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Austin - The Desire of the Other (Null and Void)

Austin - The Desire of the Other (Null and Void)

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Published by Michael Austin
In this lecture, delivered in January 2009, I offer three critiques of Levinas' ethics of the Other. I begin by exploring what the Other is for Levinas, claiming that the Other is not other enough. I follow this by exploring the necessary metaphysics of lack, and subsequent violence of such a system. Finally, I explore the impossibility of Levinas' ethics of infinite responsibility.
In this lecture, delivered in January 2009, I offer three critiques of Levinas' ethics of the Other. I begin by exploring what the Other is for Levinas, claiming that the Other is not other enough. I follow this by exploring the necessary metaphysics of lack, and subsequent violence of such a system. Finally, I explore the impossibility of Levinas' ethics of infinite responsibility.

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Published by: Michael Austin on Aug 22, 2009
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1
The Desire of the Other (
 Null and Void 
)
Michael Austin
“What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility – a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, dutiesthat we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge thatthere is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than givingour all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.” – Barrack Obama’s inaugural address“There exists a creature that is perfectly harmless; when it passes before your eyes, youhardly notice it and immediately forget it again. But as soon as it somehow, invisibly,gets into your ears, it begins to develop, it hatches, and cases have been known whereit has penetrated into the brain and flourished there devastatingly, like the pneumococciin dogs which gain entrance through the nose. . . .This creature is Your Neighbor.”
Rilke,
The
 
 Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
For much of his career, Emmanuel Levinas was concerned primarily with a philosophy of “transcendence.” That is, Levinas was focused on phenomenological experiences which broke with our experiences of the every-day, what he called the “Same.” That which breaks the Same is that whichcannot be systematized as a part of the cohesive system of the ordinary (the Self-Same), and as such isalways
outside
(transcending) the system of the Same. That which breaks with the Same (or perhaps itwould be better to say “that which breaks the Same”) is, for Levinas, the Other. The Other is a“trauma,” an event which “break[s] up [. . .] consciousness” and forces the problem of responsibility onthe Self, the issue being, “what is one to do with this Other?” The Other is a wound that never healsand never goes away. Under the Levinasian paradigm, the Self is
always already
under the sway of theOther, which “remains infinitely transcendent, infinitely foreign; his face in which his epiphany is produced and which appeals to me breaks with the world that can be common to us, whose virtualitiesare inscribed in our 
nature
and developed by our existence.”
1
That is, one's existence is grounded not inan inalienable ontology of self-certainty (“I think, therefore I am”), but a lopsided ontology of response
1Emanual Levinas,
Totality and Infinity
. Trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press), 168.
 
2to difference (“You [who are not me] call, therefore I am [so as to answer]”). What I wish to do in thisessay is to interrogate this Other who desires of me, to find out who this Other is, and to find out whatthe Other is asking of me, that is, to understand rather than satisfy the Other. Of course, an interrogationis not suitable to a Levinasian philosophy dominated by my unyielding response to the Other (either inthe form of hospitality or murder. . . and all points in between), and this is precisely the point. We willsee that when taken to its extreme, when confronted in this way, the Other does not exist, but only the“Desire of the Other” exists properly. Finally, we will confront Jack Caputo's statement that Levinasianethics are entirely
impossible
.
Is The Other A Faceless Monster? (
Well Why Not 
?)
I wish to first suggest that there is more than a little humanism in Levinas' ethics. Rather, thecelebration of otherness as seen in Levinas is quite modest when compared to the work of someone likeGilles Deleuze who constructs a “Geology of Morals” and is concerned with “becoming-animal.” Thatis, the Other is not actually
tout autre
, but stands simply as a symbolic representation of human dignity;the Other is always already a human being. Levinas speaks of the Other in decidedly human terms, e.g.:I can recognize the gaze of the stranger, the widow, and the orphan only in giving andrefusing; I am free to give or to refuse, but my recognition passes necessarily throughthe interposition of things. Things are not, as in Heidegger, the foundation of the site,the quintessence of all the relations that constitute our presence on the earth. . . Therelation between the same and the other, the welcoming of the other, is the ultimatefact, and in it the things figure not as what one builds but as what one gives.
2
Would not the Other, the Absolutely Other (
tout autre
) be Otherwise-Than-Human? Is not the true testof an ethic of otherness not in “the face of the other man” but in the face of the monster? An ethic of otherness should not be conjured up from a certain Jewish humanism (the human being is made in the
2Levinas,
Totality and Infinity
, 49.
 
3image of God and is therefore holy / sacred) but rather in the monstrosities as dreamed up by a Kafkaor a Lovecraft, though these true Others (the uncomfortable others) would likely make one go mad.
3 
There is also the issue here of how the
tout autre
could even appear to us phenomenologically if itsupposedly surpasses all possible horizons of experience. Is not the truly Other that which preciselycannot appear in the Face-to-Face encounter? That which
has no face to begin with
?
4
 The Levinasian Other is a domesticated otherness, an otherness made prim-and-proper for television commercials of starving African children, tsunami survivors, and inner-city youth (theliberal-humanist non-threatening otherness). It is precisely those who have “lost-face” that are callingus the most, and it is those who do not call to us where we see the greatest alterity (the animal, the pseudo-organic, and the evil). Levinas will tell us that “The Other precisely reveals himself in hisalterity not in a shock negating the I, but as the primordial phenomenon of gentleness,”
5
but should notthat which is
tout autre
shake me up? Should I not be shocked by the Other? The Other does not revealhim- or herself solely as the stranger, the widow, or the orphan, but even more so in the terrorist tryingto kill me, the fundamentalist trying to convert me, or the beast trying to eat me. In short, Levinasianotherness is not other enough, but remains part of a historically contingent form of Jewish humanism,emphasizing the dream of a world with no oppression, war, or poverty. His central notion is not aSubject (not an agent grounded on its own rationality), or even an organism, but rather the moreabstract (and historically constructed) unit of liberal human dignity. The Other (in the Levinasian sense)is never experienced
as
 
Other 
.
3As Lovecraft himself acknowledges in “The Call of Cthulhu:” “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is theinability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seasof infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, havehitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position within, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly lightinto the peace and safety of a new dark age.” H.P. Lovecraft,
Tales
(New York: Library of America, 2005), 167.4Or, as Slavoj Zizek points out, the human being stripped of their humanity, as seen in the expressionless
Muselmann
.Slavoj Zizek,
The Parallax View
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 113.5Levinas,
Totality and Infinity
, 150.

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