Archive for August, 2014

In considering Levinas’ ‘idea of infinity’, there is a sense in which it lies both at the very beginning, wholly prior to, the ‘revelation’ (Levinas, 1969:28) of being (with the Other), and also at the very end of his description of that same, re-visioned, ‘ontology’. For Levinas doesn’t begin with Being as such, as the project of phenomenology does before him, but uncovers the ethical relation that allows and epiphanously ‘culminates’ in the idea of infinity. “Metaphysics precedes ontology” (p.42). This is his radical project, in an opposition reaching as retrospectively far as Socrates (p.43), and within the metaphysical ground Levinas prepares, the idea of infinity is central. It is in this novel soil of being that Levinas discovers-plants the possibility for infinity, and so to know the one is to imagine the other: the reciprocal relation between being and the infinite is where any search for understanding the latter must begin.

It is at the very beginning of Totality and Infinity (hereafter T&I), in the Preface (and particularly chapters 3, 4 &5 of the first Section) that Levinas shows us the spread of this metaphysical garden, provides a philosophical context in which to position his own utterance. Where he largely takes exception to the limitations he sees in the Aristotelian, Socratic, Kantian, phenomenological projects preceding his own, out of this opposition he also finds some kinship in, notably, the Platonic affirmation of a “delirium that comes from God” (Levinas: 49), that is, the experience of a thought that comes from beyond, away-from the interiorised self-possession of he “who has his own head to himself” (Levinas quoting Plato, p.49), disturbs the economical thought of the Same, the constraining operation of possession of the other being founded in an ontology of intentionality, appropriation, power. The significant words in this Platonic reference – delirium, enthusiasm – are already preparing for the possibility of “noumenal” experience (p.50), or what he will call Desire. The appearance of the noumen here, in a philosophical study, is extraordinary, and bears directly on Levinas’ formulation of infinity, perhaps even philosophically equates with it, and will bear consideration as a kind of atavistic ancestor to Levinas’ metaphysics.

The other philosophical-historical precedent Levinas identifies as potential generator of his own account of the Infinite, comes from Descarte’s idea of Infinity defined as a thought which overflows my thinking of it (pps.49, 197). What does ‘overflow’ mean? It is a moment, a capacity that could be characterised as a going-beyond the self-cognizant generation of thought, partaking of both a groundedness in my adequation of the thought, with a being-taken, a seduction to the presence of a supra-subjective generation: the delirium of Plato, the transcendent principle in Descartes. (In T&I Levinas will only skirt around the word God which in his later work becomes more explicit).

For Levinas this idea (of infinity) initiates an openness to the Infinite, an escape from the domination of the Same (Robbins 1991:102), through the breach in totality that is the primordial relation to the Other. Within this movement of Levinas’ metaphysics a kind of circular, reciprocal cohesion finds emergence: so that the possibility for infinity, the relation with the Other, the encounter with the infinite alterity of the Face, all seem mutually interdependent eternals rather than linearly determined causes, a progression of conditions. Levinas’ Infinite is the backdrop against/within which the ethical relation can take place, where neither exist without the consummation of both, a both-and paradigm in his metaphysics which distinguishes it still further from the assumptions (of “most of…Western philosophy”, Levinas: 43) of ontology and Being as the proper subjects of first philosophy.

What is this counter-(pre-) ontological movement, Levinas’ primordial metaphysics in exact terms?

Levinas initiates his discourse with a placement of the existent (the self, the being, the subject) within an environment of ‘totality’, an historical-philosophical-social construct that has come to circumferentially house the existent in a closed system. Totality is the vision of the existent determined and bounded by the very thought of the existent itself. (Socratic maieutics sought knowledge as that which is brought-out of the self, not visited upon it by an outer, transcendent source). Levinas from the very beginning questions the conceptual nature of totality as a Western intellectual obstinacy or ontological view that reaches its culmination in Husserlian and Heideggerian ontology. But for Levinas something else is needed, that has in actuality always existed but not been given sufficient voice, that creates a space within this closed, eternally self-referential ‘vision outwards’.

Traditionally the eschatological project of theology provides this, man’s urge toward the divine, but Levinas wants to find in it a genuine philosophical identity, one that emphasises the transcendence in eschatology rather than its umbilical connection with ‘the known’. He makes this clear in a few very important words: “[Eschatology’s] real import lies elsewhere. It does not introduce a teleological system into the totality…[it] institutes a relation beyond history, and not with being beyond the past and present…” (p.22) This space, truly free, open, unbounded, undescribed (at risk of philosophical corruption one could conceptually liken it to the unnameable expanse of the Tao: the Tao that can be named is not the real Tao), can’t be defined by the existent (as Descartes attempts to do), is not subjective, is not relative to a thought of it: is absolute, beyond, utterly other. The infinite is not merely an idea – it overflows the thought-of the way the sky permeates but is separate from the ocean of circumstance – but always profoundly central, present in the idea of infinity itself: “The production of the infinite entity is inseparable from the idea of infinity…” (p.26).

The idea of infinity is then paradoxically ‘produced’ in a separated existent that nevertheless possesses that which it can’t possess in terms of its ‘owness’. Subjectivity contains the grace which exceeds all its potential containment qua subjectivity. In this metaphysic Levinas professes a clear belief in a transcendent function in man. Infinity finds its expression exactly in and of the relation with the Other; all that strangeness that defies adequation finds its ground in the idea of infinity, (as does the possibility of knowing, as intentionality, as well.)

We have seen how the genesis of this idea derives from a discussion of eschatology, as the conceptual-religious mode that points a way toward philosophical beyond-ness, a “primordial” capacity that unlike eschatology, does not arise within the totality of self-reflexion, but exists outside of it, beyond its bounds, and thence genuinely infinite. Levinas’ hermeneutic of traditional eschatology existing as “a relationship with a surplus always exterior to the totality” (p.22) by extension becomes a philosophical account that exists by virtue of its transcendence with regard to totality. Transcendence can here be seen as a vehicle of movement that opens out into the beyond-ness of infinity. Via the flight-path of transcendence, currents of exchange exist between totality and infinity, such that the experience of the former is graced with traces of the liberating function of the latter.

Later in Section 1 Levinas spells out the transcendence-infinity relation in more detail. He makes the nature of this relation plain in the words: “The rigorously developed concept of this transcendence is expressed by the term infinity” (pps.24-25). That is, the terms are mutually corresponding, and if so, what is the ‘rigorously developed concept of…transcendence’? Drawing on the Cartesian idea of the infinite as that relation between the thought-of and the Infinite itself – like the mouthful of sea-water that tastes like yet can never contain the whole ocean – Levinas details the metaphysic moving between transcendence and infinity. The ideatum of infinity, as the original of the idea, surpasses that same idea. The very space between ideatum and idea, the distance that lies between the two, is the substance of the ideatum of infinity. Infinity is in the nature of a transcendent being as transcendent. “The transcendent is the sole ideatum of which there can be only an idea in us; it is infinitely removed from its idea, that is, exterior, because it is infinite” (p.49). The transcendent and the infinite are congruent, insofar as the former as verb is a movement toward the latter as metaphysical space.

It is here that Levinas finds that this presence in thought of an idea whose ideatum overflows the capacity of thought is given expression in Platonic delirium. Delirium can be seen as one guise of the breach wherein infinity enters into totality. By way of this analogy Levinas extends the metaphysic of infinity: it has become the “noumenon” (p.50) already referred to to. Despite the nearness achieved by the idea of infinity, the fundamental infinite distance of the Other from the existent has to be described, or the infinite made concrete: infinity finds presence in the finitude of being as Desire: “a Desire perfectly disinterested – goodness” (p.50). Between the pure urging of Desire and the meeting with the Other, the self necessarily exists as separated even if still surrounded by the potential, transfiguring capacity of infinity: “To have the idea of Infinity it is necessary to exist as separated.” (p.79) Levinas wants to repeatedly emphasise the resistance to a totalising project that infinity posits, that the very “idea of infinity is transcendence itself” (p.80). Totality dies before infinity, and the only agent of that death is the Other: “It is not the insuffiency of the I that prevents totalisation, but the Infinity of the Other” (p.80). So infinity lives within the Other, is brought to presence in the encounter with the Face, finds its true consummation there. Behind the eyes of the Other stretches the horizon of unknowable, yet Enjoyable, otherness that finds itself immersed into the quality of infinity. Does Levinas tell us how infinity, thus engendered by the Other, feels? Herein would seem to lie the concretisation of the idea Levinas has cryptically moved towards in T&I. His words imply a surrender of the interiorised existent, a reception of the generosity of the Other, and a giving-towards the Other by the self. Infinity lies in giving. Levinas introduces the notion of responsibility, a simultaneous act of giving and generosity between the sentient beings of the encounter. Infinity is thus permeated and primordially stitched into the fabric of the ethical relation, as much a foundation as a part of that coming together. By reaching to the experience of the encounter with the Other, through the urge-towards of Desire, Levinas recasts the idea of infinity in a still further evolved form: “It is therefore to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity” (p.51).

Infinity, from its metaphysical genesis in the presence of the Other making a ‘desirous’ breach in the totality, has in this statement come to a full flowering. The guise of infinity has like water filling vessels taken on the function of whatever relation it has been seen to fulfil: between ideatum and idea, as act of transcendence between the Infinite and being, as motion of congruence in Desire toward the revelation of the Other, in all these movements of the metaphysical prior to the assertion of ontology. The idea of infinity has acted as the kind of l’eau vital that, falling from a beyond, nourishes the garden that “non-encompassable within a totality” (p.23), nevertheless flourishes in primordial embrace of it.

(May, 1998)


Levinas, E. trans. Lingis, A. (1969) Totality and Infinity Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

Robbins, J. (1991) Prodigal Son/ Elder Brother University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.


Copyright © M. Kovan 2014


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When the news of the MH17 downing first struck (like a bolt, from the blue, like a dagger, through the guts) I was in a hotel-room in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—where I also happened to be at the time the MH370 crisis unfolded like a grisly, interminable shaggy-dog nightmare invented by wholly malicious gods, the kind only someone like Sophocles and his Oedipus might have grappled with, in a time when grappling with such gods still spoke to us lesser mortals. In my hotel-room, the second time around, it began to seem that such grappling could only be anomalous—that we, now, in our more enlightened time, have more compelling fates than Fate at stake: those of territory and ethnicity, honour and domination, and their forms of historical retribution. But perhaps not shame, or her brother hubris. As I write, that shabby, neglected pair have no non-negligible voice in the Israeli assault on Gaza, nor, it turns out, the internecine wager of the Ukrainian civil war, let alone the biblical catastrophe of a whole riven people in Syria, the effective genocide literally tearing northern Iraq apart. As we all know, the catalogue could be indefinitely extended.

This is not another weighted commentary on the vested interests of these conflicts, which have their own terms of discursive engagement. Nor is it a discounting of the concern of an active global audience in the form of the BDS movement, or in particular, Israeli civilian protests held, against government decree, in support of Palestinian human rights. Or, in the other case, the institution of “second-phase” sanctions against Russia, and perhaps more. Those are practically imperative and vital initiatives, contested as they are. But they are within the discourse of a reason that ultimately sustains, and thus stays within, the entire context of extremity it witnesses: sanction against Israel, or Russia, to whatever degree—and what might that, too, ultimately engender? Conceivably: large-scale war. (Or, at best, still more pariah states to join that sizeable list.)

For that reason, I want to isolate here a less visible, yet all too obvious, dimension of the same complex of events. It is to suggest rather that those terms of discourse have become a code for the absurd, played out across a global virtuality that believes it can still afford the luxury of debating the pros and cons of necessarily partial, fatally limited perspectives. In my hotel room, hearing the “Russian-backed rebels” almost inevitably deny what was almost transparently a fact of human error—the worst possible kind, no less—there seemed only a single perspective worth entertaining: that 298 innocent people were martyrs to a gross—the grossest—human hubris that would either thereby betray itself as such, or fail to be so betrayed, before still more suffering should rain down upon those who had never deserved it.

There is a reason for the quasi-biblical tone: such betrayal or its failure invoke transcendental questions of the survival of the spirit, or if you prefer, the species. The End of Days are those manufactured by people like the “Russian-backed rebels” who, we have seen, throw personal belongings of the slain around like gewgaws, pilfer their mobile phones and have the temerity to then use them, who have already stolen from their bank-accounts, who said that theirs is a war-zone and civilian passenger jets should now take practical heed of the fact, sorry for the inconvenience, who have stolen golden wedding-rings, obstructed the professionals of the dead from their work, who go by monikers like “Captain Grumpy” just so no-one will be mistaken as to the gravely professional nature of the cause they fight for. Grumpy, no doubt—perhaps a little like those who are still waiting for the dismembered bodies of their lost loved ones to be returned to them. There was a ceasefire, for awhile (was there? did it matter? why bother? what pause decently qualifies?) before the fighting started decently raging again. We read that no less than six days later two Ukrainian Su-25 fighter planes were downed in further ground-to-air missile attacks. In response Ukrainian forces have intensified air-strikes and Grad rocket attacks against the opposition—killing dozens of civilian bystanders—as they approach Donetsk.

Life—death—goes on, with barely a flinch. No doubt for good reasons—you are familiar with them, from the online feeds, the FB threads, the TV talkshows. Everything goes on—the fighting, the talking, the dying, the living, the urging, the willing, the fist held up to the gods to say ‘We don’t care what you think, we will continue on our way, until our end of days.’ For it will be of our own willing, we are masters and mistresses of our own destiny and demise. No-one can hear the gods laughing, all around, in their divine, post-coital beds. Above all, no-one can hear the silence.

But we had been well-prepared, very well-prepared, for that silence during the many weeks while the world waited for the conclusive explanation of the disappearance of MH370: except there wasn’t one. Even if the wreckage of the plane had been found, during those weeks, would that explain what had happened in the air, what had caused the plane to re-route and fly into nowhereness until its fuel ran out, and it dropped from the sky?

All we were reasonably left with was the silence of…Fate, nothing less. It differed from its Ukrainian twin: it seemed a matter of, perhaps purely technical, accident. It was a comparatively passive blow of fate, a silent disappearance, all the passengers unconscious for hours before the plane plunged into the sea, closed-eyed, going blindly to their end—in comparison to its active, human-willed counterpart these months later. Both ‘accidents’ of a kind: the one a stealthy theft by the gods of chance, the second a sky-cracking echo of the first in its brutal will to erase life (the Buk missile, like Icarus, driving high)–and thereby become actively godly. This is what we mortals try to do. And then keep on keeping on as if guilt and hubris were of less relevance or import than they would be to the real, godly thing.

This too is absurd: we are not gods, that much is plain. The Economist, for example, writes that “There is a depressing chance … that MH17 will remain an unfathomable aberration.” Hermeneutic parallels can be overdone, civilize something that is at base just sheer, horrific wrong. The rebels in the Ukraine were always going to, sooner or later, make a terrible mistake; American and EU deliberations have now willingly laid material blame for that at Putin’s feet; “phase two” sanctioning against Russia proceeds apace. The potential space of humility has glanced by, been glimpsed, but foregone, just as it has been, in recent days, in Gaza.

298 passengers of a Malaysian airliner blasted out of the air: a war-crime and act of international terrorism by any reckoning. In Gaza a death toll of Palestinian civilians now numbering over 1,600—with up to a quarter of those being children. In all of those countries implicated, Australia being one, the dead of MH17 were appropriately honoured with state memorials; the Abbot government has taken supererogatory measures to try to ensure “full justice” be done. Will it, can it, be done? Is that, too, absurd? What is “full justice” in the face of such an event?

From my hotel-room in KL, for a day or two, it seemed, its impact at least sobered the febrile flow of virtual periphernalia. But not for long. Within a couple of days those quizzes on Facebook that test ‘which fashion era you really are’, ‘how many countries with the letter “A” you can identify’, or ‘which album cover is the most macabre’, had taken the reins of the popular consciousness once more. There was no stilling of the tide, a mere hiatus, of the moorless, the meaningless, the irreal. Insofar as mourning signifies the realization of irretrievable loss, recognizing by what means such loss can never be redeemed, it was not even wholly mourning, but its formal simulacrum. And as we know, the simulacrum is now already as real as its original once was; the virtual occupies and has colonized it—for real. What we experience is semi-cooked and semi-digested, neither as raw nor indigestible as the mark of the Real always is, and has to be.

Fate—its ‘event’, the call of its actual import—had failed to break through and announce itself. Within its proper forms, its veils and gauze, mourning wore a short-lived face—with blinkers on. As for Sophocles’ Oedipus, for whom the real is too much to be seen as such, its actual nature divined, it is far easier to take out the eyes that might recognise it, to restore to the self its own will to deny, blind as it has literally become. What is left is the silence, both that of those fatefully ‘chosen’—the dead of the twin airline ‘accidents,’ the more than 1,600 civilian Gazans—and ourselves, deaf to its most radical entreaty: that we die, completely, to whatever has made us this way.

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