marije 03. Oktober 2011 um 20:39 Uhr

Trapped in Remediation

Is Kaja Silverman right and does Isaac Julien’s film Looking for Langston succeed in establishing a viable relation between the self and the Other? Or does the film self-reflexively display its own incapability of reaching such an engagement? Which conditions are required in the first place to arrive at such a relation?

In building her argument on Walter Benjamin’s concept of ‚investiture‘ (cf. Belehnung), Kaja Silverman concludes that at least two ingredients are needed in order to establish a viable and distanced relation towards the Other: the self should first of all elevate the Other to the status ‚not only of the beloved, but of the very cause of desire‘ (Silverman 1996: 95); the Other should secondly be given the capacity to look back. Ethical relations, in other words, entail the idealization of the Other and recognition of him or her as an equal independent subject.

To ’specify‘ her argument, she discusses Looking for Langston which according to her establishes this viable relation between the viewer and the viewed. This film not only resists assimilation to the ’spectator’s own subjective parameters‘ (104), it furthermore succeeds in creating a ‚veritable aura out of the network of associations within which it embeds Langston‘ (104). Assimilation is prevented, for example, through the hyperbolization of the film’s fourth wall. The associational aura is produced, for example, through the illuminations of the photographs of Baldwin and Hughes, by the light and the wings of the angles who hold them.

Crucial in her argument is that the spectator is kept at a distance from the idealized or illuminated Other. And in keeping oneself at this distance, it is important that the Other is given the capability to look back. But is the Other in (or of?) Looking for Langston capable of looking back? Is there not something that prevents him or her from looking the subject (the self) in the eye?

What problematizes Silverman’s analysis is the film’s awareness of the inevitability of mediacy. The film is, in other words, highly hypermedial. This practice of hypermediacy can easily be identified in Looking for Langston through its absorption of all kinds of other media: photography, music, radio, theater, poetry, dreams. The film seems to call for multiple representation possibilities (of Langston not in the least) and therefore not only undercuts the viewer’s desire for immediacy (or Silverman’s assimilation), but furthermore stresses the always already (re)mediated Other. To turn Silverman’s observation around: the Other is never given the capacity to self (or immediately) look back; his or her look is ineluctably captured in (re)mediation.

Of course, as Silverman reminds us, the movie does feature two characters who stand on equal ground: Alex and Beauty. One must not forget, however, that although they are given the chance to look each other in the eye (at least in the cinematic world offered to us) their faces are still mediated by a camera.

Viewing it this way, Looking for Langston does teach and remind us (the viewers) of our desire to reach the cinematic Other, be it through assimilation, idealization or distanciation. The ‚browsing‘ for Langston, as Silverman calls it, will nevertheless never result in a viable meeting. The Other is unable to equally look back. His or her look is trapped in the medium, or as is the case with Langston himself, in remediation.

Work cited:

Silverman, Kaja. 1996. ‚Political Ecstasy‘, in: The Threshold of the Visible World. London / New York, Routledge: pp. 84-121.

Natacha 04. Oktober 2011 um 8:43 Uhr

The possibility of ‘secondary identification’ (Béla Balázs) in Looking for Langston is set specifically in the scenes with Alex and Beauty, the moments showing their exchanged looks in the bar, later the extreme close-ups of the body, eyes and mouth of Beauty in the way his lover, Alex, looks at him and finally kisses him. The identification of the spectator with Alex on that moment is total in the way that we are ’projected into the interior of the cinematic spectacle’ (Silverman) and become Alex who is looking at Beauty through our eyes. By the mediation of Alex’ look, his ‘unconscious’ images, which interrupt the sequence several times and the voice-over, our perception of the scenes leads to an introspective reaction getting confronted with unconscious allusions, projections and prejudices regarding race and sexuality. It is at the same time a very sensual and exuberant moment in the film, but we do not get the possibility to lean back as we would in more romantic films. The film is first of all addressing the spectator and asking another way of looking at the ‘other’. In spite of the sensuality of the film we can not limit one self to an idealizing activity. We are engaged to become conscious about what we idealize in order to make our gift of love. (Silverman) In this way the film is definitely political.

Although we generally regard our thoughts and feelings as a private thing, this is mere an illusion. As long as we feel part of the majority we may keep this illusion alive. As soon as we are not belonging to the majority – this might be because of our way of living, the colour of our skin or our sexual preferences – we get confronted with the disapproving looks of others. In that way our bodies, our lives are always political in the way that we can never obliterate our actions from others, from the society to which we belong. This is may be also what Wittgenstein means when he writes that there is no such thing as a ‘private feelings’. In Looking for Langston racism and homosexuality are the topics which are reverberating during the film as reference to the problem of repression of the other. The film makes the spectator conscious of the ‘white-centred’ look (often internalized by black people) in the way white people look at black people or white homosexuals look at black homosexuals. This big issue about racism and our sexual lifes in the context of the devastating AIDS-virus is introduced at the beginning and several times throughout the film by a scene representing Hughes funeral in a very theatrical way using metaphors, like candles and flowers of death and mourning. These scenes however are linked with jazz music and a waking scene in a nightclub where men are drinking and dancing together. At several moments during the film this scene is shown in a ‘frozen’ image, as a photograph. The scene is shown as a timeless picture of an idealized nightlife. These images, very clearly situated in the past may be an ode to homosexual men choosing to have sex with unknown men outside in parks, marshlands or in a dark room. The film in this way may be seen also as a defence of the choice for a polygamous way of living. A way of living that might be difficult for lots of people (including myself) not to condemn on forehand.

Hughes is emphatically linked to Baldwin in the scenes where their photographs, lit up in the dark, are presented by two black angels. Baldwin, who was living in France and was openly living as a homosexual and writing about homosexuals who live in a an almost preserved situation of homosexuals among each other, like in Julien’s film. Hughes was focussing in his poetical work on the position of black Americans in general. This idealization of the two authors may be shown as examples of genuine artists who were both in their work reflecting on their position in life as human beings and black American homosexuals both in their own way, as Julien on his turn does in his film. By metonymy he shows Hughes and Baldwin as example functions for black American homosexuals and for all the others who after viewing this film want to think more consciously about the personal choices of others.

Léonie M. 04. Oktober 2011 um 8:46 Uhr

The other or the the danger of love

In Looking for Langston, halfway the film a threatening statement is made; the voice over says: “While fucking, we think of dead”. This refers to the dangers of aids, coming up in the United States during the eighties of the last century. The act of making love inflicts the danger of getting infected with aids; but the longing for love and being loved is bigger than the fear and wins. Or, wins… I mean: people are still making love, though. Still, it is impossible to completely forget the fear. I watched the movie and now I wonder: Is it possible to completely forget the fear, anyhow, anywhere, especially when such thing a love is involved? I would say we have to; or maybe, suspense the fear for a while.
Just as Levinas states in his text “Ethics and the face”, we have to trust the Other – and the Other is in this context that or the one I know not, the unknown, what I cannot control. The Other inspires fear. (Positively said: the Other inspires also a promise.) We have to make some assumption of trust, or in fact, according to Levinas, we already trust someone while having a conversation. This is at least the fact when we want to make the conversation “work”, that is, when we assume that I am trying to convey meaning, to transfer information, to say something “real”.
This motive of trust and fear also plays an important role in Looking for Langston. That is to say, as I pointed out before, the themes of love and fear are closely connected. I want to be loved but I might get infected. I want to be loved but I am afraid. There is no trust. Or; I am too afraid to trust. So things get really complicated. I want to write some things about precisely this; love and trust. Heavy stuff, but still interesting, isn’t it? Maybe even important. We will see.
As Levinas puts it, a conversation implies the following:
To seek truth I have alrealdy established a relationship with a face which can garantuee itself, whose epiphany itself is somehow a word of honour. Every language as an exchange of verbal signs refers already to this primordial word of honour. The verbal sign is placed where someone signifies something so someone else. It therefore already presupposes the authentification of the signifier. (Levinas 202)
This means that my face states itself as authentic; it means that “serious language” refers to this word of honour, or, as I would put it, the supposition that wat I as well as the person I am talking to, are both honest, tell the truth. My face enforces what I say.
Now, what does this mean furthermore? Going back to the themes of “love and fear” in Looking for Langston – we might wonder if it love that the film is about – there are some serious problems involved. Love has to do something with sex and it has to do with fear either, as we have seen. Fear and truth are, as we all probably know, a very dangerous cocktail. Or, to be authentic; I only lie when I am afraid. Which is actually quite often, but that is not the point. The point is fear troubles honesty, troubles love, troubles trust. But fear is sometimes necessary. Major question rises; is it possible to love without fear (aids echoes). Is it possible to actually believe in Levinas’s word of honour? Why should I in fact trust the one who is talking to me? People lie so often. Love is acquainted to death (as it is in Looking for Langston). Okay, what now? We still have to go on. Maybe there’s not so much a problem. One of my friends always tells me: “You have to feel the fear and keep on going”. Life always goes on that’s right, until it does not, which also turns out to be right. Or, to summarize: ‘The will is free to assume this responsibility in whatever sense it likes; it is not free to refuse his responsibility itself; it is not free to ignore the meaningful world into which the face of the Other has introduced it’ (Levinas 219).

N.B. The references made are from the text „Ethics and the face“ from Emmanuel Levinas, from his book „Totality and Infinity“.

LeonieV 04. Oktober 2011 um 9:45 Uhr

What’s in a face.

According to Levinas our experience of the face of the other is a moral experience. The face shows a kind of nakedness and helplessness and by seeing the face of the other we automatically become responsible for the other. There are two major problems in Levinas theory of the face. First of all; why the face? Why not the eyes, the whole body, or perhaps even speech? He doesn’t give us a lot of arguments for this significant effect of the face. And secondly; if we have a moral responsibility for the other by seeing his face, what does this mean exactly? Levinas doesn’t give us an ethical theory. In this essay I will analyze the first of these problems because I believe you can’t just throw in a concept like ‚the face‘ without really explain why this exactly works.

Despite the suspicion you may have after first reading Levinas, when you start to consider what he says, it actually starts to make sense. You can actually find implications of his theory of moral experience all over society. First of all we have to admit: When we look at other people, we always look at their faces to identify them. We recognize people by their face and not by their legs or arms. The face is the reference, the representative of ones being.

There are a lot of popular psychological tests that show that beautiful people are often more successful in life than those of us with less esthetical features. In similar tests beauty is recognized as the amount of symmetry in ones face. This would contribute to Levinas theory because the faces of those beautiful people invoke a higher sense of responsibility in people that are able to help them further in life.

Another interesting phenomenon is the use of faces in marketing strategies for fundraisers like Unicef, Terre des Hommes etc. Especially shots of children seem popular. Here it’s obvious that the experience of these innocent faces trigger something in the addressed western individuals. They may have been aware of the situation of people in third world countries, but have not before felt responsible for them. The use of faces here has a lot more effect then when we would only be shown people from behind in rows for a water pump or shots of masses of people fleeing across borders. It’s the experience of the face that gives us this feeling of compassion.

Then there is the infamous poker face. Many poker players seem to have read Levinas, and actually understand him. For their face-related strategies could also be derived from Levinas notion of the face. In a game, it is obvious that people act from mere egoistic standing points. One plays to win, not to help the other. In the game of poker, the last thing you want is to look vulnerable. By minimizing your expression, you can prevent the other from using your helplessness against you. This is precisely why you see these bold techniques of hiding ones expressions, like sunglasses, beards and caps in the game of poker.

We have to admit that the use of the face in Levinas theory isn’t as inappropriate as it fist may look. His theory does seem to stroke with reality. And yet, I would argue, there should be some more argumentation for this in his theory for why he uses the face, or perhaps even just an example like the ones I’ve given here. This would make him a lot more agreeable and understandable while reading.

Sharlene Alam 04. Oktober 2011 um 10:33 Uhr


It is undeniable that the role of art has been seen through a polyhedron of perspectives throughout time. Thinkers and artists have tried to express the function of art in many ways such as: “Art for art’s sake” or Wilde’s “All art is quite useless” or Du Bois’ “All art is propaganda.” These statements, although they define different philosophical movements, have one thing in common- they emphasize the grave importance and prominence of the function of art in every society. So important is art’s function that during the Harlem Renaissance in 1926, Du Bois in his essay „Criteria of Negro Art“ states that, “until the art of the black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human.” It was his belief that the integration of a political agenda in art could change the future status of black Americans in America; this type of art could radically transform the view of African Americans from being inferior to being equal to white Americans. According to Du Bois, art and politics are binary in relation. One cannot exist without the other; one complimented the other and even accentuated the other. In his view, art is instrumental in nature and is always used as a means to an end- a political end.

Du Bois’ perspective of “All art is propaganda” was problematic for the New Guard Harlem Renaissance artist like Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman, Rudolf Fisher to name a few. These New Guard artists and thinkers drew inspiration from every sphere of existence, for them, art was both intrinsic and instrumental and it did not prefer one subject matter above the other. They celebrated the entirety of the Black man- his beauty, his ugliness, his carnal desires, his music, his mind, his body- everything. In their perspective, black political art was as stifling as white sponsored art. Their respective philosophies acted as an obstacle in the freedom of expression. Black political art demanded a break from the typical, negative stereotypes of the black man and wanted to be on an equal plane with white intellectuality. This could only be done if the black people were shown in a positive light by “divest[ing] black subjectivity from the body, focusing instead on promoting ‘racial uplift’ through aspirations to bourgeois professional individualism and a stress on a cerebral, moral subjectivity” (Shin 204). In the words of Plato, as long as the attention was taken away from the “base,” carnal and sexual connotations of Back Americans and put on the “higher” form of living, one that had to showcase Black intellectuality through art, only then would the white Americans treat the Black Americans as equal.

Black political art was going to serve as the model for the ‘right’ kind of black person, one whom the white Americans will accept and equate with. It would serve as a means of code, which, the middle class or the people in the ghetto would aspire to. This put a leash on subject matter and freedom of expression for the New Guard. On the other hand, white sponsored art was as stifling as the former since the white Americans were paying for it, they could dictate it, thus creating a “conflict between things an artist has to be and the things which are imposed upon the artist form the outside” (Gilroy, Climbing the Racial Mountain, 170). If the art that was being produced did not fit the criteria, the Black artist will be unemployed and thus remain inferior. In Isaac Julien’s film „Looking for Langston“ Stuart Hall, the narrator states: “It was a time when the Negro was in vogue. White patrons of the Harlem Renaissance wanted their black artists to know and feel the intuitions of the primitive. They didn’t want modernism.” Thus, if the black artists did not create what the white patrons and audience wanted to see, then it was not good enough, and therefore would “not be rated as human” (Du Bois). Both perspectives, theirs (black) and the others (white), made the New Guard feel cornered, boxed and enslaved. They wanted to represent the black Americans the way they were. They did not believe in moralistic art or political art or that art had to be a certain way to be accepted. In the words of Hughes, “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose” regardless of how it is viewed by the audience or patrons.

In the conclusion of his essay „The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain“ Hughes acknowledges that beauty and ugliness exist in each and every human being whether they are black or white. And if the beauty or ugliness of one party upset the other (at that particular time in history), it did not matter because in the long hallway of history, all of it is relevant, all of it matters. What is beautiful in one’s own perspective may be ugly in the others and vise versa. For Du Bois, beauty was in the intellectual while for Hughes it was in the ordinary and for Julien it is in the carnal, homosexual black man.

In Julien’s film „looking for Langston,“ the director shows the audience that there is no point in arguing what the correct view of beauty or ugliness is, or what the correct portrayal of art is; it all depended on the person and the person’s perspective. His movie celebrates the beauty of the once feared black African body. It makes African American homosexuality, which was once detested and called “a sin against the race” (Stuart Hall, narrator for Looking for Langston), beautiful and sensual and even evokes sympathy and empathy from some of its audience. Some of us feel for the men who have to cruise around the graveyards in search for secret love, we feel happy for the couples who, get to be with one another, we feel victorious when the policemen go inside the club and cannot find the black men. The film perfectly marries the two theories of art mentioned above: art acting as propaganda and art being free to choose its subject/s. The movie in fact shows that because art can choose anything as it’s subject, even the most tabooed of issues like Black male homosexuality, it makes it more powerful and political and can still be beautiful for its own sake. The movie deals with many political issues like race, sexuality, gender and HIV, all of which is intertwined in a film about beauty, love and death etc. An art that is inclusive of both perspectives, the beautiful and the ugly, like in the film’s case, makes it doubly strong, influential, and controversial and makes the political issues resonate louder. The film deals with, what Du Bois would call a “base” or negative portrayal of the Black community, however, could he deny the highly politically charged content? For that matter, a question comes into mind: can any form of art, actually be free of a political agenda? Is it even possible to create something by someone, which does not take a particular stance on a particular side? And is it possible for the viewer not take a side at all?

Jesse 04. Oktober 2011 um 11:23 Uhr

While it can be argued that it is not the main theme, the struggle of black male homosexuality is prominent throughout Looking for Langston, and Isaac Julien, through his use of varied media, shows that this is an atemporal phenomena. A phenomena which has made limited progress, and has been found to repeat itself. It is not limited to a specific era, but instead permeates our timeline. The varied media used makes it impossible to place this struggle at a specific moment in time, and that is a necessary tactic for the purpose of the film.
By using static media such as photography — pictures capture a specific moment or short span of moments — and archival footage — also represents a specific time or event — the film sets this theme in different points in time. Photos of prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance and Mapplethorpe’s erotic images represent different decades. While these images and footage don’t necessarily, out of the context of the film, represent the theme of black male homosexuality, Julien uses them to begin to craft his larger atemporal theme.
Music and poetry are interchangeable in the film, just as they were for Langston Hughes (many of Hughes’s poems have a distinctly musical quality to them). These media represent an idea, a mood. While they can represent a large span of time, the examples in the film focus on specific events or ideas. There is jazz music from the 20’s and 30’s to represent the Harlem Renaissance, disco music from the 70’s to represent a broadening view of sexuality as a whole, and dance music from the 80’s to represent the advent of AIDS. There are also poems representing these same ideas — “This nut might kill… this kiss could turn to stone” is a reference to AIDS — from these same eras. As the film progresses music and poetry are used as the bridge from the specific moment of the photograph to the larger scope of film, to the larger history of black male homosexuality.
The non-linearity of this film shows the lack of progress relating to its themes, in particular with black male homosexuality. Julien’s use of different eras shows how the progress of the 70‘s was undone by AIDS in the 80‘s. The fight against racism can be said to have made slight progess during the Harlem Renaissance, but that too was undone by the Great Depression. Both homophobia and racism remain prominent in societies around the world, and Looking for Langston not only shows this, but also puts the informed watcher in the shoes of a person struggling with these issues. It does this by what Kaja Silverman calls, “a hyperbolization… of the fourth wall.” The viewer is invited to become the protagonist as the movie has none, only images, sounds, and ideas through which, if the viewer wishes to connect them, she or he must be alienated “from his or her corporeal coordinates” (Silverman) just as the film is alienated from its temporal coordinates.

Athena 04. Oktober 2011 um 11:40 Uhr

Contemplation on looking…

History “the smiler with the knife under the cloak”… History. History and revolution. “The social revolution cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped itself of all its superstitions concerning the past”. Chaucer’s and Marx’s words echo after one has seen Isaac Julien’s black and white movie titled “Looking for Langton”. Looking…yes but for what?

What is the theme of the movie? Is it sexuality, blackness or beauty? Is it time, love or death? Everything ? I am intrigued by movies that have such a deep impact and fire a chain reaction of thoughts and associations. Are all these terms or words different from each other, or can we come up with more? Are words strong? Is image or music stronger?

Julien exhibits a medley of artistic expressions to contemplate on. He elaborately draws poetry, music, photography and film itself to celebrate identity and desire in the Harlem Renaissance. Or is it only then? Isn’t the creation of a movie (in present time) based on a past cultural period actually a heritage for the future?

Julien molds all aforementioned arts to create a new piece of art that like a flaming sphere is floating in time; takes all these art forms to trigger Proust’s “mémoire involontaire” and thus allow his audience to receive Lacan’s “gift of love”.
Yet, Julien’s greatest achievement is the fact that with this new piece of art he succeeds in both fighting taboos and addressing perennial issues such as discrimination, isolation, love and mortality. Issues that trouble all individuals regardless of race, color, gender or sexuality.

Julien uses this artistic material to, allow me say, portray a painting of an obscure and ambiguous era. A materialistic era of capital reign, where individuals gradually turn to subjects and even commodities. An era of alienation, emotional cannibalism and castration by prejudices, racism or, compendiously, as Greenblatt correctly states by “emptying the category of the other”.

It makes you wonder where exactly this era is placed. Is it the past (Harlem Renaissance), the present (time when movie is filmed) or in the future? It is as if Julien whispers to his audience that it is (high) time biases and stereotypes are stripped off. Time we face the naked truth of a world that can only be described or depicted as a mosaic of alterity.

Still are we that different from each other? Aren’t we all ruled by the same fears and desires? Going back to the movie…don’t both white and black men feel desire? Don’t they wish to love and overcome their loneliness? We hear “…I don’t want to die alone” (but) “ love is a dangerous word in this town”…We see angles strolling above their heads.

Are these angels of death or as per Greek mythology Eros? The Romans called him Cupid, yes the one who fell in love with Psyche (the Greek word for soul). And how hard their love was! How hard is our quest for an identity and a room to exist in this fierce jungle of solitude!

Luke 04. Oktober 2011 um 12:01 Uhr

Labelling appears to be rife in art, especially around the art that Looking for Langston is concerned with. As Chi-Yun Shin says, ‘I am different’. This is a broad way of labelling but it is labelling all the same. This view of being ‘an ‘Oriental’ girl on the streets of Britain’ goes against the views of the New Guard who ‘resented being defined, categorized or labelled’. However, much of the New Guard poetry in the film Looking for Langston clearly labels itself as black gay poetry. The content is mostly explicit in this, reminding you always that this is not just ‘run-of-the-mill’ poetry. The New Guard dislike this labelling but use it themselves in order to separate themselves from the more popular, mainstream art that is being created around them. They want black literature to stand alone, to not get incorporated into the wider sphere of literature but to do this they must use the very labels and categories they resent. For instance, Chi-Yun Shin explains that the front cover of the first issue of Fire ‘showed a strikingly primitive black figure… and other illustrations were equally intense portrayals of nude Africans in jungle scenes’. This use of stereotyping was apparently used to ‘shock the values and conventions of the black middle class’, but would it not also help reinforce the negative stereotype so prevalent in those times?

Mainstream literature and art is divided into genres that do not necessarily use an ethnic background as a prefix. The use of this label seems to have both positive and negative effects. It allows the literature to be clearly defined for anybody who might seek it out, it creates a solidarity among those within such a label, it creates a scene for instance. On the other hand, this labelling could devalue the art in the face of the mainstream art it is being compared to/separated from. For instance, mainstream literature is not labelled straight white literature (unless in a particularly specialist field). It is simply divided into its regular genres. So, a love story for instance, instead of being called a ‘love story’, is labelled a ‘black gay love story’, or ‘black love story’, or ‘gay love story’. By requiring these prefixes it seems like the art is being devalued in the face of what is mainstream and therefore requires no prefix, and this would seem especially so to the common audience.

Chi-Yun Shin explains that Du Bois had the desire for ‘black writers to choose subjects that would set examples of respectable blacks for others of their race to follow, which meant that they should avoid subjects such as black underworld character or urban ghetto life’. This choice would have to be made carefully as effective role models will depend wholly on the audience and as one can see from the majority of film and literature, the seedier characters tend to be the ones who can convey the most, and also drum up the most audience interest. An uninteresting role model could have the opposite effect of glorifying the underworld character by comparison. Much film and literature focuses on the anti-hero, rather than role models, due to the desires of the audience.

The characters in Looking for Langston are not real, they are just characters. The role models are real people but are there for their art only. This separation of the real and the fictitious allows us to separate the black gay scene from the black poetry movement. Dream sequences and alien noises and settings (Highgate Cemetery and the air-raid siren for example) remind us that we are watching fiction, and then the archival material and poetry readings remind us that there is a reality behind this. Julien seems to be trying to separate the art from it’s label producing culture. Not that the label is detrimental to the art, quite the opposite in fact, as it is built upon this culture, but that the label needs to be separated as the art is capable of standing on it’s own.

Anne H 04. Oktober 2011 um 12:23 Uhr

Reading the Other

I will be honest. Reading Levinas was not a very enjoyable experience for me. Finding your way through his maze of words is like trying to find your way home being dropped off at some random place when it is pitch dark. Not completely impossible, but not exactly the easiest task to perform if you have no landmarks to go on. So what is his excuse for writing so incomprehensibly? Is he showing off? Is he trying to piss us off? Does he not want us to understand him? It does not seem very likely for a philosopher who is so set on the problematics and ethics on understanding otherness to deliberately try to confuse his readers. If he wants so bad for us to understand the Other, why does he make it so difficult to understand him? There must be some kind of function to his hermetic use of language.
Off course Levinas is not the first who seems to make a habit of making his writings intentionally obscure. When a student asked Lacan why his language was so incomprehensible he supposedly said something in the likes of “because I want to keep your attention”! This seems quite strange; like trying to make people stay by hitting them with a baseball bat. But this might be one of the reasons why writers like Levinas en Lacan write in this manner. By chasing away the easily scared, they are left with those who truly have the will and the courage to really dive into the text, who are willing to understand while thinking for themselves. It does not seem enough for Levinas and his likes to simply accept or deny the “facts” and the “truths” contained in a text; one has to make the otherness of the text his own before the reader is capable of understanding.
By using a poetic language, as in a language that is not completely fixed, but multi-interpretable, Levinas avoids the dogmatic. Like he says himself: ‘Better than comprehension, discourse relates with what remains essentially transcendant’ and ‘The word that bears on the Other as a theme seems to contain the other.’ (195) Since ‘comprehension’ is always partly out of reach for the interpreter he cannot and may not stigmatize the Other by the act of labeling. To assign a person or ‘face’ to one denominator is to inflict violence upon its individuality. By denominating one subjugates the Other; or stating it Foucauldian: by feigning knowledge of the Other one gains power over it. The individualistics are erased and the image of the Other is imprisoned and there are few means to break out of it. A fixed image fictionalizes the subject. The image contains assumptions and assigns features, which are not necessarily present, but going on the image, one assumes these features must be there. On the other hand this image painted by fixed language leaves out all features that do not fit the image.
Levinas his language is an ethical language; its very unaproachability is his way of doing justice to the uniqueness or the ‘holiness‘ of the other. The poetic does not try to contain or fix meaning, which is why a poetic language is necessary because it lets the signifiant rise above the signifiér; because, off course, there is only one signifiér to describe the ‘infinity’ of the signified. Simple language has the tendency of making us lazy. We read, interpret and leave it at that, or we might even neglect to interpret, because it does not seem necessary which brings forth the danger of reading past its true meaning. The poetic language forces its reader to contemplate its very nature and alows for the possibility of the multi-interpretable. So Levinas has created a language that tries to imitate the nature of his subject, transcendant and uncontainable. This language allows for the Other to be a container of infinite possibilities, never to be fully understood and leaves the reader confused, as he should be.

Todor 04. Oktober 2011 um 13:04 Uhr

(An)other(‚)s Signification

Levinas‘ writing style matches the shape-shifting (re)categorizations (re)forming and (re)integrating ‚others‘ into multiple subordinate categories. He begins by articulating ideas regarding the significations of (an)other(’s) face. Specifically, he argues that the face carries multiple significations linking, interacting, and combining to fit neatly, while growing chaotically out of the stratified, hierarchical structures based on classic European categorizations of religious and moral sentiments. These infinite significations co-opt the processes of independently understanding verbal signifiers. Instead, ‚the terms combined‘ with face to face interaction are the terms infinitely projected onto and growing out of the ‚uncontainable‘ and expressive face. Levinas refers to this ordering of language and vision as an intimate interchange occurring between independent forms of (sensory) communication and linguistic tools used to attain meaning. He argues that language furthers the multiplicity of infinite encapsulations. Specifically, prioritizing of the visual contradicts linguistic rules through the addition of affective weight that forms and guides language through presignification. Specifically, vision enables ‚access to beings‘ but cuts across the (linguistic) definition of being/consciousness. However, if a subject is subject to blindness when speaking with a ‚radical‘ other, the (mass of) presignifications would not affect the type of interactions until the linguistic equivalent to the visual ‚epiphany‘ occurs. He does not argue this explicitly. Instead, he allows his words to carry multiple, yet focused directionalities, thus playfully paralleling the process of sight starting the explosive chain of (pre)signification.
Levinas‘ underlines that signification can transcend traditional linguistic usage through moral underpinnings. Moral underpinnings become affective, leaving expression and communication inextricably tied to moral ‚mass‘ in the moment of the ‚encounter.‘ As such, language excludes the other by becoming a reserved utility/rationalization for dominant morality, thus enabling its regulatory function in maintaining exclusionary categories and/or abject spaces. Levinas‘ argues that the face troubles, but also helps form the basis of these categorizations. Specifically, the infinite significations cannot be contained by the “I” reserved for dominant culture. He writes “the other which ‚I‘ cannot contain, the other in this sense is infinite, is nonetheless my Idea, a commerce.” Here, he mixes the process of projection, a lack of understanding due to sense of religious/moral superiority (using the authority of the capital I) and the business/commerce connected of being morally ’superior‘ (i.e neocolonialism etc). Viewed in this way, the “other can present himself as a theme” of containment yet, the infinity ‚contained‘ or represented by the other is in the mind of the ‚I‘ (or dominant culture). Levinas‘ argues that this constructs the ‚essence‘ emanating from the other. Mixing essence with the experience of infinity, Levinas‘ writes “the infinite presupposes the finite, which amplifies infinitely.” Here, he refers to the intimate interconnection of corporeality to otherness, where the infinite nature of (visual and rational) significations presuppose the finite body, ‚locking‘ it into the infinite space of projected identity. As such, the (in)finite encompasses all relations becoming “infinite in negating its own [corporeal] finitude.”
Levinas‘ complicates the understanding of alterity by redefining the traditional relational boundaries based on separating the ‚I‘ (dominant culture) from ‚they‘ (radical other). He argues that the alterity of the other carries both these significations at once, not in the sense that the other belongs to the group that forms the ‚I‘, but rather, the other exists in the “world common” to ‚us,‘ requiring understanding of the dominant cultural paradigms. This notion can be explained by employing Du Bois‘ notions of double consciousness and the schizophrenic like split of the other. Specifically, Du Bois explains the results of living in a ‚world common‘ as co-opting ‚true self consciousness‘ by making the other relate to the world not on his/her own conceptions. As such, a schizophrenic like split occurs in the other, similar to the helplessness described by Levinas‘ as two forms of social recognition/action need be made – dominant and abject. Generally, Levinas‘ hints at fragmentation as a positive concept, a way to locate elasticity and/or porous sites within dominant ideology for subversive acts. However, he aptly illustrates that carrying fragmentation in this context is not a choice, but rather a forced dual/multiple/infinite chain of signification glued onto being. The other loses independence and becomes inextricably linked to categorizations. What remains is a mass of damaging intersubjectivies that presignify multiplicity, leaving the other behind in the transcendence from animal to human to ‚emanate‘ otherness from the eyes of dominant culture.

Frank 04. Oktober 2011 um 13:52 Uhr

Not a scandal but a teaching

The question that I would like to address in this essay concerns the relation between ethics and politics in Levinas‘ philosophy. If Levinas privileges the ethical over the political, which I believe his does in ‚Ethics and the Face‘, what are the consequences for conceptualizing alterity and putting the concept to use in cultural criticism?

Ethics, for Levinas, is closely related to what he calls the face, by which he means not so much a biological representation of the human qua genus but rather the primordial encounter with a human being as a human being. This primordial encounter is one of ‚otherness‘ or alterity: it is radically incommensurable with any knowledge available beforehand and to which it could be appropriated. The singularity of the face – its being in excess of signification and linguistic containment, even of violence – is where Levinas locates ethics, which he defines as nonviolence per se:

‚The idea of infinity in me, implying a content overflowing the container, breaks with the prejudice of maieutics without breaking with rationalism, since the idea of infinity, far from violating the mind, conditions nonviolence itself, that is, establishes ethics. The other is not for reason a scandal that puts it in dialectical movement, but the first teaching.‘ (p. 204)

This first teaching is precisely what makes ethics superior to politics, which wills the individual’s singularity into a universality (‚negating its particularity‘, Levinas adds, p. 217), and inserts him of her into the State. What Levinas makes clear above all then, is that there is always a communality of human beings – a humanity – before there is a political community, before that there is a State. It is ontologically prior.

Allthough I am sympathetic to Levinas‘ argument, I am also slightly unsettled by it. In order to elaborate that point, I must make a detour first. I have to admit that I have mainly understood the work of Levinas second-handedly, as it was passed through in the writings of Andrew Gibson, a literary scholar and critic credited for advancing an ‚ethical turn‘ in literary studies. In his book From Leavis to Levinas. Postmodernity and the Novel (which probably still colors my reading of Levinas) he turned, in opposition to what he perceives as the nihilism of postmodern thought, to Levinas‘ philosophy for re-establishing ethics as a central concern for literary criticism. In short, Gibson argues that anti-mimetic literature, literature that breaks representation (and its suspicious companions in the history of philosophy, ideality and totality) down, so presents us with an analogy of Levinas‘ philosophy and can therefore be called ‚ethical‘.

I have always felt somewhat uneasy about this renewal of an ethical project for literature, and have wondered many times whether I could explain this uneasiness through some disagreement on Levinas‘ ethical project or whether this is because of the use his philosophy has been made of in recent criticism by scholars such as Gibson. The problem with Gibson is that he does not so much privilege the ethical, or an ethical reading, over the political or political criticism, but that the political collapses into the ethical. Strikingly, the turn to ethics comes at a historical moment in which social struggles and political ideologies are thought to have exhausted their possibilities, and are kept sequestered from literature and literary criticism. Ethics then becomes a substitute for (an endlessly deferred) action.

Of course, this is Gibsons’s take on Levinas. For me, rather than ethical, literary criticism’s project in a larger culture is political; it connects to autonomous or counterhegemonic (depending on your viewpoint) struggles. In Levinas though, these struggles seem (however understandable – Levinas himself has experienced in the extremest of ways to what extent politics is capable of obliterating human life) to be eclipsed as well. If the other is not a scandal to reason, cannot be made a scandal for reason, then how can we respond to actual violence, even though, as Levinas maintains, the face cannot be erased by it? Levinas‘ work is bold and powerful, but he is – at least for me – always been a somewhat ambiguous figure to read and invoke.

Guus 04. Oktober 2011 um 15:21 Uhr

How can someone contest being ‘confined’ to the ‘codes and assumptions’ concerning race in western culture? According to Chi-Yan Shin: by using the body as a site to deconstruct these assumptions and open up new spaces. In ‘Reclaiming the Corporeal: The Black Male Body and the ‘Racial’ Mountain in Looking for Langston’ Shin points out that ‘race’ imposes cultural assumptions on our bodies. When people perceive someone’s race, they assume that certain cultural practices to be accompanying this race and accordingly impose these upon this person. So having a certain race brings along a certain ‘cultural inscriptions’ on the body. As such, racial bodies are always confined to certain assumptions and codes that a society imposes on them. However, as Shin also points out, even though this racial body maybe confined to these cultural practices that get imposed on it by a society, it is first of all ambivalent, open to much more cultural practices. Because of this ambivalence the body is also a site for contesting these ‘cultural inscriptions’ and claiming your own one’s.

According to Shin Isaac Julien’s film Looking for Langston can viewed as a reclaiming of ‘the corporeality of the black male body as the site of contest’ by invoking the figure of Langston Hughes. Sin explains that the film does this by situating Hughes as a pivotal and subversive figure within the Harlem Renaissance. At the time the Harlem Renaissance movement was taking hold, the black male body was generally looked upon as a site of ‘bestial sexuality’, turning the black man into an uncontrollable menacing force. So one of the aims of the Harlem Renaissance was to oppose this view ‘through aspirations to bourgeois professional individualism and a stress on a cerebral, moral subjectivity’ – and black artists should promote the idea that, instead of a site of ‘bestial sexuality’, the male black body could also be a ‘culture bearer’. However, the idea that one must yield towards a certain type, did not sit well with Hughes or his New Guard comrades. Instead of a yielding, they tried to break away from the Renaissance movement or dominant cultural inscriptions and affirm an independence form it.

My claim is that in Looking for Langston Isaac Julien thematizes this contesting of cultural inscriptions, this affirmation of independence, by juxtaposing past and present, archival material and fictional scenes. The body is inscribed by cultural and historical codes as Shin explained. So to claim independence is to deconstruct and re-contextualize these codes. One of the things denied by history is the beautiful love between two black men. By showing this archival material alongside a new fantasy space, were the black homosexual does exist, Julien opens up the possibility if a sexual desire of black men for black men, that history has denied. This contesting culture and history can take place when bodies and images are re-contextualized to open up new possibilities for them and gaining independence form it.

Fiep 05. Oktober 2011 um 9:29 Uhr

Is the body the most powerful and subversive site for deconstructing the codes and assumptions about race (Shin 203)? I would much rather prefer not, as the body or race seems to be one of these blatant aspects of live one cannot choose. This does not seem to be much of a problem when you are a white theorizing the other, but which becomes highly problematic when in fact you are the other, and again you are theorizing the other. For the other is still not the white subject. The other is the one that actually looks like you. This seems to be far of from the subject of the class which is, clearly in the first place about theorizing alterity. But when alterity is being played out on the body, it seems to be an inevitable point to make.

Isaac Julien’s movie Looking for Langston Hughes tries to work ‘within and against the logic of fetishism’ (Shin 209) in the way and context he shows the nude, male, black body. I’m not sure he achieved his goal with this movie. How is this film criticizing ‘’racial’ stereotypes and cultural identities of gender’ (Shin 202)? The viewer watches, and will he or she be changed, identify and consciously idealize a body or subject which is actively different, and thus undermining or making fluid the idea of a stable identity (Silverman 102)? I doubt it. Of course I do realize that there is no option to not acknowledge race at all. This would only be another way to keep the racial stereotypes unconsciously (and thus even more persistent) alive. Still the overemphasis on the topic seems to be equally uncomfortable, if not more. Because the last stance carries with it some kind of never fulfilled moral superiority. We can feel better about ourselves because we are capable to address the problem. No matter that in exactly that way we enforce it and keep it alive. I actually liked this idea of one of my fellow-students to say it was about love, or whatever in stead of directly aiming at the usual suspect, race. It was a performative gesture that seems to be much more useful, than theorizing the text in the frame of race and find some highly complex way of resistance.

There seems to be an inevitable move of returning to your own body, when you say that the body is the site of the political struggle. Shin acknowledges this point by perfunctorily relating the anecdote of her encounter with a bunch of homeless people who asked for rice because she looks Asian (Shin 202). The bafflement seems to be the fact that the body can be reduced to such stereotypical, crude, simplicities, while the subject herself feels to be so much more. The stereotype has been imposed upon here.

So my question is, would the return to the body as the site of
political struggle as the location of the projecting of stereotypes and the like, not reduce the possibility of escaping stereotypes. In stead of liberating and emancipating this would be exactly counterproductive. I guess this would make me a proponent of the argument set forth by the first generation of the Harlem Renaissance. An endeavor to break free from the prejudices projected on the body, by emphasizing the cerebral subjectivity of an artist (Shin 204).

Anna 05. Oktober 2011 um 10:42 Uhr

According to Chi-Yun Shin with Looking for Langston Isaac Julien implicitly comments on the situation black filmmakers are in today. Looking for Langston is obviously about more than just Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance. Through historic and contemporary material, music and poetry a fragmented image of the ambivalent position of the black gay man is given. No real timeframe is established, it seems to be an account of a long period of time, without an ending. But Julien not only comments on this difficult position all black gay men were and are in, he also refers to his own situation as a black filmmaker, says Shin. She quotes Henry Louis Gates Jr.: “the film’s evocation of the historical Harlem Renaissance is, among other things, a self-reflexive gesture”. Shin then continues saying: “establishing an analogy between contemporary black creativity and an historical precursor. As a black gay artist, Isaac Julien self-consciously conjures up Hughes and other figures of the Harlem Renaissance so as to connect them to his project of black gay male self-representation.”
She is thus saying that the film Looking for Langston is a portrait of the situation of the director himself. Although I have a problem with so directly linking the director to his film, I do think Looking for Langston says something about the situation of the black filmmaker. Shin argues that white institutions, with their own ideas about what black films should be, still fund the black filmmaker. Looking at it this way we can see that it is not much different from the situation the writers and artist form the Harlem Renaissance were in, they were also being supported by white patrons, with their own ideas about black art. The focus then was on primitivism, the white patrons “wanted their black artists to know and feel the intuitions of the primitive”. Black artist were seen as other and exotic. But what does this mean for the black filmmaker today? Is it still so that a certain idea of ‘black’ is preferred?
Through historic material Looking for Langston is commenting on the situation today, and the answer seems to be yes. The film forces us to think about past and present in non-linear ways. In the film time and space are mixed up, creating an overlapping image that points towards the present. In this way past and present are linked and the idea that the image of the black gay man seems to not have changed much is given. Black men are still often viewed as macho, hypersexual and dumb. This image is safe and attractive to the white institutions. The black gay man seems to be still non-existent. Making the position of the filmmaker who wants to say something else very difficult.
But Looking for Langston also tries to create a new image through showing the black male body in an idealized setting, almost non-sexual but mainly beautiful and soft. Claiming space for the black gay man. Trying to gain acceptance for a different way of viewing. In this way the message does seem hopeful. As long as we keep looking and keep thinking of new ways of representation the image can be changed.