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  • The Recurrence of Acoustics in Levinas
  • Roberto Wu (bio)

Despite Levinas’s emphasis on the oral dimension of the encounter with the other, notions such as hearing and listening are far from receiving univocal accounts in his reflections. Yet, Jacques Derrida seems to find clear evidence of their relevance, affirming that “Levinas places sound above light,”1 which is interpreted as the affirmation of “the transcendence of hearing (l’entendre) in relation to seeing (voir).”2 Nevertheless, the second movement of this interpretation inevitably evokes some confusion, for the priority of the sound over light/seeing does not necessarily imply the priority of hearing. Levinas’s accounts of hearing (entendre/audition),3 listening, and/or hearkening (écouter) fluctuate throughout his philosophical production, and, despite some occasional discussion, they remain secondary compared with speech (parole), as in Totality and Infinity,4 on which Derrida bases most of his analysis.5 It is only in Otherwise than Being that they will be more systematically employed, which does not imply, however, a weakening of the priority of speech.

Without contesting the primordiality of speech over hearing, listening, and audition, we aim, however, to investigate the purview of these last concepts by linking Levinas’s early account of [End Page 115] acoustics with the description available in Otherwise than Being. This involves: (1) examining how hearing, listening, and audition relate to sound (and silence) in his discussion of the there is (il y a), and (2) discussing the integration between these concepts with the acoustic account of Otherwise than Being, in which terms like resonance and echo are decisive. By means of this, we make visible some important moments related to acoustics: (1) the resonance of essence, (2) the echo of the otherwise, (3) the resonance of the “mute murmuring” of the il y a, and (4) the “forgotten voices” of a tradition apart from ontology.

Creation of Silence and the Overflowing Sound

In the little essay, “The Transcendence of Words: On Michel Leiris’s Biffures,” published in 1949 and thus contemporaneous to Existence and Existents (1947), “Reality and Its Shadow” (1948), and “Is Ontology Fundamental?” (1951), Levinas takes Leiris’s work as the motif upon which the themes of hearing and living-world are developed. The reference to these other texts is not arbitrary and scrutinizes that which Gerald L. Bruns calls “aesthetics of materiality.”6 Leiris’s surrealism seems to evoke a kinship with Levinas’s analysis of the there is (il y a) in Existence and Existents. In opposition to Husserl’s and Heidegger’s versions of phenomenology, which conceive of being from the angle of givenness (Sinngebung), Levinas insists that the materiality of being remains impenetrable despite the attempts of rendering meaning by means of understanding. Therefore, the il y a expressly counteracts the intelligibility provided by understanding, which articulates meaning, horizon, and light: “Behind the luminosity of forms, by which beings already relate to our ‘inside,’ matter [matière] is the very fact of the there is. . . .” (EE 57; ellipsis in original, translation modified / DEE 92). Refractory to the advances of light, the il y a bespeaks the anonymity that depersonalizes and makes indeterminate human existence, as, for example, in the experience of insomnia: “Wakefulness is anonymous. It is not that there is my vigilance in the night; in insomnia [End Page 116] it is the night itself that watches. It watches. In this anonymous night-watch where I am completely exposed to being all the thoughts which occupy my insomnia are suspended on nothing” (66/111). The night adumbrates the impersonality of the il y a, the fact that there is “an absolutely unavoidable presence” (58/94), which is not an object, but a verb that renders an event in its impersonal form (“It watches”— Ça veille). Then, Levinas introduces a description that is important not just for the economy of Existence and Existents, but also for his ulterior philosophy, for it anticipates fundamental characteristics of Otherwise than Being: “There is no discourse [discours]. Nothing responds to us, but this silence; the voice of this silence is heard [entendue] and frightens like the silence of those infinite spaces Pascal speaks of ” (58; translation modified...


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