- The Transcendence of Words
Levinas’s central contribution to aesthetics and the philosophy of art is his well-known and provocative attempt to ethicize art. Yet, there is hardly any certainty regarding the nature of this ethicization. As far as the realization of Levinas’s program is concerned, readers usually remember its harmful effects.1 On the other hand, there are equally appreciative tones in his reading of art. It might be more correct to say that the derogatory side is part of a fundamentally ambiguous attitude. It is almost as if Levinas’s radical ethical thinking, the job of which is to tackle totalizing Western thought, should speak in two voices when it comes to the aesthetic and the arts.
Most of the commentaries run into, and then set out to resolve this weird situation marked by pejoration and ambiguity in one way or another. This is no easy task to accomplish; there is surely no single way out of this labyrinth. An element of irony is definitely required on the side of the interpreter. Arguably, my text may be no exception in the long line of attempts. In the following, I shall try my hand at these complexities and, similarly to other readers, deal with the contradictory remarks and implied but underdeveloped ideas by putting them into a meaningful framework. Like others before me, I shall do my best to provide a narrative as coherent as possible in which the letter [End Page 1] and the spirit of Levinas are followed and the relevant (phenomenological) aesthetic context is taken into account. In my case, this will mean siding with those interpreters who see a fixed set of problems dominating — that is, a single consistent path winding — in Levinas’s difficult itinerary. In more concrete terms, I shall join the camp of those who show sensitivity to the introduction of the critical act and argue that the shortcomings of the aesthetic are, to some extent, reversed in its recontextualization in human communication.2 Yet, unlike these authors who touch upon the issue of criticism to varying degrees, I shall concentrate fully on placing critical activity in the center of Levinas’s aesthetic thought and thus treating art as an important segment of ethical signification. My focus will be on the reintegration of the disengaged image into reality; I shall try to determine what this development in art implies in Levinas’s ethical phenomenological project. Concerning the particular course of my text, I shall concentrate mostly on the issue of ambiguity and, gradually working my way through it, deal with pejoration at the same time. I shall first analyze what is at stake in this ambiguousness, then attempt to establish its governing logic, only to prepare the ground on which criticism as a way out of the maze can be seen in its entirety.
A Real Headache: Ambiguousness
Anyone interested in Levinas’s aesthetic thought arrives at a truly interesting but nebulous field. By nebulousness I primarily mean the overly ambiguous character of Levinas’s position. What Levinas has to say is indeed quite difficult to pin down or, at least, it is highly equivocal: the noise of critique is balanced by the sound of quiet but all the more patent affirmation. In every phase of his thinking there is a suspicion felt toward artistic expression, which may on occasion reach the level of derogation; all this is nevertheless accompanied by clear-cut support. This can be sensed in chance remarks, such as, in “Reality and Its Shadow” — the essay mostly responsible for the bad reputation of [End Page 2] Levinas in aesthetics — where Levinas discusses the plasticity of literary works and mentions a “particularly admirable page” in Proust’s The Captive (RS 10). In spite of the anti-aesthetic logic and philistine-like rhetoric of the essay, the art-loving character of the author — who is beyond a doubt an affectionate reader — is revealed for a second.
Remarks like this are quite suggestive with respect to Levinas’s appraisal of the arts—as are many other details of Levinas’s work. Of all these, his apparent knowledge and use of artworks in his...