Proximity and the Absolute Other
One purpose for writing this blog is to work out difficult concepts of life and death. Contemplating one’s own death is quite interesting especially for one who claims no religious affiliation other than a nominal one and who does not find enough evidence to believe in mythologies that claim a life beyond the grave as a reward for the life lived here. So I rely on a postmodern ethical stance that serves as a guide to my personal struggle. One never really knows what one believes until faced with the absolute necessity to examine carefully those foundations that guide everyday life. For the past fifteen or so odd years I have understood the world through a postmodern lens guided especially by Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida and now Zygmunt Bauman. Today’s post explores Levinas’s position concerning proximity or waiting on the other.
At the core of Levinas’s work is the idea of responsibility for the other. For Levinas, the other person represents the wholly or absolute Other, an unknowable, ineffable state absolutely beyond all ontological knowledge. When Levinas insists that I as an ontological self, can break free of ontology by being responsible for the other he is making the claim that ethics is the first philosophy, surpassing ontology as the foundational effort of philosophy. Once I assume responsibility for the other I have broken cleanly away from the interiority of the self by entering a world of the exteriority of the other. Responsibility for the other is asymmetrical; the other is approached without reservation and without any expectation of reciprocation. Responsibility is not a contract or covenant; responsibility for the other is, simply put, waiting.
For Levinas, the absolute Other, the infinity book-ending existential life, the life as we know it, is reflected in the face of the other person as the self engages in ethical encounters. By embracing the alterity, the diverse difference of the other person, one begins to gain insights into the absolute alterity of the absolute Other. The very act of responsibility, one that Zygmunt Bauman argues rests in the unintentional act of the self commanding the other to issue a command to the self. Every ethical encounter is thus initiated by the self which, in turn, may or may not be reciprocated. The relationship is asymmetrical and is entered into without reservations or without expectation of a response. Levinas calls this proximity; a state of anticipation or waiting. But waiting for what? For the other to issue a command, one that may never come but when it does that command insists on the self acting upon it, even to the point of one’s own death.
Proximity is a relationship of choice. It is a relationship for which there is no possible substitute, no proxy, no alternate, no surrogate possible. Once the self commands the other to command the self the die is cast and until such time as the other commands the self one must simply wait. Proximity does not represent distance, time or space; it is merely the anticipation of waiting.
The ethical command issued by the self to the other is contained in the Hebrew word hineni, “Here I Am!” This announcement is used frequently in the Torah when God calls upon people to act. Adam, for example, after eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge seeks to hide from God. God asks, “Where are you, Adam?” Adam responds, Hineni, Here I Am! Adam’s response is one that is made without reservation as he trembles before the infinite. It is Adam’s command to God, the speech act of presentation, the Here I Am, that opens the door to the ethical act. The command of presenting oneself to the other may be ignored by the other, may be reciprocated by the other with varying potential results up to and including unwanted results, but when that command is given without reservation or expectation, the presentation to the other is assuming the responsibility for the other up to and including responsibility for the responsibility of the other.
Since diagnosed with prostate cancer, the focus of my responsibility for the other is two-fold. First, I choose to present myself to friends and family being quite open about my disease and the potential treatment and prognosis. This presentation, this personal Here I Am, is an opening for others to deal with me as they will. Some, it seems wish to be sympathetic, others don’t care to talk about it. Some have even offered prayers for me, hum, praying for an atheist…well I suppose it couldn’t hurt. Secondly, by presenting myself to the other, I am also presenting myself to the absolute Other, hence the proximity to the infinite, to the absolute unknown that lies beyond the grave. All I can do at this very moment is wait, embrace proximity; I await the command of the absolute Other, a command I hope comes none too soon.