Friday, January 11, 2013

The book I read, the book I dropped.

A friend of mine, Zitto Kabwe, listed the books he read in 2012 – a whopping 31. Another friend, Dr. Faustine Ndugulile, listed his and  publicly asked me to list mine. More friends, including Aidan Eyakuze and Dr. Mwele Malecela, came forth and listed theirs. All this was done to advance the culture of reading and sharing books – a very good cause indeed.

I love reading, and did a bit of that in 2012.  I will take time to recall and list the books I read in 2012 but certainly they do not number 31 (that is superhuman, particularly when you have to read policy and cabinet papers, sign-off files at the office and tend to the Constituency). In due course, as they come to mind, I will describe some few books I read in 2012 – and what they meant to me. There are also books I started reading but then, as with many of us, lacked the discipline to finish them as they became less interesting or as I was caught up in other interesting stuff, including other interesting readings.

Number one: “Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority” by Emmanuel Levinas. This was an assigned book in a college philosophy course taught by a friend and mentor, Father Rene McGraw, a Benedictine Catholic Monk at St. John’s University in the USA.

I decided to reread it because I saw myself, almost daily, getting caught up in the contemplation of the obvious and, as I indulge in the “smallness of our politics”, I thought I was losing sharpness in abstract thinking and extrapolation which is necessary in grounding decisions on basis of logic and objectivity. Another reason is the sheer humanity in Levinas’ notions of the Self and the Other, his insistence on transcendental subjectivity and his refreshing [re]definition of ethics.

Levinas writes fluidly. He can be hard to “get” but once you do, it is pure joy. Just as Derrida asked us to challenge language and grammar, one has to fall in love with Levinas, a contrarian philosopher who asked us to challenge practically the entire Western Philosophy (especially Heidegger) with its obsession with the Being. 

I first read this book almost 13 years ago. In rereading, I found that I had underlined a lot of sentences and made a lot of notes on the margins. I do not remember why underlined those particular passages. But will copy a few:  

- Is relationship with Being produced only in representation, the natural locus of evidence?
- The idea of infinity is the mode of being, the infinition of infinity.
- The absolutely other is the Other. He and I do not form a number.
- What does Levinas mean by optics? (side note)
 The moral consciousness can sustain a mocking gaze of the political man only if the certitude of peace dominates the evidence of war.

One more memorable passage:

“Violence does not consist so much in injuring and annihilating persons as in interrupting their continuity, making them play roles in which they no longer recognize themselves, making them betray not only commitments but their own substance, making them carry out actions that will destroy every possibility for action.”

One learns from Levinas that memory is vulnerable to obliteration and historical time can be “re-inaugurated”, and death is not the final triumph.

The book I dropped:

When I was travelling to South Africa last year, I picked a book with a bold title:  “Why Africa is Poor and What Africans Can Do About It” by Greg Mills.  I started reading it in the plane. In the acknowledgement page, almost the very first page, he started by writing something going like “for fear of sounding like Kate Winslet on Oscar night, I will….”. After that sentence, I put the book away, never touched it. Someone borrowed it (I don’t remember who) and I haven’t bothered to ask for it back.

That sentence was extremely contextual that you lock out 99.9 percent of people. First, to get it, you have to have watched Titanic (a movie in which Kate Winslet co-starred with Leonardo DiCaprio), you have to know that she won an Oscar for it, you have to also know that she almost melted when she was presented with an Oscar – going through a list of many many people she thought she needed to thank. Why would you put this in a book about African poverty, a book aimed at Africans (“what Africans can do about it”). I thought it was arrogant. The book may have been good, but I was turned off at page one. And that is how I read books sometimes.  Not that I do not read books with stuff I don’t agree with. I could have proceeded with it if was some intellectual or policy argument or prescription that I do not agree with.

Last year, I also discovered a new love: essays and longreads. I posted most of these on Twitter. 


Anonymous said...

Dear January, a number of people have questioned the ability of Levinasian ethics to translate into democratic politics, its very abstract approach to the question of the "other" being one of its disabling feature. Some such as Zizek have gone even further and attacked him for being racist for his comments regarding the treatment of palestinians by Israel in 1982, e.g. sabra and shatila events. I will be interested to know how does Levinas influence your own engagement with politics?

Anonymous said...

Hon January, Levinas would have had conniption fits at the thought that you decided to re-read him in order to burnish your fading abstract and extrapolation skills. Your motives for reading him don't sit well with the general tenor of his thinking. Ethics ala Levinas is not something you extrapolate or draw from some abstract propositions. Throughout his oeuvre he rails against the possibility or the pretension to ethics as prima philosophia, an abstract philosophy from you which you infer ethical tenets. For his ethics is sentient, visceral, fleshy and creaturely rather than something abstract pace Kant.

You cavalierly suggest that Levinas asked us to shun western philosophy's given its monomaniacal and strident fascination with being e.g. Heiddegger, I am not sure whether that is accurate, It is true that is worried about the obsession with being because of its elevation of the same at the expense of the other. That this obsession with being fails reduces everything to the tyranny of the same, views the other as a specular alter ego of the same rather than something irreducibly singular and worthy of infinite respect. However, despite criticising some aspects of western philosophy, i think it is a smidge hyperbolic to suggest that his project vis a vis the western philosophical heritage was aimed at forging a breach or break from western philosophy, something akin to Deririda's deconstruction or heiddegger's " destruction" of western philosophy. Rather than being opposed to western philosophy in toto, Levinas work is i think deeply ensconced within the western philosophical heritage, a point made with lucid competence by Derrida in his essay " violence and metaphysics" where he accused Levinas of strong affinities with the violent tendencies of western metaphysics that Levinas deplored. The charge is all the more strong given Derrida's friendly disposition towards Levinas's work. His affinity with that heritage is also amply attested by his borrowings from that tradition. Levinas ideas about infinity, despite the religious connotations, are drawn largely from other luminary of western philosophy, Descartes.
It is therefore a tad inaccurate to draw any parity between Derrida and Levinas.

I will be interested in knowing whether your reading of Levinas has any bearing on your politics? Does his oeuvre have any value for us living in this part of the world? can his work lend itself to a politics capable of addressing the problems that afflict us? may be you write a blog on these issues.