Friday, November 28, 2003

It's the Little Things

There are maybe only two people out there who read this blog who will find this intertesting at all, but I post it only as a cathartic proclamation that is finally finished! You see, these 1,200 words kicked my ass this week. I'd intended on writing it last week, but I was too doped up on meds to function physically (let alone mentally); and thought I'd bang it out on Tues. or Wed. of this, and then send it to the journal editor on Fri. Alas, no. Tuesday because Wednesday, and then Wednesday Thursday -- and I could only manage 125 - 200 words a day. Something kicked into gear today, finally, and the damn thing has finally breathed life.

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Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness. By Richard Kearney. London: Routledge, 2003. x + 294 pp.

In his two previous volumes, On Stories and The God Who May Be, Richard Kearney successfully sought, respectively, to mark the human experience as that which must tell stories and that desires to think the unthinkable impossibility of the God that (may) lie at the limit of the narrative imaginary. In this, the final volume of his 'Philosophy at the Limit' trilogy, he explores the ethical implications and philosophical potential of doing both. The self, he suggests, is fraught with, and defined by, the sense of its own ending, where its self-familiarity ends and the strangeness of others begin. Kearney's desire is that we might more effectively redefine this self-familiar self in terms of the limit-experience of strangeness, in order to avoid the alienating projection onto others of our own unconscious fears of ourselves. Citing religious history in particular, as well as examples from popular cinema like Alien and Apocalypse Now: Redux, Kearney argues here that all too often and far too easily the 'stranger' is made a sacrificial scapegoat, a monster that must be exorcised if the stable, certain self is to identify and safely secure itself. What is lost in this economy of redemptive sacrifice, he continues, is the recognition of 'the stranger before us as a singular other who responds, in turn, to the singular otherness in each of us. We refuse to acknowledge ourselves-as-strangers' (p. 5).

All of this at first seems to be a recapitulation of the by now fairly standard postmodern critique of the self-sufficient subject, as rehearsed by the likes of Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, or Slavoj Zizek. While he clearly owes a great deal to such thinkers, he suspects their 'postmodern obsession with absolutist ideas of exteriority and otherness' of leading to a problematic idolatry: 'that of the memorial, ineffable Other', in which there is no discernible difference between the divine Good and the horrific Abject (p. 229). The key, he maintains, is to acknowledge the division between the self and the other without separating them so far that there is no relation at all. To do otherwise is to make ethical, responsible discernment impossible.

Kearney is at his best here when surveying the 'fetishising' of otherness and critiquing its ethical implications. With the overwhelming emphasis that postmodern criticism places on the infinite sublime that is a conditioning agent of knowledge, and thus not a subject of knowledge itself, its privileging of ethical undecidability (versus the moral stricture of being law-bound) is not surprising. For thinkers like Derrida, thinking the absolutely other, and the unconditional hospitality it deserves, 'marks a break with everyday conventions of hospitality governed by rights, contracts, duties, and pacts' (p. 69). As such, the openness of undecidability that is provoked by absolute alterity necessarily precedes the possibility of ethical discernment. In a turbulent world that has grown weary of theory and has been torn asunder by the ethical aftermath of 9/11, though, Kearney's query is especially apt:

How can we tell the difference between benign and malign others? How do we know . . . when the other is truly an enemy who seeks to destroy us or an innocent scapegoat projected by our phobias? Or a mixture of both? How do we account for the fact that not every other is innocent and not every self is an egoistic emperor? (p. 67)

Of these questions, he contends, much of postmodern philosophy remains disturbingly silent.

There must be, he suggests in response, a middle way between the 'romantic hermeneutics' of the autonomous self (at the expense of alterity) and the 'radical hermeneutics' of emphatic alterity (at the expense of the self). What is needed is a mediation between the poles of sameness and strangeness, which Kearney styles 'diacritical hermeneutics'. Here, the other is not 'so exterior or so unconscious . . . that it cannot be at least minimally interpreted by a self', but rather a debt 'inscribed within me as an uncontainable call from beyond' (p. 81). When that which is foreign is made more familiar, and that which is familiar more foreign, there is the potential of -- the necessity of -- hospitality to the other and the self's ethical discernment coexisting in the practical wisdom (phronesis) of narrative understanding.

All this, of course, stands in stark contrast to the primordial silence of the Immemorial Other. That which cannot be known or recalled, because of its absolute singularity, the Immemorial is invoked by Levinas to highlight the blank abyss, the darkness and madness, at the heart of the self's experience of itself, and thus also of the self's experience of history. To speak the other is, in this perspective, its unthinkable domestication; in fact, we would all be much better if we accepted the traumatic darkness at the root of our existence. It is the implication of the latter that Kearney finds most problematic, as it renders our cathartic mourning in the face of evil, be it apartheid or genocide, mute and ineffectual:

What the catharsis of mourning narrative allows is the realization that new actions are still possible in spite of evil sufferered. Narrative catharsis detaches us from the obsessional repetitions of the past and frees us for a less repressed future. For only thus may we escape the disabling cycles of retribution . . . . which estrange us from our power to act by instilling the view that evil is overpoweringly alien, that is, irresistible (p. 104).

If we cannot make something new and good of the evil in our past, in other words, what hope at all have we of achieving anything good for the future?

Kearney's ethical interrogation is, quite obviously, timely. Indeed, it is powerful, and often very persuasive. Nevertheless, if he does not necessarily argue against a straw man version of postmodern ethics, the weight of his arguments fall upon the hyperbolic implications of its rhetoric. This is most clearly the case in his analyses of undecidability, which he a little too readily accuses of being equivalent to indecidability. The point of the undecidable, rather, as a condition for the possibility of decision-making, indeed of storytelling, is that it marks the inherent, inevitable violence and guilt of the decisions we make and stories we tell. That is, in the face of the unthinkable absolute singularity that beckons us to act and to narrate, our actions and our stories do not simply fall short of representing the alterity of the other, but, more importantly, they cut us off from all the other decisions and stories that might have been enacted or narrated with the best of intentions. In not focussing on the decisive guilt at work in the ethics of undecidability, but rather the indecision he inaccurately espies as its result, Kearney's critique is weakened.

This weakness notwithstanding, Strangers, Gods and Monsters remains an invaluable ethical clarification of philosophers like Levinas and Derrida. Indeed, Kearney's presentation of a hermeneutical / narrative understanding of reality and truth, as that which actively discloses the possible, rather than that which is only infinitely deferred as a condition of possibility, is a significant, helpful corrective to the philosophical paralysis of postmodernity's residual Platonism.