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  • The Otherness of Light: Einstein and Levinas
  • David Grandy

In his Downcast Eyes, Martin Jay alerts readers to “the ubiquity of visual metaphors” in Western thought and warns that nonchalance or blindness toward such “will damage our ability to inspect the world outside and introspect the world within” (1). This judgment, Jay quickly notes, fails to escape the embrace of what it attempts to analyze, for we can hardly express hope for deeper understanding or light without invoking images of light and vision. Those images may be fairly obvious—as in image—or they may be etymologically veiled—as in inspect and introspect, arising from specere, Latin for “to observe” (1). In either case, we tend to take them for granted, failing to grasp their elemental significance.

I argue that this failure is intrinsic to the action of light as it offers up visual images of the world. In the moment of revelation, there is a re-veiling, a drawing away, that keeps light from being fully overtaken by sight or reason. This retreat into non-visibility or unknowing is hardly a new idea. John Locke suggested that the eye’s self-blindness enables optical vision (87). Aristotle stated that nous or mind must be a self-emptiness amounting to pure capacity or receptivity: “For if [nous] shows its own identity, it hinders or obstructs what is other than it; hence it can have no nature but that of capacity. What is called nous of the soul, then... is not anything until it knows” (qtd. in Ballew 128).

If Aristotle is right, we apprehend the world by the grace of some agency that does not show up on its own; further, this agency is a kind of open set that freely receives other things and only then registers its own existence. Light, it seems, follows a similar principle: by retreating or failing to dawn as a freestanding entity, it clears or opens space for the appearance of other things. It is, as Hans Blumenberg insisted in his elaboration of light’s many aspects, “the ‘letting-appear’ that does not itself appear, the inaccessible accessibility of things” (31).

This claim may surprise, and part of the task of this essay is to defend it. The other part is to show that while light’s relation with other things (the objects it illuminates) is fraught with paradox, that relation affords practical insight into how otherness informs human experience. Put differently, a study of light dramatically crystallizes imprecise and often difficult philosophical talk about otherness, sameness, absence, and presence. Further, one can hardly attend to light without glancing at modern physics, which has generated its own array of light-related puzzles and insights. These, when paired with philosophical impressions of otherness, indicate that light’s revelatory action is implicated in the ambiguity associated with our apprehension of otherness. One might plausibly propose that light fosters and fashions that ambiguity.

Indeed, light is itself deeply, perhaps inexhaustibly, ambiguous. This is because light is complicit with the “seeing” of light. Consequently, as Jacques Derrida proposes, the last word on light is always pronounced by light itself (92). Were we able to get an objective distance from it, we might be able to offer a definitive account of light. But such a move would entail losing light itself, for light never announces itself from a distance: it is its own messenger and “nothing, not even light itself, can bring us news of its upcoming arrival” (Schumacher 113–14). Moreover, to see light is to see by it; we see other things by light’s instrumentality.

These are general comments, but they stand the test of philosophical and scientific thinking. There is in light an inscrutability or darkness—an inaccessibility—borne of the necessity of seeing distant bodies by some unseen agency that touches the eye. Because this touching registers objects that do not physically touch the eye, the process of seeing must be more than a unidirectional movement toward manifestation. By its dual meaning, the word clear—a word growing out of light and vision—bespeaks bi-directionality. Thanks to light, material objects visually present themselves to our senses. For this presentation to be...

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