Reflections on Levinas’s ‘Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism’

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  1 Reflections on Levinas’s ‘Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism’   Introduction Emmanuel Levinas is probably best known as the philosopher who reintroduced ethics into Continental philosophy. His two major works Totality and Infinity  1   and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence 2   have had enormous impact on such thinkers as Jacques Derrida, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Luc Marion. What is perhaps less well known is that his early writings were haunted by certain political themes, particularly the theme of Nazism. Indeed this remained true throughout his career. Speaking of his work he says that: ‘It is dominated by the presentiment and the memory of the Nazi horror.’ 3   In this paper I want to examine his early paper ‘Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism’ 4  and show how his understanding of Nazism is connected with a certain conception of the body. I will also use other works written around the same period in order to clarify his claims. On Escape If we look at Levinas’s early work On Escape 5  we will see that it too centralises concerns with the body, and specifically with bodily needs. Needs, or more specifically need   in the singular, are construed in terms of the need to escape, the need for, what Levinas there calls ‘excendence.’ 6  Need is a need to get the hell out. I will take up the question of precisely what we are in need of escape from presently. Needs are usually understood in terms of a lack, something like a gap yearning to be filled. The model here would be hunger. The empty stomach is felt to be an uncomfortable void that a good dinner would fill. In thus sating ourselves our being would once again feel replete and thus content. As Levinas writes: ‘In the first place, need seems to aspire only to its own satisfaction.’ 7  Here this very notion of conceiving need in terms of a lack is phenomenologically challenged, as Levinas remarks: ‘That would suppose that need is just privation.’ 8  This is an error that he explains in this manner: 1  Emmanuel Levinas Totality and Infinity: An Essay in Exteriority   Translated by Alphonso Lingis (Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1969) 2  Emmanuel Levinas Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence Translated by Alphonso Lingis (Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, 1998), 3   Emmanuel Levinas ‘Signature’ in Difficult Freedom  Translated by Seán Hand (The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 1997), p. 291 4   Emmanuel Levinas ‘Reflections on the Philosophy of Hitlerism’ Translated by Seán Hand Critical Inquiry  , Vol. 17, No. 1 (autumn, 1990 5  Emmanuel Levinas On Escape  Translated by Bettina Bergo (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2003) Published in French under the title De l’évasion (Fata Morgana, 1982)   6  Ibid, p. 54 A footnote tells us that the word ‘excendence’ is ‘modelled upon “trans - scendence,” adjoining “ex - ” or “out” to the Latin  scandere   , “to climb”. OE, p. 115   7  Ibid, p. 58 8   On Escape , p. 56  2 And yet this whole psychology of need is a bit hasty. It too quickly interprets the insufficiency of need as an insufficiency of being. Thus it assumes a metaphysics in which need is characterised in advance as an emptiness in a world where the real is identified with the full. This is an identification that threatens any thinking that could not distinguish between existence and the existent, all thinking that applies to the one what instead should have meaning for the other. 9  What Levinas is saying is that the error in question arises because we do not properly apply the ontological difference, the distinction between existence and the existent, or, as Heidegger 10  would say, between Being  ( Sein ) and beings  ( das Seiende ). In ignoring this distinction we are led to identify ‘the real’ with the ‘full’. In other words, th is presupposes an ontology which does not first inquire into the fundamental nature of Being itself, but, instead, interprets Being  ( Sein ) in terms of beings  ( das Seiende ). Levinas contests this identification in ways similar to Heidegger. The hastiness of the  psychology therefore derives from not examining the  Being  of the entity that has need. But rather understanding such a Being as an entity, one existent among others. In so doing it is easy to conclude that this Being has the same kind of Being as those entities that Heidegger would call present-at-hand ( Vorhandenheit  ). That is to say —  very roughly —  in understanding human beings as if they were objects, albeit objects of a very special kind, and this is so because instead of examining the nature of the   Being of that entity which we ourselves are, an understanding of that Being as present-at-hand, our usual representative of existents, and of the world as likewise present-at-hand, and thus as presence, is simply inherited and taken over from the metaphysical tradition. Levinas associates need with our  being  or e  xistence , that is, he considers it an ontological category (close to what Heidegger would call an   ‘ existential  ’), whereas this ‘hasty psychology’ attributes needs to the existent qua existent, and thus understands it as an ontic category. Central to the Being of the entity in question (ourselves), what Heidegger calls Dasein , is the idea of thrownness ( Geworfenheit  ). This is Heidegger’s notion that we are abandoned to a world we had no part in choosing which gives to existence its character of facticity. In a later work Levinas explains how these Heideggerian ideas are come together: The most profound thing about Being and Time  for me is this Heideggerian distinction. But in Heidegger there is a distinction, not a separation. Existing is always grasped in the existent, and for the existent that is a human being the Heideggerian term  Jemeinigkeit   [ mineness ] precisely expresses the fact that existing is always possessed by someone. I do not think Heidegger can admit an existing without existents, which to him would seem absurd. However, there is a notion — Geworfenheit  —“expression of a certain Heidegger,” according to Jankelevitch— that is usually translated “dereliction” or “desertion.” One then stresses  a consequence of Geworfenheit  . One must understand  Geworfenheit    as the “fact -of-being-thrown- in” …existence. It is as if the existent appeared only in an existence that precedes it, as though existence were independent of the existent, and the existent that finds 9  Ibid, p. 58 10  See Martin Heidegger Being and Time  Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985). I will return to this connection with Heidegger later.  3 itself thrown there can never become master of existence. It is precisely because of this that there is desertion and abandonment. 11   Geworfenheit  , which I prefer to translate as ‘thrownness,’ is for Heidegger, a structural element in Dasein’s being -in-the-World. Dasein’s thrownness (which is also translated as ‘dereliction’) refers to the fact that it did not choose its existence but always already found itself existing. In another early writing on Heidegger, Levinas explains: Dereliction, the abandonment to imposed possibilities, gives to human existence a character of   fact   in the most specific and most dramatic sense of the term, in relation to which the empirical “facts” of science are only derivative; it is a fact that is understood as such by its affectivity. Having being thrown into the world, abandoned and delivered up to oneself  — such is the ontological description of “fact”. 12  This being a fact    is also termed by Heidegger ‘facticity’ and Dasein’s thrownness into its facticity is revealed to it by its affectivity or moods  ( Stimmungen ). These are specifically existentialist themes. What I would like to insist upon is that part of the aforementioned facticity — a very important part —  is the  fact of having a body  , and having a body, it might be argued, is the most primordial  fact   of our existence. But it is a fact that Heidegger overlooked or neglected to thematize. It is this that is Levinas’s subject matter. Thrownness  specifies the srcinal groundlessness, and thus absurdity  , of existence. It identifies the vertiginous fact that we cannot get behind our facticity and convert it into our free assumption. We cannot will or chose ourselves from the ground up and this humiliates our freedom. It is precisely this situation that Levinas is specifying in the first line of On Escape : ‘The revolt of traditional philosophy against the idea of being srcinates in the discord between human freedom and the brutal fact of being that assaults this freedom.’ 13   Facticity is this ‘brutal fact of being.’ Absurdity  in this sense has its roots not in the nothingness that underpins thrownness rendering Dasein   a null basis of a nullity as Heidegger would have it: ‘It itself, being a basis, is  a nullity of itself.’ 14  But for Levinas, absurdity has its roots in the raw fact of existing without respite. The body, as a brutal fact, as the weight of existence, constitutes the raw presence of need. It is not simply a nullity because it is an absence of possibility, rather it predates all possibilities, is seen as a brute presence  that will perpetually return to haunt all our projects with the stupidity of an undemonstrated premise, when we are tired, or ill, or hungry or merely affected in some way. So it is in relationship to thrownness that Levinas first approaches the question of need. Yet we should not make the mistake of thinking that this is a psychological question, it is strictly and crucially ontological. Thrownness does not specify a disposition of the human ( Dasein ) qua psychological being, or qua finite being, but elaborates an element of Being as such: 11  Emmanuel Levinas Time and the Other Translated by Richard A. Cohen (Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, 1987), pp. 44-45 12   Emmanuel Levinas ‘Martin Heidegger and Ontology’ translated by the Committee of Public Safety Diacritics  26.1 (1996) 11-32, p. 24 13   On Escape , p. 49 14 Martin Heidegger Being and Time , p. 330  4 The banal observation that man is by birth engaged in an existence he neither willed nor chose must not be limited to the case of man as a finite being. He translates the structure of being itself. 15  Levinas begins a ph enomenology of need by pointing out that ‘Need becomes imperious only when it becomes suffering. And the specific mode of suffering that characterizes need is malaise, or disquiet.’ 16  He introduces need via the affective disposition which reveals need to us, and this affective disposition is an access to our own being more direct than empirical knowledge. As he insists, need truly makes itself felt (‘becomes imperious’) when it is experienced as a mode of suffering: as ‘malaise or disquiet.’ Thus the disqui et of hunger, for example, is the pangs and yearnings  for    food. This ‘  for  ’ specifies the fact that the hunger is directed onto the world in search of an object of satisfaction (off we go to the kitchen); that it has an intentional structure. As Levinas put s it: ‘Need turns towards something other than ourselves.’ 17  But Levinas wants to focus on the moment of malaise itself, on how it is, as Levinas will put it ‘in the instant in which it is lived.’ 18   Primarily he will point out that: ‘Malaise is not a purely passive state’ but rather: The fact of being ill at ease [ mal à son aise ] is essentially dynamic. It appears as a refusal to remain in place, as an effort to get out of an unbearable situation. What constitutes its particular character, however, is the indeterminacy of the goal that this departure sets for itself, which should be seen as a positive characteristic. It is an attempt to get out without knowing where one is going, and this ignorance qualifies the very essence of the attempt. 19  Thus, according to Levinas, need does not know the object of its satisfaction but simply wishes to escape from its ill-at-ease-ness. But can this be right? Can we characterise hunger, for example, without reference to food? Can we conceive it simply as yearning, without these yearnings being understood as yearnings  for    food? Certainly to characterise something as ‘hunger’, in this specific and, we might say, literal 20  sense, requires our grasping it as a felt need  for   food. But Levinas is not characterising it in this specific sense, he is not characterising need in any specific sense, but merely in the felt sense of malaise that is characteristic of need as such. The new born child yells and cries; he or she needs something. The breast or the bottle is given and the child is content; need is satisfied. Now the child certainly could not say   that it was food that he or she wanted. Are we to 15   On Escape , p. 69 16  Ibid, p. 58 17  OE, p. 58 18   OE, p. 66: This phrase, ‘in the instant in which it is lived,’ is, as I see it, pivotal in Levinas’s early writing and specifies that the analysis is phenomenological rather than empirical. The distinction here is extremely important; it tries to specify what it is like to feel, say need, without any reference to what we ‘know’ needs are. The temporal dimension indicated by the word ‘instant’ specifies the fact that need, or whatever, is articulated only in terms of its specific affectivity and not in its relation to satisfaction, which comes afterwards. The phrase (or what it implies) carries a good deal of weight in the analyses of On Escape . It functions as a kind of phenomenological reduction which ‘brackets’ or places in ‘parentheses’ those elements of an affective disposition which we connect with it on the basis of empirical knowledge, as we will see by examples. 19  OE, pp. 58-59 20   I am not happy to claim that ‘hunger’ in a literal sense is  hunger  for   food, whereas a hunger for knowledge or love, say, are metaphorical. I see no compelling reason why this might be so.  5 assume that he or she nevertheless knew this? Of course not! But then are we to deny that it was hunger   that he or she felt? No. It was indeed hunger. What Levinas is driving at is that the malaise characteristic of need, as it is purely felt in the present, is not a need  for…  where we might fill in the gap with a specific object. Purely and simply, of itself need is a need to get out, a need for escape. ‘There are,’ he points out; needs for which the consciousness of a well-defined object — susceptible of satisfying those needs —is lacking. The needs that we do lightly call “intimate” remain at the stage of a malaise, which is surmounted in a state closer to deliverance than to satisfaction. 21  Not all needs are needs for some thing ; food or drink for example. The ‘shameful’ needs, the need to go to the toilet (and it is relevant that it is shameful and surrounded by euphemistic language) 22  or —to use an example closer to Levinas’s text—  to vomit (equally shameful) are needs that do not have an object  , but deliver us from their grip by means of evacuating things from our bodies. But —  and thi s is Levinas’s point—  it is not always obvious what we need even when we feel a need: To be sure, it is not usually this way. But only extrinsic experiences and lessons can give to need the knowledge of the object liable to satisfy it, just as they add ideas about the need’s value. Therefore, the increasing specialisation of needs and their objects, which itself grows clearer and clearer, more and more refined, develop only as a function of learning and education. 23  For Levinas therefore need, in the first instance, is conceived in terms of a need to escape; and not in terms of a lack. To justify, reinforce and clarify this contention Levinas will thematize: ‘the primordial phenomena of need’s satisfaction: pleasure.’ 24  Pleasure is understood by Levinas as a temporary escape from our sense of thrownness or facticity; it lightens us and takes us out of ourselves. In pleasure we feel our very substantiality dissipating and we leave ourselves behind. Levinas makes the point like this: ‘We therefore note in pleasure an abandonment, a loss of oneself, a getting out of oneself, an ecstasy: so many traits that describe the promise of escape contained in pleasure’s essence.’ 25  As such then pleasure is seen as an escape attempt but it is a failed attempt: Pleasure is a process; it is the process of departing from being [  processus de sortie de l’être ]. Its affective nature is not only the expression or the sign of this getting-out; it is the getting out itself. Pleasure is affectivity, precisely because it does not take the forms of being, but rather attempts to break these up. Yet it is a deceptive escape. 26   21  OE, p. 59 22  This shamefulness  and the disgust at dirt, excrement and vomit — our  nausea  when confronted with them — could go some way to explaining why in characterising the body  , its passivity, in this needy sense, has generally being overlooked by phenomenologists. Of course such areas are not overlooked by psychoanalytic thinkers who Levinas can in some ways be seen as confronting in this work, as we will see. 23  OE, p. 59 24  OE, p. 60 25  OE, p. 61 26  OE, p. 62
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