File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2003/lyotard.0302, message 122


Subject: re: Levinas
Date: Sat, 22 Feb 2003 10:22:16 -0600 (CST)



> 
> But Diane,  when Levinas says God he precisely doesn't redefine the
> term. 

Yes, he does. I don't know what else to say, Steve. He does this very 
explicitly, over and over. Look again at just damn near anything he has written-
-that *he* has written. We have to go to HIM. And it doesn't suffice to go to 
the interviews with him, either, since his approach and his perpetual reworking 
of terms is extremely complex and can't be stated simply, which is what the 
interview format requires. What investment do you have in this determination 
that Levinas is utterly useless, in dismissing him so quickly and completely? 

> 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...
 
I don't understand why this is important. I heard something last night on the 
tube about how Shrubya may be our most important president to date.  ...   At 
the same time, I want to be clear: Levinas has been extremely important in 
Jewish studies, and I would be the first to agree that he was indeed a truly 
radical theologist, maybe the most radical, pushing a Jewish ethic that has 
NOTHING to do with the "existence of God"--not all Judaism believes in God as a 
being or entity, and Levinas's version didn't. He remained all along, as he 
said, both a philosopher and a theologist. He tried to keep them 
separate....and I'm not sure that worked....nonetheless, his 
particular "religion," as I said in the last post (and as he said over and 
over) had  nothing to do with the existence of a monotheistic God, a god-
entity. 

> 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].  

I disagree--one has to push further than this. For Levinas, there is the 
ethical AND there is justice, and though justice MUST begin in the ethical, 
they are nonetheless indissociable. In the face of the Other there is also the 
face of the third, simultaneously, and with the third, there is the need, the 
*ethical* imperative for justice. I have no investment in whether this can be 
used to specifically Hegelian or Marxist ends or not, but it is not completely 
anti- either of them. It is no problem, for example, to move from this notion 
of the ethical into the kind of hegemonic descriptions of the "universal" that 
Laclau (just for example) discusses. 

> However is it true that he refuses the
>  mediation of the universal by focusing on the individual? 

First, there is no "individual" in Levinas; there is radical singularity, 
period. There is only the illusion of "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.

Okay, here again, I have to completely disagree, Steve. It's as if we're 
talking about two different bodies of work. (Then again, I suppose that's 
always the case.) But Levinas's descriptions always take into account both the 
phenomenological and the non- phenomenological. Levinas's analyses begin with 
the everyday experience of the "world," with the "cultural whole" in which the 
manifestation of the other is produced, acknowledging that "the other is given 
in the concept of the totality to which he is immanent," and that he 
is "illuminated within this [cultural] whole, like a text by its context" 
("Trace" 351). But Levinas works backwards from there "to a situation where the 
totality breaks up, a situation that conditions the totality itself." 
This "situation" is "the gleam of exteriority or of transcendence in the face 
of the Other" (TI 24), which precedes the tropological structure—which 
precedes, therefore, all conceptual meaning, all knowledge. So the other both 
signifies as a phenomenon within the cultural whole and also expresses as a 
face outside any context, disturbing and breaking up the totality. Here's 
Levinas:

"[The other's] cultural signification is revealed and reveals as it were 
horizontally, on the basis of the historical world to which it belongs. 
According to the phenomenological expression, it reveals the horizons of this 
world. But this mundane signification is found to be disturbed and shaken by 
another presence, abstract, not integrated into the world. His presence 
consists in coming unto us, making an entry. This can be stated in this way: 
the phenomenon which is the apparition of the other is also a face" ("Trace" 
351). 

So the (rhetorically) figured/enfaced other manifests him/herself as an 
immanent phenomenon and is understood hermeneutically via his/her context 
within the world; but at the same time, the other manifests/signifies 
him/herself otherwise, as another kind of presence, not immanent but both 
imminent and immemorial, as a disturbance, an interruption in the totalizing 
context:  "The other who manifests himself in the face as it were breaks 
through his own plastic essence, like someone who opens a window on which his 
figure is outlined. His presence consists in divesting himself of the form 
which, however, manifests him. His manifestation is a surplus over the 
inevitable paralysis of manifestation" ("Trace" 351-352). The face of the 
other, that is, presents itself as a phenomenon from which it's always already 
busting loose, as a phenomenon that cannot contain it. Escaping all 
representation, the face "is the very collapse of phenomenality" (OTB 88). As a 
phenomenon, the face offers itself to my vision, making itself available to my 
grasp, to my powers of comprehension. But "in its epiphany, in expression, the 
sensible, still graspable, turns into total resistance to the grasp" (TI 197).

 
> 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?

Levinas's anthropocentrism is well documented. Derrida's critiques are 
particularly rigorous, both in "Eating Well" and in _Alterites_. But two 
things: first, why does this make his work "simply dysfunctional" for a wider 
ethics? Second, Levinas himself wobbled on this point: though is written works 
focus almost exclusively on the inter*human* ("almost" because he does do that 
really beautiful and ambiguous piece in Difficult Freedom on Bobby, the pooch), 
in an interview somewhere that I can't seem to find locate now, he concedes 
that a dog has a "face" in his sense of that term. When asked then whether a 
snake has a face, he pulls back, founders a little, and says something like: 
Look, these are significant ethico-philosophical questions that deserve 
significant reflection.  In other words: that has not been my focus, and to 
refocus there would now require real *thought,* not knee-jerk conclusion-
jumping. So Levinas, as a holocaust survivor (who lost damn near his entire 
family while he was locked away in a prison camp getting dehumanized and 
writing Existence and Existents), focused on the HUMAN community; but there is 
no reason to presume that what he offered cannot then open itself to a larger 
notion of "community."  As that late interview suggests, even HE suggested the 
fruitfulness of thinking that through. 


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

such as? 

best, ddd



   

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