Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Moving beyond the Face through Eros: Levinas and Irigaray's Treatment of the Woman as an Alterity

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Moving beyond the Face through Eros: Levinas and Irigaray's Treatment of the Woman as an Alterity

Article excerpt

Emmanuel Levinas's "Phenomenology of Eros," in Totality and Infinity, has been the subject of much debate concerning his treatment of the feminine subject. Within his account, Levinas speaks of the (male) subject's erotic encounter with the (female) beloved and concludes that transcendence is not given within the erotic encounter, but is given instead through the engenderment of the son. Levinas depicts the erotic encounter as going beyond the complete alterity of the face, the ethical, and infinity. However, Levinas holds that the erotic encounter is not morally problematic since going beyond the face does not lead to the totalization of the female beloved, in the sense that the face is presupposed and the beloved's freedom is not objectified. Because the erotic encounter lacks the possibility of transcendence, Levinas depicts the encounter as one which neither lies within infinity (the ethical) nor totality (the unethical).

One of the scholars who finds Levinas's "Phenomenology of Eros" problematic is Luce Irigaray. Though Irigaray accepts Levinas's depiction of the erotic as going beyond the signification of the face within the face to face encounter, her critique of Levinas is twofold. First, Irigaray maintains the signification within the face to face encounter is not a necessary component of transcendence within Eros. Second, Irigaray asserts that failure to recognize transcendence within the erotic encounter inevitably effaces the alterity of the "female lover"' and is thereby unethical. Irigaray asserts that transcendence takes place through the caress, which she posits as preceding signification (orality). Irigaray's stance necessarily leads toward mysticism, wherein the divine is acknowledged within the carnal.

In order to comprehend fully the implications of going beyond the ethical within the erotic encounter, I will first contrast Levinas's description of the subject's encounter with the face with his description of the male subject's encounter with the beloved. The face, signification, the height of the other, the sense of responsibility, and the subject as under accusation within the face to face encounter will be contrasted against the beloved's non-signification, the vertiginous depths of the beloved, the sense of playfulness, and the subject as the self of an other within Eros. I will then explore Irigaray's position concerning transcendence within the erotic encounter and her subsequent critique of Levinas's account of Eros. Though I will show Irigaray's mystical stance to be ultimately incompatible with Levinas's thought, I will show that the implications of her critique suggest not only a reevaluation of Levinas's "Phenomenology of Eros," but a reevaluation of Levinas's account of the face to face encounter, as well.

Within Totality and Infinity, the complete alterity of the other is found as the face of the other. It is the nudity of the face which enables signification, which is straightforward and unmediated by any image. Illustrating this straightforwardness, Levinas writes that "deceit and veracity already presuppose the absolute authenticity of the face-the privileged case of a presentation of being foreign to the alternative of truth and non-truth, circumventing the ambiguity of the true and the false which every truth risks."2 The signification, command, and expression of the face, "you shall not commit murder," accordingly, is absolute; it is not the presentation of oneself as a sign, but is instead the presentation of "oneself in person."3 As such, it not only precedes truth, but is foundational for it.

The face appears in a dimension of height, which is distinguished from the dimension of manifestation in which objects appear, and eludes the grasp of the subject. The signifyingness of the face, "you shall not commit murder," presents the subject with the temptation to annihilate the other totally, though this temptation is simultaneously presented as an ethical impossibility lying beyond all possible justification. …

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