Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Question of Irony in The Test Drive

Yep, that's right. We are back to the *trope* of irony in the blog. I just can't seem to stay away from it. What with all my De Man reading and now. . .and now--Ronell takes it up! And of course, we can't forget Rortry. But let us not be content with being a Rortyan liberal ironist. I agree with Ronell that Rorty wants to put this test drive in "reverse." But Ronell productively asks:
Can this vehicle or compulsion kick into reverse, disengage strong theoretical accelerators, or even come to a standstill? Assuming that the warning lights flashing in Rorty's work are worth heeding, how would one responsibly answer to irony's excessive positings in scientific spaces, political sites, and ethical gateways? (Ronell 236)
For Ronell, Rorty does not go far enough: "his argument splices and dissociates, redistributes and cancels what ironic thinking can do" (238). Rorty calls for a split between the public and private sphere--we need to stop linking  self-creation and politics. But can we do this? Are not the various feminism(s) right that the private is already political?

I want Ronell (or someone) to take up the question of an "ironic ethics" (239). Rorty positions himself as offering one, but irony only belongs in the private sphere. But the private and public, no matter how much Rorty wants to make a distinction, are tied up in one another. Perhaps this is that concept of the "commons" we will get at later in the course.

Anyway, as I already said in my post on De Man and Jameson, I think that modernist 'irony' is something we need to deal with. According to Ronell, "Irony, as allegory of tropes, acts as interruptive potentiality; it is the nature of irony to threaten persistant and systematic disruption" (225).

Related to Irony (which Ronell notes may not be a  "trope" in the strict sense) is related to two other tropes: anacoluthon, "where the syntax of a sentence that raises certain expectations is 'suddenly interrupted and, instead of getting what you would expect to get in terms of syntax that has been set up, you get something completely different, a break in the syntactical expectations of the pattern'" (Ronell 224, quoting de Man). And parabasis, or, a direct address to an audience (an interruption of the play's 'action').

We can read Ronell's book as using anacoluthon and parabasis for a certain effect--an effect of unreadability?   Strangely enough, it seems that the photographs represent a kind of 'parabasis'--they directly confront the reader and force us to ask "what?" This also is an anacoluthon because it disrupts the 'syntax' of the typical academic book.

Is Ronell's book 'ironic'? It certainly does seem to contain an infinite negativity (Kierkegaard) and interminable self-reflexivity. If we see Ronell's book as a "test" itself, as a testing out of ideas while also taking them apart, then, according to Ronell's reading of Benjamin, her book participates in this very movement: "both irony and testing are tempted [recall Versuch meaning both test and temptation] by the recovery of ground when they are instead committed, as in Benjamin's sterring of irony, to the inecessant work of building by taking apart [De-Construction?]" (Ronell 226).

Jacques Derrida and Maurice Blanchot: Instant of My Death

Derrida's writing always asks for a response, just as his work is frequently contextualized as a response to a call for papers. The problem with responding to Derrida (rather than merely "using" him for our own purposes) is that his writing is hard to summarize and understand. This is the problem I see with a lot of literary criticism who use Derrida's critique of Saussure and then proceed to talk about the problem of "signification" in a given text.

Instead, Derrida's writing almost calls for a creative response, a response that somehow pays tribute to his method rather than his points. I'm not sure I am a strong enough writer to truly respond to Derrida's work.

Rather than appealing to experts on Blanchot, Derrida for the most part, uses Blanchot's other texts and his biography to make his points. Derrida has a personal relationship with Blanchot and so he wants to be faithful to the spirit of his work as a whole.

However, rather than begin directly with Blanchot, Derrida calls attention to his title and his rhetorical situation, citing something he had written about Paul De Man: "Funerary speech and writing would not follow upon death; they work on life in what we call autobiography. And this takes place between fiction and truth, Dichtung and Wahrheit" (16).

Dichtung is translated as "fiction," but Derrida wants to look at Warheit (truth) in terms of testimony. If
truth becomes testimony here, it is perhaps because as in Dichtung und Warheit, it will often be a question today of lies and truth: more precisely, of the biographical or autobiographical truthfulness of the witness who speaks of himself and claims to be recounting not only his life but his death, his quasi-ressurection, a sort of Passion. (16)
 This is how he gets into his topic of the "passions of literature." Derrida then detours (ish) into a discussion of the status of literature: is it particular or universal (as Goethe would have it)? Derrida answers: no. Even "literature" as a term is a latin word, an origin we cannot simply bypass. Derrida connects literature to death (a theme Blanchot takes up; thus, here, already, we see Derrida engaging Blanchot without engaging Blanchot) through a discussion of those authors who risk their lives in order to write literature (Rushdie, for example). This leads into a discussion of literature and politics and the judicial (bringing us back to testimony).

In all, we have these signifiers playing around each other: passion, religion, literature, death, fiction, testimony.

Rather than speaking of philosophy "as literature," which is what many people seem to think Derrida is claiming (collapsing the distinctions), Derrida here claims he wants to test the claim that "there is no essence or substance of literature: literature is not. It does not exist. It does not remain at home" (Derrida 20). Thus, literarity is not intrinsic to this or that artifact. Playing on a meaning of passion, Derrida argues that literature's "passion consists in this--that it receives its determination from something other than itself" (28).

Thus, Derrida suggests a kind of endless choice (that has no answer) to read something as testimony or as fiction. However, he then deconstructs this distinction.

Testimony and Fiction

Derrida argues that in order for testimony to remain testimony it "always goes hand in hand with at least the possibility of fiction, perjury, lie" (27). But Derrida doesn't make us take his word for this deconstruction.

Derrida attacks the distinction from two sides: the idea of the "instant" and the necessary diachrony of experience and the fact that to "bear witness" to something is the impossible task of making a secret public. 

Following his previous deconstructions of "presence," Derrida argues that the instant becomes divisible within testimony even though the assumption in testimony is that we testify to an instant. We must be physically present (in the courtroom, for example) to testify to an instant, but at the same time, it implies that we are testifying (at this very instant) to another instant, but this instant is divided by the temporal sequence of the testimony itself.

Furthermore, Derrida points out that testimony is always heard by a third person, a witnessing to the witness. In order for testimony to be "true" we have to assume an addressee that has sufficient mastery of the language (as well as an addressor) and that this person to whom the witness is testifying is "capable of the same mastery, that is, of hearing and translating in univocal fashion" (35). In other words, testimony involves interpretation and a decision (that may be without criteria) as to the 'truth' of the testimony. 

But testimony ideally cannot be reduced to a narrative (that is--a fiction?) Instead, Derrida argues, that testimony is always testifying to an act: "it does what it says at this very instant; it cannot essentially be reduced to narration" (Derrida 38). Derrida uses two examples. One i will modify for the sake of the language I am speaking: "I am speaking English." If I were to say "I am speaking French," (in English) then it would not be true. The English sentence, however,   performs what it says. Just as a martyr's testimony does not "tell a story," but rather offers his body. Testimony is an act.

Derrida then takes on a related word to "instant"--instance. Meaning, "exemplary." I think that this may be his strongest argument for how testimony's structure makes an impossibility necessary. In order to give testimony, I have to have had an experience that makes me irreplaceable. AND YET, my testimony has to be exemplary, that is, "anyone who in my place, at that instant, would have seen or heard or touched the same thing and could repeat exemplarily, universally, the truth of my testimony [. . .] The singular must be universal" (41).

Blanchot's Story

Blanchot's story, then, concerns the impossiblity of testifying to one's death. On one hand, I am the only one who could ever testify to my death--on the condition that I survive it (Derrida 45). But its not only that we can never testify to our death, we can also not testify to a previous experience because at every "instant" we are someone different. We cannot even replace ourselves, we cannot put ourselves back in that position: "And yet is there not a witness who must not say this, in all conscience, namely: 'At the moment of my attestation I am no longer the same as the witness who lived that and how remains irreplaceable" (Derrida 65). He cannot analyze what he experienced at the previous time (when he really was the "witness" to an event, but a witness to who? The bearing witness always involves another instant than the instant of my experience).

Like the passage we read from Specters of Marx, Derrida here is questioning the possibility of death, concluding that it is the "necessary impossible." We cannot testify to the instant of our death, only the imminence of our death, the death to come. Indeed, we can understand our lives as a perpetual dying--death is always to come. We know its coming, eventually. We do not know when. Furthermore, there does seem to be a 'general death' that is very different from Heidegger's sense of Being-Toward-Death, Jemeingskeit.

The narrator begins the story with the claim that the man was "prevented from dying by death itself" (3). This is not "his" death (is it?) but rather the death of another, which he bears responsibility for. Blanchot writes, "prevented from dying by death itself--and perhaps the error of injustice" (3). Derrida comments that "two orders" intersect the ethical and the epistemological even though the "remain incompatible" (54). The question of death is inevitably tied into the question of the ethical and the question of the (im)possiblity of justice.

The young man may have "saved himself" in one sense--that he was able to "move away" (not escape!). But on another level, "he has benefited from an injustice, and he will not case to suffer from this privilege. This torment will be the torment of an entire life, life as the torment of an injustice, as an inexpiable fault" (87). The "error" in injustice is his home, his abode (demeure)--the Chateau. By 'accident', by what Sartre would call his 'facticity', he is spared death, but is he spared dying? Is he spared a different kind of death? Is he ever spared death "in general"? No, he must suffer, he must undergo this suffering.

The "death" that the young man undergoes is the realization of his finitude, his substitutability. The "lightness" he experiences at the instant of his death "neither frees nor relieves of anything; it is neither a salvation through freedom nor an opening to the infinite because this passion is without freedom and this death without death is a conformation of finitude (Derrida 90).

This is the paradoxical condition that Derrida claims Blanchot gets at: a logic of a neither/nor, and "X without X." For instance, Blanchot writes in The Step Not Beyond: "To live without living, like dying without death: writing returns us to these enigmatic propositions" (Blanchot qtd. in Derrida 89). Indeed, we return to the "unexperienced experience." The 'experience' (that is not an experience) of literature remains an x without x. To read a novel, we have an "experience" without an experience--on both the side of the author and the reader! As Derrida writes,

It is on this condition (the condition of the possibility of fiction in experience) that we understand something of this narrative, to the extent that we understand anything at all about it [. . .] we only judge it to be readable, if it is, insofar as a reader can understand it, even if no such thing has ever "really" happenned to him, to the reader. We can speak, we can read this beacuse this experience, in the singularity of its secret, as "experience of the unexperienced," beyond the distinction between the real and the phantasmatic, remains [demeure] universal and exemplary. (Derida 93)

This takes us back into the question the film After. Life asked (perhaps poorly): what does it mean to live? (rather than what does it mean to die). The mortician (played by Liam Neeson) argues that this girl wasn't really "living" but just taking up space. But who has the right to claim that we are not 'living"? Who has the right to actually declare the instant of my death? 

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Test Drive

"The Test Drive" yields many different meanings. The most obvious one refers to the testing of a new vehicle. We 'test drive' a car in order to see if it is "right" for us, if the 'feel' of the car is right. But test drives may also refer to test crashes, where we are trying to find the limits of the car. How much force can it take before it breaks? Its only by smashing the car that we are able to assess a certain quality.

We can also understand the 'test drive' as a drive to test. This seems to be a drive common to human beings--we want to try things out and we want 'tests' to confirm that it will act in such and such a way again. We claim that if something is "testable" it can be proven. If it 'passes the test' then a degree of truth can be found (so we usually think).

Ronell is interested in playing with (and interrogating) of the valences of "to test," including a "test" in the educational/pedagogical sense. Although she does not go into depth with this, it may be a way into looking at her argument in terms of the university.

While a scientific test has to be taken many times over in order to confirm that it has provided "proof" for knowledge, tests in schools only have to be taken once. As Ronell puts it, "even if a test, to fulfill its bald constative claims, assumes the function of providing providing definitive results or minimally of confirming that cognition occurs, testing, for its part and imprating, is always temporally determined" (186). This is basically common sense for students. Students take the test and once they have "proven" that they have grasped the information quickly throw it in the recycle bin of their minds. Thus, a 'test' in this sense is not really a "prototype" that will eventually form into something executed. Rather, it remains a prototype--a playing at knowledge rather than an enacting of it: "The normatively secured test does not generate knowledge but confirms what already exists as 'knowable'" (187).

Ronell asks whether it is possible for a test to generate knowledge. She argues that only in the test's failure does it generate knowledge and, furthermore, that this is the "unpretended aime of a test." She wrties, "Generous failure, productive disclosure, concerns a type of testing that probes more than the workability or conformity of its object to an already regulated norm" (188). By definition, 'standardized' tests cannot produce knowledge. It is knowledge-telling.

I'm not sure we need Ronell for the basic arguments I am making here against standardized testing, but its the scene that came to mind.

Ronell's Deconstruction of Popper

In the first chapter, "Proving Grounds," Avital Ronell takes on one of the canonical philosopher's of science: Karl Popper.  She is not 'against' the spirit of Popper or science per se.  In fact, Ronell seems convinced that the 'test drive' if channeled in a productive fashion helps to "undermine dogma" (25). What she objects to in Popper is his narrow definition of a 'testable' (or falsifiable) theory, arguing that the line Popper draws  metaphysics and science is extremely thin: 
Popper offered that science cannot be distinguished from metaphysics or pseudo-science in terms of confirmation by experience or observations. "Rather, Popper claimed that the hallmark of a metaphysical theory--such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, or Adlerian psychology--is that it leaves its adherents free to transmute any seemingly refuting observation into a confirming instance. Popper, who equated "falsifiability" with "refutability" or "testability," claimed that "not the verifiability but the falsifiability of a system is to be taken as a criterion of demarcation. It must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience. (Ronell 28)
 The first quotation is drawn from an essay by Schwartz, interpreting Popper's own inquiry in a tradition more consonant with Ronell. We should notice that Ronell claims before this quotation that the line between metaphysics and pseudo-science cannot be confirmed by "experience or observations." However, the second quotation (from Popper himself), which says directly that an empirical scientific system must be able to be "refuted by experience," refutes Ronell's claim. While this confused me as an initial reader, Ronell will back up her arguments by referring to the problem of "experience" later on.

For now, let us assume that the major claim is the one made by Schwarz--that we can turn a refutable observation into a confirming instance. Ronell argues later that one of the opponents--psychoanalysis--actually depended on such testability. In a close reading of Freud's own case studies, Ronell shows that Freud took into account evidence that refutes his theory ("Freud admits this case into evidence as 'a refuting instance of the aetiology he had postulated for that disorder" (65)). But two points need to be made about the relation between this Freudian example and Popper's theory.

1.) Ronell argues that in the case of "The Rat Man" the analysis's "failure was its success" (67). Is this not an instance of Ronell turning the "refuting" position into a confirmation? "Freud complains that his cure came about too quickly, the lessons too quickly learned" (67).

2.) How are the theories of Freud enacted differently in the clinical setting and in literary (or philosophical) criticism. Are not Freud's actual clinical successes a different thing entirely from the success of a literary interpretation? If we begin from Freudian theories and go on to interpret a text through the lens of Freud, will we not find Freud in the text? Perhaps this is why literary interpretation is always "outside" the distinction true/false; or, at the very least, outside the possibility of "proof"?

This is neither a new or surprising claim. Ronell's surprising claim comes when she draws a parallel between the uncertain status of literature and the uncertain referential status of laboratory experiments. Ronell's arguments  depend on a difficult assertion to swallow: She makes a parallel between laboratory culture and other 'texts' or semiotic systems, arguing in both cases that reference is suspended. Nature cannot even be a reference point:
That means 'Nature' itself only becomes 'real,' in scientific and technical perspective as a model. And so also 'in vivo experiments' are model systems. There is no absolute point of reference for what becomes involved in the game of representation. The very necessity of representation implies that any possibility of any immediate evidence is excluded.(49)
 Essentially, lab culture is a self-contained, representational system. She then moves on to discuss the "rhetorical dimension of the experimental elaboration, the levels of fictioning, allegorization, and noncoincidence of sign and signified that lab culture can tolerate" (49).

The intrusion of fiction/poetry/'the literary' is the way Ronell gets at a deconstruction of Popper, later claiming that science and art have more common ground than we usually think: "Science and art continue to share a knowledge of the unreliability of the referent [. . .] both understand experiment as a freedom from the constraints of referential truth" (228).

However, art is the primary term. For Ronell, as for Nietzsche, art has prepared the way for science: "If art was invented for us, it was in order to heal us from the persistent wounding of necessary error and delusion. Art cooperates at a level of inoculation by administering general untruth in order to immunize us against untruth" (212). Without art, we would have been terrified by, say, the death of God and the unstable ground of scientific experiment. This is a fascinating and, I think, useful way to think about the function of art.

Let us return to Popper's essay. Ronell shows how Popper's language undermines his own claims. She begins by citing the opening of one Popper's books, which includes a quotation from the Romantic poet, Novalis: "Hypotheses are nets: only he who casts will catch" (32). Even though we can just chalk this up to the convention of a poetic epigraph is books, Ronell seriously considers what follows from "the most important scientific axioms" as "cosigned by poetic insight" (33).

If we do not buy this argument, Ronell provides more evidence for her further deconstruction of Popper's argument. Ronell summarizes the scientific stance as one involving "the strength to try to overthrow rather than to establish the solution at which thought arrives" (34). In other words, science has to invite critique from others within a community ("to communicate is to be prepared to be overthrown). Ronell does not disagree with this fundamental attitude. However, she notes that Popper himself relies on unquestioned metaphysical propositions: "The above argument, he writes, 'expresses the metaphysical faith in the existence of regularities in our world (a faith which I share, and without which practical action is hardly conceivable)" (37). The "argument" referred to is that an "old theory" retains its validity as a "limiting case of the new theory" (37). For Ronell, this comes off as Popper trying to "safeguard the law" (37). I think Popper may be right though that a lot of practical action would not be possible without the belief in some regularity. Still, this is probably a matter of degree than a hard and fast rule or metaphysical truth.

For Popper, everything rests on the test: "The test is posed as the answer to the answer, as meta-answer, and is never considered from the angle of a possible collapse" (42). For Popper, the "test" is a ground for science; for Nietzsche, the test is a performative activity that endlessly throws the scientist for a loop. Ronell's task for the rest of the book is to put the "test" to the "test." Ronell objects that for popper science is on a firm ground such that it can proceed without further justification.

In contrast, Ronell will show the slipperiness of the 'test', deconstructing it in the manner of Derrida's deconstruction of the promise (see pg 242 for "experience"). Furthermore, she will link "test" and "testimony," drawing on historical and literary examples of the master/slave relationship implied in a concept of 'true' testimony (a term deconstructed by Derrida in his analysis of Blanchot's Instant of My Death).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

An Apology to Frederic Jameson: On de Man, Politics, and Ethics

I'd like to  apologize for my criticisms of Jameson's "rhetoric" and his interpretation of Paul De Man. After finishing in its entirety Allegories of Reading, I re-read Jameson's comments on De Man and the "writing" seemed to open up to me such that it makes sense. The reason for my naive and angry reading of Jameson had several motivations, but is at least twofold:

1.) I had not read Allegories of Reading, so that some of the links Jameson made seemed a bit random and arbitrary rather than necessary for the argument. This opinion has since been remedied.

2.) I was trying to read Jameson inebriated. A silly thing to do, even though I've heard that he has an affinity for the bottle as well. 

Anyway, I'd like to give Jameson's evaluation the care it deserves. Perhaps the key point to Jameson's reading of De Man is given in the following passage:

We must therefore read DeMan's aesthetic against a larger historical context in which it offers the spectacle of an incompletely liquidated modernism: the positions and the arguments are 'postmodern,' then, even if the conclusions are not (Jameson 255).

Essentially, Jameson sees De Man as saving the aesthetic and literary aspects of language while at the same time eliminating the 'usual' meaning of these categories. Jameson writes, " Aesthetic experience is thus valorized, but without those tempting aesthetic pleasures that always used to seem its very essence" (255). There's an "acetism" in De Man that rejects the kind of sensuousness and sentimentalism associated with aesthetics.  

But for Jameson, the primary achievement of postmodernism is its non-privileging of the literary--culture (art, film, architecture, music, etc.) becomes a text just like anything else. Thus, Jameson criticizes what he calls De Man's "metaphysics," which are trapped in distinctions between 'referent' and 'fiction', even as De Man's discourse seeks to solict (in the sense Derrida uses, 'to shake' or 'rattle') this binary. 

Jameson argues that De Man's aesthetics basically implies a politics of liberalism, characteristic of the high-modernist aesthete, and the "apolitical aesthete at that" (257). Jameson also rightly acknowledges De Man's modernist interest in Irony, as this is the value/term that ends his text, Allegories of Reading. 

But Jameson too has his own assumptions (can we call it metaphysics?) concerning representation: “every ‘system’ of thought (no matter how scientific) is susceptible to representation (De Man would have called it ‘thematization’)” (Jameson 245). But does this not shut off the possibility of “reading” in the sense that De Man has opened for us? Can we represent everything in a system of thought or in a “position” (see previous posts on Derrida, Muckelbauer)? Is there not an impossibility of  what Jamesonc calls “transcoding”?

How does De Man get around discussion of politics? For Jameson, any aesthetics implies a politics (as it does for Kenneth Burke). However, we may question this primacy given to political commitment--can we not? 

But before we get into that, let me discuss a passage in De Man that may give us some guidance with respect to De Man's views on politics (his liberalism). De Man writes, with regard to Rousseau)

We know from empirical experience that the individual is subjected to a more stringent legal control than the executive power which has much more leeway in its actions and initiatives, in international politics, for example, where it is expected to resort to war and to violence ina  manner that could not be tolerated in relationships between individuals. Rousseau accounts for this  by stressing that the private interests of the individual have nothing in common with his political, public interests and obligations (De Man 265).

To me, this passage sounds like a distinction Richard Rorty would make between the private and the public sphere—a classically liberal position. Does Rousseau really think this? If so, it just confirms what we already know about Rousseau—he was a ‘liberal’ thinker.

To excuse his disengagement with “politics,” De Man then will shift from pathos that he finds in some writing to ethics, which is intimately connected with what he calls "rhetoric." De Man's "ethics" is a different from what we generally conceive of as ethics (or my own discussions of ethical responsibility in Levinas). De Man’s emphasis lies in the rhetorical etymology of ethics. He writes,

But in the allegory of unreadability, the imperatives of truth and falsehood oppose the narrative syntax and manifest themselves at its expense. The cancatenation of the categories of truth and falsehood with the values of right and wrong is disrupted affecting the economy of the narration in decisive ways. We can call this shift in economy ethical, since it indeed involves a displacement from pathos to ethos. Allegories are always ethical, the term ethical designating the structural interference of two distinct value systems [. . .] The passage to an ethical tonality does not result from a transcendental imperative [Kant?] but is the referential (and therefore unreliable) version of a linguistic confusion. Ethics (or, one should say, ethnicity) is a discursive mode among others. (De Man 206, italics mine)

Ethos is also related, in Aristotelian rhetoric, to “credibility.” This squares with De Man’s discussion of Rousseau’s text Julie as playing with the authority of author. What does this “ethnicity” imply for reading? Do we sense that there is a moral dimension (rather than an overtly political position) in De Man that we should look for? Perhaps this still makes his readings useful, interesting, and potentially fruitful? 

I am not sure this is the case, but it seems to me that De Man maybe be flirting with what Kenneth Burke calls the ethicizing of language. I hope to investigate this relationship further at another time.

For now, it may be worthwhile to end with Jameson’s attempt at “representing” De Man’s methodology or ‘theory’ in Allegories of Reading:

 If such a theory exists (if it is not, in other words, simply a question of a useful and portable opposition), then it consists in positing two distinct moments of the deconstructive narrative, the second succeeding the first and incorporating it at some higher dialectical level of complexity. First, the initial metaphor is undone—undermined as soon as it has been posited by some deep suspicion of this particular linguistic act. Yet in a second moment, that very suspicion washes back over the first and becomes generalized: what was at first only acute doubt as to the viability of this particular resemblance and this particular concept—a doubt about speaking and thinking—now becomes a deeper skepticism about language in general, about the linguistic process, or about what De Man calls reading, a term which usefully excludes general ideas about Language itself. (242)

On the one hand, it seems that Jameson has succeeded in “representing” Paul de Man’s methodology. But on the other hand, we may ask if this thing we call “reading” is just as enigmatic and complex as De Man thinks it is. Perhaps reading is something a bit more than transcoding? Perhaps there is something to say for “literary” language? And perhaps it is impossible to decide between these two options. . .

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.