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  • Hard, Dry Eyes and Eyes That Weep: Vision and Ethics in Levinas and Derrida
  • Chloé Taylor

This paper discusses the relationship between vision and ethics in the writings of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. While it begins with an account of the dominant antiocularism of Levinas’s and Derrida’s philosophies, according to which vision subsumes the other into the same, this essay also attends to less frequent moments in their works in which vision is understood as a passive response to the other, as suffering and surprise, and expands upon this more positive view of the ethical potential of vision. In contrast to an ethics of blindness, which this paper argues is present in Derrida’s use of Levinas’s ethical phenomenology to discuss vision and the closed eye, this paper explores the capacity of the eyes not only to see but to cry, and to see through tears, in order to develop an account of a visionary ethics, an ethics of tears.

In Totality and Infinity, Emmanuel Levinas opposes the Greek interest in aesthetics, luminosity, and the plastic form to the rejection of the image in Hebraic philosophy and ethics. Christianity, in making the Word flesh, repeats the Greek desire for the visible, the artistically manifested need to see God, in contradistinction to Judaism, in which God is heard rather than seen, manifesting Himself in language, both aural and written, rather than in form. Levinas thus follows the Hebraic tradition in describing the ethical relation as taking place in a face-to-face encounter with the other which is nevertheless a “manifestation of the face over and beyond form,” occurring in language rather than in sight (Totality and Infinity 61 [66]).1 Levinas explains: “Form—incessantly betraying its own manifestation, congealing into plastic form, for it is adequate to the same—alienates the exteriority of the other” (Totality and Infinity 61 [66]). To encounter the other as a face is to encounter her in her absolute alterity from myself, to be faced by her as unthematizable, escaping all my attempts to understand and thus to assimilate her. The face makes it impossible for me to reduce the other to myself, to my ideas of her, to my theories, categories, and knowledge. Since form betrays the other, for Levinas, the face of ethics is not the face whose form we take in with our eyes. On the contrary, the way we look at (and also touch2) faces is said to foreclose ethics: “The face is present in its refusal to be contained. In this sense it cannot be comprehended, that is, encompassed. It is neither seen nor touched—for in visual or tactile sensation the identity of the I envelops the alterity of the object, which becomes precisely a content” (Totality and Infinity 211 [194]).

In works such as “Violence and Metaphysics” and “The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of its Pupils,” Jacques Derrida, like Levinas, frequently associates vision with an imposition of sameness on the other, and thus as violent in terms of the philosophy of difference which he shares with Levinas and feminist writers such as Hélène Cixous.3 This essay argues that blindness becomes a trope for Levinasian ethicality in works by Derrida such as Memoirs of the Blind and Specters of Marx. On the one hand, therefore, this essay explores the ways in which Levinas and Derrida take up a similarly negative understanding of the relationship between visuality and ethics, giving rise to an ethics of blindness. On the other hand, it argues that vision is not entirely rejected by either philosopher, but that a recognition of other, less violent ways of seeing, and a more positive conception of the ethical potential of vision, co-exist with Levinas’s and Derrida’s more explicit critiques of vision. Finally, this essay expands upon the latter, more positive conception of vision to be found in the writings of both Levinas and Derrida, or the possibilities of a visionary ethics.

The Violence of Vision

The “face” of ethics, according to Levinas, occurs in discourse rather than in visual form. While seeing the other entails enveloping her into the same, language “slices...

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