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December 28, 2004

Hoc est enim corpus meum

The historian Caroline Walker Bynum gave a talk in Potsdam a few days ago, and I was surprised to learn from her that, due to some bleeding wafers, a small town close to Berlin was actually one of the most important pilgrimage sites of the 13th century, coming right after Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago. Well, I never. Brandenburg doesn't exactly look spiritual these days...

December 9, 2004

Il est bon d'être charitable. Mais avec qui?

Recently, I've been obliged to read some Lévinas. Maybe I'm missing out on something here, but it seems to me that the texts contained an almost completely empty feel-good-philosophy only useful for official speeches and extended self-congratulation. Following Lévinasian ethics is supposed to be subversive and moral at the same time, heroically sacrificing "self-survival" for the other. But that claim is so big that it's larger than life and evaporates in contact with everyday questions. The other can't be any old other sitting next to you in the subway, because you would not really know what to do with her/him by the guidance of the imperative to put the other first. Basically, this ethos is realizable only regarding somebody with whom you're already intimate and able to have dyadic relationship; it finally only makes sense in a marital bond (as Lévinas himself points out). And even in this relation only in privileged moments (e. g. watching your special someone sleeping). It seems to me that for these moments you don't really need ethics, because you're swept up in their dynamic anyway. Ethics can't strengthen your ability to love. However, ethics can help, or at least become interesting, further down the road, when the debate starts who of you is going to take out the trash, i. e. when a political question arises and "the third" inevitably enters who "the other" always is on the verge of becoming. And at this crucial point, Lévinas has doodly-squat to say except banalities such as that one should "consider carefully" the relation between other and third. When he considers it himself, he takes the route straight back to dull convention. E. g. Lévinas advocates self-defense not on the basis of self-survival but on the basis of your obligation against your loved ones and your community. Obviously, the effect would in both cases be just the same in close to 100 % of the cases, as every good propagandist knows. Plus, the empirical representatives of Lévinasianism I've met despite all their otherizings seems to me rather full of themselves, similar to a certain kind of clergy who bug everybody with their demonstrative, narcissistic self-effacement.