Monthly Archives: June 2008

As I was preparing to write this final instalment in the history of my engagement with the problem of ethical response, I reread my previous post on the subject, and I was disappointed to see how narrow and inadequate it now seems to me just a few weeks later. I still agree essentially with what I wrote at that time, but I am displeased with how it represents my interaction with Illich’s writing as if the idea of the movement in the belly was the only thing I took from Rivers North of the Future, as if I was reading his work primarily in search of solutions to the problem of ethical responsibility. The reality is that I rarely have a predetermined purpose when I begin reading a book of any sort. I was not thinking about ethical responsibility when I took the book from my shelf, at least, not any more than I was thinking about several other subjects that preoccupy me, and I found far more in it than just the sections that were related to ethical responsibility, as significant as these sections were to me. My reading and thinking practises are far more promiscuous, intuitive, and fortuitous than my writing sometimes makes them appear. This misrepresentation does Illich, and myself, and the subject as well, I think, a gross injustice.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that I will write in similarly misrepresentative ways is even greater when I begin discussing Jean-Luc Marion’s Prolegomena to Charity. Not only does this particular collection of essays have much more of value to say on the subject of ethical responsibility than I will be able to discuss in this single post, but Marion’s broader work means much more to me than I will ever be able to communicate in any way, no matter how much space I am given. Whatever approach I might take to describing how his thought has influenced my understanding of responsibility for the other will be hopelessly reductive of his true influence on me. I can do nothing more than signal this inadequacy in advance.

While Marion is certainly a significant philosopher for many reasons, it was none of these reasons that drew me to him. I discovered him first when I was working on my MA thesis. I had found a book entitled God, The Gift, and Postmodernism, edited by John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon. I was interested in it because it contained a discussion on the nature of the gift between Jacques Derrida and some guy named Jean-Luc Marion. Because the discussion followed Marion’s presentation on the name of God and negative theology, I read this paper also, and I was intrigued enough by Marion’s approach that I immediately bought his most famous book, God Without Being, which, without any hyperbole, shattered my theology irrevocably. I have since read Being Given, The Crossing of the Visible, and Prolegomena to Charity, all of which have been very influential on me, though they exceed my understanding in many respects.

Marion’s contribution to the problem of ethical responsibility, at least in the formulation of this problem that I have been tracing in my own history, begins where Ivan Illich’s Rivers North of the Future ends. If, as Illich argues, I can only know my responsibility as a neighbour to the other, not by a law, but by a spiritual movement in the belly, it resolves the question of how I can know what I owe the other, but it does so only at a cost. While the movement in the belly justifies the Samaritan of our example, and while it calls us to act in similar ways, to be open and responsive to the movement of the belly, it will always be possible that there will be no such movement, that everyone will pass the beaten man by the side of the road and feel nothing. This possibility is not just that nobody will pass the victim, not just that someone will pass and turn away from the victim, not even that someone will turn toward the victim and find that he is not the victim he believes himself to be. This possibility is that someone might pass the victim and neither turn toward him or away from him, but walk on in perfect conscience because there was no movement in the belly.

To put this problem differently, Illich’s approach permits the possibility that my concern might be diverted from the other to myself. This diversion, when functioning correctly, is not wrong, because it is a diversion, not to myself as myself, but to a spiritual movement provoked by the other in myself, a movement that should culminate in a return of my concern to the other, even if this concern is one that is not necessarily able to give what the other requests. In this way, the Samaritan acts rightly. Though he responds to the spiritual movement in his belly rather than to the other directly, this movement returns him to the other and impels him to relieve the other’s suffering. The priest and the Levite, however, feel no such movement. Making the entirely unjustified assumption that they were actually looking for such a movement, they could in good conscience continue on their way, because they had not been moved. Their ethical movement, to look into their own bellies, had diverted them from the other to themselves. In this way, Illich’s approach permits the possibility that my ethical response to the other may fail even to encounter the other at all. Though I may be open to the movement in my belly, I am open to this movement apart from any real encounter with the other. I may be responding ethically, but I am not responding ethically to the encounter with the other, only to a movement in myself.

Marion does not speak directly to this problem in Prolegomena to Charity, at least not in relation to the function of the neighbour, but he does describe a similar structure in his own terminology that opens up a possible resolution to the problem in Illich’s approach. Marion refers to the responsibility that I owe to the other as the injunction of the other, and he argues that this injunction does not come to me from the other, but that “it actually arises in me, like one of my lived experiences.” In this sense, he affirms Illich, because this injunction functions similarly to the movement in the belly, coming neither from myself nor from the other, but from beyond us both, as a movement that can only be understood in spiritual or theological terms. Marion is clear on this point. “The obligation toward the other,” he says, “is born in me, though it is not born of me; it is born for the other, though it is not born through the other.”

Marion too, however, confronts the problem that we find in Illich, that is, if the injunction does not arise from the other, then a response to the injunction is not a response to the other at all. This sort of response leads only to the injunction as law, he argues, but can never have a relation to the other in particular. “If we want to secure responsibility all the way to the point of love,” he says, “then the injunction must designate not only the other as such, but just such an other as the invisible gaze that crosses my own.” In other words, though the ethical response must not arise from the other, it must designate the other in particular, or it fails to be a response in any meaningful way.

The only thing that can accomplish this designation of the other, according to Marion, is love or charity. “In order for the other to appear to me,” he argues, “I must first love him,” because “only love opens up knowledge of the other as such.” Yet, love only “becomes a means of knowledge when my concern is with the other,” when I accept the face of the other precisely as other. Put differently, the ethical obligation that comes neither from me nor from the other is given particularity by the knowledge that I have of the other, that is opened by the love I have for the other, that is enabled by the concern that I have for the other.

This seemingly complex relation has a very simple implication: the ethical movement begins precisely in my willing to be concerned for the other. I must will to be concerned for the other, so that I can love the other, so that I can know the other, so that I become fully open to the obligation, the injunction, the movement in the belly as it bears upon me and the particularity of the other. In Marion’s own words, “To accept the other’s face, or better, to accept that I am dealing with an other, a face, a counter-gaze, depends uniquely on my willing it so.” As he says later, “The other appears only if I gratuitously give him the space in which to appear.” For this reason, ethical responsibility in its particularity depends on my will, despite the fact that it does not come from either me or from the other, but merely arises in me. My will does not produce ethical responsibility in particularity, but only opens me to concern, and love, and knowledge of the other, which opens me to the possibility of ethical responsibility.

All of this implies that the movement in the belly arises, not randomly, but whenever I will myself to be concerned with the other, whenever I will myself to accept the face of the other. If I accept that I am dealing with an other, if I will this to be so, I will necessarily feel the movement in the belly, in every case, without exception. This does not at all imply that I will be moved to respond to the other in the way that the other desires or expects, or in the way that I desire or expect. It does not even imply that I will be moved to respond in any way at all. It implies only that, if I am willing to accept the face of the other, I will find myself moved in some way. There will be a movement in me, a spiritual movement, a movement that it will be in every case wrong to ignore, even if this movement is to do precisely nothing.

The neighbour, therefore, is the one who wills to accept the other, the one who does not pass by a victim on the side of the road without willing to accept this victim as the other, without willing to experience responsibility for the other, whatever it might be, without willing to experience a movement in the belly, whatever it might be. The neighbour may not always be moved to help as the Samaritan was, but the neighbour will always will to be moved in whatever way the injunction appears in relation to the particularity of the other. The neighbour will always be prepared to be concerned for the other, to love the other, to know the other, to be moved by the injunction toward the other. No act, therefore, and no law, can ever guarantee what is proper to the neighbour, only a continual will, a continual willing, a continual willingness.

There is still the logical possibility, certainly, that I might will myself to accept the face of the other, that I might be open to the movement that this acceptance will permit in me, but that I will nevertheless find myself unmoved to help the victim by the side of the road. It is still possible, certainly, that everyone might will, that everyone might be open, and that everyone might nevertheless be unmoved. Yet, this possibility is permissible only according to the perversity of logic, not according to the movement of charity. If the priest and the Levite had willed to accept the beaten man as an other, if they had been open to the responsibility that they bore for him as neighbours, is it conceivable that they would not be moved to pity? If, in other words, they willed themselves to be open to the other and the spiritual movement that the other founded in them, is it conceivable that this spiritual movement would not be a movement to pity? The logical possibility exists, but the spirit of charity knows better, knows that the kind of movement that moves the belly will not leave the bleeding man beside the road unaided.

The fault of the priest and the Levite, therefore, is not that they passed the victim without turning to him, because they had no legal responsibility for him. It is not that they refused the movement to pity in their bellies, because they felt no such movement. It is that they refused to will an acceptance of the other, refused thereby the movement of the belly that they could not foreknow but that they knew even still must almost certainly be to pity. Their fault was that they refused to be concerned for the other, refused to love the other, refused to know the other, and therefore refused to be open to the particularity of their ethical responsibility to the other.

None of this, I want to emphasize, means that I must do everything for all people. None of this even means that I need to do anything for anyone. All it means is that I must will myself to accept the face of the other and to accept the movement that will arise in me, and to act according to this movement, even if the act is to do nothing at all. The act itself will always be nothing. The will to accept the face of the other will always be everything, because all of ethical responsibility flows from it.

I have had something of a rough week.  I am not complaining, only commenting.  I pride myself on not complaining about these things, and I was under the impression that I was coping fairly well, that is, until my wife took the spoon away from me in the middle of feeding my youngest child and told me to go pick strawberries.

Now, to clarify her reasoning, I should explain that picking strawberries is something like therapy for me.  It is not that I like to eat strawberries so much, though I do like a few now and again.  It is more what strawberries represent to me. They are the first fresh produce of the year, the first food that I can pick and eat from my garden after a whole winter of barrenness and a whole spring of growth.  They are also the first preserves of the year, the first jams and sauces, the first canning.  They mean the beginning of a whole summer and a whole autumn of harvesting, eating, cooking, preparing, and preserving.

So, I spent an hour picking strawberries, in the wetness left by this afternoon’s rain, and I realized exactly how stressed I had been at exactly the same moment as I realized how much less stressed I was rapidly becoming, and I ate a few, and I picked several baskets full, and my fingers were stained red, and I smelled summer.

Well, those of you who are foolish enough to be reading along at home will realize by the sudden absence of today’s posts that my experiment in using the blog to manage my online research has been terminated only a few hours into its existence. When it began to feel unweildy after the first five posts, I knew that there was nothing to be done but to end it before I wasted any more of my time and energy.

Still, I am left with my problem unresolved. I need a way to manage internet research. I need a program that keeps track of the various blog posts, videos, podcasts, discussion threads, and static content that I would like to reference. I need a way to have others contribute their own discoveries to this mess. I need a way to select the ones that interest me. I need a way to link to these resorces, to group them, to comment on them, to attach files and addenda to them. I need a way to share some of these grouped media with classes and discussion groups and friends. I need someone with the programming ability make this happen.

What I want does not exist, and I need help to make it exist. Any ideas would be welcome.

I spent much of yesterday searching the internet for people who are writing about media, not primarily as technicians or as users, but as critics. I was looking for those who are undertaking to ask questions about the social, ethical, cultural, political, and philosophical implications of what I will consent to call “new media” until I have a chance to explain why I think there are better terms available to us. Unfortunately, my search was mostly unproductive. I did come across some individual articles that were very interesting, usually from blogs focusing on social media or on the economics of online media, but I found very few people who are actually focused in any serious and sustained way on the questions that I am asking.

This does not mean, of course, that these people do not exist online, only that I have not discovered them, but I have to admit a certain amount of disappointment with the online community of writers I have read so far. There is much that debates the comparative merits of the newest social media site or the latest plugin for blog software, much that discusses the finer technical points of creating, managing, and using online media, and much that explains how to advertise, leverage, and monetize this media, but there is so little that actually takes the time time to ask the serious questions about the broader functions and implications of media in our society.

During my search, however, I did encounter one blog, authored by Alexander van Elsas, that is asking some questions in directions that are interesting to me. I had intended to introduce him here by discussing an article he wrote on television as a social medium, but his post this morning on instant access caught my attention, so television will have to wait.

Van Elsas’ argument is essentially that there are limits to the desire for instant access and that, once this desire becomes sated, there will be a partial return to slower media. His position hinges on the assumption, which I think is accurate, that most information is not urgent. While it may be very important to know as soon as possible about certain political or economic news, and while it might be very desirable to know as soon as possible about certain entertainment or social news, most information does not require or gain from increased immediacy. As the novelty of immediacy as such wears off, therefore, it may very well be that people begin to consume certain kinds of information in ways that are slower and more measured, even if these slower media are not the ones that we have used traditionally.

I think that Van Elsas’ argument can easily be validated by real practises in the world. Most people who take a newspaper no longer do so as a way to get the most current news, because the newspaper very obviously does not play this function any longer, though it certainly did at one time. People take a paper in order to take their news more slowly, over a cup of coffee in the morning on the front porch. I certainly use books for this very reason. Though I have a large collection of etexts, and though I make use of online etexts when I am doing research, I most often choose to order the physical book, sit with it in my hand, and read it at my leisure. It is not that I could not obtain and read the text more quickly through electronic means, it is that I would gain nothing by this additional speed. The reading of most texts does not require or benefit from instant access.

This is not to say that a recognition of the value of slowness necessarily implies a return to these older media, though I think that it will mean the continuance of some, particularly the book, much longer than many people predict. Recognizing the value of slowness should also mean a careful consideration of how new and emerging media might be used in slower, more careful, more deliberate, more reflective ways. To some extent this is what I am trying to do through this current medium, but broader opportunities for this kind of approach exist within the media themselves. What is required of me is to use media at my personal pace rather than at its maximal pace, to proceed with precisely the speed or the slowness that the moment and the task require, to resist the impulse to move more quickly simply because it is possible to do so.

Let me close by reflecting for a moment on the idea of immediacy itself, one that van Elsas uses throughout his post, and one that I have been using also, because this idea opens up a paradox in our discussion of media, a paradox that bears on the possibilities of developing and using media in different directions than they are being developed and used currently. Immediacy actually describes a state where there is an absolute lack of media and mediation. When something is immediate, it literally means that it is without any kind of medium through which it becomes mediated. There is, therefore, a certain irony in the drive to make media become immediate, because this drive is literally the drive to remove media from media, to make media so perfect that it disappears altogether.

This drive is, of course, always destined to failure. No matter how instantaneous a medium is able to transmit its content, it will always remain that the medium and the transmission were there, were operative, were mediating the content in ways that are unavoidable. What the drive for immediacy eliminates is not the medium as such, but only the visibility of the medium. It does not remove the effect of mediation, but it allows us to forget this effect, to maintain the illusion that the medium has disappeared, that our access is live and untransmitted.

A recognition of the value in slower media, therefore, is connected with a recognition of the paradox’s of immediacy. To slow my consumption of information is to recognize again the reality and the unavoidability of media as such. It is even to revel in the unavoidability of this mediation, the smudges of newspaper ink on the fingers, the smell of a book long closed, the sight of a message more than 140 characters. It is to dispel, even if just for a moment, the illusion that what I see and hear and read and know is immediate. It is also, for this very reason, a place from which the illusion of immediacy can be questioned and critiqued.

I enjoyed Dave Humphrey’s most recent post on reading Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to his daughters. Perhaps it is only one of our strange synchronicities, but I identify very strongly with him when he puts himself in the place of Mole, gliding ever further down a stream that he has never seen before, putting himself completely in the hands of his new friend Rat. I have imagined myself in Mole’s place also, as I have imagined myself in the place of Rat and Badger, though never in the place of Toad, whose encounters with the human world always seem to disrupt the unity of the novel for me. There is a quality to these characters that causes me to identify with them and with their world.

I especially appreciated the notice that Dave takes of the hospitality shown by Badger to Rat and Mole when they become lost and beset by weasels in the woods. I have already made mention, in a previous post on open homes, of an earlier episode in which Rat provides hospitality to Mole, but Dave’s reflection reminds me of the other places where Grahame’s story is deeply about hospitality and friendship, the home and the hearth, the table and the meal. There is something beautiful about this world that Grahame creates, something that reaches its fullness in the scene where the nature god appears during the search for the lost otter pup. I love this story, and I envy Dave the few years headstart he has in sharing it with his children.

The stars aligned for me yesterday in a way they seldom do. My wife took my eldest son away for the morning, and my youngest son decided to have a nap, so I had what turned out to be something more than two hours all to myself. I was initially too overwhelmed with my good fortune to know how to use it, but I eventually decided to watch one of the many documentaries that I have collected but have never had a chance to watch, Eleanor Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which follows the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Apocalypse Now is, of course, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a book that holds some intense memories for me. I read Conrad’s novel several years ago in strangely appropriate circumstances. I was working in a fiberglass manufacturing plant, in what is called the winding tunnel, a long hallway situated beneath a gigantic vat of liquid, boiling glass. The heat and the noise were so intense that someone had scribbled above the entryway, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” the words that are written above the door to hell in Dante’s Inferno. It was right there on the factory floor, amidst these hellish conditions and these equally hellish allusions, that I read Conrad’s account of a man’s journey into the unknown darkness of the African interior and of his own soul.

My impressions of the novel are obviously heavily marked by the circumstances in which I read it. It was as if I was experiencing the heat and the humidity of the jungle with Marlow, the novel’s protagonist. I actually felt myself to be in the atmosphere of Conrad’s story, and it is this atmosphere that I now recall far more than the details of the narrative. The descent into the darkness of the human condition, into my human condition, was almost a palpable thing, like the moisture on my skin and the heat on my face. The heart of darkness was something that I felt through the body rather than read through the intellect.

It is perhaps for this reason that I did not read Heart of Darkness as portraying the Congolese natives in racist ways, though many have made this argument, and though it is one that I think is valid to some degree. It is certainly true that Conrad’s depiction of the Congolese people and of the jungle itself is one that emphasizes the primal, the fearful, the dark, the savage, and the evil. Marlow’s journey is a descent into the mysterious and originary desires of human nature, and what he finds is violent and savage and fearful. Conrad makes the jungle and its peoples the physical correlates of this spiritual place, and so they too are portrayed with its darkness.

In many ways, the same kinds of criticisms could conceivably be made of both Francis Ford’s Apocalypse Now and Eleanor’s Hearts of Darkness as well. Francis Ford’s film ostensibly portrays Vietnamese natives, but it is perfectly content to substitute Filipino natives in their place and to film them in the ruins of buildings that are neither Vietnamese nor Filipino nor anything else outside of some Hollywood set designer’s imagination. Clearly, his concern is not with representing these people with any accuracy. They are merely figures, as they were for Conrad, for something dark and savage and unknown, merely part of the scenery in the heart of darkness.

Eleanor’s documentary is different in that it is at times quite concerned with the native Filipino tribe that is providing the extras for the film, but her interest often seems to be in the native merely as an aspect of her husband’s own journey into the heart of darkness that is the shooting of the film, a journey which she never fails to compare to those of Willard and Marlow. Again, there is a sense that the people and the scenery are equivalent, that they are of interest only because they represent the darkness and the strangeness of the filmmaking journey on which Francis Ford has embarked.

In all three of these texts, the novel, the film, and the documentary, it is easy to argue that the native cultures are stereotyped and racialized, whether they be from the Congo or Vietnam or the Philippines. All three of these texts seem merely to employ native cultures as convenient figures for what is dark, primal, and savage. They are part of the strange and originary darkness where the too civilized English sailor, American soldier, and Hollywood director can go to discover their own darknesses and to find an epiphany of primal and forgotten violence.

Even so, I think it would be a mistake to understand these portrayals as entirely racist. In each case, though less obviously with Eleanor’s documentary, I would argue that the native peoples are not intended to represent real people at all. They appear only as metaphors and stereotypes because that is all they are intended to be. Their function is not to correspond with real people in a real world, but to correspond with what Western culture has traditionally imagined the primal and the savage to be. This imagination certainly contains many racisms, and it could be easily argued that all three texts serve to reinforce these racisms, but I do not think that they themselves function in racist ways.

I have little in the way of obvious proof for this assertion, but let me return, by why of providing anecdotal evidence for what I mean, to the place where I first read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In that tunnel of heat and sweat, feeling the text like a physical presence, it was always clear to me that the natives were not natives at all but fantastical beings, like elves or Lilliputians. I never paused to consider how Conrad was portraying the Congolese people because I did not for a moment see his natives as corresponding to real people anywhere. They were creations of fantasy, not stereotypes of reality.

I recognize the danger with this kind of argument, and I am not even entirely comfortable with what I am saying, yet I think it may also true of Francis Ford’s film and even of Eleanor’s documentary. The natives of Apocalypse Now are Filipinos who are playing Vietnamese who are standing in for Congolese, and they exist in a scenery and an architecture that has no real correlate. They are entirely unreal fantasies.

The natives of Eleanor’s Hearts of Darkness are similarly unreal. Despite voicing a claim to a kind of ethnography, the documentary shows a people who have no connection to reality. They perform their traditional ceremonies in a building constructed by a production crew on the set of a Hollywood film. They are buried to the neck to play severed heads, with umbrellas perched above them to protect them from the sun between takes. They are unreal fantasies. They do not correspond to real natives. They exist only as part of the heart of darkness that Eleanor represents Francis Ford as enduring to produce his film.

Does this fantastical element justify Conrad and the Coppolas? I am not sure that it does. I am only certain that there is a difference here, perhaps a significant one, between a racist depiction and a fantastical depiction that happens to participate in racist cultural assumptions. I do not intend this distinction to be a justification of anything, but I will suggest that it contributes to the fact that I have a good deal of affection for all three of these texts, despite the problems they pose for me.

Through a series of events too tedious for me to relate and for anyone else to hear related, I have become interested in the question of how to develop or encourage or create online educational communities that would both make use of the new media that are available and also study this usage self-reflexively. What I want to see is the study of media expanded beyond the various academic and technical disciplines in which it is now confined into a wider and more integrated community of teachers, learners, writers, thinkers, practitioners, and researchers. I want this community to be a place where various media are themselves used to do the work of studying and critiquing media. I want it to encourage people to think media through media and to discover what might happen.

I find myself confronted, however, by the technical aspects of the project. The problem is that I have not yet discovered the medium, if it even exists, that would allow me to form the kind of community that I am imagining. The best option, at least initially, would likely be to use or misuse an existing tool to approximate what I want, but I do not know of a program that would even do this much. I have both blog software and Moodle courseware already available to me, but both of these approaches seem unsatisfactory for any number of reasons. The other option would be to have a tool written specifically for my purposes, but the costs involved would be substantial, even if I did have a clear idea of what this tool would look like, which I do not.

What I am realizing, and not for the first time, is that the things I most want are often the things that do not yet exist. I am not interested in the connections that are made through Facebook or Twitter or Digg, however interesting and useful these sites may be in their way. I am not interested in the connections that are not made through academic and educational websites that are basically textbooks by other means, though I have often made use of these resources. I am not even all that interested in the connections that are made through courseware websites, though I maintain such a site and make extensive use of it.

What I want are spaces where people connect over the work of the intellect, but this work is too often done behind the boundaries of institutions, disciplines, and intellectual property. Knowledge becomes hoarded behind these boundaries, so that careers can be advanced, and accolades won, and royalties received. Rather than forming the basis for a living community, the work of the intellect becomes the basis for disciplinary territorialism, political wrangling, and intellectual isolation. The space and the community that I want do not exist. I hope, however, that their prototypes do exist, scattered wherever they may be across the media landscape, and it is my intention to see if they can be gathered.