Levinas Unhinged

Levinas Unhinged

by Tom Sparrow


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Levinas Unhinged by Tom Sparrow

Through six heterodox essays this book extracts a materialist account of subjectivity and aesthetics from the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. More than a work of academic commentary that would leave many of Levinas s pious commentators aghast, Sparrow exhibits an aspect of Levinas which is darker, yet no less fundamental, than his ethical and theological guises. This darkened Levinas provides answers to problems in aesthetics, speculative philosophy, ecology, ethics, and philosophy of race, problems which not only trouble scholars, but which haunt anyone who insists that the material of existence is the beginning and end of existence itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782790563
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 06/16/2013
Pages: 164
Sales rank: 1,169,685
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Tom Sparrow teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Slippery Rock University, Pennsylvania, and blogs at Plastic Bodies.

Read an Excerpt

Levinas Unhinged

By Tom Sparrow

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2012 Tom Sparrow
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78279-056-3


Darkest Hours


Absent a comprehensive history of darkness and the night as philosophical metaphors, a history that would match the well-documented ubiquity of light as a metaphor, what I will say here about Levinas's deployment of the night could seem like little more than an ahistorical curiosity. But Levinas's analysis of the night is situated within at least three lines of thinking in the history of philosophy, each of which is tied to the Platonic legacy. And insofar as Levinas's discourse on the night contests this legacy's exultation of light and illumination—that is, contests the imagery which constitutes the very discourse of the Western philosophical tradition—we can regard his thinking as, in a certain sense, counter-philosophical. The following remarks attempt to elucidate this counter-philosophical tendency and, in a modest way, contribute to what would be the conceptual history of the night. Levinas's 1947 text Existence and Existents provides the primary reference point.

The three lines of thinking entered by Levinas's discourse on the night are: (1) the history of light as philosophical metaphor; (2) the history of ontology or metaphysics; and (3) the turn to the body in the twentieth century. It is with this latter trajectory that I am primarily concerned, and it is my interest in Levinas as both a philosopher of the body and a strange materialist that motivates my attention to his analysis of light, the night, and the insomniac's struggle with wakefulness. Indeed, it is via a critique of light in Existence and Existents that Levinas builds a metaphysical theory of the subject which, I contend, is basically materialist. This materialism is given explicit expression in the discourse on the night and it is concretized in the phenomenology of insomnia.

Metaphorics of Light

The metaphor of light plays a significant role in every period of philosophy's history, a role which is not reducible to an innocent literary trope. As Hans Blumenberg notes, "already in Plato ... the metaphorics of light already has a metaphysics of light implicit in it." The philosophical function of the light metaphor is evidenced by glancing at the work of Plato, Descartes, and Heidegger, each of whom informs Levinas's ethics in a fundamental way. In his descriptions of the transcendent goodness of the Other, Levinas draws on Plato's image of the sun as that which illuminates beings and thus enables vision and knowledge. The light which emanates from the sun, which in one sense represents the Good beyond being, figures as the divine source of what exists. To quote Levinas: "Light, whether it emanates from the sensible or from the intelligible sun, is, since Plato, said to be the condition for all beings" (EE 40). In Descartes, from whom Levinas borrows the idea of infinity in order to characterize once again the transcendence of the Other, it is the natural light of reason, the lumen naturale, that intuits what is beyond our doubt and as such designated certain knowledge. The natural light of reason, which is "[withdrawn from] all my senses" and all "images of corporeal things," is essential to rational self-reflection and the discovery of the ego cogito. Finally, the image of light figures into Heidegger's notion of truth. Dasein serves as the Lichtung, or "lighted clearing," wherein being is disclosed or uncovered. Levinas's critique of light seizes upon this notion of disclosure and its ubiquity in philosophical and phenomenological rhetoric.

On Levinas's account the "essential event" of the world is "intention and light" (EE 28-29). This is as the phenomenologist sees it. By "the world," Levinas here means Heidegger's world where beings are first and foremost an array of equipment to be grasped, manipulated, and employed as tools toward determinate human ends: "A being is what is thought about, seen, acted on, willed, felt—an object. Consequently, existence in the world always has a center; it is never anonymous" (EE 29). As he writes this, Levinas is preparing a decisive criticism of the luminosity of the subject-object correlation endemic to phenomenology (and Heideggerian ontology), which in a sense includes Plato and Kant. Remarking on how the sun's rays bind together seer and seen, and thus constitute vision, Plato holds that "when the eyes are no longer turned upon objects upon whose colors the light of day falls but that of the dim luminaries of night, their edge is blunted and they appear almost blind ..." The problem with this perspective is that it restricts the realm of sense to what appears and has form; it disallows for meanings or significations that resist the ordering gaze of the ego. "What does not enter into the forms is banished from the world," Levinas says (EE 31). This is because, for intentional consciousness, "sense is that by which what is exterior is already adjusted to and refers to what is interior" (EE 40). Its "light is that through which something is other than myself, but already as if it came from me."

Ontology of the Night

The luminous view of the world entails, for Levinas, a reduction of the otherness of the given as well as a reduction of the challenge to theoretical consciousness that alterity poses: it assumes that everything that exists is graspable by the intellect and able to be encompassed by a totalizing vision. But it fails to notice that the intellect only grasps that which has "objective" sense, that is, has a form imposed on it: "Form is that by which a being is turned toward the sun, that by which it has a face, through which it gives itself, by which it comes forward" (EE 31). Consequently, and as Derrida will point out in "Violence and Metaphysics," by maintaining a primacy of intentionality and the subject-object correlation, the phenomenological conception of sense maintains an implicit violence which manifests in its reduction of the Other. In the phenomenological and ontological traditions, Derrida argues,

there is a soliloquy of reason and a solitude of light. Incapable of respecting the Being and meaning of the other, phenomenology and ontology would be philosophies of violence. Through them, the entire philosophical tradition, in its meaning and at bottom, would make common cause with oppression and with the totalitarianism of the same. The ancient clandestine friendship between light and power, the ancient complicity between theoretical objectivity and technico-political possession.

Whether the stakes are as dire as this passage suggests (and Levinas seems to see them as such), the seriousness of its portrayal fuels the urgency of Levinas's ethical project. His ethics necessitates a renunciation of light and a defense of those meanings which exceed the limits of theoretical apprehension. One such meaning is expressed in and by the body. Levinas's analysis of the night develops the ontological significance of the body's expressivity; the analysis of insomnia gives it a concrete, i.e. phenomenological, presentation. Against the primacy of the personal and theoretical, the night harbors a dark realm of sensuous materiality that is not without meaning, however negatively it must be conceived. As Cathryn Vasseleu puts it, "Night reveals the limits of phenomenology in the body's carnality." Levinas's turn to the night serves as a reminder that to live is not simply to be conscious, but to find oneself caught in the grip of an alterity that not only approaches from the outside, but which wells up inside of us to disrupt and menace the smooth operation of the intellect and the cultivation of a solipsistic identity.

For Levinas any philosophy that privileges the form of beings over their materiality risks forcibly concealing the "nudity in which an undressed being withdraws from the world, and is as though its existence were elsewhere" (EE 31). As we know, nearly the whole of Western philosophy is guilty of this kind of violence against alterity, whereas it is in Levinas's metaphysics that the nudity of beings—and especially the nudity of the human being—is most respected in its vulnerability. (Derrida, it should be noted, will show that Levinas could have done better.) The "relationship with nudity," Levinas maintains, "is the true experience of the otherness of the other" (EE 31). A philosophy of the night recognizes that form disintegrates in the darkness, objects lose their graspabilty, and the naked materiality of existence encroaches upon the meaning that light reveals. This must not be seen as simply a deficient mode of knowing, however, but as an intimate engagement with a carnal alterity. "Scandal takes cover in the night," says Levinas (EE 31), and it is in the night that the caress, voluptuousness, and desire find refuge. It is arguably under the cover of darkness that goodness, as fecundity, is most productive. Each of these Levinasian catchwords (desire, fecundity, voluptuousness, caress) describes a certain encounter with the other as other, as that "objectless dimension" (EE 35) of nocturnal existence which humbles our will to consume or annihilate it:

In the random agitation of caresses there is the admission that access is impossible, violence fails, possession is refused. There is also the ridiculous and tragic simulation of devouring in kissing and love-bites. It is as though one had made a mistake about the nature of one's desire and had confused it with hunger which aims at something, but which one later found out was a hunger for nothing. (EE 35)

The night, Alphonso Lingis explains in what is assuredly a gloss on Levinas, is "not a substance, but an event." This event effaces identity, depersonalizes without destroying us. Blanchot illustrates the point in Thomas the Obscure (1941):

The darkness immersed everything; there was no hope of passing through its shadows, but one penetrated its reality in a relationship of overwhelming intimacy. [Thomas's] first observation was that he could still use his body, and particularly his eyes; it was not that he saw anything, but what he looked at eventually placed him in contact with a nocturnal mass which he vaguely perceived to be himself and in which he was bathed.

What, then, is produced by the "nocturnal" event that Totality and Infinity will designate as exceeding the "play of lights" which defines representational thinking and the adequation between consciousness and being? A certain affective encounter with being qua being is produced, and thereby Levinasian ontology seeks to darken the metaphysics of light.

Levinas draws an ontological distinction within the night itself. Levinas differentiates between the night of the il y a (the "there is," or bare anonymous existence, which Levinas calls the "central concept" of Existence and Existents [EE 44]) and the phenomenal night which opposes daylight. In Heidegger's language, there is both an ontological and ontic understanding of the night. Vasseleu maintains that the former is synonymous with alterity and the trace of the Other, which is why she designates it as the "non-visual, non-ontological precursor of presence." The il y a, she says, is unrelated to light, purely affective, and the source of a horror greater than the anxiety found in Heidegger's fundamental ontology. Now, it may be the case that the il y a is prior to the hypostasis of an existent who actively takes up a position in being, but I would contend that the passivity suffered by the existent in the face of the il y a—that is, in the night—is itself an ontological event that reveals the basically heterological nature of embodied subjectivity. In other words, ontology is not exhausted by the visible or the illuminable. Ontology suffers from a fundamental obscurity, opacity, and darkness.

It is also unnecessary to posit the il y a as beyond being or outside of immanence (immanence understood in the Spinozist or Deleuzean sense). It is possible to think the separation of an existent as immanent to the rumble of the il y a, bare existence. This separation, however, need not be cast as a transcendence of being. This is what it would mean to think the advent of the subject as an event of being in its fundamental materiality or "elemental" nature (EE 44), rather than as an incarnation of a disembodied spirit. Indeed, to conceive the hypostasis, separation, or positioning of the subject as an effect of effort and labor and fatigue, as Levinas does in both Existence and Existents and Totality and Infinity, is to conceive subjectivity as the practical production (rather than reception) of form—clothing, dwellings, societal roles, etc., whatever cloaks bare existence in singular material effects and individuates the subject (EE 31). Quoting Existence and Existents again,

here materiality is thickness, coarseness, massivity, wretchedness. It is what has consistency, weight, is absurd, is a brute but impassive presence; it is also what is humble, bare and ugly. A material object, in being destined for a use, in forming part of a setting, is thereby clothed with a form which conceals its nakedness. The discovery of the materiality of being is not a discovery of a new quality, but of its formless proliferation. Behind the luminosity of forms, by which beings already relate to our 'inside', matter is the very fact of the there is ... (EE 51, italics added)

Insofar as the materiality of the existent, the existent's body, is in touch with the il y a, Vasseleu is right to point out that the body for Levinas is the adventitious materialization of consciousness and that "consciousness begins as a sense of corporeality." That is, separation begins in the formless rumblings of immanence. And the carnality of our sensibility is precisely what gets back in touch with the il y a when our bodies and minds dissolve into the night. It would not be accurate to describe this as an "experience" of the il y a, Levinas insists (EE 52), because the term "experience" is "inapplicable to a situation which involves the total exclusion of light." The night is non-discursive, an immediate encounter with a pure nothingness (or a pure plenitude?) that is nevertheless an impersonal something: "What we call the I is itself submerged by the night, invaded, depersonalized, stifled by it. The disappearance of all things and of the I leaves what cannot appear, the sheer fact of being in which one participates, whether one wants to or not, without having taken the initiative, anonymously" (EE 53). The night opens us up to a signification that can only be apprehended by the body, the body taken not as a prosthesis of a situated, perspectival consciousness (as in Merleau-Ponty, who will not allow the night to completely destroy personal identity), but rather as an event that is without perspective and lacking intentional directedness (EE 53).

The body engulfed in nocturnal space has no point of reference; it is a sentience reduced to its affectivity or sensibility, which Totality and Infinity calls enjoyment and Existence and Existents denotes as horror (EE 54-55). Material life is a frightening joy. The horror of the night presents us with an "indeterminate menace" in which "one is exposed" to the "dark background of existence" (EE 55), that is, to the materiality and mortality of being—in other words, to all the forces which restrict our freedom as embodied, contingent beings who nonetheless remain necessarily riveted to their being. The contradiction of this position is perhaps what makes it so unsettling or tragic. "Horror carries out the condemnation to perpetual reality, to existence with 'no exits'" (EE 58). Maybe it is this "insecurity" in the face of existence that Elie Wiesel had in mind when he gave the title Night to his recollection of the Holocaust. Wiesel illustrates Levinas's point that daylight is not exempt from the horror of the night when he writes: "We received no food. We lived on snow; it took the place of bread. The days resembled the nights, and the nights left in our souls the dregs of their darkness. The train rolled slowly, often halted for a few hours, and continued. It never stopped snowing. We remained lying on the floor for days and nights, one on top of the other, never uttering a word. We were nothing but frozen bodies. Our eyes closed, we merely waited for the next stop, to unload our dead."

Tangible Darkness

The night is not just a metaphysical concept for Levinas; it has a concrete modality. It is the insomniac who experiences the night phenomenologically, but she is also the one who succumbs to the horrifying absence of form featured in insomnia. The insomniac wills herself to sleep, to take leave of the night, but instead the anonymous "field of forces" that constitute existence disallows her rest and commands her vigilance. She is kept awake by something. Insomnia catches the subject up in its immanence, terrorizes consciousness (EE 62) and seizes the body, revealing the shadowy depths of the gift of being. It is the realization that being's truth is not always exhibited in the light of day, but is sometimes—even essentially—delivered under the cloak of darkness and in the deafening silence of insomnia, that marks Levinas's deployment of the night.

Excerpted from Levinas Unhinged by Tom Sparrow. Copyright © 2012 Tom Sparrow. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface: Haunting Levinas 1

1 Darkest Hours 9

2 The Spectator's Shadow 22

3 Aesthetic Identity 43

4 Strange Ecology 73

5 Complexions 84

6 Plastic Subjects 122

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