Here are the first few paragraphs of an article (or review), “Back to the Other Levinas: Reflections prompted by Alain P. Toumayan’s Encountering the Other: The Artwork and the Problem of Difference in Blanchot and Levinas,” by Michael Fagenblat (incidentally, I’ve been enjoying his new book on Levinas in my non-existent spare time):
Since the exultant reception of Levinas work, particularly in the United States, an imposing obstacle to this oeuvre has steadily been erected. It is not Levinas complicated, often unstated philosophical disputations, nor his exhortatory style, nor even the originality of his argument that constitute the most formidable obstructions to his work today. On the contrary, the greatest difficulty today is the ease with which Levinas is arrogated, a facility that risks making him so accessible as to be wholly irrelevant. The ubiquity in contemporary intellectual circles of an ethics of the other leads, from ever diverse paths, directly to Levinas; and it is just this that prevents us from reading him well.
For some time the greatest obstacle to Levinas work has been the glib and vague moralising piled upon it. Most often what we hear about Levinas from those who speak in his name are agitated appeals for a responsibility for the other, appeals which remain not only politically but even ethically unspecified. Those who have sung Levinas praises most heartily tend to belong notionally to the Left. After all, from where could the orphan, the widow, the poor the stranger, the Other appear but from the Left? Tellingly, however, the Levinasian Left is usually rather depoliticized, following Levinas own precarious suspension of the compromises and calcula-tions of politics, expressed in his appeal, Politique après! The irony here is that Levinas begins his critique of Husserl with a potent critique of the purely theoretical method of the phenomenological reduction but ends up with an ethics that is so impassive, indeed formal, that it risks itself becom-ing pure theory.
Levinas is thus not altogether exculpated from the anaemic realisation of his thought. The ineffectuality results not merely because Levinas never extended his vision of ethics into the field of manifold, often antagonistic relations that is, into life but also because he wrote too much, too often and, ironically, too reductively about the enigma of the other. Reading Levinas later essays, most of which, it is important to recall, he was invited to deliver to generally Christian seminaries in northern continental Europe, one could get the impression that for Levinas there is very little to life beside an obsessive relation with the other that is wholly determined ethically, supplemented perhaps by an almost secret reference to the real authority behind the face, be it God or the impersonal third of illeity. It is of course in this secret reference to the authority behind the face that the true Levinas should be sought, as Derrida already pointed out in 1964, and not in a fetishised relation of responsibility to any particular other person. Thus it is the transcendence of the anonymous and/or the divine that is the real and non-ethical source of (ethical) subjectivity.
I agree with much of the sentiments about the reception of Levinas’s work, however, I’m not quite sure if we should blame Levinas himself (or his writing style) for the “anaemic realisation of his thought.” It sounds somewhat reasonable, but I’ll have to think about this some more.
The whole review/article can be found here (though I’d just get a copy of Toumayan’s book if such things interest you).