I’ve been reading Emmanuel Levinas’s Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. It was published in 1974 and is seen as the main text in the development of Levinas’s philosophy.
It’s a very different thing from his earlier work, Totality and Infinity. I’m not going to jump into a big exegesis of terms and arguments, because it’s Monday. What I’m going to do is discuss just one quotation that came out of my reading today, because the thought it gives rise to is politically prescient.
Here’s the extract. It’s defining the idea of proximity. This doesn’t mean spatial proximity, but rather, it labels a kind of affective or existential proximity. Put another way, it describes your primordial relation to the other, the other person, another human being, to whom Levinas says we have an ultimate responsibility. Levinas uses “humanity” as a synonym for proximity, which might help to clarify that it’s not really to do with space, or degrees of closeness, but in fact amounts to a way of talking about something that is foundational to the way we structure our relations with people. Proximity means respecting the importance of the other before anything else. This is not because you have reasoned your way to a position of caring about the other, or because it might be good for some other ethical reasons, but because it is the defining element of our sensibility:
The proximity of beings of flesh and blood is not their presence “in flesh and bone”, is not the face that they take form for a look, present an exterior, quiddities, forms, give images, which the eye absorbs […] Nor are material beings reducible to the resistance they oppose to the effort they solicit. Their relationship with a mouth is not an adventure of knowledge or of action. Subjectivity of flesh and blood in matter – the signifyingness of sensibility, the-one-for-the-other itself – is the preoriginal signifyingness that gives sense, because it gives.
The first thing to understand is that Levinas is writing against philosophers like Husserl and Heidegger, who in phenomenology were focused heavily on vision as the mode through which the self understood phenomena (Levinas instead says that “saying” is far more important). Levinas, though, is much more interested in the phenomenon of the other. The other is not just a self we think of as like us (i.e. another self on the same level), or a self for whom we feel responsibility for through empathy – because, hey, if they’re a bit like me, then I can totally imagine what it’s like to be them. For Levinas, the other is an entity with which with have an asymmetrical relationship. This means the other is, in a metaphorical sense, bigger than us (he does actually use the metaphor of height). We have a responsibility to them. We must, as a primordial or preoriginary state, give to them. Levinas repeatedly emphasizes the sacrificial nature of this idea through the image of removing bread from one’s own mouth to feed the other (which partly explains the reference to the mouth above).
Put another way, our relation with another person, the person different to us, is not based on knowledge about that person or actions to do with that person. We don’t have to see their faces, their “flesh and bone”, to have the sense that we must act with an innate hospitality towards them.
This hospitality, this “alienation” of the self by the other, is described as follows:
[b]eing torn from oneself for another in giving to the other the bread from one’s mouth is being able to give up one’s soul for another.
The phrase Levinas uses to complete this reversal of subjectivity is the-one-for-the-other. To start from the self as the progenitor of all being is to create a false foundation for a code of ethics, a way of life, one that can only ever subordinate itself to the will of selves. In the very title of Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, we can see Levinas’s appeal against this conception of the self as having an isolated essence or experiencing Being. We should understand being otherwise; there is a better humanity beyond my own essence.
I’m still thinking about how Levinas’s inversion of the traditional ontological construction of subjectivity might inform a politics. But here’s a short idea. A way of being in the world based in a preoriginary hospitality, a being which gives, which respects automatically the alterity of the other as an essential component of any humanity, is more ethically coherent than one which assumes solely the sovereign self as a mode of constituting being.This is because the former installs an ethical component before anything else – before cognition, before any idea of politics as we know it from day to day. And if that component is there -if we follow that modality of being which is taking the bread from one’s own mouth, rather than doing the inverse which is violence – we are less likely to cause the destruction of others in the face of your cosmically dangerous selfhood.