Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Toward the Dignity and Justice of Being

The way of thinking proposed here does not fail to recognize being or treat it, ridiculously and pretentiously, with disdain, as the fall from a higher order or disorder. On the contrary, it is on the basis of proximity that being takes on its just meaning. In the indirect ways of illeity, in the anarchical provocation which ordains me to the other, is imposed the way which leads to thematization, and to an act of consciousness.

---Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being: Or Beyond Essence (trans. A Lingis, Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Pr., 1981)

The entry into being does not entail a fall into absolute moral indifference, or even corruption. While Levinas could criticize Heidegger for the paucity of morality in Being and Time, no phenomenology of ontological difference necessarily leads, by its very method, to a disregard of the other as completely other. In the passage above, Levinas sets up his case against a philosophy that 'reduces, by an abuse of language, saying to the said and all sense to interest' (Otherwise Than Being, OTB,16). Already in Existents and Existence, Levinas poses the metaphysical problem of just what takes place prior to an existent's insertion into being, the reluctance if not refusal to enter into a cont[r]act with being under the conditions of insomnia, fatigue, indolence. Speculatively, Levinas posits these structures of pre-phenomenality, of pre-consciousness, where passivity holds sway. Taking a stand before being, what Levinas has named hypostasis, provides the liminality encountering an existent, which is always just out of phase with existence (being).

For Levinas, an existent and existence do not coincide precisely; a lag presents itself. A diachrony characterizes the interface of an existent with existence, where the encounter with the other in proximity occurs and seizes what, for the existent, has not yet become a self realized into being. So in this metaphysical frame (which potentially gives being its dignity and justice) the other who holds me hostage and for whom the 'I' takes full responsibility---and the responsibility even of the other's own responsibility---in substitution, provides the locus of ethics. As Levinas summarizes, he has interpreted 'the subject as a hostage and the subjectivity of the subject as a substitution breaking with being's essence' (OTB, 184).

Levinas, whose allegiance to Husserl is palpable, finds limitations in classical phenomenology, and in order to locate transcendence in its proper frame, opens upon a metaphysics, a first philosophy, of ethics. By placing the ethical moment prior even to ontology,  Levinas introduces a 'morality clause' into the contract with being. Because the other and the approach to the other, the encounter with alterity and illeity, is prior to the self of the subject-in-the- making, ethics shapes the posture of the hypostasis, or what I have dubbed the 'hypostatic union' of the existent with existence. Being is therefore extricated from the problematics of Heideggerian phenomenology, ontology and its existentialist demeanor, in which Dasein's being in the world flirts with the Volk, permitting, in the darker corners of Dasein's moods, all kinds of savagery.

Ultimately, though, Levinas never really parts ways with phenomenology, or at least the spirit of phenomenology. He will eventually come to say that what he was doing through OTB, was phenomenology all along. His approach to the problem of ethics could not fit within the scope of the phenomenology of his day, or at least the orthodoxy of its method. His metaphysics of ethics speculates upon the very nature of phenomenality and therefore of givenness. Because such a metaphysics is embedded within consciousness itself, I am comfortable describing it more along the lines of a radical phenomenology, one that is still thinking the given and therefore within the purview of phenomenology itself. A phenomenology of givenness provides the logical step from Levinassian ethics as first philosophy, yet retains the phenomenological posture. I attribute Jean-Luc Marion's debt to Levinas, at least in part, to this tacit acknowledgment.

Marion's argument with Heidegger is not primarily ethical, though its commitment to the given certainly has ethical if not moral implications; and the inadequacy of the reduction to being or ontology compels Marion to explore just how far down the reduction can go, hence his 'third reduction' to givenness. That a radical phenomenology quests for the end of metaphysics by no means spells the end of speculative thinking; the quest simply critiques the limits of any metaphysics bent on determining the validity of all kinds of phenomena. To privilege givenness does not hold being with disdain or in contempt. Rather, the privilege rescues phenomena from the hegemony of metaphysics, of ontology and ontological difference, of any positivism, and in particular from their tendencies to determine what any kind of knowledge can and cannot be.

Nihilism, too often the final face of existentialism and the positivistic stamp on rationality, impugns all of reality and makes something very small of being. Nihilism opposes any dignity and justice of being. The antidote to nihilism is thinking the thing from itself as it gives itself, as the antidote to mere being is life. As Agamben has convincingly shown, bare life, zoe, is already stripped of dignity and justice, and thematized life, bios, is at least poised for them. For Levinas and Marion, there is no state of exception, no state of being (or givenness) unworthy of dignity and justice. It remains part of my project to locate the origins and locations of dignity and justice in this thing called being, and in part, it attempts this move by asking just what is this thing called love.

Monday, April 10, 2017

No Greater Love: A Reflection on the Triduum

For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son...

οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν θεὸς τὸν κόσμον ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν ἵνα πᾶς πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ’ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον

(Please note an afterword below)

The gift of the Son defies any notion of giving on the side of being. Within being, the gift is wrapped as a ransom, a human sacrifice, a gift with all the strings that being can attach. The gift, what Christians call the Incarnation, does not unfold, finally, in being, in any ontological difference, in any fundamental or regional ontology. The aporia of the gift, this gift, can only unfold within the horizon of its givenness: love. Love bears the same structures of phenomenality as the gift. Love, like the gift, is an 'all or nothing' phenomenon. One does not love a 'little bit', partially, conditionally; whatever strong feeling of desire, affection or attraction might fall under the categories of love in a metaphysical system of prefabricated concepts, styles or fads, what we call here 'love' is nothing like such systems that pass for love in other contexts. The same holds for the gift: what is a gift if wrapped as a promissory note? The love we speak of here, the love of God, enjoys utter anteriority to being itself; love answers to its own givenness, prior to being.

The Incarnation---the Christ-event---by which we mean the nativity of Jesus, his life and ministry, his trials and tribulations, his judgment by the world, the way of the Cross and the Resurrection, while certainly historical and real, does not manifest itself in any fullness in justice within being. What on earth can the death of God mean in the rationality of metaphysics? Or for that matter, what does the impossibility of a God-Man, a Word-made-flesh, of any notion of a 'greater love', do within being if they do not first quicken in the priority of love, and its logic and rationality?

Try as we may, the Cross will always get twisted when we force it into ontology, into any metaphysics of presence, however rarefied a presence we can construct within systematic metaphysics. No rationale for the Cross plays out satisfactorily within the categories of being. No effort, however noble, or rational, or analogical gets us much past onto-theology's bugaboo: theodicy (0r at best, the onto-theological god that fell to his death off Nietzsche's tightrope). We have visited the notion of a theodicy without theodicy recently, and nothing seems to happen on the planes of theodical thinking; vectors of thought point outside such structures, but cannot escape them.

To begin to enter the logic of love, the unfolding of the erotic reduction and the release of the erotic phenomenon, all appeals to causality, empirical reasoning, and being itself must collapse; for love to appear categories and concepts must yield their place of honor in pure reason: the first critique has left the building. In the instance of this love we speak about now, we must allow the Father and the Son to appear, not within frameworks we have constructed for them, but as they appear to each other in the logic of love that can unfold in a practical reason. In the Johannine tradition "God is love". For God so loved the world, the logos gives up his life for a friend. Here begins the logic of love, and it provides the only lens through which to envisage the Father and Son in their face-off at the Cross. Only then can the gift of the Father and the Son manifest as the gift to the 'gifted', or the recipient---in short, to us.

What kind of fatherly love is this that allows the son to die? Why does the father not extricate the son, certainly a small task for the causa sui? The impotence of the verb 'to be' and references to causality underscore that what goes on in the Cross---the event harbored in the Cross---has nothing to do with being, and everything to do with what is prior to being: God loves before he is, and he so loved the world that only the release of absolute holiness through death and resurrection could ratify once and for all love's anteriority to all things related to being. Only the absolute abandon of the self without reservation, with absolute totality of self-emptying can the logic of love, in this case, the logic of the Cross, declare itself from itself, completely and irrevocably. The gift that gives its self, gives itself fully and with abandon to the recipient of the gift, the 'gifted', she who believes in order to see and to hear, she who receives kenotically, with an accommodating self-emptying, a making room for the gift. What is faith, what is belief if not a willingness to open oneself to the possible, to vacate a prejudice to make room for the truth?

This absolute abandon unites love and the gift. This is not really a sequence, for language does not allow representation of equality (or better, identity) here: love and the gift are not separate: they are the same, and as such they belie the differences among philos, eros and agape: for they are one and the same kenosis, the same event of kenosis. This is not the kenosis of Caputo or Altizer---the emptying of transcendence into immanence once and for all in the singular death of God. This is the kenosis of the univocity of love. The one and only univocal term---God loves as we love. We receive the gift in the same love in which it is given. We receive love, when it manifests against a screen of the structures of love.

Who is this friend, this beneficiary of no greater love than this? It is the other, the face of the other, the icon. The face that has me before I am even a self, before I am, in the elemental place that is otherwise than being. Are we helpless before the other? Is this even the right question? Can we then not also ask, is God helpless before the Cross? If these are the right questions, then they come from the seedbed of ontological difference, from being, as if being were absolutely prior, even prior to the nothing, prior even to the matrix from which the self is pulled by the horizon of being. But these are not the right questions, for this is the language of theodicy, theology's dead end and cause of death. To ask these questions is to force the uncontainable into a container.

Before God is before the Cross, the Father loves the Son. How does being fare before the absolute gift? If God is love, then this univocal love appears not merely as a love for the world but the selfsame love of the perichoresis within the immanent life of the Trinity. Being therefore has no standing before love, before the gift, before the kenotic movement that goes by the name, 'love'.

If faint strains of Jean-Luc Marion or Emmanuel Levinas echo in this little Lenten reflection it is because their work has entered my thinking, my seeing and hearing, through their signature ideas of the saturated phenomenon, the face of the other, alterity and the self-as-hostage, as these ideas gel across the shadow of the Cross (In another piece, I shall substantiate my gratitude to these thinkers in the more conventional form of citation). Catholic thinking places no premium on human suffering, a torturous death, or reciprocity of the gift. Instead, it offers its Tradition as a gift, and understands that gift within the absoluteness, the all-or-nothing, of love. What, ultimately, can this gift be, if not Christ himself?



I have heard, quite literally, from the four corners of the earth about the abysmal failure of this Lenten reflection. Perhaps in my haste to put something 'up for Easter' I have perpetrated both religious and philosophical sins. The gist of the critique runs something like this: the piece is too religious for something so 'phenomenological', and too phenomenological for something so 'religious'. Moreover, both the religion and phenomenology are suspect. I am grateful for the loyal readership and loyal opposition, and I should have exercised, in retrospect, better judgment in 'going ahead' with the piece. I will leave the piece up (it crossed my mind to delete it) for continued target practice, not that it didn't have enough holes in it already. I will chalk it up to a pitiful 'at bat', a strikeout, as it were.

We have all chosen to live and stay in the world, and so we exist with a ineradicable bond with existence itself. This piece was a distinctly wrong place to think existents and existence apart from one another. A logic of love and a propositional logic are not mutually exclusive; I do think it's difficult to think them simultaneously. To say that for one to appear the other must disappear misleads. To think the logic of love does not mean to leave one's brains at the door; the logic of love is no fantasy land.

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