"Definition, which, as form, is beauty, luster and appearing, is also strangulation, that is, anguish."
There is this part of me that is very resistant to classification. I am not at all trying to say that you can’t touch this, you can’t classify me, or that I’m more unique than every other snowflake on the block. What I mean is that if it ever came to pass that you (or anyone) tried to classify me in my presence, I would enact a borderline pathological inability to agree with you. You might ask me: “So, are you straight?” And I would say: “Well, I am dating a guy right now, so I guess maybe I am?” You might say: “So you’re an academic, aren’t you?” And I’d say: “Well, yes, I have a Ph.D. and I’ve taught at universities and apparently I am pursuing that as a career. But what do you mean by academic?” (Ha!) You might ask me: “Are you a Democrat?” And I would say, “I am not a Republican, but if I say that, I might as well say that I’m not a Democrat because I object to the idea that those two choices offer much of anything meaningful anymore. What they offer us is a false dilemma!” You might ask me: “Are you a feminist?” And I would say, “Yes. But I do not agree with everything that every person who calls herself a feminist says, and I even understand why so many young girls are slow to call themselves feminists these days.” You might ask me: “Are you religious?” And I would say: “Well, I am not now nor have I ever been the member of a church, but I understand why people look for meanings larger than their own lives.” And so on. And so on. It seems tiresome, doesn’t it?
The quotation above comes from a footnote to Levinas’ Otherwise Than Being. I was rereading his chapter called “Substitution” today for what must be the 85th time, and I found the footnote, which I apparently had never read before. (Don’t you hate it when books put the footnotes at the end of the book instead of at the bottom of the page? I hate that.)
Anyway, the quotation. “Definition, which, as form, is beauty, luster and appearing, is also strangulation, that is, anguish.” A definition is form because it gives us the outlines of an object: it helps us to figure out what something is and what it is not. And a definition aids communication by allowing us to draw equivalences between things, or to catch sight of similarities, so that we can begin to share meanings even though we can never share minds. So, we understand that the word “leaf” can refer to many different things. An oak leaf is different from a eucalyptus leaf, and each eucalyptus leaf is in turn its own singularity, and when we call all these different things “leaves” we lose something about the particularity of each leaf but gain an understanding of what many trees have in common, etc. We wouldn’t want to have to have a philosophical discussion about what a chair is every time we decided to take a seat. So it is useful to be able to classify the things we tend to sit on as chairs, even though every chair is its own singular thing.
And then the persistence and unavoidability of misunderstanding remind us that definitions are imperfect, just like our so-called understandings of other people. A table can also have a leaf. Are the needles on pine trees leaves? These are simple matters of definition. It gets much more complicated when we start talking about human traits and what-have-you. Definitions can help. But they can also mislead. And they can even hinder.
So definition is necessary to communication and communication is what it is all about, after all, in a world where we have to live together with others and also in a world where most meaningful forms of joy and happiness come from our relationships with other people. Definitions are imperfect but they are very useful. So why would I be willfully resistant to categories, classifications, definitions? Is this a form of cowardice, faint-heartedness, inability to commit to being what I am? Do I find definitions to be too threatening, too dangerous?
No. Actually, I find them to be too safe (and because of their safety, dangerous). Definitions, once laid down, bring us too close to certainty about what the truth is. We all have things in common, and we all can be placed in categories that overlap with other people’s categories. I’m female, of a certain age and height, a certain socio-economic and national background, have brown hair (much of the time) and blue eyes. I like cats more than I like dogs. I like cake. I spend too much money on shoes. I live in California, I don’t eat meat. These things all say something about who or what I am. They describe some aspect of my being. Perhaps some of you are in some of these categories with me.
But what about the part of me that doesn’t belong to current conceptions of truth or to history or to some set of categories that we all think we know already and therefore already understand? That definition-resistant part has to be preserved in each of us if there is to be any hope for a future better than the present. And, perhaps more importantly, that definition-resistant part has to be preserved in each of us if there is to be an each of us rather than some dystopian “all of us.” Definition is strangulation.
In case you aren’t sure why this matters to me just now, here are some definitions that used to be considered uncontroversial: a slave counts as 3/5 of a white man. a person is born into his or her class or station in life and nothing can change that. women are inferior to men. non-white peoples are inferior to white peoples.
Definitions change because what we accept as true and just changes over time. So it’s important to think at least twice about the categories you accept about yourself, and the ones you want to leave a bit more open to change.
Definition is anguish because, as we probably all know, there is so much more to each of us than what the bare form of who we are could hold. We are all bursting at the seams. Definition is form, form is limitation. Of course we are all limited, as human, and mortal. But are we always so sure we know what the limits are? What definitions do we accept without question right now? Which ones need to be retired? How about: I am only responsible for my fellow citizens. Or: I am only responsible for things I did or intended. These seem to me to be definitions of injustice and irresponsibility rather than justice and responsibility. And so I would not like to be placed into the category of persons who find an easy end to their responsibility at the borders of their country or community, or in things they did or intended. Why? Because this world’s problems cannot be solved by that category of persons.
So, while I understand that it might be irritating when I won’t submit easily to some of the categories people ask me about, I’m not going to work on getting better at submitting.