The Skin Turned Out: Levinas and Passivity


Wildly Parenthetical has some interesting musings on the Levinas of Totality and Infinity and the Levinas of Otherwise than Being:

…the characterisation of the relationship with the other changes quite dramatically from TI to OB, and this shift is quite interesting given that I’m reading it with eyes focussed on suffering. In TI, the relationship with the other is astonishing, world-giving, world-devastating, but in a joyous rather than an horrific way. Levinas seems to sing throughout this book, waxing lyrical, writing what is almost a love letter to the other. Heady and excited, it evokes the absolute generosity of those early moments in a relationship, when similarities feel homey and difference offers ecstasy.

But if this is so, in OB, the lover has jilted him, but he’s still bound. The relationship with the other is abruptly not one of possibility and generosity (or at any rate, it is not purely or even mostly that). Rather, one suffers the effect of the other. The other takes from me my self-certainty, and suddenly it seems that Levinas assumes my self-certainty, my self-sufficiency, my introspective enjoyment of myself was the sole source of my joy before the other dispossessed me of it. Whilst in some sense this echoes what he says in TI, there’s more violence here: the other’s violence to me which I have no choice but to accept and continue to respond to. It evokes the slow, weary resignation of the lover neglected, ignored, abused. It evokes a state of being destitute of joyfulness, duty-bound, cautious, limited. The other’s limitations of my power no longer feels like it offers the possibility of recognising, of deploying those powers, but rather, as if the other takes those powers from me. If TI marked the boon of the other, OB marks my loss.

It is certainly true, that in a certain sense, OTB surpasses TI. There are clear differences, as Wildly Parenthetical nicely points out, between the tone of each. Read improperly, TI comes off as a hopelessly Pollyana slogan “Let’s be friends.” Yet, while I see the point WP is getting at, I don’t really understand Levinas as ever presenting the exposure to the other as particularly joyous, perhaps the writing in TI seems that way, but it still seems rather violent to me. Sure, for one clear difference we could look to the langauge. By abandoning the trope of “the face” in favor of the relation of the Saying and the Said, and, with the important “categories” or “descriptors” he introduces, e.g. substitution, trauma, illeity, maternity, obsession and me voici, OTB is noticeably different. By OTB ethics is the language before language which is nothing less than the proximity of the one to the other, or using his new language in OTB, substitution: “the signifyingness of signification/ the one for the other.” I think one issue, (and perhaps a closely related issue to the one of happiness) is the manner in which Levinas continues to rethink the subject in OTB. Levinas rejects the Husserlian qualified ego, what results is a subject that can’t be reduced to self-consciousness, but is instead an exposed, totally subjected subject. Here Levinas is close to Merleau-Ponty I think, for the incarnation of the subject is the body: exteriority outside the reach of consciousness (as that which gives meaning). This is why Levinas spends so much time in OTB talking about aging and lapsed time instead of fecundity, the erotic and progeny, as in TI. Like Jabes and the question, the Levinasian ego –by the time of OTB—is exiled from itself, disrupted, completely exploded/contracted but is at once singular. However, what stays in place, albeit it is expressed differently, is the asymmetry of the other. Distancing himself from Merleau-Ponty’s “cognitivism,” Levinas turns (using M-P’s categories) to look at the intertwining of the sensible and sentient body, as enjoyment in TI and as the trauma of substitution that captures the meaning of intersubjectivity prior to consciousness in OTB. It is the Saying which introduces a particular type of exposure and as such, points towards the ethical conception of the body:

The pain, this underside of the skin, is a nudity more naked than all destitution. It is sacrificed rather than sacrificing itself, for it is precisley bound to the suffering of pain. This existence, with sacrafice imposed on it, is without conditions. (OTB, 49-50)

The Saying attests to what cannot be easily contained in enjoyment. From this perspective, the problem with the body in enjoyment for Levinas is that it lives from the elements that present themselves to one’s predilections which results in an ego that simply satisfies needs and remains closed off to exteriority. This move towards the Saying is the task of philosophy, in fact, trauma becomes the “foundation” of language and ethics:

The one affected by the other is an anarchic trauma, or an inspiration of the one by the other, and not a causality striking mechanically a matter subject to its energy. In this trauma, the Good reabsorbs, or redeems, the violence of non-freedom. Responsibility is what first enable one to catch sight of and conceive of value. (OTB, 123)

I think this accounts for the stylistic difference of OTB from TI. To be succinct: Levinas wants to retain the opening to the other that persists as saying, which recognizes that language is inaugurated in the address to the other, the Here I am, or After you, sir. Levinas has to write in a way that lets this election/hostage to reverberate. I’m getting off track. Ultimately, the post over at Wildly Parenthetical draws out this viable observation/concern:

This has been playing on my mind of late: where does this sense of a right to happiness come from? Why do we think that we have the right to be happy, and to do whatever we need to be happy? But more particularly, why do we experience the responsibilities to the other as painful? What poisoned the relationship? Where did the ecstasy of generosity become suffering, become a threat to happiness? And if I can make comprehensible Levinas’ attempt to defuse the question of happiness—for my responsibility exceeds any of that selfish stuff—what effect does it have to never think my relationship with the other as one of joy? What is denied then?

Now, what about happiness? The ecstasy of giving? Generosity? Too narcissistic. There are various ways in which we could approach this, vis a vis the role of God in Levinas’s work, the role of death, the passivity of the subject, to name just a few. From OTB:

…being Good it redeems the violence of its alterity, even if the subject has to suffer through the augmentation of this ever more demeaning violence (15).

All of this is to say, Levinas is a one trick dog, completely focused on the one-for the other, the responsibility for the other that ultimately constitutes me as some sort of subject, as a relation. Eating together as friends, sharing a meal? Forget it. I take the bread from my mouth and give it to you. Yet, with all of this talk about suffering it is easy to mistake it for a type of generosity. By OTB, Levinas’s language of persecution means that the very approach of the other persecutes me. Persecution is an exile with no hope of return, a loss of a home, I lose my ability to grow and develop, I am completely unrooted. I have lost all resources for engaging with others through the use of my will, hence the term, passivity. I’m literally denuded (of all my connections, interests etc). Levinas argues throughout OTB that substitution “accuses without being assumed, which is to say, in the underground of sensibility beyond the capacity to undergo.” This accusing without being assumed is a passivity beyond my capacity to receive. Passivity, for Levinas, is literally an excessive undergoing. Happiness from Levinas’ perspective, it seems to me, is something I must take up, it relies more on an autonomous will, a sovereign ego–it’s not something that interpellates me like the other. The shattering of the ego is disruptive, and at times, horrifying. The early work that culminates in TI describes the encounter with the other as prior to the empirical, it’s that surprise of the other’s interruption, that fleeting moment when I was confronted solely with the other’s face, prior to any recognition. This as Wildly Parenthetical alludes to, is a world of infinite possibilities. His whole corpus–even with the “shift” in tone between TI and OTB– is about this moment I think, so happiness is at best, second order. In fact, in TI, there are passages in which Levinas suggests the face awakens the (newly interpellated ethical) subject to a new understanding of happiness, even, of the good life–although this sounds rather banal.

Describing Blanchot’s story “The Idyll,” Sarah Kofman writes,

The affliction of the story, intrinsic to its Appolinian happiness, is that it deceptively conceals Dionysus in all his glory (Smothered Words, 29).

At bottom, happiness, I think, would only be problematic for Levinas when it ignores the immemorial, the pre-originary debt or asymmetry always already at work favoring reciprocity, narcissism etc. Approached from this end, in light of possibilities, Blanchot’s comments from The Step not Beyond are apt:

Do we approach the anonymous if we yield (supposing that there were enough passivity in us for such a concession) to the attraction of dying, indeed of thought? If to think were to sink into nothingness, as we would think with happiness, with fright. But sinking through thought, we are immediately carried to our highest possible (38).

For Levinas, the possibility of death is a metaphysical opiate. In his early work the facticity of dying that refuses to be taken hold of creates an opening onto a second order phenomenological alterity, which can’t be reduced to the will, Dasein, or the power of the subject. Dying is the impossibility of possibility. It is suffering and not death which makes one be one’s ownmost being. From this perspective, I think Levinas tends to sever (Kantian) virtue from happiness (and this seems to be a whole other way to approach this question, vis a vis Kant and Aristotle).

Regardless, while the Blanchot connection certainly deserves more fleshing out, WP raises some interesting questions to pursue.

3 thoughts on “The Skin Turned Out: Levinas and Passivity

  1. Thanks for this, Shahar. I realise in retrospect that my reference to ‘happiness’ at the end of my post may have appeared a little misleading. I suppose what I intended (in relation to Levinas, anyway) is to ask: why, given that there are theorists who are quite willing to go a very long way with Levinas, does there seem almost inevitably to be a point at which the suffering that the other engenders in me becomes too much, more than I ‘ought’ (but where, I suppose I’m asking, can this ‘ought’ come from?) to have to live with. And the shift between TI and OTB (I think I *like* the former more than the latter, even if the latter carries its worthiness on its sleeve) seems to be a shift that enables Levinas to say ‘It’ll be bad, it’ll be really really bad, there will be nothing fun about it, but you know what? Bad luck, sweetheart, this is *who you are*.’ I wonder, I suppose, why the other becomes never a source of peace (there’s another post on my blog that’s just a quote from TI about peace that seems to me to be in direct contrast to the suffering subject of OB) or fun, or laughter, or joy, or whatever else… if Levinas is not *anti* happiness, and I cross my fingers that you’re right about that, then why does happiness, or contentment, or peace, have everything to do with the subject, and little to do with the other?

    In some sense, I suppose if I were to sketch a response to Levinas (a bad faith one, probably, but hey), I’d make it clear that I understood the need for an absoluteness to responsibility, but suggest that the characterising of responsibility as always already and everywhere suffering is problematic precisely because it produces difference as the source of suffering… S/He becomes, in Sara Ahmed’s terms, a ‘bad object’ precisely because the orientation upon him/her engenders him/her that way… or so it would seem, given the shift between the books. I suppose I wonder about what the subject is, that s/he experiences this exposure as suffering? Perhaps? And this would seem to become particularly significant given that the subject doesn’t pre-exist the relation: why would this relation bring into being a subject who experiences the other as a source of suffering? where does this necessity come from? … anyway, very late night thoughts, mostly framed as questions (to which I don’t really expect a response, btw, just in case you’re feeling interrogated!). But thanks for your response (cross-blog conversations are exciting, even when I feel too busy and all over the place to do them real justice!)

  2. Thanks for the response, don’t worry, I don’t feel interogated, but if I did I’d probably like it.

    why, given that there are theorists who are quite willing to go a very long way with Levinas, does there seem almost inevitably to be a point at which the suffering that the other engenders in me becomes too much, more than I ‘ought’ (but where, I suppose I’m asking, can this ‘ought’ come from?) to have to live with.

    I see your point, yet, (and I don’t want to sound banal) the passivity Levinas so often deploys is part of the trauma (or/of suffering) to the egoitistic, enjoying self. The more than I ought comes from for one example–as I read Levinas–that fissure of the ego the other introduces.

    Now, I’ve done a good deal of work on Levinas and people have asked me, “Well, isn’t there room in Levinas for say, Finnegan’s Wake?” Or, to your question about peace, my general inclination would be to look at L’s concept of uniqueness, esp in that essay, convienently called “Uniqueness” or somehting like that. Here he interrogates how we encounter the unique other beyond the genus/species binary, in which the individual/other would be subordinate to some class/genus. Levinas generally tends to stay away from love, or peace as descriptors for the ethical rapport, but at times, he uses love as a way to capture the uniqueness of the other, e.g. my wife can’t be replaced by anyone else, it’s not that she’s simply a part of a group or a social class etc, love binds me together with an other who is actually absolutely other, the relationship completely exceeds the contours of knowledge and in turn engenders a responsibility for my wife without limits, radically other to me.

    Moreover, if we are to complicate all of this and think about the co-presence of the third in the originary ethical assymetry, it is here where Levinas revises the liberal political tradition of Kant and Hegel, which places freedom before equality, by retrieving the concept of fraternity and privileging it over freedom and equality, esp in “Peace and Proximity.” It seems to me that since justice is conceived by Levinas as a sort of awakening to concsiousness, or minimally, an interruption, would it not follow what we are awoken to is an awareness of the rights of “man” (the universal) that is materialized as the rights of the other (the singular)? So, the relation of fraternity is the relation of the universal in the material. Hardt and Negri mobilize an idea of love in a similar manner I think in Multitude, but that’s for another time..

    The other thing I would add is this, by the time of OTB, and something he hints at early on, is the responsibility of the survivor. This seems especially evident when he deals with testimony/prophesy/witnessing at the end of OTB. From On Escape and his early works until OTB and beyond, there is a concern with orienting phenomenology towards the non-phenomenizable, e.g. death/alterity. So, one could make a case that we have to read L’s work in the shadow of the Holocaust. While this is somewhat problematic (see esp Moyn’s book) the emphasis on suffering etc comes into clear focus. Yet, the temptation here is to simply reduce subjectivity as a supra/ultimate responsibility, not good. At best, I think the way to pursue this line of thought is by taking Levinas’ “jewish” work seriously in conjunction with his philosophical stuff, in that way, the hyperbole, or wild language at work in OTB seems to I don’t know, be re-saying or engendering a new type of philosophical discourse, one that as Sarah Kofman might say, doesn’t muffle the scream.

  3. Pingback: Love Me! Rosenzweig, Love, the Subject « Perverse Egalitarianism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s