Dis-Possessed How to Remain Silent ‘After’ Levinas

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


As we look back today to that obscure but for none of us insignificant period of (post) structuralism, it would seem that none of the slogans which at that time were intended to sweeten its message can still claim any credibility. Far from being dead and buried, like some purloined letter, the‘author’seems to have been with us all along, barely hidden by the folds of those quotations marks from where he was laughing behind our backs. And far from taking over the place of the subject,‘structure’has, so to speak, only displaced it: much to our surprise, the‘eccentric’subject is still a subject — it is precisely its dependence on something which it did not itself institute or constitute that has prevented it from dying a peaceful death. Forcing the subject to abdicate from the centre did not entail the subject’s destruction2. Quite to the contrary, this decentring has managed to revitalize the subject, and the unexpected result of its rejuvenation is simply that its accusers are now themselves accused: relieved of the heavy burden of a centre where it stood constantly accused of falling short in its every endeavor, the subject seems to be thoroughly enjoying its new freedom to linger wherever it pleases, as long as it is not in the centre, and to exploit its elusiveness to harass whoever came in its place with new, apparently insoluble questions and problems. Granted, discourse functions without a meaning-giving subject underlying all knowledge; but then what could it mean that I know?


Quotation Mark Asymmetric Position Valid Norm Practical Discourse Pluralistic Ontology 
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  1. 1.
    This is an ironical reference to my earlier analysis of Foucault’s use of quotation marks (cf. chapter 2 nl2). On Heidegger’s quotation marks, see: J. Derrida, De l’esprit: Heidegger et la question, Paris, Galilée, 1987.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Cf. J. Lacan’s intervention in the discussion following Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’: “structuralism or not, it seems to me it is nowhere a question, in the field vaguely determined by that label, of the negation of the subject. It is a question of the dependence of the subject, which is quite different…” (Bulletin de la Société française de Philosophie, 1969(64), p. 104, my transi).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    An expression which comes up regularly in Lyotard’s more recent work (cf. the references in my: ‘Dissensus Communis: How to Remain Silent after Lyotard’, in Ph. VAN Haute — P. Birmingham (eds.), Dissensus Communis: Between Ethics and Politics, Kampen (The Netherlands), Kok Pharos, 1995, pp. 7-30. The considerations about’ silence’ that follow are intended as a provisional development of the problematic presented there).Google Scholar
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    J.-Fr. Lyotard, “Grundlagenkrise”, Neue Hefte für Philosophie, 1986, pp. 1-33.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Cf. the title ofthe penultimate chapter of his controversial The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, Cambridge, Polity, 1987: “An Alternative Way out of the Philosophy of the Subject: Communicative versus Subject-Centred Reason”, and chapter 3 above.Google Scholar
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    I am citing the brochure for the symposium, “Interpretaties van subjectiviteit” (= “Interpretations of Subjectivity”), where this chapter was first presented (University of Amsterdam, April 1995).Google Scholar
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    Levinas calls the word “God” the “first word” in, among other places, ‘Language and Proximity’, in CPP, pp. 125-126.Google Scholar
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    J. Habermas, o.c., pp. 197-8. Habermas sees here a possibility of working Kant’s Faktum der Vernunft into communicative theory — clearly this implies a distancing from Kant that does not contradict the symmetry noted here, but qualifies it to a significant extent.Google Scholar
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    Cf. the title of Levinas’s collection Humanisme de Vautre homme (=Humanism of the Other Man), s.l., Fata Morgana, 1972; cf. also OB 128 (ordinary humanism is “not human enough”). For his part, Lyotard discusses humanism in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Cambridge, Polity, 1991.Google Scholar
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    In considering suspension as the actual absence of a de iure possible ‘yes’ or ‘no’, Habermas is taking the sting out of finitude: see my remarks in the introduction to this volume and my attempt to explore some of the consequences of this Habermasian position for multiculturalism in my ‘Transcultural Vibrations’, Ethical Perspectives, 1994(1:2), pp. 89-100, esp. 94-95.Google Scholar
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    Levinas would have no problem with this qualification — cf. for instance TI 210: “In positing the relation with the Other as ethical, one surmounts a difficulty that would be inevitable if, contrary to Descartes, philosophy started from a cogito that would posit itself absolutely independently of the Other. For the Cartesian cogito is discovered, at the end of the Third Meditation, to be supported on the certitude of the divine existence qua infinite, by relation to which the finitude of the cogito, or the doubt, is posited and conceivable. This finitude could not be determined without recourse to the infinite, as is the case in the moderns …” Cf. also Derrida: “But by the force of a movement proper to Levinas, he accepts this extreme ‘modern’ audacity only to redirect it toward an infinitism that this audacity itself must suppose, according to himself; and the form of this infinitism is often quite classical, pre-Kantian rather than Hegelian” (Writing and Difference, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 104.).Google Scholar
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    In this and the following sentence, I refer to a number of ideas from Lacan’s important seventh seminar: L’thique de la psychanalyse (1959–1960) (Paris, Seuil, 1986, esp. p. 361 — “tragique” — and passim). What Lacan means by “ne pas céder sur son désir”is explained, although with other (not insignificant) accents, in: R. Bernet, “Le sujet devant la loi (Lacan et Kant)”, and P. Moyaert, “Sur la sublimation chez Lacan: Quelques remarques”, both in S.G. Lofts & P. Moyaert (eds.), La pensée de Jacques Lacan: Questions historiques, Problèmes théoriques, Louvain/Paris, Peeters, 1994. In this seminar Lacan repeatedly uses words such as graviter or tourner autour de (“gravitate around”) to indicate our (decentred) position with respect to das Ding (o.c., pp. 72, 77…).Google Scholar
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    For this expression, see Jacob Rogozinski’s excellent “Vers une éthique du différend”, in H. Kunneman & H. De Vries (eds.), Enlightenments: Encounters between Critical Theory and Contemporary French Thought, Kampen (The Netherlands), Kok Pharos, 1993, pp. 92-119, esp. p. 102.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 165 (“detestable I”).Google Scholar
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    E. Levinas, ‘Un Dieu Homme?’, in ID., Entre Nous: Essais sur le penser-à l’autre, Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1991, p. 73.Google Scholar
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  38. 47.
    On the distinction between an ethical and a real resistance: E. Levinas, ‘Freedom and Command’, in CPP, pp. 15-23; and TI e.g. 199; OB 198n2.Google Scholar
  39. 48.
    Here I have altered the English translation which reads “paralyzed” for “transi dans sa nudité” (Humanisme de l’autre homme, o.c., p. 52). In preferring “frozen” to “paralyzed”, I am following Adriaan Peperzak in his annotated Dutch translation of Humanisme (Humanisme van de andere mens, Kampen/Kapellen, Kok Agora/DNB-Pelckmans, 1990, p. 78, which paraphrases “transi” as “shivering with cold”). The change is not unimportant given the point I shall be making.Google Scholar
  40. 49.
    ‘Transcendence and Height’, l.c., p. 18.Google Scholar
  41. 50.
    Note that, according to Levinas, Christianity can for essential reasons only make an incomplete contribution to this universality: “If Europe had been spiritually uprooted by Christianity, as Simone Weil complains, the evil would not be great. And it is not always the idylls that have been destroyed by Europe’s penetration of the world … but is Europe’s misfortune (malheur) not due to the fact that Chnstianity did not sufficiently uproot it?” (DF 137/195, transl. corr.). Though I hope to have made it clear from which standpoint I am myself arguing — but isn’t it a surprising alliance? — in light of this quote (which is in no sense a hapax) one can only wonder at the success with which Levinas’s ethics has been assimilated in Christian circles (for two noteworthy exceptions: U. Dhondt, ‘Ethics, History, Religion: The Limits of the Philosophy of Levinas’, in P.J.M. Van Tongeren, et al. (eds.), Eros and Eris: Contributions to a Hermeneutical Phenomenology. Liber Amicorum for Adriaan Peperzak, Dordrecht, Kluwer, 1992, pp. 273-80 and I. Verhack, ‘Over de moralisering van het “verlangen naar de Oneindige” bij Levinas’ (= On the moralization of the ‘Desire for the Infinite’ in Levinas), Tijdschrift voor Filosofie, 1999 (61:2), pp. 235-69).Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1999

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  • Rudi Visker

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