What follows is an excerpt from a draft paper on Levinas's interpretation of death I presented at a conference this past fall. I'm posting it here to respond to and continue an exchange I've been having with John C. Halasz over at Long Sunday, to which exchange I refer you for the background . . . . More to follow later, I hope and expect.
The first fragment is, I think, more cryptic. "The death of the Other: a double death, for the Other is death already, and weighs upon me like an obsession with death." The ethical Other is, for Blanchot, death already; death stands in place of the Other and thus, one can infer that our relationship to the Other is like, indeed is the same as, our relationship to death. What can this possibly mean?
Before trying to suggest a Blanchotian answer to that question, it is worth noting that although Levinas in various places compares the relationship to the Other to the relationship to death -- death confronts the ego as a trauma, absolute and unknowable exteriority irreducible to thematization, and so on -- he never, to my knowledge (please correct me if I'm wrong!) identifies the Other with death. By way of single example, in Otherwise than Being, in his discussion of substitution and the self as hostage, he says that in the infinite responsibility for the Other, the self "is in a deathlike passivity!" (124; my emphasis).
But if he does not take the step of identifying death with the Other, that does not mean he can avoid the problem of death at the heart of the aporia between the ethical face-to-face and justice for the third. Indeed, in its most general form, the problem I'm addressing here in the medium of death-- how to locate an ethical exigency within and prior to the conatus of ontology, how to find the Other within the Same -- constituted his entire project in Otherwise than Being and much of his late work. While he addressed the specific question of death at greatest length (at least, to my knowledge, in the work that's been translated into English) in the seminar series titled Death and Time, references to death and the problem of finding an ethical interpretation of it to contest Heidegger's ontological interpretation are scattered throughout his work.
One strategy he employs to negotiate this problem, upon which the discussion of ethical subjectivity in Otherwise than Being apparently rests, is to suggest that the constitution of the self and Ego in subjection to the ethical Other simply bypasses the Heideggerian foundation of egoity or jemeinigkeit on death. Thus, he says that the ethical constitution of the subject as hostage has a "meaning despite death" and that "[c]ontrary to the ontology of death this self opens an order in which death can be not recognized." (115). Even more clearly, at the end of the chapter on "Substitution," where he specifically takes up the problem of the third in relation to the ethical constitution of subjectivity, acknowledging that it rests on different, "unethical" (in his sense) grounds, he claims that the ethical self's passivity "is not only the possibility of death in being, the possibility of impossibility." Rather, this ethical constitution gives birth a meaning of death as "'being able to die' subject to sacrifice," that is, a meaning for death that -- aside from or next to the meaning of death as Dasein's ownmost possibility -- makes the sacrifice of the one-for-another equally fundamental.
I do not think this strategy works, at least to the extent that Levinas's ambition is to ground ontology on ethics, and not simply give ethics an equal share of philosophical profundity. To recognize another meaning for death -- an ethical one in addition to the ontological one -- is not the same as making the ethical relationship fundamental. Nor do I think that Levinas's other solution, which he elaborated in Totality and Infinity, works, either. In the section on "The Will and Death," Levinas takes up the phenomenology of death and attempts to articulate a meaning for death that avoids the ontological interpretations of a passage to nothingness or passage to a higher existence in favor of one that rests on the social relationship. How does he give death, which for Heidegger is what was most unshareably one's own, a social meaning? By associating it with murder. Death, he says, "threatens me from beyond," and refers to a "malevolence, . . . the residue of a bad will which surprises and stalks." (234) Thus death, "the unknown that frightens," appears to consciousness as if it "comes from the other, and this alterity, precisely as absolute, strikes me in an evil design or in a judgment of justice." In short, "[i]n the being for death of fear I am not faced with nothingness, but faced with what is against me, as though murder, rather than being one of the occasions for dying, were inseparable from the essence of death." (234, original emphasis). And thus, Levinas claims, death's meaning is social before it is ontological, referring first of all to the threat of an Other and the possibility of being murdered.
I mentioned Jesse Sims's article before, in which he argues that Schmitt's concept of politics as war necessarily rests on Levinas's concept of peace. I think this argument is correct, as far as it goes. But it seems to me that in the passages I have just quoted Levinas concedes everything to Schmitt -- even granting the sociality still implied in the relation of friend to enemy, the notion at the heart of Sims's argument -- at least to the extent that Schmittâs conception of killing ultimately rests on a conception of death. For here, hasn't Levinas privileged, absolutely, at least insofar as the question is death, the Other as enemy, as murderer? Of course the Other is the unknown and always may arrive to kill instead of welcome (we know this from Levinas himself as well as Derrida), but here Levinas goes beyond that possibility and gives an absolute priority to, or so it seems to me, the murderous Other. Moreover, he says that the meaning of death appears as the Other's "evil design or . . . judgment of justice." By attributing death's meaning as a "judgment of justice," hasn't Levinas here conceded to the relationship to third, with its necessary return to the ontological exigency, the primary role in the meaning of death? And, more fundamentally, doesn't the exigency of death-as-murder refer, before it suggests the possibility of an appeal to the murderous Other for mercy, to the conatus of the self fearful first of all for its own life?
Levinas insists that he does not intend to insert death into "a primitive (or developed) religious system that would explain it" -- that is, an animistic notion of natural forces as taking on human malevolence. Yet it appears to me that that is exactly what he does in this argument. Apart from that, it also seems to me that his phenomenological analysis of death is faulty here as well -- whether or not we anticipate death as something that will befall us, I don't think people relate this thought to murderous intent, but, absent special cases, to impersonal and inhuman forces. Be that as it may, Levinas at least purported to retain this analysis of death as late as the 1975 lecture course on Death and Time that I mentioned above, and while I do not believe that it appears as such in Otherwise than Being, it may provide one explanation for the -- to my mind unnecessary for his philosophical purposes -- hyperbolic rhetoric of "persecution" and "accusation" that Levinas employs in the course of analyzing subjectivity as substitution and hostage, to the extent that this rhetoric can be read as a sublimation of the murderous approach of the Other.