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THE RESPONSIBILITY TOWARDS THE OTHER

I exist through the other and for the other, but without this being

alienation.

—Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being: Or beyond Essence

Fittingly, the movie gradually builds up this responsibility towards the Other as Ray’s physical abode, the tin trailer, and her family life become more and more compromised and the layer of ice on the river dangerously thins out. Synchronously, T. J., Ray’s older son, has concocted a scheme to get people’s credit card numbers so that he can buy his brother’s favorite game for Christmas. He also tries to defreeze the pipes on Christmas night and almost sets the trailer on fire. The trailer is hardly a shelter that protects the family’s dream and has been downgraded to a “tin crapper.” Desperate, Ray resorts to Lila so they can run one more time across the river. It is all she needs to pay the last installment on the new trailer. Once again, it is Lila who needs convincing. Ray drives her to the trailer shop, where she makes the final deposit prior to delivery. The two women gaze at the promised home, a double-wide whose virtues Ray enumerates as if part of a litany: three bedrooms, a Jacuzzi bath in the master bedroom, and, best of all, insulation.

Although the dream home is just a run away, the last crossing proves to be fraught with danger from the start. The Canadian coyote has two women ready but is only willing to pay for one, and Ray confronts him with the sangfroid of a professional handler ready to shoot or be shot. Symbolically, Ray, who has failed to hear the trooper’s slanted admonitions, ends up shot in the ear as she drives away. In the midst of the confusion, Ray goes over the speed limit and the car is immediately followed by state troopers. In desperation, the women take refuge on the reservation, where they cannot be arrested, and head for the frozen river. Lila immediately reads the tricky ice, which finally cracks under the weight of the car. The four women make a dash for the woods and are rescued by a tribe member. The tribal council considers the situation and assesses the state troopers’ demands, which require the surrender of the two “illegals” and the non-Native smuggler. It is an either-or situation. If Ray leaves, the council will turn Lila in. Her banishment from the reservation means she will never see her son again. Lila assumes her responsibility for Ray and asks her to go. Her decision illustrates Levinas’s tenet that the subject’s unicity or identity can neither be established nor justified on its own terms through a logic of autonomy; rather it is established by way of a relation. This occurs because, as Levinas claims, the subject is unique and irreplaceable in his obligation, his duty, his absolute responsibility for the Other and for the Other’s welfare: “Here the identity of the subject comes from the impossibility of escaping responsibility, from the taking charge of the other” ([1974] 2009, 14). This act of responsibility stands before any other commitment: “Responsibility for the other . . . is prior to freedom” (ibid., 116). Where does uniqueness stem from? It does not derive from a distinctive quality, a principle of individualism rooted in time and place (ibid., 127). Identity, Levinas claims, “is in the uniqueness of someone summoned” (ibid., 194, note 9) to exercise responsibility for the Other. This arrangement is asymmetrical and nonreciprocal: “The relation between the I and the you is not one of reciprocity, but there is an inherent inequality, a dissymmetry” ([1986] 1998, 150). The question is where to establish the limit to responsibility. “While no one can replace me in my duty to the other, I must be prepared to assume a responsibility for the other that goes as far as replacing him, substituting myself for him; the arrangement, however, is not a loss of self, but the very basis of my unicity” (Toumayan 2004, 37). Once Lila is willing to replace Ray, according to Levinas’s argument, she has laid down the bases of her subjectivity and unicity. Yet a question arises in this summons, for if the one is responsible for the Other, is the Other responsible for the one? The movie seems to answer in the affirmative, for a similar act of substitution awaits Ray. When she confronts the frozen river once again, she sees more than a frozen horizontality, for the conflation of space and time on its apparent lifeless surface has morphed into a network of intricacies, exchanges, and relations. She looks back and has a change of heart, for she is also summoned by the Other. She will go to prison for a couple of months to save Lila. She is, after all, a white woman with no criminal record. This is the last fine line Ray subverts by honoring it. Her decision illustrates that to be a subject is to be constituted by a relation to the Other. This relationality situates the self in a position of irreducible secondarity, for subjectivity, Levinas claims, “is being hostage” ([1974] 2009, 127). Whatever egocentric forces gravitate around identity formation, Levinas claims, they are “undone by the other” (ibid.). Paradoxically the self emerges as it is being de-selfed: “Already the position of the subject is a deposition,” the philosopher claims, “a de-substantiation of the subject” (ibid.). In order to be a subject, Ray is “de-positioned,” “de-posed” in her role as subject and head of her household. She becomes the un-self, “a being divesting itself, emptying itself of its being, turning itself inside out, and if it can be put thus, the fact of ‘otherwise than being’” (ibid., 117). While Ray is in prison, Lila will ironically honor the role scripted by the common sense of the community and take care of the two boys.

 
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