Levinas’s ambivalent objects and talkative Franciscans


While reading the Millenium People blog I came across this quote from Levinas

All knowledge of relations connecting or opposing beings to one another implies an understanding of the fact that these beings and relations exist… Every relation with a particular being assumes an intimacy with, or forgetting of, being. Moreover, how can the relation to a being be anything initially but the understanding of it as a being– the fact of freely letting it be as a being? To relate to beings as beings means to let beings be, to understand them as independent of the perception that discovers and grasps them.

Levinas’s assertion that knowledge, an object that is born from human activity, is the discovery of beings as excessive of and immersed in their relational fields seems to be a precursory glance towards the insight of object-0riented philosophy, particularly in its onticological variation. It is also interesting from the point of view of considering knowledge within an onticological view. Knowledge itself must be considered an object and any sub-species of knowledge, or any particular knowledge, must also be considered an object in its own right.

Here I can’t help but think of Foucault’s discourse and apparatus. With discourses we can say that these are objects and actants in their own right that come into relation with other such objects and actants (typically for Foucault bodies) and thereby effect certain results. These results would be Foucault’s disciplines. As an off-shoot from this I wonder whether or not Deleuze’s societies of control are not strange forms of actualism that seek to place bodies in every possible relationship by letting them flow freely in and out of permeable temporal-spatial membranes? In allowing bodies to pass through mobile rather than confined, to be in transit rather than static, societies of control are not attempting to effect bodies that are not simply propertised in the manifold ways they would be anyway but, more than this, forcibly actualised in entirely new combinations. An accelerative actualism that keeps bodies in perpetual motion, as it were, so as to bring about as many simultaneous actualisations as it possible could in order to exhaust those bodies. This new found mobility would then be an intensification of the project of discipline, with a much more dynamic and excitable set of procedures in place.

Of course we have to be careful here as it could be argued that the above passage from Levinas remains within the anthropocentric mode of philosophy. After all, it could be contended, knowledge is something that only humans have. Yet Levinas says that knowledge only reveals what is already there; the real of objects that is their relational character and their virtual kernal that exceeds these relations.

To experience the intimacy of objects that forgets them seem to be a distinctly human problem. When raindrops with the earth or a car crashes into a central reservation neither of them has to let the other be what it is, they simply do. This is true insofar as they meet one another in their specific relational capacity. The raindrop does not have to forget the earth in order to recall that it is more than simply a surface against which it is hitting. A car does not have to make an effort to come to terms with the fact that the central reservation is not just an immovable obstacle in its path. Each may interact in this manner from our perspective as observers of incidents (or, in the latter example, experienced as a pure horror) but we cannot say that this is how each pair of objects perceive one another. If a central tenet of onticology is that the object is never exhausted by its perception, that the object is never solely its sensible presentation, then the quote from Levinas taken on its own merit (rather than as a parcel of Levinasian philosophy) is quite correct. There might not be anything quite so strange in this. After all, Levinas was attempting to mutate Heideggarianism and Graham Harman, who coined the name ‘object-oriented philosophy’, is/was himself a mutant Heideggarian.

This might lead some to wonder how much could be torn from Levinas in the name of either an ontography or onticology? After all, if for Levinas the knowledge I have of an object is a primarily a knowledge of a relation to something that exceeds my knowledge then we are on OOP grounds. The fact that it is still a question of my human knowledge does not necessarily mean the observation is caught within an anthropocentric frame. The two examples above go some way to showing this. (Levinas is also a philosopher of alterity, a term associated primarily for him with God and, as I have argued in a previous post from yesterday, God is to be understood as that conceptual object that attempts to express the virtual itself).

In this connection I am reminded of two other Levinasian observations.

1. We could say that the night is the very experience of the il y a.

2.Let us imagine all beings, things and persons as riveted to nothingness.

In 1. the il y a ( the ‘it is’) is the vanishing time of objects. In the darkness of night, a real night without street lights or lamps in houses, things become difficult to perceive. Perhaps we can view outlines or get a palpable, almost extra-proprioceptive sense they are there but we cannot see them fully. In the darkness we experience objects in their withdrawal. This withdrawal, this refusal of total accessibility, leads to the place of an object’s core; its virtuality. In this way, it is not so much that human beings alone experience the night, the night is merely a neat metaphor for the ‘experience’, or relating, of all objects in withdrawal. The il y a is understood as that part on an object that does not enter any exorelation. This explains it’s anonymity for Levinas. It should be remembered that this nocturnal, almost spectral anonymity is properly a horror in Levinas’s mind. Perhaps this explains the resistance of OOP by so many? There is a fear that the objects do not fall prey to subjects, who are somehow magically above their victims. Objects do not simply fall in line or comply to our cognitive categories, either as thing enthralled to our power or as mere constructions of our imaginations.

To extend this last thought a little sketchily and prematurely, perhaps here again is another connection between the post-traumatic and the OO? Post-traumatism might be ‘at home’ in this night, a sinking into the night that warps what we understand what it is to be human. Yet, if people like Tom Kitson are right, then undergoing a process of  dementia- literally being deprived of mind- might be a necessary experience for us to come back into line with the real. The posthuman/transhuman/or whatever is also post-traumatic, post-demented, having gone into the heart of the il y a. Again, this might explain why in clinical setting even incredibly caring and committed people appear to be so terrified of people with dementia. The everyday language that their self has been destroyed or that they are the living dead is a misrecognition of a kind of withdrawal into the virtual and reorganisation of the brain. For all this I am not trying to glorify  dementia or raise it up to the pinnacle of human experience. I’m not some romantic  who thinks being unable to think abstractly, to talk, to wash or feed oneself, to know where or when I am is some kind of liberation. All of these are symptoms of severe dementia and they are more akin to the kind of picture of liberated humanity painted by someone like John Zerzan, the anarcho-primitivist who pushes the logic of organic community and original wholeness to its logical, if grotesque, conclusions.

Moving on. If the nothing that makes the il y a so horrific for Levinas is the withdrawal into themselves of objects then from the OO perspective all that horror is erased. It is merely the shock experienced by the dreamer having a falling dream; at first one is convinced of descent and impending oblivion, the body recoils and the mind is jolted into wakefulness, fitful and alarmed but quickly, even in the darkest night, one is reassured that this is not the case. One is reassured that things still are. (Chiefly among those things is oneself and this is, I admit, where the metaphor falls down).

The withdrawal is the withdrawal into the virtual. Hence, Levinas’s nothing in 2. is only a nothingness from the point of view of consciousness insofar as it forms a kind of cognitive blind spot, a theoretico-perceptual black hole from which nothing can be seen in transmission because nothing is transmitted. That is its nature. The virtual kernal of an object, its space of illusion, is also its centre of incommunicability; that part of it that is neither transported or translated (Latour).  As such we can rephrase Levinas’s second point as:

Let us imagine all beings, things and objects, are riveted to the virtual.

In the first instance, all object would thus be secured to, hammered into, their virtual kernal. In other words no object can ever escape its own virtuality without ‘coming loose’. This is what Levi Bryant means when he says that once an onticological object is destroyed so to is its virtual proper being. I asked him the question of balloons where he had it that an inflated and a deflated balloon partake of the same proper being. Regardless of the space they occupy, their shape and tension and so on they remain the same balloon because each is simply one state, one set of propertisations. that that balloon has enacted. I asked Bryant whether the balloon would remain identical to its virtuality if I, for some reason or other, came along and cut his balloon into strips. His response was in the negative. This is because the destruction of the perceptual being is also the destruction of its virtual being. Neither is reducible to the other but each is dependent, in differing degrees, on one another. If an object comes loose, or is no longer riveted, then it no longer exists as that object. It becomes something else altogether.

In the second instance we have the understanding of purely linguistic understanding of ‘riveted’ as engrossed or absorbed by, as with our attention when watching a great film or listening to some particularly moving or engaging composition.  In light of everything that has come before it seems unproblematic to say that objects are, to abuse the word, involuted. This is what the withdrawal, or what I have called elsewhere, the recession to virtuality amounts to. All objects at once reach out to one another, touching, becoming intimate with one another whilst at the same time involuting. This is what I mean by calling Levinas’s objects ambivalent.

This returns me to the Millenium People blog entry that began all this. That entry concludes thus:

The drive towards isolation from our urban neighbour is founded in ontological and egotistic thoughts: I must be the master of all I survey.

So we too are ambivalent objects. Coming into relation with others and then desiring isolation. Thrusting ourselves into contact with one another, contact we can ill afford to do without, yet often simultaneously wishing we could be alone. We are talkative Franciscans; hedonistic ascetics. We are as involuted as any other object but at the same time, by dint of the type of object we are, we also turn in on ourselves in obsessional ways, ways which seek mastery of things and belie the reality of our situation. This is why the post-traumatic condition should not be thought of as something suffered through. The negative space should not be resisted. It brings us closer to the  Illusion which is the truth and prevents us from believing we have mastered all that we survey.


Graham Harman has commented that he find my attempt to wed Levinas to the future, by way of his rearticulation (or what I’ve called his ‘mutation’) of Heideggarian categories. Harman’s specific problem with this post is the way I have tried to claim Levinas as a thinker of the virtual, something he takes as being disbarred to any Heideggarian. This is something I’ll have to think about in more depth before attempting a reply and will require time that I don’t have tonight. I’m thankful though, of course, for Harman’s comments. Its always nice to know someone is reading and to know that, despite the rushed and often elliptic nature of this blog, the content is being taken seriously.

As a parting question I would ask that if the il y a is a pre-ontological, pre-temporal condition that precedes Creation (and therefore belongs properly to the time of God) then what else could it be except a virtuality that precedes every actualisation? I don’t expect Harman or anyone else to answer this for me…it is, perhaps, simply the question I have to pursue to follow this line of thought.


3 Responses to “Levinas’s ambivalent objects and talkative Franciscans”

  1. 1 doctorzamalek

    Concerning the last paragraph of your update… I think the virtual is actually a *stronger* concept than the Levinasian il y a (even though I don’t really like the virtual as a philosophical concept). For Levinas in Existence and Existents, the il y a is not articulated at all; the human has to hypostatize it into beings.

    By contrast, philosophers of the virtual always want to say that it’s not unarticulated, but quasi-articulated. It’s somewhere between a single lump and a bunch of discrete individuals. So I think the virtual is actually a bit better, even though I generally like Levinas better than philosophers of the virtual. I hope that’s useful.

  2. 2 dronemodule

    I suppose I was approaching the il y a with an understanding of it as existence without existent, an nonmanifesting portion of the real resistant to coming into any kind of relation at all. I suppose it is as this kind of utterly neutral, utterly plastic ‘compositional’ substance that I am thinking the virtual.

    It does seem that the il y a does approach one aspect of what I’m talking about but, as you say, doesn’t arrive at the rest of it. There was also the problem that the il y a is a human-world relation rather than a strictly object-object one. I guess I was using it as a way to feel around at something else.

    I’m (almost) a mere amateur at this philosophy lark, so I may be doing quite a lot of such groping on this blog. I’m sure there is something in what I’m saying…it may be that I’ve approached it from the wrong angle.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  1. 1 Levi and I and Levinas « Object-Oriented Philosophy

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