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.