“The ethical relation – the encounter with the other – is a movement towards the stranger, that is, towards the non-identical, rather than a movement of recognition in which I take the other into my world, gathering up the other as a component of my self-possession or as part of my domestication or familiarization of my world.”1
Let’s start with a death. Well, not exactly, but you’ll see what I mean.
In 1994, the elderly Maurice Blanchot published an intriguing text: L’Instant de Ma Mort (The Instant of My Death) in which he tells the story of a young man brought before a firing squad during World War II only to find himself suddenly released from imminent death right at the last. The story could be autobiographical and might relate to Blanchot’s own possible last minute escape from a Nazi firing squad.
However, placing the autobiographical question to one side in the ‘we shall never know’ pile, we find that we are left with Blanchot clearly demonstrating an interest in death within his text. And in Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy, our old chum Gerald Bruns explains an aspect of that interest:
“We can’t take our eyes off of a corpse, neither can we grasp it, because it is both there and not there in a neutral zone outside of being: existence without being.”2
It appears, then, that for Blanchot, death in the form of a corpse, as well as fascinating us, occupies a strange nether world, a form of purgatory that holds power over us and yet cannot, itself, be grasped. Our fascination with the corpse exudes an uncanny force over us. The form in front of us that once was so full of life, so full of being, strikes us as unworldly to the extent that we gaze blankly at this strange non-object, non-subject.
Twisting Bruns slightly, in that he moved his interpretation of Blanchot onto art (although his words still hold true for our cadaver), we can see a new language emerging which is not unlike Gadamer’s and yet introduces a new dimension, the poetic:
“Fascination is not a cognitive relation; it deprives us of our concepts and so leaves us powerless to grasp what we see. It is our seeing that is grasped and held; neutralized. Fascination induces an essential solitude; it is ‘solitude’s gaze’.”3
When describing fascination leading to ‘solitude’s gaze,’ Bruns introduces a vital component of Blanchot’s thought which at first might appear quite strange: “To enter into this gaze is to enter into the neutral, impersonal space of the il y a.”4 So far, if you haven’t come across il y a before, it might seem a little bit too poetic in terms of being a vital component of thought, but then again the translation of ‘there is’ or ‘there are’ doesn’t really do it justice. So, bring on more poetics, I say, and let us bathe in the moonlight, surrounded by gestures, glimpses and ghouls. Well maybe not ghouls, but certainly not goats, giblets or gastronomes, all of which are far too prosaic for the likes of Blanchot. Instead, as Bruns leads us forward we get a beautifully haunting description of il y a as “the interminable, incessant night of insomnia, a night of pure vigilance without anticipation or release, a night that persists through the day.”5
This haunting “impersonal space” of the il y a, as well as being Blanchot’s muse, is also forever related to the thoughts and writings of Emmanuel Levinas, a philosopher greatly interested in aesthetic experience. And for us, it actually makes more sense to investigate the il y a through Levinas’ writings, which attempt to present a holistic account of the impact felt by its presence, rather than through Blanchot’s more allusive, literary and possibly slightly morbid work. Poetics has its place, but only up to a point.
So, Levinas, then, what does he bring to the party that promises to be more useful than a dead body and poetics?
Rather than seeking to further the phenomenological pursuits of his predecessors and contemporaries, what Levinas sought was beyond phenomenology and led to the postulation of the il y a which, as Blanchot signified, was existence without being: a presence.
For those new to phenomenology, it is the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. While we are about it we might as well do ontology as well. Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality. Hold on to these, they are useful in terms of defining what Levinas wasn’t interested in.
Briefly, so we can get a general sense of the direction we are headed, Levinas determined to replace “Heideggerian fundamental ontology with a fundamental ethics,”6 according to Bruns. The basic outcome of which is that humans rather than Heideggerian notions of Being are prioritised and one is no longer merely one cog in that machine.
Now, without going too far into specifics, but hopefully just enough to get the mental juices flowing in the right directions there are some really cool parts to Levinas’ philosophy. For example, Levinasian ethics allows space, as Silvia Benso describes, “where a meaningful intersubjective relation with the other can happen” to the extent that, unlike a philosophy based on fundamental ontology, the other can “be the source of its own signification.”7 To put this in a different outfit, Levinasian ethics addresses the problem of intersubjectivity by dissolving it.
The problem of intersubjectivity being that philosophical dead-end trap first thought of by René Descartes in the 17th century and then taken up by a whole raft of philosophers, of whom I’d love to say they should have known better, but that would probably be too harsh.
In a nutshell, the problem of intersubjectivity is how can I really know that you, my friend and loyal companion sitting opposite as we travel in cattle class from London to Edinburgh, are not just a figment of my imagination and are in fact your own person, your own subject. The issue being that from a position where one starts, as Descartes did, with oneself as the subject of all one’s experiences and thoughts, one can never actually prove that the whole bleedin’ world isn’t a phantom caused by eating too much cheese… Well, something like that, but possibly with more emphasis on mental activity within the subject and that sort of thing rather than cheese. Oh, ok, if you really want the proper terminology. Traditional phenomenological theory derives an alter ego from one’s prior knowledge and as such this alter ego, or other, is derived from the originating subject and not independently from itself or by itself. Everything in traditional phenomenology, which started with Descartes and went right up to Edmund Husserl (incidentally, Husserl was Levinas’ lecturer and a fine philosopher in his own right), starts and stays with the subject and can’t really get beyond that invention.
Now, Levinas, instead, saw the ‘other’ not as an alter ego derived from studying oneself, but as a person to be regarded as being the “source of its own signification”: an alterity. Odd word, alterity, it doesn’t come up much in day-to-day chitchat. It roughly means otherness or if we consult an online dictionary it is described as “the quality or state of being radically alien to the conscious self or a particular cultural orientation.”8 In a beautiful piece of philosophic irony, Alphonso Lingis, in his ‘Translator’s Introduction’ to Levinas’ Otherwise Than Being describes ‘alterity’ as that which “comes to me from without, and comes by exceeding my capacities – like the idea of infinity in Descartes, which is put into me, which I could not have accounted for out of myself.”9 Descartes, it appears, can still shine a light even from within the great blight shadow he cast over philosophic enquiry. The important point to grasp, of course, is that Descartes in annoying and Levinas is great. See easy. Oh, ok, correct terminology time again. Levinas dissolves the problem of intersubjectivity by regarding the other, and also oneself, in a very different manner to those who taught him. Levinas sees the other from an ethical stance as opposed to a phenomenological or ontologically driven one.
However, for us to comprehend the full impact of an alterity being the “source of its own signification” we need to start from the beginning with Levinas’ thoughts on the il y a.
In order to understand Levinas and his association with the il y a, it is first necessary to understand, with a little more depth, how his thought relates to traditional philosophical thinking. In his foreword to Existence and Existents, Robert Bernasconi suggests a starting point in Heideggerian terms: “Levinas wanted to show that there is existence without existents,”10 which means Being without beings, something Heidegger would have never conceded. So, for Levinas to achieve this rather impossible looking task, he needed to demonstrate that Being, or existence, was present when beings, or existents, were absent, a task that Heidegger would have probably haughtily laughed at if Levinas were to proceed from a ontologically and phenomenologically point of view. Levinas, though, chose a different track.
In the knowledge that he would then have to convince those trained in these disciplines to accept his philosophical revolution, Levinas realised he needed a different starting point. The solution he came up with, consistent with his whole project, didn’t set out to argue proofs with evidence of his ideas, but rather he posed an alternative mode of thinking that appealed to a different aspect within ourselves. He took as his start the peculiar phenomenon of darkness:
“When the forms of things are dissolved in the night, the darkness of the night, which is neither an object nor the quality of an object, invades like a presence. In the night, where we are riveted to it, we are not dealing with anything. But this nothing is not that of pure nothingness. There is no longer this or that; there is not ‘something.’ But this universal absence is in its turn a presence, an absolutely unavoidable presence… There is is an impersonal form, like in it rains, or it is warm. Its anonymity is essential.”11
Instead of thinking that when darkness takes beings from us and we are left with nothing, Levinas insisted that we are left with “an absolutely unavoidable presence.” This is his Being without beings, his existence without existents. Such “presence”, Levinas determined as the there is – il y a.
For Levinas, to push his philosophy forward until it reached an ethical realisation, though, he had to escape the il y a and go beyond what his friend, Blanchot, was content to remain with, which ultimately was an uncertainty, a neutrality, and a state of ambiguity. Blanchot, remember was poetic and liked the mysterious staying just as it was, mysterious. Instead, Levinas needed to resolve the ambiguity and put flesh on it in order to realise his ethical project. With such resolution, however, came the movement whereby “the neutral is determined,”12 and a critical juncture formed between Blanchot and Levinas. A juncture that came to be because, according to Jacques Derrida, “within the expectation of expectation… Levinas has begun to hear a response.”13
Both Blanchot and Levinas hear a cry from the wilderness and dark of night as they sit in their log cabin drinking cocoa and toasting marshmallows by the fire. Blanchot continues to rock in his rustic and charmingly provincial rocking chair nodding and making genial soft moans to indicate that he has head the cry. Levinas, though, is out of his non-rocking chair, grabbing his coat and heading for the door to see if the owner of the cry needs help because he hears the call of another human where his friend only hears the sound of the night.
Now, for clarity going forwards, we shall have to give the word ‘other’ a capital letter because as Blanchot believes, and stakes his money on, it doesn’t necessarily mean another person, which would simply be an ‘other’. Instead, the ‘Other’, as Bruns has stated, is always “another human being”14 when starting from Levinas’ position which, as we know, is determined to steer clear of traditional philosophical thinking. However, the Other is also, as we’ve seen, an alterity. According to David Jopling such an alterity means that the Other “is not primarily an object (or subject) to be understood, rendered transparent, or totalised.”15
Ok, so this is new and quite important within Levinas’ philosophy. Briefly, when one totalises something one is essentially sucking all independence out of it by creating a narrative that becomes all too encompassing. A literary example is Sartre’s biography of Jean Genet, Saint Genet, which apparently so totalized Genet that he felt unable to write anything himself for the next five years. One can also totalise though just by examining something in one’s life, such as an eggcup, i.e., a thing, an object. When an object is totalised, though, there is no real problem because an eggcup doesn’t mind if someone describes it in detail and professes to have captured its every facet. The problem occurs, as with Sartre’s biography, when one person starts to assess and believe they grasped another. No one likes to hear that another person has understood everything there is to know about them. It’s just not decent and it’s bloody irritating.
So, the Other, we are beginning to understand, should not to be approached from an ontological or phenomenological position of enquiry, which leads to totalising outcomes, because the Other, in its otherness, is actually beyond our understanding in these forms. If we can resist the urge to think ontologically or phenomenologically, then, we get to a point of radical separation. The Other becomes separated from the rest of the world that we have constructed around us, in that we “cannot place the other in our own light, and incorporate the other into our own story,”16 as yet another Levinasian, Steven Gans, recognises. If we do incorporate the other then we destroy “the possibility of meeting in the genuine sense.”17 Hence, if we want to have a “genuine” meeting, then we must respect the alterity of the Other.
Once again Bruns can aid our understanding:
“The ethical relation – the encounter with the other – is a movement towards the stranger, that is, towards the non-identical, rather than a movement of recognition in which I take the other into my world, gathering up the other as a component of my self-possession or as part of my domestication or familiarization of my world. Indeed, it is not too much to say that for Levinas the dispossession of the self is a condition of the ethical as such.”18
The idea of a dispossessed self being a condition of the ethical, therefore transposes onto the notion of respect for the Other’s alterity, and also allows a glimpse into how Levinas believed a self could be constructed outside of ontological and phenomenological thinking. Such a dispossession of the self occurs at the appearance of the Other and is always in what Levinas termed the ‘Face.’ However, we must wait until next time for the ‘Face’ and what Levinas means by it.
- Bruns, G., ‘On the Coherence of Hermeneutics and Ethics: An Essay on Gadamer and Levinas,’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions 35-36.
- Bruns, G., Maurice Blanchot: The Refusal of Philosophy, 66.
- Ibid., 60.
- Ibid., 59.
- Bruns, G., ‘On the Coherence of Hermeneutics and Ethics: An Essay on Gadamer and Levinas,’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions, 32.
- Benso, S., The Face of Things: A Different Side of Ethics, xxvii.
- Lingis, A., ‘Translator’s Introduction,’ included in Otherwise Than Being, xxiii.
- Bernasconi, R., ‘Foreword’ included in Existence and Existents, xi.
- Levinas, E., Existence and Existents, 52-53.
- Derrida, J., ‘Violence and Metaphysics,’ included in Writing and Difference, 128.
- Bruns, G., ‘The concept of art and poetry in Emmanuel Levinas’ writings’ included in The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, 226-227.
- Jopling, D., Levinas, Sartre, and Understanding the Other, 226.
- Gans, S., ‘Levinas and Pontalis: Meeting the Other as in a Dream’ included in The Provocation of Levinas: Rethinking the Other, 86.
- Bruns, G., ‘On the Coherence of Hermeneutics and Ethics: An Essay on Gadamer and Levinas,’ included in Gadamer’s Repercussions 35-36.