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

By Cynthia D. Coe | Go to book overview

2
The Traumatic Impact
of Deformalized Time

ON LEVINAS’S READING, formal conceptions of time depict a neutral order within which we experience events and beings. These accounts correlatively naturalize a subject who comprehends and controls her surroundings. When Levinas identifies the deformalization of time as central to his philosophical work, he is thus engaged in the critique of the image of subjectivity presupposed by formal conceptions of time. Starting in the late 1960s, Levinas describes time’s “meaningful content somehow prior to form” as traumatic: a responsibility for the other imposed on the subject, which consciousness is always too late to assimilate as a phenomenon (OUJ 232).

In Otherwise than Being, he describes diachronous time as a disruption of the activity of the knowing, willing subject. That notion of interruption or rupture is crucial to Levinas’s use of the term “trauma” (traumatisme), which derives from the Greek word for a wound, particularly through piercing. To unpack the idea that time has an ethical significance, and why Levinas describes that significance as traumatic, in this chapter I draw on elements of the psychoanalytic discussion of trauma that illuminate Levinas’s account of deformalized time. This is a connection that Levinas himself would avoid, given his wholesale rejection of psychoanalysis as a legitimate resource in understanding subjectivity. But Freud’s work initiates a tradition of thinking about trauma that explores the undermining of the sovereign subject—specifically by destabilizing the subject’s ability to represent traumatic events and thus create an orderly temporal narrative. In this way, psychoanalytic accounts of trauma enrich Levinas’s use of the concept to describe the impact of deformalized time.


Time and Monsters

In the opening chapter of Otherwise than Being, Levinas refers to time as the “monstration of essence,” in the context of discussing synchronous time as that which allows for the manifestation of all that is (OB 9). In this way of understanding time, the passing of time does not resist but instead supports this disclosure: “The getting out of phase [déphasage] of the instant, the ‘all’ pulling off from the ‘all’—the temporality of time—makes possible … a recuperation in which nothing is lost” (OB 28). But diachrony introduces monstrosity or deformation into

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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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