Reading with Levinas #2 – Freedom, Infinity and the problem of Literature

Today, I’m going to briefly expand on how the concepts of sameness and otherness are seen as structuring larger theoretical concepts in Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, namely the narrowness of totality and the transcendental possibility of infinity. (Yes, they’re in the title, so they’re quite important.)

If the relation of the Same to the Other is an essential component of human life, we might begin to ask what this does to the thing we call society. Although Levinas doesn’t get particularly concrete, there is a political flavour to the theoretical context in which he places the relation between the Same and the Other, and this is to do with the way we either close down or open up our conception of what we know and how we know it.

For Levinas, to be the same, to be just a subject, attempting to subsume everything into one system which is familiar and can be understood in comfort, is like being an oppressive force. To forcibly make someone into the same is to deny their alterity or otherness – it is to turn them into something that is both knowable and, at the same time, easily subjugated. This is the creation of a totality, that is, the asserting of a totalizing concept which confirms the sameness of the system around us. Ultimately, this leads us to think we are free, or at least that we might have a form of freedom. This freedom, however, is conditioned by a totalizing system  – “the State” is what Levinas usually refers to – and it means we have a restricted, limited perspective on what it means to live, and therefore on what we might think of as the “good”:

Freedom, be it that of war, can be manifested only outside totality, but this “outside totality” opens with the transcendence of the face. To think of freedom as within totality is to reduce freedom to the status of an indetermination in being, and forthwith to integrate it into a totality by closing the totality over the “holes” of indetermination – and seeking with psychology the laws of a free being!*

*Levinas is a fan of the snarky exclamation mark.

That’s where infinity comes in. Outside of totality, there is the possibility of infinity, and we become aware of it through the face of the Other.

The Other is important here, because their experience, their very existence, is exterior to ours, and as such their intentions and understanding are beyond us, because beyond ourselves. The very fact that these experiences exist, and are present in the form of the Other, gives us access to something commensurate with infinity. In Levinas’s words, the situation where “totality breaks up” is “the gleam of exteriority or of transcendence in the face of the Other. The rigorously developed concept of this transcendence is expressed by the term infinity.”

But what is this idea of “infinity” like? If the person’s face opposite me provides access to something like a more genuine freedom, an obstructed understanding about what it means to be good, then can we describe this experience? Levinas turns to the metaphors of the teacher, or the Master, as a way of helping to articulate this kind of relation:

Commerce with the alterity of infinity does not offend like an opinion; it does not limit a mind in a way inadmissible to a philosopher. Limitation is produced only within a totality, whereas the relation with the Other breaks the ceiling of the totality […] teaching is the presence of infinity breaking the closed circle of totality.

Whether or not this idea can lead us to a sort of ethical epiphany is questionable. The main problem is the notion of getting outside of a totalizing system, or even of engaging with the alterity of the other – interacting with infinity – without turning them into something like same, making them part of a totalizing system.

I think this is something like what we do with literary texts – certainly it’s not hard to view literary texts as a site of infinity, as a kind of ultimate possibility, which is freeing, rather than limiting or restricting. This infinity is something I think we appeal to all the time, especially when we’re defining the literary. We get most anxious about what we are choose to call Literature when it begins to display the features of familiarity, or predictability, of sameness. It is when literature begins to fall into a genre category all of its own – of litfic, perhaps – that it begins to lose this quality of the infinite, to the kind of possibility of exteriority which makes it valuable.

This is essentially the reason I’m studying contemporary fiction, because I see current novels as teaching us an image of the human being which is essentially infinite, based on explicating otherness, rather than sameness.




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