when the author thinks about the book from outside of the book, with the help of others.
[These are remarks delivered at the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (Salt Lake City, October 2016), at a panel on my book Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Not Being Heard, in response to papers given by Bettina Bergo and Jim Hatley on the book.]
I want to thank both Bettina Bergo and Jim Hatley for taking the time to read my book so well and to respond with such detail and care. I admire Jim’s work, and Bettina’s work, and so it was both humbling and thrilling to hear what they had to say about my own. One of the wonderful things you get when you’re lucky enough to have smart people read your work and comment on it is that you see your own thinking through the minds of others, and that is both a tremendous honor and an opportunity — sometimes to see what you were doing but perhaps not aware you were doing in writing the book. These comments have made me think about aspects of the book, its thinking and my reasons for writing it that I hadn’t given thought to before, and I’m grateful for the incitement to think.
For those of you have haven’t read the book, I’ll describe briefly what it sets out to do. My aim was to define and describe a new term for thinking about what is at stake in human abandonment and recovery from longstanding oppression or mass violence, show how many of the institutions we rely on to respond to those things either fail to do their own tasks well or simply aren’t up to the tasks we ask of them, demonstrate by sharing the stories of many different people that failures of hearing happen all the time — even when people who want to hear are listening, show how the past can resonate in the present moment in very different ways, and why it matters to attend to the conditions that allow for positive rather than negative revision think about how all of this might modify how we approach retribution as response, and what all of that has to do with the stories we tell ourselves about the kinds of beings we are. My overall twofold intent was to get us to think differently about what is at stake in recovery from violence and oppression, and to try to force a rethinking of what it means to take responsibility for building worlds where such violence might not be repeated.
Jim mentions that, when I take up the topics of revision and resentment, and use Jean Améry to argue that sometimes justice demands that we not let the past be past, that I may part ways with what to that point had been a fairly Levinasian path. I think that’s a good point, one that I hadn’t considered before. I hadn’t considered it before, I think, because I never set out to follow Levinas. You might say that Levinas is a teacher of mine, someone whose thought is always there in the background for me, whenever I’m thinking. Nietzsche plays that role, too. But when I set out to write this book it was to think about a problem of hearing.
Part of my sense of the problem came from reading a wide array of texts written by people who were so sure that a trial or a truth commission would fix a broken world that they could only see what such institutions can do, and not what they could never accomplish, nor the harms those institutions might cause.
Another part of my sense of the problem at hand came from having students who so thoroughly wanted to believe in the political value of forgiveness that they almost would not let themselves think about what people were being asked to forgive.
And a third part came from living in a world where we are all deeply implicated in a lot of misery and also are well practiced in denying that that is so, or at the very least in living as if nothing were required of us beyond acknowledging our implication in misery. I wrote the book in response to those three provocations.
So, foremost in my mind was not “what texts will I use to authorize my thinking,” but rather, how can I best do justice to those who have not been heard? And, perhaps even more, how can I make headway into a mode of thinking that will admit implication in harm but not take responsibility for how the world is?
I think that question is a very Levinasian one. From Levinas I’ve learned the importance of how I’m formed intersubjectively by the presence of others, whether I choose it or not, and that helped me understand something about the structure of harms that outstretch anything law could ever fix. If we admit that as beings we are built by our relations with others, then we are much closer to understanding how we can also be destroyed by those relations. And so the question — “how can I make headway into a mode of thinking that will admit implication in harm but not take responsibility for how the world is?” — I think that my ability to formulate that question as a question comes from my immersion in Levinas’ work, especially in his book Otherwise than Being. That book sets out to be difficult, to provoke a trauma in the reader, to shake the core of what a reader thinks reading and thinking are. It is structured such that it undermines as much as it asserts; it robs you of comfort, it changes terms, it forces on you burdens you wouldn’t choose. I think Levinas did this in purpose, because he understood how easy it is to refuse to hear the points he wanted to make. His text does its work on you on multiple levels, and part of its success (when it succeeds) is in how it combines a bit of an emotional but still philosophical beating with more traditional argumentation.
My own book isn’t written to be difficult like that. Many of the stories I tell are difficult to hear because they are heartbreaking or violent or unfair or enraging. But the text itself is meant to be welcoming. It’s a different strategy. But it has the same goal: to do the work in the register of affect at the same time as performing the work of reason, with the hope that you might receive a message you probably don’t want to receive. For that reason I love that Bettina says I have made it safe for you to doubt liberal and formalist solutions. I hadn’t even thought about that kind of safety, but it pleases me to have offered it.
A philosopher-friend of mine (Tim Stock) recently suggested to me that there is something subversive about the way that, in the book, I treat texts by philosophers, theorists, and people giving testimony in trials, truth commissions and archives of testimony in the same way — putting them on the same level. I had not considered that. It just seemed to me to be the only way to do justice to what I was trying to show by using philosophy to talk about testimony (and vice versa). If it is subversive, I’m fine with that. But it is also interesting to consider what that then says about philosophy, if it is subversive to give as much weight to the words of someone who has undergone a trauma as one would to someone who has theorized something about the world (and who may or may not have experience of the thing being thought). I don’t think experience gives anyone an authority, necessarily. But I also don’t think having a Ph.D means that your ideas are necessarily better than someone whose areas of knowing and doing were developed otherwise. So putting all of the different texts and stories on the same level just seemed to me to be the only way to do justice to what was at stake with the problem I was trying to describe.
So, one way the book may not read as Levinasian all the way through is that I made different choices and had many different interlocutors in writing it. Jim points out that I didn’t follow Levinas’ trajectory in Otherwise than Being all the way to expiation and infinity. Thinking about this made me realize that if I didn’t follow Levinas all the way to expiation and infinity, it was because Jean Améry interrupted me along the way.
Améry — who, unlike Levinas, doesn’t care if outrage is insufficient — showed me that, while forgiveness might be a great thing for anyone who can manage it, forgiveness might also be a failure of justice if it happens at the wrong time or in the wrong way. If forgiveness is offered or requested before the nature of the harm in question has been understood by those who harmed, or those who stood by, or, and this part is really important, those who might cluelessly repeat it because they never bothered to feel implicated in having stood by or in inheriting its legacy, then forgiveness will have not been for the good. Amery, and the various resistant voices I encountered as I made my way through international criminal trials, truth commission transcripts, archives of testimony, etc., made me attend to that in a way my reading of Levinas would not have.
Améry also interrupted the Nietzsche in me. I tend to be totally on board with the idea that as human beings we must on occasion will backwards and accept the past in all its good and bad moments for the sake of opening up a future. I am persuaded that ressentiment and the spirit of revenge are destructive. But Amery made me understand that, with regard to some harms, it may not be possible for a person acting on her own to will backwards, especially if she is still living in a present moment and dwelling alongside people who will not call what happened a harm, will not admit their own implication in it, or will not participate actively in making and honoring the promise that such harms cannot be tolerated and will not be repeated. I learned from Amery that sometimes resentment and not letting things go has an important ethical and political function. Sometime resentment is not ressentiment but is, rather, what Nietzsche would call a YES to life rather than a NO. And if that is not paid attention to, forgiveness either can’t work or won’t matter anyway.
This has all been a long way of saying, in response to Jim’s comment about where I do not follow Levinas, that I hadn’t even stopped to think about whether I was following Levinas! Nonetheless, Jim’s point about expiation as a theme in Levinas’ work is helpful to me in thinking about where I did and did not follow him. Jim quotes Levinas writing: “Justice must be mixed together with goodness.” For Levinas, this tends to mean that what we might call institutional law must be balanced by what transcends it, and vice versa. And yes, that’s true. Justice must be mixed together with goodness. Legal institutions won’t get us justice or the good life on their own. But I would suggest that requires of us that we listen attentively to discourses of resentment, to make sure we understand what harms are truly at stake, and to keep ourselves from assuming we know how to fix something before we’ve taken the time to understand what got broken. I’m not sure I can make Levinas’ words accord with what I’ve just said, but I’m pretty sure I can make the spirit of his work in Otherwise than Being do that. So I’ll try that briefly to see what you all think.
Levinas tells us that “expiation coincides… with the extraordinary and diachronic reversal of the same into the other” (146). He means by that something like, as selves we are formed by being interrupted by what is outside of us — other human beings — but we are interrupted so deeply that it is as if we are being interrupted from within ourselves. That’s because we are affected by others — affected, at the level of affect rather than will — affected so deeply that the others are within ourselves. This doesn’t mean that they are no longer other. It means that within ourselves we are not only “the same.” Levinas calls this reversal extraordinary and diachronic: extraordinary because “who’da thought that we wouldn’t be autonomous or that autonomy would mean dispossession?!” and diachronic because it happens in an irrecuperable time. It has always already happened. Like aging, you can see in retrospect that it occurred — if you look — but you don’t undergo it as it does. And this is why, as Levinas also tells us, about ethical responsibility, “obedience precedes any hearing of command” (148). Because of how I’m built as a self, in this unchosen cooperation with others who invade my sense of who I am, it’s like I’ve given myself this command rather than receiving it from afar. That’s how deeply I’m affected by others within myself. Levinas continues, and this brings us to the Infinite, “The possibility of finding, anachronously, the order in the obedience itself, of receiving the order out of oneself, this reverting of heteronomy into autonomy, is the very way the Infinite passes itself” (148). What I didn’t choose orders me and becomes something I do choose. If I listen. The “if” here matters. This is an ethics of risk. So here we are at expiation and the Infinite.
I think what Levinas says here, about expiation as a reversal where I find the other in my self, and about finding the order to be responsible in one’s obedience to it, and that being the way the Infinite resides with us… I think this is similar to (but more subtle than) what I mean when in the book I say that those of us lucky enough not to have had our selves destroyed by others should contemplate the selective self-destruction of part of our idea of the self’s own autonomy, for the sake of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we owe, and what those stories end up making of the world.
So, I think what I argue is one practical outcome of what Levinas has shown. But I hadn’t thought of it that way before Jim asked the question about expiation. I don’t use the language of expiation and infinity. Perhaps I could. But I don’t. And I think that’s because, in my experience, bringing in those terms makes it harder to make the Levinasian argument to a non-Levinasian audience. If you end up spending all your time explaining what is meant by infinity and not being fully believed, the argument gets derailed.
But Jim wanted me to go further into the question of time. (That’s my next book, looking at law and time from three different angles, so I’ll have more to say on this in coming years.) He wants to know whether it makes a difference if an irrecuperable past intervenes in the scene of a resentment that wants the past to be otherwise. That is such a great question! In the book I show that Améry wants everyone to join together in wishing an unjust past were otherwise and I call this revision. Jim wants to know how that active desire for a different past (Améry) interacts with a past that cannot be recovered but that is the seed of our responsibility for others (Levinas). I’m not sure I understand everything about what Jim wants me to think through in posing the question as he does (and since my book is in large part about what is fraught about communication, I suppose some imperfect understanding was inevitable). My response, before further discussion of the question, is that it may be possible that the irrecuperable past of diachronic responsibility may, in certain scenes, want the same thing as resentment. And that is: a form of justice that isn’t only law.
That’s what I think my work aims at that Levinas’ work may authorize but that Levinas’ work doesn’t present in clear terms — the separation of justice from law. Levinas’ work gets very messy, by which I mean oversimplified and almost entirely unhelpful, whenever he makes the move to discussing law, justice and politics in relation to what, for him, is prior to law and politics. I think he didn’t pay enough attention to what is different between law, justice and politics, and how each of those terms is not at all a simple term, nor are the relations between them. I’m OK with that, because he paid such close attention to the ethical relations that underlie the possibility of there being anything such as law, justice or politics. So what I’ve said is that my work aims at something that Levinas’ work may authorize but doesn’t itself present in clear terms — the separation of justice from law. Since both Bettina and Jim helped me see this more clearly than I had, this makes a good segue into Bettina’s comments.
Bettina brings the word “utopia” into the discussion, as a way of describing how my argument is meant to be both realistic and disruptive. It is realistic in that it shows that failures of hearing do happen and that they have detrimental effects both on those who don’t get heard and on those who don’t hear, and it is disruptive in that it aims to both shatter the assumption that law has taken care of the problems under discussion and provoke the reader into taking responsibility for her part in the continuation of those problems.
You could say that’s utopian because it’s a tough demand that may not succeed.
You could also say it’s utopian because it’s an aspiration that is not meant to be fully realized but rather gathers its import in the permanent attempt to reach it.
In either of these senses (and you might say that the first sense, that utopia is a tough goal you might not reach and is thus unrealistic, is a common everyday definition, while the second one, that it is a goal that matters because you try to reach it rather than that you do reach it, has a philosophical teleological heritage), but in either of these senses, you might find Levinas’ idea of communication.
Sense 1: Communication is not the simple transfer of meanings from point A in me to point B in you, and thus it is fragile and might fail, and we might often despair of being well understood, perhaps especially in academic philosophy panels.
Sense 2: And communication is also something to which we always aspire nonetheless, and what is meaningful in it is how well we do and how hard we try even though we will always land short of perfect success.
I like what Bettina says here, about the significance of describing gaps in meaning, or failures of communication, in terms of paradox, tragedy and irony, and what is at stake in the terms we choose when we talk about such loss.
Along those lines, Bettina mentions Lyotard (as does Jim). Bettina reminds us that Lyotard shows that when time is money time is also often lacking for witnesses, which is part of what renders the situation of the differend, to quote Lyotard, “the case where the plaintiff is divested of the means to argue and becomes for that reason a victim” (9). Lyotard is interested in the incommensurability of different language games, especially when they enter into disputes that are also sites of unequal power. I’m interested in how learning to listen for our own failures of hearing might help to bridge some of the inevitable failures of communication that emerge from those gaps and others. Bettina points out that the very institutions we think of as places of hearing are often strapped for cash: international tribunals, truth commissions. As I show in the book, that is part of why institutions will not get the whole job of justice done. But there are other reasons why they do not get the job done. Rules of evidence, assumptions about what counts as a harm, institutional design, who the donors supporting the institutions are, rules about what damages can be awarded, resistances to having set ideas challenged, levels and modes of training of staff, and so on, all of these will matter. But even an institution that has reached the utopia of all of its goals would not fix everything about a complex legacy of injustice. One of the points the book makes is that law can do some things well but there is much it could never do, and if we expect law to do things it never could do, that is not law’s fault.
And that is why I focused on transforming selves as well, as Bettina points out. Each of us has the power to tell ourselves different stories about who we are, how we got to be that way, and what that says about what we owe to the making of the worlds we live in. The history of philosophy is rich in the different stories we can tell about the kind of being a human being is. I used Levinas’ early phenomenology to show how we might experience things we take for granted differently. A huge revolution can occur in that small space — of the stories we tell ourselves about how we come to be selves — and then spiral outward, potentially affecting those things I just listed that get in the way of institutions doing their jobs well: what our assumptions are about what causes harm, institutional design, rules about what damages can be awarded, resistances to having set ideas challenged, how staff are trained, and also: what it feels like to testify in a proceeding or walk through a neighborhood or speak in an unfamiliar language, who feels safe where and when, who is protected and who is not, and so on.
Bettina says that I make the argument I do without offering hope as a support or sedative. This is similar to Jim’s comment about a society of burdens, I think, so I’m going to discuss both of those comments and then wrap things up.
Jim suggests that what I argue for is not a kingdom of ends so much as a society of burdens. I think that’s right if you look at it from the angle of terms given to us by Kant, legalism and some strains of liberalism. It’s less right if you change your view a bit.
First of all, if a kingdom of ends is a place or a time where all human beings are treated as deserving of respect and protection, then I’ve got no argument with that as a goal. I don’t think you can get to that goal if you seek to get there in the way Kant imagined, but as a goal, it is not wrongheaded.
So, kingdom of ends, maybe.
Society of burdens? Also, maybe.
Like I said, if we stick with the terms given to us by Kant and liberal legalism, then what I’ve argued for in the book may seem to be a society of burdens. But then we might as well just say that it is a burden to be the kind of beings we are. It is of course possible to say that and even to support the argument with evidence. But I’m not interested in viewing it that way.
Using Levinas, I’ve argued that we are formed intersubjectively and thus “autonomy” is only part of the story about the kinds of beings we are. I’ve tried to change the subject — both by changing what we talk about when we talk about justice and also by suggesting that we might think differently about the kinds of beings we are. This other subject, the one that knows she is implicated in a world full of misery and that she must be responsible for that world regardless of what she might have willed or done, she will not necessarily have more responsibilities than the subject who sticks to stories about legalized autonomy will (because I would argue that that subject, the so-called autonomous one, is simply ignoring responsibilities rather than not having them). That subject who thinks she’s simply autonomous in the way liberal legalism would have it might encounter what I argue in the book and call what I argue for a society of burdens. But the other iteration of the subject, the one who takes responsibility for how worlds get built cooperatively by those who dwell in them alongside each other, she might not think to call it a burden if it’s also just how things are. I now see that that is a utopian dimension within the thinking of the book! Also, I’m not criticizing Jim here, because I think he agrees with me (I know this from his work!) even if we frame the matter differently. I think there is much to be gained from speaking of responsibility rather than burden. But if “burden” gets the job done for any of you, I’m fine with that too.
Now back to Bettina, and hope. Similar to my sense of the society of burdens comment, I think that the idea that I don’t offer hope both is and is not true.
The Levinasians in the room are used to all of this ambivalence of terms.
I’ve mentioned three philosophical thinkers whose works have driven much of the thinking behind this book: Levinas, Nietzsche, Amery. None of these thinkers are very interested in making people feel good about themselves. If you really understand what they are saying, all of them can be terrifying to read at times.
Levinas says: even though you’re so fragile that other people can destroy you, the whole world’s justice hangs on your response.
Nietzsche says: if you want to love life you have to embrace everything that has ever happened to you, no matter how good and bad it was, and will to live it again.
And Amery says: time on its own is never going to fix a harm imposed on you by the violence and indifference of other people.
Who wants to hear any of that?
I do. Because I believe these difficult truths give us the only real reason we might have for hope: the hope is that we can take what we have and do the best we can with it.
If we keep believing that we are only responsible for what we’ve done and intended, that law will fix structural violence or genocidal harm, that even if our institutions are imperfect there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with our conceptions of responsibility, then nothing will change and we will all keep reproducing the more miserable parts of this miserable and beautiful world. If those are the things you want to hope for, I’m not going to help you keep doing that.
So, to return to Bettina’s comment about hope, you could say that what I do in the book doesn’t offer hope as support because the points the book needs to make are difficult and cruel, and perhaps, like Levinas and Nietzsche, I think you’re only going to get the point if it hurts. Some people (commentators outside of SPEP) who have read the book seemed to think I wanted to hurt them, but really, I did not!
What I do in the book also does offer hope because each of us has the capacity to think differently, modify our own self (cooperatively or agonistically, alongside others), and contribute to building worlds where people implicated in structural injustice and genocidal harm see their roles, resist them, and create something different. What could be more uplifting than that? Even if it does take a lot of work and is possibly a burden.
I want to thank Bettina and Jim once again for their generous responses, and for giving me occasion to think about the book from outside of the book.
I’ll end this response in the way I ended the book, by pointing out that we, each of us separately and groups of us together, do have the power to change the worlds we live in. We can tell different stories about how we come to be selves and learn to listen for our own failures of hearing; it is important that we do not wait for institutions to do all that; and we can do all that whether or not we can bring ourselves to forgive anyone for what happened in the past.