From the Night of Being: Contacting the Human Other
From the Night of Being: Contacting the Human Other
Dan Bloom, JD, LCSW
New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy, US
| The other is intrinsic in contact. There is no contacting without contacting some other. This article considers some aspects of contacting the other. Different varieties of otherness are first addressed before contacting the human other is reflected upon. Contacting the human other raises questions concerning the nature of the field, self, dialogue, and the other as Other. “Responsivity” as aspect of the ethics of contacting the Other is proposed.
| contacting, self, other, field, Lebenswelt, Other, dialogue, inclusion, Levinas, responsivity
Beyond the “mineral” surface of things, contact is an obsession by the trace of a skin . . .
Caresses are dormant in all contact and contact in all sensible experience.
—Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or,
Beyond Essence, 1998
[T]he whole field is one unit . . . differentiated biologically into the organism and the environment, psychologically into the Self and the Otherness.
—Frederick Perls, “Psychiatry in a New Key,” circa 1950 (2012b)
Contacting is a thread in the helix of Gestalt therapy’s DNA. It is unique to Gestalt therapy among all other psychotherapy modalities (Bloom 2010). Since there is no experience of otherness without contacting and no contacting as such without an other. The phrase “contacting the other” is actually a tautology.
This article splits the inseparable for the purposes of looking more closely at the clinical phenomenon of contacting (Bloom 2019a). I will consider contacting and then turn to a taxonomy of the other as the object of contacting, which is an emergent process of the organism/environment-Lebenswelt field (Bloom 2013a, 2013b, 2015, 2019a, 2019b, 2019c). A careful look at contacting the human other inevitably leads to a discussion of dialogue, a common component of Gestalt therapy’s relational approach.
Finally, I will argue that in the light of contacting an Other who “refuses” to be met — a human being whose absolute difference or alterity cannot be assimilated – it is wise to take a renewed look of dialogue in gestalt therapy. There is always a “something” beyond the limit of what we can know. There is always some Other just out of our reach yet whose claim on us summons us to respond. This “something” beyond, this Other, is the basis for our most authentic clinical, relational, and ethical stance. It is a something from the night of being, from a pre-phenomenal “location” and a “time” before contacting — as awareness itself — is possible. This paper begins an inquiry into the ontology of otherness in gestalt therapy.
Looking at the Clinical Phenomenon of Contacting
It is well known to Gestalt therapists that Frederick Perls (1991) introduced “contact” in 1947, when Ego, Hunger and Aggression was first published. He used contacting in different ways, yet there are consistent threads. Contacting is often associated with kinds of connecting. Perls writes, “Heat loosens up the contact between molecules” (15), and refers to “contact” with the world and “contact” with nature. In addition: “Linked up with the emotional reaction of liking or loving is the tendency to make contact” (60); failure to “make” contact is a failure to connect as in “Neurosis is characterized mainly [by] the avoidance of contact” (xvii). The concept is developed further in the first explicitly named Gestalt therapy book, Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (Perls, Hefferline, and Goodman 1951; hereafter PHG).
The theory section of PHG (1951) begins with the often-cited declaration that “experience occurs at the boundary of the organism and its environment” (227). The authors put it pointedly: “contact . . . is the simplest and first reality” (227; emphasis added); soon they simply say that “experience is ultimately contact” (229); and then they summarize, stating that contact includes “every kind of living relation at the boundary in the interaction of the organism and environment” (229; emphasis added). No experiential stone is left unturned with this definition. Centuries of epistemology, and perhaps even ontology, are compressed into a few sentences. In a simple and important lyrical paragraph, they summarize their definition by describing the functioning of contacting:
Envisaging an animal freely roaming in a spacious and various environment, we see that the number and range of contact-functions must be vast, for fundamentally an organism lives in its environment by maintaining its difference and, more importantly, by assimilating the environment to its difference; and it is at the boundary that dangers are rejected, obstacles are overcome, and the assimilable is selected and appropriated. Now what is selected or created is always novel; the organism persists by assimilating the novel, by change and growth. (230; emphasis added)
The organism lives, grows, and thrives through the contact-functions of rejection of or movement toward assimilation and appropriation of what is novel. The authors continue and clarify: “Primarily, contact is the awareness of, and behavior toward, the assimilable novelty; and the rejection of the unassimilable novelty.” For instance, food, as Aristotle used to say, what is “unlike that can become ‘like’; and in the process of assimilation, the organism is in turn changed” (230; emphasis added). In PHG (1951), the authors simply say that self “is the system of contacts” (373; emphasis added).
Multiple contacts constitute self and, as such, self is the agentic process of growth. And in a 1957 lecture at Cooper Union in New York City, Perls (2012a) underscores that “the ‘self’ is to be found in the contrast with the otherness . . . Psychology is exclusively interested in where the self and the other meet” (145).
The unlike as the other is the focus of this article.
Toward a Taxonomy of the Other
Whether this contacted other is a door to be opened, an apple to be eaten, or the lips of a loved one to be kissed, customarily contacting is an activity of rejecting or reaching toward an identified other—some thing or some who—to be identified, manipulated, known/understood, and assimilated and appropriated (PHG 1951, 403).
In phenomenological language, the process of identification and knowing includes a process of “thematizing” (Husserl 2014; Levinas 1969, 46); that is, of putting into pre-known categories of what is already understood and known. After all, how else can we identify and choose unless what we see matches what we are looking for? How can we differentiate and select one other from among many others unless we distinguish the experience of a “this” from a “that”? We discover something new if it is different from what is already known.
Contacting is a process of discovery and invention as well as identifying. What is truly new disturbs our expectations. We may have been surprised and then assimilated the surprise into our understanding: what we expected to be a ripe apple was actually a wax apple. Now we will be alerted to wax apples. We create knowledge from new experiences. Our contactful movement through the world proceeds with the excitements of new experiences and wonders. We are not blank slates—constantly being inscribed by experience and wiped clean once the other is identified, reached, understood, and assimilated—and then move on again as blank slates. What had been other has been contacted and is now familiar and integrated into our understanding of the world. We use our appropriated knowledge. This is the inductive method of science. It is how we accumulate wisdom. At our best, knowledge grows as our categories remain flexible, changeable, and expansive through the assimilation of and growth from new experiences.
The contacting process is described schematically in PHG as a temporal contacting sequence from fore- or precontact to post-contact (PHG 1951, 404). It is a goal-directed unity of awareness, motor response, and feeling. The teleological end or ultimate goal of contacting is growth (Spagnuolo Lobb 2013a, 2013b). The end, of course, is achieved though rejection or appropriation of the other. But is contacting only an active process? Aggressing, deliberating, choosing, and so on? Yet, is it not more experientially accurate to consider the sequence of contacting, not only as this movement toward the other, but also as an openness to the field in which the other, for example, reaches to us and we yield to it?
The Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler (1897–1967) referred to demand characteristics in which a landscape invites one to go for a walk and doors entice us to open them. The apple attracted me; its rottenness repelled me. Water calls me to quench my thirst, a crooked picture on the wall demands I straighten it, the rainbow calls out an experience of natural beauty, the smile of a person calls out happiness or attracts me. A problem calls out for a solution.
These are all aspects of contacting that cannot be characterized by active verbs. We sometimes say the need organizes the field (Wheeler 1991, 28), but it is as much the field that organizes the need (Francesetti 2015a).
What about being open to, welcoming, and waiting? Yielding? Releasing? (Bloom 2013a, 2018; Humphrey and Bloom 2018; Frank 2021). We find what gets our attention, yet has always been there along with us: all is of a field of inanimate, living — and human others. We reach toward what attracts us or calls itself to our attention: the other as an it, the other as a who, or the other as the Other.
Contacting the human other is also an experience of responsivity, and responding—and perhaps even “undergoing,” of a particular relational field (Waldenfels 2016; see also Waldenfels 2007, 2011, for a description of “undergoing”). If it involves understanding, it is an understanding of a very particular kind. I will return to this, below.
Lebenswelt PHG (1951) is clear that experience occurs at the boundary of the organism/environment field (227). Phenomenology is an approach to experience that has developed and still develops in parallel with Gestalt therapy. Grafting its concept of Lebenswelt onto our own model the organism/environment field extends the ways we can consider contacting the Other (Bloom 2013a, 2016, 2018, 2019a, 2019b, 2019c). In this formulation, the environment is our natural surround: air, climate, temperature, nutrients, and so on.
Interlaced indivisibly with this is what John Dewey (1959) referred to as our “most human plane” (370). It is the Lebenswelt, the vital and essential world of everyday life. It is the peopled world of relationships, families, society, and culture into which we are born and in which we participate throughout our lives. The Lebenswelt situates us as beings in the prehistory and extended universe of past social interactions and social references, of possibilities and potentialities, of an embodied peopled surrounding we-world (Husserl 1970), which is fertile, ripe, and ready for the budding of emerging contacting of the organism/environment-Lebenswelt field. (Husserl 1970, 1989; Steinbock 1995).
The environment is the natural surround that sustains our living, while the Lebenswelt is each of our homes: where we dwell, find and are found, know and are known, and love and are loved. It is the “where” of contacting the Other, and where “I” am “Other.” Since this taxonomy of the other makes an important distinction between the material, animate, sensible, and human other, to consider the human being as that other who is “has” a Lebenswelt is justifiable.
We take the Lebenswelt for granted in our ordinary unreflected living. It is the world behind our seeing before what we see, the ground we stand on before we sense its solidity when we take step. Lebenswelt is our lived and living world that is the ground prior to contacting itself, prior to reflecting, yet functionally present and without which a figure could have no ground. As such, it must be implicit in contact: “Contact, as such, is possible without awareness, but for awareness, contact is indispensable,” as PHG (1951) (viii); (viii–ix). F. Perls was apparently open Gestalt therapy to this idea by implying a kind of contacting that precedes awareness, did not develop it Laura Perls suggested to us that being in contact was a condition for making contact. She also took this no further.
Out of. . .
Fore-contact: the body is the ground, the appetite or environmental stimulus is the figure. This is the “given” or Id of the situation dissolving into possibilities.
Since contacting begins with pre- or fore-contacting (PHG 1951, 402), I am describing what is even prior to but available to contacting (Bloom 2019c; Francesetti 2015b). This as-if pre-temporal field is the condition for the possibility of awareness out of which awareness and therefore contacting emerge. Awareness is being awake to the world: an embodied readiness to the world’s murmurs in the silence and shadows in the darkness. It is of a time before time. This is the night of being, the darkness before the light of awareness.
If contacting begins with our id, “it,” or sense of the situation (Robine 2011), contacting is of the situation itself. Logically, the situation must have preceded contact. This is obvious. Ex nihilo nihil fit. Nothing comes from nothing. A sense of the situation is a sense of something that was/is there prior to a sense of it. This is important because the relational world of others is also of the very situation that includes us—the Lebenswelt; it is there prior to our sense or awareness of it. The Other is already there (Heidegger 1962). The Lebenswelt is as visible as the “spectacle” (Merleau-Ponty 1968) of the world before our eyes and yet as invisible as every hint of something that is just escaping our glance. There is no word for the emptiness on a tree branch from which a bird has flown. Pre-contacting is not a sudden spark but is as if a dawning light of day from the ink of night. The Lebenswelt that was always already there is illuminated and available to further contacting, “choosing and rejecting of possibilities, . . . approaching and overcoming obstacles and manipulating [them to our use.]
These are the identifications and alienations of the Ego” (PHG 1951, 403; emphasis added). Ego (“I”) functioning identifies, differentiates, orients, and is contacting’s agency. I begin contacting the other that had always been alongside me, so to speak, in the night before awareness, before the light we are always in readiness for. It is the night of being, the night before I, as Ego, contact the other, and say I am . . . it is . . . and you are.
The What, the Who, the Other
We contact inanimate objects as other; we contact living creatures as other. yet contacting a human being is experientially different from other contacting experiences. Its situates us in the Lebenswelt of human others. Under important circumstances we come face to face with the human other as Other, which is a consequential process to be explained below. Contacting the human other in all dimensions is direct evidence that we are persons among persons of the Lebenswelt, dwelling on the common human plane, all of us emergent of the same ground crisscrossed with threads of past, present, future, all weaving the fabric of potential personhood.
Reaching toward the Other: intentionality
Intentionality organizes contacting toward an identified object—its intentional object (Husserl 2014)—some object or thing to satisfy a need, desire, curiosity, and so on. This dynamic is often referred to as an intentionality of or for contacting (Spagnuolo Lobb 2013a). So considered, contacting implies a one-directional valence organized by the dynamics of the field, since it is toward its goal, a not-me or an other. My purposive and goal-directed intentionality, then, is toward some thing and always some thing for me. That is, it is always something to be contacted in order to accomplish some necessary task or for my use.
Final-contact (PHG 1951, 403) is the consummation of contacting and the completion of the arc of the intentionality for contacting. An arrow hits its mark. I am hungry, see an object among many, identify them as apples, pick up one, and eat it. This is contacting the inanimate other. The other is an identified “it.” These “its” are countable and usually fungible (Waldenfels 2011). I can have a box of hundred nails. One nail is as good as another. Inanimate things also may attract me or draw my attention to them. Köhler’s demand characteristics and James Gibson’s (1904–1979) affordances (cited in Waldenfels 2016, 19) sufficiently account for this. Contacting an inanimate other is unproblematically a process of discovery, identification, rejection or selection, and appropriation.
Even though contacting the human other has its own unmistakable qualities, there are circumstances when the human other serves a function for me and an object among objects. A person can be my cab driver or my cleaning person. My husband fulfills a certain role for me. When we use possessive pronouns for people, we mark their human otherness with the territoriality of the language of possession. We relate to their function for me.
We know they are people with me (Heidegger 1962, 154). We do not turn them into inanimate objects or tools—exceptions are obvious—even as we relate to them as functions. I never doubt that my cab driver is a living human or think my cleaning person is a humanoid robot. The possessive pronoun melts if my cab driver turns to me and her glance meets mine. I see through her function-for-me. She appears as a human other. My intentionality for contacting meets hers, however fleetingly. There might be an instant flash of something emergent of the moment — some sense of more… or less. A question…? A demand? Or if I insist that my spouse remain my spouse not a person beyond a function for me, then there will be something limited, and inflexible in the qualities of the relationship. I will own a function, not be in a human relationship. My homelife might be as routine as life in a factory. Contacting a human other is to recognize co-citizenship of the Lebenswelt.
In Dialogue: The I and the Thou-as-Other
To discover this relational fabric of the Lebenswelt, we must take a step beyond the everyday conventions of commonplace language and look beyond them. For example, the second person “you” has meaning only in terms of the “I,” the first person. First, second, and third person pronouns are crucial to our everyday understanding and communicating. In terms of contacting the human Other, the Other stands outside this dynamic of categorizing or thematic understanding. I am not your Other; you are not my Other, even though everyday language says otherwise. The Other cannot be possessed. More radically, the Other as “I” cannot be drowned by the plural of “we” (Levinas 1969). That is, turned into the second person “you” who participates in a “we.” The Other has no pronoun.
In Gestalt therapy terms, this is the Other who defeats our intentionality toward contacting: identifying, knowing, understanding, and assimilating the not-me. This Other insists on remaining “un-like.” While there is a You (Du) in every you (Sie) (Buber 1970), there is an unknowable Other in every other who remains beyond our usual categories. This is an aspect of the other as Other that Emmanuel Levinas (1996a) calls an “enigma.” This Other is a “borderline phenomenon located between the visible and the invisible” (Waldenfels 2002, 76)—who defeats our intentionality for contacting and instead demands responsivity (Waldenfels 2011).
This has implications for clinical practice:
The ultimate nature of dialogue is revealed in what Buber calls Umfassung, or inclusion, and which is one of the most original notions of his philosophy (Levinas). For Buber, the relationship between the I and the Thou is directly lived as reciprocity. . . . [The] central . . . difference between my [ideas] and Buber’s is the theme of asymmetry. —Levinas 2004
The Other’s resistance to being understood leads to a consideration of “dialogue,” one of the cornerstones of the relational approach of Gestalt therapy. In fact, dialogical contacting (Bloom 2013a) is the sine qua non of the relational process, since it is arguably only with dialogue that relational contacting can proceed. Martin Buber (1878–1965) is one of the principal philosophers of dialogue. The elements of Buberian dialogue are inclusion, mutuality, and confirmation (Friedman 1989; Yontef 1993; Mann 2010). Gestalt therapists are often taught these elements as basic to their clinical orientation toward patients. I will reflect on some of the assumptions of “inclusion”—living “through the common event from the standpoint of the other” (Buber 2002, 115), which nevertheless maintains the alterity of the Thou-as-other and the I—and then reconsider them from the perspective of Levinas, another philosopher of dialogue.. A dialogical gestalt approach founded on reciprocity surrenders, then, to a post-dialogical perspective founded demand, call and response.
Buber’s ideas are well known to Gestalt therapists. Buber’s poetic philosophy of dialogue and invocations of relationality have been inspirational for decades of Gestalt therapists. “I” and “Thou” are almost Gestalt therapy terms as common as “contact” itself. Levinas’s ideas are less well known and are rarely integrated into Gestalt therapy (Orange 2018; Bloom 2018). While Buber was first to last a theologian who also wrote philosophy, Levinas was a philosopher who also wrote theology. Levinas’s philosophy of the Other includes a radical notion of relational ethics that is complex and provocative. I will use some of his ideas to reflect on “inclusion” and “mutuality” to open a new approach to contacting the human Other.
Levinas (1906–1995) was born in Lithuania, studied philosophy in Germany, and developed most of his philosophy in France. Significantly, he introduced Edmund Husserl’s (1859–1938) phenomenology to France. Levinas directly studied with Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) and was part of a circle of students closely connected to him in Germany. He spent World War II in a German prisoner of war camp as a captured French soldier. Most of Levinas’s family was exterminated in the Holocaust.
Arguably, much of Levinas’s philosophy is a response to Heidegger’s. Levinas’s own project was to go beyond Heidegger’s focus on ontology and ultimately to replace ontology with his own formulation of an “ethics as first philosophy.” That is, he intended to replace Heideggerian philosophy’s concern with Being with what he argued was an even more primary concern, ethics, as he defined it (Levinas 1998). For example, he rejected Heidegger’s central idea that awareness of our own death defines what it means to be a human, that we are beings for whom our own being is an issue (Heidegger 1962). Rather, for Levinas, it is death of the other that determines our meaning as humans. We are beings for whom the death of others is an issue. That is, rather than understanding human beings as beings-toward-death, we are beings-toward the-death-of-the-other. We are not—cannot be—non-indifferent to the other; we are never otherwise than implicated in a life of the other. The double negatives are importantly Levinasian. This is a wholly different orientation to being, existence, self, and the other than of his mentor, Heidegger. Levinas argued that ethics, not ontology, is the “first philosophy,” where “ethics . . . is a [human] relation irreducible to comprehension” (Critchley and Bernasconi 2002, 11). It is “first” insofar as ethics, human relatedness, is prior to being (ontology) (Levinas 1998). Significantly, ethics is not a question of moral right or wrong. That is the concern of morality. Justice is administered by systems of laws. It is crucially important to remember Levinas’s idiosyncratic meaning of “ethics.” Like many philosophers (and psychotherapy theorists), and like his teacher Heidegger, Levinas appropriates words and gives them his own meaning.
Levinas’s philosophy seems abstract and obscure, to be sure. It is also concrete, carnal, and passionate. The body, desire, hunger, “good soup,” fecundity, the caress, human need, suffering, murder, and other embodied actualities of personal existence appear throughout his works. His focus was not merely on the Other in the grandest sense, but on our relationship to one another on an everyday level. His philosophical project asked the question, “Is philosophy still possible after the slaughter of the Holocaust?” One of the dedications in Otherwise than Being was “To the memory of those who are closest among the 6 million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions on millions of all confessions in all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-Semitism” (Putnam 2002; emphasis added). Note that the dedication is not to those to whom he was personally closest, but to everyone—all victims of hate—which he provocatively universalizes as anti-Semitism. All who suffer from hate—all of us—are Jews.
Levinas and Buber acknowledged the many ways in which they agreed and disagreed with one another over the years of their association. In some respects, their philosophies of dialogue are nearly identical. Yet their agreements/disagreements shifted back and forth (Friedman 2004). Levinas’s questions about “reciprocity” in Buber’s dialogue and the demand of the Other are relevant to this discussion of contacting the other. His questions also suggest adjustments to our assumptions about dialogue.
Inclusion – as far as possible
Buber (1965) addressed dialogue and psychotherapy as follows: “The elements of this ‘genuine dialogue’—the I-Thou process—are (1) presence, (2) genuine and unreserved communication, and (3) inclusion. In therapy these conditions become prerequisites for the dialogic patient-therapist relationship” (237). Elsewhere, he wrote that inclusion is “a bold swinging—demanding the most intensive stirring of one’s being— into the life of the other” (81).
Consequently, in terms of psychotherapeutic inclusion, per Buber, “the therapist must feel the other side, of the relationship, as a bodily touch to know how the patient feels it.” Buber adds what must be added, “ If the patient could do this there would be no need of therapy and no relationship” (Buber, 173).
Lynne Jacobs (1995), in representing her early and still evolving thoughts on the subject, cautions that psychotherapy is not a mutual dialogical process: It is a “special case of dialogue. It includes a one-sided inclusion where the helper strives to imagine the reality of the other” (79). Jacobs is explicit that at best the therapist can only strive to imagine the other’s reality. Inclusion goes in one direction and has its limit. Dave Mann (2010) reinforces the notion that dialogue is indeed one of Gestalt therapy’s “key points and techniques.” Before discussing inclusion, joining Jacobs, Mann also offers “a cautionary note”: “We [therapists] need to respectfully enter the world of the client to experience the world of the client, as far as possible, within their lifespace without judging analyzing, or interpreting whilst retaining a sense of our own separate, autonomous existence. . . . In inclusion . . . we need to shuttle between the experienced world of the client and the experienced world of the client” (179; emphasis added). Gestalt therapists approach the therapeutic process of dialogue with the intention of entering into the experiential world of the patient—as far as possible. Yet, to repeat, the intention is to enter a knowable, imaginable world of the other — even if as far as possible. And we may all agree with this without question. Each person who consults a therapist strives to be understood, to be heard, to find, support –to find a relationship that might contain and bear the weight of his or her suffering.
“As far as possible.” What limits the possible? There is an edge beyond which the Other cannot be known and beyond which “inclusion” is frustrated.
I will focus below on the limit of the possible, at which point different a sense of contacting the Other is conceivable. I will suggest this then calls for another way of understanding contacting the Other.
The Ineffable: the edge of the possible
“Understanding is a peculiarly sublime way of appropriation; it is supposed to be able to let everything appear as itself by overcoming its . . . otherness, by familiarizing it, i.e., by receiving it, so to speak in the bosom of one’s own family” (Waldenfels 2002, 28).
Buber’s (2002) living “through the common event from the standpoint of the other” is not an absorption in the other but a concrete encounter between two persons in an event together in which “the experience of the one includes the standpoint of the other” (115). This is inclusion in the service of making the other’s experience present (Orange 2009, 25). “To speak to him is to let him realize his own otherness. …. The being who is invoked in this relation is ineffable (emphasis added) (Levinas 1967, 138) Yet using Buber’s phrase, can we ever “feel the patient’s side of the relationship”? Look closely at Buber’s description of touch:
A man caresses a woman, who lets herself be caressed. Then let us assume that he feels the contact from two sides—with the palm of his hand still, and also with the woman’s skin. The twofold nature of the gesture, as one that takes place between two persons, thrills through the depth of enjoyment in his heart and stirs it . . . The one extreme experience makes the other person present to him for all time. A transfusion has taken place. (Buber 2002, 114; emphasis added)
What aspect of the other person’s experience is being made present in this example? What is transfused? Buber adds that inclusion’s “elements are, first, a relation . . . between two persons; second, events experienced by them in common, in which at least one of them actively participates, and, third, the fact that this person, without forfeiting anything of the felt reality of this activity, at the same time lives through the common event from the standpoint of the other” (115; emphasis added).
This is an explicitly mutual event. Consequently, dialogue would be a mutual process extended across a synchronous event of a common experience. But can we experience a common event from the stand-point of the other? When we are in the flow of time we are always out of synch with the other. The contemporary phenomenologist Bernhard Waldenfels (2011) refers to our displacement in time as a temporal diastasis (31). To Levinas (1969), this gap between the time of me and time of the other is how we know time’s passage. We are always arriving where the other was. It is never “I see you seeing me,” but “I see you having seen me.” We are always catching up, always where the other has already been. We hear words that have been said. And how can I ever “stand on your point” of view when you and I occupy different locations concretely and phenomenally? I can only imagine I know the other’s experience when all I can know is my own experience of contacting the other. But even imagining an other’s experience is predicated on the assumption that I can have some knowledge of that experience.
In therapeutic inclusion, entering the experiential world of the patient-other “as far as possible” has a limit. When we ignore this limit, we risk overlooking the Otherness of the other. What is unlike-me is overwhelmed in the service of the demand to make the unfamiliar the familiar. When we claim to know the other’s experience, Otherness is annihilated. The Other disappears behind my ideas, my concepts, my fantasies, my projections, and so forth. This is contacting as an appropriation. The not-me is somewhat like-me. Or, at best, the other is enough not-me for me to recognize some difference and, at the same time, enough like-me for me to cover-over otherness with my presumptions or pre-suppositions or prejudgments. The Other disappears.
This is not to say that the dialogical method that includes inclusion necessarily nihilates the Other, but the risk needed to be to be boldly underscored. When the “as far as possible” of inclusion is taken seriously, then the remainder, that which is beyond the reach of dialogical intentionality offers a powerful new clinical possibility.
There is, however, another dimension to contacting the Other that includes a radical view of the Other, which re-forms the entire process of relational contacting. This is the Other who resists being appropriated in contacting. I will dip more deeply into this Levinasian stream, which flows as well with some overlooked Buberian water.
Dialogue Off Balance: Responsibility and Responsivity
For Buber, the relationship between the I and the Thou is directly lived as reciprocity. . . . [The] central . . . difference between my [ideas] and Buber’s is the theme of asymmetry.
—Levinas 2004; emphasis added
Levinas (1969) radically proposes that the Other is beyond understanding. That is, the Other can never be known in the fullest sense of understanding and yet remain an Other. The Other resists any imposition of meaning. Further, Levinas (1996b) writes: “The absolutely Other is not reflected in a consciousness; it resists the indiscretion of intentionality . . . The resistance of the Other . . . overturns the very egoism of the Same; that which is aimed at unseats the intentionality which aims at it” (16; emphasis added).
Contacting in terms of the process of identifying, assimilating, and appropriating the novel must therefore come to an abrupt halt when the other refuses to be met. I am called to you, reach to you—yet. You as Other are and remain an “enigma” (Levinas 1998). In Levinas’s (1969) terms, the “face” of the Other is “the way in which the other presents herself, as exceeding the idea of the other in me” (50; emphasis added).
The intentionality for contacting is overwhelmed. The idea of the other, that is, who I think the other is, is overwhelmed by a “call” from a “height.” That is, the Other and I are not on a horizontal plane of mutuality. This is Levinas’s intriguing notion of the “asymmetry of intersubjective space” (Critchley and Bernasconi 2002, 14; Levinas 1969), which goes to the heart of his objection to an ethics or relationality of simple mutuality. I am overwhelmed; I become sub-jected to the Other—from a height. I am sub-jected in the sense the Other as if puts herself above me. The relationship is not level. The intent of intentionality to know or even meet the Other is “inverted” (Levinas 1969, 86).
The Other, with an alterity that refuses being known, disrupts contacting. My effort to understand the Other is overwhelmed by a difference that cannot be contained by my understanding. Crucially, my subjection is not passive submission or surrender. I do not disappear. I am not a prisoner without a will. I remain an active agent in this relational drama.
I cannot take the standpoint of the Other who resists even my well-meaning attempt at ordinary understanding. Inclusion as-far-as-possible and dialogue’s symmetry that assume a common experience take on new meanings and, perhaps, deepen. Even notions of perspectival relativity where you and I maintain different perspectives of a common experience assumes “we” that is now called into question. The Other’s point of view will always be other to mine. The absolute Other is always a stranger to me; that is, an enigma not to be puzzled out but one that perpetually frustrates my categorical understanding since, in this new domain, my understanding and knowing can no longer be a function of contacting the Other. A new dimension of knowing, of understanding, and of relational being emerges. The familiar domain of everyday understanding disappears into the ethical world of the Other.
This was Levinas’s radical philosophical move “beyond being”: from ontology to ethics as a first philosophy. In Gestalt therapy terms, this encounter with the Other who resists ordinary understanding and, indeed, calls into question the comfortable assumptions of inclusion and dialogue, creates a particular tension at the contact-boundary that calls forth the emergence of a relational figure reflecting an asymmetrical ethical or relational field. The figure/ground of relational contacting of this field brightens the intrinsic ethical basis of interpersonal self- process (Bloom 2013b). The Lebenswelt now shines with the different light of the ethical field. (Bloom)
“Eruption” of Ethics
Returning to Levinas, the “face of the Other” calls forth the “eruption” of an ethical or responsible subject from the what he sometimes refers to as the self. This call of the Other is an ethical “command” that disturbs self’s very assumptions or preunderstandings of the other. It is “ethical” in the sense that the Other announces itself as absolutely and irrecusably Other who is beyond understanding (Levinas 1998). In contacting the Other, I respond to this demand to become an ethical subject. I am now consciously aware of whom I have always already been in relation. This is another way to understand Levinas’s ethics.
Again, it is under these circumstances that the intentionality of inclusion—to know/ understand the other—is challenged and reversed back upon itself and, as my intentionality for contacting, upon me. I cannot know the Other, but I can know what it is like for me to experience this challenge. Now reversed, I am immediately the object of my own intentionality for contact. Although thrown back, I am not thrown back to an isolated disconnected or nonrelational self, but to an ethical, relational subjectivity.
Levinas (1998) takes this still further: in his intense words, the dramatic command is the cry, “Do not kill me.” The Other announces vulnerability in its command. It is a command for me to be ultimately responsible for the Other. Thankfully, Levinas scholars remind us that we can turn down the volume on his intensity (Critchley and Dianda 2015). There are different ways to understand Levinas’s command to be ultimately responsible, as fortunately there are different ways to understand much of Levinas. So, we can translate “Do not kill me” into more easily relatable “Do not smother me with your theories and ideas” and “Do not turn me into a thing.” “Do not analyze me.” The command calls out responsibility: “You cannot be non-indifferent to me” (Bloom 2013b). The command of the Other, then, awakens us to be non-indifferent. If “confirmation” in dialogue is grounded in the experience of hearing the Other—“I hear you”—then this command is the call for confirmation of Otherness. “I hear you” cannot be a cliché when it erupts for a response to such a call.14 This response is a form of the confirmation that is an element of dialogue raised to a new dimension. The response to the command is undergoing the weight of the/Other’s call.
Consequently, I cannot convert the Other into a like-me. In the reversal of my intentionality onto myself, I experience myself differently. I am in contact with the aspects of the relational field that were otherwise less evident to me when my effort was directed at understanding the other. That is, it becomes apparent that I am in relation to others in ways prior and irreducible to comprehension. This is the ethical world that is prior to being, prior to yet disclosed from within the everyday world by the face of the other. The Other cannot become a like-me. But I am a like-Other. I and others are of the taken-for-granted background, always already there Lebenswelt of the organism/environment-Lebenswelt field (Bloom 2019b), whose depths descend primordially and whose horizons stretch further than the eye can see. The call? The command?
Atterton, Calarco, and Friedman (2004) put it this way:
This strange, illogical notion of a “command before understanding,” where the other is capable of obligating prior to consciousness and deliberation is what Levinas in Otherwise than Being calls the “trace.” . . . The language of the face is the trace of “a past that has never been present,” that is, a past that has never been present to consciousness in the form of memory. I have always been responsible for the other without knowing it. (14–15)
We can walk past an inanimate object in the street with indifference. We do not notice most objects. They have no “face”: “Whatever sinks down into the anonymous, the impersonal, the neutral, is faceless” (Waldenfels 2002, 39–40). Yet, how many times can we walk past a human being and not notice a person there? Even a person we barely notice usually still This call and response dynamic creates a nonreciprocal relationship between the self and the Other. But it is reversible. No one is a perpetual subject (Waldenfels 2002) registers in some way, even peripherally. We often walk into a dark theater and sense there are people there, out of sight, out of hearing: the “visible” in the invisible, the “heard” in the silence. We are not indifferent even when we turn away (Bloom 2013b).
To refer back to the trivial example of my eyes meeting my cab driver’s eyes: when our eyes meet, I see this person whom now I recognize as a human person who matters, no longer defined by place and function. There is no Levinasian thunder in this hypothetical instant in a New York City taxi. These examples do not match the high-pitched moments of dramatic responsibility, but they suggest the traces of the command of the Other in the soil of our everyday Lebenswelt. Adrian Peperzak (1997) states the following:
By seeing another as an interesting variety of phenomenal beings I reduce the other’s otherness to an element of the somatic universe over which I preside by giving a place and function to all beings, relations, and events. [The other] . . . to whom I address myself in speaking . . . is not an element of any context; as long as we think in terms of phenomenal beings that have a place and functions in text and context, the other is a whole or absence . . . the other whom I meet as Other is invisible. (62–63)
The “Clinical” Other
When our dialogical approach to contacting the other proceeds with the good faith gesture of inclusion, and with explicit recognition of its limits, we are confronted with the Other that refuses to be known. We may have thought we “knew” the Other, but this can only be a hypothesis that implicitly obscures the Other. But when we reorient ourselves to the process of contacting that includes our openness, receptivity, yielding to the Otherness of the other person is intact even as the Other refuses to be met. This an ethics of responsibility for and responsivity to the Other based upon our all being others among Others of the organism/environment-Lebenswelt field.
Our therapeutic stance becomes clear when our attempt to know the patient’s experience is replaced by willingness to be subject to the sharpness of experiencing this refusal itself. This is the experience of contacting the Other at the therapeutic contact-boundary, itself at the limit of the possible. This is contacting by bearing the weight of non-indifference to the command of the Other. Devoid of any effort by us to cover the Other in the preknowledge of the same, the Otherness of our patient is preserved in all its creativity. Our patient and we are as if welcomed into the openness or clearing of availability of the organism/environment-Lebenswelt field, the psychotherapeutic field.
The creativity of the creative-adjusting in psychotherapeutic contacting emerges from our listening for a call to respond from our patient. Our ability to be open to our responsivity to the otherness that emerges at the contact-boundary in our therapy session, then, is the core of therapeutic contacting the Other. This does not mean we submit to our patient or are passive in the therapy session or play the reflecting pingpong of “I hear you say” so as to “get” the other’s experience,15 but that we are open to the situation, undergo and receive the emerging figure that includes the other person and ourselves clinically as we creatively participate in the aesthetic of contacting. “I understand”16 pushes away; “How can I help?” welcomes.
Our participation remains an active participation, not submission to call of the Other at the contact-boundary. Submission is not responsivity. Drawing on Kurt Goldstein (1878–1965), Waldenfels (2016) writes: “[Goldstein] defines ‘responsivity’ as the organism’s capacity to answer in an adequate way to the requirements of the milieu, and vice versa” (18). Responsivity is similar to how organisms as organisms are sensitive to their surround. To be responsive is to be neither active nor passive, but to be ready. Being responsive is answering to the call or appeal of the Other.
Our location in the therapeutic field is organized by the coordinates of this contacting the Otherness of our patient who brings his or her suffering to us. This person calls forth our response from our sense of the situation, not from what we presume we know about theirs. That is, we fundamentally trust the evidence of our senses that tells us what This is a technique of attempting to clarify understanding. It is effective. Yet, it remains within the world of understanding. I have been proposing taking this technique further.
When dialogue now is framed in terms of responsibility and responsivity, we can further replace understanding the other with the hermeneutics of uncertainty (Staemmler 2007) we always already know: that we and the patient are of the organism/ environment-Lebenswelt field, and the “call to respond” is emergent of the Other that refuses to be suppressed. What we so fundamentally know has always also been something we always easily overlooked.
Where man is not, nature is barren.
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
The English Romantic poet William Blake (1757–1827) had a phenomenological point, his anthropocentric arrogance and nineteenth-century anachronistic sexism notwithstanding. Where contacting is not, the world is dark. Contacting enchants the world. Gestalt therapy has this remarkable idea at its heart. It is part of our phenomenology, epistemology, anthropology, psychology, and psychotherapy. Contacting is the process of our touching and being touched by the world: “Caresses are dormant in all contact and contact in all sensible experience” (Levinas 1998, 191).
Contacting the other is the process of touching and being touched by things. It is touching one another, and holding and being held. It is to hear (Orange 2020), and to be heard. It is the process of approaching the Other who stands back from our domination and compels us to respond, demands that we ourselves pay attention to what it is to be a person in the presence of an other who insists on being Other. These are all variations of contacting the other of the organism/ environment-Lebenswelt field, a soil fertile with our essential ethical relationality, which is the basis for human responsibility of non-indifference and responsivity.
Dan Bloom, JD, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, supervisor, and clinical trainer in New York City. He teaches at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy (NYIGT), is guest and adjunct faculty at Gestalt therapy institutes worldwide, and offers online seminars in the theory and practice of contemporary Gestalt therapy. He is past president and Fellow of the NYIGT; past president of the International Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy (IAAGT); and cofounder of the International Study Group on Field-Emergent Self and Therapy. He is an associate editor of Gestalt Review, book review editor of Quaderni di Gestalt, and a member of the Scientific Board of the Gestalt therapy Book Series published by Routledge.
I am grateful to Lynne Jacobs for her careful reading of this article, and to Donna Orange who, as teacher and colleague, encouraged me through the texts of Emmanuel Levinas. I am also appreciative of Susan L. Fischer’s editorial expertise (and her endless patience).
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