ETHICS AND TRAUMA:
LEVINAS, FEMINISM, AND DEEP ECOLOGY
by Roger S. Gottlieb
Levinas's concept of the other, born out of the trauma of the Holocaust, is
challenged by both feminism and deep ecology.
ROGER S. GOTTLIEB is professor of humanities at Worcester Polytechnic Institute,
Worcester, Mass. The author acknowledges helpful comments from Richard A. Cohen and
How do the sorrows and terrors of personhood, rather than the demands of impersonal
reason, shape our ideas of morality? What dark mysteries of history are ethics designed --
consciously or unconsciously -- to solve?
I hope to shed some light on these questions by juxtaposing three broadly construed
ethical perspectives: Emmanuel Levinas's attempt to surmount the rationalist and
ontological biases of Western philosophical ethics; the cultural feminist revaluation of
ethical theory in light of women's culturally shaped personality structure and socially
allotted tasks; and deep ecology's emerging holistic and spiritual orientation toward
moral value and human identity. Though I will focus a good deal of critical attention on
Levinas, and less on cultural feminism(1) and deep
ecology, I believe all three frameworks have something important to tell us. The
pressingly important feature they share is a common motivation of trauma; i.e., a
sense that life is threatened by times of terror and helplessness in which conventional
restraints, resources and forms of understanding are inadequate.(2) I believe that ethical frameworks open to tasks set by the distinctive
experiences of our century must comprehend the traumas of mass industrialized genocide,
ecocide, and collective personal violence toward women and minorities. Ethics not aimed at
somehow "solving" -- or permitting us to live with -- these dark mysteries are
simply not relevant to our horror, our pain, or our scant hope.
Levinas: Ethics of Irreducible Concern
Levinas seeks to overcome the fundamental rationalist, egocentric presuppositions of
Western philosophical ethics. His project centers on a basic assertion about human
relationships, which can be summarized thus: Other philosophies of human existence have
tended to describe our ethical obligations as consequences of historically, conceptually,
or developmentally prior structures of social life, rational thought, or experience. These
philosophies generate the need for ethics out of the contradictions of a life without
ethics (as in contract theory or, to some extent, Hegel); or out of the dialectical
development of self-consciousness; or out of ontological assumptions about the nature of
humanity, nature, reason, or God. Traditionally, in short, ethics is secondary to
knowledge of "things" (with that term construed as broadly as possible),
including knowledge of or concerns about oneself.
It is this sense of knowledge of things that Levinas tries to capture under various
rubrics -- most importantly, in his two major philosophical works, as
"totality," "essence," and "being." (Levinas believes that
the attempt to generate ethics out of self-knowledge or interest is simply a form of war.)
For him, knowledge is necessarily aimed at or inevitably leads to objectification,
alienation, and domination. Therefore knowledge cannot be the basis of ethical life --
that is, of a kind of transcending concern for other people, a concern untouched by our
own needs, desires, or attempts to control. As Hume could not get an "ought"
from an "is," Levinas finds an unbridgeable gap between knowledge and ethics. If
we begin with knowledge -- in the guise of science or philosophy, technique or ontology,
rational reflection or psychoanalysis -- we will never respect the other person as
irreducibly other. Knowledge is something acquired, dispensed, and instrumentally used by
us. Consequently, knowledge of others necessarily reduces the other to something we
possess, something we have acquired, and something -- ultimately -- we will use.(3) If the foundation of our relation to others is
knowledge, the other will be reduced to the same. Otherness will not be allowed to coexist
with the agent of sameness.
What Levinas poses as an alternative is the irreducibility or underivability of our
concern for the other. This concern does not stem from an empirically or conceptually
based sense of the "facts" or the ultimate ontological structures of the
universe. It does not come from an expansion of self-interest through identification with
the other, either practically (as in contract theory from Locke to Rawls) or
transcendentally (as in Kant). Nor does it come from the discovery of common interests in
the realm of historical struggle (as in Marxism, feminism, or antiracist movements).
Levinas leaves little doubt that the terrain of history, in the sense of political
conflict, is too implicated in the wars of self-interest to be a site for ethics.
Like a negative theologian, Levinas is most effective in characterizing what the
grounds of our concern for the other are not. They are neither a consequence of
our knowledge of things (totality) or of the ultimately knowable character of things
themselves (essence); nor are they how the things appear to us or exist in their truth
(being). Working through, behind, and beyond essence and totality, being and knowledge,
and leaving a subtle trace of itself in our capacity to speak with care, the call of the
other simply breaks through and across the barriers of science and philosophy and the
greedy attempt to satisfy my desires by "knowing" about the world and others.
We do witness the other in the face-to-face relation. The naked vulnerability of the
other person, the sense that this person speaks to us (whatever is actually said),
the imperative to leave this person alive and not to murder constitute for Levinas the
basis of an ethics outside the limitations of totalizing thought. The face of the other is
not an empirical face, reducible to generalizations provided by sociology or psychology.
Rather, our sense of the other's vulnerability and need, together with the other's call to
justice -- neither of which is reducible to any particular empirical, historically defined
situation -- represents the "trace" of the infinite. The infinite can only be a
trace, irreducible to the empirical person in front of me, because, as Robert Bernasconi
observes, Levinas is urging us to remember our experience not (as in Heidegger) of
"being" but of "the good beyond being," which he also calls
"metaphysical exteriority," "transcendence," and "infinity."
The good surpasses "being," "objectifying thought," "objective
experience," "totality," and history.(4)
This primordial experience constitutes our capacity to function as human beings:
the face of the other is the primordial signification, from which all other signs take
their meaning; the perception of the other is the true one, from which all other bodily
perception ultimately derives.(5)
Responding to the other's call leaves us infinitely concerned with the other, with the
way our very existence on earth takes up her space, with our unlimited responsibility
which constitutes or makes possible -- rather than follows from -- ego-bound interests,
communication, or subjective freedom. Only by responding can we give up our attitude of
domination; but knowledge of the world always involves a comportment of domination, and
Levinas therefore rejects the aggressive imperial gaze of detached reason which has been
the hallmark of Western thought from Parmenides to positivism.(6)
Thus, if we are to have ethics at all, it must be, in Levinas's phrase, our "first
philosophy." The capacity to speak and to know, to haggle over questions of truth and
evidence are signified by rather than signify this ultimate
responsibility for that which cannot be knowingly reduced to myself: the other for whom I
must act and be concerned; the other in answering whose call I receive the distinctive
imprint of my humanity.
The basis of ethics is thus the sheer fact of "otherness" -- that which
somehow penetrates my psychic and ethical space from outside.
The freedom of another could never begin in my freedom, that is, abide in the same
present, be contemporary, be representable to me. The responsibility for the other can
not have begun in my commitment, in my decision. The unlimited responsibility in
which I find myself comes from the hither side of my freedom, from a "prior to every
memory.". . . .
The knot tied in subjectivity, which when subjectivity becomes a consciousness of being
is still attested to in questioning, signifies an allegiance of the same to the other, imposed
before any exhibition of the other, preliminary to all consciousness -- or a being
affected by the other whom I do not know and who could not justify himself with any
identity, who as other will not identify himself with anything.(7)
What motivates Levinas's philosophy? What do we receive and what do we escape from, if
in fact my obligation to the other, especially to those most in need, does not follow from
who I am or who they are, but precedes those contingent identities? What trauma has led
Levinas to this conclusion?
We will approach this last question indirectly, beginning by noting that there are many
problems posed by Levinas's categorical assertions of human responsibility without
knowledge, emotional connection, or self-interest. Why, for instance, must all
knowledge be objectifying, tied to domination and the eradication of difference? Why does
Levinas feel compelled to accept the instrumental view of knowledge and leave our ethical
connections, to a realm beyond essence and outside of knowledge?
What would he make, for instance, of Habermas's attempt to situate forms of knowledge
in relation to distinguishable human interests in the control of nature, communicating
with others, and social emancipation? Of these three, certainly the first and possibly the
second -- but not, it would seem, the third -- serve the tasks of domination or control.
For Habermas the very idea of a free consensus presupposes a kind of knowledge that
enables us to distinguish between exploitative and nonexploitative human relations,
between domination and justice. That such knowledge takes a different form in natural
science is not surprising, because it is motivated by a different -- but equally
inescapable -- human project. Nevertheless, unless we remain under the sway of positivism,
we can see that it remains a form of knowledge. That is, it is part of a context
of discourse and practice in which concepts such as truth, correctness, evidence,
argument, reality, and illusion have a place.
Similarly, there is the Western Marxist concept of praxis, in which
self-knowledge, knowledge of the world, and emancipating political action reinforce each
other. In Lukacs, for example, the proletariat's knowledge about its own social status as
a commodity helps undermine that status, enabling it to make the transition to different
beliefs about and practices in society.(8) This
process of achieving self-knowledge about one's social position and then being motivated
by that knowledge to change one's position has been relevant in many social contexts, most
notably in the political movements of women and of ethnic/racial minorities. The feminist
process of consciousness-raising, for example, involves women's transcending their
objectification by patriarchy in the process of coming to see that objectification. A kind
of knowledge of the self -- that the pain one thought was personal, for instance, stems
rather from one's social/political condition -- makes it possible to initiate
relationships and practices which will change the self.
From a rather different source, we might ask Levinas why self-interest cannot lead, by
a Kierkegaardian existential dialectic, toward the choice of ethical life, principles, and
commitments to the good. Kierkegaard's subject begins in the aesthetic realm
(self-interested, without principles, totally egotistical); however, boredom, repetition,
and a sense of personal emptiness inevitably lead the aesthetic subject to confront the
possibility of ethical life. The outcome of this confrontation is not guaranteed; for
Kierkegaard personal choice is always a necessary ingredient of significant personal
change. But the self has undergone a kind of premoral education, has acquired a kind of
knowledge -- of what the inevitable consequences and limitations of a purely selfish life
will be. This knowledge does not reduce the other to the same, but allows us to recognize
our obligations to principles which involve commitments to care for and respect the other.(9)
Of all such questions about Levinas, I have been most struck by his obliviousness to
the feminist counterview that his radical disjuncture of self and other simply consummates
a culturally male perspective on human relationships. The idea that our ethical connection
to others is possible because the other to whom I am "ethical hostage" leaves a
"trace" in the objective realm is at odds with what a host of cultural feminist
writers have, in a variety of ways, described. This feminist view is not monolithic (all
the more reason Levinas and his commentators should have seen it); its range can be
roughly summarized, however.(10)
The culturally male ego is predominantly formed through a process of separation, toward
an ideal of autonomy, and results in a bounded, competitive, and dominating self. By
contrast, the female ego is shaped through affiliation, toward an ideal of
"self-in-relation," and results in an empathic, nurturing, and connected self.
Women's selfhood stems from women's role as primary caretakers of infants and their
responsibility for emotionality and nurturing in adult relationships. Consigned by
patriarchy to the "labor of relatedness," to the production of sexuality,
emotional intimacy, and affection, women approach the moral realm from a radically
different sense of themselves and others than men. Partly as a consequence of their
distinctive ego structures, men and women reason differently about moral problems: men
favor abstract principles of justice, while women think in terms of concrete relatedness,
and reason via empathy rather than abstraction. Feminist ethicists have developed the
concept of an ethics of care, of "maternal thinking," to refer to moral
perspectives based in a sense of emotional kinship between self and other, as
distinguished from those stemming from abstract principles, self- -- as opposed to other-
-- interest, or Levinas's own infinite obligation across an irreducible gap.
Cultural feminists have further argued that, because social domination and hierarchy
express highly individuated and competitive egos, political injustice and economic
exploitation are male forms of relationships. These evils cannot be overcome by the
application of abstract principles of liberal democratic-rights theory, or by
Marxist-oriented strategies of class struggle, since both these perspectives reproduce the
individualism, abstraction, and aggression endemic to the male styles embedded in the
evils themselves. Neither, clearly, are they addressed by Levinas's view that we must
serve an other who is categorically so separate. Rather, a social order based in the
cooperative, nurturing, noncompetitive style of female identity might overcome the
antagonisms and oppressions of male-dominated society. The "feminine virtues" of
relationality, empathy, and cooperation could make possible a social order which escapes
the domination, exploitation, and violence endemic to both capitalist and bureaucratic
state societies. It is further suggested that the image of rigid ego boundaries between
people is largely the product of a masculine prejudice inflicted on psychological theory.
Certainly women, and no doubt men as well, develop not as self and other but as
"selves-in-relation" -- so that even theoretically we must speak of persons in
the contexts of their relations, unknowable outside those relations.(11)
It is not hard to see that feminism presents a vision of ethical life rooted in a
recognition of the fundamental trauma of male domination. The insights of cultural
feminism are products of and reflections on the exploitation and devaluation of women. An
ethic of care, compassion, and emotional inter-identification is not simply a conceptual
alternative to one based on (supposedly) disinterested reason or metaphysical foundations.
Rather, this ethic is a desperate cry for the recognition of women; and against
a masculine world which wields impersonal categories in one hand while it ravages women
with the other. Feminist ethics celebrates what masculinity has consigned to women and
(therefore) devalued. It posits as a strength what men have tried to kill in themselves
while they exploit it in women: a sense of emotional connectedness. Feminist ethics is
thus a post-traumatic ethics, an imperative exclamation against the hypocrisy and violence
of masculinity. If you do not see who you are, and you do not learn to understand
your own emotions and your emotional relations to others, this ethic warns a patriarchal
culture, you will continue to violate women and the men you dominate as well.
In other words, Levinas is lost in a world in which we know the other and answer the
other only through this imponderable call to a responsibility divorced from every other
facet of my being -- just because he accepts the basic premises of masculine
theoretical culture. On these premises human identities are formed in rigid isolation
and opposition to one another; and bridging the gap between self and other always requires
some extended process of reflection, self-development, or transformation. In this culture
we start as isolated owner/producers (Locke) or isolated minds (Descartes) or aesthetic
enjoyers of amoral experience (Kierkegaard) or isolated ego-id-superego complexes whose
struggle for mastery and sex can lead, at best, to the autonomous ego of bourgeois adult
masculinity (Freud). In patriarchal thought we never start in connection to others. We are
not seen as beginning, as we in fact do, as babies at our mother's breast, after having
come out of her body. Or if the beginning is there, that image of connection is not
carried into the heart of the theoretical representation of adult ethical life. Men have
tried to obliterate the memory of their own relation to their mothers.(12)
Ironically, Levinas does have a sense of our beginning with our mothers, but in his
view precisely that beginning needs to be overcome if we are to achieve the full ethical
identity of someone answering the "call" of the other. Like other patriarchal
writers, Levinas sees motherhood as an embracing warmth of care, that which makes a house
a home. But the relationship of mothering, just as the figures of mothers themselves, is
conceived of as separate from the world of men, of maturity, of the ethical. Women do not
provoke our utter responsibility, they do not call for justice or demand honesty; they
Further, Levinas makes it clear over and over again that the ethical relation is with a
being who is in some sense "foreign" to us. I may owe care to my neighbor, but
that neighbor is (strangely) unknown. In discussing a passage of the Talmud he
Nothing is more foreign to me than the other; nothing is more intimate to me than
myself. Israel would teach that the greatest intimacy of me to myself consists in being at
every moment responsible for the others, the hostage of others. I can be responsible
for that which I did not do and take upon myself a distress which is not mine.(14)
Between real mothers and children, however, the other's "distress" belongs to
the self just because the fluid boundaries between them, as well as the emotionally based
knowledge each has of the other, makes the rigid distinction between self and other much
more problematic than it is in patriarchal thought.(15)
Unfortunately, Levinas's image of the face-to-face relation, a relation meant to
overcome the egotism and totalizing reason of traditional Western philosophy, is
ultimately a relation with a being whom we do not really know. For him, personal identity
can be either wrapped in an inescapable egotism or exist in thrall to a superior
moral force which derives from the vulnerability and neediness of the other. Since
knowledge is always domination, we cannot "know" that other; rather, his
appearance is what makes knowledge, communication, and, ultimately, my identity possible.
That the Other is placed higher than I would be a pure simple error if the welcome I
make him consisted in "perceiving" a nature. Sociology, psychology, physiology
are thus deaf to exteriority. Man as Other comes to us from the outside, a separated -- or
holy -- face. His exteriority, that is, his appeal to me, is his truth. In the face to
face the self has neither the privileged position of the subject nor the position of the
thing defined by its place in the system; it is apology, discourse pro domo, but
discourse of justification before the other.(16)
Levinas's self -- cruelly abandoned in a world of objectifying knowledge and
self-interested war -- answers the trace of the Divine in the other's face, and sees the
obligation to answer -- to put the self in the other's place and seek the other's good.
The basis of this movement, for Levinas, cannot be the kind of inter-identification
described as the basic feminine ego structure by cultural feminism. The use of emotion --
as empathy, compassion, or intuition of the other -- reeks to Levinas of simply another
form of egoism. In his view, empathy begins with the self. Further, the self on an
emotional -- i.e., for him, empirical and social -- level cannot help but be
self-centered. Therefore, the move of empathy must be a move out of the self-centered
self, a move which, for Levinas, is impossible. We do not respond to the other because of
who we are; rather, we are possible as truly human beings only because we first heed the
other. Because I respond, I am able to speak, to reason, and to know. The call of the
other unifies a self out of the chaos of self-interested action, action which itself
reflects varying emotional conditions and desires.
There is an anarchy essential to multiplicity [of selves]. In the absence of a plane
common to the totality. . . . one will never know which will, in the free
play of the wills, pulls the strings of the game; one will not know who is playing with
whom. But a principle breaks through all this trembling and vertigo when the face presents
itself, and demands justice.(17)
In a theoretical world of purely masculine possibilities, Levinas's solution may be the
best alternative possible. But would the whole edifice come crashing down if he realized
that it is possible to see human identity as based in a relation to the other from the
start? that the other is not a trace, not an uninteriorizable "outside,"
not something which can only get flattened into sameness if it is brought "in,"
but rather that the other has been known, connected to, and made part of ourselves from
the beginning? if he could have conceived of a self so implicated in the other that the
Face we see is in some sense our own, because the boundaries of self and other -- far from
being obliterated by a reductionist or instrumental knowledge -- are fluidly constructed
by the reality of a shared relationship in which both find their selves?
Even when Levinas seems to be hinting that we have some kind of direct relation with
others, that relation seems to me abstract, constructed, distant, formal; in a word,
metaphysical rather than emotional or psychological. We may, as he insists in the crucial
chapter in Otherwise Than Being, necessarily "substitute" ourselves for
the other, in fact, for the whole world. But in that substitution there is no real
connection to the other, just (once again) that limitless responsibility for the whole
universe of suffering and vulnerable others.
Responsibility for my neighbor dates from before my freedom in an immemorial past, an
unrepresentable past that was never present and is more ancient than consciousness
of. . .(18)
Just because our responsibility is so absolute -- preexisting to everything in our
personal life or social world -- it never seems to shine with any direct connection to
another real human being with whom I, as (in Kierkegaard's words) an actually existing
human being, am in an actually existing relationship.
But what is then left for us to relate to? or with? For Levinas the empirical self is
always so implicated in struggles for domination that he must appeal to some
"other" realm of identity: a primordial, hypothetical, speculative, and
ultimately metaphysical notion of a self formed in response to the other's call. Such a
self has no basis on which to mobilize a response. In this reliance on a self out of time,
mind, and body, Levinas simply repeats the culturally masculine rejection of the
particularities of identity. From a feminist viewpoint, such a rejection accumulates
authority for the speaker at the expense of the reality of the situation, which is that we
can never reach beyond our actual position to a viewpoint which is other than that of an
embodied, concretely located person.(19) The
greatest fear of masculine thought is that the speaker is simply a single person, bereft
of sources of authority such as Objective Reason, Human Nature, or, in the case of
Levinas, a "time-out-of-mind" phenomenological essence of selfhood found in
response to a reified other.
What is missing from Levinas, then, is a kind of conceptual humility, a humility found
not just in the rejection of dominating reason but in the recognition that we are
situated, partial, finite, empirical. Further, from the feminist standpoint, our empirical
identity is implicated in the other in the very psychological foundation of its being.
It might seem, then, that Levinas's work simply lacks a feminist viewpoint. And while
this is true, the matter as a whole is not that simple. Like the best of the feminist
writers, Levinas is not simply a theorist, but a person responding to the traumas of our
time. His ethic is at once an intellectual edifice and an extended prayer. He can
-- does he realize this? -- prove nothing. He can only beg that it be so. And this returns
us to the question of motivation. Why does he so want us to feel -- or if not to feel, to
have it true about ourselves -- that beyond knowledge and history, we are ethical hostages
for the other whom we do not know?
The answer, I believe, is the trauma of the Holocaust.
In Levinas's world, the destruction of the Jewish people is the basic fact: more basic
than theory, more basic than self-interest, more basic than the conventional forms of ego
development or psychic, emotional, familial, or even communal inter-identification.
Ethically, what were the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust but the irreducibly other?
What were the Jews but the other with whom the gentile world could so little to identify,
share so few interests, know so little about? The Fascist world did not know the Jews, or
did not know them as Jews, but only as the enemy, as vermin, traitors, insects, germs. The
only "knowledge" which was possible was the knowledge of genocide, to reduce the
other to the same. . . . by murder.
Even more particularly: why does Levinas violate the conventions of symmetry that are
virtually ubiquitous in philosophical ethics -- i.e., why does he insist that our
obligation to the other is in some sense greater than the other's obligation to us?
Consider, quite simply, what it meant in Nazi-dominated Europe to side with the Jews. To
shelter or protect -- to stand against the regime of evil -- meant, with few exceptions,
torture and death, possibly for one's family, friends, and village, as well as for
oneself. To be responsible, as many were, was to reach out to those who could not reach
back to you.
In such a world one might well pray with Levinas that we feel a kinship, a bond, to the
other we do not know. Or that we feel an infinite obligation of care, holding us hostage
before any choice on our part, to that other of whom we know nothing. We are bound solely
to the fact of otherness.
For Levinas, only this prayer will do; only this prayer really speaks to that terrible
loneliness of the Jew who is not known by the gentile world, or known only in a way that
sets in motion the technology of the death camps. Levinas is not just arguing for a new
philosophical system; he is praying or dreaming or simply hoping against hope that what he
says might be true: that out of the sheer fact of otherness, there is hope of ethical
life. Nothing else, as he has seen, can protect the "widow, the stranger, the
orphan" -- the Jew. In a different setting, yet another group will be the otherness
that is grist for the mill of power and murder.
In another of his talmudic readings, this one centered on the question of what Judaism
has to give to the world, Levinas suggests that
. . . morality belongs in us and not in institutions which are not
always able to protect it. It demands that human honor know how to exist without a flag.
The Jew is perhaps the one who -- because of the inhuman history he has undergone
-- understands the suprahuman demand of morality, the necessity of finding within oneself
the source of one's moral certainties.(20)
Even more telling, when he points out the way in which the face is beyond any sign or
representation, he describes it as "a trace of itself, given over to my
responsibility, but to which I am wanting and faulty. It is as though I were responsible
for his mortality and guilty for surviving."(21)
Here we see Levinas not only as prophet of the murdered people, but as guilty survivor who
feels his own survival as a burden.
In a world in which no one seems responsible for me, my choice is simple: I can either
reciprocate their immorality or create a moral framework in which concern for the other is
built into every basic framework of human life as its metaphysical precondition. If I
cannot find such a framework in history, in self-awareness, in knowledge of self or other,
it had better be there in a way so basic that it is inescapable. Without it, the result
will be. . . . the history of the Jews as well as the countless other
murders which history has provided. (As Elie Wiesel has remarked: "Has mankind
learned the lessons of Auschwitz? No. For details, consult your daily newspaper.")(22) In short, because Levinas finds himself in a
world of cultural masculinity -- of violence and domination toward the other, of the use
of instrumental knowledge to reduce the other to the same -- he must create a
vision of moral responsibility across an unbridgeable gap. Because he is stuck not simply
in the theory of cultural masculinity but in its reality, he is compelled to theorize an
unrationalizable moral connection based simply in the fact of otherness. In a culturally
masculine world every other is, a priori, a kind of enemy. Having seen how such a
world operates, Levinas is praying that the opposite might somehow come to be -- that is,
against all appearances to the contrary, the other, far from being the object of
hostility, is the unknown and infinitely deserving subject of our ethical devotion.
This world of the Holocaust pervades the nightmares not just of the Jews, but of anyone
not stuck in denial. After Stalinism, Cambodia, the economically induced mass starvations
in Africa, Latin America's bloody civil struggles, and too many more tragedies than can be
mentioned, mass industrialized murder cannot be dismissed as an aberration of the 1940s;
it is the defining characteristic of the twentieth century. The enormous power of
Levinas's thought, its attraction despite his hopelessly dense language, resides in the
fact that it speaks to this condition, offering a prayer of hope during a century of death
camps. That prayer does not describe what we know or could ever know. From the standpoint
of the best in cultural masculinity, it describes what we must be if we are to survive.
Reaching out beyond the self-imposed isolation and loneliness of the masculine ego, of a
patriarchal society which relegates empathy and emotional inter-identification to a
devalued female caste, Levinas's philosophy seeks a source of ethical life in what must be
a metaphysical mystery to the lost self of male culture: the voice, the face, the very
presence, of the other.
Is there then no way out? Are Levinas's failings simply those of patriarchy? Is his
reaction to the Holocaust all that we can expect in a traumatized world? Likewise, is the
feminist critique hopeless in the face of historical reality? Is it perhaps not Levinas
who is the dreamer but the feminist? After all, in a world made by men empathy,
connection, and inter-identification have little chance or place. Does feminism's answer
to male domination remain within the privatized and domesticated realm of the family or
the intimate relationship, at least until patriarchy is ended? Is the feminist response to
the trauma of male violence necessarily marginalized until social institutions come to
reflect the logic of feminine personality styles and forms of relationship? Is the
feminist dream of an ethical cosmos of care and compassion as alien to the real world of
exploited wives and sexually abused children as Levinas's dream of infinite obligation is
to the real world of the Holocaust? Are both these frameworks, different as they are,
trapped by history, leaving us no way out? Are they simply lanterns waving dimly in a
shrouded night of endless trauma?
But perhaps not. Perhaps there is in progress another, even more encompassing Death
Event, which can be the historical condition for an ethic of compassion and care.
I speak of the specter of ecocide, the continuing destruction of species and
ecosystems, and the growing threat to the basic conditions essential to human life. What
kind of ethic is adequate to this brutally new and potentially most unforgiving of crises?
How can we respond to this trauma with an ethic which demands a response, and
does not remain marginalized?
Here I will at least begin in agreement with Levinas. As he rejects an ethics
proceeding on the basis of self-interest, so I believe the anthropocentric perspectives of
conservation or liberal environmentalism cannot take us far enough. Our relations with
nonhuman nature are poisoned and not just because we have set up feedback loops that
already lead to mass starvations, skyrocketing environmental disease rates, and
devastation of natural resources.
The problem with ecocide is not just that it hurts human beings. Our uncaring violence
also violates the very ground of our being, our natural body, our home. Such violence is
done not simply to the other -- as if the rainforest, the river, the atmosphere, the
species made extinct are totally different from ourselves. Rather, we have crucified
ourselves-in-relation-to-the-other, fracturing a mode of being in which self and other can
no more be conceived as fully in isolation from each other than can a mother and a nursing
We are that child, and nonhuman nature is that mother. If this image seems too maudlin,
let us remember that other lactating women can feed an infant, but we have only
one earth mother.
What moral stance will be shaped by our personal sense that we are poisoning ourselves,
our environment, and so many kindred spirits of the air, water, and forests?
To begin, we may see this tragic situation as setting the limits to Levinas's
perspective. The other which is nonhuman nature is not simply known by a
"trace," nor is it something of which all knowledge is necessarily instrumental.
This other is inside us as well as outside us. We prove it with every breath we take,
every bit of food we eat, every glass of water we drink. We do not have to find shadowy
traces on or in the faces of trees or lakes, topsoil or air: we are made from them.
Levinas denies this sense of connection with nature. Our "natural" side
represents for him a threat of simple consumption or use of the other, a spontaneous
response which must be obliterated by the power of ethics in general (and, for him in
particular, Jewish religious law(23) ). A
"natural" response lacks discipline; without the capacity to heed the call of
the other, unable to sublate the self's egoism. Worship of nature would ultimately result
in an "everything-is-permitted" mentality, a close relative of Nazism itself.
For Levinas, to think of people as "natural" beings is to assimilate them to a
totality, a category or species which makes no room for the kind of individuality required
by ethics.(24) He refers to the
"elemental" or the "there is" as unmanaged, unaltered,
"natural" conditions or forces that are essentially alien to the categories and
conditions of moral life.(25)
One can only lament that Levinas has read nature -- as to some extent (despite his
intentions) he has read selfhood -- through the lens of masculine culture. It is precisely
our sense of belonging to nature as system, as interaction, as interdependence, which can
provide the basis for an ethics appropriate to the trauma of ecocide. As cultural feminism
sought to expand our sense of personal identity to a sense of inter-identification with
the human other, so this ecological ethics would expand our personal and species sense of
identity into an inter-identification with the natural world.
Such a realization can lead us to an ethics appropriate to our time, a dimension of
which has come to be known as "deep ecology."(26) For this ethics, we do not begin from the uniqueness of our human
selfhood, existing against a taken-for-granted background of earth and sky. Nor is our
body somehow irrelevant to ethical relations, with knowledge of it reduced always to
tactics of domination. Our knowledge does not assimilate the other to the same, but
reveals and furthers the continuing dance of interdependence. And our ethical motivation
is neither rationalist system nor individualistic self-interest, but a sense of connection
to all of life.
The deep ecology sense of self-realization goes beyond the modern Western sense of
"self" as an isolated ego striving for hedonistic
gratification. . . . . Self, in this sense, is experienced as
integrated with the whole of nature.(27)
Having gained distance and sophistication of perception [from the development of
science and political freedoms] we can turn and recognize who we have been all
along. . . . we are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our
separateness. We can come home again -- and participate in our world in a richer, more
responsible and poignantly beautiful way.(28)
Ecological ways of knowing nature are necessarily participatory. [This] knowledge is
ecological and plural, reflecting both the diversity of natural ecosystems and the
diversity in cultures that nature-based living gives rise to.
The recovery of the feminine principle is based on inclusiveness. It is a recovery in
nature, woman and man of creative forms of being and perceiving. In nature it implies
seeing nature as a live organism. In woman it implies seeing women as productive and
active. Finally, in men the recovery of the feminine principle implies a relocation of
action and activity to create life-enhancing, not life-reducing and life-threatening
In this context, the knowing ego is not set against a world it seeks to control, but
one of which it is a part. To continue the feminist perspective, the mother knows or seeks
to know the child's needs. Does it make sense to think of her answering the call of the
child in abstraction from such knowledge? Is such knowledge necessarily domination? Or is
it essential to a project of care, respect and love, precisely because the knower has an
intimate, emotional connection with the known?(30)
Our ecological vision locates us in such close relation with our natural home that
knowledge of it is knowledge of ourselves. And this is not, contrary to Levinas's fear,
reducing the other to the same, but a celebration of a larger, more inclusive, and still
complex and articulated self.(31) The noble and
terrible burden of Levinas's individuated responsibility for sheer existence gives way to
a different dream, a different prayer:
Being rock, being gas, being mist, being Mind,
Being the mesons traveling among the galaxies with the speed of light,
You have come here, my beloved one. . . .
You have manifested yourself as trees, as grass, as butterflies, as single-celled beings,
and as chrysanthemums;
but the eyes with which you looked at me this morning tell me you have never died.(32)
In this prayer, we are, quite simply, all in it together. And, although this new
ecological Holocaust -- this creation of planet Auschwitz -- is under way, it is not yet
final. We have time to step back from the brink, to repair our world. But only if we see
that world not as an other across an irreducible gap of loneliness and unchosen
obligation, but as a part of ourselves as we are part of it, to be redeemed not out of
duty, but out of love; neither for our selves nor for the other, but for us all.
And Yet. . . .
That last sentence would make an elegant finale to this essay. Unfortunately, our
trauma is so great, and exists on so many levels, that no such simplicity is possible. The
movement from Levinas through feminism to deep ecology is not a dialectic of success.
Rather, each moment must be preserved, at least until the traumas which gave rise to them
have been forgotten -- or we have created a world in which their recurrence is impossible.
Thus it would be fitting for someone to point out that I have taken for granted that
nature -- as a totality structured by principles of interaction -- is nurturing and
benign. Yet nature -- whether as the drama of an earthquake or the quiet tragedy of crib
death -- can be as brutal as any hired killer. How are we to structure an "ethic of
nature" in the face of such brutality, unless we ignore the pain nature causes and
think only of blue skies and daffodils?
The answer is that brutality exists only from the standpoint of the isolated ego. It is
true that nature cares nothing for individuals; yet nature as a totality provides the
inspiration for deep ecology. In that inspiration, we must look not at how this or that
person, animal, or plant has fared. We must look at the whole and pronounce it fitting or
horrific or indifferent: the brutalities of nature are inevitable consequences of cycles
of birth and death, renewal and destruction. Unlike the nightmare genocides or everyday
viciousness of human cruelty, they are essential to a totality of life which we judge
proper, beautiful, and ultimately moral. In that totality each process has a productive
role: when one animal eats another, one animal feeds another. The "injustice" of
defective life is simply part of the price of living in an imperfect world. An
appreciation of these principles of life is possible, however, only if we give up the
standpoint of the isolated, self-interested ego. To practice deep ecology is to practice
the art of such vision. Without it, the ecological revelation makes no sense.
But such revelation cannot replace Levinas's concerns: care for the human neighbor is a
call still to be heard in the councils of deep ecology. However much we identify with the
earth and nature, the effects of ecocide are not felt equally by all. The poisons
disproportionately affect the poor, people of color, and the Third World. Without a
commitment to social equality, efforts to create a sustainable society will place vastly
unequal burdens on the socially powerless. Deep ecologists must beware of identifying with
all of life while ignoring the compelling differences that are structured by social
relations and theorized by conventional anthropocentric perspectives. The widening circle
of ethical concern must not skip over human beings, but move through them. We are
responsible, as Levinas tells us, "for all who are not Hitler."(33)
Yet it is our final continuing trauma that the demarcation of this responsibility is
terribly, at times tragically, unclear.(34) What
is to be our ethical stance in a world which may contain yet another -- and another --
Hitler? Knowing that the Holocaust is not a grotesque fantasy but an established fact, and
that the world repeats this fact and threatens more, how are we to know where the
boundaries of ethical responsibility -- of a Levinasian, feminist, or deep ecology sort --
lie? When is my enemy a neighbor for whom I am responsible? and when is he a Nazi,
savagely and madly bent on my death? When are people to be offered empathy, compassion and
compromise? and when have they so violated the bounds of humanity that they -- as in those
who threatened nuclear war for thirty years or who continue to produce ozone-destroying
CFCs -- are no longer my neighbor, or someone with whom I can identify, or anything but a
rabid cancer on the body of the ecosystem?
The ethical perspectives examined here leave off where these questions begin. The
loneliness, terror, and hope we feel in responding to them marks us all as human beings
trying to live ethically in an age of trauma.
1. [Back to text] For a critical
discussion of cultural feminism see my "Broken Relations: Some Barriers to the
Triumph of Feminine Virtue," in Roger S. Gottlieb, ed., Radical Philosophy:
Tradition, Counter-Tradition, Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993).
2. [Back to text] For a clinical and
social account of trauma, see Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York:
3. [Back to text] Levinas is relatively
untouched by environmentalist critiques of instrumental knowledge applied to nature. He
rejects the Heideggerean concern with Being, except insofar as our concern with that
abstraction signals our own moral dimension. Concerning Levinas and animals see John
Llewelyn, "Am I Obsessed by Bobby? (Humanism of the Other Animal)" in Robert
Bernasconi and Simon Critchley, eds., Re-Reading Levinas (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1989).
4. [Back to text] "Levinas and
Derrida," in Richard A. Cohen, ed., Face-to-Face with Levinas (Albany:
State University of New York Press, 1986), 185.
5. [Back to text] Robert Gibbs, Correlations
in Rosenzweig and Levinas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 186.
6. [Back to text] The phrase and the point
come from Susan A. Handelman's insightful Fragmentsof Redemption:
Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin, Scholem, and Levinas (Bloomington,
Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1991), 211.
7. [Back to text]Otherwise Than Being
or Beyond Essence (Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1974), 10, 25, my emphasis in
8. [Back to text] Georg Lukacs, History
and Class Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1971).
9. [Back to text] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or,
2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964).
10. [Back to text] The proliferation of
feminist viewpoints makes it hard to speak of any "general" feminist position.
My focus is on the trend often called "cultural" feminism.
11. [Back to text] Some central texts on
the relation between female psychology, women's social role and feminist ethics and social
theory are Jean Baker Miller, Toward a New Psychology of Women (Boston: Beacon,
1976); Miriam Greenspan, A New Approach to Women and Therapy (New York:
McGraw-Hill, 1983); Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and
the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); Carol
Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983); Susan
Griffin, Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (New York: Harper & Row,
1979); Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature (New York: Harper & Row, 1980);
Eva Feder Kittay and Diana T. Meyers, eds., Women and Moral Theory (Totowa,
N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987); B. Andelson, C. Gudorf, and
M. Pellauer eds., Women's Consciousness, Women's Conscience (New York:
Harper & Row, 1987); Nancy Hartsock, Money Sex and Power: Toward a Feminist
Historical Materialism (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983).
13. [Back to text] The sexism of
Levinas's early and middle work is somewhat muted by his use of mothering as a model of
supportive relationship in Otherwise Than Being. However, his awareness of
feminist issues remains minimal at best.
14. [Back to text]Nine Talmudic
Readings (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1990), 85.
15. [Back to text] Space precludes a
discussion of Levinas's concept of fecundity. In brief, that account, while tremendously
interesting on its own terms, replicates many of the problems of the material discussed
16. [Back to text]Totality and
Infinity (Pittsburgh: Dusquesne University Press, 1969) 291, 293.
25. [Back to text] See Totality and
Infinity, 130-34; and "There is: Existence without Existents," in The
26. [Back to text] The literature is
very large here. For a beginning on eco-feminism, see: Irene Diamond and Gloria Orenstein,
eds., Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism (San Francisco: Sierra
Club Books, 1990). For deep ecology, see Christopher Manes, Green Rage: Radical
Environmentalism and the Unmaking of Civilization (Boston: Little, Brown) 1990, as
well as the works by Vandana Shiva and Joanna Macy referred to in later footnotes.
27. [Back to text] Bill Devall and
George Sessions, "The Development of Natural Resources and the Integrity of
Nature," Environmental Ethics 6 (Winter 1984): 302-3.
28. [Back to text] Joanna Macy, World
as Lover, World as Self (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991), 14.
29. [Back to text] Vandana Shiva, Staying
Alive: Women, Ecology and Development (London: Zed Books: 1989), 41, 53.
30. [Back to text] See Sara Ruddick, Maternal
Thinking (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989).
31. [Back to text] See the account of
the "loving eye" as opposed to the "arrogant eye" in Marilyn Frye's The
Politics of Reality (Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1983), 75-76.
32. [Back to text] "The Old
Mendicant," by Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted in Joanna Macy, World as Lover, World as
34. [Back to text] I develop this point
in my Introduction to Roger S. Gottlieb, ed., Thinking the Unthinkable: Meanings
of the Holocaust (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1990).
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Cross Currents Summer94, Vol. 44 Issue 2, p222, 19p