“To analyze is to renounce yourself
One can reason only in a circle
One sees only what one wants to see
Birth solves nothing” —Nicanor Parra


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A Question of Responsibility

By Claudia K. Grinnell Claudia K. Grinnell

How is a writer, a human, responsible? The following Philip Whalen poem tries to work towards an answer:
20:vii:58, On Which I Renounce the Notion of Social Responsibility

The minute I'm out of town
My friends get sick, go back on the sauce
Engage in unhappy love affairs
they write me letters & I worry

Am I their brains, their better sense?
All of us want something to do.
     I am breathing. I am not asleep.
               In this context: Fenellose translated NO (Japanese word)

                    as “accomplishment”
                         (a pun for the hip?)

Something to do

          “I will drag you there by the hair of your head!”
          & he began doing just that to his beautiful wife
          until their neighbors (having nothing better to do)
          Broke it up

If nothing else we must submit ourselves
To the charitable impulse of our friends
Give them a crack at being bodhisattvas
          (although their benevolence is a heavy weight on my head
          their good intention an act of aggression)

Motion of shadows where there's neither light nor eye to see
Mind a revolving door
My head a falling star
      Can one, as the title of this poem seems to suggest, protest against the notion of responsibility (Latin, renuntiare/English, renunciation/to renounce: to disavow, to give up, to protest against)? Can one just say No to social responsibility, can one not do, and, by saying No accomplish something? “All of us want something to do,” the speaker says. When we have “nothing better to do,” we meddle in other people's affairs, break up fights between husbands and wives. The recipient of such doing, such action, must submit himself, has the passive responsibility of enduring, in the double sense of bearing with patience and extend/continue/last over time, such impulses. Thus responsibility becomes a revolving door; on one side of the door is the call to action, to act, to responsibility. Here, we do, at least as long as we are breathing and are not asleep. On the other side of the door, we are the receptacles for responsibility, for the benevolent acts of our friends. Here, we submit. The line of demarcation between both sides is fluid and shadowy because at any given time, we both act and are acted upon.      Is responsibility a call for response, i.e. a call to answer or being answerable, a call to give an account or to be accountable? It seems to be the ordinary conception. J. R. Lucas begins his Responsibility by observing that
[e]tymologically, to be responsible is to be answerable—it comes from the Latin respondeo, I answer, or the French repondre, as in RSVP. I can equally well say I am responsible for an action or accountable for it. And if I am to answer, I must answer a question; the question is, 'Why did you do it?' and in answering that question, I give an account . . . of my action. So the central core of the concept of responsibility is that I can be asked the question 'Why did you do it?' and be obliged to give an answer (5).
     I suspect, however, that this is false. Responsibility can be distinguished from accountability in terms of priority and relationship. If I do something to you—if you greet me publicly, for instance, and I cut you—I am accountable for my behavior. Were you to demand an explanation, I owe you one. And, indeed, you would describe it as irresponsible of me not to account for my actions. But I am responsible to you even before I am accountable to you. When you greet me, I must respond. There is no not responding, I would argue. By cutting you I have responded, although perhaps in a manner intended to shirk responsibility. I may turn away from you, but this does not mean that I have not responded to you. It means only that I have not responded in kind. I have shamed you, made you aware of your isolation from me, and thus refused to accept responsibility for not doing these things to you. Responsibility is prior to accountability.
      But what is more, to whom I am accountable is not the same as to whom I am responsible. Only some people can demand an explanation from me. I do not have to give an account of myself to clerks and strangers, but only to those with whom I have already established a relationship. And in fact, I might speculate that a relationship is brought sharply to an end by the refusal of one person to give an account of himself to the other.
      Yet I am responsible to you even if you are a stranger to me. Again, if you greet me, I cannot not respond. Not to respond is to respond by not responding. And if you are in need—if you slip on the sidewalk and fall at my feet—my failure to respond is clearly a moral failure. Nor do you want an account of my actions, except perhaps later; what you want is an immediate response of a certain kind. Thus I reveal my sense of responsibility toward you in how I respond to you. And responsiveness, then (to use Lucas's language), is “the central core of the concept of responsibility.”
      My etymological analysis differs from Lucas's. “Responsibility” derives from the verb “to respond,” re- + spondere (to promise solemnly, to bind, engage, or pledge oneself). Now if a promise is an assurance to another with respect to the future, then a response is a reassurance, the restoration of faith and removal of shame. And non/unresponsiveness, then—the withdrawal into silence or refusal to help—is the lack, the defect state, of promising. Not to respond is not to pledge oneself. It is unreassuring; it does not restore faith nor remove shame. Rather than contributing to what Jews call tikkun olam, the repair of the world, non-responsiveness leaves the defect state intact. It fails to answer to human need. In the face of damage it shrugs, “Not my responsibility.”
     Accountability is what we owe to those with whom we are intimate. Responsibility is what we owe to the widow, the stranger, and our neighbor—in addition to our intimates. Thus responsibility is prior to accountability, but is not based upon a prior relationship. It is the basis of all further human relations.
      The speaker of the poem realizes that “all of us want something to do.” We want to respond, both actively (through doing) and passively (through submission); we want to answer to human need, even if such “benevolence is a heavy weight.” In Responsible Self, H. Richard Niebuhr said something remarkably similar:
     In our responsibility we attempt to answer the question: “What shall I do?” by raising the prior question: “What is going on?” or “What is being done to me?” rather than “What is my end (or goal)?” or “What is my ultimate law?”
      The questions “What am I to do?” and “What is the fitting response to what is happening?” demand reflection upon what is going on. The moral agent reveals her/his interpretation of events in how she/he chooses to respond to them.
      Guilt is often confused with both responsibility and accountability, but is the basis of neither. Although he is talking about shame rather than guilt, Primo Levi advances the clearest and most persuasive case for the disjunction between guilt and responsibility. In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi describes the reaction of the first Russian soldiers who stumbled upon Auschwitz:
They [soldiers] did not greet us, nor smile; they seemed oppressed, not only by pity but also by a confused restraint which sealed their mouths, and kept their eyes fastened on the funereal scene. It was the same shame which we [prisoners] knew so well, which submerged us after the selections, and every time we had to witness or undergo an outrage: the shame that the Germans never knew, the shame which the just man experiences when confronted by a crime committed by another, and he feels remorse because of its existence, because of its having been irrevocably introduced into the world of existing things, and because his will has proven nonexistent or feeble and was incapable of putting up a good defense.
Levi's distinction here between, on one hand, the shame of the prisoners and the Russian soldiers and on the other “the shame that the Germans never knew” seems to indicate that there is a failure, on part of the Germans, to respond appropriately. In this sense, each person has to ask himself “Am I my brother's keeper?” and respond affirmatively or negatively. His responsibility, his response to the question, is prior to the guilt that he incurs by defaulting upon his responsibility.
      Emmanuel Levinas, I think, would argue that we are responsible for those we are responsible to. That is, because I must respond to the husband dragging his wife be the hair on her head, I become responsible for him. Taking responsibility for another by responding to that person without self-protectiveness or reserve, in other words, by submitting to that person, gives both that person and me a “crack at being bodhisattvas” (wise/enlightened beings). This giving up of self-protectiveness or selfishness, this complete responsiveness, takes us into the realm of “[m]otion of shadows where there's neither light nor eye [I/ego] to see.” It is the promise(d) land. It is also the land toward which writers (=author=beginner/originator) struggle each time they put pen to paper. A writer responds—is responsive—to his/her environment. It is the writer's responsibility to reflect upon what is going on, and to, consequently, answer the question, “What am I to do?” The answer is, write—originate or begin, in other words, the repair of the world. And that is precisely what the speaker (author?) of the poem attempts to do by beginning with a seeming renunciation of responsibility. This renunciation is a rhetorical device, however; it is one designed to ironically showcase the impossibility of renunciation. M. H. Abrams, in Glossary of Literary Terms, defines irony as follows:
In Greek comedy, the character called eiron was a “dissembler,” who characteristically spoke in understatement and deliberately pretended to be less intelligent than he was. . . . In most of the critical uses of the term “irony” there remains the root sense of dissembling or hiding what is actually the case; not, however, in order to deceive, but to achieve special rhetorical or artistic effects.
     The speaker of the poem, therefore, dissembles in order to then create the world of response and responsibility, one in which he first feels weighted down by the sheer magnitude of the task; yet ultimately, he understands this world as limitless, because it is a dance of action and reaction, between subject and object, between self and other. In the swirling dance through the revolving door of the mind, the world is created new in each instance, and each instance thus becomes another possibility of responsibility.