As a claim about what ethics entails, Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of substitution radicalizes his own philosophy and transforms the tradition it criticizes. Levinas’s assertions that, prior even to its advent as such, the temporal subject is interrupted by the other, and that this interruption cashes out ethically as the condition of being hostage to the one to and for whom it is answerable, rightly have been assessed as major departures from Western philosophy’s theorizing of the self and its commitments. But it is less clear what substitution signifies for religion. To approach substitution primarily through epistemological or even ethical narratives about the inversion of transcendental subjectivity occludes its significance for other conceptual formations. This is especially true for the religious sources to which Levinas turns to outfit substitution with the terms able to convey such a super-charged ethical relation. Here one thinks especially of election and inspiration.
Given the religious overtones of these supplements to substitution, it would be fruitful to inquire into substitution’s religious significance, as a project in its own right and an aid to understanding how Levinas defines religion. However, this overdue project [End Page 131] already would be inadequate were it to proceed as if substitution did not have currency in the work of thinkers other than Levinas. So to sufficiently appreciate the religious significance of substitution, and to get at what Levinas does mean by “religion,” this essay will attend to the religious sense of substitution that appears in the thinking of Emmanuel Levinas and Giorgio Agamben.
Why Agamben? He, like Levinas, situates himself in proximity to religious traditions (Latinate Christianity as well as Judaism), though his relation to them is not motivated by what may seem to be a desire for grounds from which to launch a critique of philosophy from outside.1 In negative parallel with Levinas, and in marked contrast to other possible interlocutors such as Jean-Luc Marion, Agamben does not press his uses of religious tradition into the service of anything like a standard apologetics.2 Levinas and Agamben both try to open a way to what lies beyond the bounds of an inherited metaphysics and are equally uninterested with presenting proofs. As I will show, they come startlingly close in determining the meaning of spirituality, vilifying mysticism, privileging ethics, and, yes, formulating substitution as an ethico-religious doctrine.
However, the status each assigns to messianism provides the clearest indication of where they join and part ways. Both turn to some version of the messianic to navigate what comes after the end of metaphysics qua onto-theology announced by Heidegger.3 But Levinas’s Judaic confessional writings show him to be an orthodox believer in a way not decidable from Agamben’s work, and in some fashion this biographical difference parallels their disagreement over how to appropriate messianism.4 Levinas proceeds by what one may call a “messianism of the trace,” marking the messianic to come as ethical experience in which the infinite, in the form of a trace, withdraws from presence to signify the interruption of one realm by another. While radical, this meaning poses the trace as a noninterface between distinct orders of transcendence and immanence, thus remaining compatible with a traditional sense of religion.5 By contrast, Agamben, following Benjamin, envisions the messianic as a “subtle, yet total” [End Page 132] displacement of the present that breaks with previous ontology and inaugurates a messianic possibility, internal to being and to ethics, beyond salvation or damnation.6
This proximity of two post-Heideggerian thinkers on the question of the end of metaphysics qua onto-theology is hardly surprising.7 And in fact, at one point Agamben considers Levinas’s response to the problems that animate his own thinking: “Even Levinas’s critique of ontology, which found its most complete expression in a revision of the Platonic and Neoplatonic epikeina tes ousias (Levinas 1978), really only brings to light the fundamental negative structure of metaphysics, attempting to think the immemorial having-been beyond all being and presence, the ille that is before every I and every this, the...