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Levinas: Transendence in the Face

The other's face is not an object. It is a pure expression; expression which affects me before I can begin to reflect on it. And the expression of the face is dual: it is a command and summon. In its nudity and defenselessness the face signifies "Do not kill me". This defenseless nudity is therefore a passive resistance to the desire that is my freedom. Any exemplification of the face's expression, moreover, carries with it this combination of resistance and defenselessness.

Transcendence is considered as both lived and factical. How could transcendence be factical? While being an interruption that "I" cannot represent to myself, transcendence nevertheless has a circular relationship with everyday life: understood as the face-to-face relation, transcendence lives from our everyday enjoyment and desire even as it precedes these.

Contrary to Heidegger, Levinas sees human existence as full of joy and creative, before it is instrumentalist or utilitarian. From enjoying nature to constructing a home, human existence is never solipsistic. We have always already been impacted by the expression of a living other. Because this impact is affective, because transcendence is not conceptualizable, we forget the force the other's expression has on us. We therefore carry on, in our respective worlds, motivated by our desire for mastery and control.

Nevertheless, desire always proves to be double: There is a naturalistic desire, subject to imperatives of consumption and enjoyment, that is coextensive with the exercise of our concrete freedom. And there is a desire that comes to light in the failure of our will to mastery - this failure of the will is experienced in the face-to-face encounter.

 

Reading: Totality and Infinity - pp. [masked]

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  • A former member
    A former member

    It's 5pm, just got the confirmation. I live on the UWS, would never get there in time…but looking forward to the next one! ps anyone read Sartre's excellent article entitled "The Face"?

    January 5, 2014

  • Eran

    a quick correction (thank you John): the assigned reading is pp. [masked] - until the end of "Reason and the Face" sub-section (only one more page!)

    January 4, 2014

  • John D.

    PS: I had a picture of Greta Garbo on my wall when i was a graduate student. What do you suppose that means about me? Please don't answer in public. tx.

    December 29, 2013

  • John D.

    scheme. They might be seen, analyzed and theorized as objects, but that's reductive and an impoverishment of the image in its concrete manifestation...

    I don't understand why you say 'even' facebook profile pictures. Why would you privilege them as manifestations? What is their "unique living quality"? [I was on facebook only one week.] And i don't understand the difference the virtual images present for considering whether we might encounter a Levinasian face in a picture (in the wide sense of 'picture').

    I suspect some of my questions show naivety and misunderstanding but will venture them anyway, not expecting you to spend your time responding in writing, but looking forward to discussion with everyone of these and the other provocative questions and issues you have raised in your introduction. (Why are you so hard on Heidegger, i wonder?)

    Sorry this is so long. I didn't realize there were restrictions.

    Any way, many many thanks for the provocations and friendliness.

    December 29, 2013

  • John D.

    physically maimed by the brutal violence of war... Could not what happens in the encounter with such an image echo the structure of the ethical encounter with the face in Levinas? But would it be the same as a direct encounter? How would it be different, i wonder?

    And then, the further question arises regarding what might happen in art (art which transcends enjoyment) when we encounter a tragic image, on stage say (to make it more direct) in an actor's face: King Lear or Phaedra being 'played' in their moments of deepest agony. Could that not also set a structure in motion at least echoing (if not identical to) Levinas' ethical encounter with the face? And what might be the difference? I think your reference to originary speech may speak to my questions here, but i have only a vague sense of how that might be.
    It is not clear to me that images (in art perhaps most evidently) do not resist possession.
    And i don't think it appropriate to frame them in the subject/object sch..

    December 29, 2013

  • John D.

    Thank you, Eran, for responding to my questions and for including the Garbo/Steichen photo as a pedagogical provocation in your introduction. Although one might find a certain vulnerability in Garbo's picture, i don't think one can (without projection) find destitution, deprivation, exposure to death, the "exile, widow or orphan," or the breakthrough of an infinite 'command' for generosity. Indeed, it seems to present an invitation to forget those disturbing 'things', and to embalm the (Levinasian) face instead in a distracting, artificial glamour, a prototype of the reigning celebrity image which unhappily dominates our culture today.
    That being said, the question of whether a photograph could offer the occasion of an epiphany might still be open. We are all too familiar, aren't we, with extremely disturbing journalistic media images which have an excruciating power and seem to call for immediate action: The picture of an orphaned child in Syria or South Sudan who has been.....

    December 29, 2013

  • John D.

    Garbo's picture is intriguing in the context of Levinas' thinking/epiphany of the face. Does (or could) the photograph offer the occasion for an "epiphany" or a "revelation" of the face? Does (or could) it not rather offer an invitation to live insensitive to, in oblivion of the face?
    More generally, can a Levinasian revelation of the face occur through a picture or photograph? How? Or, why not?

    December 26, 2013

    • Eran

      garbo's picture doesn't even know. well, it lacks subjectivity. garbo's non-represented face, however, would be engaged in a face to face encounter, address her "viewer" as an interlocutor (not an audience) through an unforeseeable reaction that is the dialogue. "expression does not radiate as a splendor that spreads unbeknown to the radiating being - which is perhaps the definition of beauty. to manifest oneself in attending one's own manifestation is to invoke the interlocutor and expose oneself to his response and his questioning" (200)

      December 27, 2013

    • Eran

      even facebook profile pictures would not compete the revelation of the face, in light of this analysis. virtual representations, however, do bear this uniquely living quality, that raises new questions. a virtual representation of the other, be it an image or another symbol, is capable of appealing and talking, even when the face behind it is hidden. an elementary phenomenology of the virtual is yet to be worked out.

      December 27, 2013

  • April

    MORE LEVINAS?!!?!! arrrrrgh

    October 27, 2013

    • Christy

      lol those were the days.

      December 26, 2013

  • Stephen M.

    Excited to talk about Levinas! I took a seminar on him in college a year ago. My one proposal, since I don't know how much people are familiar with him: Totality and Infinity is a really, perhaps overly, complicated text; good for subtle clarification but not so much for an introduction (also, Alphonso Lingis' translations are kind of obtuse sometimes.) There are two cool short essays of his, "Is Ontology Fundamental?" and "Transcendence and Height," that are a lot clearer. Both are in the book "Basic Philosophical Writings," edited by Simon Critchley, Robert Bernasconi, and Adriaan Peperzak. Otherwise, I'll try to put together a short glossary and post it here before the next meeting.

    December 17, 2013

    • Eran

      to your point, i think that unlike some other good philosophers, levinas is also a good writer. by "good writing" in philosophy i also mean clear. and by "clear" i also mean decent. why decency? for a metaphysician it's way more tempting to write badly: first, you don't need to torture yourself with a rigorous examination process that may also lead to a full disclosure of your own thought that you might not like. second, obscure style protects you from others finding flaws in your work, as critics get exhausted, unable to completely remove doubts of some misinterpretation on their end. obscurity could still be understood to the extent that it's required by the complexity or the delicacy of the subject matter (when heidegger writes obscurely it's partially excusable due to his invention of a new sensitivity).

      December 19, 2013

    • Eran

      often times, however, it's not the case (as sartre's bad writing in some of his philosophical works demonstrates). granted, clarity is not an absolute value in every context (in the arts for example too much of it is usually embarrassing). in philosophy though, unless it's due to a sheer lack of talent, obscurity is suspicious of negligence or charlatanism. regardless of content, the ability to express complex ideas in comprehensible terms is needed as an invitation for a dialogue that sees the other. except for talent, it takes some decency, that i think can be found in this book.

      December 19, 2013

  • John D.

    Levinas excites me too, Stephen. I found a remark he made that i thought might interest others who attended the Sartre meeting Sunday. "I was extremely interest in Sartre's phenomenological analysis of the 'other', though I always regretted that he interpreted it as a threat and a degradation, an interpretation that also found expression in his fear of the God question.... At a personal level, i always liked Sartre. I first met him at Gabriel Marcel's house..."

    December 17, 2013

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