Emmanuel Levinas, Rhetoric, Composing, and Humanism
April 23, 2011 § Leave a comment
Much of western civilization’s arrogance comes from an attempt to substitute – one’s presence, one’s ideas, one’s values – for the presence of others. Critique of this, on many levels, has been the part of the exigency of academics and politics since World War II. The movements to account for marginalized voices, the personal as political, debates over advocacy in the classroom, the self as social construct – are all enlightenment critiques that perpetually fragment or must admit to their own provisional status; and many owe at least a partial lineage to philosophers from the mid twentieth century, especially thinkers like Levinas and Heidegger. Both because Levinas was foundational in bringing phenomenology to France as well as his ethical focus, Levinas has been an important figure in twentieth century philosophy. His encounters with Husserl and Heidegger in Freiburg during the late 1920s were encounters with philosophy as “a living enterprise” and in, according to his biographer, “one of the great rendezvous points of the century” (Malka 36). However, until recently, Levinas’s influence has been less known outside of philosophy and religious studies, and he is certainly less notorious than thinkers like Derrida, whose work regularly responds to Levinas. Perhaps Levinas has remained peripheral because it is difficult to think of “applying” his work to something. He resists representation and his ethics are not prescribed. But maybe his lack of prescription, his avoidance of thematization, is exactly what makes him so appealing right now.
Rhetoric, a complicated field, is pulled toward the extremes of theory and practice. Rhetoricians make sweeping gestures, some claiming “everything is rhetoric,” while practitioners in the field teach composition classes, which are most often (in the United States) mandatory requirements imposed on freshmen students who thought they had reached their freedom from obligatory classrooms while also being unaware of the privileges that come with those classrooms. Françoise Cusset has remarked that the American university system provides “a veritable moratorium between the teenager’s insouciance and the grown-up’s struggle for survival” (33). Such an atmosphere allows for isolated theoretical discussions that cultivate “the purely rhetorical violence of the academic debates: their terms are all the more caustic for being closely confined, so rarely do they have any occasion to pass beyond the campus gates” (34). Cusset’s argument can also be taken further than the universities, for it is that idea of “college years” that is so culturally pervasive that it invades America’s less privileged who work low-paying jobs, often live at home, and attend city colleges and community colleges. These places are bastions of positivistic teaching practices imposed on professors in the forms mandatory syllabi and texts that walk students (and uninitiated teachers) through each rhetorical mode, often times stressing form over content while giving lipservice to “thoughts.”
Anything “theoretical” in these settings is seen as elitist, esoteric, boring, bad or unclear writing, or some sadistic drudgery demanded by the professor. Even if you are an entertaining and inspiring teacher, you still might encounter the student – as I did my first semester teaching in 2003– who refuses to read Judith Butler because she is a lesbian. (It’s at least a little more encouraging for me when I see a bit more engagement with the text, like this past semester when student’s response paper to McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage simply stated: “I think Marshall McLuhan is full of shit.”)
The gap between theory and practice is large in the United States. In privileged environments some have instituted Writing Across the Curriculum, which focuses on rhetorical practice; in less privileged places, environments either cultivate agonistic relationships between students and professors or “worker bees” whose degrees will never give them the opportunity they think it will. Gold stars for everyone. The theoretical side, which some believe to be passé, is left to graduate students, creating a discursive divide between graduates and undergraduates. Such divisions only marginalize theory more. In order for theory to appropriately inform practice, it is necessary to find ways to introduce theoretical and philosophical concepts to college students in America. Such concepts, however, must be combined with some sort of historical texture, not simply a thinker’s celebrity status. Of course, there is also a way that classic distinctions between theory and practice simply do not work for contemporary rhetoric, which makes teaching difficult for anyone who wants to explore those issues. One easily slips into arguments about knowledge construction and postmodernism, conjuring demons in the desert.
Emmanuel Levinas is a thinker who bridges historical divides in calcified conversations about modernism and postmodernism. He helps us understand the complexity of navigating deep personal belief in academic and public spaces, and he challenges the very roots of what a discipline like rhetoric is, compelling rhetoricians to remain constantly aware of what is at stake in rhetoric. Considering what thinkers like Levinas bring to a discussion about rhetoric can help answer questions like: What do you teach when all teaching is political advocacy, when every move is rhetorical? And, very practically speaking, what do you do when you recognize that you are in dialogue with people who have not arrived at the same point or traveled the same path? What do you do when you teach freshman who regularly write things like “back when racism was a problem” or “back when women were not equal”? When ethics and history are entangled, what do you do with students who think the Great Depression happened in the 1960s?
Perhaps this is to be expected from young students; and perhaps some theory is not for freshman, just as a pre-med student wouldn’t take a class on brain surgery. And there are also situations like the following example: A friend of mine, a graduate student in Religious Studies at a large university in California, recently told me about a disturbing situation. In class, she and her graduate cohorts were discussing a reading. When they reached a point where someone said, “does anyone else have anything to say?” my friend raised her hand to speak, saying there were some gender issues that hadn’t been covered. The discussion leader’s response was, “we’re not going to talk about gender.” The group agreed with the leader. Yet, according to my friend, the group’s aversion to the discussion of gender was not borne out of a sort of passé argument that is intellectually out of fashion or too pedestrian. Their aversion was due to discomfort and unreflective thinking; it simply wasn’t a problem or a valid “lens” for critical inquiry. Is this the “post-theoretical” educated world?
The kind of sentiments my friend encountered are similar to the kind of sentiments recently given toward discussions of theory in general. We tend to historicize the dismantling of theory in the 1990s as the diffusion of an exigency to be well-read in a certain type of intellectual literature that insulated professional academic identity. Perhaps it was simply necessary to dissolve neurotic elements in academic culture. Theory is “dead”; it died with a generation of scholars who “got over” the competitive demand to be in the know and up to date on the most current continental philosophy, even though they still have baggage about it. Such dismissals of theory come from many angles: from the impractical and esoteric nature of it, from an aversion to a certain personality type that seeks self-gratification from how much Derrida they’ve read, from conservative intellectuals who brand it non-sense, to a general aversion to the celebrity status of certain intellectuals. And yet, Francois Cusset’s, French Theory, goes so far as to say that the genealogy of American mis-reception to French writers, “determines, still today, global intellectual debate; and it explains, as an indirect consequence, both the new imperialist and neoconservative order in the period after September 11, 2001, and the impotence on the part of any left-leaning force that would oppose it” (5). If Cusset is even partially accurate, there is a recent historical imperative to understand what sort of influence theory had to say, even if it is only as intellectual history.
The differing cultural receptions to French intellectualism in the late twentieth century that Cusset refers to with Americans can also be seen between England and the France. Kate Soper begins her book, Humanism and Anti-Humanism, saying that most English people believe humanism is “more or less synonymous with atheism” (9) and then goes on to make a more subtle distinction:
If we ‘speak English’, then, ‘anti-humanism’ amounts to a dogmatic rejection of that ‘irenic and mediatory ethic’ which self-styled humanists have always deemed an essential component of their enlightenment. If we ‘speak French’, on the other hand, it constitutes itself a new enlightenment from whose purview every form of humanist thinking is revealed as no less obfuscatory and mythological than the theology and superstition which the ‘humanist’ movement has traditionally congratulated itself upon rejecting. (11)
In other words, according to the French, “anti-humanism” has come to be associated with a way of thinking that challenges traditional humanism on the grounds that humanism has merely usurped traditional religion and inserted itself as a kind of secular religion which operates through the same ideological power it has historically tried to depose. Because Levinas is a thinker whose work informs later French thinkers like Derrida, who is put in the anti-humanist “camp,” studying Levinas’s work helps Americans understand more of the context of what poststructuralists react to as well as this mixing of terms surrounding humanism.
Levinas sees the possibility for a new humanism, one that is situated by the priority of the metaphysical relation to the Other. Levinas’s blending of the religious with the secular, his lack of fear to use the word “God,” places him in an important position for discussing rhetorical stance in the early twenty-first century, and while his ethics are not prescribed, he clearly works in philosophical and religious and traditions with exegetical methods that inform his ethics. It is therefore important to understand Levinas in terms of western thought in general to see what he brings to the discussion.
The following sections of this post will discuss the intricacies of Levinas’s ethics in relation to rhetoric, the problem of representation, phenomenological concepts of prayer and how they inform ethical gesturing, exegesis as ethical process, and the opening for a new approach to humanism. I argue that some of Levinas’s arguments potentially create an optimistic vision for future academic discourse, both theoretical and practical, if we are willing to discuss a “new” vision of humanism informed by twentieth-century theory and political horror. Such a vision requires resituating how religious thought is dealt with in so-called secular environments and pedagogical approaches to composition rhetoric that stress the value hermeneutic training over formal training.
History, Facticity, and Knowledge
When situating Levinas’s ethical philosophy in dialogue with rhetoric, one confronts an ancient tension between knowledge and being. Rhetoric is an art of choosing the best way to comport one’s self in a given situation, or kairotic moment, and it cannot be separated from ethics. Rhetoric, in its ancient sense, though always for an audience, is not dialogical. Yet invention in the 21st century rhetoric, in written form, carries the weight of an historical position that is hyper aware of the social elements of its facticity. More than the facticity of individual ethos and personal reputation, as artifact, written rhetoric exists in a large social sphere. In academic discourse especially, written rhetoric is dialogical; although it occupies a different temporality than the face-to-face conversation. The theoretical academic audience is a specific cultural entity, one that is comparable to, in Levinasian terms, metaphysically other. The writer acts – in some ways is compelled to act – to respond to something overlapping his or her private imagination and the social environment. One doesn’t write in response to Plato, but in response to the idea of Plato and the tradition of reception to his thought; just as Talmudic scholar, Rabbi David E. Sulomm Stein says when speaking of the historical legacy of a “masoretic text”: “the number of details has been too vast for masorah to address all room for disagreement” (ix). The study becomes a deep engagement with something wholly uncontainable. The overlap of western rhetorical – and to a certain extent, Christian – tradition has entered a dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas’s writings in a kairotic moment where questions of ethics, and particularly religious belief, take center stage in both academic and political discourse. Because of the inherent instability of texts, Levinas brings a heightened emphasis to exegetical work that simultaneously has implications for studies of ethos.
It is not simply that one would study to merely be prepared for the moment of saying; exegetical study is a process of moving toward the other. It is a tempering process. Levinas addresses the issue in his essay, or testimony, as he calls it, “The Jewish Understanding of Scripture” as he explains Pardes: Jewish exegesis. Referring to an ancient text dealing with punishment by flagellation, Levinas says,
We must first patiently accept – as we do the conventions of the fable or a theatrical production – the specifics of the text in its own world; we must wait until these details begin to free themselves from the anachronisms and local color on which the curtain rose. In any case, this exotic or antiquated language should not hinder our thinking just because it includes the picturesque, or because we shy at the immediate meaning of the things and acts it names. All that is going to change – often, after beginning with questions that seem incongruous and insignificant.
What wisdom for composition students! Although written rhetoric is a reaction formation occurring on the hither side of what, for Levinas, would be a pre-existing ethical relationship, it is the action or gesture of a response – even if it is perhaps an inherently violent response. It is an act of saying, and the rhetor’s position acutely models the ethics of substitution precisely because it is the temporality of intention, the grouping of self into an ‘I’, which says. This is why the ethics of the speaker is one of the original topics in discussing rhetoric; ηθος as dwelling or home. But we could go back further. Heraclitus’ first Cosmic Fragment begins, “Of the Logos which is as I describe it men always prove to be uncomprehending, both before they have heard it and when once they have heard it” (32). Re-presentation reduces experience and memory into the artificiality of knowledge. In Phaedrus, Socrates is skeptical of the written word. Language is representation, but this is a necessity of sociality – communication. The temporality of written response is more than a kneejerk; ethics implies deliberation, even if ethical responsibility precedes deliberation, even if I am responsible before I deliberate – before I know to deliberate.
Gnosis comes from gignoskein – to come to know. This coming to, or movement toward, precedes knowledge. The action of saying performs ethics. The action of the said was an ethical act for a different exigency. At times, Levinas will speak of transcending history itself – an alarming thought in light of twentieth century history. But this seemingly “modernist” wish is, for him, a wish to be in a discursive situation, a face-to-face dialogue that transcends the tendency to reduce history to a visible totality (Totality and Infinity 243). In this sense he wishes to avoid the materialism of Marxism in the mid-twentieth century, to distinguish our humanity and animality: “to know or to be conscious is to have time to avoid and forestall the instant of inhumanity” (35). The past, for Levinas, is suspect; however, this does not change its importance, and Levinas’s own devotion to the history of philosophy is evident. His favoring of the saying over said is similar to Socrates’ skepticism of the written word; for Levinas says he is interested in the saying “less through its informational contents than by the fact that it is addressed to an interlocutor” (Ethics and Infinity 42). This address would be intentional.
Ethics must be at some point about the relationship between the physicality, the materiality of being. It is more than the reduction to just that, but ethics are about this world. As Simone de Beauvoir says, “one does not offer an ethics to a God” (Ethiscs and Infinity 10). The problem of representation is bound to my facticity as a being instantiated in a body. It is inescapable, and the question becomes: What do I do with my facticity in which I am already entwined with the Other, with whom I was entwined before I was I? The me who was before the I. The “I” is bound to the Other before it comes to the gnosis of self. The author I was before I wrote.
The Problem of Artifice and Representation
The question for rhetoricians with regard to Levinas is: Can you accept the argument that ethics is first philosophy? If I accept Levinas’s argument, then the next question must be something along the lines of how do I come to an awareness of my responsibility to the other? How is my stance to be ethical, which means also how is my responsibility to be performed? Historical factors have also shaped my facticity before I “come” to know. But my ethics must be a consciousness of my responsibility, even for what I am unconscious of.
Yet Levinas resists the post-modern “constructed” self as he resists rhetoric, representation, and aesthetics. Jill Robbins has discussed Levinas’s over aversion to aesthetics in Altered Reading where she relays that, for Levinas regarding poetry,
it is not just the figures of figural interpretation that are said to cover up the ethical. It is as if figures themselves were unethical, as if anything that plays were ethically suspect. Levinas says: “We distrust that which plays [se joue] in spite of us.” 50
Art takes us away from our selves. When we “pretend to be other,” do we not avoid responsibility or risk colonizing via the projection of an imaginaire? How much power does the “I” have? Robbins traces the tension in Levinas back to Socrates and a philosophic distrust of poetry, but she also sees another possibility in Levinas’s “turn” away from the rhetorical:
If figure, rhetoric, mimesis, the literary were not what Levinas takes them to be then it might be necessary not to turn away from figure, as Levinas does, but to face the figure otherwise, as language’s ownmost figurative potential, as that which is most distinctive to language, that is, to face language as ethical possibility. 54
Representation clearly has a place for Levinas, particularly in language and literary representation; even in its imperfection, it is necessary. Its place is in exegetical discovery. The problem arises in the thematization of representation, in the making, or perhaps even more problematic: a thematizing that is unaware of its tendency to grasp or ossify. The face of the Other signifies the infinite for Levinas; that is, the face signifies the inability to signify the Other. The very signification cannot contain what it signifies. Ethical language here, or thought, would then need to move beyond its function to merely signify; it must be an “action-ing.” This is something performed by a subject; it is the very instantiation of a subject – a very rhetorical matter. It is perhaps honesty before comportment. Levinas calls this way of languaging testimony.
Testimony is a saying that, for Levinas, communicates beyond thematization. Testimony would be prayer itself by saying “Here I am!” to the Other. It is a location of being – a being-accountable. In Ethics and Infinity, when Philippe Nemo asks Levinas, “who testifies to what and to whom in testimony? What has the witness or prophet of whom you speak seen happen, about which he has to testify?” Levinas responds:
E. L.: You continue to think in terms of testimony as based on knowledge and thematization. The concept of testimony I am trying to describe surely implies a mode of revelation, but this revelation gives us nothing. Philosophical speech always comes back to thematization…
Ph. N.: …however, one could ask you why you yourself thematize all this, and at this very moment. Is this not also in a sense to testify?
E.L.: […] I do not deny that philosophy is knowledge, insofar as it names even what is not nameable, and thematizes what is not thematizable. But in thus giving to what breaks with the categories of discourse the form of the said, perhaps it impresses onto the said the traces of this rupture. (107-108)
The value in philosophical thought for Levinas is in the potential for “traces” of rupture to make their way into the recorded discourse. This is perhaps Levinas’s answer to why Plato ever bothered to take on the task of recording Socrates.
It may be possible for the saying of a composition to be a kind of testifying, a kind of prayer – Blanchot’s writing as death – but to what extent can these “traces of rupture” be intentional?
One possibility is a loosening of meaning. Critical studies in the twentieth century sought to loosen meaning by removing the idea of a producing agent and placing meaning in the receiving subject, but then that subject too was called into question. This critical dissolving of intentional subjectivity seems antithetical to an ethics of accountability, yet it is easy to see the ethics behind a movement that would unmask a kind of romantic subjectivity for its arrogance, for the very arrogance of claiming one’s self as a substitute for the divine – a mythic structure of producer and consumer reflecting market economy. Accountability in a composing process informed by Levinasian ethics would not be the sort of accountability American politicians and business executives wish to see in a kind of verifiable or quantitative approach to teaching writing. It would not be about language accuracy in the sense of an objective correlative either. Yet a testifying composition must remain somewhat intentional.
Blanchot’s Writing of the Disaster comes to mind in its fragmentary structure and thus its avoidance of a thematizing narrative. Robbins suggests that
on the basis of reading Blanchot, Levinas has modified somewhat his understanding of the work of art, not so much as regards its ontology than as regards its possible relation to ethics. But any question of how much Levinas may have learned from Blanchot in the interim must also acknowledge that Levinas remains unconvinced about the capacity of art to signify transcendence. 154
For Levinas, certain works, particularly biblical, have the power to open one to the awareness of the prior ethical relationship. The exegetical process of relating to those works will always be more fundamental than seeking to be a producer of those works. To the extent that intentional work would be produced, it seems as though the work’s saying in response to the Other must take precedence over that content of what is said, and the saying ought acknowledge the priority of the Other – an ethics of an inevitable substitution. I find the description of saying to overlap with the phenomenological gesture of prayer.
The Phenomenology of Prayer
There is an approach to languaging – hermeneutic in origin – that would be useful in thinking about composition as Levinasian testimony. In order to perform what I mean, I will provide a brief etymological study of the words translated into English as “pray” from the Judeo-Christian Bible. According to Strong’s Biblical Concordance, there are about ten different words for “pray,” most of which have Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek meanings. In Hebrew / Aramaic, the three most common uses for the word pray (in the Bible) are the following:
1. na: a primitive particle of incitement or entreaty, which may be rendered I pray, now, or then; added mostly to verbs (in the imperative or future), or to interject, occasionally to an adverb or a conjunction. – I beseech (pray) thee, go to, now, oh.
2. anna: oh now! – I (me) beseech (pray) thee. O; anah: I, me, mine, myself, we, which, who; an: where?; hence, whither?, when?: also hither and thither.
3. palal: a primitive root; to judge (officially or mentally); by extension to intercede, pray: – judge or make supplication.
These three Hebrew / Aramaic words for “pray” point to a particular kind of utterance: an interjection that exclaims and implores. The utterance is located in time: now, then, toward the future, when? The word meanings also locate place: where; and perspective: I, me, mine, judge, etc.
Greek definitions and translations of the previous Hebrew and Aramaic words for “pray” add more layers of meaning.
1. sophronizo: to make of sound mind, (figurative) to discipline or correct. Teach to be sober. From sophron: safe (sound) in mind, i.e. self-controlled (moderate as to opinion or passion) – discreet, sober, temperate. From sozo: to deliver or protect (literal or figurative); heal, preserve, save (self), do well, be (make) whole. AND phren: probably from an obsolete phrao (to rein in or curb): the midriff (as a partition of the body) i.e. (figurative by implied sympathy) the feelings for sensitive nature – understanding.
2. apoballo: to throw off (figurative) to lose: cast away; from apo: off, away (from something near) in various senses (place, time, or relation) usually denotes separation.
The Greek meanings add more explicitly ethical (and rhetorical) layers to the word by locating it within teaching, the self, the body, understanding, and sympathy. The Greek meanings, like the Hebrew, also convey instantiation in time and difference through separation of being. It is also worth considering Latin meanings for prayer. Even though Levinas was Jewish, Jill Robbins notes that, especially regarding Levinas’s approach to Dostoevsky: “Levinas’s intertextual relationship to Dostoevsky, and the particular intricacy of Jewish and Christian traditions that nourish his work, complicates any simple Judeo-centered reading of Levinas’s ethics. Consider the etymology of “genuflection,” which reveals an original conception of difference (which also reveals an overlap with Derrida’s Differance).
Genuflect: Latin: genu = knee + flecture = to bend
1. To bend the knee in a kneeling or half-kneeling position, as in worship
2. To exhibit a deferential or obsequious manner or attitude
Deference: Courteous respect or submission to another’s opinion
Defer: Latin: differe
1. To put off until a future time: postpone
2. Delay or procrastinate
Differe: Latin: dis = apart + ferre = to carry
1. To be disimilar in nature, quality, amount, or form
2. To be of a different opinion: disagree
3. To dispute or quarrel
Defer: Latin: deferre: de = carry + ferre = away –> to bring to or to carry away
1. To comply with or submit to the wishes, opinion, or decision of another
Obsequious: Latin: ob = to + sequi = follow
1. To comply, follow, fawning: servile
These words tell a Judeo-Christian story. The original separation from God is perhaps both a difference and in form and a quarrel. To sin may simply be to know, or to come to know, one is separate from God. The difference is then overcome by a combination of prayer as genuflection and forgiveness, in a Christian sense, and responsibility and election in a Jewish sense. Genuflection is a performance for the metaphysically Other; it is an act of will, yet it is not an artistic gesture; it is an honest gesture which does not seek to inform, persuade, or please. Can intention ever be truly honest? Can we come to a “clean” sense of responsibility where we are no longer enshrouded in our attempt? Only through establishing myself as a being different from God, which is the source of my guilt, can I enact willful submission.
Instantiation of self, of perspective, is fundamentally an act of difference. It is an act in the face of God. This action of self is the site of meaning. The way one languages prayer is an instance of making meaning through intention. However, the moment I arrive at myself, on the hither side of the prayer itself, I am immediately instantiated again as a being whose difference is a quarrel with the divine. It is this instantiation of self – this instance – that creates my existence in time. It seems part of being human is the instantiation of self that defines me as different from God and gives a sense of purpose to either repair or justify this difference.
It is important to understand that “it is not in order to recognize itself as more guilty by specific acts committed that the I who speaks here accuses itself.” Levinas takes his point of departure from Dostoyevsky’s line in The Brothers Karamazov: “‘We are all guilty, the one toward the other, and I more than all the others.’ It is as me, always the foremost one responsible, experiencing the inexhaustible obligations, that the I is in the wrong, and recognizes in this wrong the identity of its ‘I’” (Is It Righteous To Be? 112). It would be misleading to attach this guilt to conceptions of man’s fallen nature in some sort of homiletic context to evangelize. Levinas is concerned with a structuring that is not a mystical conversion experience. This is why his emphasis on an exegetical relationship with text, with its connection to mitnagdim tradition is important. Jewish prayer does not appear to be individual prayer (at least not the modern subjective ‘I’), but when combined with exegetical study, which is personal, as with Christian notions of prayer, we see the emphasis on subjectivity and pluralist ethics.
To the extent that I exist for the Other before I know that I exist, as if my appearance or body existed before the I inhabited it, I may be oblivious to my ethical obligation. Transcendence, for Levinas, occurs before knowledge, and it is the task of ethics as first philosophy to account for a pre-thematizable rupture of subjectivity. This is what Levinas calls “beyond essence” or “otherwise than being.” There is a way, ethically speaking, that my ruptured subjectivity is fundamental to my being, as fundamental as my historical facticity, yet unthematizable as fact. Why, one might ask, can we not take the rupture as fact, as given, as deed done? I think the answer has something to do with a way that that mode of thinking would “take God for granted”; it would be giving meaning back to the mystery of an overflow that cannot be contained and giving an applause to God for doing “good work” as if God had designed an impressive new car, as if God were my teleological peer. It is an arrogance that would give feedback to an existence it didn’t understand. To see rupture as mere facticity would be idle praise.
To proceed from ethics as first philosophy and “to derive praxis and knowledge in the world from this nonassumable susceptibility,” from beyond essence, will not be a prerequisite fulfilled only once, but a returning gesture (Otherwise than Being xlviii). Writing is an experience of a language that “houses being” in the Heidegerrian sense which makes the writing process signify an “experience [which] is a reading, an understanding of sense, an exegesis, a hermeneutic, and not an intuition” (Humanism of the Other 13). Prayer, or testimonial composition, would be a responsive signifying gesture in the face of an unthematizable Other, an Other who’s mysterious presence already in a sense knows everything about me, so that my account is no mere posturing. Nor would I need to “prove” by insinuation – or prove at all; I only need to account for my own instantiation which has already happened, as if Prometheus learned his secret by chance or accident and couldn’t give the knowledge back. There is no taking back my comportment, my existence. Even suicide could not accomplish the task of disintegration, for even disintegration would be a temporalization related to being, as the dissolving sugar in Bergson’s famous description of duration.
In a sense, all writing, speaking, languaging is already a kind of testimonial. One could say what I do “adds to my record,” yet to leave it at that avoids the ethical nature of intentionality and reverts to banal tautology. In rhetoric as a discipline, there is a tendency to claim everything belongs to rhetoric (I am particularly thinking of texts like Andrea Lunsford’s Everything’s an Argument, but it also applies to notions that an owl hooting in the woods performs rhetoric). But this stance is meant as a rhetorical incentive to interpret the world in terms of a saturation of pre-existing meaning, an authorized book of nature. It is the empirical twist on hermeneutics of Sir Francis Bacon’s inductive method which led him to conclude that “man is but the servant and interpreter of nature” (243). Rather than investigating Bacon’s Plotinian roots, John Locke saw a word as a sign which signifies a human idea built by human mind. Such a conception leaves little room for biblical exegesis and hermeneutic methods, and stresses the conception of the human maker, that productive romantic concept which is add odds with what Levinas brings to the discussion. Locke’s emphasis on a more extreme subject-object split, where meaning is recorded through senses (sense as body-sense, not a Greek sense of aesthetic) leads conceptions of humanity to exist not so much in a divinely created world full of meaning as much as in a world empty of spirit; it creates secularism as tabula rasa creates human equality. Even though Locke was religious, it is easy after him to glorify humanism over religious beliefs. Rhetoricians who claim everything as part of their field make a risky ethical claim.
It is the banality of claiming that everything is…the banality of the verb “to be” to situate the “I” as maker, to make the “I” substitute for otherness that separates the objective world into a world that thinks humanity before thinking the face of the other. This version of humanism is the humanism that led to Instrumental Reason. It is the humanism that replaced religion with a version of itself as positivistic science tends to do as well. It is not that science or the older humanism is inherently evil, but they both tend to create a world of nameable phenomena. It was this empirical humanism that made thinkers anti-humanist. The rhetorician who claims that everything is the domain of rhetoric usurps the role of namer of things (and framer of things) and in doing so enacts on a global scale the instantiation of a self that attempts to account for more than itself; indeed, it seeks to account for everything but itself, and in its lack of accountability it is perpetually cast out of the garden by its own arrogance.
The tendency for intention to be non-transparent is exactly what makes rhetoric so ethically questionable. The intention to persuade rather than to be accountable to the other, rather than to testify, is an avoidance of responsibility and a usurpation of another’s space. The tendency to persuade, however, is perhaps unavoidable. It is also part of the instantiation of self. The finite nature of being imposes limits, and it is because of those limits that ethical relationships exist, both with an Other that would be God as well as others who occupy human temporality. When the difference implied by the instantiation of prayer is neglected, is taken as given, or simply carelessly unthought, this opens the space for arrogance. Levinas’s contribution to rhetoric is a return to its most fundamental tension: between ethics and being. It is the question of how to be righteous. His message is a perpetual saying that is a return to the priority of the Other before moving into the act of persuasion or substituting one’s voice for another’s. This would be a new humanism, one that accounts for the face of the other before thinking in terms of human collectivity.
How might this approach to saying be employed in composing? And not as a set of rules but as a commitment to something? And how might teaching happen? For the teacher is almost always in the process of persuasion, substitution, and erasure into the channeling of the trace.
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