Levinas and Escape

To tease out the Levinas that we have read I have turned to another source, “On Escape” a short essay that Levinas wrote in the thirties in which he writes lucidly about a view that he holds to be primordial to being, that of the need to escape being. He draws on a view common to need, that is a privation of our fall from the eternal and is as such rooted in lack (he says much more about bourgeois self unity and the i in a voice that is more explicitly political and seemingly angry than I have read elsewhere.) This of course is a common theory which many theorists work to debunk but few I think do so with the vigor and a trembling of voice in view of being. I think this voice is the translation of the desperation with which he thinks this point must be brought about, a desperation that he argues is primordial to being trapped in an ontology of being.

I think that the connection you are making to Heidegger is important and because of the semi-oblique quality of otherwise than being we are lead to make this connection without much footing or ability to draw out the relation between the there is and the Es Gibt. The connection I think that might bring about some lucidity is in their ideas of representation and the finitude of being. This is key to Heidegger’s being towards death from which absolute possibility is borne and to Levinas as a way of deflecting the There is- if it is not clear, it is important to both at a similar place in their theorization of the subject but also marks a disjuncture in their work (perhaps it does not at all mark a disjuncture but given Levinas’s constant railing against Heidegger it seems fair at least to maintain this split for the time being). If I might, and given the ability to write in monologue form on this page (though excited by an interest in dialogue) I will quote from “On escape,”


On first analysis, shame appears to be reserved for phenomena of a moral order: one feels ashamed for having acted badly, for having deviated from the norm. It is the representation we form of ourselves as diminished being with which we are pained to identify. Yet shames whole intensity, everything it contains that stings us, consists precisely in our inability not to identify with this being who is already foreign to us and whose motives for acting we can no longer comprehend.

This is I think, a brief summary of what Levinas is doing in his essay “on escape” in which something of the goal of his work might be glimpsed. In it I think we get a reversal of what is generally thought to be the re-finding of our finite being, our arrival at a site of being (Heidegger likewise will differentiate between a foresightedness which is borne of a ready-to-hand and one that is borne of hopes, desires, and dreams. To this latter conception of foresightedness he attributes a kind of modern science [maybe it is deleuze and bergson who do this actually] but a type of thinking which privileges only different absolute states of being over the finitude of being –so let me re-launch out of this parenthetical). The reversion or flip that levinas is making is one that reattributes or rather properly attributes the finite to being by locating it (oddly again like Heidegger) in a type of escape from being which levinas finds in pleasure.

So in sum, the critique of representation, to the said is somewhere in finitude. In any case, i think that these connections are interesting to work out and i hope add to a conversation about levinas and Heidegger, one that i am excited about and which i think is fruitful for understanding both. I have copies/can make copies of on escape, a very clear essay on ontology, that while not being as beautifully written as either of the texts we have read in class, is clear and makes several funny references to Heidegger and which explicitly articulates positions to aspects of capitalism. I hope you are having a great break, see you soon.
The discussion of escape

~ by dmaurice on March 19, 2007.

One Response to “Levinas and Escape”

  1. thanks so much dan–

    you know, I was getting at a somewhat bleak, nothingness out of the “there is,” if that’s what you mean by referring to Heidegger’s being-towards-death…anyway, that thought was going nowhere. yes, if you have a copies of on escape and you emerge from feverish paper writing then, yes, i would totally dig on a copy. see you soon.

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