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