Reading with Levinas #3: The Face – and the Literary Work

Today I’ve been reading Jill Robbins on Levinas and literature in her work “Altered Reading” (1999). It’s helping me to think through the way Levinasian philosophy links to literary criticism, and focuses in part on a concept which I’m going to briefly outline here, one that is central to Levinas’s philosophy: the face.

For Levinas, the face is what “calls to us”. Its an ethical event, an epiphany, which shapes anything beyond ourselves (it is central to Levinas’s idea of transcendence). The face – a nudity, a thing that doesn’t signify in the same way a sign does – establishes the first point of humanity, our responsibility for the other. The description of this might be called preontological. It just happens. If infinity is exterior to totality, then, in Levinas’s word “this “outside totality” opens with the transcendence of the face.”

This takes us back to the concept of infinity, and the face is the site of this infinity, this exteriority – infinity because it is not within the bounds of a dialectic or an opposition (the other is not merely the other because of its difference from the same). The face is where we find the foundational ethical impulse – the one that says we should not murder:

This infinity, stronger than murder, already resists us in his face, is his face, is the primordial expression, is the first word: “you shall not commit murder.”

Robbins describes the face as the ultimate “disturbance”, a “shaking up of the mundane”, “an active surplus over the plastic image that would enclose it”. It is not just a form, but something that is constantly “overflowing”. As such, we cannot ignore it – it is already and essentially there, and thus we have a responsibility to it. “[B]ecause of presence before the face of the Other,” Levinas states, clarifying the relation between the self and Other “man does not permit himself to be deceived by his glorious triumph as a living being”. That is, we are not left merely to the “enjoyment” of our own selves, our own consumption of things; our urges for “possession” and “power” are essentially and necessarily brought into question by the presence of the other in the face.

Levinas constantly redescribes and restates a lot of his ideas, and the notion of the face is no different. There are problems with whether this just refers to a physical face in reality, or whether this is a metaphor for a form of vulnerability Levinas is trying to get at. One point of interesting clarification we are given is about the face being necessarily “alive”. The face of the person who is dead becomes a form, an image, a mask, lacking the epiphanic quality of the alive face:

In this epiphany the face is not resplendent as a form clothing a content, as an image, but as the nudity of the principle, behind which there is nothing further. The dead face becomes a form, a mortuary mask; it is shown instead of letting see – but precisely thus no longer appears as a face.

To continue questioning what Levinas really means by face, we can return to Robbins. Robbins raises the question about whether the face is actually made a metaphorical concept at points in Levinas’s work, referencing Totality and Infinity:

But what is Levinas’s reader to make of the obvious metaphoricity of “The face is a hand, an open hand,” or, “The whole body – a hand or a curve of the shoulder – can express as a face” (TI, 212), which even suggest a transfer between synecdochic figures for the human?

This is part of Robbins’s larger line of questioning around whether the rhetorical figure (i.e. that which we find in the literary text) can be a face. Is our encounter with a literary work like that of our encounter with the other? Is the literary work a ‘face’ in a Levinasian sense? Ultimately, she suggests that applying Levinasian philosophy to literary texts directly is not the way to go, because Levinas’s discussion of literature doesn’t really allow it:

There is an incommensurability between the more originary level of Levinas’s ethical discourse and the discourse of literary criticism. This means that an extrinsic approach to the topic will lead nowhere, for it is not a matter in any case of applying Levinas’s philosophy to the interpretation of literary texts.

The “incommensurability” comes mainly from the fact that Levinas takes a rather Platonic view of the literary text – saying it’s rhetorical, and thus deceptive, and not indicative of the other. This is in spite of the fact that an engagement with literary texts as demonstrative or descriptive of ethical concepts is spread throughout his work.

If the literary text doesn’t quite fit with the “originary level” of Levinasian thought, then, it surely must fit at some level. The literary text has always been cited as a source of alterity, of access to otherness – it’s a form of exteriority, of seeing things other. I don’t fully accept Robbins’s declaration that we can’t apply Levinasian philosophy to a literary text, although I do agree that it’s certainly not straightforward, and that Levinas’s relationship with literature is ambiguous at best.

When we talk about terms such as “responsibility”, “gift”, “alterity”, they are all terms which are readily applied to the literary work anyway. Furthermore, the works that we call literary are those which are most other – they are challenging, make us question our conception of the self, provoke us to consider our responsibilities. And they do this, perhaps not in an automatic way, such as the face, but they do so through the mediation of the reading process. This undeveloped perspective may well be doing violence to the complex metaphysics of Levinas’s relation between the same and the other, but there has to be some way of accounting for the literary work within a Levinasian ethical framework. Otherwise, how do we understand the fact that Levinas himself was led to philosophy by his encounters with Dostoevsky? That the Russian writer was his “preparation for philosophy”?


Work Cited:

Emmanuel Levinas – Totality and Infinity trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985)

Jill Robbins – Altered Reading: Levinas and Literature (Chicago: CUP, 1999)


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