Welcome to Scribd. Sign in or start your free trial to enjoy unlimited e-books, audiobooks & documents.Find out more
Standard view
Full view
of .
Look up keyword
Like this
0 of .
Results for:
No results containing your search query
P. 1
Levinas, Phenomenon of Suffering

Levinas, Phenomenon of Suffering

|Views: 38|Likes:

More info:

Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Laura Leigh Benfield Brittain on Aug 14, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


Read on Scribd mobile: iPhone, iPad and Android.
download as PDF, TXT or read online from Scribd
See more
See less





Rafeeq Hasan
we call ethical a
 relationship betweenterms such as areunited neither by asynthesis of theunderstanding norby a relationshipbetween
subject or
subject orobject, and yet wherethe one weighsor concerns or ismeaningful to theother, where they arebound by a plotwhich knowing canneither exhaust norunravel.
is this attention
 to the suffering ofthe other that...can be affirmed asthe very nexus ofhuman subjectivity.
Emmanuel Levinas,"Useless Suffering"
Emmanuel Levinas,"Language and Proximity"
towards a new encounter
owards a new encounter
, a recent collection of scholarly essays exploring the phenomenonof suffering across a vast array of times,histories and locations, makes no mentionof Emmanuel Levinas. For the philo-sophically minded reader, the omission of 
Levinas in such an extended theoreticaldiscussion of suffering should seem quitetroublesome — the philosopher and theo-logian spent most of his career locating anethics by which the self could come torespect the Other without reducing theOther to a simple and entirely compre-hensible object of self-knowledge. Indeed,Levinas' persistent claims that the Other ispartially ineffable and that any speech actbears an implicit address to the Otherresonate with the statements repeatedthroughout
the collection.
These essaysdescribe how "suffering encompasses anirreducible nonverbal dimension that wecannot know," or that the utterance "I amin pain" is not a statement without referenthuman object but rather an "asking for anacknowledgment and recognition" fromsome Other.
Given my hitherto implicit connectionbetween the current academic under-standing of suffering and the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, this paper seeks toexplicitly facilitate a much neededencounter. To make the scope of mydiscussion more manageable, I will limitmy treatment of Levinas and thephenomenon of "suffering" to that of therepresentation of social suffering by thosewho stand outside of its
   1    5    8
test text testtext test text test text test texttest text test text test text testtext test text test text test texttest text test text test text testtext test text t
the other man
text testtext test text test text test text testtext test text test text test text testtext test text test text test text test
being answerable
text test text
r the death of the other
testtext test text test teext test text testtext test text testtt test text test textst text test texxt test text
test text
is no longer
text testtext
province of
test text testttest text test
test text test text testtext testt test texttesttext test
theethicalmoment and the representationofsuffering 
 —  findingavoice
In “Useless Suffering,”Levinas proceeds in a typicallyelliptical fashion. He begins by asserting that “suffering is, of course, a datum in consciousness,”only to negate this proposition afew lines later in his equally sweeping, equally provocative decision that it isas if suffering were not just a datum.”
The meaning that I take to restbetween these elusive lines is that suffering is
— bothphenomenal/noumenonal and something else. It is partially an object of consciousness — akin to “color, sound, contact, or any other sensation”
— and yet it also contains a kernel that stands outside consciousness,ineffable to the rational conscious mind. This partial ineffabilityof suffering is that which disturbs any easy mimesis of suffering and its comprehension.
Thus Levinaswrites that the suffering which lies outsidephenomenology is that whichopposes “the assemblage of data into a meaningfulwhole.”
Rafeeq Hasan
   1    5    6
where Levinas sees his project as elucidating an ethics that is before allnorms, “the command prior to institutions.”
Second and more important-ly, I am assuming that one can
to be ethical in the Levinassiansense, that is, that ethics is a way of being that one can eitheraccept or reject. Levinas, however, denies such a sovereignchoosing, thus exiling agency from the ethical act. He insiststhat the ethical “no longer has the structure of an inten-tional correlation.”
In my defense, both Levinas scholarSimon Critchley and historian Dipesh Chakrabarty seeLevinas’ethical register as important not as an exposi-tion of underlying “truth”(as some dogmatic post-structuralists maintain) but as a way to interrupt orcall into question our normatively defined politicalviews.
In this vein I also add that the need for a com-pletely Levinassian reading of Levinas is unnecessaryif we accept that the importance attributed to the sov-ereign author of any text should be subordinate to theextent to which the author’s work might circulate innew contexts, the extent to which the text “[creates] aspace into which the subject constantly disap-pears.”
Accepting then the necessary infidelity of my project — the space of my reading of Levinas intowhich Levinasauthority evaporates, let me thenmove on and see where such a reading might lead.
the socialit y of suffering
   1    5    7
What is the epistemology of suffering? That is, by what means dowe come to know that someone has in fact suffered? More than just apurely juridical problem for those crafting international laws or establish-ing human rights committees, this question raises another, perhaps even moreimportant, philosophical inquiry — that I take up here. Namely, what are theethics — the responsibilities — entailed in representing (or
) suffering(whether this representation be through speech, writing, or the visual arts; whetherit pertain to pain of the Self or that of the Other)? Should one adopt a highly per-sonalized language in representing suffering, the absolute specificity of one’s own orthe Other’s pain? If we answer yes, are we prepared to face the danger that thismode of discourse can pose — the tendency that it has in its less careful instantia-tions to lapse into a reverie of existence, a solipsism of the self — the political qui-etism that lies at the end of its inherent distrust of the collective? Is the only otheralternative to speak of suffering entirely through the rhetoric of political ideology,the suffering of communities, cultures, histories — that is, should one speak in thefashionable language of the de-centered political — “oppressed”and “oppressor,”colonized”and “colonizer”— despite the fact that this might annihilate the dignityand importance of each agent, of each Other that suffers?After all, behind the seemingly harmless expression “ideology”lies the uneasyspecter of the
whose discourse, whatever its political positioning, inevitablyenacts an absorption, a condensation of the individual agent that can only be char-acterized as an epistemic violence. As novelist Arundhati Roy hauntingly suggests,when “History and Literature... Marx and Kurtz [join] palms,”the individual subjectis often crushed under the weight of the edifice, losing the right to utilize its mostbasic human capacity — the voice.
This essay will not attempt to provide a definitive answer to these questions.These are, though, perhaps the most pertinent questions to pose in our days of methodological crisis. They are so tightly bound to the junction of over-abundanttheories, over-burdened ideologies, that one can all too easily lapse into the self-congratulatory moral passivity of 
All I can do is simply suggest that somepossible “answers”to these interrogations can be formulated through a concernedreading of Levinas — specifically of, first, his discussion of the transition betweenthe ethical realm of the Self and Other and the political realm of society, and sec-ond, the phenomenology of suffering offered in “Useless Suffering,”one of hisbriefer and less widely recognized essays. After articulating at least a provisionalformulation of an ethics of representing suffering that lies between self and socie-ty, between the knowable and the ineffable, I will then proceed to problematizethis very definition, to (as a Derridean might say) place it under erasure (
) by questioning the extent to which speech acts can and should fall underthe domain of representation.Before embarking on this project, however, I must follow an importantdigression. Perhaps my opening address to the “philosophically minded read-er”needs to itself be problematized. An aware reader of philosophy”(andthe two “readers”are certainly not the same) will have realized by thispoint that I intend to use Levinas in two decidedly non-Levinassian ways.First, I am seeking to formulate a rule or norm of ethical representation,
What Levinas envisions instead is an inter-human relationship of suffering, where people
move towards
arrive at 
) an understanding of the suffering of the Other, while still realizing that suffering is “use-less” and outside of any justification. As such, Levinas is concernedwith the possibilities for compassion inherent in one’s proximity tosuffering rather than with an ontology of suffering. In fact, for Lev-inas it is this very quest for ontology that characterizes traditionalphilosophy’s violence toward suffering; ontology implicitly attemptsto render suffering comprehensible and justify its position withinthe domain of Being. Both of these tasks reduce suffering to a nar-cissistic object of self-knowledge.
Justifying (or seeking to totallycomprehend) the pain of the Other in any way is for Levinas the“ultimate source of immorality.”
Instead, one should intimatelyunderstand the suffering of the Other, not narrate that suffering asa discourse which ultimately justifies and makes meaningful suffer-ing that is in actuality useless at its very core.So what, if anything, does Levinas’essay contribute to formulatingan ethics of representing suffering? Since Levinas does notexplicitly address this issue in “Useless Suffering,” any “answer” tothis question that I pose is necessarily an appropriation that mightbe characterized as violent. Nevertheless, I can “temper” thisviolence by extracting my “answer” to this question from bothUseless Suffering” and another of Levinasessays that moreexplicitly theorizes on the artistic, representative function. In“Reality and Its Shadow,” Levinas writes that art (or moregenerally, representation):
does not know a particular type of reality; it contrasts withknowledge. It is the very event of obscuring, a descent of thenight, an invasion of shadow... art does not belong to theorder of revelation. Nor does it belong to that of creation,which moves in just the opposite direction.
Collected Philo-sophical Papers,
3)Looking at these deceptively simple lines more closely, itbecomes apparent that, for Levinas, art and reality do not existin a relation of easy mimesis — art is not an imperfect copy of reality. But neither is art explicitly productive of reality (as if insome quasi-Baudrillardian simulacral moment). Rather, artarrests the viewer precisely because it refers to what is neitherobject nor agent, but to what is ineffably Other.
It aims torepresent, to varying degrees, precisely what it cannot
Rafeeq Hasan
   1    5    4
a temporaryformulation oftheethicalimperative in representingsuffering
Levinas characterizes this ineffability of suffering,the domain that is “in-spite-of-consciousness,” asultimate and radical “passivity.”
That is, when oneattempts to apprehend this aspect of suffering bybringing it into the domain of consciousness, onecannot in fact move suffering from the ineffable tothe knowable by any intentional means. Instead, thisattempt engenders a submission; consciousness isoverwhwelmed by what is more passive than passivi-ty.
Levinas writes that this movement instantiates apassivity that lies in profound excess of 
The other side of any activity... or sen-sorial receptivity correlative to the‘ob-stance’ of the object that affects itand leaves an impression on it.
The effect of this almost un-thematizable passivity is what Levinas charac-terizes as precisely evil”
— evil because it paralyses the consciousness in away that does not then allow for a healthy relationship towards the Other.
For Levinas, the condition of suffering leads to a consciousness that cannoteven attempt to understand the nature of that which paralyses it. Thus, this suf-fering, which can produce no positive effects in the ego, is “useless: for nothing”;it represents “extreme passivity, helplessness, abandonment, and solitude.”
Yet this very suffering takes on meaning when examined from the perspectiveof the other man. In the case of this paper, that other man is myself. That is, when Iattempt to comprehend the utter uselessness of the suffering of the Other, I suffer
the Other. This “justifiable suffering” — suffering for the useless suffering of the Other— “opens suffering to the perspective of the inter-human.” To substitute perspectives ina Levinassian fashion, the essay then also seems to posit that my own useless, meaninglesssuffering can only even begin to take on meaning when it is recognized by the Other.Thus, the “very nexus of human subjectivity,” the primary social bond, arises when I beginto both suffer for the Other and recognize that my suffering can only be realized throughthe Other. It appears that for Levinas suffering realizes sociality.
Levinas then quickly turns from the phenomenology of suffering to a discussion of theod-icy. Rather than use “theodicy”in the context of the age-old theological debates about theproblem of evil,”Levinas radically reconfigures the meaning of the term. For Levinas, the anti-quated discourse of theodicy is manifest in the modern thought that suffering “temper[s] theindividual’s character”
in that it is “necessary to the teleology of community life, whensocial discontent awakens a useful attention to the health of the collective body.”
Following his distrust of political/historical discourses, Levinas finds that thisrevitalized theodicy ignores “the bad and gratuitous meaninglessness of pain...beneath the reasonable forms espoused by the social ‘uses’of suffering.”
Ultimately, Levinas views theodicy, whethermodern or ancient, as an attempt to make suffering com-prehensible.
This comprehension, though, cannotbut seek to reduce the enormity of the suffering of the Other.

You're Reading a Free Preview

/*********** DO NOT ALTER ANYTHING BELOW THIS LINE ! ************/ var s_code=s.t();if(s_code)document.write(s_code)//-->