Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Celebrating Being There: A Review of Welcoming Finitude

In her introductory remarks to Welcoming Finitude: Toward a Phenomenology of Orthodox Liturgy (New York: Fordham Univ. Pr., 2019), Christina M. Gschwandtner engages over a century of phenomenological discourse, emphasizing more recent developments and thinkers, and how these will inform her philosophical analyses of liturgical experience. She prepares us for what follows in due course: a critical analysis of the “experience and meaning of liturgy” and “opening new paths for thinking about religious experience more broadly” (29). What emerges is a compelling presentation of the salient features of phenomenology from Husserl, through Heidegger, to the thought in contemporary French phenomenology in the work of Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Yves Lacoste, Jean-Louis Chretien, Emmanuel Falque, Michel Henry, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, with productive references to American phenomenologist Anthony Steinbock, and the great hermeneuts, Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Further, Gschwandtner brings her critique of these thinkers to bear on this timely and useful study of the structures and modes of the human experience of the liturgical event.

To fulfill her commitment to address an audience of liturgical theologians, phenomenologists and informed Orthodox in the Preface (xi-xx), most chapters begin with a theological perspective on an aspect of liturgy, which is then followed by a general description of a particular liturgical practice, cycle, or event, leading to a discussion of certain phenomenological thinking which provides a springboard to her own careful analysis of the liturgical matter at hand. The topic of each chapter, moreover, is a conceptual area of interest to phenomenology. Seven chapters form, therefore, the heart of this work: 1) Temporality; 2) Spatiality; 3) Corporeality; 4) Sensoriality; 5) Affectivity; 6) Community; 7) Intentionality.

Chapter 1, “Temporality,” exemplifies the broad approach to the phenomenological focal points taken in the book. Gschwandtner begins with a colorful quotation describing “the height of Orthodox liturgical experience: ‘…The resurrection of Christ is a high festival in the whole Christian world, but nowhere is it so luminous as in Orthodoxy….’” She notes laconically, “Not only does liturgy take a lot of time, but much of it is concerned with time” (31). Her argument moves swiftly to a discussion of the problem of time in liturgy, the tension between quotidian, seasonal, cyclical time, and chronological time, clock time (the march of minutes and hours), calendar time (the march of days), linear time. Liturgical theologians struggle with the paradoxes presented by anamnesis and anticipation, by a lived past, an experience of the liturgical present, and by an eschatological future. Heidegger’s Being and Time makes an expected appearance here, used to outline the human experience of time as not fundamentally chronological, but as an ‘ek-static’ temporality (38), where past and future uncannily always arrive in the present. Moving the phenomenological description forward, she cites Lacoste’s distinction between kairos and chronos: the former governing liturgical, eschatological experience, and the latter our mundane experience of our day to day world. Before throwing down her gauntlet, she concedes that Lacoste’s analysis (as he himself insists) does not focus on “actual liturgical practices” but on “fundamental structures…of human existing vis a vis the Absolute.”

Gschwandtner takes Lacoste with a grain of salt. She will not buy any facing of any Absolute “unless we look to the reality of religious experience that might suggest such a possibility” (41). She presses on to a productive face-off of the “tension between memory and anticipation” of the liturgical theologians and the insights provided by the phenomenological investigations she has just outlined. For example, she finds Cuneo’s strictly linear understanding of time wanting, while rehabilitating Heidegger’s dismissal of “theological accounts of time” in a provocative rewriting of Sorge into her own phenomenology of liturgical time. “In the experience of liturgy, past and future become present, but not as recreations or reenactments of historical events, but as liturgical events that are experienced ‘now,’ appropriated by our experience of the event in the liturgical moment” (43). We have an interest, a concern for liturgical anamnesis and eschaton, and while we do not create these de novo, or unfold ourselves into the past or future, we do indeed participate in the “possibility” (46) that we “become dispossessed” in the swerve of the elements and movements of liturgy (46). Nowhere is this clearer, for Gschwandtner, than in the kairological flow of fasting and feasting, a pairing that provides an undergirding for all the analyses that follow, here and in subsequent chapters. Fasting and feasting, guilt and contrition, repentance and celebration, wound and healing, light and darkness, sound and silence mark the time of liturgy as it does the liturgical year. Without denying the march of chronological time, she describes the experience of liturgical time, not as Lacoste’s ‘added time,’ but as a time outside of calendars and clocks, or at least time alongside them. She can speak of a thickening of time at moments of feasting, without, for example, speculating on time dilations as they are known to physics (47). Indeed, by maintaining a clear distance between her ontological concerns and the concerns of the ontic disciplines, she leaves no room for any slippage from phenomenological depiction to mere interested, scientific inquiry.

The argument in the book moves deliberately and persuasively through each chapter. Were I to find an instance where the discussion seems problematic, I would look to the final chapter, “Intentionality.” Because the matter of intentionality is generally of great interest to phenomenologists, and the term itself is a technical one, designating as it does the fundamental move of pointing the gaze at what is given to consciousness, I found myself confused at a few junctures where it seemed to me unclear how the technical meaning of the term was not collapsing on the colloquial sense, where intention is what someone might bring to a celebration of liturgy—what a particular someone might intend to experience, or intend to happen.

Marion has borrowed the term “anamorphosis” from art history and criticism to describe a structure of the given, how givenness can position a recipient to better receive what gives itself into phenomenalization—influence the intentional aim. Gschwandtner had briefly touched on this idea in her discussion of excess and sensoriality (chapter 4, 118—the term “anamorphosis” appears here only; it is not indexed), but shuts down any role here. Yet, she does not hesitate to affirm “we can phenomenologically examine how liturgy shapes intentionality” (183). Because she will not drop 'anamorphosis' on liturgy’s doorstep, perhaps out of a distaste for grandiosity or simply from a dislike of mere speculation, her move here is toward hermeneutics, which by this point in her argument has become thematic. For Gschwandtner, liturgy references religious events, personages, even the eschaton; but liturgy is itself none of these things. If it shapes the intention, it does so not by a describable anamorphosis, but through its texts and gestures that unfold within the space and time of the liturgical moment, mediated through the human bodies that move through it with all their affect and senses. Liturgy is the horizon of all liturgical phenomenality, not some horizon of love, or hope, or fear, or anxiety, or even the body, against which givenness might appear. 

Gschwandtner proceeds in a distinctively understated manner to a thorough analysis of each philosophical topic. Her discussion of 'hospitality' underscores a unifying theme of the whole book, which demonstrates how liturgy welcomes human finitude, how it prepares a way for human limitation, foibles, imperfection and predicament to its possibilities, despite such finitude’s confrontation with its own most, the possibility of impossibility, the place of the end of possibilities, the burning concern with the end, a being-toward-death. I cannot help but understand her here as showing us not only how the world of liturgy opens up our own being-in-the-world, how liturgy “thickens” time, but how our very finitude gets a little fatter, too, and opens upon a finitude that is more welcoming than it might have been had it recourse only to the march of calendars and clocks, the nine to five’s of offices and shopping carts.

Welcoming Finitude is a fine addition to the tradition of phenomenological inquiry of religious experience that begins with Heidegger’s Phenomenology of Religious Life and continues today in contemporary French philosophy of religion, and French phenomenology in general. Without denying the ambitiousness of her project overall, I find Gschwandtner’s approach even-handed and sobering in a field of over-arching claims for the extraordinariness of phenomena in general and for religious experience in particular. I anticipate the book will prove to be both a powerful reference tool (the copious and meticulous notes are exhaustive, as is the bibliography) and another platform for her already strong voice in philosophy. The author has kept her promise to speak to a large audience in, for the most part, plain English. Students (and I mean this term very broadly) of liturgy, theology, phenomenology, religion will find it a welcome addition to their reading lists and libraries. While at times written specifically for an Orthodox audience, any Christian, especially Roman Catholics, will appreciate the rigor of the book’s method; indeed, anyone interested in the philosophy and phenomenology of religious experience will find Welcoming Finitude quite hospitable, and not without a noticeable conviviality.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Michael Voris and the Fall of the Church

 Michael Voris, through his Church Militant organization and his YouTube channel, 'The Vortex', has recently and uncompromisingly condemned the hierarchical church not only for its failure to stem the  tide  of sexual abuse in the church, but for its fostering of this criminality.  He traces the heinous acts of predatory clergy to a communist plot to plant gay men within seminaries in the Americas.  According to Voris, the infiltration of the church began in central America and spread northward. Of course, theories of communist infiltration of the church (to 'destroy it from within') are not new, and seem to have begun in earnest during the approach of Vatican II, and certainly in its aftermath. While it is obvious that Voris has an ax to grind with the gay community ( at least the gay Catholic community, though he might point to an oxymoronic character of that syntagm) and his conspiracy theory quite incredible, his overall analysis of the crisis in the church is quite sound:  Power corrupts and no crime is too large to place in its interest. Regardless, it seems that the church does not need a communist plot to undermine its mission; all we need is what we have: a callous structure, power-hungry men, and a seminary system that functions as a magnet for sexual predators.

 Recent revelations continue to demonstrate that the crisis in the church is not limited to the Anglophone world; for example, the sad and disturbing news from Germany underscores the systemic metastases of sexual abuse within the body of Christ.  It certainly appears that wherever the church is,  there are victims of hierarchical horror. For Voris, the matter is simple: homosexuality in se has seeded the church with evil acted out in criminal predation. I am not suggesting here that Voris asserts all gay men are predators and natural-born child abusers and ephebophiles, or even that members of the LGBT community cannot be faithful Catholics; he remains clear that practice, and not nature, is the culprit ( he uses the term "sodomy" more frequently than the term "sodomite"). 

As a straight male, I have little insight into the gay life-style, with all its attendant issues and struggles; but as an informed Catholic (Voris might challenge that assertion as well), I have a good sense of the Catholic Tradition, and its fundamental teachings. Moreover, as a physician, I am not prepared to say anything more than what good research has already suggested: gay men are no more likely to be sexual predators than straight men, no more likely to be child abusers than straight men. The scientific literature is far less robust in matters of ephebophilia, or sexual harassment---the kind of abuse a cleric might visit upon an adult male seminarian or adolescent male involved in his church. In addition, there is no literature that suggests that gay clergy are more or less inclined to succeed in celibacy than straight clergy. Celibacy is a gift, or it is not, so it appears.

The problem with Michael Voris's posture in the matter of the crisis in the church, then, is not an intellectual one, but perhaps a political one. His critique is sound, but his hermeneutic is suspect. He and I land in much the same place regarding what must happen in the church if it is to survive, but we part company when it comes to LGBT persons and their place in the church, whether in the pews or in the rectory. The matter of sexual orientation becomes irrelevant if celibacy is a real gift, a real expression of human sexuality and personhood. If celibacy is a farce, then we are left with the irreducible teachings of the church on natural law, idolatry, marriage (to name a few). Though readers of this blog already know that I put into question the very idea of 'nature' as it appears in the Magisterium, I continue to wonder how it plays out in the lives of all Catholics, of all Christians. What is not in question, however, is the nature of evil, and evil natures. When the heinous acts of the hierarchy, whether of sexual predation or the cover-up of such acts, are reduced to political terms, ethics, and even morality go out the window. Identity politics, the worst kind of politics, is a construct whose days are numbered, and it has no role in the solution to the crisis.

To paraphrase St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Michael Voris unfortunately plants the seed of intolerance in his politics. He might argue that a hard teaching is the first act of charity, but I would respond that a hatred of persons is never a disguised act of love. Is there room in the Magisterium for a broader idea of nature, or is that room the workshop of systematic evil? The discussion is a very Catholic one. If we do not meet all of humankind at the church's doors with the blood that issues from the side of Christ, those doors melt away, as the foundation falters, and the church falls, just as it is now falling from the hatred of the other in acts of sexual violence and the love for it on the part of those who want to hide it, call it something else, soften it, and erase its victims.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

What's in a Scandal? Let's Not Lose the Face of the Victim

While this thing was always scandalous, we cannot continue to call it a scandal, though we will forever be scandalized. We really must call it what it is: systematic, institutional criminality. The victims of rape and other sexual abuses by the hierarchs of the Church dissipate under the cloak of the merely scandalous. The face of the victim recedes behind the veil of scandal. Survivors must be seen so that evil comes to light. Scandal. The only scandal here is that anyone refers to the irrevocably diabolical as a scandal. Enough.

That evil can rock the Church is one thing, but that it can destroy it is another. Christ himself indemnified the Church, stating definitively that the gates of hell will not prevail against it; but that of course assumes that good people will not simply stand by and be amazed, disgusted, violated, appalled, etc. Catholic action must now accuse the shepherds, and rid the Church of all the agencies of violence, sin, crime and other movements of evil in the flesh. It's really not a matter of not 'going to church', or withholding donations or other kinds of giving. Catholics must give the Church its blood back, its spine and its conviction, all of which has been lost. We have all, clergy and laity alike,  known too long about this cancer within the body of Christ, and we have let it metastasize. 

It's all well and good that the civil authorities now move legally to identify and prosecute criminals masquerading as leaders of the church and shepherds of the faithful, finally lifting the corporate veil covering up the most egregious sinfulness and criminality; but only lay Catholics have the moral authority to accuse systematic evil and wrest the Church from its clutches and exorcise the malignancy that threatens to undo the people of God.

No adequate sacramental theology can retain holy orders in the pedophile or ephebophile; God does not bless the devil. The Church does not breed pedophiles and ephebophiles, but it apparently attracts them, harbors them, protects them, and enables them to infiltrate the trust of the faithful, and then destroy that trust. This horrific and obvious impediment to reception of orders renders the sacrament automatically annulled, in a way analogous to the impediments that might make the reception of matrimony automatically annulled. An indelible mark cannot be etched into the soul of the violent, criminal sexual predator; and what makes matters worse is that he knows it, and pretends to that which is unattainable to him: holiness, service, love. There is simply no role for the niceties of the work worked (ex opere operato), or the work of the worker (ex opere operantis) here. We simply no longer know who or what is working what and why. To give sanctuary to sin and erase the face of the victims is to nourish the virulence of the malignancy.

From time to time, some people suggest that celibacy, with or without the complexities of a single sex environment, leads men to transform from normal and healthy sexual beings into predatory monsters. Celibacy arguably pertains only to those of superlative ascetic being, but does a choice for celibacy as part of an authentic sexuality committed to service to the other unencumbered by commitments to family necessarily lead to sexually poor health? Too many good and loving celibate clergy witness against that conclusion. Perhaps, then, an authentic celibacy might be part of the solution to part of the problem. Nonetheless, celibacy cannot be visited upon those who vicious predations have brought the rectory to its knees. The voraciousness of the predator laughs at the prospect of an authentic commitment to the other, whose sole purpose is to slake its thirst for violence. Nonetheless, and irrespective of the sexual orientation of one whose vocation to the priesthood is from the Spirit,  an authentic celibacy remains at least a possibility. Of course, the possibility that a true vocation moves a married man to the service of sacerdotal priesthood cannot be excluded, and the Church, in its reception of married clergy from other Christian traditions as Catholic priests, attests to this admission.

 The delusions of sacramentality must dissolve under the work of the Spirit. And the Spirit beckons all Catholics (indeed all Christians, if not all people of good will) to act in service to the victims of the hierarchs' horrors. What is Canon Law to the face of the human other? Canon Law wilts in the face of the other, for within the face is the trace of God. The Spirit calls us to absolute solidarity with the victims of the hierarchical church.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Toward the Dignity and Justice of Being

The way of thinking proposed here does not fail to recognize being or treat it, ridiculously and pretentiously, with disdain, as the fall from a higher order or disorder. On the contrary, it is on the basis of proximity that being takes on its just meaning. In the indirect ways of illeity, in the anarchical provocation which ordains me to the other, is imposed the way which leads to thematization, and to an act of consciousness.

---Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being: Or Beyond Essence (trans. A Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Pr., 1981)

The entry into being does not entail a fall into absolute moral indifference, or even corruption. While Levinas could criticize Heidegger for the paucity of morality in Being and Time, no phenomenology of ontological difference necessarily leads, by its very method, to a disregard of the other as completely other. In the passage above, Levinas sets up his case against a philosophy that 'reduces, by an abuse of language, saying to the said and all sense to interest' (Otherwise Than Being, OTB,16). Already in Existents and Existence, Levinas poses the metaphysical problem of just what takes place prior to an existent's insertion into being, the reluctance if not refusal to enter into a cont[r]act with being under the conditions of insomnia, fatigue, indolence. Speculatively, Levinas posits these structures of pre-phenomenality, of pre-consciousness, where passivity holds sway. Taking a stand before being, what Levinas has named hypostasis, provides the liminality encountering an existent, which is always just out of phase with existence (being).

For Levinas, an existent and existence do not coincide precisely; a lag presents itself. A diachrony characterizes the interface of an existent with existence, where the encounter with the other in proximity occurs and seizes what, for the existent, has not yet become a self realized into being. So in this metaphysical frame (which potentially gives being its dignity and justice) the other who holds me hostage and for whom the 'I' takes full responsibility---and the responsibility even of the other's own responsibility---in substitution, provides the locus of ethics. As Levinas summarizes, he has interpreted 'the subject as a hostage and the subjectivity of the subject as a substitution breaking with being's essence' (OTB, 184).

Levinas, whose allegiance to Husserl is palpable, finds limitations in classical phenomenology, and in order to locate transcendence in its proper frame, opens upon a metaphysics, a first philosophy, of ethics. By placing the ethical moment prior even to ontology,  Levinas introduces a 'morality clause' into the contract with being. Because the other and the approach to the other, the encounter with alterity and illeity, is prior to the self of the subject-in-the- making, ethics shapes the posture of the hypostasis, or what I have dubbed the 'hypostatic union' of the existent with existence. Being is therefore extricated from the problematics of Heideggerian phenomenology, ontology and its existentialist demeanor, in which Dasein's being in the world flirts with the Volk, permitting, in the darker corners of Dasein's moods, all kinds of savagery.

Ultimately, though, Levinas never really parts ways with phenomenology, or at least the spirit of phenomenology. He will eventually come to say that what he was doing through OTB, was phenomenology all along. His approach to the problem of ethics could not fit within the scope of the phenomenology of his day, or at least the orthodoxy of its method. His metaphysics of ethics speculates upon the very nature of phenomenality and therefore of givenness. Because such a metaphysics is embedded within consciousness itself, I am comfortable describing it more along the lines of a radical phenomenology, one that is still thinking the given and therefore within the purview of phenomenology itself. A phenomenology of givenness provides the logical step from Levinassian ethics as first philosophy, yet retains the phenomenological posture. I attribute Jean-Luc Marion's debt to Levinas, at least in part, to this tacit acknowledgment.

Marion's argument with Heidegger is not primarily ethical, though its commitment to the given certainly has ethical if not moral implications; and the inadequacy of the reduction to being or ontology compels Marion to explore just how far down the reduction can go, hence his 'third reduction' to givenness. That a radical phenomenology quests for the end of metaphysics by no means spells the end of speculative thinking; the quest simply critiques the limits of any metaphysics bent on determining the validity of all kinds of phenomena. To privilege givenness does not hold being with disdain or in contempt. Rather, the privilege rescues phenomena from the hegemony of metaphysics, of ontology and ontological difference, of any positivism, and in particular from their tendencies to determine what any kind of knowledge can and cannot be.

Nihilism, too often the final face of existentialism and the positivistic stamp on rationality, impugns all of reality and makes something very small of being. Nihilism opposes any dignity and justice of being. The antidote to nihilism is thinking the thing from itself as it gives itself, as the antidote to mere being is life. As Agamben has convincingly shown, bare life, zoe, is already stripped of dignity and justice, and thematized life, bios, is at least poised for them. For Levinas and Marion, there is no state of exception, no state of being (or givenness) unworthy of dignity and justice. It remains part of my project to locate the origins and locations of dignity and justice in this thing called being, and in part, it attempts this move by asking just what is this thing called love.

Monday, April 10, 2017

No Greater Love: A Reflection on the Triduum

For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son...

οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν ἵνα πᾶς πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον

(Please note an afterword below)

The gift of the Son defies any notion of giving on the side of being. Within being, the gift is wrapped as a ransom, a human sacrifice, a gift with all the strings that being can attach. The gift, what Christians call the Incarnation, does not unfold, finally, in being, in any ontological difference, in any fundamental or regional ontology. The aporia of the gift, this gift, can only unfold within the horizon of its givenness: love. Love bears the same structures of phenomenality as the gift. Love, like the gift, is an 'all or nothing' phenomenon. One does not love a 'little bit', partially, conditionally; whatever strong feeling of desire, affection or attraction might fall under the categories of love in a metaphysical system of prefabricated concepts, styles or fads, what we call here 'love' is nothing like such systems that pass for love in other contexts. The same holds for the gift: what is a gift if wrapped as a promissory note? The love we speak of here, the love of God, enjoys utter anteriority to being itself; love answers to its own givenness, prior to being.

The Incarnation---the Christ-event---by which we mean the nativity of Jesus, his life and ministry, his trials and tribulations, his judgment by the world, the way of the Cross and the Resurrection, while certainly historical and real, does not manifest itself in any fullness in justice within being. What on earth can the death of God mean in the rationality of metaphysics? Or for that matter, what does the impossibility of a God-Man, a Word-made-flesh, of any notion of a 'greater love', do within being if they do not first quicken in the priority of love, and its logic and rationality?

Try as we may, the Cross will always get twisted when we force it into ontology, into any metaphysics of presence, however rarefied a presence we can construct within systematic metaphysics. No rationale for the Cross plays out satisfactorily within the categories of being. No effort, however noble, or rational, or analogical gets us much past onto-theology's bugaboo: theodicy (0r at best, the onto-theological god that fell to his death off Nietzsche's tightrope). We have visited the notion of a theodicy without theodicy recently, and nothing seems to happen on the planes of theodical thinking; vectors of thought point outside such structures, but cannot escape them.

To begin to enter the logic of love, the unfolding of the erotic reduction and the release of the erotic phenomenon, all appeals to causality, empirical reasoning, and being itself must collapse; for love to appear categories and concepts must yield their place of honor in pure reason: the first critique has left the building. In the instance of this love we speak about now, we must allow the Father and the Son to appear, not within frameworks we have constructed for them, but as they appear to each other in the logic of love that can unfold in a practical reason. In the Johannine tradition "God is love". For God so loved the world, the logos gives up his life for a friend. Here begins the logic of love, and it provides the only lens through which to envisage the Father and Son in their face-off at the Cross. Only then can the gift of the Father and the Son manifest as the gift to the 'gifted', or the recipient---in short, to us.

What kind of fatherly love is this that allows the son to die? Why does the father not extricate the son, certainly a small task for the causa sui? The impotence of the verb 'to be' and references to causality underscore that what goes on in the Cross---the event harbored in the Cross---has nothing to do with being, and everything to do with what is prior to being: God loves before he is, and he so loved the world that only the release of absolute holiness through death and resurrection could ratify once and for all love's anteriority to all things related to being. Only the absolute abandon of the self without reservation, with absolute totality of self-emptying can the logic of love, in this case, the logic of the Cross, declare itself from itself, completely and irrevocably. The gift that gives its self, gives itself fully and with abandon to the recipient of the gift, the 'gifted', she who believes in order to see and to hear, she who receives kenotically, with an accommodating self-emptying, a making room for the gift. What is faith, what is belief if not a willingness to open oneself to the possible, to vacate a prejudice to make room for the truth?

This absolute abandon unites love and the gift. This is not really a sequence, for language does not allow representation of equality (or better, identity) here: love and the gift are not separate: they are the same, and as such they belie the differences among philos, eros and agape: for they are one and the same kenosis, the same event of kenosis. This is not the kenosis of Caputo or Altizer---the emptying of transcendence into immanence once and for all in the singular death of God. This is the kenosis of the univocity of love. The one and only univocal term---God loves as we love. We receive the gift in the same love in which it is given. We receive love, when it manifests against a screen of the structures of love.

Who is this friend, this beneficiary of no greater love than this? It is the other, the face of the other, the icon. The face that has me before I am even a self, before I am, in the elemental place that is otherwise than being. Are we helpless before the other? Is this even the right question? Can we then not also ask, is God helpless before the Cross? If these are the right questions, then they come from the seedbed of ontological difference, from being, as if being were absolutely prior, even prior to the nothing, prior even to the matrix from which the self is pulled by the horizon of being. But these are not the right questions, for this is the language of theodicy, theology's dead end and cause of death. To ask these questions is to force the uncontainable into a container.

Before God is before the Cross, the Father loves the Son. How does being fare before the absolute gift? If God is love, then this univocal love appears not merely as a love for the world but the selfsame love of the perichoresis within the immanent life of the Trinity. Being therefore has no standing before love, before the gift, before the kenotic movement that goes by the name, 'love'.

If faint strains of Jean-Luc Marion or Emmanuel Levinas echo in this little Lenten reflection it is because their work has entered my thinking, my seeing and hearing, through their signature ideas of the saturated phenomenon, the face of the other, alterity and the self-as-hostage, as these ideas gel across the shadow of the Cross (In another piece, I shall substantiate my gratitude to these thinkers in the more conventional form of citation). Catholic thinking places no premium on human suffering, a torturous death, or reciprocity of the gift. Instead, it offers its Tradition as a gift, and understands that gift within the absoluteness, the all-or-nothing, of love. What, ultimately, can this gift be, if not Christ himself?



I have heard, quite literally, from the four corners of the earth about the abysmal failure of this Lenten reflection. Perhaps in my haste to put something 'up for Easter' I have perpetrated both religious and philosophical sins. The gist of the critique runs something like this: the piece is too religious for something so 'phenomenological', and too phenomenological for something so 'religious'. Moreover, both the religion and phenomenology are suspect. I am grateful for the loyal readership and loyal opposition, and I should have exercised, in retrospect, better judgment in 'going ahead' with the piece. I will leave the piece up (it crossed my mind to delete it) for continued target practice, not that it didn't have enough holes in it already. I will chalk it up to a pitiful 'at bat', a strikeout, as it were.

We have all chosen to live and stay in the world, and so we exist with a ineradicable bond with existence itself. This piece was a distinctly wrong place to think existents and existence apart from one another. A logic of love and a propositional logic are not mutually exclusive; I do think it's difficult to think them simultaneously. To say that for one to appear the other must disappear misleads. To think the logic of love does not mean to leave one's brains at the door; the logic of love is no fantasy land.

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Sunday, March 5, 2017

Spirit and Body: Levinas on the Cusp of an Awakening of Religion

To arrive where you are, to get to where you are not,
You must go by a way, wherein there is no ecstasy.
---T.S. Eliot, 'East Coker'

Whether on the roads to Marion's Damascus of the saturated phenomenon or Falque's metamorphosis of finitude and the spread body, Levinas's ghostly philosophy lurks in the shadows of forethought. It sometimes seems that all contemporary French phenomenology seeks its origins in Descartes' cogito, the ego that constitutes the world, the ego that thinks its therefore and finds being. Certainly Marion begins here, as does Husserl, the one discovering the straw that breaks the backs of noema and noesis, the other discovering a more pristine and powerful intentionality. Falque, of course, does phenomenology, but bends it toward his own wits, a phenomenology even splintered and splayed open to a post-metaphysical metaphysics, thereby releasing the event of just what goes on between the Cartesian res extensa and the phenomenological 'lived body'.  Levinas, on the other hand, remains skeptical of ontology and intentionality, and his eyes and ears are drawn less to the therefore, and far more intently to the fore-there.  

Il y a. The Levinassian there is. The 'there' prior to the there that is indeed there, the fore-there, where therefore is not even a forethought, where Prometheus sleeps. Such is what comes to Levinas's mind. Levinas's is a ghostly thinking, not quite ghastly, yet open to horror, the night that crutches the insomniac's watch, the creepy indolence that paralyzes before being, and the instinct to retreat into alter[ed]-states of consciousness. Walpole and Shelly have nothing on Levinas. The gothic shades of dark that recede in the Levinassian landscape give proof through this night that Heideggerian ecstasy is a little late to the party of being: there is a hauntology prior to ontology, some more fundamental difference anterior to ontological difference. There is a haunting.

Before the ethics of Levinas's signature work, before the stark alterity and priority of the Other, this remarkable thinker has given us a preliminary study of his concerns, and certainly a critique of Being and Time. As a critique of ontological difference, Existence & Existents ( trans., A. Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne, 1978, henceforth EE; page numbers in parentheses refer to this translation of the work 1st published in 1947 unless otherwise stated) stamps an indelible ethos upon what will later follow in his masterworks, Totality and Infinity, and Otherwise than Being. EE does not present a full-blown theory of the body, or a fleshed-out spirituality; but it certainly outlines an anatomy of consciousness, even a physiology of consciousness, that thinks the fore-there---that hypostasis precedes ecstasis, that position precedes being-in-the-world, that Being itself precedes beings. Do not ask what is it; let us go and make our visit.

Levinas makes haste to describe the there is (il y a going forward to honor the term's untranslatability, unless it appears as there is in Lingis's translation) as the thing unresolved by death, the irreducible term that remains insoluble in the liquidation of finitude. Il y a comprises the locus where subjective and objective existence merge and blur in the event of being (4-5). Indeed, "ontology...affirms that what is essential in human determined by a relationship...with...the nakedness of this bare fact" of Being (3), which "harbors something tragic" (5). The human spirit is always already encountering a tragedy. The merging of existents with existence takes place within the il y a, an otherwise than being that seizes us by the throat.

The maternal wellspring from which an existent gets itself born, or from which birth yanks an existent into existence, is not sufficiently anterior for Levinas; he searches more deeply into that nook, to "that event of birth in phenomena which are prior to reflection" upon any regional ontology (11). He thinks the matrix from which a maternal wellspring might spring. In this regard, he analyzes 'fatigue' and 'indolence', not as mere mental contents, but as modes of a relationship with being, and cleaving of (to?) being. These mental contents express a 'weariness' before existence, and mark the mode of 'refusal' or balking at the contractual terms binding an existent with existence; yet such a refusal marks not a reflection upon such terms, but a pre-reflective, unthematic encounter with, engagement of, immediate response to, a generic document, whose lines remain unread, but remains a threat nonetheless (11-12).

The markers of refusal, though placeholders of retreat or evasion, point to an engagement with being. To engage being, to commit to a contact and contract with being, comprises the act through which an existent enters existence: "If the present is thus constituted by the taking charge of the present, if the time-lag of fatigue creates the interval in which the event of the present can occur, and if this event is equivalent to the upsurge of an existent for which to be means to take up being, the existence of an existent is by essence an activity" (25). This upsurge goes by the name of hypostasis, and the contractual contact of an existent with existence forms a hypostatic union threatened only by time, by another present which can put the union asunder. The hypostatic union, a term Levinas never uses, creates the locus of spirit, of the event of spirituality, though he never formulates this event in quite this manner. Regardless, here, in the hic et nunc of taking a position from which hypostasis becomes an upsurge into Being, time coalesces into the sacrality of a most vulnerable moment.

Though a less reckless strategy would visit the preliminary ideas of EE upon Levinas's later work, the risk of visiting Levinas's more mature elements upon EE, at least with respect to vulnerability, and even the Other, might reward; for the heart of Levinas's philosophical 'spirituality' rests in the structures thought here in EE.  Only in the fore-there of reflection, in the unthematic arena of the pre-ontological structures of consciousness, can we find the disclosure of vulnerability prone to insomnia and horror that hypostasis is heir to. True, for the most part, the Other appearing in EE is a thematic Other, one already clothed, one whose nudity finds itself clothed by form (30). This nudity, already thematic, conceals the body, and only in a relationship with nudity itself do we experience the alterity of the Other (31).

The nudity prior to nudity, the fore-there of an 'undressed being' (31), begins the entry into the il y a, the consummation of being in the experience of night (52), where the 'rustling of the there horror" (55) ushering in the vigil of the insomniac so passive that the night itself 'watches' (63). Only in such utter passivity can the unthematic contents of consciousness (69) take position, a stance from which an upsurge into being poises itself as hypostasis. From such states, such stases, such static asymmetry,  a 'base', a 'place', "makes the body the very advent of consciousness", unconcealed in the vulnerability of an unthematic version of nudity. The body locates consciousness as an "irruption of anonymous being" and "is position itself" (70). The spirituality of the body is the event of its position, and the moment of its present, the sacred time of the hypostatic union, where Being and being, existence and the existent, contract a merger, "a pure event of being" (71). "Position is the very event of the instant as a present" (70).

The event of being harbored in the hypostasis, the hypostatic union, "signifies the suspension of the anonymous there is," for "on the ground of the there is, a being arises...By hypostasis anonymous being loses its there is character" (83). Truly this is sacred ground consecrated by human spirituality through the posture of the body, the body taking its position in the instant of its present, and there is no time like the present, yet is "not the future above all the resurrection of the present?" (94). Though there can be no redemption of pain, "the movement of the caress" of the consoler transports suffering " 'elsewhere' " (93). Hope should not be spent on wiping away every tear or avenging every death, for the wages of pain simply move into an instant that follows an instant; rather the object of hope should be the future itself, where every instant of every present receives salvation.

Hypostasis is anterior to, prior to, more essential than any ecstasy leaping into an already thematic being-in-the-world. It makes its upsurge from a matrix otherwise than being, and, for the visually minded, it is the photo-negative of Heideggerian ecstasis, the mold into which such ecstasy pours itself into the world. The unthematic contents of consciousness create the vulnerability that only an unthematic Other whose utter vulnerability can transgress---as the Other in the Same; not that alterity of the Other homogenizes within such sameness, but as the disruption,  the roiling of the waters in the pool of the Same; the other is totally other, despite a family resemblance. The Other in the Same provides the site of an uncontainable human spirit, a spirit that only "the gravest sin" attempts to put on the clock,  in the time of trains and the sun (101). Though Levinas can think the coalescence, a congealment, of time, any reification of the spirit within the timebound shuts down the instant, desecrates the preciousness of the present that must be cherished, and positioned for resurrection.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Theodicy without Theodicy

Derrida captures both the imagination and the critical faculties with his theme of 'religion without religion'. Perhaps his greatest expositor, John D. Caputo, has ridden that horse all the way to the bank, if philosophers get to take anything to the bank, as it were. In his 'weak theology', Caputo offers his reading of Derrida's late writings, not to mention the various seminars in which these ideas play out on a stage of phenomenology, post-phenomenology and even a God without being. Caputo describes the deconstruction of confessional religions, and discovers the 'unconditional without sovereignty' which he identifies as the 'weak force of God'.

A religion without religion contains within it the deconstruction of classical theodicy, and perhaps points to a theodicy without theodicy. I might make the case that a religion without religion does not recognize anything that looks like a theodicy, whether with or without theodicy. Be that as it may, a theodicy without theodicy might take as its point of departure the power structure Caputo attributes to God in the metaphysical attitude: the problem does seem to boil down to power, its expression and its non-expression, its deployment in the world and its non-deployment.

I share with Caputo his disgust with theodicy as it usually plays out, as a means of explaining or justifying the misery, suffering and injustice visited upon the world, particularly upon the innocent. To drop 'mystery', a 'greater good' at the doorstep of horror and unspeakable suffering mocks God and the world, and constitutes the definition of obscenity.

Any reasonable person would think that, after the horrors of the 20th century (indeed the horrors of history), the 'end of theodicy' would have been a decisive one. Surely religion and theodicy would have died a permanent death by now, certainly by now; yet theodicy, like religion, lives on: what good is the death of God if theodicy and religion always rise again? 

Caputo's The Weakness of God dots its argument for the 'unconditional without sovereignty' with such occasions of the meaning and presence of the Omni-God against the weakness of God. But what of theodicy's corollary, the request (if not a demand) for an explanation or justification, the quality of which determines reason's permissibility of God? Playing out on the horizon of being, this crucial flip-side of theodicy allows God into, or disqualifies God from, the horizon of knowledge (albeit a certain kind of knowledge) and of being. God lives and dies by the swords of all kinds of positivisms, regardless of the side they take in the classic version of the great debate.

In a recent discussion on the 'priority of love' with a philosopher and friend, my interlocutor equated such priority with a 'theodicy without theodicy', and so I began this piece with the analogy of a religion without religion. His critique, which burns with concern for 'needless, unnecessary suffering of catastrophic proportions', runs adjacent to a critique of the Johannine Lazarus texts, and formulates its argument thus: Jesus, alive then and now, can call Lazarus or anyone else, then and now from death, but he doesn't. Now certainly the lingua franca of this critique is power itself, but also power within a will. The question asks, with all seriousness, why anyone ever suffers and dies, while a Jesus, very much alive and sporting a track record of doing nifty stuff, stands idly by and simply withholds miraculous power.

The question itself pokes at divine power and justice, but I do not think this question exhausts its theodical gesture by interrogating power. Its gesture also calls into question the various claims of religion for God and Jesus, in particular, Christian claims. So where do we start, start again? In other words, how is the priority of love, that God loves before he is, a theodicy without theodicy? Is it simply a fait accompli that a God who loves before he is, is a God who does not deploy power analogically (in terms of the human deployment of power), or deals in the structures of power at all? What is the difference between love and power when God does the loving? If Creation itself is an act of love, and not of sheer power, does a univocity of love put us in a position to create---is the power of love as intelligible as the love of power?

The problem gets even more complicated. How does one account for the urgency of the theodical gesture, and its logical aftermath---atheism---on the part of the positivist, when the theist finds this question oddly less than urgent? Can such urgency reduce to the desire to declare God nonsense under the scrutiny of sharply defined criteria for and of evidence? Do all theists secretly subscribe to Caputo's weak theology, acknowledging the obscenity of the theodical reply to the theodical question, yet somehow resolve to retain a faith in thematic religion (religion with religion), such as Catholicism? Are we all, deep down, Caputo's radical theologians? Do we radical theologians argue for an evidence invisible to the various positivisms in all sincerity? Is there any other place to go for a 'theology of the event'?

For the sake of this preliminary sketch of a theodicy without theodicy, we might speculate that God has as much use for theodicy as he does for religion: God has no use for what passes for religion---What are your vain sacrifices to me? 'Vain' sacrifice, the religious gesture with a gargantuan injection of religion. Is sacrifice always a gesture of power? Religiously speaking, the only sacrifice that God ever asks is the one he asks of himself, and the one ostensibly carried out on Calvary. A sacrifice of God for humanity. That sacrifice is the only possible sacrifice that completely absents vanity. This is not to say that the unconditional call of the event of God asks nothing of us; it simply does not ask us to sacrifice because of its inherent vanity. Even Abraham doesn't get to sacrifice, not even in the most famous sacrificial near-miss of all time.

So, then, the urgency of the question: a power than declines its exercise --- a will that wills not the 'good', where the very existence and meaning of that power hangs in the balance---no exercise, no being. Is it here, I wonder, where a theodicy without theodicy finds itself and its answer: if being is denied by empirical establishment of a lack of evidence, does that lack locate God beyond essence, otherwise than being---does positivism then give credence to a God without being, or does it relegate the whole matter to the ever-growing heap of nonsense? If willing the good for the other passes for love, then it is a strange love indeed that does not always and forever will the good for all of creation. What has happened to an appeal to the univocity of love?

But not so fast. The urgency of this theodical question also interrogates the lack of urgency on the part of those for whom the concrete players are not held to what must assuredly be a responsibility to their power. A theodicy with theodicy has no other recourse but to conclude irrational obstinacy, an embrace of a studied naïve magical realism. Presumably a theodicy without theodicy would have richer choices. Indeed, in any hypothetical theodicy without theodicy, doubt plays out very differently than in the classical theodicy with theodicy. So, then, which do we doubt, 'love' or 'the good'?

Emmanuel Levinas once suggested that Judaism is a religion for adults. It goes without saying (and this is perhaps why thinkers like Jean-Luc Marion and Emmanuel Falque do not say it explicitly) that Christianity is also a religion for adults. One of the ways, it seems to me, Christianity enjoys a status similar to Judaism, is its rhythm of cataphasis and apophasis. Meister Ekhart asks God to free him from God. We ask in faith for God to help our poor faith. It also goes without saying that any responsible faith, any adult religion, would be constituted by doubt. This is not the destructive doubt of paralysis and positivism, but more akin, ironically, to Descartes' reduction to doubt, which, with its corrosive edges, tears down everything to the bare bones of an encounter with the infinite. Doubt begins the expedition to the discovery of a new world of contradiction and paradox, a world of Yeatsian 'terrible beauty', a world both beautiful and treacherous.

A theodicy without theodicy interrogates power itself, and empowers doubt to be its examiner. The 'doubting Thomas' of the Johannine tradition does not earn condemnation, even if that tradition does find him a bit comical, taking himself, as he does, just too seriously. No, not condemnation, but instead, this most adult of the apostles receives a gift; Thomas utters the highest Christology in the Gospel tradition: my Lord and my God.  Such belief anchored by doubt has always been offered by the Christian tradition as authentic over and against any brand of fideism. Doubt is the business end of reason; its drive toward a mature faith and authenticity leads not to postivism's dead ends and nonsense, but to think again. If not being, or a version of being, or of ontological difference, then toward what does declarative prayer direct itself?

It simply cannot be that the question of a Jesus, a God, who can but doesn't, ends the matter. That's just another way to say Roma locuta, causa finita est---we are trying to get beyond such positivisms. The theist and the atheist stand on different, not opposite, ends of the same question. But on what do they stand when they angle their stands at the same question? Is it the very 'ground of being' which some believe to 'be' God? No, I think not; a 'ground' is no place to stand if the question is being. A ground of being is just a being upon which being stands. That's simply the infinite regress of more of the same---classical theodicy in a slightly different light. What would a theodicy without theodicy stand on; what does a religion without religion stand on?

In such a preliminary piece, I must do a little damage control, and ask a more modest question. The fact is this, good people, atheist and theist alike, positivist and other-than-positivist alike, stand together in this world. 'Where do they stand?' is another way of asking 'how are things between them?' They stand before each other across the same abysmal question. If each encounters the face of the other, then they must stand on that which is before being itself. They stand, in short, on the love that is prior to being, on the claims made upon them before they are even 'selves'. This is the threshold upon a theodicy without theodicy, properly recognized and pronounced by someone who does not even believe such anteriority is either possible, or that it matters even if it were possible. His pronouncement accuses me, as his atheism calls my theism into question. What matters, at least at this point, is our standing; and we stand before the same voice, the same call from what is harbored in the name of God. How we hear it, and where doubt leads us, and what urgency moves us, makes all the difference in the world, even if we can share that world, even if the discovery of joy or crushing sadness awaits us in this shared world. Events are like that.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Altered States

If the Lacanian register of the Imaginary bears wakefulness and the panorama of images that appear before consciousness, and the register of the Symbolic bears the sleep where images and themes dance their dreams across the stage of the unconscious, then surely the register of the Real comprises the topos where dreams dream their dreams. Lacan does not by accident locate the divine within the precincts of the Real: God does not first appear in a bush burning in un-consuming flame, or the nightmare of a bloody Cross, but in the trace of these that points to the very heart of the Real, the place with sound but no sense, with melody but no logos, the place without an urge to grasp or otherwise conceptualize, the place before thought, the place where intentionality is not even a dream, a consciousness that is not conscious of something, but where, instead, waits to be born, where awareness waits for a theme.

The register of the Real contains the moment Levinas has described as insomnia. The cite of 'saying', the Real refuses thematization, the prison and ownership of language and image; it harbors the trace of the 'said', but prior to the being of the word.  An eerie place that awaits the things that go bump in the night, insomnia declares a wordless discourse of the infinite, the Cartesian 'infinite in me', an infinite not of me, but nonetheless found there: what Levinas names the il y a---there is.  To maintain the discourse of God beyond essence, to defer the meaning of God and therefore his entry into being, Levinas locates God's transcendence in the non-thematizable space of a wakefulness without a watching, a vigilance that does not already know what it keeps vigil for (or vigilant of), an insomnia that is interruptible, but without the trappings of, or tools for, naming God. For Levinas, once consciousness is a consciousness of something, that something is already dressed in the garb of being and outside the register of the Real. Levinas wants it the other way around: he wants transcendence to 'dress' consciousness in the garb of the 'otherwise than being'.

Levinas opens a space for the discourse of the divine, or transcendence, and that space subverts what he calls the moment of the Other within the Same, that which disturbs the empty---unthematic---wakefulness of insomnia. He names this place without terminus (ad quo/ad quem) 'Infinity' ("The God of Philosophy", in Basic Philosophical Writings, 133), which shakes up insomnia, making the "I" aware that the other is before it. Indeed, the very 'character of insomnia: the Other within the same who does not alienate the Same, but who awakens him" ("In Praise of Insomnia," in God, Death, and Time, Stanford Univ. Pr., Stanford, 2000; 209), puts this wakeful emptiness in the position for an irruption---always on the verge of an encounter.

Levinas's insomnia is not the 'insomnia' encountered commonly in medical offices throughout the world. This insomnia, this awareness of the difficulty in falling asleep, has many therapies, and many avenues for further diagnostics. Rather, Levinassian insomnia has its physiological reflection in the devastating medical entity known as the persistent vegetative state (PVS). Medically defined as 'wakeful unawareness', PVS evokes the infamous cases of Karen Ann Quinlan, and more recently, Terry Schiavo, and the 'right to death' movement. The particulars of these cases notwithstanding, certain things come to mind. Does the Other who is not merely unconscious, but beyond either the unconscious or consciousness, make the same claim on me, participate in the same ethos, as the Other whose awareness precedes itself or me? What ethics comes to the fore when the Other's mind and body are divided? How shall I respond to the 'Infinity' Levinas has posited in the structure of consciousness when the Other remains trapped in the insomnia of wakeful expectation, even if nothing is to be expected---has not the mode of expecting?

Joseph J. Fins, in his Rights Come to Mind: Brain Injury, Ethics and the Struggle for Consciousness (NY: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 2015), presents the compelling cases of patients and their families confronting PVS and the newly recognized diagnosis of the Minimally Conscious State (MCS), a state of profound impairment of consciousness, but a consciousness with demonstrable awareness, that which is absent from those with PVS. Fins, a physician and medical ethicist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, bears his own historical consciousness here, and draws upon civil rights history to point to the civil rights of mind, of consciousness. His call for absolute diagnostic precision in assessing these cases is poignant and powerful. His ethical sense derives not only from medical integrity in diagnosis and treatment, but also from the identification of the presence of consciousness itself, obscured by horrible injury and brain malfunction. The medicine and technology behind what drives Fins to defend the rights of mind, while fascinating, do not command me here; what commands me is the patient before me who cannot be reduced to mind.

The Other who appears before me appears to me as the human other, and when the Other appears to me suffering or perhaps dying from devastating disease, appears as the spread body whose call is this is my body, or with a Levinassian tenor, thou shalt not kill. Both phrases intone the unconditional now pressed upon me. In medicine, we imagine we see PVS frequently, but in reality, PVS might be rarer than that. Perhaps, as Fins has suggested, we are better than 40 percent wrong about PVS, and what we are really seeing is MCS; much uncertainty informs the actual state of affairs. Because of the prognostic implications of either diagnosis, medicine simply has to 'get it right'. For Fins, the ethical imperatives drive 'getting it right' so that consciousness can be nurtured and healed, and a person can come home to a family in waiting. This is impossible for Fins: to be aware of the world when the world judges unawareness, and acts this judgement out. It is simply impossible to miss the presence of consciousness; missing it is not an option.

The ethics of the spread body, in the instance of PVS, the separation of mind and body, a wakefulness unaware of its embodiedness, calls from this body decisively: this is my body and thou shalt not kill. There is no greater vulnerability than this; it is equal to the vulnerability and precarity of the consciousness thought to be absent. The space Levinas has opened for Infinity is the mode of existence of the spread body in PVS. It is the physiological equivalent of the pre-phenomenality of insomnia, unaware that is expecting the arrival of consciousness---the disruption of insomnia by consciousness---the moment of transition from PVS to MCS. This place of Infinity, the distance between mind and body, the seeming impossibility of traversal within the vegetative state, the moment of the unthematic Real, bears the trace of the divine, the infinite, the otherness of the other, and opens and announces a sacred place.

Patients in PVS bear the posture of Infinity, which has locked them within itself. Perhaps what has divided here is not simply the mind from the body, but even the mind from mind, the non-intentional consciousness pointing aimlessly toward itself. In this sense, the patient with PVS remains within an infinite circuit whose centripetal vector points to what Levinas sometimes calls "God". This trace of the divine glows perhaps a bit brighter, inscribes its line perhaps a bit bolder, in the face of this other whose eyes move, yet trace no line, whose body moves, yet traces no direction. This is absolute vulnerability whose unconditional call calls me relentlessly: this is my body. This is a vulnerability that claims its right not to be killed, and compels me to be responsible for it unconditionally.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Gentle Rain: Levinas's Conversion to Catholicism, Justice, Jerusalem Sopra Athens

"The proximity of the other is the face's meaning, and it means from the
very start in a way that goes beyond those plastic forms which forever try to
cover the face like a mask of their presence to perception. But always the
face shows through these forms . Prior to any particular expression and
beneath all particular expressions, which cover over and protect with an
immediately adopted face or countenance, there is the nakedness and destitution
of the expression as such, that is to say extreme exposure, defencelessness,
vulnerability itself".  Emmanuel Levinas, 'Ethics as First Philosophy'

Now that I have the reader's attention, allow me to disown the ridiculous assertion of Levinas's conversion. I abuse both 'conversion' and 'Catholicism' here (not to mention Levinas himself) to point to the interesting, fascinatingly gripping, dilemma Levinas articulates in his important essays, "Ethics as First Philosophy" (The Levinas Reader, S. Hand, ed., Cambridge: Blackwell, 1989; henceforth EFP), and "Peace and Proximity" (Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. A. Peperzak, et al., Bloomingtion: Indiana Univ. Pr., 1996; henceforth PP). Levinas employs Athens and Jerusalem as metonyms for (among other things) the Hellenistic and Hebraic ethos, respectively, especially as he critiques the notions of Europe and Europeans, and the concept of the West. His 'conversion' is his embrace of a both/and posture, and a sophilology (my coinage and appropriation of 'Catholicism' in this context), the 'wisdom of love' (PP, 169), which always complements philosophy, the 'love of wisdom'. As Judith Butler has suggested in her Precarious Life (London:Verso, 2004, p.135f.), Levinas might very well be getting at a vision of Europe where Jerusalem surpasses Athens in vying for the very heart of the West.

"Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down" (Isaiah 45:8).

For Levinas, justice can only be the Derridean justice to come. "But the order of truth and knowledge has a role to play in the peace of proximity...the ethical order of human proximity...calls for the order of objectivity, truth and knowledge...the very sense of Europe: its biblical heritage implies the necessity of its Greek heritage." Levinas denies a "simple confluence of two cultural currents" which, he declares, "do better than converge." Europe is the "concreteness" where peace and proximity "demand a reason that thematizes, synchronizes and synthesizes...concepts necessary for the peace of humanity" (PP, 168). This gentlest of rain is "the first question of the interhuman."

The iconic (pace Jean-Luc Marion) face of the other means this proximity (EFP, 82). In fact, there can be no justice if such a justice traces itself back merely to truth and knowledge. We need to know just what brand of justice we are to embrace, to hope for, whose advent is always just on the horizon. We need, as Levinas asks, to know if such 'justice' comes from war (and the risk of perpetual war and conflict) and destruction and violence, or from "the irreducible responsibility of the one for the other" (PP, 169). Such responsibility is the claim of the Other upon me, a claim that does not 'lay claim' upon some deontological imperative, something I bring to the table, but a claim that comes only from absolute alterity:

"But, in its expression, in its mortality, the face before me summons me, calls for me, begs for me, as if the invisible death that must be faced by the Other, pure otherness , separated, in some way, from any whole, were my business. It is as if that invisible death, ignored by the Other, whom already it concerns by the nakedness of its face, were already 'regarding' me prior to confronting me, and becoming the death that stares me in the face. The other man's death calls me into question, as if, by my possible future indifference, I had become the accomplice of the death to which the other, who cannot see it, is exposed; and as if, even before vowing myself to him, I had to answer for this death of the other, and to accompany the Other in his mortal solitude" (EFP, 83).

This is the face, in its iconic stature of the saturated phenomenon, in its 'regarding' of me, gazes upon me, even before I turn my gaze, and seizes me, positions me to see that the face is seen, that I recognize the condition of threat, the state of siege that the face of the other finds itself (Befindlichkeit). Perhaps a mutual illumination presents itself here,  the call of the spread body as coming from an elsewhere and an itself, a coming from the presentation of the spread body and the appresentation of the personhood of the itself. Levinas boldly appropriates Husserl's 'appresentation' as the 'epiphany' of 'the unicity and alterity of the unique' as 'concretely the face of the other human' (PP, 166). May I now be equally bold in appropriating the epiphany of the icon of the face, now as the voice, the call of my patient's body lying in her bed on the hospice care unit? Thou shalt not kill is the this is my body transposed into another key in the same symphonic motion of the Other's appearance before me. Both unconditional calls from the iconic face of the Other, one calls me to the movements of society and the polity of the 'one for the other'; the other calls me to the movement of my patient under siege, under the threat of death, of dissolution and expansion into oblivion, and the movement to healing.

These biblical warrants, the thou shalt not kill and the this is my body, make claims upon any "I" encountering any Other. For Levinas, the 'one for the other', the wisdom of love, tends to obviate any recourse to violence, would render a response of violence unintelligible. The hybridization of the Hellenic and the Hebraic would write into Europe itself the face of the Other and the one for the other. The wisdom of love, the both/and of the body and the human person (the recognition of a hybridization), plays out at the bedside of the suffering and dying as presentation and appresentation of the spread body and human person, respectively. Only in the peace and proximity of the face does the call of the spread body receive its voice.