Levinas, Exploding Genders and Sexualities ?

LEVINAS : FOR THE FEMININE OTHER

Part 3

The margins regularly produce some of the most pertinent voices. Mitchel Verter is a rather unknown and unrecognized scholar, who dissimulates this qualification of his on the background of his résumé, to highlight his professional activity as restaurant waiter and suicide counsellor. He has nonetheless written a series of fascinating essays on Levinas, Heidegger, Nietzsche and others, all available in his obscure page, hosted on a communitarian website. He does not hide his anarchic leanings, and he shows a certain sympathy for gay, lesbian, transgender, transsexual and queer identities. It is with regards to this last feature that “Levinas, Perverter”, Verter’s interpretation of Levinas on gender, 1 is remarkably unique, as well as impressively erudite. Rereading Levinas, he suggests that the French philosopher is neither defining the reference of an exclusively masculine sexuality, or the subsidiariness of the feminine, but rather, construing a performative and multiform sexual identity. In the course of his discussion, Verter describes the assumption of his undertaking: “To avoid confusing Levinas’s moral height with ressentiment, we must oppose the hierarchical logic of dogmatic orthodoxy by becoming subverters, overturning thought from below.” 2 In the prose of Verter, Levinas too is a subverter, an intentionally provocative thinker whom we must liberate from its classical and superficially politically correct interpretations.

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Verter argues, “Levinas does not issue prescriptive commands, but instead demonstrates how the prescriptive is already embedded in the existential.”… This is indeed the deeper direction of Levinas’s general project: he is not trying to set the ‘programme’ of humanity’s moral struggles to come, or to bring any solution, but rather to describe what constitutes the ethical situation as such.

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Verter announces directly his understanding of Levinas’s controversial language. Western philosophy, its logic, its thinking and its language are all androcentric, and Levinas was one of the few to not deny it: “Whereas many sensible, egalitarian thinkers try to masquerade this legacy by using gender-neutral language, Levinas deliberately foregrounds the problematic of gender.” To try avoiding the perpetuation of this fundamentally unequal structure, Levinas actually developed a ‘strategy’. Verter frontally opposes Richard Cohen, one of today’s most prominent Levinas scholars, who had equated the ethical philosophy of Levinas to a set of (rather monotonous) moral prescriptions. Verter argues, “Levinas does not issue prescriptive commands, but instead demonstrates how the prescriptive is already embedded in the existential.” Indeed, as we know, Levinas follows Heidegger and the latter’s introspection of the everydayness of human life. But this sentence also highlights the deeper direction of Levinas’s general project: he is not trying to set the ‘programme’ of humanity’s moral struggles to come, or to bring any solution, but rather to describe what constitutes the ethical situation as such. Levinas is thus an observer or, rather, a describer: the value of his thought relies upon the level of pertinence of his descriptions. He is not – actively, at least – trying to defend a particular view of humanity, humanism, politics, etc. This remark is central because it also announces a possible way to understand Levinas’s occasionally controversial language: he is only trying to make sense of the experience of life, and not to posit certain beings’ ontological value above that of others.

Verter’s interpretation of Levinas in “Levinas, Perverter,” is particularly insightful as it puts all the focus on the unsaid assumptions of several trends of interpretative tradition. Verter quotes at length Derrida, and one can see his affinity with the reading method of the latter. To understand Levinas, one would have to reconstruct Levinas’s original literary creation behind his works, that is, to look carefully at the meaning of the words he uses, and, in particular, how their etymologies often divert from the common signification we attach to them. Verter remarks: “Levinas carefully picks each word in his texts with attention to its etymological and morphological resonances,” and “Levinas is always aware of roots, prefixes and suffixes.” Thus, in the most Nietzschean and Derridean of traditions, Verter’s study becomes, with an impressive density, an etymological exploration of some of the most central terms used by Levinas.

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Levinas certainly found solace in the fact that there are more than one gender. Affirming the genders, it is affirming one more face of difference, and therefore, continuing to try recognizing the otherness of the Other.

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A number of tropes to which Levinas refers can, henceforth, be analyzed through this light. Family is one: the Other is like a brother; the son is the “Other in the Same” of the father; the relation to the feminine is the necessary way to engender a society following the motif of fraternity… Verter explains: “For Levinas, the notion of “family” connotes the way an individuated, separated multiplicity of entities are already related to each other, through social temporalities and moral obligations that pre-exist the political order.” If Levinas tries so hard to transform the Other into a brother, or to make humanity ‘a big family’, it is because Levinas is very aware that, paradoxically, from the start, the individual is not so separated from the world. There is already a structure, a background that is present, in principle, from as early as birth, and this structure, the family, asserts the profound relative-ness and dependence of individuals, who are otherwise wrongly perceived as distinct entities. Family is therefore a positive trope, an image of reference in Levinas’s discourse; we can still criticize its limitations, but it is more difficult to speculate his value judgements on some elements of the family (the wife/mother, the daughter). The etymological exploration starts when Verter qualifies this family: “For Levinas, the generative family demonstrates that, rather than merely issuing from an origin, existence is a continuous creation.” Levinas is not a thinker obsessed with the idea of origin (of the human? of the Other?); instead, he focuses on the surprising ‘capacity’ of existence to produce itself permanently. The family, and the generative capacity of the mother, are thus praised: “this continuous GENesis must be understood as a creative enGENdering and thus the gender informs all phenomenological matters. As with the family, gender is essential for overcoming a unifying totality.” In other words, Levinas certainly found solace in the fact that there are more than one gender. Affirming the genders, it is affirming one more face of difference, and therefore, continuing to try recognizing the otherness of the Other. Levinas’s defence of genders is, moreover, particularly technical, and in some cases specifically grammatical: through the affirmation of genders, it is also language that can become less totalitarian: it is only through a variety of genders that we can break with the neuter, implicitely used for centuries as “the sole gender formal logic knows.” 3 It is the impression of unity, of a total cohesiveness, which always seems dubious and dangerous to Levinas. And while German and English do possess a neuter case, French lacks it. But this does not mean that this language-world avoids the problems of genders: a number of concepts, in French, are ‘arbitrarily’ associated with one gender or the other. Subject, master or citizenship are all masculine, while family, home or kindness are feminine.

Verter, in his subversive style, attempts a direct understanding of the history of Levinas’s concept of the feminine. He suggests that one could try to ‘name’ this feminine with “a proper name, a biblical name.” Verter also recalls that Levinas, early on, had announced, “all philosophy is perhaps a meditation on Shakespeare.” 4 And the commentator finds in Totality and Infinity a Shakespearian character, Macbeth. 5 But who is Macbeth? Or ‘what’ is Macbeth? In common Gaelic, Verter continues, “Mac” means ‘son of’. But while such prefixes generally precede masculine names – the name of the father – here appears the name of a woman: Beth. Verter then notices that in Hebrew too, Beth is a feminine name, but, more interestingly, it is also the second letter of the alphabet: ב. As a prefix, it signifies “inside” or “interiority.” But it is also the very first letter of creation, as first letter of the very first book of the entire Torah. That is not all: “Beth” is also the Hebrew word for “house” and “dwelling.” And, since Hebrew uses letters to represent numbers, ב is also the representation for the number 2. All these elements suffice to bring a sudden, unexpected, and surprisingly profound, context for Levinas’s meditations on the feminine. But there is more. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas reflects upon the possibility of multiplicity, of plurality: “The plural … is given to a number. Unity alone is ontologically privileged. Multiple in synthesis is no more.” 6 In other words, we do not confront multiplicity but rather the multiplication of singularity. That is why the one, the first, is only a figure of totality, of reduction of the difference and of multiplicity. Beth, the feminine, the second, is therefore the only hope for a genuine plurality. Levinas would recognize it, when writing “Sexuality is in us neither knowledge nor power, but the very plurality of our existence.” 7 Following an absolutely refreshing discussion on Levinas’ treatment of various mathematical entities (the negative, zero, the positive, one, the dual), Verter concludes that “it is necessary to meditate on this entire network encompassed by the motif of “one” before evaluating Levinas’s assertion that morality is “first philosophy” or to address the problem that he “privileges” masculinity.” 8 Indeed, it is now possible to realize that when Levinas proposes ambiguous statements regarding priority and genders, it is not necessarily in a way that comforts the masculine, even though this is the logical interpretation that we spontaneously have of it.

Verter suggests that a careful reading of the very prose of Levinas, who was so insistent on recalling “the Other in the self,” suffices to recognize the figure of a woman in the subjective I. Verter recalls a passage from Totality and Infinity: “I welcome the Other who presents himself in my home by opening my home to her.” 9 Here, the subject, previously masculine, seems to borrow a feminine identity. Other instances also appear. Nonetheless, Verter confirms the critique of de Beauvoir: Levinas truly associates the masculine with a position of privilege, of singularity, of one-ness, and inversely for the feminine. But, Verter adds, nothing in Levinas tells us that the position of “privilege” is preferable to that of the “secondary” feminine.

Verter’s truly innovative take on the question of gender in Levinas is based on a use of Butler’s rejection of the binary division of sexuality. Levinas, as we mentioned earlier, always insisted on a distinction between biological anatomies and genders. The masculine and the feminine would thus be categories meaningful beyond the actual biological maleness and femaleness. By insisting that “the Other is in the Same,” Levinas asserted that it is precisely this duality that inhabits the human self: the self is plural. I am more than “me,” I am the Other directly (through fecundity, etc.) but also through the Other self that I was in the past, and the Other self I will be in the future. Plural selves also mean, necessarily, plural genders and plural sexualities. Verter goes on to read a passage of Levinas’s “Phenomenology of Eros” in a manner “that can read heterosexually, homosexually, transsexually, or completely otherwise:” 10

“The relation with the carnal and the tender precisely makes this self arise incessantly: the subject’s trouble is not assumed by his mastery as a subject, but in his entendrement, his effemination, which the heroic and virile I will remember as one of those things that stand apart from ‘serious things’.” 11

Here, Levinas clearly posits the sexual experience of the male as a move towards the tender, the tactile, the sensible, towards the figure of the feminine. The sexual male is not anymore the ‘master’, the ‘heroic and virile’ masculine figure of the heteronormative assumption. It could be – and this is, visibly, the suggestion of Verter – also the figure of a male about to initiate, for instance, a homosexual experience. Such statements would thus mark Levinas’s attempt at describing sexualities, and beyond, genders, as necessarily undetermined. Verter furthers this argument by interpreting significative passages from Otherwise Than Being, to reinforce the possible homoerotic tone of Levinas’s discussion – even from his most abstract discussions. Like Sandford, Verter connects the ambiguity of the sexual account in Levinas to the profound ambiguity of sexualities in the Greek context. There would be more, in other words, than conservative gender dynamics, in Levinas’s discussions of the sexual.

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References

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Footnotes

  1. Mitchell Verter, “Levinas, Perverter,” n.d., accessed November 22, 2013, www.waste.org/~roadrunner/writing/Levinas/LevinasPerverter_20_1.htm#_edn3.
  2. Ibid. Unless otherwise indicated, the quotes reproduced in this section all come from this source. Being a web article, it lacks page numbering.
  3. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 256.
  4. Levinas, Time and the Other, 72.
  5. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 231.
  6. Ibid, 274.
  7. Ibid, 276.
  8. Verter, “Levinas Perverter.”
  9. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 171.
  10. Verter, “Levinas Perverter.”
  11. Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 270.