Rupturing the General Self: A Reflection on Image

Oxford Street with its cold white chiselled structures has some kind of intoxicating effect on me, even when I have vowed to purchase more ethically (and minimally!). The high gloss smooth images of faces beckon away from the grey drizzle of the January streets. Each body curve a cue to come further in, through the double doors into the land of plenty. Later, reflecting on it, I try to pick apart more of what has happened. Whom am I responding to in these adverts, and who do I want to become in this exchange? It feels like a guttural response, like a longing of desire, to be fed and nourished, to participate in the plenty. To feel what it means to be welcome, to have plenty. But who is the person, what have I actually exchanged, in the encounter?

There is a lot that can be analysed in this example. The effects of consumption habits, the unconscious motivation, the capitalist strategies at play. However, as I critically engage with the givenness of this situation, I see how phenomenology can offer us tools to assess and weigh the event in a manner that enables us to ‘see’ more fully. Phenomenology is, as Simon Critchley puts it, the ‘science des naïvetés’, a study of what we engage with normally; the ‘work of reflection that is brought to bear on unreflective, everyday life…reminders of what we already know but continually pass over’ (Critchley 2002, p. 7). For Emmanuel Lévinas, this involves reflecting on the inter-human relation.

According to Lévinas, our human condition means that we are beings with a base, a body. It is through this body that we encounter the other person, and become ourselves. But this encounter is not from a place of anxiety, but from a home. The body that we live out of, the self that we relate to the world, is a place of home. Thus, in the exchange with the other, it is as if we are giving of home, leaving home in the task of existence. So home, and the fact that we are already home, is the condition for all of our activity (p. 40).

There is a beautiful paradox at play here; we emerge from a state of contentedness as subject to the other. Subjectivity is assumed as a task; ‘a process of becoming that seems to overcome the meaningless content’ (Langental 2014, p. 37). For Lévinas, we are made subject through encountering the other person. But the other here is not someone that we can figure out; it is not a generalised other. The ‘burden of existence’ (Lévinas, 2001, p. 17) is that the other is always revealing herself to me in singularity.

This is hard work, though, because to really engage with this, we have to keep the distance between myself and the other real. Edna Langenthal writes that

we are used to relationships that subsume the Other under the cognition of the same, understand Otherness through the conceptual schemes of the self. The self’s desire for totality is a desire to contain the infinite which is by definition uncontainable. According to Lévinas, the failure to comprehend the other is crucial to the preservation of Otherness (2014, p. 43).

For Lévinas, this is made apparent in his critique of images. For him, the trouble with a general human image is that it is not actually someone. That is, it does not speak or teach or reveal the distance between us; it merely presents a form in the absence of the personal exchange. I am not subject to it, because it cannot demand anything of me, that is, it cannot speak for itself. Maybe it speaks for a general brand, or an idea, but the image does not speak for herself. Because I am not subject to it, I also cannot offer what I have; that is, I cannot welcome the image into my home, into my place of plenty. Rather, somehow, the other person has become an object that I look to in order to consume what I find lacking in myself. So I open the door, find the objects…

The problem with this isn’t so much that it is bad to buy or use advertising or any unhelpful generalised moralisation. Rather, it is more that Lévinas is critiquing encounters that can lead us into further ambiguity, away from the face to face that conditions our existence and our self-becoming. If who we are is being-in-relation, and a being that is at-home with herself, then the challenge is to see the events that speak otherwise; those that suggest we become ourselves through the silent general exchange, that we become ourselves anxiously, hungrily, and ambiguously, turning the other into the same that is then reduced to an object that we greedily devour, rather than welcome, as human, from a place of being enough ourselves. 

Anna Westin (London School of Theology). Anna lectured and completed her PhD in existential phenomenology and addiction at St. Mary's University, and has also lectured at Richmond, the American University in London and LST. Her current research interests and publications explore ethics, healing, mental illness and pain. Anna has published in the Journal of Medical Ethics and the New Bioethics Journal, and is involved in community initiatives on creativity and justice.

Critchley, S. (2002). ‘Introduction’. In The Cambridge Companion to LévinasCritchley, S. & Bernasconi, R. (eds.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Langenthal, E. (2014). ‘Welcoming the Other’. In Lévinas Faces Biblical Figures. Y. Lin, Y. (ed.) Plymouth: Lexington Books, pgs. 35-60.

Lévinas, E. (2001). Existents and Existence. Lingis, A. (trans.). Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.


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