Emmanuel Lévinas’s “Useless Suffering” and Schmittian Politics

Emmanuel Lévinas’s “Useless Suffering” and Schmittian Politics

Emmanuel Lévinas informs us that suffering comprises a “psychological content” in consciousness while stating that it is a content “in-spite-of-consciousness” (91).  Consciousness is the locus of meaningful content and as such the feeling of suffering enters it via another mechanism.  Suffering is a result of unsolicited sensations extending beyond the conscious sphere of meaning.  It shares this sphere in-spite-of-consciousness because consciousness allows the unsolicited sensations a vehicle with which to become a sensation of suffering.  Lévinas designates this procedure as a modality, where suffering has a form without a reality.  Why is suffering modal?  It is so because suffering is not actively integrated into consciousness.  On the contrary, it is a passive process whereby one submits to suffering.  Hence Lévinas proposes the following formula: suffering is passivity, which is a submission to the rejected content of consciousness.  It is not a manifestation of a consciousness drawing in meaningful sensory data (which possesses implicit analytical or critical power) because suffering results from something unbearable.  The unbearable, therefore, lacks meaning.  Lévinas’s description hinges on the view of ‘sensibility being a vulnerability that excludes an active reception of that which is perceived’- perception being a work of consciousness.  The reader is cautioned not to view passivity as the source of suffering, but to regard evil as the active agent causing one to suffer.  Passivity does not eliminate one’s freedom and precipitate suffering.  It does not undermine the activity of consciousness as meaning-giving, nor does it reduce one to an object, “a mere thing” (92).  Evil is what reduces the human to passivity and, potentially, thingishness: “the humanity of those who suffer is overwhelmed by the evil that renders it…” (92).  Hence, Lévinas characterizes suffering as useless and absurd.  The human consciousness is consumed by the suffering inflicted by another, which is without true meaning.

What can arrest this phenomenology of suffering?  Is this where the object of suffering must struggle to the death with the subject in order to regain freedom or one’s humanity?  What path toward liberation could Lévinas’s being-in-submission commence if the being’s consciousness were engulfed by pain?  The answer is found during the first utterance of pain.  As the other communicates anguish, it evokes in me my drive to mitigate the other’s suffering.  I can only do so if I create meaning in the other’s suffering.  This meaning is generated as I recognize the other’s suffering by suffering myself: “the just suffering in me for the unjustifiable suffering of the other opens suffering to the ethical perspective of the inter-human” (94).  At such a moment, ethics preside over human interaction.  When I disregard my alterity as a basis for struggle and I recognize the suffering of the other, I establish an ethical relationship between me and the other on various levels.  Firstly, my suffering is meaningful, whereas the being-in-submission lost in painful suffering lacks meaning.  Secondly, as I interact with others sharing the same experience, my meaningful suffering would have the agency to reconstitute the social nexus in an ethical interhuman context.  This, according to Lévinas, would bring the sufferer-of-others-suffering closer to God because disavowing the suffering of the other would debase humanity.  And it is this debasement that is heralded by the notion of theodicy.

If you were considering that the category of useless suffering could be rearticulated as useful suffering for another, you would encounter Lévinas’s description of Original Sin justifying the suffering in others without an identification with their suffering.  Pain and suffering becomes meaningful as it is linked to a journey toward a future reward of communion with God.  One could also consider the situation of the employee who submits to the employer with the hope of being promoted in the future.  Thus, a system of useful suffering is paramount to future prosperity (in pecuniary, ethical, and spiritual terms).  Social beings (or employees) are conditioned to accept this suffering and utilize it to manage their interrelationships and the prolongation of the collective in this form.  Lévinas explains that the ‘social acceptability of useful suffering via a rational administration of pain and suffering’ appears to facilitate what was described earlier as suffering in-spite-of-consciousness (95).  During the Western drive for material and spiritual progress with a concomitant level of justifiable suffering (or the sacrifice of a social stratum) – that is supported by a theology qua civil religion enticing numerous others to accept the inevitability of suffering for a divine future or transcendent reality- social actors attribute ‘a meaning and order in a suffering that is essentially gratuitous, absurd, and apparently arbitrary’ (96).

Theodicy, therefore, raises many important questions for Lévinas.  Does this belief absolve social immorality?  Is God innocent of the useless suffering that theodicy resignifies as useful and meaningful?  And what of the clergy, who are the advocates of suffering for the future?  Although he does not answer these questions in this essay, Lévinas delineates a historical period that marks the end of theodicean complicity.  Theodicy ceased to be the determinate social paradigm as soon as a ‘politicized and de-ethicalized reason’ gone murderously amok produced a collective death toll in the tens of millions (97).  The useless suffering of the twentieth-century was on such a scale so as to definitively eliminate the acceptance of the other’s pain.  Is the human rights movement a rejection of useless suffering in favor of suffering the pain of the other- a rejection of theodicy?  Is the movement striving to inscribe meaning in the ideology of ‘never again’?  If so, then human rights advocates must agree with Lévinas that “…the justification of the other’s pain is certainly the source of all immorality” (90).

Affirming the preceding remark, as I suffer in the suffering of the other, instills a sense of ‘human intimacy’ in the social matrix.  Lévinas warns us that this intimacy- my relation to the other- cannot be codified, spoken as a social platform, or instrumentalized without being subverted (99).  As we exit the Hegelian history of struggling to the death, we exclaim together: I am in the other, my pain has meaning, and I will soothe the suffering other.  “This new modality in the faith of today, and even in our moral certitudes; a modality most essential to the modernity that is dawning” (100).  Voilà, the Lévinassian interhuman order.  It resides “entre nous”, without a manifesto proclaiming how to implement it in a political reality.  The interhuman order cannot be drawn up as a social contract, nor is it a logical social manifestation of a principle of ethics.  On the contrary, writes Lévinas, the interhuman perspective is how people “help one another…before the astonishing alterity of the other has been banalized…” (101) by such a contract that he derisively calls “an interpersonal commerce of customs” (100).

Concluding Remarks and Questions


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