Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Out from Behind the Shadows: Levinas and Visual Art

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Out from Behind the Shadows: Levinas and Visual Art

Article excerpt

Levinas's ethics and visual art: an analysis of the relationship between them would appear to be a futile exercise, one which could lead only to a dead end. Levinas's understanding of art's relationship with ethics is widely understood to be iconoclastic, and for good reason: "Reality and its Shadow," Levinas's sole essay to deal with the phenomenon of art, argues that art's representational and rhythmic nature will always distract us from ethics.' The vehemence with which Levinas rejects art is summarized in one of his more provocative statements, where Levinas writes that "there is something wicked and egoist and cowardly in artistic enjoyment. There are times when one can be ashamed of it, as of feasting during a plague" (RS 142). From the point of view of Levinas's 1948 essay, if we are to take ethics seriously then we should avoid art entirely. When it comes to considering visual art in particular, this relationship between art and ethics becomes even more problematic, since vision for Levinas is a "totalizing embrace" which refuses to acknowledge the alterity of the other, an encounter which is, for Levinas, ethics.2 In this context it is surprising indeed to find that many of Levinas's works - dating from both before and after "Reality and its Shadow" - appeal to particular examples of art in terms which make it plain that works of visual art play an important role in ethics. Just how such apparently contradictory attitudes toward art can co-exist in Levinas's thought is the subject of this essay.

Ethics

Levinas's wariness toward art is founded on the primacy he accords to ethics, over that of ontology. According to Levinas, ontology, "the comprehension, the embracing of Being," begins its search for knowledge with the philosopher as sovereign.3 In setting out to contemplate being, the oncological philosopher implicitly claims to have power and the capacity for knowledge - even if that knowledge is simply about the limits of philosophy. In itself these implicit claims are not necessarily a problem: Levinas's own philosophy draws attention to ontology's limits. Problematic for Levinas is, however, ontology's emphasis on the comprehension of being, rather than on that which exceeds comprehension.4 The wisdom springing from ontological investigation, even if that wisdom concedes the limits and imperfections of thought and knowledge, remains a wisdom which is, as Levinas puts it, "reduced to self-consciousness."5 As a consequence of this return to oneself, Levinas argues that ontology (along with Husserl's intentional consciousness) is an egology. For Levinas, "Anything unknown that can occur to it [ontology] is in advance disclosed, open, manifest, is cast in the mould of the known, and cannot be a complete surprise" (OBBE 99). So while ontology may not claim to have perfect knowledge of being, whatever exceeds the knowledge ontology does claim to have is given secondary interest due to ontology's privileging of what is known. For Levinas, in so far as ontology "appropriates and grasps the otherness of the known," this traditional "first philosophy is a philosophy of power" (respectively: EFP 76, Levinas's italics; TI 46). This means that ontology is "a philosophy of injustice," enacting as it does a form of violence against the other: it is - and this is crucial - a form of representation which reduces the other to the same (TI 46).

In distinction to forms of representation of the other (like that of ontology), in the ethical relation my attention is on that which exceeds knowledge. The other is unpresentable and beyond being. In other words, Levinas's ethics is concerned with my encounter with the other.6 This encounter is not with an impersonal object of knowledge or lack of knowledge, and it is not an encounter with an idea or representation of alterity, it is not an experience of something or someone over whom I have control. As an inversion of the egology and assumption of power attendant to representation, ethics "is in the laying down by the ego of its sovereignty" (EFP 85). …

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