Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Totality, Infinity, and Newsweek

Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to know whether we are not duped by morality.--Emmanuel Levinas
It's an astonishing statement, when you think about it. It is clearly meant to be taken as a universal, but it must have some connection to the particular, else it is meaningless. That is, after all, the foundation of Western thought: that the universal has application and even appearance, in the particular. Thales of Miletus speculated that all things are fundamentally water, but if the chain broke down in some particular between the rainfall, the grass, the cow, and the milk, his univeral would break down, too; as, eventually, it did. The results were subject to change, but the method remained.

So how do we apply this method to be sure we are not duped by morality? And what would such a condition look like, in the first place? Perhaps like the current "scandal" over the Newsweek report.

It is a favorite technigue of this Administration to wrap itself in morality, and in doing so to dupe as many people as possible, for as long as possible. NPR had a story just this morning about religious groups that are encouraged to apply for government grants. However, when those grants are challenged as violating the separation of church and state, the organization suddenly finds itself alone in the courtroom (no Solicitor General comes to plead their case), and losing the grant money it had won. Sounds oddly like a clear case of being duped by "morality."

But "morality" of course is at question in Levinas' essay, not actions dressed up as morality. And here Levinas makes a neat turn, one not easily appreciated. If his language becomes complicated, it is because he assumes and at the same time does not assume, the weltanschauung of a first century Palestinian like Jesus of Nazareth (Judaism only came into its own after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.), or of the 20th century. His realm is quite particular: the realm of phenomenology. At the same time, it is quite general: the realm of human experience. One tries to talk in very deliberate language about the concept of existence; the other tries to understand the experiences we all, in one way or another, share. But the turn he makes, is to assume that morality has, for most people, an aspect of war about it. War, of course, is a totality. As George C. Scott says in Patton, all other forms of human endeavor pale in the face of war. For better or worse, he is right. Although it says more about what we value, and how, it is true. And Levinas assumes this truth in his examination of totality and infinity.

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 have to accept that any assertion of power, for whatever reason, assumes the validity of war. When push comes to shove, it is our position that must prevail, because it is right. And if it must prevail by the assertion of power, then so be it. And that assertion of power, that assertion of the need to win by any means whatsoever, is politics. It is perfectly reasonable, and it must be so because it is perfectly moral. So even the personal becomes political, because politics is "the very exercise of reason." And only the unreasonable would oppose the applicaion of reason. But this means that politics is opposed to morality, just as philosophy is opposed to naivete.

The parallelism is not accidental. Naivete is perceived as weakness. Of what value is it to be naive, to be innocent and ignorant and prey to the world? No more valuable, then, is it to be moral. To be moral, indeed, is to be opposed to reason. And at that point morality is undone by reason, which used morality to gain its advantage and now discards it as if it were a ladder useful only for climbing, and using it again would mean going down. As Plato taught, once the good has been achieved, the totality from which all things originate, to go back is to turn toward imperfection, to admit imperfection into the realm of the perfect; and that is not possible. So totality leads us to the good. But this strikes us at the very root of our existence. It does not join us to reality; it cuts us off from reality:

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.
Enter Kierkegaard. This is the reason for the entire authorship, the pseudonyms and the speculations and the "leap of faith" and "either/or" and the "purity of heart" which is "to will one thing." Kierkegaard does not seek to promote totality, but to destroy it. And he does it, ironically enough, in the tradition of the great Platonic totalizer of Western theology, Augustine of Hippo.

Father in Heaven! What is a man without Thee! What is all that he knows, vast accumulation though it be, but a chipped fragment if he does not know Thee! What is all his striving, could it even encompass a world, but a half-finished work if he does not know Thee; Thee the One, who art one thing and who art all! so may Thou give to the intellect, wisdom to comprehend that one thing; to the heart, sincerity to receive this understanding; to the will, purity that wills only one thing. Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, tr. Douglas V. Steere (New York: Harper & Row, 1948), p. 31
Virtually the language of the famous Confession. And it was certainly Augustine who introduced to Western thought the very idea of the individual which ultimately became so important to phenomenology, as well as to Kierkegaard's rejection of the totality of the Hegelian system. It is that creation of the individual that Levinas is referring to:

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.
That is the tension Kierkegaard's authorship aimed at: to pry individuals out of the role of "bearers of forces that command them unbeknownst to themselves." Kierkegaard's aim, if you like, was to give individuals the red pill that Morpheus (the god of sleep, death's second self, as Donne reminds us) offers to lead you down the rabbit hole to discovery of the true reality. And that true reality, is that morality is real:

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.
We are alienated beings to the extent that we are separated from a primordial and original relation, says Levinas. That's a curious conception in some ways, a ringing continuation of the second Creation story of Genesis that continues the totality theme of Western culture: once, things were good and perfect and true, and one day we will return to that state. When the Messiah comes; when the Rapture comes; when the eschaton comes. Then all will be well; and all manner of thing will be well. "When the tongues of flame are in-folded/Into the crowned knot of fire/And the fire and the rose are one." Well, perhaps; or perhaps all things are well now. Perhaps it is infinity we should seek, and not totality. Infinity, which is outside of, extraneous to, apart from, the limitations of totality. Levinas still attends upon an eschatology: but there the Jew (Levinas) and the Christian (yours truly) part ways, albeit amicably. While Levinas awaits "the eschatology of messianic peace" which "will... come to superpose itself upon the ontology of war," I say it has already come. And so the only question now is not: who's in charge here, the Administration or Newsweek? The question is: who will see that justice is done?

Levinas says this of eschatologies:

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.
It stands, in other words, apart. It draws us out of the totality, into infinity. From the realm of sight, into the realm of spirit. But a realm that is in relationship to the totality, not arbitrarily free from it; a realm that imposes responsibility, rather than releases from it. A realm we have to achieve, if we are not to be duped by morality.

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