1519 Slices
Medium 9780253021069

11 Levinas and His Critics

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

In the course of this book I have had occasion to notice various criticisms of Levinas, but I have not yet responded to them. To some readers I may have appeared defensive and overly generous to Levinas. My goal has been to show the various ways in which his account of human existence as fundamentally, primordially ethical provides Levinas with the tools for an ethical critique of social and political action, programs, institutions, and policies. For this reason, I do not apologize for the orientation or tone of the book, but I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to consider some of the more provocative and controversial critiques of his work. That is the purpose of this chapter.

My reading of Levinas does not indulge in dramatic or hyperbolic interpretation of his terminology. His various expressions for the face-to-face—from enigma and hostage to persecution, accusation, and substitution—and the extreme way in which he characterizes the claim of the other on the self, for example as a form of violence, are intended, I believe, to call attention to Levinas’s break with the tradition of Western philosophy and its conventional expressions. And these expressions and others are suggestive; they recommend interpretations of the intersubjective relation between persons and the various dimensions of our social existence. But I have regularly urged caution about interpreting these terms and about how to understand Levinas’s overall project and its implications. My transcendental reading of the face-to-face is a modest or deflationary one, and I am aware that many will find it insufficiently radical and for this reason a distortion of Levinas’s thinking. Another consequence of my reading, however, is that I am able to defend Levinas against many of his most vigorous critics. The more extreme they read him, the more objectionable he appears to be. This is not always the case, but there are certainly examples of this dialectic among the work of his critics.

See All Chapters
Medium 9780253021069

10 Levinas’s Notorious Interview

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

There may be no more controversial comments associated with Emmanuel Levinas than his remarks during a radio interview, broadcast on Radio Communauté on September 28, 1982, in the wake of the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon near Beirut. The interview was conducted by Shlomo Malka, and the interviewees were Levinas and Alain Finkielkraut. A transcript was published in Les Nouveaux Cahiers, but its notoriety, certainly for English-speaking audiences, was accelerated by the publication of an English translation, included by Seán Hand in his The Levinas Reader, published by Basil Blackwell in 1989.1 Introducing the transcript, Hand explains the circumstances that led the Israeli Defense Forces to occupy West Beirut in mid-September of 1982 and the events that followed:

While the move into West Beirut was supposedly made in order to protect the Muslims from the revenge of the Phalangists [after the September 14 bombing in party headquarters in East Beirut that killed twenty six, including Lebanon’s recently elected president, Bashir Gemayel, a Maronite,], the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) actually introduced Phalangists into the Palestinian camps with the mission of clearing out suspected fedayeem, or Arab infiltrators, who carried out hit-and-run raids inside Israel. The Christian soldiers massacred several hundred people in Sabra and Chatila camps over a period of nearly two days with no intervention on the part of the IDF. At first [prime minister Menachem] Begin refused to set up a judicial inquiry, commenting in the New York Times on 26 September that “Goyim kill goyim, and they immediately come to hang the Jews.”2

See All Chapters
Medium 9780253021069

9 Ethics, Politics, and Messianism

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

In a well-known interview, Richard Kearney asked Emmanuel Levinas if the “ethical criterion of the interhuman” were not employed by him as a “sort of messianic eschatology.” Levinas objected to the expression “eschatology” and yet accepted the proposal that the “ethical relation with the other” is messianic, but only when properly understood. That is, he rejected the idea of a historical eschaton, an end or goal, whether we think of it as a face-to-face exposure to an absolutely other, God, or as the completion or perfection of our face-to-face encounters with human others. Ethics has no end; it is not about a historical telos. As he put it, “I have described ethical responsibility as insomnia or wakefulness precisely because it is a perpetual duty of vigilance and effort that can never slumber.” The key word here is “perpetual.” Love, he says, has something incessant and impermanent about it. He refers to the image of Talmudic sages going from meeting to meeting, always discussing the law, in this life and the next, without end. Love or the ethical is like this process that demands ongoing wakefulness and attention.1 If ethics is messianic, it is an episodic messianism that is never complete, and if politics ought to meet ethical standards, it too requires attention and correction, moment to moment.

See All Chapters
Medium 9780253021069

7 Teaching Prophetic Politics: Ethics and Politics in Levinas’s Talmudic Lessons

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

Levinas’s published writings include books, collections of essays and articles, interviews, and Talmudic lessons. Generally speaking, the best places to look for Levinas’s comments on concrete and particular situations in which ethics and politics encounter one another are his many published interviews and his twenty-four published Talmudic lessons.1 In the interviews Levinas speaks directly to an interviewer and responds to his or her questions; the informality of the setting often elicits from him examples, illustrations, and textual references and comments that are very helpful for understanding the themes of his thinking. In the Talmudic lessons Levinas selected texts to discuss that were chosen precisely because they expressed themes that Levinas associated with the announced topic of the colloquium for that given year. Often—although not always—in the course of the lesson, he refers to contemporary events or widely publicized incidents that contributed to the choice of that year’s topic. Also, the texts themselves typically include stories or legal discussions concerning particular types of conduct. Hence, both the setting for these lessons and their Talmudic focus move Levinas to make comments that, relative to the bulk of his writings, are quite concrete and particular.

See All Chapters
Medium 9780253021069

6 Liberalism and Democracy

Michael L. Morgan Indiana University Press ePub

When Levinas was a child, his family had to leave their home in Kovno, Lithuania, during the First World War, and after their return, he lived under the young Soviet government until he left for Strasbourg in 1924. In France he came into contact with a generation of philosophers whose political views had been shaped in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, and he adopted in his own way the ideals of the French Revolution as they were recovered during that period. In the 1930s he was brought face-to-face with fascism and totalitarianism and the question of where philosophy stood in the encounter between Hitler’s fascism and Enlightenment liberalism. In the 1930s, he experienced the impotence of liberalism in the struggle with the forces of fascism, and yet by the 1970s and ’80s he appears to have changed his mind about liberalism and come to endorse the virtues of democracy. He experienced the struggles of French parliamentary democracy after the war and the turmoil of the 1960s, particularly 1968, and while he lived to see the fragmentation of the Soviet empire, it is clear that the horrors of Stalinism had already alienated him from any sympathy with Cold War communism. He had an ongoing dislike for American capitalism. To be sure, throughout his career, he had a complicated relationship with Marxism, at the same time appreciating its strengths and its weaknesses, and he showed strong signs of favoring some form of socialism or at least a welfare state of some kind. One of the perspectives one might take on Levinas’s ethical critique of the political is to place it in the context of his views about these various types of political system and political doctrine, and in this chapter I want to begin to provide such an account.

See All Chapters

See All Slices