Levinas : Otherwise, Time

PHENOMENOLOGIES OF TIME

Part 3

Like a Happy Families card game: as Emmanuel Levinas undertakes his own creative interpretation of phenomenology, he too inherits of a keen attention to the central question of time. A student of both Husserl and Heidegger in Freiburg in the year 1928, his indebtedness to them is sufficiently proved through the numerous translations and commentarial works that he dedicated to them for nearly two decades afterwards. But in the late 1940s, Levinas kicks off his own speculative studies, that is, inevitably, he takes of a certain critical distance from Husserl, first, but also, progressively, from Heidegger as well. Heidegger remains clearly a closer influence of Levinas, but the latter would soon sense a feeling of discomfort with the former’s philosophy, an impression only further confirmed through the ideological and political association of Heidegger with the Nazis from 1933 onwards. But indeed, indubitably, for Levinas, the human being is still ‘thrown-in-the-world’ and s/he still is primarily preoccupied by the practical concerns of solitude, survival and death, before stepping into the cosy ‘control room’ of the theoretical thinkers and their philosophic systems. Levinas knew that his intuitions were bound to lead to complicated texts: they are the ‘translations’ of a peculiar, external sensibility into the classical and logic-bound idiom of philosophy, as used from the Greeks to the language of classical modern philosophy. But this unique encounter is also what makes Levinas’s works particularly insightful.

In this section, I shall try to briefly account for the new elements brought up by Levinas in his contributions to a phenomenology of time. His oeuvre is quite vast, and, as Derrida commented, it reaches us like the movement of waves coming and going, always to return and hit the same shore. In other words, Levinas seems to discuss the same questions again and again, but each text, each section, each paragraph brings a subtle nuance. Presenting ‘Levinas on time’ would therefore imply either to look at his last texts mentioning this theme, considered, thus, as the ‘final words’ on the question, or, perhaps, instead, to follow carefully the evolution of his writings on the topic, throughout the decades of his career. But yet another method would be to study one of his early texts on time, and to evaluate its novelty, its strengths and its potential weaknesses, as one possible view on the question, even if it precedes the clarifications the author was to suggest a few years or decades later. This is the method I will adopt here, through a reading of a particular section of his 1949 book, propitiously entitled Time and the Other. 1

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In the instant, the ‘currency’ of time, or the temporal condition in which existence is experienced, the subject is faced with two contradictory facts. The instant is, first, the realm of the subject’s freedom, that is, of “the mastery the existent exercises on existence” (Existence and Existents). But the instant is also that which reminds the subject, perpetually, of its fundamental incapacity to liberate itself from its own self: it is the evidence, always repeated, of “the weight of existence on the existent.”

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Is there such thing as my time? This is the question that Levinas is asking in Time and the Other. To reach this problematic, Levinas establishes a precise conceptual progression. In his previous work, Existents and Existence, 2 Levinas had discussed the state of being of what Heidegger called Dasein, the human individual. For Levinas, the subject’s fundamental experience is one of solitude, of separation from the rest of the world. In the instant, the ‘currency’ of time, or the temporal condition in which existence is experienced, the subject is faced with two contradictory facts. The instant is, first, the realm of the subject’s freedom, that is, of “the mastery the existent exercises on existence.” 3 But the instant is also that which reminds the subject, perpetually, of its fundamental incapacity to liberate itself from its own self: it is the evidence, always repeated, of “the weight of existence on the existent.” 4 The difficulty of being, for Levinas, is therefore that of being able to address the experience of life between these two contradictory facts of open freedom and absolute restraint. In Time and the Other, Levinas complements this discussion by suggesting that it is in work and the suffering that follows it, that one can fully experience this profound restraint on the subject. This is particularly the case in physical work: “While in moral pain one can preserve an attitude of dignity and compunction, and consequently already be free; physical suffering in all its degrees entails the impossibility of detaching oneself from the instance of existence. It is the very irremissibility of being.” 5 The leap towards the concept of death is already very near: death is like a “paroxysm” of work and suffering. It is its logical evolution.

From the start, what marks Levinas on the question of death is how this event defies any understanding, any discourse. Even just saying “my death” is an epistemological reduction of that which “cannot take place in the light.” 6 ‘Light’ here refers to the act of knowledge, presented through the ocular analogy of a clear sight, as commonly used from Plato to Descartes. The troubling point, regarding death, is that “the subject is in relationship with what does not come from itself.” 7 Here, one must remember that since Husserl, phenomenologists believed that one can be conscious of the world only inasmuch it follows an intentional process, that is, a process of ‘access’ to the ‘outer world’ that is already limited by what was initially intended. The subject is not passive in her act of consciousness. This brings Levinas, a few pages before, to set the tone of his discussion thus: “Reason is alone. And in this sense knowledge never encounters anything truly other in the world.” 8 Because death is the end of the subject through which all knowledge of the world is mediated, statements like “the experience of death,” “my death” or “I am aware that I will die” can never truly make sense. Our relationship to death, Levinas tells us, is one with “mystery.” 9 The subject is passive in front of her death; in front of death “the subject is no longer a subject.” 10

This is where Levinas can confront Heidegger’s understanding of death. As I discussed in the previous section, for Heidegger, facing death is the ultimate form of an authentic life, one full of lucidity and self-realisation. As an actualisation of the subject as free subject, this awareness is what permits the growth of the subject as an active subject. Levinas reverses the balance: death, the culmination of suffering, is only the paroxysm of the subject’s passivity. “Death in Heidegger is an event of freedom, whereas for me the subject seems to reach the limit of the possible in suffering. It finds itself enchained, overwhelmed, and in some way passive.” 11 Levinas does not deny freedom, or the human’s ability to act. But action or freedom can only come to be in the present: “The now is the fact that I am master, master of the possible, master of grasping the possible. Death is never now.” 12 For Heidegger, death marked the ‘possibility of possibilities’ while for Levinas it shows ‘the possibility of impossibility,’ that is, the possibility of an end of myself, that is, of everything I know. It is the possibility that I as a subject lose my power of action, of freedom: “What is important about the approach of death is that at a certain moment we are no longer able to be able.” 13

Death is thus for the human the getting-closer to an event which can be assimilated to no prior thought, language or phenomenon. This is the event that interests Levinas: “we are in relation with something that is absolutely other…” 14 One can observe how alterity or otherness, the grand theme of Levinas’s oeuvre, arrives, in his early texts, through more specific questions, as these acquire the aspects of alterity. But this alterity is not a fruitless realisation: there actually is an alterity, there is something that transcends and remains forever mysterious for the self in me who ‘masters’ my existence. There is something that could contest its autocracy. ‘My death’ is not mine anymore; it is precisely that which indicates the possibility of a scission within myself. Or, in Levinas’s words, “my solitude is thus not confirmed by death but broken by it.” 15 Death, as an event ungraspable by the subject, is the first evidence, in Levinas’s works, of the possibility of something ‘breaking’ the seemingly absolute separation of the subject from the world. This also means that within each existent, each thing that is, there is more than one singular existent, but already a plurality. For Levinas, this constitutes the motif that he lacked to describe the relation that one existent, myself, holds with other existents, other human beings. “The other is in no way another myself, participating with me in a common existence,” Levinas tells us; “the relationship with the other is a relationship with a Mystery.” 16 The implications are immense, and the novelty of Levinas’s realisation is only fully visible when he asserts: “Consequently only a being whose solitude has reached a crispation through suffering, and in relation with death, takes its place on a ground where the relationship with the other becomes possible.” 17 In other words, the solitary subject can only acknowledge the otherness of the Other through the experience of suffering as a premonition of death, now realised as the proof of a fissure within oneself.

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Death is thus for the human the getting-closer to an event which can be assimilated to no prior thought, language or phenomenon. This is the event that interests Levinas: “we are in relation with something that is absolutely other…” (Time and the Other) One can observe how alterity or otherness, the grand theme of Levinas’s oeuvre, arrives, in his early texts, through more specific questions, as these acquire the aspects of alterity.

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Until now, Levinas’s discourse on time appears as an extension of the themes of solitude, and the question of death, as brought forth by Heidegger. But he also reaches certain conclusions that appear more general, that is, distinct from discussions of time reduced to the human’s existential experience of time. Describing further, Levinas contends: “The future is what is in no way grasped. The exteriority of the future is totally different from spatial exteriority precisely through the fact that the future is absolutely surprising.” 18 Nearly fifty years later, these lines would resonate through the political turn of Jacques Derrida’s works. At that point, Derrida would suggest a distinction between two terms: on the one hand, the future is the time ahead of us in which we can make plans and projections, and on the other hand, the avenir (in French, ‘to-come’) is the future that is absolutely unpredictable and therefore open to all possibilities. Derrida’s source of inspiration is transparently evident here. Unlike space, Levinas tells us, time, through its dimension à venir, is the realm of that which is unpredictable, ungraspable, uncontrollable, and therefore, always surprising.

This fundamental feature of the future is, it seems, an absolutely central point that the ‘scientific’ theories of time miss, just as it is also missed by the very critics of these theories, be they even Husserl, Heidegger, but also, as Levinas adds, Bergson and Sartre. 19 The future cannot and should not be conceived as the ‘future of the present’, that is, as the projected ‘present in the future’, or, in other words, as the continuation of the cognised present in the future. Breaking the subjectivity of the subject, time is therefore also what permits her opening towards the Other, one of the future’s many surprises: “The other is the future. The very relationship with the other is the relationship with the future. It seems to me impossible to speak of time in a subject alone, or to speak of a purely personal duration.” 20 The unpredictability of the Other can be experienced through the unpredictability of the future, and vice-versa. Both are inaccessible to my consciousness as cognisable objects.

If death is the main event that comes to challenge the subjectivity of the subject, Levinas suggests that it is actually throughout the subject’s life that this solipsistic and solitary subjectivity can be questioned. One is always, permanently a mortal, therefore defined throughout her life by the announcement of her rupture: “the death thus announced as other, as the alienation of my existence, is it still my death? … How can the existent exist as mortal and nonetheless persevere in its “personality,” preserve its conquest over the anonymous “there is,” its subject’s mastery, the conquest of its subjectivity?” 21

What Levinas suggests here is a profound questioning of the unity or consistence of the subject. But what makes subjectivity, if the very destiny of any subject – death – is the breaking of this subjectivity? Which event can make the ‘survival’ of the self possible, since there is such an undeniable promise of its ultimate division? Levinas presents one suggestion: “The relationship with the Other, the face-to-face with the Other, the encounter with a face that at once gives and conceals the Other, is the situation in which an event happens to a subject who does not assume it, who is utterly unable in its regard…” 22 Till this point, Levinas is presenting the face-to-face as the passive experience for a subject unable to comprehend what comes ahead of him, just as in his own (non-)cognition of death. But the sentence continues: “… who is utterly unable in its regard, but where nonetheless in a certain way it is in front of the subject. The other “assumed” is the Other.” 23

The prose is still trembling, the claim could be made more clearly, but the blueprint of Levinas’s later works is laid. The Other appears before me and brings an end to my solitude, or, in Richard Cohen’s words, “the time of the Other disrupts or interrupts my temporality.” 24 Levinas concludes, setting in stone the association of time with otherness as the final realisation defeating the illusion of the subject’s solitariness: “The situation of the face-to-face would be the very accomplishment of time; the encroachment of the present on the future is not the feat of the subject alone, but the intersubjective relationship. The condition of time lies in the relationship between humans, or in history.” 25 The subject is not alone anymore; it has entered time, the time of the world: history.

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References

Image courtesy: AADAT Art

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Footnotes

  1. Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1987).
  2. Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents, trans. A. Lingis. (Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic, 1978).
  3. Levinas, Existence and Existents, 77.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Levinas, Time and the Other, 69.
  6. Ibid., 70.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 68.
  9. Ibid., 70.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 70-71.
  12. Ibid., 72.
  13. Ibid., 74.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 75.
  17. Ibid., 76.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 77.
  21. Ibid., 79.
  22. Ibid., 78-79.
  23. Ibid., 79.
  24. Richard Cohen, “Introduction,” in Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1987), 12.
  25. Levinas, Time and the Other, 79.