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Philosophy and Rhetoric 37.4 (2004) 317-334

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Speaking from the Bedrock of Ethics

Department of Communication
University of North Carolina, Greensboro
Human Communication Studies
University of Denver

In a moment familiar to many of us, one of the authors of this piece attended a philosophical meeting on the topic of Emmanuel Levinas. "So, you are in communication studies," said a philosopher during a break. "Why would a speech person be interested in Levinas?"

This paper probes the place of speech in Levinasian ethics. We hope to show that when philosopher Emmanuel Levinas rested his compelling life project on ethics, he said something new about the act of speaking itself. First, for Levinas, speaking begins with the imperative issued by the presence or face of the other. He calls that issuance the saying. Antecedent to words, the saying is the commitment of an approach to the other, the move to response, the signifying of signification. Second, the saying moves into language where it is subordinated to the said. It is in the coordination of the saying and the said that ethics shows itself or is betrayed. Although the saying is perhaps overwhelmed by the said, it remains present even in absence. Third, for Levinas we can sense the ineffable, yet present, call to responsibility in the trace. The trace, and here Levinas brings God to mind, reveals the saying, and is communicated in the face.1 The face, the saying, and the trace are where the Levinasian responsibility of the one for the other takes form. They are the home of ethics.2

By paying close attention to the responsibility invoked by the face, heeded in the saying, and reminisced in the trace, Levinas defines ethics as the condition of dialogue. Later, he says that ethics allows us to pursue peace even if, or after, dialogue fails. It is in ethics that we learn that we can stand by unsolvable problems—attentive and vigilant, in dialogue (Levinas 1999a).

Taken together, these ideas of the face of the other, the saying, and the trace provide the basis of ethics that is constituted in and constitutes communication. [End Page 317]

Our effort here is to explore the bedrock of ethics in speech. We will do so by drawing on examples of care, rescue, and sacrifice that surfaced during the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and the days that followed. Within the context of that terrible attack, scores of eyewitnesses gave accounts of the ways that people responded to the needs of others. We argue that the ethical imperative to respond conditions every rhetorical situation and that is no more clearly seen than in times of crisis. Recognizing this ethical imperative demands that scholars examine more than words and gestures. The act of speaking itself is for Levinas at the heart of human ethics. Through this philosophical lens communication ethics not only applies to rhetorical situations but also goes forth, or does not go forth, as communicative action itself. So ethics is at the bedrock of communication and communication is at the heart of ethics. In the end we will ask, "Why would a philosopher not be interested in speech?"

Ethics in communication

For Levinas, ethics is metaphysical.3 Ethics does not emanate from the self as an ontological dimension, or from some predetermined epistemological principles. Levinas instead claims that the other is the basis of ethics. In sociality, we find ourselves responsible to respond to the call of the other, not as an ontological choice but rather as the recognition that ethics is otherwise than being.4 The demand issued by the other is felt corporeally. It is, if you will, an ethical impulse or compulsion that disrupts, calling the self into a dialogical encounter.

Levinas asks us to concentrate not on what we can know or contain of the "Other—the move toward totality, but to contemplate that which always exceeds our grasp—the move toward infinity. . . . Ethics is a relationship of responsibility for the Other. But this relationship is initiated by the Other, by...