Ethics, Attributed Subjectivity, and Noticing the Face of the Other

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)

As Vladimir Jankélévitch notes, “The shifting traits on a human face are a site of tenuous signs and intentions, signs of intelligence or tacit agreement, of sympathy and antipathy.” (Jankélévitch, 40) The face (particularly the human face which serves as Levinas’ prototype) is, of course, expressive even in silence – if one will (bother to) notice the face and (then try to) read it. However, as Jankélévitch also notes, “Expression is not expressive … except through changes in mood, through the alternation between elegy and joy or depression and exaltation” (Jankélévitch, 43) – which is to say that, while any sort of surface might display an expression, expressiveness arises only with contrast.

Accordingly, the face is not a mere surface, and the face is expressive of something beyond and other than itself: The face “is not a vision. The face is not that which is seen.” Levinas goes so far as to say “There is no evidence with regards to the face.” (PoM, 176-177) He uses the term face to indicate something about the other which is “beyond the plastic forms which do not cease covering … like a mask”. (EN, 125) This “beyond the plastic forms” of the literal face, the material surface – this beyond which is “beneath all expression” (EN, 160) – includes the subjectivity of the other regardless of how that subjectivity is expressed and regardless of whether it is noticed or read.

For Levinas, the face “is an irreducible means of access” (PoM, 169). In a sense, the term face could be applied broadly to anything which makes one aware of being responsible for an other, of being in a situation where it is possible to act non-indifferently for the sake of the being of an other: “The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation” (TI, 201). But, in order to act for the sake of the other according to the manner in which the other engages with and participates in the process of being, it is necessary that one have some sort of access to the experience which the other has of being, and it is – in Levinas’ terms – the face of the other which provides the means of access to the experience which the other has of being. The ethical response depends on one’s reading of the other, but one’s reading of the other depends on one’s first bothering to notice the other.

*

The face, then, refers to whatever it is about an other that makes it possible for one to notice how one might respond to the responsibility one has for the other, and the face also refers to the expressiveness of the other. In the case of other conscious beings who are concerned with their own subjective experiences and matters regarding their own continuing-to-be, the face of an other is whatever expressiveness makes it possible to become aware of or, in some sense, access the subjectivity of that other being. A particular subjectivity can be attributed to an other as an always preliminary way for the attributing entity to face – to take notice of – the other, as a step to seeing what responsibility there might be for the other, but “the epiphany that is produced as a face” (TI, 207) is (or occurs) when it is realized how to respond for the sake of the other in its continuing-to-be.

It is not a prerequisite to responsibility that one notice the other. When one notices an other and realizes that it is possible to act non-indifferently for the sake of that other, it is as if the responsibility for the other – the possibility of responding non-indifferently towards the other and acting for the sake of the other – was already present prior to the other being noticed.

This is to say that the possibility of acting non-indifferently for the sake of an other is not dependent upon whether one notices the other. It is the response to (the responsibility for) the other that is dependent upon there being any notice taken of the other. In contradistinction, the responsibility towards the other does not depend on – does not follow from – having noticed the other, because, for any being who can be ethical, the responsibility – the possibility of acting non-indifferently for the sake of the other – is present regardless of whether or not one takes notice of the other and regardless of whether and how one responds to the other: “The face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation, which no ‘interiority’ permits avoiding.” (TI, 201)

One of the critical contrasts to be found in Levinas’ The Name of the Dog2 is the difference between how the dog in Levinas’ recollection responds to Levinas and the other prisoners and how the local passers-by respond. The dog “would appear at morning assembly and was waiting for us as we returned, jumping up and down and barking in delight.” In contrast, “the children and women who passed by … sometimes raised their eyes”. These passers-by only sometimes acknowledged having noticed the proximity, the presence of the prisoners, the fact that the prisoners were being(s). As the women and children passed by, they only sometimes raised their eyes, but, even then, they looked at the prisoners as if they “were subhuman, a gang of apes … no longer part of the world”, no longer part of the human world, no longer part of humanity. Levinas reports that even when the presence of the prisoners was acknowledged, the acknowledgment was such that it “stripped us of our human skin.”

It was as if the local people would not notice the prisoners in order not to notice any responsibility which they might have for or towards the prisoners; it was as if the local people would not notice the prisoners in order not to notice that it was possible to act at all non-indifferently and for the sake of the prisoners – even if that was merely to gesture with kindness or in some way that admitted of some shared humanity. Then, when the charade of not-noticing, when the charade of the prisoners’ invisibility gave way, it was as if not a single one of the prisoners had a face; it was as if the prisoners were a herd of faceless monstrosities, a gaggle of walking dead.

But it is not even a prerequisite to responsibility that the other have a face; this is to say that it is not a prerequisite to responsibility that one have ready access to the subjectivity which lies beneath what one discerns about the other. Yet, in order to act non-indifferently for the sake of that other, one looks for and to the other’s face, which is simply to say that one looks for access to the manner in which the other is engaged with being so that one might be able to act more keenly for the sake of the being of the other. When one being becomes aware of the subjectivity of the other, that being becomes aware of the face of the other.

*

This talk about – and emphasis put upon – responsibility as a condition or relationship which exists (so to speak) independent of and prior to having noticed and responded to an other is in large part a strictly analytic (or abstracted) matter: “the way in which we behave concretely is different.” (PoM, 170) There are any number of ways in which someone can become aware of this condition or concept referred to as responsibility. But, as has already been noted, upon responding non-indifferently and for the sake of an other, it seems as if one is responding to a responsibility which was already present; it seems as if the responsibility were already present and awaiting that one notice the other and respond for the sake of that other.

What becomes obvious is that it was already possible for one in some way to act non-indifferently towards and for the sake of the other before one noticed and then responded to the other. Accordingly, the ethical event – the responsibility – is the possibility of noticing and acting non-indifferently for the sake of the other. What might be most important about recognizing this responsibility – this possibility – as prior to the noticing of and the responding to the other is the realization that one can fail to be ethical by not noticing; hence, a devotion to noticing others is essential to a more frequent ethical (interruption of) being. Of course, upon having noticed an other, even a non-response or indifference is a response.

Still, it must be noted that this responsibility is not a philosophically inescapable notion. Rather, it

is the moment of faith. Faith is not a question of the existence or non-existence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable. (PoM, 177)

Responsibility is not a philosophically inescapable notion because, in large part, the loving response for the sake of an other is an utterly subjective occurrence or experience which can only be spoken about in testimony, by bearing witness.

This love can never be presented as an object or, hence, as objective or veritably undeniable evidence. An act of love on the part of someone else is never a matter of evidence, strictly speaking. An act on the part of another can only be interpreted by one’s self as an occasion in which there is love. Some act of an other can be incorporated into a story wherein the action of the other is said to be a matter of love, a matter of acting lovingly, but someone else may just as easily tell a story in which that love is reduced to some other motivation or some other cause. The only evidence which anyone can ever have for the fact of love – the fact of responding to the other for the sake of the being of the other – is one’s own experience of acting with that love for an other.

Levinas says:

what I want to emphasize is that the human breaks with pure being, which is always a persistence in being. This is my principle thesis. A being is something that is attached to being, to its own being. That is Darwin’s idea. … Heidegger says at the beginning of Being and Time that Dasein is a being who in his being is concerned for this being itself. That’s Darwin’s idea: the living being struggles for life. The aim of being is being itself. (PoM, 172)

Levinas goes on to say that “with the appearance of the human” comes a relationship which is otherwise than being – not just the possibility but, indeed, the fact of acting non-indifferently and entirely for the sake of the being of an other. Of course, this fact cannot be demonstrated indubitably; it is a fact that is available as fact only via experience – or by a charitable interpretation afforded the acts of others.

Does Levinas (inappropriately) privilege the human when he asserts that it is “with the appearance of the human” that the otherwise-than-being of ethics becomes manifest – however briefly – within being?

Continued in Anthropomorphizing and Bestializing

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EN – Emmanuel Levinas, Entre Nous, translated from the French by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav (London and New York: Countinuum, 2006).

Jankélévitch – Vladimir Jankélévitch, Music and the Ineffable, translated by Carolyn Abbate (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003).

PoM – Emmanuel Levinas, “The Paradox of Morality” in The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, translated by Andrew Benjamin and Tamra Wright, ed. Robert Bernasconi and David Wood (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), pp. 168-180.

TI – Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2003).

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1 Peter Carey, Bliss (New York: Vintage International, 1996), pp. 18-19, 41.

2 Emmanuel Levinas, “The Name of a Dog” in Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism, translated by Seán Hand (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), pp. 151-153.

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2 Responses to Ethics, Attributed Subjectivity, and Noticing the Face of the Other

  1. Pingback: The Priority of Ethics and the Relevance of Subjectivity | The Kindly Ones

  2. Pingback: Anthropomorphizing and Bestializing | The Kindly Ones

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