Starlight in the Face of the Other

By Scott, Charles | Philosophy Today, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview
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Starlight in the Face of the Other


Scott, Charles, Philosophy Today


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.

Lee Smolin

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those aspects of the Jewish theological traditions in which God is viewed as totally ungraspable and yet the sacred, withdrawn giver of alterity, obligation, and goodness, you will take pause before the rabbinical and talmudic motivations in Levinas' thought.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.

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