Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ethics Before Ontology?

Because Heidegger’s fundamental ontology left open the question of ethics (given his own allegiances in his lifetime) we have called into question the priority of ontology, the study of being. For Levinas and (late) Derrida, there is a return to the (ground?) of the ethical. Levinas’ thought has called into question the self-fashioning, active style of living existentialists such as Sartre. Sartre’s philosophy, influenced no doubt by his politics, argues for a philosophy of action and commitment, taking responsibility for one’s own actions as well as the facticity of one’s life. In What is Literature, Sartre argues for a ‘committed’ literature, focusing on the power of prose to alter the world rather than Heidegger’s turn toward poetry in order to think it.

John Caputo, taking his cue from Levinas and Derrida,  critiques phenomenology for its conception of the body as active, healthy, and in full possession of itself. While Maurice Merleau Ponty (early) argues for the primacy of perception, Caputo dares to riff on Derrida’s tears that may blind him to such easy access and movement through the world. He also dares to discuss the flesh as opposed to the body, the flesh of the wounded, the hurt, the sick. Not everyone is a prototypical phenomenological subject.

Levinas’ ethics and the thinkers that have followed in his line (such as Jean-Luc Nancy and Derrida) emphasize the passive aspects of human existence; This is not merely in the mode of “facticity,” as our situation in the world, but on a bodily level—we are all flesh. This leads us to consider questions of suffering as much as understanding (and their relation). Furthermore, this leads away from the ontology of the human being (Dasein) although as many have pointed out, Levinas still remains a bit anthropocentric.  

In this sense, what I will call flesh-phenomenologists, is the inverse of Sartre because they consider the ethical relation of beings rather than trying to define that being in its essence (even if, as Sartre once said, existence precedes essence) or understand the “meaning of being.” Before meaning, before understanding the other, we have to act toward the other in a certain way, perhaps without fully understanding him or her as a “human being.”

For what is it to be a ‘human being’? Heidegger implied that language set us apart. We can inquire into the meaning of our own being (see Being and Time) such that it is at issue for us. Interestingly, the late Heidegger argues that language ‘speaks us’ rather than us speaking it but still, if language is the House of Being then we deny a certain way of being to many things in the world. Yet, there is a passivity in Heidegger’s later thought that we find less in the rhetoric of Sartre. Freedom is a less a matter of Dasein’s possibilities and re-framed as a “letting things be” what they are. Dasein’s task becomes a stewardship to the meaning of being, a protector of its potential. Heidegger writes in “Question Concerning Technology” “Everything, then, depends on this: that we ponder this rising and that, recollecting, we watch over it [. . .] so long as we represent technology as an instrument we remain transfixed in the will to master it” (339). For Heidegger is concerned with What is called for thinking? Thinking does not seem related to writing or action, but is a contemplative act of Dasein. If we ponder truth and safekeep it, what is there left to change?

We can contrast this kind of pondering and revealing mood of late Heidegger with Kenneth Burke’s work. Burke’s pragmatic conception of language and man’s relation to it is that we are the “symbol using, abusing, and making” animal. Language for Burke is a tool. To be sure, not necessarily a tool that we fully possess—our language contains implicit exhortations and attitudes. But, nevertheless, language never achieves that quasi-mystical tone that later Heidegger contains. Burke is concerned primarily with the realm of the human and seeks to lay out a working definition of what man is [enter link to previous post]. But, whether we consider Burke to be working from ontology or from the ethical is where we place our emphasis.

For me, Burke remains a moralist in the best possible sense, taking into account Nietzsche’s deconstruction (for lack of a better term) of traditional morality and his task of transvaluation of all values. While there have been some (me included) who have drawn together Burke and Heidegger based on their interest in language, I think that if we shift the focus from the verbal to the “more than verbal” we can find parallels between Burke and the flesh-phenomenologists.

Perhaps the most basic (and crude) distinction we can make between the existential phenomenologists (Heidegger, Sartre, Camus(?), De Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty) and the flesh-phenomenologists stems from looking at the religiosity of the latter. Levinas and Derrida draw from the Judeo-Christian religion as does Jean-Luc Nancy. For Levinas, the ethical imperative of a person’s “face” is the presence of the infinite within the finite and commands us not to kill. “Face” is not what one would expect. D. Diane Davis writes (citing Levinas):

Neither visible nor conceivable nor perceivable, face ‘is what cannot become content, which your thought would embrace; it is uncontainable, it leads you beyond.’ What one encounters in the face to face is the other’s finitude, the other’s exposedness—that is to say, both his or her mortality (susceptibility to wounding, to ravaging illness, to ‘the cold and the heat of the seasons’) and, simultaneously, his or her transcendence as sheer ungraspableness. (11-12)

Burke, in his dialectical and more pragmatic manner sees the ethical imperative of Thou Shalt Not Kill as the negative, which is an “idea” in the sense that it cannot be properly pictured. The realm of the Thou Shalt Not is that of action rather than ‘motion’. But Burke’s action is rarely a passive action. Obviously influenced by Kant, Burke writes: “And action is possible only insofar as the rational agent transcends the realm of sheer motion—sensory image [. . .] he can act rather than merely being moved or ‘affected’ (430-31). Thus, we see that for Burke, commands are not related to our passivity, which is rather in the realm of the sensory—we are affected by those things that ‘move’ us rather than allow us to act.

However, we have to be careful here because, again, Burke’s dialectical thinking provides a caveat: “Hence, though the injunction, “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is in essence an idea, in its role as imagery it can but strike the resonant gong: kill!” (431). To me, this is the Hegel coming out in Burke—the negation of something is that something plus something else.

 Levinas, however, is interested in how the realm of the ‘senses’, the flesh, the face of the other, its irreducible difference can command us to ethical being. We have no choice in the matter because there is not properly speaking an “I” before the confrontation with the other. As Gerald Burns recently puts it,

It is rather than I am a subjectivity without a subject—until I become subject to another’s claim, redeemed (so to speak) by the accusative voice that summons me out of my clandestine self to exist for another. I am not I (whoever I may be) until another interrogates me. (Bruns 23)

If we think about this from Bruns perspective, then it is not incompatible with Burke’s insistence on the limitations of man’s biological central nervous system. Diane Davis sums up Burke’s position:

Prior to language acquisition, psychosexual development, and class consciousness, burke proposes, there is biological estrangement, ontology’s insurance premium for securing his entire rhetoric of relationality [. . .] For him, the division between self and other is the ‘state of nature’ that is identifications motivating force: identification’s job is to transcend this natural state of division, and rhetoric’s job is identification. (Davis 22)

I think that biological separation (which, surely, Levinas would not deny!) is not the same as ontological separation. However, I agree with Davis that Burke does locates a separate ontological individual. But I wouldn’t go about showing the tenuousness of Burke’s claim through appealing to mirror neurons. Davis argues,

The ‘centrality’ of each individual nervous system can hardly be characterized as ‘divisive’ when it doesn’t manage consistently to distinguish between self and other; indeed, at the level of the organism, a rather astonishing condition of indistinction announces itself. (Davis 24)

I will look at Burke’s claim in terms of individuation with respect to the body and what we would call ‘soul” or “mind,” looking at how Burke conceives our bodies. Davis rightly identifies Burke’s conception of the biological necessity of private property: “What the body eats and drinks becomes its special private proprety; the body’s pleasures and pains are exclusively its own pleasure and pains” (Burke qtd. in Davis 22). For Burke, the concept of private property is not only important to our “egoistic impulses” but also to morals. In Permanence and Change, Burke writes,

Property and propriety are not etymologically so close by mere accident [. . .] Morals and property are integrally related. They are obverse and reverse of the same coin. They both equip us for living. There is an integral relationship between these two kinds of weapons, tools, or capital.” (212)

But what if we take away not the fact that we are separate biological organisms, but rather question our relationship to our bodies themselves? This is what not only the flesh-phenomenologists have done, but also, to a certain extent, Stanley Cavell. In The Claim of Reason, Cavell writes, “A better relation to the body is expressed by saying that I am the body’s possession. I am of it, it has claims upon me” (383). Yet, like Burke, Cavell ultimately affirms a separateness among us. This is the problem he sees with skepticism: “the attempt to convert the human condition, the condition of humanity, into an intellectual difficulty, a riddle,” a “metaphysical finitude as an intellectual lack” (Cavell 493). Although, Cavell is not quite sure what separates us (and what causes our finitude)—it does not seem to be merely the central nervous system. He writes,

The truth here is that we are separate, but not necessarily separated by something; that we, each us, bodies i.e. embodied; each is this one and not that, each her and not there, each now and not then. If something separates us, comes between us, that can only be a particular aspect or stance of the mind itself, a particular way in which we relate, or are related to one another. (Cavell 369)

But, I see a major difference in Cavell and Levinas’ thought. For Levinas there is no “I” or “we” prior to the other to acknowledge others. Cavell analyzes are condition in similar ways, but comes to the conclusion that we should self-fashion ourselves—take responsibility for creating ourselves. But for Levinas, we do not create ourselves. Paul Standish argues that this difference stems from the fact that Cavell does not accept Levinas’ emphasis on ethics before ontology: “From a Levinasian point of view, Cavell’s concern with “claims of the existence of the other” comes too late” (Standish 7-8).

Standish asks: does ethics before ontology “make sense,” which, to a Levinasian, is probably considered a silly question. The critique Standish offers of Levinas is his Western/Occidental focus, which I think is easy to pick on. To be fair, Standish is looking at these two thinkers from the point of view of education. I have already discussed Levinas’ idea of education according to D. Diane Davis as a trauma, a “shattering of self and world.” Cavell and Levinas are both skeptical about the possibility of “knowing” the other (in the sense of “grasping” and appropriating). But although Cavell also believes that learning takes place as a disruption of one’s identity, it is not so that it stays shattered. In fact, it becomes a way to know oneself:

It is the ability to make oneself an other to oneself, to learn of oneself something one did not already know. Hence this is the focus at which knowledge of onself and of others meet. I should think a sensible axiom of the knowledge of persons would be this: that one can see others only to the extent that one can take oneself as another. (459)

To make oneself another is a bit different than “identifying” with a specific other, but rather involves (it seems to me) a shattering of the self, but then, somehow, we are also supposed to learn something else about ourselves through this process? Do we create ourselves based on this process? There is no “self” prior to the confrontation? I am not sure. Although, it is interesting that Cavell takes us from the ethical relation of “acknowledgment” back to the realm of knowledge of oneself. Is this the same kind of knowledge Davis argues from Levinas’ work: we can only “undergo it; suffer it as an interruption, a rhetorical rupture” (207). But then—is it the other that makes us an “other” or is it ourselves through our own devices that can make of ourselves an “other.” If it is the latter, maybe this is why Cavell does not derive from his reflections a fundamental responsibility toward the other, but responsibility toward ourselves (which is definitely related to his study of Emerson). We have a choice as to our attitude on the world (this is the kind of ‘moral’ Cavell derives from his texts): “that we are tragic in what we take to be tragic; that one must take one’s imperfections with a ‘gay and sociable wisdom’ not with a somber and isolating eloquence. It is advice to accept one’s humanity” (494).
            Let us look at how Cavell frames responsibility to the other:

I wish to understand how the other now bears the weight of God, shows me that I am not alone in the universe. This requires understanding the philosophical problem of the other as the trace or scar of the departure of God. This descent, or ascent, of the problem of the other is the key way I can grasp the alternative process of secularization called romanticism. And it may explain why the process of humanization can become a monstrous undertaking, placing infinite demands upon finite resources. It is an image of what living our skepticism comes to. (470)

For Cavell, the problem of the other stems from the ‘trace’ or ‘scar’ of the departure of God—following Nietzsche in his proclamation that God is Dead (and we have killed him). Rather than claiming a “departure” for God, Levinas asks what possible meaning “God” can have if he is otherwise than being. Furthermore, Levinas frequently appeals to Descartes’ claim that there is an “idea” of infinity placed into the other; However, Levinas does not want this to translate into the claim that we have a “part” of God in us so that ‘God’ is distributed among people; remember, God is not essence/being. And yet, contra Cavell, I do not think that Levinas would think there has been a trace of a departure; instead, there is a ‘trace’ of God within the other.

If this is true, then Cavell’s use of the term “monstrous” to describe the process of “humanization” does not have to hold. True, the other does place an infinite demand upon finite resources in the sense that we must consider the third man in order to look toward Justice. We cannot let the infinite demand of the other make us forget about all other others (yes I know this is a strange way of putting it). But if Levinas is right that there remains the “idea” of the infinite, an idea and a trace that allows for some kind of transcendence, then perhaps it should not be framed as “monstrous[1]
Cavell claims that being human is “the power to grant being human” (Cavell qtd. in Bruns 41). In Levinas’ theory it seems that each ‘other’ human has the power to grant being human simply because they are other. So, in that sense, Cavell and Levinas would agree. However, Bruns frames Cavell as offering a theory of candidacy of the ‘human’ rather than the human as a category with set criteria. Humanness for Levinas seems already there—Levinas has frequently been critiqued for his anthropocentrism.

Bruns’ own argument in On Ceasing to Be Human concerns the question of the animal. According to Bruns, Derrida advocates ridding ourselves of the word ‘animal’ and to stop thinking about the line between animal and human as one binary line. Bruns interprets this as a shift from the “what” (let us say, “cat”—or even the “I”)  to the who: “In contrast to the ‘givenness’ of the ‘I’ [. . .] the mode of existence of the who is just that of being in doubt or in question, being addressed, accused, or called to account (Bruns 95). Questions we may ask are, “Who am I to attribute abilities to myself that I refuse to the animal-other? Indeed, by what right, that is, on what basis to I attribute to myself this or that capacity at all, whether I deny it to other or not?” (Bruns 94).

Thus, we turn to a who question: Who(ever?) has the power to “grant being human”? For Levinas, any human other with a ‘face’, a trace of the infinite. For Cavell, it seems that we ultimately are the ones that have to decide to what extent we want to grant human status, but that there are no set, universal criteria on which to base this decision. Cavell recommends that we make ourselves another to ourselves. So far as I understand it from Bruns, Derrida claims that this is not something we have to actively do: “To the question ‘Who am I?’ there is no answer, for the simple reason that I am as much an other to myself as I am to my neighbor or to my host or, for that matter, to my cat” (Bruns 96). Perhaps we can draw on Levinas here and argue that it is the other others (human and non) who make of us others to ourselves because it calls us to responsibility for the other in his place. But can we take the place of the animal other? Is substitution possible?

[1] Query: If the human is the ‘face’ of the other (and thus the trace of the infinite) then is not Levinas’ own thought based primarily on ontology? True, God may be conceived of a relation but surely we would have  to make clearer distinctions between human and non-human others. D. Diane Davis in her “P.S.” to Inessential Solidarity shows Levinas wavering on this point—he cannot say for sure if snakes, for instance, “have a face” in his sense. 

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