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diacritics 34.2 (2006) 14-36

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"The Possibility of the Poetic Said" in Otherwise than Being

(Allusion, or Blanchot in Lévinas)

Language would exceed the limits of what is thought, by suggesting, letting be understood without ever making understandable [en laissant sous-entendre, sans jamais faire entendre] an implication of meaning distinct from that which comes to signs from the simultaneity of systems or the logical definition of concepts. This possibility [vertu] is laid bare in the poetic said. [. . .] It is shown in the prophetic said.
—Emmanuel Lévinas, Otherwise than Being [my emphasis]
Writing, without placing itself above art, supposes that one not prefer art, but efface art as writing effaces itself.
—Maurice Blanchot, Writing of the Disaster

In an effort to elucidate a more originary difference than Heidegger's ontological difference between Being and entities, as well as an ethicity of thinking able to respond to the trace of transcendence of the other's face, Lévinas's philosophy redefines language radically and does so in uneasy proximity to poetic language. In Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence (1974), Lévinas deploys a constellation of terms—discourse, expression, communication, face, sincerity, witnessing, prophecy—in order to elucidate the ethical dimension of language, the ethicity of philosophical discourse. This constellation revolves around the crucial notion of signification and the two operative concepts of the said (le dit) and saying (le dire). By the former Lévinas understands the semantic content of an utterance or the giving of signs by a sender to an addressee, but also the different modalities by which a subject masters the world by assimilating it to the measure of consciousness (discourse, narration, history, manifestation, representation). Saying (le dire) refers to the way of signifying primarily that I am for the other, the expression of being-for-the-other that subjectivity "is" before positioned as the source of signs or comprehension: subjectivity as exposition. While the said expresses a content, the saying is expression without content.

Language for Lévinas is the "structure" of both the retraction and the inscription of infinity (l'infini), and this "structure" is what Lévinas calls ethics. It is thus possible to affirm that in Lévinas there is no ethical turn without a certain linguistic turn, one in which the a priori of language is interrupted by an anteriority whose a priori character is enigmatic. But Lévinas's linguistic turn is turned inside out: for him language contains the other's call and thus harbors a form of exteriority within itself. This is because language is elevated to a metaphysical category (in the sense of Totality and Infinity [1961], where it means the breaching or interruption of totality) that exceeds the simple [End Page 14] "giving out of signs" [délivrance de signes] [AE 81/OB 48] or communication. Lévinas claims that "saying is communication, to be sure, but as a condition for all communication, as exposure [exposition]" [AE 82/OB 48]. Signification precedes and defines language as proximity and contact with the other and not as the "vicissitude [peripetia] of the thematizing intentionality" [AE 216/OB 137] of a subject whose main attribute is its ability to synchronize questions and answers, being and its manifestations, and by so doing leaves no margin for being exposed to the other. Further, signification also names an enigmatic pre-diction that challenges the primacy that language, understood as a system of signs, enjoys in other philosophies (structuralism and analytic philosophy, for example).

Most critics agree that Lévinas's philosophy is inhospitable to aesthetic phenomena and ambivalent toward poetic language. His severe condemnation of the work of art in "Reality and Its Shadow" (1948) is still present in Totality and Infinity, Lévinas's first major work, where he establishes a relation with the other as face-to-face in discourse. And although in Otherwise than Being Lévinas finally acknowledges "poetic" language's ability to suggest significations that exceed the order of discourse and even endows it with a (quasi)-ethical force...


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