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Paradox of Power and Weakness

Paradox of Power and Weakness - SUNY series Altematives in...

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Unformatted text preview: SUNY series, Altematives in Psychology 1 THE Michael A. Wallach, editor ! P OF POWER AND WEAKNESS Levinas and an Alternative Paradigm for Psychology , .-vfl_._ m... _. e L... - George Kunz 1 #7? _" w‘.~.«_fl__,._=.m_n_rfl_=t «e A. 4 STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK PRESS .5... .M4“ CHAPTER TWO An Alternative Paradigm The Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas THE PSUKHE (BREATH, SPIRIT, SOUL) IS THE-OTHER—IN-ME An extraordinary teacher told me he has for years asked his students to read Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory. The power of the powerless characters in this book teach directly the most important lesson of his course. The central character is a "bad" priest, an alcoholic and adul- terer. Running from the police, he remembers nostalgically the days when his parishioners doted on him. He admits his self-indulgence, and his cowardice. He suffers the loneliness of hiding and seeks others, yet knows his presence in villages in a Mexican state that oppresses religion puts the peasants in jeopardy. He loves his illegitimate daughter and cannot feel guilty for her existence. Nor can he turn down the request to minister to a murderer, even when he knows it is a trap. He confesses the corruption of his own ego, and gives himself completely to others. Greene did not show the simplicity, humility, and patient compassion of this character in order to exempt the rest of us. Inspired by my teacher’ s assignment, I still reread this book every few years. The fallible but holy provide us a model. Edith Wyschogrod revives for us, in her book Saints and Postmodernism (1990), the value of reading the lives of saints, "those who put themselves totally at the disposal of the Other” (p. xiv), for understanding ethics. "The psyche in the soul is the Other in me, a malady of identity" (Levinas, 1974/1981, p. 69). What an extraordinary definition of the psyche or psukhe: the Other in me! Irrational it may be; but, for Levinas, and for Graham Greene, for innumerable writers of stories about ethical characters, and for the saints who are the models of ethical behavior, this is the essential characteristic of the human: the essence of the self is to seek the good revealed in others, and, in 31 l 32 An Alternative Paradigm this way, the self finds it authenticity working for the sake of others. We could say it either way: the self finds the Other-in—the—self, or, the self finds itself-in- the—Other. Levinas calls this heteronomy. (Although risking the creation of an oxymoronic term, I will use alterocentrism in place of his term heteron- omy, to contrast with the term egocentrism.) To our Western individualistic way of thinking and acting, this het- eronomy or alterocentrism strikes us as too radical, too difficult to swallow. We are too cynical to imagine such an ontologically radical altruism: find- ing oneself in the Other while the Other retains her or his absolute otherness. We tend to find ourselves reducing the Other to something for the self, reduc- ing her or his absolute otherness to fit the self. This reduction of the dis- tinction between the Other and the self is the ultimate reduction of distinctions that defines nihilism. When we find people, that is, when we find ourselves totally at the disposal of the Other, and living this exposure as response to the Other by stripping the self of its egoity, like the saint, our culture tells us to label this behavior pathological, weird, freaky. But hagiology (the study of saints) is not the same as teratology (the study of freaks). Yet we can accept this radical alterocentrism, this paradoxical ontolog- ical relationship between the self and the Other, where the Other is always other, the self is always the same, yet the self finds itself committed to the Other because the Other is in the self. "T he soul is the Other in me" (1974/81, p. 191n3). As we overcome our cultural nihilistic bias of reduc- ing the Other to the same of the egoic self, as we open ourselves to hagiol- ogy, we become nourished by this paradoxical inspiration. Let me quickly try to dissuade readers from the belief that alterocen- trism is a reduction of the self to an object of the Other, a slavery that encourages the Other to abuse the self. That kind of reduction of the self would not be a commitment to the good of the Other. Enabling the Other to violate the rights of the self would be a reduction of the Other to a mon- ster. That would be the same nihilism as the egocentrism of our radical individualism that reduces the Other to an object to fill the needs of the self. (I will more fully try to correct this false understanding of Levinas’s radical altruism later in the Interlude.) Modern psychology as an egology has contributed to nihilistic isola- tion of the self from the Other. We need a psychology that would be more than an egology. We need a psukhology founded on the paradoxical rela- tionship between the self and the separate Other where the self, remaining separate, finds itself in the Other by its commitment to the Other, remain- 'ng separate. An Alternative Paradigm 33 An Other-centered psukhology not only would go against our American cultural individualism, but, although very Jewish, very Platonic and Christian, it would also go against a philosophical tradition since the ancient Greeks, a tradition that has kept the self concentrated in its own center. Other-centeredness obviously goes against logic and rea- son. Especially does this alterocentrism, this radical altruism in contrast to our accustomed egocentrism, go against our natural tendency toward ful- fillment of private wants. We are fearful of paradox: this paradox may call our most precious assumptions into question. Since We know our own needs, we reduce others to that which can fill those needs. However, this radical decentering offers the foundation of a philosophy that makes possible an authentic ethics that does not reduce others. Only this self-for-the—Other makes sense of the experiences of the paradoxes of the weakness of power and the power of weakness. This "malady of identity,” as Levinas calls it, is not only the source of our suf- fering, but also the source of our true identity. Self-for—the-Other redeems suffering. This radical challenge to individualism does not, I must quickly add, support collectivism, as defenders of extreme individualism might fear. he self as the-Other-in-me challenges both the vision of the isolated indi- idual driven by pure self-interest, as well as the notion of the person as a mere piece of a larger social structure, trapped inside determining sys- tems. This ethical philosophy of the-Other-in-me is indeed an individual- ism, but a particular kind of individualism, one that attends not to the privilege of the ego, not to the rights of the ego, but to the particular and personal responsibility of the "I" for the Other. My unique individuality is not based on my particular set of qualities as properties: gender, race, eth- nicity, age, religion, occupation, citizenship, political affiliation, sexual orientation, personality profile, refined skills, beauty, intelligence, hon- ors, birth order, fingerprints, DNA coding, even my developed virtues of service, and so forth. Nor is my individuality based on my individual rights. It is based on my individual responsibility. I am I because I cannot pass off my responsibilities to any other. I cannot turn away. I cannot get outside myself being looked at by the needy Other. I am assigned respon- sibility, independent of my choosing. Let me repeat the Dostoevski quote Levinas uses to express this par- ticular individualism of responsibility and guilt: "We are all guilty of all and for all men before all, and I more than the others" (Levinas, 1982/1985, p. 98). This ethical philosophy challenges the individualism that emphasizes my individual rights over my individual responsibilities. if} M will 34 An Alternative Paradigm To say that the self is the-Other-in-me, or that the center of the self is in the Other is neither to abandon the self as lost in the collective, nor to let it be swallowed up in an exclusive union with a single other person. Neither the self nor the Other have lost their individuality, nor is either isolated from each other. An understanding of the decentered psukhe, the self replaced from the center of the self, requires a more radical revolution than that called for by the astronomer at the dawn of modernity, to replace the earth as the center of the universe. Like Copernicus, who did not offer us simply a humbling theory, Levinas offers a description of ethical reality that is not a prescription to abandon autonomous selfhood, but to describe selfhood based on its responsibility to others. Although Other-centered ethics has a deep historical vein in our religious and philosophical tradition, to our modern eyes and ears, this description of the relationship between the self and the Other seems initially too extreme, too extravagant. Yet it tends to evoke in us a sense of relief, a confidence in an ethical philosophy that speaks to our experience. De-centering is at the basis of the most fundamental paradox of the human: The self finds its meaning, not centered in itself as an ego establishing its individual freedom and power, but as a self facing the other person who calls the self out of its center to be ethically responsible. The freedom and power of the self is invested in the self by and for the needs of the Other. The identity of the self lies in listening to the call of others, in being touched by their absolute dignity and their vulnerability, and in using its invested freedom to respond responsibly to those others. We shall see that this fundamental enigma of the self-from-and-for—the—Other is at the heart of the paradox of the weakness of power and the power of weakness. In this chapter, I focus on a few philosophical concepts of Emmanuel Levinas that provide the foundation for the contrast between egocentrism and radical altruism, what he calls heteronomy, between an egology and a psukhology. His philosophical works are difficult to read, yet they also evoke simple concepts. He is simultaneously complex and yet redundant when unpacking these few simple ideas. He is in dialogue with and builds upon so many philosophers that preceded him, and yet challenges nearly all of them. He clearly uses the methodology of the phenomenologists, and yet attends to the human Other that cannot be understood as a phe- nomenon, as Husserl uses the term. The Other escapes the understanding of the psyche. I will try to be faithful to Levinas’s insights about the mystery and ubiquity of the human Other to the self, and yet try to make these insights clearly understood. Because his revolutionary vision challenges the main tenets of our cultural and philosophical tradition of individualism, I pre- An Alternative Paradigm 35 sent his approach in sets of distinctions, not as contradictions, but cer- tainly as oppositions. The first side of each distinction is not criticized as wrong, only as insufficiently half the story. The second side calls the first side into question, enriches the first side by calling it into question and thus into its authentic freedom. The second side, ontologically weaker than the first, claims an ethical priority over the first. SIX FUNDAMENTAL DISTINCTIONS Let me first name the distinctions, and then describe Levinas’s explanations.‘ 1. The experience of totality and the experience of infinity 2. Need and desire 3. Willful activity and radical passivity 4. Freedom as self-generated and self-directed and freedom as responsibility invested in the self by and for the other 5. Social equality and ethical inequality 6. The said and saying Totality and Infinity After the first day of volunteering at a clay shelter for homeless, jobless, often crazy street people, a student wrote in her journal: When I walked in, I was hit with a bad odor. I looked around and everyone seemed the same. They were shabby and mostly alone. Many were asleep hunched over on chairs or curled up on pads on the floor. At first, they were all the same: they were poor; they were simply poor. . . . After a while I got to talking to a man near the coffee counter. He told me about his tough luck as a family man. . . . Another man joined us and told me he hadn’t seen his daughter in twelve years. . . . After a while, they weren’t all the same. I went in there expecting and seeing stereotypes. I met guys who blew my stereotypes apart. Each one had a story that was both like and not like everyone else’s. Each one had more to his life than being unlucky and therefore poor. Inspired to observe experiences by way of a phenomenology articu- lated by Levinas, I discover in reflection two radically different concepts: 1. Since I am not a Levinas scholar, but a psychologist reading his work for years and wanting to make his philosophy accessible to other psychologists and lay readers, I may fall short of the standards expected of philosophical scholarship. 36 An Alternative Paradigm totality and infinity. The concept of totality comes from the experience that "something" is nothing-more—than whatever my categories make of it. For example, this keyboard is nothing-more-than my tool; my bus driver is nothing-more-than part of the equipment that gets me to my destination. I find others describing the same thing: the men at the shelter were, for my student, nothing-more-than-poor. The “something” perceived is just an example of a stereotype convenient for the perceiver to make sense of his or her world. The concept of infinity, on the other hand, comes from the experience that someone is always-more—than what I know, what I judge, what I use and enjoy, for example, always-more-than equipment, always-more- than-poor. Other persons facing me are infinitely more than a member of my convenient categories. In my ordinary activity, getting my work done and satisfying my needs, I tend to totalize that which is needed. To organize my life, I try to comprehend my situation with my understanding, stay in control of my action, and consume for the enjoyment of my feelings. In my natural attitude2 I am the center of my world and everything else spreads out from there. The bread I eat, the roof I seek for shelter, the tool I use, the events in my plans, these are reduced to things of my useful activity. They are for me, at this time and in this situation, absorbed in the totality I produce. They are nothing-more—than what I need. In my mundane and pragmatic life, I set aside the identity of things in themselves, and assign them identi- ties to satisfy my needs. I make them fit universal concepts for me and ignore their particularity. It’s my world; I’m in charge; I’m the center; and I’m responsible only to and for myself. There is nothing unnatural about this life of totalizing; it’s the natural life of an organism. Levinas says that the ego feeds off and enjoys the world. And this feeding produces in the conscious and reflective organism the idea of totality. But then my beloved wife enters on the stage of my life, or one of my children, or a student, or a stranger, or even an enemy. Although, for the sake of convenience in my hurry I tend to reduce each to a usefulness for me, they resist my tendency with their inherent autonomy and call me to attend to them as independent of my use. My totalizing attitude gets tilted, disturbed, even shocked. These people, in their particularity, get in my face and disrupt my world. They are not objects able to be totalized for my needs. When I totalize, I do not actually reduce them; I only succeed in 2. The natural attitude is the term the phenomenologists use to describe the condition of being pressed into nature, without reflection, without any distance from what I am doing. An Alternative Paradigm 37 reducing my own understanding of them. I don’t distort them; I distort m self. I den m sel Other. ' oreover, by the presence of other persons, those things I have been feeding on, the bread I eat, the roof that shelters, the tool I use, are no longer nothing-more—than objects to fill the lacks in my organism and ego. They should be called gifts I have received from the sacrifices of others, and gifts I am charged to hand over to others who have needs and rights more deserving than mine. The needs of other people command me to share these objects as gifts. I can refuse that command, of course, and find ways to justify my refusals. But I know in'conscience that others’ needs command me just the same. I may not know the depth of the others’ needs; I may not fully know why they command me; I may not know how I could possibly fill their needs. They are always—more-than what I can know. Their needs are always-more-than what I could ever find out. But others’ needs command me, haunt me, even obsess me. I sometimes think that if it were not for my skill of self-distraction and reduction of the wor- thiness of others, I could not fill any of my own needs. But surely I do. So, on the one hand, the things and people of the world of my sepa- rate self are totalizable, reducible to stereotypes. On the other hand, the other person overflows my experience of her or him, and produces in me the awareness of another that is not able to be reduced to a stereotype, to a general concept. Levinas calls this awareness of always-more-than the "idea of infinity.” He calls the effort to fit something into my stereotype, the awareness of nothing-more-than, the "idea of totality.” On the one hand, the idea 0 totality is produced in the experience of objects needed, grasped, passed around from hand to hand, named in language, compre- hended, controlled, and consumed. On the other hand, the idea of infinity is produced in the experience of the other person as essentially uncompre— hendable, uncontrollable, and unconsumable. The other person exceeds my grasp, cannot be reduced, cannot be totalized by a concept or label or any effort by me to use her or him. I too often try to reduce others, and I have a kind of operational success in this reduction. But I fail not because of my lack of skill or effort, but because of the Other’ s inherent resistance to be totalized. ' H ’ The concept of totality is convenient; it serves me well in my natural and socially evolved drive for self-preservation. The concept of totality creates the possibility of all science and technology, philosophy and psy- chology, economics of self-interest, partisan politics, wars, compromised peace, and events of power against weakness. The concept of totality cre- ates the possibility for all abstract theory, empirical observation, labor, manufacturing, possession of objects, commercial exchange, enjoyment of goods, sharing them, bickering over them, hoarding them, destroying 38 An Alternative Paradigm them, and killing others for them. The concept of totality provides the arena for the social intercourse of daily life, especially when paradoxes turn into conflict. It seems I live my ordinary life within the realm of totality. But I am called by infinity, the infinite worthiness and neediness of'others,,to be ethically responsible while I fulfill my own needs—no, even before I fill my own needs! Although the infinity of others calls me to respond to their needs (and, certainly, everyone is needy, from the poorest to the richest), the concept of infinity is the separation of the self from the Other. The infinity of the Other puts that person beyond my grasp. The Other is truly other, and I am I (what Levinas calls the same). The experience of the Other as radically other, irreduciny other, is the recognition of her or his inherent dignity, the intrinsic worth of the Other, not derived from my needs or from my evaluation and judgment of the Other’ s qualities. The self does not decide and assign the otherness of the Other, nor does it bestow di...
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