Gazing Into the Digital Face of Levinas: The Ethics of Self and Other in Cyberspace
by Bruce A. Craft
Emmanuel Levinas died in 1995 in the embryonic days of the digital age. Levinas did not live long enough to see the internet take form or witness the birth of ubiquitous social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, or even the video call that is now so uniformly available to users through Apple Facetime, Google Meet, Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp, and a host of other personal communication spaces and learning management systems. The relational ethics of these digital spaces undoubtedly would have fascinated Levinas. To presuppose precisely what Levinas would posit about the digital interpersonal encounter is a preposterous notion, but one nonetheless worthy of some fun philosophical posturing.
The philosophical constructs of the gaze and the face are two of the most important contributions of Levinas to contemporary Western thought. A Lithuanian Jew educated in France and a prisoner of war during WWII, Levinas also studied under Edmund Husserl and met Martin Heidegger, two thinkers to whom Levinas owes significant intellectual indebtedness. Levinas forever changed continental philosophy, influencing Jacques Derrida and others, especially in the realm of ethics. The foundation of Levinasian ethics rests upon the gaze exchanged in the face-to-face encounter. In Totalité et Infini: Essai sur L'extériorité (Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority), published in French in 1961 and in English in 1969, Levinas proposed his theory of first philosophy: an ethics based upon an encounter with the Other. Ethics for Levinas does not operate in the abstract; rather, it occurs in the routine, the mundane, and the everyday and very real interactions between us. As such, all encounters are ethical ones and ethics becomes acutely interpersonal in nature. Application of Levinasian ethics to the now commonplace digital face-to-face encounter proves philosophically and culturally challenging.
Levinas describes the physicality of the face of the Other as a crucial element to an understanding of ethics: “There is the very uprightness of the face, its upright exposure, without defense. The skin of the face is that which stays most naked, most destitute. . . . [T]here is an essential poverty in the face: the proof of this is that one tries to mask this poverty by putting on poses, by taking on a countenance” (Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, 86). From this position that Levinas articulates in his 1985 commentary on his life’s work, I argue that the rational end point of Levinasian ethics manifests itself in the currency of the 21st century digitized face, that disembodied and reconstructed collection of pixels emanating across countless screens in cyberspace.
The digital face operates as the ultimate “mask” through its countless “poses” and “countenances.” The digital face ranges from the ever-changing Facebook page profile picture to the user’s carefully curated collection of Facebook photographs to the emoji-like faces created with I-Phone apps to the selfie slo-mo video incorporated into a chat to the carefully constructed backgrounds behind and multifaceted milieu of each talking head in the online conference or the synchronous digital classroom. Each type of digitized face becomes exponentially further removed from the “essential poverty” of the “naked” face of its owner, serving as a digital representation of Self created for a specified interaction with the Other. The philosophical question thus becomes: can a proto-ethical encounter occur through the artifices of the digital visage? No doubt that each of us wishes to put his or her best face forward in all situations, including those occurring in the digital realm. That is human nature. However, the gazing upon the naked face in the non-digital encounter provides to Self the most accurate appreciation of the Other, especially as a reciprocal key to understanding Self. The digital encounter masks and manipulates the face-to-face meeting to such a degree that the proto-ethical moment of Self’s gaze upon the Other becomes de minimis. Or does it?
Levinas argues that the face is the origin of the discourse of humanity, an ethical relationship between Self and Other that results in an obligation from Self to Other. As such, the face operates as the original cultural signifier through the Self-Other encounter that creates both individual and collective meaning as each person is simultaneously Self, Other, and networked as a part of the social whole. Levinas writes: “The face, preeminently expression, formulates the first word: the signifier arising at the thrust of his sign, as eyes that look at you” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 178). Further, Levinas notes that “the face opens the primordial discourse whose first word is obligation” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 201). Finally, this very obligation causes Self to question its relationship to Self and Other: “The Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 207). In other words, the face-to-face encounter forms an immediate ethical relationship, resulting in an obligation that Levinas argues forms a moral basis for humanity’s existence. Extending Heidegger’s concept of Daesin, Levinas shows that Self’s own “being” becomes inextricably linked to the right “to be” of the Other.
The various manifestations of the digital face seemingly occlude the true face-to-face encounter that Levinasian relational ethics demands between Self and Other. Although the element of corporeal presence disappears in the digital realm, a cyber-physicality remains, especially through sophisticated platforms where real-time personal interaction occurs. Do Levinasian ethics still occupy a valuable philosophical position in the digital age? I think so because of one simple fact: in any digital platform, the “face” remains the primary locus of personal interaction and the almost exclusive focus of each participant in the electronic discourse. Cyberspace has become a series of talking heads and photographs attached to chats and other direct communicative endeavors. The digital face-to-face pixel presentation replaces in large measure the face-to-face physical meeting. These digital faces may lack three dimensions in solid form but nonetheless they represent Self and Other. Even the digital face-changing emojis represent Self – a visual metaphor for the emotions Self wishes to express. Curated and catalogued Facebook pages equally promote and define Self in relation to Other. Application of Levinasian ethics to the face-to-face digital encounter does not pose a philosophical problem. The problem lies simply in how to comprehend Self’s obligation to an Other whose presence is complicated by its own layers of digital masking and creative countenances. The ethics of reality as posited by Levinas now finds itself transported to a realm where the unreal rules. In this cyber-sphere where deception and manipulation definitely reach new heights, an understanding of how Self relates to Other as argued by Emmanuel Levinas should serve as a guidepost for us all as we collectively gaze into the digital mirror.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillipe Nemo. Translated by Richard A. Cohen. Duquesne U P, 1985.
Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Translated by Alphonso Lingis. Duquesne U P, 1969.
Bruce A. Craft is an Instructor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. His research interests include Southern literature and culture and their intersection with philosophy, particularly in digital spaces.