restricted access 3. SAYING/SAID
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3. SAYING/SAID Language becomes increasingly central to Levinas’s philosophy as his career develops. As in the philosophy of Levinas’s contemporary Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961), language is both a system of signs, a code, and a domain preceding all decibels or inscription . I will have more to say about the similarities and differences between Merleau-Ponty’s parole parlante/parole parlée (speaking word/spoken word) distinction, and Levinas’s dire/dit (saying /said) opposition. They have, at first blush, much in common. For both philosophers, the first member of the binary pair is the more vital, and is preverbal. But Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, which might be characterized as an ontological aesthetics, is concerned with the originary silence, germinating in creativity, from which the spoken language emerges; Levinas’s philosophy of human subjectivity and proximity culminates in a philosophical treatise, Otherwise than Being, much of which is devoted to an exposition of the complex relation of “saying” (the ethical, otherwise-than-being) to the “said” (the philosophical, the cognitive , and the necessary but ultimately impossible disambiguation of transcendence in immanence). It is possible to distinguish two developmental moments in Levinas’s philosophy in this regard.1 During the first period, from 1949 to 1964, language is viewed primarily as transcendence; this is the theme of Levinas’s 1949 essay on Michel Leiris’s “Biffures,” titled “The Transcendence of Words.”2 Unlike the world of sight, which is always synoptic and tends to totalize and objectify, the world of sound reveals an overflowing of the sonorous source 43 SMITH_F5_43-55 3/1/05 6:03 PM Page 43 beyond the limits of its form. Thus sound is “symbol par excellence — a reaching beyond the given.”3 Levinasian ethics describes conscience as listening to a voice, the subject “put into question” by the other, the face issuing a command, the saying of “Here I am” as response and responsibility. Levinas follows Heidegger in giving language the function of isolating objects in their identity, as signified in discourse. This identification takes the form of a this qua this, or qua that. The counterpart of this thematization is what Levinas calls “invocation ,” and which directs discourse to the other, who precisely is not contained within what is said. It is in “the face,” as it becomes a philosophical concept in Totality and Infinity, that the thematizing and the communicative functions of language are joined. The second period of Levinas’s thought on language begins with the publication of the essay “Enigma and Phenomenon” in 1965.4 There for the first time we find the distinction between the Dire (the saying, or more literally the “to say”) and the Dit (“the said”). Description of the Distinction being Drawn The distinction did not, of course, appear out of nowhere: it arose out of an earlier reflection on two uses of language: the communicative and the thematic. Simply put, Levinas becomes attentive to the distinction we make between speaking to (someone ) and speaking about (someone or something). These functions usually occur simultaneously. I speak to someone about something . But limiting cases would be (a) the salutary “hello” (communicative without thematization) and (b) a document addressed to no one (more precisely, no one in particular — since all utterance is ultimately addressed to someone, be it the speaker himself ) on a topic and stored in the form of writing in a library. It is the first case, the purely communicative mode, that is of par44 Part One: Concepts SMITH_F5_43-55 3/1/05 6:03 PM Page 44 ticular interest to Levinas, because that is the mode that carries the ethical relation of other to self. This whole question of how we move from the saying to the said is an aspect of the question of how we move from the couple to sociality, or the third party. Thus it is also a question of the movement from love (charity) to justice. Another later version of the relationship between responsibility for the other and justice, and the birth of the theoretical, is to be found in the 1982 interview “Philosophy, Justice and Love.”5 In “Énigme et Phénomène,” we find an early instance of Levinas’s discussion of the saying/said distinction. Here, Levinas writes, “The enigma extends as far as the phenomenon that bears the trace of the saying which has already withdrawn from the said.”6 What is the enigma? The enigma, the mystery, is here located...


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