Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Godard, Levinas & Violence

It’s not a question of re-establishing tourism…between the banks of the Neretva.  We must at once restore the past…and make the future possible.  Combine the pain and the guilt. Two faces and one truth: the bridge.
Its seems difficult.
"If the face symbolizes ‘Thou shalt not kill’ how can we make a face with stones?” 
The relationship between me and the Other isn’t symmetrical.  At first, the Other matters little with respect to me.  That’s his business.  For me, he is the one I’m responsible for.  Here, a Muslim and a Croatian. 
We are all guilty for everything and for everyone.  And myself more than others.

I wanted to take a moment and consider Godard’s approach to relationships of/and violence in Notre Musique.  He quotes Entre Nous by Emmanuel Levinas, a writer whose philosophy rejects the tendency of Totality to try to efface the radical alterity of the Other into its model of sameness.  For Levinas, this tendency is violence and it exists equally in war and in the history of Western Philosophy.

One of Levinas’s central ideas is that the history of western metaphysics carries on a tradition that puts the notion of rationality, which he defines as the move to totalize the Other into a pre-existing category, above any real concern for the Other.  In short, to rationalize is to attempt to make the Other into the same.  Of this tradition and particularly Heidegger he writes, “To affirm the priority of
Being over existents is to already decide the essence of philosophy; it is to subordinate the relation with someone, who is an existent, (the ethical relation) to a relation with the Being of existents, which, impersonal, permits the apprehension, the domination of existents (a relationship of knowing)” (Totality and Infinity, 45).

For Levinas, the encounter with the Other is, by its very definition, not something that can be understood as a sameness. The experience of the Other in life is the face-to-face experience of the infinite. Any movement to try to understand the Other as something that is “the same” ultimately fails because the being of the Other
is infinity. The Other is not a negative other-than me, it is completely Other-wise.  Infinity is the always beyond its own definition, it overflows its definition, and so any idea or notion that seeks to contain it cannot succeed. In his book Totality and Infinity he writes "The absolutely other is the Other.  He and I do not form a number.  The collectivity in which I say “you” or “we” is not a plural of the “I.”  I, you - these are not individuals of a common concept.  Neither possession nor the unity of number nor the unity of concepts link me to the Stranger, the Stranger who disturbs the being at home with oneself [ le chez soi ].  But Stranger also means the free one.  Over him I have no power.  He escapes my grasp by an essential dimension, even if I have him at my disposal.  He is not wholly in my site.  But I, who have no concept in common with the Stranger, am, like him, without genus.  We are the same and the other.” (39)

Levinas argues that any attempt to identify the Other is an act of metaphysical violence.  The Other is always
already there before I experience it so I am always existing already there for-the-Other.  It is in the face-to-face experience of the Other that I am called to it.  I do not define the Other, its infinite being calls to me for a response to it.  I can only ever respond to this face, I cannot define it.  My ability to respond to the Other is, in a way, my response-ability.  This responsibility for the Other and toward the Other is what Levinas calls ethics.

It is this idea of ethical responsibility that I believe Godard is considering in
Notre Musique.  In his first act, Hell is violence.  In Purgatory we are shown the attempt to rebuild a bridge destroyed by war.   The bridge represents the in-between that exists between these opposing sides and the lasting imprint of violence.  A female character says, "I wanted to see a place where reconciliation is possible."  In considering the history of violence and one’s responsibility for the Other, perhaps Godard is saying the same thing.


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