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Levinas Defaced

By Will Rees.

Levinas Unhinged, Tom Sparrow, Zero Books, 2013

Tom Sparrow’s book Levinas Unhinged is an act of vandalism. Sparrow de-faces Levinas’s philosophy, bringing out those dark aspects of his work which are often ignored in the moralizing interpretations of his more pious readers, whose focus rarely veers far from Totality and Infinity’s descriptions of the ethical transcendence of the face. At best such readers relegate these unsettling moments to the status of curios in their master’s intellectual history — they are simply early stop-offs on the journey towards ethical metaphysics; if one doesn’t want to, one needn’t even look out the window, let alone get off the train. They are interesting, but not important.

From this narrative Sparrow deliberately and decisively dissents. Admitting from the off that his aim is not to ‘get Levinas right’, he seeks to defamiliarize Levinas through a series of powerful readings, each foregrounding the strange, unsettling and liminal aspects of his philosophy: the centrality of the body, materiality, the night. The result is impressive. Sparrow presents a Levinas who is both haunted and haunting — and, a Levinas primed for an engagement with the turn towards the weird and visceral that we see in recent speculative philosophy.

Chapter 1 focusses on Levinas’s critique of the tradition as the privileging of light. Sparrow’s main reference point here is Existence and Existents (1947) — an incredibly terse and powerful work whose strange kernel was written while Levinas was still imprisoned in the Stalag. (A quirk of history: a Jew in French uniform, fighting for the Resistance, Levinas belonged to a ‘fortunate’ category of prisoners who were spared the death camps for fear of reprisals should the Nazis break the Geneva Convention. Instead, he lived out his five years of internment in a prisoner of war camp, working in the forest with the other Jewish prisoners by day, and reading Hegel and writing by night.) Sparrow turns to that strangest of Levinasian ‘concepts’, the ‘there is’ (il y a); the anonymous existence devoid of any existent that Levinas calls the ‘night itself’ and which pursues the subject, manifesting indirectly in moments of pain, horror and — most of all — insomnia. This is the thick and impenetrable materiality that underlies the lightness of appearances; a darkness that is not the simple absence of light, but, in Sparrow’s excellent turn of phrase, a ‘tangible darkness’.

Sparrow rightly questions the relationship between imagination and experience when it comes to the il y a; if one cannot directly experience it, is it only accessible through the faculty of the imagination? And if this is the case, is Levinas still doing phenomenology? Perhaps, in a longer work, Sparrow would connect these questions with Levinas’s later innovation: the trace. It is with this thought that we can make better sense of that which does not show itself — that which is by definition allergic to light and conceptualization — and yet that which still pursues and threatens us.

Chapter 2 focusses on the attention Levinas pays to the role of sensation, especially in his aesthetics. Sidestepping the ethical transcendence for which he is famous, Sparrow brings out the aspects of Levinas’s early work which bring him into dialogue with such unlikely bedfellows as Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Rancière.

Chapter 3 is perhaps the book’s most significant chapter — and probably its most provocative. It is here that Sparrow engages most directly in the ongoing debate that has emerged since the publication of Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude, and the speculative turn it has provoked. Again, Sparrow emphasizes the role of sensation in Levinas’s philosophy, this time bringing him into contact with Kant and Merleau-Ponty. Towards the end of the chapter, he writes:

Phenomenology, for all its promise, has trouble handling the non-phenomenal and the non-intentional. This is precisely because phenomenality and intentionality are the fundamental elements of its understanding of experience. . . . As if despite their allegiance to the phenomenological principles Levinas and Merleau-Ponty make valuable contributions to the rehabiliatation of sensation as a concept. But these contributions oftentimes seem in tension with the first-person perspective of phenomenology. . . . Such speculation is without question required for a complete understanding of corporeal identity. Without it we are left only with description.

Sparrow’s critique of phenomenology rests on his decisively narrow conceptualization of it. It is as though the only form possible were a rigorous commitment to a reductive method that doesn’t depart from presence and perception. This, of course, is misleading. Or at the very least, would require further argument. He continues:

It is true that this subject is seen as embedded and situated in a concrete environment, but this concreteness is always informed by the teleological practice of the subject . . . the phenomenologist’s picture of embodiment will accommodate the body as lived, existential project, but it will do so at the neglect of the material basis of aesthetic identity.

The problem is this: how do we approach the nonphenomenal nonhuman substrate of existence, without rendering it human by bending and distorting it through the colours and shapes of our experiences and concepts? Sparrow is right to want to answer this question, and he is right that phenomenology has often failed to do so. But he is wrong to suggest that phenomenology’s ‘anthropocentric perspective’ cannot but fail in this task. To my mind it remains the most suitable method. And Levinas would seem to agree. Through a simultaneous appropriation and subversion of the phenomenological method, Levinas questions the unity of the lifeworld, while remaining committed to an altered phenomenology that points to the nonphenomenal from within the lifeworld. Thus he turns toward those moments of rupture that rightly fascinate Sparrow: nausea, pain, effort, indolence, insomnia and horror. Through painstaking phenomenological descriptions of these experiences that simultaneously occur within, and call into question, the human world, the ‘dark realm of sensuous materiality’ forces itself upon us. Where the unity of experience breaks up, the monstrous indirectly rears its head. Certainly this entails a certain move beyond phenomenology, or a pushing of phenomenology beyond its limits and itself, but it is through the work of descriptive phenomenology that we arrive here. Sparrow’s claim that ‘it is not necessary to return to the phenomenologists to advance the concept’ of aesthetic identity is, to my mind, false. Indeed, it would have been interesting to see why Sparrow thinks that Levinas, while a trenchant critic of phenomenology throughout, nonetheless remains committed to it in some form, such that as late as 1984 he could still lay claim to ‘another phenomenology’.

Chapter 4 is a fascinating attempt to put Levinas into dialogue with certain strands of contemporary ecology. Sparrow rightly rejects all attempts to extend the ethical experience of the face of the other person to the natural environment; an approach that is inescapably anthropomorphic. The natural environment resists all attempts to be rendered human. I think here of Wallace Stevens:

The leaves cry. It is not a cry of divine attention,
Nor the smoke-drift of puffed-out heroes, nor human cry.
It is the cry of leaves that do not transcend themselves,

In the absence of fantasia, without meaning more
Than they are in the final finding of the ear, in the thing
Itself, until, at last, the cry concerns no one at all.

In place of the face of the other, Sparrow advances Timothy Morton’s concept of the ‘strange stranger’. He writes: ‘A strange stranger is a beinghuman, animal, other—that is simultaneously intimate with and foreign to me. The more you look at and learn about this intimacy, the more foreign the strange stranger seems.’ Thus he starts to develop an uncanny ecology based on the blank facelessness of the natural world that surpasses and encompasses us, that ‘holds us hostage at the same time as it asks for our help.’ Towards the end, he writes:

It is particularly disarming to acknowledge that it is precisely this strangeness that commands us ethically, that calls for our humility and caution. The strange stranger is the face(lessness) of infinity, the specter of a responsibility that exceeds us.

Without an account of transcendence — the positive infinity that gives Levinas so much grief from Derrida — the ethical command Sparrow aims for is going to be difficult to justify. Clearly it rests on his appeal to spectrality, although in this chapter it is not quite clear how. This is a truly fascinating idea, but it deserves a book.

Chapter 5 sketches and subverts Levinas’s most famous proposition, defacing without effacing the central chapters of Totality and Infinity with the help of Alphonso Lingis. Locating the tension between the empirical and transcendental readings of the face, Sparrow seeks to bring back to the fore the brute, strange and dark materiality that must inform all of our encounters with the other’s face. While the exegetical work will be a little too simplistic for many readers already familiar with Totality and Infinity, the original contributions towards the end of the chapter are well worth wading through some slightly sketchy formulations for. For example:

Our trust answers to a dare, not an obligation. It rides on the contingency of responsibility. We catch on to the other’s voice and allow its unmistakable appeal to solicit our effortless interlocution. Because the laughter or tears of another are contagious, the other becomes a magnet for us or reflects in their eyes our own mortality. This is the kind of non-allergic contact which Levinas desires, but it is not a contact which can be prescribed. We can always flee the scene and head home.

This is a beautiful passage. So is this: ‘Responsibility is much less a somber obligation than it is an exhilarating risk.’ That said, it is not clear to me that Levinas — at least in Otherwise Than Being — would exactly dispute this. For example, it is here that he writes: ‘A face as a trace . . . does not signify an indeterminate phenomenon; its ambiguity is . . . but an invitation to the fine risk of approach qua approach, to the exposure of one to the other, to the exposure of this exposedness, the expression of exposure, saying.’ And: ‘Communication with the other can be transcendent only as a dangerous life, a fine risk to be run.’ Of course for Levinas the terms would not be opposed: the exhilarating risk would be precisely that which ups the graveness of the obligation. It is here that Sparrow might want to take issue, though I wonder if he would, or if he should; to do so would weaken the impact of his point.

The implication, towards the end of the chapter, that Levinas’s reluctance to focus on the fleshiness of the face (which is in any case disputable in light of Otherwise Than Being) results from some form of expedience seems dubious. And talk of ‘the prime violence of Levinas’s metaphysical system’ will likely make some readers wince. Among such fiercely polemical and probably unfair claims however, there are some genuinely beautiful and perceptive insights. An example:

There is enough in the contours of the face, the hue of the skin, and the sparkle of the eyes to interrupt violence without having to appeal to divine command. The mundane is excessive enough to dislocate totality. Levinas knows as much; the defense of materiality that makes up his critique of transcendental egoism betrays this knowledge.

The ethical minimalism for which Sparrow aims — infinitely liable to evaporate and based on chance, risk, trust; on the brute facticity of the body — is both strangely compelling and compellingly strange.

In Chapter 6 Sparrow turns away from Levinas, devoting an essay to his most eccentric and original translator and reader, Alphonso Lingis. Sparrow brilliantly captures Lingis’s work: it reads as though ‘William James and Levinas were coopted to author all of the guide books in the Lonely Planet series’. ‘The time’, he writes incontestably, ‘is ripe for Lingis studies to be extended.’ Lingis is the itinerant philosopher, the Levinas that Levinas sometimes — but all too rarely — seems to be; an evil twin, a deviant Levinas, a Levinas perverted by spending too much time with Nietzsche and Bataille. His appeal for Sparrow is obvious; perhaps more than anyone he has reinvigorated the concept of sensation for phenomenology.

‘Is it possible to reconcile the phenomenological account of subjectivity, along with the critique of sensationalism carried out by James and Merleau-Ponty, with a realism of sensation?’ This is the question that traverses the essay, and, indeed, the entire book. How would phenomenology approach sensation, without either denying its existence (with a perceptual foundationalism) or making it a purely formal abstraction? The answer is to be found in descriptions of those moments of excess, in which it becomes clear that to ‘live is to be affected by the material imposition of existence, to feel ourselves engulfed in the plenitude of the world’s flesh, which is nothing other than our own fleshy substance.’ This is a nuanced point (and is, I think, at odds with Sparrow’s more reductive critique of phenomenology that we saw in Chapter 3). Throughout this chapter Sparrow shows himself to be a great reader of Lingis, and when his work eventually receives the attention it deserves (and it will) Sparrow’s voice is likely to be an important one.

Occasionally in the book we get the sense that Sparrow is unwilling to fully try to understand the nuances of some of Levinas’s ideas, most significantly his commitment to a form of theism. Sparrow rather briskly dismisses the more theological aspects of Levinas’s work — probably rightly — but without really trying to understand them. Levinas’s, after all, is not a theism which can stand in simple opposition with atheism; his is an absent God, a God ‘transcendent to the point of absence, to the point of a possible confusion with the stirring of the there is.’ Sometimes Sparrow writes as though Levinas defers authority to God to justify his philosophy in a way akin to Descartes — and this is hardly true or fair. Of course, as we are well warned, Sparrow is not seeking ‘to get Levinas right’, and this goes some way — perhaps all the way — to mitigating the concern. Still, it would be interesting to find out what Sparrow makes of quotes such as the above, which problematize the distinctions which he has to make in Levinas’s thought in order pick and choose, as he does.

Minor gripes. Levinas Unhinged is a slim volume and it does exactly what it sets out to do. And while it is hardly the first work to focus on the darker aspects of Levinas’s philosophy, it nonetheless appraises them from an original perspective. Its effect is reinvigorating. It shows that we are not yet done with Levinas, and, more importantly, that Levinas is not yet done with us. It is a valuable contribution to the scholarship, and another great example of the success of Zero’s ethos. It will undoubtedly increase dialogue between those working on Levinas and those working within the new strands of post-Meillassouxian philosophy; the results will be interesting. As a provocation it is successful, and the majority of its shortcomings come from its shortness; they could be overcome were Sparrow to write a book as large as his ambition. Let’s hope that he does.

Will Rees recently finished a philosophy master’s, and now he just isn’t sure.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, October 25th, 2013.