Thursday, January 3, 2008

Childhood in the Margins: Levinas and the Mortality of the Face

(Conference Paper, PHAVISMINDA Conference, Camiguin, 2005)

Emmanuel Levinas elaborates in his magnum opus, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, the groundwork for an ethics of the human face, “choosing as basis, the ethical basis of society, the self’s responsibility for the other”1. For Levinas, the face, which is a metaphor for the other, refers “to the poor, the stranger, the abandoned, the orphan”[i], or put simply, the suffering man who is left in the margins, hungry, and dying. The face, the marginalized, reminds us of our responsibility. The “I’ only finds its meaning when it answers the call of the other. To be responsible means to proclaim that the “I” in the here and now is an “I” that says, “I am for you”.

Statement of the Problem

Fundamentally, man, as a social being, exists for the sake of his fellowman. To be a man, therefore, is to be a “man for others”. Social ethics presupposes man’s responsibility for the other. Responsibility consists of two terms: response and ability. It is precisely because we have the ability to respond that we must act on the appeal of the other.

The face of the other appeals to us, but the reality of human life suggests that we have been indifferent to the plight of the other. Our indifference to the suffering other is a symptom of western culture’s self-centeredness. The influence of western culture has come to our shores, and it is evident in the self-centeredness of many Filipinos. This kind of culture, according to Levinas, is “a form of egology”.[ii] This egology, with which we are more familiar with as egocentrism, “refers to the basic tendency of the self to place itself at the center”[iii], resulting in the neglect of the other. This paper attempts to trace the reason for the ego’s neglect of the other, and in uncovering this indifference, hopes to bring a voice to that suffering face. Reiterating the thesis of Levinas, it shall be the main point of this paper that “responsibility comes through the other”[iv], and as such, there is a need to elaborate on the meaning of this responsibility.

The root of the problem is the refusal of the ego to recognize this responsibility, and because of this, the other continues to suffer. This paper will deal with two important concepts: totality and infinity. We quote from Leovino Garcia, in his paper “Infinite Responsibility for the Other” in Unitas (Volume 65):

“To the idea of totality corresponds the egocentric (or I-centered) model of relation and society; to the idea of infinity corresponds the ethical (or the other-centered) model of relation and society.”[v]

To concretize our reflection on this very important matter, allow me to direct our attention to the street children in our urban centers. Malnourished and fragile, young innocent children live as beggars in the streets, a familiar sight in many of our cities.
The face of the child in the streets is an obvious phenomenon, but humankind hears not the cry of this moral obligation. The face of the children in the margins of the streets is a face that many of us try to avoid. Moreover, the face of that child, our present human condition suggests, is a dying one. It is the face of a poor child neglected and is dying from starvation because society does not see the rationale in sharing a piece of bread to those who have nothing to eat, or more philosophically perhaps, because the homo economicus in man finds indifference a better option than feeding the hungry. But Levinas teaches us that the face of that child presents itself as an ultimate demand – “Do not kill”.[vi] What the margins of the street reveal is the face of an innocent child who has to suffer from society’s inadvertence, a clear picture of western man’s neglect of the other. Levinas asks, “has western humanism been a failure because it has remained a humanism of the I and has not become a humanism of the other man?”[vii]

Our disregard of the other, of the other’s fragility and mortal existence, results in death. And this is manifested in the reality of starving children who do not enjoy a basic right – food on the table. In many poor nations, death accompanies the indifference of the western world. The face of the child suffers from this evil. Surely, we have forgotten, that “the human face is a concrete expression of mortality”.[viii]

Otherness and Ethical Responsibility

Ethics is first philosophy. The reason for this is the fact that first and foremost, man is a moral subject, ergo, free, and with that freedom comes responsibility. Fundamentally, as a moral subject, man must answer the call of duty, for he possesses a sense of right and wrong – rationality and reasonableness oblige man to do the good.
An ethical relation is an other-centered relation. Man, primordially, however, exists for the good of the other. Ethics exists for the sake of the suffering other. Why? Without the other, the self has no meaning. The other, in addressing me, makes me inalienably responsible.[ix] The meaning of human action emerges when it is directed to the other, the other being at the receiving end who defines the character of that deed.

But who is the other? The other as other, says Levinas, is the face that one sees. In many instances, however, we refuse to see the face. For instance, if one considers the streets of the city where poor Badjao children thrive to earn a pittance by begging, many are indifferent to their plight due to the refusal to see the person who wears the dirty clothes. This refusal is what Levinas calls an allergy. The Badjao child in the margins of the streets, felt as a mere disturbance, suffers from this allergy. This allergy exists because man is afraid of his responsibility for the other. Such indifference makes the other suffer.

The suffering other, that anonymous being that one encounters in the margins, is oftentimes manipulated in order to satisfy the desires of the ego. This is the kind of atrocity perpetuated by individuals who are supposed to take good care of abandoned children, an atrocity that reminds us, of “the violence and the seductive powers of totalitarianism[x].” Many among us have done nothing except build an image for ourselves. For instance, child advocacy by some groups, with no real philosophical content, has become mere propaganda. It has been the way things are, for politicians need to win again, and organizations need the funding. These people are the ultimate expression of that egoistic self, a self that only desires what is good for its survival. And in the process of preserving itself, the other is destroyed, its validity thwarted, and simply dismissed as somebody who is not a real concern.

The desire of humankind for self-preservation makes the other a nemesis, a threat to one’s existence. Because of one’s concern for a self-image, there follows a failure to recognize the “otherness of the other”. Philosophical reflection, patterned from a primal form of egocentricity, is always guilty of such. Thus, in reflecting about the question of the self, one may find a profound understanding of human nature, but such essentially neglects the question of the other.

Moral philosophy, more than an examination of the intrinsic nature of human action or the human person’s desire to be, should be, more importantly, a way of caring[xi] for the other as face, the other as a suffering face. Morality should be a morality that cares, period. Morality should act for the sake of those who are suffering from the abuses of the human will. Ethics exists for the other.

Egonomy and the Children in the Margins

Life in the metropolis is a testament to the present Filipino’s indifference to the other. Let us attend to the margins of metropolitan life, and again, the streets. If one is truly observant of his surroundings, one should not fail to see the heart shattering presence of very young street children begging in the streets. At one time I saw a child, probably aged three, running the streets to beg. A mother, with almost no sign of present society’s scheme of things, carries her one year old and approaches each vehicle that stops. Later, a little baby cries of hunger, his brother unable to find a way of helping him out of his miserable existence.

If one looks at all the giant edifices all over the metropolis, the gadgets that one uses and discards in order to be updated of what is trendy, and the way one spends the days life in cinemas, malls, and parties, the sight of these innocent children would be no more than a statement of one’s irresponsibility. Garcia writes,

“The egonomy of the western civilization finds its practical expression in the western way of life. In this lifestyle, there is privilege accorded to objectification, control, manipulation, technology, planning, and exploitation.”[xii]

The miserable condition of these children is a modern day plague. Children have become the unlikely victims of egocentricity. They occupy the silence and emptiness of the streets, for the ego refuses to acknowledge their existence. There they are, existing merely as statistical data and wandering in the brutality of modern civilization, waiting for their ultimate test of torture, serving as specimens of modern society’s indifference. Our encounter with them is no more than a fleeting moment of a little kindness, if not hypocrisy.

The streets belong to the “nobody”, and thus, the young children who live there have become a “nobody”, a nameless face. They have been forced out from their homes because of poverty, family or military conflict, but many of them are stripped of their humanity because of injustice, for their parents do not have a share of society’s wealth, and so in the streets they dwell, forlorn, forgotten, and dying.

Society’s lack of attention, its disregard for those lives in the margins, has resulted in man’s greatest problem - the presence of unending violence in our modern day existence. This violence speaks of the absence of our sense of responsibility. On the personal level, the self that I am neglects the presence of the face. The self that I am moves as if everything else revolves around it. The self that I am acts as if the world belongs to it. We call this attitude selfishness. The self exists for itself and no other.

Totality and Violence

In the process of totalization[xiii], the “I” dwells in the center and becomes the master of the fate of the other. The “I” becomes the center of the world, the source of meaning of the world. It is the “I” that determines what the “other” should be. The other, and his very freedom, is subjugated, thwarted. For Levinas, “totality refers to a fundamental perspective wherein the self is at the center. In this attitude or perspective, the self reduces the other to itself.”[xiv] This reduction, which is showcased in western man’s indifference, results to violence, the kind of violence that our world today experiences. Violence exists in the world because of the ego’s indifference. The denial of the other is the foundation of this violence.[xv]

Totality is a thinking that starts from the same and returns to the same.[xvi] According to Dr. Garcia, this can be explained by way of a metaphor. Totality can be painted in the story of Ulysses, where he leaves on a journey only to return home.[xvii] The self returns to the self. The ego returns to the ego. The self exists for its own sake. For Levinas, “totality is egonomy”[xviii]. The self is the law. The self is the center of reality. All meanings emanate around the self. Moreover, if applied to the real conditions of man, Levinas says, “egonomy is practically expressed as economy”.[xix] The face suffers, for the other is dominated by the powers of economy. The other becomes the objectified face, the manipulated and the abused face. The other has nothing, and so in terms of the economy, reduced to a mere means to an end. In the egocentric model, truth comes from the power of the ego. It is the will of this ego that has a rightful claim to objectivity. The other and his claim to truth are annihilated. It is the self that knows, and knowledge becomes simply the principle of the will of the ego. The ego that defines the limits of what is true and what is just is an ego that does not know what is other than itself. Such blindness results in violence.

Children who grow on the streets will soon obey the rule of the jungle. Uncared for, they grow without a sense of value, and as such, commit themselves to the kind of violence that the streets taught them. Sooner or later, the child will come face to face with his own death. Who is this child? In a capitalist society, that child becomes the face of a helpless worker, who as victim of oppressive working conditions, suffers and is reduced to the level of things, reaching the point of almost starving to death. In a tyrannical regime, that child is the face of an unwilling victim of political oppression, sacrificed for the sake of justice. In the social sphere, that child is the face of an alien entity, whose voice is unheard, whose significance is equal to nil, for he is the illiterate, the uneducated, the dirty man in the street. In the cultural dimension, that child is the face of a dying voice in the wilderness, whose survival and very way of life is partnered with extinction.

The other then is a victim of the gods of the ego. The insignificant other is the child who dies from tuberculosis because his parents cannot afford its cure, the child who has to die in an ambush after being caught in the crossfire, the child who has to become a victim of bombings and salvaging, and all because of the reason that that child is an other, a face that has been abandoned. The law of the ego is clear: to stay in power, it must kill. The predator must have a prey for it to realize its very being, for it to actualize its nature. There is violence because of man’s concern for self-preservation. The ego, in order to exist, kills the other through his indifference.

Infinite Responsibility

For Levinas, “infinity is the thinking that moves from the same to the other”[xx]. Here, one can have the metaphor of Abraham “who leaves home forever for an unknown land”[xxi]. Abraham is the symbol of the person who reaches out to become a man-for-others. To reach out means to leave oneself in favor of the other. Infinity, for Levinas, in this sense, is the infinite responsibility for the other. What is the meaning of this? The original encounter with the face is that of an infinite responsibility. There is an obligation, a demand to act. In my refusal to see, what is presupposed is that I have already recognized the other, but the initial effect is that of rejection, of allergy. The only feeling that the “I” shows to the other is that of antagonism, that of violence.

This we can plainly see. Every time a young girl, poor and untidy, approaches a teenage student who is about to enter the halls of the school, the initial reaction is that of disgust and abomination. Such an act is a visible display of the violence against the other. Is it not that education exists to make us better humans?

The face, which appears instantly as antithetical, implies the radical demand to recognize the otherness of the other. The response is grounded on the ethical. It is a moral responsibility. The example above suggests that the initial reaction of abomination is due to the refusal to see the face of the other. What is seen is the dirty clothing, not the child who is wearing such. If only one makes the effort to see the eyes of that innocent young being, then one would certainly feel what is to be done. This is not a request. It is a call to action. The other demands our responsibility.
The other demands that I become responsible. The face of the other speaks of man’s task. The other is the ego’s superior[xxii], not a co-equal. I exist for the other. According to Levinas, “the avoiding of the other, the refusal to see his face, is only possible when the “I” has seen the other and experienced him as an other who demands recognition as other”.[xxiii] It is in being responsible for the other that the meaning of the “I” is determined. What am I if I have done nothing for my brothers? What is a father if he has not loved his children?

In the face of the other, the “I” becomes “the accused”[xxiv]. And in the end, the question that reverberates to the deepest part of one’s selfish ego, is simply this – what have I done to you? There is no escape. The ego must be responsible. The ego will have to face that moment. There are only two options. Either the “I” rejects the other, or accept the otherness of the other. It can only be rejection or responsibility. It is either I refuse to see that face, or accept responsibility to whatever has happened to that face, to that dying face.

Through the other then I realize who I am. I am mortal, just as the other is. I have a face, just as the other has a face. I am responsible for the other. I can never be responsible for the kind of being that I am if I neglect the otherness of the other. The self, when it goes back to itself, finds that the self is but empty. My moral existence, the person that I am, only finds its sense in its being for the other.

This responsibility can only be concrete because the other, the face, is a concrete existing reality. It is not about the fulfillment of the desires of the spirit. The face, that dying child in the margins, is hungry. We end,

“Levinas stresses that this infinite responsibility is not to be interpreted spiritualistically. Since the other is a very concrete someone, the poor, widow, orphan, foreigner, displaced person, with very real wants and needs, the answer to his demand will also be very concrete.”[xxv]

1 Leovino Garcia, “Infinite Responsibility for the Other: The ethical basis of a human society according to Emmanuel Levinas”, in Unitas, volume 65, no. 2 (Manila: University of Sto. Thomas Press, 1992).
[i] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An essay on Exteriority, trans. by Alfonso Lingis (Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 299.
[ii] Ibid, 43.
[iii] Garcia, Infinite Responsibility for the Other, 6.
[iv] Ibid, 13.
[v] Ibid, 3.
[vi] Ibid, 199.
[vii] Levinas, Humanisme de l’autre homme (Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1972), 113.
[viii] Levinas, “Beyond Intentionality,” in Philosophy in France Today, edited by Alan Montefiore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 109.
[ix] Garcia, Infinite Responsibility for the Other, 13.
[x] Stephen Strasser, Emmanuel Levinas: Phenomenological Philosophy (1982), p. 613
[xi] For a perspective of an ethics of care, see Carol Gilligan, In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982).
[xii] Garcia, Infinite Responsibility for the Other, 6.
[xiii] Totalization, Dr. Garcia writes, is not in itself bad. He adds that the problem occurs when this fundamental perspective is applied to people. Totalization, when applied to other people, becomes tyranny. Garcia, Infinite Responsibility for the Other, 7.
[xiv] Ibid, 5.
[xv] Ibid, 10.
[xvi] Ibid, 3.
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 82.
[xix] Ibid, 38.
[xx] Ibid, 3.
[xxi] Ibid.
[xxii] Emmanuel Levinas, “Signature”, edited by Adrian Peperzak, in Research in Phenomenology, vol. 8, 1978.
[xxiii] Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 225.
[xxiv] Emmanuel Levinas, “On the trail of the other”, in Philosophy Today, trans. by Daniel Hoy, vol. 10,
no.1, 1966.
[xxv] Garcia, Infinite Responsibility for the Other, 13.