“The Possibility of the Poetic Said” in Otherwise than Being (Allusion, or Blanchot in Levinas) by Gabriel Riera
Gabriel Riera’s essay traces the subject of art and the notion of the “poetic said” and the “poetic saying” within Levinas’s thought.
Riera begins by affirming the importance of language to Levinas’s philosophy. He introduces the two central concepts of Otherwise than Being, the said and the saying, and affirms the possibility of an ethical relationship with the Other that is established through them.
In the examination of Existence and Existents, an early work of Levinas, Riera speaks of il y a, “or pure Being.” For Levinas, art gives access to the realm of the il y a, a “dimension underlying the constitution of the world” that “exists on the hither side of cognition.” (17) The consciousness of the il y a is a troubling one. It is the land of the shadow, absence and horror. For Levinas, the work of art exists in this realm.
Riera moves on to discuss Levinas’s opposition of art to ethics. Art is the plastic image that captures and subdues that which it represents. It is opposed to ethics because “it does not allow the self to open itself to the call of the other.” (20) Art masks and conceals the presence of the other, and is unable to engage in the dialogue that is the foundation of Levinas’s ethics. Levinas sees art as “obscurity” and “nontruth” and sees the artist as an individual whose “irresponsibility, disengagement, and evasion are dangerously contagious.” (21)
According to Riera, Levinas maintains a negative conception of art within Totality and Infinity. Poetic language is a “suffocating neutrality” that is in opposition to the ethics of the face-to-face. However, in Otherwise than Being, Levinas’s shift in understanding of signification allows him to change his stance on the possibility of poetic speech.
In Existence and Existenss Levinas spoke of language in relation to an “existence without world.” But by the writing of Otherwise than Being language has become a necessary element of Levinas’s ethics. By placing language beyond the realm of plastic representation and complicating it through the figures of the saying and the said, Levinas opens his thought to a possibility of a poetic said. As Riera says, “It is the sort of pre-involvement of the other-in-the-same (before the same becomes an autonomous ego) that does not fully abide by the rules of discursive exposition and can perhaps be more easily tolerated in poetic language.” (27)
Poetic language “exposes the possibility of a subversion” of coherent discourse. Levinas comes to use poetic language as a figure that breaks up a totalizing conception of meaning and language. It is the “possibility of meaning” separate from logical concepts. This meaning outside of a discourse of totality invites an endless interpretation of the meaning of poetic speech, a kind of profound skepticism. The saying of poetic speech “exceeds ontology and totality.” (31)
This essay repeats many of the larger points that we have discussed in relation to Totality and Infinity and Otherwise then Being. The critical points that Riera makes in the last several pages of the article are extremely obscure and frustrating, and over the past hour or so have thoroughly repelled any attempt of mine to provide coherent summation.