vrijdag 5 september 2008

To see and not to be seen

Gyges, a mythological figure from Antiquity, happens to find a ring which can make him invisible. From the moment he discovers this possibility he slips down into a attitude of complete immorality. Because now he can follow his bent and get away with it, he doesn’t shy back for anything anymore. He starts cheating people and he ends up raping the queen and murdering the king. Plato, who tells us this story, makes clear that there is an obvious relation between invisibility, shamelessness and moral decline.

Levinas loves this story. He applies it to the process of acquiring scientific knowledge. According to him, that process is characterized by putting the objects of scientific research at a distance and then passing rational judgments on them. In short, it is spying upon the world from a sheltered position: seeing without being seen.

Because of this interpretation of Gyges, Levinas’s evaluation of his actions is, unlike Plato’s evaluation, not just negative. Of course it is not sympathetic to reduce the world to dead material which, via experiments and reasonings, you can manipulate as much as you like. But in a way, according to Levinas, it is unescapable for us to do so: we humans are beings that create representations in our heads, by which we reconstitute the world and thus keep our foothold. And although that mental reconstruction is an illusion, we cannot help doing it. Moreover, says Levinas, the pursuit of objective knowledge is very laudable: it helps us make the world better accessible for each other.

Apart from that, for Levinas – in opposition to Plato and other philosophers as for example Sartre – shame is not only connected with being seen but as much with seeing. And, indeed, one may wonder whether watching without ever being moved, as Gyges apparently could, is possible at all. The manipulator (Gyges) may, be it only for the twinkling of an eye, be touched by the injuries his manipulative violence and objectifying gaze bring about. The accompanying shame comes from within and, by that, is not dependent on the visibility of his deeds. That shame will have a corrective effect on his intercourse with the world.