Archive for April, 2015

Final Summons

When you    come for me

pause at   the common threshold

but don’t wait

as I don’t. Give me

at least    that confidence

and watch me race far



There will be others crying

in my place

your eyes will be dry

and in that desert

you will always drown.


I won’t    say goodbye.

I didn’t know you long.

It may be you weren’t

worth the acquaintance

or that    we each

came here     too soon

when the only thing

we cannot cheat

is time.

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“The face resists possession, resists my powers. In its epiphany, in expression, the sensible, still graspable, turns into total resistance to the grasp” (Totality and Infinity, p. 124)

I see things, use them, manipulate them, take hold of them to suit my own ends. There is that relation. When the face of an Other—my sister, lover, a ‘stranger’—appears, and I see her, and realize the horizons of unknowability behind the light of her eyes, there is another, very different relation. In the quote above, Levinas is pointing to the experience of what happens to that kind of relation (with those things and objects) when it is illumined, perhaps, or brought into the presence of that new relation with the profound alterity of the Other. Is there a contradiction in something that “still graspable, turns into total resistance to the grasp”? Is it a simultaneous movement, and hence of the nature of paradox (and Levinas allows them, in other contexts, eg. the Infinite in the finite, Levinas 1985: 92), or is it a movement of transition? The resistance and ‘turning-into’ at issue in the passage from Totality and Infinity (hereafter T&I) above, are the necessary themes of that conjunction, or friction, between the totalizing project of the Same, and the transcendent one of the Face-to-Face. It is what happens in the friction that we are concerned to elucidate, in that space wherein the sensible and ethical worlds mingle in proximity.

I.     The sensible (world and its objects)

Within the territory of the Same, sensibility, and that which is sensible, is that experience of the world grounded in a self-sufficient enjoyment of given objects, elements, materials, nourishments. It “does not belong to the order of thought but to that of sentiment…the affectivity wherein the egoism of the I pulsates. One does not know, one lives sensible qualities …” (135, my italics.) Levinas stresses an ‘unquestionedness’ in the sensible; there is an absence of doubt, search, questioning, com-prehension, resistance, to the I who sets about enjoying the sensible world. The sensible and enjoyment are intimately bound, the former “the mode” (ibid.) of the latter. The result, for the I, is: contentment (135-136). It is a joy of the sensately biological, ‘pigs in mud’ perhaps, “essentially naïve” (ibid.), Levinas reminds us. (Naïve to what order of experience, we will discover later.)

An important proviso here is that in which sensibility counters thought: “the objects of the world, which for thought lie in the void, for sensibility…spread forth on a horizon which entirely hides that void” (135). Can we read a duality in this? At the least sensibility seems to preclude the representational conditions of thought (and not “rational thought” alone, ibid.). This distinction (here also supported by reference to Descartes and Kant) will be important in a later understanding of the Face, in whose epiphany not only possession but also thought/representation is transcended. One may wonder here how the I-who-enjoys, engrossed in this enjoyment, yet experiences a complete suspension of the moment of representation to which his status as human agent will otherwise tend him. As I bring food to my mouth, I still perceive and represent it as such: it’s not just inchoate stuff alone, though it is that too.

The question is: does sensibility mean that it remain ‘stuff’ only? Levinas maintains: “The sensibility is…to be described not as a moment of representation, but as the instance of enjoyment” (136). Sensibility is the quality that is present to experience prior to knowing it; it is “not of the order of experience” (137) and my enjoyment of sensible objects is not grounded in an understanding of them—however limited or extensive it could be—but “it is they that ground me” (ibid.) insofar as I am present to the enjoyment of them. Levinas is asserting a primal relation, using the exemplary metaphor of the earth itself as ground upon whose steadfastness, or givenness, we do not question. I simply “stand in the world which precedes me as an absolute of an unrepresentable antiquity” (ibid.). Sensibility is a primordial given, before thought, beyond reason and prior to the elaborations of labour. Its consummation, once I am ‘standing’, “immanent in the world” (138), occurs through the act of possession

II.      Possession (by my powers of grasping)

Levinas has already described the sensible and “its order of enjoyment” (137) as naïve; that is, there is by definition in it an ignorance of something beyond its “self-sufficient” (138) bounds; it is “the very narrowness of life” (ibid.). In what sense? To begin with, possession is grounded in the body and its “sense-datum” (136). “Vision opens upon perspective…and describes a traversable distance, invites the hand to movement and to contact…The forms of objects call for the hand and the grasp” (191). But what is of prior importance is from where sensible objects derive, such that they may, or may not, be grasped. Levinas describes the element, and the objects of sensibility, as coming from “nowhere” (141), and that despite its consummation “Enjoyment, as interiorisation, runs up against the very strangeness of the earth” (142).

The dimension of “nothingness” (ibid.) from which the element, as ground and birth of other things, comes forth (eg. the heat of the sun, fruit on a tree, an ocean wave—they are givens of nature), is nonetheless unassimilable by the purely enjoying self, and hence the ‘separation from-‘ that obtains in the interiorized self in enjoyment: “the element we enjoy issues in the nothingness which separates” (ibid.). These elemental things are present but “without my being able to possess the source” (141). We will see, on the other hand, that “what we will describe under the name of face” (142) presents itself precisely as a personal existent, in the way a sensible object can not. Levinas makes this clear in that “the separation accomplished as enjoyment, that is, as interiority, becomes a consciousness of objects” (139) which is again exactly what the Face will be unable to become.

III.     The face and its epiphany

Where objects and elements and “things have a form, are seen in the light” (140), “the face has no form added to it, but does not present itself as the formless, as matter that lacks and calls for form…the face signifies itself” (ibid.) This is significant in that it implies the face is its own representation, stripped of the conditions of being or even not being that obtain in the world of objects. The face as matter is object, but the face as ethical exigency defies and transcends itself as matter. (It might be simplistic to read an analogy of the human condition in the face, even if it presents the same dilemma: religion insists we are not merely material organisms, we are also the souls that defy that kind of existence.)

In a later text (1985: 85) Levinas questions whether there can be a phenomenology of the face, since the former describes what appears, and the face is, as we will see, more than its appearance. In the same way looking at the face can’t be interpreted phenomenologically, as “the look is knowledge, perception” (ibid.). He suggests, alternately, that “access to the face is straightaway ethical” (ibid.). which thereby grounds its being in something that doesn’t obtain in the sensible world. It is “meaning all by itself” (op. cit. 86).

Levinas is saying that the face, in and of itself, defies entirely the tendency of the Same, of assimilation, of the objectifying enjoyment of the sensible, at the same time that it is “a moral summons” (T&I, 196). The discovery of the Face is something absolutely other, it “alone introduces a dimension of transcendence, and leads us to a relation totally different from experience in the sensible sense of the term, relative and egoist” (193). This dimension is “the idea of infinity…concretely produced in the form of a relation with the face…What is produced here is not a reasoning, but the epiphany that occurs as a face” (196). Because the idea of infinity “exceeds my powers” Levinas nominates it as “experience par excellence” (ibid.), significant here because the face alone is the domain of its accessibility.

We have seen how, in the sensible world, possession and enjoyment presuppose the separation of self and object. And in the interiorized psychism, which is the fruit of the separation of the Same, the act of possession is primary. Within this “order” there is congruence within the self-seeking I: for food, shelter, pleasure, comfort, contentment, joy. That is, the self does not question its own desires or actions.

In the encounter with the face this dynamic of the Same is seen as wholly subjected to scandal. The same separation is impossible and the position of the I radically challenged in terms of the boundaries of the sensible to which it has become habituated. Possession, of the very nature of the Same, is impossible in the novel relation with the Other: “The face is present in its refusal to be contained…it cannot be comprehended, that is, encompassed. It is neither seen nor touched—for in visual or tactile sensation the identity of the I envelops the alterity of the object, which becomes precisely a content” (194). If there is resistance in the Other to possession, it is also a challenge to the breach of separation implicit in the interiorized-I. Perhaps what could be described as the virtue of separation is that “egoism, enjoyment, sensibility, and the whole dimension of interiority—the articulations of separation—are necessary for the idea of infinity, the relation with the Other which opens forth from the separated and finite being” (148, my italics).

The contrast, then, between acts of possession, and the relation with the face, is not oppositional at all; Levinas is more sensitively describing states which generate, give birth, to another. The rupture of being essayed here, that resistance lying between interiority and the attraction to the infinite, is not insurmountable. It is an ingenuous resistance, born only out of innocence, not opposition. The offering of the face, its expression—“it has a positive structure: ethical” (107)—challenges the exercise of my powers-to-possess at its root, initiates the openness of ‘something else’, like a question mark—“?” The reconciling bridge, perhaps, to a new relation, is born out of that very quality of the face that is sensible.

The Other is thus not alien, while it is still sensible. The “permanent openness” (198) of the face continues to ensure its availability to sensibility. (It cannot be ‘closed off’ in some way, given life, except perhaps in coma, or deep sleep, though these can’t be willed by the interior-I). While this compromised sensibility in the face eludes possession (I can’t ‘take hold’ of it in the form of successful appropriation I can of truly sensible things), it I still vulnerable to annihilation. Murder may bluntly destroy that sensibility of the face in its dimension as sensible matter, without being able to similarly destroy that “non-neutralisable” (ibid.) quality of the infinite that is given in the face. Even in sensibly appropriating things for my own usage, I was still only making myself guardian of their independence, which they couldn’t contest. The face, however, “not of this world” (ibid.), can never be denied its independence through any means. It is immune to appropriation. (Perhaps only the extents of love map the limits of proximity to possible appropriation.)

Yet, as rendered in the sensible matter of the face, this assertion of infinity may seemingly be silenced in material annihilation. The resistance of the face, however, is of a qualitatively different power: that of transcendence. It is not ‘real’, but ethical. Transcendence is its own recommendation; though it may “paralyse” (199) powers of possession by virtue of its infinite capacity to resist, it is exactly not matching that power with an equal type. Its resistance is ethical, and so beyond resistance. Interiority, in sensibility, must enter into this different relation. It can attempt negation, and kill, without ever knowing by its own conditions what has been killed beyond this flesh. It will, can, never know. To rise to experience is to enter into ethical relation. In this relation, sensibility is indeed overwhelmed, cannot be grasped. It is instead imbued with the grace in the epiphany of the Other: not only, as here, the first exigency of philosophy, but prior to everything, to being even, that by which man knows him and herself as man.


Levinas, Emmanuel – (1985) Ethics and Infinity trans. R. Cohen, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.

  • (1969) Totality and Infinity trans. Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh.


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Poem, written 2001 (Indian Himalaya), published in CHA: An Asian Literary Journal #27, April 11, 2015: http://www.asiancha.com/content/view/2015/489/)

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