A.J.P. Thompson :: “Economy of Violence”

A discussion of economy as it relates to Levinas and Derrida’s reading of Levinas.


In this section of the article many of the arguments we have made in class about the problems in Levinas’ philosophy are summed up by discussing Derrida’s critique. Derrida posses that non-spatial can only be understood through the non-spatial. Therefore considering Levinas’ concept of absolute alterity as the other for ethical relation is highly problematic. Derrida then uses Levinas’ reading of Husserl to also critique from a “reverse side.” Previously Derrida had argued about totality and its problems strictly within the history of totality. He goes on to confront Levinas’ totality within the same phenomenology and ontology Levinas had tried to break. Derrida says that the relationship of ontology and metaphysics—which Levinas proposes—would leave being out of reach. For Derrida the ethical relation to absolute alterity can only be thought of in terms of non-absolute alterity, in other words the return to the same.
The question is not whether Derrida dealt with these problems but if in dealing with them changed the way to look at them.

In this section, the ethical relation that Levinas suggests can no longer simply be opposed to totality. Due to Derrida’s critique of the ethical relation, he also does not believe in pure peace. Philosophy as ontology cannot be opposed to metaphysics as ethics in the manner which Levinas wishes, or even violence to peace. Such an opposition can only be made violently. The difference in the meaning of economy both for Levinas and for Derrida is key. For Levinas economy is the return of the same instead rather than exposure to the other. Derrida distorts the binary when he postulate that Joyce and Hegel are on his side since they also acknowledge that there “can be no opposition between the Greek and the Jew, between the return and the non-return, between the economic and the non-economic” (120). Economy comes to stand as the principle of contamination which will prevent totality being opposed to infinity, and an ethical relation to absolute alterity being opposed to the temporal an terrestrial order of the state and politics. An example given by the article is the answer of which comes first to Levinas and Derrida, ethics or politics. For Levinas it is ethics since the infinity of the ethical comes first if only through a logical dependence or ethical value (121). Derrida however refuses to choose since there exists no “first” place. The totality and infinity are determined by the same economy.

In this section, assessing the changes between Totality and Infinity and Otherwise than Being are argued as the best way of looking at the relationship between Levinas and Derrida. Levinas writes the latter clearly with Derrida’s criticisms of Totality. The question becomes if then they embark on a similar if not the same project. In Otherwise, Levinas has answered the question of language by placing new emphasis on ‘the saying’ and ‘the said’.Transcendance is located beyond the reach of ontology instead of in exteriority. Otherwise is still the continuation of the purported system in Totality. Deconstruction should not seek to present itself as moral or responsible when to do so would disable responsibility. Derrida responds to what remains open that which is questionable beyond the question (to not presume/use ethics more than any other word).

Thomson’s main focus in this final section is on the relationship between Derrida and Levinas’s understandings of the interplay between ethics and politics, and the realization of that interplay in the state of Israel. He refers to this as the “Two Forms of Messianic Politics”. He sees both thinkers as seeking a “Beyond Politics”, and that they both frame it in a “beyond-the-state-in-the-state”. He sees their primary agreement in this theoretical “beyond-in”. However, he argues that the main discrepancy stems from their realization of this “beyond-in”, manifested in their opinions on the Israeli state in particular.
Levinas privileges Israel as the singular place in which exists the possibility of the promise of an ethical invention of politics. He sees a possibility for the infinite in this finite nation. It is the manifestation of the messianic nation- the nation beyond nations. Levinas uses Israel as a means to think beyond the nation state, yet finds himself creating a new, more naturalized nationalism. According to Derrida, Levinas runs the risk in his understanding of Israel of turning beyond politics into “a violent particularism”, in that Israel winds up taking universal significance.
Derrida sees an inherent break in the structure of Levinas’s argument in the very declaration of the infinite in a some place that is finite. For Derrida an ethical imperative “will always already have been broken, betrayed, transgressed, as soon as I have begun to speak, or remain silent…” (143) Derrida believes that no politics, not even Israel, can avoid collapsing “the decision into a programmed rule.” (136) Derrida speaks of a messianism without a messiah. He explains this by describing the revelation present in revealibility itself, with or without a revelation. This destroys the idea of a choice between revelation and revealibility. This is his double logic that differs from Levinas. For Derrida the promise of another politics is ubiquitous but non-locatable and non-finite. However, Thomson still firmly believes that Derrida’s work is first and foremost political.
Thomson proceeds to critique Simon Critchlely’s analysis of the relationship between Levinas and Derrida. He argues that Critchley equates and blurs the two thinkers, and simultaneously simplifies their distinctions as oppositions, something Derrida himself would never claim. He reads Derrida as simply opposing nationalism. According to Thomson, however, Derrida’s critique of Levinas lies in the initial naturalization of the political decision, not in the following nationalism. This is a critique beyond and outside of nationalism or anti-nationalism. To simply oppose all nationalism would be to create an even more dangerous and naïve nationalism that sees itself as universal and beyond nationalism, thus even more naturalized and absolute. Derrida, without opposing or even, according to him, disagreeing with Levinas, sees the inherent violence in the locating of an ethical politics in a nation, even Israel.


~ by rruizgoiriena on April 23, 2007.

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