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When Alterity Becomes Proximity: Levinas’s Path

Abstract and Keywords

Levinas’s early work tends to be associated with the idea of alterity even though in his later work the idea of proximity is more prominent. It is true that as time went on Levinas adopted the word neighbor that he had earlier refused; he renounced the word experience; and he replaced his account of paternity with an account of maternity. There is even a growing equivocation in his relation to the I-Thou philosophy of Buber that he had initially defined himself against. Nevertheless these changes do not mark a shift in his thinking so much as a change in emphasis. The two accounts need to be reintegrated which becomes possible once one recognizes the centrality of the persecuted self in his account of subjectivity.

Keywords: Emmanuel Levinas, Martin Buber, alterity, maternity, persecution, proximity, subjectivity, substitution

23.1 The Duality of the Self and the I

Although phrases like “the face-to-face relation,” “the absolute Other,” and “absolute alterity” owe much of their current popularity to Emmanuel Levinas’s Totality and Infinity, they are rarely used in the contemporary philosophical literature in the same sense in which he meant them.1 They are frequently imported into philosophical discussions in an effort to describe our everyday experience of what is often called “intersubjectivity,” but whereas Levinas allowed that they describe commonplace experiences, he at the same time was insistent that they cannot be integrated into the standard logic of philosophy, a point he emphasized repeatedly throughout his writings but never more so than in his second major book, Otherwise than Being (Levinas 1981). It should never be forgotten that he introduced these phrases into his writings originally as part of his effort to escape the dominant conceptual framework of Western philosophy in the conviction that both its language and its logic had contributed to the rise of totalitarianism and what he called “the Nazi horror” (Levinas 1990: 291). For this reason it was not his intention to contribute directly to the time-honored debates of philosophy into which these phrases have now found themselves inserted. Indeed, if one takes seriously the motivation behind his adoption of these phrases it could be argued that the attempt to assimilate Levinas’s philosophy to standard preexisting positions set out in the literature is a domestication, and perhaps even amounts to a betrayal. The closest he (p. 431) came to addressing standard philosophical questions, at least in the form prescribed by Kant and his followers, was in his repeated engagement throughout his philosophical writings with Husserl and Heidegger. Nevertheless, even though he chose with striking regularity to begin his essays by evoking the names of these two giants of phenomenology, his aim was always to highlight their failure to think transcendence as he himself had come to understand it, not to contest their answers to traditional questions.

To be sure, Levinas believed that the quest for concretizations of transcendence was the time-honored task of philosophy and to that extent he believed that he was returning philosophy to its original vocation. He found his inspiration here not in classical phenomenology but elsewhere: He repeatedly referenced Plato’s “good beyond being” and Descartes’ “infinite” as offering formal structures on which he could draw to guide him in his search. Nevertheless, even if transcendence, as he understood it, lay on the hither side of phenomenology, his route to it was through phenomenology beginning in 1934 with “Some Thoughts on the Philosophy of Hitlerism.” His starting point there was the phenomenology of pain, where one discovers one’s enchainment to oneself (Levinas 2004: 17–18), which he would subsequently equate with “the impossibility of getting rid of oneself” (Levinas 2001a: 89). The following year he had already formulated an account of transcendence presented as “a quest for a way out.” He gave it the name excendence and he described the need for it as arising from the experience of suffering where one must “get out of oneself,” that is, “break that most radical and unalterably binding of chains (enchaînement), the fact that the I (moi) is oneself (soi-même)” (Levinas 2003a: 55). This sense of an enchainment that one wants to escape points to a duality of self and I. His argument was that, behind “the ancient opposition of the I (moi) to the world,” the need to escape oneself revealed the definitiveness with which the I (moi) is chained or riveted to the self and so is characterized by a certain substantiality or positionality (Levinas 2001a: 81–4, 90, translation modified). The relation of the self to the I is approached in a way that is familiar to the phenomenologist and is reflected in Levinas’s engagement with Husserl’s account of passive synthesis, albeit there is no object to synthesized. Levinas introduced substitution as a passive, affectively charged, opening to the Other (Bergo 2014: 109). But although Husserl provided Levinas with some guidance as to how to proceed, what mattered to Levinas, as I will show, was the task of clarifying the structure of excendence as a departure from being in which one nevertheless also retained a foothold in being (Levinas 2001a: xvii; Bernasconi 2005).

Nevertheless, albeit only in passing and with very little detail, he already in 1947 in Existence and Existents introduced the idea that the alterity of the other human being shattered the definitiveness of the I without this relation with the other forming a new bond (enchaînement), such as a bond with another I (Levinas 2001a: 86). He saw this happening not only in forgiveness, but also in eros, which he considered in the context of a rare discussion of intersubjectivity under that name. In eros there is a “proximity of the other” but at the same time “the distance is wholly maintained, a distance whose pathos is made up of this proximity and this duality of beings” (Levinas 2001a: 98). Even in this elliptical formulation Levinas’s brief discussion of eros in Existence and Existents is remarkable because it can retrospectively be seen to have anticipated the (p. 432) strange combination of proximity and separation that I am arguing here marks all his work. This claim challenges the temptation to see the passage from Totality and Infinity to Otherwise than Being as a passage from a discourse focused on alterity to one based in proximity. Whereas in Totality and Infinity separation was explicitly presented as the precondition of the ethical, in Otherwise than Being it is proximity and substitution that are accorded that role. The tendency to see the two books in this way is perfectly understandable as a first impression. Terms like alterity, distance, and separation dominate Totality and Infinity much as proximity, intrigue, and substitution dominate Otherwise than Being. But although this may be what a comparison between the two books shows when they are isolated from the rest of his work, when they are placed in the context of the larger trajectory that runs from “Some Thoughts on the Philosophy of Hitlerism” (Levinas 2004: 13–21) to his very last writings, then it is Totality and Infinity that appears somewhat anomalous, but only for the reason that it tends to dwell on the relation of the I to the world and to the Other in that world, leaving to one side for the most part the relation of the I to the self. It is this broader perspective that I intend to develop in this chapter in an effort to show that one does not need to choose between these two main books, but that they can and must be read together in spite of the apparent tension between them.

23.2 The Self as the One for the Other

As Levinas explained it in Totality and Infinity, the face-to-face encounter with the absolute Other puts me in question and “empties me of myself” (Levinas 2003b: 30). This is possible only because the Other approaches me from a height across a distance. The idea of the infinite implies separation (Levinas 1969: 53). Separation is thus the condition of the encounter with the Other in the face: “Separation, effected in the concrete as habitation and economy, makes possible the relation with the detached, absolute exteriority” (Levinas 1969: 220). This is the account that dominates the secondary literature and leads to the emphasis both on ethical experience and on terms like “face-to-face,” “alterity,” and “the absolute Other.” When Otherwise than Being is treated at all, it tends to be treated in isolation or very selectively. The aim of the present chapter is not to give an account of how Otherwise than Being follows on from Totality and Infinity. I have tried to give a provisional answer to that question elsewhere by presenting Levinas’s introduction of the term substitution as his answer to the question of what makes it possible that in the face of the Other I can sacrifice myself for the Other, even if one must beware any suggestion that substitution is a transcendental condition of the face-to-face relation (Bernasconi 2005). At its simplest Levinas’s claim is that I can explain my selfishness better on the basis of an original selflessness than the other way round. More precisely, Otherwise than Being and especially the chapter on substitution is an attempt to show what the self must be in order for the Other to be able to challenge the I and call it into (p. 433) question (Bernasconi 2002). His answer in short was that it was possible only if the self is what he called “the contradictory trope of the-one-for-the-other” (Levinas 1981: 100).

Levinas’s method relies heavily on highlighting the concretization of formal structures. In Existence and Existents Levinas’s identification of eros as a concrete experience of excendence is limited to only a few brief paragraphs toward the end. By contrast, this same task of identifying concretizations of the formal structure of transcendence understood dominates the structure of Time and the Other where death and fecundity are considered, alongside eros in an effort to solve “the problem of the preservation of the ego in transcendence” (Levinas 1987a: 77). To the question “How in the alterity of a you, can I remain I, without being absorbed or losing myself in that you?” he answered “paternity” (Levinas 1987a: 91). The face-to-face is added to the list of concretizations of transcendence long before Totality and Infinity (Levinas 1998a: 34), but it is still only one among many. Indeed, many commentators on Levinas still seem to miss this dimension of his work and so they tend to pass quickly over his discussion of “relations analogous to transcendence” in the second part of Totality and Infinity and so fail to see them as integral to the book’s organization (Levinas 1969: 109), just as they frequently fail to recognize that for Levinas to say that hospitality “coincides with the Desire for the Other absolutely transcendent” is to say that he had added it to his list of examples of excendence (Levinas 1969: 172). To be sure, a certain nervousness around Levinas’s account of hospitality is appropriate because of his apparent deafness to the reactionary sexual politics he invoked by his association of it with the feminine, but this account of hospitality as the concrete and initial fact of separation is accompanied by one of the clearest statements of the philosophical purpose behind his descriptions: “The method practiced here does indeed consist in seeking the condition of empirical situations, but it leaves to the developments called empirical, in which the conditioning possibility is accomplished—it leaves to the concretization—an ontological role that specifies the meaning of the fundamental possibility, a meaning invisible in that condition” (Levinas 1969: 111). It is in this emphasis on the concretization that Levinas is at his most phenomenological and it forms the underlying basis of his phenomenological attack on Heidegger. On Levinas’s account Heidegger had opted for an extreme formalism that effaced the concrete. This was reflected in his focus on the formal or existenzial structures of human existence, whereas Levinas insisted that the formal only revealed its meaning in the concrete, or, in Heidegger’s terms, the existenziell (Levinas 1996a: 5; 1981: 80). On this basis Levinas associated Heidegger with an “obedience to the insidious forms of the impersonal and the neutral” that was characteristic of what is problematic in Western philosophy (Levinas 1969: 272).

The interplay within Levinas’s analyses between the formal structure of transcendence and its concretizations are frequently overlooked because of the widespread tendency to read the book in such a way as to place it in the service of what has come to be known as Levinasian ethics, but this amounts only to a further domestication of his thought. Readings of Totality and Infinity in this vein rely almost exclusively on the book’s third section where he presented his account of the ethical experience undergone in the face of the Other (Levinas 1969: 194–212). Nevertheless, one should not turn to Levinas in (p. 434) expectation of an answer to the question “What ought I to do?” because Levinas explicitly said that he was not writing an ethics. He was concerned only with its meaning, its direction, although he conceded that one could try to construct an ethics on the basis of what he had written (Levinas 1985: 90). For that matter, it would equally be a domestication of Levinas’s thought to read him as providing, for example, a phenomenology of mind. The label he seems to have been most comfortable with was “metaphysics,” which he understood as the description of the movement of transcendence (Levinas 1969: 35), but this metaphysics was concerned with structures or modalities hidden beneath consciousness that “can be discerned by a phenomenology attentive to the horizons of consciousness” (Levinas 1994: 111). This approach is indispensable because, as he repeatedly insisted, beginning in 1947, the departure from being called for a departure from the categories that we have used to describe Being and the Other is not a phenomenon precisely because it exceeds the categories of being (Levinas 2001a: xvii, 86).

To be sure, for Levinas, already in Totality and Infinity, “Metaphysics is enacted in ethical relations” (Levinas 1969: 79). The ethical experience is a relation of transcendence. Like the idea of the infinite, which, according to Descartes, could not have been produced from myself alone as a finite being, the Other is not an object of my thought but thinks itself in me (Levinas 1969: 210–12). Levinas’s claim is that it is not from my own impulses that I sacrifice myself for the other. My sacrifice of myself for the Other is not experienced as something I do on my own but something the Other brings about. It is my response to a summons. The definitiveness of the I is shattered. I am taken out of myself and yet I meet the Other by responding to his or her needs. That means that there is an exit from being in the sense that I have let go of my possessions and my self-possession, but I must still retain a foothold in being in order to meet the Other’s material needs. However, in the fourth section of Totality and Infinity, Levinas presented a further concretization of the formal structure of transcendence and it seems that at that time he regarded it as closer to what he was looking for because he gave that section the title “Beyond the Face” (Levinas 1969: 249). Again, in starkly sexist terms that have been widely and properly criticized (e.g., Irigaray 2004), he found the requisite structure of transcendence in fecundity and in the way that the father both is and is not his son: “By a total transcendence, the transcendence of trans-substantiation, the I (le moi) is, in the child, an other” (Levinas 1969: 267).

It is important for the purpose of this chapter to understand the way that in Totality and Infinity the ethical seems to be subordinated to fecundity (see further Bernasconi 2012). To do so helps to make sense of the fact that when fecundity fell out of the account, as it did immediately following the book’s publication, including even from a precis of the book published in the very same year (Levinas 1961), ethics not only moved to the center of the account but did so by being presented as replicating the structure of fecundity. When in Otherwise than Being Levinas adopted Rimbaud’s formulation “je est un autre”—“I is an other”—to describe the one-for-the-other of responsibility, it served as a direct echo of the formulation “the I is in the child, an other” (Levinas 1981: 118). Levinas called this “a self-identification, but also a distinction within identification” (Levinas 1969: 267). But one cannot say that the shift from fecundity to ethics as the primary (p. 435) concretization of transcendence as excendence arose on the basis of a reexamination of the descriptions found in Totality and Infinity. Rather what enabled the ethical to take the place of fecundity when the latter dropped out was its redescription in the context of the question of what the self must be for it to be possible that the Other can call me radically into question, giving rise to the introduction of the self as the one-for-the-other of responsibility, or proximity.

It is striking that the language of absolute alterity never disappears from Levinas’s writings but coexists alongside the language of proximity that, as we have seen, was present early on but which fell into the background within Totality and Infinity before coming to the fore in Otherwise than Being. In particular, Levinas continued to rely on the idea of alterity whenever he found himself called upon to be as accessible to his audience as possible, as in interviews. Nevertheless, there are some moments when the change in Levinas’s language could not be clearer. In section 23.3, in order to prepare for the question of how much changed philosophically with the change in terminology, I will briefly introduce three places where Levinas indicated that he has not just modified his language but reversed his decision about the appropriate terms for his philosophy. In section 23.4 I will examine Levinas’s various attempts to differentiate his account from that of Martin Buber. Levinas was quite explicit at times about the extent to which he saw Buber as one of his immediate predecessors (e.g., Levinas 1996a: 20). Indeed, in 1986 he said it was Buber who “pushed me to engage in a phenomenology of sociality” (Levinas 2001b: 215). To be sure, his relation to Buber was not constant and I will suggest that the change throws light on the change of emphasis in his language. Finally, in section 23.5, I will show what is at stake with these terms separation and proximity and I will address the question of the extent to which they can be integrated. It is a question of how much continuity there is across this change and what the philosophical implications of this are for an understanding of Levinas’s thought.

23.3 The Neighbour, Experience, and Maternity

Although I am emphasizing the continuity of the structure of excendence across Levinas’s work and even some continuity in his language, there are places where the change in his language is unambiguous. The first of the three cases that I will examine in an attempt to assess the significance of these changes shows him promoting a term that he had previously renounced.

At a meeting of the Société Française de Philosophie early in 1962, in the immediate aftermath of the publication of Totality and Infinity, Levinas found himself in discussion with Eugene Minkowsi, the psychiatrist and student of Edmund Husserl. Against Levinas’s opposition between the Same and the Other and his insistence on separation, Minkowski appealed to phenomenology to highlight the everyday experience of (p. 436) human solidarity that was reflected in such terms as the other (autrui), the fellow human being (semblable), and the neighbor (prochain), terms that, as he pointed out, diminish distance and emphasize proximity. In response Levinas did not take up this invitation to talk about proximity, but instead he insisted that “it is necessary to avoid the words neighbor (prochain) and fellow human being (semblable), which establish so many things in common with my neighbor (voisin) and so many similarities with my fellow human being” (Levinas 1996a: 27). He argued that transcendence is only possible when the Other (Autrui) is not the fellow human being or the neighbor, but the Other (Autre). Nevertheless, although Levinas tended to stay away from the French words semblable and voisin, the word prochain, which he had largely avoided in Totality and Infinity, became prominent in Otherwise than Being and displaced the emphasis on the stranger in the earlier book.

An even more striking change is in evidence in his treatment of the term experience. In 1976 in God, Death and Time he wrote: “There is no ethical experience; there is an intrigue. Ethics is the field sketched out by the paradox of an Infinite in relation, without correlation, to the finite” (Levinas 2000: 200). The second sentence would fit comfortably in Totality and Infinity, but the first runs entirely counter to his appeal to the face-to-face as “experience par excellence” (Levinas 1969: 196). The notion of intrigue, which is introduced here to take the place of experience, is presented as a form of belonging and so seems to depart from the proposal that separation and distance is a condition of the ethical (Levinas 1981: 25; 2000: 198).

Nevertheless, there is an even starker contrast between Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being and that occurs in respect of the shift from paternity to maternity. Levinas did not present this explicitly as a change but it could hardly be more noticeable. It is tempting to see this as Levinas’s response to the charges of sexism leveled against his earlier work beginning with Simone de Beauvoir (Beauvoir 2010: 5), but, if it was intended in this way, it was unsuccessful. Even though the terms fecundity and paternity all but disappear, certain sexist elements of the analysis remain (Sandford 1998: 16).

A great deal has been written on maternity in Levinas (e.g., Brody 2001 and Sandford 2000: 82–110). My concern here is limited to investigating how the displacement of paternity reflects the general shift that marks the progression from Totality and Infinity to Otherwise than Being. The maternal is not introduced as something exclusively confined to women, but represents a structure: “the gestation of the other in the same” (Levinas 1981: 75). Whereas in paternity the distance between the father and the son is such that “possibilities are beyond the limits of the possible” (Levinas 1993: 46), in maternity the for-the-other takes the form of vulnerability (Levinas 1981: 71). They are both forms of self-identification where there is also distinction within identification and yet it is also clear that the emphasis between them is different. The maternal body takes the form of the hand that gives the bread from out of its mouth to pass to the other (Levinas 1981: 67). In this way maternity, unlike paternity, is presented as inherently ethical and it is for this reason that it belongs in an attempt to account for how the ego can be called into question ethically.

(p. 437) 23.4 Buber and Sociality

In this section I will examine how the different emphases between Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being—the one emphasizing separation and the other emphasizing proximity—is reflected in the change in emphasis that can be found in Levinas’s various attempts to differentiate his thought from that of the philosophy of Buber, a task to which he repeatedly returned over a period of almost forty years (see Bernasconi 2004). What makes Buber an especially appropriate point of reference is that although Levinas’s focus on separation and distance in his early account of the face-to-face relation genuinely arose from his understanding of the nature of radical alterity as approaching from a height, it seems that he found it necessary to emphasize it even more in an attempt to differentiate his account from that of Buber. Initially Levinas approached Buber’s I–Thou relation as if it conformed with the classical model of transcendence in which one loses oneself and so does not transcend oneself (Levinas 1969: 213). Given that Levinas seemed to moderate his criticism of Buber in his later years, one has to ask whether this was simply a consequence of a shift from separation to proximity or whether it had other sources. Levinas knew that Buber explicitly rejected the idea of an encounter that arises from a condition of separation (Buber 1970: 78). Inevitably, when Levinas shifted to the emphasis on proximity the objection became less compelling. A brief study of the evolution of Levinas’s relation to Buber will help guide us in our effort to understand what did and did not change as Levinas modified his language.

One indication that Levinas did modify his position as well as his language is that whereas for Buber the I–Thou relation is “a genuine original unity” (Buber 1970: 70), in 1947 Levinas, by contrast, insisted that Buber underestimated “the ineluctable character of the isolated subjectivity” (Levinas 1987a: 94). The phrase “isolated subjectivity,” like the word solitude, disappears from Otherwise than Being to be replaced by “proximity.” Buber’s account was focused on relationality. Indeed, much of the originality of Buber’s approach lay in his insistence on thinking of the relation in such a way that it was thought on its own terms without being reduced to the terms of the relata. This is the point of his claim in 1923 in I and Thou: “In the beginning is the relation” (Buber 1970: 69). By contrast, Levinas seemed to hesitate over the term relation whenever he used it. He said it, but it was always as if he immediately wanted to swallow the word, so that he repeatedly wrote of the face-to-face as “a relation without relation” (Levinas 1969: 80, 295). In “Hermeneutics and the Beyond,” an essay from 1977, he clarified the issue insofar as he spoke of the difficulty of thinking the relation to an Other because it is a relation that does not become a correlation. He thus referred to it as “a relationship that, properly speaking, cannot be called a relationship, since even the commonality of synchrony is lacking between its terms” (Levinas 1998b: 73). It is, he wrote in the same place, a relationship and a non-relationship.

Levinas’s hesitation over Buber’s idea of the relation had its source in his conviction that the terms of the relation must be absolute within the relation, that is to say, absolved (p. 438) from it while still being in relation. He wrote: “Separation opens up between terms that are absolute and yet in relation, that absolve themselves from the relation they maintain, that do not abdicate in it in favor of a totality this relation would sketch out” (Levinas 1969: 220). This is what Buber allegedly renounced when he rejected separation, but that difference seems to disappear when one restores to Buber’s text the place of God, mention of which was entirely absent from Levinas’s 1959 essay: “Martin Buber and the Theory of Knowledge” (Levinas 1967). Buber in an Afterword first included in the 1957 edition of I and Thou explained that his critics had missed his central concern: “the close association of the relation to God with the relation one’s fellow men” (Buber 1970: 171). The difference that Levinas still maintained was that for him “the illeity of God” sends me “to serve my neighbor” (Levinas 1993: 47).

The central point then is that Levinas could not find in Buber’s account an indication of that asymmetry in favor of the Other that would make possible the putting in question of the I (Levinas 1996a: 18). In the absence of the relation to height that is characteristic of the relation with the absolute Other, he concluded that Buber’s relation is symmetrical in the sense of being reciprocal (Levinas 1969: 68). Whereas for Buber “the Thou that the I solicits is already, in that appeal, heard as an I who says thou to me” (Levinas 1993: 43), for Levinas, by contrast, non-reciprocity lies at the heart of subjectivity: “The knot of subjectivity consists in going to the other without concerning oneself with his movement toward me” (Levinas 1981: 84). That “one step more” consists in a hyperbolic form of responsibility: “In the responsibility which we have for one another, I have always one response more to give, I have to answer for his very responsibility” (Levinas 1981: 84). Your responsibility is my responsibility, but not vice versa. It is responsibility as “responsibility for the responsibility of the other” (Levinas 1981: 117). This conception is lacking from Buber’s symmetrical account and led Levinas to complain in a 1979 essay that, although Buber sometimes deployed the word responsibility, “despite its repetitions, the word seems to lack vigor, and nothing seems to make it more specific” (Levinas 1993: 17).

This criticism reflects a larger one that goes to the heart of Levinas’s philosophical method of allowing the concrete and the formal to determine each other mutually. Just as he objected to Heidegger’s formalism, so he complained: “the I–Thou formalism does not determine any concrete structure” (Levinas 1961: 68). It was this formalism that lay behind Buber’s failure to make explicit the concrete structure of the relation with the Other, which for Levinas was ethical (Levinas 1996b: 46). As Levinas explained it in “A propos of Buber,” his own manner of proceeding “inspired by phenomenology” relied on “something like a deduction of ‘concrete situations’ from abstract significations whose horizons or ‘mise-en-scène’ are reconstituted” (Levinas 1993: 46). The objection was not that Buber lacked an ethics. That was not something Levinas provided either. The objection highlighted methodological differences between them.

On this basis, Levinas criticized the I–Thou relation as “self-sufficient and forgetful of the universe” (Levinas 1969: 213), which is similar to what he said of the relation of lovers in their exclusion of the third party (Levinas 1969: 265–6): “the I–Thou in which Buber sees the category of interhuman relationship is the relation not with the interlocutor but (p. 439) with feminine alterity” (Levinas 1969: 155). At the heart of Levinas’s response to Buber, therefore, was his conviction that spiritual friendship was the apogee of the I–Thou relation (Levinas 1967: 148). Buber responded explicitly to Levinas that this was an error (Buber 1967: 723), but Levinas was insistent that the face cannot be approached “with empty hands and closed home” (Levinas 1969: 172). It was for this reason that in his essay “Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, and Philosophy” he told a story from the Talmud about the angels who complained when the Torah was taken from heaven to be given to humanity. The Eternal attempted to comfort them by saying that the Torah does not apply to them as they are not born and they do not die; they do not eat or work; they own nothing and so have nothing to sell. In the story the angels fall silent, but Levinas asked whether they did so because they were flattered by the answer. He raised the possibility that they caught a glimpse that earthly beings have the capacity to give and to exist for one another “above and beyond the understanding of the being to which pure spirits are consigned” (Levinas 1993: 39). The point was that Buber’s idea of spiritual friendship was the same as “the ethereal sociality of angels” and that the for-the-other of sociality is only made concrete in giving and so presupposes things (Levinas 1993: 47). The ethical intrigue thus necessitates that we retain our foothold in being.

Nevertheless, Levinas’s adoption of the language of proximity brought him close to Buber’s idea of an “innate Thou,” an “innate You” (Buber 1970: 78), albeit Levinas did not truly share with Buber the language of “innateness,” which is rare in Levinas. Indeed, when Buber went on in that context immediately to explain that “in the relationships through which we live, the innate You is realized in the You we encounter,” he seemed to be presenting something very similar to what we attribute to Levinas when we try to understand substitution as the condition of the encounter that in separation disturbs the I to the point of dispossessing it of its attachment to its possessions and even to its own life. It was his early recognition of the innate Thou in Buber (Levinas 1996b: 22) and his much later acknowledgement of the association of the relation to God with the relation to one’s fellow human beings that provided the essential background for the striking statement from 1969 that Buber was also in a quest to find “the seeds of the totalitarian state.” And in this context Levinas, who almost without exception attempted to differentiate the face-to-face from the I–Thou relation, made a rare concession in favor of the latter: “For the essential, after all, for him and perhaps for us, is not the Us; it is the I–Thou” (Levinas 1993: 15).

23.5 Separation, Proximity, and Intrigue

I have shown that Levinas adopted the word neighbor that he had earlier refused and that he renounced the word experience that he had previously made central. I have also shown both that maternity came to a prominence previously occupied by paternity (p. 440) and that the shift in terminology from separation and alterity to proximity led him to change his verdict on Buber. But what lay behind these changes? And how could Levinas modify his assessment of Buber without withdrawing the fundamental claim on which he had insisted when establishing their differences? Levinas’s claim was that whereas Buber had insisted on the priority of the relation, he himself had in Totality and Infinity insisted on “the priority of the orientation over the terms that are placed in it” (Levinas 1969: 215). Levinas came to concede that Buberian dialogue accorded with an ethical relation insofar as it was a “relation with the unassimilable,” but he continued to complain that Buber’s I–Thou relation missed the ethical inequality of “gratuitous responsibility, resembling that of a hostage” (Levinas 1993: 41, 44).

Turning back to what Levinas in 1961 said differentiated his account from that of Buber most decisively, which was that both terms of the face-to-face absolve themselves from the relation insofar as they are both absolute within it (Levinas 1969: 64, 220), his explanation for his insistence on the separation was as follows: “The alterity, the radical heterogeneity of the other, is possible only if the other is other with respect to a term whose essence is to remain at the point of departure, to serve as entry into the relation, to be the same not relatively but absolutely. A term can remain absolutely at the point of departure of relationship only as I (Moi)” (Levinas 1969: 36). That is to say, the I is a precondition of the encounter with the radical Other. But how then can the intrigue be the precondition of the I, as it is in Otherwise than Being, without Levinas making the relation of belonging prior to the separation of the terms thereby going back on his refusal of Buber’s claim that “in the beginning is the relation”? Either the relation is primary or the terms in it must be.

Disarmingly Levinas opted quite explicitly in Otherwise than Being both for the relation and the absolution of the terms from that relation. He wanted it both ways. So, for example, he wrote: “It is in proximity, which is a relation and a term [of this relation], that every commitment is made” (Levinas 1981: 86). And again, proximity “constitutes a relation in which I participate as a term, but where I am more, or less, than a term” (Levinas 1981: 82). What could the one-for-the-other be if not a relation? And yet in Levinas’s own mind proximity had also to be a term because otherwise it would be impossible for the one who is persecuted to say “I am responsible even for the one who persecutes me” (Levinas 1981: 166).2 Insofar as it is me who stands accused by the other and under this accusation against me in the first-person accusative case in the French me voici, albeit in English it disappears in the translation: “here I am.” It is in this unlimited responsibility that one finds the point where subjectivity ceases to be identified with an ego. Levinas calls this “supplementary responsibility” and it is by virtue of it that “subjectivity is not the ego, but me (pas le Moi, mais moi)” (Levinas 1987b: 150). It is to (p. 441) save my asymmetrical responsibility that subjectivity is a term in the relation and that is also why the word “relation” is ultimately inapplicable.

But for Levinas to want itand to have itboth ways was not new. I have already quoted the passage from Existence and Existents where the distance in eros was said to be made up of this proximity and this duality of beings. Similar passages can be found in Totality and Infinity, even if they are not especially prominent. So, for example, we read the following in the context of the claim that the dimension of the divine is opened in the human face: “The proximity of the Other, the proximity of the neighbor, is in being an ineluctable moment of the revelation of an absolute presence (that is, disengaged from every relation), which expresses itself” (Levinas 1969: 78). What sustains this account that strains beyond breaking point our inherited conceptual resources that are ill equipped to understand a relation that, as a relation that is absolute, is disengaged from every relation, or, as Levinas liked to say, “a relation without relation”? The answer given in Otherwise than Being is persecution. Ultimately what sustained Levinas’s account was not everyday experience, but the experience of persecution and it is for that reason that its conclusions cannot be judged from the perspective of the logic imposed by the oppressor (Bernasconi 1995). Levinas wrote of the passivity of being persecuted, “This passivity deserves the epithet of complete or absolute only if the persecuted one is liable to answer for the persecutor” (Levinas 1981: 111). In other words, the very isolation or loneliness of the one who is persecuted is fully understood only when the full extent of one’s relationality as responsibility is revealed. This insight may not have fully come together for Levinas until Otherwise than Being, but it is the persecuted self that ultimately sustains the analysis and it is from this perspective that all of Levinas’s work must be reread, Totality and Infinity most especially. Hence the power of Levinas’s reference to “the unreal reality of men persecuted in the daily history of the world, whose dignity and meaning metaphysics has never recognized, from which philosophers turn their faces” (Levinas 1987b: 150). It was ultimately not everyday experience, but the experience of the persecuted with which Levinas was concerned. He was not arguing that everyone had access to this realm of experience. It is only the persecuted who know with an unquestionable immediacy that one’s sense of responsibility extends even to those who persecute them. Others are left debating how to make sense of such an idea.

“The difference that gapes between I and self, the non-coincidence of the identical,” (Levinas 2003b: 66), lay at the source of Levinas’s quest for excendence, but in Otherwise than Being it came to be understood differently. The duality between I and self, the otherwise inextricable bond that ties me to the self, the moi to the soi, is now finally presented as broken. The self in substitution undergoes an anarchic liberation (affranchissment). He wrote: “Substitution frees the subject from ennui, that is, from the enchainment to itself, where the ego (Moi) suffocates in itself (en Soi) due to the tautological way of identity” (Levinas 1981: 124). This means that the “I is an other” of substitution is ultimately different from both the face-to-face and “the I is, in the child, an other” of paternity. That is to say, the self is no longer tied to the isolated subjectivity to which the self of Existence and Existents belongs, but is now the self as one-for-the-other. That is to say, it is a hostage, who substitutes for the other but who cannot be substituted for (Levinas 1981: 136). (p. 442) Hence the self is in a relation of belonging, an intrigue, that is prior to the relata, even while it is absolved from the relation through its need to retain a foothold in being so as to answer to the Other’s concrete needs.

If the I is a term irreducible to the relation there is a remainder, but in Otherwise than Being the remainder is now not the self of Existence and Existents, but a self that is the one for the other. Here the other challenges me from within: Je est un autre. Otherwise said, the Other is from the outset already implicated in the self in the form of the one-for-the-other: the stranger succeeded in dispossessing me because the stranger was never foreign to me but close, close to the point of contact, by virtue of my being ontologically one-for-the-other. To make sense of this Levinas returned to the distinction between the I and the self that he had introduced already in the 1930s but which was largely absent from Totality and Infinity, even though, as Otherwise than Being shows, it presupposes that distinction. This self behind the me becomes a prominent theme once more in Otherwise than Being but, unlike in the earlier treatment, this self is inherently for the other. It amounts to the undoing of the movement of the self into an I, a de-positing or de-situating that reverses what was chartered in Existence and Existents as the positionality and substantiality of the subject (Levinas 1981: 50).

I have used this contrast between two tendencies, a tendency in favor of the stranger, separation, and paternity and a tendency in favor of the neighbor, proximity, and maternity, as a heuristic device to highlight what looks like a fundamental equivocation within Levinas’s thought. If Levinas himself seems to favor one and then the other, we cannot be surprised that commentators at times seem confused. And yet it is clear that we miss what is most radical, most challenging, in his thought if we feel obliged to choose between them. Alterity is not opposed to proximity any more than the stranger is opposed to the neighbor. When Levinas wrote that “alterity becomes proximity (l’altérité se fait proximité)” (Levinas 1994: 110), he was not referring to a transformation in his thought but to the structure of responsibility, where the formal structure of transcendence finds itself concretized in answering the other’s needs. The sentence that follows is an attempt at an explanation, but it takes the form of an attempt to say at the same time what sounds like a variety of different things, even if, when taken together, they amount to the same thing: “Not distance, the shortest through space, but initial directness, which extends as unimpeachable approach in the call of the face of the other, in which there appears, as an order, an inscription, a prescription, an awakening (as if it were a ‘me’), responsibility—mine, for the other human being” (Levinas 1994: 110). Distance is now being understood differently from how it was when it was attributed to eros because it is now seen through the lens of the ethical intrigue. If there was no alterity there would be no ethics in Levinas’s sense; there would only be me and my projects in a world organized around me. But there is ethics only because there is this me, this self, that prior to any choice takes on responsibility for the other. Just as in Existence and Existents the self raises itself up to be an I in each instant, so there is a movement in the instant from alterity to proximity. But whereas in the former case the I remains chained to itself, in substitution there is liberation from those chains because I discover that it is not to myself but to the other that I am captive in the sense of a hostage. Hence separation, the word that along with (p. 443) alterity dominates Totality and Infinity but is a rarity in Otherwise than Being, combines with substitution in the concrete form of responsibility. Hence he writes: “the one-for-the-other” extends “to the point of substitution, but a substitution in separation, that is, responsibility” (Levinas 1981: 54).

Finally, that Levinas did not choose between the language of the stranger or the neighbor is clear from a passage in Otherwise than Being that also serves as a directive as to how to reread his earlier works: “The Good assigns the subject, according to a susception that cannot be assumed, to approach the other, the neighbor. This is an assignation to a non-erotic proximity, to a desire of the non-desirable, to a desire of the stranger in the neighbor” (Levinas 1981: 122–3). To take up what cannot be taken up, to desire what cannot be desired, to find the stranger in proximity—this is what unites the two books, but it also means that neither should be read in isolation from the other.


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                                                                        (1) The expression “absolutely other” is one that Levinas borrowed from Vladimir Jankélévitch, but it is now more often associated with Levinas (Levinas 1987: 48).

                                                                        (2) There is more to say here as Blanchot already recognized in The Writing of the Diasater (Blanchot 1986: 13–30; see also Davies 1991). Whether Levinas is right about this was the subject of a paper to be published soon that I delivered at a conference on relationality organized by Simone Drichel on Relationality in Dunedin, New Zealand in November 2015.