Skeptical Poetics and Discursive Universality: An Etiquette of Legacy in the Time of Shoah
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Skeptical Poetics and Discursive Universality
An Etiquette of Legacy in the Time of Shoah

Upon hearing Nelly Sachs’s “Yes, I am a believer,” he [Celan] said he “hoped to be able to blaspheme until the end.”

John Felstiner

Tell X that speech is not dirty silence Clarified. It is silence made dirtier.

Wallace Stevens

For every [lynching] victim that lies pasted in some racist family’s photo album . . . or stored in a trunk with grandma and grandpa’s Klan robe, or still pinned to the wall of a service station in some holdout sorry-ass little town—if we can acquire and place their photos in an accurate, respectful context, identify and record them for the first time, I feel some slight awareness of what is meant by resurrection.

James Allen, cofounder of the Web site, “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America”

The Scandal of Philosophical Discourse

Near the ending of Otherwise than Being, in the final section of its “Exposition,” Levinas explicitly raises the issue of skepticism. Perhaps more accurately, the subject is not so much raised as its ineluctable persistence throughout the entirety of Otherwise than Being, a book [End Page 89] dedicated to those fallen in the Shoah, is acknowledged. For the skeptic, as Diane Perpich’s recent The Ethics of Emmanuel Levinas so clearly articulates, shows up at every step in the development of Levinas’s theme not only to call it into question but also to be scandalized by its very expression.1 For the project of Otherwise than Beings, to the degree it can be called a project, is to articulate that its own argument precedes any attempt at articulation. At every turn in Levinas’s argument, if it can indeed be called an argument (Oona Eisenstadt prefers, rightly in my view, the notion of an appeal), Levinas’s words and the themes they sound cannot evade echoing the scandal of their actual assertion in words as themes.2

Yet philosophy cannot help itself: “If philosophical discourse is broken, withdraws from speech and murmurs,” Levinas points out, “it nonetheless speaks of that, and speaks of the discourse which a moment ago it was speaking and to which it returns, to say its provisional retreat” (OB 169). In the very next sentence Levinas questions the discursive status of his own essay, his point mirrored when one notes that even at this very moment one is engaged in exactly this sleight of hand—“of encircling [one’s] position from all sides”—so that one might exhaustively, totally, truly render here what Levinas terms there diachrony. In doing so, does one not betray, even as Levinas does in his own discussion, the very significance of the theme by bringing it into philosophic language, a discourse that is in its logic synchronous and anonymous, both precisely what Levinas would counsel against in his appeal to diachrony? Simply to notice and make sense of one’s own or the other’s saying already locates one within this ouroboros—in swallowing its own tail, this discourse, as Levinas puts it, provides from its own reasoning both its beginning and ending precisely by insisting on its own coherence and oneness (ibid.). Philosophy in this sense is allergic to the idea of creation and, even after millennia of discourse affected by an Abrahamic insistence on the significance of monotheism, still sides with Aristotle on the eternity of the world. [End Page 90]

If creation, a term that appears with regularity in Levinas’s text, is to be significant in any interpretation of that work, then a sensitivity to discourse that confounds the adamant although necessary cultivation of synchrony in philosophical language is needed. Speaking in philosophy’s all-too-limber tongue, affirming its eagerness to consume all that approaches it, or to be that discourse itself in which all discourse is stated, must at the very least provoke awareness of this discourse’s inherent scandal, of its necessary immodesty. A sensitivity to the limits of the synchronic dimensions of philosophical discourse is revealed, Levinas claims, in our reception of philosophy’s theoretical project of reason as a tradition engaged in communication, as a saying that goes from one...