The Face of the Other

“The face,” Emmanuel Levinas writes in Totality & Infinity, “resists possession, resists my powers. In its epiphany, in expression, the sensible, still graspable, turns into total resistance to the grasp.”

 

This semester I have been taking a sociology course on research methods, which has led to countless conversations (both in class and out) about individual intent of research. Over and over I hear that one of the popular purposes of research is to help the researcher make sense of her individual experiences.

When I hear this, it fills me with an impotent sadness that turns to rage because, once again, I am confronted with a false dichotomy—the separation of individualistic, self-centered understanding versus goals that are more noble, have more to do with a larger cause, are, generally, more male-oriented and more conforming to hegemonic identities.

You tell me what side of the fence you want to paint yourself on.

 

Because, I am not a man.

Because, like Tara Hardy, I choose not to ally myself with women who tell me that I ought not to wear make-up or high heels for the damage I might do to their cause. And, make no mistake, I understand that our causes often overlap and intersect, but I have taken to heart these life experiences I have had.

These experiences have changed me so profoundly, that, unlike my white, middle-class, nondisabled peers, I always come out swinging—fighting because I know that my bodily knowledge, my awareness that social location means everything, is righteous.

My experience, my personal, individual experience has taught me the whole that we all are—that we can all be. When I look into the faces of my white peers who disparagingly critique the idea that the poor might steal for a taste of that taken-for-granted power that is so common to everyone in the middle-class and above as to be invisible, I see a basic disconnect to humanity.

 

All research begins as a spark that is ignited by something that has happened individually to us. However, because I mince no words, am not ashamed of the violence I have endured, because my interests lie in understanding how to make the world a more just and equal place, I have been told that my interest in exploring contemporary and historical narrow conceptions of sexual violence are an instance of me, focusing on myself.

Surely, my interests in gendered violence may have begun that way, but it is insulting to insinuate that my particular interests in the welfare of others serve the sole purpose of me explaining myself, when I know my actions need no explanation.

Because, when I hear of the struggles of others, when I see pain in another’s face, I realize those, too, are my struggles. That, too, is my pain. That there is a thing in our society that looms large no matter where we turn that encourages us to stay disconnected from one another and disconnected from ourselves.

When I research or write or philosophize about social hierarchy, I attempt to chip away at that thing. I attempt to dissolve the barriers.

I feel this needs no explanation, but for those who beg explaining, once again, a quote from Totality & Infinity by Emmanuel Levinas:

“The being that expresses itself imposes itself, but does so precisely by appealing to me with its destitution and nudity—its hunger—without my being able to be deaf to that appeal. Thus in expression the being that imposes itself does not limit but promotes my freedom, by arousing my goodness.”

 

In the other I see myself. In open-armed acceptance of the other (of the other in my self), what is there is freedom and goodness.

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