Monday, April 25, 2011

Orange on Levinas

Donna Orange, in her visit on April 9, 2011 to the Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society, spent most of the day discussing her take on the philosophy of Emanuelis Levinas (a student of the Talmud and a contemporary constructivist and phenomenologist , he believed in a hermeneutics of lived experience) who wrote about the "wisdom of love" (as opposed to the ‘love of wisdom’). Levinas believed that ethical responsibility is integral to the encounter with the Other, [and consequently, to intersubjectivity], a responsibility that is constitutive to our own being and interiority, that is, that subjectivity is formed, in part, through the encounter with the other. In this privileged encounter with the other, one feels both the relatedness with and the alterity of the other. Unlike what Self Psychology would purport about the confrontation with otherness, Levinas wrote: "The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness."

In discussing Levinasian ethics, in particular Levinas’ idea of transcendence and the belief that one instantly recognizes the transcendence of the Other, Orange emphasized putting the other above oneself. As Orange’s form of intersubjectivity, like that of Stolorow’s/Atwood’s, with its influence from Self Psychology wherein the focus on the analyst's subjectivity is as a source of understanding, and where the need of the patient for the analyst as a selfobject is paramount, it came as no surprise that Orange would be enamored of this facet of Levinasian ethics. In fact, for me, her heavy emphasis was seen as a justification for empathic immersion and for the analyst to function predominantly as a selfobject experience for the patient.

While I agree that placing the suffering other above oneself (who would not open the door for someone struggling with crutches to get through it?) is, for those not so preoccupied with themselves as to be aware of their surroundings, a natural response, I think it is a hard philosophy to adopt when the other is not a suffering other. Orange, taking from Levinas his holding the other above self, even being responsible for the sins of others [here I am reminded both of Christ dying for the sinners’ sins and of the self blame of victims; Levinas, as a Lithuanian Jew, had survived the Holocaust but his family, sadly, did not] advocates a philosophy beyond ‘love thy neighbor as thy self’ to “love thy neighbor more than thy self.”

More than one audience member asked: how does one avoid masochism in this philosophy? Her advice to read Emmanuel Ghent’s 1990 paper on Masochism, Submission, Surrender did not suffice to further the dialogue (though his brilliant paper does). Had Orange made explicit the inference to the clinical applicability of Levinasian ethics, given that the patient is seen as the suffering other, then the attendees might have better embraced the philosophy Orange touted. Had clinical examples been supplied to illustrate the practical application of such ethics, then the audience would have been won over by her scholarly explication of Levinas’ ideas of transcendence.

Ghent, E. (1990). Masochism, Submission, Surrender—Masochism as a Perversion of Surrender. Contemp. Psychoanal., 26:108-136.


Tim said...

"Loving thy neighbor more than thyself" does sound masochistic. "Love thy neighbor as much as thyself" is, I think the most that should be asked anyone, hand in hand with "love thyself as much as possible". Of course all this is nonsense without a profound understanding of what "love" really is.

Heather Pyle, Psy.D. said...

When the experience (not only the words) of a presentation invites me to think and feel more deeply, it earns my full attention. While the issues and questions stirred by the discussion about Levinasian ethics were sometimes challenging to me, I was reminded that my biggest periods of growth as a clinician (and, because it cannot be differentiated, as a human being) usually started when the familiarity and continuity of my own thinking was disrupted. The "gift" of an idea that simultaneously resonated with me and unsettled me.....

In that light, it seems to speak for itself that provocative questions still continue to be discussed after Donna Orange's presentation. Questions such as --- what happens to our thinking about the inherent clinical asymmetry when we add a lens of Levinasian asymmetry ("my brother's keeper") ? Is this ethic really incompatible with maintaining a healthy sense of self and agency? Am I mainly a selfobject or is there more to it? Or --- the question quietly persisting in my own mind --- considering that Intersubjectivity Theory teaches us about how inextricably embedded we are, what might our questions tell us about the context (our "world" -- our professional communities???) that the questions have developed in?

In hopes that we can avoid foreclosure through over-simplifications or labels, perhaps we may instead look for our subjective answers in the way we "live into the questions" (Rilke) and make space for them in our personal and professional worlds. In that spirit, it made an impression on me that the more open and personal (simply human) our speaker was, the more freely the curiosity seemed to flow in the dialogue that followed. To this clinician, that was a meaningful lesson on "technique".....

Jacqueline Roller, Psy.D. said...

In the weeks since Donna Orange’s presentation, I have become more aware of my clinical attitude. In other words, I am less concerned about what I “do” with my patients and much more concerned with how I “am” with them. I am confused when participants expect lecturers to include “practical applications” or “tools for the toolbox.” We are not technicians hired to fix a robot or computer. Each person who crosses the threshold of my office is a unique human being. I strive to welcome this suffering other with an open heart willing to engage in a journey of understanding. This presentation affirmed my belief that the human connection is the curative element of therapy. Perhaps the application or tool is my ”attitude.”

The Levinasian ethics did not strike me as masochistic. My reading of Emmanuel Ghent’s 1990 paper made it clear that masochism can be a form of surrendering in a desire for connection and understanding. Ghent writes; “that some instances of masochism may be rooted in a deep quest for understanding, for undoing the isolation.” (p. 127) Later in the same paper, Ghent challenges us to refrain from overlooking the role of surrender and masochism in our profession. It is easy to respond to the suffering other with crutches, while it may be more challenging when the suffering is not as obvious. This brings me to the quote from Wittgenstein (1922, p. 75), which was part of Orange’s presentation. “What we cannot speak about, that we must pass over in silence.”

What is the unspeakable in our profession? Who is the other that has not known suffering? Can we recognize that we too are the suffering stranger? I have often fantasized: “What if we therapists and analysts actually acknowledged that we too, are suffering strangers?” If we were to acquiesce to our own suffering, then adopting a Levinasian ethics might seem less masochistic. Unfortunately it has been my experience, that those analysts who courageously acknowledge their own suffering are often criticized and rejected. Perhaps a Levinasian ethics would open us to the suffering stranger in one another and create an atmosphere of dialogue and understanding?