Gary Peters, whose Philosophy of Improvisation found its way into my hands today, has written a brief overview of Levinas' ideas about rhythm ("The Rhythm of Alterity: Levinas and Aesthetics." Radical Philosophy 82: 9-16). Notwithstanding that I haven't read all the sources Peters consults, I'm sure I disagree with Levinas' usage of the term rhythm and with certain aspects of his conceptualization. Nevertheless I'm inspired enough by Peters' review to offer a few words on the topic.
I follow Randy Weston in holding that rhythm, far from being opposed to the melodic, is the heart of the melodic. In fact I can make the case more forcefully. Rhythm is already melody, a lesson Weston first learned during his travels in Tunisia, if I'm not mistaken, though the lesson is portable enough. The following therefore, should make no sense to me:
The melodic (the 'said') can take up residence within the noise of the world, it is stated and yet its delivery (the 'saying') remains silent. The eloquence of this silence is rhythmic, the rhythm upon which the melodic depends, the rhythm that needs no melody. Rhythm cannot be heard, it can only be sensed; it is the melodic that is heard.
Rhythm can be sensed and heard. If there is a truth here in Peters' summation of Levinas' position, it lies in there being within the saying qualities aptly described as rhythmic, qualities that say, enigmatically, paradoxically, qualities that are said to be "in the saying" eloquently and in silence at once. Levinas' desire to delimit melody, to box it in and then out, to thoroughly captivate it, has of course a special significance with respect to the history of ideas. However, if rhythm is already melody, rhythm does not provide a means of escaping the thesis of intentionality. Rhythm is a phenomenon of consciousness. "Rhythmic" time consciousness and "melodic" time consciousness both illustrate, all things considered, the same reality. Protention and retention still apply. Do they still apply to anarchic rhythm, the pulse of the breach?
Levinas says that in "in rhythm there is no longer a oneself, but rather a sort of passage from oneself to anonymity. This is the captivation or incantation of poetry and music" (Philosophical Papers, p. 4, in "Rhythm," p. 11). Furthermore, Peters explains:
For Levinas, the thwarting of Husserlian intenionality, the eluding of perception, simultaneously enervates conceptual cognition while intensifying the sensation of 'things-in-themselves', precisely by presenting the exteriority of those things. He sees the dispossession that the exotic inflicts on perception as the mark of an aesthetic sensation which, in slipping between the poles of subjectivity and objectivity, and between consciousness and unconsciousness, confounds intentionality, confronting it with the anarchic. The peculiarity of Levinas' aesthetics of rhythm concerns precisely the anarchic character of the exotic pulse and, in particular, the way in which the transcendental ego loses its intentional grasp and is carried away. Having said that, however, it is significant that even in this early work he is careful to avoid the radical amorality of the unconscious and the transgressive potential of anarchic rhythm.
Rhythm represents a unique situation where we cannot speak of consent, assumption, initiative, or freedom, because the subject is caught up and carried away. . . . It is a mode of being to which is ascribed neither the form of consciousness, since the I is stripped of its prerogative to assume its power, nor the form of unconsciousness, since the whole situation and all its articulations are in a dark light present.
I like the attempt to shatter continuous duration in the name of the time of the other, but I have limited use for dark lights. In being responsible for our own experiences of rhythm, a responsibility that flows from the freedom to move, which is a primeval way of being in rhythm and all of its modalities, despite contingencies which are in actuality necessary for the exercise of rhythmic freedom, we do not lose responsibilities for the other. We feel other rhythms. The question of an originary ethical relation, though it lies within the scope of consciousness without thereby being created by consciousness, is not to be answered by appealing to a metaphysics of instantaneous time that borrows from our love of musicality, and especially polyrhythmia, only to betray it. "Duration is not the measure of existence." Agreed. But read carefully: absolute alterity is sensed as a rhythm which "is not the respiration of the instant itself but the explosion of that instant, the 'accomplishment of existence'. . . . [T]he result can be forever thrown into doubt; nothing can be 'prefigured' in instantaneous. It is understood here as the stopping of time which then has to be renewed anew" (p. 14). The hard truth is that existence accomplishes nothing by ceasing to breath altogether. Levinas perhaps has more than one target in his critique of prefigurations. However, anticipation does not mean prefiguration, it does not extricate the thinker from doubt, and it emphatically does exist at the edge of existence where people breathe, the edge of existence any sane discussion of existence must address if not occupy. The physicality of the rhythmic is, pace Levinas and Peters, of the body. A genuine rhythmosophic trismagestics interprets the whole instant, and rather than doing away with respiration, sets respiration as a problem to be addressed, a question. The question of breathing is a question of rhythm at the edge existence.