In The Priority of Ethics and the Relevance of Subjectivity, it was noted that the ethical is effected – it appears within being by interrupting the indifference with which being processes – when a conscious being (even tacitly) recognizes a responsibility for an encountered other and then responds to the other for the sake of the being of that other. If the encountered other is one – such as a human – who seems, on the face of it, to have its own subjective experience of participating in being, then the ethical response is reasonably cast in terms of being for the sake of the subjectivity – the subjective experience – of that other. Of course, the subjective being of an other always exceeds (and is different from) thoughts which a person has about the subjectivity of the other; accordingly, the response to the responsibility for the other commences by attributing to the subjectivity of the other a likeness to the subjectivity of the person who would act for the sake of the other. This attributed subjectivity tends to highlight the manner in which the other differs from what has been attributed to the other, and those differences are invaluable to being able to respond to the other for the sake of the other. This is to say that a subjectivity is attributed to the other in order that it might be replaced as quickly as possible with what has been learned to be more like the subjective experience and being of the other.
Harry Joy was suckled on stories in those long lost days in the little weatherboard house on the edge of town. … When Harry and his mother went to church, his father [Vance Joy] stayed in bed. … [Harry] would have rather stayed in the warm bed beside his father than venture out to the little wooden church with its gothic texts written on the arch above the nave … Here he heard about Heaven and Hell and the tortures of Jesus. He sat aghast at such terrible cruelty and more than once wept in sympathy for the tortured God or fear for what the God might do to him.
He preferred the stories of his father … Here, then, a fragment, dredged up from some dark corner of his memory: Vance Joy pretending to be a Hopi Indian.
“You may need a tree for something – firewood, or a house. You offer four sacred stones. You pray, saying: ‘You have grown large and powerful. I have to cut you. I know you have knowledge in you from what happens around you. I am sorry, but I need your strength and power. I will give you these stones, but I must cut you down. These stones and my thoughts will be sure that another tree will take your place.’
“The trees and the brush will talk back to you, when you talk to them … if you can read them.”1 [emphasis added]
The ethical event occurs whenever and wherever it is possible to act non-indifferently for the sake of an other – whenever and wherever one can respond for the sake of the encountered other. In order to respond for the sake of the other, it is necessary to (be able to) “read” – so to speak – the being of the other. This so-called reading is inseparable from a willingness to notice the being of the other, to notice the other as engaged in being, to notice the other in the way that the other is engaged in being. And, since an other can be noticed without the other having resorted to the use of words, the ethical event is itself prior to – and is independent of – words and language.
Because the responsibility towards an other is independent of words and language, Levinas locates the ethical event at the (possibility of a noticeable) face-to-face encounter with an other. He says that “the beginning of language is in the face.” Even then, the ethical responsibility towards and the response to the other does not require that the other exhibit anything like even a minimal verbal facility: “In a certain way, in its silence, the face calls you”. (PoM, 169) Continue reading