vrijdag 30 mei 2008

Levinas and May '68

With the fact that the other, my neighbour, is also the third in relation to another, neighbour in his turn, thinking, consciousness, justice and philosophy come into being.

It must have been Levinas’ confrontations with politics that brought him to such an appreciation of the institutionalized crystallizations of thought. First of all the experience of the Russian Revolution which in 1917 he witnessed in the Ukraine. But most of all his fate as a Jew during the Second World War is important. It was brought home to him what it means when the constitutional state cannot garantee anymore the rights of its members and one is delivered to rightlessness.

If you so much cherishes the institutions of the constitutional state – political authority, jurisdiction, universities – what will you do when, as a professor, you are being confronted with revolting students? That’s what happened to Levinas when in 1968 he gave his lectures on Hegel for beginners and Husserl for advanced students in Nanterre.

What did he do? He kept out of it as much as possible. He did not disapprove of the events openly, for he found enough heart-warming messianism in the marxist slogans. But he did not want to play any role in the protests, in contrast to for example his collegue Ricoeur. He fled the riots: when the university was open he would accurately give his lectures and when not he would not be around.

He actually was overtly indignant at the lack of respect for authority and about the use of violence. One could see him walk with firm steps through the university corridors, grumbling about the teared curtains and the graffittied walls. In those scenes he appeared as the authority-abiding personality he used to be, attached to hierarchy and order. Which will have had to do not just with his political experiences but also with his character.

But on a deeper level he must have recognized the totalitarian tendencies that took the marxist students in its grip. Already for decennia the danger of totalitarianism was one of Levinas’ themes. And as early he had been in pointing out that danger in the bourgois societies of the thirties, as alert he was in discovering it with the rebellious students. So he writes:

In the flashing outbursts at certain privileged moments in 1968 – which were soon extinguished by exactly the same conformistic use of language and the same rubbish as they were supposed to replace – being young consisted in rebelling against a world that others dismissed already for a long time.

Also Levinas had his critical and angry moods. But things had to remain intact.

zaterdag 24 mei 2008

The Same and the Other

The same and the other can not enter into a cognition that would encompass them.

And another one:
Metaphysics, transcendence, the welcoming of the other by the same, of the Other by me, is concretely produced as the calling into question of the same by the other, that is, as the ethics that accomplishes the critical essence of knowledge.

Could it be more abstract?
Yes, with Levinas it can sound much more abstract. But nicer is to point to a scientific report that all of a sudden concretizes what Levinas describes. On the basis of that report it appears that Levinas managed to use age-old concepts, stemming from Plato, for expressing an insight which a scientific experiment can elucidate now in understandable terms.

The experiment that was reported about was neurologic and it showed that the braincells with which we think about ourselves are the same as those we use to think about people who resemble us. About people who do not resemble us we think with another part of the brain.

So it becomes clear that refractory Platonic terms as The Same and The Other reappear in an acceptable way in neurological surveys. Even at the level of the grammatical forms that are being used. It can look like being unnecessarily abstract when Levinas speaks about The Same and The Other in stead of about the Self and the Other.

But with a better look, this is exactly what happens in the report of the experiment. The crucial distinction we can make here doesn’t lie primarily between my self and the other, but between me and the people who resemble me – so: the same – on the one hand, and the rest – the other – on the other hand. So it’s exactly the most abstract wording which connects with the neurological experiment.

This is interesting in itself. But apart from that it has consequences for the way in which we interpret Levinas. The findings offer support for an interpretation of the Other as referring certainly not to each other person. For to the group of all other persons belong people who feel as likes. Rather the Other refers to others who, at a certain moment, feel as truly different. So, they form a selection from within the group of all others.

I want to add that also the confrontation with those other others does not always produce the encounter with the Other that Levinas discusses. This remains unpredictable.

maandag 19 mei 2008

Harder than postmodern

Quite often you can hear people say that postmodern thinkers (e.g. Derrida or Lyotard) are hard to understand. Derrida uses difficult terms such as Deconstruction and Aporia and Lyotard speaks about Le Différend and The Sublime.

But it’s not just the terms that are difficult. Probably a much bigger problem is that so little remains to give your thinking a firm grip. God was dead already, now follow traditional artistic and cultural values, societal orderings and linguistic meanings.

Yet something exists that is still harder than Postmodernism. For, however difficult it may be, Postmodernism still knows the comfort of an iron logic. The tendency to generalize and universalize, which is a feature of reason and is active in Modernism, remains at work in Postmodernism. And may even be stretched in Postmodernism to its most radical form. This could appear from popularized postmodernistic sayings like: “Everything is relative” (mind the word “everything”); “Nobody is himself” or “Grand stories don’t exist anymore” (mind the words “no” and “not anymore”); “Strictly speaking everybody has some belief” (mind the words “strictly speaking” and “everybody”).

Such statements still feel like conclusions which are inescapable for a properly reasoning brain. And that feels familiar for it’s to that kind of arguments we, since Descartes, got attached to.

Only then it becomes really hard for us when a philosopher says: at times it’s such, then again it’s so. For instance: there is a leading principle, but sometimes it’s gone or there are two of them. Or: hierarchy in values exist, but not always. Such a philosopher doesn’t take philosophy seriously.

Yet that’s what you can find with Levinas, that’s to say the Levinas from the early and middle periods. In Totality and Infinity for example, he manages to present complete human autonomy as the startingpoint for his description of the world; to show then how this autonomy is being turned upside down by the appearance of another human being; to claim thereupon that that encounter is “more fundamental” than the original autonomy was (so: heteronomy); and finally to make autonomy leading again until the next confrontation takes place.

Here we cannot speak anymore of radical thinking, if indeed we mean by that the consistently pushing through to an ultimate ground or fundamental. Here is being obsérved and done justice to a certain phenomenon, namely: that there is a certain order the fundamentals of which are surely valid, e.g. autonomy; but that, sometimes, once of a sudden a phenomenon appears which is at right angles with autonomy, such as another person by whom I am touched and who commands me (heteronomy). Not always, not with every other, but: sometimes.

Faced with something like this our reasoning breaks apart. If a fundamental is sometimes valid and sometime it’s not, it already is no fundamental anymore. Yet I think Levinas gives an adequate description here of a phenomenon which – sometimes, with some people – just occurs: to be touched by the Other.

It is true also Levinas, notably the late Levinas, has given in to the tempation of universal, generalizing statements, with many Levinas readers in his wake. That’s how we got sayings like “The experience of the other is always more original than the experience of the self” (mind the word “always”) or “Permanent responsibility is the deep structure of the subject” (mind the words “permanent” and “deep structure”).

It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the late Levinas has been caught into the trap he, certainly at the beginnings of his career, so ardently tried to avoid: the trap of the always and everywhere, of the categorical and the essentialism. It is a bit of a disgrace.

Also see Levinas and Rousseau