Another one of my rambling theoretical response papers. I love the section on Suspect Zero and Levinas, which is why I feel all warm and fuzzy posting it here. (apologies though for the recent rash of "question" titles for my posts.)
Michael Lujan Bevacqua
Social Theory B
Professor Denise Da Silva
May 9, 2005
Levinas and Irigary
It becomes difficult to read just the sections of Levinas that we were supposed to from class. The truth is, Levinas constantly pops up in the same ways that Spivak,Omi and Winant and so many others do. A short note here when I want to use a phrase like "I am responsible for the other so far as he is mortal." (By the way, I plan on using this phrase at least once during this paper.)
Even Zizek himself has yet to confront directly Levinas, at least in all of the books I've read. Instead he makes quick snipes at him, such as in Organs without Bodies or Welcome to the Desert of the Real. I can understand however, how one might be hesitant to engage with him, because his works seems too simplistic and local, yet overwhelmingly vast and strange at the sametime. His philosophical starting point is as simple and similar as Heidegger's, before one can interrogate what exists, one must first come to terms with the fact that something exists. What seems to separate Levinas and Heidegger those who came before is what this means for beings in being. It doesn't mean the rational isolation of Descartes (which we now see as an attempt to master and exhaust being), but instead an acceptance of engulfment in being.
But moving on from this point becomes difficult. For me, it is because these chapters that we are reading for class, seem different then the Levinas I have read elsewhere and read when written of by others. I know part of this is because of the way he moves between other, Other, human Other and wholly Other, and many translations don't seem to translate these movements very well (even in the photocopied pages, the translators constantly switch between Other and other for autrui. I wonder if these texts are the foundations for Levinas' thought, and that is why they differ from his interviews and other works were he is working towards an ethics without ethics, the means of possibly constituting this neighborliness. Much of what I read in these pages left me confused, until I reached page 300, where I reached familiar territory. And actually when I returned to the familiar I realized something about Levinas’ work that I hadn’t before (it was Jean Wahl’s comment that made me think about it). Although Levinas is trying to get past Descartes and those who followed him, he is at the same time working very closely with Descartes, especially around the idea of infinity. In Descartes we see a finite mind struggling with infinity, and it is this limitation that forces Descartes to admit to a infinite which put the idea his mind alone could not know or grasp (God). For Levinas, this same presence of the infinite is where we find the Other. It is in the gap, the rupture in the totality of the world that we see and know the Other. Levinas wanders along a similar infinite line, constantly tracing (primarily because of our own expectations) the face of God, however reaffirming that this is not religious in the common sense.
It is instead the infinite, the Other with which we interact and the interaction which dictates the required, but often forgotten third position of this relation, that of the We. The forming of this We however is always violent, because it creates universals which force negation, which force encounters to be in absentia of the encountering.
Speaking of negation, it is interesting seeing Levinas wax densely yet poetically about the I and the Other. On page 303 he mentions Hegel and Sartre, and here I think we can pick up another key point. While at first, the recognition of the other as another possibly self conscious thing, (another I) seems nice, Levinas does have a point in critiquing those two, and how effectively that meeting of the I and the other, the possibility of the other becoming another I, limits our very freedom.
The Other cannot be reduced to another I, because when this takes place, the violent anxiety of overproximity and fear of the same takes place (such as Ron Silver in the end of the film TimeCop.). Here we see Levinas attempting to conserve exteriority, because in his ideas, the acceptance of the obligation, the responsibility entrusted in recognizing the face of the other is what gives the I authentic freedom. (Much like Delueze’s remark that the only real choice comes in being chosen.) (Hindi movie films vary this endlessly, forcing the distance between the Big Other and the subject, to sometimes disappear (first example to come to mind, Amitabh Bachan in like every film in the 1970’s (Deewar, Muquaddar Ka Sikandar, etc.)
Does this however presuppose an I which already possesses consciousness-for-itself? As opposed to the Cartesian I which is so cute and innocent, having done nothing to anything important other then doubt itself and find out that it exists, Levinas presupposes something which has a history. It has already negated its share of others, and therefore made the recognitions necessary to become something for itself, as opposed to in-itself. What both Heidegger and Levinas both can’t escape from Hegel is repetition. That the movement from in itself to for itself is based on repetition of the same. (My favorite way of illustrating this is De Ja Vu in films, such as the appearance of the black cat in both the first Matrix film (when the Agents change the building’s architecture) and the last film (when the world is recreated after Smith and Neo’s obliteration (the mythological shift in the matrix films from the first film (which was most likely written by someone else and not the Wachowski brothers) to the second and the second and a half, and the way resistance is articulated and “path” outside of the never ending, ever looping and returning dialectical conflict is presented, can offer important points for those wanting to make use of Denise’s readings of Fanon)) Reminding me of my meager readings of Saint Augustine, we can see also in Levinas, a tiring of the repetitive life of the senses (which also echoes Descartes), and enjoyment. This tiring marks the transition from the in-itself to the for-itself as well, forcing the self to confront the other as something which does not exist only to be consumed or to be the object of enjoyment.
Thus, the I for Levinas is never an innocent I, but one which is seeking to leave behind a violent past. An I which has recognized the potential of exteriority, and sees how the repetition of the Same leads to the regular, everyday violence of life, and also forces one to yearn against a language which speaks of freedom (in particular of the self), only because it is unable to articulate the experience of unfreedom.
It is particularly interesting to read Levinas with or against the film Suspect Zero. In it we see an ethics based on impossibility, an intimacy which cannot help but be haunted by the very distance that creates it. Ben Kingsley is a remote viewer, one of many trained by the FBI to see events taking place in faraway places, through meditation, concentration, sound and symbolic cues. When the program which trains these men is terminated, the men themselves are not told how to “terminate” their “gift.” Thus, they continue to be connected in the most intimate of ways to people across the country. What is most pertinent to the film’s plot, is that Kingsley sees the horrible acts by one serial killer, whom he calls suspect zero (who has disappeared hundreds of children around the country). It is interesting hearing Kingsley discuss these distant impossible others from whom he cannot escape the fact that he is responsible for them, insofar as they are mortal. Furthermore, one must wonder what Levinas’ stand on violence would be, since his position of necessary high fidelity, invariably leads to numerous forms of strategic ethical violence. (such as Kingsley’s killing of several serial killer’s himself, and the also attempting to entrap the film’s main character Aaron Eckhart, into killing Kingsley)(The interesting part about this entrapment comes in the film’s special features, where in one version of the film’s end, the death of Kingsley, leads to the transformation of Eckhart into a remote viewer himself, who resumes Kingsley’s impossible quest to save the other who cannot help but be mortal (this also referring to the fact that the most revolutionary form of violence is against the revolutionary himself (the ethical death of Kingsley, somehow avoiding the terror which the Jacobins and Stalin did not, and finding the revolution re-embodied in Eckhart in the film’s alternate ending)).
Turning to Irigaray, we see both her and Levinas articulating the importance of love in relations with the other. What we see in Irigaray is the importance of the third term, which is always present, but always invisible of assumed as well. For Levinas, the third term is through which the social is formed, the constitutions of that however depends on how we first relate to the other and deal with exteriority. For Irigaray it seems just as important that we spend some time interrogating that third term, looking at the importance of love in forming new ideas of sexual ethics, most likely because they are not possible without each other.
In this class we have mentioned the dead, ghosts, children. For Irigaray, her maybe-past-modern proxy of choice seems to be that which embodies Eros the best, the angel. It is interesting to note how we fixate constantly on the I and the Other, always assuming the invisibility of the third term. As Irigaray’s ideas come largely from psychoanalysis, she is specifically dealing with the child as the third term. For psychoanalytical sexual readings the gaze of the child is always embedded, always present (at least for Lacan and Zizek). The child who sees his parents having sex is the gaze which is presupposed in every I – Other relationship. This can of course be debated endlessly when thinking of variations on the gender and sex of those viewed, and of course goes to the core of psychoanalytical limits for social understanding as well as why Irigaray seems to be seeking another term. (I am thinking here of Zizek’s use of a French author to discuss the relationship between love and the political. The I and the Other gazing into each other’s eyes, misses love and politics. What is necessary is for the I and the Other to both look off to a third point, and it is there that they can find love in the political) (We can see echoes of this possible ethics in Irigaray, as well as Levinas’ implicit desire that somehow the I and the Other come to be side by side).
But of course Irigaray recognizes that this project in itself is inhibited by the very grammar we use, which is sexed masculine. Her use of the discourse of the schizophrenic is an important intervention in understanding this. It is of course easy to just say this, “oh, yeah language is masculine,” but given Irigaray’s ideas, how does one make this point? Her conceptualization of the woman in language, borders on the Lacanian definition of psychosis. Meaning that, while all subjects are detached from language, the woman is forced into a psychotic state, because of what the language speaks her as, namely the fantasy of the man. Confronted with this derivational, impossible state, the woman as a self is forced either to embody that feminine mystique or to turn psychotic in an effort to reject the Big Other which is oppressing you. The new grammar is needed to bypass this place which has been created for woman, which is built upon the imperial-like nostalgia for the Oneness of the womb. (What we see in the cases Irigaray briefly mentions is that unlike men, women are forced to move between hysteria and psychosis, while men move between them, neurosis and most commonly settle around perversion (Perversion in this way is meant to be understood as the discourse of knowing what the other wants, thereby knowing both what the other is, and the what the self is).