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

By Cynthia D. Coe | Go to book overview

1
Deformalizing Time

IN A 1988 interview, Levinas claims that the “essential theme of my research is the deformalization of the notion of time” (OUJ 232). At first glance, this identification of time as his “essential theme” seems counterintuitive, given his steadfast focus on the nature of responsibility and the subject’s relation to alterity. However, how we understand time shapes how we understand the self, and Levinas argues that a formal conception of time supports the modern ideal of autonomous subjectivity. Time can be seen as either enabling or disrupting the position of the subject as a detached knower and willful agent in the world. In the first case, time is the linear framework within which we can make sense of experience and act on the basis of that knowledge, but in the latter, the subject is caught up in the movement of time in ways that cannot be overcome.

This chapter will examine what Levinas means by this phrase, the “deformalization of the notion of time,” as a way of tracing the enduring significance of time in Levinas’s understanding of subjectivity and alterity. In that 1988 statement, he clearly means the “deformalization of time” in the objective genitive—that our conception of time should be deformalized, or revised to recognize time in its ethical significance, rather than merely as a structure of experience. But that revision results in the deformalization of time in the sense of the subjective genitive: that diachronous time has the effect of deforming the fundamental activity of intentionality.

The first section of this chapter discusses the formal conceptions of time that Levinas rejects, specifically in the work of Aristotle and Kant, where time functions as a neutral order within which experience unfolds. In these models, time has no particular significance for the subject but is merely the structure for the content of our experience. In contesting these accounts of time, Levinas builds on the work of Bergson, Husserl, Heidegger, and Rosenzweig, who in their various approaches retrieve the lived significance of time in its becoming.1 But Lévinas takes a more radical approach by arguing that the meaning of time is not the possibility of free will outside of a spatialized, mechanistic world; the intentional integration of past, present, and future; my own being-toward-death; or the disclosure of a spiritual order of creation, revelation, and redemption. Instead, time has an ethical significance that dismantles my ability to comprehend the other. In arising out of an “immemorial past,” responsibility cannot be made fully present to consciousness. Its hold on the self therefore emerges unexpectedly, introducing

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • Introduction - Intrigues of Time ix
  • Abbreviations xxi
  • 1 - Deformalizing Time 1
  • 2 - The Traumatic Impact of Deformalized Time 19
  • 3 - The Method of an-Archeology 39
  • 4 - Between Theodicy and Despair 73
  • 5 - The Sobering Up of Oedipus 101
  • 6 - Anxieties of Incarnation 129
  • 7 - Rethinking Death on the Basis of Time 159
  • 8 - Animals and Creatures 187
  • Conclusion - Inheriting the Thought of Diachrony 219
  • Bibliography 233
  • Index 245
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