Sunday, March 5, 2017

Spirit and Body: Levinas on the Cusp of an Awakening of Religion

To arrive where you are, to get to where you are not,
You must go by a way, wherein there is no ecstasy.
---T.S. Eliot, 'East Coker'

Whether on the roads to Marion's Damascus of the saturated phenomenon or Falque's metamorphosis of finitude and the spread body, Levinas's ghostly philosophy lurks in the shadows of forethought. It sometimes seems that all contemporary French phenomenology seeks its origins in Descartes' cogito, the ego that constitutes the world, the ego that thinks its therefore and finds being. Certainly Marion begins here, as does Husserl, the one discovering the straw that breaks the backs of noema and noesis, the other discovering a more pristine and powerful intentionality. Falque, of course, does phenomenology, but bends it toward his own wits, a phenomenology even splintered and splayed open to a post-metaphysical metaphysics, thereby releasing the event of just what goes on between the Cartesian res extensa and the phenomenological 'lived body'.  Levinas, on the other hand, remains skeptical of ontology and intentionality, and his eyes and ears are drawn less to the therefore, and far more intently to the fore-there.  

Il y a. The Levinassian there is. The 'there' prior to the there that is indeed there, the fore-there, where therefore is not even a forethought, where Prometheus sleeps. Such is what comes to Levinas's mind. Levinas's is a ghostly thinking, not quite ghastly, yet open to horror, the night that crutches the insomniac's watch, the creepy indolence that paralyzes before being, and the instinct to retreat into alter[ed]-states of consciousness. Walpole and Shelly have nothing on Levinas. The gothic shades of dark that recede in the Levinassian landscape give proof through this night that Heideggerian ecstasy is a little late to the party of being: there is a hauntology prior to ontology, some more fundamental difference anterior to ontological difference. There is a haunting.

Before the ethics of Levinas's signature work, before the stark alterity and priority of the Other, this remarkable thinker has given us a preliminary study of his concerns, and certainly a critique of Being and Time. As a critique of ontological difference, Existence & Existents ( trans., A. Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne, 1978, henceforth EE; page numbers in parentheses refer to this translation of the work 1st published in 1947 unless otherwise stated) stamps an indelible ethos upon what will later follow in his masterworks, Totality and Infinity, and Otherwise than Being. EE does not present a full-blown theory of the body, or a fleshed-out spirituality; but it certainly outlines an anatomy of consciousness, even a physiology of consciousness, that thinks the fore-there---that hypostasis precedes ecstasis, that position precedes being-in-the-world, that Being itself precedes beings. Do not ask what is it; let us go and make our visit.

Levinas makes haste to describe the there is (il y a going forward to honor the term's untranslatability, unless it appears as there is in Lingis's translation) as the thing unresolved by death, the irreducible term that remains insoluble in the liquidation of finitude. Il y a comprises the locus where subjective and objective existence merge and blur in the event of being (4-5). Indeed, "ontology...affirms that what is essential in human determined by a relationship...with...the nakedness of this bare fact" of Being (3), which "harbors something tragic" (5). The human spirit is always already encountering a tragedy. The merging of existents with existence takes place within the il y a, an otherwise than being that seizes us by the throat.

The maternal wellspring from which an existent gets itself born, or from which birth yanks an existent into existence, is not sufficiently anterior for Levinas; he searches more deeply into that nook, to "that event of birth in phenomena which are prior to reflection" upon any regional ontology (11). He thinks the matrix from which a maternal wellspring might spring. In this regard, he analyzes 'fatigue' and 'indolence', not as mere mental contents, but as modes of a relationship with being, and cleaving of (to?) being. These mental contents express a 'weariness' before existence, and mark the mode of 'refusal' or balking at the contractual terms binding an existent with existence; yet such a refusal marks not a reflection upon such terms, but a pre-reflective, unthematic encounter with, engagement of, immediate response to, a generic document, whose lines remain unread, but remains a threat nonetheless (11-12).

The markers of refusal, though placeholders of retreat or evasion, point to an engagement with being. To engage being, to commit to a contact and contract with being, comprises the act through which an existent enters existence: "If the present is thus constituted by the taking charge of the present, if the time-lag of fatigue creates the interval in which the event of the present can occur, and if this event is equivalent to the upsurge of an existent for which to be means to take up being, the existence of an existent is by essence an activity" (25). This upsurge goes by the name of hypostasis, and the contractual contact of an existent with existence forms a hypostatic union threatened only by time, by another present which can put the union asunder. The hypostatic union, a term Levinas never uses, creates the locus of spirit, of the event of spirituality, though he never formulates this event in quite this manner. Regardless, here, in the hic et nunc of taking a position from which hypostasis becomes an upsurge into Being, time coalesces into the sacrality of a most vulnerable moment.

Though a less reckless strategy would visit the preliminary ideas of EE upon Levinas's later work, the risk of visiting Levinas's more mature elements upon EE, at least with respect to vulnerability, and even the Other, might reward; for the heart of Levinas's philosophical 'spirituality' rests in the structures thought here in EE.  Only in the fore-there of reflection, in the unthematic arena of the pre-ontological structures of consciousness, can we find the disclosure of vulnerability prone to insomnia and horror that hypostasis is heir to. True, for the most part, the Other appearing in EE is a thematic Other, one already clothed, one whose nudity finds itself clothed by form (30). This nudity, already thematic, conceals the body, and only in a relationship with nudity itself do we experience the alterity of the Other (31).

The nudity prior to nudity, the fore-there of an 'undressed being' (31), begins the entry into the il y a, the consummation of being in the experience of night (52), where the 'rustling of the there horror" (55) ushering in the vigil of the insomniac so passive that the night itself 'watches' (63). Only in such utter passivity can the unthematic contents of consciousness (69) take position, a stance from which an upsurge into being poises itself as hypostasis. From such states, such stases, such static asymmetry,  a 'base', a 'place', "makes the body the very advent of consciousness", unconcealed in the vulnerability of an unthematic version of nudity. The body locates consciousness as an "irruption of anonymous being" and "is position itself" (70). The spirituality of the body is the event of its position, and the moment of its present, the sacred time of the hypostatic union, where Being and being, existence and the existent, contract a merger, "a pure event of being" (71). "Position is the very event of the instant as a present" (70).

The event of being harbored in the hypostasis, the hypostatic union, "signifies the suspension of the anonymous there is," for "on the ground of the there is, a being arises...By hypostasis anonymous being loses its there is character" (83). Truly this is sacred ground consecrated by human spirituality through the posture of the body, the body taking its position in the instant of its present, and there is no time like the present, yet is "not the future above all the resurrection of the present?" (94). Though there can be no redemption of pain, "the movement of the caress" of the consoler transports suffering " 'elsewhere' " (93). Hope should not be spent on wiping away every tear or avenging every death, for the wages of pain simply move into an instant that follows an instant; rather the object of hope should be the future itself, where every instant of every present receives salvation.

Hypostasis is anterior to, prior to, more essential than any ecstasy leaping into an already thematic being-in-the-world. It makes its upsurge from a matrix otherwise than being, and, for the visually minded, it is the photo-negative of Heideggerian ecstasis, the mold into which such ecstasy pours itself into the world. The unthematic contents of consciousness create the vulnerability that only an unthematic Other whose utter vulnerability can transgress---as the Other in the Same; not that alterity of the Other homogenizes within such sameness, but as the disruption,  the roiling of the waters in the pool of the Same; the other is totally other, despite a family resemblance. The Other in the Same provides the site of an uncontainable human spirit, a spirit that only "the gravest sin" attempts to put on the clock,  in the time of trains and the sun (101). Though Levinas can think the coalescence, a congealment, of time, any reification of the spirit within the timebound shuts down the instant, desecrates the preciousness of the present that must be cherished, and positioned for resurrection.


  1. Philosophers are easily allured to any temporal and logical anteriority. They are always leapfrogging over something trivial or banal or known or "taken for granted" or obvious or uncontroversial toward something more real, more interesting, more true, more perfect, more whole, more infinite, etc, etc. No one seems less interested in finite entities than philosophy—save its revelation-enhanced cousin, theology.

    I see little respect or interest in the concrete units we encounter in life when I read Levinas. Or Marion. Or Derrida. Or you.

    Why this urgent need for a beyond or a before? Why the obsession with grounds and horizons and not lamps or quasars?

    I haven't read a lot of Levinas. But I have read Rahner. And the only way his project gets off the ground is that finitude is nothing in itself, only a limit to call our attention to the limitless. Finite objects—their existence, their nature, their structure—offer no resistance to human beings and are swallowed up in an ever greater horizon.

    Who can say that phenomenology and theology are, categorically, wrong? But a good case can be made that they are at least severely misguided. They all seek infinite absolutes of one sort or another.

    This is another aspect of OOO that I feel is crucial: yes, there IS transcendence. But it's the transcendence of finite entities themselves, not any nebulous ground or horizon without unity or finitude.

    I am skeptical that saturated phenomenon can even be differentiated from any other kind *of phenomena*. For besides an object which saturates our intuition, there is still another object—not God, nor Truth, nor Being, nor Love—beyond our experience of an object or an event lies a finite causality which can only be neglected by intuition. The real, causal object or thing does not saturated our intuition, appearing as "too much," but withdraws from it, neglected.

    Harman's real object does not overwhelm us at all. Only the object encountered overwhelms. The real unit, as a causal component of our experience, is less than our experience of it.

  2. "Hypostasis is anterior to, prior to, more essential than any ecstasy leaping into an already thematic being-in-the-world."

    It's hard to read this without agreeing with Harman that particular objects—the thematic—are an annoying aspect of experience that must be debunked or gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. All the action is happening elsewhere. And that elsewhere, unsurprisingly, is amenable to your religious beliefs if not an outright confirmation of them! Imagine that.

    This provides ample grounds, too, for your claims about God and evil. The reality of evil, like the thematic units that make up our experience, is an inconvenience for your religious commitments and little more.

  3. Thanks for the close reading, Joseph.

    In any phenomenology of givenness, or other radical phenomenology (which I think Levinas is really about, and what Michel Henry is consciously 'doing'), no occasion of undermining, overmining or duomining arises, though admittedly, I have presented Levinassian 'anteriority' as something that could be understood as undermining; but that is on me, and not Levinas. I give Levinas the benefit of the doubt on this point, and certainly the preliminary nature of EE should not be made to answer to Levinas's 'mature' work.

    When I think this newer form of phenomenology, I do not see it within Harman's critique of Husserl (and even Heidegger), but more within his sense of 'paradox' (see my "Some Comments on Harman's Immaterialism"). In any event, 'anteriority' is a different beast than any form of atomism when in the hands of the phenomenologists I champion, and must not fall into to Harman' critique of materialism.

    We do not posit anteriority, or something beyond being or essence in order to locate God: that would be absolutely antithetical to phenomenology's project. We discover instead was it truly anterior, not as something merely more fundamental, purer, more real, than being, but as the locus of possibility adjacent to being, a true 'place' really there, and not just some skeleton key to causality and being.