On the Ethics of Responsiveness

Jun 23, 2014

For this inaugural blog post, philosopher Samuel Weber speaks with Aaron Levy of Slought about the concept of advocacy. A responsiveness to cultural and socio-political changes has always informed the development of Slought as an institution. Weber proposes an ethics of responsiveness in which individuals and institutions remain open to other perspectives even as they advocate for change.

Weber is Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University, and the...

Aaron Levy, PhD, MPhil was the Executive Director and Chief Curator of Slought (2002-2022), a...

Aaron Levy: Today, institutions often struggle with the question of responsiveness. Does an institution have a responsibility to be responsive?

Samuel Weber: Responsiveness always takes place within institutionalized settings, certainly within spaces that are shaped by institutions. Responsiveness is never simply the property of an individual. The way a response circulates, is heard, is transformed, and is responded to, all of that depends on institutions. The ethics of responsibility carries the obligation to think about the institutional settings in which one is speaking and to help determine, but never entirely exhaust, the singularity of situations.

Can one think of institutionality and advocacy together?

Take the term "institution" literally. It involves setting something up, and pulling something down. There's always this Nietzschean sense of space structured through conflicts of diverging and converging forces. In English, the word "institution" is fairly remote from the verb "to institute." Institutionalization is often thought of as creating and preserving stable institutions, rather than as a process of instituting.

What bothers me about the notion of "advocacy" is that, at least literally, it suggests having a fixed idea – an already "institutionalized" idea – of what it is that one is advocating. It is understood more as "speaking for" than as what the word says, which is "speaking to". To advocate in the sense of speaking-to leaves the ultimate origin and goal of one's advocacy more open to criticism and response than to advocate in the sense of defending or propagating a program.

How might we think about responsiveness in an etymological sense? Is responsiveness a singular event, or an ongoing process?

The term responsive is different from responding. To be responsive is to be sensitive to something, to pick up on details that are not necessarily evident, much less self-evident. Some etymologies relate the word to "ponder," which in Latin has to do with the idea of weighing. Nietzsche thinks this is the way thinking develops. It involves a kind of weighing of things, of determining the relative weights of things. In a sense, it is about re-evaluation.

The word responsive also has a connotation of being sensitive to what has been overlooked. It involves weighing in a comparative sense, but without a universal equivalent. Weighing in this sense is irreducibly relative and relational. All there is is a series of responses. There is no going beyond this. Being born is responding. From birth to death, you're responding. But there is no initial, founding statement – no "creative" word.

Can you speak more about the relationship between responsiveness and advocacy?

Every response involves an appeal to others. What you're calling advocacy is a form of appealing. It is a necessary form, though it is not the only form. The risk, however, is that as soon as you're advocating something, you have committed to a program, as Jacques Derrida would say. When you have an appeal, on the other hand, you don't necessarily know what it is you're going to get back. Or even just what it is you are appealing for or to.

So the challenge is to advocate in a way that remains open to other forms of advocacy? What is the danger of institutional advocacy?

I grew up not wanting anyone to tell me how to live, and by extension not wanting to tell anyone else how they should live. One learns from observing the experience of others, from interacting with them, but not necessarily from being told what to do. The idea would be to advocate in a way that doesn't reduce the element of openness – of responsiveness – in the appeal. You may advocate for something, but can you also allow for responses that might not have the same direction? As advocate do you seek to control the response? To some extent this is probably inevitable, but everything depends on the more or less.

This is why Derrida's allergy toward programs can be instructive. So much of his discourse is directed against programs [and programmatic thinking.] You may calculate as much and as intelligently as possible, and he does this as much and more than most, but ultimately your calculation is going to have to deal with its limitations. Morever, language itself doesn't enunciate univocal meaning. Inevitably, in very interesting ways, it contains alternatives. Language itself contains alternatives. This is why many today are so mistrustful of it...