Sunday 31 May 2009

Excluding the other: 10 theses

It’s spreading. The risk of pandemic is becoming very real. Not so long ago, you were safe. The problem was confined to a few isolated places in remote corners of the globe. It happened to people you didn’t know. It thrived only in certain dark, moist, underground environments (philosophy departments, postgraduate seminars and the like). But these days, it’s everywhere. It’s affecting entire communities. Even the most harmless and benign members of the public – clergymen, bureaucrats, environmental activists – are succumbing to its influence.

Yep, you’ve guessed it: I’m talking about the spreading pandemic of talk about “the other.” These days, you can hear it in the most unlikely places: a vegetarian activist worries about “the animal other”; a committee worries about “the rights” of “the other” to be heard and included; even preachers are getting involved, proclaiming the solemn mandate of “respect for the other.”

So I’m afraid there’s only one solution: a five-year moratorium on all talk about “the other” in ethical and theological discourse! 

Here are ten theses explaining why this moratorium is absolutely necessary:
  1. Most of the people talking about “the other” haven’t read even a single book by Emmanuel Levinas, and thus have no idea what the term actually means.
  2. At least in theological circles, the term functions mainly as an emotional trigger: someone mentions “the other”, and suddenly we feel all warm and tingly. 
  3. Sometimes, these warm and tingly feelings lead us to imagine that something meaningful was actually said.
  4. Levinas deploys the concept of “the other” as part of a larger set of philosophical arguments about the relations between ethics and ontology, language and presence, ethics and morality. 
  5. If “the other” is to function as a normative concept in theological discourse (as it does already in some circles), we should hear some justification of the validity and importance of this broader philosophical schema within which the concept is located. 
  6. In particular, Christians might wonder precisely how “truth” is supposed to fit into this schema.
  7. And we might wonder whether a “humanitarianism of the other” fits rather too neatly with an evacuation of political decision from the sphere of international relations: i.e., whether benevolent talk about “the other” (like talk about “human rights”) is fundamentally a concealment of the operations of power. 
  8. Speaking of power: if I conclude a theological argument by appealing to “the other”, am I not invoking a transcendental norm whose role is precisely to silence any possible objection to my argument?
  9. I once attended a philosophy conference on the ethics of “the other.” The scholarly discussion of Levinas somehow turned to animal ethics, and before long one of the presenters was tearfully describing his household pets. I looked around, and was embarrassed to see that many of the participants were also in tears; it was like an old-time revival meeting, except without God. 
  10. This incident confirmed the truth of Jean-Paul Sartre’s remark: “L’enfer, c’est les autres” (hell is the others). But Sartre was not quite right. Hell is not the other; hell is the place where everyone talks about the other.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more, I think we should return to the instrumentalizing modern subject which effaces the other. Of course, from your statements about Levinas's thought it is unclear to me whether or not you have in fact read Levinas. Are you responding to Levinas's thought, those who talk about Levinas's thought (or those who use his thought--Derrida, Marion, etc.), or both? Incidentally, the criticisms you offer bear more than a strong family resemblance to those proffered by Milbank and David Bentley Hart.

gbroughto said...

I like this - good fun, tho' I'm kinda glad Uncle Karl got CD Vol IV/1 §59 and II/2 §35 off to the printers before the moratorium began...

Saint Egregious said...

Oh, he's read his Levinas, all right. You don't think Ben's that easy to take down. The question, however, is this: Does Ben open door number one or B?

Option 1: go all the way and lay the blame on Levinas himself, a la David Bentknee Schmart. Levinas is:
‘depraved’, a ‘prodigy of incoherence’, ‘the banal tortured into counterfeit profundity’,'obviously false propounded as irresistably true’, ‘vicious’, etc. That might put an end to all this annoying other talk.

Option B: instead, shower Levinas with praise and blame the Levinasians (an old trick the Barthians often use!) showing how his brilliant work on the other, a major inspiration to, and heavily relied upon by thoroughly orthodox Catholic theologians like Jean-Luc Marion, is being utterly betrayed by his dimwitted followers.

Of course, then there's the middle way, option C. Levinas has some things to say that are useful, but ultimately, they need to be normed by the norm that norms all norms. That is, Barth already said it, and said it better than Levinas without losing the jesus baby in the post-holocaust bath water. This has the advantage of stroking Milbank's ego whilst perhaps soothing the hurt feelings of the spiritually bereft derridians out there.
Gosh, I see G. Broughton has already anticipated option C while I was putting the finishing touches on it!
Option D anyone?

Anonymous said...

I'm not trying to take Ben down. But I am of the mind that the view presented by Ben is actually the position which is most in vogue in many Christian theological circles. And as a consequence I don't think it would be incorrect to characterize these criticisms as approaching the banality of the use of the "other" in certain Levinasian or postmodern circles.

Saint Egregious said...

But you do see that Ben is just shittin' here, don't you? It's a blog for god's sake, as he has often said when folks have taken him too seriously. It's like hanging out at the bar bullshitting about what asses the other guys are (pun intended). It really works well when you've only got your own boys er mates at your side--no one to tell you you're full of shit, don't really know what you're talking about, etc. etc. IN other words, no 'others' to call your bluff.
When they do, then you clam up, laugh it off as just a joke, tell 'em you'll address their concerns in your next book, etc. etc. meanwhile your blokes are getting a good laugh watching you get your ass handed to you by a bunch of meddling malcontents who ought to have the balls to start their own damned blog if they don't like yours and stop reading it if it pisses them off so much. I mean, why the hell do Kotsko and APS read this rag anyway since mostly it just drives them apoplectic?? But see, they do because they too know its just a bullshit session--and no press is bad press, so bombs away, me boys, bombs away
And that's part of the fun, too, ain't it, getting the 'other' guys to go ballistic and then the blogger stats go through the roof. Do what you gotta do to get an audience, and then write your serious stuff the next day, hoping a few who came to watch the fireworks will hang around long enough to hear you wax eloquent. It's a win win, anonymouse, and guys like you and me are half the fun for these dudes--that is, when we're not being pains in the ass others, challenging the hostipitality of the whole damned thing. I've been trying to get myself banned or deleted around here for ages, but just can't seem to manage it. But I'll get there yet. I'm no soft headed namsy pamsy derridean. I drink mine straight up.

Professor Kotsko: Derrida rocks but ban the fucking bums if they go off the reservation! (see Prof. kotsko's comment down below in the "writing in order to change' thread for his comment policy advice)
Professor Myers: Levinasians are lame, but love or at least welcome the other, no matter how big an asshole he/she/it is. Never delete a comment, no matter how much it shoves a flaming dildo up our beloved Basel-ian's bung-hole. (Foucault's ghost told me to say that!)

Ironic, idn't it?

Fat said...

I am not really up on otherliness but from my extensive 20 seconds of Google research and reading the blog I'm inclined to think Jesus adressed the 'Other' question quite well in the parable of the good Samaritan.

Guy Davies said...

Can I still say stuff like, "on the other hand", "the other day" and "otherwise"? If not, what alternative form of words am I supposed to use while the moratorium is in force?

Ben Myers said...

Exiled: don't worry, you won't be arrested for using those innocuous forms of "other". At this stage, the only banned item is "the other", used as an abstract noun (this usage is easily identified by the warmth, profundity, and/or moral solemnity with which the word is pronounced).

Egregious writes: but love or at least welcome the other, no matter how big an asshole he/she/it is — well, one thing's for sure, Egregious: I really love you, regardless of whether you're a he, a she, or an it...

Guy Davies said...

Phew! I never use "other" with warmth or profoundity, so I guess I'll be able to get away with it.

John H said...

I'm deeply concerned by the way in which you are othering those who talk about "the other".

Anonymous said...

Wow! I feel suitably chastised. Having read this blog post, which I enjoyed with a chuckle, I felt compelled to change my last facebook status update. Thank you Prof Myers. :)

Tony Johnson

W. Travis McMaken said...

Can we also rule out use of the term "cohort"?

Saint Egregious said...

Jezebel Christmas, Myers! You're sweeter than a Levinasian in a cat factory. Talk about warm and tingly. You're a freaking other-humpin' love-muffin.

I hereby decree that you need to attend Professor Kotsko's Tuesday Hatred for a month of Tuesdays.

In the meantime, I'm going back to scratch. I'll get thrown out a here yet!

Sae said...

To throw some pop-culture into the mix - much of the misguided use of 'other' [ironically, other than what Levinas intended] I blame on that woeful excuse for Television, 'Lost'

kim fabricius said...

My wife wants to know if she can still call me her "other half" - and her husband wants to know if he can still call his mistress the "other woman". And there is no way that Cambridge isn't still the "other place"!

John B. Higgins said...

I was in a class where Alan Jacobs made the comment that he thought "neighbor" was more Christian language.

Saint Egregious said...

I pray to Osiris that Professor Jacobs never uttered such an inanity. First, Levinas, when speaking of the other, uses neighbor language quite frequently, drawing, of course on his Jewish biblical heritage, from whence good old J.C. cribbed it.

Here's a good passage from Robert Bernasconi's article "Strangers and Slaves in the Land of Egypt: Levinas and the Politics of Otherness" (CPP stands for Levinas' Collected Philosophical Papers; and OTB for his Otherwise than Being):

“Levinas unites sharing with the condition—or the uncondition—of being ‘strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt [which] brings man close to his neighbor’. [cpp 149] Because we share our strangerhood, a condition that arises not from our relation to each other, but from our being in exile, so that ultimately ‘no one is at home [chez soi]’, we discover the underlying and pre-existing proximity that legitimates the employment of the term ‘neighbor,’ thereby authorizing Levinas’s phrase ‘the stranger in the neighbor’.” [OTB 123]

Churchgoer said...

Couldn't agree more, though I must admit I've only my impression of Levinas has been gleaned from Derrida, Milbank and Gillian Rose (who've discouraged me from even bothering with "Mr. Face-to-face"). Still, as soon as I hear prof mention "the other" with a look of profundity on his/her face I immediately cringe. And then I think back to the title of an essay by Zizek called "Smashing the Other's Face," or something to that effect. And if you haven't read it already, I turn your attention to an essay on "the other" in Alain Badiou's Ethics.

Chris TerryNelson said...

#9 almost brought me to tears. So true!

Adam Kotsko said...

Oh man, did my last comment get deleted? Oh the bitter irony!

Daniel Imburgia said...

First, i will admit to being Levinasian and i will bear whatever chastisement youall want to lay upon me. I know how much one can become vexed when hearing pop-phrases overused. I once told an advisor my goal for my thesis was to avoid using the word "emerging." There are some othe....different words that in the past, starting back in the late 50's, that got thrashed by over/mis use including "repression," "projection," (though my wife still finds it useful when we argue). later came "deconstruction," and recently hearing fox news commentators suggesting that their mission is "speaking truth to power," put that phrase down the toilet (apologies to Ezekiel and Martin Luther King). So, in the spirit of just some blokes down at the pub, and as the only Levinasian out of the closet on this (Barth-o-centric) blog, after the following quote i will respect the ban.

"The face is lordship and that which is without defense. What does the face say when i approach it? This face, exposed to my gaze, is disarmed. Whatever the countenance that it then takes on...the face is the same-exposed in it's nudity. From beneath the countenance it gives itself, all its weakness pierces through and at the same time its mortality, to such an extent that I may wish to liquidate it completely. Why not? This face of the Other, without recourse,without security, exposed to my gaze in its weakness and its mortality, is also the one that orders, 'Thou shalt not kill.' There is, in the face, the supreme authority , and I always say, this is the word of God. The face is the site of the word of God.

from "Is It Righteous To Be." shalom, Daniel Imburgia

(i reckon 'face' is next to be banned?)

Saint Egregious said...

Ode To a Levinasian Cat 'Strordinaire

Puffy, oh Puffy, my beautiful kitty,
your Face so exposed, vulnerable, pretty.
Other than mother you loved me the best
Piercing my pride as you gazed in my nest.
Was it a robin, a cardinal in me that you saw?
As you licked me each morning and petted with paw?
You were Lord of your kingdom, a Face without shame
The Other cats saw you and soon praised your name.
Puffy, oh Puffy, I weep to this day,
When I think of the torments I put in your way.
The water balloons, spray bottles, empty food bowl
Can you see them? Sweet Puffy! My tears as they roll?
You God! Of all kitty cats: you are supreme.
And now you're with Jesus on his holy team.
Meowing and purring to your heart's content,
While I sit here weeping, in this earthly tent.
Hell is not autre, not up, down you see
Not even in dogland trapped up in a tree.
No. Hell is my heart Puff, without you old friend,
My prayer: Face to Face Puff, we'll meet at The End.
You'll claw 'way my sins, boy, and in PaRDeS we'll be
Helene, Jacques and Levinas, a cat (You!) and me.

Well, it ain't perfect, but I don't have time to change it.
Love and kisses,
Saint Egregious

Doug Harink said...

I've always wondered about Levinas and nudity. Why can't the O--er wear clothes? Why can't the clothes be precisely the way in which the O--er truly appears? Why nude? Or am I just a prude? But I don't like to strip before (or be stripped by) just any old caring soul who only has my best interests in mind as his/her O--er. Maybe Levinas is just a pervert...

Anonymous said...

Way below the head space here, but you might be hearing the vegans and pet folks grabbing "other" language from places other than Levinas.

"The other" is probably verging on passe in some other academic disciplines as well - post-colonial studies is the first that comes to mind.

kim fabricius said...

Doug, remember that one of Roger Flyers' conditions for our Foucault bathhouse party is "no nakedness", so I hope you'll be there. Levinas can come too - as long as he wears sandals (though he'll be barred if he wears socks).

d. stephen long said...

I've always been convinced that othering the other others otherness other than originally othered.

kim fabricius said...

Here's an exercise: in Ben's theses, for "the other", substitute "God", and for Levinas, substitute, say Aquinas - and see what you think of the fit.

Btw, St. Egregius' comments are always both so arresting and entertaining that I'm thinking of changing my blog-name to St. Facetious.

Doug Harink said...

@ kim: Count me in (the tub), properly attired.

@ stephen long: I totally agree. It's exactly what I was getting at with my comments about nudity and clothes, but you put it so much more succinctly.

Mark Thompson said...

What an interesting thread of comments. Thanks for getting this started Ben. And I agree with the initial proposition: a moratorium of some sort on 'the other' in theological discourse in particular might be helpful. But might there not be other quasi-theological terms that could usefully sidelined for a while? E.g. the over-use of the expression 'epistemic humility', which is often oblivious to its Kantian origins? Thanks again.

Saint Egregious said...

Kim, I love your substitutions above, which are truly delicious given the fact that Levinas has been most well received among Thomists of various stripes, from John Paul II who loved Levinas, to Marion and Caputo, just to show the breadth of his influence among the RC's. This catholic love affair with Levinas even makes some more orthodox Jewish theologians question his creds. It also makes me think this bad little thought:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in Christ-rhetoric saturated America, with the majority of Christians and their theologians either actively or passively supporting slavery, among other Empire-inspired ills, once wrote to his friend Elizabeth Peabody, "Whoever would preach Christ in these times must say nothing at all about him!"

Okay, Ben, I dare you to ban that thar word, the most overused, underunderstood, hackneyed, weepy bo peepy inducing utterances in our entire theo-bloggical vocabulary!
I bet ya this crowd wouldn't last a day trying not to blubber old J.C.'s name into the blogosphere. As for me, I'll go cold turkey on that Nazarene turkey anytime you give the word. Romans 9:3 is just about my favorite verse in that raggedy old book some of you nut-jobs think is God's autographed manuscript.

Daniel Imburgia said...

"My prayer: Face to Face Puff, we'll meet at The End.
You'll claw 'way my sins, boy, and in PaRDeS we'll be
Helene, Jacques and Levinas, a cat (You!) and me."

Now both the Torah and Talmud teach that cat's don't have souls, This is only one area of disagreement i have had with the Rabbi's. But, why then would 3 Jews be in heaven with them? well, i reckon this is one of those clever poetic analogies. I think i am in good company with Levinas in my disagreement about animals and souls. He related in many writings how as a prisoner of the nazi's they would be marched through (christian?) towns and no one would acknowledge them as human beings. But one dog would greet them every day with excitement and affection coming and going. Only the dog recognized their humanity. I am sort of blas'e about cats but i love dogs! howabout youall? cats or dogs? and do they have souls? Remember that cats are never mentioned in the bible, but dogs are (though not with much flattery). Of course it is forbidden for Jews to eat either (though i will accede to Pauline exceptionalism in this matter, as long as they are not strangled). I figure that Levinas' story suggests that any being that can express an affinity with another's soulful being must share some of that same soulful being. I have a great quote from Levinas that would explicate this perfectly, but, alas it has that damn banned word in it as well as the soon to be forbidden "epistemic humility." obliged, daniel

Saint Egregious said...

Daniel, yeah, I love that story from Levinas and I'm with him on that. I think he also shares a similar experience there with Dostoevsky, who wrote about his affection for dogs when he was in his siberian exile. Of course, Levinas loved Dostoevsky for lots of other reasons as well.
As for cats, have you read Derrida or Cixous on their cats? Really rather remarkable stuff. But my favorite Cixous piece is on her dog's suffering with her as she growing up in Algeria. The essay is titled 'Stigmata, or Job the Dog', in her book Stigmata

Ben Myers said...

Hi Mark: yes, I agree. The more moratoria the better, I say! (In an earlier post, I also banned the word "trinitarian" — that moratorium is still in force!)

Daniel Imburgia said...

Saint Egregious, yes, Helene and Jacques are a great disappointment in this. it calls into question their entire oeuvre!! However, Cixous writes about her "search for the pure ideal dog," well, i have known many dogs that fit that ideal but reckon i just haven't met the right cat yet at least one i am ready to give my life for (though my wife keeps introducing me to them). Did she ever betray a cat the way she did fips? the one she "did not love strong enough to die for?" Of course hitler loved his shepherd blondie to the end, and Eva adored her cat 'geshy' short for geshwollen (puffy) but hey, somehow they made their marriage work! at least for a few hours. But, do animals have souls? what is the Christian theology on this? and what will it reveal about broader questions of our relation to creation? What about jellyfish? (also not mentioned in the bible). must one have a central nervous system to have a soul? surely Barth has weighed in on this? and where can one read more of your poetry?
obliged, daniel

Saint Egregious said...

Daniel, your biting allusion to Hitler's love of his dog immediately brought Celan's Todesfugue to mind, as well as his "Bei einem Hund jammern sie!' upon seeing German women lamenting the fate of a dog dying in the streets following the war.
I have no poems, but some sillly scratchings on my blog.

kim fabricius said...

Souls, schmouls. No, cats and dogs do not have souls - but then neither do humans. We are souls. Souls don't go to heaven (and Foucault bathhouses), we do.

Scripture distinguishes between humans and animals - animals are not created in the image of God. Scripture also distinguishes between animals and animals - fish and birds are created on the fifth day, earthbound animals on the sixth. Which, however, is the same day on which humans are created! I conclude that if humans have a special intimacy with God, at least earthbound animals have a special intimacy with humans, especially the ones who have a specific intimacy with humans, like Fido and Felix. But then birds may fly over the gates of heaven, and fish swim through the bathhouse. In any case, God is extremely kind, his providential care all-embracing: "You save humans and animals alike, O Lord" (Psalm 36:6). St. Francis (though, by the way, not a vegetarian) felt that animals were all part of the family, but as early as the fourth century St. Basil too could speak of animals as fellow siblings, and hagiography is full of stories about animals as our companions and friends. And, of course, in John's vision of the throne room in Revelation 4:6-8, only one of the living creatures has a human face - another being a big cat, and yet another turns out to be a bird after all.

Anyway, enough barking. If you want to know whether or not your pets will be with you in heaven, forget about the French intellectuals with their eccentric, if haute, cuisine. You don't even have to go to C. S. Lewis, who speculated "that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters" - anyone who has a cat will laugh their ass off at the suggestion that they are their moggie's master. No, just ask your kids.

Ben Myers said...

Actually, it wouldn't surprise me if cats were the only creatures that really have souls. (For their own amusement, they allow us to think that we have souls.) As Montaigne said: “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is not amusing herself with me more than I with her?”

kim fabricius said...

Humans have reason but not consciousness (the unregenerate are, in fact, asleep); cats have consciousness, but not not reason.

Saint Egregious said...

One last thought from me before I go outside to play ball; One of the reasons Derrida and Cixous are so attracted to thinking-animals is precisely because they are not and could never be French intellectuals. (Nor could Levinas be for that matter) And being Algerians living in France during the bloody, torture filled Algerian war of independence, Cixous and Derrida were assaulted daily, undoubtedly, with the assumption that they and their people were nothing but dogs. As we know continues today.
In any case, following Kim's beautiful formulation of the ungenerate nature of much of our 'listening', and Ben's pitch perfect invocation of Montaigne, I'll share this little bit from an essay on Cixous's animot. (Fair warning, the essay, "Hélène Cixous’s Other Animal:The Half-Sunken Dog" by Marta Segarra is full of uses of the now banished phrase. On the other hand, there's a lot on Derrida's and Cixous's engagement with Montaigne, so decide for yourself)
Segarra writes:

Cixous states in another text that whoever does not hear the “cat’s speech” is bound not to hear that “of a woman or a Jew or an Arab or any subject belonging to one of these species which carry the fate of banishment.”

myleswerntz said...

YES YES YES. Get rid of 'other', as well as scarequotes in presentations, laniards, and any and all references to Hunter S. Thompson! The longer I'm in the academy, the more I tire of sloppy thinking and catchphrases divorced from their origins.

What if instead of "other" we started using 'pudding'? I think that'd show how ridiculous this phrasing really is.

Samuel said...


I would submit as a further reason for said moratorium: people think the "other" must be drawn from Levinas. Kierkegaard was using the term all the way back in the 1840s, so a reference to the other hardly requires knowledge of Levinas to be legitimate. See, for example, Works of Love.

Daniel Imburgia said...

Saint Egregious, hey where is that quote from Segarra?? was it expunged by our blogmaster overlords for the use of banned words or did you forget to cut and paste? obliged, daniel

Saint Egregious said...

Daniel, its on there, I dropped out the initial quotation mark. The quote begins with "Cixous states in another text...
The full article can be found in:
New Literary History, 2006, 37: 119–134

Anonymous said...

Where there is an other fear arises--and thence the entire deadly scapegoat drama of his-story.

Perhaps then understanding the "other" is THE essential task that we face in 2009.

Fat said...

I wonder Anonymous if by definition as soon as we understand the "other" it ceases to be the "other".

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