Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption (NDPR review)

Michael Morgan reviews Levinas and the Cinema of Redemption: Time, Ethics, and the Feminine in the NDPR:

The question that I kept before me as I was reading this book and preparing to write this review is whether philosophers can learn anything valuable from it. After all, it is a book written by someone who has published extensively on film, it treats various Hollywood and European films that are classics and certainly worthy of attention, and it purports to engage with the work of an important twentieth-century philosopher as part of its project. To be sure, one can learn something even from a book that has significant deficiencies, but what I have been asking myself is something different. It is whether a philosopher could learn anything positive from the book. Does the book say helpful and interesting things about Emmanuel Levinas? Does it show us how to explore films in the light of Levinas’s philosophical work? Does it read films in a way that is philosophically novel and interesting, about film itself or about these particular films? I wish that I could answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, but I cannot. The most I can say is that in the course of reading what Girgus has to say about Levinas and the nine or so films he discusses, one is provoked to reflect upon a number of problems and issues concerning Levinas and film, and although Girgus has nothing particularly helpful to say about most of them, it is worthwhile to have them called to our attention. Continue reading

Commonplaces of Academic Life: NDPR Review of Levinasian Meditations

Since I wasn’t all that interested in reading it to begin with, I completely forgot Richard Cohen’s  Levinasian Meditations had already been published until I saw this review by Martin Kavka in the NDPR just now.  The review certainly  makes for some interesting reading.   While Kavka admits Cohen broaches some important, if not crucial topics in Levinasian scholarship (and beyond), there seems to be a defensive tone that runs through the whole book:

Levinasian Meditations, in its structure, embodies a claim frequently found in scholarship on Levinas, namely that Judaism and its other-centered ethics, through its countercultural stance, can play a role in saving the modern West from the historical evils that have resulted from the West’s tendency either to create social commonalities through political violence or to erase social difference through genocide and ethnic cleansing. Those who read these essays seriatim will quickly infer that many of them are, at least in part, responses to unnamed others who have offered dismissive responses either to Cohen’s approach to Levinas or to Levinas’s philosophy tout court. It strikes me as very possible that readers of Levinasian Meditations will misinterpret it as a result. Continue reading

A Boring CFP Post: North American Levinas Society

Sixth Annual Conference and Meeting
“Celebrating Totality and Infinity at 50”
May 1-3, 2011 | Texas A&M University

Call for Papers

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Totality and Infinity, the North American Levinas Society invites submissions of individual paper and panel proposals for our sixth annual meeting and conference, hosted by Texas A&M University, to be held May 1-3, 2011. We are especially interested in organizing the conference around considerations of Totality and Infinity, with regard to both its historical framework and relevant contemporary readings and questions that the work continues to engender. Although preference will be given to papers that address the conference theme, papers and panels on any topic related to Levinas will be considered. Continue reading

Levinas and Sartre

I was re-reading some interviews with Levinas today and I came across an odd encounter he had with Sartre.  In 1964 Levinas wrote a letter to Jean Paul Sartre congratulating him for refusing the Noble Prize for Literature.  In an interivew in Is it Righteious to Be? Levinas wrote that Sartre:

perhaps was the only man who had the right to speak, and maybe this was the moment where he had to speak: to go to Nasser in Egypt to propose peace with Israel. Crazy Idea! But I told him, “You’re the only man Nasser will listen to (43).

Upon receipt of the letter Sartre, allegedly, asked: “Who is this Levinas anyway?”  Levinas was somewhat offended.  For, over twenty years before this episode, Sartre had stumbled across an early publication by Levinas on Husserl and declared “All this I wanted to say myself, but Husserl has already said it.”  Regardless, the offense dissipated shortly thereafter when Sartre invited Levinas to contribute to an issue of Les temps modernes about the Palestinian question.  Levinas, I believe, wrote “Poltics After!”( in either New Talmudic Readings or Nine Talmudic Readings), which is about the meeting between Sadat and Begin and the ensuing hope for a peaceful resolution.

Conversations with Emmanuel Levinas (forthcoming this month)

Conversations with Emmanuel Levinas


By Michaël de Saint Cheron Translated by Gary D. Mole

$18.95  paper
ISBN: 978-0-8207-0428-9

200 pages

An ardent admirer and student of Emmanuel Levinas during the last decade of the philosopher’s life, Michaël de Saint Cheron sat down with his mentor for these interviews, conducted in 1983, 1992, and 1994. Throughout, their conversations provide further insight into the key concepts of responsibility, transcendence, holiness, and the hostage for understanding Levinas’s notion of ethics as first philosophy. As Levinas and Saint Cheron discuss a variety of topics — death and time in the philosophies of Heidegger and Bergson, eros and the feminine, the Judeo-Christian dialogue, Levinas’s differences of thought with Paul Ricœur, reflections on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the “end of history” with the fall of Western Communism — we can clearly see Levinas’s ceaseless engagement with the justification for living after such horrors as those of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Stalinism, Cambodia, or Rwanda. Continue reading

Levinas at Davos

Yesterday I mentioned Levinas’s impression of the Davos dispute from an interview with Francois Poire (it can be found in Is it Righteous to Be? Interviews with Levinas, 33ff).  In that same interview, here’s Levinas describing the play put on by the students in which he played Cassirer:

At that time I had an abdundance of black hair; we put a lot of white power on my hair in order to evoke the noble gray head of the master.  As for Bolnow [who played Heidegger]…I furnished him with the reply which to me seemed to caricture the eymological findings of Heidegger: “Because interpreting means to put a thing upside down.”

Levinas is asked if people felt a “great trembling” at Davos:

Certainly! Cassirer presented an order which was going to be undone.  Now one has a slanted perspective which perhaps falsifies memories.  I think that Heidegger announced a world that was going to be turned over.  You know who he would join three years later; one would have to have had the gift of prophesy to sense this already at Davos.  I have thought for a long time–in the course of those terrible years–that I had felt it then, in spite of my enthusiasms.  The value judgments of them have necessarily changed over time.  And during the Hitler years I reproached myself for having preferred Heidegger at Davos. Continue reading

Midrash, Quotation, Levinas: Some More Thoughts

Ok, dusting off my Levinas books!  In a comment to a post on some thoughts her talk about the Midrashic impulse triggered for me, Monica writes:

His [Levinas] writing–at least in my reading–imitates precisely the style used by Talmudists and the rabbis and sages who created classical Midrash. There is always that moment in the text that flips the text itself upside-down and forces a re-reading from that particular point in the text. Sometimes these moments are so subtle that we miss them, which I think in some way leads us back to the question of responsibility even on the part of the reader (?). This is, again, I think, what brings us to the ethical, at least in regard to the way I’m using it in my work to describe the midrashic impulse. The ethical is about that (diachronic?) moment of rupture in the text, and the way it compels us to respond to it.

This is an interesting (and accurate in my view) comment.  Talmudic study, according to Levinas, is an awakening of language to what perpetually exceeds its reach, drawing reading and writing into a mode of infinition, of constitutive incompletion. The translation of Talmudic study into practice starts with the assumption that there is nothing that cannot be expressed in a community defined by its willingness to communicate and disagree, except the name of God. Continue reading

Midrashic Impulses: Some thoughts on Levinas

Monica over at Dreaming Without Memory in Strangled Sleep has an audio link to a talk she recently gave at UCLA entitled “Literature, the Holocaust, and the Midrashic Impulse.”  She hits on a number of interesting tacks one may take when trying to engage the problem of representation and the Holocaust (which has interesting connections with testimony, witnessing and trauma), and focuses on various examples of what she calls the “midrashic impulse.”  An extensional logic (at work in a variety of different mediums, not just sheer textualism) that may or may not directly engage the Holocaust per se, but is a working through trauma without recourse to representation.  Interesting stuff, indeed.   And you should definately go check it out.

As Robert Antelme –himself a survivor of Dachau–wrote in The Human Race:

No sooner would we begin to tell our story than we would be choking over it, and then, even to us, what we had to tell would start to seem unimaginable (3).

Such is the aporetics of testimony: how do we testify to the unrepresentable, unimaginable etc?  Monica appeals to and glosses over Levinas’ notion of discourse as well as his critique/understanding of the role of aesthetics in ethical life, and focuses on the work of Doctorow and the painter Samuel Bak, but I wonder if we pay attention to Levinas himself we may also catch a glimpse of the midrashic impulse.  Continue reading

Love Me! Rosenzweig, Love, the Subject

Wildly Parenthetical’s questions about the possible role of “peace, love and understanding” (Sorry, couldn’t resist the Elvis Costello reference) in Levinas’s ethical rapport has gotten me thinking about Franz Rosenzweig. For perhaps one of the clearest influences of Rosenzweig on contemporary philosophy is to be found in Levinas’s ethical inversion of the etymology of philosophy from the love of wisdom to the wisdom of love (in the service of love). However, I think that Levinas tends to merely transpose God’s demanding love with the love of the other by substituting the ontological status of absence with ethical proximity, which seems to me, a “cool” “Heideggerization of Rosenzweig.” That said, the “here I am” that Levinas associates with love, subjectivity and philosophy clearly has it source in Rosenzweig’s chapter on revelation in the Star of Redemption, but “cashed out” it’s a bit different. What follows is just some commentary/summary/fragments on Rosenzweig’s conception of revelation, what he calls the “ever-renewing birth of the soul.” The second part of the Star moves from logic/cognition into temporality/testimony. The elements in the first part of the Star need an inner transformation so they may be sources of power for revelation and not simply “conceptual pieties.” Being (in the most restrictive sense, to be contrasted with existence) signifies the correlation of acting with experience lies beyond reason and is fulfilled in the realities, e.g. creation, revelation and redemption. Now, whenever I read Rosenzweig I get a bit uncomfortable with all the theological language, but there is certainly something interesting at work behind all of it that can shed some light on the inter-subjective rapport. However, it is good to read Rosenzweig broadly as hammering away at the pretensions of idealism–albeit the regressive movement of the text is rather Hegelian. Continue reading

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. Continue reading