Levi, Levinas and Glissant

Levi, Levinas and Glissant

Sagun Basnet

 Our discussions in the class made me think of the profound philosophical thought, “I think therefore, I am”. I remember this claim of Descartes being the matter of discussion in philosophy classes while I was doing my Masters in Nepal. Years later, I now see this statement not in terms of rationality but saying, I am/become, what I think. In other words, I think I am happy, therefore I am happy. The inkling of this thought came to me as I read the preface to Survival in Auschwitz where Levi says that the book has been written “for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind”. This very line made me think may be his book is a witness not only to the trauma of a horrific incident in the history of humankind, but also to the recesses of human mind where an idea of violence first generates before becoming a trauma for others. May be his book is a study of that human mind which shapes the human beings in the way it thinks and thus sets a stage for larger and heinous violence. The whole notion of I think something, thus I am that something thus pervades my writing today. Levi says in his preface that , “Many people-many nations- can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that every stranger is an enemy.” This very line corroborates my thought that it is actually thought that makes all the difference. Many people in many nations find their stranger an enemy because they think they are enemy. This is an interesting juncture for me to ponder as to why people think of strangers as enemies, for this thought links my thought processes to Levinas and his question of ontology. Let me simplify this; Levi says that at the end of the chain of this infectious dogma called thinking of strangers as enemy, lays devastations as Lager. For me, this naming of the other as enemy springs from a conviction that I know the other/stranger. I know that this other is very different from me, this other doesn’t function as I do, s/he doesn’t think as I do, thus s/he is my enemy. For him/her to be my friend s/he has to think like me, but as s/he doesn’t do so, s/he is my enemy. The thoughts of people that they know their strangers completely thus make them assume that they have knowledge of how these others are made up of. This so called knowledge then inevitably leads to objectification, alienation and domination and thus invisibility as human beings. And when a human being becomes invisible in terms of being human, then follows a cycle of violence. Violence occurs because the person against whom the violence is being done is not considered a human being at all. Violence is done when the other is thought of as an object; therefore the other becomes an object for me, because I think they are objects. At this point it is interesting to bring Levinas who argues that knowledge can never be the foundation of ethics because this foundation denies others’ needs, pains and desires. He is of the opinion that a knowledge based action never respects the other person as a unique, irreducible other which is necessary to be considered a human being. Therefore, this knowing of other reduces the other to our possession and acquisition which further becomes invisible as human beings. Ontology thus grasps everything seeing persons as objects. This reminds me again of Levi who says that for the officers in the Lager, they were not human beings but pieces, “The corporal saluted smartly and replied that there were six hundred and fifty “Pieces” and that all was in order”(16). This quote here further elaborates Levinas’ claim about the violence of ontology. In this case too, the too much knowing and fantasizing the other as objects is the unfailing reason for the heinous crimes like extermination camps. At this point i also think of Glissant, who also held the idea that the other is unknowable. He said that, the “Self’s opacity for other is insurmountable”. I paraphrase his thoughts here as may be there is something of a corner in any relatedness that resists translatability and the unintelligibility, non comprehensibility should be the basis of relations. However, this unknowability or incomprehensibility of the other makes us think that the other is different. I was intrigued by his thoughts when he said that different is not contrary. May be, the whole notion of knowing the other as enemy sprouts from the fact of knowing the difference as contrary and not respecting the difference that makes up the other. Glissant averred that thinking that you know someone is violence against the alteriority and uniqueness of the other. Thus, when I bring Levi, Levinas and Glissant together I get a chain of logic that violence happens when I claim that I know the other as my enemy who can be reduced to objects. This feeling of him/her being an enemy originates from the thought that I cannot accept some one being different than me and also because I am not able to respect the difference. Thus follows my thoughts, that I think the other is enemy, therefore the other becomes my enemy, I think difference is opposite, therefore it becomes my opposite and I think I am superior to objectify others, therefore I objectify others. Here is the place which may be, Glissant would name as opacity. For to end my note I would like to paraphrase him that opacity is not obscurity, it is not the lack of light but it is when we do not know where the light is coming from.

5th November 2009



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