“….the idea of infinity is transcendence itself, the overflowing of an adequate idea. If totality can not be constituted it is because Infinity does not permit itself to be integrated. It is not the insufficiency of the I that prevents totalization, but the Infinity of the Other.”
Emmanuel Levinas – Totality and Infinity
Novels, the ones that are called literary by educational institutions, by the cultural studies and literature departments which reside within them, are constantly concerned by their own adequacy or validity. The death of the novel has become an irritating cliché for anyone trying to do resonant or resistant readings of texts in classrooms or readings groups, or for essays or theses. “We know”, they want to say. Better to say the novel has always been undead, existing in a state of not really existing, vampiric, choose your demonstrative-monster metaphor. I expect this is not my idea.
And a version of this declaration, or description, concerning the status of the novel came to mind when thinking about Levinas’s use of the term adequate. It is in the above quotation from Totality and Infinity that Levinas uses it to suggest the state of an idea which is coherent or complete. An idea founded in the discourse of reason, which can be thought or assimilated, thematized, by the totality of the self. But it seems that adequacy can have multiple senses above. That it is enough or satisfactory – or sufficient. Perhaps satisfactory is suitable given Levinas’s description of solitude as a form of personal enjoyment.
Adequation is also a kind of equivalence or making equal, a coming up to a necessary standard. And this starts me thinking about the “standards” of the literary novel, in the sense that it is both self-regulating and reliant on institutional regulation of its status and value. A novel attempts to be adequate to the very idea of what it means to be valuable/literary but at the same time wishes to critique or disturb the notion that there is a basic idea pertaining to what it is, or what it is meant to be. It wants to be adequate, to just about survive, its own literary status, and in doing so simultaneously display its own anxiety about its literary status. (Derrida’s in this paragraph haunting the vampire.)
Thus there are a bunch of things the novel can and can’t do. It can’t do reality – but it can try and succeed at mimesis. It can do the avant garde, but is hamstrung by a total avant garde novel. It can communicate and “move” people, but it is also complex and requires creative-critical readings. It can show us politics, but also we mustn’t use it to do politics.
It strikes me that digital mediation – chat logs of characters interacting, characters trying to google, characters at a screen – is something which shows up this necessary inadequacy of the novel. The literary needs to keep the digital as a text separate, in order to bolster its status as a singular form of textuality, to preserve the kind of temporary, quantum totality it need to simultaneously establish and not establish. At the same time, the literary novel has to assimilate different forms of mediation, as it has always done, in order to acknowledge its ability to try and do reality, or to maintain its own vitality.
But the act of digital mediation contains a difficulty which amplifies the novel’s inadequacy. It contains within it an encounter with exteriority, an infinity, with the volume turned up; mediation lit up with the problem of the other as the absent-but-present glow through the screen. The novel attempts to assimilate this, like other forms of textuality which were embedded in it from the beginning (letters, diaries, ships logs) but in doing so demonstrates an impulse to make it the same, the make it something the novel can deal with or thematize. The “infinity” presented on multiple levels by the event of digital mediation ultimately troubles the novel not only because it does not permit itself to be integrated, in that it is a formal and structural interruption. Its interrupting capacity is also the interruption of the problem of mediation which is the anxiety of the novel itself. It shows the literary a mirror, and within it is contained the necessary inadequacy of the form. It makes possible a reading of the anxious crisis of the novel.
This doesn’t kill the novel, put the stake through the heart of the vampire in its institutional coffin, but it sprinkles holy water around the castle as a constant reminder. To talk of the novel as dead is to claim that it was ever alive to begin with. And to suggest that digital textuality is “virtual” or easily reducible to a negative version of subjectivity is to engage in a line of thinking which denies the primordial status of mediation as a condition for all discourse. The recognition of this inadequacy, though, can make for the continuation of being for others, can drag the novel not from death into life, but make the novel live and die well.
I’ve been thinking more about the problems of disinhibition in Laurie Johnson’s work. See his face/interface paper here, but, long story short, the digital interface can enjoin us in ethical responsibility, because we understand that there’s an Other there. The main challenge to this idea might be to say that mediated communication – or any kind of mediation – automatically creates disinhibition, which results in the diminished sense of responsibility to others.
Johnson accepts that communication online appears to present “freedom” before “responsibility”, and that this can lead to a diminished responsibility, if (and that’s a big if) it is understood that anti-social communication is the result of such diminished responsibility. This is partly predicated, by Johnson, on the notion of anonymity. This, I would suggest, is a less significant concept now, given the fact that online acts are generally constitutive of identity, or at least closer to the material/embodied idea a user might have of their identity, rather than a consciously altered version of it. I would tentatively use the example of IP addresses being used to trace and charge individuals who use hate speech online as a way of demonstrating how the idea of the internet as an unregulated libertarian realm is changing, that anonymity in a basic sense isn’t necessarily an option (very recently in the UK, the CPS updated their guidelines on prosecution of people engaging in abuse/bullying online).
Johnson seems to want to use Levinas as a corrective to this, to demonstrate the potential for the Levinasian ethical encounter in mediation. As I’ve said before, I agree with the nature of this appeal and think Levinas is useful here because it provides a way of thinking responsibility without physical presence – i.e. that my perceived freedom online is still only possible because of the other. The more implicit argument from Johnson is of a Levinasian stripe too; that there’s no reason that such disinhibition should lead to anti-social behaviour – or rather that it is not *simply* the act of its mediation which necessarily explains that anti-social behaviour.
Johnson’s second paper on this specific subject – ‘GUI Faces and “Sticky” Ethics’ – takes on a thorough review of sociological/psychological work on the issue of computer-mediated-communication (CMC)/face-to-face communication (FTF) (am wary of wandering in fields I have very little experience of, although interestingly Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature). Johnson makes a strong claim for the fact that this dichotomy – this digital dualism which leads to deficit-models of mediated communication – is breaking down. He then asks why we might keep using Levinas to talk about this stuff:
For this reason, a contingent phenomenological imperative is still in play as an adjunct to the ethical imperative: there is no single definition of CMC from which a complete ethics of CMC could be constituted, so we retain the need to engage in phenomenological inquiry into the differences between the various forms of CMC, and to investigate each use of CMC anew.
It is useful, along such lines, to cling to something like the Levinasian “face” not just for the sake of distinguishing something like a face within CMC; rather, the Levinasian face is useful for the very reason that it asks us to always ask anew in each act of interlocution what it is that enjoins a user to respond in the manner of a “bringing forth” into language.
So Johnson says that Levinas’s concept of the face is useful in this kind of work, not only because of how it might re-calibrate ideas of responsibility – or the *possibility* of responsibility – but because it suggests that each mediated interaction is a unique act of interlocution which needs to be constantly examined as such.
And I want to say in my research that this contingency Levinas provides us with, as identified by Johnson, the “always asking anew” is what the literary text accommodates. Because not only do new literary works themselves act as an “asking anew” – ideally the novel, predisposed as it is to the conveying the problem of subjectivity – but also the act of reading itself “asks anew” (this is a huge concept and idea to unpack obviously).
I’m not sure this isn’t just saying “well because literature’s good innit”. But if literature didn’t some significant relation to ethical life, then Levinas probably wouldn’t have said that it was literature which brought him to philosophy, and wouldn’t quote Dostoevsky and reference Shakespeare.
This has got me thinking about what kind of mediated communication appears to be privileged by the novels I’m looking at. It is often private communications, which appear to highlight the complication of public and private identity. In Zadie Smith’s NW , for instance, Keisha’s language in the chat transcript bears the trace of a political resistance, a restatement of the sociolect of associated with her black identity. But it isn’t simply that the mediated communication allows this in some kind of falsely empowering way – Keisha herself is concerned by the fantasy construction of herself as exotic – but rather that it provides a way of acknowledging the problem of it. Perhaps the distinction then between Felix/Nathan and Keisha is that the latter has a chance to resort to forms of textuality which are not conditioned by their immediate social/economic conditions (Nathan and Felix engage in mobile, vulnerable, mediated communication in order to engage in precarious economic transactions). This could be a way of looking more closely at mediated communication in the context of social status – that the process of mediation highlights the problem of social status by apparently providing the potential for it to be temporarily erased.
I use Skype a bit. Some people really don’t like using Skype. I’ve had conversations with people along the lines of “it’s weird”, “it’s not real”, “it makes me feel uncomfortable”. What is the nature of these problems? I suggest it’s not just “tech bad”. Part of it stems from from idealized advertising images of Facetime etc which are, after all, experienced from a third person perspective. When someone – generally a loved one – is looking at you via the interface while you use the interface and talk to them, it’s not the experience of the smiling-beautiful-laughing people. But I don’t really want to talk about that – I want to go the other way. I want to say that if Skype makes you uncomfortable, or you don’t really like it, or there’s something weird in it, it’s because of something really important. It’s because it is a mediated but vital encounter with another person. This is what Emmanuel Levinas says is the most important thing in existence, that we only understand ourselves through our encounter with the other. Now, I suggest that the mediated encounter, in this case the Skype video call, is not artificial or simulated but contains the call of the other which Levinas says is so important. And that this is the thing which makes you feel weird about it. Furthermore, exploring this idea, thinking about the ethical proportions of the Skype interaction, leads us to rejecting rethinking Marshall McLuhan’s founding concept from Understanding Media…ALTOGETHER NOW #the medium is the message!#
Quickly, and recklessly, let me describe a big premise which underlies all this, one that I’m not going to go into properly here (mainly cause I’m still sorting it out). It’s to do with online interaction as being not different, or lesser, or worse than face-to-face embodied interaction. Digital dualism – the distinction between “online” and the “real world”, man, is no longer a thing. This is because (very very very simply, and recklessly again) the interface is language. The face of the other, in a Levinasian sense – i.e. as the starting event, situation of all ethics – is thus present in the interface. The interface is not a copy or a simulation or “unreal”. It’s immaterial, sure. But it’s not a “version” of the other. We do not live science fiction. The other is brought forth, appears, in language, in a way which is ethically commensurate to material face-to-face interaction. I’m going to perhaps confuse all this by taking about the face as it appears in the interface visually, but just bear in mind that really “the face” is a metaphor in Levinas for the body/skin/words of the other person.
So Skype. You don’t like it, it’s weird. But you use it. You have at least once used a video call. You still do (occasionally). Why not just phone? Economy/ease of access, sure. But undeniably, video calling provides the possibility of the face in a way which is more challenging than the phone call, because it is able to accommodate the sense that the self is created and questioned by the other. The problem of Skype, then, is actually to do with ethical responsibility. We have to acknowledge the immediacy of the face, of the other. We don’t always do this in the same way in face-to-face interaction. In fact, I’d go so far as to say face-to-face is a misnomer. I mean that face-to-face interaction doesn’t involve acknowledging the face – in this instance, the visage, the eyes and mouth on the front of the head – looking into it, seeing it, understanding that there is the other person – in the way that a video call privileges and establishes the command of the face. Sure, we can control the off/on of the encounter, but we can do that in a face-to-face encounter too (I can leave, not look you in the eye, make my excuses, put my fingers in my ears and run away.)
A video call on a laptop is an ethical moment because of the immediacy of the face and the ethical command it establishes. We are interpellated by the other in the mechanism of the interface. The relation of the two people in the encounter is granted an asymmetry which the phone call doesn’t retain, because of the distinction the interface provides between the person you have called and you. Think about it this way: you are smaller, in the corner of the screen, or non-existent. The picture of the other is huge, covers your whole screen. This is not the appearance of an image, but works as the primordial call of the other. The face moves, speaks, gestures. It says “Here I Am”. It is an instance of the ethical relation. The movements of the other onscreen are the call of the other, not the fixed image of an avatar. The other in the interface is always in the process of expression.
So that’s why you don’t really like Skype, but you want to use it. Because it provides the possibility of the face – that is, the ethical force of the other, calling to you, saying “you have a responsibility to me” – in all its immediacy. When you initiate a video call with someone, you sacrifice yourself to their presence, because you understand that you will be interpellated by them, by their gaze and their call. It is perhaps the very veracity of their being, not in terms of their audiovisual make up but as an ethical presence, which is what gets under our skin. It’s an apprehension of the oncoming breach of our comfortable sense of ego by the Other. In this way, Skyping is an ethical medium of communication which challenges the conception of the ego and the self in the most essential way.
What’s this got to do with McLuhan? I snuck the word medium in there just now. I’ve been wanting for a while to complain about address the ubiquity of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message”. As McLuhan draws attention to the idea that the form of media communication is important, he flattens the experience of communication. If an analysis is concentrated on the idea that the medium tells us what we need to know about the shape of society (*cough* Heidegger *cough*) then there is no room or possibility for the analysis of what goes on within, above and around the medium. In Levinasian terms, the relationship between sociality and the medium is fixed into a said (knowledge, content), despite apparently emphasizing the saying (performance, gesture). While McLuhan moves us away from being concerned with content, I suggest his argument does not in fact accommodate a suitable ethics for contemporary communication:
The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association. Indeed, it is only too typical that the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.
I would take issue with the above when thinking about the example of Skype and the ethical appeal found therein. What is the “content” of the medium? Is it the words spoken by the other? Or is it the video of their face? Or is it our interaction as a whole, my sacrifice and their call? There is an essential difficulty of distinguishing between, or making the same, the medium and message in mediated communication if we consider it through a Levinasian ethics. The medium of Skype can only accommodate the face, it can never fix or thematize its effect. The face is a message which breaches the medium, because it is a message which cannot ever be fully known (and is itself the ultimate medium/unmedium?) The “content” of a Skype interaction does not blind us to the character of the medium, but rather accommodates the very thing that constantly challenges media – the face, the ethical challenge, familiar-but-defamiliarized other. It is a challenge, is a “Here I am!” which is framed by the medium, but whose ethical character is present in the very content that the medium tries to accommodate – the vulnerability of the face. To say that we should be concerned with the medium as the ontology which displaces the epistemology of the message is to ignore the excess of ethics, that which is beyond both ontology and epistemology.
I can put this in a different way using McLuhan’s own terms. McLuhan’s metaphor of the light bulb is used to demonstrate “the medium is the message” in the first chapter of Understanding Media. The lightbulb is, for McLuhan, “pure information”, a “medium without a message”:
Whether the light is being used for brain surgery or night baseball is a matter of indifference. It could be argued that these activities are in some way the “content” of the electric light, since they could not exist without the electric light. This fact merely underlines the point that “the medium is the message” because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.
How does the metaphor of the light bulb work within my Levinasian challenge to McLuhan’s founding statement? If Skype is our lightbulb, and video images are content, then the face, the vulnerable outward looking face of the Other, formless alterity in the interface in front of us, is an excess which both incorporates and rejects the two. The ethical insistence of the face, the ethical moment, is irreducible to either medium or message. It is the very light of the light bulbthat we look into. Sometimes accidentally we look into the light, where it irritates or concerns us; sometimes we look on purpose, a little mystified, knowing that it alters us. It produces spots in front of our eyes, an afterimage, a physiological effect of the light which is not its medium of pure information, nor is it the social conditions created by light. It is an embodied experience which breaches and temporarily interrupts our vision. The afterimage of staring into light is the excess, outside the medium of social functions which light allows and performs. The face in Skype, then, is the afterimage, made possible by the communication medium and the messages it circulates, but existing in an excessive space between, or above, these categories. When you Skype, you are staring into the light bulb, concerned by how bright it is, but willing to sacrifice, making the interruption into an act of responsibility, of ethics, of love.
McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964)
The process of internet memes might be described as follows (this is me improvising a bit). The circulation of images, gifs, screen caps, cartoons, animations occurs first of all as the sharing or repetition of a joke, and then as parody of the joke, then as more oblique and obscure self-reference. The meme then becomes the act of circulation as detached from recognisable signifiers of the original frame of reference. Meme culture is seeping into popular discourse, which means there are a lot people trying to “get” what memes do, when in fact the telos of a meme is the relational or circulatory structure of the meme itself.
I’ve been wanting to say this about memes for a while. Reading Levinas has led me to connect his conception of the”saying” with the concept of the meme. It was a particular quote used by Amit Pinchevski in his paper on Levinas and the ethics of communication that crystalized this thinking, and this piece is in debt to his excellent words which you can read here.
Levinas’s philosophy is quite intricate, almost web-like. It’s relational in both what it tries to do and how it does it. His phenomenology is much more like literature than other philosophers. This is because he was writing in a style which attempted to get away from the idea that you can and should fix communication as something like “getting across information” or “handing on knowledge” or “two people exchanging ideas”. For Levinas, communicating with an other is “an ultimate situation”, one which comprises the foundation stone for all ethical thinking. In the encounter with an other person, they address us and we respond. Importantly, however, this language must always retain a sense of the other person’s difference to us, their alterity.
Whenever we use language to mean in the world, it designates, becomes fixed. Levinas calls this designating of stuff in language the “said”. We can designate lots of things – we can explain that there is a particular set of rules for “right” or “wrong”; we can label someone; we can tell someone something we know. We can take what we think we know and understand and give it to someone else by fixing it in language. When things are in the “said”, you can know them, understand them – and you can also “thematize” them, own them. Imagine the “said” is a book – all the stuff in the book is fixed there on the page. It can’t be changed, it’s not in dialogue with someone else. This means other people can be made subject to that knowledge.
But that’s what knowledge is, that’s the point, you might say. But Levinas understood that there was always something outside of the idea of knowledge as fixed, as “said”, and that having fixed ideas can result in violence. There is an excess beyond the said, which exists in the alterity of the Other. This alterity, this difference, is the thing that can never be assimilated into knowledge. If we understand all knowledge as “said”, then we deny difference, and attempt to fix and make “the same” through language the alterity of the other. If we deny difference, we create a totalizing way of understanding the world. To return to our metaphor, if all knowledge is fixed in the “book of said”, how does it change, adapt or accommodate difference? It becomes totality, the social and political implications of which are clearly violent.
This is where the “saying” comes in. Imagine you picked up the book of all the “said” knowledge and started reading aloud from it – performing it, if you like. Your performance, your saying of the words, would add all kinds of differences. You might even alter or change some of the knowledge in order to make it fit better with the world you live in. You could start unfixing the “said” in order to accommodate difference. And it wouldn’t be to do with the language on the page – it would be other stuff, excessive stuff, introducing this difference. But it isn’t just to do with this particular oral way of “unfixing” things. Written language can enact a “saying” too, by being self-reflexive, and retaining awareness of where it fixes meaning. It can allow room for indeterminacy by using multiple phrases and terms for the same thing, it can use the structures and features of dialogue and interlocution.
The concept of the “saying” is that knowledge is always related in a particular way – it is not just the signs and signifiers of language which convey something, but in fact the very nature of the communication itself. One metaphor which Levinas uses to explain this concept in his earlier work, Totality and Infinity, is teaching. As all good teachers know, communicating to students is not just about telling them information – you are not just a conveyor of the “said”. Much of teaching is in “saying”. “Saying is communication” suggests Levinas “but as a condition for all communication, as exposure. Communication is not reducible to the phenomenon of truth”. When you teach, you perform the “said”, in the “saying”. One does not necessarily replace the other – the saying augments the said with the trace of alterity. I don’t just tell the student information – I acknowledge and understand their difference – and the asymmetrical nature of my relationship to them – through the performance of saying.
So back to memes. Memes are more saying than said. It appears that the “said” of memes – what they mean, what they signify – is always in the process being erased by the manner of their saying; the fact they are posted, shared, circulated virally. To misunderstand a meme, or to misapprehend the way that a meme communicates is, perhaps, to worry about getting the joke, or what it is trying to say. In fact, memes are a manifestation of a Levinasian ethics which emphasizes recognizing and responding to the alterity of the Other before any form of rational thought or cognitive act. Memes are first and foremost acts of relation, performances of “saying”:
The unblocking of communication, irreducible to the circulation of communication which presupposes it, is accomplished in the saying. It is not due to the contents that are inscribed in the said and transmitted to the interpretation and decoding done by the other. It is in the risky uncovering of oneself, in sincerity, the breaking up of inwardness and the abandon of all shelter, exposure to traumas, vulnerability.
Memes perform their relation within what Levinas would refer to as proximity, that is, the sense that we have an ethical responsibility to the other. They create vulnerability in the relationship between self and other online, in that they challenge the notion that we need fixed and clearly explicable signifiers to communicate. Memes are “irreducible” to what has come before. Memes break up inwardness, in that there is no interior psychological origin which acts as the progenitor of their supposed knowledge.
Pinchevski’s gloss of the above quote from Levinas is very useful to turn to here as a final word, as it gets at the idea of saying as establishing the ethical relation, rather than the said. The relational over the linguistic, if you will:
What is put forward is that communication is not only the process of giving signs; its effect transcends its content, for communication is always for someone and therefore already involves an unarticulated expression of relation. Thus, for Levinas, communication is ultimately irreducible to its contents.
There’s more to be said about the issue of the digital interface as a site of ethics here, and about whether the site of Levinas’s saying, the thing that “says” which is called “the face” is shown in the same way online as in face-to-face communication. I think this might be to do with what Levinas calls the “nakedness” or “vulnerability” of the face, which is what I’m going to do a bit of reading* about this week.
Selves are constituted in, or by, their answerability before others; they acquire meaning only through intersubjective horizons, horizons which surround textual as well as human encounter.
I’ve been reading Adam Newton’s Narrative Ethics (1995), another important text in modern ethical criticism. I’ve been thinking about this kind of criticism more recently as that which concerns itself explicitly by what it means to read critically . It usually tries to connect literariness to lived experience in some way, and will often have to define what it means by “ethics” in the first place.
Narrative Ethics comes after the Neo-Aristotelian work of critics like Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, and attempts to work from a different meta-ethical foundation, one which faces the text, performing ethics through the act of reading, which involves the dual movement of “resisting” as well as “recognizing” the text, without recourse to “the totalizing pretensions of literary theory”.
To carry out his critical act of facing the text, Newton uses a combination of concepts from Levinas, Cavell and Bakhtin to support what we might call his variation on deconstruction. As you might guess, it becomes rather dense with allusion and is littered with the fragments of quite difficult concepts. There are still moments of real clarity, though, and by putting all of the ingredients in the pot, as it were, Newton has at least tried to rethink how we might conceive of the relationship between reading, writing, criticism and ethics. I’m just not sure it’s ultimately different from a deconstructive position.
Newton’s is at pains to separate his perspective from Paul de Man’s suspended ignorance, claiming that de Man’s ultimate skepticism regarding the capacity of language to provide stable meaning doesn’t account for the potential in reading to perform an ethics, accusing him of a kind of “cowardice” which stops “woefully short”. Narrative ethics “faces” a text, because it acts, whereas deconstruction “stares at” it; “[t]he question, in other words, is whether one names a problem, or substitutes for it the undertaking or assuming or enacting of one.”
Newton’s ethics, then, is defined in a truly Levinasian spirit:
[i]n the special, but by no means unusual, sense I intend it […] “ethics” refers to the radicality and uniqueness of the moral situation itself, a binding claim exercised upon the self by a concrete and singular other, whose moral appeal precedes both decision and understanding.
He also – as the title of his book might suggest – has a thing for narrative texts, especially the novel, although there is an excellent analysis of some short stories, including Henry James’ In The Cage. “Narrative situations” are privileged because they:
create an immediacy and force, framing relations of provocation, call, and response that bind narrator and listener, author and character, or reader and text […] prose fiction translates the interactive problematic of ethics into literary forms. Stories, like persons, originate alogically. As ethical performance, in Levinas’ sense, they are concussive: they shock and linger as “traumatisms of astonishment”. [My emphasis]
So if prose fiction “translates” the “interactive problematic”, Newton begins to sound more like Nussbaum than De Man – that literary texts can provide a “laboratory” for ethical encounters. This, perhaps, in spite of his explicit quoting of Levinas, and his desire to posit the critical reading experience as something which begins “alogically”. Certainly Newton’s perspective is not that we “refine” or “enrich” our ethical understanding through reading the right texts, as Nussbaum says, but that it is through understanding the limitations of narrative, of our difference from the text,* that texts effect their ethical force. Reading – in the “ethical drama it rehearses”:
stages a “command performance,” the legislative power here belonging not to author or to text but to the critical and responsive act. The very act of reading, in other words, like prayer or casual looking, permits things to happen.
Although Newton does state that the “structure of fiction” is “not the structure of the personal encounter”, there is a sense that the critic attempts to walk a tightrope between different influences, rather than wholly embracing one or the other. This is perhaps summed up by a further attempt to clarify the distinction between literature and persons, between text and face, one which leaves us wondering which camp Newton is really in:
The profoundest meaning of narrative ethics, then, may be just this sheer fact of limit, of separateness, of boundary. It engages us, it places claims upon us, not exactly as life and persons do, but similarly, and with similar ethical consequences.
Although I do think the idea of texts demonstrating limits is important (see Butler in this previous post) the rest feels a bit limp. The “profoundest meaning” of Narrative Ethics is an idea that, in the end, is “not exactly” but “similar to” life. We probably needn’t have read that far to understand that literary texts are “similar to life”. This lack of critical thrust might be down to an ambiguity at the heart of the project, which “hope[d] to invest ethics with the kind of interpretive force exercised by the sharpest of contemporary ideological modes of literary analysis.” This puzzled me initially. Is it that Newton tries to “do” ethics without “doing” ideology? Or by suggesting that ideology doesn’t do ethics correctly? Although the statement does, I think, get at one of the problems of ethical criticism, the sense that it’s almost always too concerned with itself. I keep feeling that ethical critics could be more concerned with saying something that returns the import of the literary text to the world in which it was produced – to do politics rather than talking about it. There is an excellent discussion of the role of blackness in Stephen Crane, for instance, using Levinas’s concept of face as skin. Newton makes insightful and intelligent comment in his readings. It made me wonder – I’m not sure of the import of distinguishing between ideological – or the political – and the ethical. Are critics able to make politically prescient comments about texts that relate to the political and ethical conflicts we recognise as important? Or do we always have to worry about our system of critique over and above that?
When we decide to do ethico-politics is when critics start saying things that matter, that are not just “similar to” but are directly the experience of life and persons. This, to me, is what constitutes the “response” to the textual “call” of alterity that Newton ultimately posits:
ethically poised philosophy probably serves literature best […] when it allows texts first to speak, to tell their whole stories, before it responds. Such a response needs tactfully to mediate between knowledge and silence, between bestowing a critical surplus that literature cannot provide itself and simply registering the fact of literature’s alterity […] an equilibrium of call and response, not blindness and insight.
But there is a difference, of course, between saying and doing.
Adam Zachary Newton, Narrative Ethics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 1997
*Newton does admit the similarities to Derrida later in the work. His mode of “[e]thical self-understanding” of texts “begin[s] to look not unlike differance” . He says that this “cannot help surfacing in readings which attempt to correlate Levinasian concepts with a theory of literary interpretation.”
I’m starting to plan my first chapter – equal parts scary and exciting, like a roller coaster, or eating a live crab. This means I have to work out how my reading(s) of Levinas fits with my way of approaching novels – or, at least, the I think one can productively and usefully read and critique twenty-first century American fiction, works that attempt to make sense of the digital condition of language.
Technology is the main *thing* I’m interested in in contemporary fiction, but before I get to that, it’s important to consider the status of literary criticism as a discipline. If I want to use Levinas to inform a reading of texts, then I need to engage critically and actively with the recent history of ethical criticism (for a brief primer about this, see the text from my talk from earlier on this year, or, you know, someone much more experienced.)
To this end, I’ve recently read Dorothy J Hale’s consummate paper Fiction as Restriction: Self-Binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel. Hale writes regarding the nature of current ethical criticism, and the different ways that critics attempt to posit the idea that literature has some form of ethical value. She makes clear that this isn’t only about deciding what ethics is, but about deciding what the nature of literature is:
For many post-structuralist literary critics, the return to ethics is not just the attempt to recuperate the agency of the individual reader or author for positive political action but also an attempt to theorize for our contemporary moment the positive social value of literature and literary study.
What one means by “ethics” in this context rather depends on who you’re talking to. If you were talking to me, I’d suggest that literature helps us to understand ethics in a Levinasian sense. That is, Literature doesn’t provide us with moral rules or codes, and, indeed, might not even get anywhere near a representation of an ideal, or a good life. It’s not about learning directly from literature about how to act morally – that’s not really how we read, understand and talk about books. What I mean by a Levinasian sense here, is that literary works can calibrate our awareness of the other – they can challenge or question our understanding of ourselves, and remind us of the presence of the Other. (The problem with this, I think, is that in order to understand this challenge, we often have to resort to a literary critical language, or at least have a sense of the methods we use in reading a literary work – that’s where literary criticism comes in.)
Hale put me in mind of Levinas a lot while I was reading her articles, but she explicitly separates herself from critics like Newton who use Levinas to inform a theory of narrative ethics. In this piece, Hale outlines what ethics means for a number of writers, as well as for ethical critics of the novel – Eliot, Dickens and Trilling sit alongside Nussbaum, Harper and Spivak – but ultimately sees similarities in each ethical approach , to do with the centrality of the novel (as opposed to, say, poetry) and “agreement about the novel’s function as an agent of the reader’s ethical education”. Hale suggests that ethical critics working today are concerned with the reader as a “self-binding” figure – that is, a reader who is able to embrace and respect the alterity of the text through their commitment to limiting their powers of reading, remaining aware both as their place as judge (i.e. able to create the text) and of their limitations as a reader in being able to make ethical judgments about a text.
Through detailed reference to the arguments of Judith Butler (specifically Butler’s reading of Henry James’ Washington Square), Hale identifies the common concept of ethical criticism as centred around understanding the limitations of reading. That, if we read, we experience what it is like to have limited ethical powers, to be put into a position of not having the clarity of a moral code or set of ethical values. She articulates this as the peculiar power of the novel, that, “[t]he novel is produced as the most independent, the most elastic, the most prodigious of literary forms precisely because it does not solve in advance the problem of its own regulation.” She sums up her perspective on 21st century ethics thus:
what distinguishes this new theory of ethical choice from an older theory of the autonomous liberal subject is the self-consciously unverifiable status of the alterity that the ethical subject seeks to produce—an unverifiability that retains the post-structuralist’s skepticism about knowledge as a tool of hegemony while bestowing upon epistemological uncertainty a positive ethical content.
There are questions about what we mean by an ethical subject – and whether those ethical subjects are also literary critics – but certainly here there is a sense that reading informs an ethics that is defined by limits, by self-abnegation, rather than a self positing a right or wrong.
Dorothy J. Hale, ‘Fiction as Restriction: Self-Binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel’, NARRATIVE, Vol. 15, No. 2 (May 2007)
I’ve been reading Emmanuel Levinas’s Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. It was published in 1974 and is seen as the main text in the development of Levinas’s philosophy.
It’s a very different thing from his earlier work, Totality and Infinity. I’m not going to jump into a big exegesis of terms and arguments, because it’s Monday. What I’m going to do is discuss just one quotation that came out of my reading today, because the thought it gives rise to is politically prescient.
Here’s the extract. It’s defining the idea of proximity. This doesn’t mean spatial proximity, but rather, it labels a kind of affective or existential proximity. Put another way, it describes your primordial relation to the other, the other person, another human being, to whom Levinas says we have an ultimate responsibility. Levinas uses “humanity” as a synonym for proximity, which might help to clarify that it’s not really to do with space, or degrees of closeness, but in fact amounts to a way of talking about something that is foundational to the way we structure our relations with people. Proximity means respecting the importance of the other before anything else. This is not because you have reasoned your way to a position of caring about the other, or because it might be good for some other ethical reasons, but because it is the defining element of our sensibility:
The proximity of beings of flesh and blood is not their presence “in flesh and bone”, is not the face that they take form for a look, present an exterior, quiddities, forms, give images, which the eye absorbs […] Nor are material beings reducible to the resistance they oppose to the effort they solicit. Their relationship with a mouth is not an adventure of knowledge or of action. Subjectivity of flesh and blood in matter – the signifyingness of sensibility, the-one-for-the-other itself – is the preoriginal signifyingness that gives sense, because it gives.
The first thing to understand is that Levinas is writing against philosophers like Husserl and Heidegger, who in phenomenology were focused heavily on vision as the mode through which the self understood phenomena (Levinas instead says that “saying” is far more important). Levinas, though, is much more interested in the phenomenon of the other. The other is not just a self we think of as like us (i.e. another self on the same level), or a self for whom we feel responsibility for through empathy – because, hey, if they’re a bit like me, then I can totally imagine what it’s like to be them. For Levinas, the other is an entity with which with have an asymmetrical relationship. This means the other is, in a metaphorical sense, bigger than us (he does actually use the metaphor of height). We have a responsibility to them. We must, as a primordial or preoriginary state, give to them. Levinas repeatedly emphasizes the sacrificial nature of this idea through the image of removing bread from one’s own mouth to feed the other (which partly explains the reference to the mouth above).
Put another way, our relation with another person, the person different to us, is not based on knowledge about that person or actions to do with that person. We don’t have to see their faces, their “flesh and bone”, to have the sense that we must act with an innate hospitality towards them.
This hospitality, this “alienation” of the self by the other, is described as follows:
[b]eing torn from oneself for another in giving to the other the bread from one’s mouth is being able to give up one’s soul for another.
The phrase Levinas uses to complete this reversal of subjectivity is the-one-for-the-other. To start from the self as the progenitor of all being is to create a false foundation for a code of ethics, a way of life, one that can only ever subordinate itself to the will of selves. In the very title of Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, we can see Levinas’s appeal against this conception of the self as having an isolated essence or experiencing Being. We should understand being otherwise; there is a better humanity beyond my own essence.
I’m still thinking about how Levinas’s inversion of the traditional ontological construction of subjectivity might inform a politics. But here’s a short idea. A way of being in the world based in a preoriginary hospitality, a being which gives, which respects automatically the alterity of the other as an essential component of any humanity, is more ethically coherent than one which assumes solely the sovereign self as a mode of constituting being.This is because the former installs an ethical component before anything else – before cognition, before any idea of politics as we know it from day to day. And if that component is there -if we follow that modality of being which is taking the bread from one’s own mouth, rather than doing the inverse which is violence – we are less likely to cause the destruction of others in the face of your cosmically dangerous selfhood.
Today I’ve been reading Jill Robbins on Levinas and literature in her work “Altered Reading” (1999). It’s helping me to think through the way Levinasian philosophy links to literary criticism, and focuses in part on a concept which I’m going to briefly outline here, one that is central to Levinas’s philosophy: the face.
For Levinas, the face is what “calls to us”. Its an ethical event, an epiphany, which shapes anything beyond ourselves (it is central to Levinas’s idea of transcendence). The face – a nudity, a thing that doesn’t signify in the same way a sign does – establishes the first point of humanity, our responsibility for the other. The description of this might be called preontological. It just happens. If infinity is exterior to totality, then, in Levinas’s word “this “outside totality” opens with the transcendence of the face.”
This takes us back to the concept of infinity, and the face is the site of this infinity, this exteriority – infinity because it is not within the bounds of a dialectic or an opposition (the other is not merely the other because of its difference from the same). The face is where we find the foundational ethical impulse – the one that says we should not murder:
This infinity, stronger than murder, already resists us in his face, is his face, is the primordial expression, is the first word: “you shall not commit murder.”
Robbins describes the face as the ultimate “disturbance”, a “shaking up of the mundane”, “an active surplus over the plastic image that would enclose it”. It is not just a form, but something that is constantly “overflowing”. As such, we cannot ignore it – it is already and essentially there, and thus we have a responsibility to it. “[B]ecause of presence before the face of the Other,” Levinas states, clarifying the relation between the self and Other “man does not permit himself to be deceived by his glorious triumph as a living being”. That is, we are not left merely to the “enjoyment” of our own selves, our own consumption of things; our urges for “possession” and “power” are essentially and necessarily brought into question by the presence of the other in the face.
Levinas constantly redescribes and restates a lot of his ideas, and the notion of the face is no different. There are problems with whether this just refers to a physical face in reality, or whether this is a metaphor for a form of vulnerability Levinas is trying to get at. One point of interesting clarification we are given is about the face being necessarily “alive”. The face of the person who is dead becomes a form, an image, a mask, lacking the epiphanic quality of the alive face:
In this epiphany the face is not resplendent as a form clothing a content, as an image, but as the nudity of the principle, behind which there is nothing further. The dead face becomes a form, a mortuary mask; it is shown instead of letting see – but precisely thus no longer appears as a face.
To continue questioning what Levinas really means by face, we can return to Robbins. Robbins raises the question about whether the face is actually made a metaphorical concept at points in Levinas’s work, referencing Totality and Infinity:
But what is Levinas’s reader to make of the obvious metaphoricity of “The face is a hand, an open hand,” or, “The whole body – a hand or a curve of the shoulder – can express as a face” (TI, 212), which even suggest a transfer between synecdochic figures for the human?
This is part of Robbins’s larger line of questioning around whether the rhetorical figure (i.e. that which we find in the literary text) can be a face. Is our encounter with a literary work like that of our encounter with the other? Is the literary work a ‘face’ in a Levinasian sense? Ultimately, she suggests that applying Levinasian philosophy to literary texts directly is not the way to go, because Levinas’s discussion of literature doesn’t really allow it:
There is an incommensurability between the more originary level of Levinas’s ethical discourse and the discourse of literary criticism. This means that an extrinsic approach to the topic will lead nowhere, for it is not a matter in any case of applying Levinas’s philosophy to the interpretation of literary texts.
The “incommensurability” comes mainly from the fact that Levinas takes a rather Platonic view of the literary text – saying it’s rhetorical, and thus deceptive, and not indicative of the other. This is in spite of the fact that an engagement with literary texts as demonstrative or descriptive of ethical concepts is spread throughout his work.
If the literary text doesn’t quite fit with the “originary level” of Levinasian thought, then, it surely must fit at some level. The literary text has always been cited as a source of alterity, of access to otherness – it’s a form of exteriority, of seeing things other. I don’t fully accept Robbins’s declaration that we can’t apply Levinasian philosophy to a literary text, although I do agree that it’s certainly not straightforward, and that Levinas’s relationship with literature is ambiguous at best.
When we talk about terms such as “responsibility”, “gift”, “alterity”, they are all terms which are readily applied to the literary work anyway. Furthermore, the works that we call literary are those which are most other – they are challenging, make us question our conception of the self, provoke us to consider our responsibilities. And they do this, perhaps not in an automatic way, such as the face, but they do so through the mediation of the reading process. This undeveloped perspective may well be doing violence to the complex metaphysics of Levinas’s relation between the same and the other, but there has to be some way of accounting for the literary work within a Levinasian ethical framework. Otherwise, how do we understand the fact that Levinas himself was led to philosophy by his encounters with Dostoevsky? That the Russian writer was his “preparation for philosophy”?
Emmanuel Levinas – Totality and Infinity trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985)
Jill Robbins – Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature (Chicago: CUP, 1999)
Today, I’m going to briefly expand on how the concepts of sameness and otherness are seen as structuring larger theoretical concepts in Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, namely the narrowness of totality and the transcendental possibility of infinity. (Yes, they’re in the title, so they’re quite important.)
If the relation of the Same to the Other is an essential component of human life, we might begin to ask what this does to the thing we call society. Although Levinas doesn’t get particularly concrete, there is a political flavour to the theoretical context in which he places the relation between the Same and the Other, and this is to do with the way we either close down or open up our conception of what we know and how we know it.
For Levinas, to be the same, to be just a subject, attempting to subsume everything into one system which is familiar and can be understood in comfort, is like being an oppressive force. To forcibly make someone into the same is to deny their alterity or otherness – it is to turn them into something that is both knowable and, at the same time, easily subjugated. This is the creation of a totality, that is, the asserting of a totalizing concept which confirms the sameness of the system around us. Ultimately, this leads us to think we are free, or at least that we might have a form of freedom. This freedom, however, is conditioned by a totalizing system – “the State” is what Levinas usually refers to – and it means we have a restricted, limited perspective on what it means to live, and therefore on what we might think of as the “good”:
Freedom, be it that of war, can be manifested only outside totality, but this “outside totality” opens with the transcendence of the face. To think of freedom as within totality is to reduce freedom to the status of an indetermination in being, and forthwith to integrate it into a totality by closing the totality over the “holes” of indetermination – and seeking with psychology the laws of a free being!*
*Levinas is a fan of the snarky exclamation mark.
That’s where infinity comes in. Outside of totality, there is the possibility of infinity, and we become aware of it through the face of the Other.
The Other is important here, because their experience, their very existence, is exterior to ours, and as such their intentions and understanding are beyond us, because beyond ourselves. The very fact that these experiences exist, and are present in the form of the Other, gives us access to something commensurate with infinity. In Levinas’s words, the situation where “totality breaks up” is “the gleam of exteriority or of transcendence in the face of the Other. The rigorously developed concept of this transcendence is expressed by the term infinity.”
But what is this idea of “infinity” like? If the person’s face opposite me provides access to something like a more genuine freedom, an obstructed understanding about what it means to be good, then can we describe this experience? Levinas turns to the metaphors of the teacher, or the Master, as a way of helping to articulate this kind of relation:
Commerce with the alterity of infinity does not offend like an opinion; it does not limit a mind in a way inadmissible to a philosopher. Limitation is produced only within a totality, whereas the relation with the Other breaks the ceiling of the totality […] teaching is the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality.
Whether or not this idea can lead us to a sort of ethical epiphany is questionable. The main problem is the notion of getting outside of a totalizing system, or even of engaging with the alterity of the other – interacting with infinity – without turning them into something like same, making them part of a totalizing system.
I think this is something like what we do with literary texts – certainly it’s not hard to view literary texts as a site of infinity, as a kind of ultimate possibility, which is freeing, rather than limiting or restricting. This infinity is something I think we appeal to all the time, especially when we’re defining the literary. We get most anxious about what we are choose to call Literature when it begins to display the features of familiarity, or predictability, of sameness. It is when literature begins to fall into a genre category all of its own – of litfic, perhaps – that it begins to lose this quality of the infinite, to the kind of possibility of exteriority which makes it valuable.
This is essentially the reason I’m studying contemporary fiction, because I see current novels as teaching us an image of the human being which is essentially infinite, based on explicating otherness, rather than sameness.
Last week, I finally finished Emmanuel Levinas’s first significant work Totality and Infinity (1961). I’m trying to work out how to use Levinasian philosophy to read contemporary texts, how the issues and concepts addressed in his writing can shape and inform how I examine contemporary American novels.
Totality and Infinity is a kind of rhetorical, ethical appeal. It is highly repetitive, with central concepts and ideas constantly recurring, like leitmotif, slightly varied, reasserted in different ways. This makes it pretty difficult to pin down the priorities of Levinas’s arguments – there’s just so much he refers to, uses and reuses.
In order to help me make sense of some of the central elements, I’m going to try and do some basic glossing of what the concepts are and how they are referred to. Doing this will also help me to think through how I might use some of these ideas as tools for critique.
Ethics as First Philosophy – The Same and The Other in Totality and Infinity
I’ll start with the relationship between what we might (for now) call the same and the Other. The same is what already know, what we might call our personal experience, that which we comfortably understand and have assimilated into our own perspective. The Other is the exterior person, that which is not same, and thus can challenge my sameness, my fixed perspective. Levinas says that this relation, the one between the subject and the person who is exterior, is the most essential element of experience – “the relationship between the same and the other…is the ultimate fact”.
Before anything else, we must understand ourselves as constituted not by our isolated individual experiences but by our commitment to and responsibility for the Other. This is “ethics as first philosophy”, or “ethics as optics”. It is a new vision of the human being which challenges traditional ontologies of the self and Being following Heidegger and Husserl. Levinas states:
it is a “vision” without image, bereft of the synoptic and totalizing objectifying virtues of vision, a relation or an intentionality or a wholly different type
This vision is not merely a call to maintain awareness of other people, but rather an appeal to recalibrate our ideas about how we are constituted in the world. That is, our Being cannot be seen as simply of and for ourselves, but instead must be understood as being-for-the-Other. The Other is essential to existence; we are not solely egoist entities but social beings. It is this relation, the acknowledgement of the presence of the Other, which Levinas labels as “ethics”:
A calling into question of the same – which cannot occur within the egoist spontaneity of the same – is brought about by the other. We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics. The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics.
The Other cannot be made the same, without destroying the very thing which makes them Other. They are “irreducible”, because they call into question the I. This is the most basic relation of human beings, and thus it is the foundation of ethics. It is important to note that Levinas doesn’t set out any kind of rules for how to live, and rather than providing any kind of moral code, seems to give an ultimate meta-ethical document – an ethics about ethics.
Literary Criticism – Literary Text as Other?
There is obviously lots more to say about the above, and many more concepts to bring into the discussion, but I’d like to move in to thinking about the dialogue here between this kind of Philosophy and Literary criticism.
I think this kind of relation – understanding the Other as integral – provides interesting ways of thinking about literary texts. Can texts be viewed as Other, in that their value stems from the way they “call into question” fixed understanding? And might the literary critic shape their critique (their representation of the value of this Other) not by fixing what they say in place by their authority as interpreter – by making it the same – but by responding to its particular messages, those which are relevant to the human being as social being, its status as Other?
These are the sort of questions I’m thinking about, and I’ll continue to address them both below the line and in future posts about how Levinasian philosophy influences contemporary literary criticism.