9/21/2005

 

Strangers and strange books

I just finished reading "Vreemd gaan en vreemd blijven" from Rudi Visker - which can be translated either as "Committing adultry and sticking to that" or as "Going strange and remaining strange" (or: "Going native"). You can choose yourself which translation is most accurate ;-)

It's not only the title of this book which is strange. When reading this book, I strongly got the feeling that this man has written a book about Levinas while he understands nothing at all of his philosophy. He criticizes Levinas by saying that he should stop putting the mouths of the poor children in the street full of rice. He says that Levinas prefers to "help" all these poor orphans because if he puts food in their mouths he doesn't have to listen to what they say, they can't speak when they eat, and that's the reason why Levinas wants to put food in their mouths.
And this, while on almost every page of "Totality and Infinity" Levinas talks about language, about how there can be a real contact between the one and the other only because they speak to each other. This is how the other does an appeal to me, by speaking to me. I should never stop him from talking to me, because that means that I kill him, in a symbolic way. Why does Levinas give food to poor children? Not because it keeps their mouths busy, but because they ask him for food because they are hungry. That shouldn't be too hard to understand for Rudi Visker...

And then Rudi Visker speaks about racism. He says that according to Levinas an individual cannot be reduced to his race or culture. He doesn't represent a bigger group with a common culture, he only represents himself. He is not depending on his culture, he is an independent human being.
This is correct, but then Visker starts to say that a cultural identity is completely irrelevant according to Levinas. It doesn't matter if you are black or white, rich or poor, man or woman, you are just human and that's all. Then Visker says that maybe the other person won't like it to be treated as an abstract being, that he wants to be seen as black, gay, a communist, or whatever.
But this is a complete misunderstanding of what Levinas means. What he means is that it's not possible to hide behind your culture, nation or whatever. You cannot say: we all behave like this, this is normal for my culture. You should still be able to justify your behaviour as an individual, you can't hide behind your culture. You are not determined by your culture, you are independent of your culture, you can temporary take a distance from it (but not permanently!). But Levinas has never said that cultural identities are irrelevant. On the contrary, for subjects they are very important. And to say that I should be in contact with the other as an "abstract being" is completely ridiculous. The central focus of Levinas is constantly on concrete situations, not at all at abstract ideas. The other person, the other human, can never be abstract. I should throw away all the abstract images that I invented about him and I should only look for and listen to the real person who is standing in front of me.

I should ask him: Who are you? And then the other person might say: "I am a black homosexual communist." Then I say: "Ok, thank you for telling me who you are and nice to meet you." (Or I can first ask some more questions about how he thinks about politics and so.)
A cultural identity isn't irrelevant at the subjective level at all, it is very important. And it doesn't matter if this person is really a communist or not. It's possible that he is telling me lies. But he is the most direct source towards his own subjectivity / identity. When any other person talks about him, it's less directly. For instance, he knows that he is gay, but maybe many other people don't know that.

When I talk with the other, when I listen carefully to what he explains about himself, I can imagine a little bit how he looks at the world. So that is what I should do: talk to him in an open and respectful way and to listen well to what he says. No way that I will put rice in his mouth to make it impossible for him to talk to me.

This picture was the first one I found when I typed "fake harmony" in Google...

And finally another sign of Viskers lack of understanding towards Levinas' philosophy is the way Visker interprets Levinas as if his first aim is to strive for harmony. This is not true. If you immediately strive for harmony, so you force the first person and the other to be kind to each other, then you jump to a stage in the ethical relation which is too high to begin with. What first happens when one person meets the other, is a shocking confrontation. This confrontation, this collision of ego's, is necessary to break open /open up the totalitarian and selfish world of the first person. If your aim from the beginning is to achieve harmony, nobody will ever recognize the existing problems that have to be solved before there can be peace / harmony.

To strive for fake harmony while denying the real obstacles, has a high potential risk of leading to totalitarian thinking and behaviour. When I say: "between the other and me, our relation is harmonious, it has been like that from the beginning", then I deny that a confrontation / meeting has taken place between the other and me in which I was confronted as the same with the totally other. A shocking experience that I had to find a way in of how I should deal with that, the shock makes that I am ashamed of my selfishness and that I start to notice and care for the other.

So harmony is fine as a final result, after people spoke with each other for a long time and got some kind of understanding of each other and found a way to have a real and respectful contact. But not before all the talking has taken place, and only when the harmony arises in a natural way, not with force.

This song from The Ark explains well what the problem is of fake and totalitarian harmony:
You’ve been watching over me
Saying you’re keeping me company
I should be grateful, I suppose
And compare you to a summer’s rose
You’ve been talking sweet to me
About peace and loving harmony
But I know what you say about me
So now I tell you cause I gotta break free
That I can’t give you no false affection
I can do without your phony charm
This train ain’t movin in your direction
This piece of poetry is meant to do harm

Please don’t give me no warm reception
What you call peace to me’s a call to arms
Some are singing to raise affection
But this piece of poetry is meant to do harm

So with what shall I compare thee?
Summer’s clay or winter’s sleet?
You made a non-believer out of me,
Now you ask for my sympathy?
No, take your words and take your vows
Take your flake-fuelled buddhist bows
Let the cool winds roughly shake
Out all darling buds of fake

Comments:
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I believe putting people in the context of creed, race and religion is not a new thing. We are all members of various social groups and structures and no matter how hard one tries, one cannot avoid categorisation and passing generalised judgment on people.

As a Mid Eastern, I have had to deal with this since 2001 and trust me when I say it has got worst.....I have no problem with idealist authors such as the one whose work you have recently read. But one needs to accept that there is always a gap between an idealist mirage one draws and what is really happening in the world. For that I personally do not believe in us having a harmonious future for our selves and the generations after us for one group will always dominate the others and subjugate the groups that do not meet the status quo....we are always in a continuos circle of structural dynamism that is not necessarily peaceful and/or harmonious.
Hey your blog looks good by the way, although I cant read Dutch, I liked the English ones.
 
@ Phil Clinton:

I am sure your site will be "cool" too, but I am not interested in dating sites ;)

(and I doubt if it's very relevant for my dissertation about Levinas)
 
@ Hosein:

Yes it's true that racism and related problems became much worse after 2001. In the Netherlands, many immigrant writers like Fouad Laroui and Moses Isegawa speak in the media about how the climate became worse. Isegawa said that he thinks about leaving this country, he wonders in what kind of country he lives if he cannot even invite his family for a short visit (because they are black so they will be terrorists or potential illegal immigrants).

I am an idealist writer / thinker too, maybe even more than Rudi Visker, who makes a bit cynical impression every now and then. His concept of solidarity doesn't go much further than his expression of sympathy for the different habits people have all over the world to kiss each other.

I hope I don't draw an unrealistic idealist image of reality, I hope that what I describe is part of reality, even if it's coloured by my optimistic idealistic background.

Because my heart longs for justice ( as described in the Huub Oosterhuis post and in the sheep and wolf post: http://levinasandculture.blogspot.com/2005/08/you-have-to-ask-sheep-whos-wolf.html ) I am focused on phenomenon’s like injustice and suffering. So I think that I do see the reality and how bad it often is. I also know that I cannot change the world and that there is no peaceful harmonious future for the generations after us, totalitarian wars, oppression and racism will always remain. I can only say, and this is my hope, that I think that the resistance against wars, oppression, racism and other injustice, that the resistance will remain as well and that it will be strong.

I saw a documentary in which the boss of a multinational asked to Noreena Hertz if she never got tired or felt desperate with her struggle for global justice and poverty eradication, when confronted with how bad the global situation is and how little she can do about that as an individual. She replied that she doesn’t feel tired or desperate. She just does what she can and she is glad about the results she achieved, she is glad that she became known and that she can personally talk to world leaders and other influential people now. She is happy with the results she achieves and that’s what keeps her going.

This is how it feels for me too. As long as I can make a useful contribution to fight injustice, no matter how small, it makes me happy and the weight of all the injustice on my shoulders becomes less heavy then. Do you think I can be an idealist in this way without being unrealistic?

And can I post your text and my reaction in Orkut? I would like to see how some Orkuters react to this.
 
Hello Esther,
Thanks very much for the message and yes you indeed have reached the right email.

I truly admire your internationalist/humanist persuasion and trust me at times there were instances when I indeed believed in us all being here as members of a bigger family. Where us men (and women offcourse)are to be as one and as Fukayama once said, the future will be a future of us coming together under a banner of freedom and fairness and take care of each other and our planet, classlessness and equality, equal opportunity for all, where freedom of choice becomes a norm.

The reason that I thought one needs to make a point with regard to the relevance of an idealist perspective on what is happening at the moment. To me simple what is happening today is nothing but an outcome of a series of discursive actions of a dominant group over another.

If you refer to the book “the selfish gene” by Richard Dawkins, from yonks people tend to categorise people based on implicit and explicit characteristics and in the long term this categorisation and discursive action has resulted in mistrust and misunderstanding on both sides of the fence. Knowing this, one then wonders is whether infact the concepts such as justice, peace and truth are simply concepts which are simply tools to put a mirage like curtain on our eyes and keep us in a state of false hope and motivation to achieve something which may never have existed in the first place.

I truly admire the idea of human solidarity and the sense of justice that you feel prompts you to do what ever you can. I wish you all the best in everything you do.

Regards,
Hosein

PS. With your permission I have added you to my Orkut friend list so from time to time I can check your blog and make some –hopefully relevant- comments. Also if you want to put any of this in Orkut, be my guest.
 
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