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
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
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
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
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,
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
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