File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0107, message 77

Subject: RE: ethics - Levinas
Date: Sat, 14 Jul 2001 07:26:39 -0500

Steve wrote:
>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

Hi, Steve. I'm with you on the first part here...maybe with a few
definitional reservations. The face in Levinas, agreed, is not only the
threshold between Other and other but also between self and other (and
because this threshold is operational, there is no absolute distinction, no
real split between self and other). The face is the eidos, where one is
exposed to the "outside"; and it's in the other's face that i can detect the
trace of the Other, without ever being able to grasp it (existing only as
trace, it is ungraspable). Since you're into Agamben (interesting, since his
work is so dependent on Catholic terminology--the topic for another post,
perhaps) and i dig him, too, let's go there for a sec. Agamben discusses
this irreparable exposure to the other in terms of the face also, in The
Coming Community:

"Whatever is a singularity plus an empty space, a singularity that is finite
and, nonetheless, indeterminable according to a concept. But a singularity
plus an empty space can only be a pure exteriority, a pure exposure.
Whatever, in this sense, is the event of an outside. What is thought in the
architranscendental quodlibet is, therefore, what is most difficult to
think: the absolutely non-thing experience of a pure exteriority. ... The
outside is not another space that resides beyond a determinate space, but
rather, it is the passage, the exteriority that gives it access--in a word,
it is its face, its eidos." (67-68)

I see this as directly in line with Levinas's description of the face as
threshold--but without the levinasian elaboration of the other-Other
relation. Is that fair? That would be the third...which i believe is what
you're objecting to. That you object to this third is understandable to me;
Lyotard objects to it, too. But you object to it for different reasons, and
those are what i'm trying to understand.

What i can't follow you on is this link you set up between detecting the
other's destitution and hunger (which also means my *own* destitution and
hunger) and victimhood. ??? Three things:  First, according to Levinas, when
i catch a trace of the Other in you, i un-forget the fact that you are
fragile, mortal, inappropriable: finite. I un-forget that you have to sleep
and shit and cry and EAT--levinas points out that Heidegger's Dasein is
never shown eating or needing to eat. (Echoing Levinas, Ronell once noted
that it is precisely when i stop un-forgetting that you are finite that i
start bombing the shit out of you.) But second, what you teach me in this
moment is my OWN finitude, my own destitution and de-situation, my mortality
and my infinite singularity--which also means my homelessness: my inability
to hide out in an image of solid Selfhood. You teach me in this instant that
"there is no shelter on earth," as Agamben puts it. And this...this
shelterlessness is what "we" share. And third, that your naked, downcast
eyes scream "thou shall not kill!" to me, does not necessarily suggest an
ethics based on victimhood. It doesn't suggest that to me, anyway. It is an
ethics based, again, on the notion of a radical and originary passivity, an
immemorial obligation that precedes us both but that flickers through your
downcast eyes and sparks an odd bodily memory (without conscious memory) in
me. The questions of autonomy and heteronomy, as Lyotard notes in Just
Gaming, don't come up in this scene because there is no Identity that is not
first of all under the sway of this overwhelming obligation.

>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...

I'm not sure what you're asking here. But one of the things i am most
attracted to in Levinas's work is his embrace of nonknowlege--that he moves
the notion of ethics out of the realm of understanding and reason and the
action hero. He makes ethics something that happens at the limit of
understanding and consciousness, and I'm very moved by this, by his attempt
to rethink ethics, that is, from the position of finity and fragility. In
Levinas, the ethical relation takes place in the subject's experience of
declension rather than in its macho assertions of righteous activity. So it
may be precisely what most disturbs you in Levinas's thought that i most
appreciate in it.

Btw, book tip: On this idea of embracing non-knowledge as an ethical
position, Avital Ronell's got a book due out very soon with University of
Illinois Press called _Stupidity_. It doesn't directly address Levinas but
is clearly operating on a kind of Levinasian ethic. I got the chance to read
it in typescript, and it is truly incredible. Blew me away.

best, ddd


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