The Repulsion of Proximity

The idea that we might fear or be repulsed by the other seems to fly in the face of the standard reading of the work of Emmanuel Levinas. His critics see the other as repulsive, as I do, but see this as jarring with their view of Levinas’ supposedly domesticated or gentrified other to whom we are compelled to behave morally. Alain Badiou, for one, is highly critical of the idea that ethics can be grounded in the encounter with the other. For Badiou, as set out in his book Ethics, we only tolerate the other if the other is good. Which is to say, we only tolerate the other – Levinas would say act with responsibility towards the other – if the other is in fact the same: ‘Become like me and I will respect your difference’, as Badiou has it. At the heart of this is a rejection of the very existence of the other: ‘There is never “the Other” as such’, Badiou explains in interview. ‘There are projects of thought, or of actions, on the basis of which we distinguish between those who are friends, those who are enemies, and those who can be considered neutral’.

The basic error in Badiou’s reading of the Levinasian other is that it assumes characteristics – similarity to myself, dissimilarity to myself, enemy, etc. – when picking out characteristics is precisely what takes one away from understanding the notion of the other. Slavoj Žižek, in Welcome to the Desert of the Real! picks up on this misreading of Levinas, noting that Badiou’s error is to reduce the other to the enemy and so to gloss over the other’s transcendence: ‘We should never reduce the Other to our enemy, to the bearer of knowledge and so forth: always in him or her there is the Absolute of the impenetrable abyss of another person’. The characteristics fade away to the absolutely other. But Slavoj Žižek’s recognition of Badiou’s mistake is by no means a defence of the Levinasian position. In the same pages of Welcome to the Desert of the Real! Žižek attacks ‘the notion that “respect for Otherness” is the most elementary ethical axiom’, asking why we must respect the abyss created by the transcendent nature of Levinas’ other. We might again question this use of ‘respect’ rather than ‘responsibility’, and further highlight that respect for otherness is not the same as responsibility for the other (the difference between respecting somebody because of their otherness and being responsible for the person who is other), but Žižek’s commentaries on Levinas raise a far more pressing discussion on the nature of the other. In Violence, Žižek recognises an ‘obverse and much more unsettling dimension to the Levinasian figure of the Neighbour as the imponderable Other who deserves our unconditional respect’. That is, what if the imponderable other, whose intentions are totally unknown to us, is so foreign that no authentic encounter could be possible? Žižek notes that ‘Levinas did not have this dimension in mind’ but that ‘the radical ambiguity’ of Levinas’ other leads to this reading. We are left with the impression of the monstrous dimension of the other, an object, not of morality, but of fear. For Žižek, like Levinas, the other is first and foremost imponderable, unfathomable. Where Levinas highlights ‘the stranger in the neighbour’, Žižek concurs, observing that ‘an alien traumatic kernel forever persists in my neighbour’. Where the two depart is in what happens next. Žižek writes: ‘The temptation to be resisted here is the ethical domestication of the neighbour – for example, what Emmanuel Levinas did with his notion of the neighbour as the abyssal point from which the call of ethical responsibility emanates. What Levinas obfuscates is the monstrosity of the neighbour’. In other words, the other is a source of terror, and what is needed is an ethics that confronts the monstrous core of humanity, something that, according to Žižek, Levinas fails to address.

Žižek concludes that some alienation from others is good, since we avoid the monstrosity and any dangerous repercussions they bring. That said, Žižek does not ground responsibility in the encounter with the other, making such a conclusion viable – yet unsatisfactorily amoral. Žižek has presented a substantial challenge to the grounding of morality in the abyssal other, but the danger would be to reject Levinas outright. What I want to suggest is that to encounter the Levinasian other is at the same time to confront the monstrous core of humanity and to enter into a moral relationship with it. Žižek warns us against ‘gentrifying’ the notion of the neighbour, and he is right; but the other need not be domesticated, need not be – what? – lovely, in order for it to be the locus of moral behaviour. Unknowable – forever ‘the stranger in the neighbour’ – the other is unsettling, provoking anxiety and fear: we cannot know what there is with the other. The Levinasian ethical encounter involves being-towards-the-other despite oneself, adding an element of terror that Žižek does not here acknowledge. When we read Levinas, we need not lose sight of the monstrosity of the other. More than this, we need not recognise a choice between moral responsibility and monstrosity: the demands of the former are the basis of the latter. The notion of ‘the stranger in the neighbour’ suggests a sort of pervasive suspicion, or the terror of never knowing those in close proximity to us – what we might call the repulsion of proximity. The other, without characteristics, is a source of anxiety onto which negative characteristics can be dangerously projected. We should agree with Žižek that the other is a source of fear, that we might find the other monstrous, but we should reject the idea that this is somehow incompatible with moral responsibility for that other. In short, to be in proximity with the other is to be in a state of ontological insecurity that we find repulsive – and at the same time to be part of an ethical encounter.

Such a position would represent a departure from the notion of ontological in/security articulated in the work of Anthony Giddens. In The Consequences of Modernity Giddens writes that ontological security is 

the confidence that most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action. A sense of the reliability of persons and things, so central to the notion of trust, is basic to feelings of ontological security (emphasis added).

Let us address these emphasised passages in turn, in so doing illuminating what should be understood as two separate kinds of ontological insecurity. First, since ontology is the study of what there is, a feeling of security in this regards is a feeling that one has a sure idea about what the environment of human agency is and what it contains. We would readily associate surety with fixity; to know what there is it helps that it does not constantly change; and so Giddens associates ontological security here with ‘the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action’. In this first sense, as a relation to one’s environment, ontological insecurity is, as Giddens states, a matter of ‘being-in-the-world’.

Giddens extends this notion of ontological in/security – rightly – to intersubjective relations; ‘rightly’ because this is indeed a – perhaps the most fundamental – site of ontological insecurity. Returning to the passage above, Giddens talks here of ‘the reliability of persons’ as constitutive of ontological security. In fact, he talks of ‘the reliability of persons and things’ (emphasis added) as constitutive of ontological security. The problem here is that Giddens seems to too readily conflate people with things in his picture of ‘being-in-the-world’; people are not like hammers or tables or whatever, and our sense of security or insecurity with regards the former ought to be distinct from that with the latter. It is inconvenient when a hammer breaks; our experience with others are (or at least ought to be) of a less instrumental order. What Giddens ought to be making distinct here is that our feelings of ontological in/security with regards other persons are in a separate order of ‘being-with-others’ (-in-the-world, obviously). As it is, his notion of ontological security is in fact a matter of mere ‘being-alongside-others’, rather than ‘-with-others’ in an ethical sense.

To say that Giddens’ notion of ontological security as ‘the reliability of persons’, the stability of the intersubjective scene, is a case of ‘being-alongside-others’ is to say that it is not properly intersubjective at all. His notion of trust, which encapsulates the reliability and ‘conviction of reality’, purportedly ‘forms a generalised component of the intersubjective nature of social life’. In fact, Giddens’ formulation would reinforce egotism, postulating stability, security, and constancy as ‘good’ for the individual. Certainly, it is possible to argue that these are ‘good’ for the individual, being as they are a source of sameness. Ontological security is the perpetuation of the same. For Giddens, a breakdown in ‘trust in the other’ leads to a negative feeling of insecurity; such a breakdown, we are told, leads to ‘a flooding-in of existential anxiety that takes the form of feelings of hurt, puzzlement, and betrayal, together with suspicion and hostility’. Ontological insecurity, for Giddens, is the unwelcome imposition of the other into the same.

Quite the reverse, what I want to suggest is that the ‘suspension of trust in the other’, as Giddens puts it, is, in fact, the very essence of intersubjective relations. Our encounter with the other is always an encounter with the unknowable, with something we cannot rely on. If we could know the other then the other would not remain other; and we cannot rely on the other when we cannot know the other. What we have been leading up to here, then, is a reformulation of ontological in/security. Or, rather, what I want to suggest is a reversal of Giddens’ polarity in this respect. Ontological insecurity should be understood as an encounter with the other as other. This feeling of insecurity derives from the incomprehensible nature of the other. More than just a feeling, though, this insecurity is at the very heart of intersubjectivity. The encounter with the other draws the individual out of its secure egotism: the hypostasis of the ‘I’ is shattered. What could be a greater cause of insecurity than this decentring of the self, this movement from solipsistic egotism to intersubjective encounter? The other as exteriority is a resistance to the power of the individual; we come up against the other, encounter others as a limit to our freedom: again, what could arouse a greater sense of insecurity? And yet this ontological insecurity is the very nature of intersubjective relations; it is the fundamental state of ‘being-for-others’ or ‘being-towards-others’. Without the insecurity of the divestment of the ‘I’, without the movement from stability towards the unknown of the other, there is no intersubjective dimension to encounters, only mere ‘being-alongside-others’. What we see, then, is that ontological insecurity is the very condition of the ethical.

If ontological insecurity becomes ‘being-for-others’ then, with the reversal of Giddens’ poles, ontological security becomes evasion of the other. The pursuit of ontological security becomes denial of the obligation to the other, a dereliction of one’s duty to the other. So: where for Giddens ontological insecurity was, in its extreme, the state of the schizophrenic, it is here the condition of intersubjectivity as a fundamentally ethical state. Where ontological security was a necessary condition for the dread-free existence of the individual in an intersubjective realm, it is here a pathological denial of the other – or, moral spasticity. So, we see that responding morally to the other is ontologically insecure because the other is unknowable and how to respond, along with its consequences, is so too. But further to this, we see that maintaining security in the face of this is to be merely alongside others and not for others. Indeed, it is encountering the other and responding without guidance that is moral – ethics in the face of a repulsive other.

So, Friedrich Engels’ observation of both ‘forting up’ and indifference to others, outlined in my previous post, can be explained in these terms: we seek to make our environment secure – through gating, online or offline, as a form of selective disassociation – because the other is repulsive. The radical conclusion to be drawn is that we find proximity to the other repulsive precisely because it is in encountering others that our moral responsibility is made apparent. This is why indifference and suffering occupy the same space; moral responsibility requires facing up to this repulsion which is difficult but precisely the sort of selfless humility that moral behaviour is made of.

None of which is to moralise but to theorise: by acknowledging this repulsion we can better explain the way we behave towards others today.


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