Separation, Difference, and Time in Godard's Ici et ailleurs
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Separation, Difference, and Time in Godard's Ici et ailleurs

"This revelation of distance is an ambiguous revelation, for time destroys…"

—Emmanuel Levinas

Is it possible to conceive a language of absolute difference? Or, is absolute difference always complicated by the identity-function of language? These questions have occupied French philosophy at least since Levinas's Totality and Infinity. In what follows, I renew the problem of heterology with attention to Jean-Luc Godard's film Ici et ailleurs, released in 1976. I will argue that Godard's treatment of space, space-time, and time—especially the latter, in the figure of the corpse—opens another modality of philosophical language, one sufficient to the task of articulating absolute difference.

I. The Story of Difference

At least since Heidegger, one could argue, continental philosophy has told a long story about difference. Vicissitudes of difference, to be sure, but always a story about difference. The primacy of identity gives way to difference, or perhaps difference is shown to have already put identity in question. Identity runs aground in the wake of a radical alterity—an alterity uprooting identity with a challenge from outside its borders. And the challenge is largely the same, whatever its manifestation: indigestibility in the tradition. The borders of the tradition are transgressed –perhaps before their establishment—by the indigestible, without promise or possibility of return.

Still, tradition dies hard and often comes to bear on even the most radical conceptions of difference, marking radical gestures with traces of conservatism. Derrida's critique of Levinas in "Violence and Metaphysics" is exemplary in this regard. Derrida's para-epistemological defense of Husserl's V. Cartesian Meditation remains conservative insofar as he maintains, against Levinas's magnum opus, the intractable character of identity. Let me raise the question again: is it possible to articulate difference without the recurrence of the logos? Or, further, does radical [End Page 148] difference traffic, uncontaminated with identities, in the world's fractures, fissures, and myriad abyssal gaps? Central to my inquiry here is the question what is heterology?

For the Levinas of Totality and Infinity, difference is first the experience of separation. The Other who stands before me interrupts any pretension to a self-constituting identity, and this interruption is manifest in the economy of exteriority. The interval across and through which this economy labors is separation. Separation names a spatial and temporal difference prior to any identity, one always allergic to the various and suspect aromas of Sameness. Totality and Infinity is therefore dedicated to the intertwined tasks of deformalizing conceptual paradoxes (viz., the anteriority of the posterior), interrupting the reifications of transcendental philosophy, and, perhaps above all, to establishing the boundaries of a rhetoric adequate to the task of describing the quirky logic(s) of exteriority.

In this last task, Levinas no doubt finds himself halted by the bleakness of difference. Separation entails the loss of connection, loss of one's self and intimacy with others, and so separation initiates the experience of another kind of solitude even with the Other before me. It's no surprise, then, that there is always something mournful about Levinas's treatment of separation. The dominant figures of his conceptual schemas, and the rhetoric he deploys, bear witness to loss. What sense are we to make of this mournful undercurrent in his rhetorical strategy and its central figures? What does it mean that Levinas hails the priority of ethics, yet mourns over the first position of separation?

Why mourn at the precipice of separation? In other words, what is lost, and how does the ghost of that which is lost speak? Simply put, the first position of separation is preconditioned by the loss of the ego's security, and so registers across affects. While security—metaphysical or otherwise—is, for Levinas, the precondition of violence, the increasingly catastrophic language of how the I-as-refuge is severed from itself (going from interruption to trauma and persecution) testifies, in its own peculiar violence, to the necessity of loss as the ante-chamber of the ethical. The refuge masks the refugee—we are always already abandoned in and by this ante-chamber of the ethical. All...