Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Responding to D. Diane Davis and John Muckelbauer's conversation on Levinas, Ethics, and Hermeneutics

This is an old post from a prior blog I wrote last year. I have begun to revisit this conversation as I work my way through Davis' new book Inessential Solidarity

    In “Addressing Alterity: Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and the Nonappropriative Relation,” Diane Davis discusses the limits of rhetorical hermeneutics. Rhetorical hermeneutics, or, a hermeneutic rhetoric leaves out the “non-hermeneutical dimension of rhetoric that has nothing to do with meaning making” (Davis 192). In order to investigate this dimension, she adds to Stephen Mallioux interpretation of communication in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Mallioux believes there is no way to encounter the other without subjecting him or her to one’s own cultural assumptions because a completely other would be unintelligible (Davis 198). Far from refuting this claim, Davis (citing Heidegger’s discussion in Being and Time of the pre-understanding) believes that this is the only way to understand a subject. Davis disagrees with Mailloux, who argues that it is impossible to encounter the other as completely other. To do this, she draws on the work of Emmanual Levinas.
       The distinction between a Levinasian conception of the other and Mailloux hermeneutical one is framed by the way they describe learning. Whereas Mailloux argues that learning is an appropriative relation that forces us to deal with the other on our own terms, Levinas’ conception of learning involves the other’s intrusion into our own system of meaning. Levinas makes a distinction between the “said” and the “saying.” The “said” is the signifying and thus hermeneutical side of an “address.” The saying is the performative, asignifying aspect of the address. In Davis’ words, the address is “both the exposedness of the other and the obligation to respond” (194). Thus, the other calls us to respond, in a sense, by interrupting our hermeneutic desire for meaning. Learning does not take place by appropriating or colonizing the other on one’s own terms, but rather true learning, for Levinas is a “trauma, a shattering of ‘self’ and ‘world’” (Davis 199). We cannot “know” the other because we are in no position to ‘know. That is, we have no position outside our relationship with the other. Indeed, as Davis writes, we cannot “know” radical alterity, we can only “undergo it, suffer it as an interruption, a rhetorical rupture” (207).
       Just as Davis makes clear that she is not merely refuting Mailloux’s position, so John Muckelbauer is at pains to make sure that he is not offering “a critique or defense of either Davis’s or Levinas’s discourse” because he does not believe that the “risks” he will identify stem from any failure on their part. Instead, he argues that their discourses “expose” risks and impossibilities (Muckelbauer 241). Just before jumping into the four risks he reminds the reader again that he does not want to either take sides in an intellectual debate nor offer a ‘third’ alternative. Such a desire for a different and yet not different style of engagement stems from discussions that occur in his then forthcoming, now out, book The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change. He argues that even though humanism and modernism seem directly opposed to each other in content, they do the same thing: “Because they advance themselves as a position, as a content that locates itself in relation to some other position, they cannot help but partake of the logic of identity and the dialectical movement of appropriation that it enables” (Muckelbauer 32). In the spirit of not taking sides, Muckelbauer offers four “risks” that Davis and Levinas expose.
      The first risk involves the difficulty of “thematizing something that is irreducible to understanding or knowledge” (241). Even thematizing something as “unknowable” makes it knowable, is to “the make the other into a theme, a “said.” The second risk is that even if this is avoided, they risk saying that theencounter with the other can be “subjectively experienced,” so it is important to make sure that the “undergoing” Davis discusses are not experiences. Muckelbauer acknowledges that Davis seems to effectively understand this risk (Muckelbauer 242). The third risk is addressed to the use of “metaphorics of excess,” which Muckelbauer argues that the “discourse of excess is coterminous with the discourse of signification itself” (243). Again, Muckelbauer doesn’t charge that Davis has not thought of this, but rather explicitly points to Davis’ attempts to clarify her meaning. The fourth and final risk is the risk that even the discourses that call us to recognize the other “on its own terms” implies that the other possesses its own terms. I take Muckelbauer to mean here that it is as if the other is a unified subject that, should we be able to, we could “properly” respond to it.
This fourth risk seems to be what we might call Muckelbauer’s “critique” of Levinas and Davis. While it is true he uses an interesting style of engagement that points to the “risks” (the “effects” of Davis and Levinas discourse) while, at the same time, showing how Davis attends to these risks, the fourth risk seems to reveal Muckelbauer’s “position.” He writes,

 attending to the ethical encounter with the irreducible other can quickly become yet another moralism. . .it is not far from attentiveness to irreducible otherness to a discourse that wants to distinguish the right way of attending to this irreducible other (through such familiar terms as welcoming, generosity, and openness) from  the wrong way closing down, violence, appropriation). Through such a   movement, the irreducible other is reduced to the new terrain for judgment (244).
     I can understand Muckelbauer’s fear that this will become simply another “moralism” in the sense that Levinas is trying to get at an ethics that goes beyond the mundane, but Muckelbauer seems to have something against judgment. His strongest claim in the entire essay is that “one can never simply point to any of these discourses as being somehow ethically or politically superior because it is more attentive to difference or more concerned with the other” (246).  As Muckelbauer seems to slide back into this idea that we might be able to inhabit these discourses in an effective way, but, I think, Davis will argue that this doesn’t take the Levinasian challenge to ethics seriously enough. Davis identifies the “fifth risk” that “such discourses may invite the unfortunate conflation of an im-mediate encounter with alterity (over which “I” have no power) and the attempt to attend to the implications of that encounter” (248). I sense either a hidden polemical tone or a solidarity in the way she engages with his response. For example, when she says “and Muckelbauer understands all of this” and as she cites Muckelbauer saying “Davis’s project” (Davis 248). She clearly states that her project “if we must call it that” has nothing to do with agency or advocating a particular engagement with the other (249). She makes a very astute observation that Muckelbauer “conflates the im-mediate relation with alterity and the (scholarly) attempt to attend to it” (251). We cannot choose a particular response, but we can choose to attend to it or, instead, notattend to it to stay in the safe realm of knowledge and appropriative learning.
Davis then comments on Muckelbauer’s sense of “judgment.” She reads closely the very end of the essay where he first says that this “hope for the impossible encounter for the other” cannot tell us what to endorse but then says “perhaps it can.” Davis is flabbergasted why Muckelbauer won’t come down on either side or the other. Rather than explore that statement at length, she says that she would at the very least argue that one must take it up in one’s discourse. I think that Muckelbauer would say that is ok, but that he wouldn’t say it was the only discourse that could produce similar ethical “effects.” First, I’m not sure that I didn’t just create a straw man to knock down, but if I didn’t, then I’m not sure I (nor, I suspect) Davis would agree with that response.
      Rather than making that rather crude accusation of mine, Davis “assumes” that his reluctance to advocate has something to do with Levinas’s distinction between justice and judgment. But while Muckelbauer seems to distinguish between them as if he comes down in favor of justice when he says “[. . .] each of these discourses risks becoming a discourse of judgment (rather than justice)” (246). In contrast, Davis points out that justice “demands judgments” (253). I suspect that Davis may be subtly critiquing Muckelbauer’s reluctance to advocate. Though Davis admits that one would “miss the point” if Levinas was used to justify any determinate ethics and politics, using those ethical descriptions “to justify an avoidance of advocacy altogether is to make things too easy for oneself” (255). I would suspect that she would apply the same logic of non-advocacy to Muckelbauer’s deployment of Derrida and Deleuze and Guattari.
Works Cited
Davis, D. Diane. “Addressing Alterity: Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and The Nonappropriative
      Relation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric. 38.3 (2005) pgs 191-212. Web.
Davis, D. Diane. “The Fifth Risk: A Response to John Muckelbauer’s Response.” Philosophy
      And Rhetoric. 40.2 (2007) pp. 248-256. Web.
Muckelbauer, John. “Rhetoric, Asignification, and the Other: A Response to Diane Davis.”
      Philosophy and Rhetoric. 40.2 (2007) pp. 238-247. Web.

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