Does objectivity, whose harshness and universal power is revealed in war, provide the unique and primordial form in which Being, when it is distinguished from image, dream and subjective abstraction, imposes itself on consciousness? Is the apprehension of an object equivalent to the very moment in which the bonds with truth are woven?
I will not say that the disaster is absolute; on the contrary, it disorients the absolute. It comes and goes, errant disarray, and yet with the imperceptible but intense suddenness of the outside, as an irresistible or unforeseen resolve which would come to us from beyond the confines of decision.
Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster
Levinas begins the preface to Totality and Infinity by asking whether war is not the most serious objection to the lucidity — the sanity — of ethics. For war robs our institutions and obligations of their eternity; it is the concrete suspension of the ethical. In war morality vanishes. The violence of war does not only affect us as the most real, the most palpable fact, but as the very truth of the real. Thus it is not just one of the ordeals morality lives. War renders morality derisory, rescinding its imperatives for the interim. Politics, winning at any cost, is enjoined as the very exercise of reason itself — opposing itself to morality as philosophy to naivete.
Fragments of Heraclitus are unnecessary to show that being reveals itself as war to philosophical thought. Reality rends the words that dissimulate it. War is produced as the pure experience of being, cracking the veils which covered its nudity. The ontological event of war is mobilization, a casting-into-motion of beings once anchored in identity. The trial by force is the test of the real. Yet the violence of war does not consist so much in injuring and annihilating people, but in interrupting their continuity — forcing them to play roles in which they can no longer recognize themselves.
People are made to betray not only commitments but their own substance, and made to carry out actions that destroy every possibility for action. “Not only modern war but every war employs arms that turn against those who wield them.” War produces and establishes an order from which nothing and no one can keep their distance. Nothing remains outside. War does not manifest exteriority, the other as other; it destroys the identity of the same. The vision of being glimpsed in war is “totality,” a vision-in-one which dominates Western philosophy.
Individuals become bearers of forces commanding them unbeknownst to themselves. The meaning of individuals, invisible outside the whole, is derived from the totality. The implicit univocity of each present is sacrificed endlessly to a future appealed to bring forth the objective meaning. The ultimate meaning alone counts, and only the last act transforms beings into themselves. Thus we are what we will appear to be in the already plastic forms of the epic.
In this context, oracular discourse would seem to accept the ontology of totality issued from war; but in fact the real import of prophetic eschatology lies elsewhere. It does not introduce a teleological system into the totality, but rather consists in teaching the orientation of history. Eschatology institutes a relation with being beyond totality, beyond history. It is not a relationship with a being beyond the past, beyond the present, nor with the void surrounding the totality where one could, arbitrarily, think what one likes — thus promoting the claims of a subjectivity free as the wind. Rather it is a relationship with a surplus ever exterior to the totality. It is as though the objective totality does not fill out the true measure of being.
It is as though another concept, the concept of infinity, were needed to express this transcendence with regard to totality, non-encompassable within a totality, and yet as primordial as totality. The eschatological, the “beyond” of history, draws beings out from the jurisdiction of history, of the future, and arouses them in and calls them forth to their full responsibility. Submitting history as a whole to judgment, exterior to the wars that mark its end, it restores to each instant its full signification in that instant: all the causes are ready to be heard.
The eschatological notion of judgment is contrary to the judgment of history in which Hegel imagined its rationalization, and implies that beings have an identity “before” eternity, before history is accomplished, before the fullness of time — in other words, while there is still time. It implies that beings exist in relationship but on the basis of themselves and not on the basis of the totality. The idea of being overflowing history makes possible an existence both involved and personal, beings that can speak rather than lending lips to an anonymous utterance of history. “Peace is produced as this aptitude for speech.” The eschatological vision breaks with the totality of wars and empires in which one does not speak.
The first “vision” is eschatology reveals the possibility of a breach in the totality, the possibility of a signification without a context, in short, the very possibility of eschatology as distinguished from the revealed opinions of positive religion. The experience of morality consummates this vision, rather than simply proceeding from it. Ethics is an optics, but yields a vision without image, bereft of the “synoptic,” totalizing virtues of vision. It is a relation, or intentionality, of a wholly different type. Of peace there can only be an eschatology, Levinas claims. Yet this should not be taken to mean that when affirmed objectively it is believed by faith instead of being known by knowledge. It means that peace does not take place in the objective history disclosed by war, as the end of that war, or as the end of history.
But does not the eschatology of peace, beyond the evidence and experience of the philosopher — coinciding with war and totality — live on subjective opinions and illusion? Unless, Levinas writes, philosophical evidence refers from itself to a situation which can no longer be stated in terms of “totality”; unless the non-knowing with which the philosophical knowing begins coincides not with pure nothingness, but only a nothingness of objects.
Without substituting eschatology for philosophy, without philosophically “demonstrating” eschatological “truths,” it is possible to proceed from the experience of totality back to a situation where totality breaks apart, a situation conditioning the totality itself. This situation is the gleam or glare of exteriority — or of transcendence in the face of the other. Rigorously developed, this concept of transcendence is expressed by the term infinity. What remains exterior to thought within thought is thought within the idea of infinity. It is conditions every opinion and every truth. It is the mind before it lends itself to the distinction between what it discovers by itself and what it receives from opinion. The relation with infinity cannot be stated in terms of experience; it overflows the thought that thinks it. Its infinition is produced precisely in this overflowing, which accomplishes experience in the fullest sense of the word.
The eschatological vision does not oppose to the experience of totality the protestation of person in the name of his personal egoism or even his salvation; such proclamations of morality based on the pure subjectivism of the I are refuted by war and the totality it reveals — the objective necessities. Rather a subjectivity born from the eschatological vision is opposed to the objectivism of war. The idea of infinity delivers subjectivity from the judgment of history to declare it ready for judgment at every moment — called to participate in this judgment. War does not break up against an impotent, detached subjectivism, but against the infinite, more objective than objectivity. Do particular beings yield their truth in a Whole in which their exteriority vanishes? Or, on the contrary, is the ultimate event of being enacted in the outburst of this exteriority?
Infinity is produced in the relationship of the same with the other; the particular, the personal, magnetize the field in which production is enacted. It both brings about and brings to light: effectuation and revelation at once, ambiguously. The idea of infinity is not an incidental notion forged by a subjectivity reflecting the case of an entity encountering nothing on the outside which limits it, overflowing all limits, and thus infinite. The production of the infinite entity is inseparable from the idea of infinity, for it is precisely the disproportion between the idea of infinity and the infinity of which it is the mode of being, the infinition, of infinity. Infinity does not first exist, and then reveal itself. Its infinition is produced as revelation, as a positing of its idea in me.