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.