Oth­er Oth­ers: Lev­inas, Lit­er­a­ture, Tran­scul­tur­al Studies

Steven Shankman
  • Review
By – October 10, 2011

Shankman has writ­ten an inter­est­ing book, espe­cial­ly to the Lev­inas spe­cial­ist, on how the now mod­ish term Oth­er” has for the most part lost its moor­ings in the pri­ma­cy of the inter­sub­jec­tive encounter [face to face inter­ac­tions], focus­ing rather on the social con­struc­tion of the Oth­er” [how cul­ture cre­ates the Oth­er]. Fol­low­ing Lev­inas, what Shankman is trou­bled by is that the Oth­er is beyond any con­struc­tion or cat­e­go­riza­tion, what Lev­inas calls thema­ti­za­tion. For Lev­inas and oth­er post-mod­ern thinkers, the Oth­er can nev­er be def­i­n­i­tion­al­ly pinned down”; rather, all one can do is what Hei­deg­ger called for­mal indi­ca­tion” — “ the mean­ing-con­tent of…concepts does not direct­ly intend or express what they refer to, but only gives an indi­ca­tion, a point­er to the fact that some­thing” exists and has a cer­tain spe­cif­ic character. 

Shankman’s wide-rang­ing essays draw from the lit­er­a­tures of ancient Chi­na, Greece, and Israel to mod­ern Egypt, Italy, West Africa, and Amer­i­ca, and assume some famil­iar­i­ty with the lit­er­a­tures in ques­tion. His main take home points” seem to be: (1) By read­ing lit­er­ary works from out­side the Judeo-Chris­t­ian per­spec­tive, while look­ing for fig­u­ra­tions equiv­a­lent to Levinas’s notion of the Oth­er” we get a bet­ter sense of what it means to be the Oth­er” in dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al con­texts and (2) it is ethics, not cul­ture, that has the last word in human expe­ri­ence and self-fash­ion­ing. Ethics, says Shankman, is the pre­sup­po­si­tion of all Cul­ture” that is sit­u­at­ed, that is oper­a­tive before Culture.” 

Shankman cor­rect­ly points out that although the Oth­er­ness indus­try is indeed in high gear, the term the Oth­er has gone remark­ably unex­am­ined.” How­ev­er, Shankman does not ade­quate­ly reck­on with what this term actu­al­ly means, and how the term Oth­er” has its own geneal­o­gy and means very dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple in dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al con­texts. He also does not reck­on with the fact that Oth­er­ness” is not nec­es­sar­i­ly good: the Jews were the Oth­er to the Nazis. More­over, too much Oth­er­ness in a love rela­tion­ship can sig­nal its demise. Shankman also does not take up the com­plex philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem of how one dis­tin­guish­es sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences, that is, what is self and what is oth­er, the basis for any descrip­tion of Otherness. 

My crit­i­cisms notwith­stand­ing, I found Shankman’s book to be a use­ful con­tri­bu­tion to the Lev­inasian lit­er­a­ture, in par­tic­u­lar, to how Lev­inas’ ideas can be used to illu­mi­nate intel­lec­tu­al domains that are not strict­ly of aca­d­e­m­ic or philo­soph­i­cal inter­est and may have some real-life application.

Paul Mar­cus, Ph.D., a psy­cho­an­a­lyst, is the author of Being for the Oth­er: Emmanuel Lev­inas, Eth­i­cal Liv­ing and Psy­cho­analy­sis and In Search of the Good Life: Emmanuel Lev­inas, Psy­cho­analy­sis and the Art of Living.

Discussion Questions