Levinas, the Patriarch

LEVINAS : FOR THE FEMININE OTHER

Part 1

It is undeniable that Levinas tends to submit numbers of formulations, expressions or hypotheses that seem, to say the least, controversial. In Existents and Existence, Levinas states, “the other par excellence is the feminine,” 1 a proposition that would be complemented, one year later, with the view that the pure “essence” of the feminine is otherness or alterity. 2 In these very years, was published the bedrock of French feminism: Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949). Since the purpose of de Beauvoir, in this essay, was to critically assess the male-oriented approach of women throughout the history of philosophy, the recent contributions of Levinas seemed particularly fit. Just like many authorities before him, Levinas suggested an understanding of the feminine that would be complementary and secondary to the masculine. The subject of the philosophical exploration of Levinas is, through and through, a masculine one, almost pushing the female back into a place void of consciousness and subjectivity. Commenting on Time and the Other, de Beauvoir writes:

“I suppose that Levinas does not forget that woman, too, is aware of her own consciousness, or ego. But it is striking that he deliberately takes a man’s point of view, disregarding the reciprocity of subject and object. … Thus his description which is intended to be objective, is in fact an assertion of masculine privilege.” 3

De Beauvoir comments upon Levinas in passing, in a footnote of the introduction of her work. Her critical approach to Levinas’s argument is limited, and she wrote those lines at a time when these views were very new and possibly underdeveloped in the construction of the Levinas’ philosophy. But while Totality and Infinity and Otherwise Than Being could have been, from this perspective, as many possible occasions for Levinas to retrieve his intuitions from those controversial formulations, he would only reinforce the awkwardness felt by many readers, by insisting on a very particular sense of sexual and gender difference. Even through the many publications prepared by Levinas until his death in the mid 1990s, which were meant to further clarify his claims, the ambiguity would persist. In a recent article, Simon Critchley names the five core problems left throughout Levinas’s œuvre as follows:

“1. Fraternity: The conceptualization of justice, community, legality, and le tiers [the third] is continually linked to what Levinas calls ‘fraternity’. … a classical conception of political friendship as fraternity, as a relation between brothers, between free equals who also happen to be male. …

2. Monotheism: … the linking of fraternity to the question of God, and the idea that political community is, or has to be, monotheistic. …

3. Androcentrism: … the feminine is thematized as the essential, but essentially preethical, opening to the ethical. … sorority is secondary to fraternity, sisterhood is secondary to brotherhood.

4. Filiality and the family: … the child is either explicitly the son, le fils, or is thought on analogy with the son, and is linked with the concepts of paternity and fraternity as that which makes ‘the strange conjuncture of the family possible.’

5. Israel: … Israel risks functioning as the name par excellence for a just polity, a polity based on the prepolitical priority of ethical obligation to the other…” 4

Thus, even a commentator as faithful and favourable to Levinas as Critchley cannot deny the slippery slope of Levinas’s comments on feminity. At least three of the five limits mentioned by Critchley are directly related to what would appear as Levinas’s uncritical assumptions on gender issues.

More than three decades after the initial response of de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, the Belgian writer and analyst Luce Irigaray would sign in 1984 what is perhaps, till date, the most famous feminist critique of Levinas: “The Fecundity of the Caress.” 5 This short essay is important, and particularly interesting, as it represents an attempt to address Levinas’s shortcomings as much, or perhaps more, through the form than through the content. While de Beauvoir’s critique was frontal, naming names and quoting quotes, and voicing explicitly the problems occurring in the philosopher’s discourse, Irigaray opted for quite a different strategy. “The Fecundity of the Caress” counts not one mention of the name of Levinas, and only one quote from Totality and Infinity is reproduced. A novice reader would only realize the object of Irigaray’s essay through the subtitle (“A reading of Levinas, Totality and Infinity, section IV, B, “The Phenomenology of Eros”) and the “Selected Biography” that closes the essay, where works exclusively from Levinas are listed. In other words, the essay of Irigaray, while presented as a commentary on a subsection of Totality and Infinity, is a general assessment of the entire project of Levinas, from someone who seems otherwise rather sympathetic with the general project of the philosopher. Levinas’s influence on Irigaray is also noticeable in the style of the essay: it appears as a rather personal account of the experience of the erotic, with a poetic prose, a literary language in its own right. The writing style is thus very similar to the phenomenological style of Heidegger and Levinas. In other words, “The Fecundity of the Caress” could be read as a feminist re-writing of Levinas on love, eros and the feminine.

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This is the trope renamed by Levinas as totality, which he discusses and criticizes thoroughly: the Other is transformed to fit the convenient and familiar worldview of the subject. The caress represents an alternative. In Time and the Other, he writes: “the caress does not know what it seeks. This ‘not knowing’, this fundamental disorder, is the essential.”

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The starting point of Irigaray is shared with Levinas: the caress. The caress is the movement initiated by my subject onto another individual, free from an ‘aim’ to grab anything in particular. A caress is ‘innocent’, and always improvising. Levinas used this event, in his 1940s writings, as a familiar illustration going against the concept of intentionality posited at the heart of human’s interaction with the world, in Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology. If perception is intentional, it means that one’s perception is never ‘innocent’; it always aims at something: I can only be perceiving something, be aware of something, etc. But, according to this view, the subject ‘enters’ the outside world only to take and appropriate elements, before bringing them back into the realm of the self. This is the trope renamed by Levinas as totality, which he discusses and criticizes thoroughly: the Other is transformed to fit the convenient and familiar worldview of the subject. The caress represents an alternative. In Time and the Other, he writes: “the caress does not know what it seeks. This ‘not knowing’, this fundamental disorder, is the essential.” 6 Levinas realized it, and Irigaray also builds upon it. By using the same stepping-stone, Irigaray indicates her sense of agreement with Levinas: this essay will look at other possibilities from the same starting point. “This always still-preliminary gesture, which precedes any union and comes first in all nuptials, which weds without consuming, which perfects while abiding by the outlines of the other, this gesture may be called: the touch of the caress.” 7 Following Levinas’s analysis of this first moments of the erotic encounter, Irigaray also arrives at the sexual intercourse that the caress at times leads to: “the lover continues to caress until he founders in some abyss”; “body and flesh speak to each other.” 8 It is an encounter that opens towards a future, the future of childbearing, that is, in Levinas’s lexicon, fecundity. But, first major separation from Levinas, Irigaray argues that “The son does not resolve the enigma of the most irreducible otherness.” 9 This is going against the very section of Totality and Infinity that the essay is commenting upon, but it is also more at par with the later additions brought by Levinas on this question in Otherwise Than Being – seemingly incorporated into Irigaray’s commentary. But it is not fecundity, as such, that interests the Belgian author.

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The core of Irigaray’s argument will be her insistence on the tactile sense, as opposed to the ocularocentric approach of Levinas: for Levinas, the encounter, the Other, the face to face are all appearing to me through the visual sense. But, Irigaray explains, it is the very specificity of this sense that leads to the shortcomings discussed by Levinas: “Gazing at the loved once, the lover reduces her to less than nothing if this gaze is seduced by an image…” … The sense of sight requires a subject and an object, while touch mixes subjectivities.

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Irigaray aims at retrieving the importance of eros from its later rejections from Totality and Infinity onwards. Eros is the locus of encounter of the Other. Or rather: eros is possible at the only condition that there is an Other: “Porosity, and its utter responsiveness, can only occur within difference.” 10 And this is where Irigaray initiates, implicitly, her critique of Levinas. The core of this argument will be Irigaray’s insistence on the tactile sense, as opposed to the ocularocentric approach of Levinas: for Levinas, the encounter, the Other, the face to face are all appearing to me through the visual sense. But, Irigaray explains, it is the very specificity of this sense that leads to the shortcomings discussed by Levinas: “Gazing at the loved once, the lover reduces her to less than nothing if this gaze is seduced by an image…” 11 In other words, the trope of the face can be misleading: “Lovers’ faces live not only in the face but in the whole body.” 12 It is the visual framework posited by Levinas that leads to the hierarchization of the genders. Because Levinas understands eros as the experience of the solipsistic observer – necessarily male from Levinas’s own account – interacting with another individual but ultimately falling back in his self, it is not a relation of equality that is set, from the start. The sense of sight requires a subject and an object, while touch mixes subjectivities. Irigaray’s reaction is very clear for anyone familiar with the formulations of Levinas: “The beloved falls back into infancy or beyond, while the lover rises up to the greatest heights. Impossible match.” 13 Levinas had already used the word infancy to qualify the state in which the woman appears once the erotic moment is consumed; and, on the contrary, the notion of height is one associated by Levinas to the proper realm of ethics. Here, it concerns exclusively the man.

In order to deconstruct the conceptual progression of Levinas, Irigaray, in an remarkably dense and accurate paragraph, retraces the traditional and masculine understanding of a romantic encounter. Here, the relevance is equally strong with regards to the Semitic traditional setting, as it would be with certain Indian traditions:

“… the loved one, she who renounces her obligations as the beloved, succumbs to the temptation of being seduced by the lover. She divests herself of her own will to love, in order to make herself the stake in the lover’s exercise of will. Which assigns her to the place of nonwilling in his ethical will. Her fall into the lover’s identity cancels out any real giving of self and makes her into a thing, or something other than the woman that she needs to be. She lets herself be taken but does not give herself. She quits the locus of all responsibilities, her own ethical site.” 14

The scenario is tragic but the model is universally recognisable. Irigaray shows clearly how Levinas furthers the traditional understanding of women’s love life as a mere passive response, as acceptation to the initial intention, supposed to be necessarily stemming from the male. She also demonstrates how Levinas’s conceptualization of the feminine can lead to major contradictions, even for Levinas himself, vis-à-vis the ultimate goal of responsibility and respect of differences, which Levinas hoped to reach. Eros, in Levinas, is therefore a failed attempt at constructing an ethics for all subjects: “Voluptuousness would remain that which does not know the other. That which seduces itself, through her, in order to return to the abyss and take up ethical seriousness again.” 15 In turn, this narrow understanding affects even Levinas’s constitution of the son as “Other in the Same”:

“As the fruit of the communion between lover and beloved, the son becomes the lover’s ornament and display of the same as self, the position of the lover’s identity in relation to, and through, paternity.

Conceived in this way, the son does not appear as the fulfilment of love. He bars the way to its mystery? The aspect of fecundity that is only witnessed in the son obliterates the secret of difference.” 16

A few pages before these lines, Irigaray asks, from the perspective of the mother, in the passing of parentheses: “why a son and not a daughter, her other self?” 17 Because Levinas focuses exclusively on the son, he confirms the failure of fecundity as a place of respect of differences: the difference of the mother has been put to silence.

Besides these many elements, Irigaray’s critique on Levinas is usually remembered for one major contribution. She writes: “to define the amorous couple as lover and loved one already assigns them to a polarity that deprives the woman of her love.” 18 It is precisely in relation to this that Irigaray suggests another term, invisible in the English translation: aimante. This is the feminine form of the French aimant, “lover” as used by Levinas. Submitting this new term, Irigaray shows how Levinas always portrays the feminine individual as the passive aimée (“the loved one”), and the male as the active lover or aimant. Irigaray suggests that one must also posit the opposite: an active, feminine lover, the aimante, and the receptive, passive male loved one, the aimé. There is, therefore, an almost militant tone in the critique of Irigaray. She reformulates the objectives at stakes through the erotic experience, and invites both male and female to realize their own subjectivity first, on their own, before hoping to do so through the Other:

“Does the lover not lay upon the loved one what he cannot see in himself? What prevents him from becoming what he is, and from being able to encounter her, herself? Wrapping her up in what he cannot bear of his own identity, he places her, secretly, in the maternal position.” 19

One can only appreciate the benevolent message left by Irigaray in her critique. Unlike the frontal confrontation of de Beauvoir, Irigaray undertakes a thorough investigation of the reflection led by Levinas, before suggesting what may be detrimental to both males and females, and possible ways to avoid these pitfalls.

One more feminist critique of Levinas may be mentioned here. In “A Maternal Alternative? Levinas and Plato on Love,” 20 Stella Sandford attempts a process somehow reversed from what I am building here. The first part of her essay is meant as a response against earlier feminist readings of Levinas, insisting on the relative distance of Levinas from properly patriarchal and misogynistic views. I will discuss some of this in the coming section. But the crux of her argument is a rapprochement of Levinas and Plato on the question of love. Indeed, how could one miss this relation, considering that Levinas claimed very unambiguously in Totality and Infinity, “The place of the Good above every essence is the most profound teaching, the definitive teaching, not of theology, but of philosophy”? 21 Sandford’s critique is to be placed much after Levinas’s elaboration upon Totality and Infinity, that is, after the additions brought forth in Otherwise Than Being. There, Levinas suggests explicitely the construction of an ethical community on the structure of paternity. Sandford traces this conceptual evolution as follows: “The necessity to overcome the duality of erotic coupling in Totality and Infinity, has become, in Otherwise Than Being, the necessity to overcome (to ‘correct’) the duality of the asymmetrical ethical relation, epitomized in maternity.” 22 From the outset, Levinas would respond to this implicit critique by arguing that maternity and paternity are not to be compared: they play different roles. Sandford acknowledges that point. But it remains problematic inasmuch the two concepts are connected with, respectively, eros and love. For Levinas, it is naturally the second that is favoured: the responsibility I hold for my neighbour is “an assignation to a non-erotic proximity, to a desire of the non-desirable, to a desire of the stranger in the neighbour. It is outside of concupiscence…” 23 It is love, and not eros, and it is a masculine trope.

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Sandford comments: “Aristophanes’ story is, precisely, mythic … Aristophanes is more plausibly read as suggesting, mythically, that the man or woman in love acts as if they were trying to join together with their beloved, as if they sought union.” In other words, for Aristophanes, “the impossibility of union is at once the guarantee of desire and … the source of erotic pleasure.”

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The value of Sandford’s essay is in the thorough connection she proposes to a very similar argument in Plato’s Symposium. Following Socrates, Plato posits Love as being the love of beauty, thereby locating, in denial, the root of the universal, serene love within the ‘dirty’ human passion of eros. As Sandford remarks, “Sexual desire is the worm at the core of love and it is the purpose of Socrates’ speech in the Symposium to eliminate it.” 24 Levinas’s view on love from Totality and Infinity is already extant in the Symposium: erotic or carnal love is rejected and posited secondarily after the universal love, precisely because it does not lead to the expected fusion with the Other. In the Symposium, one of the interlocutors opposes Socrates and suggests diverging arguments. Describing forms of sex distinct from the classical, heteronormative marital scenario, including group sex, homosexuality, etc., Aristophanes represents a tradition that is aware of the non-fusion of sex but which does not, for that reason, reject it. Sandford comments: “Aristophanes’ story is, precisely, mythic … Aristophanes is more plausibly read as suggesting, mythically, that the man or woman in love acts as if they were trying to join together with their beloved, as if they sought union.” In other words, for Aristophanes, “the impossibility of union is at once the guarantee of desire and … the source of erotic pleasure.” 25 Levinas seems to miss this subtlety.

In fact, the arguments mentioned by Levinas to favour paternity and fecundity, seeming rather modern at first, are in fact already present in Plato’s view on love. Behind love is one desire: the desire for immortality. It can be achieved either through fame, spiritual attainment or begetting. Naturally, very soon, this immortality seems much more easily and effectively achieved through intellectual creation, a move towards the knowledge of the Platonic world of Ideas. There are, therefore, slowly two rather distinct views on love that emerge, both in the narratives of Socrates and Levinas: “The ambiguity of love, understood as a relation of contradictories (transcendence/immanence, spiritual/physical, divine/profane) gives way both in Socrates’ speech and in Levinas’s intellectual trajectory to a distinction between two different sorts of love: the physical (eros proper) and the spiritual (love proper).” 26 This also justifies Irigaray’s critique: Levinas could not conceive of an access to divinity through caress, because it is tactile: it happens necessarily through physical love.

Contemporary to these various critiques, and even occasionally voiced by the same authors, a number of re-readings of Levinas have suggested rather distinct interpretations from these. Several commentators, feminists and others, have attempted to read Levinas in a way that would welcome and respect the female, maternity, and other related tropes used by the philosopher. In a way, one could speculate that the discussed feminists critiques only engendered more attempts at defending the general seduction of Levinas’s discourse. Levinas himself returned to the feminist debate in some of his last writings. It is this second phase of this debate, or perhaps the second face, proper, at last, which I shall try to present in the coming section.

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References

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Footnotes

  1. Emmanuel Levinas, Existence and Existents, trans. A. Lingis (Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic, 1978), 85.
  2. Emmanuel Levinas, Time and the Other, trans. Richard A. Cohen (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1987), 85.
  3. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H.M. Parshey (London: Picador, 1988), xxii, n. 3.
  4. Simon Critchley, “Five Problems in Levinas’s View of Politics and the Sketch of a Solution to Them,” Political Theory 32, no. 4 (April 2004): 173-175.
  5. Luce Irigaray, “The fecundity of the caress: a reading of Levinas, Totality and Infinity, section IV, B, ‘The Phenomenology of Eros’,” in Claire Katz & Lara Trout, Eds., Emmanuel Levinas: Critical Assessment of Leading Philosophers – Volume 1: Levinas, Phenomenology and His Critics (London & New York: Routledge, 2005).
  6. Levinas, Time and the Other, 89.
  7. Irigaray, “The fecundity of the caress,” 228.
  8. Ibid., 229.
  9. Ibid., 230.
  10. Ibid., 231.
  11. Ibid., 232.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 233.
  14. Ibid., 236.
  15. Ibid., 241.
  16. Ibid., 238.
  17. Ibid., 235.
  18. Ibid., 240.
  19. Ibid., 246.
  20. Stella Sandford,  “A Maternal Alternative? Levinas and Plato on Love,” in The Metaphysics of Love: Gender and Transcendence in Levinas (New Brunswick, NJ: The Athlone Press, 2000).
  21. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority, trans. A. Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA:  Duquesne University Press, 1992), 103.
  22. Sandford, “A Maternal Alternative?,” 92.
  23. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence, trans. A. Lingis (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1981), 123.
  24. Sandford, “A Maternal Alternative?,” 102.
  25. Ibid., 97.
  26. Ibid., 103-104.