A Little Levinas for Monday

From the interview "Violence and the Face," published in the 1999 Alterity and Transcendence. Levinas responds to a question on how his work differs from traditional philosophical investment in "historicism, materialism, structuralism, ontology":

I don't say that all is for the best, and the idea of progress doesn't seem to me very reliable.

I thought that part deserved to stand there on its own. Sometimes I think the most powerful statements to me are quite simple. My favorite line from Derrida is a simple under-appreciated sentence from Archive Fever: Order is no longer assured. The line above isn't quite as sublimely simple to me, but its close. Anyways, here's the rest of the passage:

But I think that responsibility for the other man, or, if you like, the epiphany of the human face, constitutes a penetration of the crust, so to speak, of "being persevering itself in its being" and preoccupied with itself. Responsibility for the other, the "dis-interested" for-the-other of saintliness. I'm not saying men are saints, or moving toward saintliness. I'm only saying that the vocation of saintliness is recognized by all human beings as a value, and that this recognition defines the human. The human has pierced through imperturbable being; even if no social organization, nor any institution can, in the name of purely ontological necessities, ensure, or even produce saintliness. There have been saints.

Now replace saints with students. Or with teachers (both! at the same time!). Perhaps "learner" would work. Replace saintliness, especially in that final sentence, with education. I go back to my writing.


Chickens, Eggs, Opinions, Identities

Today I asked my classes which of the following is more true:

  • I pick my friends based on my beliefs
  • I pick my beliefs based on my friends

We were discussing the opening chapter to Crowley and Hawhee's Ancient Rhetorics for Contemporary Students, paying particular attention to the emphasis C & H place on ethos: "Communication researchers have discovered that people generally adopt the opinions of people they know and respect." What comes first (pardon the pun): the knowing or the people? I thought this a particularly interesting question when put aside C & H's supposition that you can change opinions without changing your identity. I'm not sure about that one.

I like the Crowley and Hawhee as a primer on rhetorical theory, and it matched up nicely with a number of the readings we have already done this semester (almost all can be traced back to Burke in one way or another): Corder on ethics and narratives, Lanham on "fluff and stuff," Lakoff on frames, Booth on the distinction between evidence and reason, and Tannen on agonism. But there was one part of the reading that rubbed me the wrong way--the statement: "we mean no disrespect when we say that religious beliefs and political leanings are ideological." I get skeptical whenever I hear the preference "we mean no disrespect" since that often means that the next clause contains the possibility of significant disrespect. I find that the case here. Putting religious belief and political leanings (leanings, could there be a more demeaning word here?!?) in such close proximity equates the two. Is it the same thing to be a democrat and to be a Christian? Even as a heathen, I'm going to guess the answer is "no." Nor do I think religious people would be likely to explicate their faith in the terms of C & H's follow-up sentences: "Quite the contrary: human beings need ideologies to make sense of their experiences in the world. Powerful ideologies such as religions and political beliefs help people to understand who they are and what their relation is to the world and to other beings."

Of course, two pages later I believe C & H expose their own [metaphysical] orientation (one that allows for such an easy equation between ideological necessity and religious conviction) when they describe Protagoras:

...the Older Sophist Protagoras taught that "humans are the measure of all things." By this he apparently meant that anything which exists does so by virtue of its being know or discussed by human beings. Because knowledge originates with human knowers, and not from somewhere outside them, there is no absolute truth that exists separately from human knowledge. Moreover, contradictory truths will appear, since everyone's knowledge differs slightly from everyone else's, depending on one's perspective and one's language. Thus Protagoras taught that at least two opposing and contradictory logoi (statements or accounts) exist in every experience.

They are speaking my language here--my metaphysical language. But I think identifying Protagoras as a metaphysical position is to acknowledge the explicit disrespect that such a position potentially engenders for someone of faith. At least, that "no disrespect" had my Levinasian sense tingling--to understand how orientations toward language and truth, rather than shielding themselves from offense, have to acknowledge their violence. Such is the ethical sensitivity that rhetorical training can make possible.


Skepticism Toward Logic in the Wake of the Holocaust

The nicest part of teaching expository writing as blogging is the great variety of student projects I get to enjoy. This semester, I have one particularly talented student working on absurdist and existential literature. She recently read and commented on Ionesco's play Rhinocerus, connecting the play's critique of logic to a distrust of herd mentality and the Holocaust. I was writing on Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida this morning, particularly Levinas's distrust of positivity in "The Thinking of Being and the Question of the Other," and I think traces of that essay can be found in my response to the student's post. Here it is:

The second half of the 20th century is dominated by the specter of the Holocaust. The values of the Modern Enlightenment are considered especially suspicious. Chief amongst them is the emphasis on logic--particularly on abstract thinking divorced from contextual reality. If you think about what we were talking about briefly in my office, then I think you can already see this. Heidegger's treatment of Being in terms of a verb, for instance, is an effort to put the philosopher's attention more on matters of movement than stasis. Movement requires a field of activity, and elements of time. Pure abstraction does not.

How this concerns the Holocaust is a more difficult question! But, I think it is safe to say that the divorce of philosophy from the practicalities of everyday life initiates an answer. Also, of course, is the matter of an unwavering faith in logic (since, logically, syllogistically, one can argue for the termination of an entire people.

Jews are evil.

Evil needs to be eradicated.

Eradicating evil is righteous.

Therefore, it is righteous to eradicate Jews.

There is an immediate need to discredit the possibility of such a syllogism, and to devalue any kind of thinking that resembles such form. What is needed is a philosophy dedicated to calling first principles to attention, to putting them under scrutiny, to rejecting the possibility of an unquestionable first principle.

And, as you point out, one way of doing this is to question, irrevocably, the herd mentality. But I am sometimes skeptical here--the idea that it is only in groups that evil occurs. That sounds to me sometimes like too much of a cop-out (i.e., none of us could produce such horror individually, it is only when in a group that such atrocity could occur). I firmly believe humans to be capable of atrocity no matter the number. But, I also like to hold onto the possibility that they are equally capable of love. It is a matter of rhetoric: kairos, identification, and mood. Most importantly, it is an orientation, an approach, an attitude (Burke fans nod here, right?). Here, of course, I am understanding rhetoric as a particular way-of-being-with-the-world, one that self-reflexively takes into account the unaccountability of others and conceptualizes power as a group process.


New Ok Go Video

Honestly, I'm not really a big fan of this band. I thought their first hit, "Here it Goes Again," was catchy but borderline annoying. The video was engaging. That said, the single extended shot chicanery in their new video is quite cool:

And I appreciate the self-referential jab at the success of "Here it Goes Again" around 2:40.