The ecological thought, part sixth
In Ecology without Nature I argued that it was the very idea of Nature itself that posed an obstacle to ecological thinking and praxis. Nature has recently received various upgrades, for example in the form of ecophenomenology, which insists that we are embedded (like Iraq War reporters) in a lifeworld. This language comes from Heidegger.
If the ecological thought is to tunnel back behind Heidegger, it must encounter the thinking of Emmanuel Lévinas.
Lévinas argues that below Being, beyond essence, closer than breathing, is the proximity of the really other other, the strange stranger in the language of The Ecological Thought. Unnameable as such, yet still palpable as an excess or “lapse” within the ontological order of things, is “the face,” Lévinas’s word for the strange stranger as we encounter her, or him, or it. Our very being is both subtended and interrupted by the face of the other, who stands destitute before us and before whom we too are destitute. Sadder and wiser.
In Otherwise than Being, Lévinas declares that the face is “the collapse of phenomenality,” in that it is “too weak” and “less than a phenomenon” (88). The face of the neighbor causes “the human” to “shudder” (87). The asymmetrical contact between us and the face causes us to revert “from grasping to being grasped, like in the ambiguity of a kiss” (80). More passive than inertia, this contact is “an inversion of the conatus [Spinoza's word for the will to live] of esse” (75). It is “not an extrapolation of the finite, or the invisible taken to be behind the visible” (154). It is on this side, “a hither side of the here” (180). This would be an encounter that did not take place within a lifeworld. A non-holistic reality where my obligation subverts the creation of worlds, with their insides and outsides, their included and excluded. Where identity was not—where personhood and phenomenality were less than you expected.
Is this not the shuddering of the Wedding Guest before the Mariner?
But is it not also the shuddering of the Mariner before Life-in-Death, a face consumed with leprosy?
And might it contain an encounter with the sheer existence existing things—“a thousand thousand slimy things” as the Mariner says (4.238)? This existence, which includes the Mariner’s own “liv[ing] on” (4.238). Might this ecological “element” in which we are immersed also be visible in the disturbed and disturbing face of the other? And is the ecological thought therefore a coexistence with coexistence itself (and with coexistents, as it were)? Lévinas grants this possibility when he asserts that the “absurd” there is (his phrase for sheer existence) can be “a modality of being-for-the-other” (164). In fact, you need the “weight” of this existence for alterity to go beyond essence (164). Lévinas himself opens the possibility that the there is with its incessant “splashing” (140) might be the face itself, as if the face were glimpsed obliquely, that nothing truly separates background from foreground, just a “strange distortion” (Shelley).
Something like this happens in The Triumph of Life, when in an Arcimboldo moment, a root twists into the face of Rousseau. And it happens in Frankenstein, when a creature made of pieces of animals and human corpses rises up to embrace its terrified maker.
Isn’t this the horror of Life-in-Death? The gentleness and ambiguity of her threat to essence? Her existence is ambiguity in all its fullness. She does nothing, really. She merely appears; she casts dice; she speaks, and whistles. Her face rots away. She floats on the sea, space of nomads, pirates, traders, gamblers, not tied to the State, beyond the law. She is as passive as the Mariner. It is finally her passivity that disturbs. We behold her; we are beholden to her.