The Metaphor of War

When I read the opening lines of Levinas’ Totality and Infinity for the first time, about thirty years ago, I felt overwhelmed. They moved me, before I had tried to understand them: ‘Does not lucidity, the mind’s openness upon the true, consist in catching sight of the permanent possibility of war? The state of war suspends morality; it divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives.’ At this moment (after having made a study of the entire work with my class in the year before last) I am ready to make an attempt at an interpretation. The first sentence expresses in my opinion: human cleverness, it’s talent at working out ever new ways of tackling the problems of life by means of understanding, is fired by this mind-set: there is a scarcity of goods; we are, in our endeavours to harvest them, constantly threatened by enemies who want to take them first and who will, if necessary, destroy us in the process. The second sentence then says: alas, in order to win, or to not lose the war, we have to pass by, if necessary, our obligations to others (and to ourselves, perhaps, as subjectivity springs from moral awareness) – because this war has made all morality provisional.

The troubling point in these sentences is not so much that in a real war we may be forced to suspend our moral obligations towards others (although that is troubling enough!), but that Levinas suggests that all human research, all gathering of knowledge, in it’s normal, non-war condition, springs from a war-like matrix. One is tempted to say: it is executed under the reign of the metaphor of war. And one is also tempted to acknowledge this to be a fair description of much twentieth century and present day research. Adolf Hitler pushed German scientists (that is, those that he had not expelled from their jobs for being of Jewish descent) to be the first to improve human understanding of genetics, of rocket-science, of mass psychology and other subjects useful for extending German domination, by marketing his idea that Germany was drawn into war unwillingly – because of all kinds of threatening powers, external and internal. After having defeated the dictator, the mightiest victors, the USA and the USSR, adopted and expanded his system of pushing scientists forward by making use of the metaphor of war, spreading the idea of being under constant mortal threat by the other power.

It is not strange that since the days of the Cold War the metaphor of war has been nesting inside the institutional sphere of science itself: universities, research institutes, and funding organizatons all tell their researchers to compete as if the enemy was right behind them – they have to ‘publish or perish’, their work has to be innovative, excellent, and useful too, be it in the fight against climate change, disease, hunger, poverty, illiteracy, etc. etc. etc. Under ever growing pressures to perform (or else! Or what else?) we see the tendency to commit fraud in research also grow, as well as the tendency to produce sloppy research. There is no time to do it better, it is felt by a lot of researchers, since… we are in a war? With whom?

It has not always been like this, of course, and Levinas’ words do not describe ‘the mind’s openness to truth’ as such, at least I do not think so. They moved me so much because I grew up in the long shadows of World War II (shadows which have not cleared away completely up till now), and they described the reality I lived in. It does not make sense, however, to understand understanding as being always and inevitably produced under the banner of war. Understanding can be moral, in Levinas’ sense – motivated by seeing the fear and suffering of the other. Moved by eternal obligations and unconditional imperatives (not to kill, not to cheat, not to rob others from what they need to survive). It is not so much a choice for another kind of scientific research, but a refusal to work under the reign of the metaphor of war. If I do not let myself be frightened that others might get there before me, or will take it from me, I might also refuse the seduction to cheat, to be sloppy, or to accept injustices in academic working conditions. Levinas’ opening lines hopefully make academics think again if they push themselves and their junior research assistants to produce more and more results, against the common sense insight that ‘more’ is nothing once we have denied the supposed wars which are pushed upon us.

Emanuel Levinas lived from 1906-1995. I cited from the 1979 edition of his Totality and Infinity. An Essay on Exteriority, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. The original French edition appeared with the same publisher in 1961.

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