4-Levinas and Derrida on Eating (Well)

4-Levinas and Derrida on Eating (Well)

4-Levinas and Derrida on Eating (Well)

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Erica Schiller Freeman

Levinas famously critiqued Heidegger’s account of the human by stating that Dasein is never hungry. This observation is meant to summarize Heidegger’s ethics and also expose its dangerous limitation. Heidegger’s ethics is ultimately, according to Levinas, self-centered. Our conscience discloses nothing more than a duty to self (Heidegger, 1927/1962). Kantian ethics fares no better. As is shown clearly in his 1797 essay, “A supposed right to lie from philanthropy,” Kant elevates fidelity to reason’s universal demand above the needs of the singular other. Levinas takes the ubiquity of the experience of hunger and its relationship to vulnerability, need, affectivity, and embodiment as the key not only to a new account of the human that allegedly overcomes the limitations of his predecessors’ accounts but also to a truly other-centered ethics, where ethics is defined as prereflective response to the face of the other.

According to Derrida, however, Levinas remains in agreement with Heidegger on a crucial point that compromises the positions of both philosophers. “Levinas’ humanism is based on an exclusion of the animal, just as in Heidegger,” Derrida claimed in a conversation he had with Daniel Birnbaum and Anders Olsson in 1990 (Derrida, Birnbaum, & Olsson, 1990/2009, p. 3). “The Biblical commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ applies to humans, but leaves out animals” (p. 3) This oversight, Derrida clarified, compromises all of Western philosophy. “Our culture rests on a structure of sacrifice. We are all mixed up in an eating of flesh — real or symbolic. In the past,” Derrida continues, “I have spoken about the West’s phallic ‘logocentrism.’ Now I would like to broaden this with the prefix carno- (flesh): ‘carnophallogocentrism.’ We are all — vegetarians as well — carnivores in the symbolic sense” (p. 3).

I am concerned in this paper with explicating the ethical aporia that the late Derrida bequeathed to us in his interrogation of the human vis-a-vis the animal and sacrifice. What becomes of ethics and justice when “the human” is no longer assumed to be obvious or unproblematic? What implications does this question have, moreover, for theory and practice in the field of psychology? To begin to respond to Derrida’s criticism, I return to Levinas to clarify the way in which the latter attempts to articulate a truly other-centered ethics by foregrounding the role of eating in the generation of ethical subjectivity. Thereafter I return to Derrida’s accusation. What kind of ethical violence does Derrida detect in the act of eating that Levinas overlooks? If there is no doubt that we must eat, then what would it mean to eat well? What implications, again, does this notion of “eating well” have for us as psychologists?

Levinas: The Two Requirements for an Other-Centered Ethics

As John Wild notes in his Introduction to the 1969 English translation of Totality and Infinity, Levinas attends to the “primordial experience of enjoyment (jouissance)” in a manner unprecedented in the West (p. 12). I argue that this attention to enjoyment is central to Levinas’s endeavor to overcome the ethical narcissism of Kant, Heidegger, and the rest of the Western tradition. In this section, I will explicate the two requirements Levinas described as necessary for a truly other-centered ethics. First, Levinas claims that we must rethink need as more than a lack. Second, we must acknowledge that the act of eating is subject to what Derrida would call the logic of the aporia. The law of existence, as it were, demands that we eat, but the law of ethics tells us that all food belongs to the other – to eat is to deprive the other of the very means of her subsistence.

The first requirement: Need is more than a lack.

Levinas rethought the human by calling into question the centrality of consciousness and its intentionality through a phenomenology of sensibility. I suggest that this genetic phenomenology can be regarded as a tale of the formation of the subject as an embodied, and therefore vulnerable and singular, being. Butler (2005) argues that such a tale, which can never be more than a fiction because no one of us was present to witness our emergence from these conditions, both enables and limits the testimony that I, as an ethical subject, can give of my actions.

Noting this, I return to Levinas, who wrote of sensibility, “[It] is therefore to be described not as a moment of representation, but as the instance of enjoyment” (1961/1969, p. 136). Alphonso Lingis observes that “for Husserl,” Levinas’ predecessor in the phenomenological tradition, “conscious life (Erlebnis) is intentionality and sensuality” (1972, p. 100, my emphasis). Levinas regarded Husserl’s discovery of the Urimpression as indicating a need for a profoundly different way of understanding human subjectivity. He interpreted the Urimpression as “the primal instance of happy enjoyment” (Cohen, 1980, p. 200). In his own words, “the sensibility we are describing starting with enjoyment of the element does not belong to the order of thought but to that of sentiment, that is, the affectivity wherein the egoism of the I pulsates” (Levinas, 1961/1969, p. 136).

Levinas treated the everyday act of eating bread as confirmation that the existent has an affective life prior to cognition and utilitarian practice. He emphasized in Totality and Infinity: “to live from bread is therefore neither to represent bread to oneself nor to act on it nor to act by means of it” (1961/1969, p. 111). Similarly, he asserts that, “for the I to be means neither to oppose nor to represent something to itself, nor to use something, nor to aspire to something, but to enjoy something” (p. 120). The ego or I, therefore, begins as an “I feel,” certainly not as an “I think,” nor even as an “I can.” Cohen (1980) clarified that this quasi-subject “is no more than an affective series of fleeting reincarnations” characterized by “vibrations…pulsations…and excitations” ( p. 201). Yet “to live oneself” in this way “is not,” as Lingis (1967) emphasized, “to objectify oneself; it is to be encumbered with oneself, to be affected by oneself” (pp. 71-72; 1972, p. 99).

Affectivity, for Levinas, is thoroughly ambiguous. I will consider the negative moment first. In Existence and Existents, he describes it as weariness, heaviness, fatigue, and indolence. “There exists,” he wrote, “a weariness which is a weariness of everything and everyone, and above all a weariness of oneself….the weariness concerns existence itself….in weariness existence is like a reminder of the commitment to exist, with all the seriousness and harshness of an irrevokable [sic] contract. … Weariness is the impossible refusal of this ultimate obligation” (1947a/1978, pp. 24-25). “Indolence,” for Levinas, is “an impotent and joyless aversion to the burden of existence itself” (p. 29). “Existence drags behind it a weight – if only itself… Burdened with itself…its movement of existence is bent and caught up in itself” (p. 28). In Time and the Other, he came to a similar conclusion, namely that “my being doubles with a having; I am encumbered with myself” (1947b/1987, p. 56) He described the existent as emergent from anonymity (the il y a) through an act of “mastery over existing” which is immediately limited through a dialectical reversal (p. 55). “The price paid for the existent’s position lies in the very fact that it cannot detach itself from itself” (p. 55). By this Levinas meant that an individual existent’s “freedom is immediately limited by its responsibility for itself” (p. 55). Hunger is the affective, embodied expression of this responsibility.

Affectivity also has a positive moment in Levinas’ account of the human. The existent carries out its responsibility for its existence by moving out of itself and into the world. This search for “salvation through the world,” he claimed, is characterized by “enjoyment [jouissance]” (1947b/1987, pp. 62-63). Hunger also exemplifies this positive moment, for Levinas, because it shows most clearly how need has a kind of intentionality. Put differently, Levinas assumed (like other Western philosophers) that human need is different from animal need insofar as it is more than a privative condition. Appetite, in his view, is unique to humans. It is the anticipation, akin to desire, of that which is not possessed. “It is not that at the beginning there was hunger,” he clarified; rather, “the simultaneity of hunger and food constitutes the paradisal initial condition of enjoyment” (Levinas, 1961/1969, p. 136, my emphasis). Thus, “desire or appetite differ radically from ever restless need. The Platonic theory of negative pleasures, preceded by a lack, fails to recognize the promise of the desirable which desire bears within itself like a joy. … [T]he world where youth is happy and restless with desire is the world itself” (p. 39).

With this remark, Levinas carried forward precisely the project he had set for himself a decade earlier in On Escape—namely, “to show that there is in need something other than a lack” (1935/2003, p. 56). Years later, in Totality and Infinity, he would come to the same conclusion, writing, “[W]hat we live from does not enslave us; we enjoy it. Need cannot be interpreted as a simple lack, despite the psychology of need given by Plato, nor as pure passivity, despite Kantian ethics” (p. 114).

In the foregoing, I have reviewed the ethical significance of Levinas’s uniquely sustained attention to enjoyment. For the most part, the existent carries out its responsibility for itself blissfully unaware of its existence as a burden. The burdensome quality of existence only becomes apparent in conditions of deprivation. Levinas was able to link enjoyment to a prereflective ethics of self-concern through his project of rethinking the nature of need as more than a lack. Moreover, as we have seen, Levinas explicitly associated the traditional concept of need as privation with Kant’s ethics. Now I will explicate the second requirement for a truly other-centered ethics, namely, that eating implicates the subject in an economy of displacement.

The second requirement: Eating is aporetic.

In Time and the Other, Levinas (1947b/1987) claimed that “in everyday existence, in the world, the material structure of the subject is to a certain extent overcome: an interval appears between the ego and the self” (p. 62, my emphasis). Here Levinas suggests that the existent achieves something of transcendence in the everyday act of eating. The ego in the foregoing excerpt is the I, the narcissistic moment of human existence. The self, on the other hand, is the me, the existent in the accusative position. Here, the self/me is the prototype of the ethical subject, the one who responds to the face of the other. To understand how the existent moves from eating to ethics, we must consider in some detail Levinas’s account of transcendence, or what he calls in his later works, “otherwise than being.” As Cohen (2010) has put it, “the deepest meaning of human embodiment is,” for Levinas, “determined as otherwise than being” (p. 37). In Levinas’ (1974/1998) own words, “transcendence,” the existent’s endeavor from the moment it emerges from the anonymity of the il y a, “is passing over to being’s other, otherwise than being” (p. 3).

According to Levinas (1974/1998), obeying the demand of the law of existence enables an ethical response to the face of the other. The subject, he claims quite explicitly, is able to carry out its responsibility to others on the condition that it nourishes itself: “Only a subject who eats can be for the other” (p. 74). A prefiguring of this claim can be found in Totality and Infinity, where Levinas insisted that “within the very interiority hollowed out by enjoyment there must be produced a heteronomy that incites to another destiny than this animal complacency in oneself” (p. 149, original emphasis). This interiority is the aforementioned interval between the I and the me. As I have already noted, Levinas wished to make a strong contrast between the way in which subjectivity attains interior depth through eating, on the one hand, from the case of the animal, on the other hand, which merely feeds and feels transitory contentment but does not develop an interior life. Thus, in the human case, enjoyment brings with it a susceptibility to influence from without. Full ethicality, as I will try to show, comes from the other, but one is able to be affected by the other in this way only because one previously responded to the demands of the law of existence.

Levinas appealed in the aforementioned excerpts from Totality and Infinity to something like a recognition of the other as another embodied being like oneself — but for that very reason also utterly singular. Singularity, like embodiment, is, Butler (2005) clarifies, a principle both of differentiation from and connection to others. “Happiness…” Levinas (1961/1969) claims, “exists in a soul satisfied and not in a soul that has extirpated its needs, a castrated soul” (p. 115). The one who truly enjoys food remembers the pain of emptiness, and may indeed even be awakened to the echoes of this persecution in beholding the other’s face. Such a one stands in stark contrast to “the surfeited one who does not understand the starving and approaches him as an alien species, as the philanthropist approaches the destitute” (p. 111). These two figures illustrate the narcissistic flaw compromising Kantian ethics. The surfeited one and the philanthropist are alike in that their capacity to be affected by the other’s need has been dulled. The surfeited one has forgotten what it feels like to be hungry. The other’s hunger strikes her as a foreign abstraction. The philanthropist treats hunger as one example of the general category of “human suffering.” The other’s hunger strikes her as no more than an opportunity to act on her principle of being good to others. She can only engage ethics in terms of the categorical imperative, because she has so much that she never actually feels what it is like to have needs. With these two figures, ethics is reduced to a kind of self-consistency rather than an other-centered response to the face.

To enjoy food, therefore, means that our lives depend on the very food we eat. Eating, on this view, is not a luxury or a pastime, and enjoyment is decidedly not the gourmet’s pleasure. As Peperzak (1993) clarifies, “being good means giving your life or letting it be taken away, but,” in contrast, “to suffer and even to die for another implies that I would enjoy the good things that are taken from me” (p. 137, my emphasis). In this sense, the responsibility to nourish oneself is, for Levinas, “the first morality, the first abnegation” (1947b/1987, p. 64). It is, however, only when the other tears the very bread from my mouth, dispossesses me of my subsistence and my obliviousness by substituting herself in my place, that I, paradoxically, come in to full possession of myself. As Butler (2005) explains, “no ‘ego’ or moi is inaugurated by its own acts, which means that [Levinas] fully disputes the existential account proffered by Sartre” (p. 86).

In her comparison of the ethics of Levinas and Simone Weil, Walker (2002) clarifies that, for Levinas, every movement of the subject to satisfy its responsibility for its own existence by meeting its physical needs implies an unintentional violence toward the other. “Our responsibility for the other is an expiation in response to our taking the other’s place. It is a responsibility that exceeds what we may or may not have done to the other” (p. 299). By satisfying our own needs, we violate the other’s commandment: “‘Thou shalt neither kill me, nor take my place; Thou shalt accord me a place and the food I need to live” (p. 300). Yet, even Levinas acknowledged that I do not automatically submit to the other’s face, to her accusation of my injustice. At first I confront the possibility of murder. Levinas claims, “the other is the only being that one can be tempted to kill. This temptation to murder and this impossibility of murder constitute the very vision of the face” (as cited in Butler, 2005, p. 92). Seeing the face, I submit to the other’s commandment.

“To acknowledge this imperative is…,” according to Grosz (1987), “to put oneself in the other’s place.” But it is “not,” she hastens to add, “to identify with the other, but ‘to give the bread from my mouth.’ It is to answer the other’s needs, to become responsible for the other’s actions – even if they are inflicted on the subject” (p. 34). Indeed, “the human is the return,” according to Levinas (1989), “to the interiority of non-intentional consciousness, to mauvaise conscience, to its capacity to fear injustice more than death, to prefer to suffer than to commit injustice, and to prefer that which justifies being over that which assures it” (p. 85). Thus the moment of the “I can” gives way to full ethical subjectivity, wherein “the word I means here I am, answering for everything and for everyone” (Levinas, 1978/1998, p. 114). The issue of social justice emerges therefrom.

What would it mean to take a Levinasian approach to social justice? If justice, for Levinas, is the non-intentional movement of taking responsibility for the other’s needs by giving the other the bread from our mouths, then, as Walker (2002) suggests, social justice would be the deliberate “struggle to put in place the structures of an ethical community or society. All social action should be devoted to enhancing the possibility of ethical face-to-face relations, social conversations that seek to undo the silent fact of our responsibility before all” (p. 301). I would add that carrying out such a struggle would also depend, according to Levinas’ terms, on our ongoing commitment to nourishing ourselves, meeting our own needs, so that we can continue to be affected by the needs of all others. But even as I seem to be coming to a conclusion, several questions about ethical responsibility emerge with which Levinas never adequately tarried.

Derrida: Eating as Sacrifice

Derrida asked precisely those questions that Levinas excluded: What constitutes all the others? Who, or what, counts as an “other”? Who, or what, has a face? Derrida put Levinas in the accusative position for interpreting “Thou shalt not kill” as an injunction referring only to humans. This reading of the law ignores the animal, which stands for “a being who can be noncriminally put to death and thus killed but not murdered” (Klein, 2003, p. 196). That he ignored the animal implies that Levinas also failed to fully interrogate the human. Thus his philosophy remained complicit with other ways of thinking that render some humans faceless, or which, rather, render us impervious to the effects of their faces. Derrida would have us appreciate that this possibility – namely, that we will not respond to some faces — ultimately leaves us at risk of genocide, the very outcome that Levinas was so dedicated to eradicating.

From Derrida’s perspective, eating foregrounds questions concerning the limits and boundaries of the human subject vis-a-vis the other. Accounting for the subject’s emergence entails an “encounter” with the complications of “individuation, boundaries, and differences” (Klein, 2003, p. 196). Derrida’s accusation awakens us, then, to another dimension of the testimony that we, as ethical subjects, must give of our actions. Levinas related the tale of the formation of the subject—as a personal, singular, and embodied being—in terms of a genetic phenomenology of sensibility. As I have tried to show, he did not adequately consider the sociohistorical and linguistic aspects of the subject. Derrida’s philosophy is instructive for contending with the task of narrating — always incompletely — these neglected aspects.

Where Levinas turned to phenomenology to trace the emergence of the subject in responsibility, Derrida turned to language to grapple with the nonpersonal sources of the subject. The language of eating, for Derrida, like phallocentric and logocentric language, woven as it is throughout the lineage of Western philosophy — most especially in Hegel, who attempted to comprehend all thought within one dialectical system — bespeaks a kind of ethical violence. Thus, Levinas’ attempt to distance himself from Heidegger and Kant, by privileging the role of eating in the human, paradoxically likened him to Hegel, as Derrida (1967) argued even in his early essay, “Violence and metaphysics,” written decades before his explicit turn toward “carnophallogocentrism.” No metaphor, Derrida claimed, is neutral. The language of eating and “incorporation,” the significance of which Derrida amplifies by calling such language the “tropes of cannibalism,” reveals the terror in the movement of the human. Comprehending something in eating, or, metaphorically, in thought, involves “assimilating that which is foreign,” he explained. “What is radically alien in the other doesn’t have a chance” (Derrida, Birnbaum, & Olsson, 2009, p. 2).

As with Heidegger, then, “humanism rests on the sacrifice of the animal, on the implicit swallowing up of the animal” (Derrida, Birnbaum, & Olsson, 2009, p. 3). But, unlike Heidegger’s Dasein, Levinas’ subject eats. But what does it eat? Levinas explicitly mentions bread and good soup, but, at least metaphorically, this subject also kills the animal, the absolutely other, to define what is proper to itself. This accusation returns us to the aporetic moment of the face, which Levinas says faces us with both the temptation to murder and the impossibility of murder. How do we move into submission to the other’s commandment not to kill her? Are there others whose faces we do not see, and for whom we do not overcome the temptation to murder? According to Butler (2005),

the possibility of an ethical response to the face thus requires a normativity of the visual field: there is already not only an epistemological frame within which the face appears, but an operation of power as well, since only by virtue of certain kinds of anthropocentric dispositions and cultural frames will a given face seem to be a human face to any one of us (pp. 29-30).


The animal is excluded in humanism, and, remaining silent because recognized as having no voice, it is sacrificed by those who are positioned within the dominant category of the human. And here emerge ethical quandaries for us as psychologists. Domination in whatever form it takes denies the humanity of those it seeks to destroy in order to preserve its own power. We must ask ourselves: how does psychology define the human? What are the limits of the human? Which members of which cultural groups qualify as instances of the human? Does the human as a concept imply a color, a gender, an age, a set of physical abilities, a particular language? Where, moreover, did our concept of the human in the human sciences come from?[1]

Derrida: An ethics of transgression exposes the limits of digestion

As psychologists, when we encounter the other, our patient, we not only hope to declare, as Levinasian subjects, “Here I am.” We also ask of the patient, “Who are you?” so that we might know how to give ourselves to this other. With this question, we acknowledge the patient’s desire for recognition. We also thereby invite the patient into language, to make herself manifest in words. And yet, “something is sacrificed, lost, or at least spent or given up at the moment in which the subject makes himself into an object of knowledge in language” (Butler, 2005, p. 120). The discourse of psychology, like any discourse, excludes some ways of being human. The thing itself always escapes… How do we grapple with the limits, indeed the violence of, language, while also preserving the desire for recognition, which moves in and through language? The ethical act consists of the subjected subject’s response to language, which colonizes – for language always comes from the other – or, put differently, consumes and assimilates her. Ethics in this sense is exemplified best, perhaps, in Derrida’s meditation on language, identity, and citizenship in Monolingualism of the Other, or, The Prosthesis of Origin. Let us turn to that text as a guide for our own meditation on being “eaten,” as it were, by language. Can Derrida also show us how to use language to expose the limits of digestion?

Derrida’s 1996 publication is a curious, quasi-autobiographical text that pivots from the aporetic. It takes the form, for the most part, of a dialogue between Derrida — we can only assume that it is him, given the use of the first-person pronoun — and some unnamed interlocutor.[2] By the end of text, however, we are left to wonder if such a distinction between self and other even remains coherent. After all, Derrida admits that, “the phenomena that interest me are precisely those that blur these boundaries, cross them, and make their historical artifice appear, also their violence, meaning the relations of force that are concentrated there and actually capitalize themselves there interminably” (1996, p. 9).

What is clear, however, is that the anonymous other who engages Derrida is aggressive. This interlocutor speaks as an interrogator, putting Derrida in the accusative position. The interlocutor wants to reveal Derrida’s aporetic statements as instances of illegitimate, non-sensical linguistic gymnastics. The interrogator challenges Derrida to retract or justify such claims as, “I have only one language, yet it is not mine” (1996, p. 2), and “We only ever speak one language. We never speak only one language” (p. 8). As with Levinas, it is the other’s interrogation that incites the subject’s response and thus constitutes full ethical subjectivity.[3]

The aim of Derrida’s (1996) fraught text is to perform the way in which he is both at home and not at home — nourished and not nourished — in French. He wants to evoke for the reader the way French is at once the mother tongue that has made it possible for him to narrate his life and the language that has terrorized him by refusing his singularity the ability to escape from discursive universality. This language, French, is, in a phrase, his “prosthesis of origin,” given to him forcefully, by no choice of his own, by the other.[4]

His inferior status is marked by the hyphen in the label “Franco-Maghrebian” that was applied to him — a hyphen that is visible in writing even as it is given no voice in speech. This hyphen testifies to the artificial and asymmetrical — decidedly political, in other words — difference that the French instituted between themselves, the native speaking colonizers in a foreign land, and the Algerians, even as they subjected them to assimilation by the normalizing institution of French. The hyphen also testifies to the way in which Derrida is divided against himself when he asks, “Who am I? Who can I become?” French or Algerian? In his case, national identity and linguistic identity are at odds (1996, p. 10). Must I be one or can I be both? What about one and both at the same time? The question of identity, then, for Derrida, is always overwritten by the question of identification: “Who do they say that I am?”, or, as Butler (2005) puts it, “‘To whom do I speak when I speak to you?’” (p. 134).

Derrida (1996) also emphasizes that he, like his fellow Algerian Jews, speaks a French idiom. The unity of the one language, French, that they share with the colonizer is cut up into bite-sized multiplicity through untranslatable regional turns of phrase and, most especially, through accent. Idiomatization, one instance of which is resignification through reappropriation of the other’s language, is one mode of resistance. The fact that accent is audible in speech and yet disappears as it is consumed and assimilated through the violence effected by writing testifies to the ongoing power struggle implicated by the network of forces that is power.

Who can ever speak on behalf of, or in the name of, another (Derrida, 1996, p. 14)? We can imagine the illegible passion occasioning these words that Derrida gave for us to read. This passion is identical with the autobiographical impulse: “Let me speak in my own name!” The dream, of course, is to step beyond power, to escape the jaws of the other who would eat the subject. But there is no such thing as a private language. The subject always does some violence to her experience when she exercises the power to put it into words. Derrida (1996) addresses this paradox with the following question:

What happens when someone resorts to describing an allegedly uncommon ‘situation,’ mine, for example, by testifying to it in terms that go beyond it, in a language whose generality is in some sense structural, universal, transcendental, or ontological? (pp. 19-20).

Indeed, Derrida himself longed to write from the shared, unshared, never-fully-translatable wound of cultural invasion and evisceration. Yet, every attempt to speak in one’s own name, to frustrate the other’s digestion, is swallowed once again through appropriation.

When anyone who happens by infers the following: ‘What holds for me, irreplaceably, also applies to all.’ Substitution is in progress; it has already taken effect. Everyone can say the same thing for themselves and of themselves. It suffices to hear me; I am the universal hostage (p. 20).

The cycle of power and resistance, appropriation and reappropriation, eating and indigestion, never ceases. Derrida (1996) thus concludes: “autobiographical anamnesis presupposes identification. And precisely not identity. No, an identity is never given, received, or attained; only the interminable and indefinitely phantasmatic process of identification endures” (p. 28).

The aporias of language and autobiography do not constitute an impasse, Derrida (1996) insists (p. 31). The “othered” human, the one that is classified as less than fully human and assimilated by those in power, remains an agentic subject despite the unceasing metabolism of power. But the heroism of the strategic essentialist narrative, which would seek to render in writing the accent that inflects speech, is in some sense not radical enough. No, the colonized ought, claims Derrida — who, we recall, is one of their number — to endeavor to speak and write “good French.” Whatever for? To prove all the more explicitly that she has been possessed by another? No, the colonized must attempt to master the language that holds her hostage so that she can subvert it from within. She can, and she must, make the language of the other do something. By making a parody of it, she problematizes it — she makes it visible, even something to be laughed at. Put differently, in Derrida’s (1996) own words, monolingualism of the other

would be that sovereignty, that law originating from elsewhere, certainly, but also primarily the very language of the Law. And the Law as Language. Its experience would be ostensibly autonomous, because I have to speak this law and appropriate it in order to understand it as if I was giving it to myself, but it remains necessarily heteronomous, for such is, at bottom, the essence of any law. The madness of the law places its possibility lastingly inside the dwelling of this auto-heteronomy (p. 39).

Thus, whereas Levinas’ subject eats and in so doing can be incited to full ethical subjectivity in heteronomy when confronted with the face of the other, Derrida’s subject is the one who is swallowed but who nevertheless becomes an ethical agent by disclosing the limits to digestion through auto-heteronomous performance of resistance.

Derrida: The injunction to eat well is a demand to offer unconditional hospitality

The same conclusion can be put differently: For Levinas, the subject’s interiority, which is established through the fortifying act of eating, is an abode into which it can withdraw to replenish itself and prepare to welcome the other who is in need. From Derrida’s perspective, however, it is the accusing other who establishes the subject’s interiority or agency as resistance to being eaten. Here we turn to Of Hospitality, where Derrida’s own gripe with Kant’s ethics becomes explicit. Kant “destroys, along with the right to lie, any right of keeping something to oneself…Kant delegitimates…any right to the internal hearth…he introduces the police everywhere” (Derrida, 1997/2000, pp. 65-73). In one sense, the right to lie is the other’s right, the patient’s right, to withhold some information when I attempt to recognize her by asking, “Who are you?” In another, more profound sense, however, it is the right of the other to be an ipseity, which is to say, to be someone who falls short of being consistent or self-identical. To demand consistency or self-identity is to demand that the desire for recognition be entirely satisfiable. It is also to deny that we are, to some extent, always an enigma to ourselves, precisely because we have an unconscious. We are formed as subjects by otherness that impinged and impinges on us in ways and with consequences that we can never fully recount (Butler, 2005).

“Thou shalt not kill any other. Thou must eat.” This is our aporetic situation. We can never fully absolve ourselves from the homogenizing violence of language, nor completely escape the digestive force of conceptual thinking, nor still form the literal sacrifice entailed by eating food. For us as psychologists, this means that we are always beholden to language insofar as the other to whom we listen desires recognition, even though this language never does justice to the inexhaustible singularity of the other, our patient. To speak with the patient would be to refrain from “pursuing satisfaction and by letting the question [“Who are you?”] remain open, even enduring” (Butler, 2005, p. 43). In this act of generosity, we indeed “let the other live, since life might be understood as precisely that which exceeds any account we might try to give of it” (p. 43). We also perform another act of recognition, one that we learn from the story of Abram, when we refuse closure on the question. We learn that any attempt to account for oneself is a self-sacrifice. “It impels me to speak, to reply to account for, and thus to dissolve my singularity in the medium of the concept” (Derrida, 1999/2008, p. 61). Again, “‘One must eat well’ does not mean above all taking in and grasping in itself,” Derrida (1989/1995) concluded,

but learning and giving to eat, learning-to-give-to-the-other-to-eat. One never eats entirely on one’s own: this constitutes the rule underlying the statement, ‘One must eat well.’ It is a rule offering infinite hospitality (p. 282).

By allowing the other to live, respecting her right to the secret interiority of the unconscious, we are also approaching the other, saying “Here I am,” in humility. As Derrida wrote, this humble comportment is “the gift of death one makes to the other in putting oneself to death, mortifying oneself to make a gift of this death as a sacrificial offering to God” (1999/2008, p. 70). It is a response, always incomplete, from our fraught situation as psychologists offering, or attempting to offer, hospitality from a position of power. Humility signifies, we might say with Sophocles, that the eye is not for seeing or knowing, but for crying — for being affected by the other. We invite the other into language to hear them and be moved, never to know or master her narrative completely.


Derrida is the stranger who audaciously accuses Levinas. In welcoming this stranger, the invisible limits of Levinasian hospitality have been exposed. With exposure, however, transgression of these limits becomes possible. Derrida helps us respond, in a Levinasian sense, to more of the faces of others in need insofar as he teaches us how to see the auto-deconstruction of mainstream yet oppressive psychological concepts and theoretical systems. He teaches us, as well, how to teach others through our own critical demonstration, whether by autobiographical or philosophical means, about who may be silently eaten and assimilated by dominant discourses. We have only one language with which to speak of and to the other, and it is not a Levinasian language. We must accept this ambivalent gift and mourn it even as we appreciate that it has given us something with (and to) which to respond — even as we appreciate, in other words, that it has inspired us to eat better. Thus justice toward colonized others is also, simultaneously, a justice toward our fraught and finite ancestors in the traditions of psychology and philosophy. In Derrida’s words:

It would mean respect for that which cannot be eaten — respect for that in a text which cannot be assimilated. … There is always a remainder that cannot be read, that must remain alien. This residue can never be interrogated as the same, but must be constantly sought out anew, and must continue to be written. (Derrida, Birnbaum, & Olsson, 2009, p. 4)

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