225/1030 : Levinas, the “Other” and conversation

Oh, hi there. I think this is the longest gap in my writing that I’ve had since starting this project back in the fall. Part of this gap was due to an externally enforced one in the form of the semester break, but that’s not really an excuse. Still, I wasn’t idle! I spent three of those weeks preparing a concise presentation of my project, whittling my ideas down from 15 pages of goals and theories (already whittled down from six months of thinking and writing) to 4 pages.

My contribution today is about Levinas’ Totality and Infinity (1961), specifically “The Same and Other” and more specifically “A. Metaphysics and Transcendence.”

Great titles. As if I’m not already swimming in the clouds around my ivory tower. But it’s an interesting chapter and after all, as I bragged Friday in my colloquium, I can connect anything to my project. That is, everything connects, so of course Levinas connects to my project.

Actually though, something Judith Butler recently wrote using Levinas really does connect, and I’ll save that for a future post.

In the meantime, Levinas. Hmmm. Where do I begin?

Maybe I’ll start with the different terms he uses that I had to look up myself. He provides definitions, but I haven’t been convinced:

metaphysics- “to die for the invisible” (35). Obviously this definition is related to the idea of metaphysics meaning “beyond the physical.” Everything physical can be seen, so something metaphysical will be invisible. The fact that we need to die for that which is invisible connects to the idea that we cannot be in relation to metaphysics, so I guess this definition does make sense, even if it needs to be broken down, first.

ontology- according to the google dictionary, ontology is both “the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being” and “a set of concepts and categories in a subject area or domain that shows their properties and the relations between them.” The first definition is simpler. It has to do with “being” and the sense of existence beyond the physical bodies that hold the thoughts, emotions, senses difficult to explain in physical terms (even if neurologists and cognitive scientists are working pretty hard to figure this stuff out). While I’m sure the first definition is the one Levinas focuses on, he does seem to include the second one in his considerations, especially in considering the “breach of totality” (35). For example, the ontology of identity as Levinas describes it (and I ascribe to as well) is that “the I is not a being that always remains the same, but it is a being whose existing consists in identifying itself, in recovering its identity throughout all that happens to it” (36).  “I” establishes a point of relation to the rest of existence, even to the other. Yet, while Levinas seems to discuss the other in relation to “I,” he does not consider the other beyond the human, or the physical, and this is what confused me throughout the reading. Ontology here has to do with the being of living, breathing humans and little else, as far as I can tell.

desire- the sensation of lacking something and that something being out of reach. We are only satisfying that desire when we reach the thing which satisfies what is lacked. I understand the striving for satisfaction as a kind of trieb or telos. 

metaphysical desire- “desire beyond everything that can simply complete it” and “toward the absolutely other” (34). It is a “desire without satisfaction which, precisely, understands [extend] the remoteness, the alterity, and the exteriority of the other” (34). The way I understood this was as a desire for something like God, which, along with Levinas’ evocation of transcendence brought the Romantics to mind. However, according to the discussion in my colloquium, God is not really part of this question and instead we are striving towards a sort of abstract structure with this metaphysical desire. On the other hand, if that structure is some kind of love, as was also proposed in the colloquium, then Levinas really is just an evolution of the Romantics. Or am I blinded by Levinas’ use of the word “transcendence?” Apparently, he did redefine it.

transcendence- “back” in my MA years, I learned what transcendence could mean for the Romantics through Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde, where love could take the physical and spiritual beings and help them reach a level of being wo/man could not experience before. This level of being would be in tune with nature and through that, the ultimate being. Based on that understanding, Levinas does not seem so different. For the Romantics, language and working through its structuralism was one way of reaching transcendence as well… still not so different from Levinas. However, I guess what makes him special is that he claims that this transcendence does not lead to a unity or universality, which the Romantics did believe in. Instead, “the metaphysician and the other cannot be totalized” (35). That is, the same cannot “establish its identity by simple opposition to the other” (38).  

Transcendence designates a relation with a reality infinitely distant from my own reality, yet without this distance, destroying this relation and without this relation destroying this distance, as would happen with relations within the same; this relation does not become an implantation in the other and a confusion with him, does not affect the very identity of the same, its ipseity, does not silence the apology, does not become apostay and ecstasy. (41-2).

Granted, I had to look up ipseity (selfhood; individual identity, individuality.) and apostay (the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief or principle) myself. What I get from this definition is that transcendence allows for a totality of being that acknowledges the alterity of  the other without denying itself.

Um, so I guess this is where my interpretation of how this is an argument either for or against (couldn’t decide) cultural relativism comes in.

the other- in being distracted for so long by the definition of other as including non-humans, it took a while for me to return to the other as it also is used in the postcolonial sense, the other human who we cannot accept as ourselves.

The metaphysical other is “other with an alterity that is not formal, is not the simple reverse of identity, and is not formed out of resistance to the same, but is prior to every initiative, to all imperialism of the same” (38-9).

So far, I could deal with Levinas’ ideas and they mostly make sense, especially in working through them term by term like this. Still, I got/get confused when he brings in ethics.

ethics- according to my friends on Wikipedia, ethics (especially from a philosophical sense) “involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.” It does have something to do with morality, and I get that, but it also has to do with systematic concepts, and culture/society is what systematizes these. Yet, throughout my reading of Levinas, I thought culture/society was supposed to stay out of it (I haven’t been able to work through that reading yet. Maybe I am wrong)? I think what mostly confuses me is that ethics is set by Levinas in opposition to freedom, and that this freedom “comes from an obedience to Being” (45). But then, when I remember that ethics has to also do with that which separates man from animal, in the classical sense, then the idea of ethics being that which can take us beyond the physical is that which Levinas would support.

freedom- “Freedom does not resemble the capricious spontaneity of free will; its ultimate meaning lies in this permanence in the same, which is reason” (43).  It is “to maintain oneself against the other, despite every relation with the other to ensure the autarchy of an I” (46).  This brings me back to transcendence, and therefore transcendence is this kind of freedom.

All  of this writing so far, was just to help me work through Levinas. Now that I have, there are some potential ways to bring Levinas into my discussion. First of all, there is some mention of media/medium, but it’s a bit removed from the contemporary discussion. However, he also raises the the significance of conversation as precisely gaining the kind of freedom he advocates, and this is how I do think I can incorporate Levinas into my project.

Conversation, from the very fact that it maintains the distance between me and the Other, the radical separation asserted in transcendence which prevents the reconstitution of totality, cannot renounce the egoism of its existence; but the very fact of being in conversation consists in recognizing in the Other a right over this egoism. (40)

The autonomy of two utterances in the same conversation, the same one thing, reminds me of Dostoevsky and therefore of Bahktin and dialogism. If you’ve been following my project and arguments, you’ll know Bakhtin’s theories of dialogism, polyphony, and heteroglossia play a large role in them. So, I could extend Levinas to help explain what is meant by his heteroglossia and the way in which an individual, subjective utterance can emerge. I could also use Levinas to support the idea of the how “thought consists in speaking” (40).

So, um, again, yeah. These are my takeaways from Levinas’ chapter on the Metaphysical and Transcendence.

I’ll return soon with a look at what Butler makes of this. Thankfully, she helps bring him more productively into the 21st Century.

Work Cited:

“ethics.” Wikipedia. Web. 28 April 2017.

Levinas, Emmanuel trans. Alphonso Lingis. Totality and Infinity. Pittsburgh: Duquesne                UP, 1969. Print.

“ontonolgy,” “ipseity,” and “apostay.” Google Search. Google. Web. 1 May 2017.


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