Saturday, February 28, 2009

World of the Question

"Apparition is a congealed form from which someone has already withdrawn, whereas in language there is accomplished the unintermittent afflux of a presence that rends the inevitable veil of its own apparition, which is plastic like every apparition" (Totality and Infinity, p. 98). When we challenge Levinas on the issue of whether a certain kind of presence, the presence of a speaker, intermits, we must keep in mind not only the fact that Levinas has a special (highly refined) understanding of language, but also that he understands experience to be constituted by alterity, so to speak, a position which would, were we to adopt it in the form Levinas suggests, modify everything we would want to say about the rhythm of affluxes, convergences towards speech, which we should carefully distinguish from convergences towards phenomenality, for the moment, even though certain rhythms of phenomenality might be traceable to the movements of the other speaker. For Levinas, the other is there at the commencement of experience (p. 93). In my view the other isn't properly welcomed by an idea of infinity, for such an idea takes from the other the power to come and go as she pleases. Hospitality demands that we not box the other in–actually I think there's agreement on this point; the question is whether we acknowledge the other's rhythms, or what we make of the rhythms of conversation. Would rhythms box in by virtue of their phenomenality, or of belonging to a phenomenal world?

Let's look at a passage in which Levinas relates his thinking about language to his thinking about consciousness. In this passage he is engaging in a critique of ontology, arguing that ontology posits a world in language before it says "yes" to anything. It should be kept in mind that for Levinas "attention," which makes explicit thinking possible, does not signify a refinement of consciousness but consciousness itself (p. 99).

The signification of beings is manifested not in the perspective of finality, but in that of language. A relation between terms that resist totalization, that absolve themselves from the relation or that specify it, is possible only as language. The resistance of one term to the other is not due to the obscure and hostile residue of alterity, but, on the contrary, to the inexhaustible surplus of attention which speech, ever teaching, brings me. For speech is always a taking up again of what was a simple sign cast forth by it, an ever renewed promise to clarify what was obscure in the utterance.

To have meaning is to be situated relative to an absolute, that is, to come from that alterity that is not absorbed in its being perceived. Such an alterity is possible only as a miraculous abundance, an inexhaustible surplus of attention arising in the ever recommenced effort of language to clarify its own manifestation.

(p. 97, my bold)

How is recommencement possible except on the basis of something like exhaustion, incompletion–is this what is meant by in-finition? I doubt it, because it is the recommencement that is described as ever happening. Recommencement never finishes, yet it would seem that it would have to finish in order to be recommencement rather than some other kind of commencement.

Would language be able to clarify its own manifestation without the aid of the question? Yet what if the question is not something that exists prior to language but must be constituted, or, rather, unfolded in dialogue. When we ask about the question's conditions of possibility we may catch a glimpse of language being made up on the fly (even given the depths of its temporal horizons)–but I don't see this is as quite what Levinas has in mind. What might he teach us about the world of the question?

Thematization manifests the Other because the proposition that posits and offers the world does not float in the air, but promises a response to him who receives this proposition, who directs himself toward the Other because in his proposition he receives the possibility of questioning. Questioning is not explained by astonishment only, but by the presence of him to whom it is addressed. A proposition is maintained in the outstretched field of questions and answers. A proposition is a sign which is already interpreted, which provides its own key. The presence of the interpretative key in the sign to be interpreted is precisely the presence of the other in the proposition, the presence of him who can come to the assistance of his discourse, the teaching quality of all speech. Oral discourse is the plenitude of discourse.

(p. 96, my bold)

Perhaps we are in the presence of philosophy's lovely question, but it can't be said that we've made no progress. Is the world of the question a de novo world, a world that is ever recommenced? Is it a world of rhythms, or is that too lovely? Yes, it may be, for Levinas resists thinking of language as a world. The question arises in a conversation in which worlds are posited but which itself is not a world and does not constitute a world. We might say that conversation is a condition of possibility of the world of a question, but I wonder then if we aren't (a) avoiding thinking about conversation from every possible angle, including from the angle of conversations being worlds, or doing something worldlike such as enveloping or being a "field," and (b) avoiding thinking about the radicality of the question. Could the question possibly free itself from conversation, or would such a belief require some sort of miracle? Whether or not it delivers, does the question promise the miraculous? The fabulous? (The fabulous response?) Does it fly? The world of flight can best be described as intermittent–it does and it does not float on air.

Finally, how does phenomenality enter into the conversation? Had it been absolutely excluded? We witness traces of conversation in phenomenality, apparitions of speakers who have withdrawn, ourselves perhaps. What do we take into conversation? Is a conversation that excludes all phenomenality desirable? How do we know we're not dealing with something like total conversation (a phantasm), a conversation that would insist on an unremitting afflux of presence, and would be able to insist, because it isn't real, or isn't designed for real conversation? Further clarification would be thwarted by such a total conversation, I suspect, leading me to speculate that perhaps further clarification requires an ability to step back, from phenomenality but more to the point even to step back from conversation, which means to be in conversation intermittently.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 6:31 AM.


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