University of Texas at Austin
The alterity that disturbs order cannot be reduced to the difference visible to the gaze that compares and therefore synchronizes the same and the other. Alterity occurs as a divergency and a past which no memory could resurrect as a present. And yet disturbance is possible only through an intervention. A stranger is then needed, one who has come, to be sure, but left before having come, ab-solute in his manifestation. . . .
Disturbance is a movement that does not propose any stable order in conflict or in accord with a given order; it is a movement that already carries away the signification it brought: disturbance disturbs order without troubling it seriously. It enters in so subtle a way that unless we retain it, it has already withdrawn. It insinuates itself, withdraws before entering. It remains only for him who would like to take it up. Otherwise it has already restored the order it troubled—Someone rang, and there is no one at the door: did anyone ring?—Emmanuel Levinas, "Phenomenon and Enigma"
John Muckelbauer's lucid explication of the four "rhetorical risks" inherent in and exposed by discourses on radical alterity illuminates for me a fifth one, which perhaps neither of us recognized: the risk that such discourses may invite the unfortunate conflation of an im-mediate encounter with alterity (over which "I" have no power) and the attempt to attend to the implications of that encounter, to "retain it," as Levinas puts it above, to "take it up." This risk first announces itself, for example, in Muckelbauer's depiction of "Davis's project," which he suggests "is committed to developing a practical style of engagement with the other (whomever or whatever that might be) that doesn't simply treat the other as someone to be colonized, appropriated, and translated into something reassuring and comforting for me."
The problem—and Muckelbauer understands all of this—is that the other as other (Autrui) is not contemporaneous with me, is not even on the same plane with me. The encounter with Autrui, which Levinas tells us is always a trauma, does not take place in the present or according to the graspable tick-tocks of chronos; it has always already taken place in a "past" that was never simply [End Page 248] a now. I do not get the chance or the choice to engage with the other as other, as if Autrui were simply an(other) existent, a presence, or a phenomenon. The relation to Autrui is a relation to the "trace," which is not a relation that "I" have but one that gives me to be. (Levinas: "The great 'experiences' of our life have properly speaking never been lived" [1987, 68].) "I" come into being only inasmuch as "I" respond to the other, and this obligation to respond is called "my" responsibility. Responsibility, from this Levinasian perspective, is not something a self-sufficient subject chooses to take up; rather, "the subject" is ethically structured as response-ability: "the subject" is the response to alterity, a first response to the saying, and all of the "saids" (all "style[s] of engagement") are granted on the basis of this response, including the appropriations and identifications that constitute "self" and "ego."
The fifth risk announces itself again when Muckelbauer writes that "One can only welcome the irreducible other in the discourse and in the dimension of the same," which suggests that "one" may have a choice in the matter, as if the welcome were not the very condition for the "one" who then presumes the power to extend it. "Davis's project," if we must call it that, is not—I hope—about instituting a particular sort of engagement with Autrui, "advocat[ing] openness to the irreducible other," or desiring a "proper response" or a "proper attentiveness" to the other—it has nothing to do, I...