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Vigilant Memory

R. Clifton Spargo, Vigilant Memory: Emmanuel Levinas, the Holocaust and the Unjust Death (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006), 328pp. ISBN: 0801883113 [ISBN-13: 978-0801883118]

Michael Maidan

R. Clifton Spargo, Vigilant Memory, cover image
Other Voices, 3.1 Recycling Culture
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Emmanuel Levinas's rise to late prominence in the mid-1980's has been followed by a series of attacks, some of which repeat criticism that had already been formulated several years before he become better known in academic circles and by the public in general. Levinas has been criticized for his view of the feminine (Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray), for putting violence at the center of ethical discourse (Derrida, Ricoeur), or for doing theology in disguise (Alain Badiou, Zizek).

Levinas is in conflict with some of the most influential streams of contemporary critical thinking. While at the same time, contemporary critical thinking itself is in disarray. The disarray itself explains the interest in Levinas' thought given the ethical lapses and caving in to totalitarian ideologies both from right and left that become associated with the founding fathers of contemporary progressive thought.

In Vigilant Memory, R. Clifton Spargo develops "mourning" as the key to allow us to re-read Levinas in a way that would stand up to the criticism and misgivings of contemporary post-structuralism and deconstruction-oriented cultural and social theories and to remedy their ethical deficit. Vigilant memory, also sometimes referred in the text as "mournful vigilance," is presented as an alternative to the discussion between memory and history, ethics and politics, identity and emancipation, etc. Spargo does not claim that mourning is an operative concept in Levinas's philosophy—it is not—but that it can be considered a regulative idea, both of his actual discourse and of the 'rhetorical imperatives' that inflect his description of ethics (p. 32). Spargo is drawing here on his earlier The Ethics of Mourning (2004), in particular on the insight that in mourning there is an impulse that resists the dissolution of grief into socially constructed meanings. As mourning connects themes that are omnipresent in Levinas such as memory, the Other, unbound responsibility, etc., Spargo's choice seems prima facie a felicitous one. Loss and mourning can also refer to the epochal event of the Holocaust, though Spargo reminds the reader that great care should be exercised when dealing with the subject. He claims that the Holocaust should be seen as influential but not as a determinant of Levinas's thought. He admonishes us not to fall into the temptation to read the one-to-one relationship at the center of Levinas's ethical philosophy as grounded in our responsibility for the victims of the Holocaust, for such a relationship "would be less than representative" of the full force of the Holocaust history. He also makes clear that Levinas himself is explicitly opposed to any "historicized explanation of Ethics"' (p. 35). Nevertheless, the Holocaust reappears in the text with almost obsessive regularity.

According to Spargo, memory in Levinas means a resistance to let historical time become "nothing but the past." If we consider this feature of memory at the collective level, memory becomes "vigilant memory," memory "that sets apart from the continuity of survival and history to serve as an ethical resistance inscribed within our knowledge in all its utilitarian or commemorative forms" (46). This position is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin and of Benjamin-influenced anamnesic theological speculation but neither Benjamin nor the work of Johan Baptist Metz is mentioned in the book.

Spargo finds support for his claims in Levinas's lectures on God, Death, and Time (1975-6) that gave particular emphasis to the excess of grief that is also one of the characteristics of mourning. He directs our attention to the sections dealing with the discussion of the death of Socrates in the Phaedo, and to Levinas's rejection of Plato's claim that theory is stronger than death. Levinas's commentary finds a higher truth in the non-philosophical behavior of some of the disciples who surrendered to their emotions and wept beyond measure. Spargo concludes that Levinas's rejects any ontological or philosophical conception in which death bestows meaning on existence and suggests that there are similarities between this idea of excess of grief and Christian theology (p. 54), though this is not explored further.

Levinas emphasizes the particularistic bias of ethics, which manifests itself in a very strong "one to one relationship." In Levinas's essay Dying For, Spargo claims to find a universal perspective in which the excess of responsibility—also present in mourning—is asserted to the point that the victims themselves can be imagined to be responsible for their persecutors (p. 62). Spargo is only willing to accept what he considers the particularistic ethics of Levinas provided that this particularity is previously universalized. He lays down three conditions: (1) to separate the Other from any particular others one has knowledge of as a person, neighbor or co-nationalist; (2) to reduce every death to violent death and therefore to a constitutive possibility of all human relations, a conclusion which Spargo speculates may have been reached by Levinas through his experience of the Holocaust; (3) finally, to empty the Holocaust of any particular meaning and to turn it into a "universal referent for historical injustice, predicting the necessity to assume responsibility for all socially determined injustice" (p. 67).

Bad conscience is another aspect of the ethical problem that mourning can helps us elucidate. Spargo here alludes to a tradition that starts with Hegel ("unhappy consciousnesses"), passes through Marx and develops in Nietzsche, where "bad conscience" becomes "bad faith." Nietzsche has been one of the most vigorous critics of morality, which in his view is nothing else than a decoy for bad faith and for the will to power. Some of Levinas's critics draw upon this tradition. Alain Badiou, among others, criticizes the use of ethics, values and even the concept of human rights as nothing else than disguises for power politics, a criticism that is one of the challenges that Spargo attempts to overcome in this book. It is possible, according to Spargo, to keep the ethical meaning of "bad conscience" in the sense of unease, être mal à sa peau, as an indirect foundation of responsibility. Indeed, we feel moved by and even responsible for the plight of the victims of a tsunami even though no actual agency could be imputed to us. We feel sorry for them; a word that Spargo claims is related in English to sorrow. At this point, a comparative analysis between Levinas's stand and other altruistic or compassionate ethical accounts would have been helpful. Instead, Spargo discuss Levinas's reading of the story of Cain and Abel, and on Cain's unease and mournful denial of responsibility expressed in the lament: "Am I my brother's keeper?" which, condemning Cain's failure to remember and mourn, functions in the Jewish and Christian interpretative communities as the foundation of sociability.

The question of responsibility leads Spargo to discuss how Levinas's account compares with "a more directly moral philosophical accounting of moral fault within a bad political system." Drawing on Jones' The Moral Responsibility in the Holocaust (1999), he notes Levinas's refusal to make ethics dependent on intention, whereas Jones factors socialization, intention and deliberation into the ethical equation. Spargo seems to conclude that by abstracting from the actual context of the action, history is "transformed into the merely personal, immediate or naively universalized yet individualistic situation of an ethical encounter" (p. 107). That makes Levinas's account of history ineffectual for a confrontation with Left-Nietzschean accounts of Western history, reason, culture, philosophy, religion, etc. Levinas does not illuminate the sources of suffering in a "systemic order in which every I must locate its own responsibility" (107). Spargo also speculates that there is an evolution in Levinas's work, where his later lectures on Death and Time adopt a position that is close to the notion of "survival guilt," thereby universalizing responsibility beyond the archetypical "one on one" encounter. Still, the lack of an historical perspective means that "Levinasian bad conscience becomes the measure of a responsibility for history that a singular self could never perceive or enact. Ultimately, the responsibility to lament such history must be paradoxically signified by an unease with, even a regret about, one's limited apprehension of what one has been responsible for" (119).

Chapter Three is devoted to test certain consequences of an ethics grounded in the victim's perspective. Spargo is here struggling with objections that have been voiced both from the left (Badiou) and from the right (Ronald Reagan). Injustice in this context goes beyond the violation of rights as defined in positive law, which in many cases designate the same social structures and the structural imbalances responsible for that injustice. But while Spargo claims to honor Levinas's respect for the victim, he suspects that any victims-based ethics may hide a sacrificial logic that ultimately reinforces the victimization structure. Spargo is summarily referring to Rene Girard's theory of the sacrificial crisis. According to this notion, the sacrificial victim does not need to have any particular characteristic; he/she is just a placeholder of the need of the community to find an outlet for its blind rage. This relativization of victimhood allows Spargo to criticize the notion that the victims of the Holocaust, because of their lack of agency, are the victims per excellence; whereas other victims, according to Spargo, would have some degree of agency (i.e., responsibility) for their situation. He also uses the same logic against Badiou, who from a different political perspective also criticizes the culture of victimhood.

Where Levinas does stands on victimology? According to Spargo, Levinas's account is overtly dependent on the experience of the Holocaust, and concomitant with that, downplays issues of agency, even to the point of making the victim responsible for the perpetrator (p. 144). Particularly in Levinas's essay Substitution (1968), which is an important step in the development of Otherwise than Being, Spargo find a "paradoxical deconstruction . . . of the responsible ego as an identity even while he simultaneously offered a fuller articulation of the subject as the locus for responsibility" (144). He also claims that in this essay Levinas might be complicit with certain aspects of Christian sacrificial logic, though when the essay becomes part of Otherwise than Being many of the Christological aspects are toned down or critically revised; while at the same time, other Christological themes are enhanced (e.g., incarnation). Finally the use of the term hostage (otage) as a characterization of subjectivity seem also to be overtly influenced by the Holocaust, though Spargo interprets Levinas as follows: "Presumably, history can abuse the subject's passivity by requiring crude, atavistic sacrifices, yet the sacrificial adventure at the heart of language cannot altogether be evaded" (168). I choose to read this sentence as expressing at least partial agreement with Levinas's thesis, and at the same time Spargo's reluctance to characterize the constitutive experience of subjectivity as one of passivity.

Chapter Four looks into Levinas's portrayal of the stranger and how it would be applied to current debates about identity politics. Spargo uses lessons drawn from Cynthia Ozick "The moral life of metaphors" (1986) which he compares with Levinas. Ozick contrasts the Greek and Jewish ways of relating to the stranger, and claims that Jewish tradition was able to develop an inclusive ethos based on the experience of exile and slavery. But as Spargo notices, the biblical text lays down implicit and explicit conditions for the "ger" and the "zar" (stranger). Whereas Ozick is still speaking from the point of view of a specific tradition, Levinas according to Spargo goes further than rabbinical tradition by universalizing the exilic condition into an existential characteristic of humankind. Still, Spargo is troubled by the relationship between the existential and the historic-political dimensions of the stranger. His dilemma seems to be that, if Levinas completely de-historicizes the experience of exile, the political usefulness of exile is in doubt; whereas if history is enlisted to support the notion, identity politics may become an issue. The reading that Spargo is proposing is one in which "it should be impossible to speak of the memory of the stranger as productive of identity" (p. 190). The kind of identity he has in mind become clear when he refers approvingly to Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin's advocacy of an "exilic" Jewish identity (p. 198). Spargo looks for inspiration for his reading in Levinas's essay "No Identity," where he finds a dialectics between a merely existentialist interpretation of the stranger, and a more political one that is tainted by an affirmation of a Jewish identity. This dialectics seem to reappear in other texts that Spargo analyzes. Indeed, the last section of this chapter attempts to reconcile Levinas's ethics with the notion of the neighbor, only to find that notion also to be problematic, insofar as being a neighbor, belonging to a community, can easily revert into a notion of privilege. The book finishes with a qualified endorsement: "to remember the stranger, then is necessarily to rely upon —as in mourning, in bad conscience, and in our response to victims— a vigilant memory never to be reconciled to fixed cultural premises. Our memory of injustice must proceed, in Levinas's view, as though it came from what happens to a stranger, even upon anyone's land" (p. 242).

* * *

While ingenious and insightful, the attempt to reformulate Levinas's philosophy in terms of mourning falls short in my view both in terms of providing an overall reading that does justice to Levinas' intentions while creating the hoped for reconciliation between progressive politics and ethics. By downplaying the phenomenological side of Levinas's work, Spargo is bound to overstate and over-interpret the importance and meaning of the Holocaust for Levinas. There is an insufficient analysis of Levinas's politics, beyond the question of his approach to Israel and to Zionism. Moreover, Spargo ignores the important work of Enrique Dussel, where Dussel credits Levinas as one of the main sources of inspiration for his Philosophy of Liberation. Ultimately, the reconciliation between ethics and politics seems to have proceeded on its own, and to have been settled, at least in the West and for the time being, in favor of Levinas. We can identify Levinas with a politics emancipated from a great narrative and directly motivated by a myriad of seemingly disconnected local issues (the environment, immigration, human rights, rights of indigenous peoples, child labor, etc.) where the ethical seems to takes precedence over the political.

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Works Cited:


About the Reviewer:

Michael Maidan studied philosophy in Buenos Aires, Haifa and Paris. He taught philosophy and humanistic studies at the University of Haifa and at the Technion. He lives currently in Miami. He co-edited the first extensive translation of writings of the Frankfurt School in Hebrew, and has published papers on Hegel, Schopenhauer. Marx, Max Scheler, Levinas and Ricoeur in different languages. He is currently working on a book on Foucault.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Maidan, Michael. "Vigilant Memory." Other Voices 3.1 May 2007. June 15, 2024 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/mmaidan/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Michael Maidan, Vigilant Memory. Other Voices 3, no. 1 (2007), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/mmaidan/index.php› (accessed June 15, 2024)

APA Style Citation:
Maidan, Michael. (2007, May). Vigilant Memory. Other Voices, 3.1. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from http://www.othervoices.org/3.1/mmaidan/index.php


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