What Levinas Gave Up?

July 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

 

One of the most significant changes between Levinas’s early and later work is the way the project of phenomenology becomes a more stock and less exploratory method in his writing.  Generally, Levinas uses phenomenology as a method to critique Heidegger’s earlier, ontologically-centered philosophy in Being and Time.  As his project widens, Levinas critiques the entire western tradition of philosophy which he had seen culminating in Heidegger’s participation in National Socialism.  In the process, Levinas becomes more politically oriented and loses a use of phenomenology to explore ambiguous and intimate experiences.  If some readings of Levinas’s career see an updating of “old fashioned” thought, then, this is perhaps due to his devotion to critiquing the most celebrated philosopher of his day.  The term “old fashioned” is ambiguous, however, because it could reference multiple tendencies in his work.  In the broadest sense, Levinas can be read as updating pre-modern religious thinking, particularly relating to biblical scripture and prophecy, the Talmud, and Kabbalah.  Oona Ajzenstat’s Driven Back to the Text exemplifies this reading, which sees Levinas’s postmodern qualities yet downplaying the very important influence of modern philosophy, especially Descartes’ infinity, on Levinas.  Philosophically, Levinas’s work with the “Other” can be read as an update to Platonic philosophy of a “Good beyond being,” as Jean-Marc Norbonne describes in Levinas and the Greek Heritage (97).  But to leave it there would miss the fact that Levinas partly goes back to Plato in a reaction to Heidegger’s going back to Aristotle: “The question of meaning of being and of the right to be […] necessarily precedes for Levinas that of the nature or of the gesture of being.  From this point of view, the latter is at once very close to Heidegger – and in a certain sense dependent on him – and very distant from him” (95).  Because Heidegger is in a sense anti-modern, it is difficult to read Levinas’s approach to the ancients as mere “updating.”  However, there are multiple other ways to read his work as revisionary: a determination to foreground the work of Husserl and Bergson; a kind of humanism Levinas arguably resurrects[1]; metaphysics [2]; or finally, his commitment to phenomenology which itself.  Focusing on the last of these themes, I will argue that reading Levinas as an updating of an older thinking, though credible, misses important elements of his early thought which are deemphasized throughout his career.

Levinas reacts to the anti-modernism in Heidegger’s Being and Time.  Though the analysis of Dasein as a structure of is modern in the sense that it arises from nineteenth-century attempts to construct a narrative of human existence, as essence Dasein is beyond history (thus raising a necessity to reread history).  Modern science had gotten it wrong for Heidegger, and an anti-intellectual return to everydayness[3] was necessary.  Levinas too, describes a way of being which transcends history insofar as it precedes history.  In this he remains close to Heidegger, though his description is markedly different.  Nevertheless, Levinas is more “modern” than Heidegger in that he owes a debt to cosmopolitanism,[4] aligning him with the tradition of Descartes and Kant.  Levinas maintains a subject-object split.  For Heidegger, nostalgic for the Greek way of life, being-in-the-world is not about a distinction between subjectivity and objectivity.[5] Levinas, however, needs the split for phenomenology to get at something preceding the split.

For Levinas, an ethical relationship infuses being, preceding and conditioning one’s relationship with the world.  The Other is not the world and not a being-with. The world reveals traces of the Other, but it is the Same’s relationship with the infinity of the Other that situates the ego.  Thus, Levinas employs more Husserlian phenomenological language, distinguishing between subject and object in order to emphasize the subject’s tendency to totalize what it “others” as objective.  Levinas repetitiously returns to it in a kind of midrash, articulating how this relationship preconditions Enjoyment.

The phenomenological, subject-object, relationship masks the prior relationship with the face of the Other.[6]  Phenomenological method becomes a device by which Levinas reduces experiencing the world to something like a transitive verb, only to highlight the intransitive verbal relationship with the Other – a saturation which keeps saturating.  To use a metaphor of light: the sun shines; it need not shine on me, but insofar as I am in the world it does so.  But light, for Levinas, is also the light of reason illuminating the space preceding light, the “there is” or illeity, a word Levinas coins to get at the exposedness of the Same in relation to the Other, making one hostage to the Other before and outside the light of reason.  Before the light is the saying of the Other, the subjunctive “Let there be…” – night without stars.  Levinas’s early descriptions of illeity in Existence and Existents and Time and the Other develop from a phenomenological analysis of insomnia where consciousness is exposed to a powerlessness of will. 

Early on, phenomenological description opens up the philosophical problem of placing ontology as first philosophy.  In Existence and Existents Levinas does this with a description of affectivity:

Emotion is a way of holding on while losing one’s base.  All emotion is fundamentally vertigo, that vertigo one feels insinuating itself, that finding oneself over a void. The world of forms opens like a bottomless abyss.  The cosmos breaks up and chaos gapes open – the abyss, the absence of place, the there is. (68)

Affectivity destabilizes subjectivity.  But as his career proceeds, Levinas becomes more gaurded about his examples because they risk confusing worldly relationships with the unworldly.  The passage continues to expressly distinguish his move from Heidegger:

The here that belongs to consciousness, the place of its sleep and its escape into itself, is radically different from the Da in Heidegger’s Dasein.  The latter already implies the world.  The here we are starting with, the here of position, precedes every act of understanding, every horizon and all time. (68)

Early on at least, Levinas does not want to give up experience in the world.

Hovering in between world and beyond are phenomenological descriptions such as the dwelling.  Representation is necessary, says Levinas, for one to recollect and delay one’s labor in concern for the morrow, both mine and the other’s. Unlike Heidegger’s concern, Levinas says, “recollection and representation are produced concretely as habitation in a dwelling or a Home. But the interiority of the home is made of extraterritoriality in the midst of the elements of enjoyment with which life is nourished”(TI 150). This is produced positively through gentleness: “By virtue of its intentional structure gentleness comes to the separated being from the Other. The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness.”  With this, Levinas argues against the absurdity of Heidegger’s Geworfenheit [thrown-ness]. The absurdity is counteracted by the enjoyment of the hospitality of the other, which he goes on to articulate through a discussion of Eros.  Setting up Eros is discussion of an ethical way of representation and thinking about the future through labor.  This discussion unfortunately recedes in Levinas’s later work. 

Discussing Eros allows Levinas to describe how human intimate relationships move beyond the violence of subject-object orientations in the world, another instance of phenomenological description hovering between same and the Other.

Eros, when separated from the Platonic interpretation which completely fails to recognize the role of the feminine, can be the theme of a philosophy which, detached from the solitude of light, and consequently from phenomenology properly speaking, will concern us elsewhere.  Phenomenological description […] cannot leave the sphere of light. (86)  

Can affectivity leave the sphere of light? Giving up the description, Levinas moves away from spiritual experiences among earthly beings.  In Plato and Levinas, Tanja Staehler laments his move as “unfortunate given the valuable results of his phenomenology of Eros, which can help us understand his concept of philosophy and to give us a first impression of the Other, which could complement, although certainly not replace, the ethical encounter” (94). So, why the move?  

Levinas abstracts more regarding Eros as he reacts to criticism saying he prioritizes the male subject over a female other (de Beauvoir xxii).  In becoming more abstract,[7] he perhaps (not?) avoids feminist critique while maintaining heterosexual terminology. In 1989, Levinas says:

I thought that femininity was the modality of alterity – this “other genus” – and that sexuality and eroticism were this non-in-difference to the other, irreducible to the formal alterity of terms in an ensemble.  Today I think that it is necessary to go back even further and that the exposition, the nudity, and the “imperative demand” of the face of the other constitute this modality that the feminine already presupposes: the proximity of the neighbor is the nonformal alterity. (IIRTB 115)

Moreover, he gives up descriptions of intimate human relationships for civic descriptions of responsibility preceding human relationships – a general move away from human action.  Moving away from action steers clear of ontology.  It would be difficult to fault him for this move, since it is necessary for him to clearly articulate the pre-conscious ethical relationship which critiques philosophy, and that is not a small task.

Yet useful mysteriousness and ambiguity is lost as Levinas refines his arguments for the philosophical audience.  In Totality and Infinity, Levinas is still willing to explore phenomenologically. “Voluptuosity, as profanation, discovers the hidden as hidden,” he says, “voluptuosity profanes; it does not see.  An intentionality without vision, discovery does not shed light: what it discovers does not present itself as signification and illuminates no horizon (TI 260).  Levinas calls this “true experience.”  Voluptuosity inverts signification for him, but it is also a kind of being for another and “the fact that in existing for another I exist otherwise than existing for myself is morality itself” (261). He goes on:

I love fully only if the Other  loves me, not because I need the recognition of the Other, but because my voluptuosity delights in his voluptuosity, and because in this unparalleled conjuncture of identification, in this trans-substantiation, the same and the other are not united but precisely – beyond every possible project, beyond every meaningful and intelligent power – engender the child. (266)     

Levinas thus transitions to the notion of fecundity and the child.  The feminine signifies the future in its non-signifying-ness, but also human creative potential.  In the same section, Levinas mentions art in reference to inverted signifying in the feminine, claiming art deliberately represents and “inverts the beauty of the feminine face” and “poetry substitutes a rhythm for the feminine life.  Beauty becomes a form covering over indifferent matter, and not harboring mystery.”

At the moment where Levinas’s phenomenological description enters a space where binaries truly disappear, he shies away from the discussion, be it with sexual relationships or art.[8]  He hesitates with relationships where humans produce or create.  Almost bashful about what he himself writes, he turns from femininity to the deficiencies of artistic representation.  Establishing fecundity somehow makes the sex okay, but even discussions of fecundity and filiality become less frequent in his later work. Yet in Difficult Freedom Levinas asks an audience of Jews:

Has the Talmud ever disguised the sexual realities whose essence cannot be reduced to the coarse information of the tract commented on by a teacher from Belfort? […] I think that sexuality at the rigorously sexual level is in essence tragic and ambiguous, by which I mean enigmatic.  Is knowledge, with its impassive logos, ever able it match a reality that, with its psychological modalities, breaks the equanimity of consciousness and overwhelms it, shattering with this traumatism, the concepts that should close and illuminate it? (287-88)    

In public discourse and interviews, he is much more willing to engage with the mystery.

Levinas’s emphasis becomes less intimate and more civic in later work.  He ends Otherwise than Being seeking peaceful relationship with the neighbor by destabilizing reason in western philosophy.  He refines arguments against Heidegger’s “care” (Sorge) and returns to Husserl.  The benefit of Levinas’s later work is a masterfully informed critique of western thought.  Saying and prophecy become major themes.  For example, contrasting his work with that of Buber’s, Levinas says,

Without a possible evasion, as though it were elected for this, as though it were thus irreplaceable and unique, the I as I is the servant of the You in Dialogue.  An inequality that may appear arbitrary; unless it be – in the word addressed to the other man, in the ethics of the welcome – the first religious service, the first prayer, the first liturgy, the relation out of which God could have first come to mind and the word “God” have made its entry into language and into good philosophy. (151)

This is grandiose hypothetically historical language hovers like a specter.  It is always subjunctive, a kind of mimicry of the “Let there be…” yet without assuming the power to create.  And indeed, what we don’t get from Levinas is a thorough analysis of what it means to leave traces, to make, to poeticize.

Because he has given up exploring otherness in phenomenological descriptions, he is unable to comment seriously on aesthetics.  He comes closest to discussing what it means to make when he discusses prophecy with regard to the saying and the said, but instead focuses on listening to the Other, like Abraham and saying, “Here I am” when called upon by the other.  Does this not suggest that true the ethical expression would be a kind of prophetic channeling?[9]  Because Levinas disallows himself to discuss aesthetics philosophically, he takes all art to be style and form, neglecting the ethics involved in both: “Cutting across the rhetoric of all our enthusiasms, in the responsibility for the other, there occurs a meaning from which no eloquence could distract — nor even poetry” (OGWCTM 13).  Yet how eloquent was Jonah when he finally prophesized? Does God not also command humans to be fruitful and multiply? If love, intimacy, and family are secondary to the relationship with the Other, then the obligation is to listen as a prophet.  But Levinas’s clinging to the reason of philosophy is so skeptical of mysticism he is reluctant to discuss it with art, although he suggests it in other places.  For example, he is not silent about prophetic politics’ “messianic consciousness,” which Howard Caygill believes operates as the basis for Levinas’s “analyses of fraternity, the erotic, fecundity and the family” (97). If perpetual peace must be a hovering between peace and war, a transcendence of that binary, might we not look to human actions which take us beyond the binary as Levinas does with Eros? Further descriptions would be helpful.  It’s not a matter of asking for a script but of acknowledging the humanity of living consciously with the ethical relationship.  I do not lament the direction of Levinas’s later work, only that he is unable to philosophically reconcile human action with the ethical relationship which precedes it – even if only in a private way. 

The trouble with reading Levinas as “updating” any philosophical thought is that it misses the major suggestion of his work, which is that we must each be holy.  To be holy would imply listening to God, yes, but also doing what God bids, and sometimes that is building an alter to sacrifice your child, and sometimes that is building an ark to save creatures from the flood.  While his early phenomenological writing explores ambiguity’s presence in the world, it gives way to a stock set-up, present in much of Levinas’s writing – especially in his treatment of Merleau-Ponty in Humanism of the Other, for example – where the phenomenological relation and the history of philosophy are rigorously presented only so Levinas may say, “Is this truly the way things are? Is there not something Otherwise?” Only focusing on what is updated misses the places where we can look to Levinas for inspiration in furthering his work.

             

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Ajzenstat, Oona. Driven Back to the Text.  The Premodern Sources in Levinas’s Postmodernism.  Pittsburgh: Duquesne, 2001.

Caygill, Howard. Levinas and the Political. New York: Routledge, 2002.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. H.M. Parshley.  New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Derrida, Jacques. “Violence and Metaphysics.” Writing and Difference.  Trans. Alan Bass.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy.  Trans. Robert D. Metcalf and Mark B. Tanzer.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009.

Is It Righteous To Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas. Ed. Jill Robbins. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001.

Jaspers, Karl. “Letter to the Denazification Committee.” The Heidegger Controversy. Ed. Richard Wolin. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Difficult Freedom. Trans. Sean Hand. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

———————— Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillippe Nemo. Trans. Richard A. Cohen.  Pittsburgh: Duquesne Press, 1982.

———————— Existence and Existents. Pittsburgh: Duquesne Press, 1978.

————————- Humanism of the Other.  Trans. Nidra Poller. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

————————- Of God Who Comes to Mind. Trans. Bettina Bergo. Stanford. Stanford UP, 1986.

————————- Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Trans. Alphonso Lingis.

Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP,

————————- Totality and Infinity: An Essay On Exteriority.  Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969.

Norbonne, Jean-Marc. Levinas and the Greek Heritage.  Dudley: Peeters, 2006.

Robbins, Jill. Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Stahler, Tanja. Plato and Levinas: The Ambiguous Outside of Ethics. New York: Routledge, 2010.


 

[1] Levinas also thinks beyond statements like “God is dead.”  This is both a strength and a weakness.  To the extent that Levinas’s thought makes the statement rather moot, it de-emphasizes the valid points of the criticism and allows the dogmatically religious to remain complacently so.  One could say the same of humanism.  Levinas’s thought makes possible a resurrection of humanism, but to the sentimentally humanist unable to hear the last gasp, it reaffirms the shallowness of the sentiment.

[2] A benefit of reading Levinas’s thinking as “updating” is that Levinas restores a way of thinking about metaphysics which had been considered intellectually passé – a common modernist perspective.  This is notable in his concept of the Good as a Desire that is more than lack, “a hunger nourished by what it feeds on” (TI 34), which he always articulates from a phenomenological perspective.  God radically other allows a subjectivity capable of atheism (58). The question is not “does God exist” but “by what right do I exist in the space that could be another’s where I always already substitute myself for the other?”

[3] Heidegger has been heavily criticized for being uncritical. Jaspers’ “Letter to the Denazification Committee” regarding Heidegger says, “he is extraordinarily uncritical and stands at a remove from true science. He often proceeds as if he combined the seriousness of nihilism with the mystagogy of a magician.  In the torrent of his language he is occasionally able, in a clandestine and remarkable way, to strike the core of philosophical thought” (148-49). 

[4] Levinas’s Jewish upbringing reveals something older, especially antiquarian to anyone in the “post-metaphysical” world of early twentieth-century modernism.  Levinas deepens his commitment to Judaism after World War II, but he also speaks of his excitement to learn from professors in France – remembering a class with Maurice Pradine in his student days, Levinas says, “he offered the Dreyfus affair as an example of the ethical overcoming the political” (IIRTB 29). 

[5]This [modern] orientation toward subject and object must be fundamentally set aside.  Not only is it the case that these basic concepts, subject / object, and what they mean, do not appear in Greek philosophy, but even the orientation of subject / object in Greek philosophy is meaningless insofar as they are not concerned with characterizing a mode of apprehending the world.  Instead, their concern is characterizing being in it.” (Heidegger 40) 

[6] I distinguish between capitalized and lower-case usage of the term other thusly: Capital “O” means something closer to God. Lowercase is able to be perceived in the world. Just as Moses does not see the face of God, only his back parts, the Other is beyond the seizure of my gaze (see also Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics” (108) for an explication of the Exodus reference).  

[7] Levinas articulates this specifically in his 1979 Preface to Time and the Other (36).

[8] Jill Robbins, in Altered Reading points to John Llewelyn’s discussion of Levinas and art where he argues that while early on, Levinas denigrates art, figure, and rhetoric, his relationship to art softens in his later work (40). As he relinquishes description of experience as fundamental to his project, perhaps he can relax a bit.

[9] In a 1986 interview it’s clear Levinas still thinks about these topics: 

A great text, a great work, participates in that essence of writing, in the religious sense of the term, and calls for an interpretation. There is a whole new interpretation. There is also filiality in the relation to this future reader who is me, who has a relation of filiality to me and who, at the same time, will freely read the work which is from me and wil interpret it according to his own being. (IIRTB 60)

One of the most significant changes between Levinas’s early and later work is the

way the project of phenomenology becomes a more stock and less exploratory method in his

writing. Generally, Levinas uses phenomenology as a method to critique Heidegger’s earlier,

ontologically-centered philosophy in Being and Time. As his project widens, Levinas critiques

the entire western tradition of philosophy which he had seen culminating in Heidegger’s

participation in National Socialism. In the process, Levinas becomes more politically oriented

and loses a use of phenomenology to explore ambiguous and intimate experiences. If some

readings of Levinas’s career see an updating of “old fashioned” thought, then, this is perhaps

due to his devotion to critiquing the most celebrated philosopher of his day. The term “old

fashioned” is ambiguous, however, because it could reference multiple tendencies in his

work. In the broadest sense, Levinas can be read as updating pre-modern religious thinking,

particularly relating to biblical scripture and prophecy, the Talmud, and Kabbalah. Oona

Ajzenstat’s Driven Back to the Text exemplifies this reading, which sees Levinas’s postmodern

qualities yet downplaying the very important influence of modern philosophy, especially

Descartes’ infinity, on Levinas. Philosophically, Levinas’s work with the “Other” can be read as

an update to Platonic philosophy of a “Good beyond being,” as Jean-Marc Norbonne describes

in Levinas and the Greek Heritage (97). But to leave it there would miss the fact that Levinas

partly goes back to Plato in a reaction to Heidegger’s going back to Aristotle: “The question

of meaning of being and of the right to be […] necessarily precedes for Levinas that of the

nature or of the gesture of being. From this point of view, the latter is at once very close to

Heidegger – and in a certain sense dependent on him – and very distant from him” (95). Because

Heidegger is in a sense anti-modern, it is difficult to read Levinas’s approach to the ancients

as mere “updating.” However, there are multiple other ways to read his work as revisionary:

a determination to foreground the work of Husserl and Bergson; a kind of humanism Levinas

arguably resurrects1; metaphysics 2; or finally, his commitment to phenomenology which

itself. Focusing on the last of these themes, I will argue that reading Levinas as an updating of

an older thinking, though credible, misses important elements of his early thought which are

deemphasized throughout his career.

Levinas reacts to the anti-modernism in Heidegger’s Being and Time. Though the

analysis of Dasein as a structure of is modern in the sense that it arises from nineteenth-century

attempts to construct a narrative of human existence, as essence Dasein is beyond history (thus

raising a necessity to reread history). Modern science had gotten it wrong for Heidegger, and an

Levinas also thinks beyond statements like “God is dead.” This is both a strength and a weakness. To the extent
that Levinas’s thought makes the statement rather moot, it de-emphasizes the valid points of the criticism and
allows the dogmatically religious to remain complacently so. One could say the same of humanism. Levinas’s
thought makes possible a resurrection of humanism, but to the sentimentally humanist unable to hear the last gasp, it
reaffirms the shallowness of the sentiment.
2 A benefit of reading Levinas’s thinking as “updating” is that Levinas restores a way of thinking about metaphysics
which had been considered intellectually passé – a common modernist perspective. This is notable in his concept
of the Good as a Desire that is more than lack, “a hunger nourished by what it feeds on” (TI 34), which he always
articulates from a phenomenological perspective. God radically other allows a subjectivity capable of atheism
(58). The question is not “does God exist” but “by what right do I exist in the space that could be another’s where I
always already substitute myself for the other?”

anti-intellectual return to everydayness3 was necessary. Levinas too, describes a way of being

which transcends history insofar as it precedes history. In this he remains close to Heidegger,

though his description is markedly different. Nevertheless, Levinas is more “modern” than

Heidegger in that he owes a debt to cosmopolitanism,4 aligning him with the tradition of

Descartes and Kant. Levinas maintains a subject-object split. For Heidegger, nostalgic for

the Greek way of life, being-in-the-world is not about a distinction between subjectivity and

objectivity.5 Levinas, however, needs the split for phenomenology to get at something preceding

the split.

For Levinas, an ethical relationship infuses being, preceding and conditioning one’s

relationship with the world. The Other is not the world and not a being-with. The world reveals

traces of the Other, but it is the Same’s relationship with the infinity of the Other that situates

the ego. Thus, Levinas employs more Husserlian phenomenological language, distinguishing

between subject and object in order to emphasize the subject’s tendency to totalize what

it “others” as objective. Levinas repetitiously returns to it in a kind of midrash, articulating how

this relationship preconditions Enjoyment.

The phenomenological, subject-object, relationship masks the prior relationship with

Heidegger has been heavily criticized for being uncritical. Jaspers’ “Letter to the Denazification Committee”
regarding Heidegger says, “he is extraordinarily uncritical and stands at a remove from true science. He often
proceeds as if he combined the seriousness of nihilism with the mystagogy of a magician. In the torrent of his
language he is occasionally able, in a clandestine and remarkable way, to strike the core of philosophical thought”
(148-49).
4 Levinas’s Jewish upbringing reveals something older, especially antiquarian to anyone in the “post-metaphysical”
world of early twentieth-century modernism. Levinas deepens his commitment to Judaism after World War II, but
he also speaks of his excitement to learn from professors in France – remembering a class with Maurice Pradine in
his student days, Levinas says, “he offered the Dreyfus affair as an example of the ethical overcoming the political”
(IIRTB 29).
5 “This [modern] orientation toward subject and object must be fundamentally set aside. Not only is it the case
that these basic concepts, subject / object, and what they mean, do not appear in Greek philosophy, but even
the orientation of subject / object in Greek philosophy is meaningless insofar as they are not concerned with
characterizing a mode of apprehending the world. Instead, their concern is characterizing being in it.” (Heidegger
40)

the face of the Other.6 Phenomenological method becomes a device by which Levinas reduces

experiencing the world to something like a transitive verb, only to highlight the intransitive

verbal relationship with the Other – a saturation which keeps saturating. To use a metaphor of

light: the sun shines; it need not shine on me, but insofar as I am in the world it does so. But

light, for Levinas, is also the light of reason illuminating the space preceding light, the “there

is” or illeity, a word Levinas coins to get at the exposedness of the Same in relation to the

Other, making one hostage to the Other before and outside the light of reason. Before the light

is the saying of the Other, the subjunctive “Let there be…” – night without stars. Levinas’s

early descriptions of illeity in Existence and Existents and Time and the Other develop from a

phenomenological analysis of insomnia where consciousness is exposed to a powerlessness of

Early on, phenomenological description opens up the philosophical problem of placing

ontology as first philosophy. In Existence and Existents Levinas does this with a description of

affectivity:

Emotion is a way of holding on while losing one’s base. All emotion is fundamentally

vertigo, that vertigo one feels insinuating itself, that finding oneself over a void. The

world of forms opens like a bottomless abyss. The cosmos breaks up and chaos gapes

open – the abyss, the absence of place, the there is. (68)

Affectivity destabilizes subjectivity. But as his career proceeds, Levinas becomes more gaurded

about his examples because they risk confusing worldly relationships with the unworldly. The

passage continues to expressly distinguish his move from Heidegger:

I distinguish between capitalized and lower-case usage of the term other thusly: Capital “O” means something
closer to God. Lowercase is able to be perceived in the world. Just as Moses does not see the face of God, only his
back parts, the Other is beyond the seizure of my gaze (see also Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics” (108) for an
explication of the Exodus reference).

The here that belongs to consciousness, the place of its sleep and its escape into itself,

is radically different from the Da in Heidegger’s Dasein. The latter already implies

the world. The here we are starting with, the here of position, precedes every act of

understanding, every horizon and all time. (68)

Early on at least, Levinas does not want to give up experience in the world.

Hovering in between world and beyond are phenomenological descriptions such as the

dwelling. Representation is necessary, says Levinas, for one to recollect and delay one’s labor

in concern for the morrow, both mine and the other’s. Unlike Heidegger’s concern, Levinas

says, “recollection and representation are produced concretely as habitation in a dwelling

or a Home. But the interiority of the home is made of extraterritoriality in the midst of the

elements of enjoyment with which life is nourished”(TI 150). This is produced positively through

gentleness: “By virtue of its intentional structure gentleness comes to the separated being from

the Other. The Other precisely reveals himself in his alterity not in a shock negating the I, but

as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness.” With this, Levinas argues against the absurdity

of Heidegger’s Geworfenheit [thrown-ness]. The absurdity is counteracted by the enjoyment of

the hospitality of the other, which he goes on to articulate through a discussion of Eros. Setting

up Eros is discussion of an ethical way of representation and thinking about the future through

labor. This discussion unfortunately recedes in Levinas’s later work.

Discussing Eros allows Levinas to describe how human intimate relationships

move beyond the violence of subject-object orientations in the world, another instance of

phenomenological description hovering between same and the Other.

Eros, when separated from the Platonic interpretation which completely fails to recognize

the role of the feminine, can be the theme of a philosophy which, detached from the

solitude of light, and consequently from phenomenology properly speaking, will concern

us elsewhere. Phenomenological description […] cannot leave the sphere of light. (86)

Can affectivity leave the sphere of light? Giving up the description, Levinas moves away from

spiritual experiences among earthly beings. In Plato and Levinas, Tanja Staehler laments his

move as “unfortunate given the valuable results of his phenomenology of Eros, which can help

us understand his concept of philosophy and to give us a first impression of the Other, which

could complement, although certainly not replace, the ethical encounter” (94). So, why the

Levinas abstracts more regarding Eros as he reacts to criticism saying he prioritizes the

male subject over a female other (de Beauvoir xxii). In becoming more abstract,7 he perhaps

(not?) avoids feminist critique while maintaining heterosexual terminology. In 1989, Levinas

I thought that femininity was the modality of alterity – this “other genus” – and that

sexuality and eroticism were this non-in-difference to the other, irreducible to the formal

alterity of terms in an ensemble. Today I think that it is necessary to go back even further

and that the exposition, the nudity, and the “imperative demand” of the face of the other

constitute this modality that the feminine already presupposes: the proximity of the

neighbor is the nonformal alterity. (IIRTB 115)

Moreover, he gives up descriptions of intimate human relationships for civic descriptions

of responsibility preceding human relationships – a general move away from human action.

Moving away from action steers clear of ontology. It would be difficult to fault him for this

move, since it is necessary for him to clearly articulate the pre-conscious ethical relationship

Levinas articulates this specifically in his 1979 Preface to Time and the Other (36).

which critiques philosophy, and that is not a small task.

Yet useful mysteriousness and ambiguity is lost as Levinas refines his arguments

for the philosophical audience. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas is still willing to explore

phenomenologically. “Voluptuosity, as profanation, discovers the hidden as hidden,” he

says, “voluptuosity profanes; it does not see. An intentionality without vision, discovery does not

shed light: what it discovers does not present itself as signification and illuminates no horizon

(TI 260). Levinas calls this “true experience.” Voluptuosity inverts signification for him, but it

is also a kind of being for another and “the fact that in existing for another I exist otherwise than

existing for myself is morality itself” (261). He goes on:

I love fully only if the Other loves me, not because I need the recognition of the Other,

but because my voluptuosity delights in his voluptuosity, and because in this unparalleled

conjuncture of identification, in this trans-substantiation, the same and the other are

not united but precisely – beyond every possible project, beyond every meaningful and

intelligent power – engender the child. (266)

Levinas thus transitions to the notion of fecundity and the child. The feminine signifies the

future in its non-signifying-ness, but also human creative potential. In the same section, Levinas

mentions art in reference to inverted signifying in the feminine, claiming art deliberately

represents and “inverts the beauty of the feminine face” and “poetry substitutes a rhythm for

the feminine life. Beauty becomes a form covering over indifferent matter, and not harboring

mystery.”

At the moment where Levinas’s phenomenological description enters a space where

binaries truly disappear, he shies away from the discussion, be it with sexual relationships or

art.8 He hesitates with relationships where humans produce or create. Almost bashful about

what he himself writes, he turns from femininity to the deficiencies of artistic representation.

Establishing fecundity somehow makes the sex okay, but even discussions of fecundity and

filiality become less frequent in his later work. Yet in Difficult Freedom Levinas asks an

audience of Jews:

Has the Talmud ever disguised the sexual realities whose essence cannot be reduced

to the coarse information of the tract commented on by a teacher from Belfort? […] I

think that sexuality at the rigorously sexual level is in essence tragic and ambiguous, by

which I mean enigmatic. Is knowledge, with its impassive logos, ever able it match a

reality that, with its psychological modalities, breaks the equanimity of consciousness

and overwhelms it, shattering with this traumatism, the concepts that should close and

illuminate it? (287-88)

In public discourse and interviews, he is much more willing to engage with the mystery.

Levinas’s emphasis becomes less intimate and more civic in later work. He ends

Otherwise than Being seeking peaceful relationship with the neighbor by destabilizing reason

in western philosophy. He refines arguments against Heidegger’s “care” (Sorge) and returns

to Husserl. The benefit of Levinas’s later work is a masterfully informed critique of western

thought. Saying and prophecy become major themes. For example, contrasting his work with

that of Buber’s, Levinas says,

Without a possible evasion, as though it were elected for this, as though it were thus

irreplaceable and unique, the I as I is the servant of the You in Dialogue. An inequality

that may appear arbitrary; unless it be – in the word addressed to the other man, in the

Jill Robbins, in Altered Reading points to John Llewelyn’s discussion of Levinas and art where he argues that
while early on, Levinas denigrates art, figure, and rhetoric, his relationship to art softens in his later work (40). As he
relinquishes description of experience as fundamental to his project, perhaps he can relax a bit.

ethics of the welcome – the first religious service, the first prayer, the first liturgy, the

relation out of which God could have first come to mind and the word “God” have made

its entry into language and into good philosophy. (151)

This is grandiose hypothetically historical language hovers like a specter. It is always

subjunctive, a kind of mimicry of the “Let there be…” yet without assuming the power to create.

And indeed, what we don’t get from Levinas is a thorough analysis of what it means to leave

traces, to make, to poeticize.

Because he has given up exploring otherness in phenomenological descriptions, he is

unable to comment seriously on aesthetics. He comes closest to discussing what it means to

make when he discusses prophecy with regard to the saying and the said, but instead focuses

on listening to the Other, like Abraham and saying, “Here I am” when called upon by the other.

Does this not suggest that true the ethical expression would be a kind of prophetic channeling?

Because Levinas disallows himself to discuss aesthetics philosophically, he takes all art to

be style and form, neglecting the ethics involved in both: “Cutting across the rhetoric of all our

enthusiasms, in the responsibility for the other, there occurs a meaning from which no eloquence

could distract — nor even poetry” (OGWCTM 13). Yet how eloquent was Jonah when he finally

prophesized? Does God not also command humans to be fruitful and multiply? If love, intimacy,

and family are secondary to the relationship with the Other, then the obligation is to listen as

a prophet. But Levinas’s clinging to the reason of philosophy is so skeptical of mysticism he

is reluctant to discuss it with art, although he suggests it in other places. For example, he is

In a 1986 interview it’s clear Levinas still thinks about these topics:
A great text, a great work, participates in that essence of writing, in the religious sense of the term, and calls for an
interpretation. There is a whole new interpretation. There is also filiality in the relation to this future reader who is
me, who has a relation of filiality to me and who, at the same time, will freely read the work which is from me and
wil interpret it according to his own being. (IIRTB 60)

not silent about prophetic politics’ “messianic consciousness,” which Howard Caygill believes

operates as the basis for Levinas’s “analyses of fraternity, the erotic, fecundity and the family”

(97). If perpetual peace must be a hovering between peace and war, a transcendence of that

binary, might we not look to human actions which take us beyond the binary as Levinas does

with Eros? Further descriptions would be helpful. It’s not a matter of asking for a script but of

acknowledging the humanity of living consciously with the ethical relationship. I do not lament

the direction of Levinas’s later work, only that he is unable to philosophically reconcile human

action with the ethical relationship which precedes it – even if only in a private way.

The trouble with reading Levinas as “updating” any philosophical thought is that it

misses the major suggestion of his work, which is that we must each be holy. To be holy would

imply listening to God, yes, but also doing what God bids, and sometimes that is building an

alter to sacrifice your child, and sometimes that is building an ark to save creatures from the

flood. While his early phenomenological writing explores ambiguity’s presence in the world, it

gives way to a stock set-up, present in much of Levinas’s writing – especially in his treatment of

Merleau-Ponty in Humanism of the Other, for example – where the phenomenological relation

and the history of philosophy are rigorously presented only so Levinas may say, “Is this truly the

way things are? Is there not something Otherwise?” Only focusing on what is updated misses the

places where we can look to Levinas for inspiration in furthering his work.

Works Cited

Ajzenstat, Oona. Driven Back to the Text. The Premodern Sources in Levinas’s Postmodernism.

Pittsburgh: Duquesne, 2001.

Caygill, Howard. Levinas and the Political. New York: Routledge, 2002.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. H.M. Parshley. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Derrida, Jacques. “Violence and Metaphysics.” Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass.

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

Heidegger, Martin. Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy. Trans. Robert D. Metcalf and

Mark B. Tanzer. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009.

Is It Righteous To Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas. Ed. Jill Robbins. Stanford: Stanford

UP, 2001.

Jaspers, Karl. “Letter to the Denazification Committee.” The Heidegger Controversy. Ed.

Richard Wolin. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Difficult Freedom. Trans. Sean Hand. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

———————— Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Phillippe Nemo. Trans. Richard A.

Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne Press, 1982.

———————— Existence and Existents. Pittsburgh: Duquesne Press, 1978.

————————- Humanism of the Other. Trans. Nidra Poller. Chicago: University of

Illinois Press, 2003.

————————- Of God Who Comes to Mind. Trans. Bettina Bergo. Stanford. Stanford UP,

1986.

————————- Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Trans. Alphonso Lingis.

Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP,

————————- Totality and Infinity: An Essay On Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis.

Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969.

Norbonne, Jean-Marc. Levinas and the Greek Heritage. Dudley: Peeters, 2006.

Robbins, Jill. Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

1999.

Stahler, Tanja. Plato and Levinas: The Ambiguous Outside of Ethics. New York: Routledge,

2010.

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