Emmanuel Levinas – Otherwise than Being (1974)

Autrement qu’être differs form Totalité et Infini (1961) in its structure and focus. Levinas’ first major mature work started with a description of the subject before the ethical encounter–a “being” housed in a world of nourishment and enjoyment that was shattered by the encounter with a face, the other. This later work does not stratify its representation of the subject and its world in this way; rather the ethical relationship is foundational to all self-world sensuous experience. The ethical relationship (openness) “grounds” original sensuous apprehension–and further, comprehension. The focus is therefore directed not at the other, whose contours can never be fully described, but at the ego on whom the other calls–an ego whose ipseity turns out to be just as elusive, just as “capable” of eluding presence and identity.

Thus the rich descriptions of nourishment, the erotic and jouissance become reconfigured as “proximity,” sensuous closeness and contact: all opposed to Kantian “rational respect” that would establish distance as the condition for an ethics that would obliterate that difference in the transcendental “I.” Thus in Levinas there is an ethical need for affectivity–affectivity marks out the contours of the proximal subject.

Of particular interest is the third chapter, “Sensibility and Proximity,” in which Levinas argues that “signification is sensibility” (67). This contradicts the phenomenological tradition of Husserl, which would divide these domains along the line of intentionality: the first term is intentional, the second is primarily passive. To illustrate this difference, Levinas uses the metaphor of hunger. In Husserl, the symbol (significance) fills a lack: it satisfies a hunger. Levinas renounces this intentionality and takes as his guiding thread “sensibility” where “in proximity, signification signifies before it gets bent into perseverance in being in the midst of Nature” (68). This requires an attention to the time of daily experience: a refusal of the simultaneity of a system that rewrites sensuous relationships (with objects and with others) from the standpoint of the total system. Thus the “meaning” of “perception, hunger, sensation, etc.” is different from the signifyingness that animates these activities, which is “the other in the same, the trope of the for-the-other in its antecedent inflexion” (70). This is hunger conceived sensuously, as sensibility, affect. Importantly, this is not a naive coincidence of the subject with itself: but a subject that is always-already for-the-other, out of sync with itself, hungering:

The signification of the gustatory and the olfactory, of eating and enjoying, has to be thought on the basis of the signifyingness of signification, the-one-for-the-other…. It is the passivity of being-for-another, which is possible only in the form of giving the very bread I eat. But for this one has to first enjoy one’s bread, not in order to have the merit of giving it, but in order to five it with one’s heart, to give oneself in giving it. Enjoyment is an ineluctable moment in sensibility. (72)

Levinas is approaching the point at which sustenance of the subject converges with the subject’s capacity to savor: where quantity of nourishment sustains the quality of quality: “In a gustative sensation, sensibility does not consist in confirming the aim of hunger…to fill, to satisfy, is the sense of the savor” (72). This is a crucial iteration of Levinas larger project of overturning the aggressive intentionality of the Heglian, Husserlian, and Heideggerean subjects–in Lev’s words, “an ego assimilating the other in its identity” (73):

To bite on bread is the very meaning of tasting. The taste is the way a sensible subject becomes a volume…Satisfaction satisfies itself with satisfaction. Life enjoys its very life, as though it nourishes itself with life as much as with what makes it live, or, more exactly, as though nourishing oneself has this twofold reference. (73)

Enjoyment, which borders on the tautological and elliptical (cf. Deleuze (and Lacan): desire desires desire), “in its ability to be complacent in itself, exempt from dialectical tensions, is the condition of the for-the-other involved in sensibility, and in its vulnerability as an exposure to the other” (74). Levinas continues: “Only a subject that eats can be for-the-other, or can signify. Signification, the-one-for-the-other, has meaning only among beings of flesh and blood” (74).

Levinas is building an ontology of taste. The tasting subject, the affectively capable subject (able to eat and taste), is constantly exposed to the other–affective openness is a position of vulnerability.  Being exempt from the dialectic is a position of vulnerability. Levinas calls this “proximity”: “Proximity is to be described as extending the subject in its very subjectivity, which is both a relationship and a term of this relationship” (86). This means that that the subject who eats maintains itself as such when in it enters into proximity with an other: that which divides the subject from the other also divides the subject from itself. This non-coincidence is temporal–i.e. the time of the other:

Difference is the past that cannot be caught up with, and unimaginable future, the non-representable status of the neighbor behind which I am late and obsessed by the neighbor. This difference is my non-indifference to the other. Proximity is a disturbance of the rememberable time. (88)

This is Levinas’ turn to obsession as non-indifference–the positive iteration of a negative difference–in which the non-coincidence of that tasting subject fills out into the ethical relationship. Levinas preempts Adornian critiques à la The Jargon of Authenticity:

The passivity of obsession, where consciousness no longer veils the unassumable assignation which comes from the neighbor, is not another name for naive consciousness, the immediacy prior to philosophy. On the contrary, it is what puts into question the naive spontaneity of the ego. (91)

This is aimed at both Kant and Hegel, both of whom (by means spatial and temporal, respectively) grant the ego a negativity that allows it to detach from itself and view itself, thereby recuperating the negative spontaneity of the subject within the confines of the ego made all the more robust by the sublime, etc. In other words, Levinas is taking aim at the forms of mediation that get philosophical systems off the ground at all, by claiming that the negativity which divides the self form the world is inherent in the “passivity” the ego expresses in the basic experience hungering and savoring. This is radically a-teleological:

The trace of the past in a face is not the absence of a yet non-revealed, but the anarchy of what has never been present, of an infinite which commands in the face of the other, and which, like an excluded middle, could not be aimed at. (97)

Here is a curious contrast with Jane Bennet and the Deleuze-Nietzsche tradition of vitalist that posit a more-or-less naive relationship to subject-object relations: their coincidence must  be posited for one reason or another: for life, for ethics, for creativity and intensity. Levinas is not so sanguine. We cannot aim at such a  coincidence, because the “original” coincidence is always a non-coincidence, much like Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the flesh as dehiscent.

How could one “taste” the other?


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