Totality, history, totalitarianism
There is this old question, always worth asking: how is it that Europe – literate, cultured, enlightened, etc. – could be the site of something like the Shoah? I think Levinas has an answer in these early chapters of Totality and Infinity.
Levinas’ critique of totality is connected to a critique of history, focusing (through, firstly, the figure of prophesy) on how history is interrupted and overflown by the Other. Implicit in this is that history is the history of totality. This “history” is therefore also a theory of Western culture, of the kind of cultural and ideological forms that have dominated the tradition from philosophy to daily praxis (collapsing, I think, that distinction). “Totality” stands for this series of forms. The function is always the same: obscuring the singularity of the face of the Other. Put in social roles, and so on, the Other’s vulnerability and ethical command is eclipsed, but this eclipse is not simply a matter of individual will. It is not simply the case of choosing or not choosing totality. It is, rather, a repeating, unfolding case of cultural habit and historical enframing of social experience.
The Other is what opens up a horizon of “other possibilities,” namely, the possibility of the ethical relation.
Totality dominates history – by definition. Is the history of Western philosophy therefore a history of totalitarianism, eliminationist hatred, and social domination? In that sense, is the Shoah (and colonialism, slavery, etc.) not only not an exception, but perhaps even the rule?
How do I get to this? Simple point: the condition of such violence, Levinas argues, is the persistent presence of totality in thinking and experiencing. If totality is the essence of history, then history is inherently just this violence, barely contained for only small stretches (if any) bits of historical time. Without contesting totality as such, we’re resigned to the negotiation of enemies in our world. The only contest to totality is the singular other – or at least our best place for hope.
So, is the West a culture of murderous totality? Is Levinas right in posing this provocative thesis?