The study of emotions is all the rage in the social sciences and humanities these days, so it was exciting to find C. Fred Alford’s newest book Levinas, The Frankfurt School and Psychoanalysis in my mail-box. Alford, a political theorist at the University of Maryland, College Park, is one of the most thoughtful, original and prolific social scientists writing on psychoanalysis today. Levinas’s social philosophy has become enormously influential within post-modern circles, especially after a widely discussed endorsement by Derrida. And the critical theory of the Frankfurt School has left a rich and contentious legacy that both critiques Enlightenment rationality and draws on psychoanalytic insights. A book with this title by a scholar of Alford’s credentials offers the potential for an important contribution to social science debate on the role of emotions in social life. Unfortunately, Alford’s book is a disappointment, marred by a shallow engagement with the literature on the Frankfurt School and a failure to address core issues involved in the use and misuse of psychoanalysis in social science.
The structure of Alford’s book is straightforward, if somewhat self-indulgent. The first chapter “Someone Rings Your Doorbell” introduces Levinas’s basic philosophy, interspersed with Alford’s discussions with a friend who reflects on the encounter with the “other” when someone comes to your home interrupting your work, as well as a brief overview of the literature on Levinas. The book then moves to an extended discussion of the relationship between Levinas and the object relations school of psychoanalysis represented by the British theorist and clinician Winnicott. There is then a chapter comparing the thought of Levinas to the critical theory of German philosopher and Frankfurt School icon Theodor Adorno and the work of the novelist/philosopher Iris Murdoch. The book then concludes with discussion of the relationship between psychoanalysis, politics and freedom, as well as the ethics of “love, pity and humanity.”
Alford is often an enormously careful and generous reader, and he does a remarkable job of both taking Levinas seriously and sharply offering his disagreements with his ethical theory. The book, however, has a disorganized feel to it. This is by no means purely Alford’s responsibility, due to the “Levinas Effect” whereby readers tend to find what they are looking for in Levinas’s complex and diverse writing. As Alford puts it, “Levinas has been found to be a “proto-feminist deconstructionist theologian who reconciles postmodern ethics and a rabbinic Judaism” (p. 33). As a result, Alford must range widely over literature in philosophy, theology, political theory and post-modern social theory in order to do justice to Levinas. Alford’s generosity in attempting to deal with Levinas on his own terms therefore results in an confusing argument. Are we discussing the plausibility and desirability of Levinas’s version of postmodern ethics? Are we engaging Levinas’s implicit psychology with the insights of the object relations psychoanalytic tradition? Are we primarily concerned with thinking about the relationship between Levinas’s work and the critique of the Enlightenment and modernity offered in the writings of the Frankfurt School tradition? Are we to treat Levinas as an ethical philosopher, or as a political theorist? Are we concerned with the meaning of life? Alford’s book does all this and more, and thus far less.
Questioning Levinas’s assumption that “ethics must forever stand in opposition to nature” (p. 40), Alford offers a psychoanalytically inspired alternative to both a sappy humanism and Levinas’s philosophy. For Alford, Levinas’s work lacks an appreciation of shared freedom, the value of art, and the importance of pity, compassion and tragedy in human affairs. This reader, at least, found Alford’s critique compelling. Alford’s well received earlier work, particularly Narcissism: Socrates, the Frankfurt School, and Psychoanalytic Theory (1988), Melanie Klein and C