Levinas, Entre Nous

I go skipping some rocks at the pond and in comes the ocean.

If you haven’t read G.H’s response to mine, go read it, since it’s good stuff in its own right. It’s late here, and I’ll respond tomorrow if I have the chance, though I’ll just briefly say that what I meant by the political Heidegger is really just an extension of his early reading from On Evasion. In other words, he often doesn’t engage Heidegger as a thinker, but rather through the gaze of 1933. Understandable. This was no small moment biographically for Levinas (I’m not stating the obvious about Germany, but rather about Heidegger’s particular role). And yes, I’ll do more than cut him some slack for that, not least because it’s Levinas’s writing that I think about when ever I hear some tedious paper on Heidegger’s ethics.

A large part of the disagreement between the two concerns Heidegger’s being-towards-death, since ultimately Levinas argues (for those who don’t know) that Heidegger’s work amounts to an epistemology: he can “know” or foresee death in a certain way (Graham seems to agree with this), even if he calls it the possibility of impossibility. And what’s more, for Levinas, Heidegger uses all the language of propriety (eigen, Eigentlichkeit, etc.) in arguing that only Dasein can die its own death. And this epistemology is ultimately a philosophy of the Same. Now, some homework for myself will be to reread Graham’s post on how one can be a thinker of the Other and a thinker of substance, given Levinas’s avowed return to the conatus of Spinoza (desire, not a return to some ousia). Or otherwise put, Levinas sides with Plato’s good beyond being, not with Aristotle.

And as for Janicaud, I think I noted him because for me Janicaud was good at bringing out (for good and bad) the problems of the later Heidegger, often by simply repeating them. (Yeah, mention one person and then you’re caught flat footed for a response as to why.) I always took Levinas to be doing a creative misreading (often not so creatively), but it’s true that the phenomenology of affect in Totality and Infinity is its least read and best written sections. Once Graham brings in Lingis, I’m more on board since I see more of what he means by his characterization of Levinas. (Not that Graham by himself is not convincing…) As for the reaction that Graham cites of an earlier generation of “he’s telling me what to do!” well, you can’t do much about that infantile response, not least because Levinas at best offers a proto-ethics. I was raised in the infernal Derrida-as-Levinas period (which I assume Graham takes to be a real insult to Levinas and I took to be the reverse!) and all that work about knowing anything is itself a violence, something that apparently still gets said by grad students working on Levinas. This also got said too much in post colonial theory. (This may get into how we can’t help but feel a certain way about figures given how the fashions were when we first read them; in my case, Levinas was too fashionable and those searing denunciations of the violence of everything still haunt me. Not least because this was reason enough why people wouldn’t look into other traditions, and why I was put on the defensive for doing work in Africana philosophy–any knowing of another tradition is violent, and thus can’t help but be informed by a racial gaze, etc. I wish I was making this up. In the end, of course, I understand the problems of engaging other traditions, but it was a way for people to be comfortable finding the Other in Dickens, as Said said once.)

Finally before heading off to read some Heidegger for tomorrow’s class (FYI, Graham, if you’re reading this: the bookstore apparently couldn’t get Heidegger Explained from Open Court), I’ll say that, yes, at some point phenomenology won’t be a word that just heads up chapter titles in Continental philosophy introductions. Maybe I’ll throw some Time and the Other on the syllabus now…

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