- Necessary Interruption:Traces of the Political in Levinas
The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy.-- Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political
Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.-- Psalm 137 : 7-9
Emmanuel Levinas ends Otherwise than Being with a paragraph noteworthy for its pathos and a certain rare prescriptiveness:
A breakdown of essence is needed, so that it not be repelled by violence. This repugnance attests only to the stage of the nascent or savage humanity, ready to forget its disgusts, to be inverted into "essence of breakdown," to surround itself like every essence, inevitably jealous for its perseverance, with military honors and virtues. For the little humanity that adorns the earth, a relaxation of essence to the second degree is needed, in the just war waged against war to tremble or shudder at every instant because of this very justice. This weakness is needed. This relaxation of virility without cowardice is needed for the little cruelty our hands repudiate. That is the meaning that should be suggested by the formulas repeated in this book concerning the passivity more passive still than any passivity, the fission of the ego unto me, its consummation for the other such that from the ashes of this consummation no act could be reborn.1
This dense passage, almost a précis of the entire book and yet unusual in the emotional quality of its plea, obviously deserves lengthy commentary. We begin, tentatively, by drawing attention to the notion, crucial to Levinas's thought, of "the passivity more passive still than any passivity" in light of the final image of this paragraph. Perverse though it may be, this image of the ontological ego incinerated in the unequal relation with the other cannot fail to invoke the crematoria of Auschwitz and the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. What Levinas imagines here is in fact a holocaust (from the Greek holo-kaustos, burnt whole) of the Western metaphysical tradition, or more specifically, a metaphysical tradition that gives primacy to the divide between presence and non-presence, and to the status of the individual as autonomous actor in a world posited as phenomenal, both objective and objectified. On the contrary, as is well known, Levinas gives primacy to what he terms "ethics" and the "possession" of the self by the other. These terms themselves are, of course, not self-evident. What concerns us here, however, is the implicit opposition of Levinas's theories of ethics to a philosophical tradition that, for Levinas, not only fails to account for a critical event or condition of the human, but also partially enabled or facilitated the genocidal brutality of the Third Reich. It is not difficult to see here what Levinas makes explicit elsewhere, that among other things he is describing a kind of philosophical situation opposed to the Heideggarian analysis of Dasein and the being who achieves authenticity and autonomy through the stance of "being-toward" one's own death. The contrast has the form of a chiasmus: for Heidegger (in Levinas's own, not uncontestable reading), one accedes to identity through the encounter with one's finitude; for Levinas, one is always non-identical through the encounter with the absolute (infinite) other. The need that drives such opposition to a metaphysics of presence and of identity -- of "essence understood as potency and as act" (OTB, 141) -- is precisely the need to find what is neither being nor action, a modality of thought that could never -- as Heidegger's so scandalously did -- justify or even touch upon any kind of violence.
For it is not only the excesses of totalitarianism and mass murder, for Levinas, but any political or empirical action whatsoever that enacts a kind of violence...