Shankman has written an interesting book, especially to the Levinas specialist, on how the now modish term “Other” has for the most part “lost its moorings in the primacy of the intersubjective encounter [face to face interactions], focusing rather on the social construction of the Other” [how culture creates the Other]. Following Levinas, what Shankman is troubled by is that the Other is beyond any construction or categorization, what Levinas calls thematization. For Levinas and other post-modern thinkers, the Other can never be definitionally “pinned down”; rather, all one can do is what Heidegger called “formal indication” — “ the meaning-content of…concepts does not directly intend or express what they refer to, but only gives an indication, a pointer to the fact that something” exists and has a certain specific character.
Shankman’s wide-ranging essays draw from the literatures of ancient China, Greece, and Israel to modern Egypt, Italy, West Africa, and America, and assume some familiarity with the literatures in question. His main “take home points” seem to be: (1) By reading literary works from outside the Judeo-Christian perspective, while looking “for figurations equivalent to Levinas’s notion of the Other” we get a better sense of what it means to be the “Other” in different cultural contexts and (2) it is ethics, not culture, that has the last word in human experience and self-fashioning. Ethics, says Shankman, is the “presupposition of all Culture” that is situated, that is operative “before Culture.”
Shankman correctly points out that although “the Otherness industry is indeed in high gear, the term the Other has gone remarkably unexamined.” However, Shankman does not adequately reckon with what this term actually means, and how the term “Other” has its own genealogy and means very different things to different people in different cultural contexts. He also does not reckon with the fact that “Otherness” is not necessarily good: the Jews were the Other to the Nazis. Moreover, too much Otherness in a love relationship can signal its demise. Shankman also does not take up the complex philosophical problem of how one distinguishes similarities and differences, that is, what is self and what is other, the basis for any description of Otherness.
My criticisms notwithstanding, I found Shankman’s book to be a useful contribution to the Levinasian literature, in particular, to how Levinas’ ideas can be used to illuminate intellectual domains that are not strictly of academic or philosophical interest and may have some real-life application.