological content,” similar to the lived experience of color, sound, contact, or any other sensation. But in this very “content” it is an in-spite-of-consciousness, the unassumable. The unassumable and “unassumability.” “Unassumability” that does not result from the excessive intensity of a sensation, from just some quantitative “too much,” surpassing the measure of our sensibility and our means of grasping and holding; but an excess, an unwelcome superfluity, that is inscribed in a sensorial content, penetrating, as suffering, the dimensions of meaning that seem to open themselves to it, or become grafted onto it (Levinas 1998, 91).
Suffering, then, occurs within consciousness, but as thoroughly ungraspable. Indeed, it also penetrates all possible sensorial content, and thereby renders everything unassumable. This does not simply designate the kind of content that is overwhelming because I cannot take it all in at once, but rather content that is not content, that I could never grasp. Thus suffering strips out all the dimensions of meaning that the subject might deploy in attempting to grapple with it, and infiltrates all meaning, including the already-established.
It is as if suffering were not just a datum, refractory of the synthesis of the Kantian “I think”-which is capable of reuniting and embracing the most heterogeneous and disparate data into order and meaning in its a priori forms-but the way in which the refusal, opposing the assemblage of data into a meaningful whole, rejects it; at once what disturbs order and this disturbance itself. It is not only the consciousness of rejection, or a symptom of rejection, but this rejection itself: a backward consciousness, “operating” not as “grasp” but as revulsion… The denial, the refusal of meaning, thrusting itself forward as a sensible quality: that is, in the guise of “experienced” content, the way in which, within a consciousness, the unbearable is precisely not borne, the manner of this not-being-borne; which, paradoxically, is itself a sensation or a datum… Contradiction qua sensation: the ache of pain-woe‘ (Levinas 1998, 91-2).
Suffering, then, is the lived experience of contradiction, of the inability to experience what one nonetheless experiences. Suffering cannot be grasped, but revolts against such a grasping, disturbing not only this particular moment of the subject, but troubling all meaning, all order.
Indeed, Levinas invokes this experience of the ungraspable as engendering a unique form of passivity as the fundamental factor in the experience of suffering:
[t]he passivity of suffering, in its pure phenomenology… is not the other side of any activity… [it] is more profoundly passive than the receptivity of our senses… sensibility is a vulnerability, more passive than receptivity; an encounter more passive than experience. It is precisely an evil… Suffering is a pure undergoing (Levinas 1998, 92).
This is not simply passivity that could at any moment be turned into activity, then, but a passivity far more fundamental, prior to the possibility of activity. In this moment, then, Levinas is pointing out that it is not simply my inability to act that is at stake here: ‘[i]t is not a matter of a passivity that would degrade human beings by affecting their freedom’ (Levinas 1998, 92). It is not that I am denied my existing capacity to be an agent, to enact an existing freedom. The “no” of suffering is so thorough-going that it unpicks the very possibility of acting.
The humanity of those who suffer is overwhelmed by the evil that rends it, otherwise than by non-freedom: violently and cruelly, more irremissibly than the negation that dominates or paralyses in non-freedom. What counts in… the submission of suffering is the concreteness of the not, looming as an evil more negative than any apophantic not… The not of evil, a negativity extending as far as to the realm of unmeaning… It is the impasse of life and of being-their absurdity-in (new page) which pain does not somehow innocently just happen to “color” consciousness with affectivity. The evil of pain, the deleterious per se, is the outburst and deepest expression, so to speak, of absurdity. Thus the least one can say about suffering is that, in its own phenomenality, intrinsically, it is useless: “for nothing” (Levinas 1998, 92-3).
How precisely this nothingness works is clarified by recalling the priority of the ethical. It is the ethical relation of the subject’s response to the other’s call that alters the ontological, shifting being-for-itself and being-in-itself into a being-for-the-other. It is the ethical relation of subject to other that opens up the possibility knowledge, and to the possibility of justice. As Levinas describes,
this depth of meaninglessness that the analysis seems to suggest is confirmed by empirical situations of pain, in which pain remains undiluted, so to speak, and isolates itself in consciousness, or absorbs the rest of consciousness (Levinas 1998, 93).
In this sense, then, suffering is a mode of being that breaks apart the ethical relation, isolating the individual in his or her individual being, radically turned in on him or herself, in a state of ‘extreme passivity, helplessness, abandonment and solitude’ a thorough-going, ontological and precisely unethical solitude which is ‘condemned to itself with no way out’ (Levinas 1998, 93). There is no way to move beyond, outside, or through the experience precisely because such a movement requires the relation with the other in order to make meaning. The suffering subject becomes:
psychologically deprived, retarded, impoverished in their social life and impaired in their relation to the other person-that relation in which suffering, without losing anything of its savage malignancy, no longer eclipses the totality of the mental and moves into a new light, within new horizons… For pure suffering, which is intrinsically senseless and condemned to itself with no way out, a beyond appears in the form of the interhuman (Levinas 1998, 93-4).
In being drawn out of the closed-down state of being that the subject is in when s/he suffers, the ‘beyond’ that is offered is precisely one that troubles the meaninglessness of suffering: ‘the order of meaning… is precisely what comes to us from the interhuman relationship, so that the Face… is the beginning of intelligibility’ (Levinas 1998, 103). Without it, I cannot resist suffering’s dismantling of my capacity to enact the ‘assemblage of data into a meaningful whole.’
In many respects, I would suggest that Levinas’ description of suffering echoes Cassell’s. Indeed, Cassell positions meaning as at the heart of his challenge to the Cartesian split, and the querying of the radical distinction between self and other, between self and community (Cassell 2004, 230-237). The difficulty that Cassell expresses in grappling with the very idea of meaning (see for example Cassell 2004, 241) is, I would suggest, specifically engaged with by Levinas’ ethical theory. Levinas argues that the relation between subject and other generates meaning specifically because it is required of the subject as responsible: intelligibility, as we saw above, begins with the Face. More striking in the similarities between the accounts of suffering provided by the ethical philosopher and the physician is the idea that suffering causes the break-down of meaning. The intactness of the person requires the relation with the other-the meaning-making relation of responsibility. The loss of this relation through the solipsistic turning-inward identified by Levinas produces a threat to the intactness of the person, a threat to their capacity to make the world make sense. They are not alone in this; Elaine Scarry argues that ‘[p]hysical pain does not merely resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language’ (Scarry 1984, 4). Cassell and Scarry both provide remarkably detailed engagements with the physicality of suffering, and of the extent to which meaning is bound up with the intactness of the self. In the following chapter, I will examine Merleau-Ponty’s theory of bodily being-in-the-world to help us understand how and why bodily being is bound up both with meaning-making and thus with the trauma of suffering in the next chapter.
To this point, however, Levinas has given us a way of understanding, as far as possible, the enigma that is suffering for consciousness; or more to the point, Levinas makes it clear that the enigma is caused by the breaking of the meaning-making ethical relation. The subject’s capacity to grasp his or her suffering is undermined by the (un)ethical isolation from the other. Yet whilst these broad brush strokes may give us a sense of what suffering is, it is important that for Levinas, the call is precisely the call of alterity; here we turn to the question of the subject’s responsibility to the other. Alterity, to recall, is the radical otherness of the other, which remains not simply ungraspable, but ungraspability. The ‘the original call for aid, for curative help… [comes] from the other… whose alterity, whose exteriority promises salvation.’ (Levinas 1998, 93) In this sense, then, the suffering of the suffering other is an expression of precisely that alterity, and thus cannot be fully grasped by the subject. If an attempt is made to thematise the other and their suffering, to suppose the radical uniqueness of this particular other’s experience to be comprehensible, then a violence has been done to that other. This is not an ethical response.
March 12, 2008
ANCY title, yes, boring post… I need to move from where I am currently living. This is a pain in the arse, given that the PhD is in its final throes, and I could really do with having nothing else to think about for the next month. But instead, I have to think of moving. My housemates, a couple, have decided to move to Perth. Before the lease is up. Which leaves me in the difficult position of either getting in a) the very right people, who will leave me alone, given that I am trying to finish who b) also happen to own a fridge, couches and a dining room table, c) are not a couple coz that can prove difficult to live with, IME, d) are already easy to live with and who I don’t need to spend time bonding with, e) won’t care if I disappear very soon, with the end of the lease… and f) are rich and also willing to pay the lion’s share of the rent (given that the divvying-up arrangements I have now reflect the aforementioned coupledom of my housemates). So, too difficult, particularly given that if any of these things fell through, it could leave me with $490 a week to pay on my own. Terrifying. Decisions needed to be made quickly. And so they were.
And now, we have to clean the house so that people can come and decide whether they want to live here. My room was a complete mess, and my desk still is. There’s just no way to make that many bits of paper look neat (except put them under the bed, but I retain my futon base, which makes such things rather difficult), and the books are sprouting torn-paper bookmarks in a rather unbecoming fashion. I have a strange reaction to these things: a friend pointed out that those who come and view the house are not going to be deciding on the basis of how tidy I kept it… and yet I have to vacuum, wipe down the dust (which was beyond the light dusting stage) and attempt to tidy my piles of books. Joy. My Nan would be… well, not proud, given that my cleanest is probably her dirtiest, but… something.
But the cost bit. I’m sure, if you’re living in Australia and not under a rock, you’ve heard about the massive upswing in the rental market. Houses are becoming more and more expensive. We know this. When the ad for our place went up, though, we did not expect the $110 price rise. Nor did we expect the real estate agent who was openly gleeful about the fact that they could “probably go higher,” and that people are “so desperate there’s just no worries about getting people in.” She also remarked on the fact that she didn’t want to hold inspections after working hours “because that would put [her] out.” Which, understandable, it’s crap and annoying. But on the other hand, when combined with the sickening enjoyment of the extraordinary power estate agents have over people, it’s just another sign of the disgustingness of this market. I had a guy come to the door today begging for an out-of-hours inspection, desperation in his eyes. I have sympathy first, and then massive anxiety for me… will I be the random stranger knocking on doors desperate for a place to lay my head?
Thus, at the beginning of April, I have to find a place to live, one I can afford (HA. HA. HA.) , don’t absolutely hate, and where I don’t need to go into get-to-know-you space (which is wonderful, lots of the time, but fucking time consuming). I may need to choose between paying double rent and paying twice for hiring a truck and moving myself. All of this, my friends, while I try to complete. Why oh why oh why did they invent a place such as Perth?!
March 1, 2008
Posted by WildlyParenthetical under Levinas
E-READING Levinas is an interesting experience. The difference between Otherwise than Being and Totality and Infinity is actually quite marked to my eyes. Totality and Infinity came first, and it bears the marks of being written before the former: its terminology is looser, for example, with numerous references to metaphysics, which the latter avoids. But there’s something else: the characterisation of the relationship with the other changes quite dramatically from TI to OB, and this shift is quite interesting given that I’m reading it with eyes focussed on suffering. In TI, the relationship with the other is astonishing, world-giving, world-devastating, but in a joyous rather than an horrific way. Levinas seems to sing throughout this book, waxing lyrical, writing what is almost a love letter to the other. Heady and excited, it evokes the absolute generosity of those early moments in a relationship, when similarities feel homey and difference offers ecstasy.
But if this is so, in OB, the lover has jilted him, but he’s still bound. The relationship with the other is abruptly not one of possibility and generosity (or at any rate, it is not purely or even mostly that). Rather, one suffers the effect of the other. The other takes from me my self-certainty, and suddenly it seems that Levinas assumes my self-certainty, my self-sufficiency, my introspective enjoyment of myself was the sole source of my joy before the other dispossessed me of it. Whilst in some sense this echoes what he says in TI, there’s more violence here: the other’s violence to me which I have no choice but to accept and continue to respond to. It evokes the slow, weary resignation of the lover neglected, ignored, abused. It evokes a state of being destitute of joyfulness, duty-bound, cautious, limited. The other’s limitations of my power no longer feels like it offers the possibility of recognising, of deploying those powers, but rather, as if the other takes those powers from me. If TI marked the boon of the other, OB marks my loss.
This raises interesting questions in itself, which I really only have time to sketch here. In some respects, I wonder if Levinas regretted speaking of the relationship with the other as one of good things, of gains, of moments of astonishing ecstasy of being unbound from the self. After all, his construction of ethics is aimed at decentering the subject, and if I only respond to the other for the extraordinary goods I receive from him/her, this is not true ethical responsibility. If I give only in order to receive, then I have given not to the other, but to myself, a return to the Same; I do not respond to the other qua other, but the other-as-the-one-who-will-give-me-back-to-me. Perhaps, then, OB aims to demonstrate that I respond—and cannot help but do so—to the other not simply when it is good to do so, but when it is hard, when that generosity becomes a source of suffering. Levinas is trying to remind us that our lives are simply not about us; that being is never being-for-itself, but being-for-the-other, even when that is hard, suffering, deathly.
It is little wonder that so many commentators talk about responsibility as a hardship, then, and seek to loosen the grip that this responsibility has on us through various means: declaring it to be ideal and impossible, declaring the weight of this responsibility to be lessened through politics and the third (which Levinas does occasionally say, in amongst claiming that ethics retains its priority), declaring responsibility to be too much about sacrifice, too much about guilt, too fucking Christian, too incredibly Catholic for words…
(I suppose this becomes all the more interesting when we pay attention to where and how a Levinasian sense of responsibility has played through: whose responsibilities have been produced as a natural and thus as expected, neutral, nothing; and whose have been marked as generous? And who, in this process, has suffered through having to give and give and give to those who have never seen that responsibility is, indeed, their responsibility? At least Levinas’ theory, in theory, has an absoluteness to it that ensures that political asymmetries are made irrelevant, that it is only this subject who must respond to this other (whoever either of them are) and thus that privilege cannot be turned into the denial of responsibility as it so often is…)
And on the one hand, this could be accurate. On the other, I cannot help but see that this kind of response is precisely what Levinas is attempting to make us wary of, too conscious of its potential for abuse. It reinstates the centrality of the I, creating myself as the sun to the solar system; it marks the edges of responsibility not as carved out by the other, but as related to my own sense of my right to my own life, to my own projects, to my own powers, to my own – in the end – happiness. If I respond, this line of thought threatens to suggest, it is only to the extent that I am not troubled in this response; I can only give the excess, never myself, never when it threatens my happiness…
This has been playing on my mind of late: where does this sense of a right to happiness come from? Why do we think that we have the right to be happy, and to do whatever we need to be happy? But more particularly, why do we experience the responsibilities to the other as painful? What poisoned the relationship? Where did the ecstasy of generosity become suffering, become a threat to happiness? And if I can make comprehensible Levinas’ attempt to defuse the question of happiness—for my responsibility exceeds any of that selfish stuff—what effect does it have to never think my relationship with the other as one of joy? What is denied then? (And yes, I do have some thoughts in relation to these questions, but they will need to wait until later… paper calls!)
ETA: For an evocation of two responses to the other, identifying Levinas’ problematic depiction of the feminine other and the (implicitly masculine Other) as the key to this dynamic—this is, of course, the grounds of Irigaray’s slapping Levinas over the wrist—see Spurious.