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john c. halasz


As to what I was trying to get at in my rambling comment post Friday night. Well, in the first place, the "technical" difficulties involved in what Levinas is trying to do and in trying to understand his writing. That is partly the matter of conveying a thinking of the modal dimension or component of meaning-constitution, something at once crucial, but also partial or residual to meaning, (which is an original philosophical “discovery” vis-à-vis all prior philosophy, with only Wittgenstein as a partial analog): the difficulty of expressing something inexpressible, that is nonetheless at the “heart” of expression. Partly it’s that Levinas’ work is a thorough-going critique of phenomenology as a whole, an anti-phenomenological phenomenology. So there are a lot of technical difficulties to untangle. For example, is “the face” an horizon, a background through which something is shown or manifests itself? The analogy with Heidegger’s Being, which conceals itself in revealing itself, as the condition for the “giving” of the Being of beings, is obvious, but then what the “face” “gives” is an absence, effective only through its traces, (again the analogy with the traits, literally the “pulls”, of Being in Heidegger), but- and this is the crucial difference- the “face” is not involved with the presencing of any order of phenomena, does not “give” Being and its supposed imperatives, but rather voicelessly and powerlessly “demands” through its subtraction from any order of phenomena, the “giving” of Being. The paradox is not just the use of the means of phenomenological reason to critique phenomenological reason, to leap out of it, as it were, but the description of what is sheerly absent, non-phenomenal, not even indirectly operative in phenomena, but nonetheless “beneath” the constitution or reception of phenomena and the implications of their understanding, depthlessly. Levinas was a very slow and careful thinker,- (it took maybe 15 years to produce T & I and another 13 to produce OTB),- and, for all his refinements, a narrowly focused one, “obsessed”, passing through the proverbial eye of a needle, as it were,- (though one of the more irritating cliches is that he’s a narrow moralist, which precisely misses that his moral rigorism opens up onto a broad range, indeed, an “infinity”, of perspectives), but I think that slowness and that rigorous refinement were partly due to the “technical” difficulty of pinning down his “subject matter”, and “defining” the situation and status of his work, his project of thinking. (And, of course, there is a certain untimeliness to the work, tangential to the “issues” of its time and resistant to its intellectual trends, as if it could not find itself and be heard in the voice of the Zeitgeist). But that “otherwise”, which is neither Being, nor nothingness, but at once “positive” and absent, and that “beyond”, which in no wise refers to another world or realm, but is encountered on “this side”, in the shadowy realm “antecedent” to the distended present, reflect a displacement in his work of and from phenomenology,- (and the “face”, whatever it may be, is precisely not a mirror, a figure of reflective thought). And I would add that his work does not just “refuse” theory, cognition, and ontology, but the transcendental, as well. T&I still stages itself in transcendental terms, since it is engaged with and “performing” that paradoxical phenomenological “leap” out of phenomenology, but I understand his later work as de-transcendentalizing. “Insomnia is a formalism more formal than any possible formalism”: I take such “exorbitant” phrasing to indicate that the “formal” is not “transcendental”, but a delineation within the empirical, rather than opposed to it, (in Levinas’ typical manner of combining or fusing disjunctive or contradictory tensions). The other would “inspire” all syndromes of intentional consciousness, whether theoretical, cognitive, practical, affective, erotic, etc., and be folded into its formation, not just with its restlessness, but through whatever successive degrees of “awakening”. And that’s why I emphasized the “materiality” of Levinas’ phenomenology, even if it is necessarily expressed through emblematic-exemplary figures condensing thought, (of which death/murder would be one), which is the counterpart to the (non)thematization of the modal. I think that it’s in terms of these “technical” issues concerning the peculiar status of the work and the torsions involved in an absence that is not a nothingness, determined by or in terms of Being, and a material embodiment that necessarily incarnates or enwraps, and “enacts” the modal, that the “placement” of death/murder in Levinas thinking needs to be understood.

Levinas thinking is, of course, thoroughly bound up with and even dependent on Heidegger’s work, which it parallels in numerous ways, even as it criticizes, revises and even excoriates it. Still more obviously, Heidegger’s work is centrally concerned with the critique of metaphysical thinking and the break-down of its logical systematicity. Metaphysics conceived Being as substance, “presence”, and the world as an enduring order of substances to be construed in logical terms, such that “things” were “rationally justified” by being fitted in to that logical order and thereby “grounded” in its prior “necessity”. Human beings, as potential knowers of that order, too were a part of it and to be fit in with it, even as they would come to know it, such that human ends, purposes and norms must be effectively somehow preinscibed in and limited by that order of Being. In effect, what characterizes the metaphysical conception of “reason”, as grounded in substance, is the recursion to having-been, as the “eternal” and the “necessary”. Now the modern criticism, beginning with Kant, comes to recognize the being of the world as an historically contingent order, and its claim to logical systematicity as breached by change and the historically novel. Indeed, one of the “messages” that comes through most forcefully in “Being and Time” is that human existence can’t be conceived in terms of substance, (and since the concept of the “subject” is itself a conceptual and historical reflex of substance, neither can it be conceived in terms of subjectivity), such that the limiting and grounding effects of metaphysics with respect to the understanding and knowing of the order of the world and the validation or value of “ultimate” human ends breaks down, and metaphysics inverts itself into nihilism and the boundless sway of technologism. Henceforth the understanding of Being and hence human knowledge must be “grounded” in the Abgrund of historically contingent existence and its uprooted traditions, and human beings must assume “freely” responsibility for ordering their available possibilities toward the validation or value of “ultimate” ends. This is what is figured in “Being and Time” as the authenticity of being-toward-death in the angst of nothingness into which Dasein is thrown as the limit of its existence, which, it will turn out, also “gives” Being. Levinas is criticizing Heidegger with and against his own insights and intentions, (and especially taking over his thematics of the unobjectifiable, which metaphysics traditionally supresses, and which can’t be conceived in traditional terms as subjectivity, reassigning non-objectifying thinking from Being to the modal root of the ethical). Levinas’ relation to Heidegger could perhaps best be characterized with the word from late Heidegger, Verwindung, a twisting away, with which Heidegger characterizes the relation of his own thinking to metaphysics. Hence, Levinas sees in being-toward-death, which he reads “politically”, in its throwness and its “authentic” re-appropriation of projected traditions, a reversion to the metaphysical recursion to the having-been as “necessity”. By the same token, he sees in the appeal to death as the finite limit of human existence, not the “freedom” of rising above narrowly egotistical interests and involvements with beings to the standpoint of “ultimate” ends, but rather a preoccupation with the “prior” necessity of survival, with the continuation of “my” time and its fixed mode of identity, its needfulness, gathered together in the point of finitude, inevitably clashing with the death of others. I think that’s a key point at which Levinas’ revisionary criticisms take hold, in effect, turning the critique of metaphysics against Heidegger’s own critique, and that goes to why death is configured as a relatively empty locus in Levinas’ thinking. A comparison to Adorno, for whom Heidegger was a bete noir, code-named early on “authoritarian metaphysics” and characterized as “the reified transcendence of reification”,- (though I think those tags come directly from Horkheimer),- might be apposite here. Adorno constantly reiterates how the philosophical tradition recurrently configures “freedom” as the mirror-image of necessity,- (“freedom is the recognition of necessity”, as Hegel put it, a quote which I’ve often seen attributed to Lenin, by people who don’t realize that he was quoting Hegel, though I think the very best instance is Kant’s moral philosophy),- and, of course, he wants to assimilate Heidegger to that tradition, seeing in “Being” an occluded form of the idealist absolute subject. Levinas’ notion of “responsibility”, which precedes my freedom, which constitutes such a scandal to the traditional notion that morality requires autonomous freedom, though precisely because that whole tradition implicitly configures “freedom” in terms of the mastery of causality, whereas Levinas configures it in terms of the relation to the other, which, in effect, “renders it possible”, could be seen as the price that must be paid for “freedom”, however finite, conditioned and limited, to be genuinely free. To construe freedom as given in terms of the finitude marked by death is to revert it to its fatal inevitability, and thus to “justify” freedom in terms of necessity.

This, I at least hope, should go some way toward explaining why Levinas figures death, as a mark of finitude, in terms of murder, rather than a nameless, impersonal, and objective event, which, as something that inevitably befalls us one way or another, is not exactly an “experience”, nor is it exactly an “end”, (as with the Francoist slogan “Viva la muerte!). Murder, after all, is at least putatively referent to something like an intentional state-of-mind. And by reconfiguring death as finitude in terms of the “prior” limit of the relation to the other, the clash of needs and necessities involved with finitude is brought out “materially” rather than sublimated into a “meaning”, while taking it out of the perspective of “scarcity” into that of (the absence of) plenitude. And, of course, death-as-murder is a condensed emblematic-exemplary figure of thought, such that it refers more widely than to just the specific instance of murder or to an impersonal event of death: consigning others to abject poverty and chronic malnutrition, while, however indirectly, drawing benefit and sustenance from their condition would be a case in point, (though the point would not just be to allieviate their individual material needs, but to allow for the development of their possibilities for sustenance and agency in community and their differing perspective from my own interpretations of their needs, conditions or histories). This goes to why I characterized the perspective of the validation or value of “ultimate” ends as one “beyond my death”, rather than constituted through coming to terms with the finitude of my death/life. Death is, after all, something that can not be shared, nor donated, nor received, nor bidden, nor refused: it doesn’t constitute any sort of worldly “space”, but, precisely as Heidegger had it, a falling way of and from the world. Of course, the fact of death is a trauma, a stinging rebuke narcissistic fantasies of the completion and self-fulfillment of the fixed identity of the self, in its aging and loss of possibility, in its dereliction of purpose. That is why the (absent) relation to the other, while not a compensation, extends “beyond” the finitude of death, “redeems” through relatedness the sense of purpose “beyond” the sheer interestedness of the self. (There are, of course, fates worse than death. The Musselmann is not just consigned to murder, to the living death of his last days, utterly excluded from any possible world, but his death “signifies” not the end of his life, but the retraction of his existence, of his ever-having-been. Conversely, the perpetrators of such massive crimes can never quite be constituted in their identities, since “identity” maintains a link with the normative contents that “justify” existence. Which is why the enormity of the evil perpetrated by the Nazis leave us in perplexity as to the “intentions” of those who planned and carried them out, as if it were irrelevant just who they were, since no “identity” could be equal to the fact of the matter, and why the enormity of such “ownerless” evils infects the identities of us all, as if the drive for perpetuation in existence were complicit in their retraction, which is part, I think, of what Arendt meant by “the banality of evil”, which didn’t contradict her conception of “radical evil”, as rooted in the capacity to treat all of human life, including one’s own, as sheerly superfluous. In more “normal” times, the fear of death is often a disguised and denied expression of a more primal fear, namely, that of the dissolution and loss of the “identity” of the self, as rooted in the fixation of its normative contents). But the converse of the intentional stance toward death, the effort to lend death a signification, with the resulting hyperbole of “murder”, is that death as an objective, impersonal event that contingently befalls us, whether through act, accident, or decay, is precisely a fact of materiality, on a par with the aches and pains that we are wont to suffer or the carnal desires to which we are susceptible, not the culmination of such life, but the simple fact of its end. This can be perhaps best seen in the encounter with the Hegel-Kojeve master-slave dialectic. Again, I tend to see a kind of inverted, other Hegelianism in Levinas’ approach, in that his “refusal” of the master-slave relation is not its simple denial or rejection, but intricated with it: Levinas sabotages the claims of the master-slave dialectic. Death is not the “absolute master” and labor is not a formative process, but rather fatigue and depletion. If the consciousness of the slave evolves, the master does not remain an Homeric thug, but evolves too, correspondingly with gains in strategic resources. If the master fatally can not recognize himself in the slave and thus remains bereft of the recognition of his desire, the slave who recognizes himself through the objectification of his capacities in his product, recognizes himself as objectified. The “absolute master” is not death, but absolute subjectivity, which is a sheer idealist myth. The desire for desire is not realized through the recognitions of the reciprocal relations of the subjects mediated through the objective world that they “produce”, but rather such internalization is really the retraction of desire, together with the materiality of that objective world. The clash of desires is not reconciled with the objective world through their alienation in that world, but rather points beyond the objectification of Being to a relation to the other that is neither stripped of, nor reduced to its material embodiment. The relation to the other is realized not through an active appropriation of the other’s desire as “recognition”, but through a passivity that sustains desires as and through their difference. This opens up the potential zone of a solidarity and “peace”, in which the clash and conflict of vital desires is not subjected to the rule of death and “realized” through it, but realizes a compact “beyond death”, in which the vital possibilities of embodied and material existence can give rise to the mortal sharing of a world. (I’ll just mention the parallel here with Adorno’s conception of the “non-identical” as the figure of a reconciled condition, in which the alien is no longer experienced as threatening and thus repressed by “identity-thinking”, but in which alienation is not so much overcome or abolished, as transformed into a mode of distanced contact). At any rate, I hope all of the foregoing verbiage goes some way toward explaining why I think that between its intentional signification as “murder” and its objective signification as a material fact of life, death is figured as a somewhat empty locus in the thinking of Levinas: it’s bound up with wagering on the possibility that “freedom”, as the practice-guiding hope of an emancipated condition can be salvaged from the critique and wreckage of metaphysical “necessity”.

I hope this goes some way to stating much more clearly and consecutively what I was trying to get at in my Friday night ramblings. As to the question of how this might related to the political and addressing the extract you posted, I’ll try to get back to that, hopefully tomorrow or the ne

Adam Thurschwell

John, extremely interesting as always. Again too little time, so not sure if any of this makes sense, but . . . .

If I understand you correctly – and I’m not at all sure that I do, so you should take these questions as genuine questions – you are defending Levinas's identification of death with murder, first, because he wants to move the whole discourse of finitude away from its Heideggerian emphasis on one's own end -- that is, he thinks that the necessary/impossible relation to the Other is the "prior" mark of finitude. I think that that is clearly exactly right about Levinas's intentions -- with which I am entirely in sympathy -- but my doubt is about whether these means get the job done the way he wants. For the reasons given in the paper excerpt in the post, it seems to me that this identification gives away too much. Your response to this is encapsulated (I think) in your statement that "by reconfiguring death as finitude in terms of the 'prior' limit of the relation to the other, the clash of needs and necessities involved with finitude is brought out 'materially' rather than sublimated into a 'meaning', while taking it out of the perspective of 'scarcity' into that of (the absence of) plenitude." A number of questions about this: I don't understand why being the object of an intentional stance of an other is more "material" than the contingent befallen-ness of impersonal death. I also don't understand how the objection to sublimating death into a meaning -- isn't that precisely what interpreting every death, including unintentional deaths, as murder is doing? I think Blanchot is right when he suggests that death is a privileged name of the unsayable "thing" that is both the source and the limit of every "meaning." More generally, aren’t you just restating Levinas’s intention here (i.e., to pull death into the sphere of the relation to Otherness)? Again, my question isn’t with that intention (which I would like to see fulfilled, too) but whether his argument works or not. Related to this, you seem to suggest that the impersonal interpretation of death makes it indistinguishable from all the other "fact[s] of materiality, on a par with the aches and pains that we are wont to suffer or the carnal desires to which we are susceptible, not the culmination of such life, but the simple fact of its end." That is (I take it that you’re saying), the “impersonal” interpretation of death can’t maintain the privilege that Heidegger gives it, at least if one adopts the Levinasian interpersonal interpretation of it. But that seems again to beg the question of whether Levinas’s attempted interpretation works in the first place. Finally, it seems pretty clear to me that Levinas himself still maintains death as a privileged (non-)phenomenon even under his own interpersonal interpretation, and not simply as a “relatively empty locus” – e.g., he says in the“Death and Time” lecture series that “[w]ithin the duration of time . . . death is a point from which time takes all its patience.” So it would still remain to be explained why the interpretation of death-as-murder (among all other interpersonal relations) has this privilege – in fact, that’s precisely my suspicion of Levinas’s interpretation of death, that it seems to privilege the Other-as-murderer, at least to the extent that (as I’ve just suggested) death itself retain some privilege for him.

(I should say that my own “privileging” of death and interest in Levinas’s take on it stems from my interest in the relationship between his ethical philosophy and the question of the political, which of course takes the form for him of the relationship between the face-to-face and the third. Here’s another paragraph from the same paper I excerpted in the post (please remember, this was written for oral presentation so you have to excuse the meat-axe approach . . . . ):

"As may be clear already, my methodological premise, which I will only briefly attempt to justify here, is that the most fruitful avenue for exploring this question is by beginning from the role played by “death” in ontological, ethical and political philosophy. The idea of death is foundational to each of these philosophical discourses: We know from the early Heidegger that the answer to the question of Being, of Dasein, must be sought in Dasein’s relationship to its own death. We know from Levinas that the first ethical commandment of the face of the Other is, “thou shalt not commit murder.” And we know from Carl Schmitt, John Locke and many, many others – there is virtual unanimity on this point across political-philosophical traditions – that the essence of sovereign power, of political-juridical power, is the power to take the citizen’s life directly (in the form of capital punishment) and to demand its sacrifice for the life of the state (in the form of military conscription). Thus, one would think – perhaps I should say, at least I think! – that a conception of death adequate to the project of reconciling ethical, political and ontological imperatives will be the touchstone, and perhaps the cornerstone, of any attempt to move beyond the aporia of the face-to-face and the third.")

Finally, despite my general agreement with your account of Levinas, I wonder – and I do mean “wonder,” I’m not certain about any of this and particularly this point – about your focus on the “modal” nature of the Saying/ethical relationship. Your focus on this as a counter to the fatalism of ontology – the “necessity” of the way things are/were, etc. – made me think of Giorgio Agamben, who also comes out of Heidegger but (unlike Levinas) never actually leaves his “climate” and remains (I think, anyway) firmly within the ontological framework. He too is overwhelmingly concerned with the modal categories of necessity, contingency, etc., and with redeeming the past in particular (restoring to it its “potential” and so on). I mention this not because Agamben himself strongly disavows Levinas’s approach to ethics (I actually think he doesn’t get Levinas at all, for reasons that are themselves interesting), but because he pulls off this modal analysis without ever leaving the Heideggerian problematic. All of which makes me think that Levinasian ethics is about something more than the “modal” emancipation of being, the past, presence, etc., although I agree that it’s about that, too.

Again, these are all questions even when they sound like criticisms, and I look forward to your response . . .


john c. halasz


I didn't get to the question of the political and your comments in your paper. I was interrupted for several hours yesterday, and it was all I could do to regather the threads of my thinking and finish up. I was simply clarifying my Friday night ramble, and trying to "situate" Levinas' approach and the odd status of the "stance" that his work takes. I'll try a read through your excerpts and respond later.

However, you seem to have missed a key point of what I was trying to say. And perhaps I should mention Levinas' "method" of "exorbitation" here, which results in a certain hyperbole, by which he makes his points, and thus seems to give a certain skewering force to his criticisms of more "normal" philosophical accounts. Perhaps something is lost of the precision of Husserl's "phenomenology as a strict science", but Levinas points to the basic failure of Husserl's pure methodologism, and comments that one can miss what is truly important or of interest through remaining with the abstraction of methodological securement. The point I made was not that death as "murder" and therefore an intentional account of its signification, is "more material", but, to the contrary, that that is precisely an exaggeration of the whole effort to lend death an "intentional" signification. It's death as a fact of life, objective, impersonal, inevitable, and, even, if one would so wish to put it that way, "scientific" that is "more material", and, though a prominent fact of life, such death is on a par with the other facts of life, such as pain, hunger, carnal desire, affective vissisitudes, social comedy and the like. In other words, Levinas' basic move is to open up a hiatus in death, that calls into question any effort to lend it a singular signification, (which I termed sublimating it), and derive any more general unification of the world from that. (And, of course, Levinas is emphatically opposed to and protests against any other-worldly account of death, whether theological or political-historical, that would give to death, and thus to life, a compensatory "meaning"). It's through that hiatus that Levinas "sneaks" the notion of a possible "compact" in the relation to the (absent) other, which would be "beyond death", precisely in the sense that the relation would not be determined by death. Of course, death as a fact of life is prominent and retains significance, as loss and mourning, which, while common, is never exactly commmonplace. And, equally, as a fundamental mark of finitude, which we "share" with others, death "must" be situated and its signification(s) accounted for, even if re-positioned in terms of the "priority" of the relation to the other as a constitutive limit of finite human existence. And, again, there I think that the difference between my murder by and my murder of the other is a "zone of indifference",- both are triple un-good,- but that a certain "priority" is to be assigned to the death of the other, for any number of reasons, but, not least, because that is the only sort of death that we actually experience and because the "imperative" is to not simply consign the other to his/her death. And, again, the point of the re-positioning of death and the opening up of a hiatus in death is that the relation to the other is not disrupted by death, but belongs to the "beyond death", which is the promise, hope and "force" of an emancipatory praxis. It'll be a long while before I get to, let alone "assimmilate" the Blanchot, but I think perhaps that two distinct issues are being conflated here: one is how death is articulated, whether in memory or anticipation, and thus signifies or is lent a signification in language, and the other is how death, as an occurring event, "beneath" and "beyond" any order of meaning, though with implications that impact upon such, is "undergone", whether violently or not, whether "premature" or long suffered. It's the latter that remains obdurately "material". The citation from the late Levinas that you offer doesn't, as far as I can tell, contradict what I've been saying. What, (out of context), it seems to be saying is that death as a finite limit constitutes a gathering of any distended present or duration, such that I live "my" time, not through the anticipation of death, being-toward-death, nor awating death as the inevitable, but as a patience, in the double sense of a determined, but intricated and endlessly revised pursuit of my ends, and as something undergone or "suffered", which, in its mortality, allows for an understanding of available possibilities and their "point".

I haven't read and don't know that much about Agamben. Nowadays, all sorts of philosophers raise "modal" issues. The Analytics even largely articulate their problematics nowadays in terms of a formal-modal logic of "possible worlds". I mean by "modal" less the classical logical triad of contingency, necessity and possibility, than the relational component of meaning-constitution, which for Levinas operates "beneath" and "antecedent to" any "ontological" signification. (Wittgenstein, of course, arrived at a similar insight into how the deployment of meaning is always, one way or another, subtended by relations with others, among other things. That, together with Wittgenstein's critical dissolution of epistemology, are points of contact and comparison with Levinas, who criticizes Heidegger's criticism of Husserl's epistemological project, as still being solely preoccupied by the issue of a knowledge of Being). That bit about Agamben' though, sounds a bit reminiscent of Benjamin, who himself was a trenchant critic of Heidegger avant la lettre.

john c. halasz


When I first read your excerpt, I sensed things that were a bit “off”, possibly because of what you’re trying to do, to use the figure of “death” as a bridge between ethics, ontology and politics. There are certain “technical” bits that I disagree with, or maybe they’re interpretive. I’ve already mentioned some of this. Of course, Levinas is not doing “political philosophy”, as I tried to make clear repeatedly over at “Long Sunday”, he’s doing “ethics” as a critique of fundamental ontology, with only indirect implications for the political, or what Levinas would refer to as “political ontology”. But right away there are some terminological problems, since what is “fundamental ontology” and what does he mean by “political ontology”? Heidegger’s “ontology” displaces the term from its traditional meaning, as a theory about the kinds, structure, and (hierarchical) ordering of beings comprising the world; he’s not only putting the traditional conceptions of substance ( presence) and theory comprising the traditional concept of ontology into question, and raising an entirely new and original question about Being, its meaning, and its relation to temporality, rather than inquiring into the being of beings, (which would be consigned to “regional ontologies”), but, in asking after the meaning of Being, he’s transforming the meaning of ontological inquiry itself, such that not only does “Being” take on a new processual and verbal sense, (which is the point of those pleonasms about “the nothing nothings” and “the essence essences”, to try to force or bring out the verbal, rather than the substantive, sense he wants them to carry), and a temporalized and historical cast, but it is no longer entirely clear what is meant by “ontology” , for which the “fundamental ontology” of “Being and Time” was just preliminary to opening up the question of Being itself, but something like the thinking of the “experience” of the encounter with Being, rather than its theoretical ordering and mastery is at issue. Hence, it’s not quite clear what Levinas means by “political ontology” and whether that is just a “regional ontology” or whether that is on the par with “fundamental ontology”, but what is clear is both that he associates ontology with the conatus essendi and hence with the issues of power, domination, mastery in Being, and thus with the political, and that equally he’s specifically disclaims doing “political ontology” in his own “fundamental ethics”, as not what his project of thinking is about, though implying it might follow on from is thinking as the “next step”, for which he doesn’t claim specific competence.

So right away there are problems about the status of Levinas’ own thinking and work, which I tried to get at in pointing to the “technical” difficulties involved and the torsions his terms are under, perhaps best summed up by the term “pre-original”, which he counters to the Heideggerian thinking of “the origin” and its new “return”. What’s going on here, though it’s an effort to counter Heidegger very much on his own “ground”, and to draw out another layer “beneath” the “primordial” level of ontological “experience” that Heidegger first and originally opened up, is precisely not an effort “to ground ontology on ethics”, as you have it, since, on the one hand, that ethics is “an-archic”, not a ground but a groundlessness, while, on the other hand, Levinas remains very much “within” the ontological, even as he struggles to “escape” its grip, so the move he makes might best be described as a side-stepping of the ontological. An analogy with Adorno might be of some help here, though Levinas might not agree with it. (Reportedly, he read “The Jargon of Authenticity”, thought it meretricious, and read nothing else of the Frankfurt School). Adorno, who’s vehemently anti-Heidegger, insists that Heidegger has regressed behind Kant’s criticism of “pre-critical” ontology in terms of “the amphiboly of the concepts of reflection”, (whereas Levinas speaks of Heidegger’s “amphiboly of Being and beings”), and rejects any sort of ontology whatsoever, as based illegitimately on something being “primary”, which priority can never be established and results in a distortion of what is subjected to it, and more properly belongs-together-with and is mutually implicated with what is claimed to be primary. He refuses “first philosophy”. That’s basically a devolved Hegelian move, involving the “presuppositionlessness” Hegel claimed for the dialectical interaction between “subject” and “object,” though Adorno twists it against Hegel, in insisting on the conditioning “preponderance of the object” in his project of “using the strength of the subject to break through the illusion of constitutive subjectivity” (i.e. the transcendental), and his point is directed just as much against vulgar Marxist, materialist ontologies, such as the Bukharinism that Gramsci criticized. Even though Levinas makes the hard to construe claim that ethics, not ontology, is “first philosophy”, something of the same animus against the “primacy” of the ontological and the fateful destining of Being is at work with his thinking, as well, and the effort to emancipate the “subject” both from its subjection to that primacy and fatefulness and from its own overweening (and compensatory-illusory) ambitions. So when Levinas claims to draw out the ethical, as the modal relation to the other, as something “beneath” or subtending the level and the ontological and its significations, he is not attempting to ground the ontological in the ethical, (as if it were a still deeper foundation for Being, when the thinking of Being is already an “Abgrund”, a lack of foundation), which would be a reification of the ethical entirely against is aims, but rather he’s attempting to reconfigure the relation between the two, (as against Heidegger’s apparent assumption that ethics derives from the ontological and is secondary to it, as if it popped-up out of the unfolding of the ontological, like one of those 3-D childrens’ pop-up picture books), and he does so precisely by challenging Heidegger’s ontological-intentional account of signification or meaning, reassigning the surplus or excess in meaning, “the more within the less”, from the excess of Being over beings to the modal relation to the other. Correctly, in my view, since the modal relation to the other is acategorical in such a way as to subtend the “giving” of categorical meaning. And, at the same time, since the other is no-thing and acategorical, the other can only be opened up and “thematized”, (even though it is not a theme, in the manner of an intentional object), through its affecting the “subjectivization” of the self in Being. I think that’s the crucial point for grasping why Levinas places such an emphatic insistence on the passivity of the ethical “subject”, both as passion-suffering and as patience, (which seems so counter-intuitive to the notion of ethics as concerning right action), and on the “passive synthesis” by which the other is received and “produced”: Levinas is stepping “back behind” or “beneath” Heidegger’s opening account of the Zuhanden, with its emphasis on the active and the projective, which itself accords with the traditional metaphysical hierarchical prioritization of the active over the passive, and which leads on to Heidegger’s basic identity condition, from which he is able to unfold his account of Being, that Dasein is at once ontic and ontological, such that it is concerned about its own Being in its very mode of Being, which yields up the account of throwness and death. It’s the association of death with the concern for survival, and its needfulness and “necessity” that Levinas contests “politically” in joining it up with the traditional notion of death as the ultima ratio of the political and the source of sovereign power, which Levinas reads into Heidegger’s account of existential ontology. (I might add, that insofar as Levinas’ work, though mostly implicitly and quietly, is a post-Holocaust thinking, the appeal to ethics makes especially cogent sense, since to attempt to deal with the sheer absolute horror and evil of what had happened in ontological terms, which Heidegger himself was never able to offer any adequate accounting for, would result in some sort of impossible gnostic rationalization of what had happened that would itself be an abomination).

I’m not sure whether the passage from the ethical relation to the other to the third is aporetic or not. I’ve already repeatedly discussed at “Long Sunday” the (non)relation of the ethical to the political in Levinas and why he delimits the ethical from the political in the way that he does and what its political “point” is. I think that relation of the ethical to the political might better be described as chiasmic rather than aporetic, which latter would imply that Levinas is attempting to offer some direct or immediate “translation” of ethical motives into political action, to be doing political ethics, which he explicitly is not, even if you would want him to be doing so. I also have tried to make clear how and why Levinas opens up a certain “hiatus” in death, in my above comments here. What I don’t understand is why you would think that Levinas account of “accusation” and “persecution” by the other are “unnecessary for his philosophical purposes”. The third I think has three meanings in Levinas: “illeity”, which amounts to something like what sustains the permanent possibility of the other, in the other’s approach from “beyond” in its height or proximity, and which is understood only through the traces that it leaves, through the “infinite” overturnings and transformations that are involved in and figure the ethical relation, the third who is other to the other, and the neutral third that mediates Being and constitutes the identifying self. The relation to the other is “substitution” as “the one for the other”, which is precisely the structure of signification or meaning, is the signifying of the relation to the other which subtends symbolic meaning. Hence one is held “hostage” by the other because one is held in Being and individuated as a “subject” of responsibility through one’s encounter of or exposure to and of “the face”. But to be responsible for the other, “infinitely”, is to be responsible for the others responsibility, up to and including being responsible for the other’s responsibility for the third, who is other to the other. Hence the relation to the other already entails the structure of the third, as part of the primordial or fundamental level of the ethical. And just as the face in its very denudedness powerlessly accuses the “subject” in its conation in Being, so responsibility for the other does not entail a reciprocal, symmetrical responsibility on the part of the other. The movement from accusation to obsession to persecution is not “unnecessary” to the account, but essential to it, is the account of the ethical relation precisely in terms of its passivity, which, as passion and patience, is its inherence in and endurance of Being. It is “necessary” because the ethical relation is sheerly gratuitous when measured in the terms of ontological “necessity”. (And, as I stated over at “Long Sunday”, one of the main political implications of Levinas’ ethical insistency is as a resistance to and criticism of the paranoid tendencies of the political, since the public-political realm is pre-eminently the realm of alienation, and thus endemically subject to the “play” of “forces” of resentment and fear and their manipulation). Similarly, the passage from T&I that you cite about the alterity of death as “an evil design or a judgment of justice”, (which seems reminiscent of Kafka’s “The Trial”, as well as, alluding to the Jew and the Nazi), is notably cast in terms of (animal) fear rather than human anxiety, hence “I am not faced with nothingness”, but rather an inherence in, as opposed to a persistence or perseverance of, Being. That is again a case of the material positivity of death, as life, being opposed to its ontological signification, and rather than referring to the thirdness of “political ontology” that reference to “malevolence or justice” concerns an indifference in death directly referent to the relation to the other. And, again, the relation of the other to the third, (as distinct from the relation to the third), is already a part of the structure of the ethical relation to the other. Where perhaps an element of aporia or paradox does arise is in the transition from the ethical relation to the ontological, which is constituted through the neutrality of the mediating third in being, which forms the identity of the identifying self, occluding and repressing the ethical relation, its traumatic “primal scene” as it were, and which is at once necessary to that ethical relation, as forming the categorial identifications in Being, which are subtended by and donated to the ethical relation, and consigns the other to its necessary absence, to its elusive withdrawal beyond the “subject” and its categorial identifications and identity in Being. The ethical relation is lost and run aground in the necessity of the ontological, while, at the same time, the ontological level renders that relation for the first time “really possible” precisely in its constitutive absence and withdrawal, (for which, obversely, “illeity”, the counterpart of the “il y a”, constitutes the “guarantee”, the vouchsafing of its commitments). And it’s the ontological that then leads on to the political, to its questions of violence, justice and the relation to the third. But what the passage through the ethical brings out is that the ontological is never fully present, that it is haunted by an absence, and that it only attains its “plenitude” through the “prior” relation to the other, not through its own necessity, but gratuitously. Levinas, again, as I reiterated at “LS”, is not providing a political ethics, but a more fundamental philosophical work, even if departs from and criticizes its philosophical tradition as a whole. His ethics is broader in scope and implication than just the narrow concern with the political would allow, and it relates to the political precisely insofar as it delimits and separates the ethical from the political, which is how it paradoxically combines the two and informs their relation, since the political, too, is broader in scope and irreducible to just the ethical.

Well, I think I’ve said all I can, garrulously and redundantly, about how I understand or interpret Levinas’ basic thinking, how it is “positioned” , and how its elements fit together, and I can only hope it is enough. (Though I should remark just how odd and tangential this form of discourse is in relation to “normal” forms of discourse presumptively referent to the real course of events and functioning to analyse our regular busyness. Heidegger’s Being is already identified with a nothingness that somehow holds sway over the positive existence of “things” and Levinas’ ethical is less-than-nothing. That Adorno point about non-primacy can be taken as a reminder that we are always in the midst of “things”, that our starting points, which are really jumping-off points, are lost, uncertain, likely mistaken and mythic, and that there is good reason to suspect that our concepts mis-take “things”: the world is not simply subject to the conjuring of our concepts and its course of events escapes from them). But now the issue to be addressed is your project of attempting to apply philosophical existential-ontological and ethical conceptions of death to “political philosophy” and understanding the political. I’m not about to pull any full-fledged political theory out of my ass, (because, er, I don’t have one), but the bridge between the ontological and ethical understanding of death, (as yielding a normative limit of human existence and experience, which yields a normative basis of human understanding, which may or may not be actually operative), and the understanding of the political would be the tradition conception of sovereign power as rooted in or deriving from its power of disposal over death: the standard definition of the sovereign state as the organized monopoly over legitimate violence, Hobbes’ “mortal god”. And, of course, that definition, aside from the partial historical origins of sovereign states in the organization of military violence, (since the Westphalian settlement amongst absolutist states that gave rise to the modern conception of the state devolved from a consolidation of feudal violence), is most of all referent to the state as a source of law and lawful authority and order, since law requires a coercive power of enforcement to hold sway, and hence as dispensing political “justice”. Now, to get down to brass tacks, any human community or group is political and involves some sort of politics, because of the social “nature” of the human animal, the old zoon politikon, and likewise because of the inevitably collective nature of social life, any community or group generates and distributes “power”, as the counterpart of the cross-dependent agency of its members, “freedom”, and unavoidably involves power-relations, (such that even the most egalitarian form of political community, whatever that would be, would still wield power over its members). Equally, any human collectivity contains a potential for violence, whether externally directed or internecine, and certainly conflict, whether between or within agents, is endemic, since human identity and agency, in its separateness and relatedness, is not unitary, but intrinsically self-divided and hence ambivalent. But human community also involves interactive cooperation, coordination and regulation at its very basis, “order”, whether, spontaneous, emergent, deliberated, or forced, both as necessary to material survival and to socio-cultural reproduction. Hence that strange alchemy whereby violence is transmuted into “legitimacy” and obedience to “authority”, especially of the “legal-rational” kind, though it is probably the “organized” part of the definition that is the most important, not just with respect to the organization of the means of violence, nor just with respect to the organization of means of legitimation, but most of all with respect to the capacity to induce cooperative order amidst conflict. The sovereign, the state, is thus a strange beast, at once ostensibly unitary, “representative” of and disposing over the whole of its society, and just a part of that “whole” and dependent on its capacities to generate stable and cooperative order. (At any rate, for any ideology to hold sway, it must be able to effectively convert force into fraud, such that any large reliance on force, no matter how well organized or violent, is an indication of inefficacy, of the weakness of its power, unless it can be reconverted into fraud, a symptom of that strange impotence that, as Arendt noted, infects all tyranny, even the most benign, as a deficit in its public-communicative power. Power, in the sense of domination, is the exploitation of weakness, dependency, vulnerability, need, converting it into an image of “strength”. The sovereign cheats its “subjects”, the citizens of their lives, their vital resources, even more than and before it disposes over their deaths. That is why its “subjects” live through the sovereign, in the political imaginary of sovereignty). Hence the sovereign state provokes into existence the public “thing”, the public sphere, and the public itself as the “body” of citizens, in a paradox of mutual implication and dependency. That is where the strange alchemy of legitimation takes hold in the conflicts and contestations over participant shares of power and access to resources and their submission to binding “authority”, establishing “order”, and that is where the ethical component of political power, “legitimacy”, comes into play, where the ethical and the existential “justification” of existences abut upon the political “constitution” of power, in the shared, if conflictual, potentiality of Being, which is the raison d’etre of political community. The sovereign “constitution” of the political is actually a double operation: the legal securement of the private, the “domestic” and its separation from the abstractive extraction of the public, subjecting particular interactions and interests to regulation, while combining them and their consequences into the “interest” of the “whole”, in that fictitious contract wherein rights are granted in exchange for obedience and power in exchange for protection. (I’ll note that I think that the image of a “state of nature” in contractarian accounts of sovereignty are, in fact, the imaginary mirror image of sovereignty. It’s logically possible to imagine a “state of nature” of peacefully co-existing stateless groups, though it wouldn’t be hard, via something like evolutionary game-theory, to show such a “state of nature” regenerating something like states through the strategic resort to violence on the part of just a few groups, and though stateless tribal societies tend to operate through “preconventional” customs of vendetta. And even Hegel, whose master-slave dialectic was partly directed at a critique of theories of natural law, natural right and social contracts, began with a “primal scene” of violent death. But it should be noted how sovereign power “justifies” itself not just through the imposition of “armed peace”, but through the projection of violence onto the other.) The political then is “constituted” through the separation of the private from the public, resulting in the mediating “rule of law”, but that separation on both sides is essentially political and contestable. The pursuit of particular private interests and values is enabled, but politically such particular interests and values must be represented in the “universal”, hence “hypocritical”, form of the general, public interest. There is a peculiar political form of reification involved here, distinct from the economic reification of labor and commodities: the private individual as citizen must abstract his/her self from the particular pursuit of his/her interests, values, or desires and represent them in the “universal” form of the public interest, channeled through the state, which is then returned to the individual citizen as “actions” imposed on him/her by the state. That is why the political, understood as public, is pre-eminently, fundamentally and endemically the realm of alienation, of passing over into otherness and the objectifying reification and externalization of personal existence. Finally, I should note that the traditional theory of sovereignty is concerned with cloaking the sovereign and its “authority” in the robes of the sacred, (which is why religion-for-reasons-of-state and civic religion are recurrent topics in such discourses), since as the alleged power over life and death it must exceed the finitude of human existences, if that finitude, figured as death, and enforced through death-dealing violence, is to be the effective basis of the submission of “subjects” to the sovereign, which must be, as “unitary, inalienable and entire” (Bodin), a “mortal god”. Indeed, even nowadays, in an otherwise thoroughly disenchanted world, political power remains the last reserve of the magical, something that inexplicably and instantaneously causes “things” to come about, so that for all the “enlightening” spotlight of contestation and analysis cast upon it, power in its ongoing operations remains a bit mysterious and hard to conceive, (though I’ve never “gotten” the supposed media-manufactured “charisma” of our fearless leaders). So those are the ABC’s of the matter. (I certainly don’t think I’ve told you anything you don’t already know; I’m just trying to lay out the cards clearly face-up on the table).

So just where and how would Levinas’ ethical thinking fit in with a consideration and delineation of the political or a contribution to “political philosophy”? And is the issue of death really the bridge to and key for understanding the political? In the first place, most obviously, the question of the political and of power hangs like a sword of Damocles over Levinas ethics and his conception of “responsibility”. The political can neither be avoided and ignored, nor acceded to by Levinas’ conception of the ethical. But Levinas is not offering a political ethics, nor does he quite think it is possible or desireable to do so, but his ethics, while abutting upon the political and intended to be relevant and informative to political questions, is distinctly “pre-political” and “beyond” politics, in the sense I outlined at “LS”. The political concerns more than just the ethical, and it has its own criteria of efficacy and maneuver that must be held separate from the ethical, as not only amoral, but as “necessary” to it, just as the ethical concerns more than just the political. The legitimation of political relations and power is after all relatively secondary to the large issues of its organization. Equally, to rationalize the political as a whole in ethical terms would be to undermine and run aground the value and “rationality” of the ethical perspective by subordinating it to political “necessities” and, effectively, let the ethical succumb to ideology. Further, the idea of a purely political ethics is essentially Aristotelian, which is to say, in Levinas’ terms, “pagan”, and it is against the idolatry of power and any totalizing ethos of community that would reduce and subsume finite individual existences to its terms that Levinas’ prophetic ethics sets itself, while the structural complexity and differentiation of modern societies and their historical changeability renders such an all-encompassing political ethics moot anyway. So how then does Levinas’ ethics address the political and what is its relevance to it? Precisely through the “infinity” of the ethical relation to the other, which opens up the perspective on human finitude that I termed “beyond death”, open to a solidarity and futurity rooted in the vital needs and vulnerabilities of others, rather than in the finitude of death as the “ultimate” limit of the human, hence challenging and demythifying the absolutization of sovereign power, rooted in its power over death, as the limit of human finitude. “The work of justice”, with and against the “work of the state”, is concerned with extending the possibilities of the political through the emancipation of others in their needs and potentials, contesting the preservation of the status quo and the possession of power, bound up with the conatus essendi, the drive to self-preservation, signified by death as the “ultimate” mark of finitude and by the power to dispose over death. That would, of course, involve challenging the current constitution of the boundaries of the public-political and the constraints they impose on the expression of needs and possibilities, without abolishing the private, while preserving areas of “spontaneity” in political life for the formation of new relationships and the generation of new initiatives. Because, of course, the political is not solely constituted through the state and its sovereign power, imposing an “armed peace”, through the suppression of conflicts, but concerns vital resources and their generation and distribution, which is to say, the political is just as much “constituted” and oriented toward the public sphere and civil society as by the state and its sovereignty, which is, in fact, dependent on the “prior” organization of society and its generative capacities, which is why understanding the political solely in terms of death and the possibility of violent force or its elimination is far too limiting. At the same time, Levinas’ ethics gets to the core aspect of the political, namely co-existence with others, who are differently situated, as well as, utterly separate from oneself, hence may well hold incommensurable and conflicting values and interests to one’s own, the conflict between “concrete orders of life”, as Schmitt would have it, which makes violent resolutions of conflict always a potential and hence the mediation of the political by sovereignty well-nigh inevitable. Perhaps the comparison with Arendt might help to bring out something of the implications of Levinas’ ethics. For Arendt, the political is constituted through the public-communicative generation of power in the public sphere, and concerns “plurality”, existing together with others with differing perspectives, and the possiblity of appealing for the legitimation of collective projects realizing our shared potentiality for Being as citizens. Politics is the domain of “action”, roughly a Heideggerianized version of Aristotelian praxis, which is closely associated with speech, and given a performative cast. But precisely because political action is identified with speech and power conceived communicatively, violence is ruled out of the political domain, as disruptive of it, and thus Arendt rejects, without accounting for the notion of sovereignty, and the association of the political with state rule or action, which she also associates with the modern rise of “the social”, contaminating and undermining the “purity” of the political, (a controversial point, but comparable in point to Adorno’s “totally administered society” with the rise of economistic privatism crowding out public participation and suppressing possibilities of action in favor of administration instrumentalization of social relations). And the political for Arendt is pre-eminently the domain of worldliness, in which finite human beings can come to terms with and compensate for their mortality. Further, since action unleashes uncontrollable processes of innovation with unforseeable consequences, she emphasizes “forgiveness” as an essential component of “action”. Finally, striking an anti-Rousseauian note, in accordance with Heidegger’s critique of the metaphysics of the will, she emphasizes in her idealized model of the pre-philosophical Greek polis, with its non-theoretical politics, (paralleling, I think, Heidegger’s move in appealing to thee pre-Socratics), she emphasized that for the Greeks legislation was an entirely secondary matter to the deliberations of action. I think the political implications of Levinas’ ethics significantly parallel Arendt’s account, but deal much more squarely with the necessity of the political, (in contrast to Arendt insistence on its “freedom”), and hence of violence and sovereignty, while also more expansively with the enhancement of human possibilities and the emancipation of others in the public sphere, emphasizing the futurity involved in the openness of worldliness through the a posteriori of “infinite” responsibility for the consequences of action, which requires that one deal with the normative “necessity” of the use of violence in the political, with a bad conscience and in such a way that one doesn’t destroy the innovative norm-generating “force” of political action and doesn’t transmit the “spirit of revenge” unto future generations. I think people become confused about what political relevance that Levinas’ ethical meditations have, thinking it amounts to an apolitical quietism, since they expect an ethics to offer prescriptive political guidance, a “what is to be done?”. But what Levinas is implicitly saying is that we must act, and since we never fully know what is possible and what our limits are, nor are those possibilities and limits unrevisable or historically immutable, we must undertake the risks of action, one way or another, even to the point of violence, which nonhypocritically may be “necessary” or unavoidable, but one always becomes responsible for one’s actions and commitments, so that Levinas ethics is one of the un-doing and re-doing of the doing, of accepting and transmuting the legacy of the irrevocable. Finally, I should underline the basic point of Levinas ethical an-archism: there is ultimately no basis or foundation for authority, neither in given political arrangements, nor in tradition: simply put, any imperative exceeds the conditions from which it arises, and, indeed, aims at altering those conditions, or, in the case of a negative imperative, a prohibition, altering the consequences those conditions might otherwise bring about. The only basis for “authority” concerning the human and its fate, what might become of it, hence for the political too, is what is decided in “responsibility”. “Authority” is precisely not to be derived from death.

Sorry to go on and on at such length, but I wanted to try and clearly work out the issues that you raised. All this might not be to sdv’s liking, being entirely reactionary due to its undue and absurd “privileging” of the merely “human”. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Adam Thurschwell


Very interesting as usual, and thankfully for me, there's much less here for me to respond to than meets the eye, since I agree with much more of what you say than I think you realize -- almost all of it, in fact. Probably most importantly, I fully understand that it would be an error -- a kind of category mistake -- to try to derive any normative political stance or set of values from Levinas's account of ethics, the face-to-face, the political, etc. That's in fact one of things I like best about his ethics. But that's not to say that his ethics (I'll keep calling it "ethics," recognizing the inadequacy of that word) doesn't have profound implications for politics and political action, as you point out at the very end (and with which discussion I am basically in agreement). It's not normative guidance that Levinasian ethics has to contribute to politics, but -- to return to the point of the Simon Critchley post that got this whole thing rolling over at Long Sunday -- a philosophical/theoretical defense of a motivation for engaging in political action that extends beyond individual or group self-interest.

All of that said, I remain uncertain about your narrow ("technical") objections to the narrow point of my paper excerpt, which got this line of comments started -- i.e., that Levinas's account of death is inadequate, and that that inadequacy is a hindrance (but also interesting in its own right) to the project of articulating his ethics with the question of politics. So let me try to highlight a few places where I think you misunderstand me or where I disagree with you:

You: "The point I made was not that death as 'murder' and therefore an intentional account of its signification, is 'more material', but, to the contrary, that that is precisely an exaggeration of the whole effort to lend death an 'intentional' signification. It's death as a fact of life, objective, impersonal, inevitable, and, even, if one would so wish to put it that way, 'scientific' that is 'more material', and, though a prominent fact of life, such death is on a par with the other facts of life, such as pain, hunger, carnal desire, affective vissisitudes, social comedy and the like. In other words, Levinas' basic move is to open up a hiatus in death, that calls into question any effort to lend it a singular signification, (which I termed sublimating it), and derive any more general unification of the world from that."

A couple of points in response. First, I agree with you about Levinas seeking to open up a "hiatus" in death where the relation to the other can be inscribed, and which will "call into question any effort to lend it singular signfication . . . and derive any more general unification of the world from that." My concern is that his account in T & I and elsewhere fails to open up that hiatus. By way of contrast, I do recommend you take a look at Blanchot's "Literature and the Right to Death," because the identification of such a "hiatus" in death -- one that very much defeats any attempt at singular signification or world-creation -- is the whole point of that essay. Although incredibly brilliant and instructive, I think that L & R to D doesn't by itself suffice to carry out Levinas's project (as you describe it here), because the relation to the Other is not yet thematized within the notion of death. But Blanchot's analysis is sufficient to explain why your attempt to subsume "death" into the other "facts of life" like pain, hunger, desire, etc., fails, because death, unlike these other "facts," cannot be experienced despite it's absolute certainty. Indeed, our sole experience of death comes from the other side, so to speak, in our experience of the death of the Other (which is part of the significance of that experience). Blanchot's overriding point is that death is "impossible" precisely for this reason; we all experience dying (among the symptoms of which are the mortal aches and pains you mention), but no one experiences death. So there is already a "hiatus" in death in which the significance of the Other is implicated (by virtue of the sole availabiility of the "other-side" experience of the death of the Other). Thus, when you say I've confused two senses of death -- "one is how death is articulated, whether in memory or anticipation, and thus signifies or is lent a signification in language, and the other is how death, as an occurring event, 'beneath' and 'beyond' any order of meaning, though with implications that impact upon such, is 'undergone', whether violently or not, whether "premature" or long suffered. It's the latter that remains obdurately 'material'" -- I don't think that's correct, because for the reasons just stated, death is precisely not "an occuring event" that is "undergone." And therefore all that is left of (my own) death is your first sense, as "memory or anticipation" that can only be "lent a signification in language." I am aware that this appears to be toeing the Heideggerian line on this point, but my own point -- my original point -- is that (it seems to me) the burden is on Levinas to demonstrate how death can in fact be "subtended," etc., by the relation to the Other. As I cannot say often enough, the fact that I think that the means he chooses to meet this challenge don't work does not mean that I think that the challenge cannot be met -- in fact, I am so persuaded by the Levinasian critique of ontologism that I'm sure that it can. My own instinct, however -- shaped in part by my reading of Blanchot (who was Levinas's best friend, by the way -- took his family in when he was a prisoner of the Germans during WWII)-- is to press harder on the process by which death "is lent signification in language" in search of the "beyond death" that you mention (and with which formulation I think I agree), and not to seek the answer in what seem to me to be weak arguments equating death with murder.

You also take me to task for using the expression "grounding" ontology on ethics. Fair enough; "grounding" is the wrong word for all of the reasons you mention, and with which I am in full agreement. (Again, this was a first draft written for conference presentation, which is why I've been hesitant about posting any of it.) But would it change anything in my argument if you were simply to read "taking ethics rather than ontology as first philosophy" instead of "grounding" (to use Levinas's words), or "ethics as subtending ontology" instead of "grounding" (to use your word)? I don't think it would affect the argument, so I'm not sure how much my off-hand use of "grounding" matters.

As for "persecution," etc., I probably should have omitted that from my post, because it was and is extremely tentative and speculative. I don't disagree with anything of what you say about the substance of Levinas's views that culminate in his talking about "persecution," "hostage-taking," and so on, but I continue to wonder about the affective force of this kind of language. I'll just say (again, entirely tentatively and without suggesting that I can really defend this yet, if I ever will be able to) that the peculiarly grim affect of this vocabulary points to a substantive difficulty with Levinas, which is his very marked de-emphasis of the pleasures inherent in the relation to the Other. That is, to be crude, it's all work and no play -- we are endlessly and infinitely obligated to the other in our very constitution as subjects, we are persecuted, we are hostages, etc. etc. -- I mean, it's enough to make you think that being an ethical subject just isn't worth the candle. I am not really sure what to think about this, except that my intuition is that this is a serious lack in Levinas (and citations to his historical context, post-Holocaust, etc., are adequate to explain why he himself had more important concerns but not enough to dismiss the problem with his philosophy, I think). Putting the problem back in the context in which I've been thinking about it, I would say that while I value Levinas's contribution to articulating the possibility of a profoundly serious politics of ethical responsibility rather than self-interest, I also really like Gertrude Stein's dictum about not wanting to join the revolution if she couldn't dance. The relation to the Other (and political action, too) also ought to have some joie de vivre; the language of "persecution" makes it a little hard to see where that comes in. Again, I have no theoretical answers to this problem (if in fact it is a problem), just a feeling that it needs further thought.

I've already explained (I hope) that I understand and essentially agree with your separation of Levinasian ethics from any particular, really- or potentially-existing political program. And I mostly agree (I think; it's late and I'm runningout of steam!) with your explication of your own understanding of politics vis a vis the ethical (I like the Hannah Arendt connection). Finally, thanks for the Levinas-reading-Adorno story; too bad he didn't read Dialectic of Englightenment or (better yet) Negative Dialectics first!


john c. halasz


Just to clean up a bit, I don't think that what I'll call the aesthetic dimension is missing from Levinas. There was that early 1947 piece commissioned for "Le Temps Moderne", "Reality and Its Shadow", which so upset Sartre and Merleau-Ponty that they only published it with an elaborate editorial apparatus "rebutting" it. The basic thesis is that art is formed out of the "shells" of phenomena left behind in experience as they find their place in an "essential" ordering of reality; in other words, art is made out of the detritus of experience. This was taken as a criticism of "engaged" literature, and the piece seems to denounce art as in league with the mythic, idolatry, and deception or sophistry. But the point is not a moralistic denunciation of art, but an avoidance of confusions and a "demotion" of art correctly to a secondary status: art is not a revelation of a "deeper" truth about reality, and does not constitute a guide for the true possibilities guiding practice, but, precisely as fictive, artistic representations are misrepresentations, and the connections made in art-works are precisely those not available in reality. Art is not only composed of the decay, the detritus, of experience, but serves as a repository for those impulses, motives and possibilities that are excluded from the extant "constitution" of reality. The imaginary riches of art "shadow" reality without substituting for it, such that the "mythic" transformations of art are a counterpoint to the exigencies of ethical (and political) transformation.

"Enjoyment" is not absent from the Levinasian prospect, but it becomes precisely what is "donated" to the other. (There is a bit of an echo here of those quaint Kantian "duties to oneself", such as to develop one's talents). And, of course, there is a fundamental human need for relatedness with others, which extends to the roots of our affectivity, such that there is a certain proleptic point being issued not to confuse and reduce the other to our need for the other. But rhetoric and its attractiveness aside, Levinas is compelled "logically" to the point of "persecution". It's not just the point I made that he's addressing the paranoid tendencies of the political, which, in fact, defeat the political, and that any "serious", long-run political commitment must be able to withstand and address its defeats, not least those that occur through its "successes". It's that what is at issue is the "fullest" extent and scope of the possible, in a situation in which we don't and can't "know" the possible, but must assume it as a "necessary" risk. (In fact, the desire to fully know the possible could be taken as the classical philosophical desire, which is why classical philosophy appealed to the sureties of logic, as excluding the impossible. But, due to finitude, historicity, and futurity, such a desire is, in fact, impossible, and not only do inconceivable horrors turn out to be not just possible, but "true", but that logically bustressed desire becomes itself "reactionary". The ethical exigency becomes not to give up on possibility in the face of its "impossibility"). "Responsibility" is the emblematic figure of the uncontrolability of possibility, which refuses its instrumental reduction to control, self-preservation. If that collapses the self-complacency of "enjoyment", it is only because it rejects the reduction of the scope of possibility to the alleged claims of survival and to the "priority" of death.

So Levinas does issue a certain challenge to the "constitution" of the political in terms of sovereignty and death as its ultima ratio. If the take-away from Schmitt, somewhat against his wishes, is that a) sovereign power, as a source of legal-political order and its enforcement, is always more complicated and unstable than it would take or present itself as being, and b) that legal order is not self-regulating, but always requires a political supplement, then Levinas could be seen as making a certain vitalistic riposte, further complicating the ambivalences of any account of legal-political order and drawing into question the "authority" of death, as deciding the issue. I brought in Arendt, well, because I was running out of "steam", but as a compare-and-contrast exercize. She does bring out a certain "aesthetic" dimension to the political, in terms of its elements of enjoyment and perspectival perception, as self-display and the encounter with others. But she also maintains a certain distance from political engagement, inspite of that being her "topic", holding to a certain spectatorship stance, in accordance with the etymological root of Greek theoria. Levinas, precisely through his "avoidance" of the political, ends up being not only much tougher and "deeper" with respect to the issues of political engagement and the "realpolitik" involved, but he also brings out, inspite of the apparent narrowness of his focus, a broader perspective on the stakes and possibilities involved.

The Adorno anecdote was from Hent Devries, personal communcation, presumably at an academic conference sometime in the 1980's. Interestingly, he also inquired about Benjamin, but received no response, perhaps not even a glimmer of recognition.

Well, that's about it. I've done shot my wad, after 15000+ words of Levinas sub-blogging, an unplanned fanaticism.

Adam Thurschwell

John, well, thanks for all of it -- I hope the exercise did you good (it certainly did me!). I'll just say that again as usual, I like and agree with virtually everything you say here, with the small exception of the phrase "the self-complacency of 'enjoyment'", because what I have in mind is an enjoyment that is much more fundamental and not really separable from the ethical, a nuance of it rather than something opposed to it -- something like (I think) what Blanchot had in mind when he said (in The Unavowable Community, in a discussion of Levinas, ethics and Duras's "Malady of Death"), "Love may be a stumbling block for ethics, unless love simply puts ethics into question by imitating it," and slightly later, about ethics and passion:

Love, stronger than death. Love which does not suppress death but which oversteps the limit death represents and thus renders it powerless in regard to helping someone else (that infinite movement that carries towards him and, in that tension, leaves no time to come back and worry about "oneself"). . . . . I do not say that that way ethics and passion become one and the same. Passion retains as its characteristic the fact that its movement, difficult to resist, does not upset spontaneity, nor the conatus, but is on the contrary what outbids them, what can go all the way to destruction. And must one not at least add that to love is surely to have in sight the other alone, not as such, but as the unique that eclipses and annuls all the others? Therefore excess is its only measure while violence and nocturnal death cannot be excluded from the exigency to love.

Somewhere in this language there's the kernel of a Levinasian (as opposed to Levinas's) re-interpretation of death that I'm looking for, I think . . . .

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