The Gaze of the Big Other Levinas and Sartre on Racism

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


Levinas is often said to provoke. And although I am hardly in a position to deny this (how could I, since I am obviously obsessed enough by what he has to say, to keep coming back to it?), I cannot help it if the very solemnity with which one refers to the‘provocation of Levinas’makes me wonder whether it is not hiding a less solemn erotics. I cannot help it if, like Alcibiades back then with those who were attracted by Socrates’s powers to provoke, I feel the urge to‘enlighten’Levinas’s co-symposiasts and to warn them against his powers of seduction. For I am at war with the man, and if, again like Alcibiades, I risk insulting those who are under his spell by claiming that he is not at all what they think he is, it is in a sense because this war has become too big for me to fight alone and because I need allies. And as an abounding Levinas-literature shows, to forge such an alliance it is not enough to point to the‘provocation of Levinas’, for it seems as if a whole readership is precisely attracted to Levinas because he provokes or because of the sort of provocation contained in his work. As if there is something about its way of shocking people that is sufficiently soothing to make them choose its side. How else to explain that this philosophy has met with virtually no resistance and is on its way to monopolizing at the very least the intersection between phenomenology and ethics?


Possessive Pronoun Ethical Relationship Final Reality Hapax Legomenon Talmudic Reading 
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  1. 1.
    An allusion to the title of an early collection of essays on Levinas: R. Bernasconi — D. Wood (eds.), The Provocation of Levinas. Rethinking the Other,London/New York, Routledge, 1988.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    J.-P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness. An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology,New York, Philosophical Library, s.d., pp. 252 ff. (Henceforth quoted as BN. I have preferred to render ‘regard’ by ‘gaze’ instead of’ look’ as in this translation).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Le Pen (cf. chapter 10 nl 1) quoted in the excellent analysis of Pierre-André Taguieff, The New Cultural Racism in France’ Telos,1990 (nr. 83), p. 109 (cf. also in that same issue, Alain Policar, ‘Racism and its Mirror Image’, pp. 99-108).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    On this priority see especially his ‘Meaning and Sense’, in CPP, pp. 75-107, e.g., p. 100: “meaning is situated in the ethical, presupposed by all culture and all meaning”.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    E. Levinas, Ethics and Infinity. Conversations with Philippe Némo(transi. R.A. Cohen), Pittsburgh, Duquesne U.P., 1985, pp. 85-6.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    TI 178: “as responsible I am brought to my final reality”; 178-9: “When I seek my final reality, I find that my existence as a ‘thing in itself’ begins with the presence in me of the idea of Infinity”; 179: “… my final essence,… my responsibility”; 253: “in my religious being, I am in truth.”(Levinas’s italics). All of these quotes should be read together with passages such as “And yet the Other does not purely and simply negate the I; total negation, of which murder is the temptation and the attempt, refers to an antecedent relation” (TI 194) that Levinas calls fraternity and by which he means “a pre-original not resting on oneself” (OB 75).Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    ‘Transcendence and Height’, loc. cit.,p. 17.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    ‘The Trace of the Other’, in M.C. Taylor (ed.), Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy,Chicago/London, The University of Chicago Press, 1986, p. 354; and cf. CPP 103.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    I take this expression from an interview Johan Goud had with Levinas and which was published in Dutch as ‘Wat men van zichzelf eist, eist men van een heilige’, in J. Goud, God als Raadsel Peilingen in het spoor van Levinas,Kampen/Kapellen, Kok Agora-DNB/Pelckmans, 1992, p. 165. Levinas himself is opposing his view on freedom here to Sartre’s.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    E. Levinas, En Découvrant l’Existence avec Husserl et Heidegger,Paris, Vrin, 1988, p. 173.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    E. Levinas, Altérité et Transcendance;s.l., Fata Morgana, 1995, p. 114.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    ’La vocation de l’autre’, in Racismes: l’Autre et son visage. Grands entretiens réalisés par Emmanuel Hirsch,Paris, Les éditions du Cerf, 1988, p. 96.Google Scholar
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    ‘Emmanuel Lévinas: visage et violence première (phénoménologie de l’éthique). Une interview’, in A. Münster (ed.), La différence comme non-indifférence. Ethique et altérité chez Emmanuel Lévinas,Paris, Editions Kimé, 1995, p. 138.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    ‘,La vocation de l’autre’, l.c.,p. 96.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    E. Levinas, Of God Who Comes to Mind,Stanford U.P., 1998, p. 96.Google Scholar
  16. 19.
    Ibid., p. 165; the French original has ‘voué’ which could also be translated as ‘devoted’: De Dieu qui vient à l’,idée,Paris, Vrin, 1992, p. 249.Google Scholar
  17. 21.
    Cf. Nouvelles Lectures Talmudiques,Paris, Minuit, 1996, p. 30: “L’éthique n’est pas le corollaire du religieux. Il est, de soi, l’élément où la transcendance religieuse peut avoir un sens”. On this quote, cf. chapter 10 above.Google Scholar
  18. 22.
    R. Bernasconi, ‘Who is my neighbor? Who is the Other? Questioning “the Generosity of Western Thought”’, in Ethics and Responsibility in the Phenomenological Tradition. The ninth Annual Symposium of the Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center,Pittsburgh, Duquesne University, 1992, p. 22. Henceforth quoted as QGWT. I owe a lot to this article which helped me to raise some of the questions that I try to formulate here.Google Scholar
  19. 23.
    Cf. apart from the references in Bernasconi, similar passages e.g. in E. Levinas, Beyond the Verse. Talmudic Readings and Lectures,London, The Athlone Press, 1994, p. 198 (‘Everything else is local colour’); ‘Entretiens avec Emmanuel Lévinas’, in Fr. Poirié, Emmanuel Lévinas,Besançon, La Manufacture, 1992, p. 103: “Je dis parfois: l’homme c’est l’Europe et la Bible, et tout le reste peut s’y traduire” — which is a thought that one finds expressed in various ways throughout Levinas’s Talmudic writings. In this context, see also: DF, p. 137: “And it is not always the idylls that have been destroyed by Europe’s penetration of the world”.Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    E. Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, o.c.,p. 96.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1999

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  • Rudi Visker

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