File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0107, message 73

Date: Fri, 13 Jul 2001 23:56:21 +0100
Subject: Re: ethics - Levinas


I was thinking about writing some things on Irigarary and then on Badiou's
ethics... however I'm finding this strand on Levinas very interesting (read
challenging) at the moment - I would however like to re-state that I think
Levinas is extremely significant .  On the edge of the known.... In my initial
Levinas note I said " even the addressing of the'face' resolves around a
'rupture of being', the Other is always referenced around a variety of the
'infinite'..." which after further reflection remains true... (I also like the
Wall book but haven't read the Levinas section - bought it because of the
Agamben section. I very much like Agamben's work.)

"The face resists possession, resists my powers. In its epiphany, in expression,
the sensible, still graspable, turns into total resistance to the grasp.  This
mutation can occur only by the openning of a new dimesion.... The face, still a
thing amoungt things, breaks through the form that nevertheless delimits it.
This means concretely: the face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a
relation incommensurate with a power exercised, be it enjoyment or knowledge...
The face at the limit of holiness and caricature is thus still in a sense
exposed to powers..." (T&I P197/8)

Following on immedately from the above Levinas discusses the sensibility that
opens up from the relationship to the other through or perhaps in the face. To
conditionally explain the face and ethics he uses the example of the extremes of
violence - murder, the ultimate phenomenological test  - which fails to suspend
the being through the ultimate appropriation of its existence.... The
implication being that the face stands in for the metaphysical god, the
ever-present third who is always present in the Levinas subject/other relation.
"Murder alone lays claim to total negation... To kill is not to dominate but to
annihilate; it is to renounce comprehension completely. "  The face and the
Other become synonomouis in the implicit statement "Thou shalt not kill... There
is a commandment in the appearence of the face as if the master spoke to
me...."(E&I89) also (T&I p199). The (mis)reading I make then is that the face is
both part of the other but also the way in which the metaphysical third enters
into the relationship with the self.  The face (of the other) is the entrance
point of the ethical into the relation between self and Other. Where there is
definite purchase in what you said is where Levinas restates the  face as
infinity, discussing the ethical resistance that "paralyses my powers and from
the depth of defenseless eyes rise firm and absolute..." It is here that we
begin to see the extent to which the other is constructed in destitution and
hunger.... The discussion of the straightforwardness of the 'face to face', the
placing the the self/other in this ethical relation is to reduce to the state of
being naked, joined perhaps in humility... At this point we are seeing an ethics
founded on a restatement of victimhood...  On the issue related to the
psychoanalytical proposal of the subject - I agree Levinas proposes that the
face, (and consequently the relation to the Other) is founded in a primordial
discourse whose 'first word is obligation' and rejects the interiority of the
origins of the psychoanalytical subject.  On this reading of the text I believe
it is plain that the face has at least two distinct but related meanings - I
believe our difference(s) are founded on this multiplicity of readings.

I think that an acceptable take on Levinas - would be to say that Levinas
constructs an interesting account of human relationship(s)  S/O, and establishes
it as a central philosophical and indeed social concern, further he proposes how
transcendence could be understood as a term of the social. (which is how I'd
read the above) But we have to place firm quotation marks around the idea of it
as a successful ethics and the necessity of the god. However where does this
leave what I take to be the core of Leveinas's work which is around the primacy
of the human relations which cannot be avoided or understood nor his account of
subjectivity which is orientated towards obligation/responsibility...

"D. Diane Davis" wrote:

> Steve, I think we're going to have to agree to disagree about the
> significance of Levinas's thought. Let me point to a few (there are more)
> points in your two posts where we disagree:
> 1) As I understand it, the face, for levinas, is not what is typically
> called the face--it is not something to recognize or to be recognized. It is
> precisely what resists all recognition, sparking the experience of
> expropriation. The face is what one ignores or avoids when claiming
> recognition. It is a threshold "site," a site of presentation, yes, but
> simultaneously a site of exposure to the other or the "outside." For
> levinas, the face therefore exceeds any kind of self-recuperation, including
> the self-recuperation of the lacanian mirror-stage. Levinas: "The way in
> which the other presents himself, *exceeding the idea of the other in me*,
> we here name face" (Totality and Infinity, his emphasis). The face--as
> threshold "space," space of irreparable exposure to the other--is also what
> he calls Conversation: both designate the placing into relation...with the
> Other. Or, more carefully, the "epiphany" of the face is the result of
> conversation's "non-violent transitivity," which is a teaching that is not
> reducible to maiutics: "it comes from the exterior and brings me more than I
> can contain."
> 2) By "otherwise than being," levinas is trying to designate that which
> withdraws from comprehension and signification, that which exceeds all
> phenomenality and is experienced only as enigma. That it withdraws from or
> exceeds a phenomenality of presence and that it therefore cannot be simply
> comprehended, however, doesn't mean that *is* not. The trace (in both
> levinas and derrida) names precisely that which exceeds or escapes the order
> of simple presence or what derrida calls "the living." This lurch beyond the
> metaphysics of presence is necessarily awkward linguistically (there are no
> idioms for it), and Levinas is stuck trying to make them up as he goes along
> in Otherwise than Being. He uses the third person personal pronoun "he" or
> "il" to express this enigma, this beyond being--the undesignated "he" or
> "il" is the "pro-name" or "pro-nom" that precedes any identity but that
> nevertheless traverses every identity, leaving its trace as Other and as
> otherwise than being. And one catches this trace of illeity (as opposed to
> ipseity) in the face of the other, according to Levinas.

Still not sure after all this time how I think about the trace..

> 3) So, "the beyond from which the face comes is the third person," sez
> Levinas, which L names "he" or "il." The il, as the Third Person, "is not
> definable by the Self, by ipseity" ("Meaning and Sense"). Is this "third
> person" what you are referring to when you mention "the absurdity of placing
> all relations in the proposed trinary relationship"?

Yes - but further - Where Levinas talks of the 'Other and Me', the Other, there
is always a third figure present, the face, transcendence, the infinite and so
on... " I am not afraid of the word God, which appears quite often in my essays.
To my mind the infinite comes in the signifyingness of the face. The face
signifies the is never quits with regard to the Other..." (E&I

> Because I don't see
> this as absurd or in any way reducible to theology--it can be READ
> theologically, but it can also be read philosophically.

Yes - but to (mis)read it philosophically without a reading that involves the
theological reference is to appropriate Levinas as Blanchot did and places
brackets around the (ethics) and (god), marginalising this aspect of his work.
My problem with this, whilst I believe it is necessary for me because of my
irreligious even anti-religious stance, is that I'm not sure what is lost if I
read it solely phenomenologically.

> In what way is
> Levinas's notion of illeity less rigorously intellectual and philosophical
> than, say, freud/lacan's notion of the unconscious and of repression?

Psychoanalysis is a 'medical discourse' and not a philosophical one. though we
often use it in that way, as such in and for itself it tentatively obeys rules
of empirical proof and/or scientific proof. Consequently the justification for
its use lies in its effectivity and its being recognised and accepted as a
medical and scientific discourse. The models of the human subject seem amoungst
the most effective that have been produced.

> 4) About this: "Hence the implicit relationship with defining and
> understanding 'the other as victim.'" Lost me there. I don't hear Levinas
> suggesting that the other is in any way a victim. Can you refer me to some
> passages on this or something? Because as I understand him, Levinas defines
> the Self, any Self, *my* Self AS its responsibility to the other--this,
> then, is a gigantic and continuous responsibility, a debt I owe the other
> that I will never be able to pay but am compelled to keep giving it a shot.
> According to levinas, I ("I") exist only in that I am "hostage" to the
> other. The relation with the other is never symmetrical in Levinas. "I"
> owe/s. And any relation to the other, in fact, any encounter with the face
> of the other is a giant risk to my "I" since the other's face cannot not put
> "me" into question. I owe everything to this Other in the other, the trace
> of whom, when I catch it, will *take "me" out.*

I'll return to the victim notion later.

> 5) You also say that Levinas's work returns us "to the mainstream of western
> thought--the passivity of the other." This is problematic for me, too,
> because I hear levinas totally busting the active/passive dichotomy. "My
> Levinas" ;) is not dealing in a "passivity" that could in any way be located
> as the opposite of activity, in other words. This is a radical passivity
> that is not simply inactive. And it's not simply the other who is passive in
> this regard, it is any I-dentity, my-Self included. Because any Identity
> always already owes its very existence to the Other that is beyond being.
> (btw, Thomas Wall's book, Radical Passivity, really is a  wonderful resource
> for this.) Heidegger's got this radical passivity operating in his work,
> too, in his notion of originary thrownness.

Agreed - I also think of the radical passivity as an interesting approach. The
use of the Other in mainstream discourse has always been to define and place the
other in a passive relation - as a response to this think of Irigaray's
recasting and denial of the passivity of the feminine Other, by placing the M/F
relationship on alternating poles of the S/O binary pair. The axis of
Subject/Other as sexual difference. What is the impact on Levinas notion of the
Subject/Other of sexual difference and the refusal of the masculine
socio-historical past? If the Subject/Other is always in a pre-existent moral
universe founded on a (mythical) masculine God how can this be accepted when one
axis of the S/O is female?

Additionally I was thinking of the reactionary effects of the
"ethics-of-the-other" in recent years within europe - i.e. Luc Ferry 'Bomb
Serbia!' for ethical reasons, Blair's 'ethical foriegn policy', The ethical
defense proposed last year to justify allowing Iraqi children to die. The recent
ethical justification for the mass slaughter of 4M++ cows and sheep (I kid you
not they justified it 'ethically').

Finally - I don't think the difference is that great, nor do I think that the
relation and understanding of Levinas that I'm working on is finally that
different from your own, transversally divergent perhaps...

ok enough - it's late and Radio 3 calls...



> Ok, enough. As I said, steve, I think we're going to have to agree to
> disagree on this.
> best, ddd
> ______________________
>      D. Diane Davis
>      Rhetoric Department
>      University of Iowa
>      Iowa City, IA 52242
>      319.335.0184
> -----Original Message-----
> From:
> [] On Behalf Of
> Sent:   Friday, July 13, 2001 6:07 AM
> To:
> Subject:        Re: ethics - Levinas
> Eric and all,
> An interesting note:
> Levianas constructs an anti-ontological notion of being because he is
> attempting to produce something 'beyond being' hence the necessity for
> Levinas of the theological line. His discussions with the aetheistic
> Heidegger of being and time are constantly around this divide. The
> obligation referred to  is the 'basic obligation' placing self in a
> relationship to the other... Levinas uses it in  way to replace and refind
> the logic of the same within his ethic - the obligation being the
> responsibility as the primary structure of subjectivity, which he can hold
> as a position because he describes and defines subjectivity in ethicical
> terms. The subject and subjectivity is ethical, and understood as
> responsibility/obligation, or it is nothing. Obligation to the Other.
> But this returns us to the same because it assumes recognition of the other
> through the 'face', through a recognition of the similar.
> But this does not adequately address the constitution of the self as defined
> through psychoanalysis - the mis-recognition of the self through the
> mirror-phase which combines death-drive/instinct with primary narcissism -
> mixing aggression and self-destruction (towards the other) with delight in
> the other.
> I am wondering how to read the differend through the earlier Lyotard and
> wondering what the results might be.
> regards
> sdv
> Mary Murphy&Salstrand wrote:
> > Note on Levinas
> >
> > Obligation is a scandal in the Hegelian sense.  As Lyotard points out;
> > "If the ego was but the closed (abstract) moment of a dialectical
> > alteration of the self, you could reveal nothing to me that I didn't
> > already have in myself."
> >
> > Besides this resistance to a Hegelian monopoly on philosophy, the
> > concept of scandal is interesting because this word also bears in on the
> > theological tradition of Christianity.  Paul spoke of the "scandal of
> > the cross" and what he meant by this has a similar analogy.  The cross
> > was a scandal because it meant that God no longer acts from on high as a
> > monarch or superior, but comes from below through a kenosis or
> > self-emptying that does not refuse either persecution as a criminal or
> > even death itself.
> >
> > There is also a sense here, echoing Sartre, that the other is my fall.
> > Continuing on with the theological theme, however, one could interpret
> > this as a fortunate fall, a felix culpa, because it leads to a new
> > understanding.  One is born again, not from above, but from below
> > through the scandal that befalls the self once it encounters the face of
> > the other.
> >
> > Such are a few of the religious underpinning implicit in this ethical
> > prescription which I have perversely placed in a Christian, rather than
> > Jewish context, to point to the Western universality of the themes.
> >
> > Which is exactly the point. I provide a commentary in theological terms
> > and someone who is atheist may then proclaim: "I want nothing to do with
> > this. It is simply the ancient regime updated.  Old wine in new
> > bottles."  As if their atheism could make them immune from obligation.
> > This is the risk Levinas must run - his ethical prescription of
> > obligation will be transformed into a mere description and hence
> > betrayed. Denied before the cock crows thrice.
> >
> > Lyotard points out, however, that this situation cannot really be
> > avoided.  As Lyotard points out in Just Gaming (Au Juste), one can only
> > say: "Be Just."  The attempt at cognition only defers the ethical and by
> > doing so betrays it.
> >
> > Lyotard compares this with speech act theory where the command to  "act
> > before you understand" is related to the immediacy of the performative
> > statement which enunciates the event.
> >
> > Another comment Lyotard makes concerns the relationship of Levinas to
> > Buber.   Stated very simply, Levinas critiqued the I-Thou dialogue
> > relationship that Buber posited by pointing to the asymmetrical
> > relationship of the Other to the self.  What is interesting about this
> > critique is that it seems to prefigure Lyotard's own criticism of
> > Habermas and communicative action. Buber and Habermas remain brothers
> > beneath the skin.
> >
> > Also, in the phrase universe of "The Differend" a phrase occurs before
> > it is understood.  The event remains a kind of analogue to the ethical
> > situation Levinas invokes.  A godless Torah, if you will. The law,
> > silent and inarticulate to which one must testify, even as one must also
> > bear witness to all those I's without a face.
> >
> >  Next - Note on Levinas - Part II


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