Outside

The relation between me and the other commences in the inequality of terms, transcendent to one another, where alterity does not determine the other in a formal sense… It is produced in multiple singularities and not in a being exterior to this number who would count the multiples. The inequality is in this impossibility of the exterior point of view, which alone could abolish it. The relationship that is established–the relationship of teaching, of mastery, of transitivity–is language, and is produced only in the speaker who, consequently, himself faces. Language is not added to the impersonal thought dominating the same and the other; impersonal thought is produced in the movement that proceeds from the same to the other, and consequently in the interpersonal and not only impersonal language. An order common to the interlocutors is established by the positive act of the one giving the world, his possession, to the other, or by the positive act of the one justifying himself in his freedom before the other, that is, by apology.

Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity 251, “Beyond the Face”

Levinas argues forcefully that the truth of our being is compromised when we submit to tyranny. It is neither suicide nor resignation to declare this truth, but rather love itself, revolted by the violence of reason. There is a plane of reality that must be indicated, whose very existence at once presupposes and transcends the revelation of the other, wherein the I bears itself beyond death.

Yet in this movement, where subjectivity itself is posited as a function, the I also recovers from its return to itself. This plane is certainly love: the other who faces us arouses an infinite desire, and reveals a mode of subjectivity which is the meaning of language, or justice, and which is the very actuality of love, living for others. The mere existence of this plane implies both separation and transcendence — a revolt against the violence of a “reason” that would reduce interpersonal discourse to silence.

Subjectivity cannot accept silence — but it can cease its apology. This is not suicide but love. Resignation to a universal reason compromises our very being. Even if it is “rational,” it remains a form of submission to tyranny. Levinas writes that existence in history consists in placing my consciousness outside of myself, in “destroying my responsibility.” (T&I 252) Nonetheless, my individuality is very different from an animal partiality — even when supplemented by a “reason” issuing from organic-inorganic assemblages of contradictory “animal” impulses. When the self has its consciousness outside of itself, a kind of inhumanity resides in the consciousness of violence within oneself. A singularity is already at the level of reason — one is a personal discourse, an apology, issuing from itself to the others:

“I am in truth by being produced in history under the judgment it bears upon me, but under the judgment that it bears upon me in my presence–that is, while letting me speak… The difference between ‘to appear in history’ (without a right to speak) and to appear to the Other while attending one’s own apparition distinguishes again my political being from my religious being.” (Levinas, Totality & Infinity 253)

Impersonal reason does not leave us magically outside the state or spare us from violence. Our freedom reads shame in the eyes which look at me; our freedom is an apology, meaning only that it refers already from itself to another’s judgment it solicits. As a result of this apology, my being does not equal its appearance in our awareness, and is not called to appear to itself in reality. Yet it also does not equal what it has been for others, in the terms of an impersonal “universal” reason: “If I am reduced to my role in history I am unrecognized as I was deceptive when I appeared in my own consciousness.” (252) My historical existence is the movement whereby my consciousness is placed outside of “myself,” and this difference is not only theoretical: our awareness of the tyranny of the State makes it actual, even if this consciousness is “rationally grounded.” The violence death introduces into my being does not make truth imposible. The violence of death appears to reduce to silence a subjectivity without which truth could not be produced; unless the subject renounces itself without violence. This is not suicide, not resignation, but the meaning of revolt against the tyranny of impersonal reason. Love presupposes and transcends the epiphany of the other. Not apology, but submission to tyranny compromises the truth of my being.

This entry was written by Joseph Weissman and published on Thursday, May 29, 2008 at 5:32 pm. It’s filed under alterity, awareness, being, difference, inequality, inhumanity, language, levinas, love, metaphysics, Politics, reason, truth, tyranny, Uncategorized, violence. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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