Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-Other

[Emmanuel Levinas. Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-Other. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.]

For reasons explained in the first couple of paragraphs of this post, one broad category of books I'm reading at the moment is those that enact or analyze ways of knowing the world through encounter and relation. I solicited suggestions on Facebook a few months back, and one respondent whose judgement I quite trust suggested it might be useful to read some of Emmanuel Levinas' work. From the smattering of mentions of it that I had encountered before -- including, if I'm remembering correctly, in Sara Ahmed's book Strange Encounters, which I didn't review, and in this book on feminist philosophy of religion, which was quite influential on my thinking while writing about related themes for one of my own books -- I was inclined to agree.

One way to quickly summarize why Levinas might be of interest is that whereas most of Western philosophy starts from being and then goes on (or not!) to think about us existing in relation to others, Levinas argues that relation precedes being, and therefore that ethics are more fundamental than ontology. His way of arriving at all of this is very different from anything I'd thought about before, but it does fit in rather neatly with a preoccupation of my own in recent years: the ways in which particularly the more privileged amongst us see ourselves as these liberal-democratic discrete agents that get to choose when and how we engage with the broader social world -- a conceit that I think is profoundly harmful, but even those of us who recognize it as a problem have no easy path to really internalizing the implications of the fact that we are always already and thoroughly social.

This book is a collection of short pieces -- essays, interviews, texts of lectures, excerpts from longer works -- spanning several decades and dealing with this particular aspect of his writing. I don't have much background in this area -- or, anyway, what I have is idiosyncratic and sparse -- so I found reading this to be very slow going, but also very productive. It was helpful that the many pieces in the volume returned frequently to the core ideas, approached them in a range of different ways, and took them in a range of different directions. Though I'm sure any proper philosopher who happens to read this review could easily point out ways that this is not the case, I feel that the book left me with a pretty solid grounding in those core ideas.

So. Descartes' idea of I, reasoned from his experience of being a thinking self, has been pretty central to philosophy and ideas in the West since he first came up with it. In the mid- to late-20th century, a number of thinkers, including feminists but also including Levinas, have pointed out that this formulation does not make a lot of sense because it does not describe a circumstance that ever actually happens -- there is no moment where we are an I alone. At a very basic level, from the moment we come into existence we are always in relation to others. For Levinas, this existing in relation takes the form of an encounter with what he describes as "the face of the Other." That precedes all else and imposes an obligation, a sort of duty of care, upon us that in its pure form is absolute. However, in our lived reality we never face a single Other -- there is always a third person, in fact many other people, and from that springs the need to balance our obligation to these many others, to recognize the differences in their behaviours and their treatment of each other, and therefore a need for analysis, a sense of justice, and hard decisions.

Of interest to me given my reason for picking up the book in the first place, among the many different things that Levinas relates to this core idea is a particular analysis of how we know the world. The Western epistemology that flows from Descartes' "I think" begins, as I said, from ontology. The being of I is central, and really the only subject whose subjecthood you can be sure of is your own, and this means that knowing the world is a process of intentionally reaching out to surrounding phenomena and in a sense incorporating them into self through knowing them. It is a relation that is acquisitive and dominating, that turns all that is Different into Same through the incorporation into self, that through thematizing and making known that which is different makes all the world an object. This ignores, Levinas argues, the subjectivity of the Other. Rather than making ontology primary, we must begin from our encounter with the face of the Other. In that encounter, the Other is not known, it is clearly a subject and it is clearly not reducible to I. And it is not a difference that is different in a known way, either, but is a uniqueness that refuses and overflows our categories, an alterity that cannot be reduced to sameness, a fellow subjectivity that cannot be incorporated into me but rather that must be related with in an intersubjective way.

Levinas is not against knowing, in the sense of a reaching out into the world with intention and incorporating the world into self. It is exactly that sort of exercise that becomes necessary when responding to the complexity of the "third person" and the consequent need for analysis and some measured approach to justice. But he insists that the ethical obligation proceeding from the encounter with the face of the Other precedes this, and it is only through recognizing that precedence that we can begin to counter the many problems that flow from the domineering Western approach to knowing.

Though the basis and the language he uses are very different, it all feels at least vaguely consistent with some of my own writing about knowing the world, in the Intro & Conclusion to my books and in a haphazard way on this blog. I talk about an approach to knowing that is very explicit about being situated, inevitably incomplete, saturated with a certain humility, and a product of dialogical relation with other subjects and their accounts of themselves rather than of treating the social world purely as object.

I don't get the sense that Levinas is terribly hopeful about the possibility of what might be called knowing otherwise. For him, this objectifying and acquisitive character is inherent to knowing, and it's a matter of balancing that, in how we act in the world, with the ethical commitment that flows from our encounter with the face of the Other. I'm less convinced that this is our only alternative. I think that perhaps his insights and the insights of others can be used to build a sort of synthesis that incorporates the relational and the ethical into social ways of knowing -- that through recognizing not only the knower as a social being (which he does) but knowing as a social process (which is much less visible in his work), we can enact practices that allow us to relate differently to each other and the world as we go about producing knowledge. I hope so, anyway.

I think it is reasonable for me to ask myself, at this point, whether it was worth reading this book. Yes, I found it powerful and interesting and relevant, but I think at least some of my affinity for the work is about relating to the mid-level analysis rather than extensive buy-in to the fundamental scaffolding upon which he builds it, so I'm not sure I gain much by now having the ability to point to his scaffolding. Perhaps more important for my purposes, it's not clear that people who are engaged with the social world and who are interested in movements and struggle today will care at all about some obscure dead Frenchman's insistance on the primacy of ethics and relationality, especially when there are lots of other sources -- many people who think about things based in feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, and other struggles, for instance -- who present much more commonsense and everyday arguments for seeing that primacy, and who might even regard the need to develop elaborate arguments to defend such primacy as a sign of a regime of knowledge that is better left behind. And all of that is fair enough. But I do have a sense (that is still quite underdeveloped, admittedly) that there is value in trying to excavate more liberatory and just tendencies from dominant traditions even as we engage with and listen to ways of knowing the world that emerge more directly from struggles for justice and liberation and that tend to be more thoroughly marginalized in the mainstream. Not sure how that relates to anything I might do, but I still think it's worth further reflection.

Before I close, I should point to some political limitations in Levinas. I agree in general terms with his argument about the presence of the "third person" impelling a need to develop analysis and a sense of justice and to make hard, balancing decisions, but for him that very clearly means a need for the liberal-democratic state. He's very insistent on this, but I don't get the sense, at least from what is presented here, that this is a product of particularly critical thought about the world at the social and political level, it's just the only possibility in his millieu that he can see that might fit. (This reminds me a bit of Ladelle McWhorter's Bodies and Pleasures. It's a book I love, with its reading of Foucault presented via the author's journey of reading him and applying his ideas to her own life, but I was disappointed that her sharp insight and critical analysis seemed to falter when it came to considering how to act in collective political ways, and the dominant liberalism of her environment seemed to allow her little space to imagine other ways of approaching that sphere of activity.) I don't agree with Levinas in this, of course, but I do think his presumption points towards a much more complicated conversation that we rarely have, about the ways in which, in a violent and unjust world, even if we try to imagine our way outside of the state form, it is hard to imagine that whatever we replace it with won't have to incorporate aspects of what I remember reading Dean Spade describe once as "stateness," in that sometimes it is hard to perceive a path towards justice even at a very basic and interpersonal level that does not include at least some manifestations of coercion or even violence.

I also have a vague impression that there are things that a feminist engagement with Levinas might take issue with. I haven't talked much about it because I don't entirely understand it -- it wasn't really emphasized in the pieces chosen for this book -- but Levinas sees the encounter with the face of the Other as a call not just to ethics and care but to the possibility of violence. As well, I wonder about the primary encounter with a subject that is not I being an alien Other rather than the one who birthed you -- would some way of recognizing that initial blurred separateness, and the care (and demand and often ambivalence) that is (at least in most instances) bound up in that relationship change his analysis? And I'm pretty sure some feminist thinkers have taken issue with ethics that make responsibility to other people an absolute good, given the role that ethical blandishments with exactly that form have had in subordinating women.

And, finally, to note something that is only touched upon very briefly in this book and is not particularly relevant to his philosophical work, Levinas seems to have been supportive of the Zionist colonial project in Palestine. Perhaps understandable given the era and social location of his writing, it still points to all sorts of questions about what it means to translate philosophical ideals into lived realities, about whose humanity we recognize, and about our own social production as subjects.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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