No Privacy? Levinas’s Intrigue of the Infinite

  • Rudi Visker
Part of the Phaenomenologica book series (PHAE, volume 155)


As anyone who has tried to find their way through Levinas’s texts will remember, these texts are like a moving mine-field. What disconcerts the reader is not just that they proceed “with the infinite insistence of waves on a beach”, as Derrida remarked, and therefore would have less of a “treatise” than of a “work of art” in which each returning wave, as it recapitulates itself “also infinitely renews and enriches itself”. The problem is rather that although all of these waves look alike and are often describedby Levinas with the same word, they are in fact very different. Overlooking these differences can be fatal; it will inevitably mean that one finds oneself caught up in the midst of the intrigue of what Levinas calls‘the infinite’at the very moment that one thinks one has finally found an exit. Derrida, as we shall see in our next chapter, was perhaps amongst the first to fall prey to this illusion. But he certainly wasn’t the last. Indeed, it would seem as if a whole generation of Levinas readers lost their nerve well before he did. These readers think that the plot — which is but another word for‘intrigue’behind Levinas’s philosophy is unnecessarily complex and, in fact, willingly confused. They doubt that Levinas is justified in using the same word — “l’infini” — to refer to both God and the Good and they suspect him of smuggling in an “ethico-metaphysical” agenda into his “quasi- phenomenological descriptions of radical alterity”2. They think that we can have these descriptions without the “non-human back up” which Levinas


Ethical Relation Subject Unable Private Domain Phenomenological Reduction Radical Alterity 
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  1. 1.
    J. Derrida, ‘Violence and Metaphysics. An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas’, in ID., Writing and Difference(transi. A. Bass), Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 312 n7.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    S. Critchley, Very Little… Almost Nothing. Death, Philosophy, Literature,London / New York, Routledge, 1997, p. 81 (this quote is taken from a section significantly called ‘Holding Levinas’s hand to Blanchot’s fire’). The present chapter is part of an ongoing friendly dialogue between Simon Critchley and me (cf. ibid.,p. 188 n48) which I hope will continue.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    J.D. CAPUTO, ‘TO the point of a Possible Confusion: God and il y a’, in Levinas: The Face of the Other. The Fifteenth Annual Symposium of the Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center,Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, 1998, p. 22.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See the first paragraph of Levinas’s important 1978 preface to the second edition of De l’existence à la existant(not included in the English translation; no pagination in the French edition).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Cf. J. Derrida, Violence and Metaphysics’, l.c,p. 119: “The ‘false-infinity’, a Hegelian expression which Levinas, it seems to us, never uses, perhaps because it is Hegelian” (transl, corrected). It is true that Derrida continues: “nonetheless haunts numerous gestures of denunciation in Totality and Infinity”,but his suggestion that while ‘the other’ for Levinas is “the true infinity” whilst “the same” is “the false-infinity” and the subsequent Hegelian reductio adabsurdum(“Levinas would be speaking of the other under the rubric of the same, and of the same under the rubric of the other, etc.” (ibid.))mislocates, as we shall see, the “bad infinite” in the economy of Levinas’s thought. Indeed, for all its subtlety Violence and Metaphysicscould, with the advantage of hindsight,be held responsible for the picture of Levinas as a philosopher whose well-meaning attempt to play off ‘the other’ against ‘the same’ shipwrecks on the contradictory notion of an ‘absolute alterity’. But, as we shall see, the other’s alterity is, for Levinas, absolute in a different sense and less or differentlyabsolute than the absoluteness of the bad infinite.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    In spite of Levinas’s claim that “transcendence is necessarily transascendence” (TI 35/5, just quoted), Hent de Vries finds himself writing that “there is no ethical transcendence without transdescendence, we read in Totality and Infinity (Tel 66; Tal 93)”.But this is not at all what Levinas says in these pages where he mentions “a movement of descenttoward an ever more profound abyss which we elsewhere have called there is”(TI 93/66) but does not talk about ethical transcendence at all, let alone make the claim that de Vries is attributing to him. (‘Adieu, à dieu, a-dieu’, in A. Peperzak (ed.), Ethics as First Philosophy. The Significance of Emmanuel Levinas for Philosophy, Literature and Religion,New York / London, Routledge, 1995, pp. 211-20 (quote: p. 214)). De Vries’s article is one of Caputo’s sources. It is striking, however, that Caputo lists TO but does not discuss it, and does not mention EE, Levinas’s most systematic treatment of the il y a.As a result, Caputo seems only to recognize in the il y a“the anonymous” (e.g., p. 32), and is entirely oblivious to its depersonalizing character, (e.g. the rhetoricof all the questions on pp. 27-8 presupposes this oblivion) on which I shall insist below. The resulting confusion seems to me significant and symptomatic of an unwillingness to engage with Levinas at the level he himself indicated. But we remember with gratitude from this passage that the il y ais, for Levinas, linked to a descent,which thus authorizes us to see in it a ‘transdescendence’, a notion that one does not find in Levinas’s text(s), where only the antonym is used (transdescendence and transascendence go back to Jean Wahl (to whom TI is dedicated): Existence Humaine et Transcendance,Neuchâtel, Éditions de la Baconnière, 1944, pp. 34-56, 113-59).Google Scholar
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    E. Levinas in a discussion following his lecture on ‘Le Nom de Dieu. D’après quelques textes talmudiques’ at the famous Castelli colloquium; reprinted in: E. Levinas, L’Intrigue de l’Infini. Textes réunis et présentés par Marie-Anne Lescourret,s.l., Flammarion, 1994, p. 230.Google Scholar
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    “A God was revealed on a mountain or in a burning bush, or made himself attested to in Scriptures. And what if there were a storm! And what if the Scriptures came to us from dreamers!” (CPP66).Google Scholar
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    “You see, I have not at all been reasoning in the abstract; I reason starting from the concrete spiritual situation of our Europe where one says that ‘God is dead’.And a certain God is certainly dead” (L’Intrigue de l’Infini, o.c.,p. 230; my transi.), and cf. e.g. OB 5, 95, etc.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    E. Levinas, TWO Comments on Kierkegaard’ in J. RÉE — J. Chamberlain (eds.), Kierkegaard. A Critical Reader,Oxford, Blackwell, 1998, p. 35. In the next pages I will refer to this text as KCR.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    ’Transcendence and Intelligibility’, in A. Peperzak, S. Critchley, R. Bernasconi (eds.), Emmanuel Levinas. Basic Philosophical Writings,Bloomington/Indianapolis, Indiana U.P., 1996, p. 158.Google Scholar
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    J. Lacan, Anxiety (The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book X: 1962-3,transi. C. Gallagher from unedited French typescripts), unpublished, session of 5/12/62: “anxiety is not the signal of a lack but of something that you must manage to conceive of (…) as being the absence of this support of the lack.(…) it is not nostalgia for what is called the maternal womb which engenders anxiety, it is its imminence,it is everything that announces to us something which will allow us to glimpse that we are going to re-enter it.What provokes anxiety? It is not, contrary to what is said, either the rhythm nor the alternation of the presence-absence of the mother. And what proves it, is that the infant takes pleasure inGoogle Scholar
  14. 18.
    The opposition that I am all too briefly suggesting here, and hope to elaborate elsewhere, may not be as blunt as I make it look, since in Arendt too one can find this reference to the necessity of a law, which is precisely how she distinguishes human action within the political realm from the structurally identical action (an activity which has its telosin itself, hence praxis) in e.g. the performing arts (H. Arendt, Between Past and Future. Eight exercises in Political Thought,Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, p. 154 and Qu’est-ce que la politique?,Paris, Seuil, 1995, p. 122 on the opposition between the Greek nomosand “the unlimited” (Arendt’s name for the apeiron)).But in these pages Arendt seems to waver (gracefully, one should admit) between a historical and an ontological argument; a hesitation in which I am tempted to see the reflection of an ontologically insufficient determination of the concept of action.Google Scholar
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    Lacan in a lecture at the K.U.Leuven (13-10-1972): “La mort est du domaine de la foi. Vous avez bien raison de croire que vous allez mourir, bien sûr. ça vous soutient. (…) Néanmoins, ce n’est qu’un acte de foi”, in Jacques Lacan parle. Un film de Françoise Wolff,RTBF productions (Radiotélévision Belge de la communauté française).Google Scholar
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    Cf. e.g. Being and Time,§65: “The ecstatical character of the primordial future lies precisely in the fact that the future closesone’s potentiality-for-Being; that is to say, the future is itself closedto one, and as such it makes possiblethe resolute existentiell understanding of nullity” (BT 379/330); Levinas is basically calling into question the terms which I italicized.Google Scholar
  17. 24.
    Cf. Being and Time§74: “Only an entity which, in its Being, is essentially natural so that it is free for its death and can let itself be thrown back upon its factical ‘there’ by shattering itself against death(etc.)” (BT 437/385). Death in being some sort of wall, is not, however, what “blocks off “ Dasein.Death seems, to the contrary, an instance of what The Origin of the Work of Artcalled boundary (perns)in the Greek sense of bringing to its radiance what is present (Holzwege,Frankfurt a.M., Vittorio Klostermann, pp. 68-9).Google Scholar
  18. 25.
    For Zerstreuungin BT see above, chapter 1. Also note Heidegger’s characteristic opposition of Zerstreuungto Selbst-ständigkeit(literally: to stand on one’s own, i.e. what Levinas ascribed to the hypostasis) in the following passage: “Dieser Modus der Eigentlichkeit der Sorge enthält die ursprüngliche Selbstständigkeit und Ganzheitdes Daseins. Im unzerstreuten,existential verstehenden Blick auf sie [etc.]” (BT (370)/323). It is the link between these three terms which Levinas is contesting. Heidegger’s insistence that there is to Dasein a “transcendental Zerstreuung”as “the Binding possibility of its always factical existentiell Zersplitterungand Zerspaltung”does not seem to us to go in the direction that Levinas is indicating here (Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Logik(Marburg Lectures, summer semester 1928), GA 26, pp. 174 ff).Google Scholar
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    J.-Fr. Courtine, Heideggeret la phénoménologie,Paris, Vrin, 1990, pp. 207-47; R. Bernet, l.c. (cf. chapter I, note 22).Google Scholar
  20. 27.
    Levinas would thus not agree with the pages in J.-L. Marion’s Etant donné. Essai d’une phénoménologie de la donation(Paris, PUF, 1997, pp. 84 ff.) where the author under the heading ‘Even death’ is establishing a ‘privilege of donation’ (p. 78) to which ‘death’ would be no exception. But it is not sure whether Marion would accept the expression ‘too saturated a phenomenon’ (cf. apart from Etant donné,his long contribution ‘Le phénomène saturé’, in J.-L. Chrétien e.a., Phénoménologie et Théologie,Paris, Criterion, 1992, pp. 79-128, e.g. 123 ‘the possibility of the impossible, the saturated phenomenon’-whereas death, for Levinas, is, as noted before, the ‘impossibility of the possible’, hence (?): too saturated).Google Scholar
  21. 29.
    I am here putting together in one formula the following two quotes: “l’intrigue rattache à ce qui se détache, elle attache à l’ab-solu, sans le relativiser” (E. Levinas, Dieu, la Mort et le Temps,Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1993, p. 227) and OB 147/188: “This plot connects (rattache)to what detaches itself absolutely, to the Absolute”. Although my translation does not stress it, rattacherwhich also means ‘to attach/connect again’ is probably used by Levinas to signal the paradoxical movement involved in re-establishing a connection which had never been there, since the Absolute’s detachment is original: ‘God’ has always already withdrawn, He does not ‘take body’.Google Scholar
  22. 36.
    Cf. E. Levinas, ‘Reality and its shadow’, in CPP, pp. 1-13.Google Scholar
  23. 37.
    Respectively: OB 138; 146; 142-5 (145: a sincerity which “breaks the secret of Gyges, of the subject that sees without being seen, without exposing himself, the secret of the inward subject”); OB 112 (141, etc.); and E. Levinas, ‘The Contemporary Criticism of the Idea of Value and the Prospects for Humanism’, in E.A. Maziarz (ed.), Value and Values in Evolution,New York/ London / Paris, Gordon and Breach, 1979, p. 185: “Free man is chained to his neighbor; no one can save himself without other people. The guarded preserve of the soul does not close in on itself from the inside.It is ‘the Eternal which closed the door of the Arc on Noah’, a text of Genesis tells us with wonderful precision”.Google Scholar
  24. 39.
    That ethicsshould be that realm, has to do with it being, as Levinas explains to Richard Kearney “against nature”: “it forbids the murderousness of my natural will to put my own existence first”. Kearney then asks a crucial question to which Levinas gives an answer that one should not forget when trying to come to terms with what he calls ‘creation’: “Kearney.Does going towards God always require that we go against nature? — Levinas:God cannot appear as the cause or creator of nature. The word of God speaks through the glory of the face and calls for an ethical conversion or reversal of our nature. (…) the moral priority of the other over myself could not come to be if it were not motivated by something beyond nature. (…) In this respect, we could say that God is the other who turns our nature inside out, who calls our ontological will-to-be into question. This ethical call of conscience (…) remains an essentially religious vocation. God does indeed go against nature for He is not of this world. God is other than Being.” (in R. Kearney, Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers. The Phenomenological Heritage,Manchester U.P., 1984, pp. 60-1).Google Scholar
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    E. Levinas, Dieu, La Mort et le Temps,Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1993, p. 219. The fourth and fifth chapter of OB are full of this denunciation, e.g. OB 145 (quoted in note 37).Google Scholar
  26. 42.
    E. Levinas, Ethics and Infinity. Conversations with Philippe Némo(transi. R.A. Cohen), Pittsburgh, Duquesne U.P., 1985, p. 52.Google Scholar
  27. 44.
    See note 21 above: this ‘I can’ presupposed in all consciousness is first of all an ‘I cansleep’ (EE69).Google Scholar
  28. 50.
    ‘Transcendence and Height’, l.c.,p. 23.Google Scholar
  29. 51.
    Levinas’s presentation and the discussion at the Société Française de Philosophiefrom which I just quoted are from January 1962 — immediately after TI was published (1961). Which again seems to me to reduce the difference between TI and OB (cf. note 49).Google Scholar
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    ‘The Paradox of Morality: An Interview with Emmanuel Levinas’, in R. BERNASCONI — D. WOOD (eds.), The Provocation of Levinas. Rethinking the Other,London /New York, Routledge, 1988, p. 175.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1999

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  • Rudi Visker

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