6.20.2010

The One and the Other

I thought two or three of you might be interested: I just finished reading an article on Levinas and the problem of mystical experience. It sort of brings together what I've been saying with what "you" have been saying -- and shows that I'm right, of course. Ha.

The article was titled, "Reducing the One to the Other: Kant, Levinas, and the Problem of Religious Experience," by Anthony J. Steinbock (published in Levinas Studies: An Annual Review, Vol. 4). While admitting that on most points Kant and Levinas are far apart, Steinbock writes,
There is a troubling point that connects these profoundly different thinkers: the ambiguous place of religious experience and its relation to the sphere of ethics. In fact, in addition to reducing the religious to the ethical, they both disavow the very kind of experience that could bring clarity to the issue of religious experience, namely, mystical experiencing.
This is what I've been trying to say for a couple of years now. "Your" philosophy, however postmodern and anti-philosophical it tries to be, is not accommodating my personal experience, and as a result, I do not find what you're saying persuasive. It's not that I think that the Face of the Other is not a source for realizing divinity -- only that it's not the only source. Steinbock differentiates, as I do, between what he calls "ecclesiastical faith" and revelatory (or "pure") faith. Because the former may be regarded as an object, and subjected to philosophy's ways of knowing, we mystics do not object to criticism of historical religion. But personal/revelatory/experiential religious experience must remain mysterious to those who have not themselves undergone the experience. And in light of this mystery, the philosopher (Levinas, Kant, etc.) must not arbitrarily limit the ways in which I experience the divine.

Anyway, if you've been one to write-off mystical experience, and you're into Levinas, give the article a once-over for me.

10 comments:

Jon Sealy said...

I've never read Levinas. Where should I start? (I'm short on time, so maybe not with an 800-page treaties.)

Casey said...

Sealy, I'm not an expert, but I think most people who are recommend Ethics and Infinity as a starting point. That book takes the form of a conversation with Philippe Nemo. The best part is, it's really short.

I'm not very sold on Levinas, but I won't bother to explain until you've taken a glance for yourself. Santos is really into Levinas; and Monica likes him.

But as I say, "The Devil loves to talk about ethics."

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I don't really have the time/interest to take that article on right now. I would just point out that Levinas searches for a God that hasn't been overdetermined by the shadow of Being. This isn't a universal/ontological search--its Levinas's personal (phenomenological search).

What is another source for encountering divinity?

Casey said...

Well, Emerson would say Nature is a source of encountering the divine, right? And Thoreau. Steinbock's article concludes with a quote from Teresa of Avila, who said, in response to her novices' complaints that they didn't have enough time to pray because they were always having to worry about petty things like kitchen duty, "God lives also among the pots and pans."

It just seems more and more to me like people in academia generally, and people dealing academically with Levinas in particular, don't really understand the notion of monotheism. The One is "transcendent," so to speak, but it is also infused in the All. And of course, I'm so adamant about this because the only time I ever came close to seeing G-d was in a parking lot outside of a bowling alley, in the way the parking lot lights looked against the moonless sky, and on the three leafless trees below.

But to clarify: we should probably avoid referring to anything as a "source" of the divine... the One simply is, right?

Monica said...

I'm on it. And, by the way, I don't like Levinas; I love him. He changed my life.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

" and people dealing academically with Levinas in particular"?

Such as?

I would also stress that the Face of the Other is not the same thing as the face of an other. The Face is not necessarily a face. Rather, it is a rustling of the self (Being) by a trace of what (might) lie beyond.

My ventures into Levinas's theology have been limited, but, as I indicated in my last comment, he's more interested in interrupting any (totalizing) claim to know God('s infinity). I guess this would be the basis for identifying him as "postmodern." But he rarely gets tagged with this label because his interests don't really deal with epistemology, cultural legitimation, or discursive power.

Rather, his primary interest is in ethical orientation. In religious terms, it might be best described as a humility. Yes, God is everyone for Levinas EXCEPT in the I. Therefore, the I must orient herself toward every other with reverence.

If Levinas comes up short for your examples, its that he does exceptionalize (sorry for the neologism) the human. In a number of places, he argues that other humans are special, and does not award ethical status to animals and the world. Nature comes up short by many contemporary standards (this was a topic of interest at the RSA conference this year).

My way of responding to this criticism, even while acknowledging it, is to point to his personal context. For Levinas, there is an irreducible difference between a concentration camp and a slaughterhouse. His theo-philosophy, his phenomenological ethics, his insistence upon the limitations of Being and an individual's thinking (his response to Heidegger, and his debt to Heidegger), attempt to instill themselves as permanent reminders of this (human) difference (which is, for Levinas, far more important than Derrida and postmodernism's investment in (language's) differance).

Casey said...

I take it back what I said about "people dealing with Levinas in particular," because obviously that's not fair... apologies. Let me try to show that moment differently:

My frustration on that point stems from the fact that it seems to me that Levinasians in general, who are attracted to the "ethics-first" model, don't have a good sense of why *others* want/need to see ontology or metaphysics come first.

In Ethics, the deconstructive question of "what is the good?" is only marginally interesting compared with the question, "why should I do the good?" I'm not disagreeing with Levinasians regarding what ethical behavior looks like... only in why I should do it. Philosophers including Aristotle and through people like G.E.M. Anscombe, who comes after Levinas, have made serious efforts to answer that question. Levinas seems to ignore it, or offer a "formula"--

--now, admittedly, there might be (I even suspect there is) something I'm missing about the obligatory principle in Levinas. Monica says he changed her life, and that claim alone makes me want to slow, slow down. But when you say I should defer to the other because of the moment with the Face (or however it's phrased), I literally don't know what that means. So it doesn't create an obligation in me, it just makes me scratch my head. As I've joked before, why shouldn't the sight of the Other's Elbow force me into submission? Or the fact that worms have no legs?--why isn't that cause for me to put the other first?

So, for me, it has always seemed that Levinas is simply saying, Just do Good, which I could accept... but Levinas defenders always take the (wrong, I think) step of trying to fill in a cause there where Levinas purposely left it blank. So that if I asked Levinas why?, he might just raise an eyebrow at me and tilt his head forward and say, "You know why," but generally Levinasians will say something about the Face or whatever, which is a metaphysical claim, however inexplicable a claim it is.

"toked"

pure_sophist_monster said...

He'd have to make an argument. He'd have to be rhetorical.

Casey said...

What if he didn't?

Insignificant Wrangler said...

You write:

"In Ethics, the deconstructive question of "what is the good?" is only marginally interesting compared with the question, "why should I do the good?" I'm not disagreeing with Levinasians regarding what ethical behavior looks like... only in why I should do it. Philosophers including Aristotle and through people like G.E.M. Anscombe, who comes after Levinas, have made serious efforts to answer that question. Levinas seems to ignore it, or offer a "formula"--"

Don't take this the wrong way, but I think you wouldn't write this if you invested more reading into Levinas. Levinas is not asking the question "what is the good?" He is asking the question "why should I do good?" And his answer traces the intersubjective debt we owe to the other for awakening our consciousness in the world. In the Ethics and Infinity book, this is the stirring that pulls us from the Il y a (there is). In the process of awakening, we consume the other (though not via intention!). Or, as he later puts it in OTB, all being manifests itself at a price. The reason to do good is to repay the price to the Other via hospitality toward others.

In his two masterworks, Levinas takes up this question in stages. In Totality and Infinity (and of course this is reductive), he explores the primacy of ethics [why the ethical relation precedes any ontological determination]. What are ethics if not the articulation of an ontological-metaphysics [onto-theo-logy]. In Otherwise than Being, he focuses more intently on providing a phenomenological account of intersubjectivity--what does it feel to be an affect of the other? (Notice: not what does it mean).

I certainly get why people don't read Levinas--his prose is maddeningly difficult and requires incredible investment. I feel the same thing toward Heidegger now, even as a continue to attempt to submerge myself in his thought.

And there are reasons to resist Levinas. Certainly, there is an underlying misogyny to his work. I've often wanted to ask Monica what she thought of this. More importantly, I feel his work leaves us without the one thing that we might want--a formula for living. Levinas's radical opposition to formulae leave us without Burke's equipment (eh, sophist?). But Levinas's interest is to leave us naked, humble, obligated. Its a hard sell.

Also--and this comes up in the Ethics and Infinity book--Levinas has little interest in poetic language (in some places--this changes context to context). I am always torn between teaching, as I call it, Heidegger or Levinas, Ulmer or "me" (the blogging stuff I have been working on for the past several years). Do we teach students methods of interruption? Or participation? I think this is the question that Levinas somewhat avoids (or contradicts himself).