Posts Tagged ‘Emmanuel Levinas’
The Power of a Question to Shape Discovery
Mrs. Kirkistan and I have been chatting about those people in our lives who show up with questions rather than answers. These are folks who wonder “Why?” and “How?” about the most ordinary, obvious things. We typically have great conversations with them even as they challenge, occasionally infuriate and often delight us. And quite often their questions and the acts they take to resolve those questions have a way of working into my brain through the week. And I find myself asking questions as well.
I treasure these friends.
I’ve been trying to understand a complicated philosopher whose writing was famously obscure. I recently came across two of his interpreters whose comments helped me flesh out the larger setting for this philosopher’s comments. Mr. Peter Dews and Ms. Diane Perpich helped me understand that there is more to Emmanuel Levinas than the Other and ethics as “first philosophy.” Ms. Perpich, in particular, has helped me begin to see that the stringent obligation Levinas puts on our encounter with the other may function less as an ethics manual and more as provocation. This makes terrific sense when I start to work out the details of my obligation to others (as Levinas might suggest). His comments become directional rather than prescriptive.
But even with the insights from Mr. Dews and Ms. Perpich, there is something about Mr. Levinas that moves beyond directional-only. His provokements have a way of landing at the most inopportune times: making me question the bosses’ speech in the conference room or the story of the revered leader. Making me wonder at my own treatment of others, from driving to the simplest conversation.
Such provocation seems a good thing—perhaps I’ll be shaken from my comfortable rut.
Why not talk about something more interesting like dragons or flying?
I like reading Emmanuel Levinas. He’s mostly opaque, but every once in a while his writing opens on a breathtaking view and is just what I needed. If I had the opportunity to explain why Levinas matters to an interested ten-year old, I would say that we have a problem with other people. And the problem is that we mostly don’t want to hear from them. I could use an example from their life: you don’t want your mom to interrupt your fun: when she calls you in for dinner, you go in only reluctantly. One problem with the will of the other is that we don’t welcome distraction from our preoccupations. But it is not just that, it is that we really don’t want to even interact with some other who might have authority over us.
10-Year-Old: “Oh. You just don’t want to do what other people say. Does Levinas tell you how to avoid doing what others tell you to do?”
Kirkistan: “Not exactly.”
10-Year-Old: “Does he tell you don’t have to do what they say?”
Kirkistan: “No. It’s more like you suddenly want to do what the other person wanted because you really, really loved them.”
10-Year-Old: “Like maybe if my grandparents were in town and asked me for something and I wanted to do it for them because they are so nice?”
Kirkistan: “Yeah. Maybe like that. And maybe you found yourself really interested in the experiences they had, partly because they are such good storytellers and they make everything sound so exciting. You like their stories and can almost imagine being there.”
10-Year-Old: “So my grandparents are cool and I want to get to know them because they are nice and tell interesting stories. So what you are really talking about is why it is important to hear from other people and why we should care.”
Kirkistan: “That’s right.”
10-Year-Old: “So why did you start be talking about stopping what I thought was fun to do something I had to do?”
Kirkistan: “Well, I might have been a bit confused. But also because sometimes I close my ears to people who are trying to give me a gift. Something I really need. Say you are at the grocery store with your parents. It’s Saturday. And there are sample ladies on every aisle. There is lady offering free ice cream in the frozen aisle. And another man making pizzas in that aisle. And another with little chicken nuggets and another handing out crackers and cheese.
Kirkistan: “But say you really didn’t want to go to the grocer. You really wanted to watch cartoons. So you went to the grocer reluctantly, but you took your iPod and listened to music the whole time. You walked behind you parents, music turned up. So you didn’t hear the sample ladies calling out to you. You kept your eyes on the floor so you didn’t see them either.”
10-Year-Old: “That would be bad. I like ice cream and chicken nuggets and pizza. It’s like I had missed all the really good stuff while everybody else got something. I’d have gotten my way but I’d have missed out on the very best stuff.”
Kirkistan: “That’s why Levinas is important. He helps us start to see and understand why it is we should care about the people around us: what they know. What they bring to our conversations. What they have to say about this and that. Even people who don’t seem to have anything to say—even those people can surprise us with lots of interesting things.”
10-Year-Old: “OK. Well, why don’t you just listen to people? I listen to people and learn things all the time. That isn’t hard to do. It is super easy to listen to people. It’s not like you have to do anything. You just listen.”
Kirkistan: “Well, that is great advice and I want to follow it. My answer to you would be that as you get older, you start to think you know a few things. We get to thinking we know the patterns of how things work and we figure we know pretty much how anyone will respond in any given situation. Anyway, all I’m saying is that it gets pretty easy to think you know what most people will do or say in any given situation. The surprise—if you can call it that—is that quite often people live up to our expectations. They do what we think they’ll do. Not always. But often. Then the question becomes, “Did that guy say that because I expected him to say it?” “Did I have a hand in turning this conversation this way?”
10-Year-Old: “You’re pretty boring aren’t you?”
Kirkistan: “You might be right.”
10-Year-Old: “Why don’t you write about something interesting like dragons or warships? Why don’t you write a book about how to fly?”
Kirkistan: “Great suggestions. I really want to write a book about how to fly. I think that is the book I am writing.”
Levinas Says Why
I’ve always felt the problem with others is they keep talking about themselves. It’s always what they need, what they want, what they think. Their opinion. There is far too little about me in what they say.
You might think I’m joking. I’m not. It’s what many of us truly think just under the surface and it hints we are not far from that three year old phase of shouting “Mine.” You know I’m speaking truth because you’ve thought the same thing: waiting for someone to stop talking so that you can voice what is important to you.
Emmanuel Levinas was another 20th century philosopher who knew something about finding people interesting. He penned his first book while in captivity in a Nazi prison camp. His imprisonment proved valuable in forming a set of thoughts that went a very different direction from what others were thinking. Levinas was concerned with what happens when we encounter the “Other.”
Levinas understood that the Other was outside of ourselves. Painfully obvious? Maybe not. We humans have this tendency to force every encounter through our grid of experience, our intent and, frankly, our ego. We too often reduce others to something that looks very much like us. So while we hear the person beside us talking, we may pick up only on the words they say that affect us and miss the words that don’t affect us. We may routinely miss the words that oppose our intent along with the ones that describe the passion of this other person. Anyone with an old married couple in their lives has had first-hand experience with the practice of selective hearing.
“Wait,” you may say. “I’m a people person. I love being with others. Surely I have no natural aversion to others?” But Levinas pointed well beyond personality concepts like introversion/extroversion. He pointed beyond the contexts that inform our relationships: how we respond differently if the person before me is a subordinate or a boss, someone from the executive suite or a lowly clerk who can (should?) wait while I finish my dinner before I deign to speak with him. You can perhaps see the problem: how we interact, how we even think of the person before us—whether we even see the person before us—all is rooted in our context. It is rooted in how we perceive ourselves in culture, how we understand our position and our role. Standing is a very encultured episode.
Levinas invites us to strip away these contexts and come face to face with another. You’ve already had encounters like this, where context has been entirely scrubbed clean. Maybe you were at a party and met someone who later you found out was “Someone.” But during your chat you treated him or her like any other schlep.
How we deal with others, what we expect from our interactions, how often we assume others thinks like us and/or read that into our interactions—all these instinctual reactions limit our listentalk. Maybe they even derail our listentalk.
Listentalk means embracing the notion that others around us have much to contribute. And possibly that others are integral in helping us become the humans we were want to be. Levinas also awakens the very faint hunger in all of us to hear from The Other—God. And listening to God is a crucial piece of successful listentalk.