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Levinas and Post-Pandemic Masking
Adam Birt tells us why Levinas wants us to throw off our face coverings.
When we naively believed we could spy the pandemic’s demise stumbling over the horizon of 2021, we took to entertaining some spectacularly premature questions – for example, should we keep these wretched masks on our faces, though the disease itself might recede? Did we gain anything beyond a first line of defense against COVID – anything good and otherwise unobtainable – by finding ourselves forced to don these hot, moist, suffocating… things ? If so, what is this rare, and otherwise unobtainable, upside? Perhaps concealment from the probing gaze of the other; distance in that concealment; safety in that distance; and finally, relief in that safety – relief from the psychological discomfort that can arise when we look upon other people, and especially when they look upon us.
The British newspaper the Guardian published a piece on the matter, entitled, ‘The people who want to keep masking: ‘It’s like an invisibility cloak’’. Masking, the article’s author, Julia Carrie Wong, informs us, protects against more than disease. It protects too, against unease. “It’s about the fact that there are more things that can hurt [us] than viruses,” Wong says, “including the aggressive or unwelcome attention of other people – or even any attention at all.” But it’s not obvious that remaining masked absent a literal mortal threat like COVID is the right choice to make – by which I mean the morally right choice.
Emmanuel Levinas demasking by Stephen Lahey
The Lithuanian-born French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) concerned himself so determinedly with ethics that he labored endlessly to position it as ‘first philosophy’ – meaning, the foundation of all other philosophy. This is a place of intellectual honor traditionally reserved for logic, theology, or metaphysics. No. For Levinas, such branches of inquiry come later. Ethics comes first. This keeps with the general tenor of thought emanating from one of the philosophical schools with which Levinas is associated, existentialism, which centralizes and prioritizes the question of what it means to be human. Still, perhaps no other thinker inverts the usual hierarchy of disciplines more fully and more adamantly than Levinas.
Levinas also fixates on faces, and their role in ethics. For Levinas, faces powerfully embody and convey human vulnerability. Maybe those who wish to continue masking even post-pandemic feel likewise. Indeed, the fact that exposing one’s face lowers one’s guard may be one’s exact reason for wishing to continue with concealment – they want to remain safely walled off from the world. For Levinas, though, such vulnerability is itself necessary to ethics. It must be expressed if ethics is to get off the proverbial ground at all.
In his excellent introductory text, Existentialism (2014), Professor Kevin Aho, currently at Florida Gulf Coast University, recapitulates these critical aspects of Levinas’s thought. “Levinas describes ‘the face’ (le visage) of the other not as a thing or object to be conceptualized, but as a pure expression of ‘defenselessness’, ‘nudity’, and ‘vulnerability’,” Aho tells us (p.120), cribbing terms from Levinas’s monumental Totality and Infinity (1961). Aho goes on: “In this sense, the face-to-face encounter is a rupture or breach in the flow of ordinary life that reveals a layer of interpersonal relation that demands something of me, burdening me with responsibility for the other.”
One detects in this passage the genesis of ethics out of the face-to-face meeting of people. So the face of the other doesn’t merely show itself – doesn’t merely reveal that the other stands before me. It doesn’t even merely identify that person, insofar as identifying means matching a face to a name. It goes beyond all that: it imposes obligations on me, just as my face imposes obligations on the other. The face-to-face meeting charges participants with reacting to each other in moral ways. In his essay ‘Freedom and Command’ Levinas puts it like so: “The face is the fact that a being affects us not in an indicative, but in an imperative” (p.21, Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis, 1987). This imperative goes unarticulated. It resists any transcription into language, because words capture concepts, and concepts are the stuff of reflection, but the face-to-face encounter unfolds prior to reflection, and so prior to the application of our concepts for the purposes of making rational sense of the whole affair. As Aho says, “the essential aspect of our intersubjective relations cannot be accessed by thought.” But although it eludes rational sense-making, the face-to-face meeting carries great emotional impact. It is felt immediately, where ‘immediate’ pointedly means ‘not mediated’. Thought, concept, reflection mediate: they function as middlemen in human experience. Feeling brooks no such intrusions. However, masks erect a barricade between faces, and thereby thwart the face-to-face meeting – draining it partially or wholly of its emotional power. Of course, this is precisely the draw of continued masking for those enamored of it for non-virus reasons – except that their aim is to drain face-to-face meetings of their unnerving intimacy. (Looking out onto a blank sea of masked faces affects one in its own way, of course. Alas, to analyze this impact would carry us too far afield.)
Kyle Ferguson, professor of Environmental Studies and a postdoctoral fellow in Medical Ethics at NYU, has suggested to me in conversation that post-pandemic masking may be acceptable on a Levinasian views of ethics because the mask does not conceal the eyes. After all, the eyes are arguably the single most expressive feature of the face. Indeed, as Aho remarks in Existentialism, it is ‘‘especially through the eyes’’ that ‘‘we witness the other’s needs, his or her anguish, sorrow, and joy’’ (p.120). But Levinas seemingly makes plain that he means our faces to be uncovered. In his essay ‘Is Ontology Fundamental?’, the face embodies the other’s ‘infinite resistance’ to our power “because, being completely naked – and the nakedness of the face is not a figure of speech – it means by itself” (p.10, Entre Nous, trans Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav, 1998). Likewise, in ‘Freedom and Command’, “The absolute nakedness of a face, the absolutely defenseless face, without covering, clothing, or mask, is what opposes my power over it, my violence, and opposes it in an absolute way” (p.21).
But why is this all so, according to Levinas?
In ‘Is Ontology Fundamental?’, Levinas distinguishes between two types of being: ‘being in general’ and ‘particular being’. Everyday objects have being in general, but it’s essential to humans that they have particular being.
Being in general has an openness about it, a receptivity. Everyday objects go about the business of existing. They are. This ongoing existence is their independence as objects, their separation from the rest of the world. It’s up to us humans to tackle that independence by (figuratively) throwing ourselves at everyday objects, working them into our intellection, and thereby understanding them. Critically, this involves grasping everyday objects as independent – and that involves a certain ‘letting be’. To really appreciate the ongoing ‘is’ of an object means to leave it alone, so it can simply persist in that independence. Levinas draws on his existential predecessor Martin Heidegger for this analysis, but promptly goes beyond Heidegger too. Humans carve out a sweeping exception to the framework of ‘openness’ and ‘letting be’. The independence of humans is achieved not by letting them be, but by addressing them: ‘speaking’ to them – where ‘speaking’ does not refer strictly to vocal communication, but more broadly to establishing a connection to them, a social relation (p.7).
‘Addressing’ someone constitutes a unique sort of relation, but one which is intertwined with understanding: as Levinas says, ‘the two relations are merged’. Addressing goes beyond understanding precisely because it doesn’t influence us by applying concepts to the other person, and because it demands of us emotional states, such as sympathy and love. And it’s the faces of others that allow us to address them, because the faces of others show them as ‘neighbors’ to us, akin to and adjacent to us. (Interestingly, if I merely kill another, I strike against his general being, because killing him treats him as an animal to be hunted, or a tree to be felled – as an object in the world. This isn’t a proper murder, since it isn’t a strike against his particular being: It doesn’t negate him, only partially. To strike against his particular being would require addressing him – looking him in the face. Addressing the other instantly treats him as more than an object, choking off the very possibility of wholly negating him. This, then, is the source of the face’s ‘infinite resistance’.)
The Perpetual Maskers’ aim is hardly unsympathetic. Not everybody has experienced psychological discomfort at simply being perceived; but everybody has experienced psychological discomfort, even rising to the level of, say, ‘distress’. So we can all relate, at least in a general way, to the Perpetual Maskers’ plight. And the alleviation of their distress potentially provides a legitimate moral reason for their wearing masks even beyond the end of the pandemic. But if Levinas is correct, the Perpetual Maskers fail to account for a contravening, and likely overriding, moral reason not to go about with their faces hidden. The importance of getting ethics off the ground can’t be overstated, and whatever costs attend the success of that objective may just have to be paid, including distress at being perceived.
Of course, for anyone who can embrace Levinas’s idea of the face’s infinite resistance, the cost of unmasking diminishes, even vanishes. That seems an aspiration worth chasing.
© Adam Birt 2022
Adam Birt holds an MA in bioethics from New York University and an MFA in fiction from the University of Southern Maine. He resides in Southern Maine.