“The Opposite of Totality:Levinas and the Frankfurt School” C.Fred Alford
In this essay, Alford closely examines the relationship between Emmanuel Levinas and the Frankfurt, but more specifically, between Levinas and Theodor Adorno. One may wonder how such a relationship could possibly exist, being that these two writes in particular have practically nothing in common when examined at face value–which an issue that Alford addresses in his own analysis and critique. Throughout Alford’s examination of both Levinas and Adorno, the similarities between these two thinkers is exposed in regards to the major concepts that they both examine in their respective works, as well as the arguments that both construct in order to support those very concepts. To the same extent, that is also where the differences between Adorno and Levinas emerge as well.
Alford looks closely at key concepts that are addressed in Adorno and Levinas such as both thinkers’ use of ‘infinity’, ‘totality’, subject, object and how both struggle to discuss difference through language, which in and of itself, suggests ‘the same’. It is the struggle that both thinkers have with language in and of itself that becomes the greatest comparison in the bulk of their respective works. Adorno struggles with the naming of subjects and objects and the overall totality that exists within that very act of naming, as Levinas struggles to locate his entire line of thought (more or less). The conflict between Adorno and Levinas and language at large, brings about the similarities between the two in how they both approach social theory in its entirety. However, it is also within that conflict where these thinkers move off this particular path to investigate their own individual claims in regards to subjects and objects.
Alford spends much of the bulk of his essay highlighting the differences in arguments that Adorno and Levinas construct, while at the same time, still manages to create a bridge between the two. In his discussion of how Levinas and Adorno address the relationship between subject and object, art, and the ego, Alford’s analysis and critique is most exemplified when he discusses the use of Homer’s Odyssey in both Adorno and Levinas. Here, Alford compares and contrast the work of Adorno and Levinas through their manipulation of this one textual example. Alford uses the moment where Odysseus ties himself to the mast of his ship as to not be tempted to his death by the song of the Sirens at the same moment where the men aboard the ship have filled their ears with wax, as to not hear the Sirens’ song. It is this moment alone where both Adorno and Levinas are able to convey very different lines of thought with the use of this one example. Alford likens the metaphor of the mast for Levinas as Levinas tying himself to the ship–and subsequently tying himself to the other, becoming hostage to the other–giving up his ego entirely and embracing the other and what the other has in store for him. For Adorno, the tying of Odysseus to the mast of the ship and so on, marks the dangers that lie in ignoring the elements around you. Alford writes:
“For Horkheimer and Adorno, the mast represents the restraints of reason that
prevent Odysseus from abandoning himself to the Sirens’ promise of joy
that comes too close to death, the pleasure of self-abandonment as self-
obliteration, the loss of boundary and limit.”(242).
Alford continues and writes:
“The only escape is in passivity, in which I abandon my ego for the other
[Levinas]. For Adorno, there is no escape, only an exit from mythic time, in
which I abandon not myself, but my quest for mastery over the world, and so
come to enter the world as it is: me and a zillion other beings, in no particular
order, and certainly no hierarchy.”(243).
Here, Alford dissects the different readings of this moment in the Odyssey as one that only further magnifies the different lines of thought that both Adorno and Levinas take in their one reception of the passage itself. It is also in this close examination of the each thinkers’ use of this passage, where Alford’s critique comes out the strongest.
In his discussion of the Odyssey, Alford raises this point in particular that creates a very interesting dynamic in the overall examination of Adorno and Levinas: “What I want to suggest is that the distinction between homecoming and exile, with it openness to infinity, is not always so clear. It makes all the difference how one returns home…”(242). In this mere sentence,Alford’s approach to Adorno and Levinas can is unearthed to some degree. The fact that are so many different readings of this moment in his essay, whether is be from a purely Levinasian perspective, or one that is closely aligned to Adorno, there is a lot to be questioned and discussed in this one moment of Alford’s overall critique.
It is also to that extent where Alford’s piece becomes a really interesting one. The examples that he chooses to highlight from both authors are interesting, and his further analysis of them is clear and concise. Alford’s introduction can easily serve as a strong outline for Levinas’s key concepts, that for the most part, can be difficult to understand period.
Nevertheless, Alford’s conclusion takes a very interesting turn. In it, he showcases perhaps the greatest difference that exists between Levinas and Adorno, but approaches it in a way that does not undue all the exposition that the reader has just gone through. He examines Levinas’s fixation on the being and non-being and uses it to demonstrate how Levinas’s writing cannot just fixate on the metaphysical per say. Levinas cannot be a social theorist because of his deep passion for non-being. Even though Levinas explicitly casts a much more hopeful light on the world around him to one extent or another, it is because he is does not write ‘in’ it, that cannot truly exist as a social theorist, unlike Adorno, who–however pessimistically–is able to do so. But for Alford, “In fact, it takes a comparison with someone like Levinas, one more attracted to non-being than being, to see Adorno’s love of the world.”(250).