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  • “Oral Discourse Is the Plenitude of Discourse”Emmanuel Levinas’s Philosophy of Language Applied to Reading
  • Olga Kuminova (bio)

Levinas’s philosophical grounding of ethics in the relation of the self to the other is inextricably connected with the notion of language, and to a great extent, relies on as well as transforms that notion. In this essay, I will trace some of the implications of this transformation for the theory of reading and how they bear on certain widespread reading practices, which I group together as one mode of reading: when the text one reads is informed by an other or others and reading is primarily a relationship with these others. The terms in which I will relate to reading in the context of Levinas’s philosophy of language will differ from most of the discussion on reading in Levinas studies so far. Closest to my approach is Adriaan Peperzak’s notion of the “presentation” of the text that is necessary for reading and the way he addresses the face-to-face aspect of reading.1 However, here I am applying Levinas’s insights about language to historically and culturally-specific modes of reading, which for a long time were and still are considered low-brow, feminine or adolescent, naïve and unprofessional. Particularly, what concerns [End Page 81] me is how Levinas’s philosophy of language can contribute to the theory of reading in the following cases: sentimental reading, which grants reality to the characters by emotional involvement; “reading for the author,” in Barbara Hochman’s term,2 which assumes that the author becomes the reader’s acquaintance and friend; and fan mail, fan fiction, and other forms of involvement with authors and characters as persons.

Levinas’s positing of “language as a relationship” prior to “language as a system of signs” provides an alternative to, or even a remedy, against the solipsistic model of reading implied in the poststructuralist literary theory, with its foundational notion of the “death of the author” and the vision of the free and lonely reader navigating the uncharted waters of textuality (both of these brilliant images or phrases originate in Roland Barthes’s writing).3 Essentially, I adopt Levinas’s stance of granting primacy to the oral, face-to-face language, and view reading as participating in this intersubjective nature of language. I will first outline the structuralist and post-structuralist picture of language and reading. Second, I will point out the radical difference of Levinas’s approach to language and its implications for reading. Third and finally, I will discuss some historically and culturally specific modes of reading as a relationship with an other.4

The structuralist view of language stresses the conventional nature of the link between the “signifier”—the phonetic or graphic component of the word or sign—and the “signified”—the meaning or meanings attached to it in language. The sign is not the (natural) connection between the word and the thing it stands for: it is the (conventional and arbitrary) link between a sound sequence, termed “signifier,” and a concept, termed “signified,” which it is associated with in a specific language (fig. 1).

Importantly, both parts of the sign, according to Ferdinand de Saussure, are immaterial and abstract. Not only is the signified a mental concept rather than an actual thing, but the signifier is also [End Page 82] made of phonemes rather than physical sounds. These elements are not primarily constituted by their actual acoustic properties but by their place in the mental structure of opposed distinctive features, which comprise the phonemic inventory of a language. Thus, the signifier is not equivalent to the material sounds or marks on the paper that represent the word’s phonemes (fig. 2). Moreover, the sign is not intrinsically related to any real-world referent that we may use the sign to point at. The signs receive their meaning from structural opposition to one another, that is, from their connections to each other, rather than from being linked in any primary way to their real-world referents.5

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Fig. 1.

The components of the Saussurean sign.

Thus, the resulting concept of language may...


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pp. 81-97
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