Saturday, January 27, 2007

Voiceless Saying

Cavarero criticizes Levinas' analysis of saying:

If I may be picky for a moment, it seems to me that the move Levinas makes in founding the uniqueness of the interlocutor in the showing of his face is rather illogical. After all, the face of the other is, by definition, unique and therefore it does not matter if the one who shows his face engages in interlocution or not. In interlocution it is instead precisely the voice that transcends the plane of speech and manifests the uniqueness of the other.

(For More than One Voice, p. 27).

Cavarero is wrong here, though it doesn't follow that Levinas is necessarily right. People can engage in conversation without use of the voice. In American Sign Language the verb "to say" refers either to a vocal utterance or to a gestural signing. So the possibility of saying without the voice is not merely fanciful. Naturally, the blind can engage in conversation without visual awareness of the face of the other. Therefore, the uniqueness of the other in interlocution is not founded in any single sensory modality.

Despite these objections, both Levinas and Cavarero following him are on the right track with regard to the privileging of the saying over the said. The proximity of those who speak does carry a meaning that goes beyond the verbal. In Cavarero's words, "As a radical sign of communicability, the significance announced by the who of saying precedes, generates and exceeds verbal communication" (pp. 29-30).

Levinas' pneumatism, the proximity of the other in breathing, doesn't require that one have a voice, but merely that interlocutors share the same immediate atmosphere. Cavarero sees in this idea a "risk of the human regression toward the animal" (p. 36). It does represent, I think, a regression away from technology. Were it possible for me to blog in the flesh, so to speak, I don't know that I'd prefer it. Is my preference a symptom of anxiety about direct confrontation with the uniqueness of others? An evasion of responsibility? Perhaps. I see plenty of uniqueness in the blogosphere and that calls for a certain responsibility. Most of the time I would rather say nothing than comment irresponsibly. I use the distance that blogging allows instrumentally to craft a persona that is more attuned to what I feel the uniqueness of others demands. On the other hand, this distance allows me to forget more easily the reality of the other person behind the keyboard. Bloggers as a class are not known for their sensitivity to others. So as I wonder about whether bloggers actually deserve a reputation for being insensitive, I also wonder about whether the discovery of face-to-face communication isn't a bit nostalgic.

Labels: , , , ,

posted by Fido the Yak at 1:11 PM.


Blogger nedric said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

January 28, 2007 9:29 AM  
Blogger nedric said...


Great post! It makes me self-conscious in its reflexivity - that's a good thing in my eyes.

Your response to Cavarero's response to Levinas is helpful, especially the point about sign language and "the voice" - I agree that "the uniqueness of the Other is not founded in any single sensory modality."

I always have read Levinas' term "the face" as meaning "that which manifests the uniqueness of the other." But calling this "the voice" is just as well I suppose. Would then a "voiceless saying" be the mundane and ordinary manifested?

I share some of your sentiments about blogging, especially the point about commenting irresponsibly. I probably do that quite often (see above), but it seems to me in those moments that the connection is worth the risk.

I was wondering about your last comment, though: are you saying "face-to-face" in Levinas' sense, or are you speaking about technological developments, like camera-phones, where we try to return to the "face-to-face"?

January 28, 2007 9:35 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I mean face-to-face in Levinas' sense and more broadly. I think there are socio-technological reasons why the face-to-face encounter became an issue for Twentieth-Century thinkers. The newer technologies of mass communication like camera phones are something I'm not sure I'd rather adopt in place of textual blogging, though I can't see avoiding them altogether as time goes by. I am questioning whether the uniqueness of the other really is something that is only attested in immediate physical proximity.

Your reading of Levinas on the face makes sense to me. I'm not sure Cavarero doesn't mean something more literal, which may be a mistake. I'll enjoy reading her book anyway just because it's new to me, and, also, I feel that a more literal reading of the voice is warranted in certain respects, e.g., with regard to the history of language, or the history of thinking about language.

January 28, 2007 11:24 AM  

Post a Comment

Fido the Yak front page