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Wotton’s Society Will Ryle-Hodges OS (RGGP), ‘Levinas: the Traumatic Encounter with the Other; Prow Pangsrivongse ma OS (MGHM), ‘Foucault, Biopower and the Modern Penal System’

The two excellent talks by the Wotton’s secretaries in many ways presented us with deeply contrasting views of human experience of existence and yet both offered their own suspicion of post-Enlightenment rationality.

For Foucault, as Prow Pangsrivongse argued, rationality can falsely objectify human institutions in the names of efficiency, normality and regularity. The dehumanising effect of these is a form of power achieved not in the usual sense of power over a person but rather by exploiting the human tendency to imitate, just as a fashion can draw us away from ourselves in the desire to become like everyone. This ambiguous aspect of human nature is biopower. Influentially, Foucault applied these insights to the development of the penal system and, with particular reference to Bentham’s panopticon, illustrated how certain forms of prison not only rob inmates of their humanity but infect the rest of society under the banner of efficiency.

Levinas on the other hand, was not so much interested in the ambiguity of human creativeness as the radical sense of obligation and solidarity with others which accompanies the realisation that human existence is not solitary and atomic because, properly understood, it is always in relationship with the Other. Will Ryle-Hodges gave us the example of stepping out of the shower and being met by the gaze of one’s cat. At this moment the naked bather becomes acutely aware of his own moral nature, his mortality and physical existence. Unlike the existentialists, Levinas did not consider ethics to be a solitary action of commitment but rather a relationship with the Other which subverts rules, politics and other forms of human power structures as a form of collective redemption. For Levinas, the holocaust is a reminder of what happens when humans abandon the Other in favour of so-called rationality.

The numerous questions from the packed room were a testament to the quality of the two papers and we thank and congratulate the two secretaries.