File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0107, message 41

Date: Tue, 10 Jul 2001 12:36:14 +0100
Subject: Re: ethics - Levinas

Eric and all

In “Trace of the Other ”and in “Meaning and Sense ” Levinas became convinced
that the only way in which he can guarantee a form of ethical thinking that
won ’t return to the self, to the same, is by not just relating to the human
other, but by making the human other relate to something beyond itself, what
he calls the trace of illeity ,or the divine, or God. In order for the
ethical relation to be constructed there has to be a theological given, for
Levinas the theological given is arrived at, produced through the account of
the other human. It is this which is the core of Levinas argument. I think
for obvious reasons that this  impossible to maintain because God is dead.
There is a consequent structural tension between the metaphysical and
phenomenological aspects of  Levinas philosophical thought. There is  a
phenomenology of alterity which is very attractive perhaps even wonderful,
but Levinas assumes, thinks, states that in order to guarantee that the
phenomenology of alterity is ethical that there has to be a metaphysical
element which is God, which I obviously reject. If we extract the
metaphysics out of Lévinas ’ phenomenology, this raises the question of what
is going to stop me falling back into the problem that Lévinas thinks he is
trying to solve with his metaphysics, which is how to produce an account of
the subject/other relationship which does not return to the same. The
guarantee for this phenomenological account which does not fall back into
the theological metaphysics comes from a theory of the subject. The
possibility for the construction of an ethical relation to the other is a
disposition within the subject and as a consequence the constitution of the
subject becomes the key question. It is for this reason that I am drawn
towards the psychoanalytic discourse of the subject as a way of working
through and understanding the relations. The answer to my unspoken question
of Levinas is that an atheist version of a subject/other ethics of finitude
can only base its ethical arguments on the psychoanalytical theories of the
subject – defined perhaps through a recognition of the essential similarity
yet difference of the other founded on a variation of Lacanian

This is I recognise a slightly divergent version of Levinas but what I am
attempting to draw out is the essentailly metaphysical foundation of his
ethics - it is this which I have problems with - even the addressing of the
'face' resolves around a 'rupture of being', the Other is always referenced
around a variety of the 'infinite' - which personally I reject given that
humanity is finite.

Further to refer back to Irigaray for a second - her founding of the
subject/other relations on sexual difference works more interestingly but
still constitutes the subject/other relation on a metaphysical layer, even
the notion of sexual difference has to appeal to a metaphysic since the
precise difference between female/male is impossible to quantify, to
seperate from the social.



Mary Murphy&Salstrand wrote:

> Steve, Hugh, John and others,
> Steve writes of ethics in terms of the subject/other continuum. Levinas,
> as I read him, considers this subject as always already narcissistic.
> "The self-sufficiency of enjoying measures the egoism or the ipseity of
> the Ego and the same. Enjoyment is a withdrawal into oneself, an
> involution."
> It is only when the face of the Other confronts us with its need, its
> hunger and its destitution that an opening breaks though into this
> closed circle of the subject.  When such an event occurs, it is no
> longer the subject as I who enters into an asymmetrical relationship
> with alterity, rather it is the you who is obligated, the second person
> who is being addressed.
> Levinas refers to this as being held hostage by the Other. "I have
> always been at issue: persecuted.  Ipseity, in its passivity with the
> arches of identity, is hostage.  The word I means here I am, answering
> for everything and everybody."
> Thus, this being that is held hostage becomes the triangulation between
> the subject and the Other.  There are now longer merely two, but three
> who are present.  The subject becomes fissured, no longer capable of its
> dialectical, Hegelian moves towards totality. Its needs for enjoyment
> become transcended by a desire that can never be satisfied.  As Lyotard
> puts it; "saying yes to the gift of the undecipherable message, to the
> election that the request is, the (impossible) alliance with the other
> who is nothing, signifies the assumption of the I's fracture."
> Furthermore, as Lyotard also points out, any commentary upon this
> obligation runs the risk of replacing prescription with description,
> ethics with knowledge, converting the question of justice to the mere
> question of logical truth. And since this issue of misinterpretation
> lies at the very heart of alterity, it becomes the triumph of the Other
> over the Same.
> To quote Lyotard again: "The irony of the commentator easily goes so far
> as persecution: the less I understand you, he or she says to the
> Levinnassian (or divine) text, the more I will obey you by this
> fact....Satan would be God's best servant, if it is true at least that
> he disobeys Him.  For 'the disobedient man obeys in some way.'"
> So much for the privileging of ethics over the differend.  The pieties
> of religiosity are met with the impious laughter of the pagan.
> However, this notion of the hostage opens up a way that leads beyond the
> subject/object dichotomy.  It points to the risk the subject always runs
> of becoming an alien to its self, Unheimlichkeit, a stranger.
> The Greek word for happiness is eudaimonia.  It literally means
> possession by the daemon (as Socrates was) - God dwelling within us.
> There is also something noticeably different about ethics in this
> classical sense, as it is presented by Aristotle, Epicurus and Zeno.
> Such an ethics is more pragmatically concerned about the possibility of
> happiness than it is by the demand for obligation.  It is more like a
> map for the journey of life than a legal codebook of morality.
> One of the major questions raised by scholars about Aristotle's
> Nicomachean Ethics is concerned with this very concept of eudaimonia.
> As Thomas Nagel points out, does eudaimonia for Aristotle involve the
> full range of human life action, in accordance with the broader
> excellences of moral virtue and practical wisdom?  Or, does eudaimonia
> involve realizing the divine part of our nature through contemplation?
> Aristotle is ambiguous on this topic and gives excellent grounds for
> defending both interpretations.
> It is only with Epicurus, who came of age the generation after Aristotle
> that this tension becomes resolved.  The goal of ethics for Epicurus is
> clearly to reach a state whereby the divine part of our nature is
> realized.  Epicurus calls this condition ataraxia and defines this state
> as one of continuous pleasure in which one is free both of bodily pain
> and the anxiety of mind.  Here the gods act as simulacra, furnishing us
> with the images of blessedness we must contemplate in order to realize
> our own inherent godlike happiness.
> The end of our ethics here is consistent with the ideal Steve wrote of
> as "the construction of the human and non-human subject, language,
> cultural values that are perhaps worth respecting rather than using them
> simply as a resource, cultural values that would take care of bodies as
> nature, perhaps even spiritually but still understood as bodies. A state
> of being that is not reducible to alienation and reductionism."
> Furthermore, this notion of ethics as the realization of an inherent
> state of pleasure beyond social construction and conditioning is not
> egoic, at least in the sense that both Aristotle and Epicurus
> understood.  These philosophers posit friendship as concurrent with the
> good life and this ideal is not the impoverished notion of friendship we
> are familiar with today, but one that for the Greeks was intimately tied
> to the Polis and community.  In order to realize the state Epicurus
> called ataraxia it was also necessary to create the political conditions
> that would make this possible.  Epicurus found it necessary in the time
> of Alexandrian Empire to withdraw with others to create the community he
> called the garden.  Ultimately, ataraxia is a public, not a private
> affair.
> I want to connect this as well to Hugh's notion of the self as
> storytelling.  What is needed today perhaps is an ethics of stories,
> which act not so much as obligations but as invitations to conviviality.
> Here the pagan gods act as necessary fictions because in the telling of
> their stories, images of mad exuberant joy beyond the scope of reason
> unfold, and we swoon to delight and become hostages to bliss, possessed
> by the alien gods and goddesses. The categorical imperative is that I
> ought to be enraptured, therefore I can and this maxim is one I must
> practice as if it were universal for all.  The Critique of Practical
> Ecstasy as the rational foundation for ethical and political practice
> within the many worlds.
> As Luce Irigaray puts it: "Where can one's eye alight if the divine is
> no longer to be seen?  And if it does not continue to dwell in the flesh
> of the other in order to illuminate it, to offer up to the look the
> other's flesh as divine, as the locus of a divine to be shared?  For
> this exchange, do not figurative writing and art represent necessary
> articulations?  In particular to harmonize listening and seeing."


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