Reading with Levinas

Last week, I finally finished Emmanuel Levinas’s first significant work Totality and Infinity (1961). I’m trying to work out how to use Levinasian philosophy to read contemporary texts, how the issues and concepts addressed in his writing can shape and inform how I examine contemporary American novels.

Totality and Infinity is a kind of rhetorical, ethical appeal. It is highly repetitive, with central concepts and ideas constantly recurring, like leitmotif, slightly varied, reasserted in different ways. This makes it pretty difficult to pin down the priorities of Levinas’s arguments – there’s just so much he refers to, uses and reuses.

In order to help me make sense of some of the central elements, I’m going to try and do some basic glossing of what the concepts are and how they are referred to. Doing this will also help me to think through how I might use some of these ideas as tools for critique.

Ethics as First Philosophy – The Same and The Other in Totality and Infinity

I’ll start with the relationship between what we might (for now) call the same and the Other. The same is what already know, what we might call our personal experience, that which we comfortably understand and have assimilated into our own perspective. The Other is the exterior person, that which is not same, and thus can challenge my sameness, my fixed perspective. Levinas says that this relation, the one between the subject and the person who is exterior, is the most essential element of experience – “the relationship between the same and the other…is the ultimate fact”.

Before anything else, we must understand ourselves as constituted not by our isolated individual experiences but by our commitment to and responsibility for the Other. This is “ethics as first philosophy”, or “ethics as optics”. It is a new vision of the human being which challenges traditional ontologies of the self and Being following Heidegger and Husserl. Levinas states:

it is a “vision” without image, bereft of the synoptic and totalizing objectifying virtues of vision, a relation or an intentionality or a wholly different type


This vision is not merely a call to maintain awareness of other people, but rather an appeal to recalibrate our ideas about how we are constituted in the world. That is, our Being cannot be seen as simply of and for ourselves, but instead must be understood as being-for-the-Other. The Other is essential to existence; we are not solely egoist entities but social beings. It is this relation, the acknowledgement of the presence of the Other, which Levinas labels as “ethics”:

A calling into question of the same – which cannot occur within the egoist spontaneity of the same – is brought about by the other. We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics. The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics.

The Other cannot be made the same, without destroying the very thing which makes them Other. They are “irreducible”, because they call into question the I. This is the most basic relation of human beings, and thus it is the foundation of ethics. It is important to note that Levinas doesn’t set out any kind of rules for how to live, and rather than providing any kind of moral code, seems to give an ultimate meta-ethical document – an ethics about ethics.

 

Literary Criticism – Literary Text as Other?

There is obviously lots more to say about the above, and many more concepts to bring into the discussion, but I’d like to move in to thinking about the dialogue here between this kind of Philosophy and Literary criticism.

I think this kind of relation – understanding the Other as integral – provides interesting ways of thinking about literary texts. Can texts be viewed as Other, in that their value stems from the way they “call into question” fixed understanding? And might the literary critic shape their critique (their representation of the value of this Other) not by fixing what they say in place by their authority as interpreter – by making it the same – but by responding to its particular messages, those which are relevant to the human being as social being, its status as Other?

These are the sort of questions I’m thinking about, and I’ll continue to address them both below the line and in future posts about how Levinasian philosophy influences contemporary literary criticism.

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