I’ve been thinking a lot about disability of late, which won’t surprise those of you who have been sharing a particular corner of the blogosphere, in which awesome and fail appear to coexist in some kind of proportion in which the latter sadly sometimes seems to be winning out. In this analysis of the “Harmonisation of Disability Parking Permit Schemes in Australia”, I argue that the shift that is being proposed is from the social model of disability, to the medical model.

The medical model suggests that there is a way that the body ought to be, and any permanent ‘loss’ of such ‘normal’ capacities constitutes disability (and that this is a natural, neutral state of affairs that is no one’s fault—except the individual body, of course). This approach is the most mainstream, and it’s constitutive of much of the discrimination that disabled people (or people with disabilities, both terminologies having a different but important political point to make) experience.

The social model, which is offered as a counter to the medical model, suggests instead that the ‘loss’ of capacity occurs not because of the impairment itself, but because of the impairment in combination with a world built for the temporarily able-bodied. (And this doesn’t only refer to the built environment, of course: models of sociality, for example, are very strongly ableist).

There’s actually another step in this little spectrum, one which doesn’t get much screen time in activism (understandably, because it’s so far from the medical model, and such a challenge to it as to appear incomprehensible or nonsensical to those committed to the medical model). This suggests that even understanding particular bodies as impaired is the result of a presumption about the body. That is, it argues that disability begins at the moment when you understand some bodies as naturally unimpaired, and others as naturally impaired: the drawing of that line is not a neutral, naturally-given one, as we like to pretend. It is a political distinction that is, in itself, is invested with the ability system, which, as Lennard Davis argues, is what constitutes particular bodies as disabled, and thus as the problem. Davis recommends that whenever we see such a problem, we ought to ask how it is that this ‘problem’ is constituted as a problem, and be careful to observe the privilege that attends that which is not considered a problem. What makes disabled bodies into ‘those bodies with problems’? The presumption, essentially, that they ought to be otherwise: normal. And this in turn maintains the privilege of the able body.

The group who potentially loses out most dramatically in the proposed parking permit scheme is those with invisible disabilities, as Lauredhel demonstrates so clearly here. In response, I began thinking about what it meant to have an invisible disability. On the one hand, it might be that we could think of those with invisible disabilities as those who can ‘pass’ as able-bodied. And sometimes this is true, at least some of the time, and there’s little doubt that this ability to pass can lead to privilege as well as the problems associate with invisibility. For example, people approaching someone in a wheelchair will often talk to their assistant pushing the chair, as if the person with a disability is incapable of thought, conversation etc, and this kind of discrimination is something those who can walk are unlikely to confront. On the other hand, we can think more carefully, and see that those who have ‘invisible’ disabilities  are those whose differences simply don’t fit into someone’s expectation of what disability ought to be. And this means that legislation is likely to discriminate against those with ‘invisible’ disabilities because it is employing the medical model of disability. What does this mean? Well, hopefully this little story of mine might help.

Years ago, now, I was stepping out (sorry, I find that phrase hilarious and had to use it) with a young man who had a visual impairment. As he was doing a PhD, this meant that he couldn’t read at quite the rate he might have liked, and sometimes working on the computer was too much. I encouraged him to make use of whatever assistance the disability office at uni could offer him, even though I understood his fairly intense ambivalence about it. They were singularly unhelpful. He felt that they treated him as if he was ‘faking it’, on the one hand, and expecting too much of them on the other. The extension of his scholarship that he was hoping to get was, they told him, simply not going to be possible. I suggested that perhaps he should look to Centrelink’s Disability Allowance to help him fund the completion of his PhD. He picked up the forms, still unhappy about this prospect, even as he knew it was probably necessary, and brought them home.

I looked over his shoulder at the forms he was trying to fill out. He had ticked the box marked ‘visual impairment’, and been sent to another section. In this section, the form asked him for some proof from an opthalmologist. He hesitated. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Well, I’ve seen opthalmologists,” he explained. “But the issue isn’t in my eyes. It’s in my brain.”

His visual impairment, you see, wasn’t a loss of vision due to some problem in the eye, as the form assumed. He had been prone to migraines as a kid, and at some point (I think the age of 11, but this was a while ago), he had had an incredibly severe migraine. He recounted looking downwards, and having his entire left leg disappear in his blindspot. The auras had hung around—a permanent fixture, as it turned out. He saw multiple copies of everything, more or less depending on how good a day it was. Sometimes things looked like a badly tuned TV set, sometimes there were lines, sometimes… you get the idea. But although this interfered with his vision, it didn’t fit the form’s idea of what a visual impairment was. It didn’t seem to fit into any of the other categories either, as far as either of us could tell, although he might have argued a case under ‘having suffered a stroke’ except that that category seemed to think that difficulty speaking and walking would be the primary problems he’d have then. Frustrated and embarrassed, he stepped away from the idea, away from the forms. His impairment wasn’t real, couldn’t be argued for, proven, justified. Everyone would think he was faking it. I couldn’t think of what to say.

This is part of the problem with the medical model. It has a particular image of disability, generally involving the assumption of some level of dependence on others (because of course the temporarily able-bodied are so independent[snort!]), and it institutes this, medically, legislatively. And in so doing, it requires that people with disabilities be people with particular, recognisable kinds of disabilities. Instead of testing for how one is disabled by a particular thing—by inaccessible parking, by stairs, by having to stand to be served, by the university’s expectations of a student’s reading speed—that is, instead of testing for a real problem with the way the world works, it instead requires that you fit an existing imagining of disability. And this existing imagining of disability is very limited, and thoroughly bound up with able-bodied fantasies (nightmares) about disabled bodies: as people in wheelchairs, people who are blind, people who are deaf. And indeed, it assumes that it already knows the effects of each of these impairments, a point which the Deaf community knows and battles, arguing against the idea that Deafness is a lack, or a loss, or an impairment at all. The medical model homogenises disability unnecessarily, and more than this, it renders numerous disabilities invisible because they do not match up to this fantasy of what constitutes disability.

When we legislate according to the medical model, we legislate what disability ought to be, what disability ought to look like. We legislate the visibility of disability, and we do it by rendering a whole mass of heterogeneous bodies imperceptible, invisible, ignore their capacity to be disabled by an able-bodied world. We imagine visual impairments after a singular model where vision is only located in the eye. We imagine mobility restrictions only through difficulty with walking. We imagine that the solution to PWD (and it is a solution to, not a solution for) is compensating for their recalcitrant  body, a body we assume to know all about. We reject the idea that the world might need to be reworked, rethought, rebuilt, and instead maintain disability by maintaining the world as a place which expects certain ‘normal’ things of bodies, and which privileges those bodies which can live up to this ideal as a result. When we legislate according to the medial model of disability, we maintain the disabilities of those who don’t adhere to our nightmare visions of disability, because we’re busy pretending they don’t exist, erasing them from our construction of the world. We ensure that some people remain disabled because we don’t have the imagination to allow the category of ‘disability’ to be shaped by the heterogeneity of real bodies, the heterogeneity of real needs, the heterogeneity of the real ways that people live their lives. We refuse to produce legislation which tests not for ‘the impairment itself’, but for disability, because that might implicate the able-bodied, our standards of normalcy, might trouble the extraordinary privilege maintained only at the disadvantage of those who don’t live up to our standards. We render bodies which might trouble our limited imagining of difference invisible, and then shrug, and raise our hands in the air, and ask how we could possibly have known that such people even existed, and how we could possibly be expected to ‘cater to’ such exorbitant, excessive difference. The perceptibility of bodies is a key stake in the politics of disability, because disabilities aren’t invisible. They’re invisibilised.

P.S We’ve done a whole lot of the work of being active for you! Beppie, Lauredhel and I have given you some quick and easy ways to respond to the supposed “Harmonisation Scheme”: a form letter, and a letter encouraging organisations to submit a response.


To begin, I want to tell you a story of a medical emergency.

Zippora, a 41-year-old Israeli, has given birth to an intersexed child. Sociologist Meira Weiss happens to be in the delivery room; she is researching parental reactions to diseased and deformed babies. When the nurse shows Zippora her baby, Weiss reports that the new mother turns pale, trembles, and bursts into tears: “What will I do? What will I tell people on the street when they ask me what I had, a girl or a boy? What will I tell them? [crying]… Can you operate? Maybe you can do an operation or … several operations, and then everything will be O.K. … and then people will know whether it is a boy or a girl… Oh, how disgusting” (Morland 2001, 527).

I’ve told this story several times to open a discussion of intersex, and the reactions are always quite diverse. Some people ‘tsk’ audibly during conference presentations. Some people’s eyes widen, whether because they have never imagined this scene occurring, or because they are astonished at the vehemence of Zippora’s reaction, I’m not sure. But most people look vaguely uncomfortable, caught imagining themselves in Zippora’s situation, perhaps, feeling that even as the words she uttered at a moment of great distress sound harsh, unfair, too stark and cruel, that they could not guarantee that they themselves would not react in the same way, confronted with the body of a longed-for child, which has abruptly become something other than they had imagined. There is, perhaps, a kind of comfort in knowing that medicine will not downplay the distress and anxiety expressed at such a moment. Such a situation is treated as a medical emergency. Most NICUs (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) at most hospitals have a team ready to jump into action, to offer, supposedly, answers and solutions to the medical emergency of an infant with genitalia which doesn’t meet expectations.

Before I go on, I want to offer just a brief rundown of what intersex is, for those who have not encountered this phenomenon before. Intersex is the term that replaced ‘hermaphrodism’ in designating those bodies which did not fall neatly within those categories of ‘male’ bodies and ‘female’ bodies. The occurrence of intersex has been variously reported, but about 1.7 % of all live births seems to be the most accurate number so far. There are so many forms of intersex that sometimes talking about them collectively can be a bit misleading. There are some forms of genetic or chromosomal anomalies that will never manifest in variant genitalia or hormones at all, so that such people may never know that they are intersex in some sense. There are some which are the result of an insensitivity to a particular hormone, which can result in bodies which have testes and a vagina, because the ‘virilizing’ effect of that hormone never alters the body as it does in ‘males’. Or there can be micropenis, where the penis winds up shorter than expected in men. Or hypospadias, in which final part of the development of a ‘male’ feotus, the movement of the peehole from the base of the penis to the tip never quite completes. These are just a few examples of intersex, not an exhaustive list, but the majority result in what intersex advocates call ‘variant’ genitalia. As you can hear, every description I offer can only be fully understood in relation to those bodies taken as the measure of normalcy: male and female bodies. This is the standard from which intersex bodies are thought to vary. I’ll come back to this point. Some intersex advocates have recently adopted the term ‘DSD’ or ‘Disorders of Sexual Development’ as a better term than intersex (see http://www.isna.org). I resist this for a number of reasons, which I hope will become clear as the discussion progresses; but briefly: the adoption of medical language in this case works to reinforce that there is a proper order of sexual development, an order which intersex bodies fail to follow properly. This minimises the challenge that intersex poses to our assumptions about sexual dimorphism, as we shall see.

So, having discussed one form of authority over intersex bodies—that of medicine—I want to briefly mention another: the law. In NSW, there are criminal laws (Section 45 of the Crimes Act) which are designed to prevent “female genital mutilation”. They set down that any person who “excises, infibulates or otherwise mutilates the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person” should be imprisoned for 7 years. There are numerous recountings from intersexed people which use terms such as ‘excision’ and ‘mutilation’ to refer to the procedures performed upon their genitalia, and indeed, it is hard to see how the shortening of the clitoris, a fairly regular ‘treatment’ for intersexed infants, falls outside this part of the section. And indeed, some have suggested that cases should be brought against those who have performed ‘intersex corrective surgery’ under these laws. But the Act also contains an exception for those modifications deemed “necessary for the health of the person on whom it is performed.” And health is neatly described: “In determining whether an operation is necessary for the health of a person only matters relevant to the medical welfare of the person are to be taken into account.“ It’s pretty clear what’s at stake here: the Act is trying to outlaw one form of genital modification–that form known in the West as ‘female genital mutilation’, whilst ensuring that there are ways to argue in favour of others—and not only intersex, but ‘cosmetic’ genital procedures, which do not always differ significantly from those which are deemed ‘mutilation’. In order to ensure that this distinction is made and maintained, the law relies upon medical expertise as to what “medical welfare” actually means. A side note here is that this assumes that a special form of objectivity adheres to Western medical science’s understanding of healthy, normal genitalia, and so law relies upon Western medicine’s supposedly self-evident legitimacy to specifically preclude any non-Western ideas about what ‘normal’ genitalia look like. In other words, legitimising Western medical authority in this way ensures that genitalia which might be ‘normal’ in Kenya or Sudan can never be considered ‘healthy’.

So what does constitute ‘medical welfare’ in the context of intersex? Well, clearly the medical community agrees that there is something of a medical problem with intersexed bodies, or it would not have developed so many techniques for dealing with them. But while some of these techniques are designed to avoid serious medical problems, such as genital formations which divert urine back into the uterus, the majority of surgeries performed on infants with variant genitalia are designed to alter the appearance of that genitalia. Indeed, it has been argued that such surgeries aren’t for the health or medical welfare of the individual child, but is designed primarily to treat parental distress, as we saw in the case of Zippora. She cries out for someone to normalise her child’s genitalia, and in most if not all cases, this cry is answered, the suffering resolved. Through the surgical ‘normalisation’ of the child’s genitalia.

The ‘normalisation’ of the child’s genitalia is, in contemporary times, taken to be a resolution of the child’s ‘sex’. I want to draw attention now to the specificities of the assumption that genitalia which adheres to some sense of normal ‘male’ or ‘female’ genitalia is ‘healthy’ genitalia. We think we know what sex is—know it so well and easily that it doesn’t need specific description, or discussion is superfluous. But people have always felt this way, even in the eighteenth century, and our contemporary understanding of what constitutes a healthy sexed body is quite different from historical knowledges. Intersex advocate Alice Dreger draws attention to the specificity of our own take on sex by examining eighteenth century understandings, in which sex was considered to be given by the gonads. There’s a case of a woman who is having difficulty having sex due to a short vagina. She goes to the doctor who examines her, and upon discovery of an undescended testicle, exclaims ‘But, my good woman! You are a man!’. This woman was then expected to dissolve her marriage and begin living and working as a man. The economy of sex at this time was entirely given by the gonadal tissue they found: if you had testes, you were a man; if you had ovaries, you were a woman. Nothing else decided your sex (Dreger 2003, esp. the prologue).

Obviously, we have accounts of sex which, by comparison, are very sophisticated. If the eighteenth century was the age of the gonads, the twentieth and twenty-first might be considered the Age of the Genes, Chromosomes, Hormones, Gonadal Tissues, Primary and Secondary sex characteristics. Amongst other things. It might be tempting to say that we simply know more about what makes sex sex, now. But it’s not quite that simple. Knowing ‘more’ about what makes sex sex has changed what sex is: it has changed what counts as deeming someone of a particular sex. Sex was once defined by the presence of testicular tissue. No longer is this the case. Sex is now defined by an array of different aspects, any one of which could diverge from ‘normal’ sex. In other words, our knowledge of sex has changed, and as a result disciplines sex differently. A different economy of sexual difference—one premised on more than just testicular tissue—is now at work.

Yet for all that contemporary understandings of sex, even in popular discourse, are more complex than they once were, there’s another shift that has occurred in our economies of sex. What produces Zippora’s anxiety, her pallor, her trembling is, as Iain Morland observes, the visible unknowability of her child’s sex:

What kind of disgust does Zippora feel? She articulates an anxiety about language and knowledge: what will she tell people? How will they know her child’s sex? For Zippora, the relationship between telling and knowing has been fractured because she knows something about her child that she cannot tell: her new baby is intersexed. Its genitals are a mixture of male and female characteristics. The baby’s body has not differentiated as clearly male or female – for instance, it may appear to have both a clitoris and testes (Morland 2001, 527).

The ‘anatomical referents’ at work here, then, are more complicated than they were in the eighteenth century, and more clearly about appearance. In contemporary understandings of sex, there tends to be some familiarity with the complex scientific knowledge of sex, but the really defining part of sex is genitalia: a penis and testes makes a man, whilst a vagina and clitoris (the ovaries not being visible) make a woman. And this is evident in some of the ways that people articulate anxieties about variant genitalia: one of the most familiar is a fear of teasing or even bullying at school based on the appearance of a child’s genitals. The ‘locker room’ is regularly raised as a site in which visibility might produce problems, especially in American high schools (where cultures of nakedness would seem to differ substantially from my own experience in Australian schools). Yet as Alice Dreger points out, ‘Yes, what about the locker room? If so many people feel trepidation around it, why don’t we fix the locker room? There are ways to signal to children that they are not the problem, and normalization technologies are not the way.’ (Preeves 2003, 44)

And it is in reaction to these strict requirements of appearance that surgical intervention is made into the bodies of those who are intersexed. Lest we think that the insistence on a clear visual distinction between masculine and feminine genitalia is not properly legitimated, not properly “scientific,” I want to read a few different ways that doctors frame the decision to intervene in intersexed bodies, as collected by Susan Kessler:

Feelings about larger-than-typical clitorises are illustrated by these representative quotations:
The excision of a hypertrophied clitoris is to be preferred over allowing a disfiguring and embarrassing phallic structure to remain.
The anatomic derangements [were] surgically corrected… Surgical techniques… remedy the deformed external genitals… [E]ven patients who suffered from major clitoral overgrowth have responded well… [P]atients born with obtrusive clitoromegaly have been encountered. [N]ine females had persistent phallic enlargement that was embarrassing or offensive and incompatible with satisfactory presentation or adjustement. [After] surgery no prepubertal girl… described troublesome or painful erections.
Female babies born with an ungainly masculine enlargement of the clitoris evoke grave concern in the parents… [The new clitoroplasty technique] allow[s] erection without cosmetic offense.
Failure to [reduce the glans and shaft] will leave a button of unsightly tissue
[Another surgeon] has suggested… total elimination of the offending shaft of the clitoris.
[A particular surgical technique] can be included as part of the procedure when the size of the glans is challenging to a feminine cosmetic result. (Kessler 1998, 36)

Susan Kessler’s research demonstrates that most clitorises longer than .9 centimetres are considered ‘offensive’ in this way, and prompt surgical intervention of some kind, disciplining the body that might challenge the easy visual distinction between male and female bodies. And on the other side of the coin, infants whose ‘phallus’ contains a urethral opening (the urethral opening within the penis being apparently the defining difference between a penis and a clitoris) but which fall below about 2.5 centimetres are thought to have penises which are ‘too small’. Such children have often been ‘reassigned’ to being female, and given surgery to reflect this decision. The economies of visual difference between men and women, then, are quite specific, and the bodies of those who are intersexed are altered to adhere to such these economies. I’ll return to this point shortly.

But there’s a little more to the question of the economies of sexual difference in contemporary culture. We’ve seen already that they require the visual distinctiveness of male and female bodies to be maintained, even when that involves the reduction, excision and sometimes irreparable damage done to the bodies concerned. But this leads into another aspect of the requirements of sexual dimorphism: all bodies, it would seem, need to be made as capable as possible of heterosexual reproduction. Thus, fertility is often a consideration in whether to deem a body male or female, and the form of surgery performed. Further, hypospadic penises, that is, those penises in which the urethral opening occurs somewhere on the underside of the penis, and is sometimes not simply a ‘hole’, must be remedied, in order not only that boys be able to compete in pissing contests (yes, according to some doctors, this rite of passage is key to male identity development), but also to ensure that heterosexual reproductive sex is perfectly facilitated. In some cases, ‘repairing’ a hypospadic penis can take multiple surgeries, requiring long hospital visits throughout childhood. According to Robert Crouch, surgeries are shaped by the requirement that one have ‘a sufficiently large penis so that one can look like and “perform” as a male in childhood, and so that one can satisfy one’s partner later on even if that means having a scarred and desensitised penis’ (Crouch 1999, 34). The heterosexual functionality of the penis—its capacity to get hard and ejaculate ‘properly’ is more important, it would seem, than pleasure or any other considerations. Similarly, short vaginas are lengthened to ensure that the vagina offers a proper ‘sheath’ to the penis during heterosexual intercourse. In fact, according to some surgeons,

The clitoris is not essential for adequate sexual function and sexual gratification… but its preservation would seem to be desirable if achieved while maintaining satisfactory appearance and function… [So long as clitoral] presence does not interfere with cosmetic, psychological, social and sexual adjustment (Kessler 1998, 37).

Yet what, precisely is adequate sexual function? Intersex advocate Cheryl Chase (also known as ‘Bo Laurent’) describes a telling experience: when a doctor found that clitoral tissue had withered as a result of invasive surgeries, he said ‘you’ll find someone to hold you nice and you’ll be okay’ (Kessler 1998, 57). As Crouch observes, ‘looming in the background of all of this is a moralistic and gendered cultural script that views women as passive recipients during sex, simply there to please their partners, and not themselves agents of sexual desire or feeling’ (Crouch 1999, 33). Both these cases demonstrate how key heteronormativity—the presumed normalcy and naturalness of a particular kind of reproductive heterosexuality—is to contemporary economies of sex.

So now we have begun to unpick what, precisely, it is that constitutes the ‘medical welfare’ of the intersexed infant. Medicine participates in deeming particular kinds of bodies good and healthy, and others as problematic and unhealthy. It would be easy to say, and medical professionals sometimes offer this as a defence, that altering the body of an intersexed infant offers that child the chance to ‘grow up normal’. On the one hand, yes, maybe they do. Yet on the other, it cannot be denied that the stories of intersexed people are shaped by shame, stigma, the secrecy and the mysterious sense of something being wrong. Max Beck, once Judy before transitioning, describes having been told she was an ‘unfinished girl’, yet feeling like a ‘sexual Frankenstein’s monster,’ a sense that led her to have to deny her desire for other women and marry a man who was ‘non-plussed about [her] man-made parts’ (“My Life as an Intersexual”). But as well as the often devastating effects of surgery on intersexed infants, the normalisation of these bodies has another, significant effect on our economies of sex. Intersexed bodies are covered over, the challenge that they pose to traditional economies of sex are forcibly effaced. In disciplining these unruly bodies, we replicate and reiterate a narrow normative understanding of what sex can be. As Canguilhem observes, ‘[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). When our heteronormative visual economies of sex are such that bodies which challenge the limitations of those economies are altered to reiterate those limited economies, we effectively silence the corporeal challenge to our contemporary economies of sex, refusing to hear or negotiate with bodies, people and experiences which are different, unexpected, and which challenge our assumptions about the world.

In this respect, I want to suggest that it is not simply the lives of intersex people which are at stake, although it is certainly at the expense of intersex people’s happiness that these sexual economies are maintained. I mentioned, briefly, earlier, Max Beck. Max was raised as Judy, and his current partner, Tamara Alexander wrote about Max/Jude’s experiences in a piece called “Silence = Death”. Alexander recollects Max’s story of her college affair with a woman and the six words she said in bed that altered the entire course of Max’s life:

“Boy, Jude, you sure are weird.” Max told me she knew then that she was a lesbian but she could not be with women because they would know how her body was different. She married Harold because men were just less sensitive to the subtleties of women’s anatomy (Alexander 1999, 105).

This might seem insignificant, such a comment, but as surely as Zippora’s pallor, trembling and her tumble of distressed words and pleas, what is articulated is an inability to see beyond extremely limited economies of sex, an inability to perceive an intersexed person as anything other than weird or lacking, an inability to see anything but the failure to achieve the unambiguous genitalia of ‘normalcy’. There is little doubt that intersexed people are made to pay the majority of the cost for this need to discipline sex, in shame and secrecy and self-hatred and self-doubt, in bodies which they may never feel at home in; but it also shapes the limitations of experiences for non-intersexed people. Zippora misses the opportunity to welcome her child into the world with joy. Jude’s sexual partner misses the opportunity to experience Jude as Jude. But this is not an inevitability: Tamara Alexander gives us another way of encountering the intersexed other, describing their first sexual encounter:

She [Judy, as Max was then] was terrified, and I was aware of her fear and the cost of offering herself up to me in that moment… I have never wanted to pleasure someone, never wanted to offer my hands and fingers to heal and to love and to delight… I have never been so awed by the feeling of touching as I was that night. I wanted to stroke and explore and learn and know every inch of her, her large and proud clit, the lines and crevasses from scars and healing, the tight cavern of her cunt that held my fingers so tightly. She pulled me down on top of her and wrapped her arms around me and came, calling my name, sobbing against my shoulder. And I wept with her. I wept for the loss of what she hadn’t had and the lovers who hadn’t revelled in the wonder of her body, wept for what I hadn’t had before I held her in love, and I am weeping as I write this now (Alexander 1999, 106).

The response of Alexander to Jude is to Jude, not to Jude as she is described by categories, or her position in relation to normalcy (‘her’ “weird”ness). Alexander’s sense of wonder and delight in Jude’s body is not dependent upon the achievement or non-achievement of proper, unambiguous sex. Rather, she demonstrates that the imagination and openness that doctors and parents fear is too much to ask of the world is in fact possible; she opens up the possibility that what constitutes ‘medical welfare’ or ‘health’ might be better thought of as that which allows and encourages this kind of openness to those born intersexed, rather than deeming their bodies, from the very beginning, to be “emergencies” of ‘anatomic derangements’ in need of discipline.

What we can see here is that legal, medical and social regulation are bound up with each other, reinforcing not only authority, but also ensuring the reiteration of a singular economy of sex. This economy requires the disciplining of those bodies which fall outside its circumscription of legitimate categories: male and female. It deems worthless, or worse, threatening, those bodies which cannot be recognised as valuable according to its requirements. This economy not only disadvantages those who are different and thus cannot be recognised as valuable, but disadvantages all of us in ways that many of us have the privilege to not even be aware of. We forget—we have to forget—the gifts offered by those not recognized by existing economies of sex. Indeed, our forgetting occurs at their expense: in the disciplining wielding of the scalpel, in the requirement that traditional dichotomies of sex be maintained, in the supposed necessity that they understand themselves as disordered. And this is my response to those medical professionals who say that their techniques are ‘improving’ – what you mean by this is that your techniques are approximating heteronormative imaginaries better and better, replicating the very dichotomy that these bodies demonstrate the falsity and restrictiveness of. This is not to say that there are easy solutions, for there are not. And when those, like Zippora, are distressed, the impulse to help is important and ethical. But the response needs to take account of and negotiate with the diversity of bodies, rather than concealing the challenges that these various variant bodies pose to knowledge, to regulation, to discipline, and perhaps most intimately, most tellingly, to our very everyday lived experiences of sex.

Alexander, Tamara (1999) “Silence=Death” in Alice Dorumat Dreger (ed) Intersex in the Age of Ethics
Beck, Max “My Life as an Intersexual” accessed 2/5/09 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/gender/beck.html
Canguilhem, Georges (1991) The normal and the pathological. C. Fawcett & R. Cohen (Trans.) Zone Books
Crouch, Robert (1999) ”Betwixst and Between: The Past and Future of Intersexuality” in Alice Dorumat Dreger (ed) Intersex in the Age of Ethics
Dreger, Alice Dorumat (2003) Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex Harvard University Press
Kessler, Suzanne (1998) Lessons From the Intersexed Rutgers University Press
Morland, Iain (2001) “Is Intersexuality Real?” Textual Practice 15(3) 527-547
Preeves, Sharon (2003) Intersex and Identity: The Contested Self Rutgers University Press

In opening this thesis, I situated suffering in relation to the imagining of the body politic. Suffering, I suggested there, is positioned as the uprising of the chaotic ‘state of nature’ into the rational, civilised calm of the structure of the state. As we have seen, however, it is, in fact, that suffering is constitutive of the state: it plays a key role in the techniques of biopower, ensuring that contemporary forms of subjectivity are invested, viscerally, in the reproduction of normalcy, and thus in both the reproduction of both a “proper” individual body, and the reiteration of the particular image of the body politic. Suffering, I have argued, is not a natural occurrence but bound up with the subject’s production as subject. It is thoroughly contextual, a result of the bodily tolerances engendered by contemporary styles of being-in-the-world, and the tacit knowledges—knowledges particularly about the value of different bodies—they bear with them. These bodily tolerances are never merely individual. They shape and are shaped not only by what I have called the incarnatory context, but by one of the key ways that this context is imagined: in, through and as the body politic.

Moira Gatens’ discussion of Hobbes’ Leviathan, which I alluded to in the introduction, suggests that the imagining of the body politic as a literal body is not an innocent metaphor (Gatens , 21-28). Rather, she suggests that it is in and through the metonymic and metaphorical construction of the body politic as male that the worth of women is so undermined. I would add to this that in fact Hobbes’ imagining of the body politic is far more specific than this: it is white, male and thoroughly able-bodied; more, it is envisaged as a sovereign, rational individual. It is maintained through the echoes of this model of subjectivity and sovereignty in the individuals which makes it up: the body politic’s sinews, according to Hobbes, are the contracts binding (male) citizen to (male) citizen. In imagining sociality in the image of the contract, and in the maintenance of the ideal body (politic), the devaluation of particular bodies is both essential and concealed. It is, as Diprose has so eloquently drawn to our attention, the memorialising of the generosity of some, and the forgetting of others that structures this body, what is valuable to it, what can count as property, proper bodies and proper subjectivities. The memorialising of the value ascribed to particular bodies thus functions to reiterate the privilege—the standard, the norm-ideal—of the white, male, heterosexual and able-bodied male. It is also, as Gatens suggests, what enables the forgotten incorporation—the ‘swallowing’—of the gifts and generosity of all those whose ‘corporeal specificity marks them as inapprorpriate analogues to the political body’: women, immigrants, those racialised as other than white, those of classes other than middle class, and of course, those whose bodies are considered not ‘able’ (Gatens , 23).

The meaningfulness of these bodies—these “too-specific” bodies—is produced through the extraordinary discursive strength of medicine, also equipped to render them less specific, better ‘analogues’. The body that Hobbes envisaged did, indeed, risk sickness: civil war was the disease he sought to inoculate Leviathan against (Hobbes 1998, 19), the breaking of the social contract. But in fact our discussion here has shown us that this body politic, for all its apparent impermeability, all its apparent invulnerability, is a dream wispy and frail, threatened by the inevitable presence of all that it must constitute as disavowed: bodies ‘disabled’, of colour, female, transitioning, intersexed, ‘disfigured’, working class and so on. Medicine, a technique of biopower, as Foucault has noted, plays its part in this economy of bodies in the reproduction of normal citizens; thereby also maintaining (the value of) the white, able-bodied body politic, in whose image all value is medically, legally and economically calculated. Medicine is not, of course, a monolith, and nor is it to be thought of as an evil: it offers us the means for recovery when we sick, heals us when we have accidents, gives us capacities we might never have had, and gives us a way of understanding all these transformations, the world, and ourselves. Yet the extraordinary legitimacy of science means that truth-effects attach to these constructions, be they the constructions in the appearance and experience of flesh as made by knife, needle and thread, or pharmaceuticals; or in those less recognised but no less significant ways: in the construction of perception, comportment and styles of being-in-the-world more generally. Thoroughly imbricated in the liberal humanist individualism which grounds Hobbes’ imagining of the Leviathan, medical science plays a, perhaps even the, key role in the modification and (re)production of proper subjects, proper desires, proper bodies: it constructs and reconstructs normalcy as natural so that these bodies—and the body politic in whose image they are made—may remain unremarked and unremarkable. Suffering, then, has a dual effect: anatamopolitically, it produces subjects who suffer their “abnormalcy,” experiencing the (medically assisted) achievement of normalcy as a home-coming, as an achievement of who they “really” are; and biopolitically, it reproduces the normal body of the population, the ideal of the body (politic) as free from suffering.

It is, as we have seen, in the (im)possibility of aneconomic generosity that this unjust and economic imagining of the body politic is troubled, shaken and undone. Hobbes’ imagining of the bodies’ sinews as lying in the various ‘pacts and covenants’ (Hobbes 1998, 19) of its citizens—of some kind of social contract—is laughably simplistic in the context of the complex and unpredictable generosity of embodied, intercorporeal and intersubjective subjectivity and sociality. These gifts, the gifts that constitute us as inevitably intertwined with others are bonds that we cannot recognise without simply appropriating these gifts, thieving them into a careful re-membering of the Leviathan, its articulation as a body whose ties lie only within: joints, ligaments, nerves, muscles.

Yet even this destruction of the gift can never be total: the giftness can never be completely swallowed into the calculation of economy. The gift may always be foreign to the circle of economics, but it is nonetheless essential to it. And as I have described in the final chapter of this thesis, the embodied subject is always more than the perfect citizen: she is both rational and irrational, cognitive and corporeal, calculating and responsible. This means that whilst the subject cannot recognise the gift (for to do so is to render it not a gift), responsibility is nonetheless possible: there are means of engagement with the gift which allow it to remain aneconomic. In this responsibility, I have suggested, lies the possibility of a tacit, corporeal acknowledgement of the generosity of others—of the intertwining of the subject with the generous other, an intertwining that always exceeds the contractual, the rational, the calculated. This ‘acknowledgement’ means that the very tolerances that constitute not only “individual” subjects, but the body politic itself, are troubled, shifted, the sediment of entire histories stirred, altered and recast. Thus Leviathan is revealed to be not singular and contained, made impermeable as if by the selvage edge of a piece of fabric, where the weft binds it only back to itself. Rather, responsible styles of being-in-the-world not only testify to the gifts of others but also to the knotty mass that Leviathan already is—a Leviathan indeed, made not in the reductive image of a man, but as something unimaginable—monstrous, unfinished, messy, uncontainable and never entirely present. It is this that bears out the promise of another time, one never simply present, and the promise of that which Lévinas dreamt of: an anarchic moment of ethical justice. A justice born in those alterations to come.


To suggest that suffering-or, rather, the desire to avoid it-lies at the heart of contemporary Western conceptions of politics, sociality and subjectivity may at first seem extreme or excessive. Yet political positions are frequently parsed in terms of their potential to reduce suffering, and when racism, sexism, homophobia or other kinds of minority exclusions and exploitations are marked as problematic, this is often articulated through reference to the suffering caused. Indeed, when those envisioning the modern democratic state turned to tales of origins, the state garnered its virtue, its raison d’etre, its superiority, from its capacity to shift lives from being ‘nasty, brutish and short’ (Hobbes 1998, 84). In this imagining, the natural state, against which the body politic defends those within it, is one of suffering.

The centrality of suffering to the conception of the state, albeit as disavowed, is not restricted to the past. If liberalism enshrined respect for the individual, transgression against him-and it was, all of Mill’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, a him (Mill 2006)-was conceived as suffering’s less subjective face, harm. The issue of harm has been carefully laid out-somewhat problematically, as theorists such as Wendy Brown have suggested (Brown 1995), for those “most vulnerable”-in and through the development of detailed systems of law and legislation designed to adjudicate and prevent harm. Indeed, central to the recurrent and politically powerful idea of a “failed state” is that state’s inability to “protect” its people from the allegedly natural state of suffering and chaos (according to this image, the two inevitably wedded), imagined as always pawing predatorily at the state’s borders.

This imagining of the body politic is not restricted specifically to politics. Rather, the liberal humanist vision of the strong but inevitably endangered state, standing against the chaos and suffering of nature, inflects the entirety of contemporary life. It shapes sociality and subjectivity, and the key institutions of economics, law and medicine. The subject is constructed as thoroughly, radically individual, arising out of some naturally occurring essence. This subject, as liberalism so often reminds us, is naturally free and sovereign, and this freedom and sovereignty ought to be given expansive range, and indeed sustained as far as is possible, limited only by the state’s prohibitions of transgression upon- the causing of harm to-another. It is this that is construed as an echo of the predatory nature against which the state is pitted. The subject may extend this sphere of freedom and protection to all his property. Property, here, marks all objects the subject possesses, and as such, Cartesian dualism, with its insistence on the status of the body as an object, raises its head. According to this logic, the sensible, passionate body is untrustworthy, bearing the traces of nature’s chaos within it, and must be divided off from the perfectly civilised, perfectly rational mind which is thus the site of freedom. The body becomes the mind’s ownmost property, according to Locke, inalienable but nonetheless fundamentally separate from who and what the subject really and essentially is-free (Locke 2003, 111).

The second element shaped by this liberal humanist conception of the body politic is sociality. Proper modes of sociality, as Hobbes reminds us, are those which strengthen the body politic-the covenants which bind the Leviathan into the image of man (Hobbes 1998, 19). These covenants, of course, must be democratic-they presume an equality between all members of a social world on the basis of an essential humanity. As Moira Gatens so incisively notes, however, this “humanity” upon which equality is premised is made in the image of the body politic itself, such that full membership of the body politic requires the subject’s body to be constructed in its image: as white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual body (Gatens Chapter 2, 1995). Contract is understood as free and unduressed on the presumption of this equality, and as such, this essentially civilising mode of being social requires two equal but fundamentally radically distinct parties exchanging property of equivalent value. This neat and contained image of economy as the core structure of social and political life, married with the hallowed image of the individual and the body politic as made in his image, informs and provides the strength of the liberal state’s battle against suffering.

Yet suffering does occur. The central and extraordinarily legitimised position of medicine, medical science and medical technology in contemporary culture constitutes the means by which the state may be understood as innocent of the suffering that occurs within its borders, without conceding failure: it allows medicine to position it as a natural wrong. Medicine, if all the stories told of it are true, seeks to relieve suffering. As we shall see in the first chapter, however, medical discourse configures this suffering as simply and utterly the product of the body-or more precisely, of a pathology within the body: the body’s order gone wrong. Thus the body-always treated as fundamentally separate from the subject who inhabits it, an individual also taken to be radically distinct from the setting within which he, or she, perhaps, is situated-is, according to medicine, the true site of suffering. The body politic remains, then, never responsible for this individualised suffering. Relief of suffering, according to this model of medicine, entails the ‘return’ of the body to equality with others-it must be modified to be made normal. The model of the body remains singular-the male, white, able-bodied image through which the state itself is structured-and normalcy, then, remains deeply specific.

Feminist theorists have long challenged the centrality of liberal humanist ideals to contemporary life. Contemporary feminist theorists of the body have focussed upon corporeal difference as a key provocation, and the grounds for troubling the apparently totalising tendencies of liberal humanism as they play through ideas of subjectivity, sociality, politics and ethics. This focus on embodiment has enabled the cross-pollination of this branch of feminist thought with other forms of theory: with critical race studies, critical whiteness studies, critical disability theory, queer theory and many others.
Situated in the context of such challenges to liberal humanist thought and politics, then, this thesis takes corporeal difference, and particularly the often normalising modification of the body as a technique for relieving suffering, as its central concern. Deliberately spanning an enormous variety of modificatory technologies, namely human growth hormone use, limb-lengthening surgery, cosmetic surgery, intersex “corrective” surgery, self-demand amputation and Modern Primitivism, and contrasting these with other bodily alterations constructed as neutral, I seek to demonstrate that the the increase in modifying bodies-with all the ambiguity that phrase evokes-(in)forms the ethical, political, social and economic domains of contemporary life. Suffering and the normalcy which is always thought to be its cure, I will argue, ought not to be presumed to be simply the uprising of the state of nature into our civilised, liberal and humanist world. Instead, I will demonstrate that suffering is precisely a product of it, a central element in the maintenance of the norm (and thus the body politic itself) and of the forms of embodiment, subjectivity, valuation, tolerance and sociality, that subtend and support it.

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, I turn to Merleau-Ponty’s work, 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 by 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 that 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. The embodied subject thereby produced 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 bodily being (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 is challenged (a point that will be raised again in more detail in Chapter Five).

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 in the ‘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 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-recognised-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 corporeality 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 demonstrates that there is a tacit level of being-in-the-world, at which, I argue, 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. Fundamentally, the other’s gift troubles the sedimentation through which the subject is embodied and this is, in fact, the response to the other qua other rather that an intentional (agentic) act. This allows us to see that it is the irresponsibility of dominant modes of comportment which bring about the suffering supposedly ‘cured’ by the modification of ‘wrong’ bodies. 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. The ethics of a particular change lies not, as has been supposed by various ethical frameworks, in either its adherence to naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of change), or in its challenge to naturalness (and the concurrent distrust of the already-existing). Rather, the ethics of a particular bodily transformation (and this includes non-deliberate changes) lies in its responsiveness to the other. Further, the ethical, responsible style of being-in-the-world with others 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 as the dominant mode of embodiment.

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.

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.

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

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