A Comment on Emmanuel Levinas’ “Substitution” (1967). Basic Philosophical Writings, 79-95. By Alberto Moreiras.

“Substitution” is a lecture presented by Levinas in 1967 that is widely considered the “centerpiece” of Otherwise than Being, and that, in an expanded version, came to constitute Chapter 4 of that book. I have decided to concentrate my comments on this lecture rather than on the larger and more complex book chapter. The first division of the lecture is titled “Principle and Anarchy.”  Levinas begins by linking subjectivity to archic thought—“Subjectivity as consciousness is thus interpreted as an ontological event, namely, the rediscovery of being on the basis of an ideal principle or arche in its thematic exposition. . . . This is why the ‘adventure’ is not exactly an adventure. It is never dangerous. It is always a self-possession, sovereignty, arche. What arrives of the unknown is already disclosed, open, manifest, cast in the mold of the known, and can never come as a complete surprise. For the Western philosophical tradition, all spirituality is consciousness, the thematic exposition of Being, that is to say, knowledge.”

He then introduces the notions of proximity and obsession. Proximity would be “a relationship with what is not commensurable with [a theme]; with what cannot be identified in the kerygmatic logos, frustrating any schematism.” And obsession: “The relation of proximity does not amount to any modality of distance or geometrical contiguity, nor to the simple representation of the neighbor. It is already a summons of extreme exigency, an obligation which is anachronistically prior to every engagement. An anteriority that is older than the a priori. This formulation expresses a way of being affected that can in no way be invested by spontaneity: the subject is affected without the source of the affection becoming a theme of re-presentation. The term obsession designates this relation which is irreducible to consciousness.”

So, obsession instals itself in our heads or hearts, in our guts, “as something foreign, as disequilibrium, as delirium, undoing thematization, eluding principle, origin, and will, all of which are affirmed in every gleam of consciousness. This movement is, in the original sense of the term, an-archic. In no way, then, is obsession to be confused with a hypertrophy of consciousness.”

Obsession then constitutes a subject beyond or outside consciousness. This is strange. A subject beyond consciousness? Would it be the subject of the unconscious? No, Levinas says, “the unconscious, in its clandestinity, rehearses the game played out in consciousness, namely, the search for meaning and truth as the search for the self.” [Levinas may be mistaken in this, food for thought.] But then, what is this subject that is not a part of consciousness, that is, this non-subject according to everything we know?

I do not wish to express a disagreement with, much less contest, the moving, powerful, and beyond-intolerable Levinasian universe.   It is only that I have always been unhappy that Levinas must reduce the an-archic space of radical passivity to a subject’s experience or to the experience of subjectivity as such—subjectivity prior to conscience, for sure, prior therefore also to the unconscious, but subjectivity, he says, the Ego, he says. And yet it is a curious subject, this Ego without being: “Its exceptional unicity in the passivity of the Passion of the self is the incessant event of substitution, the fact of being emptied of its being, of being turned inside out, the fact of nonbeing.”   A subject that is not—why call it a subject, rather than saying it must not be a subject, it must be a non-subject? Perhaps because the Levinasian obsession has to do with responsibility—the fact that responsibility is necessarily a call to someone, the fact that the instance of passivity, what undergoes the passion of persecution, what becomes a hostage, must be able somehow to say Yes, and the Yes can only be affirmed by ¿a subject?   It is however a mute Yes, or a Yes that gets called to speech but does not necessarily speak. “Substitution is not an act but contrary to the act; it is a passivity inconvertible into an act, on this side of the act-passivity alternative.” “It is as though the Ego’s unity and unicity were already the hold over the self exerted by the gravity of being, abandoned by the unrepresentable withdrawal of the Infinite.”   So, the Ego, the subject, is a nonlocation of nonbeing, nothing but a remnant, what the withdrawal of being sustains through some force of negative gravity.   Helpless, the subject, “the persecuted one is expelled from its place and has nothing left but itself [but what is “itself” if it precisely is not?”], has nothing in the world upon which to rest its head. Accused beyond any fault, persecuted, one is unable to offer a self-defense in language, because the disqualification of the apology is the very charateristic of persecution, so that persecution is the precise moment where the subject [??] is reached or touched without the mediation of the logos.”

Why the subject, and not simply flesh? Well, it is a flesh that can die. “This passivity is not simply the possibility of death within being, the possibility of impossibility, but is an impossibility anterior to this possibility, an impossibility of slipping away, an absolute susceptibility, a gravity without any frivolity, the birth of a meaning in the obtuseness of being, a ‘being able to die,’ submitted to sacrifice.”  The persecuted, abandoned, made hostage, endowed with a responsibility it has not sought, substitutable, sacrificeable, infinitely held, never released—“the condition, or noncondition, of the Self is not originally an auto-affection presupposing the Ego but is precisely an affection by the Other, an anarchic traumatism this side of auto-affection and self-identification, a traumatism of responsibility and not causality.”

There is flesh, Levinas seems to say, and the call turns it into a subject as subject to the call.   This is prior to ontology, to being, to conscience, to identity. Does nothing exceed this? Levinas says: “Modern antihumanism, which denies the primacy that the human person, a free end in itself, has for the signification of being, is true over and above the reasons it gives itself. It makes a place to subjectivity positing itself in abnegation, in sacrifice, and in substitution. Its great intuition is to have abandoned the idea of person as an end in itself. The Other (Autrui) is the end, and me, I am a hostage.”

So, perhaps what bothers me is that, as hostage, I have to answer (or else they’ll kill the others).   The answer subjectivizes me, not as the militant subject of anything, rather in full passivity—subjectivation is here becoming subject-to.   Of course, there is always more: “This condition, or noncondition, of the hostage will therefore be nothing less than the primary and essential modality of freedom and not an empirical accident of the Ego’s freedom.”

But, as hostage, am I only hostage? And, if I am hostage, are the rest only persecutors? Is there in me, and in the others, an even prior or perhaps just parallel noncondition that will not result in either freedom or unfreedom? Something that cannot be subjectivized, not even in the sense of subjectivation-to?

Levinas says: “To say that subjectivity begins in the person, that the person begins in freedom, that freedom is the primary causality, is to blind oneself to the secret of the self and its relation to the past. This relation does not amount to placing oneself at the beginning of this past so as to be responsible within the strict limits of intention, nor to being the simple result of the past. All the suffering and failure of the world weighs on that point where a singling out occurs, an inversion of being’s essence. A point is subject to everything.”   This point of the singling-out, beyond any possible presence of being to itself, the point of subjectivation as hostage—yes, it undoes every conception of subjectivity held within the tradition of metaphysics.   Including, or particularly, all contemporary notions, with the possible exception of the Lacanian one.   But does the point of the singling-out exhaust me? Do we only have two dimensions—subjectivation-to, and the subjectivity of conscience, the archic subjectivity of the person? Is there not a third dimension?

Levinas talks about a third dimension perhaps, even at the end of this paper, if only to say it would be the theme of another paper. He says: “The ego may be called, in the name of this unlimited responsibility, to be concerned also with itself. The fact that the other, my neighbor, is also a third in relation to another, likewise a neighbor, is the birth of thought, of consciousness, of justice, and of philosophy.”   In other words, this third person, or third dimension, perhaps, opens for Levinas the very possibility of politics as negotiation.   But this political dimension is already a dimension within the subjectivity of conscience—it is not, therefore, a third dimension, but rather a dimension within the second dimension.

And yet, perhaps, in another moment, when Levinas talks about something that might happen, may happen, beyond the rule of certainty, beyond or before negotiation and calculation, “as an adventure of subjectivity which is not governed by the concern to rediscover oneself, an adventure other than the coinciding of consciousness,” he speaks about a “communication with the other . . . as a dangerous life, a fine risk to be run.”   Is this fine risk, this dangerous life, the region of infrapolitics?   A dimension that cannot be foreclosed either by political life or by ethical life?   And that requires, therefore, articulation?  

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3 thoughts on “A Comment on Emmanuel Levinas’ “Substitution” (1967). Basic Philosophical Writings, 79-95. By Alberto Moreiras.

  1. La posibilidad de pensar opciones no subjetivizantes de la política, así como superar la noción misma de sujeto, (´´A subject that is not—why call it a subject, rather than saying it must not be a subject, it must be a non-subject?¨) como estrategias que propondrían y exigirían aperturas –no resoluciones- desde la región de la infrapolítica, nos enfrenta al riesgo de no encontrar determinaciones o articulaciones sostenibles en los marcos de ciertos conceptos dados por la militancia política (reaccionaria o progresista). Este riesgo, (“ beyond the rule of certainty”), es a su vez una oportunidad de reconocer conceptos filosóficos o narrativas históricas como ajenas (como militancias ajenas) y permanecer por tanto, abiertos a “hablar y escribir (con) perdidas palabras y prestados nombres¨ (Thayer y Oyarzún, sobre P. Marchant).” Así, parafraseando el final de La piel del lobo, me gustaría preguntar ¿Es la imposibilidad, aún lejana, de saber el alcance y el horizonte de lo político, el terreno –mejor dicho, el abismo- de la infrapolítica? De alguna manera, la incertidumbre es también posibilidad de buscar, tocar nuevos horizontes, quizás otros mañanas, otros sentidos. En Los detectives salvajes, podemos leer:
    “Me dejé caer sobre un sillón y no supe qué iba a hacer. Tenía el resto de la mañana y el resto del día a mi disposición, es decir era consciente de que estaban a mi disposición y en esa medida se me antojaban distintos de otras mañanas y de otros días (en donde yo era un alma en pena, errando por la universidad o por mi virginidad), pero a las primeras de cambio no supe qué podía hacer, tantas eran las posibilidades que se me ofrecían (67) ¨.
    Incertidumbre, disposición abierta, antojo de cambio- ¿quizás algunos de los riesgos que habría que aceptar para aproximarnos a un “entendimiento alternativo de lo político, inmensurable con respecto de los precedentes, y no militante, por lo mismo”?

  2. La posibilidad de pensar opciones no subjetivizantes de la política, así como superar la noción misma de sujeto, (´´A subject that is not—why call it a subject, rather than saying it must not be a subject, it must be a non-subject?¨) como estrategias que propondrían y exigirían aperturas –no resoluciones- desde la región de la infrapolítica, nos enfrenta al riesgo de no encontrar determinaciones o articulaciones sostenibles en los marcos de ciertos conceptos dados por la militancia política (reaccionaria o progresista). Este riesgo, (“ beyond the rule of certainty”), es a su vez una oportunidad de reconocer conceptos filosóficos o narrativas históricas como ajenas (como militancias ajenas) y permanecer por tanto, abiertos a “hablar y escribir (con) perdidas palabras y prestados nombres¨ (Thayer y Oyarzún, sobre P. Marchant).” Así, parafraseando el final de La piel del lobo, me gustaría preguntar ¿Es la imposibilidad, aún lejana, de saber el alcance y el horizonte de lo político, el terreno –mejor dicho, el abismo- de la infrapolítica? De alguna manera, la incertidumbre es también posibilidad de buscar, tocar nuevos horizontes, quizás otros mañanas, otros sentidos. En Los Detectives salvajes, podemos leer:
    “Me dejé caer sobre un sillón y no supe qué iba a hacer. Tenía el resto de la mañana y el resto del día a mi disposición, es decir era consciente de que estaban a mi disposición y en esa medida se me antojaban distintos de otras mañanas y de otros días (en donde yo era un alma en pena, errando por la universidad o por mi virginidad), pero a las primeras de cambio no supe qué podía hacer, tantas eran las posibilidades que se me ofrecían (67) ¨.
    Incertidumbre, disposición abierta, antojo de cambio- ¿quizás algunos de los riesgos que habría que aceptar para aproximarnos a un “entendimiento alternativo de lo político, inmensurable con respecto de los precedentes, y no militante, por lo mismo”?
    Juan Leal

  3. Sin duda, Juan. Lo difícil es mantener abierta esa total disponibilidad, esa libertad de recepción, basada en la incerteza, y a la vez abrirse también a la obsesión de aquello que llama y dice, y que en cuanto obsesión rapta y marca, como dice Levinas. Ese doble juego, que no permite ni pensar que somos totalmente libres en la noche oscura ni tampoco totalmente prisioneros en el sol, que no sólo amenaza nuestra lengua sino que también la crea, que no busca ni victoria ni derrota, ni seguimiento ni avance–¿cómo mantenerse inmilitantemente fieles a un destino del pensar? Primero hay que sentirlo como destino. No sé si està en nuestra mano.

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