“Figurative Language and the “Face” in Levinas’s Philosophy” (Diane Perpich)
In an attempt to provide a critical account of the “face”, Diane Perpich’s essay entitled “Figurative Language and the “Face” in Levinas’s Philosophy” (Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vol. 38, No. 2, 2005) takes up questions of the tensions at play within the aesthetic and linguistic modes of production that seem encoded within the function of the face. Perpich’s analysis begins with an inquiry into the basic contradiction that comes to structure Levinas’s figure of the face as it is discussed within his early texts and Totality and Infinity. Perpich’s skepticism seems to be concerned with two different, but closely alligned, thematic elements within Levinas’s work in which the formal methodology of Levinas’s own discourse and the “internal” content intersect in vital and perplexing ways. In the tradition of Levinas, Perpich seems to punctuate her essay with various uncertainties that allow the text to remain open without the conclusive closure that risks missing the complexities at the core of Levinas. For Perpich, Levinas’s self-problematizing conditions of language functions to foreground the anxiety in the notions of figuration. Drawing upon Derrida’s critique of language in “Violence and Metaphysics”, Perpich notes that if, as Levinas proposes, the face of the other is proper to the order of ethics in the primacy of its preoriginary status outside concepts (“the way in which human beings are encountered”) as opposed to ontology’s grounding in sensibility’s experiential mediation of forms given to consciousness (“the ways things are given to consciousness”) then at every instant Levinas expresses this relation through language he betrays the very aim of his project. However, and more importantly, this ambivalence towards form also poses a problem for the processes through which the other’s absolute alterity is evidenced as such. As Derrida suggests, in order for the irreducibility of the other to be sensed at all, the face must first necessarily appear through marking itself as a phenomenological condition and thus situating the encounter in relational terms. The moment of this impossible “appearance” for Derrida is one that Perpich continually readdresses through the performative effects/affects of language within the sequence of coming to recognize the other as such. Knowing or cognition does not occur in the other as an apriori object (or property), but rather is actualized through the sociality of the encounter itself. The other as an object of comprehension, then, is bound up within the interlocutionary act of expression that testifies to absolute alterity in the moment of invocation itself. (see pg. 110) Language in this sense discloses the relation with the other through every instant in which discourse enacts the irreducibility of the face, both in its imperative as a singular and ethical phenomenon. (Perpich reads this through Levinas’s essay “Is Ontology Fundamental?”)
The ethical implications of such claims to performativity is explored through Perpich’s discussion of rhetoric. By referring to Michele Le Doeuff’s attention to the peculiar role of images within philosophical discourse, Perpich turns towards a formulation of the aesthetics at work within Levinas. In Levinas’s direct rejection of rhetorical strategies of speech and text (it aims at something, to “trick” or persuade by conviction) as unethical, Perpich asks “What are we to make of this philosophy that denigrates rhetoric as the opposite of ethical language and ethics itself, and simultaneously relies precisely on a figure or trope to express the central notion in virtue of which the ethical relationship is to be understood?” (117) The image (of the face) within Levinas seems to account for what philosophical discourse cannot provide, what emerges from and evades language, acting both as an organizing principal central to ethics and as that which always puts this very thing at risk. In quoting Le Doeuff, Perpich writes that imagery “occupies the place of theory’s impossible.”, “expressing something that the system needs to express, but cannot justify in its own terms.” (119) Perpich’s discussion of this inevitable collapse into the limitations of language and the implications for how we are to engage with the Other’s alterity both on the level of the theoretical (forms, concepts) and the practical (the ethical) is articulated through considering the shifting role of singularity within Levinas’ thought.
In roughly outlining the general trajectory of Levinas’s movement towards a fully developed constitution of singularity, Perpich notes that it wasn’t until the 1950’s that Levinas introduced the primacy of irreducible alterity and the asymmetrical relation it produces. The primary issues for Perpich in the figure of the face are ones that involve the epistemological conditions of singularity, the basic question being, how can we recognize (know) the other as such if we do not possess the faculties of cognition that presuppose knowing? Moreover, how can we realize Levinas’s ethical claims if the form (rhetoric, discourse) he proposes them through remains primarily unethical? In Perpich’s final note she returns to the fundamental inquiry that structures her essay, she writes, “This [refers to the questions above] is the central methodological and ethical problem posed to us by Levinas’s philosophy and reflected through the necessary contradiction of a face that represents the impossibility of its own self-representation.” (120) It seems that while Perpich attempts, through a methodological process of deduction, to locate the problematics that attend singularity throughout Levinas’s work, she nevertheless arrives back at the contradictions that haunt Levinas’ notion of the face. This, however, is a testament not only to the fundamental unresolvability of these tensions, but also to the necessity of these tensions, that “work for and against” Levinas’s philosophical position.