of Violence and Aggression
2002 NEMLA Convention
main title of this paper, "In Your Face-to-Face," expresses
an apparently rather uneasy confrontation between Amiri Baraka and
Emmanuel Levinas. Toward such a confrontation, I begin by focusing
on the subtitle, "Aggression and Ethics between Levinas and
Baraka," particularly on the word "between." "Between"
as "by two" both divides and joins two. Thinking about
this word may emphasize dichotomy, an accounting of two beings with
a space between them. Yet, as commonly expressed in "just between
us," the word also emphasizes a belonging in which the two
are engaged-a proximity. They do not cease to be two, yet they are
two together. Recognizing this aspect of "between" is
very simple, although the implications may be complex and difficult,
as we may find in examining how Levinas treats proximity.
Levinas is a meta-ethicist, mainly concerned with the conditions under which ethics may take place. Ethics for Levinas is the most originary aspect of living, inaccessible for determination. To follow Levinas, we put the term "being" under erasure. As a being thinks of, speaks with, or otherwise relates with another being, there is primordially a relation that exceeds any notion of being: a sense of proximity that always exceeds determination. Levinas finds what is closest to us beyond our knowing, in a primordial "face-to-face" encounter that Andrew Tallon calls "nonintentional affectivity." The face in Levinas is not reified or literal, but more: it includes language, with implications of speaking as well as visual exposure.
I am concerned with two areas involving implications of the proximal encounter, both of which involve how we may encounter the discourse or thought of another. One area concerns how to engage the thought of Baraka and also how to engage that of Levinas; the other area concerns the engagement of the two discourses with each other. In the thought of each man, there is justification both for avoiding claims of having grasped what each says and for resisting their assimilation to each other. Levinas would oppose any assimilation of the other to the "Same"; Baraka would oppose any erasure of difference-opposing assimilation that may or may not be read as ethnic.
The works of Levinas and Baraka might seem to resist meaningful comparison. Levinas takes great pains to avoid violence, describing the ethical relation as radically "passive." Baraka emphasizes another radicality, a rooting-out of "white" influence and its oppressive structures from the world. He explicitly calls for action, and he advocates violence, as in "Black Dada Nihilismus": "Rape the white girls. Rape / their fathers. Cut the mothers' throats" (Dead Lecturer 63). In his poem "Black Art," poetry becomes a violent force:
. . . . We want "poems that kill."
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons, leaving them dead
with tongues pulled out and sent to Ireland. (Black Magic 116)
One could argue that Baraka develops a logic of division, where people live in allergic relations, the separating aspect of "between" ruling encounters and antipathy and violence emerging at the root of language.
Yet more attention to Baraka's writing may lead beyond a contrast with Levinas. Although Baraka's most violent poems never reconcile races, they associate the enemy "whiteness" so often with business and governmental power that at least rhetorically, the enemy becomes more specifically oppression and control (which eventually Baraka states explicitly, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader xiii). Also, there are Baraka's prophetic and religious poems. His explicitly violent poetry avoids mentioning the divine, whereas his religious poems lack the violence, vituperation, racism, and profanity of the revolutionary ones. Baraka's terminology indicates a strategy: whereas in revolutionary contexts he will use the word "magic," he avoids the word "sacred" in such contexts, and he keeps he the word "holy" exclusively for poems that focus on the divine. In the collection Black Art (published as the third part of Black Magic), such care with diction may be read as reserving a space for the divine, so that the violence and political exigency yield, when appropriate, to an emphasis on divinity that centers Baraka's discourse.
Levinas focuses on the significance of language in the ethical relation, and he emphasizes what he calls the religiosity of the relation. We might find that he and Baraka begin to converge regarding the divinity in-or of-language, as Baraka's language varies its approach, sometimes in desperation, to the question he asks in "Ka 'Ba": "What will be / the sacred words?" (Black Magic 146). Twice in Black Art, Baraka uses the phrase "holy nuance," a phrase that haunts the collection (183, 199); like a sketch of transcendence, the "nuance" resonates with the "trace" in Levinas (and subsequently in Derrida). Yet the implications of incommensurability in "nuance" and "trace" lead us toward seeing that just this concern-an emphasis on the divine-entails resistance to attempts at articulating a logical comparison between the two discourses.
We might also address Levinas in preparation for an engagement with Baraka, working through Derrida's "Violence and Metaphysics" (on how successfully Levinas avoids violence in Totality and Infinity) or considering Levinas's remarks on Israeli politics. Yet I think it would be difficult to indict as aggressive the approach to ethics that Levinas develops most fully in Otherwise than Being (which considers Derrida's critique). And while Baraka might be brought some way towards the compassion and passivity in Levinas, it would be difficult to work out in Baraka's poetry an approach to ethics expressible in terms like those Levinas uses. Between the two, then, we have problems arguing the connections, or rather a problem of what to do with differences; and beyond this logical problem is the ethical one of assimilation. Indeed this paper, emphasizing Levinas first, has risked such problems. It is not only that Levinas does not express an applicable ethics; in any event, adequating the details of a text or situation to a theory would commit violence both to the applied thought and to whatever was submitted to theory.
Particularly, we must resist trying to read Levinas's emphasis on the "face-to-face" encounter in terms of Baraka's many images of faces and facing. For Levinas, to repeat, the face is not reified; the face-to-face encounter is itself exposure and speaking, what he calls the very "signifyingness of signification" (Otherwise 100). Trying to apply Levinas's thinking to Baraka's representations of faces leads toward what exceeds representation; we approach the implications of speaking as such, of what in language exceeds determinations of context. The attempted application of the face-to-face undoes itself. Moreover, we find this excess and resistance in Baraka's work: his language exceeds determinations, including determinations of faces and their ethnicities. That is, recognizing the excess in Baraka does not depend on an attempted application of Levinas (which thereby would become a successful application).
We are unable to apply, to develop similarities, to make logical connections, or to manage readings hermeneutically, and we need to resist articulating sameness between Baraka and Levinas even on this point of resisting similarity. Yet I think it is possible to bring the two into proximity by working with what they oppose in a way that would not determine their thought or impose similarity on them. Stating that Levinas and Baraka each opposes methods and principles of assimilation does not necessarily determine or control the thought of either of them, nor does it draw them into assimilation. Nor do we necessarily assimilate them in stating that in Baraka and in Levinas, there is opposition to controlling or centralizing discourses, totalization, and the domination of the logos, as well as opposition to the neutrality, dispassion, and disinterest appurtenant to the rule of logos.
Articulating the opposed object of a discourse need not lead to determining any activity or essence of the discourse. As stating the object of opposition reflects back, it may lead back to a field of discursive life, where the discourse dwells and functions; the turn back need not involve articulating the dwelling or functioning of the particular discourse. The other of what is opposed-this field the discourse lives in-need not appear comprehensible, or true, real, or complete, but rather virtual, as expressed in "nuance" or "trace." The movement back to this field is not properly dialectical, not returning to synthesis: the discourses subsist in the field together in undetermined alterity (nor is the return an Aufhebung, leading toward a later moment of synthesis). Encountering the field is a descriptive activity, wherein aspects of Baraka and Levinas emerge in a proximal encounter we may share. The field is not considered total, but infinite: through description without synthesis, we glimpse what an infinitizing context may look like.
What I have called the field is in this case an area where non-mastery and nondomination are expressed, where there might occur what for Levinas is the possibility of ethics. Since the field where we may encounter the thought of Levinas and Baraka is not articulable except by traces or nuances, it is a place of responding, but not of determinations of responsibility. Amid such belonging in proximity, the ethical cannot be said to happen. Ethics is not what is said or done, but what will, or may, have been or said or done. Or the ethical is what will have been played, and this field that involves the possibility of ethics is an improvisational field, to which discourses contribute by voicings. A discourse emerges in the field not as an essence but in how the discourse voices: not that it is a discourse, but that it voices discursively-or it discourses voicedly-in tension or opposition with the rule of logos.
Nathaniel Mackey writes of music in terms of performativity, of "verb" as opposed to "noun." Voicing is not necessarily active, but rather audible in terms of how it emerges, voicedly, in the field: its action is expressed adverbially here, as sound emerges in the nuances of belonging in activity. Voice is audible in the field-in the music-in terms of proximity with other voicing; a voicing enters the field already in response to others, which themselves already voice in response to the voicing's entrance before that entrance takes place. No essence of voice is determined, but the way a voicing means emerges in the field in proximity with how other voicings mean, in ways not recognizable specifically but fluidly, as the ensemble of voicings-the field-itself lives as the voicings' interrelationships entail. Never neutral, not indifferent, voicing engages passion that is its own and another's, the passion of the ensemble. The ensemble emerges with the improvisation, which works against the stasis or assimilation that would be determination. The conditions of music always will have become voiced, music living as trace or nuance of what appears present. Music as such works against totalization and toward infinity.
Mackey (following Baraka's essays of the 60s) writes specifically of jazz, partly in the interest of focusing on African-American music (see particularly Baraka, "Swing"). My discussion is also influenced by jazz, yet we need not delimit the music; Mackey's remarks do not themselves exclude other music. He focuses on "othering" as a process that has happened (and continues) to African-Americans, a process of exclusion, emphasizing that othered people have learned how to "other" forms of music in expressing the injustice of othering and in celebrating their ability to improvise on the forms. Mackey's discourse and its music oppose an excluding formalism, while he voices a celebration of othering in a field of improvisation he thereby joins voicedly.
Commentators on jazz help develop my points, however, and specifically involve Baraka. William J. Harris discusses how the jazz musician has to give up control, so there is no valorization of action-no determination of any moment, any voicing, as active or passive. Mackey notes how the improvisatory influence of jazz makes Baraka's poetry resist determination, as the poems "tend to slide away from the proposed, to refuse to commit themselves to any single meaning" ("Changing" 126). Typographic features of Baraka's poems-some readable as aspects of "projective verse"-weaken discursive force and help resist determination: broken syntax, modified orthography, open-ended parentheses, erratic punctuation, and constellations of words on the page. These features promote a poetry whose internal and external linguistic relationships operate in improvisational ways. Structural and tonal imbalance, rage and other emotional outpouring, and sometimes flattened affect help develop stammering or maddened voicing in many poems in Black Art. As Baraka's vituperative language becomes opaque, implosive, even hostile to itself, his violence and aggression become part of the improvisation.
Harris writes that Baraka shares an aesthetic with John Coltrane, who, Baraka wrote, would "murder" Western song forms (Harris 14; Baraka, Black Music 174). Harris also points out that Baraka came to see English as somewhat foreign, thereby becoming a celebrating Caliban, reveling in the "curse" by wielding vituperation, giving up control of language to develop a poetics of indeterminate signification. Although English is Baraka's first language, he is not disingenuous in claiming it is not his mother tongue, as he emphasizes the orphaned or at best bastard status of one born ethnically othered within the culture of the language. Thus it is reductive to see Baraka's resorting to the rough edges of English as entirely chosen by him, and it is also reductive to focus on his personal psychology. By emphasizing an improvisatory aesthetic in an ensemble of relations, we avoid reducing features of Baraka's work to social pragmatism or psychological exigency.
W. D. E. Andrews comments that Baraka's "conception of revolution puts historical and sociological realities before ethics" (217). Where ethics may occur only in improvisatory, proximal nondetermination (and if we are not naïve about determining realities), Baraka's poetics may be read as opposing any appropriation of the ethical. As his works resist determination, they emerge with their aggression in the ensemble, where they may support and maintain differences between discourses, resisting psychology as well as ethnic determination. We may read such resistance even in the poem "Black People!": "you cant steal nothin from a white man, he's already stole it he owes you anything you want, even his life" (Black Magic 225). Baraka articulates what he opposes: signified as of "the white man," he recognizes appropriation, assimilation, totalization that has "already" absorbed differences and relations of otherness and that thereby "owes" everything back to the world of differences. Explicitly and implicitly here, Baraka resists being read in contexts of assimilation; insofar as his work appears in relation with other discourses, it dwells among them, however uneasily.
I hope my encounters of Levinas and Baraka, and the encounter between them, will have been accomplished without determining or assimilating the discourse of either. I find the proximal relation-where neither discourse is a figure for the other or suffers under theorization-to be an improvisational field where the ethical and the aggressive may cohabit, where neither is truncated, absorbed, or controlled by an assimilating discourse that imposes standards of toleration. I find this heterodox area open to such utterances as "in your face-to-face"; I find it a place of belonging where the proximity between discourses emerges, besides however they may appear to be separate.