- Levinas and the Trauma of Responsibility: The Ethical Significance of Time by Cynthia D. Coe
Two theses are operative in Cynthia Coe's excellent book, Levinas and the Trauma of Responsibility: The Ethical Significance of Time. Both make valuable additions to existing scholarship on Emmanuel Levinas. The first addresses the surprising dearth of considerations of time and its significance in Levinas's ethical philosophy. The second reckons with the implications of his ethical philosophy for understanding and acting in the historical situation of humankind.
The first project, exploring the ethical significance of time in Levinas, is developed over the first five chapters of the book. It revolves around Levinas's account of the deformalization of time—that is to say, his account of time as content of experience, not as a form in which experience takes place. To experience time in what Levinas calls its "dia-chrony" means to experience a passing that is irresistible and irrecuperable, as in aging. It makes for a past that cannot be remembered into a present. I am not the origin of the time I don't so much experience as suffer in a patience that cannot be converted in activity. Time thus happens in me and to me but without me, an other in the same.
This is why, Coe insists, Levinas cannot describe the experience of time without recourse to the notion of trauma. Calling attention to the constitutively traumatized subject of Levinasian philosophy, she elaborates its significance by reference to contemporary trauma studies. This account forms the centerpiece of chapter 2 and is developed later in the book through an engaging comparison with Sophocles' Oedipus. Coe returns throughout to the notion of an experience that is nonnarratable to stress that the past at issue in diachronic time is beyond the grasp of a subject who seeks to remember it into the present but also to insist that it remains outside narratives of history and progress. This troubles theodicies like those that dominate theologies and philosophies of history in the West, a challenge Coe treats directly in chapter 4.
What then is the ethical significance of time? Insofar as the experience of time is a traumatic undoing of subjectivity, it might seem, Coe suggests in chapter 4, to lead to a moral despair, despair of historical action and agency made worse by the undercutting of the narratives that inscribe such action in a context that makes it meaningful. Coe is very good in calling to our attention the need to ask a set of questions arising from these apparent contradictions: Levinas is a philosopher whose work is concerned with time; the experience of time is the undoing of subjectivity in trauma; and yet he is also a philosopher who says ethics is first philosophy. Can these theses be held coherently?
Coe responds that the experience of time has ethical significance in that it structures a constitutively exposed subject, opening it and rendering it vulnerable to the other. Prevailing trends in philosophy, however, are dominated by a fantasy of subjectivity that rests on the denial of diachronic time. Assuming there is no past that does not belong to the present, subjectivity can be assured of its freedom and sovereignty; it can [End Page 359] be the origin of itself and unbounded spontaneity in its relations to others. In contrast, an obligation or commitment to time in its diachrony exposes the subject to what undoes its sovereignty and binds its freedom. A responsible subjectivity is a subjectivity that admits times it cannot gather into the present, other times such as the past that preceded it for which it nevertheless assumes responsibility. This is an important point, one that Coe does not shy away from: Levinasian responsibility has the structure of a trauma; the other appears in it like an obsession haunting a subjectivity that cannot forget the past it cannot remember.
As Coe rightly presents it, the ethical significance of time in Levinas is structural or transcendental, not historical. Norms or...