Academic journal article Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies

Souls All Unaccompanied: Enacting Levinasian Feminine Alterity in Housekeeping

Academic journal article Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies

Souls All Unaccompanied: Enacting Levinasian Feminine Alterity in Housekeeping

Article excerpt

Perhaps the most contested, most misunderstood concept in Emmanuel Levinas's philosophy of ethics is that of feminine alterity and its role in creating a hospitable dwelling. Levinas has long been criticized by feminist thinkers for his complex and occasionally contradictory comments on the feminine, most notably by Simone de Beauvoir, who lambasted him as a patriarchal thinker who disparaged women by situating them as "Other' to men. Others, including Luce Irigaray, have admired his philosophy in general while expressing concern regarding the lack of feminine subjectivity.1 Though more recent feminist scholars have attempted to shift the conversation to more nuanced perspectives, feminine alterity remains an elusive and enigmatic concept, and a site of consternation for those invested in Levinasian ethics. Such criticisms, however, misinterpret feminine alterity as opposite to the masculine self, which, while accurate in many Western representations of femininity, is not necessarily the case in Levinasian philosophy. Contrary to early feminist concerns, Levinas does not speak of the feminine as a subject in opposition to the masculine subject, nor has he established feminine alterity as inferior or discriminatory.2 If anything, he elevates the feminine by defining it as the intangible presence that opens the possibility for ethical behavior between and among physical subjects. In Levinasian ethics this presence-contingent on time, circumstance, and individual need-becomes the very lynchpin by which a dwelling is made habitable. Moreover, it functions to create an intimate interiority, or a sense of welcome for the Other in the self's physical, emotional, and psychological space. Levinas frequently describes this comprehensive process of welcoming as "hospitality" (Totality 155156).

Comparatively little has been written on the Levinasian feminine, especially as it applies to literary texts, in part because of Levinas's insistence that his is to be a lived philosophy-what Bettina Bergo describes as an exploration of "the meaning of intersubjectivity and lived immediacy" (Stanford Encyclopedia)-rather than an intellectualized theory. This frustrates efforts at conceptual mastery of feminine alterity because the very nature of the feminine as alterity presupposes the inability to measure or totalize it. Consequently, it may be more productive to observe the strengths and weaknesses of the process by which feminine alterity creates a habitable dwelling not by testing it against alternative philosophical or theoretical perspectives, but against the density of lived experience of women, in fact, as embodied in a novel about women's lives and relationships, written by a woman. There are few contemporary novels that fit this description as neatly as Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping (1980). The novel is particularly well suited as a test case for the functions and limits of feminine alterity, not only because it is a novel about women by a woman, but also because it highlights various methods by which feminine alterity functions to welcome the lonely and make the home a place of refuge, while illuminating its theoretical limits. A fuller version of this essay reviews several key characteristics of feminine alterity as explicated by Levinas and Jacques Derrida, considers various ways in which Robinson's characters both support and complicate the efficacy of feminine alterity as a welcoming force with the power to create habitable dwellings and eradicate the lack perpetuated by solitude, and attempts to demonstrate how the novel itself is the best enactment of feminine alterity functioning to create a hospitable habitation where ethical behavior-what Levinas sometimes calls holiness-becomes possible. This briefer version first analyzes the process by which two of her characters attempt, and fail, to create hospitable dwellings, and then discusses how Robinson's writing itself enacts feminine alterity as its language of welcome invites readers into the imaginative conscious of the novel. …

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