April 14th, 2019

I recently asked a few of my friends to recount what they believed to be the origin of their moral compass (a light conversation starter, I know). Their answers were diverse. Most credited the teachings of their parents or their religious upbringing. (Though some insisted their morals in fact contrasted with those of their parents or their religion.)

Even if some particular moral principles, such as attitudes towards marriage, gender, and dietary restrictions, differ between religions, there does seem to be some continuity in the basic moral principles that underlie belief systems. If I had to guess, you’d be hard pressed to find a culture on this planet that doesn’t place some sort of inherent value in the lives of other humans. (Such a culture would likely cease to exist if its members had no qualms about killing its other members when they got hungry.) Is it possible that this urge to respect other humans is something that is woven into our fabric of being, irrespective of cultural context?

Twentieth-century French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas localized the basic moral principle to a feature that we all possess: a face. In his first book Totality and Infinity, Levinas (in his characteristically opaque prose) poses:

“This infinity, stronger than murder, already resists us in his face, in his face, is the primordial expression, is the first word: ‘you shall not commit murder.’ The infinite paralyses power by its infinite resistance to murder, which, firm and insurmountable, gleams in the face of the Other, in the total nudity of his defenseless eyes, in the nudity of the absolute openness of the Transcendent (pg. 199).”

Levinas’s concept of the face only ricochets off of our traditional notion of the physical face. Rather, he intends to capture the feeling that there is a whole person in there, with agency and individuality not unlike our own, that we experience when we glimpse the face of another. The face is the physical tether by which we grasp another’s humanity, a portal into their subjectivity. Simply seeing the face of a human, and thus conceiving of them as complete person, is enough to usher in our respect for them, and to deter us from doing harm to them. In other words, the first moral principle, ‘you shall not commit murder,’ is baked into our existence and is summoned upon perception of another human face.

Though Levinas’s postulation on the origin of morality may seem a bit ‘far out’ at first, it holds more water than one might think. Take Stalin’s cliché for example: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.” Or consider the way in which the introduction of visuals into the coverage of the Vietnam War, the first “television war,” incited a wave of moral outrage and anti-war sentiment on an unprecedented scale.

If we are so moved by faces alone, then what explains the possibility and prevalence of violence between humans? If it is true, as Levinas suggests, that “It is my responsibility before a face looking at me as absolutely…  that constitutes the original face of fraternity (pg. 214),” then how are we so often able to look someone in the face and still wish them harm? If we are asking these questions, then we surely do not fully comprehend Levinas’s concept of the face.

Only a minority of the time, and with a minority of people, do we truly see their face when we look at their physical face. When we do harm to another, or see another as less-than, we are not viewing them in their fullest humanity.

I have some hope that we can habituate those rare moment of the profound sight of the face. Religion, in its purest form, seeks to do just that through the codification of moral principles and the incorporation of rituals into daily light that bring the faces of others into focus. Sometimes we even see a face in fictional characters, the stories of strangers, or even our pets. Perhaps I am just a hopeless optimist, but I like the sound of a morality that is embedded in each of us, awaiting a summons from the shape of another.

Have you ever had one of those moments of existential condensation, where the scale of your world suddenly shrinks and you find yourself a figurine in some larger being’s miniature model world? Amy Bennett, for whom I have recently fallen head over heels, captures just that sensation while playing with themes of time, transitions, and human proximity and distance. Her process is unique and impressive: “I am interested in the fragility of relationships and people’s awkwardness in trying to coexist and relate to one another. To that end I create miniature 3D models to serve as evolving still lifes from which I paint detailed narrative paintings. Using cardboard, foam, wood, paint, glue, and model railroad miniatures, I construct various fictional, scale models. Recent models have included a town, neighborhood, lake, theater, doctor’s office, church, and numerous domestic interiors. The models become a stage on which I develop narratives.”

So I’m not usually a fan of relegating any musician’s work to the status of “dinner music” or “elevator music” or, more aptly, “homework music.” That being said, I do listen to a lot of music while I do my work, and I’ve been particularly inspired recently while tying away to the droning, undulating soundscape “Signals Bulletin” from Japanese producer ASUNA and German producer Jan Jelinek, released last week (SpotifyYouTubevinyl).

If I had to guess, my secret crush on linguistics probably stems from my daily hour-long bus rides to my high school with my dear friend Dan, a then-amateur, now-professional linguist. While Dan is away documenting endangered languages in Indonesia, I must settle for one of my favorite new podcasts, The Allusionist, which explores the English language with both humor and scholarly depth. Listen on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

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