Others and the Loved Other

AN ETHICS OF LOVE

Part 1.1

Levinas writes about the encounter of the Other as a ‘perturbation’ or ‘interruption’ of our everyday human experience. The Other is not only the shelter, or the incarnated form, of the Infinite. It is, for Levinas, what complexifies our spontaneous understanding of time itself. Time is what gets interrupted by the Other. But if the Other is defined as the interruption of time, perhaps we should go further and expand this idea, to argue that, particularly, the loved Other is the interruption of our social life, that is, of the realm of all our relations to Others. There is here a resemblance, the repetition of a motif, or the appearance of a model: a whole interrupted by a singular event. The Other as my phenomenological experience interrupting the course of my life in time is analogous, on the form, to the loved Other as interrupting the course of my concrete experience with all Others. The loved Other is a further qualification, a specific case amongst all the Others whom I encounter. My perceptive system, the instrumental apparatus of my receptivity to the world, is considered to be generally ‘switched on’, ‘scanning’ through what my senses bring to my consciousness, naming the perceived objects, judging their identity and features, evaluating their worth. The encounter of the loved Other disrupts this constant receptivity. The disruption can be instantaneous – the romantic trope of ‘love at first sight’ – or it can be progressive, occurring in time, when an Other only becomes the loved one through a slow process involving the responding desire and commitments of both the subjects. But it is, indeed, a disruption. My senses do not anymore receive data from the world. My intention gets ‘attracted’ by one source of sense-data and ‘wants’ to receive more from it. This is the arch-example of the concept of intentionality as posited by Husserl in the early forms of phenomenology. It was, in those days, a revolution in the philosophical debates on perception: the subject is involved in what she perceives of the world; perception is not a one-way process. Here, perception gets polarized, oriented in one direction alone: the loved Other. She appears as a phenomenological event of primordial importance: it is the experience of encountering this particular Other, which is to view before me (phainomenon, what appears). But there is behind this phenomenological level of understanding an underlying background: more than a perceptual event, it is also the announcement of a major, disrupting metaphysical or ontological event: this remarkable being is; she, too, is in this world. Levinas famously argued against western philosophy, by ethics before ontology, but we shall argue here that, in its temporal conception, the love relation is also a metaphysical event, as marker of the incredible and ever enigmatic co-existence of the loved Other in the world in which I dwell.

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There is here a resemblance, the repetition of a motif, or the appearance of a model: a whole interrupted by a singular event. The Other as my phenomenological experience interrupting the course of my life in time is analogous, on the form, to the loved Other as interrupting the course of my concrete experience with all Others. The loved Other is a further qualification, a specific case amongst all the Others whom I encounter.

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The face-to-face with the loved Other is, thus, a switch of agendas, the turn of my gaze naively open to all that the world can offer, towards this one specific subject emerging from the flux of phenomena. It is the turn from the popular assumption of infinity, believed to be present in our pluralistic world inhabited by billions of Others, to the ethical infinity of the singular Other, as Levinas names it. For him, the real infinity is not outward, external, in the multiplicity of humans or in the possible infinity of the cosmos. Infinity is to be found in the one Other present before my eyes, about whom none of my totalizing concepts and thoughts can start negating the absolute Otherness. Just like an infinite cosmos where I can never reach the edge – because it is infinite – I can never reach, in spite of the greatest closeness, the Other. Even with the greatest closeness, as we shall argue: even in love.

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References

Image courtesy: SB

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