I just finished reading Lisa Guenther’s really lovely article, “Shame and the temporality of social life” Conteingental Philosophy Review 2011. She explores the phenomenology of shame, starting with Sartre’s famous (and I like to think, true!) story about being caught peering into someone else’s room through a keyhole which grounds his account of shame as ontological, considering Levinas’ ethical account which situates shame as the pivotal moment that can enable murder or responsibility, then exploring Beauvoir’s account of gendered and colonialist shame as both oppressive and opening the way to solidarity. Given that my superpower is ambivalence, I love the way her account weaves together an image of the experience of shame as teetering, promising and refusing, offering and closing-down. I don’t want to discuss it in detail here, because it’s still marinating, but at the risk of spoiling you, I’ll just quote a paragraph or two from the end:

My aim in bringing these thinkers together has been to articulate the ontological, ethical and political ambivalence of shame as the feeling that most eloquently expresses our embodied entanglement with others, its its potential for both violence and solidarity, and to connect this ambivalent potential to the temporality of social life. In a world where social power is unevenly distributed along axes of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and so many other ways of cutting up identity, there may be no social position free from the stickiness of shame. For manyo f us, these axes intersect in ways that privilege us in some respect and oppress us in others, entangling us in multiple and conflicting forms of shame. There may be no clean way to resolve teh ambivalent dynamics of shame, but this does not mean that we are doomed to remain stuck in the repetition of the same. Rather, it suggests that the politics of solidarity and collective responsibility is more than just our ethical and political obligation; it is our future. We only have a future, both personally and collectively, if we respond to the ontological, ethical and political provocations of shame in a way that shifts the focal point from preserving our own self-relation – our place in the world, what Levinas might call ‘ my place in the sun’ – towards a responsibility relation with others. This is not to say that everyone must advocate for everything at all times, but thereis not time – no future for the struggle against oppression – without an investment of our freedom and our vulnerability in collective responsibility and political solidarity with others.

The ambivalence of shame attests to the irreducibility of our exposure to others, both as the site of relationality and ethical responsibility, and as the site of its exploitation through oppression. The opening of ethics is not simple, but dangerous; the same exposure that makes responsibility possible also makes murder possible. But this also means that the impulse to murder and oppress – to deny the other an open future – remains bound to the very ethical command that it violates. I can murder the other, but I cannot silence the ethical command of the other; I can be complicit in the political exploitation of myself or others, but I cannot foreclose the possibility of solidarity. And as Beauvoir’s own political action shows, even when I do commit myself in solidarity to responsibility for others, I cannot guarantee that my own motives will be pure of self-interest. This ambivalence does not foreclose the provocations that open and re-open my own actions to critical interrogation; it presupposes them. Shame would not be possible if others did not matter to us; and because others matter, oppression is not the last word on shame but only one of its ambivalent possibilities. (np)


So, this is a copy of the paper I gave at the AWGSA conference just a couple of weeks ago. It’s not spectacular – it was primarily written late at night and early that morning, due to a somewhat ridiculous schedule – but I’m hoping it will give a sense of where, at least, I’m starting out in thinking about law and therapeutic forgetting. I didn’t get into much theory, really, because this was really a sketch of a research area, rather than a fully rigorous paper. Bah, caveating aside, here’s the goods:

Medical innovation is something that we are all becoming, more and less, accustomed to dealing with. Whilst the effects of such technologies for the individual–not only straightforward safety, but the risks of potential side-effects and pharmaceutical interactions, for example–are considered a key part of the research required in advance of permitting sale of a product, or allowing a surgical technique to become standard procedure, the effects which extend beyond the individual concerned remain, for the most part, irrelevant. Bioethics, for example, which one would be forgiven for assuming considers the ethics of medical and biological research, turns out to be primarily concerned with enumerating the rights and responsibilities of the liberal humanist individual in relation to medicine. But as scholars such as Margrit Shildrick have pointed out, such bioethical analyses tend to presume the very subject that these medical and pharmaceutical developments query, or change, or throw into question. Obviously, however, it is not only bioethics that presumes a liberal, humanist subject, the conception of which is shaped by a history of the subordination of women, by colonisation and racism, by rampant and continuing ableism and eugenics, and by class asymmetries. This subject lies at the heart of numerous social and political institutions; of central concern today is our legal system.

If we turn to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, we can see the central ideals of liberalism which are so key to understanding such institutions, perhaps summed up as follows:

‘The only freedom which deserve the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.’

The deprivation of freedom has been configured as a ‘harm.’ At least theoretically, then, according to liberalism, whenever harm occurs, some kind of intervention is warranted. This is thought to be the place for the law, and, perhaps more importantly, the justification of it: it is meant to intervene where someone transgresses on another’s capacity to be free, to ensure that justice is done, say through prevention, compensation, punishment and/or deterrence. Yet, of course, what counts as harm has never been entirely clarified, even though there are many liberal philosophers who have attempted to describe it. I would add that the selectivity of what counts as harm is one of the key ways in which the white, straight masculinity of the liberal humanist subject is both privileged and protected. That is, only certain forms of harm are subject to legislation or court decisions.

The very use of the word ‘harm’ in liberalism is, I think, telling: where we could use words like ‘suffering’ or ‘hurt’, we use ‘harm’, an apparently objectively given standard. And this objectively given standard is adjudicated, often, by law, before which we are all, allegedly, equal… or perhaps ‘the same’ is a better description. Thus, looking closely at what the legal system protects helps us to understand what kind of a subject the law seeks to protect, or more specifically, what vulnerabilities the law assumes its subjects have, that must be protected to ensure that justice is done, helps us to understand how and why social asymmetries are reiterated through law. As Moira Gatens points out, the legal system is produced to protect those whose bodies match the body politic, whilst laws relevant to minorities such as women are fragments, set around the edges. This discussion might seem a little distant from medical innovation, but the key point is that our legal systems function with a particular model of subjectivity in mind. Whilst that subject may have always been something of a fantasy, nonetheless the issue of what happens when contemporary subjects change through medical intervention requires some analysis. The question I am interested in asking, then, is how medicine and law intersect in the context of existing oppressions and social assymetries, given first that they tend to bow to each other’s expertise, and second that they share a mutually reinforcing conception of the subject. In this particular case, I want to talk about therapeutic forgetting, or, as it is also known, memory dampening.

The pharmaceutical at the heart of this set of questions is a beta-blocker, one of a set of drugs which help to stop the visible manifestation of anxiety. They are mostly used by performers, to keep them from perspiring excessively, and to steady their hands. Propranolol, however, has been discovered to have another, rather astonishing effect: if taken in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, it can, it would seem, reduce the ‘traumatic weight’ of the memory of the event. This practice is called ‘therapeutic forgetting’ or ‘memory dampening’, and although it isn’t yet a common part of the treatment of trauma, it seems likely that, if the initial tests go forward into proper clinical trials, it could become part of the toolkit used to negotiate with trauma, alongside, say, anti-depressants, counselling, anti-anxiety medications and debriefing. There are many questions still outstanding about the use of propranolol in the prevention of trauma–for example, it’s not clear from the tests which have taken place so far whether the reduction of trauma also affects the clarity of the memory of the events– but in the end, the promise of being able to contain trauma to the immediate aftermath of an event, rather than something that takes months, years, perhaps decades to deal with, is probably going to be too sweet a possibility to refuse.

What does it mean, to be able to reduce the traumatic significance of a memory? Those closely involved in its testing see only what they call a positive outcome: the prevention of PTSD. Yet our memories are not simply the ‘content’ added to the ‘container’ of who we are: they are part of us; in fact, there are those who suggest that we are nothing more than the narrativisation of our memories, that our subjectivity is shaped that profoundly by our experiences. In terms of traumatic memory, it is not only the memory of the traumatic event that reshapes a subject, but the memory of the memory, the practices of remembering that develop over time, as we ‘deal with’ or ‘fail to deal with’ whatever trauma we have experienced.

The memory of rape can and often is, precisely that significant in someone’s life, a memory that for a long time can produce suffering, in the recollection of suffering. Suffering is, obviously, understood as a prima facie bad thing, claims about post-traumatic growth notwithstanding. On the one hand, this might mean that we cheerfully hand over propranolol to all those who might be traumatised, as medicine would seem to recommend. And it is incredibly difficult to imagine how it could be ethical to refuse a rape survivor access to a drug that might reduce her suffering, a suffering which is part of the reiteration of women’s oppression, a suffering which, lest it need to be repeated, she did not deserve, or earn.* Surely the relief or reduction of suffering can only be an ethical aim?

On the other hand, what effect might this have on the law? If law is shaped, ideally, by the trauma experienced by liberal individuals, then what happens to legal understandings of crimes when trauma is reduced? If a woman is raped, for example, and takes propranolol, thereby reducing the longevity of her trauma, or the ‘traumatic weight’ of her memories, does that reduce the significance of the crime? Or, more to the point, if propranolol became standard ‘treatment’ for the trauma of rape, might it, over time, reduce or at least reconfigure the significance of rape, not only for the individuals involved–as the drug is intended to do–but for the legal system and for society more generally? And would this be a bad thing, in any simple sense?

For the individual concerned, perhaps not. But if this pharmaceutical reduction in trauma became that widely used, which would seem quite likely if the adoption of, for example, anti-depressants is any indicator, what happens to the individual woman who might choose to not take propranolol after someone rapes her? Our society has a plethora of discursive techniques for holding women responsible for rape–from having had sex once, to wearing skinny jeans, to getting drunk–and in this context, it seems likely that such a discursive construction would shape social responses to the use of propranolol. For a woman to choose to not take propranolol in the aftermath of rape thus risks becomes freighted with the language of responsibility for trauma. What precisely might it mean to ‘choose your own trauma’ in this way?

Preventing ‘bad’ experiences from shaping who we are–perhaps this is a simple straightforward good thing. We often assume it is. But it also places us in the position of making decisions about who we want to be. Obviously we already make these negotiations, but the question of whether we, both individually and as a society, have the wherewithal to make more and more and more decisions about who we want to be, remains a live one. The alleged equation of more choice = more freedom has clearly been a seductive one, but there are increasing numbers of questions being asked about whether those choices are liberating, or risk becoming another facet of oppression or even trauma. For rape survivors, the effects of propranolol in terms of the pathologisation of bad memories and the potential to erase trauma have just this potential.

Similarly, some commentators such as Bell, Chatterjee and Lindberg and Siao,  have pointed out that propranolol risks pathologising bad memories; making memories that are difficult appear as disease, in the limited lexicon of medical science. It is a well-established problem for medical innovation that having the capacity to ‘treat’ something situates that ‘something’ as pathological. Memories of rape are already socially coded as sites of shame, partly because they tap back into existing and conservative ideas about gender dynamics which render women allegedly ‘unrapeable’. To expand this investment in memories of rape into the pathological would seem to add a problematic discursive weight to the aftermath of rape, making negotiating the entire experience far more complicated. I have already suggested that our practices of remembering–how we remember what we do, and how those rememberings reshape the memory itself–are particularly at stake here, and it seems that propranolol may produce a peculiar new way of remembering memories, one which risks carrying the extra weight of pathologisation. The effect of propranolol on our socially shared styles of memory and remembering, then, bears with it the potential to undo its own positive effects. Between the question of who becomes responsible for the trauma arising from rape when ‘she could have just taken a pill’, and the issue of further stigmatisation of rape survivors and rape memories through the pathologisation of such memories, this drug, which has so much potential, may simply become another complicated and contradictory space that a rape survivor must negotiate.

It also opens up the question of the significance of the memory of rape beyond the individual. Contemporary Western culture is extremely good at erasing the memory of rape from public knowledge. Whether the erasure takes place when survivors are shamed into silence, or when police officers refuse to take reports, when physical examinations are not done, or are inconclusive, or when prosecutors decide a case is too hard to win, or when judges lead or affirm juries in thinking that rape is not rape because of drunkenness or skinny jeans or whatever, the point is that rape is too easily rendered solely a private matter. A memory delimited to a single embodied subject. One of the only spaces for publicly marking and remembering the trauma of rape is the legal system, and the effect of propranolol on this role is thus a key part of the questions I want to ask. Reducing the trauma of rape could either reduce or increase the number of rape survivors prepared to testify: perhaps, with the reduction of the trauma attached to the memory, testifying in court might become a less re-traumatising experience and thus become a process that survivors are more willing to go through; or again, reducing the trauma may mean that whatever psychological ‘closure’ is offered by testifying, and the promise of conviction, becomes an unnecessary part of negotiating with trauma. Both possibilities are fairly damning about the contemporary system of justice, however, suggesting that the contemporary legal system is inadequate to deal with the trauma of rape, and that the liberal promise of this institution is never fully borne out. More than this, they require that harm, suffering and trauma be experienced somewhere, and by someone, before intervention of any kind if warranted. Someone needs to be traumatised in order for the legal system to step in.

This is why, I would suggest, that the philosopher of ethics, Emmanuel Levinas, is so damning of the question of justice. He argues that ethics–our responsibility to an other who is always unknowable and unknown–must be acknowledged as coming ‘before’ justice. Ethics is about responding to the suffering of the unique other before me, whilst justice always sets the ethical demands of two others in competition with each other, even as their demands are incomprable. For Levinas, any attempt to talk about the ‘positive outcomes’ of suffering is intensely unethical, and in fact winds up being a justification of the unjustifiable, a defense of the indefensible, a form of what he calls secular theodicy. In these discourses, he includes three claims that are raised in the literature about therapeutic forgetting: first, the claim that suffering is character-building, or second, that it is a natural part of life, or third, that it acts as an indicator for society about where injustice is occurring. He argues that this turns suffering, which is fundamentally useless, fundamentally meaningless, into something that is useful, and in so doing establishes grounds upon which suffering becomes justified. Justifying suffering seeks to delimit that which cannot be ethically constrained: our infinite responsibility to the other.

It is worth attending to where and how these examples of ‘secular theodicy’ occur. Problematically, of course, this is precisely how liberalism works. Liberalism can only respond to injustices such as rape. Harm, trauma or suffering must occur first, must indicate where society has ‘gone wrong’. Suffering must occur first before the correction to social structures is even perceived as necessary. Someone must bear the physical and traumatic memory of injustice before justice may–and it may not!–be done. This style of justice is, according to Levinas, profoundly unethical, yet it is predominantly minorities of various kinds whose vulnerabilities become the site at which these issues with liberalism’s ethical inadequacy is played out.

Therapeutic forgetting, then, is not simply about forgetting harm, suffering, or trauma, about the individual’s experiences of these. Rather, in dampening trauma, it functions to forget this inadequacy, to forget the injustice of a liberalism that claims to protect freedoms from harm. It functions to obscure that liberalism cannot deal with ‘vulnerable others’. In a system of law and politics that is clearly so troublingly unresponsive to the vulnerabilities of its subjects, then, medicine is offering a stop-gap, a means of reducing those vulnerabilities, or rather, a means of producing ideal subjects whose vulnerabilities to trauma lie only in those spaces that liberalism protects. In this context, the question of whether a rape survivor is actually the subject of therapeutic forgetting or not, remains a live question. If, as I suggested at the beginning, medical innovation is transforming embodied subjects as we know them, the question I want to ask is what is it turning them into, and why? Medicine might seek to prevent suffering, but it does so by transforming the other into something less vulnerable, something more isomorphic, as Moira Gatens suggested, with the body politic. In this sense, medical innovation needs to be carefully analysed, perhaps especially where it reduces suffering, because it can too easily forget that suffering is not a naturally occurring experience, but the result of a very particular social and cultural context; and because that forgetting is often weighted with the forgetting of difference.

* I refer to ‘women’ throughout not because I think that men are not raped, because they are, though at far, far lesser rates than women, but because I go on to discuss the specificities attached to women-as-survivors-of-rape, particularly the discourses used to discredit them.

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.


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.

E-READING Levinas is an interesting experience. The difference between Otherwise than Being and Totality and Infinity is actually quite marked to my eyes. Totality and Infinity came first, and it bears the marks of being written before the former: its terminology is looser, for example, with numerous references to metaphysics, which the latter avoids. But there’s something else: the characterisation of the relationship with the other changes quite dramatically from TI to OB, and this shift is quite interesting given that I’m reading it with eyes focussed on suffering. In TI, the relationship with the other is astonishing, world-giving, world-devastating, but in a joyous rather than an horrific way. Levinas seems to sing throughout this book, waxing lyrical, writing what is almost a love letter to the other. Heady and excited, it evokes the absolute generosity of those early moments in a relationship, when similarities feel homey and difference offers ecstasy.

But if this is so, in OB, the lover has jilted him, but he’s still bound. The relationship with the other is abruptly not one of possibility and generosity (or at any rate, it is not purely or even mostly that). Rather, one suffers the effect of the other. The other takes from me my self-certainty, and suddenly it seems that Levinas assumes my self-certainty, my self-sufficiency, my introspective enjoyment of myself was the sole source of my joy before the other dispossessed me of it. Whilst in some sense this echoes what he says in TI, there’s more violence here: the other’s violence to me which I have no choice but to accept and continue to respond to. It evokes the slow, weary resignation of the lover neglected, ignored, abused. It evokes a state of being destitute of joyfulness, duty-bound, cautious, limited. The other’s limitations of my power no longer feels like it offers the possibility of recognising, of deploying those powers, but rather, as if the other takes those powers from me. If TI marked the boon of the other, OB marks my loss.

This raises interesting questions in itself, which I really only have time to sketch here. In some respects, I wonder if Levinas regretted speaking of the relationship with the other as one of good things, of gains, of moments of astonishing ecstasy of being unbound from the self. After all, his construction of ethics is aimed at decentering the subject, and if I only respond to the other for the extraordinary goods I receive from him/her, this is not true ethical responsibility. If I give only in order to receive, then I have given not to the other, but to myself, a return to the Same; I do not respond to the other qua other, but the other-as-the-one-who-will-give-me-back-to-me. Perhaps, then, OB aims to demonstrate that I respond—and cannot help but do so—to the other not simply when it is good to do so, but when it is hard, when that generosity becomes a source of suffering. Levinas is trying to remind us that our lives are simply not about us; that being is never being-for-itself, but being-for-the-other, even when that is hard, suffering, deathly.

It is little wonder that so many commentators talk about responsibility as a hardship, then, and seek to loosen the grip that this responsibility has on us through various means: declaring it to be ideal and impossible, declaring the weight of this responsibility to be lessened through politics and the third (which Levinas does occasionally say, in amongst claiming that ethics retains its priority), declaring responsibility to be too much about sacrifice, too much about guilt, too fucking Christian, too incredibly Catholic for words…

(I suppose this becomes all the more interesting when we pay attention to where and how a Levinasian sense of responsibility has played through: whose responsibilities have been produced as a natural and thus as expected, neutral, nothing; and whose have been marked as generous? And who, in this process, has suffered through having to give and give and give to those who have never seen that responsibility is, indeed, their responsibility? At least Levinas’ theory, in theory, has an absoluteness to it that ensures that political asymmetries are made irrelevant, that it is only this subject who must respond to this other (whoever either of them are) and thus that privilege cannot be turned into the denial of responsibility as it so often is…)

And on the one hand, this could be accurate. On the other, I cannot help but see that this kind of response is precisely what Levinas is attempting to make us wary of, too conscious of its potential for abuse. It reinstates the centrality of the I, creating myself as the sun to the solar system; it marks the edges of responsibility not as carved out by the other, but as related to my own sense of my right to my own life, to my own projects, to my own powers, to my own – in the end – happiness. If I respond, this line of thought threatens to suggest, it is only to the extent that I am not troubled in this response; I can only give the excess, never myself, never when it threatens my happiness…

This has been playing on my mind of late: where does this sense of a right to happiness come from? Why do we think that we have the right to be happy, and to do whatever we need to be happy? But more particularly, why do we experience the responsibilities to the other as painful? What poisoned the relationship? Where did the ecstasy of generosity become suffering, become a threat to happiness? And if I can make comprehensible Levinas’ attempt to defuse the question of happiness—for my responsibility exceeds any of that selfish stuff—what effect does it have to never think my relationship with the other as one of joy? What is denied then? (And yes, I do have some thoughts in relation to these questions, but they will need to wait until later… paper calls!)

ETA: For an evocation of two responses to the other, identifying Levinas’ problematic depiction of the feminine other and the (implicitly masculine Other) as the key to this dynamic—this is, of course, the grounds of Irigaray’s slapping Levinas over the wrist—see Spurious.

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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