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.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I am interested in seeing how this all plays out in a theological world with God, creation, incarnation, miracles, sacraments, the whole shebang.

    "For Levinas and Marion, there is no state of exception, no state of being (or givenness) unworthy of dignity and justice."

    Joe, you really need to start providing some concrete examples here because this could mean anything.

    If I go swimming in the ocean and a white shark relieves me of my leg, swallowing it rather disappointingly (it knows I'm just not worth expending another calorie on), what does it mean to talk about my dignity and justice here? Is my dignity and justice as a human being relate to the shark being's dignity and justice?

    What about when a white shark devours, rather happily after my disappointingly bony leg, a fat, energy-rich seal? Surely these are beings and states of being. What does dignity and justice mean here? What does "this thing called love" mean here?