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Darren Ambrose - Lyotard & Levinas: The Logic of Obligation

Darren Ambrose - Lyotard & Levinas: The Logic of Obligation

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Published by: Darren Ambrose on Jul 05, 2010
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Lyotard and Levinas: The Logic of Obligation
Darren AmbroseAbstract
 Jean-Francois Lyotard’s inquiries into the logic of obligation, culminating in hisdiscussion of ethical phrases in Le Differend, are deeply indebted to a Levinasianreading of that logic and his articulation of a radically new modality of ethics. Emmanuel Levinas is one of the major figures in twentieth century European philosophical tradition to have produced a substantive reconfiguration of ethics based upon the idea of an asymmetrical human relation rather than mutual obligation. Theresulting ethics, outlined in texts such as Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, is one of hyperbolic responsibility beyond norms and dutyand outside formal rules and pragmatics. In this paper I will analyse Lyotard’sarguments concerning the logic of absolute obligation – the ‘phrases of pure prescription’ - through a detailed reading of his relatively unknown essay on Levinasentitled ‘Logique de Levinas’. Lyotard’s short commentary demonstratesconsiderable interpretative insight and originality and represents a sophisticated response to Jacques Derrida’s early influential commentary ‘Violence and  Metaphysics’. Derrida’s commentary is marked by its critical claims regarding Levinas’s efforts to articulate a philosophical ethics beyond the Hegelian dialectic. As I will demonstrate, central to Lyotard’s own interpretative efforts is an urgent recovery of Levinas’s ethics from such an allegedly reductive reading.
In his essay ‘Logique de Levinas’
Lyotard aims to ‘establish that prescriptivestatements are not commensurate with denotative ones – or in other words, withdescriptive ones’. As part of this effort Lyotard argues that Emmanuel Levinas is thethinker who has done more than any other contemporary philosopher to develop anoriginal philosophical analogue of the purely prescriptive obligation derived from theJudaic and Talmudic tradition. His reading of Levinas in this essay consists of anattempt to ‘rewrite Levinas into the language of phrases’. Levinas’s thoughtpersistently revolves around the question of a primary asymmetrical relation to the
Translated as ‘Levinas’ Logic’ in
The Lyotard Reader 
, ed. A. Benjamin, pp. 275-313. An abbreviatedform of this translated text was first published in French as ‘Logique de Levinas’ in
Textes pour  Emmanuel Levinas
, pp. 127-150
2other, and how such asymmetry is the condition (rather than the foundation) of all justice. This asymmetrical relation to the other (what Levinas terms ‘proximity’) isconceived as being ‘unique’, absolutely other, and the primary signification of allsubsequent meaning.Throughout all of his work Levinas contrasts his conception of asymmetricalproximity, and the way it inscribes a primordial sense of obligation towards the other
the self, with the historically developed notion of consciousness and self-consciousness found in Kant, Hegel and Husserl. Within the Post-Kantian traditionconsciousness and self-consciousness signify intentionality, transcendentalconstitution, conceptual mastery, self-possession, the sovereignty or freedom of therational subject, or the autonomous agent who constitutes everything that appears to
it. According to this tradition consciousness and self-consciousness confermeaning on the world and on the other human subjects in it. However, Levinas arguesthat consciousness and self-consciousness so conceived are not all there is tosubjectivity; they are also the condition of a primordial sensibility and passivity inwhich my relationship to the world is one of 
to absolute alterity.
Proximitynames a totally autonomous event of exteriority as well as naming the relationbetween such exteriority and the subject. In proximity the self-constitutingsovereignty of consciousness and self-consciousness is revealed as having thestructure of the one-for-the-other. In that sense it carries the anarchic character of anintervention in the stable order of things that I constitute and inhabit. ‘Proximity’,Levinas says, ‘is anarchically a relationship with a singularity without mediation of any principle or ideality. What concretely corresponds to this description is myrelationship with my neighbour.’
The subject’s relationship with this form of exteriority is absolutely asymmetrical and not one that it brings about, or constitutes,in any way.This relation is conceived as anarchic because such exterior singularity just happensor emerges despite myself, it
me. The other is out of my control, beyond anystable order I might try to impose. It is in this sense a relation outside of the
Levinas’s most detailed account of sensibility, passivity and proximity is contained in chapter 3 of 
Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence
, translated by A Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne UniversityPress, 1998)
E. Levinas, Ibid. p. 90
3coordinates of conscious intentionality. Levinas characterises this befalling of theother as an ‘assignation’, a being ‘approached’, a being ‘called out’, ‘summoned’, or‘accused’. What is overturned in proximity is the sovereignty of the subject, not myresponsibility, which is assigned beyond any possibility of evasion. In theasymmetrical relation with the other, which is, for Levinas, the human relation
 par excellence
, I am exposed beyond my will and ethically obligated to the other in anabsolute sense. He writes:‘The psyche is the form of a peculiar de-phasing, a loosening up or unclamping of identity: the same prevented from coinciding with itself, at odds, torn up from its rest,between sleep and insomnia, panting and shivering. It is not an abdication of thesame, now alienated and slave to the other, but an abnegation of oneself fullyresponsible for the other. This identity is brought out by responsibility and is at theservice of the other. In the form of responsibility, the psyche in the soul is the other inme, a malady of identity, both accused and self, the same for the other, the same bythe other.’
 This exposure which comes through proximity provides the necessary logic of obligation structuring subjectivity itself – ‘the word ‘I’ here means ‘here I am’’ [
], answering for everything and for everyone. And it is this logic of obligationwhich conditions the subject’s openness to the other and is, Levinas claims, ‘thecondition for all solidarity’.
 For Levinas this hyperbolic logic of obligation serves to overwhelm the order of thematised propositions – ‘the simultaneity and reciprocity’ of the relations when saidor iterated within a stable language or, as Levinas refers to it, ‘ontological language’,the language of iterated being. However, all of his philosophical work presents athorough and ongoing struggle to articulate this ‘non-ontological’ understanding of this asymmetrical alterity of the other and a notion of the ethical which is ‘older than’ justice. A constant theme throughout Levinas’s work is the way in which thearticulation of ethical proximity and absolute obligation represents a betrayal of itsprimordial and anarchic ‘sense’. In gaining a ‘sense’ by becoming articulated within
Ibid. p. 69
Ibid. p. 102

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