ethics, learning, levinas, other

Ipseity and Illeity, or Thinking Ethics without the Other of the Other

Faceless Care

In conversation three of Ethics and Infinity, Levinas recounts the philosophical and existential implications of the il y a, the ‘there is’ or what he calls the “phenomenon of impersonal being” (48). The “there is” is many things at the same time: it is a belief, a feeling, an experience and even an affect (the source of the Judaic affect proper to one of philosophy’s “turns” in the 20th century) on one side and an ontological claim, an objective state of affairs, and even the (proto-)origin of Being and Nothingness on the other.

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Notes on Totality and Infinity

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?

Levinas

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.

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Counter-mythology

Responsibility is what first enables one to catch sight of and conceive of value.
Levinas, Otherwise Than Being 123

Beyond the question of being and non-being, language is not the event — but rather a process of assembling unformed and unspecified elements, an abstract machinics which imagines new forms for itself by correlating the various distinct orders of reality with a plane of consistency in which a unified vision becomes possible — in short uncovering the infinite possibilities of the event. But this apparition of the event in its infinity would be only terror, the dark depth in which all mixtures are possible — and nothing is outlawed — were it not for the ambiguity of silence, the “not-yet” which the event, the “given” or gift, makes possible, and which makes possible the infinite time of cohumanity.

In speaking, reality opens itself up to an order without signification or concept, lost neither in the depths or heights but in the very shape of the world, the surface itself, a topological mode or order of being issuing neither in sound or light but in an idea given me by the other, the gift of language. In expression being can become free. Language is the discovery not only of novelty but justice itself; the enjoyment of discovery is essentially social. The event is not revelation but a secret apology, a map of the vortex. Turbulence is lucidity.

Black holes are everywhere, and this prohibited prohibition permits everything: the torsion of language disarticulates the tension of the soul. Beyond the face there is a paradoxical and two-sided barrier, an apparition which interrupts the symbolic order of discourse, as though by a lateral or diagonal movement between the signified and the non-signified. By an astounding finesse, speech uncovers the world as a lesson or donation.

Debt and faith are born simultaneously. Language is justice — a gift — only when it sheds its anonymity to become universal, not by inventing a world-beyond-the-world, but by reconciling us to one another. It calls us to hear a there-is rustling behind the void.

Hence the notion of event correlates at least three distinct orders of relationship between possibilities: a relative-absolute conjuncture uniting singular events and possible worlds; an absolute disjuncture prohibiting certain events from certain worlds; a trans-evental function sweeping up worlds and events.

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Hegel and Universality

(by Will Godfrey)[Photograph by Will Godfrey]

In an essay Hoffmeister suggests was written in 1808 or 1809, Hegel — certainly not without some irony — identifies an important ethical connection between abstract thought and power:

Who thinks abstractly? The uneducated, not the educated. Good society does not think abstractly because it is too easy, because it is too lowly (not referring to the external status) — not from an empty affectation of nobility that would place itself above that of which it is not capable, but on account of the inward inferiority of the matter.

[G. W. F. Hegel, Who Thinks Abstractly?]

Abstract thinking sets the thinker apart from good society, for their general opinion considers it too easy, too small, too obvious, even in poor taste. As Hegel understands it, abstraction is that faculty through which we spontaneously discover nothing in the subject but an abstracted notion of his concrete behavior. The inner life, the event of being, the very actuality of the will, is subsumed beneath an objective product. Ontology precludes apology.

Judgment indeed confirms the event in its original and fundamental movement, but every human quality in us is erased by the absolute imposition of a simple meaning — the reduction of living to some finite series of directions: past-tense, third-person verbs. Thus abstract thought — which we will now recognize as something common, even inferior or “ignoble,” at least in its operation and chosen material — functions effectively as providing (social) justification for punishing, terrorizing and humiliating others: “This is abstract thinking: to see nothing in the murderer except the abstract fact that he is a murderer, and to annul all other human essence in him with this simple quality.” (ibid) Our capacity for abstract thought is what allows the army officer to beat a soldier like a dog, like an object, without any trace of empathy.

However, somewhat paradoxically, it can also be seen as that faculty whereby we become capable of transcending simple explanations for complex phenomena, and for recognizing the corruption of morality indicated by the folly of such ‘abstract’ justifications: “This woman saw that the murderer’s head was struck by the sunshine and thus was still worthy of it. She raised it from the punishment of the scaffold into the sunny grace of God, and instead of accomplishing the reconciliation with violets and sentimental vanity, saw him accepted in grace in the higher sun.” [ibid] Abstract thought may be considered then as similar to a faculty of metaphor, a kind of improvised or dancing thought which reaches the real only indirectly, as though it had to be transmitted by an “untrustworthy” third.

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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.

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Difference, Primacy and Peace: Deleuze and Levinas

Preface

It is perhaps time to see in hypocrisy not only a base contingent defect of man, but the underlying rending of a world attached to both the philosophers and the prophets.

Levinas, Totality and Infinity 24

I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires committed literature. The question asked by a character in Sartre’s play Morts Sans Sepulture, “Is there any meaning in life when men exist who beat people until the bones break in their body?’ is also the question whether art now has a right to exist; whether intellectual regression is not inherent in the concept of committed literature because of the regression of society.

Adorno, “Commitment”

Doubtless, the present situation is highly discouraging.

Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus 422

Our age has borne witness to the most rapid expansion of military and state power in human history. Weapons have grown highly sophisticated in a complex lockstep with global economic and political transformations. The meaning of this enormous growth in power, and the implications for our increasing technological sophistication, is anything but clear and unambiguous. The political mythology surrounding war and peace has also grown in sophistication. Nonetheless, the tool inevitably varies with the specific relationship — that is, the conditions under which it becomes possible, and the situations which it makes possible. This internal capacity for variation and variance is closer to the essence of war than the complex matrix of state and global power relations.

Any tool can become a war machine — at least potentially, and if its object becomes war. Yet war is still not the essence of the war machine, but rather the set of conditions under which the machine becomes appropriated by state power — or even the global order in which states now become only parts. In Deleuze and Guatarri’s account, a war machine is always external to the powers of the state, even though the state may have means for capturing and transforming its power into violence for its own ends. Nonetheless, war machines bring novel connections to bear upon centers of command, static assemblages of power, what Deleuze and Guattari describe as “the great conjunction of the apparatuses of capture or domination.” (ATP 423) The war machine refers to a reality essentially independent from the structures which constitute the state. In it we find the lineaments of a new and general relationship between human beings, between an individual and themselves, which is not subordinate to the state or its means — even when that individual is used as a means by the state.

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Metaphysics beyond Psychoanalysis: The Unconscious, Language and Reality after Heidegger and Deleuze

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Metaphysics beyond Psychoanalysis

0: Entryways

“What does it matter how many lovers you have if none of them gives you the universe?”
Lacan

“Lacan never pursues purely philosophical objectives.”
Badiou

Questions, not meanings, are forgotten. May we therefore at last refrain from inquiring what psychoanalysis means, or asking what it is supposed to signify? And, since this alone is clearly insufficient, could it also be possible to take a cautious step “backwards,” simply in order to ask: which psychoanalysis, and how does it work? Where, when, and how much is it thinking? Where and why does it forget (merging imperceptibly here with a mythical alien outside, or fading transparently there into an empirical illusion)? From what eerily formal abyss “must” the “truth” must be continuously salvaged? Why these specific fixations, abstract algorithms and “critical” meta-languages — and in what ways are these translated (and transformed) into applications as clinical practice?

The history of psychoanalysis is a torus, and offers few instances of non-paradoxical theoretical encounters. It is in this sense that Lacan’s project of critically deconstructing the “origins” of (post-Freudian) psychoanalysis could be said to follow analogically — or even metaphorically — from Heidegger’s project of ungrounding (Platonic) metaphysics via a “detour” through the Pre-Socratics. In a different but curiously parallel way, Deleuze’s distaste for — and now subtle, now overt subversion of — Lacan, especially his analysis of desire (bordering at times on a strange kind of “power struggle” within psychoanalysis not unlike Lacan’s own break with the analysts of his early career) can indeed be said to mirror Levinas’ tense and passionate struggle with Heidegger over the question of desire — which, not coincidentally, Heidegger also characterizes as structured around a central lack.

In terms of contemporary theory, Laruelle and Badiou’s anti- or non-philosophy could be said to present a similarly-effective overturning of literary-deconstructive methods — we find a deceptive model of this technique in the work of Derrida, and in a different sense, the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Badiou’s position could be baldly summarized as a critique of what is really a humanistic or “centralizing,” isolationist move within theory, which claims to be the opposite, or “de-centralizing” — while ancient philosophy suffered badly from a similar “axiomatic” illusion as well, it is especially modern thinkers whose theory is built starting from a promise (instead of a premise,) and so filled with convincing but misleading interpretations of facts (rather than taking a de-subjectivized scientific position capable of producing a rigorous analysis of the “facts” of the matter.) Laruelle expresses this “inhumanism,” or post-metaphysical materialism, particularly rigorously: only science is really capable of moving thought beyond the philosophical as such.

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