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Archive for the tag “Emmanuel Levinas”

The Very Idea of Giving a Gift is Impossible?

If there is a gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure.
Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money (emphasis in original)

The Very Idea of Giving a Gift is Impossible?

The Very Idea of Giving a Gift is Impossible?

Giving of gifts is one of those taken-for-granteds that most of us never think about the implications or consequences of gifting. What if, however, giving of gifts were an expression of ethical behavior? What if gifting were a selfless act of response-ability? Ethical response-ability requires one to become available, to announce one’s presence, one’s availability to be of service to the other. Furthermore, it requires one to become available without any expectation of reciprocation on the part of the other. Ethical response-ability is a one-way street, it is the giving of the self for the welfare of the other after announcing availability and waiting for the cry of the other. Ethical response-ability is initiated by the self but only so far as to announce availability. There it stops, waiting in proximate space for the cry of the other to interrupt the proximate space, tearing the fabric of complacency by requiring a response. Then and only then must the proximate self act for the welfare of the other. Ethical response-ability is not in the business of offering assistance when or where it is not wanted. It only responds it does not initiate.

When I give a gift, when I am the giver, what are my expectations? Do I give the gift freely without expectations of reciprocation or does my gift signal the fact that I expect something in return? If I am giving in order to get, if, in other words, I have clear expectations of reciprocation, then it is difficult to classify my gift as a gift; it is more akin to a bribe, inducement or incentive. When a gift is given in order to secure cooperation on the other end, clearly the gift initiates a circle of giving and receiving that can only be classified as self-serving. While one may call this gifting, because it requires action by the other in order to complete the circle, it may better be classified as a quasi-contract spilling out into the realm of economics rather than ethics. Think about how many times you have looked at a holiday list of giving and decided not to send a gift to someone because they didn’t send you a gift last year or the year before. This kind of gifting, I’ll send you a gift if you’ll send me one of equal or greater value, fails the test of ethical behavior. Think about how many times you have given a gift to someone with the thought, “If I give this gift I’ll surely get back far more in return?”

If, on the other hand, my expectations are such that I have none, that I have given a gift without any expectation of reciprocation, then my gift may fall into the category of ethical response-ability. It is rare that one can give a gift without any expectations. If I give a donation to my local symphony orchestra they will give me a set of gifts in return. This gift, while altruistic, comes with reciprocation built into the contract. Even if I give this gift anonymously, so that my name is not listed in the program giving the impression that I want nothing in return, not even recognition, the gift came with baggage that can only be classed as reciprocation and is, therefore, not a gift but a contract; I’ll give you this and you’ll give me that in return.

Random acts of kindness, acts that require no reciprocation, such as holding the door open for a stranger, come close to the true sense of a gift but often fail when there is an inner (or outer) set of doors and the stranger then holds the door open for you. No, the only true gift is the one that announces “Here I AM!” and then waits for the cry of the other so that one can act response-ably for the benefit of the other. The very idea of giving a gift is impossible except when one selflessly makes oneself available to be of service to another in need.

From Teleology to Theology: The Separation of Space, Time and Action…Thinking in Jewish XVII

From Teleology to Theology: The Separation of Space, Time and Action...Thinking in Jewish XVII

From Teleology to Theology: The Separation of Space, Time and Action…Thinking in Jewish XVII

Once the foundation of analysis was laid out by the sages of the Mishnah and Talmuds they turned to the problem of holiness, of what is spiritually clean and unclean and how the lines of demarcation were drawn to insure that the actions of the community would, when properly practiced, form a holy space on earth. The sages rationalized from their own insistance that God created the entire universe with a divine purpose; that nothing happened without the purposeful intervention of a just and fair God for whom the purpose of creation is known. Human beings, in the sages minds, served as the ultimate teleological rationale for creation but that was merely speculation because nothing could penetrate the actual mind of God. They were also faced with the problem that rendered it all but impossible to understand the communal punishments as nothing other than the workings of a just God; for them the very thought of an unjust, capricious God was outside the realm of the possible. Their task, therefore, was to create a world in which the separation of the profane from the sacred could be achieved, if not in total at the very least as a conscious effort to mirror God’s heaven on earth. Their solution was to make clear distinctions of space, time and action (in terms of prohibitions) that turned teleology into theology.

These categories are made most clear in Tractate Shabbat, the volume of the Mishnah and Talmuds dealing with the laws of the Sabbath. By separating space into public, private and neutral (karmelis) the sages made it clear that the space surrounding man was made for different purposes and that these purposes carried with them a divine spark that must not be violated. The public space equates to profane space, the place where work is permitted while private space (defined generally as the place where one eats his bread) equates to spiritual or sacred space separated from that public or profane space by a set of laws that make clear how one is to celebrate the sacred space as holy. Once armed with the distinction of space as public or private (karmelis presented a different problem and is defined as neither public or private but neutral) the sages begin by offering arguments as to what can and cannot be transferred from public to private or private to public space on the Sabbath. The fundamental rule to be followed maintains that the household, the private space, is sacred therefore not subject to invasion from the profane space of the outside public world. Nor should the stuff that represents what is holy be transferred to the public world on the Sabbath. The absolute separation of space requires diligence on one day of each week, mirroring the culmination of God’s work in creation; in fact, the entirety of Jewish theology turns on the very idea that creation is relived in the sense that on six days there is disorder and chaos while on the seventh day sacred order is restored. The teleological idea of creation is thereby converted into the theological insistence that creation is the guiding miracle and that all others pale in comparison.

Separation of space is nothing if not the first step in the separation that guides how one thinks about the profane and sacred. The idea that time must also be separated into profane and holy is the second leg of this three legged stool. During the time between sundown on Friday to sunset on Saturday time stands still in the sense that the Sabbath is a day in which nothing happens that is not designated as holy prior to the advent of the Sabbath. No ‘work’ is to be done that benefits the worker. No utensil is to be used that is not properly designated for use on the Sabbath. This does not mean, for example, that one cannot keep food warm on the Sabbath so long as the flame keeping the food warm was started prior to sundown of Friday and not tended all day Saturday. If the fire had to be tended then a violation of the Sabbath occurs because the tender of the flame benefits from that action. During the sacred or holy time of Sabbath two criteria must be met when deciding whether or not the act is allowed. First, does the action (work) have a lasting impact when the act itself is finished. In short, is something being accomplished or are the results of the action taken merely transitory? Secondly, does the act benefit the individual actor or the larger community as a whole? If it does it is prohibited during the time designated as sacred and if not then the act is permissible. There are many arcane laws that seem to be arbitrary but when placed under the microscope of separation of space and time appear as consistent.

Finally, the separation of profane and sacred turns on the prohibited acts and the intentional violation of such actions in terms of atonement required and/or the communal consequences of mass violation of separation of profane and holy that befall the entire house of Israel. Here is where the teleological meets the theological head on. Contextually the sages of the Mishnah and Talmuds are struggling with the consequences of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and the abrupt, painful shift from the Temple cult of atonement sacrifices to the synagogue as a simulacrum of the sacrificial atonement through prayer. Because the Temple was destroyed, a great tragedy is imposed on the Jewish people by a just God (the other alternative is outside the possible) due to their profane actions, actions that angered their just God. It is ever more important after such a tragic consequence to become even more rigorous in as to how one practices one’s beliefs. Stringent laws apply to even the most mundane activities in order to assure that some time in the future God’s purpose will be revealed through the coming of the Messiah. Yet, all of the laws boil down to a set of principles that separate the profane from the sacred in such a way as to keep the distinction clear in the minds of the people practicing the acts of separation itself.

It is precisely here where the two Judaisms diverge. Rabbinic Judaism focused on the intentions of human beings to keep the law that led to the separation of sacred and holy from the profane. Christianity, on the other hand, placed all responsibility for separating the holy from the profane in the hands of the Messiah, the sin-eater, the person-God and all that was needed was a belief in the efficacy of this Messiah and all would be well with the world. Neither of these Judaisms could escape the stranglehold of the teleological idea of purpose nor the eschatological notion of the end of times when the teleological is fulfilled. The primary difference turns on how one defines the theological response. Rabbinic Judaism places the responsibility for atonement in the hands of human beings while Christianity places the very idea of forgiveness in the hands of their identified Messiah. In either case, the underlying assumption turns on the belief in the very idea that creation is purposeful, that there is a definite end to history as we know it and that the God in control is just and fair. To this I would argue quite the opposite. Creation is a random event that progresses (not in any linear sense rather in the sense that there is an appearance of progress) randomly to the universe we are privy to at this very moment. As to God’s justice, the evidence is simply not there and it is not good enough to not be able to contemplate the possibility of any other alternative.

While I am beginning to understand the rationale, that understanding is mitigated by a post-modern ethic that rejects teleological and eschatological responses to tragedy. The demands of separation of profane and holy are meaningless in the face of the randomness of the universe and, if there is a God at all, the capriciousness of that impotent God spreading tragedy, war and hatred across the globe. One need not separate the sacred from the profane, withdraw from the world or otherwise disappear into a quagmire of priestly regulations to live a moral or ethical life. All that is required is the ability to live in this very moment and announce to the world that “Here I Am!” expressing a readiness to be response-able for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation.

100 Posts and I Still Cry “Here I Am!”…Thinking In Jewish XII

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
Hillel, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 1-14

100 Posts and I Still Cry “Here I Am!”…Thinking In Jewish XII

100 Posts and I Still Cry “Here I Am!”…Thinking In Jewish XII

Rabbi Dov Ber of Radoshitz was fond of exclaiming just after awakening, loud enough for everyone in his dwelling place to hear, “Wake my friends, a guest you have never before seen has arrived. Once gone you will never see him again. “ His students asked, “Who is this guest, Rabbi?” Dov Ber replied, “Why today, of course!” In fact, Rabbi Dov Ber of Radoshitz had it almost right; he just was counting too long a time period. The guest he might have considered would be this very moment, a period of time so infinitely brief that it cannot be measured without stopping time itself and the very moment it arrives it is always already gone, disappearing into a trace, a remembered moment.

What is remembered is but a simulacrum of the moment, what is the remembered past is but a mere string of traces left behind by this very moment, glossed over by a varnish that enhances the good and diminishes the pain. In this sense, the lived experience, the existential life, is guided by the simulacra of this very moment compressed into an interpretation of a life lived; a remembered past serves as the guidepost for the wished for future.

Time is experienced by the self as a linear extension of moments strung together moving progressively along a thread of experience. Time is an experience of the interior self extended into the exterior or material world presenting the self with a significant problem, that of intercourse with the other, with other absolutely unique selves existing in the world. Without the bother of the other to contend with, the self would be content to be only for itself. Presented with the other, however, the selfish act of being only for oneself is impossible. The very idea of turning totally inward to the interiority of the self is to withdraw from all social contact. While there are times when one normally withdraws, times of physical or emotional pain for example, the thought of remaining totally withdrawn is outside the very nature of the human being to seek social contact.

Intercourse with the absolutely unique other is a sort of practice for the encounter with the Absolute Other, the infinite awaiting each and every human being. There is no escape, no substitution for this encounter with the Other; the only question is when. Yet, given the encounter with the infinitely brief moment in which the lived experience is fully engaged, the infinite passes by almost unnoticed, leaving but the ever-fading trace behind as a reminder of the existential journey.

The encounter with the other requires one to be response-able, to respond to the call of the other while demanding of the self to be absolutely available, to become proximate while waiting for the call of the other. Being response-able is a choice one makes, an ethical choice to be ready to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or without the expectation of reciprocation. The proximate choice, the placing oneself in the position of ethical response to the cry of the other involves waiting for the call. In this sense the ethical choice appears to be passive. In fact, making the ethical response-able choice is actively renewed in this very moment, over and over, while waiting in the proximate space for the call that may never arrive to come. Like Rabbi Dov Ber of Radoshitz, the moment of choice to revel in the moment of response-ability is now because to overlook the opportunity is to lose it forever. Like Rabbi Hillel, there is no better time than this very moment to make the ethical choice to announce to the world “Here I Am!” and wait for the response. Life in this very moment requires each self to act for the welfare and benefit of the other without demanding anything of the other in return.

Always Already Being In The Material World

Always Already Being In The Material World

Always Already Being In The Material World

To borrow a phrase from Martin Heidegger without necessarily committing to its meaning, being-in-the-world adequately represents the notion of the existential moment. If I could phrase it differently than Heidegger I would strip it of its ontological references while incorporating the notion of representing an illusory phantom of the trace of memory and a projection into the future. In Levinas’ terms, this is represented better by the notion of hypostasis, the question of the infinitely brief moment of existential time while merging the idea of the trace remembered and the future desired, both of which are measured by ever fading memory or ever more fantastic dreamt of futures. In brief, existential time is a simulacrum of the conjoining of past/future, while cleverly disguising both within a true sense of security of past events and a desired sense of future certainty. Nothing, however, exists outside of this very moment of existential time; all the rest is merely a ghost or a projection on a screen of hope; something like Plato’s images on the cave wall without the reference to forms.

Going beyond the ontic nature of Heidegger’s being-in-the-world, Levinas focuses on the idea that hypostasis focuses on the interiority of solitude in which one experiences existential time; the trace of memory and those projections for the future are clearly personal, not able to be shared with any other human being. If left to its own resources, Heidegger insists, the self would be so consumed with its own interiority that it could not relate to the exterior world other than to evaluate the entirety of that world as objects of the self with being incorporated in the objective relationship with the objects, including the human objects, in the world. Levinas is critical of this position arguing that one can only understand being by and through the social interaction with the other, by responding to the call of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation; to make oneself present in the world in order to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. In this sense, being-in-the-world turns Heidegger on his head by proclaiming that ethics trumps ontology; that response-ability, the ability to respond to the call of the other from wherever it originates is a fundamental obligation of the ethical human being, denying the interiority of the self as more important than the self existing as a social being evidenced by its commitment to the exteriority of the world one encounters in this very moment of existential time.

I exist in this world in order to be of service to the other, to extend my hand whenever and wherever I hear the call of the other asking for help. Must I answer each and every call from the other? No, but I must answer the calls for which I am best equipped. For me, as a personal being existing in the world, I have two major callings. I will answer the call of anyone with a desire to stop drinking by extending my hand and offering the support I can and must offer. I do this because I am a recovering alcoholic with over two decades of not drinking. Recently, because of my diagnosis of prostate cancer I announced my presense to any and all who have the same or similar diagnosis; I will answer the call of anyone with prostate cancer by extending my hand and sharing my experience, strength and hope. The choice of these two ‘causes’ does not preclude my being responsible in other situations; it simply means that I have chosen to priortize my personal sense of responsibility in these two arenas at this very moment. It seems that I recognize my existence within the bounds of the spirit of Alcoholics Anonymous and the community of men diagnosed with prostate cancer as well as those men who desire to end prostate cancer as the second leading killer of men in the United States.


Ethics and Bare Life; Another Aporia of Modern Democracy

Ethics and Bare Life; Another Aporia of Modern Democracy

Ethics and Bare Life; Another Aporia of Modern Democracy

Ethics, according to Emmanuel Levinas, is the first philosophy, elevated above ontology or epistemology. On Levinas’s view, as nicely summarized by Hillary Putnam, the fundamental ethical obligation is to become response-able (responsible) for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. Ethical behavior is fundamentally interpersonal, non-judgmental, face-to-face and established without external imperatives. Bare life, according to the view of Giorgio Agamben, focuses on the excluded, the marginalized, the non-members of society who, through external imperatives by a governing authority are disenfranchised, separated from and isolated from the rest of normative society. Bare life is externally mandated by the sovereign power to eek out an apartheid existence. Sometimes, the isolation is limited applying to a single aspect of life, for example, an unwarranted fear of the other because of skin color, religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), sexual orientation, social class (yes we have social classes in the United States that are not formal but that, nevertheless, exist), politics, or other generalized group membership. We also have examples where bare life, because of a vacuum in political opposition and a well-organized bureaucracy, takes bare life to unthinkable limits where genocide is a political function of the government and is carried out in exquisitely efficient ways so well described by Zygmunt Bauman.

The aporia, the double bind is that of self-directed ethics motivated by the interiority of the self to extend outward to the exteriority and absolute uniqueness of the other and the authoritative imperative motivated by the exteriority of the other and extended inward to invade the interiority of the self in an attempt to reduce the individual into the same, to homogenize the external world into a flat, featureless normality while excluding the uniqueness of the self. Linguistically we might think in terms of the oppositions of diversity/uniformity as representative of the aporia of modernity.

The double bind that is at work here is that one must engage in both worlds, one may choose an ethical stance even in the most horrific exercise of the authority of the sovereign, the one standing outside (not above) the law or one may choose the uniformity of enforcement of separation and isolation. There are, for example, countless stories of people choosing ethics over authority in the death camps of Nazi Germany (read the works of Primo Levy for a few examples). There are examples of those feigning uniformity who, rather than comply, chose to practice an ethical life (think of Schindler’s List as a prime example). And there are also those choosing to comply, even among the victims of the unimaginable homogenization of the death camps (those Jews who chose to do the work of their Nazi guards, to cooperate with their enemy if only to stave off the inevitable for themselves).

While these are extreme examples, we can see the same thing happening in modern democratic societies where the aim of exclusion is not as well defined nor is it as final as the consequences of the Shoah (the Holocaust). Police acting to curb protests, where the police are literally the uniform(ed) arm of the sovereign power, even while the police belong to the same class as those protesting. We see the leaders of religious institutions arguing for the exclusion of others who do not believe in the same specific tenants as they and it is all done in the name of their God or gods while their congregants uniformly accept the preachings of the hate mongers. I witness teachers willingly entering the classroom with the idea of creating a climate of compliance among their students in order to infuse the desire to score well on an imposed standardized test.

In the final analysis, however, the choice of the fundamental ethical obligation trumps uniformity, although that choice is always more dangerous than the choice of compliance, of sinking into the plain vanilla of uniformity. In making the ethical choice, one must constantly confront one’s taken-for-granteds, one’s prejudices and one’s biases in favor of the admission of bias and working to embrace that which one finds different. I recall a personal story as an example here. I was called for jury duty and while my panel was being questioned, one of the attorneys doing the questioning asked something like, ‘Is there anyone who cannot set aside their personal bias and examine the evidence presented to come to a verdict based solely on the evidence presented?’ I found the question a bit strange. I raised my hand and asked. ‘What do you mean by setting aside personal bias?’ The attorney responded, ‘That your verdict be based solely on the evidence presented and that you leave your personal beliefs at home.’ I responded, ‘Then I would have to answer that I cannot set my personal beliefs or bias aside but could only examine evidence in the context of those beliefs. I cannot simply turn off my bias and sink into a uniformity of fair-arbiter. I can listen to all the evidence but I cannot evaluate that evidence unless I evaluate it in light of my core ethical obligations.’ The judge dismissed me from the panel. In order to embrace the other’s diversity, one must also embrace one’s own values as uniquely their own.

The point of this ramble is that the line between diversity/uniformity is one in which we all find ourselves from time to time. The forces of the ethical self are at odds with the forces of uniformity and compliance.


Proximity: Love without Reward is Valuable

Faith is not a question of the existence or non-existence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable.
Emmanuel Levinas

Proximity: Love without Reward is Valuable

Proximity: Love without Reward is Valuable

Understanding the principle of first ethics, that I, in the guise of the self, announce my presence to the world, place myself in a state of proximity as I await the call of the other, with the words, spoken or thought, “Here I Am” is, in fact, an act of love. It is an act done without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation. In point of fact, proximity, that state of waiting for the call of the other, may never find closure. The self may wait for the call that never arrives; wait it must because to do otherwise would be to act without cause only to fulfill an egoistic need to be rewarded by others.

Waiting in a proximate state does not require one to be a hermit, to hole up in a cave isolated from all human contact. Quite the contrary, waiting always already occurs in the vibrant acts of being in the world, of being present, of accomplishing, of doing good deeds, of anticipating. It is a region of existence where time and space are meaningless unless one comes face-to-face with the call of the other, in which case the obligation to answer the call comes before all other action; even in the answering, the self cannot act with the expectation of reward or reciprocation; responding to the call of the other is a selfless act that always already takes precedence over reservation and expectation of reward. It is much like a gift given anonymously.

The anonymous gift received by a recipient establishes no possibility for reciprocation. If one does not know from whom the gift arrived, it is impossible to be obligated to return the favor. If a gift is given to someone, say as a birthday present, encloses a card and signs that card, the recipient is informally obligated to present the giver with a gift on his or her birthday. By creating a give and take obligation the gift is not a gift at all, rather it is an requirement for reciprocation that, if broken, creates resentment and distance, the very opposite of proximate space.

The anonymous gift is one that honors the concept that love without reward is valuable; so valuable that one need receive no recognition for one’s action. Another way of thinking of proximity is in the notion of hospitality, of opening up one’s personal space to the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation. A personal example: every year my wife and I invite guests to our home to help celebrate important holidays. We host a Passover Seder in the spring, a Thanksgiving dinner in the fall and an intimate New Year’s Eve dinner on December 31st. Our motivation is to celebrate holidays with friends and family, to create a ritual that infuses meaning in our home and brings happiness to our guests. We do this without reservation and without expectation. Our doors are open to guests brought by those we invite and it never fails that someone brings a stranger to our home (at least for the first two celebrations). Some of our guests have never reciprocated; the dinners, however, are not held because we expect people to invite us back, they are hosted to bring people together for important celebrations without reservation, without hidden agendas, without requirement. Love without reward is, in this sense, a measure of proximity; space without time or distance defined by its very essence of waiting.

We Do the Best We Can!

Whether gods exist or not, there is no way to get absolute certainty about ethics. Without absolute certainty, what do we do? We do the best we can.
Richard Stallman

We Do the Best We Can!

We Do the Best We Can!

Ethics is not a system of beliefs, rules, regulations or commandments; ethics is a condition of action arising as an objection to systems of beliefs, rules, regulations and commandments of others. Ethical behavior is more than knowing how to distinguish between right and wrong, more than incorporating knowing into decision-making and more than a simple-minded reliance on the demands others place upon us. Ethical behavior does not rely on being certain of the outcome of one’s behavior not does it rely on a set of rules of which one may with certainty adopt as a code of living. The problem turns on the simple idea that anything that is pressed upon us from an external source is certain to be an attempt to reduce the self into the same thereby condemning humanity to a bland, homogenous existence. As a human being existing in the material world, as a totally unique self, I have but one obligation, one that may only be generated from my own unique interiority that guides my connections, my relationships, in the material world with absolutely unique others yet one that, with absolute certainty, does not guarantee any specific outcome.

My fundamental ethical obligation, one that is generated from within and is pushed outward toward the exteriority of the material world, is to be responsible for the welfare of the other, the other who is as unique as I am unique, without any reservations, even when my own existence is in jeopardy, and without expectation of reciprocation. But being responsible does not mean that I must act first, that I must reach out a hand when there is no call from the other. I am first required to make my-self available, to announce my presence, by shouting “Here I Am!” And then I must wait until I hear the call of the other.

In a real sense, responsibility can be understood using the neologism response-ability. The two words are indistinguishable when spoken, the only distinction being made visible in writing but the essential feature of the latter is to convey the meaning that one is able to respond to the call of the other. Response-ability is, in fact, a state of proximity (of space and time not of distance) to the other and it implies that the self must wait until it hears the call of the other clearly and distinctly; at that point, however, the self must jump into action, to respond to the call that the self was in proximate waiting to hear.

In the extreme, one may see a drowning person screaming for help. If one has chosen the fundamental ethical obligation of response-ability as a guiding ethical principle, one is obligated to do everything possible to save the life of the other who is drowning…even at the peril of one’s own life. To save a life, in this sense, is ethical behavior. Most aspects of becoming response-able are not so dramatic. Each and every day, unless one is a hermit or locked in a dungeon without any human contact, experience the potential for proximate response-ability in our daily contact with other people. Not every encounter is an ethical one. If I am shopping for supplies at my local drug store I am likely to have an encounter with another human being if I need to ask where something is kept on the shelves or when I check out and pay. These are not ethical encounters, rather they are chance meetings that are polite, perhaps even friendly, but there is no call from the other to be heard, no intimacy. It is only when the call to the proximate self is a call of intimacy, one in which close personal contact is made between two unique individuals that an ethical connection is made. Close friendships that develop over time where the self listens to the other, embraces the other’s uniqueness and, thereby, more clearly understands one’s own uniqueness, may be seen as response-able ethical encounters.

When the other is viewed as a stranger lumped into a well-defined group there is little possibility for ethical encounters for it is when strangers are reduced to the same that the fact of uniqueness disappears into the violence of the defined group. Permission is granted to isolate the group, to avoid contact with the group, to hate the group without knowing individuals within the group. The triumphalism of the dominant group potentially leads to the elimination of the othered, marginalized group from normative society.

Ethical encounters have the opposite impact on society. Rather than relying on a governing authority (including governmental agencies, religious organizations, quasi-governmental institutions such as corporate bureaucracies, organized criminal groups and the like), the ethical encounter is generated from the interiority of the self as a self-imposed obligation for proximate action. They are not governed by the pronouncements of others; rather they are governed by the announcement by the self that “Here I Am!” and the proximity that is generated by that announcement. The goal of this post-modern approach to ethical behavior is to eschew certainty by embracing difference and to do so with the goal of being of service for others. In short, it is the ability to do the best we can with the tools we have, to do no harm to others, and to do the next right thing.

Modern Democracy and Bare Life

Modern democracy’s specific aporia: it wants to put the freedom and happiness of men into play in the very place – “bare life” – that marked their subjugation…Today politics knows no value (and, consequently, no nonvalue) other than life, and until the contradictions that this fact implies are dissolved, Nazism and fascism – which transformed the decision on bare life into the supreme political principle – will remain stubbornly with us.

Giorgio Agamben

Modern Democracy and Bare Life

Modern Democracy and Bare Life

For the past few days I wrote about things that have no apparent connection to my prostate cancer battle. This is attributable to two factors. First, my highly successful robotic radical prostatectomy along with the fact that there was no metastasis to either the lymph nodes or the bone makes any further therapy moot unless, of course, the cancer returns. Secondly, the bout with prostate cancer allowed me to focus on things that I find important, to reflect on my life past and my life connecting me to the absolute infinity of death. It is the latter I wish to concentrate on for the time being. Of course, there are side-effects to the surgery that are troublesome and I’ll surely write about those; for now, I want to concentrate on the ethics of the fundamental ethical obligation and the implications attached to following a life connected to being of service for others.

So today, I take up the banner of ethics and ‘bare life.’ First, I think it wise to define the notion of ‘bare life’ in Agamben’s terms. In modern democracies, human beings are no longer considered the object of political power, rather, they become the subject of that political power. The sovereign, the governing authority, establishes rules for belonging to and being excluded from the body politic. While these are two extremes on a continuum (there are degrees of exclusion), it is important that one understands that even in nuanced layers of belonging, a form of marginalization, the one excluded by decree is absolutely marginalized, there is no nuance about it. To be excluded by decree is not unique to the Jews of Nazi Germany; right here in the United States groups are and have been historically excluded from the body politic. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” was a phrase that ruled Westward expansion in the 19th century. Slaves, excluded by law, were nuanced for political purposes becoming three-fifths of a person for the purpose of the census, thereby adding political power to slave holding states. Even today, political arguments abound about what to do with undocumented foreign nationals in the United States. Proposals range from deportation to amnesty as a road to citizenship and the debate is heated, often turning ugly.

It is easy to think one is safe when belonging is taken for granted but everything can turn based on a political decree. Jacques Derrida, in The Monlingualism of the Other, makes a bold claim when he writes, “I only have one language: it is not mine.” Born to a Jewish family in French occupied Algeria, Derrida speaks French as his first language. He is, in fact, not monolingual because he also speaks English, yet his first language is the one he feels most comfortable with. In the book he writes about the fragility of citizenship embedded in his own experience of going to school one day as a French citizen; upon returning home, however, he no longer was a Frenchman, rather he was a Jew in Vichy France with no rights or obligations to the state. Full and complete exclusion by decree; no longer able to go to school, participate in activities with other children he was friendly with; the devastation of the bare life of exclusion by fiat is difficult. Then, as suddenly as he was deprived of his status as a French citizen, that citizenship was reinstated without fanfare, rather, by the decree of the governing authority to which Derrida now owed allegiance. Derrida questions what it really means to be a citizen, how citizenship is earned and, because it is so fragile, how it is not easily defined.

In modern democracies the governing authority surrenders much of its power to the bureaucracy upon which it depends to administer the legitimate and illegitimate decrees and laws of the state. Without the bureaucracy, the state simply cannot function. Yet it is this very apparatus, fully removed from the sunshine of accountability that the forces of exclusion operate without regard to those who are marginalized or fully excluded from society. The bureaucracy is amoral, functioning without ethical values, being accountable, from the lowest clerk to the highest official, only to the level of supervision one grade ahead of one’s station. This practice makes bureaucratic decisions that are geared at protecting the job rather than protecting the social order. The amoral begins here, subject to nothing more than the drive for efficiency and economy. Wrong-headed decisions are difficult to overturn thereby allowing the process of continuing down a road to self-destruction.

This brief essay presents an outline of the failings of the late modern democracies. Yet, unlike the angst of the existentialists, who preached the idea of personal responsibility, of integrity if you will, because the world is absurd, some post-modernists, especially Levinas, sees hope in the very notion of responsibility. Levinas’s fundamental ethical obligation is an act of responsibility and integrity involving the self to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation and without the expectation of reciprocation. This dyad, the face-to-face that is required of the self and the other, is the foundation of ethics without ontology, morals without having to address notions of being. The fact that I exist is proof enough that I exist. The fact that the material world exists and that I can interact with the objects of the material world is proof enough for the existence of the material world. The fact that there is an Absolute Infinity that I will, of necessity, transition into is proof enough that there is an unknowable eternity awaiting me, an Absolute Other that I can only approximate by and through my social relationships with the other in this world.

From Where I Sit: Thinking in Jewish V

From Where I Sit: Thinking in Jewish V

From Where I Sit: Thinking in Jewish V

From where I sit any number of inconsistencies jump out at me with regard to the ineffable God. This feeling was reinforced last night as I listened carefully to Rabbi Mendel discuss the ten plagues that God delivered upon Egypt as Moses asked Pharaoh to. “Let my people go.” The argument went as follows. The plagues are divided into three distinct segments. The first three plagues announce that, “I am God.” The second three announce that, “I am God and I am right here.” And finally the last four announce that, “Not only am I God and that I am here but I am both the only God there is and I am all powerful.” Interesting, but the argument proceeds a bit further by making the claim that these plagues that were brought down upon Egypt were not for the benefit of the Egyptians as a means to demonstrate the power of God but were, in fact, for the benefit of the Israelites as they required signs and wonders in order to be able to serve God upon their release from Egypt and their time in the desert..

Two important questions arise. First, if God is really God why does God have to create signs and wonders in order to prove God’s own existence? Secondly, why does the all powerful God require plagues, symbols of punishment and displeasure, rather than acts of loving kindness to prove God’s existence? Rabbi Mendel’s response to these two questions, the first posed by me and the second actually from another participant, although I was also thinking along those lines as well, is that God created the physical world as the lowest place on the ladder of eternity so that God could have a world in which the inhabitants could discover the spiritual nature of eternity and God. This answer did not seem satisfactory to me. He also argued that it is not for us human beings to question the mind of God because we can never know what God might be thinking. Also unsatisfactory.

I would like to take a metaphorical stab at the problem of the ten plagues, one that doesn’t require God to prove it is God, rather, one that strongly suggests that there are fundamental ethical obligations that are learned from the very interesting grouping of the plagues and their intended audience. Let me first look at the problem of the plagues and the Egyptians. On the surface, the plagues are intended to soften the Pharaoh’s spirit, to weaken him much like a prize fighter seeks to weaken his opponent in preparation for the knockout punch. If you compare each plague to a round in a boxing match this interpretation makes sense. Each plague brings on greater and greater devastation on Egypt, thereby weakening Pharaoh’s resolve. In the early rounds, Pharaoh’s priests and magicians are able to fight back, to do the same things that were being brought on by God but as the fight progressed, the priests and magicians were rendered moot because they could no longer respond to the devastating blows of each plague. The Egyptian resolve is finally broken by the knockout blow of the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn in the tenth and final round.

From the perspective of the Israelites, they are not yet Jews, the intended audience, there is an entirely different picture.   At first, the Israelites are able to witness the Egyptian priests and magicians do the very same thing as Moses is doing through the intercession of God. The announcement that, “I am God,” appears to be no different than the Egyptian claims to eternity. Blow for blow the Egyptians are able to counter the magic tricks of God and thereby tend to weaken the spirit of the Israelites. By the time the next three plagues are over, the announcement that, “I am God and I am here,” carries a bit more weight because the Egyptians are weakening and are unable to match the plagues. The Israelites can now cheer for their God without having to think about the Egyptian gods having power over their God; at this stage, the Israelites were unable to appreciate the singularity of deity, the idea of a single God, the monism of eternity. At the conclusion of the next three plagues, when God announces, “Not only am I God and not only am I here, but there is no God other than me and I am all powerful,” that the Israelites begin to recognize the power of God. It took the final plague, the slaying of the first born to release them to the desert, to wander for 40 years.

One of the major themes running through the Torah is the fundamental obligation to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The story of the ten plagues emphasizes the fact that the plagues were brought on the Egyptian population and not on the Israelites. Talk about being a stranger in a strange land, the Israelites were singled out as being different from the Egyptians; their uniqueness (as well as the uniqueness of the Egyptians) was, in fact, the question at hand. It is a perfect metaphor for the very idea of uniqueness, only in this case the uniqueness leads to a lack of communication, to a total lack of understanding between Pharaoh and Moses. It is as if they were talking past each other rather than seeking a platform of understanding. Moses approached Pharaoh with an agenda that was not to be shaken, “Let my people go,” he shouted. Pharaoh responded by making the lives of the Israelites even harsher even while the Israelites were free of the devastation rendered upon the Egyptians.

From where I sit, the later commandment to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt, when seen in the light of the notion that Israel was the audience for the plagues, to soften them up to accept the burden that Hillary Putnam, writing on Levinas, calls the fundamental ethical obligation to make oneself available to the other, to care for the other without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation; to reach out to the Infinite, the Absolute Other, through the relationship the self has with the other (human being). The plagues offer the metaphor for being the stranger in the strange land, in the land of Egypt; that because you know what it is to be a stranger, to be an other, the fundamental ethical obligation is easier to grasp, to understand, than if you were never a stranger yourself. On this view, God has no need to prove its existence, in fact, there really is no need for there to be a God at all. Rather, the mere repetition of the metaphorical story returns Jews to Egypt each and every year, at the Passover Seder, a ritual tradition where the story of the exodus is repeated and we are told that we (not they) were slaves in the land of Egypt and we (not they) were freed to wander the desert for 40 years, and we (not they) have the sacred obligation to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Even if there is no God, we have an obligation to act as if there is, for only then will we accept the burden of the fundamental ethical obligation and embrace the uniqueness of the stranger in our midst.

The burden of learning to think in Jewish is, it seems, exciting and frustrating. I am grateful for my teacher, a man who really makes me think differently that I have ever thought before; another thing to add to my gratitude list.

Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Clearly one of my most sacred concerns is the idea that ethics precedes ontology, that moral behavior is more important than the quest for understanding of what it means to be. I learn this from Emmanuel Levinas who measures what it means to be as an encounter with the other, a face-to-face simulacrum of the Absolute (unknowable) Other. This fundamental ethical obligation, the duty to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation is the foundational aspect of Levinasian ethics. While this formula holds for dyadic encounters, it fails to respond to Levinas’s greatest fear: the reduction of the self into the same, a reduction to the universal, the politically defined normative behavior expected of good citizens. While it is difficult for reduction to occur during face-to-face engagement, it is likely to occur in situations of mass audiences, of entire populations. Two philosophers take this into account as they describe the process of reduction of the self into the same, Giorgio Agamben and Zygmunt Bauman.

Both Agamben and Bauman find the bureaucratic dependence of Modernity to be the focus of the process of reduction. Agamben, quoting Foucault, writes, “For the first time in history, the possibilities of the social sciences are made known, and at once it becomes possible to both protect life and to authorize a holocaust.” Agamben’s argument is that the rise of Modernity as depicted by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, coupled with the rise of Mercantilism followed by the ubiquity of Capitalism, created conditions for the state to define what normal would look like, to define what it means to belong to or be labeled apart from the body politic of the state itself. Bauman goes a step further by suggesting that the real culprit is not only Modernity and the idea of the social contract along with the rise of Capitalism, but it lies in the administration of Capitalism through the bureaucratic apparatus that manages the entire system, creates the regulations for and thereby defines belonging. The bureaucrat as defined by Weber lies at the heart of the reduction to normalcy yet this bureaucrat is anonymous, representing only his or her direct superior, knowing only what is needed to perform the job asked of him or her efficiently and economically.

Bauman carefully analyzes the potential of the functioning bureaucracy operating in Nazi Germany arguing that the Nazis took advantage of the already efficient German bureaucracy by infusing a singleness of purpose and then by defining what it meant to be German and what it meant to be other (than German). Then the Nazi power structure simply allowed the bureaucracy to find the most economical and efficient process for eliminating those who were other, those who were not Germans and must be isolated and later eliminated from Germany and existence altogether. While Capitalism played a role, if anything, that role was to create a private sector bureaucracy to run the economic powerhouse that was German industry. The same could be said for the rise of public bureaucracy in the 18th and 19th centuries; growing out of a need for efficiency and economy in providing for the welfare of the population within its borders, the state bureaucracies learned how to be efficient through a model of normative behaviors.

In our own postmodern era, Bauman suggests, it is the obligation of the self to break these ties to what is or is not normal. By seeking out others of like minds, one is able to better address the failings of the bureaucratic malaise that defines just who belongs and who does not. In fact, what he is suggesting is that we examine the taken-for-granteds that define what it means to be a normative member of society; to explore what it means for the state to define some people as less than and, therefore, are defined out of the mainstream, held hostage in poverty, in prison, or institutionalized; by exploring these taken-for-granteds, Bauman suggests, that the grip of the bureaucracy may be broken and a new, more moral, structure may emerge. In brief, Bauman, heavily influenced by Levinas, is arguing for a society in which the dyad of the face-to-face expands into something where whole groups can engage in the fundamental ethical obligation without reservation or expectation of reciprocation.

Part of the Bauman approach is that diversity, the absolute uniqueness of the other (human being or human beings as a class), must be embraced without reservation. In short, what is good for one is good for all with the caveat that each individual within the larger social order be treated fairly and not equally. Equality simply levels the playing field allowing those who are clearly advantaged rise to the top at the expense of those disadvantaged human beings. Advantage and disadvantage, normative and abnormal, are definitions enforced by bureaucratic intervention. Being treated fairly, on the other hand, is a process whereby we all cooperate as an ethical political unit and care for the disadvantaged among us in order to help them gain an advantage to compete. By embracing diversity, by truly understanding that each human being on this planet is unique, with hopes and desires, with dreams to fulfill, and that uniqueness include the self, you and I, for without including the ‘I’ in the mix of diversity it is too easy to think that everyone else is (or should be) just like me. What a boring world that would be (already is).

Communal ethics is not out of our reach as a species. It begins with eschewing selfishness and embracing the other without reservation.

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