Approaching a philosopher such as Emmanuel Levinas might seem intimidating, both because of his reputation for diving extremely deeply into the most fundamental questions of human existence, and for doing so in a style that is, perhaps adequately, quite heavy and impenetrable. In our latest episodes, Mark, Wes, and Seth took upon themselves the much-needed and difficult task of taking Levinas down from his ethereal heights and subjecting him to a down-to-earth analysis. In the process, they stumbled upon a fascinating question that I think deserves more attention.
Levinas’s “first philosophy” is an attempt to elucidate the content of our precognitive experience. In our efforts, we discover an ethical demand so originary and so powerful that it informs our entire experience: the responsibility for and toward “the Other.” As the podcast does a wonderful job of unraveling the arguments that support this centrality of the Other, as well as the many implications that flow from it, I won’t go into further detail here. But there is a question Levinas raises that calls for a lengthier analysis: is my sheer being in the world an act of violence toward the Other? Do I harm or deprive others by purely existing?
My being-in-the-world or my ‘place in the sun,’ my being at home, have these not also been the usurpation of spaces belonging to the other man whom I have already oppressed or starved, or driven out into a third world; are they not acts of repulsing, excluding, exiling, stripping, killing? (1984: 82)
Asking this question makes the difference between a world at war and a world at peace. Levinas’s words ring true and particularly relevant in today’s globalized world, where in a worrying ethical butterfly effect, each of our small actions contributes to a tremendous impact on people on the other side of the world. Despite our “conscious and intentional innocence” (Id.) we are (or should be) driven by the fear of all the violence and murder that our existing might generate. Today, actually, buying a new smartphone might mean you’re contributing to the deadliest armed conflict since World War II. Shopping for cheap clothes is supporting slave labor. Whether you’re buying too much food and then throwing it away (or buying too little, therefore making retailers throw it away) you’re making it harder for the 795 million undernourished people in the world to feed themselves. If you extend your responsibility to all sentient beings, it gets even more dramatic, as you’re perpetuating the violent suffering of countless beings every time you choose to have eggs for breakfast.
In the digital world, the possibilities for hurting others extend even further. When you show support for the victims in Paris you’re offending those in Beirut. Posting an innocent photo of you and your partner looking happy can cause deep sorrow to a solitary soul you perhaps haven’t even met. Social media tears down the walls between the social roles we’ve so carefully compartmentalized, and simply being in a certain place, physically or psychologically, can cause hurt and sorrow to our ever-closer Other.
Levinas’s phrase “infinite responsibility” (1979, p. 244) seems very apt for us today, even though at the time Levinas didn’t live in a world as digitalized or as globalized as we do. In his view, infinite responsibility arises immediately and unavoidably upon the contact with another human face. Then and there, in the “face-to-face,” we don’t even need to know anything about the Other in order to feel infinitely responsible toward them. In the ethical demand that arrests us, we feel their needs and rights becoming our obligations, starting with the most basic, material ones and never really ending. If the Other is hungry, we must feed them, if they’re naked, we must clothe them and assuage any other need they might have, bearing in mind these needs are sacred simply because they are our neighbor’s. The ethical moment of responsibility toward the Other precedes any philosophical discourse, and more fundamentally, it precedes our freedom and our choices. Responsibility comes before anything else; it is the essence of our subjectivity and a constitutive, inescapable part of our being. To be is to be responsible.
This responsibility is not reciprocal at all, in fact it is, and should be, profoundly imbalanced. Levinas is fond of quoting Dostoevsky’s Alyosha Karamazov when he says “We are all responsible for everyone else—but I am more responsible than all the others.’’ In an interview with Richard Kearney (1984, quoted in Tangyin, 2008) he explains that this asymmetry is “the very basis of ethics,” as demanding from everyone equally to be “more responsible than everyone else” would mean to generalize the law for everyone (Kearney, 1984: 67) and Levinas’s ethics seeks to escape deontology, as it does utilitarianism or virtue ethics. “One has to respond to one’s right to be,” he writes, “not by referring to some abstract and anonymous law, or judicial entity, but because of one’s fear for the Other.” This is the “fear of occupying someone else’s place with the Da of my Dasein,” the “there” of my “there being,” a fear that is at once the drive of my ethical existence but also a fear that is impossible to assuage. By simply being in the world, I am already occupying someone else’s place. To rephrase this using biblical language (which would otherwise be coherent with the religious streaks in Levinas’s philosophy), we are born into sin, and we are condemned to spending the rest of our lives in one vain, incessant, endless attempt to redeem ourselves.
The infinity of our responsibility is magnified by the uniqueness of the Other, the “neighbor” we’re responsible for. In one interview, Levinas says of the Other that he or she “does not appear as belonging to an order which can be ‘embraced’, or ‘grasped’. . . The essence of responsibility lies in the uniqueness of the person for whom you are responsible” (Mortley 1991: 16, quoted in Tangyin, 2008: 159).
The other is not only unique, but it is also infinite. In his essays Totality and Infinity (1979) and “The Idea of Infinity” (1987: 47–60), Levinas draws comparisons to Descartes’s Third Meditation (1641) to explain how the relationship between the I and the Other is analogous to that between the human intellect and the infinity of God. For Descartes, we can have an idea of God’s infinity and incomprehensibility that is at once “clear and distinct”; we are able to comprehend the fact that God cannot be comprehended. Similarly, we can think the infinity of the other without annulling it, we can have an idea of the limitless without delineating it with our thinking. “The alterity of the infinite,” Levinas writes, “is not cancelled, is not extinguished in the thought that thinks it. In thinking infinity the I from the first thinks more than it thinks. Infinity… is not a concept. The infinite is the radically, absolutely, other” (1987: 54).
If the Other is unique, cannot be grasped, is limitless in his or her alterity, then our responsibility for them is limitless as well. It includes responsibility for their crimes, and responsibility for their responsibility (Tangyin, 2008: 165). According to Levinas, “to be a self is to be responsible before having done anything” (1996: 17, 94, quoted in Critchley, 2007: 62). In this sense, responsibility is at once “guiltless” and overflowing with guilt. In Totality and Infinity, the notion of responsibility is hyperbolized even further: it is infinite in the sense that it increases
in the measure that it is assumed; duties become greater in the measure that they are accomplished. The better I accomplish my duty, the fewer rights I have; the more I am just the more guilty I am (1979: 244).
In the face of this monstrous notion of responsibility, the question arises: can human beings even survive such a crushing burden? Is there anything we can do to alleviate it? Responsibility in its infinity and its unforgiving asymmetry holds us “hostage.” We are arrested, as it were, by the needs of the Other, and commanded to be responsible for them. Dostoevsky writes (1999: 310) that “As soon as you sincerely make yourself responsible for everything and for all men, you will see at once that you have found salvation,” but is such an obligation humane, or even human? Or is it rather something that only a godlike creature might be able to handle? Can finite creatures really carry an infinite weight?
Some have come up with pallid attempts to alleviate the burden. Ethical consumerism is one such attempt. As Seth was pointing out in the podcast, a product such as fair trade coffee is meant to ease the guilt of the consumer who occupies a place in the world by displacing others. In the criticism that Seth mentioned, Slavoj Žižek shows how buying fair trade coffee is part of the vicious circle of cultural capitalism. The act of buying induces a feeling of guilt for being a consumer; there are workers who have slaved for my enjoyment of the product, and by buying the product I am indirectly further abusing them. But in a perverse, all-engulfing motion that epitomizes cultural capitalism, through the act of buying “ethically” we’re also purchasing our redemption from having bought something in the first place. According to Žižek, this only perpetuates and deepens the problem; by offering charity wrapped up in our consumerist act, we’re not eradicating the disease, but at best we’re only offering useless palliative care.
English philosopher and Levinas expert Simon Critchley approaches the problem from an entirely different angle. In his book Infinitely Demanding (2007), he offers a psychoanalytic reading of Levinas, in the hope of finding a way to cope with his infinitely demanding ethical responsibility.
Relying on Levinas’s description of infinite responsibility as trauma (1996: 129, 1987: 153–174), Critchley suggests that in order to avoid being psychologically crushed we need the coping mechanism of sublimation. Levinas uses the words “trauma” and “traumatic” to refer to the experience of being subjected to the strong, inevitable, and arresting ethical demand of the Other. The infinite responsibility is radical, implacable, imminent, and can never be fulfilled. It comes suddenly from outside the subject, leaving its forceful imprint on it (Critchley, 2007: 61). When the ego internalizes the ethical demand, it splits the subject open between itself and the demand that it cannot meet. The experience of ethical responsibility is unbearable, so it needs to be sublimated.
Sublimation, as defined by Freud (1914), is satisfaction without repression. In sublimation, drives that are socially unacceptable or uncomfortable are deviated by the ego from their fulfillment and redirected toward a new object. Physical activity can be a sublimation of aggressive urges, for instance, a means of redirecting an inadmissible urge to fight into the ritualistic and socially commendable activity of sports competitions. Similarly, the uncomfortable awareness of the finitude of human life can be sublimated into creativity and art. This way the ego is protected, and repression, which can have damaging effects, is avoided.
So, how can we come into contact with the infinite ethical demand that Levinas proposes without being crushed by it? Critchley’s answer is through humor.
His suggestion hinges on accepting the idea of the splitting of the ego into a super-ego that constantly criticizes and demands things from the ego. In Critchley’s reading of Freud, in melancholia and depression the superego suppresses and lacerates the ego, whereas when it is suddenly liberated from the tyrannical pressure of the superego it swings into mania. However, through humor, the same mechanism can find a third, middle ground way for the ego to survive.
“Humour has the same formal structure as depression” writes Critchley, “but it is an anti-depressant that works by the ego finding itself ridiculous” (Ibid., p. 81). In humor the subject looks at itself, contemplates its misery and moral abjection, but instead of slipping into depression, it finds release and comfort in laughing at itself. The ability to laugh at one’s tragic imperfections offers soothing lucidity; in a somewhat counterintuitive way, humor assuages guilt and anxiety by heightening one’s awareness of them. In humor, “ethical experience is both staged and assuaged” (Ibid., p. 85).
Much of the tragedy proper to the human condition comes from our ability to acknowledge that we are limited, while simultaneously conceiving the possibility of being limitless. The realization that we are finite, while also comprehending that there is such a thing as infinity. In this sense, we have both the privilege and the curse of being bound to our condition while also having the ability to rise above it. This unique position that Critchley calls the “eccentricity” of human beings (as in their ability to be removed from their own center, the “lack of self-coincidence”) can be a source of overwhelming sorrow if not sublimated through humor. Humor gives us the uniquely fortunate position where we can elevate ourselves above ourselves, in a movement that is as vital as it is liberating.
Critchley confesses the problem with Levinas is that his ethical demand is just too extreme and too infinite. Levinas needs humor for his points to hit home. Otherwise all he’s doing is exposing his readers to a traumatic experience too painful to embrace, and a demand too extreme to even keep the subject healthy and functional. He needs the sublimation and ironic distancing of comedy to both communicate the infinite complexity of his ethics, and to prevent it from overwhelming his readers. In a recent interview, Critchley admits: “In some alternative ideal universe I can imagine a blending of Levinas with Stewart Lee.“
While Stewart Lee’s stand-up is wonderfully intelligent, with hints of existential angst here and there, I think comedian Louis C.K. might be even closer to the ideal Critchley has in mind. If the essence of humor “is self-mocking ridicule, where I look at myself from outside myself and find myself laughably inauthentic” (Ibid., p. 85), these bits of comedy might be the perfect distillation of traumatic ethical experience.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer and researcher living in Brighton, UK. You can follow her on Twitter @annasandoiu.