Abraham and the Flaneur: Levinas, Benjamin, and Urban Life

By Schmiedgen, Peter | Philosophy Today, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview
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Abraham and the Flaneur: Levinas, Benjamin, and Urban Life

Schmiedgen, Peter, Philosophy Today

But to lose oneself in the city-as one loses oneself in a forest-that calls for quite a different schooling. Then, signboards and street names, passers-by, roofs, kiosks, or bars must speak to the wanderer like cracking twigs under his feet in the forest, like the startling call of a bittern in the distance, like the sudden stillness of a clearing with a lily standing erect at its centre.1

As I read Levinas's Talmudic reading "Judaism and Revolution"21 wondered to myself as I came upon a discussion of the café as the context of one of the great dangers of modern life, just what this might mean. My initial response was to think that such a condemnation of one of my favorite social contexts must simply be a manifestation of Levinas's deep desire to stay close to the Talmudic texts he was analyzing. However, after overcoming this initial surprise, I wondered what it was that Levinas was really getting at here and more to the point what he was trying to say about modernity by asserting that cafés have become an integral part of modern life, that they were indeed "the realization of a form of life" (JR, 112) that is ours and finally, that they are expressive of "a category essential to western being" (ibid.) At the center of this essay is my desire to explore this question in a little more depth.

In order to do this I will engage Levinas's analyses of the relationship between the interiority of the dwelling and the exterior (in this case the urban exterior) that is the site of the café, with those of Walter Benjamin.3 In the analyses of Benjamin and Levinas we find two closely related and yet also in certain respects opposed analyses of the relationship between private, interior space and the exterior space with which it is inextricably interwoven.

We have in both Levinas and Benjamin accounts of the distinction between a constructed interiority and an exterior public field of exchange over and against which it is understood,4 and indeed we even have discussions of the café as a form of life that is to be found in this exterior public realm. Insofar as Benjamin's account is an account of modernity, we also have in this sense an interesting and useful way of both contextualizing and critically engaging with Levinas' largely a historical phenomenological categories. In these senses there is a strong agreement between the two accounts.

However there is also some disagreement between their respective analyses. This disagreement centers primarily upon the question of how interiority, or to use Levinas's language, totality, is brought into question. In both cases it is through a rupturing of borders or boundaries and a bringing into question of subjective mastery, however in one of our two thinkers (Levinas) it is via a border crossing that goes from the exterior into the interior and in the other (Benjamin) via a crossing that goes from the interior out to the exterior.5 Perhaps the central question which the comparison of these two thinkers raises for me is that of who the interiorizing subject is and where he or she is located in social and historical terms?

In attempting to address this question what I will argue is that we can productively read Benjamin's account as providing a more concrete historical and social context for some of the categorial structures to be found in Levinas's early and middle analyses of the relation between the self and the other and hence also between the interior and the exterior. Needless to say this critical response to the Levinasian analyses also brings into question to some extent the radical anti-subjectivism of the Levinasian account of the self as well.

Levinas: The Invitation to Come In

In this first section I will briefly recount some of the themes of Levinas' reflections and in particular I will try to draw out Levinas's often only implicit hopes and fears about the forms of life characteristic of the city itself, as one of the most exemplary of modern life contexts.

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Abraham and the Flaneur: Levinas, Benjamin, and Urban Life


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