Thursday, May 12, 2005

Totality and Infinity

Thinking of Levinas yesterday forced me to pull out my copy of Totality and Infinity again. Surprising what one has read and then forgotten:
Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality.

Does not lucidity, the mind's openness upon the true, consist in catching sight of the permanent possibility of war? The state of war suspends morality; it divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives. In advance its shadow falls over the actions of men. War is not only one of the ordeals-the greatest-of which morality lives; it renders morality derisory. The art of foreseeing war and of winning it by every means-politics-is henceforth enjoined as the very exercise of reason. Politics is opposed to morality, as philosophy to naivete.

We do not need obscure fragments of Heraclitus to prove that being reveals itself as war to philosophical thought, that war does not only affect it as the most patent fact, but as the very patency, or the truth, of the real. In war reality rends the words and images that dissimulate it, to abtrude in its nudity and in its harshness. Harsh reality (this sounds like a pleonasm!), harsh object-lesson, at the very moment of its fulguration where the drapings of illusion burn war is produced as the pure experience of pure being. The ontological event that takes form in this black light is a casting into movement of beings hitherto anchored in their identity, a mobilization of absolutes, by an objective order from which there is no escape. The trial by force is the test of the real. But violence does not consist so much in injuring and annihilating persons as in interrupting their continuity, making them play roles in which they no longer recognize themselves, making them betray not only commitments but their own substance, making them carry out actions that will destroy every possibility for action. Not only modern war but every war employs arms that turn against those who wield them. It establishes an order from which no one can keep his distance; nothing henceforth is exterior. War does not manifest exteriority and the other as other; it destroys the identity of the same.

The visage of being that shows itself in war is fixed in the concept of totality, which dominates Western philosophy. Individuals are reduced to being bearers of forces that command them unbeknown to themselves. The meaning of individuals (invisible outside of this totality) is derived from the totality. The unicity of each presents is incessantly sacrificed to a future appealed to to bring forth its objective meaning. For the ultimate meaning alone counts; the last act alone changes beings into themselves. They are what they will appear to be in the already plastic forms of the epic.

The moral consciousness can sustain the mocking gaze of the political man only if the certitude of peace dominates the evidence of war. Such a certitude is not obtained by a simple play of anthithesis. The peace of empires issued from war rests on war. It does not restore to the alinenated beings their lost liberty. For that a primordial and original relation with being is needed.

Morality will oppose politics in history and will have gone beyond the functions of prudence or the canons of the beautiful to proclaim itself unconditional and universal when the eschatology of messianic peace will have come to superpose itself upon the ontology of war. Philosophers distrust it. To be sure they profit from it to announce peace also; they deduce a final peace from the reason that plays out its stakes in ancient and present-day wars: they found morality on politics. But for them eschatology-a subjective and arbitrary divination of the future, the result of a revelation without evidences, tributary of faith-belongs naturally to Opinion.

However, the extraordinary phenomenon of prophetic eschatology certainly does not intend to win its civic rights within the domain of thought by being assimilated to a philosophical evidence. In religions and even in theologies eschatology, like an oracle, does indeed seem to "complete" philosophical evidences; its beliefs-conjectures mean to be more certain than the evidences-as though eschatology added information about the future by revealing the finality of being. But, when reduced to the evidences, eschatology would then already accept the ontology of totality issued from war. Its real import lies elsewhere. It does not introduce a teleological system into the totality; it does not consist in teaching the orientation of history. Eschatology institutes a relation with being beyond the totality or beyond history, and not with being beyond the past and the present. Not with the void that would surround the totality and where one could, arbitrarily, think what one likes, and thus promote the claims of a subjectivity free as the wind.
It is a relationship with a surplus always exterior to the totality, as though the objective totality did not fill out the true measure of being, as though another concept, the concept of infinity, were needed to express this transcendence with regard to totality, non-encompassable within a totality, and as primordial as totality.
--Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, tr. Alphonso Lingis (Duqeesne University Press 1969, pp. 21-22)

In a first pass at that, set aside the complex phenomenological ideas and focus strictly on the language you understand. French phenomenologists, especially, often manage to speak on two levels at once, and here Levinas is no exception. Taken at face value, this is a disquisition on war: on the centrality of the metaphor of war to human thought, human behavior, governance, international relations, etc. Apply some of these words to the present situation, and see if they don't elucidate the situation we find ourselves in:

"The state of war suspends morality; it divests the eternal institutions and obligations of their eternity and rescinds ad interim the unconditional imperatives." Or, for every difficult question, such as: did we really need to panic over a slightly off course Cessna?, the answer is: "We are at war."

"The trial by force is the trial of the real." Does anyone paying attention to the current international situation and U.S. foreign policy, really need that sentence explained?

"Not only modern war but every war employs arms that turn against those who wield them....War does not manifest exteriority and the other as other; it destroys the identity of the same." Or, as Molly Bingham put it: "Or do I need to start facing the reality that all I love and believe in is simply self-delusion?" And she despairs precisely because: "The meaning of derived from the totality." If the totality is not what I was taught it was, then what is it? And who am I?

Enter morality; and through morality, infinity.

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