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Sunday, March 5, 2017

Spirit and Body: Levinas on the Cusp of the Awakening of Religion


To arrive where you are, to get to where you are not,
You must go by a way, wherein there is no ecstasy.
---T.S. Eliot, 'East Coker'


Whether on the roads to Marion's Damascus of the saturated phenomenon or Falque's metamorphosis of finitude and the spread body, Levinas's ghostly philosophy lurks in the shadows of forethought. It sometimes seems that all contemporary French phenomenology seeks its origins in Descartes' cogito, the ego that constitutes the world, the ego that thinks its therefore and finds being. Certainly Marion begins here, as does Husserl, the one discovering the straw that breaks the backs of noema and noesis, the other discovering a more pristine and powerful intentionality. Falque, of course, does phenomenology, but bends it toward his own wits, a phenomenology even splintered and splayed open to a post-metaphysical metaphysics, thereby releasing the event of just what goes on between the Cartesian res extensa and the phenomenological 'lived body'.  Levinas, on the other hand, remains skeptical of ontology and intentionality, and his eyes and ears are drawn less to the therefore, and far more intently to the fore-there.  

Il y a. The Levinassian there is. The 'there' prior to the there that is indeed there, the fore-there, where therefore is not even a forethought, where Prometheus sleeps. Such is what comes to Levinas's mind. Levinas's is a ghostly thinking, not quite ghastly, yet open to horror, the night that crutches the insomniac's watch, the creepy indolence that paralyzes before being, and the instinct to retreat into alter[ed]-states of consciousness. Walpole and Shelly have nothing on Levinas. The gothic shades of dark that recede in the Levinassian landscape give proof through this night that Heideggerian ecstasy is a little late to the party of being: there is a hauntology prior to ontology, some more fundamental difference anterior to ontological difference. There is a haunting.

Before the ethics of Levinas's signature work, before the stark alterity and priority of the Other, this remarkable thinker has given us a preliminary study of his concerns, and certainly a critique of Being and Time. As a critique of ontological difference, Existence & Existents ( trans., A. Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne, 1978, henceforth EE; page numbers in parentheses refer to this translation of the work 1st published in 1947 unless otherwise stated) stamps an indelible ethos upon what will later follow in his masterworks, Totality and Infinity, and Otherwise than Being. EE does not present a full-blown theory of the body, or a fleshed-out spirituality; but it certainly outlines an anatomy of consciousness, even a physiology of consciousness, that thinks the fore-there---that hypostasis precedes ecstasis, that position precedes being-in-the-world, that Being itself precedes beings. Do not ask what is it; let us go and make our visit.

Levinas makes haste to describe the there is (il y a going forward to honor the term's untranslatability, unless it appears as there is in Lingis's translation) as the thing unresolved by death, the irreducible term that remains insoluble in the liquidation of finitude. Il y a comprises the locus where subjective and objective existence merge and blur in the event of being (4-5). Indeed, "ontology...affirms that what is essential in human spirituality...is determined by a relationship...with...the nakedness of this bare fact" of Being (3), which "harbors something tragic" (5). The human spirit is always already encountering a tragedy. The merging of existents with existence takes place within the il y a, an otherwise than being that seizes us by the throat.

The maternal wellspring from which an existent gets itself born, or from which birth yanks an existent into existence, is not sufficiently anterior for Levinas; he searches more deeply into that nook, to "that event of birth in phenomena which are prior to reflection" upon any regional ontology (11). He thinks the matrix from which a maternal wellspring might spring. In this regard, he analyzes 'fatigue' and 'indolence', not as mere mental contents, but as modes of a relationship with being, and cleaving of (to?) being. These mental contents express a 'weariness' before existence, and mark the mode of 'refusal' or balking at the contractual terms binding an existent with existence; yet such a refusal marks not a reflection upon such terms, but a pre-reflective, unthematic encounter with, engagement of, immediate response to, a generic document, whose lines remain unread, but remains a threat nonetheless (11-12).

The markers of refusal, though placeholders of retreat or evasion, point to an engagement with being. To engage being, to commit to a contact and contract with being, comprises the act through which an existent enters existence: "If the present is thus constituted by the taking charge of the present, if the time-lag of fatigue creates the interval in which the event of the present can occur, and if this event is equivalent to the upsurge of an existent for which to be means to take up being, the existence of an existent is by essence an activity" (25). This upsurge goes by the name of hypostasis, and the contractual contact of an existent with existence forms a hypostatic union threatened only by time, by another present which can put the union asunder. The hypostatic union, a term Levinas never uses, creates the locus of spirit, of the event of spirituality, though he never formulates this event in quite this manner. Regardless, here, in the hic et nunc of taking a position from which hypostasis becomes an upsurge into Being, time coalesces into the sacrality of a most vulnerable moment.

Though a less reckless strategy would visit the preliminary ideas of EE upon Levinas's later work, the risk of visiting Levinas's more mature elements upon EE, at least with respect to vulnerability, and even the Other, might reward; for the heart of Levinas's philosophical 'spirituality' rests in the structures thought here in EE.  Only in the fore-there of reflection, in the unthematic arena of the pre-ontological structures of consciousness, can we find the disclosure of vulnerability prone to insomnia and horror that hypostasis is heir to. True, for the most part, the Other appearing in EE is a thematic Other, one already clothed, one whose nudity finds itself clothed by form (30). This nudity, already thematic, conceals the body, and only in a relationship with nudity itself do we experience the alterity of the Other (31).

The nudity prior to nudity, the fore-there of an 'undressed being' (31), begins the entry into the il y a, the consummation of being in the experience of night (52), where the 'rustling of the there is...is horror" (55) ushering in the vigil of the insomniac so passive that the night itself 'watches' (63). Only in such utter passivity can the unthematic contents of consciousness (69) take position, a stance from which an upsurge into being poises itself as hypostasis. From such states, such stases, such static asymmetry,  a 'base', a 'place', "makes the body the very advent of consciousness", unconcealed in the vulnerability of an unthematic version of nudity. The body locates consciousness as an "irruption of anonymous being" and "is position itself" (70). The spirituality of the body is the event of its position, and the moment of its present, the sacred time of the hypostatic union, where Being and being, existence and the existent, contract a merger, "a pure event of being" (71). "Position is the very event of the instant as a present" (70).

The event of being harbored in the hypostasis, the hypostatic union, "signifies the suspension of the anonymous there is," for "on the ground of the there is, a being arises...By hypostasis anonymous being loses its there is character" (83). Truly this is sacred ground consecrated by human spirituality through the posture of the body, the body taking its position in the instant of its present, and there is no time like the present, yet is "not the future above all the resurrection of the present?" (94). Though there can be no redemption of pain, "the movement of the caress" of the consoler transports suffering " 'elsewhere' " (93). Hope should not be spent on wiping away every tear or avenging every death, for the wages of pain simply move into an instant that follows an instant; rather the object of hope should be the future itself, where every instant of every present receives salvation.

Hypostasis is anterior to, prior to, more essential than any ecstasy leaping into an already thematic being-in-the-world. It makes its upsurge from a matrix otherwise than being, and, for the visually minded, it is the photo-negative of Heideggerian ecstasis, the mold into which such ecstasy pours itself into the world. The unthematic contents of consciousness create the vulnerability that only an unthematic Other whose utter vulnerability can transgress---as the Other in the Same; not that alterity of the Other homogenizes within such sameness, but as the disruption,  the roiling of the waters in the pool of the Same; the other is totally other, despite a family resemblance. The Other in the Same provides the site of an uncontainable human spirit, a spirit that only "the gravest sin" attempts to put on the clock,  in the time of trains and the sun (101). Though Levinas can think the coalescence, a congealment, of time, any reification of the spirit within the timebound shuts down the instant, desecrates the preciousness of the present that must be cherished, and positioned for resurrection.








Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Theodicy without Theodicy


Derrida captures both the imagination and the critical faculties with his theme of 'religion without religion'. Perhaps his greatest expositor, John D. Caputo, has ridden that horse all the way to the bank, if philosophers get to take anything to the bank, as it were. In his 'weak theology', Caputo offers his reading of Derrida's late writings, not to mention the various seminars in which these ideas play out on a stage of phenomenology, post-phenomenology and even a God without being. Caputo describes the deconstruction of confessional religions, and discovers the 'unconditional without sovereignty' which he identifies as the 'weak force of God'.

A religion without religion contains within it the deconstruction of classical theodicy, and perhaps points to a theodicy without theodicy. I might make the case that a religion without religion does not recognize anything that looks like a theodicy, whether with or without theodicy. Be that as it may, a theodicy without theodicy might take as its point of departure the power structure Caputo attributes to God in the metaphysical attitude: the problem does seem to boil down to power, its expression and its non-expression, its deployment in the world and its non-deployment.

I share with Caputo his disgust with theodicy as it usually plays out, as a means of explaining or justifying the misery, suffering and injustice visited upon the world, particularly upon the innocent. To drop 'mystery', a 'greater good' at the doorstep of horror and unspeakable suffering mocks God and the world, and constitutes the definition of obscenity.

Any reasonable person would think that, after the horrors of the 20th century (indeed the horrors of history), the 'end of theodicy' would have been a decisive one. Surely religion and theodicy would have died a permanent death by now, certainly by now; yet theodicy, like religion, lives on: what good is the death of God if theodicy and religion always rise again? 

Caputo's The Weakness of God dots its argument for the 'unconditional without sovereignty' with such occasions of the meaning and presence of the Omni-God against the weakness of God. But what of theodicy's corollary, the request (if not a demand) for an explanation or justification, the quality of which determines reason's permissibility of God? Playing out on the horizon of being, this crucial flip-side of theodicy allows God into, or disqualifies God from, the horizon of knowledge (albeit a certain kind of knowledge) and of being. God lives and dies by the swords of all kinds of positivisms, regardless of the side they take in the classic version of the great debate.

In a recent discussion on the 'priority of love' with a philosopher and friend, my interlocutor equated such priority with a 'theodicy without theodicy', and so I began this piece with the analogy of a religion without religion. His critique, which burns with concern for 'needless, unnecessary suffering of catastrophic proportions', runs adjacent to a critique of the Johannine Lazarus texts, and formulates its argument thus: Jesus, alive then and now, can call Lazarus or anyone else, then and now from death, but he doesn't. Now certainly the lingua franca of this critique is power itself, but also power within a will. The question asks, with all seriousness, why anyone ever suffers and dies, while a Jesus, very much alive and sporting a track record of doing nifty stuff, stands idly by and simply withholds miraculous power.

The question itself pokes at divine power and justice, but I do not think this question exhausts its theodical gesture by interrogating power. Its gesture also calls into question the various claims of religion for God and Jesus, in particular, Christian claims. So where do we start, start again? In other words, how is the priority of love, that God loves before he is, a theodicy without theodicy? Is it simply a fait accompli that a God who loves before he is, is a God who does not deploy power analogically (in terms of the human deployment of power), or deals in the structures of power at all? What is the difference between love and power when God does the loving? If Creation itself is an act of love, and not of sheer power, does a univocity of love put us in a position to create---is the power of love as intelligible as the love of power?

The problem gets even more complicated. How does one account for the urgency of the theodical gesture, and its logical aftermath---atheism---on the part of the positivist, when the theist finds this question oddly less than urgent? Can such urgency reduce to the desire to declare God nonsense under the scrutiny of sharply defined criteria for and of evidence? Do all theists secretly subscribe to Caputo's weak theology, acknowledging the obscenity of the theodical reply to the theodical question, yet somehow resolve to retain a faith in thematic religion (religion with religion), such as Catholicism? Are we all, deep down, Caputo's radical theologians? Do we radical theologians argue for an evidence invisible to the various positivisms in all sincerity? Is there any other place to go for a 'theology of the event'?

For the sake of this preliminary sketch of a theodicy without theodicy, we might speculate that God has as much use for theodicy as he does for religion: God has no use for what passes for religion---What are your vain sacrifices to me? 'Vain' sacrifice, the religious gesture with a gargantuan injection of religion. Is sacrifice always a gesture of power? Religiously speaking, the only sacrifice that God ever asks is the one he asks of himself, and the one ostensibly carried out on Calvary. A sacrifice of God for humanity. That sacrifice is the only possible sacrifice that completely absents vanity. This is not to say that the unconditional call of the event of God asks nothing of us; it simply does not ask us to sacrifice because of its inherent vanity. Even Abraham doesn't get to sacrifice, not even in the most famous sacrificial near-miss of all time.

So, then, the urgency of the question: a power than declines its exercise --- a will that wills not the 'good', where the very existence and meaning of that power hangs in the balance---no exercise, no being. Is it here, I wonder, where a theodicy without theodicy finds itself and its answer: if being is denied by empirical establishment of a lack of evidence, does that lack locate God beyond essence, otherwise than being---does positivism then give credence to a God without being, or does it relegate the whole matter to the ever-growing heap of nonsense? If willing the good for the other passes for love, then it is a strange love indeed that does not always and forever will the good for all of creation. What has happened to an appeal to the univocity of love?

But not so fast. The urgency of this theodical question also interrogates the lack of urgency on the part of those for whom the concrete players are not held to what must assuredly be a responsibility to their power. A theodicy with theodicy has no other recourse but to conclude irrational obstinacy, an embrace of a studied naïve magical realism. Presumably a theodicy without theodicy would have richer choices. Indeed, in any hypothetical theodicy without theodicy, doubt plays out very differently than in the classical theodicy with theodicy. So, then, which do we doubt, 'love' or 'the good'?

Emmanuel Levinas once suggested that Judaism is a religion for adults. It goes without saying (and this is perhaps why thinkers like Jean-Luc Marion and Emmanuel Falque do not say it explicitly) that Christianity is also a religion for adults. One of the ways, it seems to me, Christianity enjoys a status similar to Judaism, is its rhythm of cataphasis and apophasis. Meister Ekhart asks God to free him from God. We ask in faith for God to help our poor faith. It also goes without saying that any responsible faith, any adult religion, would be constituted by doubt. This is not the destructive doubt of paralysis and positivism, but more akin, ironically, to Descartes' reduction to doubt, which, with its corrosive edges, tears down everything to the bare bones of an encounter with the infinite. Doubt begins the expedition to the discovery of a new world of contradiction and paradox, a world of Yeatsian 'terrible beauty', a world both beautiful and treacherous.

A theodicy without theodicy interrogates power itself, and empowers doubt to be its examiner. The 'doubting Thomas' of the Johannine tradition does not earn condemnation, even if that tradition does find him a bit comical, taking himself, as he does, just too seriously. No, not condemnation, but instead, this most adult of the apostles receives a gift; Thomas utters the highest Christology in the Gospel tradition: my Lord and my God.  Such belief anchored by doubt has always been offered by the Christian tradition as authentic over and against any brand of fideism. Doubt is the business end of reason; its drive toward a mature faith and authenticity leads not to postivism's dead ends and nonsense, but to think again. If not being, or a version of being, or of ontological difference, then toward what does declarative prayer direct itself?

It simply cannot be that the question of a Jesus, a God, who can but doesn't, ends the matter. That's just another way to say Roma locuta, causa finita est---we are trying to get beyond such positivisms. The theist and the atheist stand on different, not opposite, ends of the same question. But on what do they stand when they angle their stands at the same question? Is it the very 'ground of being' which some believe to 'be' God? No, I think not; a 'ground' is no place to stand if the question is being. A ground of being is just a being upon which being stands. That's simply the infinite regress of more of the same---classical theodicy in a slightly different light. What would a theodicy without theodicy stand on; what does a religion without religion stand on?

In such a preliminary piece, I must do a little damage control, and ask a more modest question. The fact is this, good people, atheist and theist alike, positivist and other-than-positivist alike, stand together in this world. 'Where do they stand?' is another way of asking 'how are things between them?' They stand before each other across the same abysmal question. If each encounters the face of the other, then they must stand on that which is before being itself. They stand, in short, on the love that is prior to being, on the claims made upon them before they are even 'selves'. This is the threshold upon a theodicy without theodicy, properly recognized and pronounced by someone who does not even believe such anteriority is either possible, or that it matters even if it were possible. His pronouncement accuses me, as his atheism calls my theism into question. What matters, at least at this point, is our standing; and we stand before the same voice, the same call from what is harbored in the name of God. How we hear it, and where doubt leads us, and what urgency moves us, makes all the difference in the world, even if we can share that world, even if the discovery of joy or crushing sadness awaits us in this shared world. Events are like that.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Altered States


If the Lacanian register of the Imaginary bears wakefulness and the panorama of images that appear before consciousness, and the register of the Symbolic bears the sleep where images and themes dance their dreams across the stage of the unconscious, then surely the register of the Real comprises the topos where dreams dream their dreams. Lacan does not by accident locate the divine within the precincts of the Real: God does not first appear in a bush burning in un-consuming flame, or the nightmare of a bloody Cross, but in the trace of these that points to the very heart of the Real, the place with sound but no sense, with melody but no logos, the place without an urge to grasp or otherwise conceptualize, the place before thought, the place where intentionality is not even a dream, a consciousness that is not conscious of something, but where, instead, waits to be born, where awareness waits for a theme.

The register of the Real contains the moment Levinas has described as insomnia. The cite of 'saying', the Real refuses thematization, the prison and ownership of language and image; it harbors the trace of the 'said', but prior to the being of the word.  An eerie place that awaits the things that go bump in the night, insomnia declares a wordless discourse of the infinite, the Cartesian 'infinite in me', an infinite not of me, but nonetheless found there: what Levinas names the il y a---there is.  To maintain the discourse of God beyond essence, to defer the meaning of God and therefore his entry into being, Levinas locates God's transcendence in the non-thematizable space of a wakefulness without a watching, a vigilance that does not already know what it keeps vigil for (or vigilant of), an insomnia that is interruptible, but without the trappings of, or tools for, naming God. For Levinas, once consciousness is a consciousness of something, that something is already dressed in the garb of being and outside the register of the Real. Levinas wants it the other way around: he wants transcendence to 'dress' consciousness in the garb of the 'otherwise than being'.

Levinas opens a space for the discourse of the divine, or transcendence, and that space subverts what he calls the moment of the Other within the Same, that which disturbs the empty---unthematic---wakefulness of insomnia. He names this place without terminus (ad quo/ad quem) 'Infinity' ("The God of Philosophy", in Basic Philosophical Writings, 133), which shakes up insomnia, making the "I" aware that the other is before it. Indeed, the very 'character of insomnia: the Other within the same who does not alienate the Same, but who awakens him" ("In Praise of Insomnia," in God, Death, and Time, Stanford Univ. Pr., Stanford, 2000; 209), puts this wakeful emptiness in the position for an irruption---always on the verge of an encounter.

Levinas's insomnia is not the 'insomnia' encountered commonly in medical offices throughout the world. This insomnia, this awareness of the difficulty in falling asleep, has many therapies, and many avenues for further diagnostics. Rather, Levinassian insomnia has its physiological reflection in the devastating medical entity known as the persistent vegetative state (PVS). Medically defined as 'wakeful unawareness', PVS evokes the infamous cases of Karen Ann Quinlan, and more recently, Terry Schiavo, and the 'right to death' movement. The particulars of these cases notwithstanding, certain things come to mind. Does the Other who is not merely unconscious, but beyond either the unconscious or consciousness, make the same claim on me, participate in the same ethos, as the Other whose awareness precedes itself or me? What ethics comes to the fore when the Other's mind and body are divided? How shall I respond to the 'Infinity' Levinas has posited in the structure of consciousness when the Other remains trapped in the insomnia of wakeful expectation, even if nothing is to be expected---has not the mode of expecting?

Joseph J. Fins, in his Rights Come to Mind: Brain Injury, Ethics and the Struggle for Consciousness (NY: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 2015), presents the compelling cases of patients and their families confronting PVS and the newly recognized diagnosis of the Minimally Conscious State (MCS), a state of profound impairment of consciousness, but a consciousness with demonstrable awareness, that which is absent from those with PVS. Fins, a physician and medical ethicist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, bears his own historical consciousness here, and draws upon civil rights history to point to the civil rights of mind, of consciousness. His call for absolute diagnostic precision in assessing these cases is poignant and powerful. His ethical sense derives not only from medical integrity in diagnosis and treatment, but also from the identification of the presence of consciousness itself, obscured by horrible injury and brain malfunction. The medicine and technology behind what drives Fins to defend the rights of mind, while fascinating, do not command me here; what commands me is the patient before me who cannot be reduced to mind.

The Other who appears before me appears to me as the human other, and when the Other appears to me suffering or perhaps dying from devastating disease, appears as the spread body whose call is this is my body, or with a Levinassian tenor, thou shalt not kill. Both phrases intone the unconditional now pressed upon me. In medicine, we imagine we see PVS frequently, but in reality, PVS might be rarer than that. Perhaps, as Fins has suggested, we are better than 40 percent wrong about PVS, and what we are really seeing is MCS; much uncertainty informs the actual state of affairs. Because of the prognostic implications of either diagnosis, medicine simply has to 'get it right'. For Fins, the ethical imperatives drive 'getting it right' so that consciousness can be nurtured and healed, and a person can come home to a family in waiting. This is impossible for Fins: to be aware of the world when the world judges unawareness, and acts this judgement out. It is simply impossible to miss the presence of consciousness; missing it is not an option.

The ethics of the spread body, in the instance of PVS, the separation of mind and body, a wakefulness unaware of its embodiedness, calls from this body decisively: this is my body and thou shalt not kill. There is no greater vulnerability than this; it is equal to the vulnerability and precarity of the consciousness thought to be absent. The space Levinas has opened for Infinity is the mode of existence of the spread body in PVS. It is the physiological equivalent of the pre-phenomenality of insomnia, unaware that is expecting the arrival of consciousness---the disruption of insomnia by consciousness---the moment of transition from PVS to MCS. This place of Infinity, the distance between mind and body, the seeming impossibility of traversal within the vegetative state, the moment of the unthematic Real, bears the trace of the divine, the infinite, the otherness of the other, and opens and announces a sacred place.


Patients in PVS bear the posture of Infinity, which has locked them within itself. Perhaps what has divided here is not simply the mind from the body, but even the mind from mind, the non-intentional consciousness pointing aimlessly toward itself. In this sense, the patient with PVS remains within an infinite circuit whose centripetal vector points to what Levinas sometimes calls "God". This trace of the divine glows perhaps a bit brighter, inscribes its line perhaps a bit bolder, in the face of this other whose eyes move, yet trace no line, whose body moves, yet traces no direction. This is absolute vulnerability whose unconditional call calls me relentlessly: this is my body. This is a vulnerability that claims its right not to be killed, and compels me to be responsible for it unconditionally.










Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Gentle Rain: Levinas's Conversion to Catholicism, Justice, Jerusalem Sopra Athens



"The proximity of the other is the face's meaning, and it means from the
very start in a way that goes beyond those plastic forms which forever try to
cover the face like a mask of their presence to perception. But always the
face shows through these forms . Prior to any particular expression and
beneath all particular expressions, which cover over and protect with an
immediately adopted face or countenance, there is the nakedness and destitution
of the expression as such, that is to say extreme exposure, defencelessness,
vulnerability itself".  Emmanuel Levinas, 'Ethics as First Philosophy'




Now that I have the reader's attention, allow me to disown the ridiculous assertion of Levinas's conversion. I abuse both 'conversion' and 'Catholicism' here (not to mention Levinas himself) to point to the interesting, fascinatingly gripping, dilemma Levinas articulates in his important essays, "Ethics as First Philosophy" (The Levinas Reader, S. Hand, ed., Cambridge: Blackwell, 1989; henceforth EFP), and "Peace and Proximity" (Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. A. Peperzak, et al., Bloomingtion: Indiana Univ. Pr., 1996; henceforth PP). Levinas employs Athens and Jerusalem as metonyms for (among other things) the Hellenistic and Hebraic ethos, respectively, especially as he critiques the notions of Europe and Europeans, and the concept of the West. His 'conversion' is his embrace of a both/and posture, and a sophilology (my coinage and appropriation of 'Catholicism' in this context), the 'wisdom of love' (PP, 169), which always complements philosophy, the 'love of wisdom'. As Judith Butler has suggested in her Precarious Life (London:Verso, 2004, p.135f.), Levinas might very well be getting at a vision of Europe where Jerusalem surpasses Athens in vying for the very heart of the West.


"Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down" (Isaiah 45:8).


For Levinas, justice can only be the Derridean justice to come. "But the order of truth and knowledge has a role to play in the peace of proximity...the ethical order of human proximity...calls for the order of objectivity, truth and knowledge...the very sense of Europe: its biblical heritage implies the necessity of its Greek heritage." Levinas denies a "simple confluence of two cultural currents" which, he declares, "do better than converge." Europe is the "concreteness" where peace and proximity "demand a reason that thematizes, synchronizes and synthesizes...concepts necessary for the peace of humanity" (PP, 168). This gentlest of rain is "the first question of the interhuman."


The iconic (pace Jean-Luc Marion) face of the other means this proximity (EFP, 82). In fact, there can be no justice if such a justice traces itself back merely to truth and knowledge. We need to know just what brand of justice we are to embrace, to hope for, whose advent is always just on the horizon. We need, as Levinas asks, to know if such 'justice' comes from war (and the risk of perpetual war and conflict) and destruction and violence, or from "the irreducible responsibility of the one for the other" (PP, 169). Such responsibility is the claim of the Other upon me, a claim that does not 'lay claim' upon some deontological imperative, something I bring to the table, but a claim that comes only from absolute alterity:




"But, in its expression, in its mortality, the face before me summons me, calls for me, begs for me, as if the invisible death that must be faced by the Other, pure otherness , separated, in some way, from any whole, were my business. It is as if that invisible death, ignored by the Other, whom already it concerns by the nakedness of its face, were already 'regarding' me prior to confronting me, and becoming the death that stares me in the face. The other man's death calls me into question, as if, by my possible future indifference, I had become the accomplice of the death to which the other, who cannot see it, is exposed; and as if, even before vowing myself to him, I had to answer for this death of the other, and to accompany the Other in his mortal solitude" (EFP, 83).



This is the face, in its iconic stature of the saturated phenomenon, in its 'regarding' of me, gazes upon me, even before I turn my gaze, and seizes me, positions me to see that the face is seen, that I recognize the condition of threat, the state of siege that the face of the other finds itself (Befindlichkeit). Perhaps a mutual illumination presents itself here,  the call of the spread body as coming from an elsewhere and an itself, a coming from the presentation of the spread body and the appresentation of the personhood of the itself. Levinas boldly appropriates Husserl's 'appresentation' as the 'epiphany' of the unicity and alterity of the unique as the face of the human other (PP, 166). May I now be equally bold in appropriating the epiphany of the icon of the face, now as the voice, the call of my patient's body lying in her bed on the hospice care unit? Thou shalt not kill is the this is my body transposed into another key in the same symphonic motion of the Other's appearance before me. Both unconditional calls from the iconic face of the Other, one calls me to the movements of society and the polity of the 'one for the other'; the other calls me to the movement of my patient under siege, under the threat of death, of dissolution and expansion into oblivion, and the movement to healing.



These biblical warrants, the thou shalt not kill and the this is my body, make claims upon any "I" encountering any Other. For Levinas, the 'one for the other', the wisdom of love, tends to obviate any recourse to violence, would render a response of violence unintelligible. The hybridization of the Hellenic and the Hebraic would write into Europe itself the face of the Other and the one for the other. The wisdom of love, the both/and of the body and the human person (the recognition of a hybridization), plays out at the bedside of the suffering and dying as presentation and appresentation of the spread body and human person, respectively. Only in the peace and proximity of the face does the call of the spread body receive its voice.

















Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Call of the Spread Body: From Anamorphosis to Anagnorisis, A leading-in to a Recognition


In the last two posts to this blog I have tried to describe the experience of the suffering and dying body, which, in turn, has important implications for personhood, the human person, human dignity, and an ethics for caring for those at the end of life. At first, it seemed as though the spread body could be thought through the this is my body, and distinguished from the my body. Unfortunately, the New Testament texts of the words of institution of the Eucharist clamored with such interfering turbulence, little communication could be heard over such deafening noise. Methodologically, the body had to be thought more deeply, more phenomenologically, and somewhat differently: the this is my body re-emerges, not as the spread body as such, but as its voice, its unconditional call. The this is my body might return to this analysis of the spread body, but for now, I am subsuming that term into the 'call of the spread body'---the pure call of the spread body, the unconditional givenness that inaugurates its entry into phenomenality, from, by, through, in and of itself. The call comes from two lungs, of the person and of the body, which is to say, it comes unconditionally without sovereignty from something both pushed apart and pulled together. Illness and dying drive the engines of these bidirectional vectors,  which threaten the integrity of the body and the person.

Phenomenologically, I begin in my patient's body, a body threatened by life-limiting illness and dying itself. My patient's body is always the body of someone, a person; yet the very structures of such experience shout out for recognition and understanding that transcend the uniqueness of my patient.  Still, I begin with a particular person who has come to me because I have promised her re-humanization, to restore her humanity lost to the paradigm of the cure (itself a promise to restore her to the health of premorbidity, the time before the illness). I have promised her not cure, but care, care of her body and of her personhood, her self. Paradoxically, she comes before me as fully alive but dying. Her life, her personhood, is replete with history, a past and a present; but a personhood irreducible to her story without remainder. She is always in excess of what could be said---language could never complete her. Nonetheless, the narratives provide the interstitium of her person and her place, the matrix she moved and moves within as she was and is.

Illness throws the body centrifugally so that the spread body, pushed apart, becomes palpable, visible, smell-able; simultaneously a natural, primordial vector pulls it back toward the center, centripetally, in a struggle to maintain integrity. My patient as person is along for the ride, as her personhood is threatened by the same vectors. My patient's body is at a distance from itself, receding from itself. This spread body calls me to itself: it is a call that shapes how it gives itself from itself and positions me (tells me where to stand so that I can decipher, discern, see it) it relationship to it. Because this call is from this body, it is this body's own call, for itself from itself. Having no agency of its own, though, its only recourse to itself is to get itself done, through my agency in the event of rediscovery and recognition. I am not obligated by any sense of duty prior to the call. The obligation that arises is called for by the givenness of the spread body whose singular thisness, which is for, by, in the 'itself' of this body that unconditionally makes a claim on me.
But this call, while only from, of, by, in my patient's own body, is not solely for me. My experience of it is the structure of its experience for anyone with eyes to see, ears to hear, a body to touch. How does my agency, anyone's agency get the 'itself done' of my patient's body? This is the event, the event released: when I discover, recover, recognize, acknowledge the humanity and personhood before me, made to recede by the situation of the spread body in the hospice, the 'itself' getting itself done by my agency, finds in my agency of recognition and recovery its own self-recognition, recover, rediscovery. In conventional terms, this is 'healing'.


The key structures of the givenness of the spread body and its call are its directing of my gaze, for a [re]positioning and a recognition. When I speak of this positioning, the anamorphosis proper, "the aim here is to shift this gaze to the point of view...that, on the basis of which and according to the demands of this sudden phenomenon giving itself, would succeed in showing itself" (Jean-Luc Marion, in Givenness and Revelation, NY: Oxford Univ. Pr., 2016; p. 65; emphasis Marion's). "In this way, we better understand that the phenomenon can come at once from 'elsewhere' and from itself" (Marion, Being Given, trans. J. Kosky, Stanford: Stanford Univ. Pr., 2002, p. 124). In this instance, of phenomenalization, I provisionally place personhood 'elsewhere' and the spread body in the place of the call. Everything now in its place, my gaze, now oriented by the call of the spread body, its very thisness, intends what is intended by my patient's own gaze, looking back toward me, with unconditional purity of the call, calling for the release of the event of recognition: anagnorisis.

For now, I leave Aristotle's discussion of peripety and anagnorisis in the Poetics, and among the aesthetes; yet, in order to full explore the phenomenality of the call of the spread body, I will attempt to illustrate how 'recognition' works in those scenes where Odysseus makes his home-coming: for the anagnorisis called for by my patient shares similar structures. Of course, on the strictly mimetic (hence, ontic) level, Odysseus, the great tactician, with the assistance of Athena, steers events and the gradual unfolding of his identity until the catastrophe in the hall reveal him in his full regal stature. On the ontological level of Odysseus' movement from beggar to king, however, we are very much made privy to the tension of a beggar becoming a king again, in all its uncertainties and conditions. The chance that the beggar will remain a beggar threatens the return of the king.

With each unfolding recognition, first by the royal Argos, whose animality immediately connect him to Odysseus, through the recognitions of Eumaeus, Eurykleia, Telemachus, Penelope (who is the deal-breaker here, and whose steadfast love remains anchored to the royal bedpost), through the stringing of the bow whose plucked tone heralds the arrival of the Odysseus the king and bloody justice, the beggar is reunited to himself: personhood, identity is incrementally restored to the body of the king, now made whole, even renewed. Each successive recognition by others, brings Odysseus to recognize himself regained, made whole, in his former regal stature. Some may argue that these recognition scenes are charged with ambiguity, that perhaps not every character 'recognizes' Odysseus in the timeline I suggest; yet the stakes are high---recognizing the king in the beggar before the beggar comes into his own can be lethal business in Ithaka. A king must be kingly or he is not a king at all. The violence at Ithaka, the restoration of a king, is risky business, and is no stranger on the hospice, where bodies are under constant threat of violence, constant threat of being pushed further apart, splayed into unquenchable space. Those at the bedside, my patient's very own Eumaeus, Telemachus and Penelope, are invited by the same call---to my patient's return to Ithaka, the recognition of her own self in the recognition of others.

I do not direct, invoke, or otherwise prescribe the experience of recognition that my patient phenomenalizes. Recognition comes from her alone, and she alone makes use of the conversion of my gaze which she herself has converted, and my gaze, though constituting her wholeness which is for me, finds its way into her knowledge of herself and recognized as and for herself. I know nothing of her experience apart from my own experience of her self having an experience of recognition, recovery, and healing. I can know of her experience more concretely, as when she might tell me she feels more herself (if she can utter such words), or when she laughs or smiles. Or I might know this from a loved one, whose experience of being at the bedside of the dying becomes transformed, and perhaps informed by an ineffable hope, perhaps even in what Simone de Beauvoir, in her A Very Easy Death,  has called a 'miracle'.

The call of the spread body takes the shape of a whispered phrase, whose contours mouth this is my body, whose urgency gives and shows itself. By my being present at the bedside, the solemn givenness of my patient's spread body disposes and poises me to enter into the phenomenality giving and showing itself unconditionally. Without an agency of its own, a call alone invites me into to the event harbored in suffering organicity whose blood vessels, fluids, discolored skin gains a voice from its self-donation. The call comes from the elsewhere, the distance of my patient's self and from the nexus of vasculature and other (barely) human tissue. The bilocations of what is pulled and pushed in opposite directions converge in a single phenomenality that enters my experience of a unity under threat of dissolution and extinction into oblivion. Of the experience of being expanded and splayed, which belongs only to my patient, I know only of its call for recognition, which elicits acts of healing.






Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Simone de Beauvoir's Body and the This is My Body




"...habit kills desire"---A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir



Simone de Beauvoir's account of the last month of her mother's life, A Very Easy Death (trans. P. O'Brian, NY: Pantheon, 1965) presents experiences of death and dying, patients, doctors, nurses, daughters and families, as vibrant today as when they were lived in 1963. It should not shock that the author of The Second Sex was a daughter whose ambivalences and trials might echo those of any daughter, or child, or family whose grief and profound loss would indelibly mark a moment in life. Putting aside what might have been dubious in her politics, a reader can open upon emotional, visceral,  even existential impulses within this famous daughter. What might remain somewhat abstract in the description of care at the end of life, for example, in Emmanuel Falque's piece, "Toward and Ethics of the Spread Body," comes to life in de Beauvoir's homage to her mother. The 'this is my body,' which clearly needs a fleshing out, finds a place from which to speak in the narrative of A Very Easy Death (VED).

Certainly the phrase 'this is my body' falls on biblically sensitive ears as inextricably linked to Jesus's words of institution as they appear in the Synoptics. I place the definite article, 'the', in front of it, to loosen it a bit from its biblical context, even though I concede that even this maneuver still points to the words of institution. I want the 'this is my body' to be jarring enough to permit the phrase to point elsewhere. I find biblical warrant for this 'elsewhere' in the biblical context itself. Sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing point, not to Jesus himself, his own body from which the words emanate, but to the species demonstrated by the 'this': this is my body...this is my blood. 'This' directs the senses to the actual bread and wine, smelled, touched, tasted,  etc., and in fact away from the performative voice and its speaker. Only after the disciples cope with the 'this' pointing to the bread and wine must they contend with 'my body'.

VED possibly assists in an unpacking of my awkward phrasal noun. "The sight of my mother's nakedness jarred me. No body existed less for me: none existed more...it seemed reasonable to me that her body should retain its dual nature,  that it should be both repugnant and holy---a taboo." (VED, 19-20). 'Repugnant and holy'---the eating of flesh and the drinking of blood, a scandal of the Church since John 6, and the crux of the body dying before me---my patient's body dying---in my care in the nursing home or the hospice. Falque has eloquently captured the repugnant and the sacred in his descriptions of experiences on the hospice unit in his essay. The oozing purulence exuding in and from his litanies of the 'spread body' calling forth an ethos, also conjures the pathos of the Last Supper and the Cross. So, too, does the 'this is my body' call from my patient's body, calls me away from the 'my body' and toward something else, from elsewhere. Not my patient's 'my body' which I share in a common humanity, but something uniquely my patient's and my patient's alone. It is a body that could not exist less for me, and one that could not exist more. A taboo we can no longer avoid, as Falque pleads, the middle term between the extended body and the lived body yearns to be heard, felt, seen.  We seek the secret, often silent, voice of the spread body whose lingua franca is the 'this is my body'. This tenuous call emanating from my patient's dying body locates the spread body, the topos which is the continuum of the res extensa and the 'lived body' between which Falque has powerfully described the spread body. Me voici, hineni, exhorts this body.

The experience of being-with the dying body opens upon a 'nearness' so close that it might even imprint itself upon those present to that body; de Beauvoir even tries on her mother's mouth for size. "I had put Maman's mouth on my own face and in spite of myself, copied its movements" (VED, 31). This experience does not reduce to mimicry or even a conversion reaction. The movements of the dying body etch their signature on the lips of a bereaved daughter. Even in the absence of Maman, Simone, at home with Sartre no less, begins to partake of her mother's spread body, whose call not only speaks, but writes. Simone's lips reverberate, in sympathetic vibration, an emblem of the suffering other in the mouthing of soft words, in the whispering of woes (Falque's maux and mots, a pun in "Toward and Ethics of the Spread Body" somewhat lost in English for those who lack an ear for alliteration).

The speech of the dying other, the words of the 'this is my body' sometimes present in hieroglyphics that command a hermeneutics of the spread body. "One had to listen very intently to catch the words she labored to breathe out; words whose mystery made them as disturbing as those of an oracle" (VED, 46). Why would such words be 'disturbing'? Is it simply because they fall on struggling ears, faintly and undecipherably? Perhaps it is less a matter of physics, than metaphysics. Perhaps the words speak all too loudly and clearly, but hidden by a veil supplied by the hearer, to blunt their devastatingly plain meaning of a suffering begging for meaning. Only the anamorphosis of the senses toward the origin of the call provides the proper orientation to unlock the moment whose hermeneutics tax the limits of experience.

If the spread body, through its voice as the this is my body, manifests its own hermeneutic of living and dying, of living until not living, participating in life until death, today is the first day of classes."What touched our hearts that day was the way she noticed the slightest agreeable sensation: it was as though, at the age of seventy-eight, she were waking afresh to the miracle of living" (VED, 50). To experience the dying patient requires a loss of the mind and a coming to the senses. Ordinary rationality can only deny the spread body  because it has yet to think the categories of knowledge that might find a portal to the call. Just as we do not know the transubstantiation of bread and wine through pure reason, we do not know the call of the spread body though objectification. What can we know of a 'waking afresh to the miracle of living' in someone dying of cancer? Only a theopoetics, a phenomenology at the border of theology, can open a 'miracle' inside a death by cancer.

A good amount of touching goes on in Maman's room: mostly clinical touching, the routine care of the human body--- cleaning, dressing wounds, positioning. With a daughter's touch, Simone touches her mother's face because her mother senses she is falling into 2 halves. Her right side feels as if in a dream, her left, 'real'. Perhaps because de Beavoir mentions Sartre a few times, or because Falque speaks of him in a discussion of the caress, I wonder about Falque's distinction between the medical touch and the caress. Falque quotes Sartre: "I incarnate myself  in order to realize the incarnation of the Other (The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, 164; n. 280). Here, Falque also permits the 'lived body' a triumph: "the erotic takes precedence over the medical, and lived bodily experience recovers its right over the extended or spread-out body" (WF, 164). Tortured by the torments wreaked upon her mother's body, Simone muses, "I was not worried about her nakedness anymore: it was no longer my mother, but a poor tormented body" (VED, 53). What has become of repugnance and the holy here? A daughter has attempted to suppress what cannot be suppressed through an evanescent rationalization. Touch, even the caress, speaks in tender tones, but in clear and undeniable tenor.

Repugnance recurs thematically at the end of life, so much so that it never really stays 'repugnance' but becomes transformed through the daily rigor of continuous revaluation."And with a frown and a look of determination on her face she said, as though she were uttering a challenge, 'The dead certainly do it in their beds.' ...And Maman felt no shame...it was a form of courage to take on our animality with so much decision" (VED, 54). What shall we say of the 'courage to take on our animality' [emphasis mine]? Certainly this text does not encourage an incarnational hermeneutic in the same vein as Falque does in those exceptional pages in WF (chapters 4 and 5, "The Animal that Therefore I Am" and "Return to the Organic"), but neither does it discourage such a reading. Many characteristics unite members of the animal kingdom, but perhaps the most compelling is the gut.  The little miracles that occur between the mouth and the anus unite man and the other beasts. My argument does not call for a medical knowledge of gastrointestinal physiology. Simply put, what goes in must come out: that fact unites all the beasts, including any and all bipeds, and for animals the inputs and the outputs are similar. The learned 'shame' in de Beauvoir's telling undergoes transformation into nothingness, except perhaps a certain kind of courage to be the animal that each human is. What fascinates here, though, goes beyond mere transformation: Maman does not just 'take on' her own animality, but ours as well. It must be a divine courage to take on animality, as that precisely is what the Incarnation takes on. Simone could never 'take on' this motif explicitly; instead she let's her mother's body speak it. Yet, we would be stingy readers indeed were we not to allow Falque's analysis and de Beavoir's narrative meet somewhere in a kind of existentialism, if not a phenomenology.

Though our experience of the dying is simply that, our experience, sometimes we catch a glimmer of how the dying experience their own experience of dying."Maman had not been in the habit of taking notice of herself. Now her body forced itself upon her attention" (VED, 59). The spread body spends its time on a continuum, somewhere between the extended body and the lived body. Where does Maman's attention direct her; does she, like either the palliativist or the surgeon, shift toward one end of the continuum? Is there a violence in this 'force', and does this force oppose in some way the life-force, the will to live, conatus, as it were? A close reading suggests that the wisdom of Maman's body enjoys a midpoint that grants a clear view to either end. Perhaps I am being a bit sentimental. Whether there is safety in the midpoint, where a middle term like the spread body can resist or postpone interpretation, or not, it remains a locus of refusal, of deferral. "The earthly meaning of eternal life was death, and she refused to die" (VED, 60). Maman often thought 'eternal life' very far away. Man stirbt, just not Maman, until she dies. Man stirbt. Auferstehen. Memory makes present the past."And the early tenderness that I had thought dead for ever came back to life again...in[to] simple words and actions" (VED, 76). These words are as close as Simone de Beauvoir could get to a theopoetics of resurrection. 'Words and actions' are for her the liturgies and sacraments of sacred memory. With rosaries and crucifixes safely stored in a drawer, the ritual of mother and daughter come onto the stage of death. These actants of life play on until the grim stage director puts out the lights and pulls down the curtain. Still, the actions play out the awesome changes within all the players, as the transitions at the dramatic peripety point toward an all-to-fast falling action and denouement.

The transition from bios to zoe, from a person dying to an organic body (the spread body) that lingers as bios moves into a distance---the release of the flesh, the yielding to mere organicity, while not a universal event for everyone at the end of life, manifests strikingly (if not stereotypically) when it does occur and enter the experience of those at the bedside. "Her mouth opened, her eyes stared wide, huge in that wasted, ravaged face: with a spasm she entered into coma...already she was no longer there---her heart was beating and she breathed...with glassy eyes that saw nothing" (VED, 88). This phenomenological moment draws the limits of the spread body. A person is 'no longer there' as the organic body stays awhile longer. The perception of a vacancy and also of something remaining diacritically pushes conatus before me. Something stubborn, something bodily, something cellular, and even molecular now, at this moment, can only echo the voice that directed it toward me. I am  directed still toward something, but now it is a virtual presence, already emptied of the flesh but goes on, barely, as a tenacious reserve of chemistries and mechanics. Here I find something familiar: the objective, anesthetized, animal, extended body of the gaze of a surgeon (cf. WF, 42), who cuts boldly (not necessarily bodily) into medicalized bare life (zoe); yet here, the anesthesia cannot lift---bios makes no return. It breathes and pulsates (as it did before) but in a strange automaticity: the beating of a simple animal's heart outside its body. A flesh is all around me, but its locus is elsewhere; it is loosened from the spread body tout court, hovering perhaps, about to flee. A soul? No, the echo of a voice, a voice no longer able to emerge from the throat of a body now dis-inhabited, exhibiting the unsupressible residue of embodiedness and animality (WF, 40). Repugnant? No, but ever so holy: not a separation looking forward to metempsychosis,  but the irreducible residua---my patient's own residual me when the other part of her me removes to a distance. These are both my patient's own me, which now enters my experience of her at this moment. The voice lives in my ear, but where does it come from? It still calls and directs me toward the body engulfed in the white linens under the blanket brought from home, my patient's own blanket palliating the whiteness of clinical white. She is there and elsewhere, and I am present in and to this moment, the moment of care.

Bereavement begins early for the dying and their loved ones. After the death, the living relive the past. To be a human being fully alive is to have a past. "When someone you love dies you pay for the sin of outliving her with a thousand piercing regrets...With regard to Maman we were above all guilty, these last years, of carelessness, omission and abstention. We felt we atoned for this by the days that we gave up to her, by the peace that our being there gave her...She had a very easy death" (94-95). 'A very easy death' does not make its first appearance here; interestingly, a nurse first utters them shortly after Maman's death, the moment the automatic engine that kept her alive ceased its moribund functions (88). The memory of medicine, or the interface with the clinic, the hospice, the nursing home, leave stigmata on those who move on. Medicine must take responsibility for the nature of the marks it leaves on the living and the dead, as it must note the varied anticipations of grief and loss. Medicine must begin to think the ebb and flow, the to and fro that govern the intercourse of bed and bedside, of room and hallway, of resident and visitor, the the living and the dying, of life and death.

In her final remarks, de Beauvoir offers a departing salvo: "You do not die from being born, nor from having lived, nor from old age. You die from something" (105). There something wonderfully poetic in this assertion, something even worth savoring; but it is, by and large, untrue.  While it is certainly true that some die from disease or trauma---a direct cause of death, some others simply die by falling in their tracks or in the midst of a dream. Unless that something is finitude and facticity, some do indeed die from nothing, nothing at all, nothing---in particular--at all. When someone who dies in her sleep at 117 years of age, what shall I declare---what shall I certify---as her cause of death?

Still, I give the final word to Simone de Beauvoir, which came to her as she lived with Francoise de Beauvoir's living and dying, living until she died. A defiant word,  it is a word that challenges the goals of care and the very heart of the hospice and its practitioners:

"There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation" (106).

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Emmanuel Falque's Spread Body: A Place Between the Extended and Lived Bodies



National Hospice Month enjoys celebrations across the U.S. in the month of November, and such celebrations have taken many forms. One such celebration took place in my own living room, and was reminiscent of the home seminars Heidegger conducted at Medard Boss's home in Zollikon.

On November 5th, a gorgeous fall day on Long Island, NY, Emmanuel Falque presented his paper, "Toward an Ethics of the Spread Body," to an attentive audience comprised of philosophers, physicians, psychologists, nurses and social workers in an afternoon that one can only describe as extraordinary. Falque, professor of philosophy in the Institut Catholique de Paris, addressed professors of philosophy and graduate students from local universities (Fordham and SUNY) and several of my colleagues from my own medical center, and entertained searching questions and comments generated by his thinking on the body. Notable seminar participant and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Stony Brook University, Ed Casey (fondly known by many as the father of continental philosophy here in the U.S.), received Falque's presentation with a warm enthusiasm and provocative commentary. Indeed, the paper, the presentation and the ensuing discussion among engaged attendees illuminated an already well-lit room.

Falque's paper takes the next logical step in his explorations of the body, flesh and phenomenology that he had already articulated in his fascinating study, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eros, the Body and the Eucharist (New York: Fordham Univ. Pr., 2016; henceforth WF). His paper begins in Spinoza's Ethics, and moves through his poignant experience on a Palliative Care Unit, where he situates the notion of the 'spread body' as the middle term between the Cartesian 'extended body' (res extensa), and phenomenology's own 'lived body.' Describing the experiences of doctors, nurses, caregivers and patients who interact in the comings and goings in a hospice setting, the concept of the 'spread' body, the body expanded (epandu), splayed, poured out shapelessly, comes into sharp relief. Indeed, Falque speaks of

...the thing-like strangeness of my own body rather than solely reducing it to the lived body, the struggle for life or the power of the organic rather than simply welcoming suffering, all open up onto the concept of the “spread body,” caught between the “extended body” and the “lived body.” [T]he body ‘is spread out,’ more than it is extended or lived. To repenetrate one’s own being does not simply come down to being incorporated in a physical or objective body (Körper) or to be incarnated in a phenomenological or subjective flesh (Leib), instead it means to be embodied  in an organic flesh made up of nerves, muscles, digestion, secretion, respiration... things that can, like so much of ‘this is my body,’ remain foreign to me if I am not fully able to make them my own.


In these lines Falque addresses the inadequacy of the phenomenological 'flesh/body' binary that all too often accomplishes little more than rewriting the 'soul/body' distinction into post-modern terms (cf. his brief but crucial introduction to WF). Such a dualism disintegrates in the face of the 'spread' body.


In my reading of both WF and Falque's paper and his presentation of it, 2 important, if not completely novel notions arise: the notions of the 'my body' and the 'this is my body' and distinct phenomenological entities, that is, as distinct experiences. Though I am already appropriating these concepts for my own phenomenological dispositions of the phenomena of the body in medicine, the concepts trace their way indelibly into Falque's oeuvre. When he writes of the 'this is my body' in WF, the phrase is always italicized and linked to the Eucharist. "Eucharisticized eros," the 'this is my body' stands on the foundation of the incarnation: "Certainly, this is not, or not directly, a question of the eucharist, (this is my body), but rather of the Incarnation (the person of Jesus Christ)" [WF, 46]. In short, the 'this is my body' points already to the 'spread' body, yet a body nonetheless, however traced to ratification of the 'spread body' by the Incarnation.

When I think the 'my body' I think the human body I share with the body that appears before me; but as I experience it, the 'my body' has its limits in what it shares, or could possibly share, within a common humanity. The 'this is my body' is the body of my patient, spread out against the whiteness of clinical bed linens. My patient's body, characterized by its uniqueness impressed upon it by its very 'thisness', its 'haecceity', is completely other to me, and I cannot 'know' its excess, its surplus of being. Yet, this haecceity, the 'this is my body' initiates a call from its vulnerability, a call that calls unconditionally but without sovereignty from this middle place, middle-voiced (as it were, pace John Caputo), calling to get itself done: the very insistence of the spread body whose Levinasian imperative positions me, perhaps anamorphically (pace Jean-Luc Marion), and obligates me to a posture of presence before it. Where the 'my body' appears as a surface that I already know because of its metonymy with my own [my] body and its saturated reflection of me, the 'this is my body' has a gaze of its own which points to me, as only an other that is 'completely other' can. The 'this is my body' therefore is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bones, yet it is irreducible to the 'my body'. I recognize it because its signification is given to me from a voice embodied in an organic flesh in a 'body language'  that I speak, but it is a self that is not me, whose power (conatus, the centripetal vector that tends to undo the centrifugal spreading of the body) commands my agency.

The insistence of the spread body calls for the release of the event that constitutes an ethos and an ethics of a place between the Cartesian 'extended body' and the Husserlian 'lived body'. As Falque so poignantly has experienced and described in his paper, every 'body' on the hospice unit also 'knows' this. Perhaps the distinctive experiences of the 'my body' and the 'this is my body' might further qualify Falque's description of the surgeon who prods the spread body toward the extended body, and the palliativist who prods it toward the lived body. Because the 'my body' and the 'this is my body' cannot simply lay atop the extended and spread bodies, respectively, the spread body always has the last word, and insists on keeping just who is doing the prodding anonymous.

Just what is this unconditional call, without sovereignty or agency, swallowed up by the whiteness of clinical linens? Perhaps  its voice calls not for a singular event, but a plurality of events, one of which is the brokenness of the world disclosed by the brokenness of the body---a brokenness of a body that can no longer do---now spread, poured out, emptied (kenotically?). It is a brokenness constitutive of the human body and the human predicament and calls for a proper formation of persons, relationships, and societies, a knitting of parts known to the Psalmist (139) of the knitter par-excellence.

Perhaps what appears as the spread body against the linens of the hospice recalls the reconfigured linens in the Johannine tomb, linens no longer configured for death, but reconfigured for and by a transformation. Poised between the res extensa and the 'lived body', the spread body whose finitude is laid bare before something new, enters into the incarnation itself, swallowed into a resurrection of God knows what. Nonetheless, "[t]here is a paradox here: the body finds itself all the more when it is lost...Or at least, we can say that the body is most present when it surrenders itself" (WF, 218). 

The spread body is what I am and what I shall become.



I should not be surprised at all to find Emmanuel Falque's work engaged on this blog. His work is refreshing and courageous and has moved me through the limits of theology and phenomenology, a movement that has occupied him in his Crossing the Rubicon. The transgression of circumscribed disciplines is quite at home in the daily practice of medicine. A question remains: just where does medicine pitch its tent on the frontiers and intersections of theology and philosophy?














Saturday, August 13, 2016

A Commentary on Graham Harman's Immaterialism



A commentary on a philosopher whose work sometimes appears inimical to the philosophical commitmments of my project might at first blush seem incongruent if not reckless; yet Harman's work has already appeared in these pages, and at least some of his interests seem to resonate with themes in a phenomenology of givenness as I understand them. Only the reader will discern if I've shot myself in the foot with the remarks that follow, and if I've chosen a good topic to end a nearly 3 month hiatus.



A continuing critique of phenomenology, and a critique of Actor-Network Theory and 'the new materialism', Graham Harman's Immaterialism (Malden, MA: Polity, 2016) develops the philosopher's object oriented ontology and extends his new metaphysics of objects (and his recent critique of Heidegger's das Geviert) to 'objects and their relevance to social theory' (1). Though a familiarity with The Quadruple Object (Zero Books, 2011) serves a reading of Immaterialism, Harman's recap of the former's essential features and his signature concepts of 'undermining' and 'overmining' renders the latter something of a précis of his work in general.

Interestingly, something new comes to the fore in Immaterialism, namely the notion of the object as 'surplus exceeding its relations, qualities and actions' (3), (emphasis mine). Harman coins the term, 'duomining' (7) to acknowledge that neither the deployments of undermining nor overmining rarely occur in isolation, and that both and either threaten the surplus of things by denying objects their own dignity and integrity by reducing them down (undermining) to something more fundamental without remainder, or reducing them up (overmining) to their relations or actions (10)---the conceptual space of their manifestations---without remainder. 'Without remainder' here means without surplus of reality---the reality of things rests not in the things themselves but elsewhere.

Harman  therefore consecrates his approach to the thing in itself (27-8). Before I proceed any further, I must distinguish the 'thing in itself'  (27) from 'back to the things themselves'. For Harman the thing in itself is the reality of the thing that cannot be paraphrased (8) or reduced down to even more 'real', smaller constituent particles, or up to a greater 'reality' of 'what it does' (28). His speculative realism does not 'back into' the thing itself, but thinks the thing from itself; hence, Harman's project is a metaphysics from 'above', a metaphysics whose terms are not imposed upon a thing, but instead, are dictated by the thing. The phenomenological war cry that leads 'back to the things themselves' calls for an erasure of judgments and other a priori baggage that, now quelled, allow the thing to appear. This is not a subtle distinction: Harman's ontology is not phenomenology and a phenomenology of givenness is not a speculative realism, even if both share an abiding concern for the freedom of things, for things to be free to be (or give) themselves, unencumbered by methodological reductions that undermine, overmine and duomine. His argument, therefore, points at Kant more than Husserl.

If it is not already clear, I suggest that a phenomenology of givenness neither paraphrases things, nor converts things into a knowledge of them without remainder; it does not undermine, overmine or duomine. And what fascinates here, is the shared concern for the dignity and autonomy of things to be themselves, certainly, but to give themselves from and of themselves, on the part of Harman's metaphysics, and a phenomenology of givenness. Now to be sure, Harman uses the terms 'excess' and 'given' negatively, and he remains critical of the 'given' to the bitter end. Immaterialism gives an account of things apart from phenomenality, and certainly apart from (new) materialism. Still, Harman's 'surplus' of objects coincides nicely with the excess embraced in a phenomenology of givenness, even if Harman's 'given' is not quite the same as what it means in 'being given'.

Harman is quite clear that he wishes to negate the tenets of materialism by positing an immaterialism whose tenets are the direct opposite, the 'antonym of the approaches' of the new materialism: stability trumps change, boundaries are the rule and gradients are the exception, some things are not contingent, nouns trump verbs, autonomous essence is the rule, and experimentation approximates it no better than theory, what things 'are' are more interesting that what things 'do', thoughts and their objects are just like any other 2 objects, the singular trumps the multiple, the world is not just immanent (14-15).

These antonyms take on a greater thrust when viewed against the backdrop of Harman's critique of Adrian Johnston (29-32), who posits a very slippery slippery slope between the thing in itself and negative theology. Countering with Pseudo-Dionysius' 'lighted house' analogy of  the Trinity (30), Harman emphasizes its cataphatic power, and then concludes with a pounding of Johnston's 'all or nothing' epistemology as inadequate to account for art. Only art itself can direct an account of it, and 'sometimes we can only reveal things obliquely, looking for paradox rather than literally accurate predicates as our entry to a thing' (32).

The larger part of Immaterialism presents an analysis of the Dutch East India Company (VOC in Dutch) as exemplar of an object with import to social theory. I will not summarize Harman's provocative 'ontology' (39) of the VOC here, but instead observe several points in his method. He is not after history here, though he wishes to underscore seminal occurrences that define the 'stages' of the life of his object, the VOC. Taking his point of departure from Leibniz's reductio ad absurdum that the VOC is no more an object than a heap of stones, Harman proceeds to proclaim that the VOC is indeed a unified object (37). Further, he speaks of the life-cycle of objects and various stages in a single object, as opposed to the development of new objects.

In order to assure that 'an entity qualifies as an object as long as it is irreducible both to its components and its effects...as long as the object is not exhausted by undermining or overmining methods' (41), Harman develops the concept of symbiosis. The biological term has had a life of its own, and has undergone transformations of meaning, but in Harman's hands the term refers to a commensal interaction between objects without prejudice to the integrity of either object, even when they form a 'new' object, 'however fleeting' (43). He stipulates, along with Badiou, that 'events' are rare (47), and not every interaction between symbionts (Harman does not use this term) are 'decisive' (44): 'immaterialism proposes symbiosis as the key to unlocking a finite number of distinct phases in the life of the same object rather than the creation of a new one' (49-50).

Again stressing that the thing in itself cannot be reduced to what it does or 'can do', Harman warns that any privileging of 'doing' gravitates to the 'most histrionic incidents during' the lifespan of a thing, and excludes a good deal of ousia. Such a strategy might interest a history, but not an ontology. Instead, Harman's ontology focuses on the connection between two objects in the nominative case (53). The interaction between objects as ingredients (not actors) and symbionts, and this holds even when one of the symbionts are human.

What follows is a thorough investigation of incidents in the life of the VOC. By emphasizing a democracy of objects interacting in the life cycle of the VOC Harman eventually performs a sic et non critique of Actor-Network Theory (97-106). Finally, he levels his sharpest critique against the decadence of mindless recapitulation of great objects. Of special interest is his attack on the followers of Husserl, Derrida and Deleuze, on those affected imitators who have lost sight of the dangers faced by these original thinkers (125). In  this critique Harman can only refer to the overminers, underminers and duominers who have lost Husserl et aliter and find themselves lost in false realities of 'deeper 'substances and 'broader' accidents.

 I certainly do not want to blithely fall into a systematic decadence of things. A phenomenology of givenness does not, as it looks to the thing to give itself from and of itself, collapsing anything in epoche that would fetter the thing. Because Harman speaks of incidents rather than 'events' that symbiotically move an object through several stages in its lifecycle, we cannot levy the saturated phenomenon of the 'event' against his thesis, nor can we leave 'selection bias' on his doorstep because he proffers an ontology rather than a history of the VOC. So what then can a phenomenology of givenness and an immaterialism, as symbionts (can they ever make such a connection?), come to know about their respective life cycles? Can the thing that gives itself from and for itself enjoy a being and a giving that are modes of each other? What finally can it mean for a thing to give itself prior to being---certainly we mean by that something other than a statement of spatiotemporal status.

It is clear to me that Harman is about cherishing the integrity, unity and even dignity of all 'things' and especially the surplus in things, what phenomenology calls the 'excess' that inheres in things, an excess that cannot be known directly but only indirectly through counter-experience. When a phenomenology of revelation claims that God loves before he is, it means that the encounter with the divine depends on the givenness of God---God's self-donation, and not at all on a metaphysics of the analogia entis. Harman has no interest in that outdated metaphysics which his own seeks to supplant. In fact, Harman's ontology is a descending metaphysics whose descent from the thing in itself is the only proper pedigree for a productive metaphysics that does justice to the thing, whether under the aegis of an object oriented ontology or a genuine speculative realism. 

Regardless, neither rationalism nor any other positivism can sustain the argument that a phenomenology of givenness reduces to a negative theology, and Harman agrees with at least this much. Phenomenology would assent to the analogy of apophasis with undermining and cataphasis with overmining because givenness comes only from the given, from the gift. Phenomenology sees sacrifice as a kind of citation, a gift given, received and re-gifted; similarly immaterialism sees symbiosis as a kind of connection where immaterialism might concede a givenness informing that interaction: Harman has spoken of paradox as entry to a thing, but is he ready for the paradox of the gift? In any event, that both a phenomenology of givenness and a critical immaterialism should uphold the excess in things, whether in their phenomenality or immateriality, should give pause for a wave and a smile from either side of an ever so slightly narrowed chasm.