On Levinas and, marginally, Zizek: Reply to E. Lazaro on “non-response”

“In his Ethics and Infinity, Levinas emphasizes how what appears as the most natural should become the most questionable-like Spinoza’s notion that every entity naturally strives for its self-perseverance, for the full assertion of its being and its immanent powers: Do I have (the right) to be? By insisting on being, do I deprive others of their place, do I ultimately kill them? (Although Levinas dismisses Freud as irrelevant for his radical ethical problematic, was Freud also in his own way not aware of it? Is “death drive” at its most elementary not the sabotaging of one’s own striving to be, to actualize one’s powers and potentials? And for that very reason, is not death drive the last support of ethics?)”

Neighbours and Other Monsters, A Plea for Ethical Violence – Slavoj Zizek


Well, four things:

1) I don’t trust Zizek’s understanding of Levinas. For all his ingenuity, his reading of Levinas is the lousiest.

2) Levinas’s call for non-response should be taken within the context of his Jewish-ness; in other words, Levinas is addressing the possibility of how a Jew can be un-Jew by realizing the ethicality of transcendence within the immanent possibility of freedom. Juxtaposed to Jewish religion under which a Jew acquires an identity, the ethicality of transcendence is not a possibility. A Jew should submit to God–it his the realization of his freedom. Levinas’s ethicality of transcendence demands more than that. It demands reaching out to the im-possible third person, to the person beyond the personalism of the relationship between “You and me,” between “I and the other,” which altogether constitute a second order relationship, a leap from the first-order relationship that the ‘I’ imagines itself capable of realizing, such as the I pluralizing itself into “Is”(many I). The third person is your neighbor, but your neighbor is only an other in a complicated network of others, humanity. To reach out to these others is the demand of justice, justice that represents the impossible third in the relationship between I and Them, between You and They. In other words, this demand of justice is a demand to transcend the empirical accidentalities of persons. Nevertheless, these empirical accidentalities (including one’s Jewishness) are what make persons persons. Phenomenologically put, we need to bracket these empirical accidentalities in order to come face to face with a person in all his or her nakedness, a nakedness that, reduced to its bareness, always demands to be attended to. Another way to put it is that these empirical accidentalities (power, wealth, fame, hence also, un-power, poverty, and obscurity) dress up the person in a way that empowers or falsely denudes him or her, the accidents glossing his or her ontological weakness. But these accidents constitute historical existence. Historical existence therefore demands to be attended to within the context that this existence is at bottom weak, thus, needing the ‘other’, the other who is as naked,  as weak as you and me. This weak ex-istence (not existence; ex-istence connotes here a capacity for mindful awareness of the condition of one’s existence and also of others’, which is, need we belabor the point here?-‘weak’) that the individual human person ‘is’ should also be recognized by the other in himself or herself for the other to respond without presuppositions, phenomenologically speaking, to respond without the presupposition that one is doing it for the Good (which is the ultimate bias of self-certainty!) to the other.

3) This is the ultimate context within which we can understand the logicity of ‘non-response’. Non-response is after all a response aimed at the accidentality of a person. It is the other’s accidentality to which non-response responds. We therefore respond to non-accidentality, to the unhistorical, that is to say, to the possibility of justice. But what is justice? In the ultimate sense justice is the condition of the nonreciprocity of the human, which leads me to my last point–

4) In the nakedness of the other justice is confirmed–that persons in their fundamental bareness are nonreciprocal. This fundamental condition of our existence unfortunately is taken up in history as an opportunity to intend power, power to break the nonreciprocal condition of existence by arguing for reciprocity (which is the greatest utopian promise ever conceived by power). As history has shown reciprocity only worsens our condition, but it worsens it more to the extent that by denying our condition of existence in fundamental nonreciprocity our very nature is at stake. Reciprocity threatens to make the human condition extinct and lifeless.

Parting words:

Non-response is a response. A response that is possible only within the margins of historical existence. Does this mean our historical response is futile? NO.

Historical response may be qualified into a response that is silently self-accusatory, for one’s direct or indirect participation in the perpetuation of the problems for which a historical response is called . No one is excused from responsibility; indeed, the more remote one is from the causality of the problem, that is the less one is guilty (such as Zizek interrogating the guiltiness of Levinas dismissing Freud, notwithstanding that it is done with hesistance punctuated by insistent question marks, five all in all [?????]), the more responsibly he should act. By responsibility we mean the responsibility to not excuse oneself, that is, from the possibility of error, moral or epistemological, such as the ones I have claimed so far here.

One will notice that this already constitutes a response, albeit, an impossible one, thus a non-responsal, within historical existence.

3 thoughts on “On Levinas and, marginally, Zizek: Reply to E. Lazaro on “non-response””

  1. I recalled the quotation after you mentioned the word ‘indifferent’ in relation with the non-response as a response the other day. Guess, I took ‘indifferent’ literally (and solely literally), thus connecting it with that stray quotation from Zizek and picturing indifference as akin to that described Freudian death drive (and even to Schopenhauer’s three ways to pause, suspend & nullify the will), further seeing non-response as an almost physical halt in fear of oppressing and ultimately, beyond intentions, killing an other. As in for instance, the fear of realizing one’s potentials in lieu of a more difficult life alleviated.

    Thus, if I at least comprehend your retort, I now take it that non-response is in fact the refusal to demand reciprocity. Non-response is the maintenance of non-reciprocity between the I and the other and the others incarnated in the relationship. So, I also take it that the question: “To what extent can we be of help to others?” Would be satisfied (a transgression: under the gaze of Levinas) by, by maintaining the human intersubjectivity and by not demanding reciprocity or imagining a ‘totality.’ And by not leaping over in answering the query “is non-response enough?”

    Also, in line with the almost poetic description of Zizek’s five question marks, does this mean that I have no excuse to say for instance a tempting: “Sir nakakalusaw naman ng utak, estudyante pa lang po ako, pwede po bang paki-salin sa antas ng utak ko. Hindi ko kasi tiyak kung naunawaan ko e.” 😀 But seriously, I really doubt if I get your point above. I think I have just confirmed how marginal my knowledge is about my own thesis and the undergrad philo course. Nonetheless, I’m not risking the idea of a “non-response,” which in this case would be (another?) disrespect to my professor.

  2. Frankly speaking, Yes.I mean you don’t have an excuse for saying (for demanding in the case of your rhetorical invocation of humility) that you need something to digest an understandable explanation. Understandable to whom? Basically–to you. To you who, unbeknownst to you, as you are unequal to yourself (das sich Selbst Ungleiche: to quote from Schelling) who demands of me to say what you in the ultimate sense wish to understand. Does this already constitute selfishness? And more to the point: does that already constitute a certain form of totalitarianism in which one demands of the other, almost, to say nothing? Final point: it is no longer a secret that the secret of fascism and totalitarianism lies in something like this–to initiate a question if only to prove that the question itself is unnecessary, and thus, the would-be response, the responsal, is not only useless but a stupid expenditure of beingness. But it initiates the question not in behalf of itself (fascism knows the answer im Voraus, in advance) but in behalf of the stupidity of the addressee, who if he continues to babble, deserves the Auschwitz. The Auschwitz as the perfect non-responsal to the legitimacy of totalitarianism.

    1. What drew me to Levinas was the thought that the intentions are not always resonated in the acts.

      Btw, that ‘non response’ above is akin to ‘letting be’ then.

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