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Levinas and the Plot against Literature
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Levinas and the Plot against Literature

The remarkable interest in ethical theory shown over the last decade may simply be a return to the norms of literary scholarship. After all, ethics has dominated criticism of literature since Plato and Aristotle, and even with the emergence of formalism, in both its Russian and American varieties, ethical justifications of literature remained in place.

However, the increasing influence of Emmanuel Levinas upon literary theory raises questions about the relation of ethical philosophy to literature.1 As his 1948 essay “Reality and Its Shadow” reveals, the ethics of Levinas represents an uncompromising challenge not only to classical Greek ethical thought and the aesthetics that stems from it but to contemporary criticism as well. Critics who have turned to Levinas have focused on his distinction between the Saying and the Said, which comes to the fore in Otherwise Than Being; or, Beyond Essence. The Said refers to the reification of time and language in “a memorable temporality”; it is the language of ontology or essence, and a “correlative of the logos.” Saying goes “beyond essence,” or is an interruption of being.2 Saying, in Levinas’s terms, is “the anarchical, the non-original” exposure to being’s other (OB, p. 7). The Said objectifies; it is the thematization and, consequently, the betrayal of the anarchical Saying. I will return [End Page 265] to this distinction below; here I want to point out that any nonthematic reading of the “Saying” of a literary text must account for the betrayal of it in the Said.3

We can view the relationship of the Saying to the Said as a problem of philosophical language, a topic first pointed to by Derrida in his 1964 essay “Violence and Metaphysics.” The question may be simply put: can one oppose the language of metaphysics in the language of metaphysics without returning to what one would escape? Levinas notes the paradox whereby the otherwise than being “is betrayed in the said that dominates the saying which states it” (OB, p. 7). In light of Levinas’s rejection of Heidegger’s elevation of the poetic word, we are faced with the perplexing fact of Levinas’s growing influence on literary studies. How can the language of thematization and representation be ethical in Levinas’s terms? Can literature perform the equivalent of extracting the otherwise than being from the Said in which it comes to light? Can it undo the thematization in which what cannot be thematized is represented?

We are speaking here of something different from the reflexive undoing of representation, the confronting of an aporia that exposes the indeterminacy of representation. The undoing of thematization would have to be construed as an undoing of literature insofar as it belongs to the discourse of the whole, or being. According to Levinas, going beyond being, or the thinking that escapes ontology, is an interminable process of discovering the outside. To think what is otherwise than being is not the negation of literature and thematization but the end of literature, a break with the order of a discourse of the whole or totality. It is not my claim that literature performs this reduction of thematization to the Saying, as if poetic writing undoes the philosophical Said, but that literature, if it is to be ethical, means never to be done with the nontotalizing or “unenglobable literary space.”4 It amounts to reading against the plot, which means reading the end of literature—which is to say, literature is always already at its end, crossing over from the language of synchrony and approaching ethics.

Levinas’s condemnation of art is real. Art fixes beings in the meanwhile, a frozen interval that is “never finished, still enduring—something inhuman and monstrous.” “The fact that humanity could have provided itself with art,” writes Levinas, “reveals in time the uncertainty of time’s continuation and something like a death doubling the impulse of life.”5 Art would give us the presentiment of the future but instead gives us its shadow. Art belongs to the hither side of being, or is “an event of darkening of being, parallel with its revelation, its truth” (RS, p. 9...