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Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

Common Threads – Levinas and Derrida: Thinking in Jewish XXVIII

As I think about the common threads between Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida I am struck by the structural adherence to things particularly Jewish in nature. While there are many disagreements between these two French thinkers, there is an undertone that appears to be shared, each commenting on the work of the other that ties back to foundational Jewish morality. The foundational text that ties their thinking together is found in some form or another throughout the Torah and Tanakh paraphrased as follows: You are obligated to care for the widow; the orphan; and the stranger for you were once strangers in Egypt, strangers in a strange land.

From this text, Levinas works out a philosophy placing ethics as the first philosophy, before ontology and epistemology. For Levinas, each human being has the ethical responsibility to care for the welfare of the other (person) without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation. It is a duty of rememberance, of recalling one’s own sojurn as stranger in need, as well as a duty of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other (person). Based in the biblical cry of HININI (Here I AM!), the response provided by all those called directly by God from Adam to Abraham to Moses, Levinas suggests that the HININI is an announcement, one that tears into the fabric of complaciency, creating an opening, a proximate space, from which one can wait for the cry of the other and then respond to that cry.

Levinas universalizes the Torah, taking it out of the specifics of the story of the Israelite slavery experience in Egypt, making the obligation to care for the other conditional on the slavery experience placing it into a universal framework of ethical response-ability framed as a human and not merely a Jewish obligation. Anyone may make the announcement HININI without having to have lived through the experience of slavery, of being a stranger in a strange land. To the contrary, all one need do is announce and wait for the cry of the other. The Torah obligation is conditioned on an existential experience and appears to actively require one to seek out the widow, orphan and stranger; the obligation to do so rests on a personal experience of redemption; a movement from exteriority to exteriority, from group experience to the obligation to be of service for the exteriority of the other. The universal obligation travels a different path, from the interiority of the self to the exteriority of the other without turning on the experience of being othered.

Derrida takes up much the same theme when he addresses such divergent ideas as what is meant by hospitality and giving of gifts. Derrida’s project takes up a thread similar to Levinas’ notions of reservations and expectations. For Derrida the host and/or the giver of gifts acts in such a way as to have no reservations about the act of hosting or giving and does so with no expectation for reciprocation. In short, the act of hospitality and the act of giving is an act of selfless interiority expressed as exteriority. Another way to think about this is to suggest that the act of hosting or the act of giving does not carry the burdensome question for the host or giver of ‘What’s in this transaction for me?’ The host or giver does not engage in a contractual relationship with his or her guests or gift receipients, rather, wherever possible, the act of hosting or giving should be wrapped in the weeds of anonymity so as not to falsely create an appearance of obligation.

Like Levinas, Derrida’s approach is a universal one but unlike Levinas, it is unlikely to be understood in terms of the specifically Jewish reference to either the HININI or to the conditional obligation to care for the widow, orphan or stranger. I, however, am not convinced that Levinas did not have at least some impact on Derrida’s thinking about the ethics of hosting or giving.

In the final analysis, both Levinas and Derrida argued for an ethics of responsibility, an ethics that is unconditional, without reservation, and without expectation of reciprocation. It is the very impossibility of this ethical demand that makes it so compelling.

 

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Traces of This Very Moment

Shadow Rays (b&w)

Shadow Rays (b&w) (Photo credit: spodzone)

About a week has past since I took off my watch (I’ve lost track of time) in order to remind myself to spend more time focusing on this very moment of living; for showing up for life. For the first two days I found myself taking a peek at my bare left wrist; habits, it seems, are hard to break. Over the following few days, however, the frequency of sneaking a peek at my wrist diminished until yesterday when I noticed at the end of the day that I wasn’t looking at all. The simple idea that removing one ubiquitous reminder of linear time could remove the desire to actually know what time it is could actually happen quickly astonishes me.

Most of my life, especially since I entered kindergarten, was neatly tied to the clock. I had to get up and out of bed at a time certain in order to do all the things one does in order to arrive at school on time. The school day ran on a schedule with weird bell times; in high school class periods ran for 43 minutes, add 5 minutes for passing time and do that nine times each and every day…well you get my point. Because I was in school for a total of 27 or 28 years (from kindergarten through graduate school and a terminal degree (Ed.D.)) and because I spent the vast majority of my working life as a teacher and then as a professor, everything was driven by a calendar and a clock; sometimes it felt like a train schedule. One of my academic interests turned on the ethical meaning of time; how time itself is elusive, a simulacrum of the real yet without substance or space to give it form. Inspired by postmodern thinkers like Levinas, Derrida, Foucault and Heidegger, the theoretical question of time was something I pondered.

In retirement I learned a great deal about time and life; I could not help but put theory into practice. One of the things I retired to was, or more precisely, is making photographic images. The very act of making a photograph is the closest approximation to this very moment as one can ever come. A photographic image is most often captured in fractions of seconds freezing a particular moment in linear time that can never be captured again. A photographic image is, in effect, a simulacrum of the infinitely brief moment of the here and now. As I made images I began to think about how the photograph is, in fact, an historical artifact of the very moment the image was made.

Capturing a frozen moment in time is, at some level, a reduction of time and space into a single tangible trace of that which once was but is no more. The photographic image has the ability to squeeze four dimensions into two by stopping the moment and then flattening the image into a two dimensional plane, one which is not permitted to ever expand to its original magesty; a singular reminder of an unrepeatable moment. The image is a preserved, two-dimensional approximation of the very moment of capture; one that can not only be experienced by another but can act as a bridge to memory, to traces of experience remembered by a viewer of an image. The image itself is an artifact, a trace of that moment that always already happened.

So what does this have to do with me and my cancer? Only this…As I think about releasing myself from the trappings of linear time, time governed by calendars and clocks, I begin to immerse myself in the stream of moments strung together as if pearls snatched from the insides of an oyster are strung to decorate a neck. There is a string of moments that decorate my life, a life that I barely remember except as a string of traces, of memories, some vivid, others hidden away only to sneak up from time to time to remind me of imperfections. The traces of my memories are but whisps of the always already past moment, the moment of my personal exposure to the universe in which I reside.

Through a conscious act of releasing myself from the physical trappings of time, a discarding of the watch on my wrist, I am brought closer to the proximity of this very moment, the always already past moment of existence. Additionally, without the necessity of worrying about some possible future, my concentration on the now leaves me open to encounter the other, to be of service through proximity with the other. With proximity comes a terrible responsibility (not terrible in a negative sense, rather in a respectful yet difficult undertaking), the responsibility for the other. Ethical obligations force me to turn outward, to approach the other without reservations and without expectations for reciprocity, to be of service. Proximity is external to the self leaving little room for self-pity or focusing toward the interiority of the self.

Living in the proximate moment relieves one of the necessity to obsess about the future. It is enough to proceed forward in time while leaving traces of oneself behind. It is that ethical life I choose to live; looking outward rather than isolating inwardly. Being of service for others is the absolute key to living an ethical life. I learned this long ago from a dear friend, Lenny Stark; it is a fresh today as it was when I first learned this gem. It is that ethical obligation that carries me through these difficult times.

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