I am taking a course called Phenomenology of the Other this semester which focuses on the work of Emmuanel Levinas and Martin Heidegger. More specifically, the course is focusing on the question “Is ontology enough?” Levinas emphasizes the priority of the other over the subject so that the self is actually constituted by its response to the ethical demands placed upon it by the other. For Levinas, ontology is not enough. Ethics must serve as first philosophy. Heidegger has a decidedly different approach. For him ontology is sufficient for first philosophy. The other does not make a substantive ethical demand on Dasein. Instead, the other is reduced to a being-with so that it can be used as a means to an end. In Martin Buber’s terms, the Thou is reduced to an It. This reduction is what Levinas cautioned us against and may be one of the reasons that Heidegger found sympathy for national socialism. Levinas viewed this tendency to totalize the other into categories, concepts and frameworks as an ameliorization of the mystery of the other, who is a human being, an end not simply a means. The other is our neighbor to whom we are bound together in this web of life.
The election of Barack Obama has made me conscious of the ways in which we try to totalize the other in order manage them and the subsequent dangers that arise from this totalization. President Obama has consistently refused to be reduced to a racial category or a politcal party. That is not to say that he does not have substantial commitments to either but simply that he resists the totalizations of “African-American President” and “Liberal Democrat” or even “Centrist”. He has continually directed our attention back to the substantive issues facing our nation instead of the polarizing issues that divide us. Visually, President Obama is not easily reduced to a particular racial or ethnic group which gives him a symbolic power, in my opinion. His symbolic ambiguity resists attempts at totalizing him. President Obama stood before all of us yesterday and placed an ethical demand on us as individuals and as a nation. Who we become over the next four years will be directly related to our response to that demand.
Olafur Eliasson has a piece called “Beauty” in his current DMA exhibition Take Your Time. “Beauty” is a piece that involves light breaking in a spectrum via drops of water creating a rainbow for observers. Depending on the angle of the light, the particular shape of the drop of water, and the position of our eyes, different colors appear, and consequently different rainbows. Eliasson points out that because a rainbow only occurs in perception (because it is the product of light, water, and the eye) its existence is contingent on the presence of the observer. No observer, no rainbow. Eliasson calls this making sense. We are not passive recipients of reality, but rather we construct reality. We make sense, sense doesn’t make us. The rainbow is a product of our particular perspective, our individual act of seeing and the reality in which we are embedded.
I know what your thinking. “Does that mean that if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, it doesn’t make a sound?” Well….. yes. Now that wasn’t so hard. Was it? Watch this You Tube video to hear Eliasson explain his idea of art as a model of reality.