File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2003/lyotard.0302, message 117

Date: Sat, 22 Feb 2003 11:41:42 +0000
Subject: Re: levinas

But Diane,  when Levinas says God he precisely doesn't redefine the 
term. Just as Neitzsche has been used to redefine, reconstruct Christian 
theology, so to is Levinas being used to do the same thing for the 21st 
Century.  He was quoted in a fascinating TV series some years ago as a 
radical theologist...

Where Simon Critchley proposes that the normal reading of Levina's work 
as remaking ethics into philosophy does not capture the centrality of 
his work and project. He argues that the importance of the project is 
the importance of the human in front of me.  "With Leveinas the relation 
to the other takes place in the concrete situation of speech. Where I 
focus on the particulart individual in front of me and forgo the 
mediation of the universal..." [Anti-Hegelian and consequently 
anti-marxist to the end].  However is it true that he refuses the 
 mediation of the universal by focusing on the individual? Of course not 
for he produces every specific encounter into an encounter with absolute 
otherness.  But this production of "...Infinity, is the mediator of 
 them all, letting me get just close enough to see the others face, but 
close enough to know the color of his, her eyes" (ethics and infinity). 
Bizarrely where Levinas transforms the encounter between human beings 
into this encounter with the infinite he makes this meetining into 
something simpler than it in fact is, where we should regard an 
inter-human meeting as something that engages all of the individual 
human participants personal, social, economic history and of course 
nature - the placing of the 'infinite' in the relationship plainly fails 
to develop the complexity required.  This is not to say that the subtle 
and enlightening understanding of  inter human relations (phenomenology) 
is not particularly in tune with the later ethics.

But to finally be clear - it is the case that contemporary 
ethics/morality has to address the non-human and there Leveinas is 
simply dysfunctional. Or (are you) or anyone else, prepared to argue 
that Levinas can be used in support of ecology or the relations between 
the human and the non-human?

(Read his sill statements on the 6 day war...)


Diane Davis wrote:

>But Steve, when Levinas says God, he is not evoking some being or montheistic 
>entity; not even close. He is completely redefining the notion of "god" 
>and "religion" in terms of an originary sociality. My initial resistance to 
>Levinas years ago had to do with what Eric called his "god talk":   as a 
>recovering xian (hallelujah), I wanted no part of such shit. And for that 
>reason alone it took me quite some time to really read Levinas. But its clear 
>right away that what hes doing is nothing that any religious denomination 
>could handle; in fact he makes an argument in at least one place for atheism. 
>Right outta the shoot, he nixes any sense of God as a being one might pray to. 
>Badiou does not do him justice on this point but instead does a kind of Rush 
>Limbaugh-ish lumping and dumping routine that makes him seem readily 
>dismissable. His reduction of Levinass ethics to theology (without following 
>or even hinting at Levinass wild redefinitions and refashionings) is 
>ridiculous. It does not do justice to the radicality of Levinass thought but 
>instead effaces it through a "pragmatic" approach that dances dangerously close 
>to the metaphysics of presence, to the immanentism that Levinass work so 
>beautifully explodes.
>Levinas as a conservative???? Folks, you have GOT to be kidding. Levinas gives 
>us a completely, radically different notion of "self" as inessential, 
>nonsubstantial--not negative (? wha?) but based on what he calls 
>substitution. .... I can't do this justice here, but basically, the "I" only 
>comes into being via the assignation to respond, which is non-negotiable: prior 
>to every decision, "I" am exposed to and called by the other, who demands a 
>response that "does not leave any place of refuge, any chance to slip away." 
>Since the myth of interiority followed romantic notions of transcendence and 
>immanence down the toilet, there is nowhere to hide--you are originarily and 
>irreparably exposed to an inassimilable alterity who interrupts your 
>spontaneity and whose demand for a response comes through without reprieve: one 
>speaks/writes/acts in response to the other and because there are others. And 
>inasmuch as "my" writing/speech/action is always already a response, it is 
>made, Levinas says, "despite the ego, or, more exactly despite me." When I am 
>on assignment, no one can take my place: I am the one called, and to this call, 
>only a "'here I am' (me voici) can answer." However, in this case "the 
>pronoun 'I' is in the accusative, declined before any declension, possessed by 
>the other." So, it doesn't quite cut it to say that *I* write, that *I* respond 
>to the other; strictly speaking, the one who responds is not an ego but "me 
>under assignation," me deprived of first person status, me without an I--or 
>perhaps: my I sans any ego/ism (OTB 141-42). And this essentially gutted "I" is 
>in every way driven by desire. Alterity does not "trump" desire--desire in 
>Levinas is always desire *for* the radically other, and the more you get it the 
>more you want it. This desire is never satisfied. 
>It's true that levinas has been accused of being masochistic, and to that 
>accusation, he says if that is true, we can't be masochistic enough: ethics is 
>tied to masochism. Once again, however, we'd have to RADICALLY redefine our 
>terms here inasmuch as masochism as we typically define it is an ego-ity's 
>masochism; Levinas's ethics relies on a passivity *beyond* passivity. 
>What Levinas offers is an ethics of/as interruption, of/as a disruption of the 
>play of the Same (habitual economy), and his works belt out what we might 
>describe as an ethical scream inasmuch as the ethical moment is associated with 
>a kind of trauma, with a non-cognitive "experience" that one can only undergo. 
>For him, the relation with the other is not reducible to *knowledge* about the 
>other; the other is what announces the insufficiency of knowledge, requiring 
>instead an exorbitant and deracinating hospitality, an "approach, which 
>contrasts with knowing," as he puts it (OTB 193, 120).  For Levinas, the 
>ethical relation does not move toward commonality or re-cognition; it does not 
>involve the movement of appropriation but an "experience" of depropriation. It 
>names, as Blanchot suggests, "a relation that is foreign to every exigency of 
>identity, of unity, even of presence" (IC 300). This relation is un/grounded, 
>instead, in "the strangeness between us" (IC 168), which interrupts my power to 
>appropriate and assimilate--which interrupts my power, period. And/but 
>paradoxically, responsibility (from responder, implying the obligation to 
>respond to the other) requires that "I" respond precisely at this moment 
>when "I" have lost the power to do so. It is this interruption that opens a 
>rapport with the other as other. 
>This "relation without relation," as Levinas puts it, is what he 
>calls "religion." And God is the name he gives to radical alterity, to that for 
>which your own little web of beliefs and hermeneutic fictions cannot account. 
>God is the name for that which infinitely exceeds the tropological structure; 
>and though Levinas would hate this, it looks and acts an awfully lot like (but 
>is not simply reducible to) what Lacan calls the Real.  
> Okaydone ranting. Back to work. 
>  D. Diane Davis
>  Division of Rhetoric & Department of English
>  1 University Station B5500
>  University of Texas at Austin
>  Austin, TX 78712-0200
>  Office: 512.471.8735; Dept: 471.6109; FAX: 471.4353
>-----Original Message-----
>From: [mailto:owner-
>] On Behalf Of steve.devos
>Sent: Friday, February 21, 2003 1:40 PM
>Subject: Re: Fear.
>The trinary structure (self/god/other) that is at the heart of Levinas ethical 
>structure explicitly requires that God and Ethics are inseparable. Not only is 
>this extraordinarily reactionary given that it assumes that ethics derives from 
>christian, judiac and islamic thought, in that it assumes that ethics derives 
>from religious thought, and as such makes the assumption that morality and 
>moral thought requires a tight connection between God and Morality.  Is 
>it "sensible" to, or even possible to argue that an ethics founded on the 
>necessity for the existence of a montheistic God used to justify 
>ethics/morality - as oppositional to an understanding of ethics as being 
>socially determined - is feasible?  Is it the case then that Levinas is so 
>ahistorical as to be simply irrelevant then?  
>The following is required for L.
>* There are moral values.
>* The existence of these values depends on the existence and nature of god.
>Plainly absurd.
>shawn wilbur wrote:
>I'm curious. If we do not acknowledge a basic difference in the economies
>of "obedience to [explicit] law" + "fear of the lord" and "the law of
>then where, in terms of very practical critique, does that leave us? The
>conflation is useful if you want to lump all "religions of the book," but
>such talk of "tendencies" is simply ahistorical, and ignores essentially
>of the conflict within the "western moral tradition." You end up in the
>position of claiming that very progressive social practices have been
>covertly "reactionary" because of some tendency (which they may even
>have been quite explicitly working against.)
>I'm thinking, for example, of Mayor Samuel Milton "Golden Rule" Jones,
>of Toledo, OH, and very practically successful politician who, the record
>suggests, was far more progressive that most of the Progressives of his
>era, precisely because he paid close attention to the differences between
>these two economies of "law."
>As an anarchist, it naturally warms my heart to hear folks claim that
>to law is inherently reactionary. I even agree, within limits of how we
>"law." But anarchism's specific form of the "what is to be done?" question
>revolves precisely around how the necessary functions of social
>are to be differentiated from "law" and "government." I won't pretend to
>answer those questions, though i have some strong opinions. However,
>one of those opinions i will advance is that only close attention to the
>dynamics of systems will bring anything like illumination. Isn't it, for
>the case that "original sin" is far from a uniform factor even within
>practice - and that plenty of secular philosophies include some attention
>the internal division of human beings which has much the same function?
>Eric wrote:
>Let me say first of all I thought Geof's position was rather eloquently
>stated. I want to chime in, however, in favor of Steve's comment that
>Levinas is reactionary. Perhaps, Geof is right about Levinas being hard
>to put into politics terms because his ethics is concerned with a
>mirco-level face-to-face basis regarding the other. I think it is still
>possible to raise the issue that Levinas does not really break with the
>moral tradition of the west, he simply finds new ways to defend it, and
>therefore the core of his ethics remains conservative and even
>Certainly, at the heart of this western tradition there lies the notion
>of original sin - the self left to own device becomes evil. This self
>must always be subjugated through the law in order to be saved. When
>this is done, the worship of god and the respect for the neighbor are
>seen as the primary ends of ethics.
>Jewish tradition obeys the Torah; Christianity discards the rules of
>kosher and ritual purification, but still maintains the law of love. One
>of the ways this break is characterized (usually by Christians) is that
>the old law is based upon 'fear of the lord' where god is seen as a
>being who is wrathful and quick to anger. Nonetheless, this fear is
>useful insofar as it teaches humility, the repentance to sin in sack
>cloth and ashes. Christianity usually claims this fear must be overcome
>by love and posits a new, more intimate relationship with god - Jesus is
>my friend.  This kind of tenderness seems to be related closely to the
>kind of positive fear that Geof was invoking. Levinas is interesting
>because he rewrites this tradition in a way that stands Christianity on
>its head and tends to validate the Jewish tradition from facile and
>empty criticisms.
>The problem with all this, however, is that this disowned self under
>both the Jewish and Christian traditions tends to be very negative. In
>the Lacan-Badiou sense it gives up on desire. The western tradition
>strongly advocates making the self at best, passive and at worst,
>Feminists have usually critiqued this kind of ethics as follows. It
>tends to idealize service and for women, roles such as being a mother,
>teacher, nurse, nun, - the so-called caretaker and nurturing roles are
>valorized. Certainly these are concerned with the ethics of the other,
>but in a way that tends to limit the woman herself. If a woman chooses
>to become something else, such as an artist, writer, athlete these roles
>tend to be seen as somehow suspect and less than the ideal.  Such a
>woman may be described by religious judgment as being selfish when she
>was really being ethical.
>Without going into the details, I think it is fairly obvious that
>Levinas never really breaks with any of this basic orientation in his
>ethics. He always tends to disavow the self (chez soi) versus the face
>of the other.  In his system, alterity always trumps desire.
>In this sense, Badiou is more modern and more political in his approach.
>Instead of the traditional self-other axis, his is an immortal-animal
>axis which is guided by truth rather than god as the ultimate source of
>its ethics.  This may be seen as contra-natural in the sense that
>ontology-sets-difference-being are in some sense natural. It is not,
>however, concerned with the care of self, but rather with the event of
>truth. Who we ultimately become stems from this break; this encounter.
>In this way, ethics are always political in their import.
>-----Original Message-----
>[] On Behalf Of Don Socha
>Sent: Monday, February 17, 2003 3:23 PM
>Subject: Re: Fear.
>I had thought of the Levinas angle but discarded it, for
>myself at
>least, because of my rejection of his ethics.  Beyond the
>critique of
>Levinas by Badiou, there is something deeply reactionary in
>such as "...Ethics is, therefore, against nature because it
>forbids the
>murderousness of my natural will to put my own existence
>I don't see what's necessarily reactionary about this
>position, Steve.  Surely you don't mean to suggest that
>Levinas is anything like a biological determinist. Though I
>don't want to overlook the always difficult context of his
>work, isn't he simply saying that while nature is
>indifferent, people need not be fatalistic?
>I've yet to read Badiou (plan to begin this week), but
>doesn't Levinas mean something quite distinct when he
>says "against nature"?  I do know he wasn't in favor of
>putting his own existence first... rather, his whole ouvre
>stands against precisely this.
>Or do you see ethics as something other than an artificial
>means by which better versions of ourselves might be
>Don Socha
>  Dr. Diane Davis 
>  Division of Rhetoric and Dept of English
>  University of Texas at Austin
>  PARLIN 19  (512-471-8735)
>  Austin TX 78712-1122


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