Naud van der Ven
is the Other in Organizations?
Widows and Orphans
ethics departs from the centrality of the Other and speaks about the
terms of the widow and the orphan. But what about Levinasian business
Widows and orphans are not really relevant categories for
what does the other look like in organizations? That’s the question
be central in this article.
In Levinas’ vision the other is the one who can
make me conscious of my imperialistic rationality. According to Levinas
activity of thinking has an inherently totalitarian tendency which can
into impasse situations. But for him these impasses do not have to be
definitive. For, something exists like a shameful confrontation in
thinker is being confronted with his victim’s (the other’s) resistance.
himself and his thinking made questionable. This can lead to
to more reflection and compassion.
If there is some truth in what Levinas says
this other must be traceable in organizations, but the question is: in
can Levinas’ speaking about the other be related to the world of
In order to be able to answer that question we
can fruitfully turn to parts of Levinas’ anthropology which are to be
his early works Le temps et l’autre (TA), De l’existence
à l’existant (EE) and in Totalité et Infini (TI).
descriptions of the human
condition treat subjects like action, labor and rationality which
connections possible with working life. Those elements will be touched
below. Before presenting them I will introduce the framework in which
positions those subjects, that is to say the framework of Il-y-a and
hypostasis, and I will give an outline of the application of that
Il-y-a and hypostasis
pair of concepts in the writings of Emmanuel Levinas is the combination
and hypostasis. The combination is of great importance for Levinas’
of the human condition. Il-y-a
with Levinas denotes being, but
being in its specific appearance of formless, undetermined being. He at
calls it a noise, a roar. It is frightening, on the one hand because of
unstoppable character: it is unlimited, continues endlessly. But on the
hand, and more so, because of the horrible indifferent character of the
its colossal neutrality. The unlimited aspect generates weariness
endlessness and the meaninglessness, the neutral aspect evokes anguish.
encounters it in insomnia.
Hypostasis is the breaking apart of a being
from the il-y-a. It is the proces of substantiation, taking a
from the surrounding being, at first by assuming a position in space
and next by creating a world, that is by naming things and by
consciousness. It is: becoming a subject. The subjects choosing of
the creation of its own time are to be seen as a first escape from the
disgusting il-y-a. And as a sequel to that the being that
this way: man, plans his future and designs his world in a rational
the hypostasis means a substantiation vis à vis the il-y-a.
But that substantiation appears to be
vulnerable. The hypostasis is never sufficiently strong to eliminate
completely. The sea of the il-y-a keeps dashing against the
has come up in its midst. Returning in its original or in a disguised
takes back the achievements of the hypostasis. The il-y-a
reappears into the heart of the rationally managed world of man. The
achievement of time turns into a new endless continuum, namely that of
planned and closed future. The achievement of a
well-arranged and named world degenerates into a
collection of dogma´s
and reïfications, or, out of aversion against that, into a new
indeterminacy and indifference. The highest form of victory over the il-y-a,
rationality, turns out to be carrier of the same properties that
the il-y-a: meaninglessness and indifference.
Here comes to the fore what can be called the
“deficiency of rationality”. The very rationality that helps us escape
disgust of the meaningless il-y-a, leads to forms of closeness,
self-complacency and uneasiness that make return the expelled
Levinas does not give an explanation for this, but stresses this
rationality and makes heavy of it. Is there no escape then? he wonders.
impasse the last we can say about it?
Levinas does not think so. He notes that we
humans experience the impasse intensely, but that often enough we find
cope with it. That’s what he is interested in. What exactly happens
cope with it? Levinas thinks that, if you want to describe that, the
phenological method, which he is so fond of, does not suffice. To be
say at least something about the escape he has to take recourse to
what he calls a mystical or transcendent character. It is in our
with death, with time, with eros and with the other that, according to
an opening is presented to us which really puts the il-y-a on a
distance, be it always only temporarily. To the extent that Levinas’
further develops, his interest focuses ever more on the other as the
pre-eminently presents us the opening.
find themselves in the field of force of the il-y-a and the
As we shall see below, one even could say that organizations are an
of hypostasis in its more developed form. But not at the level of a
(the subject) but of groups of people. The phenomena that characterize
rationality-stage, like the appropriation of time, the planning of the
the working with representations and the rational design and control of
world are essential aspects of organizing and organizations. This means
the impasse we spoke about above, and that is given with the deficiency
rationality, is also within the world of organization a well-known
This may be shown by the perennially returning control-dilemma: the
control appears to have strained relations with the need for creative
motivated workers. At the level of organizational theory this comes to
in the deadlock between positivistic reductionism and postmodernistic
At the same time it can be argued,
in line with the tendency of Levinas’ philosophy as a whole, that also
organizations people know to find the escape. People do regularly
closeness of a planned future and the totalitarian constraint of
structures. There actually ís sensemaking in organizations. It
dóes occur that
traditional, rigid controlsystems give way to systems that give workers
space. It dóes occur that bosses who could organize a business
afterwards want to account for their actions. It dóes occur that
who never bothered to thrust their rationally accounted for ideas upon
organizations, in confrontation with everyday praxis open themselves
completely different sounds from the workfloor.
It may be wondered whether in these situations
one can talk of an escape, as Levinas would have it. Do these
entirely fit in in the autonomous dialectics of reasonableness and of
enlightenment to arrive at more humane forms of organization?
I hold the position that, on the basis of
Levinas’ work, one certainly can accord a place to these last mentioned
developments as a driving force, but it is a secundary place. From the
viewpoint of Levinas the main impuls towards innovation and
from an intrusion from outside the rational order. This has much to do
totalitarian character which Levinas ascribes to reason and the
conscience. Because of that feature it is exactly the confrontation
totalitarian character of one’s own rationality and the embarrasment
own ideology which generate truly new insights.
confrontation for Levinas takes primarily place in the encounter with
other. In order to get a better understanding of those confrontations
organizations it therefore is important to determine more precisely
within the context of organizations, the other looks like. Who is,
framework of organizations, the Other?
labor and rationality
To answer that
question it may be helpful to start from what Levinas says about
action, about labor and acting rationally. These themes come up in
work when he discusses the hypostasis. As we saw Levinas describes the
hypostasis, conceived of as a substantiation in respect of the il-y-a,
as a proces that contains several phases. The proces starts with
position with regard to the il-y-a, passes through the phase of
reinforcing that position without any role for consciousness, and
results in a
phase in which consciousness plays an important role.
conceived point of departure for the hypostasis is a situation of
against the il-y-a, in combination with the necessity for
subject, if it is to become really subject, to choose position with
the anonymous il-y-a. We may use the word ‘taking a distance’
indicate this proces, but that tells only the half story. The subject
be able to ban the il-y-a completely. In the taking up of its own
the subject will also have to entertain a relationship with the il-y-a,
that is: with that being which at the same time arouses fright and
Levinas writes in Existence and
Existents: “The questioning of
an experience of Being in its strangeness. It is then a way of taking
Being…The question is itself a manifestation of the relationship with
Being is essentially alien and strikes against us” (EE, 9).
So the question is one of
entering into a
relationship with something repulsive. Weariness and sloth characterize
situation and form the expression of the reluctance which holds the
subject in its grip.
The weariness has to do with the
to escape the boundless being, perhaps even more so in hypostased form
without hypostasis because hypostasis presupposes a kind of coming to
with being and therewith acceptation of being. In all cases there is
you háve to be. There is “… a commitment to exist, with all the
harshness of an unrevokable contract” (EE, 12). The weariness is not so
content of consciousness (it finds itself at a too early stage in the
hypostasis for that), but something which happens, and primarily so a refusal
a refusal to exist: “Weariness by all its being effects this refusal to
(EE, 12). This weariness thus does not have any link with
action. The weariness boggles at action.
With sloth, or indolence, this is different.
Levinas links sloth to human action, namely the beginning of action:
is essentially tied up with the beginning of an action: the stirring,
getting up…It may inhere in the act that is being realized, in which
performance rolls on as on an ill-paved road, jolted about by instants
each of which
is a beginning all over again” (EE, 13). The emerging subject has
itself, but incessantly falls back. It keeps starting up. The same
that preceded the beginning of action returns here. The refusal of
pervades the indolence as well and manifests itself precisely in that
backslide from action. “And indolence, as a recoil before action, is a
hesitation before existence, an indolence about existing” (EE, 15).
Levinas stresses that all this is not nice. The
pleasures of the hypostasis are reached by the subject only in a later
the phase of enjoyment. There he speaks about play, here about the
“one must try to live”. Sloth at this stage is linked with repugnance
the constraint to exist. The opportunities which are offered to the
this stage above all present trouble and sorrow: The beginning of an
concerned with itself…It possesses riches which are a source of cares
being a source of enjoyment” (EE,15).
Whereas sloth is somehow connected with a
beginning of action, the loss of the beginning and the next restart,
places fatigue in the full display of activity. The subject has already
up its own existence, or, more precisely, is incessantly engaged in
its existence. But existence takes a lead over the subject, the subject
keep up well with existence; the subject is a moment behind its
relaxation of the grip on its own existence, that´s fatigue. “It
behind the instant it is going to take on” (EE, 22). Fatigue is about
exertion that is needed for that. That effort gives the activity a
character: “Action is then by essence subjection and servitude, but
first manifestation, of the very constitution, of an existent, a someone
that is” (EE, 23). Effort and fatigue thus are part of the genesis of
subject, which, according to Levinas, may be succinctly characterized
taking upon itself of existence by the existent.
the tragedy and heaviness of the first phase of the hypostasis the
strikes us because of its much more pleasant features. Once the
of the subject has started off, this movement develops further in a way
describes mainly in positive terms. Levinas often calls the hypostasis
the phase of the fatigue a “separation” (namely between the
and the emergent subject) and the main features of separation are
labor and finally representation.
The enjoyment is a name for the stage in the
substantiation of the subject in which the subject no longer just melts
the surrounding being. It has acquired a relationship with that being.
nourishment which is enjoyed by the enjoying being is taken from what
calls “the elements”. By that he means wind, earth, sea, heaven, air
the rest which supports man and which constitutes, after the
environment of the enjoying being. Elements are not to be considered as
but as qualities which offer themselves to the senses. This corresponds
the affective, sensory character of the enjoyment which at several
stressed by Levinas.
The role the enjoyment plays in the proces of
hypostasis lies in the particular form of independence which is
the enjoyment. Preceding the enjoyment there is a situation of
the being coïncides with the whole from which it derives its
can be interpreted as pure dependency. The enjoyment according to
description causes a change in that situation. A distance is being
dependency can be suspended and in this way the paradoxical figure
arises of a
being which has untied itself from a world on which nevertheless it
(TI, 131)! The enjoyment is a decisive step in the proces of breaking
constitutes both a reaction
on and a deepening of the enjoyment. It is reaction in sofar the
enjoyment and the reliability of the elements imply uncertainty. Labor
seizing and fixing, wrest things from the elemental and in this way
uncertainty. From this point of view the trouble of effort cleaves also
labor: “The ancient curse of labor does not only lie in the necessity
working to feed oneself; it is already wholly to be found in the
effort (EE, 24).
On the other hand labor is a deepening of the
enjoyment. For, labor introduces us to the world of things and objects,
the possibility to seize and enjoy them. This did not come up at the
sheer taking up existence, that is: in the phase of action. “But if the
moment of activity, that which makes it actual, is nothing else than
up of the present, labor concerned with the objects of the world seems
contain more than this” (EE, 25). By the directedness towards objects,
acquisition thereof and the satisfaction that goes with it a
in which connects to the enjoyment. The subject develops a kind of
with labor that resembles the relationship with the elemental in the
there is dependency, but the dependency can be suspended and so turn
Levinas stresses that at this stage of the
separation we cannot speak of knowing or thinking. Labor and
taking-into-possession are the work of the hand, “…the organ of
taking, the first and blind grasping in the teeming mass” (TI: 159),
and not of
the mind that sees and represents.
The step towards knowing and thinking, which is
the completing step of the hypostasis, is being taken with the
within the subject of consciousness, rational thought or what Levinas
light. That step is characterized by the appearance of representations
made possible by the preparing work of labor and possession. They
“very mobilization of the thing, grasped by the hand” (TI: 163) and
that is a
condition for the appearance of representations in the conscious mind.
appearance of representations is considered by Levinas as the
the hypostasis: the separation between the subject and the surrounding
are being radicalized in it. “…life in the world is consciousness
it provides the possibility of existing in a withdrawal from
The subject now has its own world.
at this stage, Levinas pays much attention to the character
of representation. What interests him in that, is its illusory nature.
illusion of representation consists in the ability of the representing
to see itself as origin of the world. “Representation consistst in the
possibility of accounting for the object as though it were constituted
thought, as though it were a noëma” (TI:128). That this is
illusory is evident
for Levinas. He takes much trouble to show that thinking is
if preliminary conditions are satisfied – i.a. by way of labor – man
at thinking and knowing. With this peculiarity that thinking
to forget its own conditions: it sees itself as the condition
world in stead of the other way round. That’s the illusion (but
Levinas also: the genius) of representation.
Levinas this illusory nature of representation is not
necessarily to be valued negatively. His appreciation for the
the hypostasis and the escape from the il-y-a is too big for
he points to the problems that are connected with the problematic
representation: it creates a new form of totalitarianism. “Reason is
And in this sense knowledge in the world never meets something really
different. That’s the deep truth of idealism”(TA, 53).
Levinas discusses representation, nowhere in his work he
connects this with human work, as, in opposition to that, he does
weariness, sloth and, of course, labor with effort and work. But it is
difficult to make that link. The organizing function of man, resulting
example, working organizations, pre-eminently makes use of the power of
rationality. Robert Cooper has shown how working with representations
essential feature of organizing (Cooper 1992).
means that at the level of organization the ambivalence of the
hypostasis reappears. On the one hand there is the achievement of the
from the il-y-a that according to Levinas cannot be valued
on the other hand there is the continuous return of the il-y-a,
even in two appearances. The primeval il-y-a manages at times
through our rational organization and control and because of that the
being flooded by unchained elements keeps permanently threatening. But
that the solitude or reason, which is given with the high degree of
of organizations, generates its own version of the il-y-a. This
shows itself in the closed, totalitarian character of organizations
that may be
linked to the misplaced feeling of
sovereignty and the forgetting of its own origins, which are defining
of representation. The kind of totalitarity that is linked to this
appearance of representation is no longer the totalitarity of the
but it still is totalitarity. Specific forms of repugnance and
to it, which nevertheless do remind us of the supposedly dispelled
specifically in the experience of meaninglessness and uneasiness that
it. So in both its original and its disguised form the il-y-a
returning, it cleaves. “In the hypostasis of an instant – in which a
mastery, power or virility are manifested as being in a world, in which
intention is the forgetting of oneself in light and a desire for
things, in the
abnegation of charity and sacrifice – we can discern the return of the il-y-a.
The hypostasis, in participating in the il-y-a, finds itself
again to be
a solitude, in the definitiveness of the bond with which the ego is
its self”(EE, 84).
conclude that organizing and organizations may be linked to
the hypostasis in its most cristallized stage: the stage of
that is to say, of rationality. That means that organizations are
characterized by an important feature of rationality according to
namely: the tendency, in its representative thinking, to consider
itself as the
origin of the world. Representative thinking is troubled by the
its existence is self-evident and mirrors a pre-given order. It does
anymore about a situation which preceded that order, it forgets its own
origins. That’s why, for organizations, in this condition of blindness,
weariness or sloth are no issues, no more than the refusal of existence
pervades the getting into action. They conceive of labor as something
according to Levinas is only its partial truth: a play, that is: as
mystique, which appeals to themes of
joy or freedom through labor” (EE: 22).
opposition to organizations, people cannot simply be linked to one of
hypostasis’ stages. Neither can people in the context of organizations
be linked that way. Levinas’ description of the genesis of the subject
linear, but should be understood, I think, in such a way that man
bears all hypostasisstages within himself. He can permanently
It will be clear that in our intellectual work we deal with
But we also know of the laboriously getting into action, through
that to people in organizations can be linked many stages of the
to organizations just one stage causes a tension between organizations
people who work there. Organizations, as social phenomena in which
for action is already taken for granted, tend to ignore the problems of
early stages of the hypostasis, like weariness and sloth. But
working in organizations, do not forget those origins. The very thing
organizations ignore keeps returning for people: the trouble to collect
and to organize oneself in the middle of an anonymous, threatening
discrepancy between the hypostasis-stage of organizations and
the stage in which individuals find themselves, can with workers who
sensible for that, arouse repugnance against organizing and
can manifest itself as job-refusal, melancholy or less articulated
In all cases there is an amount of suffering by the employee in the
now, on the basis of what has been said above about the
genesis of the subject and about organizations, say more about what the
looks like in the context of organizations? I propose to consider the
individual who suffers from the blindness and meaninglessness of
rationality as Levinas’ Other, transposed to the context of
description implies a certain measure of incompatability of the other
organizations. Given the self-evidence for organizations of their own
and given the pretentions of rationality and justified order that
have, the suffering of the other, the repugnance and the weariness
incomprehensible and unreasonable. The one who confronts the
that repugnance and weariness really stands outside.
of this description is to be found in the story below about Bartleby
Scrivener by Herman Melville.
Bartleby is the
story about a clerk of a
lawyersfirm at Wallstreet in the middle
of the 19th century. Bartleby has been hired by the firm,
with two other clerks, to copy legal documents. This is a very dry and
sort of business, but Bartleby surprises everybody by his fervour,
and productivity. That ´s why the lawyer, as the boss of the
firm, is very
pleased with this new worker, even if to him a more cheerful character
pallid, withdrawn figure of Bartleby would have been welcome. His
however gets tempered when, on the third day, Bartleby refuses to do a
for this type of business is very common. Copies of documents have to
compared with the originals and everyone of the clerks is regularly
to do that. So also Bartleby, but he tells his boss that he
doesn´t want to,
or, in his words: ‘I would prefer not to’. The lawyer is completely
for a moment, but business calls. He concludes to come back to it at a
this scene repeats itself and every time Bartleby uses the same
would prefer not to. The boss starts brooding. Normally he would not
problem with firing one who refuses his job, but some way he is being
by the performance of Bartleby. The formula he uses to express his
much to do with that. The boss has been touched and seeks to talk with
but that appears to be impossible. On the request to be at least a bit
comes the answer that at this moment he prefers not to be a bit
This situation brings the lawyer into a clew of contradictory feelings
thoughts, ranging from decided rejection of Bartleby to melancholy and
solidarity with a lost person.
escalates when, at a
certain moment, Bartleby announces that he prefers not to copy anymore.
come to dismissal now,Bartleby is
being told to have left in six days. When on the seventh day the boss
at the office it takes him great effort not to get into a black temper.
same time he feels unable to be cruel to Bartleby. He wonders what his
conscience would prescribe him at this moment. The lawyer chooses as
to self abandon the building: he moves his office, leaving Bartleby
a cleared out room the boss once more says goodbye. He has to tear
from Bartleby, the man he wanted to get rid of. The landlord finally
the lawyer could not: call the police to remove Bartleby. When the
about this his reaction is ambivalent: ‘At first I was indignant; but
almost approved. I do not think I would have decided upon this course
and yet, under such peculiar circumstances, it seemed the only plan’.
dies in custody with the police.
In this story Bartleby functions as does Levinas’ other.
his boss and makes him baffled and unfit for action against Bartleby.
the boss does have, fysically and juridically, the means for action,
kind of mysterious incapability takes him in its grip. And that seems
to do with his perception of a deep seated repugnance with Bartleby,
not lead to agression or explanation, but to a kind of charming
The boss’s self-evident course of action has been broken through. “[The
involves a calling into question of oneself, a critical attitude which
itself produced in face of the other and under his authority” (TI: 81).
takes place at the level of the organization what Levinas wanted to
for philosophy: “It is this resistance, this point of exteriority to
appropriative movement of philosophical conceptuality, that Levinas
describe in his work” (Critchley 2002: 17).
E. Existence and
E. Le temps et
E. Totality and Infinity
(1992) Formal Organization as Representation: Remote
Control, Displacement and Abbreviation. In: Reed, M. (1992) Rethinking Organization. London: Sage.
S. (2002) Introduction. In: Critchley, S. en Bernasconi, R.
(eds.) (2002) The Cambridge Companion to Levinas. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
(1983)  Le temps et l’autre. Parijs: Presses
Universitaires de France.
E. (1991)  Totality and Infinity. An Essay on
Exteriority. English translation by Alphonso Lingis of Totalité
et Infini. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
(2001)  Existence and Existents. English translation by Alphonso Lingis of De
l´existence à l´existant. Pittsburgh: Duquesne