Levinas and Appiah on the Double Bind of Alterity

I found reading Levinas’ Existence and Existents both challenging and stimulating. At heart, I took his argument to be an extension of the existentialist creed: existence precedes essence. In this instance, existence precedes time. This is why Levinas concludes: “To take human existence as something having a date, placed in a present, would be to commit the gravest sin against the spirit, that of reification, and to cast it into the time of clocks made for the sun and for trains” (97). The hypostasis for Levinas is the “I” — the ego. But this is an ego that relies on existence, not rationality, for its ontological constitution: “The I is not a substance endowed with thought; it is a substance because it is endowed with thought” (87). To talk about the relationship of this ego (the subject) with time, Levinas emphasizes that we must resist conventional understandings of time: “Does not the analysis of economic time, exterior to the subject, cover over the essential structure of time by which the present is not only indemnified, but resurrected? Is not the future above all a resurrection of the present?” (92) Note that this turn to the grammar of political theology invokes the same kinds of alterity that Fabian traces more concretely — in particular the supercessionism that Levinas, as a French Jew studying the Talmud, felt so acutely. In this articulation of time, resisting neoliberal logics of economic time, Levinas notices a problem: “The ‘I’ is not independent of its present, cannot traverse time alone, and does not find its recompense in simply denying the present” (93). So how can we constitute time proceeding from an existentialist ego? “If time is not the illusion of a movement, pawing the ground [a gloss of economic time], then the absolute alterity of another instant cannot be found in the subject, who is definitively himself. This alterity comes to me only from the other.” (93) Levinas has linked time in its constitution to the other. In his understanding, time “is constituted by my relationship with the other, … is exterior to my instant, but … is also something else than an object given to contemplation.” Hence, “the dialectic of time is the very dialectic of the relationship with the other.” For me, at least, this is a profoundly different conception of time.

I think this understanding of time can help us think more clearly about the question Kwame Anthony Appiah poses: Is the post- the same in both postmodernism and postcolonialism? His concluding thoughts in some ways echo Levinas’: “Postcoloniality has become, I think, a condition of pessimism” (353). This echoes Levinas’ articulation of the tragic, and further brings to mind a long tradition of thinkers motivated by a kind of pessimism or skepticism (not least Cornel West’s “tragicomic sensibility”). Another theme shared by the two thinkers is alterity: “Perhaps the predicament of the postcolonial intellectual is simply that as intellectuals — a category instituted in black Africa by colonialism — we are, indeed, always at the risk of becoming otherness machines, with the manufacture of alterity as our principal role.” For Levinas (and for me) the power of the other is profound. Not only does it help us to unsettle the familiar, but it is also fundamental to an existentialist conception of time. But what if, as Appiah seems to suggest, producing these positive forms of alterity also means creating an Other? Reading both Appiah and Levinas, we seem to be stuck in a double bind. Postcolonialism on the one hand resists dominant logics of Othering (as with Said’s Orientalism); on the other hand, it also wants to resist neoliberal logics of time that flatten difference, that reduce the tragic condition of existence to a false commonality (as with the critique of the pseudo-universal citizen-subject). The very alterity that is required to resist the latter seems to reinforce the former. What to do?

Emerson, Olmsted, and Muir

Albert Bierstadt, Yosemite Valley, 1868, 91 x 137 cm, Oakland Museum of California

There is a line connecting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s more abstract reasoning in Nature, Frederick Law Olmsted’s requests to Congress in his Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report, 1865, and John Muir’s popular writing as exemplified in “The Fountains and Streams of the Yosemite”. This link is more than just conjectural, too. Muir was a great admirer of Emerson. When the philosopher visited Yosemite in 1871, at the age of 68, the young Muir’s “heart throbbed as if an angel direct from heaven had alighted on the Sierran rocks” (The Life and Letters of John Muir, ch. 8; quoted in Galbraith, “Muir, Emerson and the ‘Pure Night Air’”). Olmsted also met Emerson in person and admired his Nature greatly. So much for the tangible links; the intellectual influence of Emerson is also, I think, readily apparent in the two later texts. Continue reading Emerson, Olmsted, and Muir

My Independent Concentration

I recently found out that my proposal for an independent concentration in Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry has been approved! Just what does this mean, and why am I so happy about it?

First of all, a few words on what an independent concentration is (at Brown). Apart from the standard concentrations (majors) we offer, every student has the opportunity to design their own course of study. This concentration proposal must be reviewed and approved by a subcommittee of the College Curriculum Council, the same body that approves regular concentrations. The process of proposing an IC is supervised by the Curricular Resource Center, which has multiple peer student staffers who meet regularly with students who want to create an IC. The actual proposal is long and rigorous. Furthermore, the committee almost as a rule rejects first-time applications; there is a heavy emphasis on the process of proposing an IC as a conversation between the committee and the student with the aim being to create a well-articulated, coherent, and rigorous course of study that aligns with Brown’s wider educational goals. I personally found this process extremely rewarding: it helped me process my interests and a few thoughts that had been rolling around in my head (many because of courses I had taken). I am now much more articulate about these interests and I have a much better idea of how they align with my broader life goals. Although the process of creating an IC is arduous, for me it was well worth it.

To explain what my Independent Concentration is about, here’s an excerpt from my proposal (which you can find in full here):

What is Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry? It is the study of global social phenomena such as postcolonialism, nationalism, and global justice through the philosophical lens of critical theory. I think dialectically about both the institutions derived from the Enlightenment and the practices, communities, and identities developed and deployed in resistance to these institutions. I am thus equally invested in studying the universal and metropolitan on the one hand and the particular and peripheral on the other. As a field of study, I imagine my Independent Concentration as a conversation with a number of figures invested in this dialectic – chief among them Edward Said, Hannah Arendt, and Cornel West. In many ways, this field of study is constituted by its intellectual genealogy: while investigating questions about how societies cohere, how politics functions, and how the past shapes our present (and drawing on sources from many times and places), what distinguishes Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry is its distinctive perspective. This reflexive, provisional approach is gathered from the theoretical consciousness developed through the philosophical tradition of critique. Given my commitment to provisionality and reflexivity, I do not intend through this concentration to provide conclusive answers to the questions I described above. The fundamental aim of Critical Thought and Global Social Inquiry is instead to develop concrete questions, modes of interpretation, and resources for action that resonate across different commitments and backgrounds. Through my concentration, I develop a map – a way to navigate the incredible diversity of thought and experience our world has to offer.

Engaged Scholarship and the “Organic Intellectual”

As a concentrator in Archaeology here at Brown, I am also a member of the Engaged Scholars Program. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the nature of engaged scholarship and my relationship with it. I wanted to summarize and comment on three seemingly disparate strands of engaged scholarship that I’ve recently come across: the more traditional idea of service learning; Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the “organic intellectual”; and Cornel West’s more recent evolution of this idea, as demonstrated through an essay on Martin Luther King, Jr. I end by drawing together these three thinkers and articulating a critique of dominant understandings of engaged scholarship.

Tania Mitchell

This semester,  I am in SOC 0310: Theory and Practice of Engaged Scholarship (with Allen Hance and Lynsey Ford). We’ve been talking a lot about what engaged scholarship means for the program, particularly as an evolution of “service learning.” The traditional idea was that students gain valuable skills and experiences through direct service. More recently, Tania Mitchell has encapsulated a trend away from this idea towards a kind of “critical service-learning,” which emphasizes the importance of critical reflection as a way of addressing structural and systemic issues that underlie the most apparent problems. Brown offers a number of courses that fit within this philosophy, and has recently approved the introduction of a course designation in Community-Based Learning and Research (CBLR). Indeed, I would argue that the idea of service learning (mostly in its critical form) is at the heart of engaged scholarship as the Swearer Center currently understands it. Other definitions abound. For example, as used by New England Resource Center for Higher Education, engaged scholarship focuses on the role of faculty “in a reciprocal partnership with the community, is interdisciplinary, and integrates faculty roles of teaching, research, and service.” This definition (focused on faculty) has greater ambit than the idea of service learning, which is focused on student experience. I feel that this difference points at the crux of the issue with engaged scholarship as it is currently understood — more on this later. Continue reading Engaged Scholarship and the “Organic Intellectual”