dinsdag 23 september 2008


This picture deserves a big format. For the photograph can elucidate certain aspects of the il-y-a, a theme which plays an important role in Levinas’s work, mainly of the early and middle periods.

Il-y-a with Levinas denotes being, but then being in its specific appearance of formless, undetermined being. He sometimes calls it a noise, a roar, but it also is allied to the perennial silence of infinite space which Pascal talks about. It evokes associations with the ‘nothing’ which other philosophers speak about, but for Levinas the il-y-a is worse, precisely because the anonymous being just goes on infinitely. It is frightening, on the one hand because of its unstoppable character: it is unlimited. But more so by the repugnant indifferent character of the il-y-a, the colossal neutrality of an apalling cosmos. The unlimited aspect evokes disgust, because of the endless continuity, the neutral aspect frightens because of its meaninglessness. Levinas encounters the il-y-a in insomnia.

Already in his book ‘On Escape’ Levinas describes the oppressing experience of being chained to the indifferent being, although he doesn’t call it il-y-a yet. He talks – before Sartre does – about the nausea and the fear which are evoked by that anonymous existence. It makes him look for an escape. Levinas observes that in the course of history all human civilizing efforts were directed to one goal: fighting the wild and depressing il-y-a. Man wants to put the il-y-a at a distance. Whenever possible he will try to procure himself a safe shelter, where he can hide for the cosmic violence. Man starts to regulate and to domesticate. This culminates in the cultivation of his habitat and, at least in the West, in devellopping a rationalistic way of thinking. Man sets out to build houses, riverdams and dikes against the sea. He starts calculating, organizes society and assures his future.

However, observes Levinas, the answer of civilization – articulating the formless being and rationalizing the world – does not suffice as an answer to the meaninglessness of the il-y-a. For, he says, there is the continuous return of the il-y-a, even in two appearances. The original il-y-a, say the primeval il-y-a, manages at times to break through our rational regulations and controls, and because of that unleashed elements like tsunami’s and hurricanes keep threatening us. But apart from that the regulated, insured world brings with it a certain dimness, alienation and loneliness. Those features appear to be inherent to reason and to the high degree of rationality of an organized society. Typical forms of repugnance and disgust belong to it, which nevertheless remind us of the – supposed to be expelled – primeval il-y-a, primarily in the experience of meaninglessness and uneasiness that are allied to a rationalized universe. One could speak of a variety of the primeval il-y-a , I call it the veiled il-y-a.

For one who is familiar with these descriptions by Levinas of the primeval il-y-a on the one hand and the veiled il-y-a on the other, the above photograph is very striking. It shows in a certain way the two spheres next to each other, separated by the Dutch IJsselmeerdam.

The primeval il-y-a, of course, is to be found above the dam, and known as Waddenzee. It radiates the wildness and infinite openness which characterize the il-y-a. The feature of formlessness, which Levinas couples to cosmic forces, does not apply so much to the Waddenzee on this picture. On the contrary, the image shows intensively lightning swipes and shades of color in the water. Because of that it rather approaches the ‘sublime’ as thematized by Romantic poets and thinkers: frightening and mighty, but horribly beautiful.

The veiled il-y-a on the other hand comes to full expression in the enclosed IJsselmeer on the photograph. Safe, domesticated and regulated. But also monotonous, opaque and greyish green, in a certain way made meaningless. Kindred to reallotted landscapes, mirroring officebuildings, strict laborhours, weariness and bureaucracy. Here becomes visible how rationality, on the photograph embodied in the IJsselmeerdam, can become the bearer of the same hurting features which characterized the primeval il-y-a: meaninglessness and indifference.

As said above, the Waddenzee on the picture leaves space for more exciting associations. But in the last resort – as far as Levinas is concerned – a horrifying indifference lies hidden underneath the sublime lightreflections of the Waddenzee and of the rest of the cosmos.

See also Escape

vrijdag 5 september 2008

How naïve is Levinas really?

Quite a few authors consider Levinas as being naïve. They mean by that that he drafted a nice theory on the essence of the human subject as ‘to-be-for-others’, but that he did not treat the question what that looks like in everyday reality.

Mark Dooley, for example, criticizes Levinas because the latter fails to provide concrete suggestions as to how suffering, cruelty and humiliation might be avoided. Because of that omission he calls Levinas politically naïve.

Philosopher Ger Groot in an article compares the work of Levinas with that of Derrida. His conclusion is that the position of the last one is undoubtedly the most realistic because he explicitly gives a place to societal institutions in his analyses.

Columnist Bert Keizer disposes of Levinas in one blow by his characterization of some honest, politically-correct people as figures “who know their Levinas”. Apparently we can speak of exemplary naïvety of the kind that passes into a proverb.

Levinasstudents who have objections against the image of a naïve Levinas sometimes try to defend him by pointing to the role ‘the third’ plays in his work. The absolute obligation which, according to Levinas, man has for the Other is being relativized because apart from the Other there are other others (thirds). To them I have absolute obligations as well, and because of that all obligations become less absolute. Weighing of all obligations against each other finds place in the political and constitutional institutions of a society. Levinas considers their existence of great importance, but he stresses that the original moral obligations are always to a certain extent betrayed by the weighing and the calculation that goes with it.

I have never been impressed very much by this kind of defense of Levinas. For, when it comes to weighing people’s intrests Levinas does not offer us any particular added value. He just sanctions a tradition of social and political philosophy which already for centuries emphasizes the importance of weighing intrests and which concentrated much more on its elaboration than Levinas did. At most Levinas can elucidate whý so much energy and thinking power is invested into that tradition. That is, because the appeal of the Other lies at its base.

Moreover, the bringing up of the third as an argument against naïvety does not remove the adduced objections. For nowhere in his treatment of the third Levinas speaks in really concrete terms (as, by the way, he fails to do in his treatment of the second/the other). So, also with the third, you can keep having the feeling that he is rather vague and doesn’t do justice to social reality. That’s why I think we should not look for the value of Levinas’ writings in the field of social philosophy. For that there are social philosophers and it has never been Levinas’s own intention to practice social philosophy.

His intention wás, actually, to show that everything we invent in the field of the weighing of intrests, never is just good. It originates in something else, namely in the absolute obligation for the other, and that obligation keeps being betrayed by the weighing of intrests. However beneficial the work of our legislators, judges and scientists may be, the selfcomplacency those institutions sometimes display is definitely out of place as far as Levinas is concerned. And the stability and quality of their products have a high illusory degree, when measured to the question how much violence is being done to the original moral obligation.

Levinas’s real contribution, I think, is in his indefatigably emphasizing the illusory character of much of our rationally constructed reality. This seems to me to be a far from naïve, but rather sharply critical position, in which political and other respectable institutions are never just taken for granted. Apart from that Levinas is very conscious of the possibly offensive nature of his position, for he explicitly links this position to the Jewish tradition of prophets and rabbis who cherished the moral voice and by that raised a lot of trouble for themselves.

Levinas knows very well that the message of the Jewish tradition which he brings, does not fit into social reality just like that. He has no illusions about the resistance that established institutes and fierce nations may display when they are confronted with appeals to conscience. Without going into the complexities of those confrontations he realizes that the voice of the Jewish conscience runs the risk of being reduced to “the whispering of a subjective voice, without being mirrorred or sanctioned by an objective order. Jewishness is: humanity on the verge of an ethics without institutions”.

Levinas is familiar with the dangers of that position. The conscience which asks subversive questions, he says, runs the risk to end up suddenly and without being warned in the comfortlessness of its exile, its desert, its ghetto or camp. “Already an icy wind sweeps through the elegant apartments, which rips the paper and paintings from the walls; it extinguishes the lights, makes the walls crack, snatches clothes into pieces and carries along the howling and roaring of merciless crowds. Is this anti-Semitic Word, which does not resemble any other word, an insult like any other insult?”

One may question whether in this passage Jewish tradition and anti-Semitism are not rendered too much reified and essentialized. But one can definitely not say that Levinas thinks too easy about the problem which is at stake. He knows all about it.

To see and not to be seen

Gyges, a mythological figure from Antiquity, happens to find a ring which can make him invisible. From the moment he discovers this possibility he slips down into a attitude of complete immorality. Because now he can follow his bent and get away with it, he doesn’t shy back for anything anymore. He starts cheating people and he ends up raping the queen and murdering the king. Plato, who tells us this story, makes clear that there is an obvious relation between invisibility, shamelessness and moral decline.

Levinas loves this story. He applies it to the process of acquiring scientific knowledge. According to him, that process is characterized by putting the objects of scientific research at a distance and then passing rational judgments on them. In short, it is spying upon the world from a sheltered position: seeing without being seen.

Because of this interpretation of Gyges, Levinas’s evaluation of his actions is, unlike Plato’s evaluation, not just negative. Of course it is not sympathetic to reduce the world to dead material which, via experiments and reasonings, you can manipulate as much as you like. But in a way, according to Levinas, it is unescapable for us to do so: we humans are beings that create representations in our heads, by which we reconstitute the world and thus keep our foothold. And although that mental reconstruction is an illusion, we cannot help doing it. Moreover, says Levinas, the pursuit of objective knowledge is very laudable: it helps us make the world better accessible for each other.

Apart from that, for Levinas – in opposition to Plato and other philosophers as for example Sartre – shame is not only connected with being seen but as much with seeing. And, indeed, one may wonder whether watching without ever being moved, as Gyges apparently could, is possible at all. The manipulator (Gyges) may, be it only for the twinkling of an eye, be touched by the injuries his manipulative violence and objectifying gaze bring about. The accompanying shame comes from within and, by that, is not dependent on the visibility of his deeds. That shame will have a corrective effect on his intercourse with the world.