“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Friday, August 6, 2010

Levinas, Element, Strange Stranger, OOO

I'm finishing an essay on Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a Levinasian encounter between strangers (not simply human, though).

I became so obsessed with Levinas a couple of years ago that in the process of reading everything I could get my hands on I had to devise a whole new note taking system. The usual underlinings and ticks had to be supplemented by exclamation marks. Soon these were not enough and I found myself drawing smiley faces when I found really good points.

But there's one page of Otherwise than Being—164 in Alphonso Lingis's translation—that contains all these and also a fierce smiley, with some kind of forked tongue coming out of it—my way of making sure I'd remember this jackpot page. Now I turn to it and discover that it also has a lightning bolt (!) and a note: “This is it—the dark ecology manifesto” (Ha, Levi). What was I thinking?

It seemed to me that this was the one moment at which we might possibly see what Levinas calls “the element” not simply as an anonymous lump (Harman is spot on about this) that needs to be articulated/cut up by humans (Harman also spot on about that).

The element is of course very suggestive for thinking about what an environment is. Levinas' incredibly creepy notion of the there is, of existence without existents, strives to imagine the hidden core of this element, which creeps or rustles or splashes around us like the inertia of the night. (Thanks for the clarification there Graham.)

Levinas' prose enacts the element in its wave-like iterations, in which ideas seem to wash incrementally up onto a strange seashore. I deeply love this aspect of Levinas' writing.

The element itself seems to become a strange stranger, and a necessary condition for strange strangeness: “the absurdity of the there is...the insignificance of its objective insistence, recommencing behind every negation, overwhelms like the fate of subjection to all the other to which I am subject...the surplus of nonsense over sense.”

Or in Coleridge's language: “The ice was here, the ice was there / The ice was all around...”

This alterity of the there is is the ground zero for real receptivity to the strange stranger...it is the strange stranger...

Some more gold:
“There there is is all the weight that alterity weighs supported by a subjectivity that does not found it.”
“But one must not say that the there is results from a ‘subjective impression’.”
“There is deliverance into itself of an ego awakened from its imperialist dream, its transcendental imperialism, awakened to itself, a patience as a subjection to everything. In this spirituality infinity comes to pass...”

Now all you have to do is extend this insight to all objects, so that its' not just a for-us kind of a deal.

See? I told you: it's all on page 164.

1 comment:

captain furious said...

I had a Levinas phase myself last year. Read everything I could get a hold of. Still haven't finished really because there's quite a bit. Otherwise than Being really is the best though. Have to go back and read this page.