- Woman as First among EqualsA Subversive Reading of Domesticity in Totality and Infinity
This essay advances a subversive reading of Levinas’s Totality and Infinity on the subject of Woman and domesticity. It is a subversive reading inasmuch as it leads to a conclusion that Levinas himself does not support, working against at least some of his explicit assertions. However, it has the advantage of proposing a resolution to an intractable ambiguity in the fundamental architectonic of the text and proposing a resolution to what many regard as a fundamental irresolution on the rightful role of Woman.1 The subversive reading presented here suggests that Woman offers for us the paradigm of a kind of ethical relationship of first among equals. The priority relationship of the kind we find at home is for the ethical subject the beginning of an education of our relationships with strangers who are also our neighbors, be they far or near. This final point requires a great deal more development than can be offered in the present essay, but suffice it to say that further research would concentrate on the conclusion to be offered here — namely, that the privileged [End Page 67] relations of domesticity with spouse and children are a way in to more profound ethical engagement with all persons.
The textual focus of my investigation is the chapter from Totality and Infinity entitled “The Dwelling,” which literally forms the heart of the book by page count. The first section of my essay, “The Equivocal Nature of the Home,” entertains the hypothesis that Levinas’s analysis of the home presents the possibility of a privileged relationship that would not be the paradigmatic relationship with the indiscreet face of the other but would also not be a reduction of the other to the same. The way to this hypothesis is opened by the fact that Levinas’s study of the home and domesticity, and of Woman’s indispensable role in establishing the home as the extra-territorial space of welcome, simultaneously elevates and debases Woman. Levinas claims both that without Woman there is no home where the other can be effectively welcomed, and yet, that the work of Woman is still not the transformative encounter with the other. This ambivalence is tied to a more fundamental tension that troubles his text as a whole — between the apparent priority and autonomy of the egoist subject (and the home in which he necessarily dwells) and the alleged priority and precedence of the relationship with the other (which the text at many points insists upon).
In the next section, “The Problematic Welcome of the Home,” I argue that a way to resolve this ambivalence can be identified by conceding that the role of Woman is as important as Levinas says it is, while admitting that he continually detracts from it as subordinate to the unique power and privilege of the encounter with the other who is unfamiliar, nonintimate, a stranger. Pursuing this claim would entail admitting that the relationship with the discreet other that is Woman would nevertheless have a certain privilege. This section, then, deepens the reading of Levinas’s ambivalent position with regard to Woman and presents the possibility of understanding the domestic relationship as one that can play an important [End Page 68] part in ethical life while conceding that that relationship is not identical to one that would occur between the egoist I and the other.
Finally, the third section, “The Unrealized Possibility of the Home,” attempts to explain the possible status of this domestic relationship by recourse to three short passages from Totality and Infinity. These passages sketch a variety of ways that the domestic relationship might be more fully fleshed out as a legitimate phenomenological and ethical alternative to both unreconstructed egoism and the encounter with the indiscreet face of the other. Taking as cues Levinas’s hints about the home being “the first concretization” (TI 153 / TeI 126), a site of “commencement” (152/125), and his admission that the discretion of Woman’s presence in the home “includes all the possibilities of the transcendent relationship with the Other” (155/129), this section completes the subversive reading by...