Beyond a Common Ground: Levinas, Fanon, and Touching the Other

“To approach the Other in conversation is to welcome his expression, in which at each instant he overflows the idea a thought would carry away from it.  It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly:  to have the idea of infinity.”  E. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, p. 51

This past weekend I went to a conference at Duke Div on “Friendship at the Margins.”  During lunch on Saturday, various “practitioners” were invited from the community to lead sessions on how friendship influences their ministry.  I led one about forming friendships with refugees.

One of the concerns I had with both the book and the conference was the way in which it was assumed those on the “margins” would want to be “our” friends, and that we would be able to form these relationships fairly easily once we simplified our lifestyle (so our extravagance wouldn’t cause us guilt or our new friends shame or envy).  I focused my presentation on the profuse existence of needs in any resettlement process (agency needs, refugee needs, volunteer needs).  I then turned to look at how race and assimilation enter into the process of becoming friends.  What does it mean for a group of white volunteers when a refugee clearly expresses to them his preference to be part of the white community and shares his dislike of his Mexican or African-American neighbors?  I asked the group how they thought friendships could form given the confluence of these needs and the added pressure of racial assimilation.

The major point I tried to get across was something along the lines of Levinas:  when we try to secure the conditions of our friendship, of our intimate interaction with another, we miss the other person.  To approach the Other, as Levinas says, is not to proceed on the basis of one’s capacity or in faith in the neutrality of a common ground.  I do not proceed out of myself to meet “a theoretical idea of another myself” (84).

To use the work of another thinker I’ve spent more time with–I’m just starting with Levinas–Frantz Fanon, at the end of Black Skin, White Masks, utters a profound and defiant refusal to give up on a world of mutual interaction, a world where we can meet the other, and touch the other, without the disruptions engendered by the racial, colonial world.  Throughout this work, Fanon acutely marks the way the form of “the white man” stands between, and therefore disrupts, various relationships.  In my talk, I tried to get the participants to enter into this tension, and to feel the urgency of the question:  how do we reorder relationships beyond the delusions of the colonial world.

What Levinas and Fanon both point out is that the very attempt to get a hold of these relationships, to reorder and master them, to form them so that we don’t err, is to enter into what Levinas calls a relationship to “totality” and what Fanon would call colonial domination.  For both thinkers, such an approach assumes that the other must be encountered on my terms or in my space (whether accepted as my own or disguised as “neutral”), and that it is my obligation to make sure these terms are set (fairly, benevolently, harmoniously, peacefully, etc).  As such, it inevitably bring the Other under my power and actually violates the relationship it intends to secure.

We do not need to work out how to reach the other but should stop trying to work this out and just touch the other, let ourselves be seen and felt by the other.  The mediation of “the white man” is no obstacle because, as Fanon works out through Cesaire, the white man inside him was killed in a baptism of blood, and therefore cannot stand in the way.  The Other always exceeds my idea, even my sinful idea, even the idea of a world civilized–formed into a totality–by colonialism.  “Superiority?  Inferiority?  Why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other?  Was my freedom not given me to build the world of you, man?” (Fanon, 206).

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