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Levinas: The Absolute Experience as Desire

Levinass thinking walks a thin line between the paradox of experience and the transcendental. Separation is the experience of the fragmentation of totality and the condition of possibility for the relation with infinity, while at the same time, the infinite makes separation possible and is also the genuine experience of reality. One can even speak of a tension between two lines of thought. Man is not only confronted with the other from the spheres of enjoyment and labor, but furthermore, these ontological relations presuppose metaphysics. In Rosenzweig, this tension persists in its formal structure. The subject is both a substantial unity and a purely hypothetical construction. Levinas grafts the bipolarity onto asymmetrical desire as the relation par excellence. At the level of desire, separation is understood as enjoyment and as economy. How then is the transascendental movement possible? The relation with infinity occurs as fecundity and language. How then is the metaphysical relation with the separated being possible?

3.1. From Separation to Infinity

Earlier, we wrote about how the phenomenological structure of enjoyment can realize a break with totality. Along with representation and economy, enjoyment is a first relation inside of the same. But enjoyment cannot be understood as the establishment of separation with regard to totality only. Enjoyment also refers beyond itself to the preconditions or transcendental elements which constitute it as experience. Enjoyment presupposes economy, which, in turn, presupposes alterity. Finally, enjoyment is borne by alterity. Complementarily to this extreme criticism of the

intentional structure of Husserlian phenomenology identity possible

according to Levinas, alterity makes

Levinas describes enjoyment as the first fact of separation that is the absolute

condition of possibility of infinity.

a. Enjoyment as Primary Form of Subjectivity

Enjoyment is the establishment of the affective subject as the primary form of subjectivity. Enjoyment is prior both to the ontological level, with its constitutive subject and correlative representations, and to the rational thought that, with a utilitarian means-end structure, is possible within the ontological subject-object position. The enjoying person is master in his dependence on the world because need the vulgar Venus is also, in a certain sense, the child of poros

and of penia; it is penia as source of poros, in contrast with desire which is the penia of poros. TI114-115) In enjoyment, man is dependent on earthly food while, at the same time, he remains a master within enjoyment. The fact that life is enrooted in enjoyment means that man belongs to the world and that he is not primarily an otherworldly spirit. Hunger is, for the body, not an anonymous process, but a personal event that enables the body to reach satisfaction and happiness. Enjoyment is a fundamental movement of interiorization. Concentrating itself into a self through enjoying the world constitutes the corporeal self.

b. The World as an Object of Enjoyment

The world does not coincide with the whole of constituted objects, but is, like the enjoying subject, located anterior to the separation between subject and object. The world is the

environment, the non-possessive and non-dominating medium within which the subject enjoys. The world is content without form. (131) Depth, above all, characterizes the world as elementale. In the same way a swimmer is both immersed in the water and able to master the water by swimming, so the elemental is the environment in which the subject is fully steeped into and able to become himself. The sphere of the elemental does not only consist in the purely enjoyable elements, but also in the objects that appear to man as tools. Every object offers itself to enjoyment, (TI 132) which is not only a relation with the object, but also a relation with my relation toward the object. This is what makes possible the experience of a physical effort like sports and this is what leads man to adorn his tools.

c. The Threat of the There Is

Enjoyment is not only the carefree relation with the world as a source of plenitude. This world also has a reverse side. As pure quality which is not borne by a substance, the milieu comes upon us from nowhere. This limitation of the elemental is the inner frontier of enjoyment. The there is is the persistent threat of the loss of enjoyment, i.e. the negation of subjectivity and objectivity. The there is and the elemental are two sides of the same reality. The timelessness of the elemental is the indication of the enthralling and voluptuous possibility of the enjoying subject, but the timelessness of the there is is the inner threat of the disintegration of enjoyment. The uncertainty of the future is the limit of enjoyment. In the text of Totality and Infinity, the there is appears to be a dynamic element that clarifies the transcendental structure of separation.

d. The Dynamism of Subjectification

The threatened absorption by the there is constitutes a fundamental transformation of the enjoying subject. Through the confrontation with the there is, the subject can no longer be conceived of as a joyous solipsism that in its dependence exists independently of the world. The fundamental certainty is always troubled. Within the subject, a dimension appears which will enable the subject to welcome the revelation of transcendence. Representational thought and action are the response of the bodily enjoying subject, which bears in mind the uncertainty about the future. The nothingness of the future turns into an interval of time in which possession and labor are inserted. (146) However, working and thinking can never become the proper finality of life. They are enjoyed also. This enjoyment of labor occurs in the dwelling as an other-worldly place. The dwelling place does not belong to the world in which we work. It is the place of receptivity, from which man goes into the world as an object. It is also the place to which man returns, bringing back the fruits of his labor. Receptivity is the possibility of a first contact with alterity. In the dwelling, the other reveals herself as the discreet (feminine) other that guarantees the recollection of the subject as a starting point of economic existence. Metaphysical desire is the transascendental movement that starts from subjectivity. Through the metamorphoses of enjoyment and labor, desire goes out to the other. However, the dimension of alterity is, from the beginning, inscribed into subjectivity. Separation is already in itself a realization of infinity. As enjoyment, man is a dynamic process that from the plenitude of sensorial happiness can open itself to the plenitude of desire full of Goodness. The inner Differenz, introduced by the limit of the there is within the subject, makes the openness concrete. This is how infinity can manifest itself through the feminine face in a bodily and discreet fashion.

Paradoxically, it is precisely infinity that turns the movement dynamic. In the framework of a further development of this relation, we will deal with the subject starting from infinity. Special attention will be paid to infinite desire as fecundity and to freedom instituted by language.

3.2. From Infinity to Separation

The transascendantal movement from separation to infinity has its starting point in the structure of the experience of enjoyment, that can only be thought from what transcends it: labor and dwelling. The dwelling, in turn, refers to the discreet alterity of the feminine. When it is said that the experience of separation in its structures of possibility refers to infinity and that this relation harbors a paradox, then the second part needs to be examined as well. The question now upon us is how the experience of infinity refers to separation. Fecundity and language enable us to understand the paradoxical relation of transcendence as an absolute experience that is also the condition of possibility of the autonomously enjoying, thinking and working subject.

a. Fecundity and Desire

The question of the relation between infinity and separation coincides with the classic question of creation and revelation. Paternity and fecundity are the metaphors best suited to evoke this relation. Levinas, like Rosenzweig, refers to Schellings Weltalter and interprets his aim as a theologically motivated attempt to deduce filiality from the identity of being. The child is the father, but a stranger as well. (267) Levinas elaborates this relation more concretely than Rosenzweig does. Instead of appealing to the complicated theory of potency, he views the

relation as a particular mode of sexual desire. Yet fecundity differs fundamentally from the ambiguous erotic. The ambiguity of Eros and enjoyment takes place at the border of immanence and transcendence. Exhibitionism and profanation are situated in this ambiguity. They imply the possibility of caressing the other in the fascination with physical nudity. The erotic desire however is not directed vertically towards the fully other, but horizontally towards a terrestrial future.1 Love can always be a return to oneself. This ambiguity is transcended in fecundity, as the relation between father and son. In fecundity, an other appears who does not contain any erotic reference to the father. The nudity of the child is fundamentally different from the wifes nudity. The relation with the child is the de-formalized form of the relation with infinity. The relation of fecundity bears a great resemblance to the concept of creation. Eros discovers the child. The child exists at the crossing point of ones own powers and the infinite transcending of them. As a biological given, the child is a possibility of the father and the mother, but as an origin of its own, as kathauto, it is the interruption of any horizon of meaning. The child represents the always-new time in the deepest intimacy of the human. Paternity is not a time-immanent possibility, but the welcoming of the new, always future time of the child into ones own desire. An interruption beyond recuperation arises within existence, an opening to transcendence. Human-being receives a totally new orientation through

De Boer in Levinas, De totaliteit, 308, note 18.

paternity. Desire is expelled outside of itself, infinitization or transsubstantiation occurs.2 The vision of desire as fecundity is the deepest transformation of the autonomous and separated being. The sons alterity is no negative limit, as it is the case with the there is, suffering or death, but it is a positive temptation and a compelling interruption of ones own life. From desire, we can look back to enjoyment and to economic existence. Voluptuousness then undergoes several metamorphoses on its way toward the final universal truth. From fecundity, the dwelling-place can gain the meaning of hospitality. The erotic-fertile desire appears to add a meaning to economic life from without. Separation is its own origin, but this origin is given a meaning from the outside. The dwelling is the possibility of fecundity and fecundity is the meaning of the dwelling. The relation with the infinite makes the criticism and making sense of separation possible.

b. Language

Apart from desire, language is the second way to live the relation with infinity. Language is primarily related neither to the syntactic, as the theory of the logical concatenation of grammatical forms, nor to semantics, as the theory on the relation of words with the signified reality, but rather to pragmatics. The pragmatic dimension does not refer as much to the possible influence which the subject can exercise by speaking, but rather to the event of the allocution. Not rhetoric, but ethics.

TI, 267. See Cohen, Elevations, 143. Levinas also uses this Christian word in his interpretation

of Matthew 25. See Levinas, De zon, de maan en de Bijbel.

To Levinas, allocution and apology are two metaphors for articulating the linguistic relation between infinity and finitude. The epiphany of the other in his strength weakness as orphan and widow as Master and in his

is the absolute experience with the stranger who neither

belongs nor can possibly belong to the proper dwelling or economy. This presence opens a nonrecuperable dimension whereby subjective language as a meaning-giving activity is undermined in its innermost structure and where, at the same time, it is offered a new and radically other foundation. Metaphysics, as the relation with infinity, consists in a critique or a judgment of knowledge. Discourse and Desire, where the Other presents himself as interlocutor, as him over whom I cannot have power (je ne peux pas pouvoir) whom I cannot kill, condition this shame, where, qua I, I am not innocent spontaneity but usurper and murderer. (84) The word of the address as a proposition does not mean a factual failure or the checkmating of subjective activity. In economic thinking and discourse, any failure forms a new challenge, whereas successful action contributes to greater fame for the subject. The consciousness of failure is already theoretical . (83) This awareness contains some knowing about the greater and new challenges posed by reality. By contrast, the word of the address or the vocative may lead to a principled questioning. The linguistic relation with the other, which concretely utters itself in the categorical ban on murder, calls freedom fundamentally into question. An awareness of shame and moral consciousness collides with the discovery of the murderous character of freedom. This awareness of shame is the structure of subjectivity that is opened towards infinity. The linguistic calling into question has nothing to do with a new semantics or theory of signification. The possible referent falls outside of the field of signification. Nor does this

form a refined type of pragmatism, originating in a factual failure. It is rather a pragmatics in a converted sense: what does the word that is addressed to me do to me? In the relationship founded by the address, the meaning-giving Cogito is subjected to a practical judgment. This judgment is of a different nature than the theoretical archaeology of the intentional Sinngebung. Shame demonstrates that the intentional ground of the subject and the object does not have the last word, but that it is in principle insufficient. There is a word that is anterior to ones own Sinngebung. This original word brings the subject into shame. The subject realizes its own complacency. Out of shame, a reorientation of ones own language can emerge. Language is not an objective structure in which the subject can participate. Levinas divests himself of every structuralism. Language is directed by or received from the other. The maieutic, which in its many modes dominates Western philosophy as the welcoming of the same, retreats in favor of the Teaching that starts from the Other. The structure of teaching is the primordial linguistic fact.

The apology of the subject posited in the proposition is the answer to the question of justified existence. Apology, in which the I at the same time asserts itself and inclines before the transcendent, belongs to the essence of conversation. The goodness in which (...) conversation issues and from which it draws signification will not undo this apologetic moment. (40) Apology is the asymmetrical answer to address and judgment. The reply of the apology is the dative, goodness or the conversion of economic existence toward infinity. Apology follows a more original Sinngebung of language, that is prior to the constitutive activity of ego-logical subjectivity. It is an awareness of shame with regard to the injustice of selfish economic activity. Shame leads to a reorientation of subjectivity. Finitude or interiority does not negotiate with

infinity on certain requirements and conditions, but the relationship with infinity consists in being appealed to. Passivity is an insurmountable difference within activity, a difference without any horizon. Infinity displays another basic grammar than interiority.3 The basic grammar of infinity can generate the dative as a reply to the vocative. Thus, it is more about a basic form of language that engenders a new form of existence than about an intentionally meaningful concatenation of subjects and objects. In its asymmetry, which cannot be neutralized in a syntactical unity, language is teaching. The possibility for teaching is inscribed in the apology. As joyous interiority and economic activity, subjectivity is essentially transascendent. The metaphysical relation precedes any physical relationship and makes apology possible. For, if apology would exist before the appeal, this linguistic event would be inscribed in a synchronous time that would make possible a synoptic gaze upon the enjoyment-appeal sequence. On the contrary, the Other is the diachronic time: a time that exists independently. At the level of language, asymmetry shows itself in the fact that the vocative can never be fully recuperated in a syntactical construction of the phrase. The comma as an interruption of the syntactical sentence always separates the vocative. The vocative is a grammatical form in its own right. The apology is not an endeavor to justify a determinate activity, but an answer from ones own richness to infinity. In a sense, the apology is an infinitization of desire. Particular economic activity becomes universal through the reorientation towards other people. It is within this universal field of subjectivity that truth emerges. Judgment and apology demonstrate that the metaphysical relation is only possible with an original being and that this being has an origin prior to its origin . (85) The critical essence of knowing consists in discursive teaching that is a deeper reality than the activity of freedom. It

See Rosenstock, Angewandte Seelenkunde.

inverts the action of freedom. This turns particularity into universality. The objects of the world are not in the first place constituted by an intentional consciousness, but they are rather the possibility of the gift. Money denotes the universal and communicative dimension of the world.4 Freedom, which is called into question and which justifies itself, is made accountable for the world through address. It undergoes an investiture. This happens apart from its own volition. Universalization does not occur by inserting particular freedom into universal reason, but through the reorientation from out of critical ethics. Actually, it is the very language of ethics that makes the universality of freedom and truth possible, and not conversely. The tension between principle and experience returns again: Discourse is thus the experience of something absolutely foreign, a pure knowledge or experience, a traumatism of astonishment. (73)

4. Transition

The problematic relationship between Rosenzweig and Levinas appears to be connected with the paradoxical structure of experience and the transcendental in the works of both of them. Rosenzweig systematically elaborates this tension proceeding from an authorial point of view; Levinas enters into this strained relation and writes from shifting positions of changing desires and flowing language. Both authors interpret the relation between man and infinity as ethically relevant. After the question of the conditions of possibility of the relation with infinity, the question is begged as to the concrete ethical and political meaning of this relation.

Levinas, Socialit et argent, Tijdschrift voor Filosofie 50(1988): 415-421.