Invisible Writing

comments 6
alterity / desire / difference / freedom / imperceptible / language / metaphysics / nobility / outside / Politics

The outside, or Other, is accorded an incomparable eminence in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. In his penetrating account, metaphysics desires an elsewhere. It persists within an alibi, in which we assert true life as absent. But then our idea of the other would seem to hinge upon the imperceptible — that is, upon an Other which is not other like the bread I eat, or the land in which I dwell. It is not a question of this “I,” and that “other,” but of an absolutely other. In its most recognizable (historical) form it appears as a passionate movement or turn towards an Other, which goes forth from the world of the familiar. Metaphysics turns from an at-home to an exteriority.

Metaphysics yearns to become outside-of-oneself, its desire tends towards the absolutely other — something entirely different than a need: “The customary analysis of desire can not explain away its singular pretension. As commonly interpreted need would be at the basis of desire; desire would characterize a being indigent and incomplete or fallen from its past grandeur. It would coincide with the consciousness of what has been lost; it would be essentially a nostalgia, a longing for return. But thus it would not even suspect what the veritably other is.” (T&I 33) What is the mode of desire whose essence is exteriority?

But what could be a subject of such a desire or such a thinking, whose force would consist in destroying the possibility of subordinating desire to a modality, or of rupturing the very image of thought — overturning its model and smashing its reproductions? The desire for the absolutely other is absolute, Levinas argues, since we are mortal and the Desired invisible; this desire implies our relationship with what is not given, and of which there is no idea. Vision “adequates” an idea with a thing, comprehending what it encompasses.

Beyond the knowledge which measures being, beyond brightness and depth, there is an inordinate desire for the most high: “Desire is desire for the absolutely other.” Unlike a hunger or thirst, metaphysics desires the other beyond satisfaction, and so understands the exteriority or remoteness of the other; metaphysics opens up the very dimension of height itself. The alterity glimpsed in this desire is thus not adequate to an idea, but nonetheless has a meaning — the alterity of the Other, and of the Most-High.

Not the height of heaven but the Invisible; there is no doubting human misery but to be a man is to know the dominion which things and the wicked exercise over us — our animality. “Freedom consists in knowing freedom is in peril.” To know, to be conscious, is also to have time, space to breathe, to avoid, to forestall the “instant of inhumanity”; for Levinas, it is this very postponing of the hour of treason which implies the disinterestedness of goodness, the desire for the absolutely other, the dimension of metaphysics, or “nobility.”

The Author

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  1. stellarcartographies says

    It is, of course, a reduction of otherness to assert that “there is an inordinate desire for the most high.” What of those of us who do not desire such mythologies? Why would metaphysics be tied so thoroughly to a completely human quality such as desire? What about a metaphysics without desire, is such a thing possible?

  2. The point is not desiring a mythology, it’s whether or not we’ve been duped. In other words: the real question is about our desire for the absolutely other, or metaphysics — and whether or not this relationship makes the alterity of the other vanish. Levinas’ asserts forcefully the absolute exteriority of the metaphysical term — and its irreducibility to an inward play, a simple presence of self to self — which he calls transcendence. Metaphysical transcendence is distinctive in the distance it expresses — a distance which enters into the way of existing of the outside being. Its formal characteristic — to be other — makes up its content. Levinas writes the metaphysician is absolutely separated, that the metaphysician and the other cannot be totalized. There is no simple correlation between then, which could be reversed; otherwise, the intended transcendence would be re-absorbed into the unity of the system. This would indeed destroy the radical alterity of the other. But as Levinas puts it: “Irreversibility does not only mean that the same goes unto the other differently than the other unto the same. That eventuality does not enter into account: the radical separation between the same and the other means precisely that it is impossible to place oneself outside of the correlation between the same and the other so as to record the correspondence or the non-correspondence of this going with this return. Otherwise the same and the other would be reunited under one gaze, and the absolute distance that separates them filled in.” Hence the radical heterogeneity of the other is possible ONLY if the other is other with respect to a term whose essence is to serve as entry into the relation, or to be the same not relatively, but absolutely. In other words, the metaphysical relation isn’t (properly speaking) a representation — for the other would simply dissolve into the same. The metaphyiscal other is other with a alterity which isn’t formal or a simple reverse of identity; it isn’t formed out of resistance to the same, but is other with an alterity constitutive of the very content of the other.

    Thanks for your great questions!

  3. stellarcartographies says

    Why is metaphysics tied to the other? Why value otherness? What is the point?

  4. The point here is just not valuing otherness. Briefly, it’s recognizing that the relation between the same and the other — upon which Levinas places so many extraordinary conditions — is language. Only language, Levinas argues, accomplishes a relation such that the terms are not limited within this relation; in other words, such that the other, despite the relationship with the same, remains transcendent. Metaphysics is primordially enacted as conversation. But, OK: why is this important, this movement wherein the same, gathered up in its ipseity as an “I,” leaves itself?

    In a way, Deleuze answers your question in the appendix to Logic of Sense. In it he argues the true dualism is elsewhere than monism-pluralism; he claims it only appears with the absence of the Other, between the effects of the “structure Other” of the perceptual field and the effects of its absence — what reality would appear to be without Others. He writes:

    “We must understand that the Other is not one structure among others in the field of perception (in the sense, for example, that one would recognize in it a difference of nature from objects.) It is the structure which conditions the entire field and its functioning, by rendering possible the constitution and application of the preceding categories. It is not the ego but the Other as structure which renders perception possible.” (LOS 309, “Phantasm and Modern Literature” )

    The Other is not just what metaphysics is “tied” to; it is the light in which we see the light. Deleuze defines the Other as the expression of a possible world; thus he claims it is the a priori principle of the organization of every perceptual field.

    This is why the real dualisms appear only when the Other is absent; what happens is that the whole of our perceived world collapses in the interest of something else. The fundamental effect of the presence of Others, the result of the structure-Other, is the distinction of my consciousness and its object. “Filling the world with possibilities, backgrounds, fringes and transitions; inscribing the possibility of a frightening world when I am not yet afraid, or, on the contrary, the possibility of a reassuring world when I am really frightened by the world; encompassing in different respects the world which presents itself before me developed otherwise; constituting inside the world so many blisters which contain so many possible worlds–this is the Other.” The Other, for Deleuze, causes my consciousness to tip into a past no longer coinciding with an object. The subject and object are not contemporary for Deleuze; one is constituted only through the annihilation of the other. The real adventures of depth — neurosis and psychosis — are organized and pacified by the structure-Other, rendered livable. “This is why the agitations of this structure imply a disorder, a disturbance of depth, as an aggressive return of the bottomless abyss that can no longer be conjured away. Everything has lost its sense, everything becomes simulacrum and vestige–even the object of work, the loved one, the world in itself or the self in the world…; that is, unless there becomes a sort of salvation for Robinson; unless he invents a new dimension or a third sense for the expression ‘loss of Others’; unless the absence of the Other and the dissolution of its structure do not simply disorganize the world but, on the contrary, open up a possibility of salvation…”

  5. It is a mistake, and this is a mistake that is continually made. Not all “others” are equal. For Deleuze, the Other is not at all the “most high”. It has nothing to do with Levinas and his fascination with the absolute other. For Deleuze, this other is the differential that produces the perceptual field, a differential that is never experienced itself. “This differential element is the play of difference as such, which can neither be mediated by representation nor subordinated tot he identity of the concept.” The Other is just one possible name for the differential, the fact that Sense cannot say itself. But to reduce what Deleuze is saying to Levinas is to misunderstand at least one of the two, or both.

  6. You’re reminding me why I miss being a student of yours 🙂

    Again, the point is that Deleuze is also concerned with exteriority. In particular, the point from LoS is that he argues the “true” dualism is between what the world would be like without others, and what it is like with others around. Deleuze’s other-as-expression (of a possible world,) a “pure differential,” does remind us that alterity is of philosophical significance, that it is certainly something worth discussing, that it is a compelling and even unsettling theoretical problem.

    If we can’t agree on the theoretical significance of alterity (or difference,) it may make more sense to shift the subject as otherwise we shall have very little basis for a substantive discussion.

    I really don’t think it was a mistake to bring Deleuze in here. My goal was to use something familiar to you, not to make an exactly identical point, but to present the problem of the Other in different terms. I’m not saying Levinas and Deleuze are the same, or trying to reduce one to the other; I’m saying the similarities and differences are highly suggestive, and indicate the importance of this question of the Other. And Deleuze indeed answers your question about why alterity has metaphysical significance.

    They may be speaking different languages, but that doesn’t mean we can’t understand them both, or that placing them into dialogue is a paradox, or even that one is incapable of responding to, clarifying the other.

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