- Vigilant Memory: Emmanuel Levinas, the Holocaust and the Unjust Death
R. Clifton Spargo's Vigilant Memory: Emmanuel Levinas, the Holocaust, and the Unjust Death is perhaps the most erudite reading of Levinas I have encountered to date. In this book, Spargo, a professor of English at Marquette University, asks us to reconsider Levinas's ethics precisely in the shadow of the Holocaust. Spargo's interest, however, is not the fact of the Holocaust per se. Rather, he focuses on the effects, the figure of the Holocaust, and in particular, the impact the memory of the Holocaust has on our understanding of ethics and our responsibility to our neighbors. Spargo's talent, in part, lies in his masterful etymological analysis and careful unpacking of Levinas's Christological vocabulary. Additionally, Spargo is able to read Levinas against himself productively. That is, he is able to demonstrate that even where Levinas's philosophy is at odds with itself one can nonetheless find evidence for the ethics of responsibility underlying this apparent inconsistency.
Spargo's book is well organized into an introduction, four chapters, and an afterword. The introduction provides a broad but detailed description of the impact of French philosophy on American intellectual circles. It specifically lays the ground for situating Levinas's entry into the American intellectual/ philosophical scene, which coincided with a waning interest in deconstruction and a suspicion of deconstruction's sympathy for Nietzschean cynicism (ethics is fraudulent). Thus, the timing was right for Levinas's ethical project, which promoted a positive conception of responsibility. Chapter 1, "Ethics as Unquieted Memory," explores the role of mourning in Levinas's project. Levinas's analysis of mourning, which necessarily focuses on the one who has died, marks the shift from a concern with ourselves to a preoccupation with the other. Chapter 2 explores bad conscience in both Nietzsche and Levinas, demonstrating that although Levinas does not make much mention of Nietzsche, there is nonetheless a substantive critique of Nietzsche that pervades [End Page 161] Levinas's discussion of responsibility. Where the first two chapters are largely sympathetic to Levinas, chapters 3 and 4 are largely critical. Yet, it is precisely in this critique that Spargo reveals the power of Levinas's ethics. He explores the role of the memory of injustice in acknowledging our responsibility in present-day injustice and in addressoimg it accordingly—in short, in caring. Spargo's argument exposes an unacknowledged chain of causality that leads to each of us, implicating all of us in our present injustices. Having shown each of us, including Bill "Why should I care about the Mexicans?" O'Reilly, to fit into this chain of responsibility (pp. 220–221), Spargo argues that this ethical responsibility is in fact the precursor to political responsibility and political action. The "why should I care; I didn't do anything" response of the many simply has no purchase.
Spargo's argument is compelling, and his analysis is unique in that it draws political responsibility closer to Levinas's ethics than has heretofore been done. Nonetheless, this analysis assumes a Levinasian subject that is already willing to admit responsibility and say "I am guilty." I am not convinced that for some people "they should care," even if the should is a logically or philosophically strong should, will translate into "they do care."
Yet, there is a space in Spargo's analysis in which we might find a path to follow. In a nuanced discussion regarding the possibility of viewing the Holocaust as a sign of international crisis (p. 184), Spargo refers to the manner in which democracies and others refused permission to Jewish refugees of Nazi occupied Europe to enter into their borders (p. 180). Thus, it is here that as a reader of Levinas I hear the prophetic voice in his philosophical writings. Spargo's discussion calls to mind the discussions in the Mishneh Torah (Hilchot De'ot—Laws of Character Traits 6:7; see also Leviticus 19:17) that deal specifically with "man's responsibility to man." In addition...