Language, Levinas and Digong’s Philippines

Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino
Language, Levinas and Digong’s Philippines
So it is that we are very comfortable with the language of manipulation, of calculation, of gain and loss, of quantities and acquisitions

Roger Burggraeve, a Levinas scholar from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, was recently in the Philippines for a symposium on the seminal thought of Emmanuel Levinas. I was not favored by fortune and could not attend the gathering. 

It is good for philosophers to come together and to listen to teach other. But it can become an intellectual orgy of sorts for them to be confined to their own circle in exchanges that might as well be in Greek or in Aramaic to the rest of the world, flattering each other with exhibitions of their own philosophical savvy and subtlety, unless some meaningful way is found of addressing the current issues we commonly face and putting philosophy to task.

One introductory concept that figures prominently in Levinas’ L’Autrement Qu’Etre (Otherwise than Being) is the “amphibology of language” by which he refers to the capacity of language to suggest, to insinuate more than it says: in other words, a rejection of the equation of the Said with the Saying.  

And this is great, if one considers the language that is pervasive of discourse in the Philippines today.  The conundrum of the West Philippine Sea, the challenge of climate change and the ambivalence of the government’s position, the issue with mines and the question of whether to close or to keep open, the prospect of a new constitution: all these make up our time and time, says Levinas, is the “monstration” (the showing forth, the unfolding) of essence.  

All this is captivating, absorbing – and national discourse is in fact taken up in it (while we keep the illusion that it is we who take the themes up in our conversations). But to be a subject is to be pulled, better to pull away, in another direction. It is pulling away from the domination of essences.  

But the frivolity of our acts of “freedom” does not really succeed in tearing us away from the web of essences: Beauty contests, political contests, election contests, territorial contests – all these are very much synchronic, very much the aegis of time, very much a matter of essences.

Language of manipulation

So it is that we are very comfortable with the language of manipulation, of calculation, of gain and loss, of quantities and acquisitions.

If every site is full of that which occupies us, what we reckon to be important and worth our while, where does the real break with essence take place? That, thinks Levinas, is the same thing as asking about a non-site — which is not the same thing as “nothing”, but something that is antecedent to, not dependent on, and transcendent in relation to every site.

WAR AND LANGUAGE. In this file photo, soldiers escort rescued civilians at a village on the outskirts of Marawi on May 31, 2017. Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

When I see a little child who has lost his parents in the siege of Marawi stare at me – whether amid the ruins of the sacked city or through the lens of a camera – then I experience that responsibility that I do not assume, but a responsibility that constitutes my subjectivity. 

Then the interesting things that bewitch me each waking moment recede into the background, to unimportance, as I am summoned to my responsibility by the magisterial height of a hapless, helpless child in tattered clothes who awakens in me that responsibility that makes being me not only a severing from the domination of what shows itself, interests all others, occupies my days, but a responsibility that is inescapably, unaccountably mine.

I am responsible for this child, and for all that he has suffered, whether I deny all ties with Maute or even dislike them — with a responsibility that cannot be assigned a beginning, nor a responsibility that I cannot attribute to the kindness of my own heart.

Totalization is not a concept unique to Levinas.  It is also found in Sartre’s seldom-read but powerful “Critique of Dialectical Reason”.  But totalization is that by which radicalized extremists hate the rest of humanity and decide to rid the world of their filth.  

Just as totalization is what allows us to conveniently use “terrorist” not only to justify harshness and cruelty but to make the world easier to handle: we versus the terrorists!  The rupture of totality comes with the epiphany of the Face – and so it is a moment of revelation whenever I face any of the victims of inhumanity, even those I victimize in my own household by consigning them to the status of “domestic helpers” – kasambahay – assigning myself the honorific of Master.  

When a homeless child, or a battered woman, or an injured soldier looks at me – and I look back, no matter how difficult – I realize then that no symmetry can ever be formed, no I – You because poverty – stricken, weak and ailing, miserable and in penury though the other may be, he is an Other on whose face is inscribed the command: “You shall not trespass; you shall now own; you shall not possess; you shall not kill.”

Where the categorematic or the propositional is woefully inadequate, some other language must be found. To reduce the suffering of the people of Marawi, or that of the victims of the skirmishes between the NPA and the Army to figures is to do them all injustice. It might be necessary for operational, functional purposes, for purposes of essence, but it will not yet be doing them justice.  

No wonder then that government announcements about the number of shelters built, the number of patients attended to, the number of relief bags distributed does not quiet the murmurings of the heart.  The language that accommodates the excess of Saying over the Said, that conveys the surplus of meaning that cannot be captured by categories and totalizing concepts is apophantic: it is the language of invocation.  “Tubig nga po”, “Kunin niyo na”, “Tulong po”, “Maawa po kayo”,  “Sana gumaling na kayo”.  

It is this language that is truly the articulation of justice! –


The author is Vice President for Administration and Finance of the Cagayan State University and Dean, Graduate School of Law, San Beda College.

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