The Language of Ethical Encounter: Levinas, Otherness, and Contemporary Poetry

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Virginia Tech


According to philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, alterity can exist only in its infinite and fluid nature in which the aspects of it that exceed the human ability to fully understand it remain unthematized in language. Levinas sees the encounter between self and other as the moment that instigates ethical responsibility, a moment so vital to avoiding mastering what is external to oneself that it should replace Western philosophy’s traditional emphasis on being as philosophy’s basis, or “First Philosophy.” Levinas’s conceptualization of language as a fluid, non-mastering saying, which one must continually re-enliven against a congealing and mastering said, is at the heart of his ethical project of relating to the other of alterity with ethical responsibility, or proximity. The imaginative poetic language that some contemporary poetry enacts, resonates with Levinas’s ethical motivations and methods for responding to alterity. The following project investigates facets of this question in relation to Levinas: how do the contemporary poets Peter Blue Cloud, Jorie Graham, Joy Harjo, and Robert Hass use poetic language uniquely to engage with alterity in an ethical way, thus allowing it to retain its mystery and infinite nature? I argue that by keeping language alive in a way similar to a Levinasian saying, which avoids mastering otherness by attending to its uniqueness and imaginatively engaging with it, they enact an ethical response to alterity. As a way of unpacking these ideas, this inquiry will investigate the compelling, if unsettled, convergence in the work of Levinas and that of Blue Cloud, Graham, Harjo, and Hass by unfolding a number of Levinasian-informed close readings of major poems by these writers as foregrounding various forms of Levinasian saying.



alterity, contemporary poetry, Emmanuel Levinas, Peter Blue Cloud, Jorie Graham, Joy Harjo, Robert Hass, ethical encounter, re-enlivening language, saying, said, "First Philosophy", Indigeneity, voice, music