Academic journal article Philosophy Today

When the Scaffolding Falls Away: Edith Wyschogrod and Levinas's Ethical Metaphysics

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

When the Scaffolding Falls Away: Edith Wyschogrod and Levinas's Ethical Metaphysics

Article excerpt

Recently, I discovered a personal note that I had received from Edith Wyschogrod dated November 17, 1998. It was in a manila envelope attached to a copy of the manuscript for a keynote address that she presented at a conference that I organized and directed in El Paso commemorating the founding of the Modern State of Israel in the context of reflecting on the Holocaust. The title of her talk was "The Shoah and the Historian's Passion for the Dead Others."1 The talk was enriched by themes drawn from her recently published book, An Ethics of Remembering: History, Heterology and the Nameless Others. I recall the note as a personal gesture that reminded me of a face to face conversation that I had with Edith during the course of the conference. The encounter occurred on the morning after she gave her talk. As the organizer, and obsessed with my responsibilities for the dozens of guests and speakers, I had arrived early in the morning in order to make sure everything was just right and that the breakfast bar would be welcoming and adequate. In fact, the tables were covered with a bounty of fruits and breakfast foods, juices and drinks. And perched on a chair by the side of one of the tables that were groaning with breakfast goodies was Edith, alone, tasting this, that, and the other from one of the tables. I greeted her and sat down next to her, thanking her for accepting my invitation to speak and for being involved in the program and in all of the activities. I recall, with special interest, her offhanded remark: "You created quite an event here." A bit embarrassed (this was thirteen years ago and I was still only a Lecturer), I thanked her again for sacrificing her time to be with us and for the gift of her talk, commenting that I could tell how much her work had been influenced by Lévinas. To which she replied, "Is it that obvious?"

I would like to propose that a scaffolding can take many forms, one of which is the most obvious, namely, that sort of temporary structure that we erect to support people and materials in order to create something more enduring and lasting such as a building, an institution, a book, or a narrative recollection, or even a lived life. It can also be a platform on which plays are performed or criminals executed. In these senses, scaffoldings provide us with support for both the play of life and the drama of death. One of the lessons that I learned from my brief encounters with Edith, by reading and teaching her works, is that it is in gift and sacrifice - through the act of reaching out to others - that the scaffolding falls away and the play of life between myself and an other is enacted. But I am referring now not to just any impersonal other, but to a dead other, and to recollect the gifts given by Edith Wyschogrod. Paraphrasing her own words, to '"give face' through word and image" [to the other] who is absent and "who cannot speak for [her] self ... is to enter into the terrain of ethics." And yet again, from her 1998 talk,

the logical form of the name suggests that its primary function is to confer an identity, to restore the links in achain of living memory. For the historian, the name becomes an ethical placeholder, a way in which she or he makes a person or group come to life. In naming, the historian engages in a signifying-bestowing act through which different contexts or worlds are traversed and brought together through the permanence of the name. (History, Religion and Meaning, 32)

Drawing on Lyotard' s claim that "The historian is under obligation to the dead designated by the name to prevent the significations of the name from hostile preemption" (ibid.), Wyschogrod accentuates the custodial and caretaking responsibilities that we have for the past. The responsibility extends even further to demand that the historian account for why an event should be singled out as momentous, because assessing the temporal dimension - beyond a simplistic and dispassionate description or explanation of events - "supplies the framework for the ethical dimension of the historian's work" (34). …

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