Indeed, just as our life is embedded in the ecological cycles of the biosphere, our whole planet [and we] exist as a part of a much older cycle of material and energy that forms the galaxy.
The Life of the Cosmos
There, Open, Without Intimacy
Levinas makes the broad, descriptive claim that the other's utterly singular subjectivity is lost to another's consciousness, that, as individuals appear in consciousness, their own event is lost to conscious appropriation. Consciousness, by virtue of which appearance happens, decomposes the other, and recomposes an image of the other by providing a present moment of presentation. The other is refigured by presentation. The other becomes a part of a definitive structure of presentation, a vast and subjectively founded region of essence in which all elements, aspects, and appearances happen in a fundamental coherence: radical differences are converted into the tame differences of beings who follow the laws of a subjective, temporal, spatial presentation. Nothing otherwise than being occurs in being's estate, and for Levinas, being's estate is defined in terms of this subjective region of appropriation. He thinks of this refiguration as more akin to killing than to either positive creativity or intersubjective encounter.
If you are not persuaded that being is found as the cohesion and coherence of transcendental subjectivity, you will have a basic problem with Levinas' descriptive claims even if you are sympathetic with his emphasis on the alterity of persons. If you think of human occurrences as extensive and intrinsically worldly and not at all circumscribed by subjectivity, as Nietzsche or Jean-Luc Nancy do, for example, you will also feel reserved when you encounter Levinas' accounts of responsibility and substitution. Or if you are not sympathetic with those aspects of the Jewish theological traditions in which God is viewed as totally ungraspable and yet the sacred, withdrawn giver of alterity, obligation, and goodness, you will take pause before the rabbinical and talmudic motivations in Levinas' thought. I believe that we must recognize the idealist's understanding of consciousness that underlies aspects of Levinas' account of alterity if we are to do justice to his thought, although I do not think that that recognition is adequate cause to dismiss his writings. Rather than engage what is most questionable in his descriptions of subjectivity and presentation, I would like to valorize Levinas' metaphor of the face and to intensify a sense of radical difference in the occurrence of faces by focusing for a moment on our eyes. I want to avoid Levinas' word, alterity, in reference to faces because I would like to work with the observation that it is not so much faces that de-present themselves in experiences of consciousness as it is that radical differences from persona and subjectivities happen with faces, happen in the very occurrences of countenances. In faces subjectivity comes to vanish.
In working with this observation I have been impressed with the vast differences that compose faces. Noses, skin, ears, mouths, teeth, lips, hair, bumps and blemishes, and, especially for my purposes here, eyes carry with their singular and coordinated occurrences protracted events that are too far beyond civilization to be called histories. As our faces occur we are in touch--most weirdly in touch-with an enormity of distance and time that in merely quantitative terms makes our usual sense of distance and time seem terribly inadequate for what we want to express. I have no expectation that we can capture what I am talking about or that a system of signs will do for the expressions we want to make. They always fall short of something vastly superficial and extensive. I shall say that we are dwarfed by what we know, that the differences from persons that are enacted in faces constitute a region of reference that makes any sense of subjective, conscious encompassment seem absurd. Although all bodies on earth are constructed of the same kinds of atoms that make up rocks and stars, I shall limit my field of observation to one aspect of our eyes which I think moves our images of time and space outside of a problematic that is governed by most traditional ideas about consciousness. In this process I hope to begin to refigure some senses of difference in our culture, senses that Levinas seems to radicalize but which he in fact has tamed by his stress on personal alterity within a context of thought that is governed by a very specific history and by relatively tame traditional images of subjectivity.
I do not doubt that when a visual image is fully formed in a perception all manner of social influences and histories have come into play, that perceiving is a communal event. I want to address, however, aspects of the visual occurrence that appear to be socially and historically blind, that bear no witness, and that bear histories only by what we say of them. I realize how strange and ill advised you might find the phrase "appear to be socially and historically blind." Appearing, after all, happens as a social and historical event, and we never understand appearing well if we cast it in transcendental and timeless terms. Such speaking would constitute a termination of the lives of appearances from the beginning of the conversation. Appearances are perceptive and happen in orders of meaning. I do not want to forget that I am speaking of the appearing of something that, I wish to say, is not formed appearientially. But I also do not wish to think of starlight, for example, as sufficiently accounted and appreciated when it is addressed only in terms of the light of appearing. From some angles of interpretive vision, "starlight" is so different from its perceptive recognitions that it terminates with its name. I wish to say something like that now with regard to vision and then say more about starlight later. I shall avoid the word "perception" for what I am talking about when I say "vision" and speak rather of an organic process that, while it appears meaningfully, seems to precede and to recede from meaningful appearances. I will call it a pre-perceptive dimension of vision and in vision that composes an enactment of our bodies and indicates severe limits to the personal and so-called human aspects of our lives. By means of the function of light in vision I would like to indicate something so other to the human person as to place in jeopardy the idea that the other is best or most radically conceived in terms of a conscious being. I am interested in the limits of personal occurrences that happen with personal occurrences and thus in the limits of ethics as we think of what has come to have the name of alterity. I will suggest that a prioritization of ethics in an interpretation of alterity and difference encloses too much that is too different to merit such closure and that we should feel uncomfortable with such a loss.
In some ways, we belong as much to starlight as we do with each other, and that weird difference to our lives in our lives outstrips Levinas' account of the other as far as his thought of the Other outstrips an identity-based idealism. In fact, since I will be speaking of ratios at some points in the discussion, I will say here at the beginning that the ratio of difference in Levinas' notion of alterity in its connection to the idea of the experiencing subject is considerably exceeded by the ratio of difference between vision and person as I will describe them. Levinas' thought is dependent on an idealistic account of human experience-an account that I find descriptively mistaken-and on a sensibility of sacrifice that arises from a sense of rather too much human kinship in a context of passivity and activity in his description of alterity.
I wish now to present a few observations about light and eyes which are based on facts that are themselves subject to alteration, based, in other words, on "our" knowledge that "we" know to be in transformation. We will see that eyes are quite different from the light they see, and yet they see by virtue of elements that were produced by stars in the generation of blinding light. My purpose is to give an account of one small aspect of bodily functions that does not reflect light so much as it refracts it and refracts it by means of elements that were produced in the formation of lights. Then I will turn to some of Levinas' observations about differences and others.
Starlight does not seem to shine in daylight. What we see of the universe are lights in darkness, and what we see of each other is also pretty much lights and darks and their shapes. After that, interpretations. Interpretations upon interpretations of lights and shadows and their behaviors, of absences of light and sites of darkness. And the organs of sight are themselves, in their structure and formation, indirectly indebted to some of the events that produce rays of light and energy and give a strange visibility to darkness. I do not want to say that our agency is made of starlight, but I do want to say that many of the elements of seeing use products of star-events, of supernovas, and in those elements and their occurrences we find far more alterity than Levinas was able to dream of. Many of us probably share some of the limits of Levinas' range of interpretive vision, and attention to those limits will allow us to see other limits that operate in our values and the ways in which we experience time and space.
Our eyes do not generate light. This realization sets us over-against our Greek ancestors' interpretations of their eyes. Like the early Egyptians, our classical forebears thought of eyes as seeing and shining at the same time. The eyes were, by them, understood not only to reflect light and shine in that way, but to generate a fiery element and cast forth their own light. Euclid and Ptolemy, for example, thought of eyes as emitting oracular beams that touched what an individual sees. Plato, in the Timaeus, speaks of light-bearing eyes characterized by a fire that does not consume but that shines with a mild light. This light is kin to daylight, a light that also illumines but does not consume. Eye-light flows like a pure and dense stream from "the pure fire within us" and meets in a shining union with its like in daylight. This shining element touches things in sight and carries the touch as motion to the individual's body and soul. Eye-light, however, must find its kindred light in the world or it vanishes into the vanquishing alterity of night (who, in Greek myths, is the mother of day), its inner fire refused and quenched by its other and by an absence of its like. In this thought, seeing is shining and is dependent on finding its like in the element of its perceiving. Radical difference from light means blindness. It means quenching the fire-light of the eyes.
In this classical Greek view of seeing, objects appear instantly--one sees, for example, the sun or stars immediately--because the sense of distance that is built into the interpretation is a minimal one. In contemporary terms, if eye-light directed to the sun were to travel at 186,000 miles per second, it would take eight minutes just to glance at the sun. And if sight were immediate and did not take even a few seconds, eye-light seeing a star would need to travel fast enough to make the speed of light seem like a snail's pace, and presumably the cataclysm of explosions that would accompany this transformation of matter, time, and space in the speeding light of the eyes, in eye-light's faster-than-the-speed-oflight traversal, would dissolve the solar system and make a considerable dent in our galaxy: a glance at the sun in which the sun was instantly present to eye-light might be enough to start another big bang--so from a pro-world point of view it's just as well that the classical Greek and ancient Egyptian observations are inaccurate.
Already we find a sense of distance important in our sense of visual perception and what shines, and the way in which we interpret eye-sight now eliminates the idea of eye-light and inner fire, replacing them wiih theories of interpretation, with flesh, muscles, lenses, rods, cones and neurological structures. Eyes are not even reliable gauges for the occurrence of light because there are dimensions of light and its speed and density-for example, light rays--that are invisible for an unaided eye. Even the elements of light by which it is defined in contemporary interpretations--the frequency of rays, the wavelength of the rays, their speed, and the medium of their refraction-are not visible. We do not naturally see the energy and energy transfer of light.
Not only is light a carrier of energy that arises in outer space, it is seen by us by means of the functions of complex mineral structures that were themselves produced in outer space and that form living tissues of transfer, slight stability, and excitation in the events of vision. Light proceeds from matter, is generated by matter and, being absorbed by an eye, disappears in matter. And when we see the light of stars, we see by means of elements that had their origins in stars and that now help to absorb and transmit their light.
I note that the minerals necessary for eye-sight were all formed in the implosion of stars that were trillions of miles and millions of years from where we see, that calcium, potassium, sodium, iodine, and phosphorus-all the primary and trace minerals in our eyes-were formed in the unspeakable heat and pressure of stars that collapsed upon themselves and then exploded, sending both light energy and mineral components in an unspeakable tumult throughout the universe.
Consider an imploding star and the consequent explosion that produces the minerals which function in our sight:
A gamma-ray burst was detected in 1979 from the direction of a Large Magellanic Cloud, our nearest galactic neighbor. In one tenth of one second the gamma-ray generated blast unleashed more energy than our sun will generate in the next 10,000 years... on a scale of energy against which the term vast fades as an understatement.
In the implosion of such a star, the nuclear structure of [the star is] rammed down to solid spheres of pure neutrons. Each is unimaginably dense, where an object the size of a child's marble weighs billions of tons. Were such a tiny sphere dropped from just several feet above the ground on earth, in a flash it would penetrate the entire 8,000 mile diameter of one planet and hurdle on past at thousands of miles per second.1
In such implosions, gases formed into minerals and in the following explosion those minerals were thrown into space where they dispersed and some formed what we know as earth, where, with their indispensable aid, our eyes came to be.
Here is one way we can find our eyes both obscure and arresting in their kinship with stars and hence with the sun. And this kinship is not one of disclosure or illumination but is one of densities and organic elements, of distances without histories, unnarratable things so vast and with such magnitude that we are dwarfed even by our images and stories of them. Only now, I believe, do we begin to approach something like otherness, now as we consider, still within the usage of the idea of kinship, star-elements in our eyes, elements without tight, without the ability to give fire spontaneously, and yet elements that are indispensable in their expenditure for light's perception in the eye's function.
The distances suggested by our eyes are not only metric ones. I do not want to minimize the importance of distances that we measure by timing light's spatial travel. Those measures and their capacity to explode our anthropomorphic images, explode even our senses of enormity, size, and scope, are irreplaceable in our culture's release from many forms of mythological and theological interpretations that bind human beings to blindingly limited corners of perception. These measurements figure distinctly contemporary experiences of awe, and they so revolutionize our senses of distances and spaces that we can no longer measure ourselves by only the sun's presence or feel defined within earthly dimensions. They explode the past boundaries of what is knowable and give us to gasp at the sheer extent of light's spatial traversal. Indeed, one of my efforts is to invoke this cultural explosion occasioned in our metaphors by quantitative measurement when I note our visual kinship with stars in the functions and lives of mineral components in our eyes. But the distance I wish to note is not only the one that is measured by light's speed. It is a distance from our selves and our consciousness and our communities of endeavor and knowledge that I also want to note, a distance that is figured by the radical otherness of stars that I am presenting by reference to star-formed minerals in our eyes. We seem to belong to this difference of distance in our eyes' formations and enactments in the sense that something that does not belong to anything vaguely human, in our usual understanding of "human," happens in our experiences of light, darkness, and visible form, something more of stars' deathly implosions and explosions than of our meanings and longings. This is a distance from meaning that links us to other creatures of vision, that silently figures mere otherness in our eyes, that never shines or discloses, that marks a disaster of sight within sight's happening, something we do not see as we see and to which we belong as we experience light. I do not mean that sight is reducible to imperceptive minerals or that matter explains immaterial experiences. Such reductions are too human, too explanatory, too controlling, too blindly incorporative of such elements into a manageable structure of meaning, too violating of what is not subject to ownership or public declaration, These minerals seem to me to escape the light of declaration. And yet they do not seem to be like empty space or a chasm of mere passage or utter darkness. They are too dense for such metaphors, too atomic and organic we might say, too "there," too other. Our recognition of the minerals of sight qualifies even the metaphors that cluster around death and the possibility of no possibility at all. They seem to fall outside of experiences of dying and death. They occur in the eye's visioning and give the "I" of agency and being to falter and our sense of human dominance to fail. Far from an inner and pure fire, we find no fire at all in our kinship with stars. In our eyes' refractions, convergences, focusing, inversions, bleaching, and transformations to neurological patterns the mineral functions do not radiate light but help to absorb it in a strange process of transfer and recording that gives darkness to most of the light-energy that reaches the cornea--less than a quarter of the light that enters the eye goes beyond the retina. The rest is reflected or absorbed. Darkening accompanies the light of our eyes, and in that darkening we can find some of the functions of our inheritance from stars.
You can see that my purposes are literary and philosophical and not scientific. I want to shift some of the images, metaphors, and concepts by which we think of otherness, to emphasize an externality that is not governed by images of consciousness or self or the mysterious withdrawal of an other; I would like to begin with images of origin that have nothing to do with spirit or history or subjectivity or value, to own my metaphors with a background of surface events that reveal nothing akin to our images of them, and to define kinship in terms of radical difference from what we usually recognize as our being. This means that I would like to place the metaphor of other within a history of metaphorizing and to find histories in metaphors and their functions but not in the "deeds" of an other or in the beginning of histories or in the withdrawal of Something transcendental. In thinking of other, I would like to step outside of the power of an image of a thing in itself or to itself, step outside of the "I" of obligation and responsibility, outside of the problematic of agency and relationship, and to think of other as other to the worlds in which we provide "I," images, responsibilities, and metaphors for all things. If we can begin to think of our eyes--our "windows to our souls"-in terms that refer to things prior to agency and disclosure, in terms that do not follow a lineage of spiritual fire but in terms that engender images of implosion, forces subject only to quantitative description, and a radicality of distance that leaves in shambles the delicacy of our losses, we might have a way to think of other in surface terms that are not limited to contexts of writing, texts, human relationships or inwardness. We might find such an other in our eyes-I am sure we can also find it anywhere in our bodie"y means of minerals whose images of origin now implode other images of meaningful agency. You can see that the issue is not one of denying the importance of agency. It is a function of limiting the power of agency to dominate our senses of other bodies. It is a matter of shifting to images, metaphors, and concepts that move away from the lineages that have given us to see things primarily from a perspective dominated by such ideas as inner, outer, subject, object, passive, active, and the relationships that we imagine in that context to define our ability to respond.
Outside of Books and Writing
When our systems of metaphors and images encounter other systems of metaphors and images, we may experience anger and confusion, if not trauma. And such encounters can move us to think, to think differently and with hesitation.
When Philippe Nemo asked Levinas how one begins thinking, the Rabbi said that it probably begins by means of traumas or "gropings to which one does not even know how to give a verbal form, a separation, a violent scene, a sudden consciousness of the monotony of time."2 But instead of turning to war experiences, psychological trauma, or political crises, Levinas turned immediately to the reading of books and to his reading of his peoples' book, the Bible, in particular. This compendium of diverse texts, compiled largely by priests, presents an "extraordinary presence" of characters, an "ethical plenitude" and "mysterious possibilities of exegesis" all of which signify "transcendence" for him. The Bible composes a "founding experience"--a pre-philosophical experience-in its "holy story," a place of the first meaning of beings, the place where meaning begins (pp. 23-25). In it one finds the imagery of holiness not through a holy Presence but in peoples' declaring in word and action "Here I am" before the Infinite, the Most High, "the invisible God." Although I am not sure that the word trauma would help us much at this point, his phrase, "gropings to which one does not know how to give a verbal form" certainly addresses the subject, because the invisible God is not, he says, invisible to the senses (p. 106). Rather, God is not thematizable in thought or language without massive betrayal of God's Goodness and Highness and total Otherness. God continuously disappears in infinite transcendence as people find themselves here-before-the-other, find themselves as here-l-am in a passivity that composes testimony to the Other whose palpable withdrawal leaves our consciousness stunned and obsessed by striations of we know not what, striations and cuts and fissures and besettings in a consciousness that becomes blind when faced with the non-shadow, the non-appearance of the other-in-proximity.
The Bible in this view bears testimony to the sensible, unthematizable withdrawal of God in His Glorious Transcendence. It speaks of the stunning command of the Other who is never finished in "his" invisible non-presence with consciousness and good sense. The Bible gives the testimony of those who found themselves with a meaning of goodness and responsibility that totally escaped the realm of finite reference and human self-formation. In this context we can indeed invoke the word "trauma" in the way I think that Levinas meant it. The Bible gives tortured expression to a people's experiences as they find themselves connected with the Most High God in complete passivity, without the possibility of explanation or the possibility of completing the obligation that is bestowed upon them in the name of Goodness.
The book. Levinas had a lifetime of intense encounters with books but with none so much as the Bible and its Talmudic lineage. In it he found a language bearing witness to a perceived proximity of the Other, of God, a "relationship" that language cannot grasp or hold syntactically or narratively and one that never finishes, one in which, as he says, God, addressed as Thou, continuously transcends into One who is referred to as He. In the Bible, God, though never revealed, announces Himself by the testimony of the people. He-and Levinas' God is spoken of in the uninnocent pronomial masculine-is found in the Bible's testimonies as people meet each other and find themselves announced in the other's approach. They find themselves hostage to God and to His contract with them over which they exercised no originary choice, no equality of partnership, no creative spontaneity. When they ignore their responsibility they suffer, and when they attend to it, it-their responsibility-offers nothing that they can presume or intend or complete or schematize. The Bible composes testimonies to such struggle which is carried out and signified in their sense of a living bondage to God's command. Levinas finds the meaning of his thought in the Bible's testimony to the Infinite's commanding "Here I Am."
Levinas' trauma-"the gropings to which [he] does not know how to give a verbal form," the "separation," "the violent scene"--that occasioned his thinking is not separable from his encounter with Jewish theism and scripture. In this tradition on his reading such trauma and violence happen in God's absence to the people "He" chooses, happens in a break from presence and revelation that leaves a chasm for perpetual decision and failure. In this tradition Levinas finds himself responsible before he can act or experience anything. And while for him human consciousness, which he calls in Otherwise Than Being the for-itself, is quite alone with itself in its acts of appropriation, human existence is not alone. Like the Hebrew people found themselves with each other under a covenant with the Most High to which they were not consenting parties, but in accordance with which and in violation of which they were guilty sufferers, so Levinas finds all of us, whether or not we want it or like it, to be with each other in obligation to each other and under requirements remarkably like those that can be found in scriptural law. With each other, our autonomy is always violated by the other's ungraspable and present existence and violated as well by an unovercomeable guilt of inadequacy in our responses to the other. The "here I am" of the other is no more disclosive of an essence or a stateably present being than the Most High is, and the chasm of nonpresence that marks the other's palpability is no more overcomeable than the chasm that holds people and God apart from recognizeable appearance. "Nameless singularity" is one term that Levinas uses for the withdrawn presence of the other. This seems to be a radical image for presence that describes presencing by valorizing a palpable distance that neither appearance nor disclosure can overcome.
In such distance we are left with the positive option of witnessing, not in the sense of telling what we saw of the Most High but in the sense of telling, in an absence of objective certainty, what happened to us and what we underwent. And this undergoing is a matter of flesh and blood, of sensuous bodies by which the utter singularity of a fleshly movement occurs with us in its very life, happens with us outside of any meaning we might ascribe to it. An individual's life, whether Most High or not, is to itself and outside of all perceptive engagements.
As sensuous body meets sensuous body, each finds itself under the demand of the other's singularity, and it is here that a tradition of subtle and delicate morality, of powerful images and sensibilities, of suffering devoutness comes pouring into the absence of disclosive appearance. A life meets a life in a remarkable people's remarkable self-understanding, and the rabbinical philosopher speaks with the authority of one who knows that there is no completion and no essence before the face of a living God or before the face of the existing individual. This is a region that requires trusting faith, for infinity of life takes place in the broken, withdrawn presence of the Other. In Levinas' image, when a face countenances another face an irreparable distance of alterity occurs, one fraught with ethical meaning and one defined by another person's own living event. In Levinas' thought we find reference not to an essential presence, but to the incomparable singularity of another person. The distance is defined by a specific and personal 'between' that nothing abstract or belonging to one's self can bridge. As he says, "the locus of support for the mind is a personal pronoun" that is founded on nothing the experiencing subject owns or can own (Otherwise Than Being, p. 106). It is "a point already identified from the outside, not having to identify itself in the present nor to state its identity, already older than the time of consciousness" (OB, p. 107).
'The' book and a corpus of writing have given Levinas a space for testimony that seems as radical as Blanchot's when Blanchot writes of seeing the light of now exploded and dead stars with the words, "Shining solitude, the void of the day, a deferred death: disaster" (The Writing of the Disaster, p. 2). Perhaps it is as radical as when astronomers speak of space and time swirling and tottering around a black hole, when in the speed and-pressure of unspeakable gravitational draw space and time merge, change, and dissolve. We cannot pretend to know what that means, and we know that our knowledge has been brought to a halt before something totally outside of our reach. But Levinas' images are those of a distance defined by a solipsistic consciousness in relation to what it cannot avoid and cannot be, and his is a testimony that is occasioned by a people's written history. It is liberated from 'our' knowledge of the universe, and it is anchored by a sense of personal presence that bears the trace of oppression, exile, and uncertainty before a God so alive that no knowledge can reach Him.
But the stardust in our eyes? The elements from colliding bodies so massive, so violent, so absent in the traces that remain of them? Our bodies in their galactic dimensions? Our bodies so removed from the persons that they enact? So beyond the metaphors of relationships? So unwritable and so outside of a people's history? So akin to nothing that could be Most High and to nothing that could make covenants? That is so other as to defy the noun, alterity? This is a kinship--and I grow weary of this failing word--that interrupts inclusive nouns such as nature and cosmos and universe, one that requires metaphors and images other than those of a calling deity and one that allows our sense of goodness to assume a shape of mortality without divine anchorage and without universal aspirations. The minerals of our eyes allow us to think again, to re-image our senses of destiny, to reconsider the scope of our values, and to look again at the solus ipse of our "ipseity." Our faces seem to bear much more than relational distance. They seem to bear an anonymity that sees without fire or spirit, and that brings us closer to the simplest fungi and protozoa that have receptors that respond to the presence of light. We are creatures of gravity, star-elements, and forces that neither know nor call, and in the knowledge of that impersonal lineage we might find reason not to make values the final arbiters of our existence. Otherwise, the elements of our evaluative vision might function blindly toward the violence of comprehensive judgments in which we take our historical experiences to exceed their placed limitations as we collide with each other in implosions of normative absolutes and goodness.
The elements of our eyes seem only to function, not to wait for anything in particular. I think that we need to be careful when we took behind and beneath what we perceive. It seems that when we start to look for meanings behind appearances our imaginations take off like rockets, and we talk ceaselessly and confuse everything our imaginations produce with non-imaginative things. That is as true, I believe, of scientists as it is of prophets and ordinary people. So we might proceed with care when we look behind appearances, not so that we do not imagine but so that we can enjoy imagining, not getting seriously hooked by its products, and so that we can keep distances among our images, among the shadows they cast, distances with darkness from which they arise, and distances untraversed by meanings among things that we imagine are there. To be able during a day to find nothing but images behind appearances, to enjoy the efforts to provide for the day's dwelling places, to avoid feelings of catastrophe or of absolute responsibility and to come back home refreshed and enjoy a dinner with people we love--4hat would compose, I think, a good day's work.
To what point have we come in this rift of departing metaphors? My last paragraph embodies attitudes considerably different from the feelings of mourning, exile, and persecution that so powerfully determine Levinas' writing. It resists the option of continuous guilt that forms Levinas' thought. It places human alterity within a context of non-human differences and suggests that an overdetermination of human alterity, especially in the context of the Most High, is not good for humans. That last paragraph and the lines that precede it suggest indirectly that the obsession that Levinas' writing embodies needs to be problematized, that the heavy obsession and the fixated seriousness that it engenders might well be considered pathogenic no matter how justifiable we find the ethics on which it fixates. Such obsession has the power to so overdetermine even the body's life that such life becomes tied to relations that place it in bondage in a process that promises a measure of freedom-we should beware, I think, of gifts from the obsessed; they usually constitute hooks.
But how much do you want to be unhooked from the mourning, sadness, guilt, and sense of suffering that pervade Levinas' thought and pervade as well much of our religio-ethical tradition? Is there too much satisfaction in my words? Too little anguish? Do guilt and anguish constitute our hope of escape from complacency and pride of place and from the injustices that such satisfactions can bring? What perceptions of danger occur when we hear a silence when our lineages customarily speak of self-sacrifice, senses of oppression, and imperatives to participate in and with the suffering of others? And what kinds of threat to our sense of community do we hear when self-sacrifice is detached from our sense of proper connection?
I am suggesting that we might turn to things like dust from stars that are neither high nor low, that do not call for pity or grief or guilt--that call for nothing-and that leave us open to see how we might best enjoy the light and darkness in our world. These mineral-organic things, within some metaphorical concepts, might provide us a measure of freedom from histories of suffering and oppression that leave their scars in tortured lives of ethical responsibility. It might be that our departures from these histories, and their monumental perpetuation, can give us options preferable to those envisioned by people who have been wounded by the terrible injustices of oppression. There is something in the cold, distant, explosive shining of stars that we might take as an opportunity to look away from ourselves, not with the meanings of obsessional self-sacrifice but with a lightened perspective toward our griefs and engagements.
1. Jay Barbree and Martin Caidin, A Journey Through Time (Penguin, 1995), pp. 190-91.
2. Immanual Levinas, Ethics and Infinity (Duquesne University Press, 1985), p. 56.
Pennsylvania State University…