5.21.2009

Academic Meditation

Do we all more-or-less reveal what we believe to be ethical by our behavior? Or does that self-destructive-thinking-against-oneself-sin-nature in each of us, what E.A. Poe called "Perverseness" -- does that lead us to behave in ways we don't "believe in?" Can we have beliefs about morality and ethical behavior, and then fail according to our own premises? Does this all mean that actions--even the actions of academics and intellectuals--speak louder than words? And if that's true, does that imply that she who talks the most is most disappointed in her own behavior? Should "Ethics" be simply a study of how human behavior is dissatisfactory?

Take a figure like Levinas. We all like Levinas. He says stuff about how we should defer to the other, put the other first, etc. Can we do that? Do we do that? What does it look like?

I ask "What does it look like?" because I'm genuinely not sure. Maybe that comes from a lack of clarity about who the "other" is -- is it my neighbors in this apartment complex, or is it all of the impoverished people in India? Or is it every-other-person on the planet? If those questions seem too abstract to guide behavior, I think you're onto my thinking --

Most of the people who write about somebody like Emmanuel Levinas, who study him, who ascribe to some or most of his views, tend to stay focused in Levinas' direction. The read Buber. If they're daring, they might read Paul Tillich or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But the "other" seems to be in all directions. If I go on talking in terms like "ontology" and "social responsibility" and "G-d" and "other" aren't I putting my own preferences before those who do not employ such terminology? Is it more "ethical" to learn one vocabulary deeply and meaningfully, or to dabble in a vast and diverse array of others' vocabularies? Was T.S. Eliot "authentically" familiar enough with Hinduism to borrow the words of prayer from the Upanishads, "Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata."? Or would he have been behaving more ethically to seek expression in his own native vocabulary?

In the 1980s, literary criticism opened itself and diversified its attention, turning (in American literature, for example) to texts by writers whose identity wasn't white-heterosexual-male. Authors like Harriet Jacobs and E.D.E.N. Southworth rose in esteem while ancient deadies like Longfellow and Whittier were relegated to the margins of anthologies. Was this a self-conscious "ethical" movement? Was it just a reflection of something happening at a social level in 1980s America?

In the 1980s, as literary criticism tried to widen its attention -- as it began actively seeking the other, however problematic that act might be -- "Theory" grew into its own discipline. Oddly enough, its major dozen or so names were overwhelmingly white and male: Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Barthes, Jameson, Adorno, Benjamin, etc. In a strange irony, these white male voices were proclaiming, effectively, "heed the word of the other; defer to the other." But those studying "Theory," at least for a while, were quite narrowly focused on those dozen or so voices. Was this an ethical peformance? An ethical moment?

What does it mean to put the other first? What does it look like out of theory, in practice? What about those authors who were "other" voices at first -- take someone like Levinas, maybe? -- who have by now (relatively long ago) become "central" voices? Are we to go on listening to these kinds of voices, or are we to go seeking the voice of other others?

Ralph Ellison's perfect description of "invisibility" in Invisible Man showed once and for all that there are those who we genuinely cannot see -- and implied that those are the others. How shall we find what we cannot see? Where can we look? What are we missing by paying attention to "centralized" voices like Levinas, Ellison, etc.?

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