Levinas and the Trauma of Responsibility: The Ethical Significance of Time

Levinas and the Trauma of Responsibility: The Ethical Significance of Time

Levinas and the Trauma of Responsibility: The Ethical Significance of Time

Levinas and the Trauma of Responsibility: The Ethical Significance of Time

Synopsis

Levinas's account of responsibility challenges dominant notions of time, autonomy, and subjectivity according to Cynthia D. Coe. Employing the concept of trauma in Levinas's late writings, Coe draws together his understanding of time and his claim that responsibility is an obligation to the other that cannot be anticipated or warded off. Tracing the broad significance of these ideas, Coe shows how Levinas revises our notions of moral agency, knowledge, and embodiment. Her focus on time brings a new interpretive lens to Levinas's work and reflects on a wider discussion of the fragmentation of human experience as an ethical subject. Coe's understanding of trauma and time offers a new appreciation of how Levinas can inform debates about gender, race, mortality, and animality.

Excerpt

The image on the cover of this book is a photograph of plaster casts and masks made in the studio of sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd for French World War I veterans who had suffered facial wounds. Fred Albee, an American surgeon who treated soldiers in that war, noted that the way that the war was fought, including the relatively new military technology of machine guns, made soldiers more vulnerable to such wounds: “soldiers failed to understand the menace of the machine gun. They seemed to think they could pop their heads up over a trench and move quickly enough to dodge the hail of bullets.” After multiple surgeries, soldiers’ faces would often be so disfigured that interacting with other people or catching sight of their own reflections would cause further psychological distress. in British hospitals that treated these patients, mirrors were banned, and benches outside the hospital were painted blue to warn passersby that it might be upsetting to look at anyone sitting there. Between 1917 and 1918, under the auspices of the Red Cross, Ladd and her staff sculpted almost two hundred masks, designed to allow veterans to go out in public (and, in at least one soldier’s case, to return home to his mother) without provoking revulsion and fear. the sculptors at the Studio for Portrait Masks would talk with each soldier, study photographs of the soldiers’ faces before their injuries, and ascertain their remaining range of facial expressions. a plaster cast was the basis for a copper mask, which would then be painted to match the man’s skin (balanced between the tone on a sunny day and on a cloudy day) and to represent a typical expression. Sometimes a mustache would be attached, and a pair of glasses would hold the mask to the person’s face. These masks are palimpsests of the face in its vulnerability and its ethical demand; they simultaneously mark and cover over a wounded face.

Emmanuel Levinas lived through World War I as a child, although his life in Lithuania and then the Ukraine was much more directly impacted by the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. However, Franz Rosenzweig, one of the major influences on his thought, wrote The Star of Redemption while serving in the German trenches during the last stages of the war and in an army hospital immediately following the end of the war. in that text, Rosenzweig vehemently rejects the idealist neglect of the human being as a finite and unique individual. Levinas repeatedly gestures to Rosenzweig’s critique of Hegel in contrasting totality and infinity, where infinity is the transcendence of the singular other. Totality . . .

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